Reentry

Reentry

 

 

Did you watch any of the comings and goings of the Crew Dragon capsule as it went up and down from the International Space Station? It’s a sleek, slick, dazzling white, truly space age looking piece of hardware that has now ferried several astronauts to space and back as part of the partnership between SpaceX and NASA. I decided to watch a video on the You Tube channel Everyday Astronaut to learn more about how this tiny capsule gets back to earth once it has been in space and docked for a while. I would encourage you to check it out.

 

Spoiler alert: this last mission resulted in the first successful water splashdown since 1976. That being said, what were some of the most interesting facts about the timeline and process of bringing this little capsule and its human cargo home safely to earth? First of all, once the Crew Dragon backed away from its home away from home, it had anywhere from six to thirty hours until possible splashdown. That’s quite a range! As it entered  the atmosphere of our planet, its heat shield was turned to face forward in the direction of travel, having to withstand temperatures of 1900 degrees Celsius, and G forces of three to four times earth’s for the crew inside. The air that rushes towards the speeding capsule has little time to get out of the way, is superheated to half the temperature of the surface of the sun, and is compressed into what is called plasma, all of which puts tremendous pressure on the capsule and its contents.

 

Once the capsule did make it past the blistering heat of the atmosphere and was free falling towards the water, it had to be further slowed down, first with two small parachutes that oriented it for its final descent. Then, four main parachutes partially opened, then fully opened to help the capsule gently settle onto the surface of the water. The exact timing and manner of deployment of these chutes is critical. Too fast and they simply won’t open, too slow and they will not slow the craft enough to prevent a hard landing on the water. It was picked up, placed in a “nest” on the recovery ship, and saw the extrication of astronauts who had been in space so long that they could barely negotiate one atmosphere of pressure and could barely stand without support. As the host of the Everyday Astronaut video stated, “The entire system makes reentry safe.”

 

Now, think about where we are today in this pandemic cycle, which officially started in March of last year. We are battered, bruised, tired, grieving, and so ready to re-enter our prepandemic lives. We would like to think that we can just magically return to what we did, how we acted and talked and functioned in January 2020. The truth is, just like Crew Dragon, we have been docked for over a year, in one way or another, stuck in our homes, working out of closets and bedrooms, teaching kids at the dining room table, talking to coworkers, friends and family by Zoom, emotionally weightless. Now, we are ready to suit up, get back into the capsule, back away from being forcibly tethered to pandemic life, and head for freedom. What will it take to do this? What will it cost us to get back on the ground?

 

First, just like the crew leaving the space station, we must be protected. We cannot do this alone. We must orient ourselves in the proper way so that we can face the onslaught of heat that will be coming our way in the form of social gatherings, parties, dinners, school activities, sporting events, church gatherings, and family outings. It is going to be wonderful and brutal all at the same time. Is your calendar already filling up like mine? We need a heat shield. This may come in the form of a good support system, good self care and good habits like exercise and getting enough sleep. The events and obligations, like the air that cannot get out of the way of the capsule and is compressed into super hot plasma, will rush at us so fast that all we think we can do is say yes and hang on for the ride. I would counter with the fact that if we have learned only one thing in this time of pandemic, it is that we can say no.

 

What are your parachutes? What will gently place some directional drag on your descent back into the helter skelter that was your pre-pandemic life? What will slow you just enough so that you can take your time, pick and choose your commitments and activities and interactions so that they will make you stronger, not dash you against life in a rush? Think about that now as you get vaccinated, as your mask comes off in more and more places, as you begin to hug friends and family again, and as you feel more comfortable in your own skin outside your own home.

 

Like the Crew Dragon astronauts, we will miraculously come through the fiery descent, get ourselves oriented in the right direction, gently slow things down to a manageable speed, and come out of our confinement a bit unsteady, but ready to accept the support that will get us back to our best selves for the years to come.

 

Happy reentry!

Cast Off

It happened too many years ago to remember now, but I still do. It was a time when we who labored in mental health could be more real, could actually connect with our patients in meaningful ways and even let our hair down from time to time and have some fun. A group of staff members were playing a group of patients in a friendly softball game in Aiken, a few miles from the mental health center. I was old enough to know better but still young enough to think that the teen athlete still lived in me, and you know how that always turns out.

 

I was taking my turn at bat, connected with the ball and drilled what should have been a solid single to right field. I should have been more than satisfied with that, but of course I wasn’t. I rounded first, saw that the outfielder was fumbling with the transfer from glove to throwing hand, and made a split second decision to stretch a sure single into a maybe double. Getting to second was easy. I was still moderately fast in those days. The next decision I made was not a good one, however. Without a clear need to do so, I decided to slide into second in a blaze of dusty glory. Bad move.

 

I knew that I had really screwed up when my left leg made contact with the base, which felt at that moment like a concrete block. The snap was audible, the pain immediate and the shame followed close behind. When I tried to get up, I saw an acute angle between leg and foot that was not at all natural. Not good. A short ride and check in at the emergency room later, I was not at all comforted by the well meaning nurse who told me that “only really active people get injuries like these”. You know the drill. Ortho tech, clean it up, put it in a cast to the knee, get fitted for crutches, see ya in a few weeks.

