Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Bohemian Rhapsody

I have exciting news! I found the source of a lot of our health problems here due to my dogged perseverance. I am so happy to have this information to share to help others, especially at this time where our health is at risk from wildfire smoke and coronavirus.


I figured out that our water heater has been backdrafting for… I don’t know how long. It was, as they say in the industry “orphaned” maybe since we replaced the furnace in 2014. Maybe longer. This may be really common because there is often insufficient fresh air coming into newer, tighter homes! And when I say “newer,” our home was built in 1988. I grew up in a house built in 1929 which was leaky, but my Dad still knew enough to keep a window open for sleeping. I have heard stories from several people about members of households needing windows open to feel well, and this may be another big, yet until now undiscovered reason.


We have been getting poisoned by flue gases from the water heater coming back into the utility room every time there was a drop in temperature. The demand on the furnace during cold snaps caused it to have to compete with the water heater for clean combustible air. I think it was a contributing factor in my husband's seizure a year after we got a new furnace. The new furnace, even though it was not high efficiency, just didn’t have the power to pull the flue gases from the gas water heater tank (these don’t have a powered exhaust). I mention high efficiency furnaces, because they do not have oompf to pull companion exhaust from gas water heaters under most conditions, and this is well known. The problem can be difficult to diagnose, because it only occurs under certain conditions, like when the house is totally shut up, there is competition for fresh air by other gas appliances, or depressurization of the home by the running of exhaust fans. The height of a home can contribute greatly, too. So, as long as the temperature was stable, this didn’t seem to be a problem, but in the Spring and Fall we can get large temperature variations, and that’s when the conditions were perfect for backdrafting. Add in pressure on the hot water heater from dish and clothes washing, and four people showering, and we had guaranteed house depressurization.


Our situation was worsened because whoever finished the basement in our house did not complete the transit of the fresh air return to the utility room. In speaking with several professionals, I have learned this is fairly common. Reasons people give for not hooking up fresh air returns to furnace rooms include not wanting to cool the basement air beyond a comfortable level in the winter, and, the less easy to understand reason - ducts are unsightly. But, uh, I’d rather have an “unsightly” duct in my basement than be dead or be robbed of my intelligence and health. Why it is interior designers don’t get this, I don’t know. They cannot possibly understand enough to match wits with a mechanical engineer on HVAC design in terms of safety, unless they have spent a lot of time educating themselves on ventilation. Given the reactions I have gotten from professionals regarding the research I have done on this subject, my guess is that they haven’t run into many interior designers that ask the right questions about HVAC systems, because they were surprised to hear those questions from a neuroscientist.


This can take a long time to diagnose, even for professionals. I had professionals in my house who couldn’t catch it in the act, and weren’t even aware of this phenomenon. Some didn’t even know what VOCs (volatile organic compounds) were. That can all be combated with good information, though, so here we go!


This phenomenon has a major impact on human health and people are unaware of it. It is critical to address at a public health level because it impacts glucose utilization in the cells and thus mental health, intelligence, consciousness, respiratory and cardiovascular health. My good friend has a neighbor who is on the Physicians for Social Responsibility board. They are a group trying to raise awareness about the effects of natural gas on health. People along the Front Range in Colorado are noticing effects on their health from the flaring done by the fracking industry. There are large releases of volatiles into the air whenever natural gas is burned. This is huge. I have been collecting scientific papers for the last 9 months and consulting lots of different people on these matters. I have learned a lot! This is information that needs to be clearly communicated to lay people so they can protect their health.


We had our gas water heater removed yesterday after I was finally able to show that the temperature fluctuations were causing backdrafting using milk bottle caps placed on the top by the flue. The plastic grommets along the hot and cold water supply lines had been melted at some point, but I didn’t know when. We have a whole house fan, so I thought maybe we had inadvertently caused the backdrafting with the whole house fan at some point. I needed a way to pinpoint the timing of the backdrafting, since it was impossible to catch in real time. The caps melted in the Spring, were fine in the Summer when we ran the air conditioning or the furnace was off, and then started melting again recently since we had to have the house shut up for the wildfire smoke. Combined with the wildfire smoke, the orphaned water heater created a potentially deadly situation in our home, because with the house shut up, the water heater was backdrafting almost every day. This last backdraft was so bad I thought I was going to die; I spent a good day with a heart rate over 120, and sleep has been elusive in the last week. I have had to use nearly everything I have learned about healing to get through the last few weeks with this forest fire. In speaking with people around me, I know I am not the only person who is feeling similar effects, so it is my intention to share my bag of tricks at a later date. While I am not a medical doctor, and don’t play one on television, I have significant knowledge on the subject of recovery from toxic exposures which I have gleaned through my life experiences.


We have been dealing with memory and attention issues for years, and as I have written before, I have dealt with problems with anxiety and depression. I have learned many very effective ways to manage those things, but they require a lot of time and diligence which I have that others may not. Luckily, I have been able to conclusively link these things to chemical exposures which mindful people should be able to avoid, such as this water heater backdrafting. Other fatigue and pain issues I had were also directly connected. As well as respiratory and cardiovascular issues, I experience shortness of breath and tachycardia about 24 hours after exposure, which are also symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning. I had several carbon monoxide detectors in my home and they never went off. I don’t know if this non-carbon monoxide-generating backdrafting is known about in the industry yet or if it is something I have personally discovered. It may have been dismissed because of ignorance about what VOCs do to the brain with chronic exposure. In acute exposures, VOCs are excreted more rapidly by the body (within a few days). In contrast, carbon monoxide renders blood cells useless for carrying oxygen permanently. I am familiar with what carbon monoxide poisoning feels like because I had it once on a trip to visit a friend who had a gravity fed furnace in a historical home. She had informed me that it was acting up. It caused us to have psychological issues in our group and we ended up coming home from our trip early. It was really embarrassing and I never knew what to tell my friend about why we left. I suspect she probably knew; she is an artist and her work is concerned at least in part with environmental issues.


Symptoms similar to carbon monoxide poisoning health issues for me were always worse when a storm front would come through, and for years I thought maybe it was due to barometric pressure because I get visual migraines and I was aware that some people link their migraines to barometric pressure. Anyway, the levels of volatile compounds in our home air have gone down significantly in the 24 hours since we had our water heater removed and replaced with an electric model. I am hoping my peeps do some data analysis that I will be able to share, but right now they are so busy making magic with all their newfound energy, I think they should be able to enjoy it! Everyone seems to be doing better.


To understand in more detail what I am talking about, you can search for “house depressurization.” There is also information coming out of Queensland, Australia and China about the health effects of indoor cooking with natural gas on attention in children. Luckily, it is pretty easy to switch to electric cooking.


My professional opinion as a freelance neuroscientist and Supermom is that people using natural gas should consider getting air quality monitors that measure VOCs. Actually, I think everyone should get them, because this phenomenon certainly isn’t the only contributor to poor air quality and health issues in residences. And residences just don’t have the same code requirements for fresh air that commercial spaces do. There are networked systems that give alerts on a smartphone about plumes, and it is possible to locate indoor pollution sources using the information they provide. Over the last few months I have had my meters, I have been able to identify multiple sources of volatile compounds and formaldehyde, eliminating them and reducing my anxiety, aphasia, hearing problems, chronic pain and “menopause symptoms.” I have written about this in several previous posts. Sometimes I feel like I am living in the era of gaslights and the birth of forensic science because the situations are so similar. The anxiety and body pains I would get after exposure were nearly paralyzing. I think a lot of people go on pharmaceutical drugs to try to alleviate the symptoms I was having. For people who can’t afford a VOC meter to start their own health investigation, maybe just a milk bottle cap on the top of the water heater might save a life!


Hug your family! Paying attention to our air quality has helped improve our quality of life, even in this hard time, because our anxiety, it turned out, was largely due to metabolic issues from the air quality!


Here are some pictures of my “milk bottle cap” experiment. The milk bottle caps were far superior to trying to catch the water heater in the act of backdrafting by using a mirror. It’s important to remember that the air outside during a wildfire can be just as if not more dangerous than our inside air right now, so keeping an eye on metrics can help us do the best to protect our health and keep us away from the doctor’s office. Or the morgue.

The last soldier:

This grey grommet melted fairly recently. It wasn't like this over the summer:

This grey grommet melted fairly recently.

I just kept putting new milk bottle caps on there daily and checked on them multiple times. If I found one melted, I could usually see an associated spike in the VOC readings on my air quality monitor in my studio, which does historical recordings. The system proved invaluable for showing me how the gas plume moved through our home, how it originated, and under what conditions. My intuition was invaluable during this process, and I am glad that I did not get too discouraged when I couldn't get the problem solved with professional help earlier on. The hot water supply grommet has obviously melted at this point.


The cold water supply grommet had been melted by the Spring when I conceived of the milk bottle cap experiment.




Well, I suppose my next post should be a big thanks to all the individuals who helped with little pieces of information that helped me become self aware enough to solve this problem! There were so many of you. Really!

