Here’s a little bit of hope for the tired people, the injured, the ill. It can get better. Little by little, it can.
I started recovering from COVID-19 about six weeks ago. I’m back to working out, doing 60 minutes of cardio a day. It feels great!
I just realized today that I couldn’t remember the last time I had vertigo. That was a symptom that lingered for so long, I sort of thought I might just have it for the rest of my life. I figured every time I rolled over in bed, the room would spin, and I’d just have to get used to it.
Then, finally, it went away.
It’s important to notice these small victories, because it’s very easy to start believing in illness and injury as permanent conditions.
The body doesn’t just “get stuck that way.” Sometimes it takes surgical intervention, sometimes it takes prescriptions, sometimes it takes many months of physical therapy. But the body can change and heal. That’s what a body does.
I keep thinking of this as I watch my surgical scar heal. It’s almost completely invisible now, thanks to my obsessive twice-daily slathering with scar cream. What I thought would be a large ugly mark in an unfortunate location is now basically gone six months later. In fact, it looks so good that I’m going to take a picture of it and email it to my surgeon, a nice side-by-side before/after for her records. Satisfaction of a job well done, that is one thing that never goes stale.
Yep, it’s been a rough few months. First the surgery, then COVID. I might also mention that I had quit running several years ago because of an overuse injury to my ankle. Year after year, month after month, there always seems to be a good excuse to roll over and quit.
Legit doctor’s notes!
This isn’t P.E. though. I don’t have a desperate desire to escape gym class any more; now it’s more the opposite. Let me back in!
What do I need to do today to make my body feel at least marginally better?
For me it revolves around quality of sleep. No matter what else is going on, if I’ve slept poorly I feel terrible. I believe that sleep is the main factor for a strong immune system. As a recent COVID survivor, this is understandably high on my list of priorities.
Sleep depends on a few things, which are also very important to me as a person with a parasomnia disorder. (Yeah, I didn’t really appreciate having night terrors WHILE I was sick with the coronavirus, as if I didn’t have enough problems). These things are meal timing, hydration, and cardio.
For night terrors, the absolute most important factor is to stop eating three hours before bedtime. I front-load my calories for the day, making an effort to eat about 3/4 of my fuel by the afternoon. Parents of tiny kids should note this, because night terrors are common in kids and they often get a bedtime snack. I think those things are related.
Hydration is shockingly under-rated for insomniacs. I’ve found that if I’m even a single glass of water short for the day, I just can’t drop off. My sleep quality is dismal. I use an app to track my fluid intake, which is admittedly very boring, but not as boring as lying awake in the middle of the night for hours.
I’ve tried out a bunch of different types of exercise, and they are good for different reasons, but in my experience cardio is the best for mood elevation, pain management, and sleep quality. When I can’t do it for a while, due to schedule, injury, or a cough or whatever, I start to feel the difference within days. There are different types of peace available from other types of workout; for instance, martial arts somehow magically removed my fear of needles and yoga is great for releasing old emotional junk. They just don’t hit the same physiological targets as running, biking, or the elliptical.
It is so good to be back to reconsidering my workout!
In April, I felt like I was dying. Now it’s mid-June and I don’t constantly think about being ill anymore.
I put some effort into small improvements, in a process that is known as the “aggregation of marginal gains.” If you improve something by 5-10%, it may be enough to make a disproportionate difference in your results. For instance, 5% of one hour is three minutes. Getting ready three minutes earlier could be enough to start being on time for most things instead of chronically late. Cutting spending by 5%, as another example, could make the difference between being in debt or financial freedom. Little things can add up quickly.
My small improvements in recovery were:
Increasing our intake of cruciferous vegetables
Tracking my fluid intake
Setting a bedtime alarm
Arguably, starting to work out again was not a small improvement but rather a “keystone habit.” It does tend to make the other steps, (drinking more water and going to bed earlier) just that little bit more attractive.
More sleep. Better quality of nutrition. More water. Hard to argue with this strategy, two parts of which are free of charge.
Right now it’s hard to tell whether my mood has improved so much just because I’m getting well, or because I’m something of a cardio junkie. Does it matter, though? Right now, I have everything I wish I did when I thought I was on my deathbed: my new dream job, the ability to do the laundry without tipping over and crying, maybe even the chance to run an ultramarathon in a few years.
It’s so hard to be seriously ill and feel like it will last forever. It’s so depressing and boring and lonely and exhausting and painful. Every day we’re still here to complain, though, is another day we’ve made it through. Every day is one day closer to feeling better. One day, maybe even so much better that it didn’t even seem possible.
Most of us are probably feeling it, the tangible levels of tension and dread. The restless sleep. The bizarre dreams and outright nightmares.
These are the reasons I run.
Or used to, before the last time I went out and ran myself into a full-blown case of COVID-19.
I’m still recovering, still not totally feeling normal, still having trouble with concentration and focus sometimes. External events are obviously a bigger deal than my private little hassles. Still they are real to me.
We all work with what we’ve got.
I’ve been trying to rebuild my base level of fitness on a cheap, clunky, creaky elliptical machine next to my bed. I skipped a day, and I paid for it.
Wandering around all day with that anxious feeling in the belly, that tax-audit, principal’s office, performance review, collections agency, uhoh Dad’s mad feeling.
Sirens all day
Running feet and panting breath in alley below our apartment
Protestors marching within a mile of us
Helicopters, sirens, helicopters
I smell smoke, where is it coming from??
What the heck is going on, will it ever stop
What can I personally do
Sometimes it isn’t clear at all what you can personally do in a situation. Sometimes it takes time to figure out. Sometimes it’s better to stay out of the way. Sometimes you realize you’re in someone else’s movie, and not only are you not the star, you’re not even an extra, in fact you’re blocking the shot.
Other times, it’s clear that it’s your time to step up, because you’re the one who is accountable, or you are the only person who can really fix something.
Either way, it doesn’t help anyone to have a toxic stew of stress chemicals burning you up from the inside.
Burnout is largely physical.
We have to pace ourselves, and the more that is on the line, the more important it is... yet paradoxically, the harder it is.
The same predictable things happen every time, when we aren’t sleeping, we don’t have enough down time, we aren’t eating right and we have no way of dumping all that cortisol.