 

The hardest part about being in a cast for those long weeks, besides not being able to take a real shower without wrapping my leg in plastic bags? I couldn’t walk with crutches and carry a coffee cup at the same time. This, my friends, is the definition of crisis. But, of course, like many weekend warriors, I made it through.

 

Fast forward to the doc’s office on the day that the cast was coming off. I had lost about half the muscle mass in my leg, and I was more than a little worried about taking away the plaster exoskeleton that had held me up for those weeks. Would I fall down? Rebreak the leg? Be able to do the things that I could before the injury? Getting the cast off felt so good in one way, with cool air on skin and mobility that I had missed terribly. But the worry about reinjury or weakness or worse still gave me fits for a few days, until I knew things would be okay again.

 

Now, forward to March 13, 2021. The CDC decides that after more than a year, those who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 can shed their masks indoors and out, around people who are also fully vaccinated and those who are not. This seems to come so suddenly that it catches us off guard.  After being so careful for so long to avoid exposure, protect ourselves against infection and illness, we are now told that all is clear and safe! To me, it almost instantly brought back memories of taking my cast off, something that I was more than happy to shed, but with the anxiety of what my health would be like after it was gone.

 

Protections, even if restrictive and painful in the short term, often make us feel safer in the long run. Removal of these restrictions is exhilarating but can be frightening at the same time.

 

When I was recovering from my broken leg, just as we are now seeing the beginning of the end of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, letting protections fall away was the only sure way to test ourselves and our safety going forward.

 

The second half of that lesson is also clear: testing ourselves is the only way to grow.

Languishing

How have you felt lately? Really?

Good? I am happy for you. Depressed and hopeless? I sincerely hope that you are seeking help and on the road to recovery. The rest of you? My hunch is that you may be feeling a little flat, not motivated, and “meh”. This is weird, right? Vaccines are here, many of us are back to work, things are opening up a little bit, and the warm sunshine of spring and the promise of summertime should be brightening our days. Why then, do we still feel a lack of motivation, have trouble concentrating and find it challenging to focus on the things that matter to us?

Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at Wharton, addressed all this in his April 19, 2021 article There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing. He pointed out that we are not depressed or hopeless. We are not impaired. We are functioning daily. We are not burned out. There is just little joy and we feel aimless at times. We lack anticipation for the good things that we used to look forward to.

According to Grant, languishing is a sense of stagnation and emptiness. We are muddling through, and as some of my patients have said in the past “existing but not really living”. Many of us who have had COVID and recovered or those who have not had the illness at all are struggling not with long COVID syndrome, but with “the emotional long haul of the pandemic”.

Think back to early spring 2020. We were all a bit frightened, unsure of what was happening in the world around us that was heading our way. Back then, according to Grant, our natural threat detection system was “on high alert for fight or flight”. We learned that masks were helpful, but we were still scrubbing surfaces and sanitizing our groceries. We developed crude routines that “helped ease our sense of dread”. The problem is that as time has gone by, our acute state of anguish “has given way to a chronic condition of languish”. As languishing is squarely between depression and flourishing, we don’t feel bad but neither do we feel back to our pre-pandemic good either. Grant says that “you’re not functioning at full capacity. Languishing dulls your motivation, disrupts your ability to focus, and triples the odds that you’ll cut back on work”.

The term was coined by a sociologist named Corey Keyes. According to the article, his research suggests that these who are languishing today are going to be at much higher risk of developing depression and anxiety over the next decade. That second great pandemic wave you’ve heard about? It may be psychological, not purely medical. Grant also says something about languishing that hit me: “You’re indifferent to your indifference.” You may not even realize how slowly you are sliding into the malaise.

So, what do we do with all of this? Grant says that one of the best ways to handle emotions is to name them. In the spring of 2020, we were all obviously experiencing acute grief, from loss of loved ones to loss of freedoms to loss of routine to loss of income. So many losses. Now, we learn that we are languishing, and naming it may be the first step in battling our way out of it. Languishing is “common and shared” and just knowing that may give us the ability to bestow a little grace not only on others but on ourselves.

What next? Focus. Relearn, if you must, how to pay attention to the things that are important to you. I am the worst when it comes to this, so believe me when I say I am not preaching to you. Grant says in his article that “computers are made for parallel processing, but humans are better off serial processing”. Simply put this means do not try to multitask! Again, I have five or ten or fifteen things that I must do, want to do, love to do, and I delude myself into thinking that I can do five of them at a time extremely well, but this is simply not true. Pick something, make it realistic and doable, and put your whole focus into it. You’ll feel much more accomplished and maybe even happy if you do!

Set boundaries and block out time for yourself. A colleague and I were talking about this by email just this morning. We need processing time, thinking time, planning time. I know it is hard to come by when you are working from home, taking care of the kids and responding to emails and Zoom invitations all day, but it is worth aiming for.

