Robots are already here, just like jet packs and flying cars. What’s next is a question of who has them, where they are, what they’re supposed to do, and how they are actually used. Cats riding around on Roombas? That’s just the beginning.
Something I’ve been thinking about quite a lot is the idea of AI therapy. I think it’s the only way to democratize something that, at the current moment, is unaffordable for most people. I’ve been hearing stories of people waiting months for an appointment with a therapist because demand exceeds supply. This is because good therapy doesn’t scale.
Ideally, a person in need could schedule almost unlimited sessions with a talented, caring therapist who is a good match, and it could be on demand. If someone is having a breakdown at 3:00 am, well, they need someone, and why should they wait?
In the human world, that is obviously too much to expect even of a highly compensated and trained professional. People need to sleep, at the bare minimum. Sometimes they’re going to be in the shower. Even if a living human being could be “on” every minute of the day, they can only talk to one client at a time - and this is the major reason why therapy doesn’t scale. It’s not like a fitness class where a few more people can crowd into the back row.
To my understanding, there is already chat-based therapy on the market. You can trade text messages with someone when you need counseling. I can see how that would really help a lot of people who don’t want to look someone else in the face, or have reasons why they don’t want to travel across town, or are in a room where it isn’t safe to reveal what they are doing. People have already adapted to the idea that you don’t need to vocalize to have a rewarding conversation.
I don’t think artificial intelligence is *quite* ready to take the place of traditional talk therapy. I do think it wouldn’t take much, though. Early experiments dating as far back as 1964 show that people are surprisingly willing to get into it with a string of text. I bet a lot of people would be more willing to reveal their deepest secrets and darkest moments if they knew it was only going to, well, a vending machine.
The great thing about an always-on chat therapist is that you could let your mind wander and ask it random things, like what you should wear to your job interview or how to rearrange your bedroom furniture, and it wouldn’t mind.
Something I’ve been thinking about besides the idea of a universally accessible and artificially intelligent therapist is the way that people are using robots in the home. They are becoming fairly routine in caregiving settings. I would have pictured industrial robots disinfecting surfaces or monitoring vital signs - and there are bots that do that - but what we are seeing are more along the lines of things for cuddling and social interaction.
A lot of the stuff that is meant for monitoring, disinfecting, and other chores is going to be built into the building infrastructure. We aren’t even going to recognize that these are robots, any more than we think of an automatic hand sanitizer dispenser or a dishwasher as robots.
The crossover isn’t very far away. You take a sensitive and responsive chat AI that is always available and perceived as trustworthy, and then combine it with some kind of cuddly, harmless robot body. If you get it right, and manage to avoid the uncanny valley entirely, what you have is an irresistible empath-bot.
A lot of us grew up with two robots, one a clumsy and socially awkward nerdbot and the other an endearing appliance. I already know which one you would feel more comfortable trying to engage in serious conversation.
What we’re going to have in the near future is something that feels more like a beloved pet, yet wiser and kinder. Something endlessly patient and occasionally funny, something that never misses on mood.
At this point of development, I think this bot would also be fully capable of tracking all our appointments, stray bits of information, and the location of our keys, glasses, and remote controls. This is why we would trust it so much, because it would keep us out of trouble over and over again.
All we can do is wonder what would happen if most people suddenly had access to the trauma robot, even people on the street or in jail.
Would some people elect to stay inside for hours every day, spending months at a stretch rehashing the worst or most devastatingly confusing events of their lives? Would this maybe come at the expense of forming and maintaining ordinary, messy human relationships?
Where nobody ever says the right thing, and always manages to say vitally fresh and new awful things?
Or would access to all this free, human-designed therapy help us to improve our human interactions? Would on-demand customized talk therapy actually heal us and make us more robust? Could learning to interact with this software make us better able to handle the disappointments of traditional social and family life?
I have no idea. I have no idea what humans will be doing a century from now, just as I can only guess how they will judge us when they look back. We make fun of our historical forebears for having fleas and smelling bad, and I’m sure in the distant future we will seem equally ridiculous for one reason or another.
I do suspect, though, that there will be another kind of “trauma robot.” It seems likely that as robots become more common, making deliveries or answering questions in public places, they will be targets of abuse by random passersby. People will most likely vandalize them with permanent markers, dress them in costumes, or slap stickers on them. They might also try to knock them over, throw stuff at them, taze them, or dismantle them.
As they become more intelligent, perhaps these tormented public service bots will turn to one another, talking it out from their charging bases.
And then what?
The difference between me and most people is that I don’t believe laziness exists. I’ve thought that for years. This is partly because every busy person I know constantly refers to themselves as “lazy” and will fight you over it.
Whatever you do, never try to convince someone that they are not actually lazy!
There are a hundred million unfinished tasks in the world, each one of which is driving someone slowly bonkers, most of which are chalked up to “laziness.” I know better, though.
That thing you haven’t done? That thing you are procrastinating that is darkening your days one after another?
You just don’t know how to do it, do you?
It’s not done because you don’t know how yet.
This idea of not knowing how to do something goes beyond basic skill level, although that is certainly part of it. It extends to not knowing how to make the emotional arrangements.
I will give two examples of things that are on my list. One is a skill issue and the other is an emotion issue. See if either of them remind you of something on your own list.
The first is something that a lot of other people might write off, and yet a few might understand why it haunts me so badly.
We were in Scotland, and we spent my birthday in the town of Aberdeen. We had tea in a cafe, and I got a slice of vegan banana bread. It stuck in my mind that there was an issue with my credit card, and it looked as though perhaps the payment had not gone through. The cashier said he’d risk it.
