Today is my son’s birthday. It was also our big yellow lab Angus’s birthday.
The following story was first published in the Los Angeles Times Sunday paper in the Kids’ Reading Room section. It’s the true story of my son’s second grade birthday party.
A Birthday for the Dogs
“MOM, I’m inviting 50 kids to my party.”
“What, Robert?” Mom said. “That’s too many. Do you know 50 kids?”
I sat in the back seat while Mom drove home after school. My eighth birthday was in two weeks.
“There’s my class, plus Cub Scouts, and playgroup.”
“I can’t afford to take 50 kids skating or bowling. And I don’t want 50 kids in my house. What about the city pool? It’s heated, open year-round, and it’s only 50¢ a kid,” Mom said.
“A swim party, that’s cool!” I said.
“I’ll say yes to the party, but no to presents. Fifty presents are too much for one eight-year-old. It’s decadent.”
“What’s decadent?” I asked. Mom used words I didn’t know.
I sat silently and thought I’d be sad with no presents. Then I remembered Angus. Mom got him for me as an early birthday present. We were on a waiting list for two years with Guide Dogs of the Desert. He was being trained as a companion dog for people who couldn’t see. We got him because he had poor hips and couldn’t be a working dog. Angus was big, yellow, and I loved him. We shared the same birthday.
“I have a great idea!”
“What?” Mom asked, glancing at me in her rearview mirror.
“I’ll ask for money for Guide Dogs of the Desert.”
“Ah?” Mom made a weird swallowing noise.
“It’s Angus’s birthday, too.”
In the rearview mirror I watched Mom dab at the corner of her eyes with a tissue, and nod her head in agreement.
Two weeks later, I had a great birthday. Fifty kids came with bathing suits, towels and money. Instead of opening presents after cake, we counted dollars they had stuffed into a large licorice jar decorated with photos of Angus.
Together, we raised more than $1,600 for Guide Dogs. Mom called me a “philanthropist” – whatever that is.
The past week I’ve been experiencing anxiety. I’m so fortunate in my personal life and I’m grateful to have such a beautiful place to stay sheltered in place. But, being home day in and day out is taking a toll. I don’t think watching the news and surfing the internet for COVID-19 and political news is helping me either. When I felt my heart rate racing and my hands trembling on a drive home from taking groceries to my dad, I turned off the news and found a station playing Casey Kasem’s Top 40 countdown from 1970. As I listened to familiar songs from my childhood like Carpenters “Close to You” and the Beatles “Long and Winding Road,” I calmed down, sang along and found myself smiling.
Today, I quit looking at the news of spikes in COVID cases and wondered if other people were suffering from anxiety, too. The answer is yes. A quick search led me to so many articles with tips to handle anxiety and links to hotlines and health experts.
Here are a few excerpts from the articles. Please click on the links to read the whole articles. They are well worth it.
Jennifer—a postdoc—had been working from home for 4 weeks. Anxious about the COVID-19 pandemic, she was having trouble focusing on her research. She knew her mental health had deteriorated and that she needed advice to stay motivated. So she reached out to Steven, a friend who also happens to be a practicing psychiatrist. He didn’t solve all of Jennifer’s problems. But he did provide a new lens to view them through—as well as concrete steps she could take to improve her mental health. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
JENNIFER: In academia, we are often encouraged to suck it up when problems arise. I am currently writing two papers. I know others who are writing grants. Should we expect to use this “time away from the lab” to be superproductive?
STEVEN: Working in a COVID-19 world is not normal. You shouldn’t dwell on guilt if you’re not functioning at maximum productivity levels. You need time to process the grief that comes with the loss of your former work life and social life.
J: I occasionally find myself spiraling down a hole of despair, spending hours reading about all the terrible things happening in the world. The news makes me feel sad and helpless, which in turn zaps all the motivation out of my day. What should I do?
S: In these spirals, it is important to recognize that there’s a lot happening right now that you can’t control. Even though it is incredibly hard, shift your attention to things you can control. For example, you cannot control the number of people who are dying from COVID-19. But you can do your part to maintain social distancing.
J: I am worried about members of my family getting sick. I’m also worried about my future in academia because many universities are instituting hiring freezes. How can I get rid of all this worry?
