What do you have on hand right now, and what do you wish you had? It’s time to take inventory and learn how to repurpose stuff and get creative.
One of the reasons that people go out on panic buying sprees is that they don’t have a solid grasp on what they need or how long their supplies will last. We’ve already seen instances where people went to Costco to buy up everything they could see… then changed their minds, tried to return it, and got sent away. This can be a real problem for people who spend all their liquid cash and still fail to buy things that they would have actually used.
Learning basic inventory standards and practices can help with this.
My first inventory job was at a 7-Eleven. I was assigned the cereal aisle, because there was a big markup on that product category and not much turnover. Once a week I would go down one side and up the other with a clipboard in my hand, tallying how many of each item were in stock. Then I would make an executive decision on what to replace and what not to. If something like Cool Ranch Froot Loops sat on the shelf for eight months, maybe we didn’t need any more.
The basic concepts that I learned, over the two months I spent on that job, could be mastered by any ambitious 8-year-old:
Shelf by category. Put all the matching stuff together. All the beverages go in one section, then divide by alcohol vs. non-alcoholic, then by brand, then by flavor, etc.
Face outward. A big part of our job was to continually move products to the front edge of the shelf and adjust them so that the labels lined up.
Standard Rotation. Put the oldest stuff in the front and use it up first.
Another thing we did all day, every day, was to wipe down the counters. People were constantly spilling everything from nacho cheese to pickle relish to coffee and malt liquor. This is where many of us develop the keen eye for splotches and smears.
When I went on to work with people who live in squalor, it amazed me how quickly everything can turn to chaos without those few constant daily habits. My people don’t generally have daily tidying habits, partly because they don’t see things in categories. This is why they may not notice that they have 55 cans of green beans in the cupboard, five pounds of black bananas on the dining table, but nothing to make for dinner.
Some of my people have a lot of everything. Others have a lot of certain types of things, but none of other categories. As an example, one person might have cases upon cases of canned foods, soda, laundry detergent, etc. stacked up in the garage due to compulsive accumulation. Another might have a lot of books or craft supplies, but very few clothes or groceries, because they are deeply interested in a hobby but absent-minded about self-care. Some people are just low in situational awareness, and their surroundings tend to blur in their mind, so that they don’t really notice what’s around them. That’s called ‘clutter blindness.’
Taking inventory, or trying to do a little bit, is a great way to start to pick up these skills of sorting things into categories.
We can skip entire categories of stuff right now, as we take inventory, because we’re really focused on just a few things:
When we take inventory of the food, we want to start with the stuff that goes bad quickly. Bananas and avocados are top on that list, and canned foods are last.
Start with what is out on counters, the dining table, the top of the fridge, and anywhere else in the house where someone might be storing food. Throw away anything that is too scary to eat, so that any mold or insects don’t spread to the fresh food.
Next, look in the fridge. It’s a good idea to throw away anything that is spoiled in there, too, partly so it doesn’t affect any more of your groceries and partly to make space when you need it.
If the freezer needs to be defrosted, this would be a good time to do that.
There might be stuff in your supplies that was put there by someone else, like a guest or former roommate, and you know you are not going to use it. Throw it away or, if it’s still edible and sealed, pass it on to someone else.
You might have stuff that you bought and didn’t like. Get rid of that, too. Don’t feel guilty. Space is at a premium now and you don’t have to apologize for prioritizing.
Usually there will be containers that only have a tiny amount of something, like a teaspoon of jam. Focus on using up these foods first, so you can get rid of the containers and make room for fresh food. There may also be several open containers of the same thing, like juice or mustard. Check the expiration dates, throw out any that are suspicious, and then use them up one at a time.
After taking inventory of the food we have on hand, we check our supplies of any medications, including prescriptions, pain relievers, ointments, saline solution, or anything else we might need in the next couple of months. We also want to take care to throw out expired medication, because it can undergo chemical changes over time that make it ineffective or dangerous.
Then we check our inventory of soap, shampoo, toothpaste, deodorant, and anything else we need to feel clean. This is the time to look at all those shampoo bottles with only a quarter cup left. Shampoo that nobody likes is still perfectly good for washing hands or cleaning other things, like a muddy bike.
The reason we take inventory is so that we can delay shopping trips, save money, and take note of stuff that nobody in the household will use. We focus on buying only what we need and like, and then using it while it is still fresh.
If we’re confident that we have enough food, soap, and other essentials, we can then focus on taking inventory of other things, like books and hobby supplies, reminding ourselves to spend at least a little time relaxing.
The last few days have felt like 87 years, am I right? I’ve been doing what I usually do when I’m in the Place of Uncertainty, which is to gather as much information as I can. What I’m picking up right now is chilling me to my very bones. There is misinformation and highly dubious behavior everywhere right now.
What do we do about it?
Last week I found myself in the position of thought leader. We were having an emergency meeting, and I discovered, to my astonishment, that I was the best-informed person on the call. How does this even happen when nobody really knows anything?
I scrolled through my blog, trying to remember which day I posted that “We Prepped for Coronavirus.” (March 3) We... actually bought our supplies at the end of February?? Has it been that long already? It seemed simple and obvious for anyone who reads the news to be aware that the trend line wasn’t going in the right direction. Time to mitigate risk.
“Up and to the right, up and to the right” for INVESTMENTS, not epidemiology
As I started hearing from more of my friends and colleagues, and reading more reports on Nextdoor, and even scrolling through Facebook (which I haven’t done in several years), I started to realize that what is standard operating procedure in my household is actually very fringe behavior for our culture.
Start with deep background, supplement with updates from trusted sources and subject matter experts, apply critical thinking skills, and run scenarios with favored sounding boards.
Isn’t that how other people react to current events?
I’m writing about the problem of fake virus news in this way because a bulleted list of conspiracy theories and actual facts NEVER WORKS. That kind of thing palpably does not work on the people who need it. I’m writing for the benefit of my fellow thought leaders, because the designated “smart person” in your circle of friends is probably you, yes, YOU, the one who is reading this.
You have to look them right in the eye and talk them through their pseudoscience, piece by piece. Praxis. One at a time, patiently and with all the lovingkindness you would show to anyone you care about, if you knew they had only months to live.
