Category Archives: reference

What It’s Like to Do a Barium Swallow Test

First I would like to complain to you that when I went to my barium swallow test, I forgot my cell phone at home. This meant two things:

1. I could not see if there were any Pokéstops at the hospital.

2. I could not proceed with my original plan, which was to stay in the city after the test and go over to the mall and have lunch and browse Target and maybe get a few Pokéstops. (Without my cell phone, I fret about the statistically-small chance that the school will call about a sick kid or something. Also, without my phone I can’t get the Pokéstops.)

On to the test itself. I was partly worried about how long it would take: when Edward gets his MRI, we are at the hospital for hours and hours and hours; last time it was five-and-a-half hours. Part of it is the time the actual prep and test take, but part of it is that hospitals seem to be in a different dimension of time and space, and the hours pass without any particular concern for their passing. And of course sometimes at a hospital there are emergencies that mean routine appointments get bumped, as well they should.

Anyway, when the lady from the scheduling department called to set up my appointment, I asked her how long the whole thing would take, and she said, “Oh, 15-20 minutes.” I thought, “AH HA HA HA HA HA okay, fine, DON’T tell me if you don’t want to!” But from the moment I walked into the hospital (half an hour fretfully early) to the moment I walked out again was 45 minutes total. The time from “changed into johnny and waiting for doctor” to “changing out of johnny” was less than 15 minutes. Most of the time was spent in waiting rooms, because I was half an hour early. So it was not very long between thinking “Soon I will be one of these carefree individuals on their way OUT of this waiting room” to being in fact one of those carefree individuals.

Let’s rewind to where I am walking into the hospital. I’d been told not to eat or drink anything after 10:00 the night before, so I was feeling a bit grim: first Monday of Daylight Saving Time AND no coffee. I’d been told to go straight to Diagnostic Imaging, and so I did. There they checked me in and gave me a hospital bracelet, and instructed me to walk over to X-ray.

At X-ray, they had me undress just from the waist up, and put on two johnnies: one opening in the back and a second one opening in the front. (I didn’t have to remove those johnnies at any point during the exam.) All my stuff went into a little locker. A technician brought me into the x-ray room and showed me basically how things would go: she stood where I’d be standing and described the various things the doctor would ask me to do. She showed me a barium tablet that the doctor would have me swallow to see how a pill went down. I asked if most people did fine with the whole thing and she said, “Oh, yes!” and that hardly anyone had trouble—it was just a bit icky to have to drink the drink, she said. She also told me that “it goes in white, and it comes out white—so don’t be alarmed later!”

The doctor came in and had me stand up on a little step, standing in front of what turned out to be an x-ray table turned up on its end. He moved a machine in front of me, so I was sort of snugged into a little nook. He handed me a plastic cup of the barium and told me to get ready to drink it but not drink it yet. Then he had me turn partly to one side and then partly to the other, each time drinking the barium until he said to stop—maybe 7 or 8 seconds each time? Then I had to face forward and drink again. Then he had me swallow the barium tablet and drink again.

I didn’t find the barium particularly gross, but it helped to go into it EXPECTING it to be fairly gross. It was very bland, and tasted faintly like strawberries. It was about the thickness of…well, the technician said milkshake, but milkshakes are such a different TYPE of thickness: cold and crystally and melty. It reminded me more of yogurt thinned with milk (but with no yogurt flavor). I tried to pretend it WAS yogurt, to help me drink it.

The doctor had me turn to my side, and then he lowered the table, which was how I came to realize it was an x-ray table on-end. (The technician had not mentioned this part.) It was an odd sensation: like you’re standing against a wall, and then the wall just lies down and takes you with it. The technician gave me a pillow. The doctor had me drink more barium, through a straw this time, while lying on my side. This was the worst part for me: something about lying on my side, plus this was my second full cup of the barium. (They weren’t forcing me to drink that much: that was just how much I was naturally going through during the swallowing tests. Possibly I was drinking it too fast—but I wasn’t gulping it down or anything.) In the last few seconds, I gagged—but just once, and then the test was done anyway. I continued pretending it was a nice nutritious smoothie and not at all making me queasy—but I did feel slightly queasy. I think it was more mental than physical.

The doctor left, and the technician brought me back to the changing area—and then it was done. I stopped on the way home and got a large coffee and a sausage-egg-and-cheese bagel sandwich, and felt so much better. The sweet, sweet relief of coffee is well worth the occasional pain of being a little dependent on it.

Overall, I would say that most of the fretting could be assigned to the Newness, as opposed to the actual procedure. If I had to do the same test again, I would be only very mildly anxious about it: maybe a 1 or 2 on a scale of 10, and most of that would be the nervousness that comes from not being sure I’m following directions correctly, combined with worrying about what they’ll find. LESS anxious than, say, a routine physical where I have to step on a scale, take off the johnny, talk about exercise and alcohol, discuss how many years I have left before they start suggesting colonoscopies, etc.

