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What Boobies Have Taught Me About Milking the Most Out of Life

Last month I checked off a prodigious bucket-list item: I saw a blue-footed booby in his natural habitat. He was minding a chick so implausibly fluffy it looked like a Jim Henson creation.

The chicks’ feathers floated on the air like dandelion seeds. Carried by gentle breezes and clinging to rocks and vegetation, they could have been tens of thousands of spent wishes.

As a child, I’d seen a display of taxidermy birds behind glass at a natural history museum. Among them was a blue-footed booby, and I was absolutely smitten. He had bright-blue feet that looked rubbery and a tad too big, as though he were wearing galoshes. Being a kid, I didn’t read the interpretive signage and just assumed this stuffed specimen was that of an extinct bird—for if boobies existed, surely every zoo would have them.

I can’t remember when I found out blue-footed boobies hadn’t gone the way of the dodo. Nor can I recall when I first learned about the Galapagos Islands, where half of all breeding pairs of boobies make their home. I knew long before I could find them on the map that the Galapagos Islands are special on account of their large number of endemic species and for having hosted a young Charles Darwin, whose studies of Galapagos flora and fauna led to his theory of evolution by means of natural selection.

A few years back, I started looking into visiting the Galapagos Islands (having learned by then where they actually are), but the logistics involving planes, ferries, park entrance fees, tour boats, island guides, travel tips such as scrubbing the soles of your shoes lest they be confiscated (dirt can introduce contaminants to the islands), and cobbling together about ten grand all made this bucket-list adventure highly unlikely. Then, I learned through a friend about a reasonably priced, all-inclusive group trip to the Galapagos Islands and immediately signed up—even though it was billed as a yoga retreat and I don’t have a bendy body.

Turns out, it was easier to warp my body into some of the yoga poses than to wrap my mind around the Galapagos. It’s a study in antonyms, at once embracing and forbidding; earthly and otherworldly; uniquely blessed and seemingly forsaken. It’s the only place on the planet where penguins coexist with cacti. It’s a place where all the creatures seem tame though most are actually profoundly indifferent to humans and astonishingly innocent of the harm we can cause. We saw a sprawling sea lion nursing her pup, a pair of exhibitionist penguins whose mating lasted longer than I would have expected, and a giant tortoise giving off vibes like a celebrity who’s grown weary of paparazzi but shows the camera his best side anyway. We could have touched these creatures, to a one, if doing so weren’t strictly forbidden.

No free-range tourists: All Galapagos guests must be accompanied by a certified naturalist guide, who ensures we stay a certain distance from the animals.

What makes a trip to Galapagos so bucket list worthy is that many of the plants and animals are endemic to the islands, meaning they exist there and nowhere else. As it happens, blue-footed boobies aren’t among them. They live off western coasts of Central and South America.

They live, too, in the shifting, shadowy landscape of my memory. It’s strange what you carry with you from a place, from an experience, from an encounter. From the past and the present. Much of my childhood is a blur but I remember vividly seeing that stuffed blue-footed booby and thinking nature had brought a cartoon to life. And in one of life’s full-circle symmetries, I know that my blue-footed booby sightings will be what sticks with me from my once-in-a-lifetime Galapagos trip.

Some fancy footwork. (Photo by my travel companion Maggie Crane, who wrote about our trip here.)

Memories fall away over the years like petals from a flower. You can’t keep them all. Already, I’ve forgotten which critters belong to which islands.

I think that perhaps we seekers ask too much of our travels. Galapagos is the sort of place, and certainly I was among the sort of people (yogis), where a spiritual awakening or an epiphany seems almost guaranteed. I had no such experience, just as I hadn’t when I hiked 116 miles of the Appalachian Trail—another pilgrimage people make in search of enlightenment, putting their lives on hold to make room. I finished my 12-day hike feeling like I hadn’t been favored by the universe. I’d not found my life’s purpose under a rock or around a bend. I hiked part of the AT and all I got were these rapidly fading memories.

I’ve since learned that each magical moment seeps in. Even the memories I lose access to continue to transform me, like water over stone, into my best self. It takes time.

What I’ve come to realize about myself as a work-in-progress is this: I learn about the world by wandering, but I learn about myself at home. The Galapagos adventure is still working its magic.

It is part of my evolution.

I reckon they sell more of these souvenir shirts to men.

The Long Goodbye

I’ve intended to write about my cat Wilkie for a long time. He died in October 2016, and I’ve not been able to do it until now.

I rescued Wilkie from a barn when he was about six weeks old. Over his lifespan of 17 years, he rescued me many times over.

It’s hard to eulogize an animal. Even one as unique as blue-eyed, ring-tailed Wilkie. For as much as they add to our lives, pets don’t have the makings of a standard obituary: hobbies, causes, achievements.