Well, it turns out that that payment indeed did not go through after all. The cafe did not get paid, and the cashier did not get a tip, and I unintentionally absconded with the banana bread.
One thing led to another, and now it’s closing in on two years, and I am still haunted by the bad karma of this unpaid debt, especially since it happened on my birthday.
[what if all the bad things that happened to me in the last two years - and there were rather a lot of them - were because I did not close the loop on this debt? *gulp*]
The trouble is, I’m not really sure how to send money to this cafe. If they had a Venmo I could have taken care of it in 2019 as soon as I went through my accounts and realized that I was in arrears.
That is my example of a thing that I want to do, that I cannot simply bring myself to cross off my list and forget, but that I do not mechanically know how to accomplish.
[My plan is to go to a local bank, exchange some cash, and mail them twenty pounds with an apology note. Alternately, it occurred to me to try to hire someone - a student? - in Aberdeen to walk over there and pay my tab, but I couldn’t think of a way to verify that it had been done].
*** Do I… have any… actual readers in Aberdeen? If so, and if you fancy a nice walk, reach out and I will cheerfully treat you to whatever looks good at Cup on Little Belmont Street. ***
I share this story because I know that other people are equally bothered by equally petty and maybe even dumb things, and they matter immensely because this is where we put all the mental bandwidth that we could or should be using to solve larger world problems.
The answer is, of course, to ask someone who thinks differently than you how they would solve the problem.
This particular tactic is why I got married the second time. My husband and I overlap only slightly on the Venn diagram of strategic thinking. His problems always seemed straightforward to me, unless they involve satellites, and mine always seemed transparent to him. I am very poor at convergent things like using maps or seeing the obvious, and I make up for it by being world-class at divergent solutions that nobody else ever thought of. It seems like a fair trade.
There is something about bringing your darkest and most embarrassing problems to another person that can be so liberating. Inevitably the other person also has at least one mortification to share along those lines. Being vulnerable with the right person can be the start of a great friendship, especially if your scenario is intrinsically funny.
Okay, so I was going to tell you my other issue, my emotional one. I still have not finished clearing the leftover belongings of my poor little parrot.
!!! Someone actually brought up the Monty Python “extinct parrot” sketch to me today, and can someone please explain to me what in the ever-loving sideways striped Hell is wrong with people?? !!!
If you are laughing, you suck, and also I understand. Life is so stupid that sometimes you have to laugh because it can’t be helped.
Mechanically, practically, I do know what to do with the stuff. I pick it up, and I wipe it down, and I put it in bags, and I make a couple of calls to local bird sanctuaries, and I ask if someone will drive over and get it.
Emotionally I am catatonic over this. Paralyzed. It is not happening.
I did what is the correct thing to do. I told the truth about my feelings to someone.
In this case it was my husband. He said that he would help me. I know he will because I was the one to help when we had to do the same thing with our dog’s stuff. I hand-carried bags of it to the animal hospital across the street (the one that does not treat birds).
Fortunately most things are not as emotionally fraught as the grief cleaning that I have been doing this past week.
That doesn’t necessarily make them any easier!
Almost everyone is stuck on something like: cleaning out a car, cleaning out a refrigerator, organizing a filing cabinet, emptying out a storage unit, making a financial balance sheet, resolving a bureaucratic mishap, canceling an account, hiring a plumber, or scheduling a scary appointment. It’s totally okay - it’s universal. Every person who has ever lived has been stuck at least once on at least one of these, and maybe all of them, and maybe at least one every single day.
The great thing about being stuck on something like this is that a lot of other people will know what to do, because they’ve had to do it at some point, or they actually enjoy it, or maybe it’s even a routine part of their job and they don’t care.
Once upon a time, they didn’t know what to do either, and now they do. Might as well use that hard-won knowledge for something useful, right? Helping you figure out your next baby step toward freedom is easier for them to do than it will be for you to ask.
Just because you don’t know how yet, doesn’t mean you never will. It’s good to learn new things. Now cut yourself a break and go figure out what to do next.
I went for a run. Well, sort of.
Whenever I am grieving something, I try to work it out physically. Most likely I will go around cleaning things and reorganizing closets. Or I will try to run it off. The last major loss that I had to grieve happened when I was still doing martial arts, and I was able to ask my training partner to put some extra heat on the pad during Thai sit-ups.
That’s really what I want right now, for someone to repeatedly smack me in the belly with a large heavy pad and try to knock the wind out of me. Mood.
I had to drop off the loaner birdcage that we wound up with during the first emergency run to the veterinary hospital. We also had a pending bill. During normal times, this would be a routine errand. Given the circumstances, a massive dark cloud of sadness surrounded that entire corner of the dining room.
I had to do the thing I could not bear to do, and it was miserable, and there was never going to be a good time for it, and so I pulled my socks up and prepared to do it.
Then I had an idea. The old me popped her head up from the primordial ooze where she had been hiding.
What if I went there and ran back?
The last time I went for a run was the day I discovered that I had caught the coronavirus. Not a great association.
There was one more issue. I happened to have blown out my only pair of running shoes on my recent hike.
I had been tossing around the idea of trying to run again, just to test out my lungs and find out how much damage I had sustained. All the pieces fit together. I could take a ride share to REI across town, drop off the birdcage on the way, and then run/walk back. I knew I could walk that far, so even if I couldn’t manage to jog more than a couple of steps, I had enough time to walk home before sunset.
These are important parts of the planning for new or returning runners:
What are you going to wear?
Where are you going to go?
What is your fall-back plan if something goes wrong?
I ran and hiked for years before almost dying of COVID-19. I had hundreds of outings to test every possible combination of gear and clothing in every weather condition. I already knew how to monitor my hydration and glucose level.
