Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Joe Omundson

Cause and effects

Sometimes a cause has multiple effects which are not obviously related to each other, yet one effect can be used to predict another.

For example, in town I tell my friends "I am going camping at the usual place, you are welcome to join me tonight." They say "OK, we're not sure but maybe we will see you there later."
So I drive to my campsite, I am relaxing, thinking about life and processing whatever comes up. Hours go by, the sun sets and I think: I could build a fire, that might be nice, but hmmm it sounds like a lot of work.

Another thought comes to mind: if I build a fire, my friends will come. If I don't, they won't.

Seems irrational. But, if I find the energy to build a fire, it might indicate a mental and emotional state of positive willingness to make things nice. If I was in that state when I invited my friends, then they probably picked up on that, and would likely be more attracted by my offer to hang out in the wilderness. Alternatively, if I've not found enough enthusiasm to build myself a fire, then maybe I was also in a low-energy state when I invited my friends, and they'll be thinking "an evening with that guy? Probably not tonight."

So it is not that my fire is a magic summoner. There's no way for them to know whether I have built a fire or not. It's just that the two decisions depend on the same variable to some extent, almost as though they were decided in the same moment, long before sundown.

I didn't build the fire. My friends didn't come.

Of course, this is a simplification, and there are other variables at play. It's possible that I had positive energy when I invited them, but in the following hours I became tired. Also, my friends' plans were influenced by personal circumstances unrelated to my invitation.

When one cause has multiple effects, the effects are related in a way that might not be obvious at first. If you can learn to see these connections in other people's lives you could seem to have psychic powers or great insight. And if you can learn to see them in your own life, you could seem to make great leaps of personal progress as you simultaneously solve multiple problems by addressing one root issue.

What if I'd meditated that morning, and it improved my mood for the day? My invitation might have been more joyous and sincere. Maybe I would have been more intentional about planning to make a fire and my friends would have felt more drawn to join me.

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Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Joe Omundson

Good and evil, eternity and NOW

Are people good or evil?


We associate good and evil with certain qualities we have assigned to other words. Generosity; kindness; provision; pleasure; safety; health; growth; strength. Destruction; violence; negation; death; neglect; pain; suffering; terror. All of these things are contained in the natural world, simultaneously and overlapping, without distinction.

Some animals survive in good health and abundance while others starve. Some animals eat, others are eaten. There are no rules. Parasites drain life from their hosts and this is OK. Dead bodies nourish the living. Some species can only come to life after a devastating fire, or they lay their eggs inside another animal and poison that animal to death so their young may feed. Mass extinctions happen. Some animals kill their mates immediately after mating. Animals rape and fight and kill. And yet they are innocent, all of it is natural.

Nothing lasts, even the rocks crumble and turn into dust. Rivers dry out, continents are submerged, frozen, desertified. A water molecule can flow beautifully from a rain shower to a creek and a waterfall and a river and an ocean, or it can be frozen in a polar ice cap for 500,000 years. Mountaintops are eventually subducted and melted into magma once more.

Stars are born and they die. They go supernova, collapsing into neutron stars and black holes. They destroy their planets. They smash into each other, they feed off each other like parasites. Entire galaxies collide in chaos. In the end of time all will be dark.

Is all of this good, or is it evil? What an impossible question. The universe is neither tragic nor magical, and it's both. It works itself out as it can, as it must, as it will be.

And people are the same. Nothing anyone does is really surprising. It is a reaction of what they are, to what they are around. Some people demonstrate behavior that we associate with good, others with evil, but everyone is a wide enough spectrum to contain some of both. Some people think only of themselves and are rewarded with health and money. Others care immensely for others and they die in a damn fire. Some are born to loving parents, others to neglectful and fearful ones; some know only abundance, some starve to death as children. And some come to see life as good while others see it as evil. Each of us is a small piece of the mosaic, and each of us is a mosaic of our own.

What does any of this mean? Who knows. But it seems wiser to acknowledge and accept the full contradictory complexity of our situation, rather than cling desperately to one selective interpretation or another. We can comfortably blind ourselves to the parts we don't like but it only leads to pain and confusion when our illusions are shattered. The only guarantee is change and impermanence, uncertainty and lack of control. The way to find true peace as a part of this system is to develop a healthy, practical, accepting relationship with the transient nature itself of life and the universe. To give up on illusions of control and importance, superiority and morality, eternal life and knowledge beyond human limitations. To instead experience the eternity that is contained in each passing moment.

THIS IS IT. Life is now! This moment is what you have. Can you accept it? Can you appreciate the fact that you are sitting here aware of yourself right now? You, made out of all the same kinds of things as everything else in the universe. Do you know that someday THIS MOMENT that you are in will be your last? When you are in that last moment, will you think back to this moment? To yesterday, tomorrow? What will you wish that you could tell yourself now? If your deathbed self could go back to who you are right now, what would you do? How would you cherish the fact that this is not your last day and not your last breath? Would you go outside and look at the sky and breathe deeply and be still? Would you hug someone and say that you love them? Would you value your curiosity and explore everything you ever wished you could? Would you forgive, love, encourage? Would you laugh outrageously?

