40 – Dodging the Magic Bullet

A version of this piece was published in Transition, a Canadian magazine on mental health.

Photo by Ross Sneddon on Unsplash

In 1980, the year I was born, the board of directors of the American Psychiatric Association voted to allow pharmaceutical companies to offer paid symposiums at its annual conference. Thirty years later I was sitting on coarse beige upholstery in a doctor’s surgery in Glasgow. “Are you sure the results are normal?”

He sighed and repeated that my blood, hormones, iron level and thyroid were all fine.

Disappointment lodged in my oesophagus. Please tell me something’s wrong: hypothyroidism, Vitamin D, anaemia, hormone imbalance, anything.

I had moved to the rain-wracked west coast of Scotland to do a Master’s degree in writing but, after a few weeks, I could barely read. Obsessive thoughts snarled and snapped: you’re stupid, you’re hopeless, you’re a failure. Glasses leapt from my hands at my part-time waitress job. Burns crept up my arms as my reflexes slowed. My boss reprimanded me for being “snappish”. I craved sugar, wolfing my flatmate’s ice cream and cereal then slinking out the next morning to replace them. I slept 12, 15 hours a day, exhausted by the weight of my body.

One more test. The doctor gave me a single sheet of paper. I tend to score well on tests; this was no exception. The Beck Depression Inventory1 is a common screening for depression, intended to “identify [its] presence and severity”2. He skimmed my responses about sadness, guilt, irritability, hopelessness, sleep disturbances, and suicidal thoughts.

“I’ll write you a prescription.”

“Is there someone I can talk to?”

Referral in hand, I walked to another basement office.

That doctor cut me off after ten seconds: “Do you want a prescription?”

He huffed audibly. “If you want to talk to someone go to the counselling service. All the other American students are on meds.”

***

In Anatomy of an Epidemic award-winning journalist Robert Whitaker describes how the “notion that [pharmaceutical] ‘magic bullets’… would bring miracle cures”3 became psychiatric dogma — despite the fact no one fully understands the organic processes of mental illness. Do psychotropic “bullets” hit their target? If so, what happens? No responsible physician would prescribe thyroid and hormone treatment without a lab test. But nobody checked my serotonin or dopamine levels. My doctor had never seen me before. He knew nothing of my family, temperament, or situation, but on the basis of 21 questions offered a drug that would dramatically, maybe irreversibly, alter my brain chemistry.

Photo by Aliane Schwartzhaupt on Unsplash

The most common antidepressants are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI)4 like Prozac. As it happens, I spent several years toying with a fast-acting antidepressant. Methyl​enedioxy​methamphetamine, like SSRIs, boosts serotonin levels in the brain. It obliterates unhappiness in a rush of euphoria, confidence, clarity and empathy. Everything is better: music, lights, colour, conversation, friendship, sex, and cigarettes.

Until the comedown.

“Suicide Tuesday” was a semi-serious joke among club kids. We compared notes on nightmares, hallucinations, and memory loss. We counted the days till jaws stopped aching and appetites returned.

Prozac is legal but brain chemistry is no respecter of legislation. Trials on SSRIs show that “rats fed high doses… ended up with neurons that were swollen and twisted like corkscrews”5. The human evidence is compelling: the Food and Drug Administration received 39,000 complaints about Prozac in the nine years following its approval, including reports of suicidal and homicidal outbursts, “psychotic depression, mania, abnormal thinking, hallucinations, hostility, confusion, amnesia, convulsions, tremors and sexual dysfunction.”6

***

Instead of antidepressants I took the second doctor’s advice and went to the student counselling service. Every Friday afternoon between three and four (after dark, for most of those moths) I went to a basement room where a white-faced, gold-rimmed Seth Thomas clock sat in a disused fireplace. A tiny glass pitcher and two small glasses stood on the hearth beside a box of Tork tissues. I had fold them in half to blow my nose.

“I’m scared.”

“Of what?”

“I feel like I’ve lost control.” I threw another fistful of sodden tissues in the bin. “You know the Rolling Stones’ ‘Paint It Black’? It feels like that.”

Words that come to mind now are no less true for being clichéd. Nouns: storm, cloud, void, chasm, maelstrom, black hole. Verbs: choke, crush, frighten, smother, horrify. Adjectives: miserable, catatonic, helpless, damaged, trapped, angry, sad, frustrated, lost.

***

In 1988 the United States Food and Drug Association green-lighted Prozac and America’s National Institutes of Mental Health set up the Depression Awareness Recognition and Treatment (DART) program. Its mission was to promote “greater acceptance of depression as a disorder” and, perhaps not incidentally, spread the word that “antidepressants produced recovery rates of ‘70% to 80% in comparison with 20% to 40% for placebo.”7 Eli Lilly, which held the patent on Prozac, helped pay for eight million DART brochures that highlighted the merits of serotonin-boosting pharmaceuticals.

***

Photo by Wherda Arsianto on Unsplash

If you’re trying to dodge the magic bullet you need other weapons. I’ve been running since age 13, hooked on the peace and clarity that follows the effort. In Glasgow I got up at 5:30AM, pulled on ski socks, leggings, sweatshirt, jacket, hat, gloves and battered Sauconys then ran for an hour. I swapped my restaurant job for a coffee shop and found comfort in the routine of making espresso, toasting sandwiches, and gossiping with the regulars. At home I baked caraway rye bread, bagels, and lemon cookies to combat the chill seeping through the single-glazed windows. I bought kilos of oranges and taught myself to make marmalade; experimented with vegan mac-and-cheese and coconut milk smoothies. On black afternoons I tiptoed up the ice-slick hill to the gym and did squats, bench presses and seated rows. I used holiday photos for bookmarks and saved quotes on index cards: “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside you,” wrote Kafka.

***

“In a [1998] World Health Organization study of the merits of screening for depression,” writes Whitaker: “Those diagnosed and treated with psychiatric medications fared worse – in terms of their depressive symptoms and their general health – over a one-year period than those who weren’t exposed to the drugs.”

***

One year is 365 days of wondering why am I still breathing? It’s a long time to resist the temptation to drag the tip of a knife down your arm just to see how it feels. I scurried and feinted but depression was a patient cat to my mouse. There were still tears in writing workshops, still mornings huddled beneath the espresso machine gnawing my fingers, still cake binges followed by penitent cups of vegetable broth.