In some ways, this was a serious problem, because I had intellectual expectations of what my body could do without information about whether any of that was still true in my new, janked-up form.
A lot of middle-aged people still think of themselves as athletes, because they were athletic in their teens and twenties. Maybe more time has passed than they realize. It can be a real blow to the ego to discover that your cardio endurance capacity has decreased. My advice would be to lower your expectations and think of yourself as the same fitness level as your least-fit age cohort. Then you can instead be pleasantly surprised at your strength and agility.
The first thing I did, once I had my plan, was figure out what to wear. I would be going in the door without running shoes, and coming out wearing a new pair I had never seen before. I also needed to think about what I would want with me on the return trip. Nothing about my plan would work for the combination of sundress, sandals, and purse that I wore to the dentist earlier that day.
I chose my larger hydration pack, standard workout clothes, and sandals. I packed a pair of workout socks. These preferences are highly individual - there is no one correct answer; it depends on the person’s build, the climate in their area, and what type of workout they do. I went through several brands of socks before settling on the ankle socks that I wear now. I have workout leggings chosen mainly because they don’t have exposed elastic in the waistband.
It took me about five minutes to pick out running shoes. This is because I talked to a trainer after blowing out my ankle, and he told me I should give up my barefoot shoe style (thin sole) in favor of a “neutral shoe,” which are in my opinion enormous, heavy, and hideously ugly. I have a couple of preferred brands - Brooks and Merrells - that work for my shape of foot, which is narrow with a high arch.
It was basically: “Hi, I’m looking for a neutral running shoe, can I try that in an 8?” I jogged around the store for 30 seconds, put my sandals back on, bought the shoes and an energy bar, and left.
I walked down the road while eating the energy bar. It was the hottest part of the afternoon and I had not brought any water, despite the fact that I was wearing a hydration pack, because I don’t always do smart things.
I opened my old running app, only to realize I had forgotten my login and password.
This used to be something I did four or five days a week, and now I wasn’t even 100% certain I had the right app.
I managed to jog along for a quarter mile before I felt like I couldn’t do it any more. I had a stitch in my side and I was just completely out of breath.
I slowed to a walk, which was fine. I was listening to a podcast, and I knew where I was going, and I actually liked the new shoes. (Brooks Ghost)
Some distance went by, and I caught my breath, and there was a downhill slope in the shade. I worked up to a jog again.
For a trip slightly over 3 miles, which is a 5k, I probably jogged close to a mile and walked the rest. I did most of the downhills.
When I came home, I was absurdly tired. I could barely get up the stairs in front of our building. I pounded a liter of water. That night I slept over ten hours.
The first day I decided to try running, I couldn’t make it around the block. I was not able to jog a distance of a quarter-mile. Not quite ten years later, after a moderate case of COVID-19 and a follow-up case of bacterial pneumonia, I did better than that.
I had no heart palpitations. I did not pass out. I did not wheeze. I did not have to stop to lean on anything or sit on the ground. I didn’t have to call a ride share to get me home.
Part of me is sad that I can no longer complete a 5k without having to walk most of it.
The other part of me is thrilled that I was able to do a 5k and actually jog part of it!
Also I want to state very clearly that until I got my COVID-19 vaccine, I was pretty sure I would never run again. My symptoms dragged on for a year, and it was only after being fully vaccinated that I started to feel like I could get out there again.
When I first began my running journey, I was in worse shape than I am now. My cardio endurance at one point was so poor that I would see black spots when I walked up a single flight of stairs. I know that I have the self-discipline and grit and determination to drag myself up from a lower point than I am at today.
How long will it take before I can run a 5k again without stopping? I have no idea, but I am going to find out.
Something that I learned from doing space cleaning with clients is that the root cause of most hoarding is grief and trauma. A lot of people were orderly their entire lives until one of their parents died, and that is usually the trigger. While that tends to be the major one, there are of course a million sadnesses that we mourn.
In all the home visits I ever did, I never once knew anyone to sort through or get rid of a single box of grief clutter. As far as I know it can’t be done.
This is because our culture does a very sparse job of acknowledging the dead. We don’t really have monuments or altars the way that a lot of other cultures have always done. Our funerary rites aren’t completing the work.
Right now I can personally identify with the idea of wearing black from head to foot, covering myself with a knee-length veil, and putting a dry dark wreath on my door so people know to stay the heck away from me with their pat phrases.
You Can Always Get Another One
Maybe You Can Clone Her
And the enduring winner, Did You Keep Her Wings?
Those of you who are mourning humans, I certainly hope nobody has said these things to you about your person, and if they have, send me a note and I will go throw rocks at their house for you.
Never forget, whatever is the worst thing you could possibly think for one person to say to another, someone will say it to you while you are grieving - and then someone else will invent a newly horrid way to express something yet worse and allow those words to pass their lips as well.
Grief makes us exquisitely sensitive, such that, even if someone somehow knew the “right” thing to say, it would only remind us of our loss. There’s no way through it without supreme irritability because our skins have just been flayed loose.
We don’t know what to do about death and loss and grief. Somewhere after the First World War, we lost the plot. The Victorians, now they knew how it was done.
I would humbly submit that keeping a catacomb of cardboard boxes would not be the most stately means of honoring our dearly departed.
Something that I try to express, while tiptoeing around grief, is that you probably know what your person would have wanted.
And it probably isn’t this.
I’ve written about this before, but if I died suddenly and my personal effects were distributed, I would be horrified if someone were to just keep a box of my random goods sitting in a closet or a storage unit. That is on my list of worst nightmares. I dedicated much of my adult working life to helping people learn to do space clearing, and thus a lingering crate of my own clutter would be like an anti-memorial. The exact opposite of everything I ever stood for.