Think about it! Your life is nothing but a collection of NOW moments. If you never learn to embrace the craziness of NOW, how will the overall picture of your life ever add up to something you want to experience? The past is worth remembering, and the future is worth preparing for, but these cannot replace the importance of what is happening NOW. Sit with now. Accept now. Enjoy now. Value now. Everything else in life is secondary.

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Thursday, August 3, 2017

Joe Omundson

A new decade

The rational part of me knows that the division of a lifespan into numbered years is an arbitrary human idea, but I still get hung up on things like birthdays and new years sometimes because they make me think about the past and compare it to my ideas for the future. It's Thursday night, and on Saturday I turn 30. Technically, it's not a big deal. I've been alive for almost 11,000 days and if I'm lucky I'll get 22,000 more. But something about it does feel significant.

Growing up, you start as an infant; you're a toddler, a child, a middle schooler, an adolescent, a teenager, a high schooler. Your life stage classification progresses rapidly. Then you're stuck as a "twenty-something" for 10 long years. It's the decade where you're expected to find yourself and become an established adult, to learn about yourself and the world, and you have some leeway in how you do that. In your thirties, you're still likely to have good health and energy, but you're also expected to have some established base, some sense of direction, a greater maturity. It's the time when many important life questions must be answered, and serious work begun. It seems that your 30s is about finding an ease that comes with knowing how to meet your own needs, and a relaxed confidence in how you're choosing to spend your life.

So, what have I learned in my twenties? Did I figure anything out? Did I grow as a person?
I know the expectations are artificial, and nothing will magically change when I turn 30, but the mere existence of these ideas leads me to introspection about how I've lived my life and what I want to do next.

It's interesting to think back to where I was 10 years ago, when I turned 20. My life has changed since then in so many ways that I'd never have expected. A lot happened -- marriage, divorce, leaving religion, heart cathetizations and infections, engineering degree and career, leaving that career, and a new lifestyle of minimalism, mobility, and frugality. Learning from yoga, meditation, backpacking, and sometimes psychedelics.

By a lot of people's standards it might seem like I failed. I'm 30, divorced, sleeping in a minivan, and I don't have a job. I went through some hard times in my 20s, but I have to say I'm happy with the way things have gone, overall. My heart problem has always taught me about the significance of experiencing the moments we find ourselves in every day; someday, my dying day will be today, my last breath will be this moment. I can't see anything in life being more important than the way we spend our time experiencing life and because of this I have prioritized exploring my curiosities rather than following expectations. I'm happy I don't feel the need to live up to anyone's ideas about my life, how I should interact with money, where I should sleep and live, what my relationships should look like, or what I should do with my time. It is nice to have somewhat found my niche and customized my lifestyle to my individual needs.

I know I've grown a lot in the last decade, but I'm not sure where this is all leading. I've learned how to learn, how to grow and overcome and accomplish my goals. And I'm still at a very flexible point where I have a lot of freedom to do whatever I choose. So I am prepared to start on a great journey, but I have to choose a direction, and it's hard because there are a lot of different things I'm interested in working on. But I think that's a great problem to have.

If I'm still alive in another 10 years, and I write a similar essay looking back on my 30s, I have no idea what it will say. My life could still go anywhere at this point. But there are a few things I hope I will learn. I hope that when I know the best choice for my own well being, I will choose it even when I'm tempted not to. I hope I will learn to love people selflessly and lavishly, always staying aware of the finite moments we share and how trivial the differences we perceive between us are. And I hope I will gain more control over my obsessive, overthinking mind, and finally learn how to get off the internet and go to bed on time.
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Monday, July 10, 2017

Joe Omundson

July adventure, part 1: Portland to Moab

My 6 week IV antibiotic treatment concluded on May 21, and other than one day with a fever, I felt well in the month that followed. It seemed like the medicine had done the job. I made plans for a month of traveling: July 1st I would hitchhike to the Rainbow Gathering near John Day, OR to meet up with 3 of my best nomad friends, then I would continue on to Moab, where I would hang out for a few weeks, pick up my car and sort out other loose ends, spend time with friends who live in the area, and head back to Portland by July 25th when my car's trip permit expires.

As the time to leave drew closer, anticipation built. I spent time working for my friend to earn money for my trip and I grew impatient to gain the freedom of the road, to see something new. Then, two or three days before I had planned to leave, I started feeling sick. For a solid two days I was measuring a fever between 100.8 - 102.8 °F and having night sweats. These were the same symptoms that got me admitted to the hospital in Minnesota. I talked to my infectious disease doctor and went in to get blood cultures drawn.

For me the timing couldn't have been worse. I was extremely disappointed at the prospect of canceling my trip, which I was so eagerly looking forward to, yet I knew that if my infection had indeed returned this would likely mean that I had failed antibiotic therapy and would need to prepare for an open heart surgery. Having had a few months to adjust to the idea of another major operation, the most upsetting part was that it would ruin my trip.

