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.
Noelie is home again, after her second separate weekend in the veterinary hospital. She’s eating on her own and she can sleep standing on one foot with her head tucked backward, which is more than I can do, so hey.
I didn’t know what was going to happen over this long holiday weekend. I feared the inevitable. Not too many parrots have been known to survive a stroke. I decided not to cancel my plans to go camping, so I could creep off to cry in the trees and meditate on all that circle of life business.
Time enough to find out the sad news after we came down off the mountain again. In the meantime, let me pretend that all this is uncertain. Schrodinger’s Parrot.
I set out alone to walk around the lake, a distance somewhere between seven and eight miles. This would be the farthest distance I have traveled on foot since I came down with COVID last year. Actually about double.
What I didn’t know, when I set out, was that there was not a clear path around the entire lake.
This is life. You make these big impressive plans and set out to accomplish them, often as a way to escape a situation or a grief or a trauma, and then realize that what you are doing isn’t what you thought it was going to be.
I walked over sand
I walked over rocks
I walked straight into a bog
My socks got wet
I didn’t know where I was
I couldn’t find the path
I wandered in the trees and realized the sun was going to set
I was in the home stretch, only a mile or so from camp, tired and dehydrated and feeling dumb as heck
When I turned around and decided to go back in the woods again
And I saw these rare flowers, trilliums, that supposedly take seven years to bloom
Oh, I should take a picture of these, I thought, and got out my phone
Only to see an incoming text message. Out here?
A video of my little parrot Noelle, standing at her dish and eating, which used to be the most ordinary thing in the world
But which now constituted PROOF OF LIFE
And I stood there in the Bog of Confusion and texted my husband and found out that she was home again.
A few minutes later I had found the trail - a messy and muddy trail, unimproved, large sections washed out in knee-deep pools of water, blocked by half a dozen fallen trees - and half an hour later I was back in camp
Where everyone thought I had been in my tent taking a nap the whole time.
I was not lost
I did not need a search party
I didn’t even get a mosquito bite, despite the bog
And I drank nearly two liters of water and ate two burgers
And told everybody about my sweet little birdie
And there was much rejoicing.
I thought to myself, if I can walk seven miles then maybe I can walk ten
Maybe I can run-walk soon
Only a year ago I could barely stand up long enough to fold a basket of laundry
And now I can carry a 30-pound pack down the stairs again.
I can pitch my tent, I can put my sleeping bag in the compression sack, I can survive a night when the temperature is 43F
I did it all
And if I can survive coronavirus, then maybe my baby bean can survive her stroke after all.
When I got back to town I talked to my husband and he shared about what he has learned from the vet. She has been checking in a lot.
We are now on the cutting edge of veterinary science
She only knows of one other parrot who has had the same symptoms as my girl
That bird was messed up for a few months
BUT IT RECOVERED
And she is not writing her off by any means!
Let’s remember her as an acrobat, chatty, musical, demanding little diva
And not as this sorry creature with dizzy spells who cannot preen her own tail.
Let us hope and pray together that she will recover, like this other bird supposedly has, that she will continue her upward trend and start to collect her personality back into herself.
Let us wish for her that she will have better balance and better strength and more appetite, that she will return to her cheerful little self
just like her mama did
And let’s also take a few moments to think about whatever the heck miracles might be.
I shared about Noelie’s story before going off grid for the weekend
Because my heart was heavy and I didn’t know how to do anything else
But also because I had this inkling that positive thoughts might work, and asking would be harmless.
I thought of all the many friends my little parrot has made, with her sweet nature and kisses and all the times she has posed for photos, the happiness she has distributed
I thought, if any of her many friends were to pause for a moment and think of her, let their hearts go out to her
Maybe there would be something to it?
It seems like probably there was!
I wanted everyone to know that whatever we have been doing together in this project, it seems to be working!
Now if you’re looking for a simple homework assignment, if you want to participate in this endeavor of willing my small bird back to health, this is the task:
Visualize her successfully grooming her lovely red tail and doing her bird yoga.