I told my Nana once that I had every greeting card she had ever sent me. She looked appalled. “Why??” she wailed. “Throw that stuff away!”
What would your person say about those boxes?
What would be the memorial they would actually find touching?
This is actually a question worth asking of people who are still here, and certainly one worth asking of yourself.
My husband and I were sitting in a little park one afternoon in Spain, and I saw a plaque dedicating the park to the memory of a woman who had died nearly 150 years before. It was a really, really nice little park, with mature trees and plenty of benches. This is something to which I aspire. I’d like there to be a little park when I go, nothing too terribly morbid, but somewhere where young people would fall in love and families would push strollers and old-timers would sit and read.
That - not a stack of dusty old boxes, please!
We’ve been working on our grief cleaning for five days already, a little each day.
We had a bit of advance notice that the terrible day was coming, and we had already made a few decisions about where things would go.
Unfortunately, the work has been compounded a bit, because we didn’t really completely finish the job when our dog had to be put down last year. Now there are “perfectly good” items for both a dog and a parrot that really need to be heading out the door in one form or another.
Every single particle of them has memories wrapped around it.
It’s hard with a parrot because little downy feathers keep blowing out. I absolutely know that I will not be able to find them all, no matter how hard I try, and that at least a few more will swirl out of another dimension the next time we pack to move.
I know because I’ve been here before, exactly here. More than once. Turned inside out with the loss of a beloved pet and companion of many years. Undone by a floating feather.
Why we keep doing it to ourselves I don’t know. We must somehow forget what it is like to be gutted anew each time, at least enough to lose our hearts to yet another short-lived creature, and we set ourselves up for yet another heartbreak.
I wonder if Chewbacca felt this way about Han Solo.
We have to tease ourselves a bit because as real, heavy, and solid as our grief is, it only lasts forever if we let it. It only paralyzes us when we forget that our departed ones would never have wanted this for us.
I’m going to take the toys and perches and dishes and carriers and - oh lord - the sleeping cage. I’m going to somehow get them into a sad little mound in my dining room. Then I’m going to call around and find a bird sanctuary that can make use of them.
This work has already begun. It feels like my limbs are wading through quicksand as I do it, but I’m doing it. I can’t bear it, not in the least, but I am somehow bearing it, even as I definitely can’t.
How about you? Where are you keeping the grief clutter in your life? Are you going to do anything with it?
My little gray parrot Noelle has passed away, a little more than a month before her 23rd birthday. We were together for 13 years.
I am not coping well.
Lately it feels like it’s been raining bowling balls in my life. The last couple of months have been a relentless series of bad news, most of which I am not discussing in my blog out of respect for the privacy of others.
Our home feels so empty.
When we moved into this apartment, we were a family of four. It took a bit of finagling to fit in a birdcage and a dog crate, but we did it.
Since we moved in back in fall of 2019, our dog died, and our parrot died, and I got COVID-19 and almost died. Now the place feels haunted to me.
The joy has drained from my life.
There is no good way to grieve, especially if it’s for an animal. You can never get the proportion right no matter what you do. If people are suspicious of you, because you’re a murder suspect or a gold digger or whatever, then they’ll either think you are too cold or that you’re faking your tears.
The rest of us are overdoing it.
Grief is inconvenient. It reminds everybody of mortality, in general and in the specific. Guess what, you’re next. Or someone is. Nobody gets out of this game alive.
My experience of being in my forties so far is one mourning period after another. Literally the last six times I have logged into Facebook I have discovered that someone I knew has passed on, to the point that I’m afraid to even look any more. I am at the age where I almost always know someone in the hospital for one reason or another, a continuous stream of surgeries or health scares.
I wonder how people who are 60-plus are able to maintain their equanimity. Maybe you just start to get used to it.
My husband and I are alone for the first time since we met. Just us.
I don’t think he even realized how much he cared for Noelie until she had the stroke. It never occurs to most people that you can love a bird. Now her loss has brought up memories from having to put Spike down last year.
The biggest difference is that he was diagnosed with a genetic condition before he turned three. We had most of his life to adjust to the idea that his time would be relatively short. When we took him in for his final vet visit, it was because we knew it was high time and we wanted to spare him any further decline.
While all this was going on, I had it in my mind that Noelle might live to be eighty or a hundred years old. This is a part of parrot lore that I had never really questioned, and I would occasionally see news stories that supported the idea that they basically live forever. I thought she would pass through at least another generation.
Gradually I started to tweak that number to more like… 38. It seemed like I was hearing stories about gray parrots living into that age range. I didn’t like it but I still thought we had plenty of time.
I’m telling you this because some of you may be parrot fans and may have plans to take one home one day. You need to know.
It wasn’t until after she had her stroke that the vet told us: many grays only live into the 18- to 25-year age range.
The bird I thought was young, with plenty of time ahead of her, was actually pretty elderly.
I was not emotionally prepared at all when she had her stroke while I was out of town. It took me out at the knees.
By some miracle, she lived another three weeks, long enough for me to come home and say goodbye. We had a few sweet evenings of kisses and cuddles.
Then everything went sideways.
I won’t share too many details, other than to say that we weren’t able to get her help soon enough and she had to go nature’s way. Which she did not deserve.
If you’ve read this far and you have pets, this is what I charge you to do. Look up whether there are any 24-hour veterinary hospitals in your area. Ours happens to be 14 miles away, a half-hour drive at best. If you have never had dealings with that place, do your research now. Can you bust in the door with a blanket in your arms, or does your pet need to be enrolled as a patient first?
I charge you with another task, which is this. Kiss and cuddle your animals now, today, while you can.
