TMI – What should I believe?

Credit: Blanco Tejedor

If you’re like me, your friends send links to YouTube shouting in all-caps: WATCH THIS.

I dutifully watch.

Nine times out of ten, the information flies in the face of whatever is carried on international news networks. The media is quick to label these alternative perspectives ‘conspiracy theories’.

On hoaxbuster sites, depending upon which one you click, either side may be dubbed a hoax.  

I like to be informed. I hate being misinformed. How does anyone decide what to believe?

I listened to a podcast recently. Cristos Goodrow, VP of Engineering at Google and Head of Search and Discovery at YouTube was being interviewed. He said, I helped grow YouTube from 100M hours of viewership per day in 2012 to over 1B hours per day. But when he explained how he accomplished that, it was bone-chilling. To ensure people would serial-watch YouTube videos he designed the algorithms to always give them more of what they were already consuming, never the opposing viewpoint.

When I head it I mentally thought: Ah-ha. That’s why people are so righteously convinced that their way is the only way and become militant about it. This algorithm is not encouraging us to be well informed, it’s essentially leading us down our chosen rabbit-hole and brainwashing us.

It isn’t likely that anybody you or I know personally has the inside scoop and can say with absolute certainty, This is the truth, believe it, you can trust me. No doubt there are factual elements on both sides. The challenge is to be a discriminating, independent thinker. Don’t swallow the bait, hook, line, and sinker.

Question everything and research the pros and cons. You probably have time.

Should there be lockdown – or not? Should we social distance – or not? Does wearing a mask help – or not? Should a vaccine be required – or not? Should a tracking app be mandatory – or not? Once infected am I immune – or not? Herd immunity – yes, no? There are convincing arguments for both sides of every one of those questions and hundreds more like them.

What I find most disturbing is the tremendous toll this is taking on humanity. The number of deaths is sobering. But the psychological trauma of living in confinement has consequences. The loss of jobs, livelihoods, mobility, freedom…

What are we protecting? At what cost? And after we’ve protected it, what’s left?

This is not one of my more upbeat writings. The conflicting viewpoints flooding in from caring friends is distressing. They can’t all be right. But they’re passionately convinced they are. If I ask, How do you know this is true? I’m sent another video preaching the same message and I wonder how Cristos Goodrow feels about his algorithms now.

What were you doing in May 2012?

I’m fortunate. I’ve been writing blog posts since February, 2012. I know exactly where I was and what I was doing in May of that year.

Who cares?

Perhaps we all should.

According to astrologers world-wild, the configurations in the heavens for the next few weeks are exactly as they were in May of 2012. Whatever you seeded eight years ago in your life is either flowering or dying, says Lorna Bevan of Hare in the Moon Astrology. It’s an opportunity to see what no longer serves us and change the game.

I moved to Bali in spring of 2012 and was confronted with the strangeness of time. The Balinese have a name for it: jam karet. All the familiar markers were gone. There weren’t five-day workweeks with weekends off. The sun rose around 6:30 a.m. and set at approximately 6:30 p.m. giving equal parts darkness and light. I had nothing to do and all day to do it – jam karet – rubber time – a new concept for me.

I remember waking up with my heart pounding one morning thinking, “Do I have time to do yoga?” It took my nervous system months to settle down. But it did.

Eight years later, with no appointments, no meetings, no deadlines, confined to my home with strict parameters around socializing, time has once again taken on a strange shape. It loops around turning back on itself and I’m reminded of the symbol for infinity.

I ask myself, What’s the lesson here? Am I not moving slowly enough? Have I fallen into a time management sinkhole abusing my allotment for this incarnation? What’s important? What really needs my attention?

My days fly by much more quickly than before which is strange. But when I look ahead time stretches, an endless blur of uncertainty. Can perceptions of time be foreshortened and elongated simultaneously?

As I write I know that every situation is different. There is unimaginable suffering. People have lost jobs, fortunes, loved ones. Some didn’t have jobs to begin with. Some are sick. Some are wondering how long they can keep their companies afloat. Some are barely clinging to life. I’m aware these exist, yet I can only speak with authenticity to my own reality.