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

A Life of Illusion: Chapter 5: I Could Use Some Friends For A Change

Dot’s Journal, Earth Date 2020.10.05:


I am so happy that things with Bert are going well these days. Sometimes we make mistakes, but we are much more self aware than we used to be. Our issues were definitely exacerbated by our problems with Bertha and the visits to our close relatives who are always remodeling. Whenever the weather would change, we would get short with each other and be prone to misunderstandings. For a long time I thought maybe it had to do with the barometric pressure. But I have also thought that maybe the cloud cover we get might seal in air pollution. Or, maybe it has to do with house depressurization. In the months that I have been trying to get to the bottom of this, I had noticed that us not feeling well or happy seemed to occur at the same times other people felt the same. And then I noticed it was always when the moon was in a water sign (Cancer, Scorpio, Pisces), which was also weird. So for a long time, I just attributed it to the moon, and kept to myself and advised others to do the same during those times. That seemed to significantly decrease the drama in our lives. The moon moves into water signs every eight days or so, so that is fairly often. The break from emotional stimulation gave us a chance to see how we were feeling without the complications of interpersonal stuff. And then we noticed we were still feeling unwell and tired during those times in the Spring and Fall when here in Colorado, the weather can be quite temperamental. Indeed, a few years earlier before I came up with my "moon in water sign" theory, I noticed that there was nearly always a storm that would blow in during those times. It turns out that the sudden decrease in temperature would put more pressure on Bertha, and Sal, the water heater simply couldn't compete for the fresh air. With windows closed to keep out the cold, that meant Sal had become "orphaned" of fresh air, and there would not be enough oompf to sweep the dangerous combustion biproducts up the chimney stack, causing them to come back in the house. We were never able to detect any carbon monoxide, or catch Sal spewing dangerous gas into our home the way anyone else had recommended. I did see that the plastic grommets around the hot and cold water had melted, and there was rust on top of Sal (who was pretty aged at 16 years), indicating it was time for replacement, and that there was possible backdrafting. But the carbon monoxide detector I got for the basement never went off. I got a portable one, and it never went off, except when I tested it over a candle flame. I was beginning to think it was all in my head, until we started monitoring our air quality closely and seeing huge spikes in the VOCs when conditions were right for depressurization. The conditions could include having the basement windows closed, or trying to vent anything out of the basement windows. Sometimes it would happen when the bathroom or stove fans were left on with no windows open. And finally, it would happen when there was a lot of demand for hot water at once.

 

Our house is really tall because it is two stories and the basement is "garden level" which means the gases have to travel a long way to get out the top of our home. Newer sealed combustion tankless water heaters vent out the side of a home, potentially eliminating that problem, but also need their own fresh air intake. The location of our utility room makes getting fresh air to it difficult, and also it turns out that the people who finished the basement did not connect the fresh air duct coming from the outside of the house to the utility room; they simply let it terminate in the ceiling. In speaking with several professionals, this is a common problem in many homes. Some people choose not to hook up the fresh air intake in the basement, because it can make the basement cold. Other people just don't like the look of ducts. I just can't understand why people place so much value on form over function sometimes. This is an instance where it could have killed people.

 

I was able to conclusively figure out what happened by placing milk bottle caps on top of Sal. I didn't know when Sal's plastic grommets had melted when I learned that was a sign of malfunction, so I needed a controlled way to snoop on his performance that didn't require constant watching. The other method I saw on the internet was to look for moisture on a mirror propped nearby, but because house depressurization and backdrafting does not tend to happen in a constant fashion, it requires a pretty serious and concentrated effort to detect otherwise. The milk bottle caps melted periodically in the Spring, making me pretty sure I had figured out the problem. Then, when the weather warmed up, and Bertha was switched to air conditioning rather than furnace mode, there was no evidence of backdrafting. We had our first big backdraft with the mid-September cold snap, and the milk bottle caps have been melting most days. My health has been really poor. And it's not just me, but our pets, too. One dog and the rabbit get diarrhea, and another family member and I deal with IBS-like symptoms, extreme fatigue, and foggy head. It was finally bad enough this time that I was able to convince Bert it was something we needed to address.

 

I had my heart set on an electric tankless water heater because the kids like to shower so much, but it turns out that it would be way too costly, because it requires 3-phase power to be brought to our home from the city. So, instead, we are getting an electric tank, which is going to increase our electric bill, but down the road we will have the option of hooking it to solar power, which we both find pretty exciting. We like the idea of moving to something more sustainable in the future.

 

What worries me is how we went so long without noticing this, and that professionals I have spoken with are saying it is fairly common. Bert told me long ago that natural gas water heaters are extremely dangerous, but because they can explode. I now feel pretty confident as a neuroscientist that natural gas in homes is not safe. There is increasing evidence that indoor cooking, especially with gas appliances, is linked to a number of negative neurological health outcomes in children and the elderly. I find it strange that we work so hard to protect our pipelines for this energy source that is not replaceable, dangerous, and harming indigenous land. We both feel this way, but it is impractical to swap out Bertha because the sustainable retrofits require large amounts of cash.


But for how frustrated we could get trying to coexist peacefully with the fluctuating weather, it was nothing like how we would feel after visiting our relatives’ house. I stopped drinking when we would go there quite a few years ago, because I would feel so lousy for several days afterward. Bert did not have the same symptoms I did. I would wake up around 4 in the morning, feeling like my heart was going to pound right out of my chest. He merely snored. We didn’t really get hangovers, but everything felt more difficult for a few days after.


Then they remodeled.


All of our symptoms changed. Visits to their house felt really happy. Euphoric, even. But otherwise, my health had been declining before May of last year. So when they invited us over right before Thanksgiving, I wasn’t sure I wanted to go. I hadn’t been there since the beginning of May, because their timing was always off. They would often invite us over when I had been busy and needed to rest. Last year I got into the practice of saying “No” when I didn’t have the energy for things, and my health was steadily improving with that methodology.


When they invited us over at Thanksgiving, I was tired. But I was worried they would take it personally if I didn’t show up, so I agreed to go as long as it would only be for two hours or so. But, in usual fashion, we went over, and had a lovely lunch, and a nice discussion (I even told them about my illness), but two hours stretched to six, and suddenly I felt the weird migraine setting in. For a while I thought this was because we needed to eat more for the time we were there, so that time we brought some soda and other carbs hoping that would help prevent the health crash we always had after being there. They don't serve a lot of carbs because they worry about their weight, even though they have never been obese. Despite this approach, the migraine came, so we rounded up the kids and went home.


Bert and I retired to Area 51 when we got home and both of us were having terrible pains in our thighs. We talked about how something was really wrong, that we were both having the symptoms. We had spent a fair amount of time sitting on their new sofa, in their living space which had been remodeled two years prior, along with the adjoining kitchen. They had put in new appliances, cupboards, backsplash, flooring, and purchased new furniture for the breakfast nook and living room. The table was made of a composite material, and the parsons chairs and sofa were both upholstered with cloth. Composites and textiles are notorious sources of carcinogenic indoor air pollution. My sister-in-law has a LEED certification for her interior design business, but I don't think that her parents ever worry about asking her what she knows about those things. Or maybe it's like Bert and I, feeling like the natural alternatives are too pricey. I remember being shocked at the cost of marmoleum when I was looking for flooring for the studio. That's why I ended up using concrete stain and wax sealant.


At least this time they had not put in new carpet. I don't know if it is because I begged them, or because they didn't have the money. Instead, they put in new hardwood, which had to be sealed, and I have learned that most of the hardwood floor sealants are large sources of trichloroethylene (TCE) which was on the list for the EPA to ban, but was downgraded due to politics. TCE is ubiquitous.

 

Now, knowing everything I know, I also know that they tried to entertain too many people in their small space for the lack of air circulation they had. In commercial spaces, careful calculations are made to bring fresh air based on occupancy rates. My in-laws regularly had 10+ people in their small space when we had get togethers. People exhale VOCs and CO2, so over time this builds up in an enclosed space. My inlaws have baseboard heat, so the air is pretty stagnant. Even my house, which has larger gathering spaces and forced air ventilation would not be able to accommodate that many people for that long. I shudder to think about all the gatherings that are going on in people's poorly ventilated homes during coronavirus.


I’m not actually sure my meters would pick up whatever is causing the health issues at their home. I went and tested them at my friend Jane’s house in early March. She renovated much of her home about six years ago, and they read like they do at my house. After the short visit to her home, I ended up having all the symptoms of going to our relatives, and I don’t have them in my own home. In fact, even with the problems with Sal in my own home, I am recovering a lot of language and cognition I had lost in the past years. So maybe it is a reaction to something that is not a VOC or formaldehyde, but is common to newer construction. It could be POPs (persistent organic pollutants), or perhaps they used some of that toxic Chinese drywall, but I don’t think they used much sheetrock in their latest projects.