Grant tells us to focus on small goals. “Try starting with small wins”, because the pandemic was such a big loss to us all. Don’t be too easy on yourself though. Pick something moderately challenging sometimes. “The most important factor in daily joy an motivation is a sense of progress.” Do things that matter to you.

The article finishes up by acknowledging that “languishing is not merely in our heads-it’s in our circumstances”. “Not depressed doesn’t mean you are not struggling.” As one of my patients told me that other day (I told him I would steal this and he agreed), “Just because I am smart and can articulate what is going on with me does not mean that I can fix it.” Don’t let yourself languish, isolate and fall into the pandemic abyss. Use the tools outlined in this article, use your support systems, and get professional help if you need it. We are so close, and we will get there together.

(Un) Comfortably Numb

“Hello? Is anybody in there?”

“I have become comfortably numb.”

Pink Floyd

We are being bombarded with numbers. Numbingly numerous numbers. Allow me to share some familiar, and maybe not so familiar ones with you.

When I first wrote this piece, there had been one hundred ten million, thirteen thousand eight hundred forty-one cases of COVID-19 across the world. Global deaths were two million, four hundred thirty-two thousand six hundred ninety-five. In the United States, we had twenty-seven million, eight hundred twenty-eight thousand one hundred fifty of these cases, and four hundred ninety thousand, seven hundred eighteen deaths. Of course, the numbers have only grown since that time.

The monster winter storm that engulfed the United States from Texas to the northeast resulted in four million without power in Texas alone, and forty deaths across the land. By Thursday of that week, FEMA had already distributed seven hundred twenty-nine thousand liters of water, fifty thousand cotton blankets and two hundred twenty-five thousand meals.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, forty one percent of adults surveyed in January 2021 had some degree of anxiety and depression, up from 11 per cent in January through June of 2019. Thirty six percent of those questioned related poor sleep, and thirty-two had appetite changes. Up to fifty-six per cent of young adults ages 18-24 had been battling depression and anxiety.

Did you see how I wrote all these numbers out in words? Why? Because it takes you longer to read out each word, to really process what the sheer numbers mean, than if you see another in a long string of mind-blowingly large figures. The numbers do not lie. We see them, day after day after day, but my fear is that we are becoming more and more (un) comfortably numb to them.

It is easy to develop compassion fatigue in times like these. There is so much hurt and fear and pain and need and stress in our world right now that it is easy for us to develop emotional numbness to these massive threats to our daily way of life. Compassion fatigue is that indifference to charitable appeals on behalf of those who are suffering, experienced as a result of the frequency or number of such appeals. It comes in no small part from actually absorbing into ourselves the trauma and emotional stress of others, leading to a vicarious pain and discomfort that become a secondary trauma to the caregiver or helper.

How does it manifest? Physical and emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, irritability (raising my hand here), self-contempt, decreased sleep, weight loss (or gain in some), and headaches are just a few of the signs and symptoms you might find yourself experiencing during these very troubled times.

How might it affect your ability to function at your best daily? You might be trying harder but find yourself helping less. You might give up, feeling that the stresses in the world are so huge right now that there is nothing one person can do. You might find yourself coping by using alcohol, drugs, or food to self soothe. Small, nagging physical symptoms might worsen into actual illness.

How do you decrease emotional numbness?

Reconnect with the world, with your world. Find a way to reach out and connect locally, nationally or internationally as you feel might be most helpful.

Practice good self-care. This is not the time to back off good pandemic hygiene, good patterns of eating and sleeping, or your usual exercise routine. It is time to double down on these things that make us healthy and keep us happy. I have recently started meditating, having never done it and knowing absolutely nothing about it. I have been amazed at how a brief ten-to-twenty-minute meditation practice session can put me back in the game. Learn something new. I recently listened to a chapter in Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s book Keep Sharp that talked about learning a new language or something equally as challenging. I was heartened to hear him say that it is not impossible to learn these difficult new things as we age, though it might take a little longer than when we were younger. Give yourself the grace to try, to do, and to succeed. We are making history just by surviving in this one-hundred-year pandemic!

Take time with family and friends when you can do so safely and practically. We need social interaction, as discussed here before. We just need to realize that continued vigilance is necessary until we can see the true end of the pandemic approaching.

Write in a journal. As you know if you have been reading my columns and blog posts for long, I love to write. I write in small notebooks, large notebooks, software programs, on Post-It notes, and on the back of envelopes. Our thoughts jotted down on paper or converted to ones and zeros in an app somewhere will be the primary sources for someone who one day writes the definitive history of this pandemic. Think about that and contribute.

I’ve borrowed from Mother Teresa before, and I will do it again to close these thoughts for the week.

“We cannot all do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”

Pandemic Pitfalls

I read a good article on the physical effects of the coronavirus pandemic on our physical health recently. Yes, the Pandemic Is Ruining Your Body was written by Amanda Mull and published on January 14, 2021 in the Atlantic. In it, she addressed many of the ways that living in the middle of the worst worldwide health crisis in a century affect us as human beings who are struggling to be brave, squash fear, stay productive, and thrive, all without the help of our usual social institutions and personal interactions.

