WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND - NOVEMBER 14: A mannequin in Farmers department store lies on the ground after an earthquake on November 14, 2016 in Wellington, New Zealand. The 7.5 magnitude earthquake struck 20km south-east of Hanmer Springs at 12.02am and triggered tsunami warnings for many coastal areas. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Work write-off week: how the earthquake (and Trump) gave Wellingtonians an unwelcome holiday

Did anyone in Wellington actually get any work done last week? Sarah Lang suspects not.

I finally joined the Twitterati (@sarsoss) days before what became Trumpocalypse. Rather than joining a virtual celebration of a glass ceiling in shards, as expected, I watched The Spinoff’s Trumpocalypse Rating swing from ‘panic/stockpile’ to ‘all Hail Dear Leader Trump’, and read satirical tweets about redeploying the NZ Defence Force to all border-entry points. I was torn between the urge to laugh hysterically and to go into the foetal position. With my husband away, I considered asking my two-year-old to handle his own bedtime routine, but ended up with one eye on him and one on my iPhone, while listening to John Campbell do a remarkable job of maintaining his composure. Later that night I tweeted #triggeredbytrump for the benefit of my five followers. It wasn’t a good night for cutting back on blue-light devices that suppress sleep hormones.

Four nights later, a giant hand grabbed the house at midnight and shook it south to north. I was still trying to drop off at the time, and thought it might be the big one. Would our house crack in two and deposit us in said crack? My husband and I dashed into our son’s room. He slept through it, but it wasn’t a good night for the insomniacs out there.

The next day, Monday, my husband and I were locked out of our respective offices, and my son was locked out of daycare. I have him on Tuesdays, which made it a very long weekend. The aftershocks I called “doorway o’clock”– front-door rattle, swaying lamp, dash for the toddler – kept coming. I was very tired. But with a toddler and not-infrequent insomnia, I’m often very tired. It had never stopped me getting work done before.

With my office still closed, I planned to work from home on the Wednesday. I had plenty to get on with, but found myself just staring at my screen, unable or unwilling to do more than send a few emails. The problem wasn’t just my constant refreshing of Geonet and news websites for quake updates, nor my stalking of the New York Times, watching Obama use all his self-possession to shake a misogynist megalomaniac’s hand rather than crying. The problem was that work felt beside the point, somehow. Trump had the nuclear codes. And while I was working on profiles and personal essays, proper journos were choppering into Kaikoura and doing work that demonstrated how New Zealand journalism rises to the challenge at times of crisis.

When I mentioned my complete lack of motivation to Facebook (I actually have friends there), others were pleased to hear it wasn’t just them. They, who shall remain unnamed, had initially ‘worked from home’ for a day or two, cc-ing their bosses on just enough emails to make it look as if they were doing something. But when they got back to their workplaces, many couldn’t get back to work. They were flitting between news websites, exhausted by the attempt to make it look like they were doing something productive, which as we all know is far much more taxing than actually working. It was a crisis of concentration. One friend said she was having “a motivational and existential crisis”.


Perhaps it was down to the world feeling less benign and more End Times. Also, I was out of routine, and not getting enough contact with actual flesh-and-blood humans. I had my son on the Thursday and Friday (great time for a teacher-only day), but the torrential rain and gale-force winds couldn’t keep me inside anymore. I walked the streets, my son dry behind a plastic cover. In cafes and in shops, I found myself asking strangers how they were doing. Some looked at me as though I’d breached the fourth wall, while others talked for 10 minutes. The earthquake was the great leveller (thankfully only figuratively in Wellington). The sense of solidarity was the only upside. It was a bit like that after Trumpocalypse. People from my office floor – who usually just say a polite hello, maybe make some small talk by the watercooler – huddled together by the stairwell on the #morningofmourning (I’ll stop it with the hashtags now). We lamented, dissected, pronounced and sighed.

It hasn’t been a good fortnight for my intertwined anxiety and insomnia. My psychologist told me that pretty much everyone she knows is feeling off balance. “People I meet outside this room, too,” she clarified quickly, concerned I would think she meant just the sort who see shrinks. “We should all be kind to ourselves and suspend our usual expectations during this time.”

So I decided to bend in the face of impossible forces, and make November 14-21 #workwriteoffweek (that’s the last one, promise). I read. I played with my son. I had a rare date night to see the hilarious Hudson & Halls LIVE! at Hannah Playhouse (it’s on til December 10, by the way). Laughing out loud helped. As did Toby Morris’ comic, shared by many on social media, about helplessness and hope and continuing reaching out to others.

It was a new week. And time to get a story done on getting nothing done.

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