S: Try compartmentalizing the worry into a time block. Spend 20 minutes each day writing down and acknowledging your feelings. Then, think about reasonable solutions. For example, you could brainstorm how you could secure funding to extend your postdoc, which would give you more time to publish papers and apply for academic jobs next year. You could also learn about jobs that might interest you in other sectors, such as industry.
J: Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and can’t go back to sleep. I’m physically tired, but my brain is restless. I end up just lying there, thinking and worrying about everything that’s going on. Is this anxiety?
S: It could be. Anxiety is a persistent feeling of worry. Sometimes it is constant, while other times it rushes over you all at once. When dealing with anxiety, it’s important to assess your emotions and talk about what you’re going through with trusted friends and family. You should also practice activities that are restorative and relaxing, especially before bedtime. Listen to music, take a hot shower, read a book, or do something else that you enjoy.
During this time of national crisis, we must manage two things simultaneously: 1) Protect ourselves from the Coronavirus, and 2) Protect ourselves from anxiety. If your anxiety, fear, and worry has been overwhelming, put these ten strategies into practice.
1. Media Distancing: To stop the spread of COVID-19, we’ve had to practice social distancing. But to stop the spread of anxiety, we must distance ourselves from the media. All anxiety stems from uncertainty and an active imagination which produces catastrophic thoughts. The media, which is 24/7 Coronavirus and virtually all negative, is the driver of those thoughts. (The CDC estimates that the flu this season has killed between 24,000 and 62,000 people in the United States. We are not panicking because the flu is familiar and the media does not give it attention). My patients who are the most anxious about the Coronavirus are those who are consuming the most news from social media, online, and traditional outlets. The more anxious you feel, the more you should distance from the media. And if you are extremely fearful, stop watching and reading altogether. Do no Google or research. Stop checking the latest news about the virus (as well as your investments). Any vital information you need to know, you will find out.
2. Do Not Engage with Worry. Take Action: Whether you are worried about contracting the virus, your struggling business, or being unemployed, the more your mind focuses on worst-case scenarios, the more anxious you feel. You can’t stop thoughts from entering your mind, but you can choose to stop dwelling and you can choose to take action to solve problems. There is a huge difference between worrying and problem solving. When your mind tries to bait you into worry, don’t take the bait. If you do, like a fish in a lake, you will be caught. Anxiety will try to bait you with many “what if” questions. Don’t answer them. Respond, “Not taking the bait,” turn your attention away, and focus elsewhere. Spinning your wheels with questions that don’t have answers will take you down the rabbit hole of fear. Instead, find creative measures to get you through this storm until you can get back on your feet. None of these measures will be comfortable. Like an umbrella and a raincoat, we use them to get through the storm, not to stop it. Much of anxiety stems from a lack of confidence in our ability to handle challenges. Push yourself to take one uncomfortable step at a time. With financial stress these steps might include seeking out loans, asking for help, paying portions of bills, cutting back on spending, and finding creative ways to make money including selling items on Ebay. The goal is to stay afloat until the storm passes.
3. Focus on Present Odds: All deaths are tragic, but we must maintain proper perspective. The vast majority of people infected with COVID-19 have mild to moderate symptoms or no symptoms at all. And the mortality rate if you do contract the virus ranges from 1.4% to 3% (The exact mortality rate is unknown at this time). The number of deaths will continue to climb (and the news will report every one) and yet, the chance of you or a loved-one dying is still remote, especially with everyone’s effort to maintain distance and isolate. But death is possible and that’s why anxious people take the bait and dwell. Possibility becomes probability. Remind yourself of the present odds, which are very good. After all, if you went to Vegas and had a 97% chance of winning, you would be excited to take those odds. If you take care of yourself properly, even if you are in a higher risk category, your risk of death is still low.
After the complete list of ten tips Goodman said this:
This list is a recipe to reduce anxiety. Review it again and put it into practice. Otherwise it’s like reading a cooking recipe in bed – in the end you have produced nothing and have nothing delicious to eat. So…start cooking.