Drops in the Bucket, Holiday-Style

I am feeling sad and cranky and plain today, and my hair is kind of dumb and I’m tired of all my shirts. Paul and I had another argument, and whatever, the upshot was that I started cleaning out the basement storage area, and feeling about 10% satisfaction and 90% resentment-and-why-did-I-marry-a-jerk-who-was-such-a-jerk.

It HAS been satisfying to get rid of some things. I had two medium boxes of baby things I’d forgotten I still had—not particularly sentimental stuff, but the few practical things I’d kept Just In Case: the only front carrier I ever liked, the few receiving blankets that worked best, a hooded towel, the best play gym ever, the favorite baby toys. Time to get rid of those.

Also, do you remember the mother-in-law dishes? That was a long time ago and still so satisfying to me to think of. I swear those dishes made me more pleasant for my mother-in-law’s visits. But in the six years since my mother-in-law died, I haven’t opened the box a single time, or even thought of doing so. And so it is time for that box to go.

I’ve stalled on the basement project for now to give myself plenty of time to sit around fretting about Christmas. I always do that at this time of year, and everything always works out, but this year I am later on everything than I have ever been. That is, when I place orders, some of them aren’t going to arrive until after Christmas. I always at least get the Christmas card stuff up from the basement by this time of the month, and this year I haven’t even taken a picture of the children yet. The tree, which is never up long enough to suit me, is not decorated. And curses, CURSES on the earlier version of myself who thought it was a good idea to make gingerbread houses with the children, because they have latched onto that SO HARD that now I can never stop.

This morning I thought “Something MUST be done.” That is, I can’t just keep fluttering around being stressed and yet somehow not making any progress. And so I am going to take the drops in the bucket approach to this. If I hang one single ornament on the tree, if I order one gift, if I buy one single container of eggnog—all of these things bring us closer to what I’d like to have done, and make me calmer.

Yesterday I did TWO things: I brought the Christmas cards upstairs, and I brought a Christmas mug upstairs. I’d kept NOT bringing the mug upstairs, because “I can’t do that until I put away some of the everyday mugs, and I can’t do THAT until I bring up the whole Christmas box and take everything out of it so there’s room to pack away the everyday mugs.” But then here I was, every morning, not drinking out of a Christmas mug, and drinking out of a Christmas mug is one of my favorite things about Christmas. That mug can sit on the damn COUNTER if there’s no room in the cupboard, and today I put eggnog in there (purchased as the One Thing from the day before yesterday) with my coffee.

This afternoon I am taking a picture of the children. We were going to do one with all seven of us this year, but that’s not going to work out, and we’re out of time, so Just Kids it is. We haven’t changed much anyway. I will try to ALSO take the pictures off the camera, choose one, and order it, but that’s like three additional tasks so we’ll see.

Collected Solutions for Winter Blues

I am low. Low, low, low. Lowwwwwwwwwwww—no, that looks like “ow” with an L. Talking about being low is one of the things that can help fix being low, so here we are.

First, it is so boring to be someone who would be talking about this again. I cringe on your behalf. As the decades of life roll past, it seems as if this would stop happening, but no. At least it gets easier to recognize as A Low Time which is MASQUERADING AS a Ruined Wasted Life of Doing/Being Everything Wrong, and therefore has become somewhat easier to deal with. When I’m lying awake thinking of every way in which everything I’ve ever said or done has been in the very NICEST interpretation stupid and clueless, I can think, “Okay, there is no point thinking about this, now just stop it” before I continue thinking about it, instead of thinking I OUGHT to think about it, or that it is HELPING to think about it.

Second, I continue to find it useful to pretend someone ELSE is saying/thinking the same things, and deal with it THAT way. I am by temperament a Fixer, one of those people it’s good to prime with “Now, I just want to VENT to you about this, I don’t want SOLUTIONS.” If I pretend someone else is saying the floppy, discouraged things I’m thinking, then my mind immediately switches into Fixer Mode instead of cycling back around uselessly into more discouraged flopping.

Third, I continue to find it useful to ask what would make it better, even infinitesimally. Big things are too big, and too difficult: if a big thing is what it’s going to take, I can’t do it. But little things add up to a big thing. Drinking a glass of water is not too hard, and maybe helps a little tiny bit: one point for the actual inputting of the water, plus a second point for feeling like you’re doing something good for yourself, plus a third point for feeling like you’re making some progress on feeling better. Wiping a little spill off the counter is not too hard: one point for the actual wiping, one point for the improved household view, one point for not seeing that spill and feeling bad every time you walk past it, one point for feeling like you’re making a difference. Sending for a course catalog is not too hard. Eating a baby carrot is not too hard. Writing something down on the list is not too hard. Filing one piece of paper is not too hard. Turning on the radio isn’t too hard. Petting a cat or dog isn’t too hard, if you have/like a cat/dog. Peeing is not too hard, and can help considerably.