I was torn. Should I play it safe and cancel my trip, go to the hospital and get the treatment I need? Should I risk it and travel for at least a week to cover the most important parts of my trip and hope I didn't get too sick? In the past I had had symptoms for at least a week or two before getting treatment... couldn't I do that again, especially when I have something I want to do so badly first? What if this is a weird placebo / stress response or something unrelated to my heart? I know it's not worth risking my health just to have a fun time -- but isn't the whole point of good health to enable us to have good experiences and live our lives? And if I cancel my trip, am I not completely giving up on the possibility of that great experience, trading it for some semblance of security?

The night before I had planned to leave, I spent a couple hours awake in the middle of the night, feeling terrible, sweating and nearly in tears. I couldn't decide what to do so I slept until morning, had breakfast, meditated for 15 minutes, and then my body decided for me. I just started packing my bag. It was possible to pack it up, so I did, I got all ready, and my friend drove me to Troutdale for my first hitch. Apparently I'd decided to risk it. I think I couldn't handle the idea of missing my plans based on a fear for my personal health. Besides, I hadn't heard anything back from the blood cultures which were 2 days pending, so I didn't know for sure that anything was wrong.

My first ride stopped for me as soon as I stepped onto I-84 eastbound, and he drove me to Multnomah Falls. This was the first time I had been picked up by a gay man who thought I was cute and openly expressed interest. He was disappointed that I was into women but was very kind to me anyway.

Ride two was a guy who lived in Stevenson, WA. Part native, he had fishing rights on the Columbia and that's how he was making money this summer. In years past, he'd hitched the same route many times in order to go into Portland to support his heroin habit. He was very open and accepting, and I enjoyed his company. He dropped me off at the Cascade Locks exit.

Ride three was from a computer scientist, a kiteboarder headed to Hood River. I told him about my history as an engineer and he gave me some thoughts on how I could still work in that field while making it fit with my passions. We talked about artificial intelligence until he dropped me off.

The next ride took me as far as the previous 3 combined, all the way to Biggs Junction where I needed to head south away from the Columbia to get to Central Oregon. When he stopped to pick me up, he pulled over and then drove to a safe spot off the shoulder to wait for me, and got out of his car to meet me as I approached. From these actions I could tell he was a responsible and cautious person, and he turned out to be an engaging conversationalist and we compared perspectives on life topics ranging from career to family to society and religion. He was an engineer who worked for HP. I really enjoyed getting to know him.

The junction had a travel stop where I used the restroom and then headed back out to the road with my cardboard sign reading "JOHN DAY". I sat on a curb by a wide shoulder and waited. A semi truck passed me, apparently turned around somewhere down the road, then honked and gestured at me as he pulled in to the travel stop from the other direction. Clearly he was signalling me... but why? If he wanted to give me a ride, why was he parking his rig instead of turning it around to pick me up? I thought maybe his gestures were only meant to say hi, but I watched his legs walk from the cab around to the back of the truck where he could see me, and he lifted his arms in a shrugging gesture like "dude, what are you waiting for?" so I grabbed my pack and walked over to him. The first thing he asked was "hey man, you smoke weed?". After a millisecond analysis of the situation -- the guy seemed a little sketchy, but nothing sinister about him -- I replied "uh, yeah!" and he told me to hop into the cab. The passenger seat was falling apart, there was junk everywhere. He asked if I knew how to roll a blunt (I didn't) then asked if I had a pipe (I did). So we packed a bowl and started smoking. Then, a woman appeared in the passenger window of the truck next to us, grinning and holding up her own pipe. He invited her over and the three of us passed around two bowls, chatting about our travels and the truck driving life. She went back to her truck and the guy decided not to give me a ride after all, because my route was turning off in just 9 miles and for him it wasn't worth the hassle. But he did give me a good sized bud for the road, and I went back to my curb with a nice buzz and laughing to myself. "WTF just happened?!" Getting stoned with random truckers in the middle of nowhere.

Soon a nice guy from Yakima picked me up, and I actually ended up going the same route with him that I could have gone with the trucker, realizing that it was smarter to at least make progress in the general direction even if it's not on the most direct route possible. He drove me to Madras, and we mostly just listened to music and silently watched the scenery pass by, sharing another bowl.

I should have asked him if he could drive me south a few more miles to where Hwy 26 leaves Hwy 97, but I didn't think of it. I ended up walking those miles, which was challenging as I felt sick and it was quite hot outside, but I didn't despair and it was never outside of my capability. Finally, at the turnoff, a 2-car caravan pulled over for me. Lion-mane dreadlocks filled the windshield of the second vehicle and I knew I'd found my ride to the Rainbow Gathering. The guy in the passenger seat of the first car jumped out and carved out a space for me in the back seat, piling suitcases and sleeping bags on the other side. I got in and sat with my pack on my lap, the displaced luggage halfway falling back onto me, and prepared for a cramped 3 hour ride. "Dude, you're lucky you got the ride with the best music", as he proceeded to blast some harsh dubstep music. The subwoofer must have been very expensive and very close to my head, as the precision bass was painfully and unbearably loud. Fortunately I had earplugs in the top pouch of my backpack, which kept the volume below the pain threshold, but also blocked out more high frequencies than lows, so then all I could hear was the booming 20-80 Hz range. If you've ever had an MRI you might have some idea what this ride felt like. No problem, I was going straight where I needed to go. I have learned to accept many discomforts as a meditative state.