My inlaws had both suffered from unexplained seizures one winter after they painted, and I do not know if she or he have a genetic predisposition to those. But I do know that Bert had an unexplained seizure the year we remodeled my studio, and all we did was paint the walls and stain the concrete floor! We didn’t use construction adhesives or new cabinetry, and we didn’t purchase any new furniture for the space, except some steel shelving. Oh, and the rolly drawer cart from that big Swedish place. We had gotten a new furnace in 2014, about a year before we did the floor in my studio. The furnace was not high efficiency, because of the venting problem we have due to the placement of the utility room, and concerns about creating an orphaned water heater situation. Retrofitting solutions can be a little frustrating, but with everything I know about toxins and sustainability, I am glad we don't live in a new house, and I don't imagine ever doing that again. I read Sandra Steingraber's books about environmental illness when we lived in our new home in the southern part of the state and Henry was little, and so I wasn't clueless about these things. It was just hard to know if the fear she was writing about was warranted until I saw the effects for myself and was able to tie them to the meters. VOCs and formaldehyde often coexist with other harmful chemicals which are more persistent, so as long as they're not produced from the yeast in bread dough (yeast farts!) or legged-animal farts, they're worth considering as clues to sources of toxins in the home. Certainly it puts a lot more power in consumers' hands over their own health to remove sources of toxins, rather than visiting the doctor all the time who has to rely on insurance industry standards of care and pharmaceutical solutions, without the critical knowledge of
what's going on in a person's home. The EPA has guidelines for doctors to be on the lookout for environmental illness, but I'm pretty sure none of the doctors I have had in Northern Colorado have read them.


One of my kids developed terrible allergies after we painted their room. Bert thought it was the stain on the bunk bed, but I had read a study that low-VOC paint like what we used in our kids’ rooms contains polyethylene glycol, which is associated with elevated rates of asthma in children when used in their bedrooms. The bunk bed had been used, so I wasn’t totally convinced it was the problem, but Bert was convinced that it smelled funny. So we got rid of the bunk bed and I went to the big Swedish place and got a bedroom set that was made with mostly wood. But it wasn’t all wood and had plenty of composite materials, too. I really wanted something that would allow for storage but was made of natural materials, and nothing ever came up locally.


My kid has also had sleep difficulties ever since we painted the rooms. It takes him a long time to fall asleep; he says he has issues with not being able to quiet his mind. In the morning he has a really difficult time waking. I remember when Henry was little and we had that newly constructed house, we would take naps together every day, and when I would wake up, I would feel really awful, like I needed to go back to sleep right away. But of course I was the parent of a small person, so I needed to wake up. I was getting plenty of sleep at night, so it wasn’t due to lack of sleep. But these sleep difficulties have made getting up early for things really difficult for him. I have been opening the window in the morning so he can have some fresh air, and that seems to be helping. We have really not been feeling well since last week. The VOC levels in the house have averaged over 600ppb since September 15, and only in recent days have they lowered to under 300ppb since we have been able to open the windows again. All of us are having difficulty sleeping.


The chemicals did not just affect us humans, like I said. One year I remodeled the laundry room with the help of our male relative, and during the process, my dog became very sick with liver disease and eventually she was so sick that she could not get out to the yard and I had to carry her. We ended up having to euthanize her just a short time after we finished the project. Our relatives have a little black puppy, or at least the dog was a puppy when all this remodeling started. She was under two years old. Her face became grey the year they remodeled, and she was having a lot of health problems. The female relative thought maybe it had to do with the deck stain they had applied, or the detergent that her visiting son had used, but the dog’s face had greyed before either of those things had happened.


Now that I think of it, I know a lot of people who have chronic illness or cancer and who live in newer homes, or like to paint their walls. I know quite a few families with kids who have chronic illness or attention issues who live in new or remodeled homes, too, actually.


Come to think of it, my friend Fleur lived in a big new house that she had designed herself. She was an engineer or a scientist or something. She was even trying to make it environmentally friendly and had geothermal and passive solar heating. She had a daughter about the same time as I had Lily. But around the time Lily turned two, Fleur’s daughter was diagnosed with Leukemia. She ended up recovering, thank goodness.


When Lily was only 9 months old, a few days before her well check, I had given her some tap water in a sippy cup, because she was going through a growth spurt and wouldn’t eat solid food, and I was exhausted from all her nursing. At her well check appointment, the doctor noticed she looked a little blue, and thought she might be anemic. When the nurse took her blood, it was brown. The nurse thought it was odd, but didn’t take any action on it. She simply gave the numeric results of the test to the pediatrician, who then prescribed iron for Lily.


Our health problems had been so strange living in that new home. Henry ended up developing sensory integration issues, and I had a lot of fatigue, so I took us both to a holistic MD who was covered by our insurance. Recently, I made the connection that I develop sensory issues when Sal has backdrafted. That doctor wanted to know everywhere I had lived in the past, so he could try to understand the environmental factors that may have been affecting my health. After seeing him, I became interested in environmental pollution, and discovered that there were large releases of nitrate into the air less than a mile from our home. Actually, the facility that released the nitrate was about halfway between our house and Fleur’s, and this was right around the time that medical science was linking nitrate exposure to childhood leukemia, but through hot dogs.


I remember the horror I felt when Lily told her pediatrician that her favorite food was hot dogs. I remember quickly responding that they were the naturally cured ones, and then discovering that celery was extremely high in nitrate and used to cure hot dogs. Naturally cured meats just have a broader spectrum of nitrates than just sodium nitrate. Hmm. I was concerned about sodium erythorbate, but it actually is a man-made antioxidant which prevents the formation of nitrosamines, which can be carcinogenic.


Now, the part I forgot to include about Lily is that I researched tap water and breastfed babies, and there was information to not give exclusively breastfed babies tap water, because their digestive systems still contain largely bifidus bacteria, rather than lactobacillus, and the bifidus bacteria actually react with any nitrate in tap water causing a condition called “blue baby syndrome” or methemoglobinemia. Henry had been cyanotic in the hospital when he was born, and the nurse who caught it didn’t do a differential diagnosis, she just warned me not to nurse him lying down.


Anyway, I mean to bring this all back to my mood issues. Any sort of volatile organic compound (and alcohol is a VOC) interferes with mitochondrial oxidation of glucose, and thus, glucose utilization by the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain. It is why alcohol causes impaired judgment, slurred speech, and poor memory. Different VOCs affect the brain for different amounts of time, and in varying levels. We have had a debate around here about if methane from a dog fart is as bad as other VOCs. I have been trying to explain that methane is methane, whether it is from a dog butt or a cow butt or gasoline. With gasoline, there are going to be a lot of other VOCs, too. It's true what they say, the dose makes the poison. And actually, when I finally made the connection between how we felt after visiting our relatives, I looked up the symptoms for sniffing glue, and there is a come down, which happens about two days later, and I kind of wonder if that’s what we were experiencing. Toluene can cause these kinds of symptoms, and it is in many adhesives.


If so, that’s not a good thing, and it really makes me worry about our relatives. I don’t know what they can do, or if they plan to do anything. I communicated all these concerns to them, and they stopped talking to me. I understand they have a lot of money invested, but this is more important than money, especially with the wildfires and COVID. Maybe they just don’t know what to say. Straightforward conversation has never been their forte. Maybe they are worried that I will sue them, but I don’t do things like that. I just want everyone to be happy and healthy, and I understand that people make mistakes, and even that I just happen to have become the unwitting discoverer of a potential health hazard in the home that nobody knew about before. I guess we could call it "subclinical backdrafting" since there was never any evidence of carbon monoxide poisoning.


I feel like I need to share this with people right now because for a long time I would get winded so easily just walking up the stairs, and as I have discovered the various sources of exposure and managed or eliminated them, my respiratory capacity is getting better, even though I haven’t exercised much.



*****


Dot puts down her pen and takes another toke on the vape. She had gone most of the week without it, not even missing it. But, it was Friday, and she felt the need to journal. This stuff was weighing heavily on her heart. She felt like it was stuff the world needed to know about. But she also felt like she was sitting on some big dirty secret that could get her into trouble with corporations. She didn’t fancy herself an Erin Brokovich. Just a protector of brains and life in general. She had once told a friend that kindness was more important than intelligence, but she was really beginning to wonder.


The coronavirus was bringing out a lot of strange behaviors in people. She heard about health care providers writing prescriptions for family members irresponsibly. She heard of a bar in a neighboring town which stopped serving food, but was selling drinks to patrons who were then congregating in the parking lot. And one of Lily’s friends’ moms turned out to be consuming content from a major right wing conspiracy group, and believing it. And then, of course, there was the President, who was probably suffering from the worst case of affluenza. How much of the world's craziness was due to chemicals?


When she looks back on all the crap she learned in high school, it’s a wonder Dot can think at all. Certainly the chemical exposure didn’t help.

Saturday, September 26, 2020

A Life of Illusion: Chapter 4: Five Raccoons in a Trenchcoat

Dot’s Journal, Earth Date 20.09.09


It seems to me that what is “right” is almost always an illusion, because the writings on these matters, by virtue of time-space, are always written from lower states of consciousness.


If consciousness is evolving, then the information pulled from it in the past becomes quickly out of date. So, our ideas of what is moral and just are always out of date. It means that we, as human beings, are all responsible for finding new ways to exist peacefully.


I often wonder about how, as human beings, we value some types of work over others, and how that inherently causes divisiveness. Why do we value certain jobs more than others? Right now the stock person at the grocery store does a lot more for me personally than the chairman of Goldman Sachs, for example. Whose job is more important right now to the rest of society, I wonder? The stock person, or a certain CEO?


