Be Kind. Be Calm. Have Faith.

Hey, folks. Anyone else out there got a bit of a tight feeling in their chest right now? Yeah. Me too. Super fun, right? Having a symptom of anxiety that could signal the onset of a fairly unnerving virus. It doesn’t help.

I was doing okay on the anxiety front until Monday. The news over the weekend had been increasingly worrying, especially reading about the toilet paper hoarding (which we are already laughing about, sort of). Not because I needed to pick up toilet paper, fortunately, but because I am more worried about people panicking than I am anything else. If we keep calm and follow the CDC’s instructions, we can pull through and keep the death toll lower. If we panic, well. I’m trying to believe we can keep the panic low.

In hopes of reaffirming my faith in humanity, I thought I’d go to the grocery store. “Surely the news outlets are reporting worst case scenarios,” I thought. “I’ll just go to the store early on Monday morning like I always do and it will be fine. They might be out of toilet paper and bottled water and beans, but it will be better than I’m imagining.”

When I walked in the door, I thought it would be. The parking lot was busier than usual for a Monday morning, but it wasn’t packed. There were no lines are the door. There was a sign asking people to limit themselves to one sanitizing wipe per cart, but that’s fine. There were wipes to be had. The produce section had plenty of everything except carrots and sweet potatoes, and it still had a few of those. There was plenty of cheese and deli meats and the nice fish lady was laying out her pretty displays of fresh fish for the morning.

And then I turned into the baking aisle to pick up my usual bread flours and some yeast.

It was a barren wasteland.

Trigger Warning: I’m going to describe a mild anxiety attack in a little bit of detail here. Skip to the next heading if you need to.

That was when my chest started to ache.

Anxiety is a very physical beast. It’s an adrenaline reaction. Adrenaline is like raging in roleplaying games: it makes us stronger and faster…and stupider. Your heart pounds, your breaths get shallow, you start to feel warm. Fun tidbit (google-verified, but I’m not a doctor): your liver releases stored sugar into your system during an adrenaline rush. If you’re not actually physically using that sugar energy, you basically get the kind of shaky energy that you might associate with too much caffeine or holiday candy. Your blood is being reprioritized to your muscles, and that means oxygen to your brain is reduced.

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The impact of my brain shorting out on my shopping trip was that I had an incredibly hard time following my list. In the rows of largely-but-not-completely empty shelves, I couldn’t even imagine where half of the items ought to be to know if I had actually checked for their presence or not. My cart and my list had a larger discrepancy than usual, and I honestly can’t tell you how much of that gap is due to stuff being sold out and how much was due to panic making me stupid.

The fun thing about that adrenaline “fight or flight” response is that it triggers different kinds of stupidity. I’ve got a real case of rabbit brain, almost always defaulting to “flight.” Anxiety shuts me down and makes me want to sit still, hope no one notices, and wait for the danger to pass, priming me to bolt if there’s no other option. Shopping in a wildly different environment that should have felt familiar, that meant that I walked out without a lot of things and felt disoriented and scared. In some people whose brains tend…lizard-wards, I guess? (Be kind to my evolutionary biology analogies…I think people know what I mean by lizard-brain, though I don’t know if it’s accurate.) Anyway, some people experience fear-based adrenaline as a push to fight. That’s probably what’s going on with those videos of people getting into physical altercations over toilet paper or rage-buying 150 lbs. of flour for a family of four.

I’m not a dumbass. They’re not assholes. We’re human beings facing a new type of scary that we don’t have coping mechanisms for. We’re reacting to a physiological response that is amplified by seeing others behave in ways that validate both the physical response and the reactive behaviors.

The best thing we can do to help improve the access to normal supplies is to find a bit of calm. To think, not react.

So…how do we not react?

I will tell you what stopped me from clearing out all of the baby cereal instead of just buying what I needed. This was an especially hard one for me, because the idea of my baby going hungry makes me queasy, but I managed. And this helpful hint is going to get dark for a second before it gets hopeful. Are you ready?