Fourth, I continue to find it useful to dabble / DO something. I picture it exactly like when someone in a movie is trying to start a fire, and they get the teeniest little glow and they immediately put all their energy into encouraging that little glow to survive and get bigger. QUICK, GIVE IT OXYGEN!! Any flicker of interest I feel in anything, I try to pursue it before it goes out. As I drove sullenly through town the other day feeling as if life were nothing more than a neverending cycle of pointless, tedious chores punctuated by pointless, stressful chores, I saw through the window of one of the shops a rack of what looked like postcards. I felt a flicker of interest. A feeling of “What’s the point? I have too many postcards already, and barely ever do Postcrossing anymore” threatens to put it out; a feeling of “It’s probably just greeting cards anyway” is the next threat, followed by a feeling of “It’ll just be awkward: I’ll go in and there won’t be anything I want or they’ll be greeting cards or they’ll be postcards but overpriced, and the owner will keep talking to me and I’ll feel pressured and the whole thing will be a bust and I’ll have wasted my time,” which needs to be shoved HARD away from that little glow. I will go to that shop today, when it opens. One point for satisfied curiosity; one point for getting out of the house; one point for a mission; one point for probable social contact, however brief; one point for feeling like I’m making progress on feeling better.

Doing Something

“I really advise talking to yourself less.” That is something I just said literally out loud, to myself.

Things are usually a little grim at the beginning of a school year, which is more surprising now that this means everyone leaves me alone for a big chunk of the day. I can picture Earlier Me looking at the situation with open-mouthed astonishment: “You have the house to yourself for HOURS A DAY and you are STILL mopey??”

It’s odd how difficult it can be to do the things that I KNOW will make me feel better. I finally got a start on it by making those things very, very small. Eat one baby carrot. Walk around the house one time. Take a vitamin. Drink a glass of water. Sit in the steps for a couple of minutes and look at the trees.

One of my relatively new techniques to fight off sad/bad feelings is to try to be interested in something, ANYTHING. It doesn’t have to be a BIG thing: it can be the “one baby carrot” of interest, which would be something like “look up one thing on Wikipedia.” In this case I managed to reel in a bigger interest, which is Jane Austen.

I’ve tried Jane Austen books several times over the years: they’re so famous, and it’s embarrassing to me that I get her confused with the Brontë sisters (I also get individual Brontë sisters confused with other Brontë sisters), and I like to be familiar with famous things so I don’t feel dumb when the subject comes up. But I just couldn’t slog through the books: so many commas! so many now-obscure social practices! such odd dialogue, heavy with meanings that completely elude me! They’re about 200 years old now, and even the sentence structure was hard to get used to.

What broke me through was watching the MOVIE Pride and Prejudice, and I think my only real motivation was seeing Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy. I found, though, that it opened the book RIGHT UP for me: the people making the movie are from the same time period as me, so they basically translate it into what I can understand: even when the dialogue is quoted verbatim, the delivery of the line by Colin Firth a modern speaker does wonders for comprehension. I added the annotated edition of the book to my wish list, because I thought that would give me even MORE translating/help, plus I wanted to know more about things like “I can tell by one character’s reaction that she was just insulted—but why was that insulting?” I didn’t READ the book after receiving/unwrapping it, but I did add it to the To Read shelf. (This is a practice Paul finds very frustrating. He thinks if I don’t read the book right away, it means I didn’t really want it. He is incorrect.)

Next, encouraged by Pride and Prejudice (and by Alan Rickman and Hugh Grant), I watched Sense and Sensibility. I liked that one TOO! I still hadn’t read the annotated copy of Pride and Prejudice, but I added the annotated copy of Sense and Sensibility to my wish list, and after the next gift-exchanging holiday it was mine.

The same pattern happened with Persuasion. (I’ve learned, incidentally, that there is HEATED CONTROVERSY about which movie versions of each book are Best. I found it boring and stressful to read the debates, so instead I chose which version to watch based on which actors I wanted to see.)

Several times, I thought about reading one of the three annotated books, but now it felt like it had been too long since I’d seen the movies. It became one of those things I’d get around to SOME day, but for the time being there was a certain layer of dust involved.

Back to the current situation. I was moping around in my nice quiet house, feeling extremely stupid for feeling sad. My goal was to lug myself out of it with the help of a new interest, but nothing seemed interesting and also I was battling that silly feeling that it had to be an enduring/consuming interest or else it wasn’t worth pursuing. My eye lit upon the little stack of books, and I felt a flicker. Grabbing that flicker and feeding it some tiny twigs, I looked up Jane Austen on Wikipedia to see which book she wrote first; it was Sense and Sensibility. I ordered the movie from Netflix, and yesterday I watched it. Then I started reading the annotated book, which so far is GREAT.

I think this may be the first time I’ve read an annotated book. I was familiar with them in general because Paul has a few of them, and it is nearly impossible not to keep commenting aloud while reading one. Apparently.

This is what an annotated book looks like:


On the left page, it is the original book, but with little numbers next to things. On the right page is a list of those same numbers, with comments. On this pair of pages, the comments include:

1. A definition for a word whose meaning has altered a bit in 200 years.

2. A remark about what will happen later, and how this relates to the way a character is described throughout the book. (Annotated books are best if you’re already familiar with the plot, because the annotations are FULL of spoilers.)