Our sleep is disturbed even more
We lose patience
We get snappy, irritable, and mean
We feel weepy and we’re not always sure why (except when we are)
We can’t think straight
We get spun up over even minor decisions
Something that is the same in martial arts training and in leadership is a thing called “stress inoculation.”
It’s possible to gradually train out the stress response in your body, so that you don’t react the same way even in the most intense conditions.
In both roles, you take ownership of yourself as first responder and chief decider. Nobody is coming and it’s your problem to figure out. There is no more time and the moment is now.
Some of this comes from having a plan. Some of it comes from having a formally acknowledged title and clearly defined responsibilities. Some of it is just that training in managing the physical stress response.
After a while, you feel it. You can feel the difference between when your neurochemicals are messing with you and creating the artificial sense of a real problem, or an actual real problem.
For some of us, a crisis is actually less stressful, because it’s obvious what to do. There is a specific issue that might actually go away if the right steps are taken. All this physical anxiety is *for* something.
I felt that way when my husband badly hurt his eye and I needed to get him to the hospital. Weirdly, I’ve also felt this way during the stay-at-home order, and again when I got COVID. “Just get through this, nothing else matters right now.”
Right now, three days into a riot-induced countywide curfew, I have no idea what to do.
So I do what I always do when I don’t have a plan, which is to try to run it off.
Five miles a day, miles of nowhere, going yet more nowhere.
It feels like a metaphor for life right now. Perpetual motion, tension, stress, with no end in sight and nothing to show for it. Like a hamster on a wheel.
For now, at least, the ball of tension is gone. I can chill for an hour or two.
Later tonight, sure, I’ll probably wake myself up every two hours. I’ve been having social distancing nightmares - have you? - including walking down the street six feet apart with my ex-husband, and accidentally bumping into the Plandemic lady on the sidewalk. (We both went UGH). This is in addition to the COVID nightmares - fighting a twelve-foot spider with fireplace tools in each hand, millipedes crawling out of my veins, downloading the virus by wi-fi into all our electronics.
The sleeping nightmares and the waking nightmares.
With all this going on, it’s easy to lose sight of how great it is that I can already do five miles on the elliptical. I survived! I lived through a month of coronavirus and I’m getting my body back! Reclaiming my flesh and staking ownership of myself.
In the midst of everything else, I can hit pause for an hour. I can try to get back into my body. I can try to remember that it’s the only vehicle I have to navigate this dumb old world.
It isn’t wrong to center yourself, or to sleep, or to do whatever you need to do to restore your focus. There are still 16 or 23 hours a day to worry about everything else. World events will keep happening, whatever they are, for good or ill. One of the few things you can control is your interior ability to cope with things.
Three weeks after being ill with COVID-19 for a month, I can finally say that I think I’m better. I’d say I’m back to 80%.
There are still a couple of remnants of this scary period that will hopefully soon be nothing more than a bad memory:
I still have brief moments of vertigo, usually when I roll over in bed.
I had heart palpitations again Saturday morning, and literally all I was doing was lounging in bed reading on my phone (probably something about robots). It was strong enough that I froze and thought, Am I going to have an actual heart attack?
These are the moments when you pause and tune in and check off all the things that are *not* currently going wrong. Okay, no pain, good. No clammy sweat, good. No nausea, good.
Then the moment passes and everything seems fine.
It’s possible that things happened while the coronavirus was romping around in my body. It was in my eyes. It was in my lungs. It was in my heart. It was in my stomach. It was definitely in my nose. Apparently it crossed the blood-brain barrier and spent a few weeks in my brain as well. Chomping around on my cells like an evil Pac-Man.
This at least helps me to explain why I am still so tired and washed out.
All I did for six weeks was languish on the couch, swallow handfuls of pharmaceuticals, lose track of conversations, and think about dying. This isn’t really a great fitness plan. I should probably give myself more credit for simply being able to bathe unassisted, but... I’d much rather there were a greater distance in behavior and abilities between Today Me and 95-Year-Old Me.
Over the past week, I’ve been testing my limits by getting up and around a little more each day. I started with making Fancy Breakfast on the weekend, which felt like about the same level of exertion as my first 5K. Then I started taking my turn to cook dinner. There was a big improvement when I was able to stand for the whole process and not sit down between steps.
I tried sorting the laundry, and my plan was to actually carry it down to the laundry room on the second floor all by myself. But I wound up getting exhausted and overwhelmed to the point that I flopped over sideways and started crying on the couch. (Probably a lot of you can relate).
Waaaah, I’ll never get better!!!
Then I pulled my socks up, and I felt better the next day, and I kept pushing to get a little stronger, a little stronger.
A couple minutes more each day.
One of the toughest physical challenges of the past week has actually been sitting vertical on a hard chair for more of each day. I had been doing a world-class jellyfish imitation on the couch for so long that sitting up straight felt like “fifties.” That’s the exercise we used to do in Krav Maga: fifty jump squats, fifty sit-ups, and fifty push-ups. Sometimes followed by two minutes of jump rope.
I remember myself routinely doing these stunts and it feels like a completely different person, like I’m watching a faithful CGI rendering of myself in an action movie.
Remember that time you hiked past a sub-glacial volcano in Iceland for three days, while wearing a 40-lb backpack? Yeah, I think I saw that one.
Remember that time you ran the marathon? Eh, I fell asleep before the end. 2.5 stars.
When I think of these past exploits, I try to draw forth the grit and determination that served me at the time. That is still there, buried somewhere inside me. There’s a part of me that refuses to quit, hates being told “no, that isn’t for people like you,” and resents being written off as weak or unserious.
There’s another part of me that loves to prove doctors wrong.
If I’m going to be a statistic, I’m going to be an anomaly.
Now I’m going to tell a dirty little secret. While I was still ill enough to be in my pajamas all day, I ordered a low-end elliptical machine. I figured it would take weeks or months to arrive, and it might sit in the box for a while, but that at some point during the next three years, I would want it. I also figured I might not be able to get one even 6 months from now.
(We expect to be staying indoors almost exclusively until maybe mid-2023; it’s psychologically easier to deal with this situation by assuming it will be more or less permanent).
Well, the darn thing showed up two weeks ahead of schedule. My hubby spent three hours putting it together for me, and we moved a few things around so it would fit between my side of the bed and the closet.
I tried it out yesterday.
