As I write this, over 180,000 people have been evacuated from the path of the crumbling Orville Dam. We lived near there just a few years ago. Whenever something like this happens, I pause and reevaluate how well prepared my household is in case of disaster. It's a civic duty. At minimum, we should avoid adding to the workload of first responders. Stay out of their way and don't create extra problems. Ideally, we should be self-sufficient and able to take care of ourselves. Under the right circumstances it would be good to be able to pitch in and help others. There are a lot of homebound people out there who could use an extra hand. Nobody left behind. A thirty-foot wall of water is a clear villain against which we can all unite.
This is the purpose of being organized. It means you have your head on straight and you can survive an emergency. It truly doesn't matter how color-coordinated your spices are and whether you've alphabetized your socks yet. When crisis strikes you need to be able to get out the door.
My people are fantastic about worrying. They have a comprehensive anxiety plan, a worry and concern and stress for every situation. What they're not so fantastic about is forming realistic strategies. I have read run-on paragraphs about all the material objects a person genuinely believes she can rescue in the event of disaster. Like, you really think you can save forty photo albums when your house is on fire? Emergency responders die due to harebrained ideas like this. Take this moment to pause, breathe in, and accept that only living beings can and should be evacuated.
Not a bunch of bric-a-brac.
Stuff is just stuff. No object should ever be rated above a human being, and probably not above an animal either. Get yourself out, get your children out, get your pets out, and check on your neighbors. Then you're done.
I talked to a woman once who had to negotiate to bypass a police barricade to get to her house during a wildfire. She could see the flames from her driveway. She was trying to talk to her husband on her cellphone while loading her frantic, terrified dogs into the Jeep. Trying to decide which papers to go after. It took only about a minute to realize that she had barely enough time to flee for their lives. Papers can be replaced, people can't. She was in and out in five minutes, no papers, but at least she had the dogs. That is the appropriate response. Ellen Ripley took the cat when she was fleeing the Alien, but she didn't try to bring a photo album or her childhood teddy bear. Be like Ripley.
All that being said, a dam is a metaphor. A dam is a physical structure, a bulwark against certain types of disaster. It controls floods. You can use physical objects to protect against certain types of disaster, also. What I have in mind is a Go Bag. This is something you can set up in twenty minutes and inspect for five minutes every month. When the time comes, you can grab your Go Bag and... GO.
You need to have an emergency plan for everyone in your household. Where do you meet? Where do you meet if that place is flooded or on fire? What's your fallback plan if cell phones aren't getting through and you can't communicate? If you've ever been separated in a casino or at the mall, you have a tiny taste of what this could be like. TALK IT OUT. Do not procrastinate on an emergency plan. You can procrastinate on alphabetizing your socks or going to the gym, but don't [censored] around with your disaster planning.
My Go Bag includes a Sharpie marker, some index cards, and masking tape. This is so I can leave messages at and near the house if need be. One of the things I check when I get my monthly 'emergency kit inspection' reminder is that this Sharpie has fresh ink.
I have a sheaf of backup documents in case my ID gets lost. Page of emergency contact phone numbers, because I haven't memorized one since the early Nineties. Color copies of my passport, driver's license, health insurance, AAA card, advance health care directive, and the 800-number to call in case it's time to donate my body to science. Copy of our marriage license. It took me 15 minutes to figure out what I needed, and about 60 cents to make photocopies of it at the public library.
What else is in there? Old, faded casual clothes that I don't care if I lose. (Two t-shirts, a pair of shorts, a pair of jeans, a zippered sweatshirt, old sneakers, socks, bras, and underwear). My travel shower kit. Sun block. Hand sanitizer. First aid kit on top. A little cash in small bills. Spare ATM card. Solar charger and adapter for my phone. Three water bottles, one with a built-in filter, two that I keep filled and freshen up every couple of weeks. It would be super annoying and disappointing if someone took this bag, but there's nothing in there I couldn't live without. Or... Hmm.
My husband's Go Bag is his work backpack. Change of shoes, some cash in small bills, a snack. Photocopies of the same relevant documents that I have. His actual wallet, phone, and glasses.
There's a third bag that we call the Pet Bag. It has some styptic gel with a topical anesthetic in case one of them gets hurt. (Works on people too). It has their nail trimmers. It has at least four days' worth of kibble for each of them. They can both eat what we eat, but it seems expedient to have food for them that humans wouldn't really want. Extra water bottle. The Pet Bag has small food and water bowls, and poo bags. This bag goes with us on road trips and we are in and out of it all the time. They wear their ID; he has a rabies tag on his collar and she has a closed ring leg band.
This is the scenario: I'm on foot, with my Go Bag on my back, the Pet Bag slung over one shoulder, a leash in one hand and a parrot carrier in the other. The bags weigh in at 19 pounds, nearly half my full expedition pack weight. I'm walking about one mile an hour. WHERE would I put a photo album or any other sentimental objects? Balanced on my head? Floating in the air in my thought bubble?
(Answer: I've already scanned them and saved them in cloud storage).
The main goal of the Go Bag is to get us to an emergency shelter. Hopefully we will never be in that situation; hopefully, if we do have to evacuate, we can use passable roads and go to our Plan A backup destination, which is not in our geographical region. Evacuations happen, though. My husband had to leave town after the Northridge Earthquake. We've known other people who had to evacuate due to wildfire, flood, and landslide. In my family tree are people who had to live in Golden Gate Park after the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco. It happens. We want to be around afterward and live to tell the tale.
I feel it would be unfair not to mention this topic, so: Cardio. If someone screams RUN FOR YOUR LIVES! I pray that you can. A mudslide does not care about body shaming. A thirty-foot wall of floodwater does not care about body shaming. A wildfire coming up your street does not care about body shaming. Reality is judging you. Disaster is not a respecter of persons. Know how fast you can run and how much you can carry. If you can't do it for yourself, do it for your kids, and if you don't have kids, do it for your pets. If you can't do it for any of those reasons, do it for the exhausted emergency responders.
Don't say nobody told you. You've been told.