I will be home with her again soon - and my poor hubby as well, of course - and my visualization is holding her again. I know and trust that she will be there to greet me, that she has another week in her.
That she may be stronger and healthier in a week than she is today.
As may we all.
Brought to my knees by personal crisis, I think about what would be the best possible outcome. It’s a way to deal with the crushing weight of emotion and try to get through, one day at a time.
What would a miracle look like?
The thing about a crisis is that it’s up to you what feels like one and what doesn’t. What is pure sorrow to one person might be easily shrugged off by someone else, and vice versa. We aren’t very good at understanding sadness in our culture, and I don’t think we like it when we’re forced to acknowledge it in another person.
Grievance, not trauma!
It’s anger that we understand and find energizing. Sorrow seems selfish. Get past it, get past it.
If I told you I was sad about my little parrot because she had a stroke and she is in the veterinary hospital, some of you would be sad for me. If you have met her, you might be sad for her and for yourself. The rest of you might think, What, that’s it??
Translate, if you’re a pet person. Think of your dog or your cat. Most of us do understand, at least, how devastating it can be to mourn a pet. Our relationships with them are so much less complicated than our relationships with other people. Often we’re a little concerned, wondering if it’s okay that we’re crying harder over our animals than maybe we did for our relatives.
The reason we keep pets is because they teach us unconditional love in its purest form.
This particular creature is one of a kind. I’ve loved other birds in my life, and had the wind knocked out of me when they died, but this one - little Noelle - there will never be another one like her. I can’t bear it to think that there will be a day when her consciousness and presence are deleted from this world.
This is where the bargaining part of grief comes in. Please, what can I do to make the inevitable go away and leave us alone?
This is where my selfishness rears up.
This is where what probably seems like a puerile story reveals itself as an example of a more universal moment: the choice point when we find ourselves asking for a miracle. Whatever that might mean.
The question is not whether miracles are real. The question is, how would that be demonstrated? What would a miracle look like in any given situation?
First off, it’s uncommon for a bird to survive a stroke. Was it a miracle that she has lived for two weeks so far?
Second, the fact that there is a veterinary hospital equipped with isolettes and an expert avian vet in our area - is that related in some way? Miracle-adjacent?
When someone is on a deathbed, the mind rebels. NO, this cannot be happening. I refuse to allow this. Death is absolutely not an option. This negotiation is going to have to shift to something else because it is not on the table. If I can’t speak to your manager then I’m calling my lawyer.
Our impulse is probably to beg, let it not be death. Let it be - something else, not that.
This is not helped in the veterinary world, where I have come to suspect that they are formally educated never to bring up the topic of euthanasia. They have to flirt around it, hinting and suggesting until you come out and speak the words.
They assume that we know. They assume we know the procedure and understand what is required of us, because they’ve been doing this on a daily basis for years. To them it is the most ordinary thing in the world.
I brought it up with my vet - we were communicating via text - and she never responded. Communication shifted to my poor husband at that point.
You know what? I hate the rainbow bridge. Just because you know when something is the right thing to do, does not make it fun to do.
Is it the right thing to do, though?
We know we can’t make them suffer. It’s not okay. The reason we love them so much is that they are always there for us when we need them. They ask for so little. Finally the time comes when they do ask for something - release - and all we have to do is nod and let them go.
Even though we’re not ready. We know we can never really be ready.
When we ask for a miracle - is mere survival that miracle?
If they live on in some sort of frail, reduced form, is that a miracle?
What I’m asking is that this experience is a... “rough patch.” That with a few days of oxygen therapy, the blood clot will dissolve or whatever stroke recovery actually would look like. That she can bounce back and emerge relatively unchanged by the experience.
Can this happen?
Is what I would want physically possible?
If a miracle is something that can physically exist, is it then really a miracle? Is it maybe that miracles are more common than we give them credit for, and we are just too cynical and hardened to appreciate it?