We parked after sunset and I had about another 2-mile walk into this crazy organism of a gathering. I knew my friends were camped just past the Home Shalom kitchen, and I made haste, eager to find them before setting up camp for the night. As I got closer, the directions I received got more specific and I found them without much of an issue, set up my tent, and crashed. It had been 10 hours of traveling -- about what was expected for hitching a 5 hour drive.

Dennis and Mathieu had already been there for 10 days. They helped a lot of people set up their camps and kitchens, and now the crowd was pouring in for the event. I came along the next morning as they helped a nearby kitchen prepare breakfast, which turned into a pretty hilarious ordeal as this guy had taken over the kitchen against the will of the other camp members, which we didn't know at the time, and nothing was running smoothly at all. The guy was on some crazy drugs, hadn't slept in two days, and was making no sense. In true Rainbow style, nobody wanted to confront him so everyone just suffered instead.

Tom joined us in camp that morning, and 3 of us decided to take psychedelics. I took a double dose of LSD, and the other two split some mushrooms, which didn't end up doing much for them. Due to some combination of chemical potency and the intensity of my life in recent days, it was quite a powerful experience for me. If I had been out of touch with the fact that I was de-prioritizing my heart health it might have been a "bad trip" experience thinking about that, but I wasn't hiding anything from myself and I experienced the discomfort with full awareness and acceptance of my choice. It was a little like looking death in the face. I decided to hike up the hill alone, past all the camps, up to where I could get a view from a ridge, and sat there resting as my heart pounded away. An hour later I headed back down and again had to rest my displeased heart at my camp. I took it easy the rest of the day, only venturing out for a short visit to the central meadow to watch the hippies, drum circle-ing and dancing naked around three bonfires.

It was wonderful to catch up with my friends again, and to hear about their travels since the last time I'd seen them. Dennis and Mathieu seem to have formed a very close partnership and at times it was like watching a couple banter, which was quite entertaining. I decided to leave the morning after my 2nd night, and Dennis offered to drive me to John Day to start off my hitch. As he, Mathieu, and I were walking to his van, we stopped by Tom's camp (he had stayed camped in his SUV in the parking lot). He happened to be about to leave, too, to drive to Chico, and he offered to take me with him as far as I wanted. So I left the gathering with Tom, and we drove down through southern Oregon to a campsite on the OR/CA state line near Lakeview. Tom generously paid for the campsite and made us a dinner of salmon and spinach. The campsite came with free showers so we left feeling refreshed in the morning.

Lake Abert, a large but shallow alkaline lake in Southern Oregon

Tom decided he was willing to take a detour in to Reno to drop me off and check out an AA meeting. He let me out near an onramp and we said goodbye. I didn't have much luck at that onramp, so I walked about a mile to the next one, where I got a ride 15 miles out of town with a guy who works in a big industrial complex. He had some strong political views which I didn't agree with entirely, but it was cool to hear where he was coming from. From there, a young guy gave me a ride another 15 miles east to the town of Fernley, where he had recently moved from his home town in California.

I waited at least an hour for the next ride, in 100 degree sun, the wind blowing asphalt-heated air over my body. I felt weak and not very many cars were getting on the freeway in my direction, and I struggled to stay positive. Finally, I got my lucky break: a guy stopped for me who was driving all the way to Wyoming. I rode with him to Salt Lake City. He had traveled to California to buy a truck (to be used for servicing semi trucks on the side of the highway) only to have it break down near Fernley, where he spent a night or two getting it fixed. He was a nice guy who will be turning 30 in August  -- 11 days after I do. We had several hours together. He told me about his life in Wyoming and we talked a lot about diesel engines and mechanical-related stuff, which was fun for me because my car is a diesel and it was interesting to know the similarities and differences between my engine and much bigger ones.

He dropped me off at the offramp of my choosing a bit west of Salt Lake City. My hope was that it would be an exit where my "MOAB" sign would attract someone who had gotten off for a quick stop and would then be passing all the way through SLC in my direction; I'd previously had a lot of trouble getting through SLC and was not keen to repeat that experience. It was dark, I walked down the side of the offramp and found a fairly level spot in the grass where I slept until the sun reached me in the morning.