Depression is a black-hearted octopus tenderly, insistently probing for weakness. Resistance is the only secret to survival; fight the beast with every cheap, inadequate weapon at your disposal. Work and running were my best allies. I got better at snatching pleasure and being selfish about delight. When insomnia chipped at my fragile defences, I went to the doctor for sleeping pills. At the end of the year I left Glasgow, bruised but stronger. A magic bullet might have been swift relief. But the grit, patience, and humility I learned on my way are side-effects worth having.

Photo by Nathalie Désirée Mottet on Unsplash

24 – Vegan Eating for Runners

This originally appeared in Trail Runner magazine.

Intro

Matt Frazier was an average runner who ate an average, albeit healthy, American diet and had average runner’s aches and pains Then he stopped eating meat for ethical reasons. Chicken and fish went next, and he didn’t miss them much. When he quit eggs and dairy something unexpected happened: Matt found he could run longer and harder than ever. Within a few months of becoming a vegan he ran two 50-mile races, shed some stubborn pounds, and felt fleet and fit. Inquisitive and communicative by nature, Matt started the “No Meat Athlete” blog to share his experiences.

Running on plants has taken Matt places he never imagined. This year he completed his first 100-miler, the Burning River Endurance Run, and published his first book: “No Meat Athlete: Run on Plants and Discover Your Fittest, Fastest, Happiest Self”. Co-authored by Matt Ruscigno, MPH, RD, a vegan dietician, ultra-marathoner and endurance cyclist. The book is an engaging guide to plant-based diets for runners, running for vegans, and all interested parties in-between.

Photo by Anna Pelzer on Unsplash

Why ‘No Meat’?

Removing meat, poultry, fish, dairy and eggs from your diet is a major lifestyle change but Frazier cites three compelling reasons to do so: health, the environment, and ethics.

Fitter & Faster

Studies showing that vegetarians have lower rates of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, etc are as common as mud in March, but what are the specific benefits to runners? “The most common change I hear about is faster recovery,” says Frazier. “This means less injury because it reduces your chance of over-training and getting hurt. It lets serious runners do more hard workouts.”

Scientists have yet to pinpoint why runners may recover faster on a veggie diet but there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to say they do, with world-beating vegans like Scott Jurek, Brendan Brazier, and Catra Corbett attesting to the efficacy of plant-powered running. Monique Ryan, MS, RD, author of Sports Nutrition for Endurance Athletes, says the benefit may be down to the anti-inflammatory properties of plant foods. “Exercise increases the level of free radicals in your body, which causes inflammation,” she explains. Anti-oxidants in fruits and vegetables are anti-inflammatory and protect your body from physiological stress.

Food: Environment & Ethics

Losing yourself in nature is one of the great pleasures of trail running, and eating plants is a great way to protect the environment you love. Raising livestock is a leading cause of deforestation, soil erosion, destruction of grasslands, and water contamination, worldwide, according to UN Food and Agriculture Organization research; and creates more greenhouse gas emissions than all forms of transport combined. Meat is also an inefficient food source. For example, it takes 20 pounds of grain to produce a pound of steak.

Animal cruelty is a clear argument for veganism but the human cost of meat is, if anything, greater. Meat-packing is notoriously one of America’s most dangerous jobs. Globally, the demand for meat means two-thirds of arable land is used to grow animal feed versus just eight percent to produce food for direct human consumption. This drives up food prices and put swathes of the world’s population at risk of hunger.

Photo by Ella Olsson on Unsplash

How to Make it Work: Calories – The Burning Issue

You might be surprised to hear that when it comes to food quantity is as important as quality. “Under-fuelling is a common problem,” says Ingrid Skoog, RD, chair of the Sports, Cardiovascular, and Wellness Nutrition (SCAN) group of Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Between intense training, the appetite suppressant effect of exercise, and hectic lives, a lot of runners don’t eat enough.” You can get by on reserves for a while but a consistent calorie deficit puts you at risk of fatigue, excessive weight loss and sub-par training. “Nutrition is non-negotiable,” notes Skoog. “Regardless of the diet you choose, your body’s needs don’t change.”

Ruscigno concurs: “One of the biggest factors in good nutrition is getting enough food. People are concerned about protein in vegan diets but if you eat enough total calories it is almost impossible to not get enough protein.” When you cut out meat, dairy and eggs make sure to compensate with calorie-dense plant foods like nuts and nut butters, avocados, and coconut oil.

Micro-nutrients – Less is More

Decades of meat and dairy industry marketing have created the perception that you need meat for iron and dairy for calcium. But animal products are not the only option. A balanced vegan diet provides iron from a range of foods such as whole grains, leafy greens and legumes. Eating mini-portions of protein is actually more efficient than eating a steak, explains Ruscigno, because your body absorbs nutrients better in small doses.

Calcium absorption also improves on a plant-based diet because animal protein increases the amount of calcium you excrete (thus drinking milk is a paradoxical pursuit). Getting calcium from fortified plant milks, leafy greens and legumes means you can eat less total calcium but your body will retain more. Ruth Heidrich, a 78-year-old raw vegan marathoner and Ironman triathlete, who holds a PhD in nutrition and exercise physiology reports her bone density increased on an all-plant diet, despite a family history of osteoporosis.

The one essential supplement for vegans is vitamin B12, which is helps form DNA and red blood cells, and supports brain function. “You need to get some every day,” Ruscigno recommends. You can take a B12 supplement or multi-vitamin, or eat fortified foods like bread, cereal, plant milks and nutritional yeast.

Think Addition, Not Just Subtraction

Vegan or meat-eater, nutrition experts agree that what you add to your diet is more important than what you subtract. Nell Stephenson, a Paleo diet consultant and lifestyle coach who competes in Ironman Triathlons and ultra-marathons, says the key to health is eating more vegetables. “Even with the Paleo diet [which advocates eating meat] you should get 40-50% of your calories from vegetables and fruit. That gives you all the vitamins, minerals and fiber you need and nothing you don’t.”

“Not everyone is going to be a vegan,” says Ruscigno. “But if you eat like one, by consuming more fruit and vegetables, you will gain a lot of the benefits.”

Conclusion

Running on plants can have a powerful, positive effect on your performance and lifestyle as long as you are mindful and properly fuel your training. “Historically, the healthiest societies ate low-meat diets. It’s how we thrive,” says Frazier. “Becoming vegan gave me an indescribable sense of well-being. It felt whole, complete and right. It’s a force for happiness.”