It was great!
My legs wobbled when I climbed down, but I felt fantastic. That was my first exercise-induced sweat in nearly two months.
I slept an extra hour that night, and then went back to bed for another hour.
No DOMS, no weird heart stuff, as far as I can tell no negative repercussions at all.
During my first marriage, I had some weird heart symptoms. I was collapsing and having dizzy spells. I got an echocardiogram and an ultrasound of my heart. They put me on beta blockers. I was 23 and someone probably should have told me that it’s hard to work full-time, take 17 credit hours, maintain a place on the Dean’s List, and sleep 32 hours a week. What I remember from that time is that riding my bike was reliably the only time and place that I never felt dizzy.
I believe that increasing the circulation of the blood (as long as one is not actively fighting an infection) is the best thing for overall health. I believe that exercise-induced endorphins are a good sign that the body likes what is going on. I believe in my innate capacity to heal. I trust my body. I believe that I will get past this and regain my baseline fitness level.
“I can tell the difference already,” he said. “You’re back up to a seven.”
I’m six weeks into my post-surgery recovery plan, long enough to notice some changes. He’s been out of town just long enough to see that things have changed since he left.
These aren’t physical changes in *me* - it’s everything else. The ripple effect.
I spent four days rearranging our apartment, including the contents of all our closets and cabinets. The place is gleaming from stem to stern. It’s the sort of thing I like to do as a surprise, or at least the sort of thing I like to do when I’m feeling energetic and upbeat.
On the opposite end, one of the first ways I can tell that I’m coming down with something is when I somehow don’t feel like I have enough energy to make the bed. It takes 45 seconds. I’m usually done before I’m even awake enough to realize I’ve done it. If this is disrupted for some reason, it’s a telltale sign that something is off.
I rate my mood and energy level on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 on the low end and 10 on the “someone I like is planning a wedding” end.
After I took up distance running, I started to realize that it had worked some impressive changes in me. Not in my physique per se, but in my general attitude toward life.
“It’s like my baseline mood when I was chronically ill was a 5, or a 4 when I had a migraine. Then when I got better, it was more like a 7. When I’m running it’s like... a 9!”
It’s true. When I’m running twenty or thirty miles a week, I feel like I’m getting ready to go to a parade or something. Everything seems simple or easy and I’m brimming over with fun ideas. I used to say I had so much energy, I felt like I could kick down a fence. Sometimes I would be running, and around the 45-minute mark I would just jog along with my arms over my head in victory. Sometimes I would burst into song.
Then I blew it. I overtrained and borked my ankle.
I had to quit running because I was in so much pain. I would wake up in the middle of the night because it would feel like someone was kicking me in the ankle with a cowboy boot. I had to wear a brace. I had two MRIs and I spent six months in physical therapy. I spent a truly stupid amount of time with my foot in a bucket full of ice cubes.
I was mad at myself and mad at my ankle and mad at asphalt and mad that we had to move away from the regional park where I used to train. I used to see other runners pass by and I felt like a dog on a leash, watching other dogs chase a frisbee.
I changed sports and started getting quite fit doing martial arts. There were physical changes, yes, a different type than the changes that happened when I took up running. It seems that if you dedicate yourself to any one type of training, you can tap into a certain variety of super powers.
Running gave me mood powers and endless energy.
Martial arts permanently removed my needle phobia and the white-knuckled anxiety I used to feel on airplanes. It helped me eliminate my stage fright. Martial arts gave me an extra dimension of executive presence. I finally learned to really use command tone, and my dog suddenly started paying a lot more attention when I spoke. I learned to make a convincing war face, a crazy expression than can quickly cause people to back up a step with little more than a widening of my eyes. My arms and shoulders bulked up. I found that I could suddenly intimidate big dudes twice my size. For superpowers, these are pretty excellent!
I missed the mood effects that I got from running, though.
Then I went through a rough patch. I had minor surgery that resulted in an incision right in the middle of my torso. I couldn’t twist, bend, sit up straight, or even move my arms much. After a month of doing hot compresses every two hours, I had to start a routine of changing bandages. This was all very tiresome, but it did provide a massive surge of motivation to start working out again as soon as I legitimately could.
I got back on the elliptical. We had to sell ours when we downsized, but there is one in our dinky apartment gym. Nobody is ever down there and I get the whole room to myself. I call it the “news machine.”
An hour a night.
The first few nights were rough. Not only had I not been working out, I had barely gotten off the couch in two months. I was out of breath and I wanted to quit after twenty minutes.
I know how to distract myself, though. I had a long news queue to work through. I focused on how much I wanted to “catch up on reading.” I only let myself do this type of reading during my workout. It felt like a reward. After the first week, it was more like playing a game than exercise.
I started getting a taste of the old post-workout glow. If I work out long enough at a high enough level of intensity, I can get an endorphin rush that lasts for two hours or more. It feels awesome, wipes out soreness and fatigue, and helps me sleep better.
I didn’t really notice the change as it happened, but over the next several weeks, my baseline mood and energy level started to improve too.
A couple of months ago, I was at a real low point. I couldn’t do much of anything, three courses of antibiotics made me sick and headachy, and my incision hurt. I would definitely have agreed that my mood hovered around a five most of the time.
Now I’m heading back in the direction where I like to be. I’m starting to feel like the person I think of as the “real me” - upbeat and cheerful. I’m ready to head into Phase Two, where I start running outdoors and enjoying the scenery, hunting for the payoff that keeps all distance runners inspired and motivated. A few months from now, I could be feeling like a nine every day again.
I had to take my husband to the emergency room on Friday night. This is the year that I turn 45 and he turns 52, so it’s unsurprising, right? Two middle-aged people in the ER?
What may be more surprising is that, as usual, we were in there for a sports injury.
Friday night is sparring at our martial arts school. Muay Thai. We also have an MMA team. The rest of the time slots are for organized classes, and sparring is the one time that students have license to fight “for reals.” My husband took a boxing glove to the surface of his eye, probably the thumb but maybe part of the strap. It happens.
That’s dangerous! I’m thinking it so I know that everyone else is.
It’s his body to ruin, though. Bodily autonomy means we accept one another’s right to get tattoos, donate blood, have cosmetic dentistry, and, yeah, sign the waiver to get punched in the eye if we want.