Getting through SLC was once again a frustrating experience. My onramp was a poor choice. It was all truck drivers and local commuters who had little more to offer than a bewildered stare. One cop drove by and shouted through his loudspeaker, "Hey, get off the onramp for me." Working on it bud. After 2 1/2 hours, a nice guy picked me up and took me 10-15 miles down the freeway, leaving me at a decently busy onramp where I would ultimately not catch a ride for 5 full hours. It was 102 degrees. I got sunburned. The only good thing was that I took a break for an hour and got lunch at a pretty decent Asian buffet, so I was really only waiting for 4 hours. It started to feel like nobody in SLC knew what the thumb-out hand signal meant and that I would be stuck there for days. Finally someone pulled over, a sales manager at a solar company, and took me another 15 miles. From here it got easier, and I got 2 quick rides to get south of Provo off the freeway and onto the highway that goes through Price. An army network engineer (and ex-coal miner) gave me a ride down the highway to where his turn took him a different direction, 50 miles outside of Price, and from here I got lucky again when a high school biology teacher who was driving to Colorado picked me up. He was a really cool guy and we shared our fascination with science as we drove. He told me about the interesting dynamics of teaching science in a small town.

He dropped me off at the Moab exit on I-70. 30 miles to Moab. It was dusk, light was fading fast, and I was nervous that I wouldn't get a ride before dark, and I'd have to wait til morning to get into town (I don't hitch at night). Fortunately I got lucky again. He dropped me off, I stuck out my thumb, and the next truck stopped for me before the biology teacher had time to get back on the freeway. This guy was from Moab but hadn't lived there in over 30 years; back for a family function. He seemed like he was kind of a big shot, having been a news reporter for ABC who covered the Sydney Olympics and being personally asked by Mitt Romney to do public relations for the SLC Olympics, among other things. He was good to me, gave me a Starbucks Frappuccino drink and $20 before I got out of the truck. I was in Moab at last! 9:30 PM, and probably 98 degrees. Must have been a hot day.

I contacted the guy who had been storing my car in his backyard, walked to his house, paid him for his services, and tried to start my car -- the battery was dead. He gave me a jump and the car roared to life. I drove it for a while to charge the battery, then parked it near the courthouse and went to sleep.

At some point on this day, I received a new message from my doctor. "Blood cultures are negative. We should get CT as planned and get more blood cultures when you come back." I was stunned, and very glad that I'd chosen to leave even though I felt bad. My other option would have been to sit around in Portland waiting for a negative test result. I can't imagine how frustrated I would have been for missing out on my trip when they couldn't find anything wrong anyway.

Time to shift gears: I finished hitchhiking, and now I had my car again to make travel easy. I spent the next three days with a new friend and lover who lives in Grand Junction, but this is a topic for the next chapter.
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Friday, May 5, 2017

Joe Omundson

Appetite vs. hunger

I enjoy experiencing extremes so that I better understand the spectrum of what's possible and what my options are. For example, one time I hiked alone for 6 weeks and I realized how much I needed human interaction. As an introvert, it was the first time I ever felt desperate to talk to someone. Going to that opposite extreme allowed me see myself from another angle, and appreciate friendship more.

More recently I've been playing with extremes of food access. Most of my life I've had enough money to buy whatever food I want, whenever I want, with full ability to cook it and keep it fresh. When I was in Moab I chose not to have much money, and food acquisition was less certain. I got food from the food bank, fruit trees, or looked for great deals at the store.

To be clear, I've gone nowhere near the true extreme of food depravation. I've never been at risk of starvation, never felt forced to dumpster dive or go hungry for days at a time. Still, the lifestyle change was enough to shift my attitude: eating went from being a fun thing that I would do when I was bored, to something that I did out of necessity. My food reserves were now a resource that I needed to manage carefully.

There were weeks when I mostly ate rice, potatoes, and onions. I ate a reasonable amount to fuel myself for the day, but I didn't usually sit around and pack my stomach full of junk just for fun. I couldn't afford the kinds of food I typically overeat (buffets, pizza, ice cream), so maybe a bag of chips was my occasional treat. The exception to this was when I got a haul from the food bank. I couldn't resist indulging in the sudden excess.

Now that I'm back in Portland, surrounded by relatively cheap, delicious food, and since my dad gave me some money so I can afford more comforts while I'm undergoing treatment, it's been very interesting to notice how my approach to food changes. I go grocery shopping and I buy lots of produce so I can make stir-fries and other nutritious meals -- which is an amazing privilege. Then, even with my fridge full of these healthy goodies, I go out to eat. I'm getting pizza, burritos, spending as much money on one meal as I could spend on 3 days worth of food if I were careful. "Why not?", says my stomach. I can afford it today, it's easy, it's tasty, it's fun, it's variety.

Appetite is tied to mental and emotional states, and it's actually a very different sensation than hunger. This is a well known phenomenon but I hadn't fully understood it on a personal level. In my extreme-frugality months I generally waited until I was truly hungry to eat a meal, so my stomach shrank and I didn't need as much food to be satisfied. Hunger was a common experience and it didn't have a negative association. Now, I feel the effects of appetite again, and I notice how it's a different kind of craving. When I'm lounging around in the evening and I'm stoned and I already had dinner and I still crave a pizza, I know that's my appetite talking... I'm looking for food excitement. If I choose to eat, I'm packing more food into a full stomach. I'm not eating to relieve the ache of an empty stomach.

