Friday, November 17, 2017

Joe Omundson

Healing from pain: the mind-body connection


I sit down under the rock arch at the end of my hike and remove my shoes, placing them near my groin, under my ankles as padding while I sit on the downward sloping slickrock. The lowering sun shines on me and counteracts the cool air. Starting a 31 minute timer, adjusting my seat, I do my best to clear my head and settle in to my meditation practice. 

I begin by focusing all attention on my breath, trying my best to notice any encroaching thoughts and drop them. It has been a busy-minded day and this effort is not very successful. I move on to scanning my body (Vipassana), beginning at the top of my head, bringing my awareness to any sensations that are present; spreading this awareness down the sides and back of my scalp, down my forehead, the edge of my hairline, through my eyes and nose and mouth and cheeks and jaw and chin and down my neck.

The technique says not to react to any sensations, but rather to accept them impartially, equanimously. My only job is to sit still and scan my awareness through all parts of my body and notice what I find. But today I simply cannot resist the urge to squirm when I experience the constricting tension in my neck, shoulders, and upper torso. It is easier for me to explore the tightness by moving, playing, stretching, somehow addressing the problem rather than sitting still and experiencing it. I want to stretch it out until it's gone, once and for all. 

I know that this is counterproductive to the method I am using. There is a time and place for that kind of exploration in yoga and dance but it doesn't mesh well with Vipassana. My most helpful meditation sessions are the ones where I truly stop caring about whether my sensations are pleasant or not, and allow them to arise as they are. It is in these times I see myself for how I am, when I connect different aspects of my experience and accept my current state.

After a couple minutes of side bends, neck circles, heart openers, I try to remember where I left off and continue my scan down my body. Down the front and back hemispheres of my torso and through my pelvis. My legs are hard to sense in detail. There is a contraction of hips and thighs I believe I need to maintain in order to remain sitting upright; it feels as though I will fall backward if I release it, but this is not the case if I can also release the tension in my low back to allow my spine to float to vertical. My calves threaten to cramp into charlie horse if I notice and release them fully, so I move through that area quickly to avoid the pain.

My upper torso is still crying out to me and my attention jumps back up there. I stretch my arms out to my side as wide as they will go, while also trying to release my shoulders downward and shine my chest forward, like Christ on the cross. As I do this, pain and tingling shoots down my left bicep area from shoulder to elbow. The muscles, ligaments, fascia, something in this area is so accustomed to being drawn in to protect my heart that it literally doesn't know how to relax for a second. The tension tugs at my attached body parts, I feel it in my neck, my shoulderblade, my chest.

I try to return my attention to my feet, to where I'd stopped the methodical scan of my body, but ultimately I surrender to the screaming tension surrounding my heart. It is nothing new for me. It has been there for years, decades, but damn I am getting so tired of being captive to this restriction. I try to remain impartial to the pain as I attempt to release as much as I can. Maybe the pain isn't there to protect me, maybe I'm not at risk of self injury if I allow it to become excruciating, maybe I have to pass through that to let myself release.

Though I surrender to the agony I can not release.

Suddenly, the experience becomes emotional. "Why am I still so trapped by this? Why do I carry this pain? What have I done to deserve it? When will I ever be free from this? How can I get past it?" I am nearly in tears and I feel a deep sadness for myself, for the child who still lives in me who has known this pain for so long. I know that not everyone carries this burden. I see the freedom in the posture of some of the more well-adjusted souls around me. They do not have the weight of the world on their backs. Their hearts are not so fragile as to need protection from their shoulders. Their chests are proud in full acceptance of their place in the world, their value and goodness. They are strong in themselves and they have something to offer. Why can't I be like that too?

My timer ends, and I quietly put my shoes on and begin to walk the sandy trails and paint-marked slickrock back to my van.  I've left behind some of my anxiety and restlessness at the arch but take with me a new sadness and compassion for myself.



I understand some of why I carry this pain. Multiple people who deal with body therapy have noticed the same constriction in my ribcage in the heart area and pointed it out to me. I've worked with it over the years, I've reflected on why it's there and what it means for me.

A major part of it is my birth with a congenital heart defect, and the corresponding open heart surgery at age 15. My chest cavity was opened — of course this affected my body and as I healed I could never return to exactly the way I was before. I had a sense of needing to protect my wound which became ingrained in my consciousness and in my body's patterns of holding. To this day I am sensitive to being contacted where my scar is, and if it is tapped or impacted with any force (even by myself) I feel an immediate fear and pain. My mind may have been anesthetized to oblivion while the buzzsaw bisected my sternum and while my ribs were pried apart, but I wonder how much of that experience my body still remembers vividly.