The guy who “did it” is my husband’s good friend. He doesn’t know yet that his errant blow put my hubby in the hospital. We probably won’t tell him because he would be horrified. He’s a middle-aged dad and he certainly didn’t do it on purpose.
The injury was a corneal abrasion. It will likely heal so completely that a couple of weeks from now there will be no evidence that anything ever happened. The copays for the ER visit and the antibiotic eye drops were under $100. No harm no foul.
We accept these types of outcomes as acceptable risks for our hobbies.
What’s strange to me is that most people would shy away from such a dangerous sport, and yet the likelihood of being in the emergency room on a Friday night is far higher for other, more ordinary, types of activities.
I would have assumed: bar fights, car accidents, maybe an overdose or alcohol poisoning?
It hadn’t occurred to me how full the room would be simply due to flu season. There was also a large notice on the door in red ink, giving special instructions to anyone who might have MEASLES.
Oh great. One of us gets punched in the eye wrong and now we’re both at risk of exposure to freaking measles because a bunch of our neighbors can’t comprehend the concept of herd immunity. Get your shots, people!
It seems obvious to both of us that infectious disease epidemics, or pandemics, are far more dangerous and deadly than a punch in the eye. It’s just that we’ve all seen a lot of action films but, in our generation, we haven’t yet seen many of our relatives, neighbors, and coworkers DIE from measles, whooping cough, mumps, influenza, etc. Not yet anyway.
The other thing it’s hard not to notice is that we are likely the only people in the ER who got there due to a sports injury.
In our culture right now, it’s almost impossible to say anything true and useful about my observations without risking an affront to someone’s sensibilities. Instead I’ll try to skirt around it.
At our age, nobody would be surprised, at all, if either my husband or I had to go to the emergency room due to a heart attack, stroke, or other coronary type event. I know that’s true because we hear about this kind of thing all the time in our social group, among our colleagues and neighbors. After age forty nobody is surprised by anything.
When we go to the doctor, they ask us what medications we’re on. I can still pass for somewhere in my thirties, so I can say ‘none’ without pushback. When my husband says ‘none,’ they always assume he didn’t understand the question. “NO, what PRESCRIPTIONS are you on??” “NONE!” Medical professionals can’t believe that my husband, in his early fifties, doesn’t take anything. At his age he’s supposed to be on statins and a raft of other stuff, at least five separate prescriptions on average.
With his heart rate, blood pressure, and cholesterol level, it doesn’t compute. They think there’s no way that a guy of his age group can have those results without medication.
I can also say that nobody is asking the right questions. I’ve been plant-based for nearly thirty years, since I was a teenager, and my hubby has been 98% plant-based for the past decade or so. It literally never comes up. Nobody is testing us, or enrolling us in any studies, or even asking, “So, what do you eat?” There are absolutely no data being generated about our lifestyle for the rest of the world to ponder.
We’ll just keep waiting. If he’s still practicing Muay Thai in his seventies, like our friend B, maybe then they’ll ask. If I’m still out trail running in my sixties, maybe then they’ll ask, but I sincerely doubt it because all kinds of people run ultras at well above that age.
The data come from the people with the worst outcomes. Data come from “patients,” not from healthy people. Not from men who can kick a target six feet off the ground in their fifties. Not from women who can crank out fifty full push-ups in their forties.
Why? Because people hate hearing about it!
I think this is because we aren’t able to connect emotionally with the image of Old Me. We can’t truly imagine ourselves being elderly. It’s also very, very difficult to extrapolate from our minor daily behaviors to any kind of decade-long trend line. We hate nothing more than the idea that what we do today can add up to trouble at a later point. It’s preachy! Stop talking about it!
When we think of bodily autonomy, and the concept that it’s “my body to ruin,” what we mean is “hey, everyone buzz off and leave me alone” as far as body image, habits, food intake, sleep schedule, how dirty my coffee mug looks, or anything else, anything else at all. I DO WHAT I WANT DO WHAT I WANT. It’s much harder to think of in terms of, “I have the full and total right to wreck myself doing burpees in the mud, sparring, and going on wilderness expeditions.”
We think exertion is more dangerous than what everyone else is doing. Though personally I’d rather go blind from martial arts than from diabetes.
One thing I did notice in the emergency room was that almost everyone had a buddy. A spouse, kids, grandkids - everyone had someone to call and ask for help. Everyone had at least one person who was willing to sit with them in the middle of the night on a Friday. Probably what is really dangerous is to become isolated, to refuse to connect or engage, to avoid ever asking for help.
It’s worth thinking about. What do we think is truly dangerous, and how do we structure our lives to include or avoid certain things because of our perceptions?
I still haven’t done anything so far this January! I’m proud of this because sometimes it’s a difficult commitment to keep. It’s more important to me to work my goals ten months of the year than it is to try to maintain some kind of “””perfect””” “””streak””” starting on Day One. Because January is a basically impossible time of year to do anything, other than maybe sleep more or spend less money.
The one thing I have done is to reframe one habit by thinking of it as something else entirely. That’s where the News Machine comes in.
I have a terrible habit - actually many of them - and I also have a good habit, or at least one that I can invoke from time to time. This is part of my secret of habit change and personal transformation, the discovery that a good habit can be harnessed to flip over a bad one.
It’s called “anchoring.”
Peanut butter and... jelly.
Socks and... shoes.
Floss and... brush your teeth.
Trampolines and... ice cream cones. (Ooh, messy).
There is a reverse of this, as there is of most things, and that is when two bad habits are anchored together, or when a good habit triggers a bad one. If a pattern like this is recognized, then it’s time to brainstorm and figure out how to separate the two things. Like, every time I walk into the craft store I spend $40, or, every time I get a coffee I also get an ooey gooey pastry.
Usually the “bad” habit is the thing that we feel is an intrinsic part of our very personality. I quite literally AM an ooey gooey pastry! On the molecular level! I don’t ever want to be the kind of person who is not that!
This is why I usually refer to them as cute habits. Not “bad.” We weren’t born bad, we were born interesting!
Okay, so, confession: my cute habit is that I’d rather be reading than doing basically anything else. And the bad version of that habit is that the more I read, the more I bookmark, and the longer my “to read” list gets. The reason this is bad is that it interferes with my enjoyment. I start to think of my favorite thing as a must-do. Rather than having 100% fun, I start to feel like I “need” to get “caught up.”