Two days ago was a food-craving day. I wanted to eat a lot and not care about money. First I went to an Asian buffet around lunchtime and ate as much as I could. By evening I was still completely full, but I went and got two huge slices of pizza and a beer. On the way home I got a pint of Ben & Jerry's and ate that too. I recognized what I was doing and decided to just go crazy that day and enjoy it. I wanted to experience the excess in order to get it out of my system. So I overate for fun and not because I was hungry. I notice the difference now.

Though I enjoyed gorging myself that day, I knew I'd be making a change the day after. Being overly full just doesn't feel as satisfying to me anymore. It's kind of fun, but I can't ignore how irrational it is, and how it makes me gain excess weight. It's not something I want to make a habit of. So I've been moving again toward relying on my hunger to tell me when to eat, and making sure I get through the perishable foods I already have instead of eating out too much.

Maybe tomorrow I'll want to eat an entire Little Caesar's pizza, and I'll probably do it. I'm less worried about having strict control over myself at all times, and more interested in general trends -- overall, is my overeating obsessive? Or is it something I can enjoy in moderation, as a contrast to a healthy baseline? As I wrestle with finding the right balance, can I see that overall I'm getting where I want to go? Yes? Good enough!
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Friday, April 28, 2017

Joe Omundson

Well, that didn't go as planned

I was recently hired by an acquaintance to drive a moving truck from New Mexico to Minnesota. The plan was to hitchhike from Moab to Farmington, drive the truck for 3 days, visit friends in Minneapolis for about a week, and hitchhike back to Utah.

The first half of the plan went relatively well. The first day I got a ride from a nice Moab couple going for a hike, from a wildland firefighter who lives in his truck half the year, and from a racist guy who used to do cabinets. When I was about 7 miles from the lady's house who I was helping move, I called her and she gave me a ride.

The next day we picked up her 24' moving truck, the biggest she could rent from Budget. I helped load it up and this was when I knew something was wrong. I was getting lightheaded with effort and felt feverish. At night, I was sweating in bed even though I wasn't hot. These symptoms had been coming and going for at least a couple weeks, and I'd been doing my best to treat them as though they were a normal cold or flu, as I tend to get paranoid that something worse is happening. But it was getting to the point that I couldn't ignore it any more, and I knew what the problem was.

This is my "oh, shit" face

I'm surprised that they let people drive moving trucks with no training. It was essentially as wide and as tall as a semi truck, though not as long. The truck only had a couple thousand miles on it and it drove well. The lady I was helping move followed me in her car. I got to Denver the first night, Omaha the 2nd night, and finally Minneapolis on day 3, with no problems.

At least, I didn't have any problems with the truck. Myself, I felt horrible. I woke up in the middle of each night with my clothes soaked, the hotel bed wet like a puddle around my body. I felt highly febrile and had a hard time staying warm; I'd bundle up in the truck and turn up the heat, shivering uncontrollably when I went outside into 55 degree weather.  As I drove I gazed longingly at the hospitals I passed by, knowing I needed to visit one as soon as I could. I went through some kind of existential crisis and wondered if I should just let the disease kill me.

We arrived in the Minneapolis suburb that was our destination. After dinner, I helped unload a few things, then got a ride to my friend's house in St. Paul. He's one of my best friends who I've known online for nearly 15 years but this was only the 2nd time I'd met him. We spent some time catching up before I went to bed.

I took my time getting ready in the morning, but I knew what I needed to do that day. These symptoms I'd been having were the same as when I had endocarditis, a bacterial infection inside my heart, back in 2012. I am susceptible to this disease because I have a prosthetic valve in my heart and any bacteria that make it into my bloodstream have a chance to attach to it and take root. I looked up my options for emergency departments and found that the University of Minnesota hospital was only a mile and a half away. Really, all I wanted them to do was to take a culture of my blood so I could either confirm my suspicions or not worry about it so much. Urgent care would have worked for that, but my insurance only covers emergency department visits out of state. I walked there and checked myself in.

I was in a bed in the emergency department for a few hours. They took my blood, they did an echocardiogram, and the blood culture was going to take a while to process so they were about to send me home and call me with results. A nurse took one last set of vitals before sending me off, but when she checked my temperature it was 102.7. She called the doctor back in and he told me I wouldn't be leaving today. I was admitted to the cardiac unit.

I was in the hospital for 5 nights. The blood culture soon came back positive for streptococcus mitis, and I was started on IV antibiotics. My phone died and I hadn't thought to bring my charger, so I wasn't able to update my friends and family for a while, but my brilliant friends who I met 3 years ago on the PCT came and found me and brought me a charger and several other thoughtful items.

