The Accelerated Life Plan

I’ve had this dream more than once. It’s really odd, as dreams usually are. But I always wake up thinking that it makes a certain amount of sense, and I kind of wish it were true.

In the dream, I’m about to be born, and I’m asked if I’d prefer the standard, or the accelerated life plan. Naturally, I want details before I commit. I mean, that’s a heck of a question to be hit with before you’ve even taken your first breath.

It turns out that the accelerated life plan allows you to get all the nasty biological functions out of the way up front, so that you can focus on actually living your life. For example, you spend an entire day sneezing all of your sneezes, and then you never ever have to sneeze again. Granted, that day wouldn’t be much fun, but think of the weight that would be lifted off your shoulders afterward!

Having had the hiccups for a full 24 hours once, I can verify that Hiccup Day would be excruciatingly painful toward the end, but what a relief to get that over with. Acne Day wouldn’t be pretty, so it would probably be best to do that in isolation. Headache Day might become rather controversial, because that could be construed as cruel and unusual punishment. I would dread Cold and Flu Day, but I could handle it, knowing that 24 hours later I’d be fine. I would just whine a lot.

Yeah, I’d probably sign up for the accelerated life plan. It would be nice to be able to stand up and face the icky stuff of life and get past it. I like the certainty of it all. “That’s me, done,” as a friend of mine likes to say.

From there on out, it would be smooth sailing, until, of course, the inevitable Death Day. I doubt many people recover from that one. If they do, what happens the next day? That’s the question.

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Avoiding Hell

After several late night visits from bats inside my house, my house, I couldn’t take it anymore. I couldn’t live like that. Bats flying around my head at 3 a.m., landing on my pillow, barricading myself in my bedroom and being afraid to get up and go to the bathroom… It just got to be too much. I refuse to be a prisoner in my own home.

Don’t get me wrong. I like bats. They’re great for the environment. I just don’t want to be roommates with them. Especially if they’re not paying rent, and refuse to conform with my sleep cycle.

Despite the fortune I spent on contractors last year in an effort to solve this problem, these furry little rats with wings had taken up residence again, just as they probably have been doing for years on end. So it was time to serve them their eviction notice.

Thank goodness I’ve got someone who loves me enough to have my back, because I couldn’t have done this alone. We spent hours up on my roof, reinforcing the blockages I had imposed last year, and adding more. We put rigid walls of hardware cloth around all six of my mushroom cap vents.

I was hoping that hearing all that activity, and realizing that the sun was setting, the bats would take advantage of the thing we were saving for last: Their batty little front door, also known as the poorly done flashing around my chimney, and the badly constructed flue to my fireplace. (Two thumbs DOWN to Riasat Ali, also known as Al, of Arcon Chimney, for his shoddy workmanship and deceptive quote.)

But no. Instead of leaving the premises, they simply stayed in the attic and chittered and squeaked until we were finally forced to block them in, where they’d most likely starve and die. We couldn’t work in the pitch black on a pitched roof after they left. So block them in we did.

But it was killing me. Hearing them scream. Knowing they’d suffer. I couldn’t stand it.

So as we finished up, I closed my dog Quagmire into the back yard. Then I went into the house and turned off all the lights. I then left the front door wide open, and opened the inside access panel to the attic. Then I went outside and watched them fly out my front door, one by one.

It made me shudder, thinking of them streaming through my living room like that. But at least they’d live to eat mosquitoes another day. And I wouldn’t bear the guilt of having them suffer a slow and painful death. That’s got to count for something, right?

After leaving my house exposed to nature until 2 a.m., I reluctantly poked my head into the attic with a flashlight, and all was quiet. I heaved a sigh of relief. No hellfire for me. Not that night, anyway.

Later, I heard a bat hit my bedroom window. From the outside, for a change. The next day I told my boyfriend it was probably a bat protesting his eviction. He had a different theory. He thought it was a bat thanking me for saving its life.

Yeah. I can live with that spin.