She acknowledges that for some of us, myself included, sitting at home virtually all the time, even when working hard, is a situation of relative comfort and incredible luck. We have jobs that allow us to use computers, faxes, cell phones, scanners, email, and videoconferencing to meet, greet, schmooze and therapize to our hearts’ content, just not in person. But at what cost? She says that in her own experience of working from home, she began to experience decreased hip mobility, low grade headaches, sore shoulders, a stiff neck, and dry skin. At first, she and her ailments felt isolated, because she was isolated. She could not see that her coworkers were doing the same things, stretching the same tired muscles and “gobbling up ibuprofen” as she was. Many have been sickened or even died from COVID-19. Those who have avoided those fates, says Mull,  are living through an extended disaster that at the least is painful, but at its worst can be catastrophic.

What are doctors and others seeing? Aches and pains come up for seemingly no reason and then stick around. People who work from home found themselves setting up what they thought would be a temporary home workstation that they might need to use for a few weeks at best, a few months at worst. I did this myself. Over the last year, as pandemic reality set in, I have changed my equipment configuration, furniture and workflow more times than I can even remember. Sitting in front of a too short table, shoulders hunched, laptop screen too low, keyboard at the wrong height, and normal implements not easily reached, makes work tough. This, as Mull says, “all while sitting in a chair meant to support a human for the duration of a meal, not a workday”.

We are also working longer hours. How can that be, I asked myself after I read this in multiple articles for the fifth or sixth time. If you must get up, get ready, drive to your workplace and then leave at a prescribed time once you are done, there is an eight or nine hour rhythm to your day. If you subtract some of the prep time and all of the commute time, you find yourself (and again, I can attest to this) working an extra hour or even two. As I wrote this, I finished a “normal” ten hour workday that was jam packed with patients, emails, consults, and reviews. It simply feels that work has been busier, more packed with tasks and with much less down time or break time then pre-pandemic. Let’s be honest. Everyone feels just a little twinge of guilt when they work from home. And Mull says, “expectations of productivity have increased” because you are there. Granted, some may be able to outfit a spare bedroom or home office with nicer and more usable equipment, but “for those living in cramped housing with kids who go to Zoom school and other family members who also need space to work, building a personal mini office simply isn’t an option”.

Does any of this bleed over into our emotional wellbeing and ability to cope with the social and mental stresses that this pandemic has caused? Of course it does. In the past year, many months of which I have worked predominantly at home, there has not been a workday that goes by without me hearing about folks who are anxious and can’t sleep. Not a single day. Much like Amanda Mull discussed in her article about the physical stresses that can lead to physical problems, I have seen the psychological toll that the coronavirus has had on our normal psychological and emotional worlds. While staying home, we have lost out physical connection to others. There is no chatter around the coffee pot or in the parking lot before or after work. We have been forced to use different “equipment” to connect with each other. As my rector opined at a recent annual church business meeting, “Well, Zoom gets the job done I guess, but it’s not the same, is it?” Screens are now our “windows on the soul”. Why? Because any time we are face to face with most people we know outside our immediate family, we are wearing masks. Unless you are extremely close to someone, it is hard to read real emotion from just raised eyebrows or crinkling crows feet. Why is this important?

Because stress, anxiety, depression, loneliness, and hopelessness kill. They are not dangerous in themselves just for the misery they cause, and the potential for catastrophic consequences like suicide. As Mull states in her article, depression and anxiety “are enormous risk factors for heart problems, especially among people over 50. Quarantine itself is also a risk factor. Loneliness and social isolation increase the risk of myocardial infarction and stroke by up to 30 per cent”.

What can you do now, today? Connect with others, however you can, however awkward. Call. Zoom. FaceTime. Text. Reach out to the elderly who have little social support. Spend some non-screen time with a child. Cook dinner, and then leave part of it in a basket for the neighbors next door. I know I keep saying this, but it’s true. This pandemic will end. We will get through this together. We just need to make sure that we come out of this ordeal as physically and mentally healthy as we possibly can.

Fake It Until You Make It

I have been talking with friends, family members, and patients over the last several months about our lives in 2020. We continue to try to describe what it feels like for each of us to live in the middle of the biggest pandemic in the last hundred years. We talk about the things that we have all been feeling: the sense of loss, grief over the changes in our normal lives, the lack of social interactions with others, the inability to participate in things that used to give us joy, and the lack of certainty that pervades every aspect of our lives. We talk about how these stressors have changed the way we work, play and interact with others. We talk of the longing for things to get back to the normal, the predictable, and the reassuring. Almost everyone I know feels less confident, less powerful and less able to influence his environment since the start of this pandemic. We have been shrinking into ourselves, staying at home more and shunning the very social interactions that make us fully human.

There is a phrase that I am sure you’ve heard before. Fake it until you make it. This idea probably goes back to at least Alfred Adler in the 1920s. According to Wikipedia, Adler developed a therapeutic technique that he called “acting as if”, which allowed his clients to practice alternative behaviors that would help them to change dysfunctional patterns. You may know this technique by its more modern name still used today, “role play”.  Fake it until you make it leads us to imitate confidence, competence and a positive optimistic mindset until we can actually achieve these things in our real lives.