No Meat Athlete: Run on Plants and Discover Your Fittest, Fastest, Happiest Self’ is published by Fair Winds Press. For more information and Matt’s book tour dates visit www.nomeatathlete.com.

23 – Sober Life in Ibiza

The following profile, written around 2014, was commissioned but wound up not being published.

Photo: Cila Warncke

Late February, Agrotourism Morna, Sant Carles, Ibiza. The succulent smell of roast pork and chicken wafts across the terrace. White plates nestle against the whiter cloth covering a long wooden table shaded by gnarled almond branches. Guests chat over glasses of red wine while their children attack colouring books and bowls of tomato-clad pasta. Dogs romp. Halfway through the starter, proprietor and chef Simon Johnson pops out of the kitchen and realises he needs five more place settings.

A volunteer goes in search of chairs. Someone else conjures a fistful of cutlery. Folks squeeze closer. By the time platters of carved meat and heaping bowls of succulent veg arrive at the table there is space for everyone. More bottles appear. Glasses are raised. Here’s to long lunches with friends, overlooking verdant fields and inhaling the faint honey of almond blossoms.

This idyllic afternoon in the campo belies the winding road that brought Simon to Morna, and his pressured quest to turn a time-worn agrotourismo (the local name for a rustic bed-and-breakfast) into a homey country retreat.

Photo: Cila Warncke

In November the Agro, as it is affectionately known, resembled a cyclone landfall. The pool was half-full of brackish black water. The terraces were strewn with broken furniture, old mattresses, rubbish, and piles of broken concrete. Inside, mildew crept up the white walls and cobwebs laced together the corners of the high ceilings. The garden was mud, weeds and a welter of dead grape vines. Beneath grey winter skies it had a chill air of decay.

Admittedly, all Ibiza tourist accommodation is worse for wear off-season. Two things made Agrotourismo Morna different: 1) its new manager Simon had never run a hotel before and 2) he had no money. Not in the way some perfectly solvent folk claim to have no money, but literally. Simon was broke, impoverished; in the Cockney rhyming slang of his youth, brassic. Nobody, including him, knew exactly how or where he was going to magic up the money and people-power to renovate Morna. Putative business partners flailed and bailed, neighbours eyeballed the scene and wished him luck, the owner of the land chewed his cigar and muttered.

Yet Simon was eerily calm. Cigarette in hand, West Ham matches burbling in the background, he pieced things together. He hosted a curry dinner to raise rent money, haggled for curios at Sant Jordi market, and sourced furniture from Facebook. He bartered home-made Scotch eggs for advertising space. He hired a gardener then sweet-talked him into emptying the pool, one bucket of sludge at a time.

Photo: Cila Warncke

Making do is a talent Simon has cultivated since boyhood. “I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to be when I grew up, I just got on with it.” Getting on with it may as well be the family motto. “We’re all self-employed,” he muses. “Quite an entrepreneurial bunch.” His grandparents ran pie and mash shops in London’s East End and a greengrocers (“that’s where I got my love of food”). Dyslexia hampered him in academics but he was savvy and good at making friends.

Bonhomie became his ticket to the world. After brief stints working in the stock market and as a chef, in London, Simon took off and spent years in Asia. He made a living selling “a bit of land, anything really” while absorbing the cultures and cuisines. Eventually he settled in Barcelona, still working in sales. He got married and divorced. Made some money. And drank. “I was always a heavy drinker, always doing things I didn’t want to do.” He pauses, foot bouncing, looking for the right words. “You can get to a point drinking or taking drugs, that you don’t actually want to be doing it, but you continue. You don’t understand why, you just have to. It happened a few times and I managed to pull it back, but three years ago I crossed a line.”

During his sodden slide towards that demarcation Simon decided to move to Ibiza. If you can call it a decision. “Ibiza was a whim. I was drinking a lot and at a loose end. I didn’t really have a reason to do anything.” He arrived and started doing barbecues for a friend’s villa rental business. This blossomed into his own catering company, Cook Ibiza, and let him to slip into a routine of “drinking, earning money and continuing drinking.”

Ibiza didn’t drive him to drink, he is quick to add, but didn’t stop him either. “Wherever I was in the world at that time, I would have been drinking. But it gave me an excuse to shut a door and drink all day. You can disappear here.”

Parties were, paradoxically, an occasion for restraint, something to grin and bear until he could slip away to drink alone. “Don Simon was my poison,” he says, naming the cheap cardboard-carton plonk beloved of teenage holiday-makers. “At my worst I was drinking six or seven litres a day.” Simon struggled to maintain a social façade but that level of intake damages a man’s impulse control. He was arrested on a drunk driving warrant while trying to check into Es Vive and marched out of the self-styled party hotel in handcuffs. He went on a ten-day binge. “People were scared of what I was doing. I was scared. I had to admit I was really in the shit. I’m an alcoholic.”

Photo: Cila Warncke

Agro Morna’s first overnight guests are due in forty hours. The gardener and handyman pump last week’s rainwater out of the pool, bragging like schoolboys about Amsterdam red light district exploits as they work. A painter wanders out of the house, brush in hand, to bum a smoke. An interior designer who has taken on Morna as a labour of love, scurries past with an armload of sodden sheets and jumpers. Her kids shriek over a DVD. A trio of dogs get noisily underfoot. Simon and his cousin appear laden with the spoils of a last-minute shopping expedition. Unspoken questions crackle in the air: Will everything be ready? Can he pull it off? Is this really happening?

Five days later Simon and I perch on a white outdoor sofa marked with only a few paw prints. Simon’s puppy, Potter, lies alert but sedate at our feet. Sun peeks through a smothering sea fog. The pool gleams David Hockney blue. Guests loll on the terrace, savouring a home-cooked lunch. It is as abrupt and unlikely a transformation as the denoument of a fairytale.

Fourteen months earlier, Simon was in a Bedfordshire rehab clinic, doped on Valium, not sure he intended to stay sober. “I was with a lot of people who didn’t want to be there. All they did was plot how they were going to go drinking when they got out.” A counsellor took him aside and asked if he was going to join that gang, or take his life seriously. He’d already lost half a kidney due to drinking. Alcohol would kill him, probably sooner than later.