How do our senators consider people with dirty coats, I wonder?


I can’t help but think about values that a certain dictator who felt he had the best version of the Bible (where the last went last) would say about certain people. Some people, like him, who call themselves Christians think that because they are “saved” that they will be saved from the virus, too. This is because they are afraid to admit that they are no better than anyone else, because they have been made to believe it is shameful to be imperfect, and to fear shame above everything else. They’re the sheeple everyone talks about, and they can’t even see it. They just keep mindlessly propagating psychological trauma in everyone around them because they can’t handle shame.


Sometimes I wonder about how a family’s energy may have changed when the first person brought someone new in by marriage due to shame being largely enforced by family units. Would it be weird having that person around more often? I have been thinking about these things a lot because Bert and I have been watching Love on the Spectrum and Indian Matchmaking. Maybe it was a family that used to walk around naked. I think my mom was often embarrassed at the way we kept house when I was growing up, and also that my dad liked to sit around in his underwear. Maybe they were all kind of quiet like we were, and maybe this new person was a little boisterous. I know my dad needed a lot of quiet after work. Maybe it was difficult to know how to relate to this new person. These two shows show how ego gets in the way of enjoying life. In the Indian Matchmaking show, the ego is expressed as narcissism and judgment of others, and in Love on the Spectrum, it is expressed as depression and anxiety. I think if depression and anxiety persist long enough in a person, they can become narcissism and judgment of others. I think we need to really worry about depression anxiety and what their causes are. I think there are a lot of causes.


But what if this person was treated just like one would treat anyone else at church?


If it is difficult to behave that way outside the context of church or family, everyone else has become an “other.”


How do we, in this fractured society, redeem ourselves?


Let’s turn to Neptune for some answers.


*****


Dot takes a shower in her studio bathroom, and when she emerges, she quickly dons her old clothing, and makes sure to put on the socks she accidentally left over by the window, because it is chilly. She looks out the window and notices a cold front coming in. The window is left open just a crack for Bertha.


Bertha is Dot and Bert’s furnace. When Dot had discovered that her illness was probably related to chemical exposure, she did some research to find out what the most common chemical exposures indoors were, and they turned out to be volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and formaldehyde (HCHO). And, she learned that she could buy some relatively inexpensive meters that would measure these things. Some of them were even bluetooth enabled. However, she also discovered that this industry was relatively new, and that there was no regulated validation criteria for the metering technology. It would be exceedingly difficult, actually, to check the results on a device because VOCs and HCHO are both constituents of air vapor, which is subject to the laws of fluid dynamics. Thus, values at a single location are constantly fluctuating over space-time and are influenced by values at neighboring locations, depending on flow. Nonetheless, Dot was curious and a little desperate, and wanted to try them. Bert had actually been talking about designing such a device, so she knew he wouldn’t mind her doing a little market research, and indeed, he was of the same opinion.


She bought two meters, one made in Korea which measures VOCs, CO2 and particulates. It could either be carried personally, or plugged in to monitor a room, and flashes a light when any of the values becomes unhealthy. The other meter was made in the United States and measures HCHO and TVOC. According to the Berkeley Lab,


“The term TVOC refers to the total concentration of multiple airborne VOCs present simultaneously in the air. TVOC methods do not measure all VOCs in the air, but a subset of VOCs that are expected to be present. Measuring TVOC concentrations is less expensive than measuring the concentrations of many individual VOCs. However, there are two main limitations to TVOC measurements. First, different TVOC measurement methods can yield substantially different TVOC concentrations and the differences between measurement methods will depend on the mixture of VOCs present. Secondly, the toxicity and the odor thresholds of individual VOCs within the VOC mixture may differ by orders of magnitude; therefore, the total concentration is not likely to provide a useful measure of total toxicity or total odor level.”


She found a table listing levels of concern for TVOCs in the home, office, and production settings, as well as a table for formaldehyde based on various health effects (taken from the website where the quote above was found). Even though she hasn’t figured out how all the different sensors work, the family has found value in knowing when there is a significant change in the values of VOCs, and formaldehyde tends to correlate with that, rarely appearing on its own. She knew that these things were normal components of living things at low levels, because they were the normal metabolic breakdown products. Some ways of living and eating can increase them, making some people more sensitive to them. That is Dot’s professional observation. There is some murkiness around the idea of whether VOCs and formaldehyde detected from “natural sources” are dangerous, but Dot believes it all has to do with total body burden. Some people are drawn to sources of VOC and formaldehyde exposure like flies to a lightbulb, Dot has noticed. She thinks that is because of the temporary high they give.


This would prove to be the beginning of a strange odyssey. Eventually the Sailors would end up getting a system that monitored each of the floors of their home. One of Dot’s friends was spot monitoring different areas in her home, and they were all learning about other indoor air quality efforts going on around the world and even in their home state. Dot and her friend were finding correlations in their well-being and the well-being of their family members based on the indoor air quality. There was new news all the time in relation to effects on respiratory and nervous system health. They wondered how many other people they knew were affected by these things. Dot had been involved in the community for many years, and had spoken with many people about health issues, and saw a lot of patterns. She wondered if physicians were seeing the same patterns.


*****


The Sailor family had a lot of wildlife come through their yard over the years. They had seen turkeys, elk, bears, rattlesnakes, rabbits, hawks, owls, ducks, geese, squirrels, and once they found the tracks of what they thought to be five raccoons.


Right now there is a grackle making a fuss outside, and earlier in the morning she heard the call of a mallard. The grackle has silenced, and Bertha has kicked on.


When Dot originally got her meters in the late winter of 2020, she spent a lot of time casually sampling the air in her studio, while performing her usual activities. She found that the VOC and TVOC values moved around a lot. Especially in the morning, they could get really high. Well, what constitutes “really high” is relative, of course. On average the readings in the house weren’t particularly high, but were maybe of concern for how much time they spent there.


Not sure how much concern was warranted, she decided to start researching the health effects of VOCs and formaldehyde, and what she found was very concerning.


So, she decided to investigate further when she would find a rise and a fall in the numbers, and she found that the rise would come shortly after Bertha’s blower fired up, and it was most pronounced in the morning. She started experimenting with opening windows, and that helped the levels in the whole house lower. She began to notice a correlation between how she was feeling and the numbers on the meters, and worried that it could be psychosomatic. But then, she had the idea to make a note of how she was feeling before turning on the meter, and when she did that, the correlation was even more apparent. Furthermore, she noticed when she would put a fan in the window to vent her studio, the levels would get really high. This made no sense to her.


She had a service person come check her home for carbon monoxide just before Christmas, and none was found. She did that because her symptoms were a lot like carbon monoxide poisoning, which she had once before. Upon doing some research, she did find that under the right circumstances, chimney flue gasses can be pulled back into a home, if a vacuum is created in the home through bathroom and stove fans, or if there is competition for oxygen from other nearby gas appliances. There are other conditions which can cause exhaust gas backdrafting, too, and that is why it is recommended to have the chimney swept every few years. Evidence of water heater flue backdrafting can be melted plastic water output grommets. Dot's were melted, but she didn't know when or under what circumstances, so she had the idea to put some plastic milk bottle caps on top of the water heater to see if it was currently backdrafting, and under certain circumstances, it did, like when the house was all shut up and there was a lot of hot water demand, or sometimes when they ran the bathroom or stove fans, but it wasn't really predictable, because it also depended on the weather. It seemed like big fluctuations seemed to cause the problem, as it improved over the summer. Dot checked her chimneys and they were clear. Apparently, the problem may be very common, as newer homes may not have an adequate supply of oxygen for forced air heating because they are sealed too tightly. Certain modern design trends can prove deadly, too. Residential building codes, at least in the state of Colorado, are not as strict regarding calculation of fresh air as commercial building codes are. What this means is that a lot of people’s health is in jeopardy.


Specifically, respiratory health.


Even without forced air furnaces, it is important to open a window. It took Dot and Bert a long time to sort it all out after getting the meters, but they learned through the recent wildfire smoke, using the air conditioning, and just cracking windows from their new home air quality monitoring system that spaces can become high in both VOCs and CO2 from normal things like the exhalation of the breath of people (which is no less toxic than the surrounding air they regularly consume). There were some discrepancies in reporting of accuracies of formaldehyde sensors based on their ability to pick up formaldehyde in fruit, but formaldehyde is a natural byproduct of the metabolism of living organisms, and is toxic in excess amounts no matter what the origin. It is the same molecule. The trick is in understanding what a reasonable amount of intervention is.


Dot and Bert hadn’t thought about moving before, but the Front Range had become incredibly toxic from the methane emissions from the oil and gas industry, and Dot was pretty sure that was affecting most people she knew at some level from the patterns she noticed when she was spending a lot of time at the community college in the next town where there is a lot of fracking. Nobody else seemed to see the connection, except the Physicians for Social Responsibility.