Wikipedia offers another way to look at this, attributed to William James:

“Action seems to follow feeling, but really action and feeling go together; and by regulating the action, which is under the more direct control of the will, we can indirectly regulate the feeling, which is not.

Thus the sovereign voluntary path to cheerfulness, if our spontaneous cheerfulness be lost, is to sit up cheerfully, to look round cheerfully, and to act and speak as if cheerfulness were already there. If such conduct does not make you soon feel cheerful, nothing else on that occasion can. So to feel brave, act as if we were brave, use all our will to that end, and a courage-fit will very likely replace the fit of fear.”

— William James, “The Gospel of Relaxation”, On Vital Reserves (1922)

Another place that I have recently found reference to this ability to fake it until we make it is in the 2016 TED talk given by Amy Cuddy. In it, she describes how body language visually telegraphs our mood and state of confidence, and how our nonvisuals impact not only those around us, but ourselves as well.

One of her main points in her talk is that we can fake it until we become it, until we can tell ourselves, “I’m really doing this!” Tiny tweaks in our behaviors can lead to big changes in our lives.

We are living in very stressful times. We are dealing on a daily basis with social upheaval, political unrest and the possibility that we might contract a deadly illness. Even without being told, we have felt ourselves shrink from daily encounters with others, decrease our normal social interactions, and forfeit many activities that give us joy. We may not feel overtly afraid, depressed and defeated, but our body language and our actions may telegraph otherwise, both to others and to ourselves.

Can we fake it until we all make it? Yes, I believe we can. Listen to and act on the recommendations by the CDC. Wash your hands. Wear a mask when you leave your home. Observe social distancing recommendations. Be smart about how and when you interact with others both indoors and out. This pandemic is fueled by the spread of a tiny virus that will stop spreading when it is deprived of new hosts. Our behaviors, coupled with the eventual development of viable, effective, safe and reliable vaccines that we all choose to receive, will stop it in its tracks, and this medical nightmare will finally be history. Until then, even if you feel deprived, depressed and distanced from the people and things that make life worth living, fake it until you make it.

Fatigue

Words are interesting, aren’t they? I love to use words to convey meaning, to educate, to enlighten and to try to persuade. We all use words that we are familiar with, that we understand and that are part of our normal vernacular. We get used to these words as ways to express a familiar thought or idea that we hold dear or that comforts us. The interesting thing about the English language is that many of our words have nuanced definitions and can be used to express many similar or related meanings.
Fatigue is one of the words that comes to mind for me lately. When we look to the Merriam Webster Collegiate Dictionary definition of fatigue, we find several aspects of this word that pertain to our current situation as we struggle with pandemic life.
First, a definition that was certainly not top of mind for me. “Manual or menial work, such as the cleaning up of a camp area, performed by military personnel.” There is also a corollary definition that goes with this, being “the uniform or work clothing worn on fatigue and in the field”. Think about many households now as young families struggle with educating their children at home, cooking and eating many more meals at home than usual, and having one or more adults working from home at the same time. This scenario has created home landscapes akin to domestic camp areas, staging areas for vocational, culinary and educational missions that were often outsourced and performed far away from the home just a few months ago. We are constantly “cleaning up the camp area” while wearing the new uniform of 2020, shorts, tees, sweats, and Allbirds, trying our best to be efficient and productive while staying as comfortable and low key as possible. For the most part, I think we are succeeding admirably in spite of all the odds against us.
The second definition is more the traditional one that we think of when we think of fatigue. “Weariness of exhaustion from labor, exertion, or stress.” We have all felt this in one way or another over the last seven months. We are working hard, sometimes in vastly different ways or in different places than we are used to. We are caring for families, our coworkers, and others at the expense of caring for ourselves. Some of us have fallen ill with COVID-19 and that has given an entirely new meaning to fatigue for us. Physical weariness that precludes meaningful activity and productivity wears on one’s body, mind and soul. Even if you want to get up and actively engage the world, sometimes a physical illness like COVID-19 stops you in your tracks and says, “not today”. This fatigue, unlike the camp that can be tidied and cleaned, must be managed until it has passed. It is insidious, long lasting and debilitating.
The third definition that caught my eye was the one describing “a state or attitude of indifference or apathy brought on by overexposure (as to a repeated series of similar events or appeals)”. Now, this definition encompasses several different aspects of our current lives in the time of COVID-19. Not only are we feeling extremely overwhelmed by the pandemic and how it has disrupted our daily lives for months now, but we have been dealing with racial tensions, economic stresses and political dissent and strife as we approach one of the most contentious presidential elections our country has held in our lifetimes. When there were fifteen cases of COVID-19, the threat felt small. When there were one thousand deaths, we felt that this was something terrible. Fifty thousand deaths were almost unfathomable. One hundred thousand deaths were unbelievable. Now, we have had eight million cases of COVID-19 in our country and well over two hundred thousand deaths. We have been seeing and hearing these numbers for so long now, and in such quantities, that we are numb to them. We are fatigued. It is harder and harder to muster compassion, much less hope that things will eventually get better. On top of the ongoing pandemic and its stresses, add the civil unrest, the political intrigues and countless ads on television and in the news, and we are simply bombarded with negativity that further numbs and chastens us.
What to do?
See things as they are. We have already found that one cannot wish away a viral pandemic. It will run its course, relentlessly, until we either achieve immunity overall or we have a workable vaccine. We cannot make the government attend to our financial needs. We have had to be creative to find work and put food on the table. We cannot fix racial unrest and social inequalities overnight. These changes can come, but it will take much time and much work by all.
Limit negative exposure. Keep up with the news, but only in prescribed amounts and at certain times. Constant exposure to negativity and stress will only increase social, emotional and physical fatigue.
Act. Plan. Work. Vote. Talk. Collaborate.