I am dead serious. Do you know how to produce enough food to feed one single person in your family through an entire year? Most of us do not. We home gardeners have a few things we can grow, but a salad garden with a few beans and potatoes isn’t going to get you very far.

Even within a broader local community, the food access isn’t there. Maine, for example, is a very back-to-the-earth, farming-oriented community with a lot of food production knowledge that includes organic methods that include cultivating diverse crops, but the capacity to produce and distribute food locally is limited.

And let’s pretend that Maine could manage to feed itself. You go ahead and just tell me you’re completely fine eating buckwheat as your primary grain for the rest of your life when civilization collapses. I dare you. Wheat is delicious. Unless you have a gluten allergy, of course, in which case, I’m very sorry and I really hope you always have access to safe grain alternatives that are texturally more pleasant than straight-up buckwheat…alternatives that are dependent on civilization carrying on. And let’s not even mention coffee, chocolate, avocados, bananas, and citrus fruit.

Put more pleasantly, this is a really good time to reflect on the Nguni Bantu philosophy of ubuntu. “I am because we are.”

Our best bet for survival, not just as a civilization but as isolated individuals, is to take care of one another while things are uncertain.

I don’t have to tell you how fast we wouldn’t be able to rely on grocery stores. You’ve seen it now. The idea that we’d be looting stores for more than a day if things really went belly-up is absurd. Grocery stores stock narrow margins because storing food isn’t profitable. We’ll all starve in no time flat if we let our deeply connected and interdependent world tear itself apart.

Here’s the hopeful story.

Grocery stores do stock narrow margins. We imagine Crazy Shoppers wrestling for pallet after pallet of food that they’re loading into massive trucks and burying in concrete bunkers, but is that what people are really doing? I doubt it. Here’s what I think happened.

I read an article about why toilet paper was the triggering household essential: it’s bulky. Because it’s bulky, it’s expensive to store. Essentially, it’s made on demand. So news is coming out that we need to hunker down at home for a couple of weeks, and people who are prepared to do the right thing and stay distant say, “Sure! I’ll get ready to stay home longer! Flatten that curve!” And so a household (cough, mine, cough) that normally buys a 4-pack of toilet paper grabs a 12-pack. That doesn’t seem like a lot to me, the shopper, but it’s a 300% increase over my normal buying habit. If a third of the shoppers around me have made similar decisions and the store is really good at guessing what we normally want on a given day, you end up with two-thirds of shoppers not having toilet paper.

Ish. Probably. I’m not sure the math actually works that way, and economics are more complicated, but the point is that a larger number of people making small decisions can have a visually large impact depriving people of the option to buy a staple they rely on. Those people are then confronted with the scariness of an unexpectedly empty shelf, and what happens? Fear. Adrenaline. They get dumb and start buying bottled water like we’re dealing with a weather event because that’s what previous experience with emergency preparedness has taught them to do, and that sends the message that basic infrastructure is about to collapse in unpredictable ways, and all of a sudden you have people buying out the entire stock of lentils even though they have never eaten a lentil in their lives.

The fear spirals.

Hold that thought.

Thomas Harris wrote a book in 1967 called “I’m OK, You’re OK.” It’s grounded in transactional analysis, and there’s a super useful takeaway that I want you to think about for a minute. He argues that we all have one of two ways of thinking of ourselves and others. We can think that we ourselves either are or are not okay and that the people we interact with either are or are not okay. His premise is that the healthiest combination of possibilities is to believe the best of ourselves and others, as the title suggests. We’re all okay.

The reason I find this parameter of mental health to be compelling is that I think it reflects reality. Being human is hard and we don’t always make the best choices, but given the resources and knowledge we have, we are, on the whole, all out there doing our best to be tolerably decent people.

Let’s look at the toilet paper again.