Yes, Wilkie had his own distinct personality. Yes, he did cute things and confounding things, as all cats do. No, he was not a YouTube sensation, but he had a piss-poor agent.

However, there’s this: Wilkie once saved my life, literally, though not deliberately. It’s one of my life stories that he and I carried between us, not as a secret, necessarily, but as a ghost that draws on the energy of one creature (Wilkie) to haunt another (me). Wilkie is gone and I can now deny the ghost exists; if one mind holds hostage the memory of an event, did it ever happen?

For good or ill, buried with Wilkie are parts of my past. Whole hunks of time that nearly were the death of me are feeding a plum tree that fluffs up into pink blossoms, cotton candy-like, in springtime.

It was a recent New York Times article that finally got me writing about Wilkie’s irreplaceable role in my life. “When you lose a dog, you not only lose the animal that has been your friend, you lose a connection to the person you have been,” Jennifer Finney Boyle wrote.

Wilkie witnessed my adult life longer than anyone. We’d been together through six moves, two marriages (the second one is still intact), three other cats, and a series of black patches that he pushed us through with the tiny engine of his purring.

I miss him so keenly because of the cat he was—his Wilkie-ness—and also what he bore witness to. Ours was a bond like no other, and ours was a history that held only us two—and the ghosts between us.

Wilkie, 17, and I taking a sick day. One of us was actually sick.



There will be no Christmas miracle: The Poinsettia Project bombs

Though I’ve managed to keep last year’s poinsettia alive all year, in true Grinch fashion it has elected to remain green and deprive me of my Christmas miracle.

It’s not hard to keep poinsettias alive year-round as humble green houseplants, but it takes some doing to make them turn red again in time for the holidays. Back in May, I started the tricky regimen we’ll call the Carrie treatment because it involves locking the plant in a dark closet for hours on end, but maybe I didn’t take it far enough because I didn’t offer up prayers.

It seems my Carrie treatment was missing a critical element.

The light-dark cycles, along with strategic pruning and carefully timed fertilizer applications, were supposed to turn the plant red again. By now, my poinsettia should be awash in scarlet, but it’s not, and I feel like setting a high school gym ablaze.

This is what I was hoping would happen: Festive red-washing in time for the holidays.

I named the poinsettia John Travolta because I just knew it was Staying Alive, but it’s not exactly hale and hearty. It’s fuller than it was when you last saw it in May but its leaves don’t look so hot.

And may all your Christmases have blight.

Incidentally, the real John Travolta has a small, malevolent part in Carrie. He dies in the end, so, whatever its fate, John Travolta seems an apt name for my poinsettia.

Actual line from the film: “Just keep your tits on, and I’ll let you pull the rope when the time comes.”




“I will honor Christmas in my heart, and TRY to keep it all the year!” — The Poinsettia Project

Some things have a tendency to stick around a tad too long. Your neighbor’s Christmas tree lights, perhaps. And then some things just don’t stick at all. Today’s blog is about both the sticky things and the non-sticky things. Like my resolve.

People say Christmas is over so fast but at our house it lingers. We’ll dismantle the tree, box up Jeff’s prodigious Santa collection, and unwind the greenery from the chandeliers, all within a reasonable period. But, always, there are a few yuletide trappings that hang around through March or April. For instance, I casually mentioned to Jeff that I’d like to blow something up (nothing in particular) and so I got a box of explosives for Christmas. It’s still sitting on the living room floor with little bits of festive Christmas wrap clinging to it.

Well, here we are in May, and there’s one Christmas remnant that’s stuck around, but entirely by design. That’s because I decided to see if I could make the Christmas 2016 poinsettia last until Christmas 2017, and beyond. Evidently it’s not that hard to keep a poinsettia alive as a humble green houseplant, but it’s not at all easy to tend it in such a way that it will deign to turn red again. You have to prune it a certain way, fertilize it at certain times, and move the thing in and out of a pitch-dark closet every 12 hours because the redness production — the green-to-scarlet presto chango — is a black-box process, I guess. You have to get serious about the light-dark rotations in the fall, but I have been practicing all year to get in the habit. (The poinsettia survived a five-day stretch in the closet when I forgot to take it out. )

So, nearly halfway through the year I feel emboldened to start sharing with you occasional updates on my poinsettia project. (I promise it’ll be a notch or two higher on the excitement meter than watching grass grow.) I am sharing now because it’s safe — I am actually sticking to the program. I may succeed or I may fail, but I won’t have quit!

I can’t promise I’ll change my non-sticky ways when it comes to, say, taking my medicine as prescribed, procuring new registration stickers for my car, or blogging regularly, but this is a start.

(P.S. If and when I blow something up, provided it’s legal I will post pictures!)

Poinsettia on May 8, with its more seasonable windowsill chums. The poinsettia’s name is John Travolta because this muthah flunker is stayin’ alive!