But it's more than the physical trauma of my heart organ. It's an emotional thing; it's my question of self worth, my wavering sense of deservingness. It's the first two decades of my life that I spent listening to people who told me that I was inherently sinful, that I was wicked and needed saving, that all humans were this way. That my only hope of worthiness was through the replacement of my own identity with that of Jesus Christ. That nothing I could do on my own would ever be good enough without this phantom figment of a God doing it through me. It's been almost a decade since I rejected this soul crushing, abusive philosophy, but still the effects of it hide themselves away deep within me.

It's more than that, too. Because of certain dynamics in the ways I was raised, I learned to view myself and my achievements through the lens of someone else's opinions, I learned to make someone else happy regardless of how it affects my own health, goals, and individuality. I grew up thinking I must learn to match a certain worldview and style of interaction which was contrary to my own nature. I was shown that I should despise, or at least ignore, my own body and treat physical contact and sexuality with disdain. I have far more memories of intimate embraces shared with my pillow than anyone in my family. I was terrified of being seen for who I really was, though I also craved that deeply.

I'm one of the lucky ones. My parents had me on purpose and I grew up relatively secure. No one ever bullied me at school. I was never molested. I had the privilege of being male, white, financially secure, and healthy other than my heart problem. I've never really been discriminated against because of any demographic which I have not chosen. My parents taught me a lot of functional and healthy habits. I've had a good education, I have a useful degree. I don't live in fear.

Since entering adulthood I've been able to dissect a lot of the things in my past that have hurt me and I've pushed hard in the direction of healing, growth, peace, self acceptance, and understanding. I've been privileged to encounter some amazing life experiences that many people will never have the chance to know. I have even found meaning in my trauma. I've turned my ongoing heart complications into a motivation and a learning experience, I've turned my distasteful experience with religion into a way to help and love other people who have been through the same thing.

And yet, I can tell you that life feels shitty sometimes. This emotional and physical pain surrounding my heart is very tangible. It still affects me. Everyone goes through something like this whether they know it or not; for many people the pain makes their life pure misery. Many people don't know where it's coming from. Many people think it's an inevitable part of life and they conclude that death would be better. When pain is someone's whole reality I can't say they're wrong.

But I believe healing is possible for myself. I know that trauma can be worked through, I have made progress in the past, and I will continue to grow in the future. My experience under the arch that day broke me down into sadness but it also lit a fire in my heart to take better care of myself.


As I walked down to my van and drove back to town I knew that I could not hide from my pain any longer, I could not continue to numb it or cover it up.

The first step of healing from trauma is simply to know that it exists. I realized this day that I need to validate the impact of my trauma and not dismiss it. I must bring it into the light and expose it publicly.

The second step is to begin making visits into the experience of that trauma from a place of security where the pain will not be too overwhelming; slowly, carefully, briefly at first. To climb down into that murky well and scoop some of the mud from the bottom while not going so deep that you get stuck.

I decided that the best way for me to do this would be to focus intensively on yoga for a time, while also improving my diet and sleep habits. Yoga takes my body to places that I would not otherwise know. It breaks up the stagnation. It provides a safe place to test my pain, to calmly explore the topography of my limitations and break new ground as I'm ready, intentionally and in a safe place. It lets me practice strong, functional new patterns of openness rather than settling into the habit of recoiling from what is uncomfortable.

I used some of my tip money to buy a month-long unlimited yoga pass and started going to classes every day. It's been 11 days. Every single class has had at least a few poses or themes that relate to the opening of my wounds and I've been grateful for the chance to embrace that painful place. I can feel changes starting to unwind inside me already, more sensitivity in the painful area, more discrete control of movable parts, greater range of motion. More ability to let go of the tension while also allowing strength to flow through. More ability to expand my chest and fill it with breath. Less need to draw my shoulders forward and hunch my neck before I do anything else.

And as tends to be the case, emotional healing happens simultaneously with physical healing. I'm already feeling more confident and more solid as a person. I feel like my days are more full, like I'm doing better at spending my time on fulfilling things and not getting stuck in self-doubt and misery. I've had more energy for helping people and for community projects I care about. I feel less intimidated by the idea of other people seeing my good and attractive qualities for what they are. I've actually looked at my reflection and caught myself unironically thinking "damn I am sexy today". I'm laughing and smiling more and overall feeling better.