I’m retired. I’m old. I’m healthy.

I have the incredible privilege of doing only what I want to do, no more, no less, and doing it at exactly the moment it feels best. If I had children, a partner, a spouse, a job, or if I needed to find a job or my next meal, I wouldn’t experience time the same way. And time wouldn’t be my lesson.

As weeks go by and I observe the ebb and flow of moods, the flashes of inspiration, the voids where my mind doesn’t want to engage with anything, I pretend not to notice what’s happening.

But today I had to admit, after a moment of shock and denial, that I like this better – the sensation of timelessness.

The feeling that it doesn’t matter whether I accomplish anything of great importance or not. That life itself is enough. That the experience of this pandemic is enough. To soak in the essence of uncertainty, to watch fears appear then leave, to have spurts of great energy then spend a day with my nose in a book, to miss my children and grandchildren but be grateful they’re doing well…

to commune with clouds…

is enough.

The ego-driven push to accomplish, to produce, to be recognized, is irrelevant to the person I need to become.

If what I hear is true, this is just the beginning of a monumental shift in life as we knew it. Right now we’re in the crucible that will transform us into the kind of people we must be to thrive in whatever comes next. It’s different for each of us.

Taken in that context, these weeks that melt into months are extremely important. It behooves us to pay attention to our discomforts, to look at what isn’t working and maybe hasn’t worked for a long time. To ask the tough questions and search for honest answers.

When life once again resumes beyond my front door, if I’ve learned my lessons sufficiently well, I don’t expect to recognize myself.

The Future of Airline Travel

I’ve done pretty well so far, staying in the present, managing thoughts, focusing on what I can control. Then I read an article in Forbes about the future of airline travel. It was too real. My mood plummeted and I did nothing to stop it.

AirAsia new uniforms

Ketut’s message came just as I was about to slit my wrists.

Saya sudah mulai menanam.

I grabbed my flip-flops, and ran. For the next hour I didn’t think about immunity passports, disinfection tunnels, sanitation fogging, on-the-spot blood tests, thermal scanning, or four-hour check-ins.

I just watched Ketut plant the garden.

My relatives farmed. Uncle Olaf was a commercial potato grower. Uncle Daniel had acres of greenhouses. Uncle Nils earned his PhD in horticulture. Uncle John raised beef cattle. Dad grew apples, raspberries, fields of alfalfa, and kept bees. We always had sweetclover honey. So, you see, I’ve witnessed a few gardens in my time. They were things of orderly beauty: straight rows, weeded, mulched, tended with care.

Perhaps in my mind I’d envisioned something similar for my backyard Bali project.

When I burst through the door, there was Ketut, hacking a trench in the sun-baked earth.

“You already started, Ketut.”

He stood and pointed out cabbage and tomato seedlings. Their tender green leaves peeked bravely through the clumpy dirt. “Thirty tomatoes, ten cabbages…no…eleven…they gave extra.”

“What’s this one?”

“Petsai. You know petsai?”

“Yes, Napa cabbage. I love it.”

He resumed chopping the earth and I studied the mounds of plants awaiting his attention. Among them was a pile of short sticks sharpened at one end. I picked one up. “Ketut, what are these for?”

“That’s cassava. Tree grows two meters. Very tall. Roots are good for eating – strong flavor.”

“You’re telling me you plant these sticks and a cassava tree grows?”

“Ya.”

Once upon I time I would have argued that you can’t just pop a stick in the soil and grow a tree. That was Minnesota Sherry. I know better now.

A few minutes later he called my attention to a droopy bush he’d just planted. “This one’s bayam,” he said.

“Spinach. I love spinach but it looks a little sick.”

“Jetlag,” he laughed. “Stress.”

Hilarious. Where does he come up with his off-the-cuff humor? On second thought, I guess that one’s obvious. Ketut’s been at the airport to meet me after every, grueling, thirty-plus-hour return trip from the States. He knows the jetlagged look well. But I don’t want to be reminded about air travel, past or future. Definitely not future.

