Category Archives: Social Distancing

How to Worry in a VUCA World

A collage illustrating our VUCA world, with a woman printed with circuit boards, and globe made of portraits, and complex cables.  Volatility, complexity, uncertainty, and ambiguity are spelled out in German, and the acronym VUCA overlays in the center.
Apparently it almost translates into German. Mummelgrummel / CC0

I learned a new acronym today from the business world.  VUCA stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.  

VUCA stands for 2020.  

Nature did not equip humans to live comfortably in a VUCA world. There are sound evolutionary reasons to prefer a stable, placid, dull environment. Even at our most adventurous, we like a calm, constant refuge to return to at the end of the day or the trip.  

And it was already a VUCA world, even before COVID-19 showed up. A statistic I ran across in an August 2019 article tells us that one in three Americans will have an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. I wonder how much that statistic will change as we all live through this upheaval of everything predictable.  

May you live in interesting times has never been a Chinese curse. Nevertheless, it is apt. Our age will not make the dryest chapter in the history books, but living through it is fraught and exhausting.  

Worry, when it is not dominating our conscious thoughts, is an ever-present background buzz in our minds, like an old fluorescent light that needs a new ballast. It keeps us on edge, unbalance, ungrounded, uncentered. It would be easier to deal with if the current crises were finite, but they’re not. We have no time frame, no point we can look forward to by saying to ourselves it will be over by next month, or next season, or next year.  

A lit up check engine light is shown next to a speedometer.  Worry is like a check engine light in our minds.
Wikiuser100000 / CC BY-SA

So what can we do with all this anxiety?  This article, which prompted me to think more deeply about worry in September 2020, espouses some benefits to worrying. It’s like a check engine light in your mind, giving you a heads-up that trouble awaits on your road. Just as with our car’s warning light, worry should prompt us to take action to mitigate or eliminate that upcoming trouble. It should help us to problem-solve and make plans and preparations.  

Of course, if you are living with your metaphorical dashboard lit up like a holiday display, it’s hard to use worry as an adaptive evolutionary tool. I would assert that you can look at most mental health disorders as too much of a good thing. Anxiety disorders certainly fall into this category. I figure they would be a lot easier to vanquish if irrational preparedness didn’t pay off in such a big way, now and then.  

Where is the line between adaptive worry and disordered anxiety? The above article suggests that worry graphs in a U shape, dipping down into productivity somewhere between too little concern and too much.  

A graph of worry is shown with a U shaped curve and a x axis of not enough worry to too much worry and a y axis of productive to not productive.

There is also, perhaps, a distinction to be made between actionable worry and helpless worry. It is one thing to be apprehensive enough to wear a mask, shop less frequently, and take other reasonable precautions. It’s something else to agonize over the course of the pandemic; something you don’t control in the slightest.  

If an anxiety disorder or even just excessive worry is simply the overstimulation of an adaptive trait, the goal shouldn’t be to eliminate that trait. There are so many articles on getting rid of worry, but it’s really about managing anxiety, not abolishing it.  

In social services, sometimes, a client may not be ready to change harmful behavior altogether. Many practitioners use a harm reduction model. Someone using IV drugs might not be prepared to stop, yet, but they can use clean needles. An alcoholic might not be able to stop drinking immediately, but they can give up their keys.  

Mitigating a trait one doesn’t want to eliminate might be seen as a different kind of harm reduction.  

An icon is shown of a worried stick-figure face with hair sticking up to the right.  A VUCA face, if you will.
worry by Alex Muravev from the Noun Project

Looked at that way, some strategies to “get rid of” worry in all those articles have some good tips. You can assign your worry a time of day, and deny it space in your head until its appointed hour. You can address procrastination and make a point of letting yourself feel the emotions worry may be suppressing. You can journal, talk about it with friends or a therapist, and address negative thought patterns.  

But my favorite ideas come from the article about the benefits of worry and a document on wellbeing developed by Edward Watkins at the University of Exeter.  

Give worry a job, as Kate Sweeny, a worry researcher featured in the article, puts it. Figure out what you can literally do to address the situation or potential situation. There is almost always some preparedness or precautionary action you can take.  

Worried about the election? Volunteer to phone bank or make social media posts, and plan out your voting strategy in advance. Concerned about the virus? Make sure to take all sensible precautions and be prepared. Go ahead and stock up for the next lockdown, but spread your purchases out over a more extended period, so you aren’t running stores out of crucial supplies. Freaked out by climate change? Make a point of making sustainable purchases.  