Do you ever feel that way?
Crafty people often start to feel like they “need” to “finish” projects, like they’re “behind” on scrapbooking or “finishing” a quilt. What is supposed to be nothing at all other than a relaxing hobby somehow transmogrifies into a guilt machine. I promised! I owe! It’s late! Those emotions come from anchoring the hobby to something else, like giving gifts, showing affection to friends and family, trying to save money, or earning approval. The pressure also comes from shopping for materials, where the more focus there is on the hobby, the more accumulation of materials, and the more space they take up in the home. We think the only ways to relieve those practical and social pressures are to craft faster, rather than to stop buying supplies and stop trying to create 100% handmade gifts. Get back to making it about relaxation!
That’s turning into an entire separate piece, but I’m not going to claim that I’ll ever write it because I’m trying to reframe my personal concept of procrastination.
Why do I feel like I’m procrastinating on personal projects? Why do I sometimes feel this way even when there’s no deadline, nobody is asking for anything from me, and literally nobody cares but me?
Is this true for you, for anything in your life?
As with a lot of things, it’s easier to just go with it than it is to try to change the emotion. I recognize that I feel “behind” on my reading, and I figure out what I can do with that feeling that will lead directly to a positive action.
In my case, I use it to work out on the elliptical.
There! I said it!
I lied, I cheated! I’ve actually been crushing it this month down in the workout room!
I just didn’t want to admit it while talking about New Year’s Resolutions, because it makes other people feel bad. Like my weird little goals have anything to do with anyone but me...
I’ve found that I seem to read faster when I’m on the elliptical for some reason. It makes the time pass quickly.
I’ve tried other types of habits to keep me working out. I tried running on the treadmill, and it makes me feel like my brain is slowly dying. (Current gym does not have a treadmill). I tried the exercise bike but it makes me sore and I don’t think it gives me any results. I tried watching TV shows on the elliptical, but it makes me feel like every minute is really 18 minutes. The thing I’ve settled on is that I can read through news articles.
I can’t emphasize this enough. If you think in terms of “supposed to” and “because” and “everyone else” and “not doing it right” and “fail,” you’re stopping yourself before you start. Try thinking in terms of “works for me” and “not sure why, but” and “for some reason.” You like what you like and you’re allowed to like it.
This is why I’m not thinking about my workout as a workout. I’m thinking about it as the News Machine. When I change clothes, I’m thinking about how many articles I’m going to read, and *that* is my personal burn rate. My metric is that I started out with nearly 400 articles in my news queue, and now I’m down to 120. Yay!
After that, there’s my *other* news queue, and then my “read at leisure” email folder, and then my open tabs...
According to my phone, I’m burning 18% more calories per workout after only two weeks. That comes from the feeling that I call “getting the lead out.” Like I threw off some lead weights. If my starting goal had been to “burn calories” or “move faster” I’m sure I would have been discouraged and I would already be feeling like I aimed too high.
Instead, I’m really just excited about finally feeling that elusive satisfaction of being “all caught up.” I can see it, a month or two from now. If I can keep reading this fast, if I can keep getting a spot on the News Machine...
I’ll probably just keep adding more stuff and making my list longer. Because who would I be without a to-do list or a never-ending stack of things to read?
This is the first time I have posted decade-level goals and resolutions on my blog, so I put extra work into it. Over the past few years, I’ve realized that the projects that I find the most engrossing and challenging are multi-year projects. The day I started each of these, I had no idea that I’d still be grinding away three years later. One of the benefits of midlife is that we have the patience, attention span, experience, and (frankly) the resources to attain long-term goals. Might as well harness that, right?
Over the past month, I’ve asked my elders how they felt at the start of each decade, particularly how they felt about technological innovations and major cultural changes. SO INTERESTING! My parents were barely old enough to be aware of current events in 1960, but they certainly noticed the Moon landing at the end of that decade. Talking about decade-level achievements with people who are satisfied in their careers and proud of their kids and grandkids can be really inspiring. That’s my hope, that when we are in our sixties and older my hubby and I will look back and feel like we’ve participated in life, in our culture, in our family legacy. We want to feel like we’ve enjoyed, learned, and experienced as much as we can.
That’s what all this goal-setting is about.
I already have so many regrets: that I never interviewed my grandparents about their lives when they were still here to ask. That I missed so much of the childhoods of my niece and nephews. That I missed graduations and weddings when I felt too poor to make the trip. What I regret most is not showing up, not connecting, not engaging and not reaching out. I could have called, I could have written, but I put it off and put it off without realizing how quickly time was passing.
At the same time, I’ve never wanted an ordinary life. If the only thing I ever did was to make the calls, come to the parties, and send the letters, well, heck. That’s a fine life but not big enough for me. I want to see the world and make at least one project that is bigger than me, something that outlasts my tenure on this blasted rock we call Earth.
In ten years I’ll be 55. If I’m ever going to do anything at all then I’d better get going.
What I’m posting here are yearly goals and resolutions, and also ten-year goals. Some of these were really tricky because I’ve never thought of them in that context before. It definitely puts some perspective on habits when you think, Will I still be annoying myself in just this same way ten years from now? (*facepalm*)
Personal: This category is what I think most people would refer to as their “resolution.” For me it’s my major area of focus. In past years it’s been running, public speaking, or martial arts. I try to choose something where I feel intense resistance and instinctive dislike. That’s where the greatest transformation is possible!
In 2020 this is going to be body transformation. Right now I feel like an angry puddle of goo. I had a very rough 2019 and there is no way I can tolerate the idea of being the same or worse ten years from now. I’m forty-four and my body belongs to me, not to society’s female-vessel regulations. I’m going to lose weight, I’m going to talk about it at great length on a regular basis, I’m going to do it my way, I’m going to get covered in mud and punch things, and that’s just how it’s going to be. I can’t force myself to pretend to pander to “body positivity” “I’m just fluffy” clouds and rainbows, riding in on a panda and licking an ice cream cone. I gotta wake up in this crusty old carcass every day and I intend to fully inhabit it like a warrior queen with the flaming sword of truth.