3. What a passage in the book indicates about a character’s temperament.

4. What another passage in the book indicates about another character’s temperament.

5. Another definition.

6. A picture of a barouche, which will be referred to on the next page with a further explanation of what owning a barouche would have signified at that time.


Other pages have included relevant information about Jane Austen’s own life; comments about what “gentleman-like” would have meant at that time; comments on how something represents Jane Austen’s earlier writing style and how she might have done it differently later; comments about other popular books/ideas of the time; comments about what a person would have meant by such a remark; etc. For the most part, I like to read the entire page of book, THEN look at the annotations for that page; otherwise, I feel like the children are still here, interrupting my reading every sentence or two. Sometimes I do look at an annotation mid-page, if curiosity trumps disruption, or if something is too confusing without it.

Anyway, I love it. It’s like being in school again, but only the parts I liked, no “compare and contrast” essays to write. And it feels pleasing to be learning something, even if I have to fight off “What FOR?” and “What’s the point?” feelings. Learning something is good for its OWN sake, but it’s hard to get out of the habit of thinking of it as “to get into college / to get a good job.”

Plus, one of the things that MOST makes me feel like kicking myself when I’m looking back on times I was bored, bored, bored (a summer in college where the courses left me with TONS of free time; my first pregnancy, when I was unemployed) is thinking about how many things I COULD HAVE DONE with all that spare time. “Learn a LANGUAGE or something,” I scold those former selves. “Finally get around to reading books you feel you ought to have read! Get a book on sketching, and give it a try! Get a book on a place you want to travel someday! Get a book that FINALLY helps you understand how Congress works! It doesn’t have to be The Funnest and Most Interesting Thing in the Whole World, it just has to be SOMETHING.” So it’s pleasing to be actually DOING something like that this time around.

One of the biggest unexpected upsides is having something to think about. When I was cooking dinner last night, I was thinking about the movie; when I was trying to get to sleep, I was thinking about the annotated book. I hadn’t realized how much of my thinking was “I feel icky/sad/bad” until it got replaced with other things, such as whether Hugh Grant was too cute to play Edward, or about the new-to-me definition of the word “sensibility,” or about how extremely well that one actor portrayed the awfulness of her character, or how well my embarrassing tendency to tear up over almost NOTHING would have fit in with the fashions of 200 years ago.

Well, What Would Make it Better?

Do you remember the Well, what CAN you do? technique I use to make myself do more than nothing when I’m overwhelmed? I have a related thing I’m also finding helpful. It’s similar in that it involves talking very nicely to yourself, ideally aloud: if there are others in the house you can say it under your breath while in another room, but I think the “aloud” part is pretty key to it working for me. And it’s similar in that it’s a way to get yourself to take action when most of yourself thinks action is useless and hopeless and pointless but there’s still a small piece of yourself that feels it would be a good idea.

While the first technique is for overwhelmed hopelessness (“There’s TOO MUCH!! I CAN’T do it!!”), this technique is for something more like when everything feels bad. And here are the questions to patiently and repeatedly ask yourself out loud, just as if you were a kind and helpful and infinitely insightful/wise psychologist in a movie or TV show: “What would help?” and “What would make it better?” The “better” here is the better of comparison (“any place upwards of where it was before”) rather than the better of “I was sick, but now I’m all better.” It is the better of drops in a bucket, not the better of filling it.

Sometimes you will get answers that don’t go anywhere. Angry retorts, for example: “OH, I don’t know, A MILLION DOLLARS??” or “If EVERYTHING ABOUT MY LIFE were different!!” Follow those paths as long as the answers continue to make practical sense (“Is there a way you could acquire more money? How would that improve things?” and “Which thing about your life would you change first? How would that improve things?”), but abandon them if they turn out to be techniques the patient is using to avoid answering the question for real.

Sometimes you won’t be speaking to yourself, so you’ll get nothing but sullen silence. Wait patiently, like the good therapist you are. If you start to cry, just wait for yourself to be ready to talk.

Useful answers vary HUGELY. Sometimes it’s “….Eating a bowl of vanilla ice cream with Hershey’s syrup and peanuts. And watching Four Weddings and a Funeral.” Other times it’s “The music to be on while I fold this stupid laundry, even though the radio is in the kitchen and that means really blaring it too loudly at that end of the house so that I can hear it at this end of the house.” Sometimes it’s “Going to Target alone, and getting a coffee from the cafe to sip while I walk around.” If the request is possible to grant, I recommend granting it with huge approval and kindness: “Of COURSE you can have that! Of COURSE you can! That’s entirely reasonable! For goodness’ sake!” Don’t forget to say it out loud. You are perhaps thinking that saying it aloud is a minor thing and you’ll just skip that, but I encourage you to try it. Whispering is fine; a regular speaking voice is better. (You don’t have to do the answers out loud. Just the psychologist.)