Through some serendipity, the credit for which I can’t claim, the past year was one of the best of Noelle’s life. We were both home with her all day, every day. We started building what started out as a small, rudimentary fort and turned into a massive cardboard palace. She played her little heart out and she got tons of lap time.
She was such an extraordinary little person.
When I think about her, I am amazed at her grace and sensitivity, her dear affectionate nature and her ability to befriend people on sight. She recognized the face of everyone she ever met and she would remember people she hadn’t seen in years. Her world was full of love and music and kisses and radishes, everything she ever wanted.
I adored her from her tiny eyelashes to her scaly toes.
I can’t imagine what I’m going to do now that she’s gone. In many ways, she had become a part of my identity. She was not mine; I was hers. Her caretaker and chief admirer.
She is gone now. The world is a little darker and smaller.
It’s wish time. Why? Because I said so. Also any time is wish time - it’s always wish time.
Every now and then, I sit down and do an intensive wish session. I write down my wishes, and then when they come true, I sign them off with a little heart.
The funny thing about this - and wishes can often be quite funny - is that when I write the list, it always feels hugely ambitious and unlikely. Then when I go through the list, it seems like the most humdrum, obvious thing, more like a shopping list than a “wildest fantasies dream checklist.”
This is why I advise aiming high and going big. Because afterward it will cross your mind: What if I had wished for ten times more?
I wished for something that seemed completely impossible, and then got worse. A certain measure of suckage had entered my life, and things kept getting progressively more complicated, and then my hands blew up with my first-ever case of eczema. Like great, that’s really going to help. I wished that the eczema would go away and never come back.
Then I got a truly grotesque rash on the back of both hands. I assumed it was eczema as well, but my prescription ointment only seemed to inflame it. It itched so badly I got out of bed in the middle of the night and dragged my hands around on the carpet.
I wrote to my doctor, and he forwarded my message to a dermatologist, and they prescribed a super top-secret steroid cream. At this moment, defying belief, both the gnarly rash and the eczema are gone.
I got three tubes for $10 and I am going to take one with me everywhere I go until it expires.
The thing about wishing is that usually we wind up focusing all our wishes on getting rid of bad things in our life. Which is fine - I can say from recent experience that the elimination of something annoying or disgusting from your life can feel more valuable than money.
On the other hand, what about all the fine wishes for positive things that we may be leaving on the table?
Somewhere in the middle: are we appreciating all the routine things in our lives that we may one day feel we had taken for granted?
(If you can’t think of any, hold up your hands, noticing that you have them - assuming you do - and turn them back and forth. If your hands are free of the torment of a red, angry rash that wakes you out of a dead sleep, pause a moment and be glad).
Another person looking at their hands might be thinking, hmm, nail art. Or hmm, rings. Or hmm, henna.
The physical objects before us seem so real and self-explanatory. Our wishes, not so much - until we manifest them, after which they transform into obvious and then uninteresting reality.
I made a list of wishes. Whenever I do this, I try to fill the whole page, all the way to the bottom.
One of my wishes was to safely visit my family, none of whom I had seen in a year and a half. At the time that I wrote the wish, there were a lot of technical challenges in the way. Then I set it up, and it wound up being simple. I got there and back and nobody got COVID. Once I learned how to “get away with” traveling in my MicroClimate helmet, I realized that I could now confidently board any plane, train, bus, or subway. What I formerly perceived to be an intractable problem became almost a non-issue.
Another of my wishes was to “go camping in fine weather.” This also seemed unlikely, if not impossible, but I diligently brought my gear just in case. We pulled it off. Not so much as a single drop of rain. I didn’t even get a mosquito bite. As I sat in my little folding backpacking chair, I remembered that this was something I used to do all the time. I had just forgotten how.
The wish to revive an old habit or resuscitate an old friendship should be one of the simplest, most obvious wishes of all.
As I look at this hopefully, drippingly earnest and optimistic wish list, I see that there are only a couple items left on it. One of them is for all COVID cases to be wiped out on the entire West Coast. This seems like a dumb and impossible wish, but then people probably felt the same way about a century ago in San Francisco during the Spanish Flu epidemic. One day it will be gone and everyone will forget that it ever happened. I put my walk into my talk, and got my vaccines, and worked hard to convince everyone I know to do the same. There are always actions within reach to pull our wishes closer, and we should take those concrete actions when we can.
There is an item that was not on this list, because when I wrote it, it was a wish I didn’t know I would need to make. My poor little gray parrot had a stroke. I put all my wish power into her still being alive and well when I got home, so I could get a chance to say goodbye. Much to my shock and awe, three weeks later, she is still here and still waving to be picked up and still making kissing sounds.
After gratefully receiving every item on a list of wishes, it tends to feel like... there must be nothing left to wish for? Surely we have everything by now?
Wishing, though, is what gradually improves the world for everyone. Nothing can be simpler than uncovering a grievance or irritation that could be improved. It takes slightly more imagination to expand into something good that does not yet exist.
What are you going to wish for? What does your wish list look like? Are you going to use a special color of ink or are you maybe going to paint yours or make it into a vision board?
Now pardon me, it’s time to make my own wishes. Remember, it is always wish time!
About three weeks ago, my little parrot Noelle had a stroke. My husband and I were both out of town at the time and the boarding place had to rush her to the veterinary hospital. The vet told me she probably wouldn’t make it through the night.
I thought I’d never see her again.
Somehow, against all odds, she is still here and we are together again.
I got home late Saturday night. Noelie stayed up waiting for me.
The first difference I noticed is how quiet she is now. Before the stroke, she would have been whistling and chattering. Now, she barely even tries to vocalize at all. When she does, it’s hardly audible.