We chatted about this and that as he worked. I marveled at his matter-of-fact confidence, his economy of motion, always moving but never in a hurry. I’d have studied, measured, plotted, planned. It would have taken days. Ketut, the garden guru, laughed and joked while weaving his magic.

Besides cabbages, tomatoes, cassava, and spinach, we have onions, ginger, lemongrass, turmeric, and galangal. The garden already boasted a lemon tree, key lime and chili bushes, and a cluster of banana trees. If the carrot, cucumber, and watermelon seeds Ketut planted in an old egg carton germinate, there’ll be even more abundance.

It took an hour, including hosing down the whole shebang to give it a nice soak, and it was done. I thanked Ketut, bid him good evening, and went back to my quarters.

What a difference. All gloom was gone. Garden time soothes and nobody can stay morose for long around Ketut’s happy energy. The future will be what the future will be and no doubt it will have juicy red tomatoes in it. In this uncertain world, I’m almost certain of that.

My Exceptionially Brilliant Idea for Old Plastic Bags

Perhaps I’m not meant to have a quiet life, even in lockdown.

I thought I was getting close:

  • Rats and rat guys – dismissed
  • Snakes – gone
  • Mosquitoes – fogged
  • Monkeys – fact of life. Nothing short of fireworks deters them, but the sounds of heavy artillery at six a.m. is off-putting. I nearly jumped out of my skin when the neighbors commenced blasting. I was sure we were being bombed and almost fled with the screaming monkeys. Two days later they were back. Nothing scares them for long.

Then…

Bats.

My eaves overhang the terrace creating a cozy night’s lodging for the local bat community.

At first it was only one just a few times a month. Then he brought two friends. The three of them came every night and feasted on fruits until midnight or later, dropping the pits with a resounding CLONK on my hollow metal railings. Every morning new gifts of poop, pee, and cast-offs from their evening meal dripped from the railings and mounded on the floor.

Cleaning up after them was annoying, but the racket they made was worse. I couldn’t sleep.

After a particularly loud night I’d had enough. What would stop these party-goers from overnighting at my place? A string of blinking twinkle lights? Nowhere to plug them in. A row of wind chimes? More noise.

A picture of Tibetan prayer flags flashed in my mind. Maybe, just maybe…

My imagination went to work. I had scraps of fabric from a recent change in home decor. I could cut and stitch. But in this climate they’d get moldy and faded in no time.

What else?

Just then Ketut arrived with my morning produce fresh from the market. Bali forbids plastic bags in grocery stores but traditional market vendors bag and double bag in plastic. I refuse to discard them so I have a growing collection.

A light went on. I could turn my plastic bags into plastic flags. They’d rustle ever so slightly in any breeze, they’d weather well, and it would be quick work with a pair of scissors and stapler. I even had a spool of enough pink plastic ribbon to span the nine meter (thirty ft.) stretch of overhang.

I set to work.

In a little over an hour I’d finished. Just as I looped my handiwork over the daybed to keep it from tangling, Ketut walked in.

Whaaaaat? He likes to elongate that word when he thinks I’ve done something particularly…shall we say…unusual?

I couldn’t hide my excitement. Proyek baru, Ketut! I told him it was to keep bats away and would he get the ladder and hang the flags for me please.

He gave me an odd look. Did you see this on Google? he asked.

No, Ketut. It was my own idea.

He appeared unconvinced and went to get the ladder.

As he attached my brilliant creation under the eaves he queried again, You saw on Google, ya?

I was indignant. What? You think you’re the only one around here with good ideas?

He chuckled and seemed satisfied.

I waited until I made certain it worked to tell the story and I’m thrilled to say I’ve had two solid bat poop, bat pee, CLONK-free nights. It’s heaven.

If only I could devise such a simple solution for monkeys…

Mood Management 101

I used to know what I wanted. I had a dream. My assumptions about the future allowed me that freedom.

Now my world is probably similar to yours, a basic box with X number of rooms where we are told to remain, with only a few exceptions for intermittent escape. And like an animal that’s been in captivity for a long time, even if the gate opened I probably wouldn’t venture through it – not right away.