Walking and backyard bungee swims are not enough to keep the stress away. My dear friend Linda told me that she and her family are doing a workout challenge on Youtube by Chloe Ting. I decided to check it out and the workouts are perfect for me. Ting has a modified low impact version that I can handle. I am doing the 2 Week Shred challenge followed by an ab workout. I’ve done my first two days and although my body is screaming at me, it’s got to be good for me!
I miss our pool and my team. When will it reopen?
How are you handling COVID-19 uncertainties?
Here are common symptoms of anxiety from the Mayo Clinic
Common anxiety signs and symptoms include:
Feeling nervous, restless or tense.
Having a sense of impending danger, panic or doom.
Having an increased heart rate.
Breathing rapidly (hyperventilation)
Feeling weak or tired.
Trouble concentrating or thinking about anything other than the present worry.
The park near my home where I’ve been walking Waffles.
I have two big changes in my “new normal.” One, because our city pool hasn’t opened up yet, I finally dove into our backyard pool to swim. It’s too short to do more than ten strokes, so I ordered a swim bungee cord that connects to a velcro strap that goes around my waist. It took me a day or two to figure out this is really good exercise — although I don’t swim as long as I would at Masters in the city pool. When you swim against the bungee, it’s resistance training and I get really sore!
I’ve done five days of swimming and I’m making progress. My back and arms are killing me. I should have started this 88 days ago, but hey I’m doing it now! When I take off the contraption, I feel free like I can fly through the water. This has to be good for me in addition to my daily walks.
The second big change comes tomorrow. My girl and Waffles the pug have decided to return to their lives in the Bay Area. I do know this is for the best but wow. I am going to miss them both. I’m getting a little teary-eyed at the thought.
One of the blessings of this horrific pandemic has been the time we got to share together while sheltering in place. It gave us time together for several months that I doubt would have ever happened without COVID-19. I’m happy for her to move on with her life, but yes, I’m going to miss her and Waff.
Waffles on my lap. I’m going to miss this good boy!
First the good news. Things are opening up a little bit in our county and my daughter and I played tennis two mornings in a row. Prior to this week, the tennis courts were padlocked. I found that almost as annoying as the pool being closed. It looks so wrong to see padlocks and yellow tape wrapping around our park, parking lots, playground equipment, etc.
Before we became a full-on swim family, my kids took tennis lessons. My daughter was at preschool at the time and two of her good friends were taking lessons with her. My son had his buddies in his group as well. The instructor was a big goofy tennis pro who the kids called “Charlie Farlie.”
I took lessons in high school with my mom at the University of Washington, some sort of fun extension class. It was in the Hutchinson gym and there were huge windows up several stories in height. My mom and I both managed to hit the ball out those windows — several times — and we weren’t even trying! I’m mentioning this because my daughter and I do have some sort of background in tennis, although we’re hardly proficient at it.
Hutchinson Hall where my mom and me took tennis. t
Fast forward to when we decided to homeschool my daughter for middle school. We had several homeschool families on the swim team and I envied their schedules. There were no late nights after practice completing pages of math problems or filling out worksheets for them. These homeschooled kids were really smart, well behaved and looked so happy. So we gave it a whirl. We went through a phase where we started our day with a bike ride around the park, played tennis together and then returned home to hit the books.
This week brought me back to those days. We had fun reminiscing about them and laughed at our bad shots while enjoying the cool mornings. I got a better workout than I do walking around the park. I got my heart rate up because my tennis is mostly running to corners of the court to pick up balls.
Now for the bad news. The city may not open up the pool. It’s been closed since shelter in place began 55 days ago. I was going to write a letter to the city to complain when our team was no longer allowed to use the pool, but individuals could lap swim. By the time I was composing my scathing letter, the pool had closed altogether.
Our town’s main industry is tourism. The hotels have been shuttered along with vacation rentals for two months. There’s no way to enjoy our beautiful weather, golf courses, tennis courts and hiking trials unless you are a resident. That means the city budget is devastated. Along with the pool, the city is talking about closing the library, animal shelter and cutting salaries, too.
We have one of the most gorgeous pools in state. Our Piranha Swim Team has a history of more than 50 years — one of the longest running teams in California. The kids who go through the program can swim in college if they choose. I think our success rate of kids going on to the next level is close to 90 percent. It was the single best thing we did for our kids in terms of activities. They were Piranhas from age five until they went to college. My daughter represented Piranhas in the summer after she went to college. I can go on and on about how great the team was for my kids, and now for me as a swimmer, too. It helped develop their healthy lifestyles, competitive spirits, and their character.
