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Bad Timing

Welcome to the stress vortex, when everything seems to happen at once.

 

Several times in my life, if I'd taken one of those pop-psychology magazine quizzes about "How Stressed-Out Are You?," my stress score would have been either "The top of your head is about to blow off" or "Get to the ER now while you still can." It's not that so many awful things have happened to me. Rather, stressful things—both bad and good—seem to come in waves. It's as though stress-making events are iron filings, all being drawn to some cosmic magnet, all at once.

The pop-psychology quizzes in glossy magazines will tell you that even happy events—getting married, starting a new job, having a baby—can cause stress. You rack up points for them toward your total stress score just as you do with bad things. Five points for moving, 10 for getting a divorce or getting married, either one, 20 for the loss of a loved one. I think missing the final episode of "The Sopranos" because your TiVo malfunctioned is something like 50 points. Pile up too many stressful situations of any sort in your life simultaneously and you're a candidate for what the quizzes call "a meltdown." That's technical talk for feeling like you need to go out into the garage and kick cardboard boxes until your foot hurts. At least that's how it works with me.

Anyway, ever since last November I've felt like I'm stuck in one of those stress vortexes. That's when our daughter, who was in Washington, DC, to start a new job and to find an apartment, got sick. It turned out to be "only" food poisoning, which Dr. Dad and Dr. Mom diagnosed long-distance from the get-go, but the hospital out there put her—and therefore us—through a week of torture and then several weeks of thinking she had some chronic illness before we discovered that Drs. Dad and Mom were right all along. Meanwhile, Thanksgiving turned from a favorite family holiday into a nightmare, with my wife jetting out there to be with our daughter while I wrapped up the December issue all by my lonesome.

It's felt like one thing after another ever since. One of our cats ate something he shouldn't have and almost died. My brother-in-law went into the hospital. Our daughter lost her wallet on a business trip to Boston. (Have you ever thought how you'd get home without a picture ID? They won't let you on your return flight. You can't rent a car. Thank goodness they still have trains back east.) Work-wise, let's just say we've had more than our share of uninvited brouhaha. Even our lovely trip to the Mayan coast, which I wrote about last issue, caused stress from the scramble to get ready to go. At least we didn't get seasick.

Taken individually, any of these things would have caused some perturbation, but the cardboard boxes in the garage would be safe. Clustered together, however, there's a cumulative, piling-on effect. Thank goodness we had Christmas in the middle, with all the cardboard-box kicking fodder it entails.

 

You'd think I'd be used to these clusters of craziness. Right out of college, after all, I experienced something like the perfect storm of stressful events (more of them good than bad, but the magazine quizzes don't differentiate). In a little over a two-month span, I got engaged, graduated from college, moved, started a new job, cracked up my brand-new car and got married. I kept expecting Popular Psychology magazine to call and offer to put me on the cover.

I went through another stress zone, not unexpectedly, when we bought Desert Exposure and moved to Silver City. Buying a business, leaving my job, buying a house, selling a house in Cincinnati, packing and moving across the country—sure, that was bound to be a bit nerve-wracking. But once again the universe decided to pile on: The very day we came to Silver City to discuss buying Desert Exposure, my mom—who'd been hospitalized after a fall but seemed to be on the mend—took a sudden turn for the worse. We walked into the Palace Hotel that evening to a flurry of messages, and when we called the hospital in South Dakota, the nurse on duty told me, "You'd better come." A wild, nightmarish drive in the dark through the Black Range—in a rental car—to the Albuquerque airport ensued, followed by all the usual anguish when a loved one is very ill.

Four difficult months later, just as we were starting on our first issue of Desert Exposure, my mom died. On our way home from her funeral, we got caught in a freak blizzard in the Gila National Forest between Lordsburg and Silver City.

Oh, and I forgot to mention, though of course it's not exactly on the same scale: Before we left Cincinnati, we had to have our dog put to sleep.

I think on the magazine-quiz stress scale of 1 to 100, I was about a 217.

 

So much of life, it turns out, comes down to timing. Any single one of these stressful events, taken by itself, would have caused a few sleepless nights. When they all occur within a short span, however, it's like the difference between being poked by a finger and being hit by all five fingers at once, clenched into a fist. I realize that into each life some rain must fall, as they say, but you can get the same total amount of rain in a series of little showers or in one big gullywasher that floods your house.

Maybe it's better to get the stressful stuff over with all at once: Heck, honey, grandma's sick, so let's get divorced and see if we can get a couple of the kids to drop out of school, maybe one'll get pregnant. I'll quit my job and take up smoking, see if I can get lung cancer just to get that over with, too, as long as we're down in the dumps, anyway.

Me, I'd rather space it out a bit.

I think most humans have only so much resiliency. We can bounce back from one challenging situation after another. But when you're already stretched thin emotionally from one problem, you're less able to respond at your best if a second, then a third strikes about the same time. Even small problems loom larger when they come in the context of other crises: What now? As if I don't have enough to deal with already! First a loved one gets sick, then there's trouble at work—then you get a hangnail and it's Why not just shoot me right now and get it over with?

 

On the flip side, of course, sometimes life's timing works out just right. We found Southwest New Mexico and Desert Exposure, after all, at exactly the right time in our lives. And the last time I saw my mom, she had come out of what was effectively a coma long enough to know I was there, and I was able to tell her about our exciting new life in New Mexico.

It's like the fruit and nut trees in our backyard this spring. No, really, bear with me here with this logical leap: The almond tree always blooms first, a profusion of flowers long before the rest of the world shows any hint of spring. Some years, a hard frost hits, and the almond's brave display of enthusiasm for warmer days ahead brings only trouble. Zapped in full bloom, the almonds never develop properly into edible nuts. Our first year or two here, in fact, we didn't even realize it was an almond tree.

This year, however, the timing was perfect. The almond tree held off blooming while the world got winter pretty much out of its system. Then it flowered and we enjoyed the display during a long stretch of springlike weather. By the time a late cold snap hit, the blossoms were already gone and the almond had moved on to leafing out. We don't know whether the thermometer dip might have damaged the nuts nonetheless, but at least there was plenty of time for pollination.

Happily, too, that last (we hope) cold spell hit before the apple, cherry and peach trees had begun to bloom. Already, just a few days after serious jacket weather, one apple tree has now exploded with pinkish flowers. The others aren't far behind. If the earlier warm weather had tricked the trees into flowering only a week or so earlier, the sudden cold would have caught them all.

So maybe our luck, too, is changing, and whatever vortex we've been stuck in since Thanksgiving week is dissipating. Maybe, like the flowers on the fruit trees, it's safe to stick our heads out again.

Just to be on the safe side, though, I'm not buying any glossy magazines for awhile.

 

David A. Fryxell is editor of Desert Exposure and
has really had it up to here.

 

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