I live in a bubble, not just of privilege but of highly educated and brilliant people. A bunch of people in my social group have PhDs and a couple of my dearest friends are actual professors in STEM fields. The smart people are staying home, partly because their employers sent them and mostly because they know higher-level math. They look at the data and nod and trust the experts.
Ah, but I also know people with advanced degrees who are *not* getting with the program.
I was talking one such friend who was trying to convince me that we have nothing to worry about, because there were “only about 320 cases” in “all of California! The entire state!”
All the blood drained from my face. The last I heard, it was... six.
I’ve heard several people repeat the idea that “it will go away when the weather gets better” because “warm temperatures kill it” when they are missing the obvious, which is that the inside of a person is almost always significantly higher than that.
Only about a dozen people in my acquaintance seem to understand the concept of social distancing, or how viruses spread. “For those of us who need a break from ‘social distancing...’”
I love you, and you know that’s not how that works, right?
Do you understand that you could be contagious for two weeks before you even felt any symptoms? And that’s why we have community spread?
PRETEND YOU HAVE CHICKEN POX
People have been panic-buying at the grocery store in our neighborhood. Store hours have been cut back. People are showing up at 5:45 AM every morning and standing in line for over an hour so they can stream in and buy toilet paper. Which is fine, but... People are bringing their entire families into the store and cramming themselves into these tight lines. Panicking their way into the exact opposite of what they should be doing. Can’t one parent go and have everyone self-isolate at home? Or at least wait in the car?
The way people are reacting is like they are preparing for a cross between a hurricane, a terrorist attack, and... werewolves.
Quick, buy bottled water before the storm hits land... NO
We have to keep shopping and going out or the microbes will win... NO
We have to stay together, hold my hand, we’re going in... NO
Y’all been watching the wrong horror movies
It breaks my heart to know how many families have already been impacted by this thing, and how it’s spreading farther because so few people are as educated about basic public health concepts as they are about, say, helping a dog that has been left locked in a car in hot weather.
We do gradually learn, as a species. It’s fairly rare for people to die in structure fires now, for instance, when it used to be a constant problem in the Victorian era. This is because we have worked very hard on institutional inputs like smoke detectors, fire drills, crash bars, EXIT signs, and fire codes. Same thing with airplane crash fatalities. Little by little, every time a disaster happens, people take notes and start trying to avoid it ever happening again.
At least we have the scientific understanding of germ theory. That was not obvious to past humans, not by any means. The first thing the medievals did during the Black Death was to cull domestic cats, not realizing that the vector was actually... rats and mice. Oops.
The silver lining to this pandemic is that it has everyone talking and taking it seriously. Pop culture is eventually able to absorb new ideas, like “stop the shooter” and “don’t let the terrorist take over the plane” and “don’t leave a dog in a hot car.” We start adjusting to new social norms. We aren’t there yet with basic public health concepts, like how viruses spread, but we’re, um, going to learn it now. On the fast track.
Please won’t you help me by using your social capital with your friends and family, and making sure they understand what is going on?
How would we find out if we had/have COVID-19?
Recently a friend stopped by to visit after being on a cruise ship. He had a very scary cough. Now my husband is sick. Coincidence?
But maybe not?
The thing is, at this point in technological development, most people never get tested for anything when they get sick. We probably misattribute symptoms all the time. We say we have “the flu” when it might be a bad cold, salmonella poisoning, or some other type of virus that is not technically influenza. How would we know?
A hundred years ago people thought tuberculosis was genetic.
In trying to be rational during an outbreak, the most important step is to err on the side of hygiene. If we get anything out of this epidemic, hopefully it will be a higher regard for basic hand-washing. I did a speech on Ignaz Semmelweis last year, and I was appalled to learn that there was no specific date when it became universally required for doctors to wash their hands. I wanted to throw in a tidbit like “He was ignored for 80 years.” It’s worse than that because it never happened at all.
Humans, we get pretty offended and defensive if anyone suggests we aren’t quite clean enough!
Even as we walk around coughing into space, getting up from tables without even pretending to wipe our crumbs or pick up our cups, and turning a blind eye when our kids stick their ABC gum under their chairs.
(Hey, SOMEONE is doing it and I’m pretty sure it’s not squirrels).
Last night I had to move someone else’s wet laundry. (72 units, 7 washing machines; don’t hate the player, hate the game). It was still sitting where I left it when I came down to put my stuff in the dryer, so I put the other load back in the washer where I found it.
“They think it’s clean! Now they’ll never know that someone touched it!” I told my husband when I came back upstairs. If coronavirus gives us anything, maybe it will encourage more people to set a timer and quit bogarting the washing machines.
It didn’t occur to me until just now. What if that wet laundry was sitting in the washer because the person who put it there suddenly fell ill?
How would I know?
The indicators that we might be sick or in trouble tend to look just like regular, sloppy old human behavior.
I don’t know any of my neighbors by name, and I’ve lived here over six months. People are not very friendly in our building... and will probably be less so as time goes by and epidemic preparedness becomes more culturally ingrained. I recognize a dozen people, but I don’t know who lives in which unit or what kind of schedule they normally keep. I wouldn’t know who to check on or what to ask.
“Hi, are you dead yet? No? Okay great.” *clears throat* “TEN O’CLOCK AND ALL’S WELL!”
There will probably be a digital solution for this. We all have a switch that we press at designated times and it lights up on a reader board somewhere. Everyone at 123 Main Street is still up and kicking.
More likely this will be a sensor provided by Netflix. Still viewing, still breathing... unless they’re on auto-play, because it’s actually plausible that someone might not move for 8 hours with the right show on.
We already know we can’t count on Amazon because sometimes those packages sit in the lobby for days. There’s an entire Instant Pot that’s been down there since January.
Starbucks might know. Joe hasn’t been here for his regular order in three days, that can’t be right! Although one day I’m convinced we’ll have custom coffee spigots that dispense our regular beverages with six-sigma precision, right out of the sink.
It’ll all be delivery robots, dropping off food on our doorsteps, sanitizing the sidewalks in little damp trails as they go.