I had hoped to "see the city" and I guess technically I had a good view

Well, I wasn't going to be hitchhiking anywhere in this condition. In fact, I couldn't return to Moab at all. To continue my treatment (6 weeks of IV antibiotics), I needed to go back to Oregon where I had health insurance. A couple years before, I put my basic info into the healthcare.gov website like I was told to do, and was quite surprised to be automatically set up with good insurance through Oregon Health Plan that was completely free. I figured my coverage would have ended when I moved to Utah, but I guess my move was ambiguous enough that the Oregon plan automatically rolled over into 2017. And what a relief -- to my knowledge they have covered 100% of my costs so far.

I wasn't sure how I'd get to Portland, as I didn't have enough money for a flight. I'd just earned $400 from my moving gig but a plane ticket on short notice was going to cost more than that. It had to be carefully coordinated so that I wouldn't mess up my daily antibiotic schedule. I hoped I'd be able to borrow enough money from someone to get home, but in the end I didn't need to: I am lucky to have great family support and my Mom decided to fly to Minneapolis. She basically saved my ass. She spent a few days with me at the hospital, which was great because she's a counselor and knows how to help people who are going through a hard time. My PCT friends hosted her at night. Then when I was discharged we spent one more night at their house and flew back to Oregon together.

Strangely, I experienced a profound sadness when I left the U of M hospital. It had felt like we were a team there. I had good people working together to make sure I was OK. They were nice to me. It was my first time in Minnesota and they felt like my family. Even though being released to go home was obviously a positive thing, and even though my mom was right there with me, I almost felt abandoned into the wide world and I wasn't prepared for how much that shook me up.

So, now I'm in Portland, and have been here for nearly three weeks, faithfully taking my meds and making trips to the hospital for dressing changes and lab tests. I have a PICC line, which inserts near my lower biceps and travels in my body 43cm to the vena cava, just outside my heart. I inject myself with antibiotics every morning. Another friend who I also met on the PCT kindly offered for me stay in a camper in her family's backyard in SE Portland. It's a wonderful space and I'm so grateful to be able to stay here.

My symptoms were under control for about a week after my discharge, but they started coming back after that. This was not a good sign. The antibiotic I'm on (ceftriaxone) was tested to be very effective against this specific strain of bacteria, yet I was still showing symptoms of infection, which indicates that the bacteria was hiding and growing in a place where the bloodstream cannot reach. If this is indeed the case, open heart surgery will likely be required to remove whatever is infected.

I started feeling better again a few days ago, and we're hoping the antibiotics will be able to get the job done so that I can go on for a while longer with this valve, delaying my need for another open heart surgery. But we won't know for sure for a while. I'm having some more ultrasound imaging done on May 8th to see if there's any obvious sign of an abscess or a growth. If that's inconclusive, I'll be on the antibiotics a while longer. Then they'll stop, and I'll either feel OK, or I won't.

And that is the story of how a driving/hitchhiking gig between NM and MN turned into a 5-day hospital stay, and a potential open heart surgery in Oregon.

To be honest, I'm not sure what my next move is going to be. A lot of it depends on whether I need this surgery or not. But it might not make a lot of sense to move back to Moab if I'm going to need ongoing checkups here in Oregon this summer. My car is down there, so I'll have to go get it at some point, but maybe it's time to be in Portland for a while? The summers can be pretty nice and I haven't been around for one in several years.

I haven't been posting anything on this blog and it's not because nothing is happening in my life, or because I'm not thinking about things I want to share, or because I've forgotten about the blog. I just don't seem to have much energy to focus on writing right now. I'll be back, with plenty to say, but for a while I think I simply need to focus on living and getting better, so I might be quiet for a time. I'm posting health updates on Facebook if you'd like to look me up there.
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Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Joe Omundson

Lifestyle direction update

I've been working to align my lifestyle more with my values, even if it looks weird to other people. Putting energy inward to discover my true path and then following it regardless of my fears.

One of my core values is that the social mechanism of society ought to include sharing resources with all human beings. I detest living in a world where someone's standard of life is determined by their income, which is so often determined by their demographics and what their family has been like for generations before them. We have an exorbitant excess of resources around us and yet people live in poverty because our social and economic software is flawed.

Another of my values is empathy for people who have been through hard times. I encounter abuse within families in public on a regular basis and I am highly disturbed that more people do not recognize patterns of abuse and trauma. I also know that most people do not understand the hardships of what the homeless endure. Instead of encountering people who will help them lift the burden of being wronged so much in the past, these people mostly interact with people who see them as useless, weird, fucked up, and hopeless, further reinforcing the damage and making it harder to break the cycle.

My goal is to break away from the systems that reinforce these things that I detest, and start living a new paradigm which values people over money at every intersection.

A lot of people want to do that, and a lot of people feel OK working towards it in some way in their life, while also maintaining their job and their house and their car and everything else that makes them comfortable. But that's broken for me. That's not my path. I'm all or nothing. I find that 9 times out of 10, benefiting from any economic transaction reinforces the very social systems that perpetuate these problems. To my mind, using money to battle these problems is like fighting fire with fire.

What I'm doing right now is transitioning from sleeping in my car to stealth camping in a tent, like the rest of the homeless people. Last night was my first night.