And all of the so-called “hoarding,” really. We know that we’ve all been told to stay inside to flatten the curve, to save lives. We know that this order is going to stay in place for awhile and that things will get worse for a couple of weeks as we climb towards the peak of the curve. Buying a little extra in order to keep yourself out of public space is a pro-social behavior. The reality of food distribution (which, again, is evidence that we will all be better off if we keep it together) makes the shelves look scarily empty, but there’s not currently an actual food shortage thing going on. There’s a “people are trying to do the right thing and getting scared and going a little overboard” thing going on.

The fundamental difference is perspective. In the first assumption (food shortage), every person for themselves feels necessary for survival. In the second assumption, ascribing good intent to your neighbors makes it easier to look at the shelves and say, “Hey, cool, my community is preparing to practice good social distancing.” And that makes it easier to maybe just buy a 6-pack of toilet paper instead of a 24-pack, or to only buy one bag of lentils that you have no idea how to cook. And to look for the WIC label and leave those items on the shelf for people who don’t have other options.

(Learning how to cook lentils, for the record, is a perfectly lovely goal for yourself under quarantine. They’re sustainable and delicious. Here’s my favorite recipe. Eat more lentils.)

And if your calm fails?

It will. It’s scary out there. Calm yourself down when you’re home and the food is stashed and you’ve washed your hands and start to feel safe again. Have a glass of water and a deep breath. Then step back and assess whether you went a little overboard and think of a way to turn your anxiety purchases into helping.

Maybe you can offer to split a purchase with an elderly neighbor who should avoid the store completely. Maybe you can donate extra goods to your local food pantry. Maybe you can find out who could use your extras through a Facebook group. Maybe you just commit to staying out of the stores until you’ve used your stash up to leave more supplies and breathing space available for others.

Do what you can to take care of your community and trust that those other panicking shoppers are experiencing the same cycle of fear and chagrin. That mutual trust is the glue that keeps society working, and society is lovely. Society gives us coffee. (Which you definitely need to not be drinking before shopping if you’re struggling with the whole staying calm thing.)

Finally, in case it helps…

I’ve started compiling a Tumblr of positive, free, helpful, uplifting resources that folks are creating or sharing in generosity to help each other through suddenly having to play educator and parent and worker while being cut off from mental space and friends and social support. It’s a work in progress and you can submit things you find, if you want to. If nothing else, I find that looking for the helpers reaffirms my belief that we really are, by and large, okay.

Here’s the link:

Be kind. Be calm. Have a little faith in one another…and wash your hands.

Raspberry or Zerbert? A Case Study in Shockingly Poor Research Methods

My husband and I were at his folks’ house with our baby, and as it will, the topic of blowing kisses on a baby’s belly came up. His family repeatedly used the term “zerbert,” which I had never heard before. I didn’t say anything, because I am a descriptivist by training, and so stuffed my objections of, “It’s called a raspberry, you weirdos!” into my pocket and turned my attention to pondering whence came our divergent terms. The purpose of this study was initially to examine if regional origins of the family member who passed the term along were responsible for the difference.

Research Methods

“Wait one blooming minute,” you will be saying, if you know thing one about research methods, “isn’t this where the literature review belongs?” Gold star! Well done! In a quality piece of research, this IS where the literature reviews belongs. This, however, is not a quality piece of research. In fact, one might argue that it’s a brilliant exemplar of how NOT to do research. Therefore: more on the lit review later.

As John’s family qualifies under the most restrictive definition of Mainers (both of his parents and theirs were born and raised in Maine) and mine are still classically considered Flatlanders (both parents are either from or spent a significant portion of their childhood in Massachussetts), I hypothesized that “zerbert” might be a Maine thing and “raspberry” might be a Mass. thing. I used snowball sampling via Facebook, where the population of my friend list is mostly from New England and homogeneous like milk. (To be clear, this is a statement of fact acknowledging that I am shockingly bad at stepping outside of my bubble. It is a limitation with my sampling method, not a point of pride.) My sampling method turned up 11 participants, so while I can’t speak to who did or did not participate or their specific demographic information (which I didn’t collect), it’s safe to say it’s old (30+) and extremely white.