...Have crows and gulls figured out delivery bags yet?
Fortunately for us, we started prepping approximately five minutes ago. We actually have soup and stuff on hand. While we understood that we were very unlikely to be quarantined, and also very unlikely to die of COVID-19, there is nothing wrong with stocking up on two or three weeks’ worth of dry goods.
It’s almost embarrassing that one of us got sick within the week. Like, why haven’t you been doing this routinely every September for your entire adult life?
It actually is quite possible that we both have been exposed to COVID-19 and wouldn’t know it. Apparently the main reason it has propagated so quickly to the level of “community spread” is that most people who are exposed to it either don’t get all that sick, or don’t have symptoms at all.
Why is my husband coughing and I’m not?
I feel a little weird, tired and a bit lethargic, but it’s almost impossible to tell whether that’s due to the change to daylight savings time. It could be psychosomatic. I wouldn’t blame anyone who felt like me for going to work and running errands just like normal. This is kinda the daily reality of middle age. “Like a young person but tired and stressed out.”
The difference between us right now is that any time I’ve been on the bus or out in public, and I heard someone coughing or blowing their nose, I would take my special zinc tablets that night. Hubby only takes them if I wave them in his face, because they taste strongly of garlic and mushroom. Bouillon cubes! This is now the third time he’s picked up a cold (or something, she said ominously) and I haven’t gotten it, even though we live together and eat mostly the same meals.
Also I drink green tea and he drinks black tea, but who’s counting?
In the end, we have to consider that there is a virus in our apartment and that both of us are probably contagious - with what, who knows? How could we ever know? Supposedly the standard-issue flu killed up to 80,000 people in one winter, and that has never been enough to inspire all that many people to get the flu shot, much less wash their hands more carefully or actually stay home when they are clearly ill.
We’re taking precautions because we can, and because suddenly this year it seems to matter more. Whatever we might have, we’re pretty sure you don’t want it.
We prepped before we even heard that someone on the West Coast had died from COVID-19. It went like this:
Hubby: I think we should get ready for this thing to spread.
Me: I agree with you.
*five minutes later*
Me: Here’s a kit. If they have it on Amazon it could be here tomorrow.
*ten minutes later*
Risk mitigation is something that, the smarter and/or wealthier someone is, the more they do it. We are already prepped for a number of things, because we have this sort of conversation on a regular basis and also because we have watched a darn lot of zombie movies.
The funny thing about zombies is that almost anything you could do to prepare for a “zombie apocalypse” is also a thing that is smart to do to prepare for earthquakes, flooding, wildfire, any other natural disaster, or, of course, pandemic illness.
The nuances are a bit different, which is why this is worth talking about. The more people who take the time to prepare, the fewer people there are who need serious rescuing - and, more importantly, the more people who are able to do it. When you see yourself as a first responder, the last thing you want is to be a casualty on someone else’s to-do list. Better for both of us to be up and doing, so the responder who would have been helping us is instead off helping someone else.
We have go-bags in case we need to evacuate. This is quite a real issue for people in our region. I have no fewer than five friends who have had to evacuate for wildfire, one of them twice in the same season, and they all live in different cities. We have had smoke visible from our apartment and we sometimes see firefighting helicopters pass over our building.
This is basically the opposite scenario from an epidemic. We can almost think of it as a lever that slides from ‘evacuation’ on one end to ‘quarantine’ on the other.
What if we were advised to stay home for as long as three weeks? What would we do?
On at least two occasions, I have picked up a cold or flu because I went to a pharmacy for an ordinary prescription. One time, I went to get my prescription, got the flu shot, and caught the common cold on the bus the same day. Ugh. If only the flu shot covered every possible airborne illness!
Our first priority is now to avoid going to 1. Pharmacies 2. Hospitals and 3. Grocery stores as much as possible. I would be mad as heck if I ran out of toothpaste and this led me to be exposed to some gnarly virus.
This is why our goal was to stock up in such a way that we could comfortably lock ourselves into our apartment for weeks at a stretch.
We are experienced backpackers, so, weirdly, we are better prepared for extreme situations than we are for hanging out in our own home! We have two separate water purification systems, two types of portable stove, and of course the ability to hike ten miles a day if we need to evacuate on foot. We have training in advanced first aid. We’d be fine living in the bushes, if that were the scenario.
The irony here is that we have no space for a pantry in our apartment. We’ve trained ourselves to deliberately avoid stocking up on anything, because there’s nowhere to put it. We would have had to spend an extra $1000 a month or more to rent a two-bedroom, and even if we had chosen a $250/month storage unit, what good would that do us in this scenario?
We keep all our extra food in the fridge, with the single exception of canned soup. We have half a shelf for that. Let’s face it, half a shelf of canned goods could vanish in two days.
What we elected to do was to buy a kit of freeze-dried backpacking food. Actually, we reconsidered and bought two. While we have a dehydrator, it would take us weeks to prepare this quantity of dried food ourselves. With this thing constantly in the news, this creepy coronavirus, we really wanted results on a faster timeline.
Where this strategy can backfire is that people want to throw money at a problem, rather than thinking their way out of it. We like the idea that we can buy a piece of equipment or a box of supplies and then “check the box.” Okay, good, that’s done, time to sit back and forget about this particular stressor. This makes us sloppy.
The result of sloppy thinking is default behavior. The default of having supplies on hand is that they eventually expire. Usually people do not notice while this is happening.
You know I work with hoarders? One constant among my crowd is that they like to stockpile vast quantities of food, almost all of which winds up being expired. I have seen a lot of rusted-out cans that are unsafe to use. You think zombies are scary; how much do you know about botulism?
The other thing that food hoarders tend to have in common is that we (yeah, recovering food hoarder here) tend to stockpile a completely different kind of food than what we actually like to eat or know how to cook. We’ll buy either what was on sale or what looks like what our family kept on hand. Because there is almost no overlap between Food I Buy and Food I Consume, all these cases of green beans and packets of gravy are just sitting in there getting old and funky.
This is why my husband and I felt fine about buying freeze-dried backpacking food: We actually go backpacking and eat backpacking food. It is useful to us to have lightweight foods like this. We even have a trip planned.