Human lifespan has doubled in the past two hundred years. If that is not a miracle, then I don’t know what is. If I lived a thousand years ago, it’s entirely possible that I would not have reached the age of 45. I work with a guy who is over eighty, and a thousand years ago, would a fellow like that still be coming in to work every day? Twenty years ago, for that matter?
I continue to believe that miracles happen every day, and that often they are there for the asking. We have only to open our eyes and acknowledge them. Miracles can be found if we are actively looking, awake and aware.
Sometimes, though, the miracle is that we can be overcome by grief and sorrow, and then carry on regardless, somehow carrying the heaviest of hearts.
I’m midway through a seminar at work on Getting Things Done. We’ve spent two half-days learning the principles and doing hands-on exercises.
Have you ever gone back to something that you thought you knew very well and looked at it through fresh eyes?
I read GTD years ago, was very impressed with it, try to teach the concepts to my students and clients, and generally would have thought I was on board with it as a lifestyle.
Lately, however, large segments of my life are in turmoil. It feels like standing shoulder-deep in the ocean, attempting to watch the beach while tides and winds and storms roll up behind my back.
As we’ve gone through the exercises in the class, I’ve realized how many loose ends have started to escape from my fingers.
...oops, that one was my oar leash...
A major focus of this type of workshop is putting together a list. Or several lists. Everyone in the class does the exercises and chats about how it’s going, asking each other questions and trading ideas. Like, ‘what category does this fall in?’
Usually something that seems confusing and overwhelming to one person, like how to categorize ‘buy a new fridge,’ seems simple and obvious to someone else. A lot of these things are common or universal issues, and someone else will have direct experience.
It was cheering to realize that others are caught up in issues that I don’t have in my life. You might feel the same. I don’t have to plan a child’s birthday party or get my oil changed, and maybe you don’t have to figure out whether to do your breathing therapy in the morning or at bedtime.
At the same time, I was blindsided by how scattered I’ve become.
I was capturing tasks on at least 8 different systems. That’s like having eight brains. No, wait, actually that would probably have interesting network effects. Try again. It’s probably more like being a waiter and trying to memorize the orders for eight tables at once. Maybe it can be done, but poorly, and eventually someone is going to wind up with a milkshake with a side of ketchup.
That’s me, diner waitress. On roller skates.
I used to fantasize about that in my early twenties. That I would run away and change my name to Ruby and work as a diner waitress somewhere in Nevada. But then I realized that this was a 1930s fantasy and that I probably made more money as an office assistant.
Escape is what we think we want when we’re very busy. We think it’s a way to finally be let off the hook and be able to abandon or abdicate some of our responsibilities.
The truth seems to be that escaping makes everything more complicated. Like faking your own death somewhere in the woods and then having to reestablish a new identity with new ID, bank cards, and a source of income.
Wouldn’t it be easier to write that into a novel or screenplay, sell it, and then remake yourself as a rich and famous writer?
It’s actually easier to do a brain dump and start methodically busting through the items.
The only thing about that plan is the challenge of blocking off time and making yourself do it. Hence the workshop.
Our class has all these exercise breaks with a timer. Three minutes here, six or seven minutes there. Everyone quietly works away.
During this time, it is astonishing how many quick tasks many of us have completed. That’s one of the games, to write a list of things you can do in two minutes or less and then compete to see who can finish the most.
What I discovered from working through this exercise is that almost everything on my backlog is a fairly large-scale project. They always say, “break that down into chunks and find one that you can do in two minutes.” That doesn’t, however, clear off any of the larger chunks. The list starts to become more concentrated.
One of mine is to compare four grad schools. The two-minute part of that exercise would be to gather all their websites and see if there is some independent rating organization that compares schools. What remains isn’t something I can do with divided attention, multi-tasking or skimming through a long list of petty busywork.
This is the big thing that most of us are missing: a large block of time that is free of distractions, when we can do deep focus and feel that yes, we have truly finished something and shut the door on it.
The other area where I tend to have a buildup is in social contacts. I fully realize that in our culture, many people fill every spare minute with this - phone calls, text messages, group chats, the occasional email or quick personal note.