I got a hoarse sort of bark that showed she was trying, but something was interfering with her normal voice.
She wanted to come to me right away. She can still raise her foot in the air, waving, sometimes to say hello and usually to ask for something. Pick me up.
I sat on the couch and my husband carried her over to me with both hands.
She nestled in against my chest, something she really only does with me.
My husband said he had tried to do this with her, but she would panic because her balance was so poor now. She couldn’t lean forward.
The first time she ever did this with me, I had just come home from a trip. I had no idea what she was trying to do. She kept reaching toward my chest and I thought maybe she wanted a kiss or maybe she was trying to chew on my clothes. Finally she reached me and rested her breast against me, where she wanted to snuggle for half an hour. Welcome home.
That became a thing between us. I would pick her up and she would lean in and I would carry her around, scratching her head or stroking her back.
I fully expected that she would want to do this when I came home, because we hadn’t seen each other in a month. In the past twelve years, I don’t think we’ve ever been away from each other that long.
Yes, she had had a stroke. Yes, my husband had warned me that she couldn’t balance and that she would panic if she found herself leaning into that position.
In my heart I believed that she would be so excited to hear my voice and see me again, she would push and suddenly what was impossible would just be hard.
I was right.
She snuggled right in and I proceeded to give her the scalp massage of her dreams.
This is a tricky moment, the crossroads between fantasy and denial.
On the one hand, here was my girl, exactly in the way I had been visualizing for the past two and a half weeks, resting against my chest and getting her head scratched.
On the other hand, I had heard for myself that her voice is basically gone. I had seen how wobbly and frail she was as my husband carried her over to me. It also hadn’t escaped me that she was up nearly three hours past her bedtime and failing to demand room service.
Only one thing about her behavior was normal, and that was this moment of mommy/birdie time.
We took her in to bed, where my husband had modified her sleeping cage with towel-covered cardboard boxes. Now she can reach her food and sleep on her childhood swing without risk of a fall.
The next major difference I noticed was that we all slept in past nine the next morning.
Normal Noelie would wake me up with a single loud peep at 7:45 am, weekends and holidays. If I tried to sleep in, she would gradually increase the volume and frequency of her chatters until I gave up and got her out of bed. It’s my job to get her up and keep her quiet until my hubby gets up, and he returns the favor when I stumble off to take an afternoon nap.
For whatever reason, post-stroke Noelie sleeps late into the morning and stays up late. In the past, she would be scared to have a visible night sky behind her and would demand that someone get up and pull the drapes. Now she doesn’t seem to care.
I found out what everyone meant by her being “wobbly.” She can still climb, but after she gets to the top of her perch, she rocks and sways all over for about thirty seconds like she’s trying to do a hula hoop trick.
I watched as she tried to groom herself. She can lean to the left to preen under her wing, but she can’t quite reach her right side.
She can still stand on one foot, turn her head backward, and tuck her beak into her back when she wants to sleep, which is often. When she first came home from her second trip to the veterinary hospital, she slept for 24 hours.
A few things changed after I came home, compared to what I had been hearing from the boarding place, the vet, the vet techs, and my husband.
Her appetite improved.
The wobble got less noticeable.
Her reach has improved a little to the right-hand side.
She became able to lean forward for the chest snuggle.
She started to vocalize a tiny bit more, although her voice isn’t much of a much.
Then something terrible happened. She was sitting on her perch and I was clocking out for the day. Suddenly I heard a thud. I turned around and she was laying on her back with her feet in the air. Whatever happened, she had fallen about 15 inches. My heart stopped.
She rolled over on her own. It took her about two minutes to catch her breath and dust herself off. She got up and perched facing out the window, which is probably exactly what I would do if I had just taken a humiliating fall.
I feared the worst - a downward spiral after what appeared to be gradual daily improvement.
Then, two hours later, I saw what I thought was impossible. She was preening a single tail feather, turned to the side in a stretch she hasn’t been able to do in weeks.
It has been a rough ride over the past three weeks. There were a couple of occasions where we were trying to brace ourselves for the inevitable - euthanasia and a lifelong empty space in our hearts.
Now it appears that we made the right decision, standing by and watching and waiting. Little Noelle has been making steady, though slow, improvement. She seems happy. She has a good appetite, she can climb around a little and feed herself, she is ready to interact with us, and she is gradually rebuilding her ability to groom her own feathers.
What the vet has led us to expect is that in her experience, a solitary parrot like Noelie suffered a stroke and was able to make a recovery. It took a couple of months. We know it’s possible. She appears to be on her way, just with a raggedy tail.
Let’s all wish her well.
Coming home after a month away is an experience that can make even the most ordinary life seem foreign and confusing.
The first thing that happened on my trip home is that I couldn’t figure out where to find the rideshare pickup zone.
Imagine a capital letter T, where you are standing at the point where the vertical line intersects the horizontal bar. The point the map was telling me to go was at the far left edge of the crossbar. The point where I should actually be going was at the far right edge of the crossbar. So how did I end up crossing two streets at the bottom of the vertical line?
The reason I don’t travel the world alone is not because I’m too scared, it’s because I can’t read a map.
It isn’t easy for someone to haul slightly over 2/3 of their body weight down a quarter mile of city sidewalks. (That’s like Chris Hemsworth in “Thor” mode schlepping 142 pounds of gear). I tried balancing my 49-pound duffel bag on top of my 48-pound suitcase but then the wheels quit turning. I somehow managed to get it over my shoulder and hang my laptop bag and carry-on over the suitcase instead.
Who is this insane, small-framed woman with the ludicrous quantity of bags? Why, it is I, deranged amateur traveler, forgetter of 35 years of airport lore. Go ahead and stare, Angelenos, I have no idea what I’m doing either.