And if you don’t have time or money to do the things that feel most effective, do whatever you can to not make it worse.  

Just doing something proactive makes us feel a lot better. That was the deal with the national shortage of toilet paper before and during the lockdown. People felt helpless, and stocking up on TP was at least actionable.  

Even making a plan helps in and of itself. Setting up a series of if/then triggers for yourself can help reestablish (or just establish) a sense of control. If school goes all remote again, then I will… If I get sick, then I will take care of myself and others by… If there is another fire in my area, then I will… 

These things allow us to take helpless worry and turn it into actionable worry.   

Branches of a tree are shown with paper leaves attached by zip ties.  Things that people are grateful for are written on the leaves.  The nearest leaf is legible and says "my cat and my dog."
A gratitude tree clients made with me in my old job.

I also liked the suggestion to find something that is going right. It goes along with counting your blessings or the evidence-backed practice of listing the things you are grateful for every day. And you can project it into the future by figuring out some things you can realistically look forward to.  

There are other ways to use time, too. Looking back over your life, it is worth identifying the crisis points and figuring out how you got through them. Chances are, what worked before will work again, even if you must adapt it to different circumstances. And imagining how you will look back on today’s events ten years from now can put things into a different, calmer perspective.  

When it is all too much, worry researcher Kate Sweeny identifies at least three anti-worry states. Mindfulness, flow, and awe are incompatible with worrying, and beneficial in and of themselves. She suggests that mindfulness might work better for finite situations. Flow, when you can get lost in a project for hours at a stretch, and lose track of time passing, might be the best (and most productive) distraction in a situation where there is no end in sight.    

Awe might be why going for a walk or bike ride out in nature works so well for me. It is hard to focus on worry when the aspen leaves are fluttering just so, when the sky is brilliant blue and adorned with puffy clouds, when the wind blows through a field of grass, riffling in choreographed waves.  

An icon from the Noun Project representing adapt.  Three lines run vertically in the center.  Two arrows push in on the lines horizontally from either side.  The two lines on the outside bend inward to accommodate the pressure of the arrows.  Adaptability is key in a VUCA world.
adapt by Ralf Schmitzer from the Noun Project

And of course, to an extent, acceptance should be a strategy. We live in VUCA times, and will be living in them for the foreseeable future. We should be worried. We should even be worried in helpless, unproductive ways. Given the times, it is probably a sign of mental health, rather than mental illness. I’d say we all have an anxiety disorder now, but it is too appropriate to be called a disorder.  

Perhaps again in our volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world, as in evolutionary times. Adaptability, not serenity, may be the end goal of mental health.  

What Will it Be Like?

I used to work in low-income senior apartment buildings. In addition to my duties as a landlord, I got to do some fun activities. Our local public transportation agency had a program where they would provide a bus if you had enough interested seniors, and take them to the museum, an afternoon jazz show, a tour of the local tea factory, a trip to the Italian restaurant with the seemingly endless buffet, and the like.

T-Rex skeleton at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.
The Denver Museum of Nature and Science is one of the destinations of the RTD Senior-Ride program. ©clmcdermid

Seniors in low-income communities have typically been through a lot in their lifetimes, and they are still living under the grinding, relentless trauma of poverty. Many were hesitant to spend even the reduced rate bus fair and activity costs. They were worried about spending money on something they might not enjoy. They asked me, over and over, what will it be like?

My mind keeps returning to that plaintive question now. What will it be like has become the question on everyone’s mind. It haunts our national discussions, our private lives, and our dreams. What will it be like when the second wave hits? What will it be like if/when I have to go back to work? What will it be like to find work to go back to? What will it be like to live during an economic depression?

Unfortunately, no one can answer these questions, and we don’t have the option of not finding out.

I’ve written before about tolerating ambiguity as an important life skill that we are all learning and relearning together. Since then, the ambiguity has only grown. Can we open up safely? Can we address the staggering life and death iniquities faced by people of color in modern America? Will another documented instance of shocking police brutality, this time overtly murderous, finally lead to meaningful change? Will there be more legislation to help the states and individuals? Will they extend unemployment?