I do not understand for the life of me how this is done!
Sometimes I’ll get to the end of the day and have 17 texts and something like 45 minutes of video clips that people have sent me. I thoroughly, endlessly can’t even.
I wish I felt excited and pleased when several people reach out and want to chat with me on the same day. Instead I often feel wounded and harassed. Why?? What do you people even want from me??
This is what comes of spending the day in a service role, switched ON for spontaneous requests from any of 150 people. This is also why my vision of myself as Ruby the Diner Waitress would have drained the marrow out of me.
The simple solution for my problem is the same as it is for others who don’t know how or when they can clean out their garage, exercise, read a book, or go to the dentist for the first time in eight years. Schedule a regular time for it and move other commitments around so you know you can get it done.
Time is the only thing we all have in common. We all get 24 hours in a day, queens and commoners, diner waitresses and dentists. That is all that we get, and it has to be enough, because the only other choices are on other planets.
The only other thing we all have in common is the ability to make choices, change our attitudes, and exert free will. These things are a little more variable. It’s possible that some people are so grumpy that it has carved physical channels into their brains. Or stress lines into their (our) foreheads.
As I come away from this workshop, my question to myself has to be, how long will it be until I need to do this again? Can I change or will I quickly default to my ordinary patterns?
How about you?
I’ve come to the conclusion that I can’t give people health advice under any circumstances.
First, it doesn’t matter if you’re a doctor, nurse, space alien, shaman, mime, dog trainer, marathon runner, or whatever. Nobody will actually change their behavior based on what you say.
Unless it’s something weird such as ‘eating raw pineapple will cause you to grow a second row of teeth.”
Second, I recently sent in a tube of saliva to have my DNA analyzed. Supposedly this includes some genetic markers. It is a gol-danged mystery what might or might not have genetic components, including whether you have hair on your toes or a double-jointed thumb. No matter what happens, people now have the option of blaming their genes rather than external inputs.
Third, after COVID-19 I just don’t know.
I can tell people that COVID is real and that you probably don’t want to find out for yourself, so wear a mask, but anyone who would listen to me has probably been doing that for a long time. Again, what I say to someone will either be preaching to the choir, or it will have no effect.
All I can do is offer for friends who know someone with COVID to have them text me.
Even then, what can I do? I can talk about my experience, but that might not be theirs. For instance, I lost my sense of taste and smell for three weeks, and it came back, but for some people that loss appears to be permanent. Why? I have no idea. Is there anything they can do to get it back? I have no idea. It appeared to happen naturally in my case.
Did anyone read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy?
Remember the part where Arthur Dent came home, ate something spoiled out of his fridge, and unknowingly cured himself of some space infection that would have wiped out all of humanity?
What if I did do something to help myself get my sense of smell back, but I had no idea? What if it was... eating pickles? Something that I have done my entire life, and would never stop even if it caused my skin to turn green and warty?
What if there are multiple inputs in my personal environment that combine in such a way as to cause certain issues in my life and eliminate others?
That’s probably the main problem with trying to give other people health advice. We can’t do it in isolation, one factor at a time. Maybe we do twelve things, the combination of which is necessary to get our results, and maybe the other person is only willing to grudgingly do one of them?
I can say that while I had COVID, I ate a lot of broccoli and cauliflower. That is true. Whether it had any effect whatsoever on my healing will never be known, because nobody did any kind of tests or measured any health metrics while all that was going on. It’s guesswork.
This is where I think most people get into trouble with giving advice: singling out a particular input that they like and wanting to broadcast it to everyone.
Example: Someone I know believes that she can’t get coronavirus because she drinks a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar every day. This is why she won’t get vaccinated.
I utterly 100% think this is wrong, and that all the health effects it can cause are smelling like a salad...
Or at least I thought that until this same person needed major surgery and took months to heal.
Will anyone tell her that maybe her vinegar habit did something bad in her life rather than something good?
Gosh, I hope not!