We do our best to cope when the world gets weird. We try to keep disaster at bay, just as we try to dam the floodwaters. It's unfair and inconvenient, but it happens. Stuff goes wrong. Usually it does it in the middle of the night, when we're barefoot and disoriented. Preparing for the worst is morbid and depressing, but not nearly as much as the alternatives. Let it serve as a memento mori, the purpose of which is to remind us to make the most of today. Say "I love you" while we can. Appreciate what we have while we still have it. If we're fortunate, we'll never need our emergency preparations, and we can wink at ourselves and laugh a little at how silly we've been.
I couldn't make it through this book. By the halfway mark, I had to put it away so that I could make my own art! Then, of course, I went right back to reading, because I couldn't get enough of Danielle Krysa. I loved this book so much that I'm completely freaking out. Your Inner Critic is a Big Jerk, and mine is too.
Anyone who is anyone will get something out of this book. You don't have to be an artist. This needs to be said, because without the disclaimer, some of us will feel that we aren't allowed to read it. That's for Real Artists (TM). Not the likes of me. My constant yearning to look at art, read art books, buy or touch art supplies and materials, and hang out with Real Artists (TM) in no way indicates that there might be a shadow artist inside of me. Nuh-uh.
Every time I ever tried to sign up for an art class, it was full. I haven't had any formal training in visual arts or design since grade school. Perhaps this has helped me, because I've always thought my bad art was hilarious. I used to have a lovely roommate who had an MFA and had sold illustrations to national magazines. I showed her a sketch once and she literally laughed until she cried. I knew my drawing was naive and untutored, and I also knew that I have a certain gift for comedy, so this was a great result! I "can't" draw, just as I "can't" sing, but that doesn't stop me from drawing or singing when I feel the urge. If anything, it's a great way to troll my critics. Oh, does this bother you?? Perhaps I'll do it LOUDER!
(That, by the way, is the philosophy of my parrot when she feels she isn't getting enough attention).
Do what you want. It's harmless. Nobody but you knows a dang thing about your personal style. You are the authority on your own gift. Initiative comes from inside you, and the art wants to get out and live its life. Just let it out. You don't have to show it to anyone, or share it with anyone, or try to make money from it, and contrariwise, you have all the authority you need to put it on a billboard, declaim it from a megaphone, or put a ten million dollar price tag on it. There will always be a critic, just as there will always be a barking dog. If you can get criticized by random strangers just for existing within their field of awareness, might as well bring some of your work along, too.
I made this piece on my iPad with my index finger. I've never used it for that purpose before. (Either the device or the finger). I've also never done a work in color. It's a portrait from memory of my little cuppycake, who was unable to pose for me because she sleeps twelve hours a night. Noelie. I'm going to show it to her, and if past behavior is any indication, she'll kiss it with her beak. It's a work born of inspiration and true love, and it sucks, but I find it charming and I'll most likely do more. If you don't like it, blame it on Danielle Krysa and her partner-in-crime, illustrator Martha Rich.
Spike heard that his sister got to do a guest post about the philosophy of a parrot. Everyone knows that dogs are better than birds. Dogs have been man's best friend for at least 15,000 years, and parrots aren't even domesticated. Every dog has his day, and here is Spike's worldly wisdom.
Wag your tail, even if your tail is just a nub.
Wake up early and chase your tail before breakfast.
Drink lots and lots of water.
There is never a bad time for a nap.
Go for a walk every day, and if you can't, just jump three to five feet straight up until you've had enough.
Every time someone puts food or water in your dish, rush straight outside and do a couple of laps around the yard. Do it again when your sister gets her dishes filled just to be on the safe side.
When you chase your tail, make sure to stop and go the other way or you'll turn into a corkscrew.
Greet people effusively every time they come home.
You can hear everything in the world if you listen hard enough.
Gender isn't everything. I'm an N for Neuter and Sissy is a U for Undetermined. Defy categories.
There are over two hundred breeds of dogs, and that means at least one for everyone!
Bark at the mailman or he might get inside.
Ball. BALL. BALL!
Vigilance! Do a perimeter check of the yard and each room every day.
Ask nicely and you might get a belly rub.
Don't leave perfectly good food on the floor.
Conserve water and don't bathe unless ordered.
Get your shots.
Roll in the grass.
Every now and then, run with your leash off.
Carry your ID everywhere you go.
It's good to get back to the garden and get your paws in some nicely turned soil.
Nice dogs usually have nice humans.
I don't know. Am I a good boy?
Chocolate is actually bad for you.
Insects are high in protein.
Snuggle. Snuggle in groups.
Stuffed animals have an expiration date.
If you want to make new friends, bring them a ball and put it in their lap.
Appreciate delightful fragrances, or any kind of fragrance, really.
Who says an old dog can't learn new tricks?
If you're good enough, you might get a cookie.
Noelie is an African Gray Parrot. She's just had her eighteenth hatch day. She'd like to share some of her worldly wisdom.
She was born and she also hatched. She's entered this world two different ways, and she sees things we don't see. Hatching out of an egg takes a lot of work. Have you ever spent that long doing anything that difficult?
Sleep twelve hours a night. It will give you a sweet disposition and a glossy red tail. Nothing interesting happens after the sun goes down, anyway.
Eat your vegetables, if you're lucky enough to get them. Zucchini! Kale! Green beans! Collard greens! Chard! Cucumber! Cabbage! Cauliflower! Broccoli! Bell pepper! LETTUCE!
Hang upside down at least ten percent of every day.
Stressed out? Chew on a block of wood, punch a bell with your face, or shred something.
Say "WHEW!" and pump your fist.
Start a hobby, such as chewing shoelaces, chewing wicker, or chewing library books.
Gratitude is happiness. Kiss your friends. Kiss the dog. Kiss babies. Kiss your toys. Kiss your water bowl. Kiss your foot. Kiss the wall.
Go outside and enjoy the garden whenever you can.
Look at the sky. There might be another bird up there, or an airplane. We live in a 360-degree world and you should take the time to notice all of it.
Eat until you're satisfied, and then throw the rest at the wall.
Never miss an opportunity to play on a swing.
Note to self: get more paracord.
Take time to eat the roses.
You may walk slowly and run crooked, but if you can stand on one foot for an hour and lift your foot to your head, let them laugh.
Grooming is a top priority. Every feather, every day. Chew your foot scales until they are presentable.
A world with SHOWER TIME is a perfect world.