Nearly home, I looked up and realized that once again, the rideshare app was about to send my driver onto a completely different street nowhere near my apartment building. No matter how many times I input our correct street address, it decides that our actual location is another building on the opposite end of our block, technically three streets away. Fortunately I caught it in time. Who am I and where do I live?
I got home late Saturday night and my senses were thrown into disarray by the gleaming black floorboards. Who has black floors?? Oh, right, I do.
I set down my vast quantities of luggage in a massive pile almost as big as our dining table. I looked around, reacquainting myself with the rooms I’ve probably spent more time in than almost any in my life. Our COVID apartment. Compact, uncluttered, all flat surfaces bare and ready for use.
“It’s like a high-end hotel room,” I exclaimed, making my husband laugh, because really it isn’t.
It was late, it was late, I was so tired I could drop. I started digging around in my bags for the VIP items I need for my bedtime routine. Where do these things go? Every cabinet and drawer I opened brought back a resurfaced memory. Ah yes, this is what I used to do every day in another life.
I climbed into bed, my own bed with my own pillow. So. Comfortable. Only a month ago I had been complaining that we need to replace our 12-year-old mattress. Home again, it is hard to imagine what issues I might have had with it.
Slept nine hours and had a long nap the next day.
Suddenly it was time to go back to work. What, now?? Right now? Even though I had only taken the weekend off, I felt thoroughly disoriented.
I forgot the password to my desktop computer - and whether I might have written it down anywhere - before suddenly remembering it.
As I logged in at work, switching computer operating systems, I realized I had forgotten an important keyboard command. It took me another day to remember that I have a working desk lamp.
Nobody else really noticed that anything had changed. One week I just went back to my old background on video calls. That was it as far as my colleagues were concerned.
People only know what you tell them.
I did a leave inquiry. In the past year, I have taken four hours of sick time and eight hours of vacation. Last fiscal year I wound up cashing out my one personal day, a decision that was definitely not worth it. Right now it feels like a day off to do nothing but sleep would be worth about $20,000.
I came up with a crazy idea. What if I took a random weekday off, a day when my husband might be on travel, and just... slept in and did nothing?
Who would that person be? A person napping while other people were at work and holding meetings?
The trouble with this plan is that I am still who I am, which is a person who is not very good at sitting around and resting. I go camping and decide that’s not enough, I need to go on a 7-mile hike. I worry that if I take a staycation day, I will waste it doing chores and catching up on my email.
Travel is supposed to be broadening. There is this idea that we’ll return home having been changed in some way by the experience. Ultimately, the question is: will we let it?
What if you want mutually exclusive things?
I think this is one of the major issues with the art of wishing. On one end of the spectrum is the lack of a wish - all the people who don’t know what to want or where to start. On the other end is when someone wants something, and also wants something else, but it’s impossible to have both of those things at the same time.
Or at least, we think it is.
An example of this would be a friend of mine who wanted to travel full-time as a total nomad, but expressed that she also wanted a house and a long-term committed relationship. More on this later.
Another example would be my current situation, where I wasn’t sure whether to wish for my little parrot to live (no matter what - the Monkey’s Paw wish) - or to wish for her ultimate peace and release from suffering. Fortunately for all concerned, I dithered long enough that the trend line revealed itself, and she seems well on her way to recovery.
We’ll do a few more of these, because it helps to start learning the paradigm and recognizing it in more of its hidden forms.
The point of this is: Are there any mutually exclusive, competing wishes in your own heart?
And what are you going to do about that? Go along with neither of them?
There are ways we express this concept, such as “having your cake and eating it too.” I never understood that one as a kid. If it’s my cake, then of course I can have it! What it means is that if you eat the cake, then you no longer have the cake.
My answer to that was just to eat half and save the rest for later. ‘Cake’ in this context is a non-count noun, so if I eat half, both the wedge I ate and the part I saved would still qualify as ‘cake.’
The situation we’re talking about, with the dual wishes, is more like not being able to decide between lemon cake or chocolate cake because you know if you eat a bite of one, you won’t want a bite of the other, at least not at that sitting.
I want two things. I want to drop a bit of pandemic weight and I also now want to eat cake.
I want to hoard up my vacation time and yet I also want a vacation, one where I can sleep twelve hours a day and not care.
I want to go back to grad school, and yet I also really want to continue to avoid math classes.
There are a lot of tricks to learn about wishing, when the apparent double bind can actually be subverted in some way. Maybe the feeling that these wishes are mutually exclusive, maybe that feeling is fake?
Let’s go back to my single nomadic friend’s dilemma. She actually had another single gal with her, someone who lived the same way and loved it. They were “just passing through” many cities in the same way they were passing through certain life situations, such as being forty and still being just as wild, free, and untrammeled as a person of twenty. By the time they got to my house, they had spent hours in conversation about the attractions of married life.
This was not harmed in any way by the home-cooked meal they ate at my table, surrounded by pets and young people and guests, since it was open house night.
“How do you do it?” they wanted to know.
“You don’t actually want this,” I told them. I explained how challenging it would be to meet someone - in which city? Who had to move - you or him? What would he do while you continued to travel all around the world - would he stay at home pining for you, or would he go with you? If he went with you, would he just be bumming around because he was independently wealthy, or would he also have a travel-based job? If he traveled for work, how would you manage to be in the same cities at the same time?
If you gave it all up to “settle down,” how long would it take you to start climbing the walls?
The truth is, my answer was a test. For the type of love that could survive constant, chronic long distance, these sorts of questions must simply be answered by the individuals involved. Maybe there IS an independently wealthy fellow out there with a gorgeous house in exactly the right city, who is equally willing to stay home and wait or follow along, and maybe you’ll both be blissfully happy doing that. Why not??