The third step of healing from trauma is to get so familiar with that trauma that it loses its power. There's a desensitization, an extinction of the trigger that turns the pain into suffering. It becomes a place you can go like any other place, nothing special, nothing to fear. It's an integration into your whole self of that hurt which you have kept isolated. You accept it as part of your shape and the pain fades away. I'm working toward this step now. There are places inside me that I am restricted from experiencing without pain and suffering, but I'm teasing them out. I may be here for a long time. 

The fourth step is to embrace the ways that this trauma has made you unique. What did the pain and the healing process teach you? Can you see others going through the same thing, can you help them along? What power does this empathy give you? Maybe someday, my recovery from self-doubt and the pain that came from struggling to embrace my own goodness will actually become my strength, like a broken bone that heals to become stronger than it was before. Maybe someday I'll know exactly what it is I have to offer and exactly how I can implement that. Maybe someday I'll know how to teach others to become strong in their own worth.

In one aspect or another, I am in all stages of healing at all times. As Moshe Feldenkrais said, "our goal is to make the impossible possible, the possible easy, and the easy elegant." Different hurts are in different stages along that process. Eventually we can learn to do impossible things elegantly. Our greatest weaknesses can become our greatest strengths.

Today I know that I am alive. I am learning to love the whole process of growth including the pain and confusion along with the triumphs. Life changes. That's fascinating. We get to watch it, to experience it. We just need to be open to experimentation, willing to learn, patient with what's hard, and hold on to the truths we have struggled so hard to find.



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Saturday, November 11, 2017

Joe Omundson

Deconverter.com: stories of changing beliefs

I'm happy to announce the start of a new project that I've had in mind for some time.

deconverter.com is a platform for people to share stories about leaving behind their previous belief systems. The focus is on ex-Christians who have adopted a relatively atheistic worldview like myself, since that is what I know best, but I accept stories from any religion of origin and any resulting belief system.

My goal with this is threefold:

1) To encourage people who have left their faith to go through the therapeutic process of writing the story down and sharing it publicly,

2) To help those who have deconverted to know that they are not alone and provide them with community resources and connections to other ex-believers,

3) To create a collection of stories for those who are interested in the experiences of former believers, the process of deconverting, or who may be questioning their own faith and want to know if other people have asked the same questions and where it led them.

I want people to know that change is possible, and though it might be scary and traumatic at first, it can be worked through and the results can be wonderful.

Those are the altruistic reasons I wanted to create this site. Selfishly, I figure that this is a topic that has quite a large base of people who are personally involved, and as society becomes less religious that group will only be growing, so there's potential for the project to receive sustained interest and growth and exposure. Since I don't have to write the content myself, but rather curate the space and collect stories, it's not as labor-intensive on my part, which should also contribute to the sustainability of the project.

Head on over to read some stories, or if this is a process that you have been through yourself, I would love it if you wrote an essay about your experience and submitted it for publication -- just check out the contact page for instructions. :) Thank you!
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Friday, November 3, 2017

Joe Omundson

An experiment with estrogen



A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to explore something fascinating. The story begins on Tinder: I matched with someone and we met up for coffee after exchanging a few messages. We talked about a variety of things that day, including her transition from male to female, and I mentioned that I'd always felt I had a feminine side but hadn't explored it very much.

Her response to my statement took me by surprise: "Do you want to try some of my hormone replacement pills?" I had never considered trying such a thing. She told me you can take them for a few days and notice psychological changes without any of the permanent physical changes that might begin after taking the pills for 2+ weeks. I had never known that was possible! I was intrigued but wanted to think about it more before deciding.

The next day -- I didn't have to think long -- I messaged her and said I wanted to take her up on the offer. I was simply way too curious to say no. I'd never heard of anyone doing this as a trial experiment, and now that I knew it was possible, I wondered why more people didn't try it. Nearly all of my friends have taken psychedelic substances that temporarily alter their perception of reality in order to gain insight and new perspectives. Why not try altering my hormones for a few days and see what I can learn from that? Hormones are such a basic influence on our minds and bodies, and changing their levels for a while is safer than taking drugs. These hormones already exist naturally in our bodies. This seemed like a good way to gain an understanding of some of the differences between the male/female experience and what hormone swings feel like.

My four-day experiment required me to take pills in the morning and evening. The first two days, I only took a testosterone blocker, and the last two days I continued the testosterone blocker and also took estrogen. This was done so that I could differentiate between the lack of testosterone and the addition of estrogen.

It's hard to say with certainty how much of my experience was placebo and how much was truly the effect of the hormones. It's quite possible that my preconceived ideas about gender stereotypes and the differences between women and men had a large influence on how I expected to feel, and therefore on how I felt. The experience might be different for someone else. I will simply report what I experienced; it's up to the reader to question which parts of my experience might have been placebo, because your guess is as good as mine.