Will she stop telling people that vinegar is a miracle healing cure?
Are they related?
What it would take to test something like this requires an entire scientific framework that is, for some reason, under scrutiny. The scientific method is the exact part that so many people are skeptical about.
It seems to work like this. I will trust this advice and follow it scrupulously, every day, and tell everyone about it all the time. I will pay good money for it. I will drive many miles for it. I will rearrange my schedule for it. But only if it does not come from a mainstream health practitioner.
Food and health are the new religion, and they have been for some time.
We get into these things because we are desperate for a feeling of control over our lives. We want so much to feel like we can do or not do something very specific, and it will protect us from our mortality.
This is why we want to get other people on board with our habits, because it builds and strengthens that sense of confidence and control. Now we are a team, and together we are unbeatable! Now everybody get that vinegar ready and let’s drink, one two three!
I used to feel that holy fire myself. At that time in my life, I was surrounded by people who were almost entirely on a different wavelength than myself. Many of them were struggling with issues that I had beat, and I wanted to help.
All I did was annoy people.
Then I moved and changed my social group, and instead I was surrounded mostly by people more fit and active than myself.
That shut me up!
Now I’m working on recovery after a year of being blitzed by long-haul COVID. While I’m pleased to be able to run up a flight of stairs again, I still struggle to carry heavy objects, lift my arms over my head, or become very tired after doing a few things that used to be routine, like putting something on top of the fridge. I have a long way to go.
Not that telling someone, “I’m tired too and I struggle with simple things too” would feel like much of a bonding exercise.
What people really want is for someone to deeply validate what they are saying, and that does not include expressing that you had the same experience, because they want to feel seen and prized as a unique individual with unique issues.
This is why I’m not giving health advice these days. All I can do is report something back from my recovery, such as, one day soon I hope to be able to put on a shoe without leaning on something.
I’m packing for a camping trip, after packing for a flight recently, and I have realized something:
I’ve forgotten how to go places.
I had a feeling I was forgetting something as I packed for my trip, even though I wound up bringing 100 pounds of gear. It turned out I was. I had to buy a new charger for my Apple Watch, and NOW I HAVE FOUR because I keep doing this. At this rate I’m going to have to start duct-taping one to my forehead.
Now, as I put together my camping gear, I’m realizing that I am going to blow it in some unspecified way.
I’ve spent literally months of my life camping. It has not been uncommon for me to spend three weeks at a stretch living in a tent. This is something that I know how to do.
Or at least I used to.
The reason I’m talking about all this is not because I live to embarrass myself. It is to encourage everyone who is making adventurous plans for the summer - pause and do some visualization and try to put yourself back in that frame of mind.
Otherwise you’re going to forget half your stuff, just like me.
I started digging stuff out of my pack, including the stuff that normally just stays in the pockets.
That’s how I discovered that there are no batteries in my head lamp.
This is very fortunate. I would much rather find that out in a carpeted suburban bedroom than up on the mountain while trying to pitch my tent in the dark.
(Not that I can’t pitch a tent in the dark, because I definitely can!)
I started doing my visualization. Then I realized that I hadn’t brought the solar backup battery. I don’t think I even opened that box, because if I’d seen it in our gear tub I’m sure I would have remembered it.
Then I realized that I hadn’t packed any sunblock or insect repellent.
There is time to rectify all these issues. That’s why it always pays to go over your gear days in advance. It doesn’t guarantee that you will remember every single thing, of course - just that you’ll patch more of the holes in your mental rowboat.
(Okay, maybe I have a mental rowboat. Maybe yours is a yacht or an aircraft carrier - or maybe you’re just a little dinghy? Hahahaha)
The thing about forgetting gear is that you can often replace it at a store on the way to your destination. But other times - you can’t. Sometimes the thing you want isn’t in stock anywhere in the region, and ask me about the time we had to forfeit the fuel for our camp stove in Madrid and then had no way to heat our food for the next week.
The other reasons you want to avoid shopping trips for replacement gear are the time it takes out of your schedule, the escalated price of the items, and the chance that the store is out of stock on your particular size.