Because we are frugal by nature, the ownership of a small stockpile of backpacking food is going to lead us to think continuously about backpacking. This leads us to two possible outcomes:
The horror movie alternate ending of this is that some lucky survivors find our supplies and it cheers them right up.
We ordered our supplies on Friday. They were supposed to arrive on the following Wednesday. To our surprise, they arrived on Saturday, the day after our order. Hooray!
On Sunday, we had some visitors on their way between the port where they got off a cruise ship, and the airport, where they are heading home to a small semi-rural town. This will be interesting, considering that they just visited no fewer than four countries during their trip. They’ll have a lot to talk about. One topic of conversation will be where exactly he picked up that nasty cough.
Time to go. I need to double-check our inventory of cough medicine.
Coronavirus COVID-19 is as good a reason as any to pitch your boss about telecommuting. If not now, when?
Working when ill is the biggest hole in the classic Protestant work ethic. Come in and cough and sneeze all over everyone, yeah, great, and prove to us how dedicated you are. Meanwhile, for every five people who have the flu, six more will catch it. That’s how this stuff spreads. Maybe you got in one low-energy extra day to peck away at a project, in between blowing your nose and sipping tea. Because you valorized physical presence above actual productivity, half your department got what you had and then spread it to their partners and kids.
Do we ever even find out what we were sick with? Probably not, not usually. Cold, flu, whooping cough, how would we really know unless we hacked up some goo into a petri dish?
This is part of what’s so scary about COVID-19, that it basically has the same symptoms as any other cold or flu, except that now thousands of people have died from it.
We’re all worrying about it, and we’re all continuing our regular commutes and schedules. Coming to work, even with a sniffle or a sneeze, and isn’t that the beginning of every other disaster movie?
My husband and I have already talked this out. It’s of particular concern to him because he often flies for work. He loves his job but he’s not in any real hurry to be at any airport anytime in the next couple of months.
Like many people, my husband could easily do at least 90% of his job remotely. He’s mainly there in person to maintain the dominant culture, which is, Look at us all busily typing away!
Think how funny this scenario is. The software has been available for at least twenty years to track every single keystroke. For people with data-centric jobs (and many others), it is technologically possible to know exactly what each person is doing, right down to the microsecond. You can track what files they open, what they change, how fast they type, what websites they use, EVERYTHING. Showing up in person is not about productivity.
Even stranger, commuting back and forth and being physically present in the office is often considerably less productive than working remotely. This is part of why people like working from home, because we can get so much more done! It’s often close to triple speed!
A lot of companies have found that closing the building an extra day every week produces cost savings. No light, no heat, no staff, just send everyone home. Some people work four-tens, or ten-hour shifts four days a week instead of eight-hour shifts five days a week. This saves on commuting costs for the individual, makes childcare cheaper, etc.
Some companies never have a central location or office in the first place. They start out with a distributed workforce and simply continue that way. Virtually no overhead.
Imagine how much it would revolutionize the workplace to grade people on their productivity, rather than on which hours they did or did not sit at a desk. This is likely one reason why we haven’t put this into practice as a culture. As soon as it became obvious that some members of staff are as much as 5x more productive than others, a great wordless cry would rise up from the cubicles. Why are we getting paid the same when that guy sleeps at his desk every afternoon, when the thing he is best at is napping with his hand on his mouse so he can twitch awake at the same time as his monitor?
It has long been obvious that trusting employees to work from home can save money, increase productivity, and improve morale all at the same time. Maybe not for every job - not for me as a receptionist, not for a mechanic or a construction worker or a nurse - but for most people with desk jobs, this is definitely possible. We could start tomorrow.
Why haven’t we already done it? We haven’t done it because it shakes up the status quo too much. Nobody is willing to be the first to make this executive decision: try it and see what happens, with the option to of course revert back to normal if it doesn’t work.
This novel coronavirus is a great opportunity to talk it over again. What if we tried having people work from home, so we can all stay away from the germy microdroplets being sneezed out all around us? What if we avoid giving each other colds and flu this season as well?
How this pitch would work probably depends a lot on the individual workplace, your personal reputation, and your relationship with your boss. It might be smarter to bring your pitch to someone else who has a better shot at a yes. This is also a good method of testing support for a new idea.
Let me run this by you. What do you think?
Sometimes your colleague’s interest and investment in a new idea may exceed yours. Another person may benefit from your plan even more than you would. You may have a coworker who has a longer commute than yours, someone who has more dependents or responsibilities at home, someone whose partner has been traveling a lot, someone who will hear your idea with great delight. This person will be coming up with new reasons to support your idea before you are even finished explaining what you had in mind.
Another trick, when pitching a radical new policy, is to ask on behalf of someone else. You can use me as an example. So-and-so is having a bunch of oral surgery, therefore how about testing out a trial run on a telecommuting policy?
What would happen if everyone who could work from home, did work from home? What if people got fined for coming to work sick? What if that fine increased for each additional person who caught the bug? I wonder how quickly these things would spread then?
Disaster struck my little household a week or so ago. It was like an earthquake, short in duration but dramatic in impact. Just like an earthquake, we got through it more easily because we were prepared. Out of everything else we organize, our ability to come and go quickly is perhaps the most important.
I happened to be working on a presentation about “getting organized” when my husband suddenly got a severe eye injury. This is why it was on my mind. There’s a lot of Hurry Up and Wait in any crisis, and an overnight in an emergency room includes many hours of time for reflection.
I work with people who are chronically disorganized. What would any of them have done in a situation like this?
Imagine you walk into your front door covering your face because you’ve hurt your eye, and you can’t see. What do you do?
Can you easily open and walk through the front door?
Can you make it to a chair, or somewhere to sit?
Do you have a first aid kit? What’s in it? How long does it take you to get to it?
(A first aid kit was actually not helpful in this case; nor was ice, although my hubby was able to put together a baggie of ice cubes for himself. In case of a corneal abrasion, just go to urgent care or the ER as soon as you can).