Make new friends. They might be willing to scratch your head.
Watermelon keeps your tail red.
It's never too late to learn a foreign language, such as Sparrow or Starling.
About ten percent of the people who meet you may find you intimidating or scary. Don't mind them; it's their loss.
Music is everything, everything. Sing when you feel like it, and if anyone complains, sing louder!
Meowing is funny.
Plan to live a very long life in case you actually do. What if you lived to be 119? I might!
They're not looking at you, they're looking at me. Because I'm GORGEOUS, darling.
We entered in solemnity, already knowing there was nothing we could do. The poor little thing was on life support, hanging on just long enough to say goodbye. We're all at that age when we've lost family and close friends. In some ways, losing a pet is harder. There are no complications or communication breakdowns. There's just this warm little ball of unconditional love. We sometimes have more years of memories with a pet than we had with our family of origin. We grow up with them, relocate with them, cry on them, take naps with them, share meals with them - and then, suddenly, they're frail. They go gray around the muzzle. They move slowly with the rickety gait of age. They quit eating. It's time to go. We really want to hang on one more year, but it's time to go.
Sitting in the waiting room of a veterinary hospital, it's impossible to avoid thinking of all the pets you've lost over the years. Phoebe, who would whisper "Give me a kiss, give me a kiss" and say "Bye bye" when she rode in the carrier. Rita, who would climb up her ladder, and then turn around and climb down on the underside, upside down and backward. Mr. Puffy, who finally learned to fly at age twelve, and spoke at fifteen. He asked for: "Oatmeal." I thought of Spike, with his early diagnosis of Addison's disease, and how he was only two when I sat vigil with him, sure he wasn't going to make it until morning. He's still with us at eight, but we've been sure we were going to lose him half a dozen times. He's spent more time with doctors over the last five years than the two of us humans combined. This time I wasn't there for one of my own, but I knew what my friend was going through, hamstrung by grief and shock.
We try to hold back and not love them so much, so it won't hurt so bad when they go. We can't help it. They love us with such a pure devotion. That's why they're here: to teach us how to love properly, with full abandon and bursting hearts. To greet each other joyously, to trust completely, to forgive effortlessly. Perfect acceptance, perfect friendship, perfect love.
They don't understand how to criticize, judge, or blame. They also don't understand anything about veterinary medicine. They live in a world of scents and smells more profound than anything we can imagine. All they know is that they're in a weird, antiseptic world of fear, pain, and confusion. They're poked and prodded and assaulted with pills. They're locked in cages. They hear the cries of other frightened, sick animals. They're already ill, and now we ask this of them. It's not too much - they'd die for us if we said the word - but it is a challenging request. Please forget everything that happens to you in here. I just want you to get better and hang on one more year, one more year.
I understood the dynamics when I began to tune in to the conversation of a married couple on the other side of the room. They were about a decade older than me. I gathered that they were the companions of the standard poodle down the hall. Whenever the door opened, I could see him, mouth slack with pain and stress. The couple were discussing the prognosis and the cost of the procedure. What would they tell the kids? Despite the sensitivity of the topic and the lateness of the hour, they sounded like they were maintaining rationality.
The upshot was this: the dog needed major surgery, but he was elderly and could only expect, at most, another couple of years of a natural lifespan. He had already had an expensive treatment that had not helped. The surgery might not work, and he might not survive the procedure. My antennae went up when the dollar figure came up, because it matched what I still owe on my student loan. Six thousand dollars. Ooof, I thought, that'll leave a mark. Enough to contribute to an IRA for the year. Enough to cover their high schooler's college tuition for a term (maybe). Enough to bring home another dog (after some time had passed) and leave a hefty donation to the animal shelter. Enough for an older used car. Enough for the entire family to live off for a couple of months. How many malaria nets it might buy, I can only guess.
This is middle age. You wade through grief after sorrow after devastation after loss. You keep your family together. You keep going to work. You think about the price tag of everything, because old age and frailty are coming your way soon enough - if you're lucky. You may wind up caring for your own parents before your kids are out of the nest.
I felt for that couple. I almost wanted to offer my condolences, but I didn't want to make them uncomfortable. These matters are private, even if they must be discussed in a small room with an audience. Sad as it was, I felt they were making the right choice, for themselves and for their family. The surgery was too expensive, the poor furry fellow might not survive, he couldn't possibly comprehend the fear or physical agony, and they had children to support.
They went ahead with the surgery.
Something shrank inside me. Oh, no. Oh dear. They had made a major emotional decision at midnight on a work night. It might take them years to pay for it. Their beloved dog may have crossed the Rainbow Bridge long before they saw the last of the bills. At the next crisis, their position might be that much more precarious, forcing them into options they never would have faced otherwise.
The door opened again, and I saw another glimpse of the poodle's face. He was the picture of misery. He couldn't get comfortable either standing or lying down. He didn't get a say in this. He'd do what was asked of him for his entire life, which was to be there for his human family, until he could keep going no longer. I hoped he made it through the procedure and that his recovery wasn't too hard on him.
Very few happy things happen in a veterinary hospital. At best, all that happens is that the animal has to stand on a slippery metal table, suffer some confusing indignities like the thermometer, and get stuck with booster shot needles. At worst, there is pain, fear, sadness, and the longing to turn back the clock. I loved you so much when you were tiny. How could you let this happen to you? Why is your lifespan so short? Please don't say goodbye. Oh, not tonight. Just one more year. One more year.
It takes courage to let go. Nothing like the courage they show, hanging on just to please us, even when they can't eat. Even when they can't walk. Even when they can't stand up anymore. They've always been there for us, and when they finally need us to be there for them, to stand up for them and do what's right, we balk. We look at life without them and we are seized by cowardice. I can't do this without you. I can't go home and look at your bed and your empty bowl. I can't walk in my front door, knowing you won't be there waiting for me. I remember collapsing at my own front door with the key still in my hand, weeping on my knees for the one who wasn't there. Crying into the carpet, Oh my baby, why, why?