Can I imagine a store with no AAA batteries, no bug spray, and/or no sunblock? Of course I can.
There are two ways to go about making a good packing list. One is to find a checklist that someone else has put together. That can be really helpful, especially if you’re going somewhere you haven’t been before. For instance, I don’t have much experience with camping in the desert, so I would do a little research before I went on a trip like that, even assuming I went with an expert.
In my personal experience, camping and traveling with laid-back, inexperienced people does not bring more fun and whimsy to the trip. It brings chaos and mayhem and crying in the road.
*I* will be that laid-back person, thank you very much! The one who forgot my batteries and won’t go anywhere without 3 pounds of highly unnecessary electronics.
Okay, so there are two ways to do your travel visualization. One is to imagine yourself going through your travel day, your bedtime routine, and then your wake-up routine. The other is to do memory recall of your worst travel experiences - worst sunburns, worst bug bites, etc - and those of anyone else you know.
I can tell you right now, we have always brought our backpacking first aid kit and we have always used it, even on an overnight. I’ve also used every element of repair items, from Tenacious Tape to the sewing kit. While it’s possible to fix things with string and twigs, I’d rather not if I don’t have to.
I was reading earlier about bird migration. There are two types of migrants, obligate and facultative. Facultative migrants make shorter, more local trips, so they can wait depending on the weather and availability of certain foods. Obligate migrants are going so far that they can’t predict conditions, so they just have to be ready for anything.
As we are not birds, and we expect certain things out of life like shoes and beds and hot meals, we must therefore pack like the obligate migrant and retain the flexible mindset of the facultative migrant.
When I do my chaos and mayhem visualization, I imagine all the wild stuff. Torn ligaments and large wounds and compound fractures and bear attacks - fortunately only from the literature - and lost shoes and broken phones and raccoons tearing up the food stores.
Raccoons! Have torn up both my groceries and my tent at one time or another.
When I do my routine visualization, I picture myself getting ready for bed. I pitch my tent. I lay out my bedding. I sent up my solar lantern and my toothbrush. I sleep. I get up in the morning and put on clothes and shoes. These things all sound simple to the point of boredom.
The important thing is that those routines involve almost every single item anyone would need on a trip.
Always remember that what you are bringing on the trip is you. The only point of leaving your house at all is to either spend time with people or experience things that you cannot experience at home. Your stuff should exist in service to your experiences and your relationships. Just like it does at home.
Bring only what you need to have the best time possible, and remember, somehow you have survived despite every item you have ever forgotten, broken, or lost. When the gear is gone the adventure remains.
What would you do if you were twice as smart?
The first person I asked this raised his eyebrows.
The second person responded that it would make it harder to deal with idiots.
(Would it, though? What if being twice as smart suddenly made it seem obvious not only how to deal with them - if there is such a thing as an ‘idiot’ anyway - but also how to change their perspective in such a way that they quit annoying you?)
The more I thought about this question, the more I wondered whether I would still be working on the same problems in my life that I do now.
For instance, would I still have a backlog of reading material? Probably. Would it be twice as long as it is now? Equally probable.
Would I still struggle with insomnia, probably yes, possibly more so.
On the other hand, if I were twice as smart, maybe I could finally figure out the answers to certain problems that I now find pressing, such as the desire to overpack on trips or try to do “one last thing” before leaving, making myself short on time. Or the pull to visit more and more attractions on vacation, thus changing cities too often and stressing myself out.
My image of being twice as smart is one of frenetic mental activity.
What if it were the opposite, though? What if being twice as smart meant more mental calm, as I realized that there was no reason to stress about certain things?
How about you? How do you imagine being twice as smart as you are today?
Another way of thinking about this mental game is to change the attribute. Instead of ‘smart’ we can think about being ‘attractive’ or ‘rich’ or something else. Funny?
Thinking about having twice as many family members, roommates, or pets would clearly be a little messy, even if you also have twice as many bathrooms.