The first thing I noticed from the testosterone blocker (spironolactone) was its diuretic effect. I had to pee a lot. It also lowers blood pressure, and I remember feeling unusually lightheaded one time and needed to drink some water. Mentally, I felt like I was in a slight brain fog, like my usual clarity and focus had become a bit muddy. Normally when I feel that way it's accompanied with (or caused by?) some anxiety or frustration about the way I feel, but that was absent now. I was a little bit unfocused but I also felt peaceful about that fact. It seemed as though the calculating, dominating, urgent male ego was diminished somewhat. Some of the brain fog could also have been explained by the difficulty I had falling asleep the first night.

Next I introduced the estrogen pills (estradiol). During this phase of the experiment, I seemed to have a more immediate, more vibrant experience of my emotions. I often feel relatively calm and peaceful, but now that emotional state was like a physical sensation that was coursing through my body. Normally in my interpersonal interactions I can remain patient and understanding, but it takes some energy; it's an effort I have to expend to stay in that place. Now, my patience was more natural, and there was an easy peace while waiting for something or listening to someone talk. It seemed like I had more curiosity and empathy. My libido was cut in half but overall I felt sexy. I noticed a different kind of softness looking back from the mirror one time and was fascinated by that.

I unexpectedly had the opportunity to smoke some cannabis the last night of the experiment, and I did so, and then I drove up into the mountains to camp. Where I would normally not even consider the idea of using my campstove outside on a cold night, this time it seemed like no big deal to bundle up, tediously unpack everything I'd need, and chop up and cook my vegetables and rice to create a nice meal for myself. The combination of THC and estrogen felt very warm and self-accepting. It was lovely, actually.

Going into the experiment, I was nervous that I might become so emotional that it would be difficult to focus at my job, but it was no problem and in fact I think the added patience made it easier to work efficiently and not be distracted by things. Being on estrogen did not make me unreasonably emotional. It also didn't make me feel more attracted to men or less attracted to women.

All in all, my time with estrogen was a positive experience. I felt pretty good when I was taking it. From what I read online, a lot of people who do hormone trials are strongly considering transitioning to another gender. I was never seriously considering that as something I wanted to do, but it did cause me to ask some other questions about myself and my relationship to gender.

None of the things I experienced were highly novel to me -- I had felt strongly emotional before, I had felt peaceful and patient before. But it reminded me of certain times in my life when I'd felt what I thought of as a feminine energy: gentle, graceful, sexy, loving, accepting. I realized that the hormones might take me to that place more immediately, but it's still an energy that I can access without needing to take hormones. I figured that if I give myself more permission to include those attributes in my life, I can learn to embody the "feminine" qualities that I resonate with.

In writing this report I am forced to ask the question: what is truly feminine, what is masculine, and what do those things mean? Furthermore -- what IS gender? Biological sex is one thing, but the concept of feeling like or being perceived as a man or a woman is more abstract than people like to think. Is gender just a code of behavior assigned based on how you're sorted into one of two groups? Is it like a mental/emotional/personality lens through which you view the world? It's something I still need to study more, but from the small amount of reading I've done it seems like both of these are possible descriptions of gender. I learned that gender was first distinguised from sex in 1955. (It's actually kind of amazing how much our collective understanding of gender and sexuality has evolved in 60 years.)

Opinions vary widely as to how much of our gender stereotypes are rooted in biological difference vs. socialization and culture. I have friends who heavily favor one of those perspectives or the other. Like most things in life I think it's somewhere in the middle: hormones and biology play a role in making a distinction between male and female brains and behavior patterns, but culture also imparts a lot of expectations that wouldn't be there otherwise, as can be readily observed by the fact that different cultures in different locations and time periods have had widely varying attitudes about how men and women should interact.

We might associate traits like empathy, gentleness, and nurturance with femininity, but why? What if men can naturally be just as in tune with these attributes, but our society trains them to be more dominant and stoic? How did these stereotypes arise? Why are they different here than they are in Africa or Asia?

Most importantly to me -- how do I want to define my own masculinity?