A three-question survey was offered with absolutely no attempt to assess reliability or validate the instrument. Participants were asked

  1. What is the name of a kiss blown on a baby’s belly?
  2. Who did you learn this word from?
  3. What state or country did that person grow up in?

While participants were given the chance to answer freely given the inclusion of an “other” option, the first two questions offered multiple choice solutions that distinctly reflected my wildly unfounded hunch that these two terms were reasonable offerings to provide and that the point of origin was likely to be either an immediate family member or member of your parents’ immediate family or a friend of either generation.

Data Analysis & Results

What is the name of a kiss blown on a baby's belly? 72.7% answered raspberry.

I was unsurprised that most participants answered raspberry, because that’s my personal bias to begin with. I was surprised that no one entered any additional answers in “other.”

Who did you learn this word from? 45.5% answered parent or sibling.

Parents and siblings, the way immediate family was operationalized for the sake of this study (itself a limiting way to ask the question, in retrospect), were the most common source, but given the diverse responses from the majority of the participants and the fact that the 45.5% is equal to an n of 6, it would be remarkably poor form to suggest we’ve learned much from this.

What state or country did that person grow up in? 30% answered Maine.

I was surprised that only 30% of participants learned the word from someone who was raised in Maine. Those answers provide me with pretty decent guesses as to who participated because of the aforementioned issue with the problematic homogeneity of my social sphere, and also presents problems with protecting the anonymity of my participants. This study will definitely not qualify for federal funding.

Review of the Literature

John asked me why I was giggling to myself after posting this survey. I blame the sleep deprivation of grad school layered with the sleep deprivation that comes hand-in-hand with parenting an infant. For the giggling, I mean. I can’t blame sleep deprivation for this kind of nonsense… just for the degree to which I found it funny. John squinted at me and said, “Isn’t ‘zerbert’ from The Cosby Show’?”

So, um. Yes. A quick Google would have made it patently obvious that this entire inquiry was completely pointless and also a little awkward to draw attention to right now. And also, it’s spelled “zrbtt.” Which is why you do your lit review BEFORE your research. Don’t forget, kids: quality lit reviews justifying the need for the study in context of the current state of the field? Essential marker of quality research.

Also, another quick Google turned up a longer list of terms for blowing kisses on a baby’s belly, of which, my favorite by far was this:

In the south we called it ‘blithering,’ or blowing blithers. When you look at the definition of ‘blithering idiot’ it makes sense. It’s an old term.

Elise – Stack Exchange – Aug. 18, 2016

It gives me such a vivid mental picture of the phrase “blithering idiot” and adds rich cultural context to my own behavior as a parent. Also, the etymology trace is delightful. Blither <v.>, variant of blether (Scottish, to talk nonsense), probably from blaĆ°ra (Old Norse, wag of the tongue), possibly either imitative in origin or from *blodram (Proto-Germanic, something inflated)…which is also the source of bladder. Fun stuff, people. Fun stuff.

Discussion & Limitations

I hope it is deeply clear to everyone reading this that I have presented you with a study is one limitation stacked ever so carefully atop another to craft an absolute masterpiece in wasting time. One of the ethical concerns in research is equity in sharing your results and benefits thereof with participants. In this instance, however, I think keeping this monstrosity to myself might have been the more beneficial act, so I’m blowing it on that front too.

What I have learned is that a non-representative and underpowered sample of my friends and family have a preference for raspberry over zerbert and learned the term from a parent or sibling. I have also learned the term “blowing blithers,” which is all the retrospective justification I need. How do you learn stuff you don’t know you don’t know? Sometimes, you just muck about and sometimes, you get lucky.