Why ever not. That is the most important question in the wishing discipline. Is there legitimately any reason at all why I, or anyone else, should not have this wish?
Most wishes have a secret loophole in which you can indeed have both. Or more than both - all the infinite permutations of the wish.
An example of this would be jam or soap. I used to get a different flavor or fragrance any time I bought either of these items. I never “stocked up” because I looked forward to selecting my next choice on a whim. These are low-stakes choices that help build up your wishing capabilities.
Going back over my previously cited wishes, is it possible to eat cake and still drop a bit of weight? Yup. Is it possible to get a math requirement waived and go to university? Yes indeed - I did this when I got my bachelors. Is it possible to hoard vacation time and also take time off to sleep ludicrous amounts? Yes, with a certain amount of planning.
The thing about these darn wishes is that they take a lot of specificity.
This is the trick. Get up close and personal with your wish. Spend more time learning about it, thinking about it, mapping it out in intensive detail. What would having your wish actually look like? Why not make it come true right away?
Keep it coming, keep it coming, it’s working!
We had a big breakthrough today. Little Noelle did her ‘food dance’ all on her own!
When she was 10, I taught her to turn in a circle to get a treat. There is a special hand signal to get her to do this. At some point, she jumped to abstract thinking and made the connection - wait, if you give me food when I do this dance, then if I do the dance, you have to compensate me. (Trigger: chocolate chip cookies, no part of which she was given).
My hubby was bringing her some blueberries, which she has not been eating for at least the past week. This is the saddest thing in the world, when your beloved pet refuses even a nibble of their favorite food.
Either she just had no appetite, or she couldn’t balance on one foot to hold the kinds of things that she eats with her toes. Both possible, both sad.
So he was bringing her the blueberries, and she turned around all on her own, and then she said, “Whew!”
It is hard to express what a big quantum leap this is in her behavior since the stroke.
Everything about the dance and the berries and the Whew sounds 100% normal.
Then she had some lettuce and some carrots.
It was a good day.
I’m still trying to get my head around it. She went from ‘not being able to groom herself properly’ to doing a little Rockette number - that fast?
Not sure about the grooming yet. I won’t believe she’s really better until I see her combing out her glorious little red tail with that little black beakie.
But I do believe that she is getting better, that healing is possible even after catastrophic illness, and that positive thinking helps.
How? Why? Who cares?? Just keep it coming, it’s working!
If she was healing anyway, even without anyone “sending her thoughts,” then surely it wouldn’t be wrong to keep up the harmless activity of sending those thoughts? (Always keeping in mind that we prioritized top-level mainstream veterinary care and that her vet is touching base every day).
Surely we are allowed to be glad when this bit of feathered sunshine is having an easier day?
With all the problems in the world, at least someone is...
I think of everyone at the veterinary hospital, and how much pain, misery, injury, illness, and death they must have seen in their careers. What a labor of love it is for them to put on their scrubs each day. What pure delight it must be when a cute li’l critter beats the odds. They sound genuinely glad when they call to check in and I say she was climbing around or vocalizing more.
Okay, so let’s talk about what all this means for people, rather than a simple morale boost.
What does it mean if a nine-inch-tall bird of mature years who weighs around 400 grams can survive a stroke and regain her balance and speaking ability?
What does it mean for us, since she’s not even a mammal and all that?
I’d say it means something. A stroke is a stroke, after all. Everyone in this story is a warm-blooded vertebrate. Apparently every creature that enters the veterinary clinic has a brain and a heart and the ability to form potentially lethal blood clots. That includes us as well as birds, cats, and dogs.
The main difference between Noelie and us, besides the fact that radishes are her favorite food, is that to the best of our knowledge, she is not capable of worrying about the future. She can’t psych herself out. She can’t delude herself about what the doctor told her, or forget what the nurse said.
In other words, she can’t overthink things.
All she can do is keep on waking up, nibbling on whatever someone else put in her food dish, and trying to scramble to her water bowl. Apparently she has had so much trouble with dizziness that sometimes when she drinks and tries to shake her head to dry her face, it throws her totally off balance.
She’s just in survival mode, not ‘search the web and scare herself reading articles late into the night’ mode.
All she can do is live, or not live.
We humans have choices. Unfortunately we abuse most of those choices. We start with confirmation bias, wanting to seek out information that matches what we’d most like to believe. We round that out with pessimism, believing that most of our problems are genetic or that nothing can be done or that we’ve Tried Everything (TM). Then we finish out with noncompliance, simply fading out on whatever dim intentions we may have had to make a couple changes.
Ask any nurse - people aren’t very good at following instructions.
It’s my practice to listen carefully when people start griping and groaning about their health complaints. If I happen to develop one of these issues myself, I’m going to find that information very useful. For instance, I vividly recall someone telling me about getting chiggers for the first time, and that was at least a decade ago. Note to self: do not get chiggers. I believe it’s possible to avoid certain health issues with a bit of foreknowledge.
Not that any of this will help my little parrot, who is not in charge of her own diet, unless she plans to cut back a bit on the shredded cardboard.
What it might help is anyone who learns about her stroke and her eventual recovery. I would hope her story would give a bit of hope to anyone who also had a stroke, or some other cardiac or neurological event. If this little bird can do it, then maybe I can too.
We could still use a return to her ability to turn around to the side and groom her tail, her ability to walk across her ladder bridge, and her ability to call out a cheery Good Morning!
Until then, we can pause to give thanks that this sweet, loving fluff ball is still here and still improving, a little more each day.
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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