I watched a video posted on Facebook by one of my children’s former swim coaches about millennials in the workforce and the problems they face. It really made me reflect about my own parenting and kids. There’s an increased number of kids in this age group with depression, committing suicide and overdosing. That’s terrifying, don’t you agree? What can be done about it? And why is it happening?
I hate that bullet point and know I’m guilty of some bad parenting myself. The main idea is that our kids were told they are special at every turn, whether it’s deserved or not. Consequently, millennials often suffer from low self esteem. While we’re trying to make our kids strong, mentally and physically, we’re doing something very wrong. We have highly educated, competent kids who don’t believe in themselves. Maybe everyone shouldn’t get a participation trophy in tee ball. It’s one of the reasons why I like swimming. Every mili-second dropped and ribbon received is truly earned. The clock doesn’t lie.
We were unplugged as a family every summer at the beach.
Checking our number of likes, texts, etc. give us a jolt of dopamine. That’s why we get addicted to our phones. Social media and cell phones are not much different than other highly addictive substances like tobacco or alcohol. When teenage brains are exposed to dopamine, they get hooked and their brains get hardwired. Hearing this part of the video makes me want to look at my own cell phone usage and make some changes—a good thing to think about for New Year’s Resolutions (I’ll write more about this later). Social media is preventing our kids from developing personal relationships and may lead to depression and being unable to handle stress.
THREE Instant Gratification
Our kids have grown up in the world of instant gratification. If they want to watch a movie, they turn on Netflix. If they want to buy something, they click on Amazon and it’s delivered the next day. I interviewed a psychologist and wrote about instant gratification here. Job satisfaction and relationships aren’t a click away. Instead they are messy and time consuming, but our kids aren’t learning these skills of waiting and working for things.
Maybe our corporate environments aren’t a good fit for young people. Our kids blame themselves when it could partially be the fault of the company they work for. Companies need to work extra hard to build the children’s social skills and work on their lack of confidence. We need to work on interpersonal relationships and one good way to start is to put the phone down.
What are your thoughts about millennials and their angst? Do you think it’s our fault they are suffering from depression and anxiety? Or, does the environment and technology play a bigger role?
Selfie of Mom and me playing BINGO. She is the best mom and my role model.
The swimmers gather with their groups. Photo courtesy of Linda Burns.
I feel like I am standing still in cement while I watch my swimming friends fly off without me. I barely make it to the pool more than twice a week lately–and I’ve had to start completely over this year due to knee surgery.
Meanwhile, my Piranha Swim Team Masters’ friends are getting faster, stronger and swimming longer workouts. Not only that, they are taking on challenging open water swims like the Tiki Swim in Oceanside and the Scilly Swim Challenge in the United Kingdom, 35 miles off the coast of Cornwall.
My friends Linda and Karl, who were former Piranha and St. Theresa parents with me, swam the Scilly Swim Challenge for their second straight year. This swim challenge is a 15k swim combined with a 10k walk.
Event organizer Dewi Winkle said, “We are on year five now and 10th Challenge just completed. Nick Lishman and I came up with the idea in 2013 and we thought the islands are so beautiful and the attraction of swimming between them would be well received. We started in 2014 and have now built to three events a year with up to 150 people per event.”
Dewi said their plans include a race around St Mary’s as a relay event and a test event in Croatia in October. Currently, they have a two-day and one-day swim in September and a Spring Swim in May.
A map of the Isles of Scilly and route courtesy of the Scilly Swim Challenge.
6 swims averaging 2.5 km (total 15km) and 6 walks averaging 1.7 km (total 10km) completed as a group with full safety and logistical support.
Whether you choose to complete in one or two days you will experiencethe amazing swimming and beautiful scenery Scilly has to offer.
The event will start and finish on St. Mary’s, the main island, visiting St. Martins, Tresco, Bryher, Samson and St. Agnes.
It’s not a race and the emphasis is on everyone getting round safely.