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Shaping Your Life

Until very recently, I thought of my life as being linear. Birth, growth, death… aren’t we all on that inevitable path? But that makes life sound way too much like a treadmill. (All you’d have to do is look at me once and you’d know that I hate treadmills.)

Now I think of life as being three dimensional. That allows room for a lot more options. It more accurately reflects the diversity of the thousands of lives being lived on this planet. We each shape our lives. We are architects. We are sculptors.

We can be smooth and calm and uniform. We can be rigid and boxy and rough. We can zig and zag and branch off in wild directions. We can embrace. We can repel. We can circle back upon ourselves, or we can shoot forward like an arrow. We can take inspiration from others, or we can set out on our own. We can be steady and solid, or we can wobble unpredictably.

Don’t restrict yourself to a linear life, unless that’s what you truly want in your heart of hearts. Create something beautiful. Only allow others to influence that creation if you can look upon them and see the beauty within. (And don’t forget to thank those who help you shape your life in a positive way.)

When all is said and done, your life will be what you make of it. So make it special.

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The Ingredients of Happiness

It always comes as quite a shock when someone famous commits suicide. Hearing on the radio that Anthony Bourdain chose to take his own life nearly caused me to swerve off the road. This is someone I’ve envied. He got to travel. He had crazy experiences and met fascinating people. He won countless awards. No doubt he also made a boatload of money.

This was someone who was successful, rich, and had an exciting life. Three things many of us strive for, and yet, now he’s gone. On the surface, you’d think that his was a life worth living. But to make this permanent choice, he must have been in a great deal of emotional pain. He must have been suffering. Surrounded by all of us, who admired him, he must have been all alone. Of course, this is pure speculation on my part. I doubt any of us will ever know the full story.

The only thing I can know for sure is that I am happier than Anthony Bourdain was. I would never have guessed this a week ago. But there’s incontrovertible evidence of this now. I’m still here.

So, what constitutes happiness? One thing is for sure: it isn’t money. I know that’s a cliché, but clichés become clichés for a reason.

I know someone who is a millionaire, but he’s also a divorced, estranged father and a raging alcoholic. He’s one of the most miserable people I have ever met. Money does nothing to solve your problems when all is said and done. Most of us know this, and yet so many of us still seem obsessed with filthy lucre. It’s such a waste of time.

As far as I can tell, the two things you need to be happy are connections and purpose. Humans are social animals. They need community. The more you surround yourself with people you love who love you back, the happier you will be. And having a purpose, such as a job you love, or a goal to strive for, or even a hobby, makes life worthwhile. If you have none of those things, I encourage you to become a volunteer. Helping others is the noblest of purposes.

Don’t get me wrong. None of us can be happy all the time. People who are happy all the time are mentally ill. It’s how we cope with the rough patches that truly defines us. But there’s a lot that you can do to make your life satisfying overall.

If you are contemplating suicide or know someone who is, I strongly encourage you to seek help. Here in the US, a great resource is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Their number is 1-800-273-8255. Please, just do that one last thing before taking any steps that, once done, can never be undone. Surely you owe yourself that much.

Anthony Bourdain, I hope you have found the peace you apparently could not find in this life. I wish you had made a different choice.

Anthony Bourdain

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Mean World Syndrome

People alive today have access to more news and entertainment than any human being in the history of the planet. If anything major happens in the world, we are all able to find out about it almost instantly. We’ve come a long way from the days when a hurricane could hit Long Island without any advanced warning for its residents. Surely that’s to our benefit, right?

Yes and no. We also have more access to misinformation and exaggeration, and our ability to think critically does not seem to be keeping apace. That means that many of us believe that the world is more dangerous than it actually is. This is called mean world syndrome, and it’s a serious problem.

If you don’t believe that your attitudes are shaped by the media, then you haven’t been paying attention. Without its influence, there’s no way that someone so deranged and unqualified could be in the White House. Without it, none of us would feel the need to keep up with the Kardashians. (For what it’s worth, I’ve never felt that need. But then, I don’t have a TV in my house, either.)