One final definition of fatigue that Webster’s offers us? “The tendency of a material to break under repeated stress.” We do not want to let ourselves get to that point, do we?

COVIDISMS: There’s Got to Be a Morning After

Well, it’s been six months since this hell began for most of us. Life changed about mid-March. The pressures of pandemic life and racial unrest and climate change and monster storms and COVID-19 and political upheaval and all the rest of the plagues that currently beset us are almost too much to bear. Almost. But bear them we do, baring our souls when we need to, our teeth when we must and our hearts, always. As Master Yoda wisely taught us, in times like these, “No! Try not. DO or DO NOT. There is no try.”

Yesterday was the nineteenth anniversary of the brutal terrorist attacks on our country on September 11, 2001. Like many of you, I can remember the exact spot I was sitting in, the exact thing I was doing, the exact sameness of that morning, until someone told us to step into the next room. A group of caregivers, patients, doctors, counselors and family members were glued to the small television on top of the rolling cart, watching in disbelief as a plane hit the World Trade Center. A tragedy. A fluke. An accident. Until it wasn’t. Until another plane took that elegant, sweeping, graceful arc of death into the second tower in a ball of fire and melted glass and metal and a second plane full of people lost their lives in an instant. I listened to some of the phone calls from the planes and the towers last night, against my better judgment, and was absolutely devastated by the sadness, the finality and loss of it all. Lives and families shattered, a city reeling, responders who had been trained to handle anything that could ever happen, except this one thing. No one had ever used planeloads of people as weapons of war. I know that it is not good for me to watch and listen to histories of tragedies such as 9-11 after long weeks of work and stress, especially when I am home alone, but how can I not? How can we not hearken back to that time, that era, that innocence lost for us and for our children? NEVER FORGET.

Today is September 12th, and the thirty sixth birthday of a woman who I admire greatly. (Happy birthday, Greer. I love you!) My oldest daughter, who bears the Scotch feminine form of my first name as her own, has become a force to be reckoned with. (From Houseofnames.com: The old Scottish-Dalriadan name Greer is derived from the given name Gregor. The personal name Gregor, which is the Scottish form of Gregory, is derived from the Latin name “Gregorius” and from the Late Greek name “Gregorios,” which mean alert, watchful, or vigilant.) She is a daughter, a wife, a mother, a friend, a political activist, a party planner extraordinaire, a home schooler, a sister, and aunt and so many other things large and small. As I have written about before, she was performing in a production of Oklahoma! in Augusta, Georgia when 9-11 happened, and was about to celebrate her birthday with friends and family that year. I am quite sure that she has vivid memories of that year as we all do. There was a morning after for Greer, a birthday morning after, and there have been September 12ths every day since that fateful attack. Birthdays must be celebrated, even as losses must be mourned.

My wife has worked for Delta Airlines for forty years. She is very good at her job. She is a people person, remembers details that are lost on most mortals, and can anticipate things that others need before they know they need them. I know, because she does this for me at home all the time. Every time that I see she has left the coffee pot ready to brew the morning coffee for me the day after she leaves for a flight, or manages to fit one more container of that German shower gel I like into her bag on the way home from Frankfurt or fills up the fridge with just the soft drink that I have been craving this week or any number of things, I feel the love that she shows through her actions every day. She has gone back to flying after a voluntary two month furlough. Delta’s business plummeted ninety percent when this pandemic started, and some of her flights have less then three dozen people on them even now. The airline industry will survive, Delta will go on serving the transportation needs of many, but it’s going to be slow going. Some estimates say that the industry as a whole will not be anywhere near back to prepandemic levels of business for four to five years. In this time of COVID-19, political unrest, and commemorations of 9-11, do I worry about her as she flies from Atlanta to Amsterdam to Frankfurt to London to Dublin to Seoul and back again. I would obviously be a liar if I said I didn’t. We don’t dwell on it. It’s her job, it’s been her job for forty years, and she’ll keep doing it for another half dozen or so years and then retire. That is the plan. I believe in the plan. We simply cannot live our lives in fear of terrorists, viruses and world political unrest. We cannot, and we will not.

One cannot be a writer of any kind without reading.