The tricky thing about our situation was not so much that we each had to know where our own stuff was. I had to be able to find *his* stuff. In particular, I needed his wallet and his health insurance card. It’s easy to imagine the reverse situation, where he would have to get into my purse.
Not being able to find your identification is one of the endless hassles of the chronically disorganized. Photo ID? Social security card? Birth certificate? Often what could have been a simple bureaucratic chore can take weeks, because my person has to go back and fill out forms and pay extra fees for additional copies of documents that they already have. Somewhere.
Our stuff is either in our wallets or in the fireproof safe. Simple. I knew right where to go.
Some people can get deep into the weeds of organization. I call it “alphabetizing your socks.” The goal is perfection. Really, the goal is efficiency: Can you get what you need the moment you need it? Like when you need emergency instructions on how to save someone’s eye?
This is why we called the advice nurse rather than rushing straight out the door. First, we needed to know if there was something we could quickly do at home to help the eye. Second, it turns out my hubby was worried that if we went to the ER without the proper authorization, we could wind up on the hook for thousands of dollars of bills. We talked about it later and realized that if we had been on vacation when this happened, it could easily have been financially ruinous.
(Here we were lucky. A corneal abrasion is off-the-charts painful, and it can indeed result in permanent vision damage, but with the right treatment it can heal in 24 hours. Because of the type of injury, we could afford to delay).
It turned out we had about forty minutes to DO ALL THE THINGS while on hold for the advice nurse. My temporarily blind husband sat with the phone on hold, since he was in too much pain to do much else anyway. Every other thing that I did to get ready involved... stuff.
Basically the level of organization of our entire apartment.
Needed the insurance card. It was in the drop zone, right where it belonged.
Needed to make a quick meal for hubby and grab something for myself. Fridge and freezer were stocked. I was able to throw something in the microwave and grab a clean plate and fork with about five seconds of conscious thought.
Needed to clean up after our sick dog. Had gloves and enzyme cleaner right where they were supposed to be.
Needed to give a pill to the poor sick dog. Knew where it was and which bottle it was in. There was a trick here, because they have to be cut in half and I had to do it with a knife. Apparently our pill slicer had broken and been thrown out without being replaced. Who would have thought something this minor would ever be a matter of urgency?
Needed to take the dog out. His leash and baggies were right there in the drop zone. He had his harness on and he knows the drill. Good boy.
Needed my keys, since we live on the fifth floor. Yet another item that was right in the drop zone.
Needed to get out of my workout clothes, shower, and throw on something for cold weather. This was another sticking point, because we were planning to do laundry the next day and I only really had one clean outfit. But all I needed was one.
When it was finally time to go, I did a bag check on both our bags. Usually I only need my own bag, with my phone, purse, wallet, and keys. This time I also needed to track someone else’s stuff. It was all there... right in the drop zone.
A drop zone, if you haven’t figured it out, is the area where everyone in your home drops their stuff when they come in. For chronically disorganized people, there is no drop zone. It might be different every single day. Each person might drop certain items (shoes, backpack, glasses, inhaler, hoodie) in different rooms. Someone else might kick something under a table, or drop something on top of it. Nobody knows where anything is because nobody formed a memory when the thing got dropped. When the entire house is a drop zone, nobody can ever find anything truly important, like the keys, the health insurance card, or the first aid kit.
It feels simple and easy to drop stuff “wherever,” and that’s why it is such an easy habit to develop. In reality, having no drop zone can create endless chaos. Designing a drop zone and training everyone in the house to use it, including young kids, can feel like running up the down escalator. After that, though, the most important stuff is streamlined. Getting ready to go somewhere is a matter of minutes, and nobody cries.
Our drop zone is the top of a bookcase, as close as we could get to the front door. There’s a wooden crate, and my hubby literally drops his stuff into it when he comes in. I keep my stuff in my bag and hang it on the chair by my desk. That’s all. Nothing fancy. One chair, one flat surface.
It’s true that this particular disaster of an evening involved several housekeeping systems. The kitchen, the bathroom, the linen closet, the laundry and the groceries and even our dog’s few possessions were all involved. We could have figured out how to get around a systemic failure in any of these areas. The really important things were the wallet with that pesky insurance card, the phone, and the keys.
The art of the drop zone can transform any home, no matter how many people live there, whether it’s a tiny apartment like ours or a sprawling five-bedroom. Try it, and then make a game out of practicing your emergency preparedness skills.
I knew something was wrong the moment I walked in the door. I had about three steps in the hallway to feel that sense of impending dread, and then I saw him.
My husband was sitting on the couch, head hanging down, eyes closed, with his hands in his lap. He was holding a napkin. I knew he was hurt. Because of the napkin, I assumed it was his hand. “What happened? Did you tear off your thumbnail?”
“No, it’s my eye,” he replied, and it was almost like a lever switched over inside me into Action Mode.
There were just a few problems: I was pouring sweat because I had just come back from my workout; it was dinnertime; and our dog had apparently been extravagantly sick in the bathroom.
The other set of problems: I was scheduled to teach back-to-back workshops at a conference the next morning, and I had planned to spend the rest of the evening running through my slides.
What I do in crisis situations like this is to start talking to myself. I ran through the next obvious steps and made sure I had them in order. Call advice nurse. Find health insurance card. Take dog out. Give him a dose of metronidazole. Cut the pill in half. Clean up disaster on bathroom floor. Microwave quick dinner, feed man. Take shower and get dressed. Write down instructions from nurse. Make sure we both have our wallets, keys, and phones. Call Lyft. Most of those steps hit the list in random order, as I thought of them, and I mentally shuffled them into their correct place in the task list. Somehow I had accomplished all of it during the 40-minute hold for the advice nurse.
I did a perimeter check and two bag checks, grabbed a protein shake for myself, and we were off to the emergency room.
My husband was effectively blind. He couldn’t even open his eyelid, it was so swollen, and if he tried to use his good eye, the injured eye tracked with it. When the admittance nurse asked him to rate his pain, he gave it an 8. “He has a very high pain threshold,” I added, because we had both had a casual discussion about the pain scale recently and we agreed that a 9 was “involuntary screaming.” I knew he would never claim an 8 unless he had to.