Career: My career goal for 2020 is to learn how to do webinars. I am not a digital native and I have to push hard to understand technology that is new to me. Eventually, whatever I learn becomes something that I do on a daily basis, without thinking about it, like syncing Bluetooth or downloading new apps, but that first onboarding process is something that I always find deeply confusing and frustrating.
For 2030, I want to be a published author, of course!
Physical: My physical goal for 2020 is to get my weight back to 125. I was able to maintain this for about five years, until I made the benighted decision to “put on ten pounds of muscle” and started eating like an NFL linebacker. (For reference, I am 5’4” and small-framed).
While I was training for my marathon lo these many moons ago, I became enchanted with the idea of the ultramarathon. I started telling everyone my goal was “50 for 50,” a fifty-mile ultramarathon for my fiftieth birthday. Suddenly that goal is only five years off and I either need to abandon it or start training. I hate abdicating, this is my one and only lifetime (or if not, it’s a moot point), and I want to see Silver Fox Future Self crossing that finish line.
Home: We’ve decided to start formally saving for a house, really a far-fetched, Moonshot sort of a goal where we live, but we like it here. That’s the 2030 goal.
For 2020, I’m working on automating more household chores as part of my book project.
Couples: Our couples goal is to build an app together. Fortunately the software coding part (the hard work) is my husband’s bailiwick; he’s learning Python and this project is as good as any.
Over the next decade, we have a shared goal to do more camping, hiking, backpacking, and bicycling adventures together. We only really see each other on weekends anymore and we like the idea of planning expeditions and picnics when the weather is fine.
Stop goal: My “stop goal” for 2020 is to stop procrastinating about text messages and voicemail. Honestly there are few things I despise more than listening to voicemail, but letting them sit there with blinking notifications isn’t helping. Text messages can be a serious problem for anyone who needs to focus and do long stretches of deep work - you broke my concentration to send a meme to a group thread?? But again, it seems that society has moved to this rather than email. My plan is to blast through the day’s detritus during my workout.
My ten-year goal is to stop procrastinating in general. I’m one of the 20% who fights this constantly. I think the solution is to reframe anything that feels aversive and try to think of better messages to send myself. Like instead of “I’d rather be scrubbing a toilet than doing this” I can think, “This will probably take less time than scrubbing a toilet.”
Lifestyle upgrades: Our ten-year lifestyle upgrade goal is to have a garden again.
For 2020, it’s a bummer to think about but my big lifestyle upgrade will probably be to have gum surgery. Over the past year I have had increasing reason to take my dentist’s advice seriously and I really want Future Me to think I had good judgment. Young people take note: you never think of your teeth as a part of your lifestyle until your first root canal.
Do the Obvious: The most obvious thing to do in my life right now is to plan around constant travel. At least during the active career portion of our shared life, my hubby and I have had to be constantly poised to pack a suitcase. He sometimes calls me to say that he’s flying out that very night; I’ve even had to head out to his building and bring him his passport. This is exciting and fascinating for us, but it also requires mental agility.
This will most likely still be true in 2030, so there ya go. No normal weeks.
Ultralearning: This is the first time I’m setting up an ultralearning project. I have total confidence in my ability to become absorbed in an educational mission; really the problem is more that I don’t know when to quit! In past years I feel like I’ve neglected the perpetual-student part of myself, and particularly my special gift of language acquisition. A quarter-century ago my Japanese teacher pulled me aside and said I had talent and that I should go forward in languages. I nodded (like, duh, totally), waited several years to go to college, dithered around in Greek and Latin, and then became a suburban housewife. That part of me only awakens when we see an action film with supervillain subtitles, and I can pick out the occasional word in Russian, German, or Japanese. SO, uh... *drumroll* in 2020, I’m going to do an ultralearning project and study Dutch.
DUTCH! Why the heck not. *tada*
For 2030 I plan to learn to write screenplays.
Quest: In my terminology, a quest is a grand adventure that I don’t necessarily know how to do. Part of the quest is figuring out the guidelines. My quest for 2020-2025 is to train for that “50 for 50” ultramarathon. This means I need to start running again. I also need to figure out how to add mileage without borking my ankle like last time, or causing myself any other overuse injuries.
My decade quest is to visit Antarctica.
Wish: My wish for 2020 is to get a publishing deal. Our wish for the next decade is to become millionaires!
Personal: Body transformation
Career: Learn how to do webinars
Physical: Weight at 125 lbs.
Home: Automation project
Couples: Build an app together
Stop goal: Stop procrastinating on text messages and voicemail
Lifestyle upgrades: Probably gum surgery
Do the Obvious: Plan around constant travel
Ultralearning: Dutch language
Quest: 50 for 50 ultramarathon! (2025)
Wish: Publishing deal!
2030 - Ten-Year Goals and Resolutions
Personal: Silver Fox project
Career: Published author
Physical: 50 for 50 ultramarathon!
Home: Buy a house to live in
Couples: Camping, hiking, backpacking, and bicycling together
Stop goal: Stop procrastinating in general
Lifestyle upgrades: A garden
Do the Obvious: Plan around constant travel
Ultralearning: Write screenplays
Quest: Visit Antarctica
Sitting around with sutures in my midsection has given me a lot of time to think. All sorts of things have been on my mind, but they always circle back to my current situation and how bored and restless I feel. I’ve also been contemplating how completely and totally this stupid medical issue has managed to derail my workout goals.
I think it’s the fitness stuff, more than anything else, that makes people quit making New Year’s Resolutions.
Naturally the cruddy winter weather and holiday feeding frenzy have most of us at our most well-padded at the changing of the year. We completely forget what it feels like when the weather is fine and our schedules aren’t triple-booked. Skip winter and only count the other three seasons.
(It’s the opposite for those of us in hot climates, when winter is actually the best time for outdoor workouts and summer is the one we need to skip).
I had this great idea that I was going to win 2019 by spending the last two months in the gym, finishing the year on a high note. I was going to start running again! I was going to train for a race in March!
Literally two days later, I woke up with a weird hard spot, spent a month on antibiotics, gained 7 pounds in 5 days, had surgery, and then spent nearly two weeks changing bandages and trying not to move. Now I’m waiting for the nurse to call me back because this special butterfly bandage fell off, and it was supposed to last ten days.
No running. No yoga. No bending or twisting. Actually no sweating.
I feel exactly like a display butterfly with a pin through its thorax.