A painting of French and English troops fighting at the Battle of Waterloo.  Officers on horseback are in the foreground, and troops in formation are in the background.  One officer is in the process of falling off a black horse.
The Battle of Waterloo, by Thomas Jones Barker. Public domain, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

We aren’t used to this anymore. In 1815, it took news of the Battle of Waterloo four days to travel to London, a distance that can now be covered in about five hours by car. The whole continent was holding its breath. Now we get our information in near real-time. We never have to hold our breath for very long. And our forecasting in a variety of fields has become so sophisticated that we’re downright affronted if we don’t know about a storm ten days in advance. Forecasts in politics and economics are often inaccurate, but having constant access to them makes us feel better.

We no longer know what to do with ourselves when even the experts are careful to tell us that they don’t know what is going to happen. We’ve never lived through such a slow-moving crisis before. The repercussions of changes in policy now, as the country is opening back up, won’t be seen for weeks, even a month.

It’s hard to think of times in modern life when the question of what will it be like has been so central. I think about my nieces when they made the big leap from elementary school into middle school. And I think about that right of passage for Americans lucky enough to have the classic college experience. Moving into a dorm for the first time is still fraught with uncertainty, no matter that the campus has been toured and you’ve gotten to know other freshmen online.

But those are personal transitions and tell us little about something we are experiencing together as a society. I asked my parents, 80 and 81, about the uncertainties of the history they have lived through. My mother remembers an armed flight my father took to an unknown destination (it turned out to be Laos) while he was in the Marine Corps and things were heating up in Southeast Asia. Dad talked about the tension of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

A black and white cartoon turtle looks in alarm as a cheeky monkey hangs from a tree, holding out a stick from which is dangling a lit stick of TNT.
Bert the turtle knows how to duck and cover. Do you? Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

And maybe that can help to pinpoint something we are missing, now. Even my oldest siblings were far too young to duck and cover, but I have always marveled at how schools, parents, and children took the practice seriously. The unparalleled power of a nuclear blast was well known by then. The dangers of radiation were well established. How could otherwise intelligent people convince themselves that a school desk would protect them?

But what duck and cover did was to provide a veneer of control to protect teachers and students from their horrifying powerlessness. It was meant to protect the mental health of kids and adults, more than their persons. The feeling that you are doing something to protect yourself, no matter how farfetched, is crucial to the psyche.

That need for a self-protective ritual is manifesting itself in many ways. For some, the mask has become a talisman to protect from illness, despite most of its efficacy being in stopping the wearer from spreading germs. For others, not wearing a mask has become a sort of rain dance for the return to the old normal. An alarming amount of people believe that rejecting vaccines will protect them.

In this, the reckoning for allowing a vacuum of leadership to form in the country, everyone turns to their own magical thinking. If I disinfect my groceries, it can’t happen to me. If I microwave the mail I will be safe. It can’t hurt me if I have enough toilet paper.

Prince Charles in front of a projected map of the UK with temperatures superimposed on it, delivering a weather forecast.
Weather forecasting has become so sophisticated, even royalty can do it. Image courtesy of user Dunk on Flikr.

And perhaps some of that is a good thing. Rituals like wearing a mask, washing your hands obsessively, and keeping your distance can serve the dual purpose of making us feel a little more in control and having a public health benefit. Other practices, like my weird fixation on being sure to have a full tank of gas as often as possible (yeah, I know) are irrational, but harmless. And of course, some of these superstitions range from merely dangerous to outright malevolent.

Our own personal rain dances say a lot about us. We should choose them with care.

And of course, we have to reckon with the fact that any and all of those rituals don’t make us really safe (though hand-washing and distance are a great start.) Certainly, none of them can rescue us from the uncertainties that haunt us. So far the only answer to the question what will it be like has been that it will be like not knowing.

Duties, Rights, and Responsibilities

In the States, we are framing our national debate around our freedom to (leave the house, shop, get haircuts, go to work) versus our freedom from (COVID19, the unmasked, germs, non-essential risks). But what if this isn’t about our right to get a haircut, or our right to be safe? What if this isn’t about our rights at all? What if we’re asking the wrong question?

I’ve been thinking a lot about duty lately. It isn’t something we talk about much in the States anymore. It isn’t something we have talked about much for a long time. Maybe this is the time to re-emphasize that democratic citizenship and patriotism don’t just bestow rights, they also incur responsibilities.

Hands wearing blue medical gloves sew a calico cloth face mask on a white sewing machine.  Three other masks are on the table.  There is a stack of fabric on the table.  Many saw sewing masks as a duty.
Many undertook mask making as a voluntary duty at the beginning of the pandemic. Is it our duty to wear them? Image via Adobe Stock.