Simon wanted to get on with things, but how? In rehab counsellors advised him to take a year off work and concentrate on sobriety. But faced with the option of living in a hostel in London or returning to Ibiza, Simon took a chance on the island: “I thought, it’s time to get on with life.” A catering job at Pikes Hotel was a chance test the waters. It went well. He wasn’t tempted to drink. So he took the plunge and moved. “I didn’t have any expectations. I was happy to be back but it was very day-to-day, work-wise, and going to as many AA meetings as I possibly could.”

Alcoholics Anonymous is the world’s most recognisable anti-addiction brand but sticking with the programme in Ibiza has its challenges. Simon faced practical ones, like getting to meetings despite being banned from driving, and psychological ones, like maintaining a semblance of anonymity on a gossipy little island, but he is adamant about its value. “AA is an amazing fellowship. Anyone who’s in any doubt should get into a room. It’s a lifesaver for me.”

Photo: Cila Warncke

Motivated by sobriety and the family ethos of getting on with it, Simon busied himself with Cook Ibiza. Then a friend invited him to see a house near the northern village of Sant Carles. He went along and surprised himself by signing a 10-year lease to renovate and manage Morna. “I wasn’t looking for it,” he says with a shake of the head. “And couldn’t afford it, but there was something welcoming about the place. It was peaceful.”

Simon is voicing a consensus. Everyone who visits, even those who saw the Agro at its scruffiest, falls in love. It has – along with quantifiable Ibiza charms like olive and almond trees, sublime sunsets, and rustic architecture – an intangible allure. People feel at home. Kids and pets thrive. Its first guests paid it the compliment of immediately booking another visit.

Things are, touch wood, going well but Simon approaches each day knowing the future depends on his resolution. “Sobriety hasn’t been easy. I have to focus on staying sober and knowing that if I do good things will happen.”

This means changing old habits and holding himself to a high standard. “The biggest difference in my life now is trying to do the right thing every day, trying to be as honest and clear as possible. I probably get it about fifty percent right at the moment. There’re some bills I haven’t paid. I’ve been late on things, forgotten things. But it doesn’t sit right with me any more if I’m creating enemies or problems. Whereas before, that’s what I’d do.”

What advice would he give himself if he could go back in time a year?

Simon thinks for a long moment: “I wouldn’t know what to change. Every single thing, every mishap has been part of the jigsaw coming into this. I’m very, very lucky.”

Photo: Cila Warncke

16 – Letting Go of Emotional Baggage

Gradually, my writing moved beyond all music, all the time. There is a heart of darkness in Ibiza’s club world; the shadows got long. It was time to look at things differently. This piece was written for Tiny Buddha. You can read the full article here.

Photo by Waldemar Brandt on Unsplash

“Sometimes the past should be abandoned, yes. Life is a journey and you can’t carry everything with you. Only the usable baggage.” ~Ha Jin

You’ve probably heard of the fear of missing out but what about the fear of letting go?

My father was volatile and mentally unstable. Criticism was his preferred method of communication. As a child and teenager, I learned to keep my thoughts and feelings locked away and became an expert at deflecting personal questions.

Without realizing it, I carried this habit into adulthood, avoiding any talk about my feelings or turning them into a joke. When a friend finally called me on it, the shock of self-recognition quickly turned to resistance. This is who I am, I thought. Why should I change?

I plodded on, working as hard as ever to keep my fortress intact. It wasn’t making me happy yet I wasn’t ready to change.

As I struggled with my desire to cling to hurtful memories and self-defeating behaviors, it dawned on me that I was afraid to let go because defensiveness was part of my identity.

The problem wasn’t that I had baggage—everyone has baggage—but that it had come to define me. I didn’t know who I would be without it. At that point it hit me: I had to dig deep, discover the person I wanted to be, and then act on it.

After I identified that I was holding on to the past because it seemed too important to jettison, I discovered that letting go is harder than it sounds. Relaxing a long-held belief isn’t a one-day, one-week, or even a one-year process. However, it is possible.

Read the rest at Tiny Buddha.

The New Barebacking

I had to go to the village today.

maks

Photo by Kate Trifo on Unsplash

On the short drive to the village a couple of cars passed heading the opposite direction, both drivers wore surgical masks.

In the taxi rank in the village a driver leaned against the hood of his car, mask tucked beneath his chin, smoking.

The receptionist and vet wore blue masks.

The middle-aged man with the shock of dark curly hair who passed me on the sidewalk wore a white N95 mask.

The lady carrying two armloads of groceries wore a mask.

The young dude unlocking his car wore a mask.

 

Barefaced and bare-handed, I felt like a lowlife misfit.

Appearing in public sans mask is the new barebacking. Socially irresponsible, verging on reprehensible.

On arriving home, I decided it was time to buy masks (Amazon orders are delivering a month out, so thanksthefuckverymuch Jeff Bezos, I’m off elsewhere).

covid 1

Covid Photo by pixpoetry on Unsplash

Why the previous reluctance?

Because I don’t want to walk around thinking the next breath is going to kill me, or someone else. For the first time, I have an inkling how some men feel about condom use. Yeah, sure fine it’s the most appropriate thing to do but goddamn it, who wants to experience the world through a prophylactic shield?

Cherry blossoms are out, yellow wands of broom, did I mention the walnut trees are leafing? The air is pristine, sharp and Atlantic-cold. Our neighbor trundles up and down the road in an old red tractor, moving wine-sweet hay bales.

I do not want to touch the world with rubber fingers and breathe through layers of activated carbon. Why the hell would I sign up for that? Why not just lock myself in a sterile box and wait to die?

Okay, it’s not that dramatic but something important is being (has been?) lost in all this. Our sense of touch is already degraded from devoting too much of it to digital screens. We rarely breathe as deeply as we should. This stupid cunning virus is robbing us not just of too many lives but, sneakily, of things that make life worth living.

I’ll probably end up like wearing a mask for the common good (assuming I can beg borrow or steal one) but I refuse to think it is a Good Thing, in a larger sense.

We cannot do without enjoyment, wrote to Jack Gilbert. The ordinary sensual pleasures of filling our lungs and encountering the world through touch are not dispensable.

bench

Photo by Chris Murray on Unsplash

 

 

The Future? Don’t Bet on It

Last year, Chris and I spent Easter week with our dear, long-long-long-standing friends
C & R in Yorkshire. On the edge of the moors. Next door, it transpired, to my ex-boyfriend (who, true to form, was smoking on the front porch as I had my first cup of coffee).