We got to the ER at 9:00 PM, in the midst of flu season. An injured woman took one look at my husband, leapt up, and offered him her seat. I found us two adjacent seats around 12:30 AM. Until 2:00 AM, I was still thinking about how I was going to make use of this experience as an anecdote to introduce my workshop on “The Organized Leader.” We got to see a doctor at 4:30 AM.
By that point, my dreams of glory had been let go. I was prepared for a series of outcomes, including an admittance to the hospital; emergency surgery; the loss of my husband’s eye; and permanent damage to, or loss of, his vision. I had run through fallback plans for each of these, thinking of next steps and calls to make. Of course I had the good sense not to tell him any of that. I know him well enough to know that he was doing the same, and also thinking, of course I would never tell my wife any of this. We wouldn’t want to scare each other.
We’ve both learned many of these planning skills together, through life lessons and by seeking out information for the advanced scenarios. We spent three weeks backpacking through Iceland together; we took first aid and CPR classes together; we went to martial arts classes together. We both recognize ourselves as leaders, and leadership only really matters in emergencies, such as Someone Might Lose an Eye Tonight.
It turned out okay. My husband had a corneal abrasion, quite large, and I got to see it enhanced with glow-in-the-dark dye under the special lamp. Oddly, both our dog and I had had the same type of injury in the past couple of years! What I had, compared to my husband’s, was like a small paper cut versus scraping all the skin off one’s knuckle. Our dog had to wear a cone for a week. In this situation, I had true empathy, because I had literally shared his experience.
It helped me deal with the frustration of having to let go of my big opportunity.
We got home at 7:00 AM. The sun was already up. I helped my temporarily blind husband up the steps and got him home, just in time to take our dog out again. The veterinary medicine had worked, so at least we had that going for us. Then I emailed everyone on my team and texted my director to alert them that I wouldn’t be attending the conference. We finally got into bed at the time I would have been finding my seat for the keynote.
I knew I would be missing a lot. I had scheduled a planning meeting and a group photo with my team, all of whom were volunteering in various slots. My workshops were the result of a month of campaigning to include a new category of topics on the slate. Not only had I succeeded in making my case, but I was chosen to teach them myself. Plausibly I would be called onstage for a minute for one reason or another. It was the four-year anniversary of my foray into public speaking, and I had looked forward to celebrating this, vanquishing a fear and turning it into a strength. I’d stride confidently into a ballroom and deliver the material I had been polishing all week. I’d change lives! I’d send my audience out, transformed and inspired to tackle tougher problems!
Instead, I graduated into a new level of leadership. I passed the test. I demonstrated the value of everything I had put into my slides. It’s not our stuff or our calendars that we are “organizing.” It’s our relationships and our values. I was able to keep my head on straight and get us to the hospital largely because I keep an orderly home and manage my mental bandwidth. I strengthened my marriage. I even remembered the dog.
One day, I’ll present my workshop. Maybe I’ll be asked to teach it more than once. The material will only be improved by this experience, and my motivation will only have intensified. Being organized isn’t about making pretty binders or choosing just the right paperclip tray. It’s not about getting promoted. It’s about mastering the situation, about knowing what to do even when everything feels impossible. Leadership is about realizing the infinite power you have to help others and work toward a better outcome.
Once a year I write about something morbid, and that day is Halloween. Every spiritual tradition has beliefs about acknowledging our mortality in order to appreciate the life that we have today. I have always found this to be both comforting and inspirational, so I am making the most of the opportunity. Previously I have written about being a full-body donor and writing your advance care directive.
This year I’d like to ask you to consider making an escape plan.
Several of my friends in different parts of California have had to evacuate their homes due to wildfire, both within the last month and over the last few years. To us this is a daily reality, and much more so in October. One of my close friends is currently changing AirBnB’s every ten days because her house burned up, and that was an ordinary house fire, not even a natural disaster. They had to put her little kitties on oxygen and they barely made it.
A football field every three seconds. That’s how fast these fires move.
To make matters worse, a lot of people wind up with no power before the fire reaches their area. There have been situations when they did not receive evacuation alerts, because:
Nobody has a landline
No electricity = no wifi
No wifi = no cell service (for a lot of us)
No cell service = no calls
The first they know that they need to run for their actual lives, it’s when police cruise down their street yelling out of a bullhorn, even though they assume that sector has already been cleared. A mere formality, but a smart one born of experience.
Have you ever had a firefighter beat his fist on your front door because your apartment complex is on fire? I have.
I was sleeping on an air mattress only ten feet from the door, and I didn’t hear it. I have sleep issues, and even as a kid in grade school I couldn’t guarantee to you that anything will wake me up. This includes having popcorn dropped into my slack sleeping mouth. Fortunately my entire family was home and someone was able to physically drag me out of bed and haul me to my feet. WAKE UP!
Wake up. It’s time to get ready.
We know neither the day nor the hour. That means our time could come tonight.
We’re not really sure yet what we would do if a fire comes to our new place. There are a lot of factors in play.
1/3 chance it would happen while we are sleeping (8 hours out of 24)
5/7 chance that if it happens during the day, my husband will be at work several miles away
Non-zero chance he will be on business travel or airborne in a plane
It’s statistically unlikely that we would be in the same building when the snit hits the fan. Therefore we have to have a plan for how to find each other, and that plan has to assume that phones and internet are down across our region.
There are two other confounding factors for our household. They may or may not apply to yours.
We have two pets
We live on the top floor of a pretty big apartment building.
I’ve practiced putting on my go bag, getting my animals out of their crates, and getting them out of the door. My husband says “you could get out of here in one minute” but I know better. Even without smoke, it’s a bit complicated. Get a flapping, panicking parrot into a box and then clip a leash onto a struggling, wriggling dog.
Next step. I have to choose between either the elevator (BAD IDEA), three flights of stairs with three doors, or trying to lower everyone out of a fourth-floor window. Um...?
There are other natural disasters that might come for us besides fire. Tsunami? This is the only one where living on the top floor is actually an advantage. Earthquake? You feel it more on the top floor, but we will probably be fine unless it’s well above a 6.0. Our building is old enough to have been through a few rumbles. Fire is the one that demands quick thinking and preparedness.