What you have probably learned from this experience is that it’s probably better for the world if I go get ahead on the reading for my research methods class. I already knew that, however, and I can’t imagine that the information enriches your lives, so the best I can hope for is that my mucking about gives some of you a laugh.

Lost in a Labyrinth

About a year ago, I woke up dizzy. Not the manageable kind of dizzy you get when you’re tipsy or running a fever: I was too dizzy to move. Even turning over in bed made the world spin and my stomach lurch. I woke John up because it scared the living wits out of me.

He googled home remedies for vertigo and performed the Epley maneuver for me. It didn’t give me instant relief, but I took some migraine medicine, thinking that might be the problem, and went back to sleep. When I woke up again, the dizziness had receded, much to my relief. I still felt off, but I had plans to go help a friend look at wedding dresses, and I was not going to miss that for anything less than a major medical emergency.

Which is exactly what I woke up with the following morning.

The dizziness had returned, so I had John drive me to the walk-in clinic. The P.A. also performed the Epley maneuver, which did nothing for me. She concluded that I either had a minor illness that would sort itself out, or a lifelong issue with Benign Paroxsymal Positional Vertigo (BPPV), for which there is treatment to alleviate symptoms, but no actual cure. She told me to do the Epley maneuver periodically, pick up some meclizine, and head to the emergency room if it got worse.

We drove home, stopping at the pharmacy for meclizine, and I took some, starting to feel panicky at the possibility that I’d never be able to drive again. Relatives on both side of my family have BPPV, and even though they’re not close enough to be counted in the people who are used to assess family history and risk factors, it scared me. I only know a little of their struggles, but BPPV is intermittently crippling and can be severely hampering of your activities. Lying down, head spinning, thoughts racing, and the meclizine wasn’t helping. I got sick to my stomach.

I’ve been sick with flus and migraines in the past, and this was nothing like that. An hour past emptying my stomach of its meager breakfast, I could barely catch a breath between dry heaves. John decided this qualified as “worse” and shepherded my increasingly incoherent self to the emergency room, where they preceded to get me rehydrated and no longer puking before telling me the exact same thing the P.A. had at the clinic. The hope they left me with was that, if the Epley maneuver wasn’t giving me any immediate relief, it was more likely that I was dealing with labyrinthitis, which is a viral infection of the inner ear that will usually sort itself out within a week or two.

I lost a solid week of work to lying on my couch trying not to puke while medicated in a nearly catatonic state. Meclizine, which is the generic name for the more recognizable Dramamine, has the tendency to put you to sleep, and I felt that effect hard. I would wake up long enough to sip at a lukewarm electrolyte beverage, watch half an episode of Adventure Time, and pass out again. I’m still not sure if the last three seasons of Adventure Time are completely incomprehensible or if it just felt that way because I was missing the bits that tied everything together.

The dizziness passed after five or six days, and I was able to go into my scheduled vacation feeling well enough to sit up and read and play one of those online cooperative town management games with my mother’s league. As I was recovering, my aunt got in touch with her experience of being knocked out by labyrinthitis, and she gave me a smart piece of advice: get a referral to an Ear, Nose, Throat specialist immediately to be put on steroids to reduce my risk of permanent hearing loss. I was flabbergasted. No one in the emergency room had suggested this might be a risk, but when I called my PCP, her office put the referral through immediately and managed to get me in quickly.

The ENT doctors’ office in my network is awful. It’s in an old house with carpets that need replacing and a lack of adequate air quality management for the heat we were dealing with, and after five minutes in the office, I was going pale and the doctor asked me if I needed an emesis bin. Gritting my teeth, I managed to say, “I just need some air,” and he cracked open the door, letting in the AC which, mysteriously, did not penetrate the treatment rooms at all. I’m not sure if I was really overheating, or if the slight discomfort from the warmth and the chemical smells of their disinfectants was making me panic about a recurrence of the labyrinthitis. John was waiting for me in the waiting room, because I had been forbidden to drive until I was dizziness-free for two weeks, and the specter of dizziness possibly returning had me on edge.