To enter the Temple of Sadness is to lose a piece of your heart. There is no earthly way to get out of there unscathed. They mop the floors with bitter tears. The only way is to somehow try to prepare yourself well in advance. Look into that sweet little face and remember, You are only here for a short time. We will love each other well. We will mark each other's hearts. We will bring something higher and better into this world. Then, before we know it, the time will be up. You couldn't pace yourself. You fit three human lifetimes into one, with triple the love, triple the bravery, triple the joy and gratitude. Now it's your time. Thank you for being my friend. Now it's time to say goodbye. See you on the other side.
Euphemisms can be fun. In our household, an “opportunity to succeed” is the term for when the parrot needs a potty break. That’s about once every ten minutes. Not to get too graphic, but if she’s sitting with you and you’re wearing something labeled “dry clean only,” don’t startle her. Aside from her role as catalyst of many wardrobe changes, some due to flinging food or snagging with her nails, she’s a delightful companion. Part of it is her sweet nature. Part of it is that we’ve set up her environment in a way that makes it easy to live with her. This is where pet training can teach us a lot about habit formation.
I’ve always been described as “good with animals.” My husband is more like Dr. Doolittle. When we got married, our pets got married, too, in their own way. The 18-year-old Noelle and 8-year-old Spike treat each other much as you’d expect a human teenage girl with a decade-younger little brother to treat each other. They share food and toys, they try to get each other into trouble, they annoy each other sometimes, they ignore each other most of the time, and occasionally we catch them being affectionate when they think nobody is looking. He licks her on the beak and she touches his snout and makes smooch sounds.
Why does this work? Why can our ¾-lb bird climb on our vigilant 21-lb terrier, with her terrible scratchy talons, and not get bit or shaken to death? How have they managed to live together for 7 years without injuring each other? That’s a story in itself. The keys are that we respect their natures and their biological needs, that we create a living environment that makes it easy for them, and that we’ve introduced changes very gradually. We supervised them extremely closely. We didn’t leave them alone in a room together for years. Plenty of dogs and parrots bite, ruin furniture, bark or scream monotonously, and are aggressive toward humans and other animals. Ours are nice because we set them up to be nice. We give them that “opportunity to succeed.”
What does this have to do with humans?
First, when we want to change our habits, it helps to do at least a bit of research in psychology. We have to understand what tends to work for our breed and what tends not to work. Going back to the pet training example, birds are flock animals and dogs are pack animals. They both have an inherent need to understand where they fit in the “pecking order” and who is the alpha of the group. (NB: a human, not a pet!) We established very firmly, when he was only 10 weeks old, that Spike is “gamma dog” and he has to let the bird boss him around. She bribes him with food rewards, reinforcing the relationship. When we want to change our habits, we need to know how habits work, and we also need to pay attention to our social surroundings. Is there someone in the pack who is going to throw us treats? Are someone else’s rules influencing our behavior?
The physical home environment is paramount, both for habit change and for pet training. We have clearly defined areas where our pets are allowed to relax and be themselves. They each have a private sleep area (crate for him, cage for her). She has plenty of things she is allowed to use for her biological need to chew. They have their own toys, their own food, and their own water bowls, although sometimes she drinks out of his. He has a special blanket and a couch he’s allowed to sit on. This helps assuage his hurt feelings due to being banned from our bed. In the human parts of the house, we have designated areas for our stuff and our activities. I set up the medicine cabinet so that just glancing at what is in there reminds me to floss at night and put on sunblock in the morning. I set up the fridge so that the vegetables are at eye level. We keep our desks, table, and kitchen counters clear so they’re always ready to use for their intended purpose. Keeping the house clutter-free also makes it easier to do housework; research shows a cluttered house takes 40% longer to clean. That’s a big deal when you have as many loose feathers, dog hairs, shredded bits of plywood, and muddy paw prints coming through as we do.
A schedule is helpful. Getting enough rest is a big deal for all of us. Noelle beeps if she’s under her cover too late in the morning. Then she starts imitating the travel alarm clock. Then she starts imitating the backup alarm of a garbage truck. At this point, the dog starts howling, rather than simply running out of the room. Next, they both get louder. Birds need about 12 hours of sleep a night, and a sleep-deprived bird is a crabby, biting sort of a bird. Mealtimes are the other major one. If any member of the house is eating, the other three expect to get a bite also. It makes life easier when we all eat together. If there is any single thing that makes habit change easier, it is letting the schedule pull you through the day. The important thing is to move from one activity to another without pausing to decide whether to do it or not. Do one thing, then the next thing, then the next thing. Stop to think and make decisions later in the day or evening, when most of the mandatory activities of the day are done.
The fascinating thing about living with animals is that they have their own interior agendas. The dog has developed a thing lately of jumping up around 9:30 PM, standing on his hind legs to sniff at his leash, and barking at us and the front door. That’s not walking time, but for some reason, he feels this sudden interest in the leash and the door. It’s interesting to see when either of them decides to play with toys, stretch, or ask for attention. They definitely never let us forget munch time. What they don’t do is worry the way humans do. As far as we know, they spend zero time wondering what other people or animals think of them, stewing over old grudges, or browbeating themselves for their flaws. Noelle picks her nose with her toe and Spike licks his nether regions. They both have pretty high self-esteem. Whenever she sees her reflection in the mirror, she leans forward to kiss herself. When we call him “good boy” he actually believes it.
One of the things about training pets is that we have rules. They can only understand what we want from them if we’re very clear about what exactly we want, if we communicate it in a way they can understand, and if we’re really, really, really consistent. It doesn’t help when Mother has one set of rules and Dad has a conflicting set of rules. We don’t steal food off someone else’s plate. We don’t grab people with our face. We don’t jump up. When we misbehave, we are instantly corrected and removed. There is a constant expectation that we will behave in certain ways, which are positively reinforced with affection and soothing words. We know what can be expected of us, given our inherent tendencies, and most of the time, we’re allowed to do what comes naturally.
Pets lack the skills to survive in the wild. Our dog is a 20th-century breed, and he may even lack the physical ability to survive in the wild. It’s our job to look after them. We have to take care not to overfeed them or give them inappropriate foods, because they don’t know how to say no. They can’t read health articles or have a conversation with their vet about fatty liver disease. They aren’t moral agents; in a very real way, they can’t make decisions. (We have to remember this when the bird chews foam from the underside of the ottoman, and the dog keeps digging up my basil seedlings). We read that fat people have fat pets. We’ve lost 100 pounds between us, so we have to watch our tendency to be “feeders” and find amusement in giving our animals lots of yummy treats. We also have to recognize our tendency to give ourselves lots of yummy treats. Caring for them has almost all of the same requirements as caring for ourselves. As they’ve both put on extra grams (or pounds) and we’ve been chewed out by the vet, the solution has been to switch to “weight management” chow and measure scoops of food at each meal. Same for us.