*****


Dot cut her own hair for the first time over Christmas. When she did it, she was really high, but it came out a lot like how the stylist did it. So, a few days ago, she decided to give it another go. Part of her regular routine involves self care. Besides meditation, she will sometimes do the sauna. She likes to do yoga in the morning, as it helps her be calm and centered. She likes to read. She likes to listen to books and music and make art. She does her own facials and manicures. She has discontinued painting her nails because of the adverse health effects. She journals. She journals about interesting things she learns, and she communicates with friends. Although, she hasn’t seen her friends in a really long time. Like since before last Thanksgiving.


At first it was really hard. Actually, now that she thinks of it, Dot went through a grieving process for each of her relationships. Every single one of them. Because, she honestly didn’t know if she was going to get well enough to see some people, especially under the context of their typical visits. The first people she kind of gave up were the heavy drinkers. Drinking alcohol left her feeling sad and she would wake up with supraventricular tachycardia, which was scary. She ended up having a full medical workup because of this and learning that she had a heart murmur. The next thing she gave up was people who wanted to eat out all the time. A lot of restaurant food made Vincent come out when she didn’t have time for him. Plus it was expensive, and made it difficult to plan grocery purchases. This pretty much killed her social life, because that’s all anyone ever wanted to do. Then, she discovered that she can’t go into newly constructed homes. And that had whittled it down to nearly nobody. She didn’t heal enough before the pandemic to entertain guests, unfortunately.


The Sailors like to play board games, listen to podcasts and music, watch shows, and cook together. They have several interesting discussions every day. For instance, because Bert, Lily and now Henry all decided to learn how to play the guitar. Henry finished a year of circuits class and has written his own midi controller, and likes to play with soundwaves. They are discussing how they might invent a new instrument.


Dot liked to record herself and play medleys in her spare time, and had done some music composition with MIDI, her apple computer, and her keyboard as a teenager for her AP Music Theory class. As a surprise, she purchased a wireless mic setup, and the kids enjoyed playing with it. She learned the Two Trucks song, and Weird Al’s SPAM song from them. She has been enjoying singing karaoke songs on YouTube, and recalling her days in choir and chorus and drama club. She has always had a fascination with becoming a lounge singer, so sometimes when she can’t sleep, she comes down to her studio, turns the lights down low, and sings, until she needs to go back to sleep.


Anyway, Henry has been making some wonderfully uplifting music mixes. He seems to have a real knack as a musician, but doesn’t know how to learn the fundamentals on his own. There was an educational software package which taught music theory for elementary aged kids back when Henry and Lily were little, but she can’t remember what it was or if she still has it. She collects old media, especially things she remembers from her childhood. It has been helpful, when the energy in the collective is heavy, to disconnect from mass media and enjoy a favorite old movie or TV series, make and do stuff. To them, that was Disneyland. Dot had noticed that when the moon moved into a water sign, people became really emotional, and that the news cycle was usually reflective of that. The people who were around her who had a lot of water in their charts seemed especially sensitive to it. A few years earlier she began putting music on, singing and dancing around her studio during that time, and she called it “surfing.” It worked miracles for her mood.


Dot had read on the internet that people’s anxiety due to the pandemic was impacting their libido in one of two ways, either increasing or decreasing, and for Dot and Bert there was an increasing need to connect. Dot believes it is because of the biochemistry of it all, that sexual pleasure is actually pro-metabolic and anxiolytic due the release of oxytocin and dopamine. Also, there was enough scientific evidence to suggest that a normal amount of sex for chimpanzees, oranguans and bonobos was daily. Humans, of course, have varying levels of need, and nobody is entitled to sex, but more sex seems to help Dot’s cognition. She thinks this is related to the clearing of cellular debris from the brain and may involve the recently discovered lymphatic system.


In all seriousness, Dot understands that there are a lot of people out there who aren’t sure what to do while quarantined. This is a scary time, too. A lot of us are kind of battle worn. Some people have never had to be with kids all day. That’s scary! Some people know what it’s like to be with kids all day and are still scared of the scenario. And then being worried about getting sick, or worried about a paycheck on top of it? This is like an unprecedented level of fear we are facing as a human species, and we are going to have to be creative with how we battle it. The old ways of battling fear with fear aren’t going to work anymore. We must battle fear with logic and transparency. Our future depends on it.


Writing has been an important way into Dot’s self for examination of her thoughts and behaviors. By writing in the third person, she has found it is easier for her to identify logical fallacies and areas of her reasoning that need closer inspection. It helps her identify the ways in which she self sabotages, and helped her grow to see possibilities where she once saw obstacles. It helped her find her sense of humor again, and find gratitude amidst all the pain. Many people are going to have some big challenges, which will require a lot of reflection and self compassion, so Dot thinks it’s important to take time to inventory one’s thoughts.


Dot did a lot of things she did because at some point someone made her think it was important, but really it just sidetracked her doing things that would help her blossom into the best version of herself. Writing down what she did and how she felt afterward helped her become aware of how things impacted her energy for other things. The resulting knowledge helped her enjoy her life better.


Dot thinks this is a time when we all need to be sure to take some time to breathe, rest, and remember what’s important. It’s true that our country has a weak safety net, and we don’t know if it will still be there after the dust from this all settles. Mindful behavior is imperative. We have to relearn how to care for ourselves.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Beds Are Burning

America has been living under the dark shadow of greed and materialism, and it was something so dangerously close to me that it threatened to swallow me whole. Over the past few years I have felt a little bit like Mrs. Brisby, trying to move her home and children to a safer location, but the move I wanted wasn’t physical, just philosophical. They say you can judge the people you know by the company they keep, and we weren’t keeping good company. We spent all our time with the cast and crew of Modern Family, figuratively speaking, and it was, as they say, no bed of roses.


I think the most dangerous thing about the show is its failure to demonstrate how much effort and money it takes to keep up the visage. In the show, there is a symbolic nod to this in that Jay Pritchett’s business is selling closets. Like my own extended family, the Pritchetts were business people who didn’t consider the downstream effects of their lifestyle or actions; maintaining the visage was, it often seemed, their only concern.


At one point or another, all of us in the family have been small business owners, and at this time, only Mitchell has a traditional job, only he is not an attorney, he is in tech. Jay is actually an amalgamation of my parents-in-law and on some level, and I feel like we were the Dunphys, trying to impress Jay and his wife (who he didn’t know how to love, only shower with gifts), to no avail. On television, Jay was an evolved version of Archie Bunker, who had evolved from poor to a man who had made it and finally had some modicum of freedom through building a name for himself.


What nobody talks about is how building the name becomes so poisonous.


Right now, the United States is at a turning point. The plebes have realized that the greed and hate engendered by wealth is a problem, and that it is keeping us from moving forward together as a society in peace. Those who are financially okay are in a powerful place to vote with their actions, and I can think of no better way than to be wary of aiding and abetting the wrong people. My Pritchetts considered themselves progressive, and as far as I know from dinner table conversations, that is how they voted. They were model citizens, and prided themselves on it. But they got their money through working with racist and conservative companies like Hobby Lobby, rental property management companies, and homebuilders in the Southern US, and those companies are still an important part of their revenue stream.


I was acutely aware for years of how my own associations with them drained my energy, fed into my distrust of others, and made me afraid to speak my mind. The major way their business and family-over-community lifestyle poisoned the family is that everyone learned to speak out of two sides of their faces, and would never go public with how they really felt about any policies that might be supported by their customers. I have been nervous to speak on some level as well, not for their approval, but because it is strange to say these things about people my children have spent so much time with. I have had tremendous fear of speaking about these things my husband and I have discussed at length for the psychological damage it would cause to my kids. But the Universe has been kind and brought me many other people living under the shadow of that sort of censorship and narcissism, and has also showed me the addiction and pain that springs from it in the children of these families.


Much like the television Pritchetts, our Pritchetts liked to eat in fancy restaurants. They prided themselves on having three cousins (who they rarely saw) in the high end restaurant industry. I have wondered if they ever discussed the darker side of the restaurant industry with those cousins. Several years ago I met a mother of small children whose cocaine addiction started while working in restaurant kitchens. Many high pressure industries supported by the upper middle class have increased rates of employee addiction. Something I have noticed about the Pritchetts is that they are largely ignorant of the inequities in the industries that support their lifestyle, and this is only one example. They rarely step out of the silo they have created with their nuclear families and business contacts, so they don’t understand or even care for people less fortunate than themselves. I was actually friends with one of the wait staff in his 20s at a restaurant we would go to, and this friend would never say anything bad about his employers, but I know they did not pay him enough. I know this because he has had two jobs and not been able to make it on his own. He has been a good friend to us, and I have suspected that there have been people who have distanced themselves from us because of our association with him due to his poverty. My own family has expressed interest in helping, but there is only so much they can help.


In terms of the matter of certain industries having problems with addiction, I have had the opportunity to get to know people (mostly Millennials) in the salon industry fairly well. This is an industry which is driven by client anxiety, and my salon friends have told me some pretty horrific stories about entitled clients, and the scheduling gyrations they have to do to prevent cat fights in the salon, or having too many high-maintenance clients on the same day. Uniformly, the salon artists I know struggle with great levels of anxiety. One of my friends has to vape CBD continually during work hours, and another one developed, after a car accident, more dangerous addictions. I was told that my stylists would actually schedule me in as a palate cleanser, and I know a few other clients of theirs who were probably also used in this fashion because of their easygoing natures.