I felt like my ear was plugged up with wax, but the ENT doctor told me it was perfectly clear and that the feeling of being stuffed up was mild hearing loss. He put me on a very short, quickly tapered course of steroids immediately, wished me luck with the discomfort of that experience, told me to call if I didn’t think I could stand it, and told me to come back in a few weeks for a hearing test.

I took the steroids. I stuck to the course. It was unpleasant. I did, however, pass my hearing test. More or less. The results came back as within normal ranges with an insignificant imbalance between my ears, the weaker culprit being my right ear, and that ear still doesn’t fell 100% right, so I’m pretty sure I suffered a very little bit of hearing loss and got fairly lucky that I had a relative to point me to the ENT doctor, because if I hadn’t had her insight from having been through it, the hearing loss could have been substantially worse.

And here’s another thing: John and I had been trying to get pregnant for over a year without success and were on the brink of seeking medical advice/insight on what might be getting in the way. The course of steroids happened to coincide with the beginning of my cycle and finished right before my fertile window. I was tracking a bunch of fertility signs, and they all went from “yeah, they’re there, I guess?” to “clear as a bell, yes, all signs point to fertile,” and four weeks later, the pregnancy test read positive. No medical person has backed up this theory in the slightest, but I’m convinced I must have been dealing with some mild inflammation making conception a little less likely, and the steroids, in treating my ears, managed to give us a shot at parenthood.

What I Learned

I decided to share this medical episode in extreme detail partly because shared anecdotes freely available can be helpful to other people dealing with the same weird issues and partly as part of my long-promised, long-neglected series on learning things. These are the things I took away from that challenging bit of life experience:

  • Every day of bed rest will take three days to recover from in terms of stamina and muscle use.
  • If you’re dealing with a medical issue, make sure you’ve got someone with you who will know and think to ask, “What other potential complications should we follow up on, and who should we talk to?
  • Vertigo is no joking matter.
  • There are easier ways to learn things than having semi-major medical emergencies.
  • ENT offices should not contain carpet and they should be thoroughly air-conditioned.
  • Having a good partner when you’re seriously unwell is everything.
  • Sometimes, if you get incredibly lucky, a bad thing might just clear the path to a good thing.

I’m Trying Patreon

All good intentions of writing about learning and how we learn went up in smoke last year when I got really sick and then got a normal amount of pregnant. Life got nuts. I learned many, many things that I have every intention of sharing with you, but time and energy have not coincided in, well, about a year.

Personal Interlude

Ronan was born about two months ago, and he’s a delight. My time today is brought to you by the vast amount of sleep he’s needing to bounce back from his first round of vaccines. I’m probably not going to do a lot of picture sharing because he’s his own person and I don’t love the culture of exploiting the cuteness of offspring online, so I’m mostly just not going to drag him into my online world until John and I decide on some guidelines for what respectful inclusion of a minor with no voice in the process looks like.

Back to the Point

My writing beyond the blog has stalled out lately for the same reasons the blog has stalled out. I’ve got all of this content just gathering dust in the back corners of my various backup systems, however, and I thought I’d air it out a bit. To that end, I’m going to be putting some stuff up on Patreon. Poetry, short stories, first drafts. For the time being, everything will be open to the public, so go check it out. When I get my schedule back to something that allows me to set aside a consistent block of work for writing, I’ll invite folks to be come patrons in order to vote on which projects I focus on and give patrons early access to. Make sure you’re on my email list or following this blog (sidebar menu, button at bottom) if you want to be sure to catch those invites.

It could be awhile before those notifications go out because, on top of having an infant, I’m going back to grad school in the fall. Woot! But keep an eye on my Patreon all the same. The content I’ll be sharing there is all existing drafts for the moment, and it doesn’t require a lot of brain power, time, or energy to do that work.