Two parrots, two box forts...
Going back to those other suggestions, personally, I would not want to be “twice as attractive.” Presumably that would put a lot of people within range of a professional modeling career. I have always thought that being so physically attractive that people would insist on stopping you and demanding your attention - I have always thought that would be completely awful. The very Hollywood concept of being “discovered” was something I found alarming as a child.
You’re just sitting there minding your own business, and then someone comes along and wants you to stand still for hours so they can take pictures of you or film you? Do your hair and put you in false eyelashes?
Actually that sounds like something that people do for themselves these days, trying to become social media influencers, and it still sounds just as boring and unfulfilling to me today as it would have in the 1930s.
No thanks, I’d rather be ordinary looking.
“Twice as rich” is another interesting concept. For most people on the planet, doubling their net worth would still not make them “rich.” If I had twice as much money, I still couldn’t retire yet. Worse, I still couldn’t buy a house in my neighborhood, either.
This sort of raises the question, if everyone on Earth doubled some characteristic such as wealth, beauty, or intelligence, would it be noticeable?
Think about this for a second, if you haven’t already. If everything in the Universe doubled in size overnight - would anyone know? How could you prove it, if even your tape measure had also doubled in size? Relatively, everything would still be the same. Your car would still bump over the same potholes and your cat would still want the same amount of treats.
Would a cat sleep twice as much? If it could? That’s basically 24 hours a day.
Some of us could probably sleep twice as much, and it might not be a bad thing. Those of you in the sub-six-hour range might give this some thought.
Some of the same people could probably consume half as much caffeine at some benefit to themselves.
This idea is infectious. What if I spent half as much, or twice as much, of my attention, time, money?
Thus we return to the concept of being twice as smart, and what it would change.
How much celebrity gossip would Smarter Me follow? Is there something that I don’t find all that interesting today, that Smarter Me wouldn’t be able to stop thinking about?
Would Smarter Me still be into gator news? Yes, of course, who wouldn’t be?
Right now something interesting is going on at work. Well, lots of things are, most of which I probably don’t know about. One of them, though, is that my boss told me to follow up and file an invention disclosure on an idea I had.
This is not something that I currently know how to build. I am not an engineer. But innovation doesn’t work that way. You don’t have to have a working prototype, or even be totally clear on how to make something, in order to get a patent on it.
I love my idea. I am sure that if I were twice as smart, I would be building it. I don’t know how to make it right now - material selection, design, etc - but I like to fantasize that if I were twice as smart, I would.
I often quote Nick Hanauer with a directive that I use as my personal motto: “Solve the biggest problem you can.”
The trouble here is that you have to choose your problem - unless it chooses you, which problems often do, in the same way that a stray cat might choose you, only with less purring.
This is why I work where I do. I figured my company deals with the most interesting problems. I could be working at the animal shelter, or I could be working here, and there are plenty of other people drawn to the rescue space who could not or would not do my job.
I assume that if we were all twice as smart, we would be solving some of our biggest personal problems by working in jobs that are appropriate to our gifts. We would all choose to go toward the problems that we find the juiciest. Instead of feeling stressed by our bosses and our commutes and our colleagues and our customers and money and all of that, we could instead be animated by interesting challenges.
Or maybe not. I don’t actually know, because alas, all I have are the mental gifts that I have today. And all the rest. Just the one life, no doubling of anything that I have noticed.
Unless the entire Universe did get twice as big, just last night.
This is what is going on with me.
I got both my vaccines, and then I traveled for the first time in a year and a half. I went to three different international airports and sat next to strangers on two separate planes. Both flights were full.
I’ve been running up the stairs.
All I can do is speak to my own experience, and that is that the COVID-19 vaccine seems to have restored my health. I spent a year dealing with long-haul COVID symptoms, and now they are gone.
Now I’m idly shopping for new running shoes. I’m tentatively thinking about short hiking trips. I’m feeling my way back into what used to be a pretty active, outdoorsy lifestyle.