I had not cut my own hair until last winter when I was ill and couldn’t go to the salon, at the encouragement of my wise friend. For me, salon visits began when my kids were little as an escape from my house. I started going to the particular stylist’s salon I have “frequented” years ago when she was an employee in another salon. People tend to tell me stuff, and she told me about the unfair working practices at the salon she was at, and that she wanted to start her own salon. I found her interesting because she liked to read young adult fiction, and would tell me good things to read to the kids. We talked a lot about media over the years. She is a very talented stylist, and I often just let her do whatever she wanted, because we became friends. I understood why she became a stylist, some of which was to express herself as an artist, and I understand what it is like to be an artist, and how your art can become torture when it all becomes about commission. What was exceptionally strange about this is that nearly every woman I met wanted to know where I got my hair done. The question elicited anxiety for me, because I didn’t want people to know how much it cost to have my hair done because I thought it would make me look vain, and the only reason I care about that stuff at all is because of mirrors, actual and metaphorical. When I am alone, I don’t care about these things. People treated me differently, however, and having to be with other people, one wants to bring the mood up, not down. When I hung out with other homeschooling mothers, nobody really cared about that stuff. It was a transition I made because I was around young people more. This was a departure from the moopy character that I think people saw before. Anyway, long story short, I became friends with one of the other stylists, and connected with her better, and switched to her a few years ago.


Some of this is because my other friend, the owner, changed a lot in ways I found uncomfortable to address, but that negatively affected my salon experience, and was due to some significant hypocrisy on her part. Specifically, this amounted to becoming a mother, yet using the privilege of extended family resources to justify voting against policies to help working mothers. She had been raised in a conservative family with conservative values, and the new stylist was much more like-minded. I suppose what I could say about that friendship is that we are similar sorts of heathens, and it’s nice to find your heathens. But anyway, because of the stresses on her as a businessperson and as a mother, her work was more rushed and she was dropping a lot of balls. Seeing her was no longer the enjoyable experience it had been. It made me wonder if I was enabling something bad by using her services, because she was becoming kind of toxic from thinking she could do it all (and I resemble that comment). She and her husband were conservative Millennials who didn’t want to be saddled with the debt of higher education, and who together devised plans to have careers that could support the family they wished to have together. It was really quite intelligent, and I had hopes that the cheerfulness and connection she had with her clients was reflective of a good plan, but it turns out children take a lot of energy, and extended family gets tired, too.


I think it is a burden on families that we do not provide for children and parents better as a society, and that it creates unhealthy codependency in families and totalitarian matriarchs. Claire Dunphy is not the most obvious totalitarian matriarch, but that is what she is. She is Jay’s little girl, still trying to get Jay’s love, but Jay doesn’t know how to love.


Something else that struck me that might not have been apparent to other people watching the show, was how the families of Gloria, Cam and Phil were marginalized and looked down upon for being poor. Family allegiance and get-togethers were so important to the Pritchetts that Gloria, Cam and Phil are constantly disconnected from who they are. There are a few episodes that show the more heart-centered family dynamics they had, which were startling in comparison to the Pritchett’s wealth-centered life. This is a dynamic that was repeated in my family. Those of us who have married into the Pritchett family have lost connection with our own.


Moreover, the family functioned mostly as a unit to try to siphon money off other people. Much of their discussions revolved around concocting business schemes, which was also a departure from the sorts of discussions I used to have with my family as a kid. When I grew up, we talked more about things like science, religion, and what it means to be human. I don’t recall the Dunphys or the Pritchetts entertaining such discussion, and if we did have discussions like that, they couldn’t be sustained very long. They didn’t value love very much, and spent a lot of time cutting themselves and the people around them down subtly with blind societal value judgments around weight, country of origin, socioeconomic status, floor plan, brand names, fridge color, length of pant, color of baseboard, religion, and other nonsense. They made judgments about the types of people I associated with fairly regularly. It was a total waste of life, and the energy I used to have to spend with my kids became vaporized. They concerned their precious minds with these inane things while people around the world and in our own backyards were starving. I have not known them to be the type of people to do something big out of the kindness of their hearts for unknown fellow humans. If that were to suddenly happen, I would feel a lot better.


There was a culture in the family cemented around binge drinking, and it was made “okay” through the perceived social value of the particular alcohol consumed. No Montezuma Tequila for these people, or for many other people I have associated with. Alcoholism is definitely a thread, and not something they want to admit. There are at least three people in the family who drink every time we are together, like it is a reflex. When I met my in-laws, they often said, “It’s four o’clock somewhere!” while pouring themselves a drink. I didn’t think much of it when I was young, except that my own parents had been teetotalers. These parents didn’t hit their children like my parents did, and so I started to question my parents’ avoidance of alcohol. My parents cited abusive life with alcoholic fathers as their reason for avoiding alcohol. What I had to learn is that the sort of abuse created through binge drinking is not always the physical kind, and that doesn’t make it less bad. Our Jay actually has kids of his own who all struggle with addiction and anger issues and who have been cast out by my mother-in-law. They had a little culture and even ritual around red wine, and that came from three family members having some interest in either investment and collection or sommelier training. I sometimes wonder how many alcoholics subconsciously justify their red wine habits because of the church’s equation of it with the blood of Christ. That, to most people, is superior. Personally, I don’t need Christ to die for me, just give me a little mouth to mouth (I’ll take the Breath of Christ! Ha!). My in-laws view their own vices as better than others’, but it turns out that science has now linked binge drinking to decreased levels of empathy. My own understanding of the cognitive effects of alcohol grew significantly when I made the connection that the areas of the brain which are first to lose metabolism under toxic and stressful conditions are those involved in empathy, executive function, and language processing. This would explain the self-critical and xenophobic behaviors engendered in much of society. Like, maybe we’re all a little drunk some of the time, as a society, and that’s why we’re so stupid with respect to living in peace.


In some ways I was Claire, and in some ways that honor goes to other members of our family. Claire’s home always looked like it was ready for sale, and as a person who reads books, has hobbies, volunteers, and has children, that was never possible for me. The interior of my home was never an important source of validation for me; I always just wanted to be comfortable. I think I have learned a lot about what those two different things are through feeling brave enough to use my own vision to decorate my home in my very own way. A friend helped me make sense of it. We tried to help each other out over the years. She was an interior designer who was thrown away by her industry when her health failed and who has become a writer. She has also been incredibly brave in telling her story, and I have been privileged to see her process and struggle. The world is cruel.


For a long time, I had my in-laws’ cast-off prints, which were images that were meaningful to them. I know I paint a mean picture of them, but they just got confused by big business and conservative family members, and I think it happens to a lot of people. I think we were just the unfortunate poster children for the struggle many Americans face due to an illusion we kept selling ourselves. I got a lot of hand-me downs from them over the years in the form of furniture and yard tools, but notably, their collection of signed, numbered and framed prints, which had been so meaningful to them at one point. It was nice to get hand-me-downs, because we honestly couldn’t afford to buy all the things we were given as new when they were given to us. However, the truth was that it was too much stuff, and because they never read reviews, a lot of it was a burden. So we have dealt with a lot of guilt regarding whether or not to keep things that don’t serve us due to lifestyle differences or poor design. We often haven't known whether to pass them along to be a burden to someone else, or make do, and mostly what we did was make do.


The aesthetic of the inherited art was “Breckenridge Condo” which wasn’t really my family. The art evoked images from “Jay’s” old hunting days, including landscapes with geese, ducks, deer, and specifically a painting of a Labrador head floating over a lake at sunset. It was a work that had been done by an artist as a commission for Jay to remember his passed companion, or that was my understanding. But for some reason, it was still just a print, and, not one they wanted to have to maintain real estate for. I got the sense they didn’t want to see the art go outside the family because they imagined the prints to be valuable someday, so I ended up giving them back, which felt awkward. I knew the real reason I ended up with them, as I do anything, is because I hold things for their inherent meaning, and that the art had been passed along simply because it had been deemed unworthy by their interior designer daughter, the actual Claire. The psychic battles between them were hilarious; they would demand Claire’s professional opinion, free of charge (ostensibly in return for all their gracious hosting of her and her family over the years, and paying for her education), and then totally ignore it. She then felt invalidated as both a professional and their daughter. None of them could see how their use of each other was actually abuse, because they were just treating each other as they would other business people. A lot of time was spent pretending there were no hard feelings about things, when there really were. So it never dawned on me to alter the prints, or anything creative like that, because the whole situation was mired in guilt.


I knew there would be strange vibes around returning the art. If we turned down gifts, or got rid of hand-me downs, there were hard feelings, even if unspoken. I had always suspected it, and got confirmation when they thought I got rid of something it turned out they expected me to keep (and which I still have). Things were always given to me as a, “Claire doesn’t want this, and you don’t have to have it, Gloria, if you don’t want it, but it was extremely important to our family” so I have taken things thinking they might be useful, but then when I have found them not to be useful, if I get rid of them, there are hard feelings. The part that is exceptionally frustrating about this is that my in-laws keep a pretty austere home in terms of belongings, and they have vocalized judgment over my housekeeping and clutter, while simultaneously burdening me with a constant stream of incoming demands for my time and conformity.