Plan A is just to stay put. Chances are that we’ll be fine and so will our neighborhood. We don’t need to be blocking the roads or getting in the way of emergency services if it isn’t necessary.
Plan B, I stay put and my husband tries to get home to me. In a rough scenario, if he had to walk in bad conditions, it could take three hours, assuming a walking speed of one mile per hour. He is a certified emergency medical responder, so if he was late I would assume he was helping other people.
Plan C, I take our animals to the nearest Red Cross shelter and he has to figure out where that is.
If we can’t get through to each other by phone, we can call each other’s parents. If we can’t do that, we can find internet somehow and send each other email. If we can’t do that, I have index cards, pens, and masking tape in my go bag. If I have to leave, hopefully I have an extra 60 seconds to tape a note on the door before we go.
Everything we own can burn. It’s okay. We can always replace our passports and those are the only really important physical possessions we have. I would walk without a second thought. I need the time to be able to help my neighbors, not save my... what? Leftovers out of my fridge? Socks?
To be able to keep our heads clear in a crisis, we have to practice. We have to understand on a gut level that “losing everything” is just stuff. We have to get ourselves out because if we dawdle and try to lug a bunch of suitcases, an emergency responder might die trying to come after us.
We have to GET OUT and we have to do it on our own.
Please, after all the costumes and decorations have been put away and all the candy has been eaten, please extend your role-playing just a bit longer. Take a few moments to visualize how you are going to get yourself and your household OUT OF THE HOUSE in case of emergency. Especially if you have kids. Draw pictures. Set a timer and practice. Make sure all your doorways and hallways are clear. Make sure you and yours can get out if you need to.
Every single time I tell anyone that I got a flu shot, they tell me that they don’t.
This has always struck me as a weird reaction. If I tell someone I watched a movie or read a book, I’m not saying “Now your turn.” If I say I like cauliflower, nobody is in danger that I’m going to load some florets into a slingshot and try to snap them into their mouth. Yet they’ll be sure to let me know: I hate cauliflower! It’s like some protective instinct.
Personally, if I were anti-vaxx, I wouldn’t tell anyone. To me it would be like admitting that I was deathly afraid of moths or something. Embarrassing, clearly something I should work on, not something I would expect to serve as a bonding conversational topic with other people.
My mom got us all vaccinated and got our booster shots on schedule every year. Our school district required it, for one thing. For another, her little cousin died of chicken pox when they were kids, and my mom never really got over it. The chicken pox vaccine wasn’t available in those days. In fact, it didn’t hit the market until a couple of years after I graduated from high school, about forty years too late for the girl who would have been my first cousin once removed.
My mom also lost a puppy to parvovirus, several years before the parvo vaccine was released.
These incidents are part of our family lore. In our family, epidemic disease kills, and vaccines are our best chance to protect ourselves.
Actually it’s not just our family, it’s this pesky thing called “reality.” The important thing, though, is that people are more convinced by anecdotes and emotionally rich personal stories than we are by anything else.
I used to avoid the flu shot, too, because I’m a big chicken-flavored coward and I would get needle reaction. (Scared, dizzy, and entirely psychosomatic). I might have gotten the flu shot for a $250 cash prize, but then again I probably wouldn’t have. For $1000, yeah. That would have gotten me in line. Then again, I might have made up an excuse and hustled back to my car.
One year, it all changed.
My husband got the flu shot at work. I “never got around to it.” (Bawk bawk bawk) Several weeks later, I got the flu and he did not. I was flat on my back for eight days while he whistled a happy tune and carried on with his regular schedule.
Luckily I am able to admit when I’ve been wrong. It’s because I get a lot of practice, because I’m wrong a lot. I had countless feverish hours to consider why I felt like a warmed-over kettle of bubonic plague and my husband was obviously fine. We slept in the same bed, ate the same meals, touched most of the same doorknobs. He was out and about, meeting and mixing with more people in public than I did, since I work at home. Statistically it would make sense that he might get sick and I might not. Yet there we were, one of us sweating and coughing and the other doing just fine.
I was decided. GET ME THAT FLU SHOT!
Several years later, we both get the flu shot every year. I have never had a reaction, just like I never did after any of my infant shots or childhood boosters, and neither has anyone else I have ever met. Not even our dog, who is legally required to get a rabies vaccine and wear a necklace at all times to prove it.
(Others might call it a “collar” with “tags” but he is a fashion-forward dog and he likes to wear clothes. Let him live).
In a sense, getting the flu shot is our privilege and our secret. We have access to high-quality First World health care. We can get flu shots within walking distance of our apartment, or at work, or stack them with routine errands. Not only do we not have to pay, we don’t even have to wait five minutes.
Meanwhile, infants and immune-compromised people can’t, and neither can millions of people in the developing world. There’s also the case of my dearly departed mother-in-law. She finally lost the battle with lymphoma after five remissions and sixteen years.
During chemo, cancer patients can’t get the flu shot. They’re also highly vulnerable to such things as the common cold.
If you ask me, anyone who refuses to get the flu shot should not be allowed to wear or display any cancer awareness swag. No pink ribbons, no nothing. “I’ll wear this cheap ribbon, and it won’t help you get better, but under no circumstances will I get a flu shot. Why would I actually do a literal physical thing that might protect you or help your chances? Empty symbolic gestures only.”
(I’m still mad that she’s gone. I miss her).
“Congratulations on your new baby. [cough cough]. Here’s a stuffed giraffe and an easily preventable yet highly contagious virus. Welcome to the world, little one [cough cough].”
I get the flu shot, and I’m proud of it, and I’d push my way to the front of the line if I had to. I’ll go after it with at least as much energy and effort as I would a first-class upgrade. That’s because it IS a first-class upgrade. The flu is not some kind of fast track to superior wisdom. It kills productivity and it also kills people, the helpless like elderly people, cancer patients, and little infants.
Little secret here? I’d rather I died from some kind of hypothetical tainted bad batch of vaccines than that someone else died, because they couldn’t get vaccinated and I simply refused. I’m a middle-aged person who never had kids. There are others with more potential, more responsibilities, more to contribute than I have. I’ll die someday, maybe not for another sixty years, but I’d rather go generously than go knowing I always gave into my anxieties and what I recognize as my boundless inner cowardice.