If the request is not possible to grant at that time, imagine how the psychologist would deal with that. He or she might add it to a list. “Hm, yes, an excellent thought, and let’s add that to your plan for the future. Now, can we think of some ideas that would be more applicable to the present? something we could implement right now to bring you some relief?” Or he/she might want to discuss compromises/variations: “It sounds like that exact situation would be difficult; could we modify that to fit your current circumstances?” Maybe you’re home with little kids so you can’t go to Target alone or manage coffee while pushing the cart, but you could go with the kids and get a coffee at a drive-through to drink on the way there, and maybe that would be better than not going at all and feeling intense despair about life, which is the other option.

As the psychologist, you might expect all the requests to be indulgences/treats, but it’s surprising how often they aren’t. I remember back in the craziest new-baby days thinking things like, “I just want TEN SECONDS to wipe that stupid DRIED JUICE SPOT off the FLOOR so I can stop STEPPING STICKILY on it.” Often you will ask the patient what will help, and the patient will reply “A spinach smoothie, a multivitamin, three fish oil capsules.” Or “Getting that errand out of the way.” Or “Making any headway at all on the laundry.” Or “Wrestling that hard-to-clean-under heavy kitchen island two feet over so I can clean the floor under it.” You are the therapist with your clipboard. Make a note on your legal pad: you’re adding the idea to the list. Nod again; say, “I don’t see any reason that can’t be arranged.”



That DOES make things feel better for some reason. So did the ice cream.


When the patient gives an answer, don’t lose the momentum: go as quickly as possible from the hearing of the answer to the granting of it. Sometimes quickness will not be possible: perhaps a movie needs to arrive from Netflix, or a trip needs to be made to the grocery store for ice cream, or someone stronger needs to come home to move the counter. In that case, it is best to see if there are any other answers that have quicker implementations: doing something RIGHT AWAY is one of the best ways to make it work. Move the counter, if it can be moved; get out the blender and start making the smoothie; swallow the fish oil capsule. Don’t wait, or the patient will sink into her chair, losing both heart and inertia. If the movie is not available and there is no ice cream in the house, use the calm and patient psychologist’s voice to ask if there is anything else that would make things better right now. A big drink of water? Sitting outside on the steps for a few minutes with a coffee/tea/wine/beer? Warming up the laundry in the dryer for 5 minutes before you have to fold it? Loud music? Funny cat video?

The goal is not to fix it. No. That is too large a goal, and we are not attempting it, any more than we’d attempt to rebuild Rome in a day. In fact, say that out loud to the patient: “We’re not looking for ways to fix it, because we can’t do that during this one session. But is there anything that could make it a little better than it is right now? Any improvements at all, no matter how small?”

Psychological stuff is like home maintenance: some of it needs a professional, and some of it you can do yourself. If you have the psychological equivalent of a roof caving in, I wouldn’t try to tinker with that on your own. And if you ask your patient what would make it better, and she suggests it would help to wash her hands a hundred times or put a line of burns up her arm or leap off a building, then you can start filling out that referral form, Dr. Phyllis. But if you just get sad/low/miserable sometimes for no particular reason and you know it’s hormones or seasons or temperament, and there is at least a small part of you that recognizes that it is likely to pass as it always has before (there has to be at least a small part of you recognizing this, or else there will be no one to play the role of the psychologist), this technique can make a huge difference for some of us.

Psychologists often get to the bottom of things by asking YOU to get to the bottom of things. They ask you to tell them who you are, what the situation is, and what will help. Then they tell it back to you. This costs a lot of money, and is sometimes completely necessary and worth it, especially if you’re not currently speaking to yourself and need a go-between, or if your problem is the kind where you really don’t know and they really do, or where medication is needed. Other times, you can do it yourself. You’ve seen psychologists on TV; you know how they talk; you know how they nod; you know the tones of voice they use; you know the yellow legal pad. You can try using those on YOURSELF.

If this turns out to be your thing, with time it can get quicker, easier, and more effective. At first you might not be accustomed to the questions and might not know what to say or have any idea what might help. After awhile, this changes: you get a running list of things that often DO help, and you get used to implementing them. You might find yourself thinking in broader categories: Do I need to do something fun? something productive? something physical? something social? something that turns my attention away from myself? Do I need a change? a treat? a distraction? something funny? something heart-warming? a good cry? Do I need to get up, or do I need to sit down? Do I need something familiar/comforting or something new/fresh? Do I need time by myself or do I need time with other human beings? A dose of perspective? something that makes me stop thinking about myself and what I need for awhile? That sort of thing.


I have been doing a new thing and it has been fun, so I thought I would tell you about it in case you’re not doing it but it would be fun for you too.

It started when I read Traveling Sprinkler, and something about that book made me want to read it sitting next to my computer so I could keep looking up things like bassoons and Debussy. I found I enjoyed that experience of lightly sampling a bunch of new things, and I wondered why I hadn’t been doing that all along. So when I was reading The Cranes Dance by Meg Howrey, for example, I watched part of the ballet Swan Lake on YouTube.