If it’s any comfort at all, according to this Public Radio International article, the world is a much safer pace than it used to be. War deaths have dramatically decreased. We just hear about them more often. We all work fewer hours each week. There is less poverty and homicide, and more democracy than ever before.

And this article from Psychology Today also states that violence against women and children has decreased worldwide. We are more likely to die of old age than in a hail of bullets.

And, lest we forget, the average life expectancy for the residents of this planet is now up in the 70’s, as opposed to age 48 back in 1950. That’s pretty remarkable, don’t you think? So stop what you’re doing, look about you, and breathe. It’s going to be okay. Odds are pretty good that you won’t encounter any lions or tigers or bears. Oh, my.

dorothy

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A New Future

The older I get, the more people I know who are mourning the loss of a partner. Along with that, inevitably, comes the mourning of the loss of your future. Because couples make plans. That’s what they do. They have an image of what they’re working toward. When your partner dies or you get divorced, that image turns to dust.

That’s unsettling. Suddenly you have absolutely no idea where you are going. It is as if you’ve been blindfolded and spun in a circle. You spend a lot of time swinging your arms around in attempt to orient yourself and avoid crashing into things. And while you’re doing that, it seems as if the rest of the world is cruising merrily past you, intent upon one destination or another, not even having to rely on a GPS. You feel as though you can’t keep up. You’ve been left behind.

It can take many years before you’re able to find the strength turn your face toward the sun again. And when you do that, it feels really strange at first. What is this warmth I’m feeling? It feels good. Do I deserve to feel good? Should I feel guilty?

And then a funny thing happens. You start doing things that you like to do that you perhaps had abandoned because your partner wasn’t into them. And you stop doing things that you only did because your partner enjoyed them. In other words, you begin to take back your individuality.

Being an individual takes strength and courage. It takes confidence and creativity. At first you’re going to feel like a newborn giraffe. Not quite steady on your feet. A little confused about how you got here and why you’re suddenly towering over things that you never knew existed. The world will seem new.

But with any luck, one day you’ll wake up and you’ll realize that you’re actually kind of excited about the fact that the world seems new. Colors are brighter. Smells are more intriguing. Food has regained its flavor. Everything seems rife with possibilities.

And just like that, you begin to plan a brand new future. It may not look anything like the future you once imagined for yourself, but my wish for you is that it’s an adventure that you’re eager to begin. Onward!

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What Took You So Long?

It’s heartbreaking when a beloved dog dies. People who don’t have pets don’t understand, really. They become like your children. Only, if you lose a child, there’s a vast support network. When you lose a dog, people expect you to snap out of it. They nervously offer up something about the Rainbow Bridge, and then they feel like their job is done. They don’t want to dwell on it. That makes it really hard to grieve.

I’ve lost a lot of dogs in my lifetime. It absolutely destroys me, every single time. But I try to comfort myself with the fact that I always do all that I can to give my dogs safe, happy, love-filled, and comfortable lives. And they give me so much love in return. There’s no greater gift. “You are my person, so here is my heart.” It’s a rare human who is that generous.

The last time one of my dogs passed away, some fool said, “You can always replace him with another one.” I nearly lost it. My dog is not like a toothbrush. It’s not like just any old dog will do. “Honey, while you’re out, can you pick me up a carton of milk and a new dog?” None of my dogs could ever be replaced.

Having said that, though, you’ll probably be surprised at what I am going to say next. I sincerely believe that when you lose a dog, you really should get another dog as soon as possible. That’s what I have always done.

No, I don’t mean the dog you lost can be replaced. In fact, no two dogs are alike. I’ve had a unique relationship with every single pet I’ve owned.

The reason you should get another dog, and soon, is that you are needed. There are so many dogs out there who are desperate for love and nurturing. You have a lot of love to give.