For one thing, I find that the more I own and the more "comfortably" I live my life, the more miserable I become personally. I get trapped by these things. Maybe I just have bad self control, but even when I house-sit for short periods of time I lose track of the real world and I become an isolated, anxious, stagnant, internet-glued shadow of a person. So, minimizing is partly in my own self interest. Even in my car I can feel isolated and lazy. The times when I have lived day-to-day from my backpack have been the times I felt the most alive. Plus my registration is expired and I can't fix it until my replacement title arrives from Oregon, and I don't want to get a ticket for driving it around.

But the other reason is because I want a fuller sense of empathy for what the homeless go through. I feel like I need to become one of them in order to relate fully to them. Living in a car gives me some idea, but not a very full idea. It's pretty easy to park the car anywhere to sleep and not be noticed. I have rigid walls and doors that lock. I can go anywhere quickly, I can easily transport most things I want to transport, I can store a good deal of belongings. I don't have to worry that someone is going to notice me walking into the scrub with a backpack and call the cops to roust me.

So far I notice that a lot more consideration has to go into sleeping in a tent. It's technically illegal to camp in my car, too, but people do it in this town all the time and it feels like another level of seriousness if I were to be caught setting up a tent camp on public or private property. If there are people near the edge of the woods where I access my camp, I have to wonder if it would be smarter to wait for them to leave before I pass through. I can only take so much stuff with me at a time. When I hear dogs barking at night I wonder what would happen if an aggressive one found me. As the seasons progress I will be more vulnerable to bugs, flooding, hostile encounters, and the like.

More than this, it seems like there's a really humbling mental component to having to be sneaky about your existence. To know that you don't really have a right to exist, anywhere, and if you want to continue there are certain people who should not find out about you. It feels destabilizing, like it would promote insanity. When I caught myself in the mirror today I felt like I already had more of a wild look in my eyes. A look that doesn't take anything for granted or expect to see things happen any certain way. I still have so much social wealth that most homeless people lack, I'm still doing this by choice, and I know I can get through any difficulties I face. I'm not going to destroy my relationships or my mental or physical health to get the "full homeless experience", that would be illogical to me. But I want to embrace any difficulty that I come across so that I can better understand reality. Any hardship that I endure is invaluable to me in the long run.

I am repulsed that only moneyed people can afford the luxuries of comfortable shelter in our system, so I will exit that reality even if it's illegal and difficult. I want to vote this with my lifestyle: people deserve to live safely regardless of their privilege, and I'm not going to benefit until everyone benefits.

The other thing I've been doing is working toward an existence where the daily needs of my life do not require any money. Moving away from the car is part of this (no insurance or fuel costs). I want to live a completely free life in both senses of the word. I'm not a purist, I will make exceptions for certain things, and in fact I am going to be working this summer to save money; the only reason for this is because I want to hitchhike internationally, and even though I think I could do that for nearly free too, I haven't done it before and it seems wise to have a financial cushion in a foreign country if something goes wrong. Plus, I don't mind taking some money from wealthy America and distributing it to people in poorer countries. So I will still earn money, but it's completely on my terms, and only for the purpose of furthering my specific goals of gaining understanding of other cultures and having life changing experiences.

This has been a lot of talk about what I want to avoid, what I want to distance myself from. But what positive goals do I have? What do I want to see happen?

I want to provide services that are accessible to everyone and completely free. I want to assist others who are working on these services. Free can happen, it just takes effort. I want to be available for anyone who needs someone to talk to. I want to create a buffer of safety and empathy in public spaces.

One thing I have started recently is a daily meditation session in the park. I sit for 30 minutes at 9am. I haven't had anyone join me yet, but with patience and continued invites I am hoping to support people in finding some inner peace for a few minutes of their day.

Another thing which I'm excited to get more involved in is food collection and redistribution. Schools and restaurants throw out a lot of perfectly good food, which they would be happy to give away instead, but they don't have any consistent person who comes and picks it up. There used to be a guy who would do this and provide a free lunch for the town every day! It does still happen on a limited scale; there is a guy I know who picks up the leftovers after school lunch and gives it away, but I'm thinking about stepping up to fill the role of daily free lunch provider. This is exciting to me because it decreases our waste, and provides a free meal to those who want it, as well as an opportunity to gather socially.

Lastly, I'm looking into other volunteer opportunities that would allow me to connect with and support people who have suffered abuse. CASA is one option, volunteering at a domestic violence shelter is another. The animal shelter could be a third possibility. I'm still sorting through which of these things I want to pursue.

These changes in my life feel good to me; it seems like I'll have a lot of work to do every day for the next week or so, just to get myself reoriented to my goals and my new lifestyle. I have a lot of decisions to make about which possessions to keep and which ones I want to discard. I'm starting to care less about what other people think or if anyone will support me. I think I can do these things and it will be meaningful to me, so I will.

Is there something in your life that you've identified as "your path", something unconventional and crazy but you can't stop thinking about it? Tell me about it in the comments :)

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