Twelve months ago, someone I’d met and dated in Ibiza turning up next-door in a northern English was cause to murmur, small world.

dav

Yorkshire bluebells

Today, proof of the world’s smallness is inescapable and grim. The ticker-tape death toll mounts, the number of official coronavirus cases races towards two million and even the most fortunate of us hunker at home, waiting for a future that might never happen (that’s cribbed from Mavis Gallant, who wrote exquisitely about societies in meltdown and the delusions they cherish on the way to the flames).

There seems to be a split take on COVID-19. Either, it’s going to usher in hitherto unimaginable era of mutual support and higher consciousness or we’re going to be dragged (resisting or not) back into the machine and crushed between the cogs of resurgent capitalism.

The latter argument is ably made by Julio Vincent Gambuto in his viral Medium piece ‘Prepare for the Ultimate Gaslighting‘ in which he writes, plausibly:

What is about to be unleashed on American society will be the greatest campaign ever created to get you to feel normal again. It will come from brands, it will come from government… the all-out blitz to make you believe you never saw what you saw. The air wasn’t really cleaner; those images were fake. The hospitals weren’t really a war zone; those stories were hyperbole. The numbers were not that high; the press is lying. You didn’t see people in masks standing in the rain risking their lives to vote. Not in America.

On the chirpier side of the fence is Rebecca Solnit who writes in ‘The impossible has already happened: what the coronavirus can teach us about hope‘ (published last week in the Guardian):

When a storm subsides, the air is washed clean of whatever particulate matter has been obscuring the view, and you can often see farther and more sharply than at any other time. When this storm clears, we may, as do people who have survived a serious illness or accident, see where we were and where we should go in a new light. We may feel free to pursue change in ways that seemed impossible while the ice of the status quo was locked up. We may have a profoundly different sense of ourselves, our communities, our systems of production and our future.

(To be fair, Solnit is no Pollyanna. Most of her longform piece details how fucked things are and how stacked the cards are against people trying to unfuck them.)

It says something about my own wiring that I feel compelled to take sides, to argue the case. Coronavirus has turned me into armchair experts. Like a sad gambler, I stare at screens, watch the numbers, argue my interpretation of the stats, have opinions about things I zero right to opine about (South Korea’s testing policy! Sweden’s schools!)

This impulse has  to do with lack of control. I value knowing things, having well-formed and well-informed ideas. In other words, I’m an instant relic; a creature who belongs to the bigger yet more predictable world that existed before January 2020.

Taking sides, prognosticating, surmising and supposing are ways to pass the time but little more. (Aside: I was listening to a TED en Espanol talk about coronavirus from 16 March; it felt like  listening to a historical reenactment.)

If this pestilent mess proves anything, it’s that opinion is pretty much beside the point.

Still, if I had place a few bob on an outcome, my money is on business as usual with a twist. Advertisers will come after what’s left of our bank accounts, governments will wrangle for the remaining shreds of our civil liberties, global warming will heat back up and we will not turn into kinder, gentler, better versions of ourselves.

Nonetheless, we may be more attuned to the ludicrousness of the situation, and quicker to say so, to complain or resist. I hope so, anyway.

Above all, a year from now, I hope to be with friends somewhere, drinking, breathing fresh air, gossiping about some minor coincidence. That would be a happy ending.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Running to nowhere

Since I was 12 or so, running has been my talisman against self-destruction. It hasn’t kept me slim (that was an early-20s drug cocktail followed by vegetarianism) or particularly fit — after more than 25 years of running regularly I still take an hour to run a 10K — but it kept me functional, if not always happy.

run

Photo by Emma Simpson on Unsplash

The worst of this godforsaken lockdown is not even being allowed out to exercise. The minor saving grace is we have a driveway, or mini-camino, that is the only part of the property currently free of knee- to hip-high grass.

After five or so days of trying to get a buzz off yoga I started jogging in the driveway.

It is about 75 metres long, uneven, inconsistently cambered and comprised of a variety of surfaces. Beyond the concrete slab in front of the house is a spot of mud from where we turn the car round. This gathers itself into a mossy, grassy hump I cover in two strides before settling into the right-hand tyre track.

The driveway subsides going away from the house till it reaches the j-bend up to the paved road. About halfway down, at the end of a crumbling, overgrown stone wall, a walnut tree is putting out leaves. They are still tightly furled, waiting, presumably, for some solar encouragement before showing face.

Chris has tramped along the verge with our trusty hand-mower, keeping the grass reasonably lawnish for about 50 metres. Beyond the close-cut strip is an explosion of waist-high weeds. There is dandelion and stinging nettle in there, but mostly some skinny chancer with reddish seed pods. No idea what it is.

Romeo, the tiger-ish looking one of our twin boy cats, usually stakes out a spot at the end of the driveway during my run. Yesterday, he sat at attention, perfectly immobile, for about 15 minutes, staring at something I couldn’t see. He may be a Zen master.

I am not.

Today’s news was that Pedro Sanchez, Spain’s improbably debonair, well-spoken and (I believe, as of today) utterly useless, mashed-potato-brained president has threatened/requested an extension of the state of emergency until 10 May.

While I’m rarely carefree I am also not often apoplectic. Continuous low-level outrage and cynicism seems to inoculate me against the wilder mood swings.

Hearing we are going to be trapped in a rain-sodden ice box of a house, in a place neither of us have any love or affinity, for makes me want to put my fist through a wall.

Literally.

As I write, my chest feels like it is self-compressing. If it weren’t for Chris napping upstairs and the cats (Teddy in particular is distressed by loud noises) I would scream.

Running is supposed to help when I feel like this. Watching my footfall, adjusting my posture, picking up my knees, monitoring my breathing, these things can help.

So I run, counting out the laps: 2.5, 3… 5… 10… 14.5… 23…

On odd-numbered laps I run faster, picking my way between extrusions of natural rock — pinkish, glimmering with tiny crystals — and detritus: rubber piping, smashed tiles, bin liners, odd bits of plastic embedded in the hard earth. Uncut hair flops damp against my forehead. My left Achilles tendon twinges a warning.

Near the end of the drive, on the right (as you face the house) is a bare tree with small white flowers. Must check with my sister later, she’s the garden wizard.