What are our duties in a democracy during a pandemic? What obligations do we have to our fellow citizens? To our government? To the economy? To essential workers? What duty do we owe to our most vulnerable populations, to our neighbors, to our friends and families? What should we be doing for our states, towns, and cities? For our healthcare workers?

We are in the midst of an existential debate about the role of government while in the midst of a pandemic. Should our federal and state authorities prioritize our freedoms from or our freedoms to? What is our government actually for? This debate has always existed in, and to an extent defined, the United States. But in the last 30 or so years the debate has increasingly come to define us as individuals. It has become particularly loud, aggressive, and destructive, and it has become about poles rather than a spectrum of ideas and opinions.

We’ve become so caught up in this debate about what government ought to do, we’ve forgotten about what we ought to do.

Wikipedia defines duty as follows:

A duty (from “due” meaning “that which is owing”; Old French: deu, did, past participle of devoir; Latin: debere, debitum, whence “debt“) is a commitment or expectation to perform some action in general or if certain circumstances arise. A duty may arise from a system of ethics or morality, especially in an honor culture. Many duties are created by law, sometimes including a codified punishment or liability for non-performance.

I posit that duties also arise from systems of government and social expectations. The duty to vote and be informed arises from democracy. Our duty to say ‘bless you’ when someone sneezes is entirely a social norm. (Now, of course, we all have a duty to try desperately hard not to sneeze in public at all.)

A Louisiana National Guard soldier on duty puts a box of food into the back of a white SUV at a food bank.
Louisiana Army Guard Soldiers with the 256th Infantry Brigade Combat Team help package and distribute food to the local community at the Food Bank of Central Louisiana in Alexandria, La, March 24, 2020. Soldiers are assisting the food bank to ensure the supply of food for the needy is maintained and distributed during the increased demand from COVID-19. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Thea James)

Our challenge now should be to sort out, as individuals and as a society, the tangled priorities of our own personal responsibilities. Does our duty to stimulate the economy and support local businesses outweigh our personal responsibility to save for all the rainy days we are in for? Does our onus to maximize self-sufficiency surpass our obligation to leave some toilet paper for the next customer (hint, no!)? How do we balance our economic needs with our responsibility to protect our neighbors, coworkers, and families? Is it our duty to utilize our essential services to keep people employed, or to minimize our use to try to protect workers? What can we do? What should we do?

The people who sat at their sewing machines making mask after mask have been asking the right questions. The people putting bags of groceries into trunks at the local food banks are doing or exceeding their duty. The essential workers who keep us all fed and tend to our health are what a retired Royal Navy man of my acquaintance once referred to as ABCD. Above and beyond the call of duty.

Now, more than ever in most of our lifetimes, it is about what we can do for our country. It isn’t about us and our freedoms and rights, it’s about we. We the families and neighborhoods, the towns and cities, the states and the United States, the world. We the people, not we the persons.

Day Forty-Four: Review

It’s been a long, strange forty-four days. Jefferson County has baked. I can tell, because there is no flour to be had. Jefferson County has gardened. I can tell by all the planting I’ve seen my neighbors doing. Jefferson County has, by and large, stayed healthy. I can tell by this case summary put out by the county.

I suppose I should be relieved and feel safer for that. Instead, I mostly feel sad. Denver County, about 30 miles away, has had 202 deaths. It has had 3,892 laboratory-confirmed cases, out of a population of 619,968. That’s 0.62%. Jefferson County has had 1,160 confirmed cases out of a population of 582,881. That’s 0.19% To me, those numbers illustrate the class divide in this country. Part of the disparity is about population density, yes. And there are plenty of privileged people in the city and county of Denver. Nevertheless, these numbers speak loudly of class.

Our 44 days of staying home have clearly worked for those of us with the privilege of doing it, which is most of the foothill communities. Even for those of us who make up the socioeconomic diversity of the area are massively privileged now. The houses up here, be they humble or not so much, are far apart. Nobody shares an elevator. Most people are able to work from home, and there is a good chance they were already doing it. We complain about the crowds at our parks like it’s the local pastime, but they are paltry in comparison to the parks in the city.

Alderfer/Three Sisters Park.

In my area, I give the stay-at-home order four and a half out of five stars for keeping the privileged safe. I give it two out of five stars for keeping the underprivileged safe.