When we don’t want our animals to chew something up, we keep it out of reach. When we catch them doing something dangerous, we rush to their rescue and then make sure the dangerous thing can’t happen again. When they do something naughty, we correct them, as many times as it takes. We feed them what is healthy for them and restrict things they shouldn’t have. (Avocado could kill her; a lot of things are toxic for him, like raisins or tomatoes). We set them up so that they follow a natural rhythm of life every day, with plenty of time for rest, play, grooming, exercise, and affection. They enjoy simple things much more than we do, and that helps us feel like shower time or shoelaces are more interesting than we would otherwise notice.
We have a lot to learn from animals. They never overthink anything. They both fulfill their complete agenda every day, from grooming to napping to shredding things to exercising, whether that means chasing one’s tail or hanging upside down and face-punching a bell. They seem reasonably satisfied to eat the same number of calories every day. They both place a high priority on cuddle time. They don’t keep clutter, they don’t over-pack, they don’t berate themselves for lacking willpower or motivation, they’re ready to go when it’s time to go somewhere. They have no body image issues, even though her wings are trimmed and his tail was docked in puppyhood. They both walk around shamelessly naked. They are utterly perfect, each in their own way, a clearly recognizable African Gray Parrot and a classic American Rat Terrier. They lead successful lives.
Perhaps it’s from training pets that I have developed a comfort level with using behavioral psychology on myself. It’s pretty easy and straightforward for me to adopt new habits. I recognize that I have an innate drive to do both positive and negative things, and that I have to incentivize the right impulses and repress the undesired ones. I can’t let my parrot destroy people’s earrings, I can’t let my dog chase the mailman, and I can’t let myself do things like procrastinating on my taxes. I have to respect my biological needs for sleep, water, and appropriate foods, because if I treated my pets as badly as I might treat myself, I’d be cited for animal abuse. I don’t expect my critters to learn new tricks on the first attempt, and I teach myself to do new things the same way: patiently, slowly, incrementally. The best trick I could ever learn is to love the way they do, fully and unconditionally.
I'm the early tech adopter in our household; it took me nearly three years to sell my husband on the delights of a smartphone. Thus it came as something of a surprise when he came home the other night and told me about the new Pokemon Go app. I hadn't heard of it and it had already been out for a week! I'm the wrong age for Pokemon. It has nostalgia for him, though, because his stepson was about seven when the game originally came out. Later, his daughter fell in love with the game, too, although she had grown out of it by the time we met. I saw how he lit up as he was telling me about this new phone app, and it was awfully cute.
I smiled to myself, because I could see it coming a mile away. (See what I did there?). This game was going to be much more fun on foot than it was in our living room. I wasn't sure how long he would hold out, but I figured it was three days, max. I casually offered to go with him if he wanted to go out and catch some pocket monsters. The very next night, we did.
Most days, I get my target miles in by making up tasks and errands to do around town. I might stop in any of five cafés, two grocery stores, a post office, two library branches, or three movie theaters. Every now and then, my ambit expands, and I'll make a special trip to see a movie that isn't available any nearer, or pick up a book at a more distant library outpost. I might add an extra three or four miles on a day like that. Gamifying exercise works, and I know it. After a while, your legs simply demand to MOVE and sitting still isn't an option. The trick is getting past the first three weeks, when your legs still demand to SIT.
We hadn't made it to the first intersection before we spotted a child who looked like she might be playing the same game we were. With her was a teenaged girl walking a dog. We passed a training center, but my husband hadn't leveled up enough to use it yet. We walked through a business park, where we saw our first confirmed case of a fellow adult playing Pokemon Go. He was at least thirty and dressed like a security guard. As we made it to the large shopping center that appeared to have the most virtual activity, we started seeing a LOT of other people with the game clearly visible on their screens. Literally a couple dozen.
As far as we could tell, in our neighborhood, it was about three adults to every child. There were a daddy with two sons, a mommy with two daughters, young couples, gaming buddies, and even a young guy with a cane. Most players were over thirty. Almost everyone appeared to be, shall I say, an exercise novice. Sitting a lot in our world of technology tends to cause the shoulders to slump and roll forward. Driving, sitting in front of a computer, hunching over a phone or tablet, sewing, reading, and watching TV all tend to create this slouchy posture. It leads to chronic neck and shoulder tension. That's the main reason I walk at least three miles a day; I type too much and walking helps roll my shoulders back where they belong.
The way the game works, every player can see the same virtual features laid over the same real world locations. The training centers are the same for everyone in town, and the same creatures and prizes appear in the same spots. What this does is to build an instant Nerd-o-Rama, with small crowds of t-shirt-clad gamers gathered around what are normally deserted public plazas. These are nice spots, and it's a bit uncanny how well the game world corresponds with places that are worth going. Public art, benches, fountains, murals, well-lit areas that were already designed for casual social contact and relaxation. People were shyly smiling at each other as we all realized we were there for the same reason - a non-competitive, non-zero-sum reason. Unlimited numbers of players can all catch the same Pokemon at the same time, and nobody loses.
You know what would happen if everyone played this game? Every neighborhood would be safe. Dozens of people out and about, equipped with phones, video cameras, first aid triage apps, etc. What I mean by that is: witnesses. In this game, there would be few scarily isolated areas left in the real world.
On the way home, we passed a tiny park, a monument to the town founder. I pass this park twice a day, nearly every day of the week, and I think I've only seen anyone there once. All it has is a statue, a big flag, a couple of benches, and a dog bag dispenser. Now, though, it's a Pokemon Go training center. There were nearly a dozen people gathered around, and it was 9 PM on a weeknight.