Insomniacs give new meaning to the phrase “Sleep like the dead”

The killer insomnia cure that slayed me.

Don’t look now, but there’s an axe murderer behind you and he’s about to break into a lullaby. CC/Flickr photo by Alyssa L. Miller.
Don’t look now, but there’s an axe murderer behind you and he’s about to break into a lullaby. CC/Flickr photo by Alyssa L. Miller.

What could be more relaxing and conducive to a restful night’s sleep than picturing a murderer standing over you ready to pounce at the first sign of movement? There are people who swear by this method of overcoming insomnia.

Here’s how it works, according to Deadspin deputy editor Barry Petchesky. Pretend there’s a killer in the room who’s trying to determine whether the lump on the bed is a “living, breathing, potential victim” as opposed to a pile of bed clothes. The idea is to lie perfectly still, breathing deeply and evenly, until the murderer gives up and merciful sleep arrives in his stead.

Conjuring the killer supposedly works because the brain takes cues from the body, so acting as though you’re in a deep sleep will make your brain slow down and eventually shut off.

In all my battles with insomnia over the years, I’d never even thought about conjuring a bedside killer. However, I do imagine scenarios I hope will put me to sleep, and they are not as serene as they are sanguinary. Here’s my method. Pretend you’re in a war zone and it’s your turn to sleep while someone else stands watch. Your comrades are counting on you to sleep well because soon it will be your turn to watch over them and you’ll need to be alert. You must sleep soundly because the slightest movement will give your position away to the enemy. (Or to a lion if you’re engaging in jungle warfare. There’s room for creativity.) When you start to imagine the feel of the cold hard ground and the imminent threat of attack, you’ll appreciate how comfy and safe your bed is, let down your guard, and fall asleep.

I’m open to new ways of doing things, so I gave the imaginary murderer an audition. I don’t recommend this method. It put me to sleep but not before priming the nightmare pump. The killer didn’t depart when I entered dreamland but invaded one bad dream after another, at one point astride a rabid alpaca. Titter if you must but it was frightening AF and when I woke up in the wee hours I was scared to go back to sleep!

I’ll go back to playing GI Jane to put myself to sleep, or maybe try some sensible tips like doing a Corey Hart impression.

Frog for breakfast? No thanks, I’ll pass.

As a syndicated reporter on the careers beat (among others), I write often about prioritizing work tasks and increasing productivity. Several experts I interviewed offered the same advice: “Eat the frog first.”

If you want to get ahead in life, you’re supposed to eat the frog, not kiss it.
If you want to get ahead in life, you’re supposed to eat the frog, not kiss it.

The “frog” is your biggest, most important task of the day. The one you dread and might otherwise put off. If you complete this task first thing in the morning, the experts say, you’ll have a sense of achievement and the satisfaction of knowing the worst is behind you. A frog in the belly is motivating.

However, if you put off your froggy feast to do smaller, less important things, the frog will sit and stare at you with its rheumy, remonstrative eyes. You’ll feel uneasy and lack the time and energy later in the day to swallow him whole. That means a missed deadline and an all the more daunting to-do list the next day. The frog’s not getting any smaller, after all. Or tastier for that matter.

The frog theory of productivity is explained in full in Brian Tracy’s bestseller “Eat That Frog: 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time,” or you can watch a 90-second video about it.

As for me, I can’t always stomach frog for breakfast. I find it’s sometimes necessary to warm up to tackling the day’s most critical task. It’s best on those days to finish a couple of easy things first, which gives me the immense satisfaction of checking one or two items off my to-do list while still on my first cup of coffee. Should you choose to try my tadpole-for-breakfast approach to productivity, the key to success is starting off with must-do tasks you can complete without much effort. It’s not the time for busy work like purging your email inbox. That’s the sort of task that sucks up a lot of time and inevitably leads to diversions like online shopping and cat video marathons. Rather, it’s the ideal time to deal with that one important email you’ve not yet replied to. Getting some pesky little tasks out the way builds some momentum and gives your coffee time to kick in. It makes the frog look a little more palatable.

Whether you reach for a tadpole or frog, the key to beating procrastination is to take that first bite, according to CareerCast publisher Tony Lee, whom I quote in my article on the three deadly P’s (people-pleasing, perfectionism, and procrastination).

“Just do something. Make an opening move of any kind,” Lee urges.

If dairy sounds yummier for breakfast than amphibians, you’re in luck. Lee shares his “Swiss cheese method” to sustain momentum by achieving a series of small successes: “You don’t need to commit a big block of time all at once. Think of several easy tasks that can be done in 10 minutes or less.”

Success begets success, he adds, and emboldens you to move on to bigger things. Like your frog. It’s not going anywhere. Trust me.