Over the twenty-seven years I have been with my husband, his parents have owned around a dozen homes. When I met them, they worked in the real estate and architecture businesses. Their last three homes were in our home town, and were purchased in the last 8 years. Until this last home, which they may be kind of stuck in, we figured out the average length of time spent in a home was somewhere around 18-24 months. We could tell when they were about to move, because they would become different. They became negative and would complain about everything, which was usually followed by some manic expenditures on improvements that don’t matter in terms of resale. Because they had been in the industry, they prided themselves on their ability to sell quickly, and so reason could not be used with them. For one house, they had the driveway jackhammered and repoured so that it would sell quickly. In every home they lived in, they would replace all the flooring with new carpet and ceramic tile, and they would paint all the walls and much of the cabinetry. All appliances would be replaced so they were stainless steel. This might not sound like a big deal to someone who watches a lot of HGTV, but all of the materials used to do these things are incredibly toxic, and we were all being exposed to these chemicals regularly for years because they were incapable of making do, and were never satisfied with what they had. And they had no friends.


I tried to tell them over the years what a waste it was to assume that buyers would not change their design choices. My own parents have lived in the very same house since 1969, and they have watched many neighbors come and go. The sellers, in order to get the house ready for market, always remodel that home only to have a buyer rip out all the recent remodeling. I told my in-laws this, and their reaction was basically “So?” The house next door to my parents has changed hands fewer times than my in-laws have moved, so the waste on that home has been far less than my in-laws have generated during the same course of time. Plus that home is a lot smaller than the typical home they purchase. But still, they have no remorse.


So, for all this house swapping, one would think my in-laws would be fairly wealthy, right? Sadly, the reality is that they were always mortgaged well beyond their means in homes and neighborhoods that never made them happy, and when they are gone, there will be nothing left for Mitchell and Claire, or their children. It was all an illusion. In addition to their primary social contacts being their bosses, the only extended family members my mother-in-law makes an effort to keep in contact with is her extremely conservative business owner brother whose home is always getting upgrades and who always has a new car. We learned that it was all mortgaged as well, and, the big kicker with all of this is that all of the homes are under reverse mortgage, which means that when their corporate sponsored lives end, the bank will just suck up all the remnants. The more liberal side of the family who worked in education, transportation, farming, and window sales (ha!) has been somewhat estranged.


A particularly upsetting aspect of this lifestyle, to me, was all the time and brainpower that was spent on something that was such a waste, for people who gave absolutely nothing back to their community. They registered their business and their vehicles in states that would not require them to pay taxes, and followed the corporate loopholes they taught to their clients to afford them the same advantages in society. Financially, they may not have much of an existence as a couple, as they use their corporate business power to leverage as many financial advantages as they can. Much of their life strategy has been around determining expenses that could be used as a write-off, and they taught me all of this. I am certain this contributed to their isolated ways, because it is an ugly truth that wouldn’t survive the scrutiny of most US Citizens. Doing my taxes now scares the crap out of me because I worry about being given an unfair advantage.


I wish I could say that I was being over the top about the xenophobia I saw in the family, but they said overtly xenophobic things about Latinos, Black people, fat people, poor people and addicts. Everyone was an “other” to them. When Claire and her husband moved back to Colorado from Florida, they were afraid of everyone because all the winter gear “made everyone appear homeless and dangerous.” The matriarch made it clear that her family line was better than everyone else’s. The Dunphys received regular lectures about this. And if that isn’t xenophobia, I don’t know what is. Her family was from Central Kansas, and detailed histories of their family had been leather-bound years earlier, conveniently omitting any sense of shameful hardship, which was discoverable through public record, anyway. I wonder if that is a theme in other genealogies I see. I am a bone digger genealogist, who does genealogy in the interest of healing generational trauma, so I am not interested in glossing over hardship. In those rural settlements, most people have to have some sort of business, and that probably plays a role in wanting to keep hardship under wraps. And the more hardship people have had, the more quiet they want to be, because we all know what hardship can do to a person.


The family was especially classist that way, rejecting people for any sign of hardship they might have had, and failing to see the ways they personally contributed to the oppression of others through their entitlement.


I didn’t cut the cord with my in-laws sooner because of my relationship with my husband. I knew who he was apart from them, and the man I married was the one who saw all of these things in their grotesqueness when we first met, but over the years he too had been blinded by the Pritchetty-ness of it all. He kept saying just to look past their behavior, but didn’t see how it was sapping our love for each other. For years I had played the role of trying to be a peacemaker, but I didn’t understand the darkness I was up against. Part of it was trying to be a “good person” and another part of it was that I was wearing the same foggy glasses they were; I was seduced by red wine, cheese boards, aperitifs and the way these things made me feel like everything was okay, even when I could turn the news on and see the world burning. The shows they watched fed into their worldview, certainly. Back in the day they liked the current president’s public displays of abuse enough to buy a bobblehead to place on the front dash of their RV. They were Americana.


For a long time they would not have a dog, partly because dogs are hard on property, and also because Jay said he couldn’t bear losing another dog. A few years ago, they finally got another dog, and the dog has always been very sick under their care, even though they are loving owners and care for her well. I think this is probably because of their constant remodeling. Months ago, this was something I wasn’t sure was okay to say, but I have since learned of the health dangers of exposing oneself to chemicals at the levels they subjected us to, and I think it is wrong to conceal. The dog’s face aged years with the kitchen remodel, and everyone noticed it. Before this experience, I wasn’t sure what evil was, but keeping all of this inside was eating away at my soul, and that was certainly evil. Of the four adults in our family who live in Northern Colorado and spend the most time at their home, all of us have experienced problems with consciousness (three have had seizures), and early on after they bought their first house here, my daughter would lose consciousness while visiting them, which really worried me.


They paid labor, including my brother-in-law (who is Gloria, too), to do construction work for them. I have a friend who also sometimes did work for them, too. They were reasonable employers, for the most part. They gave both my brother-in-law and my friend work when economic times were difficult, but for as many man hours as my brother-in-law put into construction for them, he doesn’t have much to show for it. That’s okay, though, in their eyes, because all these remodeling efforts were good ‘ol Kansas barn-raisins’, you know? For the same people, over and over. He has done work for my side of the family, too, and my father put forth a lot more effort to make sure the arrangement was fair than they did, but neither arrangement is enough to consider his healthcare. Healthcare was a difficult issue for my other friend, too, whose income often bordered on non-qualification for government programs. As a “regular person” it is difficult to be able to pay for expensive renovation products in a way that would cover the risk to the workers’ health, and that makes me wonder if the building of structures isn’t inherently supported by the unfair use of others’ life force as we currently do it.


A big blind spot we all had, especially in my family, was around the environmental impact of travel. Our nuclear family was probably medium-level consumers of air travel, which generates a lot of carbon. The more well-to-do family members regularly traveled to places like Hawaii and Mexico, where they regularly surfed and scuba dived, which I understand contributes greatly to the death of the coral reefs. Mitchell and Cam traveled the most, owing to Cam being from overseas. Jay had several RVs over the years which got about 5-9 miles to the gallon and were exempt from emissions standards. Just owning one meant having to own or rent a place to park it, and it cost as much as a decent-sized family home, but depreciated in value. When we purchased this home, one of the considerations was that it had a hookup if they wanted to stay with us, but they only did it a few times. I think that’s probably a good thing, because whenever they were around I ended up spending a lot more money. They were always trying to get us to go on vacation with them at our own expense, and on the condition that it involved their RV, and conformed to my nephew’s school schedule. This meant that vacations had to incorporate access to locations with RV parks they deemed safe enough to stay at (no Motel 6 for these people). But they were also among the too many white people that descended upon Yellowstone during that madness. It’s a choice I would not have personally made, and decided to stay back, but my kids went. Ultimately they ended up coming back early, because my understanding is that two senior citizens who start their day at 4 am and three adolescents who end theirs at 1 am in a bus in the Wyoming heat does not Shangri-La make. Especially when RVs have major problems with formaldehyde. Duh. If they had ever bothered to understand what it was like to live with their beloved grandchildren, they would have known the idea was stupid, but they don’t show that level of interest in our lives.


The thing that gives me the most pause about all of this is that they are incapable of discussing these matters. When I wrote about white fragility being a real thing, it was because I have tried to talk about some of these things with my extended family, and they react like they are entitled to behave in these ways because God said so. This is going to sound horrible, but Jay and my mother-in-law both have recent English and German ancestry, and some real trauma they are trying to forget, and I think that it is all related. Their trauma is related to fascist, xenophobic and colonialist mindsets in their ancestors, as well as shame around health issues, and mental health issues in particular. Moreover, their business niche serves corporations that serve these same mindsets, so it is against their best interest to identify and change their behaviors, because it would mean admitting the wrong that has been committed in the name of their personal comfort.