I know many people who have been so heartbroken by the loss of a dog that they never get another. That devastates me when I think about it. Because there’s a dog out there somewhere that is supposed to be loved by you, and that dog isn’t getting that love. It’s so sad.

I know the pain of loss is horrific. I know that you don’t want to go through that again. But do you also want to never experience that kind of love again? How can you pass that up? There’s a dog out there, just waiting for you. And when you go get him, he’ll say, “What took you so long?”

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The Anatomy of a Traumatic Experience

It was an unremarkable day. In retrospect, that was one of the strangest things about it. I was walking across the bridge to get to work, as I’ve done thousands of times. The sun was out. I had no plans, really. Think “status quo.”

And then I saw movement out of the corner of my eye. I turned, just in time to see the guy hit the water. He had jumped off the next bridge over. There was this big splash, and that’s when time stopped for me. I think I will always carry with me a static image of him hitting the water, the splash and the waves it caused frozen in place. Because at that instant I knew he was dead. I knew it just as sure as I’m alive.

Needless to say, I stopped dead in my tracks. I stared at the body with my mouth hanging open. My mind started to bargain. “You didn’t really just see that.” “It’s not a body. Someone must have dropped something big and heavy off the bridge.” “This is not happening.” “No. This can’t be happening.”

Then I saw two boats race out from the rowing club. They tried to drag the body out of the water, but they couldn’t. Then the Harbor Patrol came screaming around the bend in the lake, and they were able to pull him out.

Somewhere along in there I had walked woodenly to the drawbridge tower where I work. (The sequence of events is forever hazy in my mind.) I climbed the stairs. “Did you see that?” I said to my coworker.

“See what?” She had been looking the other way. Time had been moving at a normal pace for her. And then I changed that, probably. She went down and talked to the officers on the scene, and then she left, after urging me to call our supervisor.

I talked to the supervisor for a long time. This is not the first time a bridgetender has witnessed a suicide, and it won’t be the last. She offered to let me have the day off, but I didn’t feel up to the commute. I was already there, and I could be traumatized at work just as easily at I could at home. She also strongly encouraged me to contact our Employee Assistance Program and get some counseling, because this was a big deal.

How right she was. I had never seen anyone die before. I’ve seen dozens of people consider jumping, but then get talked out of it. That’s upsetting enough. I’ve seen a few dead bodies, after the fact. But I’ve never seen anyone die before. It changes you.

I spent the rest of the shift feeling stunned and sad and sick to my stomach. I didn’t accomplish much. I kind of stared off into the middle distance a lot of the time. I thought about the jumper, and was heartbroken that he had felt so much pain and despair that he made that irreversible choice. I was heartbroken for the people who love him. I was upset for all the other witnesses, including the ones at the waterfront restaurant who were expecting to have a lovely salmon lunch, as I have on more than one occasion, and instead got an awful memory.

The weird thing was that I could see that life was going on all around me. Boats were happily floating over the spot, unaware that someone had just died there. People were jogging. Cars hummed their way across the bridge.

The waterway had always been kind of a sacred place for me. Now it had been violated. By the jumper? By the boaters? I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure that one out.

I talked to several people during the course of the shift. My crew chief stopped by. He offered, again, to let me have the day off. He reminded me about the Employee Assistance Program. He told me a few stories about things he’s experienced, and how it made him feel. It was really nice of him to stop by. I kind of felt detached, though.

I also called my sister, who was predictably horrified and sympathetic, and a few friends, who were sorry and tried to be comforting. I even spoke to my therapist. But I felt… it’s hard to explain. I felt like I was in a different reality. A different place, where I couldn’t quite reach them, and they couldn’t quite reach me. I could hear what they were saying, but it was like I was at a high altitude, and my ears had yet to pop. At a remove. Alone.

At the end of the shift I expected to go home and have a really good cry, but the tears never came. As of this writing, they still haven’t come. But I can feel them on the inside.