We talk about the two Americas now to reference our political and cultural alienation. But when John Edwards (yeah, I had to look that up) brought the phrase into the popular lexicon, he was referring to the class divide. That divide seems especially stark now. It is a little hyperbolic to say that it is life or death. Instead, it’s more of the same dynamic that already existed: life or increased risk of death.

And that’s without getting into the racial disparities that lie starkly exposed in the wake of the first wave of COVID19:

And so we should be a little sad as we mark this milestone of moving from stay-at-home to safer-at-home. Those of us who have been lucky and able to stay safe shouldn’t be celebrating our relative success with stay-at-home, we should be mourning, not just for the dead, not just for the bereaved, not just for the ill, but also for equality and opportunity.

Signing off. Take Care, and Take Care of one another.

P.S.: I will be using this milestone to revise my posting schedule — a little less frequent because I want to do some more in depth pieces. Thanks.

*** Change *** I initially included the case number for the unincorporated mountain communities in Jefferson County as 14. This was wildly incorrect — I didn’t realize the chart had broken out several of the unincorporated mountain communities separately. The case count in Evergreen, my town, currently stands at 47. Thanks to Cliff Coffey over on Facebook for pointing that out.

*** Update *** The Evergreen Chamber of Commerce estimates that there are 25,000 people in Evergreen. That makes our 47 cases 0.19% of the population, the exact same rate as the county as a whole.

Day Forty-Three: The Economy

I mentioned I have been re-reading Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens. Like many, he writes about what makes us Homo sapiens so special. Why are we the dominant organism on the planet, and not lions, or wolves, or bears, or any number of other species that could eat us up in a few big bites?

His theory is that our secret ingredient is the ability to collectively believe in things that have no concrete reality. We started off with the gods, ghosts, and spirits. Whatever your take on God, you’d have a hard time actually, literally, physically pointing at him/her/ze/them (depending on your religion). Religion is, by definition, an act of faith. You might be able to point to something that you see as God’s or The Gods’ work in the world, but you can’t point to a physical manifestation. Maybe your prophets could, maybe you will be able to in the afterlife, but for now, it’s faith.

It’s not just God/Gods. We humans believe in lots of things that aren’t literally, physically there. We believe that our money has value beyond the paper it is printed on or the ones and zeros that represent it (at least I hope we still do!) We believe that the other side of Niagara Falls is somehow, magically Canada, even though it looks the same as this side. We believe in capitalism, communism, socialism, or whateverism.

There is no Canada. Don’t tell Justin.

That doesn’t mean that these ideas we all believe in aren’t real. It just means that they aren’t nouns in the literal sense. They aren’t people, places, or things. I can point to Cuba. I can’t point to communism. I can eat a banana. I can’t eat a ten-dollar bill, but it is somehow more valuable than the banana.

Patriotism, capitalism, communism, socialism, the value of money, God, The Gods, and Canada have real, concrete, literal consequences. Consequences that have enabled a fleshy ape with weak teeth and nails to dominate the planet. And consequences that have, on many occasions, been disastrous for individual (or large groups of) apes, not to mention other species.

All this has got me thinking about the economy. It’s another one of those things you can’t point to, but it sure does have real-world consequences! It is an idea, an act of collective imagination that allows us to cooperate on a staggering scale.

Right now, we are all watching helplessly as it tanks.

If you do a google image search for “economy,” it gives you lots of images like this, but no photos. Image courtesy of Pixabay.

But ultimately, the economy is just a consensus. It is only as good or as bad as we collectively think it is. If investors have a sunny outlook, the stock market goes up. If businesses feel good about their chances, employment goes up. The degree to which such an important idea is based on the collective subjective is a bit gobsmacking, if you think about it too much.

Except it is time to think about it too much, and be gobsmacked.

We humans are great hackers. We hack our computer networks, we hack adulting, and since at least William James, we have been deliberately learning to hack ourselves. If, as a species, we can hack one big collective idea, elections, using Facebook, propaganda, and misinformation, shouldn’t we be able to hack the economy? Can’t we use Facebook and propaganda (which, after all, is just advertising), if not the misinformation, to collectively imagine our way out of this mess?

The economy is only as bad as everyone thinks it is.

Signing off. Take Care, and Take Care of one another.

Day Forty-Two: Opening

Did they wash those hands, before they let them cradle that house?!?

Colorado has moved to a “safer-at-home” footing, rather than a stay-at-home order, but my county, in coordination with five other metro area counties, decided to extend the stay at home order. That extension is almost up. On Saturday, Jefferson County will take its first tentative steps to reopen.