False choice, though. Millions of people get their shots, dutifully, like a good citizen should. And it’s fine. Certainly better than losing two weeks to the stupid flu and then staggering around trying to catch up on laundry.
I get the flu shot to prove a point. That point is that I’m a privileged elitist and I intend to stay that way. I’m willing to put my body on the line and walk my talk. I believe in herd immunity and I believe that the strong must protect the weak. I do it for myself, but I also do it for children, the elderly, and cancer patients. I’ll keep doing it, because it works, and I hope the rest of you join me.
I can’t explain my sudden attraction to knife fighting, not really. The fixation came upon me, and the more I thought about it, the more I thought about it. Knives! For Halloween, I figured I’d be a little scary and go into what it’s like to face down a deeply rooted fear.
Something I’ve learned from training in self-defense is that men, women, teenagers, and children are all there for slightly different reasons. Teenagers are usually just fascinated with something they think is cool. Children are usually wherever they are because their parents put them there. Many of my adult friends are studying Krav Maga because they’ve been physically attacked, sometimes several times.
When a man has been attacked, his decision to study self-defense may seem self-explanatory. For instance, several of our students are ride-share drivers. I just talked to a guy who was mad-dogged by a drunk passenger who started punching him from the front seat. “What did you do, did you use an elbow strike?” I asked, naturally, and he nodded. Imagine fighting sideways from behind your steering wheel! The fight ended when he connected a palm strike to the attacker’s nose, sending him out the open door, and then drove to the nearest police station. The police found the guy trying to hide and arrested him. Nod, nod. Note: do not attack someone who is driving you; how dumb.
In the world of men, there are many such dumb, drunk, violent mad dogs out there. They basically look for reasons to start fights as a sort of hobby. Casual, random violence and fist fights are a part of the male world, and it starts in early childhood, and it never really stops, even when you’re a middle-aged guy just trying to get through your workday.
It’s different for women. Part of the reason it’s different for us is sheer size. I remind my male classmates that they probably don’t meet many dudes who are ten inches taller and a hundred pounds heavier, but for me it happens everywhere I go. In spite of this differential, martial arts is not a common practice for women; it seems... dangerous. For us.
The other reason it’s different for us is pop culture. So many shows, whether drama, thriller, or cartoon, have someone attacking a woman who can’t fight back. Our job is to stand stock-still and scream. There have been more murders in fiction, television, and film than there ever were in the entire history of humankind. For some reason, pop culture seems to run on women’s terror. The ultimate terrifying image? To me, it’s the killer in a ski mask, holding a knife.
That’s something true, by the way, if you’ve read about the Golden State Killer. Eff that guy.
The truth about knives is that just because you get stabbed, does not mean you die.
Another important truth about knives is that because they are considered to be objects of power, the person wielding it and waving it around probably has no real idea of how to fight with knives. My husband saw one at the end of a bar fight once. The guy whipped it out and showed it to everyone, right before running out the door and leaving. Like: “BOO!”
If you haven’t listened to the podcast Dirty John yet, go off and do that. It’s good for the soul. I don’t want to spoil it, but it’s relevant to this talk of knives.
Where does serious knife-fighting happen? In prison, mostly. According to lore, someone can get shanked a couple dozen times and live through it. It’s actually fairly complicated to kill someone with a knife. I was riding the bus with a friend one day in high school, and a bare-chested man got on the bus with a knife wound in his sternum that was over an inch long. The red sides gaped open. Blood was running down his stomach. He looked madder than hell. He sat there, his shoulders heaving from rage, and rode through several stops until the hospital, which is where I had assumed his destination lay. He walked himself in, where I suppose that deep, long knife-wound to the torso was disinfected and stitched closed.
I also saw a woman at the hospital one night, who had sliced her calf to the bone on a broken vase at her mom’s house. That cut was at least eight inches long, and it wasn’t even bleeding. She wasn’t considered an emergency, obviously, because we waited together for nearly an hour.
See? Just because some sick individual with a ski mask and a knife might show up and menace you, does not automatically mean that he wins. He’s surely built up some highly detailed fantasy where he has all the power and you just stand there, screaming, until he does whatever he wants.
We practice knife-fighting in our advanced class. I haven’t even learned all the knife disarms, but already I feel like a knife is just a weapon, not a magical artifact. You can bat the knife hand away. You can trigger-kick the knife out of someone’s hand. You can block the knife with your own knife, or any other instrument, such as a mop handle. You can press the knife hand against someone’s body, just as you can with a gun. If you learn the techniques and practice them, why, it’s not really more complicated than a dance move. It’s a thing that can be done.
The important thing is to remove the mystique from what is an ordinary household object. Think of how many knives there are in your kitchen. Think of how many times you’ve used a knife to butter your toast or dice some onions. You have an instinctual familiarity with a knife as a household object. You understand its weight, its edges and points. You may in fact have a deeper familiarity with a knife as a tool than a sicko would. You think these mental cases spend a lot of time cooking for themselves?
Fighting has taught me to value my natural physical advantages. I am small and lithe and agile. I excel at footwork. I’m very patient (and humble) about my limitations, meaning I have the focus for precision that larger people often lack. Where they can rely on power and strength, I am technical and disciplined. It also helps to know that no matter how big and strong someone is, his knees and elbows are not strong. No matter how large his frame, his blood vessels are similar to mine, and I know where they are.
If someone attacks me, I am the one with the element of surprise. He thinks he’ll win. He thinks I’m an easy target. He thinks all that I will do is stand there and scream like a ninny.
I have a right to defend myself. I don’t go around attacking people and I don’t deserve to be attacked by anyone else. More, I have a duty and responsibility to protect and defend others if I can. If someone attacks me, he’s probably attacked other people, and he’ll probably try to do it again after me. I must try my level best to incapacitate him, to get justice for his previous victims, to stop him from repeating himself, and also to save him from himself. Maybe he’s just damaged and he needs help, too. Or, at least he will if he tries to come after me.
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.
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