Add that to the post-release list: plant a garden. Be ready,  when (not if) this shit comes raining down next. Dig potatoes and pluck herbs.

The permanent mist thickens and moves purposefully. Rain, now, really.

I jog/wheel/sprint/job/wheel through the 40s without shedding the desire to inflict damage on something. I’m going to need a lot of therapy, which I can’t afford.

And the reasons I can’t afford therapy are part of the reasons I’m at risk of melting into a lava pit of rage and self-loathing without it. None of which can be addressed now, or in a week, month, or perhaps a year.

That’s the kicker, as I turn through 47… 49… 52… Nobody knows when, or how, this ends. (I’ll take ‘bang’, if that’s an option.)

 

 

 

To Eat or to Not-Eat

After a childhood eating unprocessed food, my diet swung towards “normal” in my teens. My parents finally separated, my mother, brother and I moving into an apartment in town. Along with freedom from the constant, harrowing stress of living with my father’s moods came a relaxation of the eating regime. My mom was working; I had an after-school job at the outlet mall. This meant less cooking and the financial freedom to buy what I liked. For several months of junior year breakfast was, religiously, a Lender’s bagel (sold-frozen white rings that toasted to an alluring combination of chewy dough and crunchy crust) caked with Philadelphia Light Cream cheese, washed down with Diet Coke. My kid brother got into PopTarts and pizza-flavored Hot Pockets, I discovered a brand of microwaveable burrito and would buy them by the half-dozen.

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Concurrent with the foray into junk food was a – possibly not atypical – adolescent obsession with my weight. At that age, there were a lot of things working against me: untamable hair that veered in texture from ringlet curls to limp waves, higgledy-piggledy teeth, plump cheeks prone to blushing, and a tendency to run to fat. Objectively, at 135-140 pounds, I was a reasonable weight for my 5’6” height. My self-perception, though, was that I was grossly fat and repulsive. The solution that presented itself was dieting. Every month Reader’s Digest, which I’d been reading cover to cover since I was five or six years old, wrote up a new diet or exercise scheme alongside ads for Weight Watchers and Slim Fast.

 

I never joined a club, but I did regularly glug ultra-processed chocolate Slim Fast shakes. Somehow, liquid seemed less dangerous than solids, less likely to stick to my sturdy waist. This rational prompted me to develop a black coffee habit, along with Diet Coke. During basketball practice and track workouts I drank Lemon-Lime Gatorade. Despite these measures, my size and shape refused to morph.

My best friend at the time was blonde, blue-eyed, and fit in the narrow confines of Levis 501s. She work Converse high-tops and wrote Nirvana lyrics on her jeans. In addition to the exoticness of having been transplanted from Florida, she’d had braces not once but twice. It was a close call which I envied more: her straight teeth, or the casual way she’d say things like, “oh, I haven’t eaten in two days”. The boys who fluttered around would respond admiringly, “no wonder you’re so skinny”.

None of the boys admired me for being skinny, nor could I ever claim to have not eaten for two days. The spirit was willing but the flesh got hungry.

Is it strange that between the ages of 15 and 25 I thought that not-eating was actively something to aspire to?

At 17, I moved across the country to go to university. More freedom, higher stakes. The first year I lived in halls and had access to the cafeteria: all-you-can-eat, three meals a day. Pizza, pasta, hamburgers, cakes, fro-yo. Like most of my friends, I put on 15-20 pounds in the first few months. Those who didn’t pursued not-eating in novel ways: one friend eat heaping bowls of plain iceberg lettuce, and nothing else; another gradually reduced her food intake to raw baby corn.

By sophomore year, eating disorders were a competitive sport. Classmates and acquaintances literally wasted away while those of us who ate kept gaining weight.

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No wonder, given our food choices. We lived, like many Americans, in a food desert. The nearest grocery store that sold produce was a Thriftway on 42nd street; mostly, we shopped at the 7-11 on the corner: Cheerios, Kraft Mac&Cheese, Kraft Singles, microwave popcorn, white bread, turkey ham, potato chips. The Papa Johns a few blocks over had a permanent two-for-one special, which we’d scarf down with the emulsified oil concoction it branded garlic dipping sauce. Our rituals included watching Golden Girls while scoffing Swedish Fish and Sour Patch Kids, purchased and eaten in bulk from a basement commissary.

By the time I graduated, I was 160-165 pounds and it seemed inevitable. If the only options were eating and not-eating, and I couldn’t not-eat, my fate was sealed.

Proof of this was the fact that I’d been running regularly and for decent distances since 13. It kept me fit, I suppose, but neither a 20-25 mile a week running habit nor a later-acquired weight-lifting regimen made prevented or reversed the weight gain.

On a trans-Atlantic flight home, I sat next to an older couple who told me they’d lost a collective 50-60 pounds by cutting processed food out of their diet. It was the first time anyone had suggested processed foods as a specific problem, and the idea of not eating “normal food” was as eccentric as a moon walk.

This early alert sailed right past me, and my journey towards a more rational diet continued on mildly self-destructive lines. Developing a clubbing and (concomitant) recreational drug habit during my early 20s peeled off the university poundage. (There’s a reason diet pills were laced with speed – it works.) Finally I could not-eat; finally, I was skinny enough to wear mini-skirts, crop tops, bikinis.

Gradually, I started eating more real food. My then-boyfriend (a slumming it public school boy) had solid British middle-class taste in everything, including food. After a weekend of coke and wine, we’d go to the market and buy fresh vegetables, fish, rice, seeded loaves and fruit. On weeknights, we’d watch Master Chef while we mashed sweet potatoes and roasted chicken breasts. I learned to make roux, red onion marmalade, creamy scrambled eggs.

Near the end of my 20s we split up and I set off for Ibiza with a suitcase. Living on a slender wage, I ate gazpacho, bran flakes, chorizo. In addition to walking 90 minutes a day to and from work, I would often take a disco nap and get up at 2AM to be in a club by three. At the end of the first summer I was thinner than I’d ever been – and had pneumonia.

What the Spanish call the punto de inflexion – the turning point – came in the form of a second-hand paperback copy of Walden, from a bookshop in Mallorca. Thoreau’s remarks about the absurdity of farmers insisting they need meat to be strong, while plowing behind oxen that only eat grass, struck a chord. There was a stringency to his logic that appealed to the part of me that still believed that not-eating is a superpower.