(“Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
― Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft)

To write, you must get out in the world and experience things that compel you to write and you must read. A lot. Widely. As I age, I find that for some reason my mind takes in the written word better in an audio format than it does by holding physical books or magazines or papers in my hands. Now, I still have stacks of books and reports and papers in every single physical space that I occupy in this life, from the living room to the bedroom to my home office upstairs to my office at the clinic. I pare these down excruciatingly slowly most of the time, and I severely chastise myself regularly for not being more diligent in doing so. Be that as it may, I have loved audiobooks since a physician colleague of mine turned me on to those long cardboard boxes of cassettes that got shipped to me regularly and that I would play in the car on my daily commutes starting back in the eighties. Now, of course, having passed through the cassette and CD phases, the industry is almost purely digital and portable and held conveniently in your phone, computer or tablet. I love this, in that I always have a book or essay or article at hand and there is little excuse for lack of time to read. What do I read? I love political books lately, given our collective angst in that sphere, as well as biographies, novels, and histories. Some of the titles I have enjoyed this year include Me, by Elton John; Leonardo da Vinci, by Walter Isaacson; A Very Stable Genius, by Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig; You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington, by Alexis Coe; The Hardest Job in the World, by John Dickerson; Blindness, by Jose Saramago; and Front Row at the Trump Show, by Jonathan Karl. I am currently listening to The Second Mountain, by David Brooks. I also listen to podcasts, mostly on politics, but sometimes on other topics, on a daily basis. The pandemic has caused me to really sit down and evaluate how I use my time, every day, and the results have been eye opening. We waste a lot of time on things that, to use a football metaphor since it is finally fall, do not move the ball down the field. I am trying to rectify that in my own life.

It is Saturday morning as I write this, and football is starting back. I love football, but somehow this year I’m just not feeling it the same way, you know? Life is moving on, and time with it, and traditions and markers too, but things are different. Time will tell if we get back to normal, pre-pandemic normal, ever. One thing I am sure of is that life will go on. We will continue to live and love and work in some fashion, there will be babies born and some of us will die. As my wife and I have been learning by listening to The Great Influenza, by John M. Barry, things are bad now, but they could be orders of magnitude worse. All pandemics end, and the world will continue to turn.

A last thought. There were some good things about the seventies. This song was one of them that pertains to us now, more than ever.

Enjoy your weekend, and thanks as always for reading my Musings.

Rhythms

My mother buried her husband this past week, the second man she had to say a tearful goodbye to after her had endured a protracted illness. The first was my father, who passed away suddenly, almost violently, from a brain hemorrhage twenty five years ago. It got me thinking about a lot of things, as these events and times do. I began to think about them in the context of the rhythms that they settle into.

We are born into this world, we hope, the objects of joyful celebration, welcomed to the world with open arms and warm fuzzy blankets and the kootchie-cooing of adoring parents and grandparents. If we are lucky, we are loved. Undeservedly, unequivocally, unabashedly, unconditionally loved. We are cared for and nurtured. We grow and learn and succeed. One day, we head out into the world, adults who know nothing ready to control everything, only to finally realize that our true education has just begun. If we are smart and savvy, we learn even more about how things work, how to live and love in a harsh world that owes us nothing, nothing at all. We create, we procreate, we work, we amass, we collect, we build, we inhabit, we settle in for that delicious part of life which is the “we made it” part. We expect that “we made it” leads to “we earned it” leads to “we deserve it” which gradually morphs into “it will always be this way” and “no one can ever take this away from us”.  The train is heading down the track at a dizzying speed, wheels singing on rails and billows of black smoke trailing behind to darken the other fellow’s sunny skies, not ours. Not ours.

Then, a once in a century, a once in a lifetime event happens for the second, third and fourth time. The hurricane leaves nothing but concrete slab and green slime-infested pool at the edge of a sunny shore that once heard the laughter of children and now hears the wails of retirees who find that their physical address, what is left of it,  has moved over three streets. The lingering siren that warned of the monster heralds a dawn in which the rubble is piled three stories high, the muddied teddy bear and the family album strewn across a neighborhood that no longer has landmarks of any kind after the wrath of the mighty winds visited. A casket is lowered into the ground, a tiny one, and is covered with earth, covering hopes and dreams and sleepovers and play dates and senior proms and trophies that will never be displayed, all because of a stray bullet that was stopped by the innocence of a child.

We are born. We grow. We dream. We work. We love. We die.

The virus creeps in on Sandburg’s little cat feet. Yes, I can’t get that descriptor out of my mind in the past few months because it seems like everything that hits us, hurts us, kills us comes in that way nowadays, gliding on silver airplane wings to knock down buildings, hissed in a a quiet string of expletives designed to hold us down, or breathed quietly towards us, inhaled death. Quiet. Stealthy. Deadly. The rhythm of death.

I’m home. I work every day. I talk to everyone and yet touch no one, shake no hands, pat no one on the back, proffer no gifts except my words. The rhythms of this daily pandemic grind are cold and mocking. Upstairs to work. Listen to music that used to soothe but now just bores. Hear the rumble of the construction workers’ trucks and trailers heading into the area to work. FedEx truck by for the first of one, two or three routes that day, always before ten. UPS truck (What can Brown do for you?) close on his heels before noon. Construction guys to lunch, sans trailers. USPS truck chugging out and back, albeit later than usual these days. Rhythms. The daily grind of good coffee and hard work and tedium and our inexplicable complacency with mediocrity of leadership and one thousand deaths per day.