My in-laws are not climate change deniers. They have even participated in environmental protests. They just can’t see how their lifestyle contributes to climate change. They don’t see how every resource they have to pull from the earth to support their shiny lifestyle pollutes the air and water. They don’t see how their busyness and inability to fill their boredom in ways that do not require resources or others steals from the future. I find this so strange because we did things like visit the Earth ship community in New Mexico together, and my mother-in-law owns some valuable Native American artwork. Her dream, which she has been very sad about not achieving, was to have an Earth ship and a farm someday, but she was never able to save up the energy or resources because they kept making poor investments in a lifestyle that cares nothing for the earth or its inhabitants. Maybe we need to build communities for these kinds of people to go heal from their toxic lifestyles. Or they could be temporary places people go, like a hospice, to recover. I think her goal was right, but she lost her way.


Maybe someday I will have an Earth ship, or I will live somewhere where I am not judged for the length of my grass, the cracks in my sidewalk, the bindweed in my garden, the dog fluff in the corners, the peeling caulk, the aging car paint, my cellulite, breasts, hairstyle, clothes, friends, or their their homes and attire. Or maybe, just maybe, this stranglehold that the Pritchetts have on the entire world and its resources will just fade away as we all become more aware and appreciative of differences.


*****


The strangeness of the Pritchetts was not impressed upon me until I took a trip to Southeast Asia. Streets and sewers are in disrepair in the region I visited, but there are ample shopping malls. Not only were there quite a few shopping malls, but they were full of high end merchandise that most people I know could never afford. For not much money (approximately USD$75/night it was possible for us to get a 2 BR suite at a high-end hotel. Next to the hotel was a restaurant where it was possible to get traditional Malaysian food, and while we were there eating our food, a homeless man approached us and asked us if we were from the United States. He explained that he had health problems and a big hospital bill, and asked if we could give him some spare change. He even had his hospital bill to show me, which was strange. I gave him probably USD$5 and he was really appreciative.


They say it is better now since their campus moved to the main island, but employees of the company we visit had a 1 hour commute each way to get into work. Many of the worlds’ electronics were being manufactured in this particular business park, and the problem of getting the massive number of employees to work every day on such a tiny island is probably still not solved. The amount of time everyone dedicates to work there is unhealthy already, without adding on two hours of commute each day. Nonetheless, everyone we spent time with had new cars, which was strange to me. I grew up in a family where my father only bought vehicles he could pay for in cash, and because I had made the mistake of being “car-poor” (in my father’s words) early in our marriage, I didn’t want to do it again. Our vehicles are 20, 21 and 15 years old, except for the car we bought after that trip. I have actually known a lot of people without cars, and their lives are challenged in the suburbs. Cars contribute a lot to air pollution, and so even though I have four of them, I don’t drive much. I try to optimize my routes and avoid traffic. I have wished more people would do this, and wondered what would happen. I feel like I got my answer during the shelter in place order during the pandemic.


It was strange to travel to Malaysia because class and racial divides are so much more apparent there. Three populations coexist on the island of Penang, which we visited. The ethnic Malay people are the ruling class, and govern the others. My husband was in an odd enough position to have met the Prime Minister at an awards banquet. That time was really scary because it was released on the news that there were terrorists in Kuala Lumpur. It was the first time he had traveled there and had a reliably functioning telephone, so that was a relief, because the awards ceremony he was attending was in KL during those same days. Our associations in Malaysia are mostly with ethnic Chinese people, but my husband has also gotten to know a Malay and an Iranian man fairly well through his work and travels. When we talk to the people there, we find we are not so different. We did not get to know any Indian people there, because they are relegated to the working and serving class, which was heartbreaking. There are also very few women in positions of actual power.


Early on in my metaphysical training, I used the Osho Zen Tarot cards a lot. There’s a card, I can’t remember which one, which talks about spending too much time in the dissociated state, and how the Eastern religions’ focus on that has left their people in squalor, and when I read that card, I immediately knew what it was talking about. Living in man-made bliss and fantasy all the time fosters ignorance of the reality around us. From my world travels, what I can tell you is uniformly true:  the world is composed of glittering malls, temples, churches and mansions which are ensconced in the blood of poverty.


“They” want me to talk about the problem of plastics in the environment, and how many of the products we buy end up killing wildlife because of microplastics. These can be found in our cosmetics, teabags, and also now is becoming a problem from all the clothing we purchase and discard every year. This means we need to find other ways to reuse and recycle our clothing. I’m saying “they” because I get lots of messages, and I’m still not sure where they come from. That stresses me out a little, but as I have mentioned before, I have tried to remain optimistic about whatever is going on, because there are so many potential explanations which aren’t negative. Anyway, the effect is that the content I am getting through my technology and also the natural world is fueling an internal dialogue which is helping me grow.


Furthermore, regarding the problem of plastics and the environment, last year the burden of American recycling on Asia became too much. The island of Penang had been taking a lot of it, and it’s not a very big island. They had to start turning it away. I was horrified to learn of this, and wondered if maybe it was fake news, so I asked someone I know who lives there, and he verified it was true. On the island there is a place they call “The Jetty” with homes that have been erected on stilts above the water. The homes have been there for around 300 years, so longer than the US has been a country. We got to visit the home of someone my husband works with, whose family had been living at The Jetty as long as it had been in existence. The front door entrance on the boardwalk opened to a wooden structure with a slatted floor, open in many places to the ocean. There were just a few rooms and very little furniture. Our host’s grandmother offered us a soda from the five gallon bucket she was sitting on. Everyone we met was so gracious and generous, giving even though they had so little. It mortifies me to know that we were polluting their homes with our recycling!


Many of the convenience foods we Americans rely on use palm oil, and I got to see some of the devastating effects of the palm industry first hand while in Malaysia. There is a funicular car that goes to the top of Penang Hill, where it is possible to look out to Indonesia from some spectacular gardens. The day I went, the air was thick with smoke from the fires that burn regularly in Indonesia. Furthermore, our actions as consumers affect the environment in Asia in other ways; when American companies were outsourcing labor to Asia, they often did it without thought for the environment, or the people working there. The demand for tech devices led to a tech manufacturing company in China coming up with such inhumane working conditions to satisfy American demand that they had to put nets around the roof of the facility to deter employee suicide. Everyone who owns anything technological is complicit in these peoples’ deaths, although I don’t look at my phone and think I am a cold blooded killer.

 

*****

I wrote about how I need to use cannabis for my various health issues. I learned on EndocrineWeb the other day that cannabis may be helpful for menopause, which may be what I’m dealing with. I am extremely sensitive to estrogens, and much of the modern lifestyle is inherently estrogenic due to stress hormones being easily converted to estrogen, and also the estrogenic effects of many of the products we consume. My health issues are definitely worse when I am feeling anxiety, and my anxiety and estrogen exposure are much greater with the Pritchett lifestyle. I’d like to get far, far from it, because I can feel that toxicity inside myself. What kind of lifestyle do I think would give me less anxiety? Well, a few years ago I read Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Sacred Trickery and The Way of Kindness, and I think it outlines a beautiful way of being that is both wise and sensitive and honors women’s sexual needs, which often go unmet. I guess, if I wanted people to really “see” another way, that’s the book I would recommend.


I think the most dangerous thing about the Pritchetts is how easily they are controlled by shame. The real danger in shame is that people can be manipulated by others who wield shame against them, so we really don’t want our politicians to be people who are overly concerned with their image. It’s better for them to be uncloseted. The Pritchetts always had a lot of negative things to say about the places they had lived before, and I’m pretty sure they couldn’t see the ocean through the holes in the floor. I learned a lot about this through real estate shopping with them. They made the neighborhoods they lived before sound unpleasant. My husband and I drove around his old haunts last year one day, because they had owned four homes together before I met him, and I had not seen the two of them they always talked so badly about. They seemed like safe neighborhoods, and my husband said they were nicer than he remembered . I honestly think they were running away from their own karma all that time, and maybe the chemicals and missed connections, too. It has made me see that as what many people do when they move, although some people just don’t have a choice because corporations regularly discard their community members..


I come from a long line of make-do stay-putters. That has its own problems, but is much more sustainable, and forces one to be creative in solving interpersonal issues, and less obsessed with maintaining appearances. My parents have expressed that as they have come to get to know some of their friends better over the last 45 years or so, they were all dealing with the same insecurities. I get hints from other people that they are, too. Making relationships work involves a lot of knowing when to let things be. I think this is easier in the inner city in some ways, as privileged people aren’t always good at solving conflict due to fear of losing their privileges. There’s a lot more space for privilege outside the city, that’s for sure, but I wouldn’t vilify all of suburbia. Cities definitely have worse problems with crime, and I have often thought that is because the people who struggle to make it often can’t because the economic divides are so much greater due to the effects of gentrification. Privileged people, in trying to maintain their privilege, typically rely on law enforcement to solve their conflicts, whether or not it is the moral thing to do. The more likely it is that real estate is going to be threatened, the more likely the privileged will cry “wolf.” The colonialist concept of real estate has reinforced the classist idea that some people’s work entitles them to more space to be. It’s white men like Jay Pritchett who have been deciding that making closets is worth more than opening windows who have been deciding that for society, and that’s why they appear to have it all.


Do we want to reward the work of people who create toxic ideas and products with more earth to pollute? I personally think it’s time for The Pritchetts to learn to make do, and I’m going to make a more concerted effort to do so, too.