I became a vegetarian then, gradually, for the sake of seeing if I could, a vegan.

During a transitional period, I found a Xeroxed copy of an Upton Sinclair pamphlet about fasting in a Humboldt junk shop. It shed cast a socialist-literary aura over not-eating (The Jungle had already convinced me that not eating meat was a moral duty towards my fellow humans, as much as towards animals). Animated by this new information, I took up intermittent – then less intermittent – fasting.

veg

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During a couple of difficult years I used not-eating as a way to manage things. For nine months in Glasgow, I ate only bread that I’d baked; or would go for days eating only raw foods, or would dine on mugs of vegetable broth laced with hot sauce. At that point, I was clinically depressed and hanging on by my fingernails. Borderline disordered eating seemed like the least of my concerns.

In retrospect, though, it seems significant – part of a pattern of carelessness/awarelessness that is individual yet unmistakably the product of a disordered food culture. The times my body most needed nourishment, I clung to the hollow comfort of not-eating. For more than two decades, self-deprivation was a goal. Though wrong, in absolute terms, I wasn’t wholly wrong about the relationship between conventional diet and overweight. Recent research indicates eating a diet high in saturated fats and sugars can damage cognitive abilities and lead to early death. Not eating ultra-processed foods is the only way to avoid the physical damage they cause – of which fat is a manifestation. However, not-eating should not apply generally.

There is a world of real food – fruits, vegetables, beans, unrefined grains, nuts, eggs and naturally processed foods like cheese and wine – that are better for you, the more you eat. After half a lifetime of treating food as the enemy, it turned out I was fighting the wrong battle.

Food, or An Unprocessed Childhood

Yesterday brought a Guardian article to my inbox: How ultra-processed foods took over your shopping cart. In it Bee Wilson recalls eating slice after slice of buttered white bread, and whole tubes of sour cream and onion Pringles. It struck a chord: those were two of the specific staples of my late-teens/early-twenties diet – along with SuperNoodles, PopTarts, Papa John’s, Taco Bell, chicken cheesesteaks, Dunkin’ Donuts and frozen pizza. These are, Wilson explains, ultra-processed foods: manufactured edibles made from other manufactured items. Their role in the global obesity and disease crisis is emerging, and it fascinates me because, though I’ve eaten my share of them, I didn’t grow up eating them – which has perhaps made all the difference.

There was a lot of strange in my childhood, ranging from benign to destructive. Yet, at the other end of the teeter-totter (as we called the wooden seesaw my father carved and balanced on an salvaged driftwood log), were a few quirks for which I’m grateful. My parents’ stopped-clock moments, I’ve dubbed them, undertaken at random, or for the wrong reasons, but nonetheless beneficial. No TV was one – the edict that set me on the path to becoming a writer.

The other is harder to sum in a phrase, no junk food? No processed food? Plain food only?

potato

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Whatever they might have called it, if asked, the food ethos of my childhood was that anything artificially colored or flavored, anything with cartoon characters or superheroes, anything that could be put in a toaster or microwave, was essentially forbidden. My mother is, by her own admission, not much of a cook. Nor was her mother. What she knew about cooking she must have learned from fellow drifters (hippies, in a loose sense) when my siblings were young and from my grandmother, a reluctant emigre of East Prussian farm stock.

We were also poor – for most of my childhood I thought Food Stamps were colored money – and my father was ardently interested in Eastern spirituality, yoga, tai chi, and Transcendentalism.

Somehow, this combined to determine that childhood meals consisted of variations on the following: potatoes (which they grew in humped rows on the east side of the house), brown rice, beans, carrots, peas, broccoli, zucchini, beans, milk, and cheese.

My mother baked whole wheat bread, brushing the crust with melted butter as it came out of the oven so the thick brown dome gleamed. Her signature dish was spinach souffle, made with a dozen eggs and two frozen bricks of greens. She also made vegetarian chilli with kidney, pinto and black beans, and fresh tortillas to go with it. I’d slice tomatoes, then get out the orange block of Tillamook cheddar and grate a golden mountain that melted through the bowl in unctuous swirls.

Dairy in everything must have come from my grandmother, whose cooking was as weighty as her Lutheran faith. When we visited my grandparents in California, or they came to Oregon, she’d make pound cake and what we called crumb cake. I have no idea of its proper name, but its flavor is ineradicable: dense, slightly sweet base topped with melt-in-the-mouth crumbs of hard-packed butter and sugar. Perhaps it is not surprising my grandmother wound up having quadruple bypass surgery and evenutally died of cardiac-related causes. What is curious, though, is that she was always slim. To my memory, thin, even. Though stockily build, my grandfather, who never missed his afternoon coffee and cake, was fit and vigorous well into his 80s.

Despite the abundance of milk, cheese and ice cream in our diet (my mother was deeply brand loyal to Tillamook Dairy) we rarely ate conventional processed foods. Sweets, apart from ice cream, were limited to elaborate home-made birthday cakes. The most popular among my siblings and I was a chocolate cake covered in chocolate ganache, layered and adorned with chocolate buttercream frosting, and wrapped in a marzipan bow. Its creation was a day-long process, at minimum. The marzipan alone required almonds to be blanched in boiling water, peeled (accomplished by pinching the fat end until the point broke the skin and the nut shot forth), cooled, and milled in an orange-plastic and stainless steel hand grinder before being mixed with the appropriate ratio of powdered sugar.

Even store-bought goodies, as we called them, were outside the usual realm. On our weekly shopping trip to Trillium, a wooden-floored, patchouli-scented health food shop where my mom bought bulk grains and beans, we were allowed to choose a treat: either a peach frozen yogurt pop that you pushed up through a blue-and-white cardboard tube, or a paper-shrouded, sticky-edged frozen sandwich: ice cream between two chocolate graham crackers. These were flavored with carob rather than cocoa, a trend which extended to my mother’s version of hot chocolate: bitter, clumpy powdered carob boiled with hot milk and laced with honey – an anti-indulgence that left me with little taste for the real thing. Other dishes we experienced only in health-food form included chow mein (tofu) and burgers (veggie).