But I didn’t watch ALL of Swan Lake: I watched about five minutes, then skipped to another part and watched another five minutes. Just like I didn’t watch the whole intro-to-bassoons video, I just watched part of it, and then watched part of a video of four bassoonists playing Somebody That I Used to Know. Because in all those examples, that’s where my interest stopped. And this, THIS, is the key to why I’m doing this now and wasn’t doing it before: I connected the interests thing to the Drops IN the Bucket thing.

I’ve been wishing I had More Interests, but I think I was feeling like if the interest weren’t a Grand All-Consuming Passion, it wasn’t worth pursuing. I didn’t think it out like that, but it was as if I were saying to myself, “Watching ten minutes of Swan Lake on YouTube is stupid: you have to watch THE WHOLE THING and it has to be LIVE and you have to study it ahead of time so you know what’s happening.” But no! That is the same misplaced perfectionism that makes us think there’s no sense wiping the stove-top unless we’re going to get EVERY SINGLE SPECK and also clean the drip pans and the dials. Giving the stove-top a fast, half-hearted, water-only, nowhere-near-complete wipe with the other side of the same washcloth I just used to wipe a child’s face makes a significant and mood-lifting improvement in the way I feel about the whole kitchen. Watching ten minutes of Swan Lake on YouTube makes a significant and mood-lifting improvement in the way I feel about LIFE, as well as adding a new layer to the book I’m reading. If I wait to clean the stove until I’m going to do it PERFECTLY I’ll never do it; if I wait to see Swan Lake live in a theater, I’ll finish the ballet book and return it to the library and lose interest and forget all about it and never go. Whereas if I watch ten minutes of it, it might lead to an actual ballet attendance later on; and if I give the stove-top a quick wipe, I might be so encouraged by the improvement that later I’ll also give the counters a quick wipe.

Now that I’ve noticed this additional example of Unhelpful Perfectionism, I’m seeing it all over the place. I went to the library today and I saw a book I was kind of interested in, and then I thought, “Eh, I don’t think I’m interested enough to read a whole book on that.” Pardonnez-moi, but who said anything about having to read the whole book? I could understand being in a book store and saying, “Eh, I don’t think I’m interested enough to buy that book”—but when it’s at the library and I can take it home for free and read not one word more than I want to, WHAT may I ask is stopping me from doing so? Do I imagine I am…WASTING the book? Am I imagining that only people pure and strong of interest may check it out?

What IS this drive towards ALL OR NOTHING? If we’re a little bit interested in Albert Einstein, we don’t have to read his biography and also a whole book about the theory of relativity: it is perfectly acceptable to skim a Wikipedia article, if that’s as far as our interest goes. Maybe we will read in the Wikipedia article that Einstein was visiting the U.S. when Hitler took power and he just STAYED here: left everything behind. Imagine doing that! Imagine being on vacation to, say, France, and there’s a shift in political power back home so you abandon your house and all your possessions and you never go back, starting a new life in a new country with only what you packed for your trip, and everyone thinks you’ve lost your mind until it turns out actually you saved your life. Anyway, maybe that idea will stick with you and you will think about it while you’re making dinner and that’ll be a whole lot more interesting than thinking about how you don’t think you can stand to make this meal even one. more. time. Thinking about something interesting > thinking about something boring. Overall minor life improvement achieved.

And if that anecdote about Albert Einstein makes you want to get an Albert Einstein biography out of the library, you can skim a few pages at the beginning and then start skimming around a bit in other chapters, and then read the one chapter that tells more about the day he decided to never go back home (did he have relatives sell his house? did he try to make them come to the U.S. too? how much stuff did he have with him?), and then look at the photo section in the center, and then RETURN IT TO THE LIBRARY! There will be no quiz on the material! You can read the amount you’re interested in and then STOP.

Or let’s say you read a book in which one of the characters keeps doing Tarot cards for other characters, and you find a little sprout of interest is rising. It is not necessary to research the most legitimate type of Tarot cards and/or choose among different methods, and then seek out the set with the artwork that is most YOU, and then find someone to teach you how to do Tarot cards correctly, and then practice until you are a fluid and impressive expert at it—nor is it necessary to give up the whole interest because you don’t want to do all these things. You can buy a used pack at a yard sale for 50 cents, and you can lay out the cards with lonnnnnng pauses as you read the instructions and say “Wait, wait, that’s not right,” and you can attempt to read the cards for yourself and for a couple of other interested family members, and then you can offer the deck on Freecycle because it turns out that was the limit of your interest and you don’t want to make it your new party trick.

I have a page-a-day art calendar that fits well with this. I have a small interest in art—but just small. I don’t feel like getting a membership to an art museum or taking an art appreciation class, but a casual look at one piece of art a day is PERFECT. Some days I look at a calendar page a dozen times, and then look up the piece online to get more information, and then look at other pieces by the same artist, and then read a little more about the artist’s life and about what style of art that is, and then click through to another artist who paints in a similar style, and then look around online to see if it’s possible to order a print. Other days I glance at the picture once when I flip to that day’s page, and that’s it. Most days are somewhere in between. I don’t have to declare an interest in art or think about whether this interest level counts as “being interested,” I can just be this level of interested in art.