I was talking to a friend who has (totally unwarranted) body image issues. I told her, Whatever you feel that you look like, at least you don’t look like a surgical incision with sutures poking out.
Anything and everything is better looking than an open wound.
Enforced gratitude is universally annoying, but hey. Why is it that we insist on taking what we have for granted? We always have to seek out whatever it is that bothers us, and harp on it, no matter what else is going well in our lives.
Waaa, waaa, I hate going to the gym, everyone snivels. All the time. Well at least you can go if you want to. At least you’re allowed.
Go for me, will ya? Someone? Use my energetic voucher, it’s just floating around out there.
I’m climbing the walls over here, figuratively, because I can’t actually climb anything in the near future. The thing I would most like to do is to sprint up a staircase, like in the Metro station. But I can’t even get down and do a plank.
Not that I “can’t” do a plank - I can probably still hold plank position for a full minute - just that this wound in my midriff is still trying to heal.
It’s been a rough year for me. While we finally moved and I’m starting to recover, a year of chronic sleep disruption and deprivation was really affecting my health. I was exhausted all the time, having migraines and night terrors again, and coming down with a cold once or twice a month. I put on weight and that only seemed to make it worse.
Some people claim that they feel their best, happiest, and most powerful when they’re bigger. Good for them. Must be nice. Enjoy in good health.
For me, weight gain is always a symptom that something is wrong. I think it has to do with my thyroid. The more I gain, the more I feel chilly, tired, sad, and prone to headaches. The first sign is when I’m so tired that I don’t bother to make the bed.
As I turn it around again, which so far I have always managed to do, I start to feel more alert, cheerful, and busy. It’s like a spell wearing off.
This is why I’m on a plan to get my weight back down even though I still have to try to move as little as possible. It just isn’t helping. For whatever reason I magically enlarged while on antibiotics, it’s not making my life any easier.
The most obvious reaction to a situation like mine would be, “I couldn’t help it, what do you expect me to do about it?” Shut up and leave me alone, right?
I see it differently. I see it as an alien interloper trying to claim my poor middle-aged carcass as some kind of host. I’ve seen too many Alien movies to think that’s any kind of good idea. Get the heck out of my body! Begone!
“Me” is my spirit, the part of me that thinks and speaks. Whatever my body is doing at the moment is changeable. My physical vessel looks a bit different from year to year, similar to the way I might change my wardrobe and hair style. I don’t identify with *looking* a certain way, I identify with *feeling* a certain way. I prefer the upbeat energy level to the mopey, tired level.
I’ve taken off 5 of the 7 attack pounds already. Nod to the restoration of my normal balance, now that the antibiotics are out of my system. Also, I have been diligent in staying on track with what I eat, ignoring the typical background noise of cookie, candies, and other holiday treats.
I saw a cookie and I didn’t put it in my mouth. Santa Claus fainted and the reindeer crash-landed in a tree. The North Pole tipped over and rusted out. It was me, I did it.
It just so happens that I should be good to go just in time for New Year’s Eve. Nothing more than a coincidence. Every day is just as good as any other for reclaiming your body and your physical power base. I see it as a sign, though. The first day that I can, I’m lacing up my shoes and getting my beat back. Just because I had a do-nothing year of exhaustion, does not have to make it permanent. When I look back thirty years from now, it will just have been a fitness speedbump.
Spending time with a group of people that includes a 40-year spread of ages is so revealing. We were talking about where we were in 2010 and where we see ourselves in 2030. One person said, “Ten years ago, I was fourteen?”
Thank goodness, I thought, I’ll never have to go through my teens or twenties again. My skin alone!
On the other hand, the most senior member of the group was a bit discomfited by the topic. That happens when you perceive yourself to be closer to the end of your life than the beginning, and at sixty-plus that’s statistically true.
(Although such a long way to a 114th birthday, which is possible though still newsworthy).
Younger people tend to be very focused on how they look and whether other people think they are good-looking. Probably because they’ve spent their entire lives being photographed. Middle-aged and elderly people tend to be more accepting, or at least philosophical, about their appearance. It can be relaxing. Older people always think you look young and refreshed.
My experience with becoming middle-aged has been great. My body has been and looked a lot of ways over the years, enough that I know change is not just possible but inevitable.
The trick is that we can conduct body transformation willfully. We can choose to transform our bodies in so many ways.
For some reason, our culture seems to revolve around this suspicion that OTHER PEOPLE ARE STARING and that everyone is J U D G I N G.
OMG who cares
Ride mass transit long enough and you will soon feel like one of the best-looking people of world history. Visit a hospice, or just a nursing home. Just be glad at your relative healthfulness for once.
The trick is to turn inward. Direct your attention away from the external and ask yourself what you think of yourself on the inside. How does it feel to be you, to stand up and walk around as you?
If it looks culturally beautiful but feels physically terrible, then forget about it.
Look at all the paintings of medieval women with high round foreheads, no eyebrows, and big swaying pregnant-looking bellies. That’s what they found attractive. Shave your hairline up to the top of the head, hawt! Then put on a tall pointy hat.
Our century of stiletto heels is one day going to look just as ridiculous. Why did all those people limp around bow-legged, grimacing in pain? Why did they carry their shoes and walk barefoot down the sidewalk on festive occasions? What did they wear for warm outer layers? You can’t convince me they just stood in line shivering in the rain. The archaeological record must simply be missing some key garments.
This is how I feel about whatever supposed social pressure about how my body is supposed to look: Get back to me after you’ve read my monograph.
I read “body acceptance” and “body positivity” now all the time, and what I understand it to mean is “be big enough.” I don’t feel that it literally means “be proud, strong, and muddy.” I truly don’t feel that it means “thin and small is okay too.” I haven’t felt that it includes me or other women like me.
That’s okay, though, because I don’t honestly care that much!
I don’t care because I’ve felt my own body transformations over the years. I have lived a body that is different from one year to the next, sometimes by accident, sometimes through intense bouts of purpose. There is no way I’m going to trade my strong body for a weaker version just because it’s trendy.
Twenty years ago, I wore a clothing size that was six to eight sizes bigger than I wear today. Weirdly, my body weight is only about ten pounds lower. That’s because I dropped about forty pounds of body fat and built about thirty pounds of muscle.