The uncertainty of the future sucks all potential out of dreams. Dreams need to anchor in something solid to feel achievable. Unless your dream exists within the rooms in your box, or the pixels in your computer, it has probably already evaporated.

Nothing in our prior experience prepared us for this un-reality. I’ve found the best way to successfully navigate uncharted waters is to manage that over which I still have control.

****

People spending so much time at home begin to notice things that have probably irritated them for years but they were too busy to address. My sister and her husband decided to redo the water system in their kitchen and move the sink.

A nearby neighbor fixed a leaky drain pipe. Then he dug a new septic tank. (This is Bali. You can do that here!)

Stuck in my studio apartment I suddenly needed more elbow-room. It took a day of grunting, groaning, and pushing furniture from side-to-side and back again, but I managed to creatively reconfigure the contents to my satisfaction.

MOOD MANAGEMENT PRINCIPLE #1 – Become industrious in your own space. It’s one place where you still have control. Whether it’s cleaning, organizing, painting, repairing, or rearranging furniture, it shifts attention off the computer, the phone, the news, and away from doom and gloom.

****

A Facebook friend began a Get-Healthy-and-Lose-Weight routine January 1st. She posted the other day that as of April 30th she’d lost 37.5 pounds (17 kg) and social distancing has made it easier.

Another acquaintance funneled his anger and feelings of helplessness into poetic verse. He said he never tried poetry before but it keeps him focused on the rhyme instead of the reason. His poems hold to strict anapestic meter with an AABBA rhyme scheme and they’re brilliant.

Then there’s the friend who left an abusive relationship after many years. In close quarters it finally became intolerable.

MOOD MANAGEMENT PRINCIPLE #2 – Practice extreme self-care. It’s another thing you can control. We have to become aware of how this pressure-cooker situation is affecting us personally. It impacts everyone differently. Individuals handle it according to their stress-management ability and it’s a challenge even for those who are stable, well-adjusted, and emotionally healthy.

****

My Airbnb host in Italy went into total lockdown with his family fifty-three days ago. His school-age children were sent home to learn online. All income for both him and his wife ceased. They are just now being allowed a brief walk outside. He messaged me: Can go nowhere, do nothing, not even sex. (Spoken like a true Italian!)

There are similar stories world-wide. How do people cope with a life turned up-side-down then put on hold? We aren’t used to moving so slowly, not in our bodies and not through time. It rubs the wrong way. We experience shifting emotions: anger, denial, rejection, alarm, resistance, anxiety, panic, and potentially, terror.

Our nervous systems must undergo re-calibration. This can occur consciously or unconsciously and it makes a difference. What happens in the mind manifests in the body for better or worse. Happiness boosts immunity and resists disease. Stress in all its various forms attacks the immune system and invites illness.

If we allow ourselves to get sucked into the downward spin of endless news reports…

If we let anxiety crawl under our skin until we’re so antsy we want to scream (and maybe we do)…

If we feel helpless without our familiar routines and fail to create new ones…

If we sit on the couch watching hours of TV, numbing-out with alcohol or drugs…

…we wont’ survive intact. Something will give, either mentally or physically.

MOOD MANAGEMENT PRINCIPLE #3 – Push the reset button. Your mind is the third thing over which you have control. Right now the definition of happiness doesn’t fit the situation: Happiness is that feeling that comes over you when you know life is good and you can’t help but smile. Yeah…no. Let’s change the word happiness to positivity.

It’s tough, but it IS a choice. We don’t have to dwell on the horror of death and disease even though that’s all anyone thinks or talks about. We can focus on the things we can control: home improvement or self-care projects, hobbies, culinary experiments, online classes or exercise routines. (I saw one on jump-roping. The guy was a machine.) Upon waking in the morning we can resist the urge to check the news and instead look at the sky and breathe a word of gratitude for another day of life.

It takes intention and willpower, but it is possible to observe our minds and manage our moods. If thoughts begin to slip into dark places, we can acknowledge that this is a crazy-making time and adopt a zero-tolerance attitude toward self-destructive energies.

And there’s one fall-back activity that never fails…

Take a nap.

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