We can’t all stay home forever. And it seems like forever is how long it is taking to roll out a massive testing operation. But how many of us are really going to feel safe enough to resume some semblance of normal activity? What if Jeffco reopens, and nobody comes?

According to Axios, Colorado cases are declining, which is excellent news. Jefferson County numbers are also declining. However, most of our neighboring states have case numbers that are still rising. And without a ton of tests, I’m not sure we can feel confident about any of these numbers.

A lot of businesses are planning on taking patron’s temperatures when they come in. This does nothing for me. We don’t know the percentage, but it’s clear there are plenty of asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic carriers wandering around. Besides, there are also people like me. I can be plenty sick, but I almost never spike a fever.

Interestingly, no one seems to be spouting any rhetoric saying “it’s safe to come out now.” Even the president has admitted that more people will die. Messaging in Colorado is that we should continue to stay home as much as possible, which I’m sure all those businesses who can reopen are just thrilled about.

So what is the responsible thing to do? I’ve said before, for me, not much is going to change. I live with a one-woman vulnerable population. But what about the rest of us? Where does one balance among supporting businesses, regaining a semblance of normalcy (we can’t all stay home, forever), staying safe, and stopping the spread?

How are you planning on negotiating this? If you are somewhere that has already opened up, what have you been doing? Leave a comment!

Signing off. Take Care and Take Care of one another.

Day Forty-One: Drift

It’s hard to believe we’ve been on lockdown in my county for forty-one days. We’ve officially been sequestered longer than Noah and the animals. I want my rainbow, dove, and olive branch now, if you please.

Image courtesy of needpix.com

The days are slipping past, and they’re all more or less the same. Wake, TV news, articles, exercise, writing, the PBS News Hour, entertainment, sleep. And, for me, it isn’t likely to change much when lockdown is lifted on Friday. Given the predicted (and intuitively likely) increase in cases and my vulnerable flatmate/mother, it might be even more important to avoid going out.

It’s like Groundhog Day. I have to remind myself that I have committed impromptu plumbing and yard work to feel like I have gotten anything done at all. I’m drifting through this quarantine, just along for the ride.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

I think there is an unspoken assumption that once the economy re-opens, things will be business as usual, just six feet apart. That’s not likely. Instead of longing for a day when we can safely go to restaurants again, we need to be proactive. We need to stop having quarantine happen to us, and start happening to quarantine instead.

I’m not sure how that happens, or what it even means, but I think a start might be to create reference points. The News Hour Weekend is not sufficiently different to the weekday News Hour to cue my brain that it is a weekend. Or perhaps some goal setting might help me and others to regain some sense of control.

It’s actually been nice to drift for a time. I haven’t had this few obligations and responsibilities for this long that I can remember. But it is time to do something to seize the oars, or put up the sail, or whatever nautical analogy you prefer.

Signing off. Take Care, and Take Care of one another.

Day Thirty-Nine: Cross-Species Friendship

As I may have mentioned, I participate in @dorianmases Instagram photography challenges. The latest was to take a picture featuring a shadow or shadows. While playing around with the camera and the dog, I got this shot, which I entered. Part of the challenge is to put some good text with the photo, a little story about it.

Working on the challenge while re-reading Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens made me think about our amazing relationship with dogs. We humans like to think of ourselves as a single species, independent of all the others. In reality, we may not even be mostly human. The commonly cited statistic about a 10:1 ration of microbial cells to human cells may not be good science, or even science, period, but whatever the reality is, a large part of us isn’t actually us. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say a large part of us is what one of my professors would call a holon, something that is both a whole and a part, simultaneously. I’ve heard humans referred to as a composite species.

And that’s without even thinking of our symbiotes. Most of our symbiotic relationships are a pretty raw deal for the other party. Humans make chickens the most widespread bird in the world, an evolutionary win, but most chickens lead miserable lives.

In some cases, dogs and cats also lead miserable lives, but on the whole, our symbiotic relationship with carnivores is different than with herbivores. It is more about partnership than subjugation. Dogs and humans, in particular, have been an unbeatable team.

The earliest concrete evidence we have of domesticated dogs is 14,000 or so years old, but there is evidence that dogs and wolves split from a common wolf-like ancestor 20,000 to 40,000 years ago. I’m not sure what other selection pressure would cause this divergence, if not domestication.