It sounds hard to believe. I should probably dig up some old photos and spreadsheets for documentation. Again, though, it’s my body to live in and inhabit, and my body is not an object for society to critique. It’s my home.
In my early twenties, I was ill. I went to a lot of doctors who did not have a lot of answers. I felt tired and ill all the time. I fainted at the grocery store a couple times. I saw black spots when I walked up a flight of stairs. For a young woman, I felt like an old woman, one who clutched railings.
Now I’m in my forties, old enough to be the mother of my younger self. I feel like I could pick up Younger Me and carry her up the stairs. Maybe not a fireman’s carry but certainly a piggyback.
Younger Me would have been angry and hurt to feel so judged by Today Me. Get up, get up, I want to tell her. Don’t quit! There is still time for you!
I look how I look, she thought, just like I do today. At the time, though, she believed in a fixed body. That how we look is a million percent genetic. That the head of anyone who thinks differently should simply explode, because nothing is stronger than my internal rebellion or determination of my identity, of what counts as me.
It turns out that that same resistant feeling was exactly what I needed to propel me up a lot of hills, along thousands of miles, through hundreds of burpees and all the rest. My rage at anyone who dared tell me about my body or criticize my personal autonomy, that was the fire that consumed Young Me. Stubborn, I found myself a warrior of sorts.
When I was young, I felt just as judged as any other young woman. As an adult, I find it hilarious to walk around covered in mud, or carrying my kali stick. Men, even very very large men, get very squirmy and nervous when they find out I do martial arts. “Just don’t attack me and you’ll be fine,” I say, which usually makes it worse.
Posture is what makes the change. A vertical posture says a lot. A comfortable stance says more. I reside in a strong body and I can use it to do some pretty surprising things. Ten years ago, none of that was true, because I hadn’t yet seized ownership of my identity as a midlife athlete. Today, I feel that I will be stronger at sixty than I was at thirty. I know it will be true because I know how to make decisions and I know how it is done.
When we move to a new place, one of the very first things we do is to start in on a new ambit. Your ambit is the area where you walk around your neighborhood, also known as your stomping grounds. Everyone has one, or at least everyone who leaves the house, but for most people it stops somewhere around the driveway or the mailbox.
We chose an apartment that is technically within walking distance of our old place, two miles or about forty minutes. We had passed the place many times, on foot, on the bus, even on bikes. A big chunk of the new neighborhood was already in our old ambit, and that helped us feel at home. We weren’t necessarily looking to feel ‘at home,’ though, being more in the mood for something fresh and new.
On Sunday we set off.
We were still unpacking, but we had enough done that we both felt we could afford to take a break. There’s a certain point in moving in to a new place when it no longer feels obvious exactly where everything should go, when the remaining boxes are full of trickier items. The law of diminishing returns sets in. People start wandering around, looking into one box and then another, no decisions being made, and the work grinds to a halt.
A lot of people never get past that point! They just leave the boxes packed, sometimes for years or through several additional moves.
This is when it can be so incredibly helpful to take a break, get away from it all for a couple of hours, and walk back into the room with fresh eyes.
That’s what we did. We had no internet and it was too late in the day to go to the tea house. A local library branch happens to be open for a few hours on Sunday afternoons. There’s a closer branch, but this one is within the two-mile range we are willing to walk. We’d set out on a little adventure and go exploring.
There happens to be a very nice walking trail in our part of the world, and most of the route can include this trail. In a car we wouldn’t have thought to go that way. On foot it was obvious. At least, it was obvious because we scoped it out on a map first, and as neighborhood walkers, we look for the green blotches that indicate parks. About a quarter mile of our route wound through neighborhood houses.
This is a nice part of creating a new ambit, too. You can start to get a feel for your neighborhood, seeing familiar faces, meeting dogs and babies, checking out gardens. Your very presence helps the neighborhood become safer. Foot traffic deters crime. That’s the sad irony of people feeling like they aren’t safe to walk where they live. Go out and bring your phone, bring your friend, bring the people who live next door. That’s what my family used to do. Invite someone to walk with you and make an ambit.
The area we explored on our way to the walking trail? Was much nicer than our own block!
One of the hazards of making a new ambit is that it can spark some house envy. It’s a good place, though, to start talking about home improvements and savings accounts and repair projects. Something about seeing someone else’s nice yard is so much more inspiring than sitting indoors on your own sofa.
We walked along. “This feels like vacation,” said my husband, who had been unpacking a box only half an hour before.
THIS FEELS LIKE VACATION!
We walk everywhere on vacation, because for us that’s the whole point. You can see so much more of a place on foot. You can meet people, you can overhear their accents and check out the local streetwear trends.
I think there’s also something about the rhythm of walking that just feels right for a human. A dog too, probably. For our dog, walking is a religion. His little ears bounce with every step. It always surprises us how many people have dogs and don’t take them around, because having a dog is such a compelling reason to explore your ambit.
We walked along. We got to our walking trail. It was green and beautiful in the summer light. We got into a conversation about Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird based on my recent reading of Furious Hours.
Suddenly, we were there. That was two miles, really? Are you sure??
Let me tell you, that walk was almost entirely uphill, but we didn’t even feel it.
The library itself is much nicer than the one in our old neighborhood. That library is large, new, pretty, well-lit, and reasonably well-stocked. Unfortunately, there’s a used bookstore in the lobby that runs on donations. Its musty smell is so strong that I literally hold my breath several paces before walking in the door and don’t breathe again until I’m almost to the YA section. You can smell the funky old donated books outside on two sides of the building. This is a bummer because there are few things better than a public library to expand one’s ambit.
This new library, though! I could see this becoming a thing with us.
We found two chairs side by side. WiFi, hooray!
I got a few things done, such as changing our address. It didn’t even feel like work.
Then we decided to check out the outdoor seating in the back and I accidentally set off the alarm on the emergency exit, but it was okay. I didn’t even have to go to jail.
On the way home, we went a different way, which is always a good idea when you’re working on a new ambit. Sometimes the other route is nicer. We found a place with non-dairy ice cream and got ourselves some. We sat in a tiny grassy park and ate strawberry ice cream and a dog came over and licked my husband’s face.
Then we went home refreshed and got back to work, grubbing around unpacking and breaking down boxes.
That entire day, we spent two hours exploring and twelve hours working. Guess which part of the day we actually remember?
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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