Or, or! Let’s say John Green mentions a list of the ten books he thinks are the best. I don’t have to be COMPLETIONIST about it: I can read the ones that interest me and skip the ones that don’t. And if I try one and get about 30 pages in and really dislike it, I can return it to the library unfinished.

Interests are not commitments, and they don’t have to be powerful driving forces, and they don’t have to turn into time-consuming hobbies. It is possible to PEEK. It is possible to DABBLE. It is possible to VISIT. It is possible to investigate something with an interest that is mild rather than avid. It is possible to start with one thing, such as a book, and turn it into many, MANY things by investigating or trying different things mentioned in the book: foods, songs, TV shows, movies, liquors, hobbies.

It didn’t work at all to think, “I should be interested in more things”; it’s working very nicely to keep an eye out for flickers of interest and then follow up on them lightly, without expecting Grand Passions. Interests are flitting butterflies: pursue those little suckers—and when one disappears from view, switch to another one. Don’t expect to actually CATCH one—but if you DO catch one, pin it cruelly to a board and enjoy it forever! …Or switch at that point to a more pleasing metaphor.

An Easier Solution

This is the kind of thing where I write about it thinking cringingly, “Probably everyone else has already understood this—and probably at, like, age 8.” Nevertheless, my general blogging policy is that if it takes me significant time and/or effort to figure something out (how to get a SIMS child into private school, how to put powdered creamer in iced coffee, etc.), it should go onto the blog, because I am probably not literally the only one who didn’t know how to do it (and because I might need the information again later, because of forgetting).

So, here is what it is this time. Every Saturday night, I watch a Netflix disc, and I prefer to change into pajamas first. But every time I change into pajamas before bedtime, I feel uncomfortable and self-conscious and I think, “I’d really rather be wearing a bra with these.” And that feels ridiculous: I’ll just have to take it off again a few hours later, and why should I wear a bra with pajamas in my own house? So every week I try to talk myself through it: normal to have a body, bras a relatively recent invention, who cares what other people think, get over it, it seems like everyone else says it’s MORE comfortable without one, try to be more comfortable with it because GEEZ, etc. Every week it’s an issue.

This week, I thought something different. I thought, “If I would rather be wearing a bra…why don’t I just wear one? What’s the big deal?” So I did. And I was much more comfortable, physically and mentally.

My point is a little difficult to identify, I realize. I think it’s this: that it’s possible to spend a LOT of time and effort identifying underlying issues and giving oneself psych talks, when actually there’s an easier solution to the problem.

Pretend It’s Someone Else Saying It

I have come upon a Useful Motivational Tool. It is not going to work for all personality types or for all motivational situations; in fact, for some personalities and situations it would be awful. It’s similar to the “Think of how other people are worse off” perspective-resetting technique, which ONLY has a chance of working if self-applied, and is DREADFUL otherwise, and can backfire and/or be inappropriate even if self-applied—and it taps into the otherwise wasted/misspent resource of “feeling like other people’s lives and emotions are eye-rollingly easy to direct/correct.”

Here is what it is: Pretend it’s someone else saying what you’re saying. That is, when you have a reason you can’t do something you want yourself to do, pretend you’re listening to (or reading a blog post by) someone else saying that same reason. In some cases, you will nod your head and agree: “Yes, it sounds like that situation really is preventing you from doing that.” But in many other cases, you will say: “What? Are you kidding me? That’s easy to fix!”

This works particularly well for those of us who are Fixers AND Too Easily Discouraged. You know how some women will complain that they just wanted to vent but their male companions kept trying to FIX it instead of just LISTENING? I have “male” fixing inclinations of that sort, and often have to remind myself, “She just wants to vent. She is PERFECTLY CAPABLE of thinking of the same obvious thing you feel an urge to point out to her, but she feels like complaining right now.” And the reason I know that’s likely the case is that I myself sometimes just want to whine about something for awhile: I know I have to fix it, but I want to WHINE about it FIRST, oKAY? I slump my shoulders and think, “It’s HOPELESS. To fix this window situation, I’d have to go to TWO STORES! Including one I DON’T ENJOY. AND I’d have to measure a shade before I go! AND choose a curtain color! JUST FORGET IT.” And then eventually I answer myself: “Psh. Don’t be ridiculous. You’d be completely done before the kids got home from school. I think you can handle an hour and a half of Not Your Favorite Tasks.” The whining ends up being an important part of the solution-finding process: if there’s no whining, no solution is generated.

Or I remember when I had a tiny baby and was inwardly despairing because I COULDN’T EVEN GO TO THE BATHROOM. I was getting myself all the way to TEARS of frustration and injustice and resentment and self-pity over the issue. It was IMPOSSIBLE! This situation was SO UNREASONABLE!! I was TOO BUSY to PEE!! And then I remembered how I felt when other people said the same, which caused me to say to myself, “Don’t be ridiculous, of course you can pee. You just put down the baby in a safe place and go to the bathroom. Yes, he will scream while you are peeing. Are you seriously saying that’s literally, actually, genuinely something you can’t work with, or are you just locked into a self-defeating self-pity mode now?”