When I got home, I hugged my dog, and then fell into a deep sleep. I was really afraid I’d have a nightmare and wake up screaming with only my dog to comfort me, but that didn’t happen. I don’t even think I tossed or turned. I barely even wrinkled the sheets. It was like I had been in a coma.

When I woke up, “it” was my first thought. But oddly enough, I felt calm. I felt rested. I was in a good mood. Could I have gotten past this so easily? It felt like I had been given a “get out of jail free” card. What a relief. Tra la la.

Okay, yeah, maybe I’ve gotten past this. Woo! What an adult I am! This is awesome! Just in case, though, I did look into sending a condolence note to the next of kin. I spoke to the Harbor Patrol Chaplain. Naturally, he couldn’t give me a name, but he might be able to forward the note on for me. I thought that would be a nice little bit of closure.

I also spoke to the Employee Assistance Program, and set up some counseling sessions, even though I was feeling great. Way to go for practicing self-care, Barb! I felt really mature and well balanced.

In fact, I spoke to a couple of professionals who thought I was probably over the worst of it. But my therapist told me, cautiously, that I’d probably experience ups and downs for quite some time. There’s a reason she makes the big bucks.

Again, that night, I slept well. I was rested the next day, but a little subdued. Nothing major. Just kind of bleh.

And then that afternoon I started to shake uncontrollably. I wasn’t cold. I was just suddenly overwhelmed. It hit me like a ton of bricks. I had several semi-urgent things on my to-do list, but it was painfully obvious that I was in no shape to deal. I just… I shut down.

I kind of checked in with myself, and what I got was: I’m afraid. I feel out of control. Everything feels so fragile, like a soap bubble. I’m so exhausted that the air feels like the consistency of chocolate pudding. Everything takes more effort than normal. I just want to be left alone.

Which is kind of good because after that first day, most people stopped following up with me. They were over it. It was an awkward conversation. Life goes on. But I still felt, and still feel to this day, that I need someone to hold me while I cry, and that someone can’t seem to be found.

Yes, there’s therapy in my future, and yes, I’ll learn to cope with my new reality. I know this because it’s not the first traumatic thing that’s ever happened to me. I hope it’s the last, but I kind of doubt it. I am also well aware that things are cyclical. I’ll have good days and bad days.

Perhaps it’s the awareness of the cycles of life that have always prevented me from making the horrible choice that the jumper did. No matter how bad things get, even when the loneliness is so bad it’s physically painful, I know that eventually the pendulum shifts in the other direction.

That, and I could never put someone through what that jumper has put the witnesses, the first responders, and his loved ones through. Never. Not ever.

Having said that, though, I hope he has found the peace that seems to have eluded him in life.

I5_ShipCanal_Web

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Messing with a Scammer

Early one morning, I was staring blankly at my computer screen, in an utter fog, wishing I weren’t allergic to caffeine, when the following message from my friend G popped up in Facebook Messenger:

“Hello Barbara?”

I knew right off the bat that this couldn’t be G. First of all, he would never call me Barbara. (The only person who ever used my full first name was my mother when she was pissed off.)

But the other big hint that this couldn’t be G was the fact that he passed away 3 months ago. For a split second, I wished fervently that it was really him, that his death was a huge mistake, but I knew better.

And that instantly infuriated me. This was clearly a scammer, and I bet he reached out to everyone on G’s contacts list, so that must have been a painful jolt to his wife and kids. How cruel.

So I decided to mess with this person.

Me: “Hi G! How are you?”

(As I typed that, I wished this guy was burning in hell.)

G: “Am fine, Busy online Searching on what to invest my Grant Money on and you?”

(Yep, definitely not G. G knew how to punctuate and capitalize.)

Me: “I’m good. Same old, same old.”

G: “Good. Was wondering if you’ve heard about the federal government grant?”

Me: “No I haven’t.”

G: “The Grant is placed for those who need assistance buying a home, paying for bills, starting their own business, going to school, or even helping raise their children with old and retired people .This is a new program, i got $100,000 delivered to me when i applied for the grant and you don’t have to pay it back.”