This food ethos felt oppressive, restrictive as the Biblical edicts we were fed each Sunday – and, like any good American child, I craved Wonder Bread, Hamburger Helper, Kraft Singles, Snickers, and Capri Sun. Even without a TV, food advertising found me; the slogan – M&Ms melt in your mouth, not in your hand – has been jingling in my head since I was about six. The difference was, my parents were stubborn/mean/enlightened/impoverished (delete as required) enough to make me to eat boiled carrots and broccoli, brown rice and potatoes regardless. In another twist, they introduced me to foods like hummus and avocados, things my working class British friends didn’t experience as kids.

avocado

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Plus I had the tremendous fortune of a big sister who loves to cook, is good at cooking, and helped me discover the joy in food that was the missing ingredient in my childhood. My mom did her best, according to her lights, but daily life was too tense and unhappy for eating to be the celebration it should. One peculiar feature of her cooking was a lack of seasoning. My father didn’t like salt (or perhaps didn’t approve of it; he was a man who could be hostile to a condiment). Herbs, spices, chilli, vinegar – I don’t recall any of them. It was a relvelation to learn how fantastic vegetables can taste when slathered in olive oil, roasted, spiked with rosemary and chilli, sprinkled with lemon, sea salt and coarse black pepper. Like many aspects of growing up, the food could have been brightened, mitigated, with a little effort.

Between then and now, I spent many years in food deserts, actual and self-constructed. Unhappiness shaped my relationship with food and my body yet, simmering beneath, were memories of a worthwhile conjunction of effort and occasion.

Embodying Empathy

It is apropos that I missed posting last week due to lack of sleep. My tiny black ninja cat decided that 2:30AM was an excellent time to sit on my pillow and conduct intensive grooming. If you’ve ever had a cat bathing in your ear, you’ll understand why this put a kink in my sleep schedule.

A day later, Chris had a trip so we were up at 5AM to get him to the train station. Then something came up workwise and I had to get up early the following day to write.

black cat

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Just a normal conflux of niggles and responsibilities, in other words, but enough to throw my system into a spin. My mouth was dry, my head ached, I yelled at the cats for getting underfoot. A layer of chill wrapped me that had nothing to do with the cold, damp day. Every small task was aggravating, painful, like a shoe-bound pebble that swells with each step.

As an adult with, heaven help us, responsibilities, it is up to me to negotiate sleep deprivation without becoming a danger to myself or others. Babies, on the other hand, are immune from expectations about how they should act when they are tired. Well into childhood, Richter scale meltdowns are excused because “s/he’s tired”. Rightly so. Being tired is harmful to health. According to the International Journal of Endocrinology, “sleep deprivation and sleep disorders may have profound metabolic and cardiovascular implications.” It is, “adversely affects the physical wellbeing and quality of life of participants, demonstrated in bad mood, somnolence, and tiredness” (Journal of Family Medicine Primary Care).

Babies, kids, are responding appropriately when they have a tiredness-induced crying jag or temper tantrum; their bodies need rest and are wired to seek it at whatever cost to adult sanity. This is reasonable.

What isn’t is that as adults we expect/are expected to have a different – unnatural – relationship to sleep. Instead of acceeding to our physical needs, we are supposed to keep going, as if our bodies are wrong for needing what they need.

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Cultural deprivation

There is a certain cultural tendency to fetizishation of work at the expense of sleep. Margaret Thatcher famously slept four hours a night. “For the Iron Lady four hours was a badge of almost superhuman strength. It fits the narrative of the “warrior” prime minister…” wrote Tom de Castella in a BBC News Magazine piece. The same article noted that Trump claims to only sleep three hours a night.

That suggests something with deep implications.

As a baby, we are begged to sleep; as a small child, we are made to sleep; as an older child/adolescent we still have bedtimes or curfews. As a young adult, we have the giddy freedom of being able to stay up as late as we want – and do all sorts of dumb things as a result. Then, at some invisible point, we suddenly find ourselves expected to function perfectly, whether we’ve slept or not. We’re running to stand still and those bitterly resented childhood naps sound idyllic.

This was my experience, in any case, with minor variations. When I was very small and expected to take an afternoon nap I’d lie awake, telling myself stories to pass the time. Staying up till midnight was a once-a-year occasion, a thrilling New Year’s Eve pressed up against a space heater, eating Planter’s Honey Roasted Peanuts, turning pages with sticky-sweet fingers until the clock reached 12.

When I was a young adult, immersed in music and club culture, midnight was a starting rather than an end point. The delirium of those years seemed, at the time, like part of the fun. Now, I feel anxiety amounting to dread at the thought of being out at two or three in the morning, much less four or five.

Unrested = unhinged

When duty and distraction combines to keep me from sleeping my first reaction is anger. And, because I’m tired, it is irrational rage. I am minimally patient at the best of times; sleep-deprived, I’m plain mean. I lose the ability, or will, to see things from a different perspective, or have a sense of humor. Incidental slights – a rude driver, a slow shopper – become personal affronts.

Is it coincidence that a three-hour-a-night sleeper is unhinged and meglomaniacal? Or that a four-hour-a-night sleeper was willing to crush entire industries and thousands of lives on an ideological whim?

Trump is, and Thatcher was, remarkable for lack of empathy shading into brutality. It is horrible to witness; like a toddler’s tantrum, a sign of something amiss.

It makes sense, though, that people who deny their own basic needs are willing, even eager, to deny the needs of other. I feel bad, so why should you feel good?

A couple of years ago I had a student who responded to a prompt about homelessness with a devestating account of her own struggle with poverty, homelessness and mental ill health. It was a brave thing to write. Her conclusion shook me: “Nobody ever helped me, so I don’t think they deserve any help. If I had to do it myself, so should they.”

There is a cold, undeniable logic to her statement, but it is a building block to a society I don’t want to live in.

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Cultivating kindness

We have two options: value ourselves and others; or not. If we truly value ourselves, we can’t denigrate others; if we don’t value ourselves, we can’t then magically summon goodwill towards those around us. For all our intellectual capacities, we operate as physical beings. When we are rested, nourished, and secure, we are capable of being expansive, creative, contributing members of society.

If anxious, tired, and hungry, we can’t think about anything beyond meeting those immediate needs. We can scrape by for a while, but we can’t consistently deprive ourselves of essentials without getting pinched and wild-eyed.

Kindness has to begin with ourselves. Respect and compassion for self begin with taking care of our needs – without guilt or apology. Then, fortified and of sound mind, we have the capacity to care about other people.