So I was already familiar with this concept—but now I’ve been applying it ON PURPOSE. For example, for a few weeks now I’ve been inwardly whining about wanting to exercise but also NOT wanting to exercise. When I imagined reading a blog post written by someone else mentioning all my same reasons, I nearly gagged on all my excellent ideas and sarcastic dismissals.

Not for ALL of the reasons, though, which is good to keep in mind: this technique can work as a SORTING tool as well as a fixing/dismissing tool. For SOME of the reasons/issues, I thought, “You’re right, that’s a legit problem.” Sometimes I then thought “But that problem will be over soon” or “It’s true, that’s a problem that would take a bigger solution—so let’s do the easier fixes first and see how that goes,” and sometimes I thought, “Yeah, I’m not sure that’s fixable.” But a lot of other things I thought, “Yes? So that would take, what, 30 seconds to a minute? That seems…pretty reasonable” and “Well, that’s what exercise comes with. There’s no sense whining about reality as if whining will change it somehow” and “Well, could you try A or B or C to fix that aspect of things?” and “Well, then what you need to acquire is a D and an E. And you could consider acquiring an F and a G.”

I think this technique is already part of the automatic whining-leads-to-solution process, but I tend to have a….LONG process. Deliberate application is helping me speed things up a little.

Easy Appetizer Recipes

I am going to a thing with appetizers, and for this thing I will need to bring an appetizer. I am about to ask for appetizer recipe suggestions. First I will mention the things that seem pertinent to me:

1. It will be all women there
2. The theme seems to be decadence rather than restraint
3. I think it will be something like 8-10 people
4. Everyone is supposed to bring an appetizer
5. The beverage will be wine

Also, I realized as I turned to consult my recipe file that I have never made an appetizer before. Never. And I am not much of a cook to begin with. So think of me as a high school student who has come to you needing an appetizer: we would not say to that high school student, “Oh, you know a recipe I find satisfyingly challenging-but-worth-it after a decade or two of rigorous cooking experience? You start by just putting a duck carcass and some lovely Ajowan caraway in your pressure cooker…” No. We would ask her if she’d heard of any of the lovely Velveeta dips. That is the sort of guidance I am looking for.


Update! I’ll add to here as I try any of the recipes! Here are links to posts containing reports on what I’ve tried so far:

Aunt Judy’s Chocolate Chip Cheese Ball
Emily’s Party Bread

Well, What CAN You Do?

Sometimes I get in these moods where I have so much to do, I can’t do anything. I know I’ve mentioned this before, but because I’m in that kind of mood right this minute, I can’t go back and find where. The idea of searching through the archives seems overwhelming.

Here’s what I do when I’m in one of those moods: I play “Well, What CAN You Do?” This afternoon, for example: There is stuff strewn all over all the floors, and the dishes are piled to the top of the sink, and laundry needs to be done, and I would like to have muffins tomorrow but would need to bake some, and I need to choose flooring for the dining room, and the sheets haven’t been changed in awhile on any of the six beds, and I need to go through photos so I can send a batch to my in-laws, and there is a lot of other stuff to be done but I am suffocating under the weight of it and all I want to do is flee to somewhere where none of this is my job. I think, “I can’t do it. I can’t do any of it. I can’t do those dishes, and I can’t handle the laundry—maybe not ever again.”

What I do is I think to myself, “Well, what CAN you do?” And I answer myself lethargically: “Well. I could put IN a load of laundry. But I’m NOT seeing it all the way through, and I’m not folding the load that’s all cold in the dryer.” And I say back, “That’s fine, fine. Do you think you could bring the dryer load upstairs?” And I say, “Yeah. But I’m not folding it!” And I say, “Sure, no, that’s fine. Just leave it in the hall.” And that’s what I do. Or perhaps I first offer the opinion that I shouldn’t even put a load in, since I’ll just have to manage it later and if I don’t it’ll be all mildewy and that’ll be even more discouraging—but if I DO say something like that, I immediately soothe myself: “No, no—don’t think about later. Just do what you can do NOW. I know, putting laundry IN is the easy/fun part, but that’s okay: just do the easy/fun part.”

And then when the washing machine is swishing, I say to myself, “What ELSE can you do? Anything?” And I shrug and say, “Well, I guess I could put away the oven mitt that’s on the counter.” And I praise myself: “Oh, good! Yes, that’s very good!” And so then I feel a little encouraged, and I say, “And I guess I could also pick up this crumpled napkin, and on the way to the trash I could use it to pick up that dead ant on the floor.” And myself lavishes me with even more praise.

Already things look better. And I don’t PUSH it, either: if doing the things I CAN do doesn’t lead to a big on-a-roll session, I go ahead and flop down at my computer or in my recliner as I wanted to do to begin with. But the washing machine is going, and the oven mitt is one less thing cluttering the kitchen counters, and the dead ant is in the trash, and so things are a little better than they were before, and I feel a little better too.