(I cannot believe anyone would fall for this scam during the Trump era. No way on earth is the government going to give us money to help ease our suffering, without some serious strings attached. This scammer must think the streets here are paved with gold.)

Me: “Wow. That’s good luck considering all you’ve been through.”

(Like, uh, dying.)

G: “Thought you might have heard about it already?”

Me: “No. We haven’t talked in months.”

(That’s putting it mildly. If only we could.)

G: “I contacted the online claiming agent through link and he checked me.”

Me: “Checked you for what?”

(Rabies? Psychopathy? A serious lack of common decency?)

By the way, we should talk about the 900 dollars I owe you.”

(I threw that in just to see if I could get this guy spun up and excited and waste more of his time. The more of his time that I wasted, the less time he’d be spending scamming someone else. But at this point, the scammer went silent for a day. I guess it takes one to know one. So I decided to give it one last try.)

“Seriously, though, I do feel guilty for not paying you back yet.”

G: “Forget about that yet. I know when you have it you will pay up.”

(What a mensch. Especially since I never asked G for money in my life.)

“Let’s talk about the good news. If you click on this link and fill out this form, you might be able to get the grant money, too.”

That’s when I started getting bored with the game. Of course I wasn’t going to click on any link and turn over my social security number or my bank or credit card information, or open myself up to ransomware. So, for my final salvo, I decided to let him have it.

Me: “Sorry, ‘G’, I’m not going to click on your link, and here’s why. You stole the identity of one of the most decent human beings I’ve ever known. He was kind and generous and supportive. He also died three months ago, leaving behind a lot of people who are heartbroken and who loved him very much. I doubt a scammer like you will ever be able to say the same thing, because you don’t build relationships, you take advantage of people. I think the real G would be highly amused by the fact that I’ve been able to waste so much of your time. I also think that since he was very protective of his loved ones, he’d be outraged to know that you probably also reached out to his wife and children, who are still grieving, and this must have given them considerable pain. Sitting in your dingy, third-world room in front of your crappy computer, you already know what I’m about to tell you: You are cursed. Maybe that’s revenge from my friend G and people like him, or bad karma from the pain you cause when you rob little old ladies of their life savings, or maybe it’s just your fate, but you wouldn’t be doing this if you weren’t desperate for the one thing that will never make you happy: Money. Know this: NOTHING will ever go right for you for the rest of your life until you change your ways and try to have a positive impact on people, rather than a negative, toxic one. Right now, you are pathetic. But you don’t have to stay that way. It’s up to you.”

I doubt any of this will sink in. I’m sure it wasn’t even read. But I have to say, I feel cleansed.

scammer

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A Mental Walkabout

Once upon a time, I’d visit a different foreign country every two years. Those were the days. Now, 60 percent of my income goes toward mortgage and utilities, and I don’t see myself ever being able to leave the country again. That breaks my heart, because travel is my reason for being.

Because of this, I’ve become really adept at doing mental walkabouts. If I close my eyes, I can remember exactly what it was like to walk amongst the pigeons in St. Mark’s Square in Venice. I can also explore the ruins of Ephesus, Turkey. I remember the sights, the sounds, the smells of all the amazing places I’ve been. I can transport myself back to the Mercado Hidalgo in Guanajuato, Mexico, and sample, once again, the Hungarian Goulash in Budapest.

The one percent may make it financially impossible for me to explore the world anymore, but they can’t take away my memories. Only dementia or death can do that. I’m terrified of dementia. Death, from my perspective, is simply another way to travel. (Not that I’m in any hurry to hop on that plane.)

Until then, I’ll travel in my mind. I’ll ride bicycles along the canals in Utrecht, Holland, and swim in the crystal blue Adriatic Sea. I’ll snack on fresh bread and local cheese in the Swiss Alps. No matter how dire my financial straits become, as the saying goes, I’ll always have Paris.

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Me, in Venice, with some feathered friends.

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