And yet, we do it.

And we do it again.

And we do it again,

until,

one day,

we understand

why.

The masks come off,

and we smile.

Plandemic

Remember when you first heard about the coronavirus? Were you watching the news on television, did you read a brief article in the newspaper, or did you have something served up to you via Google News? How did you feel? Perplexed? Anxious? Indifferent? Terrified? I know, trust me, it was probably a little bit of all of that rolled into one long, gaspy, chest-tightening, lump in the throat kind of fog that you found yourself in those first confusing days of what was an epidemic growing into a worldwide pandemic. It’s only in Washington state, we thought way over here on the east coast. It’s only a few people in a nursing home. It will be treated and contained quickly, and then it will “magically disappear”. Not so, I’m afraid.  As I write this, as of nine minutes ago, there have now been almost five million cases of COVID-19 in the United States, and one hundred sixty thousand people have died of the disease.

When you knew, really knew, that this pandemic was real and that it would eventually make it to your state, county, city and neighborhood, what did you do? Not what did you feel, but what did you do? My hunch is that on some level you began to plan. Maybe not even consciously, but on some level your brain started to play out scenarios that might happen, just like moves on a chessboard on the way to checkmate. There was, very quickly, the problem of finding and wearing masks. N95s, even simple surgical masks, were like gold. My wife, just like some of you, sewed a few cloth masks from an old Oxford shirt of mine, elastic at various lengths, some too tight on my ears, others just right. Bulky, blue-striped, sweaty, but effective. This very simple thing lead to other acute decisions that needed to be made: where and how to work, the potential for layoffs, how to help the kids finish up the school year, how to make sure that the bills were going to be paid, how to keep our families and those around us safe and well. We started to plan for a crisis that we thought at first would be like any other crisis. This epidemic soon to be a pandemic would sucker punch us in the gut, we would exhale, recover, and then move past the acute trauma, getting back to our old lives by Easter, Memorial Day at the latest.

When that did not happen, our brains, which had been humming in the background, running all those potential moves, went to the next step of our response. We had to come up with a continuation of our plan A, a more detailed, longer term set of reactions and actions that would get us through what looked to be a more involved medical and social crisis than we had dealt with for a long time. Some of us were laid off. Some of our businesses closed. We could not get a haircut. We could not go to the gym. We could not have a date night at our favorite restaurant. We could not visit. We could not hug. We learned the meaning of the thirty second commute and how to Zoom and work in Teams and find hand sanitizer. We were always planning, but to what end? How long? How so? For what reason, to what end? What next? What if? So many questions.

We have continued to plan. Now, we are facing not just working from home, but the very real prospect of working from home while educating our children. Six hundred dollars may have become two hundred dollars right before our eyes. Rent and mortgage payments are due. School supplies and books and pencils and possible laptops or tablets need to be bought. The internet access in our homes is not quite good enough for this whole distance learning thing. Assess. Analyze. Plan. Act. Repeat.

Are you overwhelmed yet? I know I am some days. What do we do in this, the worst pandemic in a century? Planning is key. A few pointers.

  1. Prioritize your obligations. Some things must be done. We know that. So just like the book Eat That Frog by Brian Tracy teaches, don’t leave the most stressful, most difficult decisions and plans to last. Do them first. For example, tackle how you will get your necessary bills paid first. All else can wait, right?
  2. Take care of those who depend on you. You know how stressed you feel? Your spouse or significant other knows it too. They might even feel worse than you. The kids? They are excellent little barometers of parental stress. They know. Don’t let them get overwhelmed but let them know some of what you are planning and doing and why. Work as a team.
  3. Make time for recreation and relaxation. I know, I know, there IS none. I hear you. We’re in Plandemic mode, right? We must plan, must schedule the time to do the things that are going to get us through this alive and healthy. I have learned one very hard but very important lesson over the years: no one is going to do this for you. You plan the time, you reap the benefits. Period. Do it.
  4. Reach out and connect to others. Call, message, FaceTime, Skype, fire up Teams, write a real letter! (Yeah, it will get there. This pandemic is going to last a while.)
  5. Get the facts about the pandemic. There is a lot of information and misinformation out there. You know that too. Don’t get embroiled in the religious, the political, the factional, the sectional, the cultural spins on this whole process. Learn about the science of this virus and the disease it causes. It is real. It exists. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. I have had people that I knew and worked with die from this disease. It’s no joke. That said, plan for how you can best keep you and yours safe and healthy until things start to go back to some semblance of normal. How long will that take? Truly, no one knows right now.

This is not an event that requires you to take a single punch, get up off the floor, and go back to your normal pre-pandemic life. This is a Plandemic. It is going to continue to require lots of rational thought, good decision making, and plain old common sense.

We cannot plan for an endpoint. When it comes, we will have one hell of a party, but for now, we must hunker down, learn all we can, make good decisions and wait it out. Stay safe out there.