We had a great night. It felt like a date, with a festival air reminiscent of Halloween. Spike had the time of his life, with all sorts of people cooing at him, and a convertible full of four cute young women making smooching sounds at him. I made the Overlord happy and got my Apple Watch exercise quota for the day. My husband caught fifteen Pokemon and found ten potions, eleven revive, thee incense, and six eggs, although a rare Onix escaped after he caught it. He gained two levels, and we were able to stop at the training center on the way home.
We wound up walking over three miles.
I have always thought that gamers could be the most physically fit people who ever lived, given the right incentives and the right technology. Imagine having to hurdle fences, climb ladders, run endlessly, and fight avatars by moving your actual biological self! It would be like an esoteric monastic discipline, requiring many hours of meditation and physical conditioning. This may still happen; watching the Dance Dance Revolution console at any arcade should give a convincing image. What I never thought of was that gaming could bring so many introverts and shy people out into public places. The next step is obviously a social feature that has people reaching out to talk to one another. Maybe a setting could indicate whether a player was up for interaction. I like where this is going, and I hope the trend continues.
I had to plan around it on distance days. I’d get ready in the cool of the morning, filling my water pack, putting trail mix and cookies in my fanny pack, reloading the backup battery and connector for my phone, choosing an audio book that would last four hours, applying sunblock, and starting my GPS tracker. When I came back from running as many as seventeen miles, I wouldn’t have much energy. If I let myself sit down before eating something, I was in trouble. I had to resist it for at least long enough to take a shower and eat Second Lunch. What was waiting for me was The Plunk.
I would plunk down on the couch and more or less melt into the cushions. I’d become a sentient pillow. I would be exactly like my dog, who comes back from a run and drops onto the tiles, legs splayed out in every direction. He can run six miles and be asleep four minutes later. Most of us aren't sleep experts like Spike, but we certainly feel that same urge to plunk.
Everyone should plunk sometimes. It’s a good thing. Everyone should have a safe and peaceful place to relax completely and forget the cares of the world. I especially recommend the group plunk. My pets are enthusiastic supporters of this system. We all signal that it’s time and the plunk is here. The apes read a book, the dog sleeps, and the parrot preens and cleans every single feather, which is a lot of feathers indeed. We reinforce each other’s sense that the world has paused for a little while, and none of us are going anywhere until those pages are turned, those sleeping paws are twitching, and all the feathers are in the correct place.
The trouble is that the plunk doesn’t work properly when anything important is left undone. It’s impossible to blend into the upholstery properly when a nagging thought lingers in the mind. Open loops are the enemy of the plunk. I may be pretending to plunk, I may be attempting the plunk, I may be making my best effort to set a new plunking record. It’s not going to happen if I’m really spinning my mental wheels over something I know I should have done.
The key to plunking properly is peace of mind. That starts with eliminating the most important task early each day. I have to recognize resistance in myself and crush it. Anything that makes me dread taking action is automatically the most important thing of the day. Anything that gives me a feeling of extreme reluctance, exhaustion, anxiety, disgust, annoyance, or desire to enter the Witness Protection Program and change my name? That’s the thing I have to do. I know I can never get a decent plunk if I’m stewing over something that serious in my life.
The other key to a truly satisfying plunk has to do with situational awareness. I can’t plunk right if the room is in disarray. Entropy is the heart’s desire of the universe. It’s possible we were given free will, language, and the ability to use tools specifically to combat entropy in our personal environment. I want to be able to look around at a glance and see that all is well. I know where to find my keys, phone, sunglasses, wallet, and shoes, even though I won’t be needing them for a while. I can’t see any unfinished work. I don’t have a stack of unsorted mail. I don’t have a pile of unfolded laundry. I know from long experience that my life is easier when I spend the requisite fifteen minutes a day putting away laundry, five minutes sorting and processing the mail, and sixty seconds collecting my Important Daily Items. That stuff is done, and therefore, I can plunk freely.
The final plunk of the day happens after the sun goes down. It’s bedtime. It starts with the Fluffy One, who starts getting edgy at 8:00 PM. She needs twelve hours of beauty sleep, and nobody is plunking when she starts calling for bedtime, that’s for sure. Our little woofie insists on getting his teeth brushed. Another day is done. We know it’s time to wind up shop for the night. Start the dishwasher, check the locks, turn out the lights, floss and brush, and go to bed. A steady routine helps prevent those sit-straight-up, facepalm moments of forgetting important details. A few minutes of attention to a list of habits is reassuring and comforting. We can lay our weary heads down on our pillows and drift off into the ultimate plunk, knowing we’ve done everything that was asked of us for the day. Time to rest and spend a few hours in the land of dreams, where the cares of earthly life are not allowed to enter and don’t technically exist.
Even if you’re Vicki the Robot from Small Wonder, and you spend every night in a cabinet, you need this book. If you’re a human being, then you definitely need this book! I can’t possibly recommend it enough. Shawn Stevenson is hip, funny, and deeply knowledgeable about sleep. Even complicated charts and medical terminology are accessible through his engaging, witty prose. I’ve followed sleep research closely for at least the last decade, and I learned a great deal from Sleep Smarter. I can also validate a lot of the information as crucially important for healing sleep problems.
Before I talk more about the book, I’ll share a bit about myself. I started having problems with insomnia at age seven. At fourteen, I woke up one morning and couldn’t open my mouth because I had clenched my jaw so tightly. I wound up cracking four mouth guards, and I wore through a set of amalgam fillings in eighteen months. I also had restless leg syndrome; sometimes it would start early in the evening, before I even went to bed. In college, the clinic sent me to the school psychiatrist to make sure I didn’t have a neurological problem, because I was only sleeping about three hours a night. Garden variety stuff. The real issue I had in my thirties was pavor nocturnus, or night terrors. I would wake up in a different room, shaking and crying, with no memory of how I got there. My poor husband would have to chase me and bring me back to bed. I don’t have sleep problems anymore. If someone like me can learn to sleep eight peaceful hours every night, then it stands to reason that anyone could. I’m also including a thumbnail of my sleep issues in case Shawn Stevenson reads this. If he does, HI! In the second edition, which you know is inevitable with a book this great, would you please consider including an appendix on insomnia and parasomnia disorders?
Sleep Smarter includes short, fascinating chapters on sleep research. At the end, there is an easy set of micro-habits to try out over two weeks. It would be pretty easy to start with the chapter that seems most relevant; they don’t necessarily have to be read in order. For instance, anyone who has ever tried to share a “full” sized mattress with another person knows to start with the chapter on beds!