Though I have no basis for it, I choose to believe that dogs teamed up with people at the early end of that range. It allows more time for what has been a process of co-evolution. It wasn’t just the dogs that changed with domestication. Both species developed a remarkable instinct for communication with one another. Dog’s profound cooperative instincts, pack hunting, territoriality, and gregariousness may have influenced human development.

In fact, it’s pretty arguable who domesticated whom. More recent theories posit that, when wolves scavenged human middens, the friendliest started to bond with humans, kicking the whole thing off.

However it happened, humans would be different creatures if we hadn’t teamed up dogs. Our partnership has had profound implications for our own development, as well as that of dogs.

My friend, Nairobi.

And what a marvel that is! Two species, so different from one another, literally creating each other down the centuries.

I’ve heard dogs and cats called parasites, who mooch off human generosity while providing little in return. Few of us hunt with our dogs any longer, or run sheep, or pull travoises and sleds. But in these times in particular, we can’t discount the oxytocin boost they give us when we look into their eyes, they vicarious joy we feel when they exuberantly chase down a ball, or the warmth we feel when they lay their heads on our knees.

People who have dogs in their lives have better physical health outcomes, and oxytocin expression and cortisol reduction provide significant mental health benefits. In these stressful times, our friends the dogs are doing us plenty of services.

So, if you’re lucky enough to have a dog, don’t take him or her for granted. You are just the most recent partners in a relationship that goes back at least 14,000 years, and is an absolutely astonishing, almost magical, story of co-evolution. Remember to be amazed.

Signing off. Take Care, and Take Care of one another.

Day Thirty-Eight: Unity?

Yesterday, David Brooks pointed something out on The News Hour. He cited a Kaiser Family Foundation poll from April 23rd (so a little dated) that showed that 80% of Americans support strict shelter in place restrictions. He uses this statistic to show that Americans are united in way we haven’t been in a very, very long time.

Unfortunately, the same poll shows that 64% of Democrats and 56% of Independents think the worst is still to come, whereas only 27% of Republicans think the worst is still in front of us. And though majorities of all political stripes support the stay at home measures, there is a big difference in the size of those majorities based on party.

I’d really like to believe Brooks’ sunny outlook on this. Could we be beginning to see the end of our long national nightmare of polarization? Though Brooks is perhaps a little overoptimistic, there is definitely a case here for a more cautious, nuanced hopefulness.

The question I have to ask, though, is if not this, what? If we can’t, as a nation, begin to get it together after this shitshow, it’s truly terrifying to think what it will take.

Day Thirty-Seven: Costco

What kind of a lousy blogger am I? I forgot to take a picture of Costco. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. I think this one is in India.

I did a monster Costco shop on March 17th, and I hadn’t been back to the store since. I guess I didn’t really have to go today. We have beans and rice and frozen vegetables. But I was out of such staples as popcorn and breakfast and fresh fruit.

Costco was weird. Of course it was. I won’t go into that, because everybody knows by now.

What really became stark for me is what a struggle it is to determine what is rational. I wore an old dust mask with a cloth mask over it, figuring I could wash the cloth mask and use it to keep the dust mask clean. I sanitized my car door handle. I wore gloves and sanitized my phone when I got in the car, since I had been handling it in the store. I felt paranoid. I felt phobic. I felt absurd. I felt vulnerable.

We’re on day thirty-seven now of Operation Save My Mom, and we can’t stay isolated forever. If nothing else, when my county opens up again, I will have to get a haircut. I’m starting to get desperate enough to try cutting it myself again, and that never ends well.

I would feel a lot more confident if my Mom wasn’t already struggling with a sinus infection that is dragging on and on and on. She’s triply vulnerable right now. She’s 81, asthmatic, and her immune system is tied up with something else. I got a Costco of EmergenC to dose her with.

I made the unnerving decision to forgo wiping the groceries down. Was that sensible and rational, or have I doomed Mom? If you wipe down the groceries, though, where does it end? Can I just sanitize the bag that the sweet potatoes are in, or do I have to use dish soap and water on each individual sweet potato? After all, I don’t know when these were packed.

How careful is too careful? How careful is responsible? How careful is insane? How careful is dysfunctional? I feel like we won’t have answers to these questions for a long time. I worry that, as this drags on, we will all let our guard down and wind up overwhelming the hospitals again.

I’m making decisions that actually, factually, literally might be life or death, within an insane dearth of information. So are we all.

Signing off. Take Care, and Take Care of one another.