Breathe

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Photo by Fabian Møller on Unsplash
Last Thursday, I had a very stress-filled morning. I had more than twice as much work as I could do in the two hours I had before I left for the airport to fly home. I knew I couldn’t get it all done, but the size of my task list still overwhelmed me.
 
I have become pretty good at recognizing that paralyzing feeling and I know how to cope with it. I closed my eyes and did a couple of rounds of 4-7-8 breathing. Calmer, I took up the most important task on my list. After finishing it, I used the breathing technique again to maintain my balance. I repeated the cycle until it was time to go. On the way to the airport, I tweeted about it:

The technique is very simple. In case the embedded tweet isn’t visible, here are the steps:

  • Inhale deeply for four seconds
  • Hold your breath for seven seconds
  • Exhale for eight seconds.

Repeat as necessary.

On Friday, I had another stress-filled morning, and I even put a note at the top of my to-do list: “Breathe” is all it says. Every time I finished a task and looked for the next thing I need to do, I saw the reminder to take nineteen seconds for my mental health.
 
I don’t know why this technique works, but it does. It lowers blood pressure and helps manage stress. Try it when you feel stress. It makes a big difference.

 

 

Air Cruelty

I am writing this on my flight home from a business trip. The man who boarded ahead of me has a thick, hacking cough. He insisted, “I don’t have what everyone thinks I have. It’s just a cold.” I didn’t ask how he could be certain.

I sat in an exit row seat—the one with extra legroom. He sat a row ahead of me on the other side of the aisle. No one sat in his row, nor did anyone else sit in mine. No one needed to—it’s a Southwest flight, and it is only 2/3 full, so there is plenty of space.

As people filed by, many gave him dirty looks. Others mocked him, some criticized him. One man complained to the flight attendant, “Now my exit row seat is ruined.” I heard someone mutter, “Irresponsible.”

Maybe it is. I know I’ve flown while sick before. “I have to get home,” I thought, and considered it a necessity. I never really thought about whether that was a responsible thing to do. If I were sick right now, would I have declined to fly, or would I have decided that my need to be home outweighed the risk to others? I have to admit that I likely would have done the latter.

I do think it was irresponsible of him to take an exit row seat, no matter how willing he may be to assist in an emergency. But his choice doesn’t justify the way people treated him. Fear is understandable. Cruelty is indefensible.

On working sick

All the COVID-19 news has made me think about an incident from when I was a clerk at Waldenbooks in the early 1990s.

One morning, I woke up with a scratchy throat, severely congested sinuses, and a fever. I was scheduled to work an eight hour closing shift that day, but recognized that I needed to stay home and stay in bed. I called my manager and told her I was sick and wanted to use a sick day.

“If you don’t want the hours, find someone else to work them for you,” she said.

I tried to explain that it wasn’t a function of not wanting the hours. I was sick. The only time I stopped coughing was to sneeze. It was better for everyone if I didn’t come in. But she insisted that if I didn’t want my shift, I’d have to call around to our store’s part timers to see if any of them could fill in. Otherwise, she expected me to show up at one o’clock. And if she couldn’t rely on me, next week she would cut my hours and let someone else have them.

I couldn’t find anyone to take my shift, and I damned sure couldn’t afford to have my hours cut the next week. I was barely making ends meet in those days. So I went in. I worked a full shift and closed the store. The next day, still sick, I worked my scheduled opening shift. The next week, three of my coworkers were sick. And I can only imagine how many customers I infected.

So all the advice from people saying that if you feel even the littlest bit sick, stay home? That’s great in theory. But for too many low-wage workers, it isn’t an option. If you’re barely making ends meet, you work sick. You need the money. You need the job.

 

The Incident of the Man on the Bike

A couple Saturdays ago, while Carolyn and I one of our morning walks, we encountered a man on a bicycle. He was coasting toward us on the wrong side of the road, not quite a block ahead of us. White, late forties, weathered face. He was wearing a baseball cap, an unbuttoned long-sleeve shirt over a T-shirt, and jeans. I thought that was odd because it was too warm for long pants.

When he noticed us, he did a circle in the intersection. Then, as we drew closer, he did it again.

Something about those two little loops triggered my sense of danger. He was deliberately allowing us to close the gap. At first, I thought he was going to ask us for money, but I didn’t get a panhandler vibe from him. The way he looked at us felt more like a wolf regarding potential prey.

We were approaching a pile of sticks and twigs that had blown down from an oak tree in a storm. I picked one up. It was about fifteen inches long, reasonably straight, green enough to be flexible, and thick enough to be sturdy. Well-balanced, too. I began tossing it to myself, end-over-end.

When he noticed what I was doing, he steered away at an angle. But he still stared at us. He turned his head as he drifted past, tracking us. When we looked back, he had stopped at the cross street behind us and turned to face us.

We walked a few steps more, turned again. He hadn’t moved. He watched us until we passed an obstruction that blocked our view of each other. I took one last look over my shoulder a few moments later, but I couldn’t see him.

I have no way of being certain that he meant us harm. For all I know, he was afraid of us. Wondering what we two might do to him, circling to assess the situation, deciding whether to flee. But Carolyn sensed something amiss about the situation, too.

I carried the stick the rest of the way home.

Revision under way

Just after the new year, I finished the first draft of my last novel, as yet untitled. (It had a title, but the story that emerged made the title obsolete, so I’m still in search of a new one.) I deliberately set it aside for a few weeks to get some distance. Yesterday, I decided it was time to start.

I made some changes late in the novel that will require me to re-arrange the beginning. Some scenes need to be rewritten. Some will be replaced with new ones; others will be cut entirely. I wanted to make the structure visible so it would be easier to understand how changing one scene would affect others.

I first thought I would use the blank wall in my home office to map the structure. Color-coded sticky notes and swim lanes would do the trick. Trouble was, I ran out of wall 1/3 of the way in. Today I transferred the physical notes into a spreadsheet. Manipulating cells isn’t as enjoyable as having something I can touch and feel, but at least this is portable, which will be good when I travel on business.

Tomorrow, I’ll print the entire draft and start reading it and marking it up. For the first time, I’m eager to revise. Usually, I’m so sick of a story by the time I finish the first draft that revision is a torment. I don’t know why this feels different.

For sale. Acoustic guitar. Rarely played.

Seven years ago, I bought a new 2012 Taylor 114CE Grand Acoustic/Electric guitar, with every intention of playing it a lot. My other guitar at the time was Aria acoustic that I’d bought from a friend in 1987. I had a notion that I might like to start playing in public again, as I had done in my twenties, so I wanted something with an electric pickup. I wasn’t willing to modify the Aria for fear of changing its beautiful tone. My boss at the time was a guitarist, and he helped me pick out the Taylor. For a couple of years, I used it off and on. I still preferred the sound of the Aria, and I never got around to playing in public again.

After I was laid off in 2015 and went to work in Tampa, I had less free time. Over the next couple of years, I gradually stopped playing. I haven’t opened the case of either guitar since before I took my current job. That was two years ago this month. When I thought about it, I realized that I don’t miss it. Playing guitar is something I used to do, and that’s OK.

The Aria is still precious to me. I have so many pleasant memories associated with it. I’m not ready to give it up, even though I’m unlikely to play it again.

The Taylor, on the other hand, is for sale. It’s in nearly perfect condition and sounds great. So if you or someone you know lives in the Tampa Bay area and is in the market for a very nice guitar, check out the ad on Craigslist.