If you’re reading this because you have annoying sleep issues, attend closely. Stevenson and I both make magnesium deficiency the first priority. If you can’t handle dietary change at this point in your life, you can buy a spray-on topical supplement. At least 80% of Americans are deficient in magnesium, so if you have any kind of sleep problem, be objective before you rule it out.
For restless legs, talk to your doctor about an iron supplement. (Or you can keep a food log for three weeks, look at your micronutrient consumption, and make your own judgment).
For tooth grinding, my dentist leveled out my bite by replacing my fillings. It changed my life.
For pavor nocturnus, I discovered that it was related to blood sugar levels. I make sure not to eat for three hours before bedtime. I also became a marathon runner, and I believe that this changed my body’s ability to store glycogen in the muscles. This most likely helped my body to regulate blood sugar more efficiently, as I never get hangry anymore. I also quit getting migraines at the same time that I quit having the night terrors, which is now over two years ago.
I took melatonin for five years, and it helped me learn to sleep properly. About three weeks ago, I quit taking it, and was astonished to find that my sleep is the same quality and duration! I was very worried about experiencing sleepless nights, but it didn’t happen once. To me, this is verification that all the other changes I made really did have an impact.
For everything, I quadrupled my cruciferous vegetable consumption. What Stevenson has to say about nutrition and fitness is completely true. I was also extremely interested in his personal story about battling degenerative disk disease as a teenager. He asked his doctor if his diagnosis “had anything to do with what [he] was eating, or if exercising a different way would help.” His doctor completely blew him off. That was precisely my experience with talking to my physician about my thyroid disease when I was 23. Stevenson’s disk disease had nothing in common with my thyroid disease, but the bogus, unscientific professional opinions we got were the same. I believe in medical science, but I seriously question whether doctors are keeping up with the most current research before they convey life-changing opinions to people. That’s before we even begin to consider nutrition and exercise, which few doctors seem to take seriously on a personal level, much less a professional one.
Please read this book. Please take the quality and quantity of your sleep seriously. Please believe that improving your sleep truly does have the potential to revolutionize your life.
Oh, and PS: Noelie says that if you have a pet parrot or other bird, please make sure it gets twelve hours of sleep in a dark, quiet room every night.
We planned our day in Gibraltar. The bus to Sevilla left in the afternoon, so we needed to be circumspect in how we used our time. We’d climb the Rock, come down and have lunch, and walk back. If we had time for anything else, great. It was hard to limit our schedule, because my husband is a huge history buff and knows a lot about Gibraltar from several different eras. How do you choose how to focus when an entire landmass is so saturated with fascination and relevance? Serendipity smiled on us again.
To start, though, there was a little problem. I have pictures if you like gross stuff. I got up in the night, slipped into my flip-flops, and realized that my damaged toenail had finally cracked after six months. Bad timing. By the time I got out of the shower the next morning, it was clear that it was going to be causing me problems one way or the other. My husband is an emergency medical responder, and he’s lost toenails himself. He said it was time to cut off the broken part. I wasn’t happy about this, but the loose nail was digging into my skin, and it was a lose-lose situation. When we set off for the day, I was missing a third of the nail on my big toe. Most of it was tender skin, with a little bit of thin, soft new nail. Not great conditions for the remaining six days of a walking vacation, or the start of a serious hike. This is when GRIT comes into play. I have a very low pain threshold, and my stamina is not so great, but nobody can beat me for pure perseverance. I will go until my legs collapse under me, and then I’ll quote Winston Churchill to myself until I can make myself get up again. Gibraltar happens to be a good place for Churchill fans.
We needed somewhere to ditch our backpacks for the day. We could have worn them as we climbed the Rock – we’ve both hiked steeper inclines to higher elevations over a longer stretch of time – but time was of the essence. There was also a question of how sweaty we wanted to be when we stopped for lunch. We took a cab back to the bus station, where getting lockers was a bit of a linguistic and logistical issue. From there, we were easily able to walk to the Spanish/British border.
Stamp fans, they don’t give out passport stamps at Gibraltar anymore due to “abuse.” I have trouble imagining what that might have meant. We were essentially waved through due to our American passports.
Walking into Gibraltar is funny, because the sidewalk crosses the airport runway. It’s very apparent that we’ve crossed from Spanish to British culture, with red phone boxes and English street names everywhere.
The hike up the Rock is paved all the way to the top. The first half goes up stairs and ordinary city streets. At the top is a park with an entrance fee of one euro. For some reason, the WWII tunnels were closed for the day, but we were able to tour the old Moorish Castle. We continued on our quest, steadily gaining elevation. The view and the balmy weather helped to distract me from my sore toe, which was not doing me any favors other than not turning black and falling off.
One thing that is impossible to miss on Gibraltar is the pervasive presence of warning signs about the monkeys. They are tailless Barbary macaques, introduced by the Moors at some point during the medieval period. Their population was deliberately maintained during WWII due to a legend that there would be Brits on Gibraltar as long as there were still macaques. They’re commonly referred to as “apes” because they don’t have tails. The signs show ferocious fanged monkey faces and warn against bites that can require hospitalization. There is a £4000 fine for feeding them. “They can touch you but you can’t touch them.” When we saw our first monkeys, we were thrilled, excited, but wary. We wanted to look at them and take pictures; we didn’t want to be permanently maimed.
There is no facial expression more serious than that of a macaque grooming another macaque. I doubt I look that intense even when I’m working.
As soon as we saw the first pair, they were everywhere, leaping in the shrubbery, walking in the road, climbing around. We continued up the road, where a couple dozen people were watching the monkeys at their feeding station. Then we saw a man helping tourists hold a juvenile macaque and pose for photos. It was clearly a highly habituated animal. It looked like it was bonded to the man (a cab driver/tour guide) and that it was literally working for peanuts. My husband stepped up to ask if he could pay for me to hold the monkey, but the guide ignored anyone who was not a part of his tour group. Made sense. The group ascended a staircase to look at the view, and the little monkey ran after them, scrambled up the stair rail, and jumped on the man’s shoulder.