This isn’t just a personal anecdote. I know that millions of people, for some reason or other, are petrified about vaccines. It feels really important to share that vaccines work and that they are safe, routine, and normal.
I’m starting to get the sense that getting vaccinated - against anything, really - may have a way of making a naive, “all-natural” immune system a little smarter and more efficient.
I’ve been vaccinated against, let’s see: measles, mumps, rubella, tetanus, diphtheria, whooping cough, hepatitis A & B, influenza, and now COVID-19. There are probably others that I have forgotten about - but apparently my immune system has not.
What is important to me here is that I never got sick with any of the things I was vaccinated against!
I had the misfortune of contracting coronavirus early in the pandemic. The day I was exposed there were only 3,000 recorded cases in the US. Obviously there wasn’t a vaccine available yet. If there was, I would have lined up to get one, because I get the flu shot, too.
For some reason, a lot of people are suspicious of the testing around vaccines when they are not equally suspicious about other things. A few that come to mind are the cumulative effects of food additives across products and across time, and whether the ingredients on the label of “supplements” actually match what is in the product.
I know someone who believes she doesn’t need the vaccine because she drinks a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar every day.
I know several people who are adamantly against vaccines but who will use “supplements” and essential oils with wild abandon.
Question: why do you trust the makers of these products so fully? Why don’t you demand the testing on these products that you do for vaccines - or can you even explain what kind of testing you would want? How do you know that isn’t already happening - is this a close scrutiny or an intuitive rejection?
The problem with taking a firm, documented stand for or against a certain lifestyle is how to rebrand your position if you wind up having a health problem.
I didn’t have time to formulate some kind of claim about whether I thought I could keep myself from getting sick with COVID. I got infected before I really had time to realize that hey, this could happen to me.
If I had had more time to gather my dread and anxiety, as more people in my community started getting sick, I probably would have figured, yeah, I do tend to be vulnerable to respiratory infections. If I got it, I would probably be in trouble.
There doesn’t seem to be any profit to me in making claims that can easily be refuted.
Maybe I say something like, Oh, I eat a lot of cabbage, you should eat cabbage too so you don’t get sick. Then I get sick. Oops.
Health is like religion for a lot of people. The way we deal with our anxieties is to build some sort of belief system that helps make sense out of a weird and frightening world. It helps us feel like we have some control.
I bought this consumer product from a skilled marketer! It’s called [x] and the packaging looks like [y]! Owning this makes me feel strong, smart, and confident. If I can convince you to buy it, too, it will reinforce my feeling that I know what I’m doing.
I did it, too. I bought some expensive vitamins that I took while I was sick. I got better.
Was it because of these vitamins, or would I have gotten better anyway?
Was I getting better anyway, and maybe... *gasp* ... the vitamins actually interfered with my healing??
There is no way to explore this counterfactual because I can’t go back in time and do it the other way, as a control. I can only guess and hope I’m right.
This is why I look to big data and studies and testing done by other people. I don’t necessarily know the full resume of every one of these people - but I do know that I cannot trust myself as a single point of data.
I’ve tried, and it’s stressful and confusing.
What I do know is that coronavirus made me very ill, even though I am a not-old person who lacks a single one of the comorbidities on the list of risk factors. At least there is no question in my mind whether COVID is real.
What I know now is that it’s possible to get better. That process will probably be shorter for some people and longer for others.
Does this apply to other illnesses that are not viral? I don’t know. I only know what I experienced.
Right now, I am finding that my energy level is getting better and better. I am starting to have the urge to move faster. This includes running up flights of stairs.
A year ago, I could barely get down a flight of stairs, even clinging to the railing, without shaking, sweating, and waves of nausea.
Physical recovery has a lot in common with adjusting your mental framework. It can make you want to just lie down and take a nap. It can involve a lot of brain fog. It can feel like running upstairs, working so hard just to get to a higher level.
Bodies and minds are both designed for growth and movement. Both need to be exercised to function as well as possible. Exploring different ways to respond to a problem is nothing that we can’t handle.
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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