While you’re swimming we will transport a bag for you which will be available at the next island. You will then carry it to the start of the next swim.
Full safety support is included.
There are food stops at the end of each swim.
The Kestrel, Linda and Karl’s ride for two days, at Hugh Town. Photo courtesy of Karl Siffleet.
According to Linda, her second year was easier than the first. “Coming out early to get used to the water was helpful,” she said. The water temperature was 15 degrees Celsius (59 degrees Fahrenheit). In contrast, we swim in a pool with a temperature of around 80 degrees! Yes, she wore a wetsuit the entire time.
Linda and Karl signed up for the one-day swim but arrived several days early and volunteered to help out or “crew” for the two-day swim. The two-day swim allows a more leisurely pace than the one-day challenge. Linda and Karl checked swimmers in and out of the water and helped with the baggage boat. Linda said the support staff is incredible and includes “30 kayakers—they were awesome! Five safety boats (power cats) and a baggage boat.”
Swimmers can swim as much or little as they want. If they need a break they can hang onto a kayak or climb aboard a boat and go to the next island. In between, they are fed snacks and drinks.
Photo courtesy of Linda Burns.
“There was tea, coffee, other hot drinks. Cakes, soup, salads, rolls, candy bars. Diet Coke, homemade pastry and Cornish pasty,” she said.
Hot tea after a cold swim! Photo from Linda Burns.
The swimmers pick which one of three groups they want to swim with according to their speed. “We swam in different groups and nobody keeps time. You can swim as much or as little as you want.”She said the groups are “Red, amber, green. Swimmers self-select which pod to swim with. Red is fastest. Karl swam amber and I swam green. I was much happier swimming in the front of the green than the middle of the amber.”
I’m sure a lot of the appeal on taking on a challenge like this is the camaraderie. The swimmers must feel so much accomplishment and bond together after their swims. I know it motivates Linda and Karl to keep swimming year round and a goal to work towards in their practices.
Like I said, my friends have been getting stronger and faster. Linda said she felt great swimming. “I felt good. I got into a good rhythm for sighting and really enjoyed it—except the several times a wave broke over me as I inhaled and I thought I was going to cough up my lungs.”
Photo from Linda Burns.
Someday, I’d like to take this challenge, too. I don’t think I’ll be strong enough yet in May, but perhaps in a year or two. In the very least I’d like to travel to the Isles of Scilly and see this quaint, quiet and beautiful area for myself.
What motivates you to get out of your comfort zone and try something incredibly challenging?
I looked at a calendar to see where I’m at in my recovery from surgery. Not that I’m counting the days and hours, but I know I’m stronger and in less pain than a few weeks ago. I go to my last follow up appointment with the orthopedic surgeon next week.
I’m still going to physical therapy, but my therapist has switched me from twice a week to once weekly. I need to do my exercises at home which can be tedious, but I need to hang in there and do them. Like right after I post this I need to do my workout.
The best part of my post-op days is swimming. I rejoined Masters and I started the first two weeks only making it two mornings per week. This week, I’m proud to say, I went four days in a row! I think swimming is a life saver. Literally, because it’s the only activity I can do right now that gets me really tired and exhausted. After being laid up for more than six months, the past few weeks of swimming have been a highlight. I love the feel of the cool water against my skin, the gorgeous mountain view and listening to the sound of swimmers splashing and moving through the water. I also like reconnecting with all my fellow swim friends.
I feel like I’m starting all over. When I started Masters a few years ago, the goal was initially to be able to complete the 1000-yard warm up. I’m able to do that again, but not much more. I wore fins all the time when I first started–they were like my security blanket or training wheels. After knee surgery, it’s not recommended that I use fins, so I’m managing without. Also, I can’t turn, so I stop at each wall and turn myself around. It’s kind of funny to go so far backward, but I am making progress and feeling good and tired every day. I’m thankful to be strong enough to swim again. I realized a few months ago it was a struggle for me to make it across the living room on crutches or even get in and out of the shower. I’m grateful for my health and everything I have in my life—family, friends, and those two fur babies that are driving me crazy. It’s a good time to reflect on the little things in life.
That’s me diving off the blocks in my first swim meet.
What are you thankful for and appreciate in your daily life?