I’m pretty good with animals. This involves one part observation, two parts sensitivity, and three parts protocol. Every creature down to a single-celled amoeba reacts to stimuli either through Attack, Approach, or Avoid. AVOID is a great strategy. It can be harder to differentiate between Attack and Approach. Is this creature trying to make friends, scare me out of its territory, rebuke me for infringing on the appropriate etiquette, pass by me as it happens to travel in my direction, attempt to mate, or perhaps eat me for lunch? APPROACH is the least likely outcome. In this case, I had sized up the situation and seen a habituated individual who seemed to appreciate human contact.
Monkeys spend almost all their time in physical proximity with one another. They are constantly, constantly touching each other, grooming and embracing. The young are carried everywhere. A reptile will generally find touch stressful and annoying, in the same way that my dog likes to be rubbed but not hugged, and my parrot likes her head touched but not her belly or her feet. A primate is biologically wired for snuggles – and also face-biting. We saw a couple gnashing their teeth a tenth of an inch away from each other’s snouts, and it’s very scary and dangerous. Just like us, monkeys are equally capable of rending, tearing, blood-dripping physical violence, as well as exquisite tenderness. Which was it going to be?
This is what happened. It happened in ten seconds. I looked up the stairs at the little monkey and wondered, will it come down to me if I stand by the rail? It’s looking for attention and everyone up there is distracted. I strode a few steps to the bottom of the stair rail. INSTANTLY the macaque clambered down the rail, LEAPT onto my shoulder, and put its arm around my head.
Whatever I had done with my body language and my facial expression, the macaque had taken a reading of my subconscious signals and chosen APPROACH.
I was frozen. I can’t see you. I can’t see your face. What are you doing? Is this okay for you? I was expecting a primate interaction to be scratchy and smelly. Instead, I found that the little macaque was unimaginably soft, cuddly, and clean, like a teddy bear that can actually love you back. It had the gentlest touch. If a human ever touched me as softly as a macaque, I would not just melt but weep. It was so far from the terrifying image on the warning signs that it was like portraying a koala as a carnivorous predator, except that I hear koalas have coarse fur.
I was astute enough to take off my sunglasses, but I hadn’t thought ahead far enough. I was wearing my new Moroccan earrings from the day before. Like any young lady, the little macaque thought they were pretty and wanted a closer look. She tugged and tugged at my earring. That was pretty sore. I wanted to remove it without offending her or scaring her by moving my hand. I gingerly reached up, took out my earring, and held it out on my palm so she could see it. She reached for it and almost grabbed it, but my hand slipped and it hit the ground. If she’d taken it, that would probably have been the end of my nice new earrings. Now, instead, they are Earrings of Legend, representing both our first trip to Africa and my first contact with A WILD FREAKING MONKEY THAT JUMPED ON ME.
Now, I’m “good with animals,” but my husband is a real Dr. Doolittle. It’s uncanny. Remind me some time to tell you the story of the Skunk Whisperer. He had been standing there taking pictures of my macaque encounter, and it was clear that the gregarious little creature would be open to more contact. I simply leaned over to him while he held his forearm in front of him, the way we’d seen the cab driver instruct the other tourists. She went to him right away. Then she pulled his collar aside and solemnly looked down his shirt. “You’re hairy like me.” She cuddled up and looked like she would be perfectly content to chillax with him all day. While I smiled nervously throughout my encounter, because I couldn’t see the monkey wrapped around my head and playing with my hair, my husband maintained a complete poker face. “Smiling” looks aggressive to primates, who show their teeth when they want to intimidate and warn others away. A flat, serious expression is a relaxed expression for monkeys.
“How do I get rid of you?” As much fun as it would be to sit in a monkey cuddle pile for the rest of the night, or maybe our lives, we did have an agenda. Another tourist was standing hopefully nearby, waiting for a chance to hold the macaque. My husband passed her to him, where she stayed politely for just a moment and then tactfully bounded to the feeding area and picked up a carrot. “Oh, it’s not you, I was just totally hungry.” It really seems like using language to communicate is going backward; if we were more like the macaques, we’d probably have more friends and better relationships. Excluding the face-biting part.
We took the funicular down the hill, which was ludicrously expensive, but walking down would have taken at least an hour and been tough on my toe. We stopped for lunch at a tiny veggie Indian place that had been highly rated in TripAdvisor. I told the owner, “a man left a rating that he wanted to stay in Gibraltar an extra day just so he could eat here again.” You know what is the cutest thing in the world after a baby macaque? A grown man blushing.
We had just enough time to meander down Main Street and through Casemates Square. Then we passed back through the border checkpoint and headed to the bus station. When we got there, it turned out they took only cash, and we didn’t have enough! I watched our packs while my husband sprinted a couple of blocks to a tourist agency, making it back with moments to spare. We got our bus to Sevilla.
We arrived late at night. Barcelona is alluring, Valencia is fantastically pretty, but Sevilla… Sevilla is captivating. Sevilla is one of those “if I could only live in one city the rest of my life” kinds of places. We were hooked in two minutes. We walked down the street from the bus station, gaping at all the gorgeous buildings, and had barely made it a few yards before we found ourselves eating a vast Lebanese meal at an outdoor table. We watched all the university traffic going by: people on foot, people on bikes, people with strollers, people walking dogs, people laughing and chattering and talking on their phones. Every city in the world should send an envoy to Sevilla to take notes and pictures, and then try to replicate a bit of that energy back home.
After dinner, we were back in the place of uncertainty, needing to figure out where to sleep and how to get there. There was a Starbucks up the street that was still open, even though it was nearly 10 PM. We found the camping in the next town, we found the bus schedule, but we failed to find the bus stop. It turned out we weren’t distinguishing between the city bus and the regional bus, and we were one street off. We caught a cab. The camping gate was shut, but someone opened it as soon as we pulled up, and we got registered. We found a spot, we quietly began pitching our tent, and a querulous older German lady came out of her RV and lectured us, although the official quiet hours had not begun. (If we’re really being too loud, don’t add to the noise and thus annoy others who might otherwise have slept through it). We were now sleeping in the fourth new location in four nights, or the fifth in six nights. The last couple of days had gone really well, Sevilla had captured our hearts, and we were settling in for a few days of fun and relaxation.
Or… were we?
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.