I've never felt proud to be male. As a Christian, I did my best to fulfill the masculine expectations, as the church is highly focused on gender roles and what it means to "be a man" and "be a woman", and I took that to heart along with everything else. But it always felt forced, and after I deconverted there was not as much pressure to be "manly". Maybe you've heard someone make a joke like "you're going to get your man card revoked for ordering that fruity drink!", as though manhood is a club and you can lose your membership by breaking the code of conduct. I have zero interest in belonging to that club. Most of the things popularly associated with being a man are either repulsive to me or have little relavance to my interests. At times growing up I was disgusted by certain important male influences in my life, the way they treated women, the way they used their male privilege to take what was not theirs, and the damage that these actions inflicted on me and my loved ones. Women have never hurt me or my family like men did. As a result of all this, I am generally more skeptical of men than women. I've always had a clear picture of the kind of man I don't want to be, but I've never formed a clear picture of what kind of man I do want to be.

What is the difference between asking "what kind of man do I want to be" and "what kind of person do I want to be"? The second question seems much easier for me to answer than the first. Why restrict what I can be to stay within the boundaries of manhood?

I think any time you ask a question like "what kind of man do you want to be" it automatically implies a division of men and women, and you're asking how you want to act in contrast with how women act; how you will act in groups of all men, and how you will interact with women (the "other"). If it is assumed that we all agree on what masculinity looks like, then "how will you be a man" is kind of a self answering question, isn't it? If "being a man" is a thing, then it must look a certain way, so it's already decided what it means to be a man and there's not much flexibility in answering the question. If being a man can look like anything, and being a woman can look like anything, then gender is not an important part of the equation and you'd just ask "what kind of person do you want to be?". Right? I mean I think that makes sense to me. I don't go around asking myself, "what kind of right-handed person do I want to become?" or "what kind of non-attached-earlobes person do I want to become?" My physical, genetic characteristics do not play that big of a role in determining how I want to treat people, what I want my lifestyle to be, how I want to impact the world, what things I enjoy, or what things I find rewarding and meaningful. The fact that I have a penis doesn't determine the way I want to live.

Maybe the real aim of the question is to ask: "Do you want to be a man?", and the implication of that question is: "Do you want to be the kind of man that society expects you to be?" Or maybe it's "how do you want to choose to apply the stereotypically masculine energy which I assume you possess?". Or, maybe there are multiple "masculine" archetypes that males are allowed to choose from, and the same for females. So the question is literally asking "which masculine role do you like?" Do you want to be strong and silent? Loud and dominating? Adventurous and wild? But if the roles of a man can vary significantly enough for the question "what kind of man" to be at all interesting, wouldn't there be a large overlap with the roles women play, making gender again irrelevant?

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from this hormone experiment was that my gender identity is really up to me to decide. It's mine to question. If being a man is really that terrible for me, if I think I'm more like a woman deep down, the option to transition is there. If I don't want to do that, I can still choose to identify as a non-binary gender or consider myself genderless. Or I can claim masculinity but choose to act however I please. I'm still not sure how I feel about it. My gender identity hasn't seemed very important to me and I don't feel strongly one way or another.

But the train of thought that I've been riding lately is: what would it look like if I embraced my own masculinity, despite the distorted cultural ideas surrounding what it means to be masculine? Can I find my own version of being a man that doesn't have any connection to the normal stereotypes but rather is defined only by what I make of it? Can I be peaceful, gentle, graceful, beautiful, empathetic, loving, fair, cooperative, nurturing, quiet, and masculine all at the same time? If so, what's the point of describing it as masculine? Can I be a man without using male privilege for personal gain at the expense of others? Does it actually help me in any way if I make peace with the idea of being masculine or should I just forget about it and pursue the qualities that I want to embody individually? If I want to help change the world so that patriarchal cultural norms lose their power and life is more fair for everyone, is it more powerful for me to identify as a man and show by example that we can act better than the stereotypes would have people believe, or is it more powerful to be someone who has the option to identify as a man but instead of accepting that privilege chooses to be distant from it? And ultimately, if both options are equally viable... which do I prefer?

When it comes down to it, I can't see the social construct of "masculine" as something that's not imaginary. So that makes it hard for me to be like YEAH I'M TOTALLY A DUDE. The trend in my life has usually been to discard systems of thought based around imaginary things, so I'm tempted to go that route again and say "I'm not a man and nobody really is because that's only a concept and not a real property of existence." Just like I don't call myself "a liberal" or "a metalhead" or "a hippie" because it doesn't make sense to constrain myself to any particular label.

As you can see, I may have come out of this trial with more questions than when I began. One certain result is that it encouraged me to embrace the attributes in myself that I have been trained to repress because they are too "feminine". And that's something helpful I can do for myself immediately, regardless of how I end up thinking about my gender. I want to be fully myself without fear of how my actions might be perceived as gendered, or what people will think if my behavior doesn't line up with what's expected of a man. I carry a lot of that subconsciously from my childhood but I want to break free and find the courage to explore my individual expression.

I can see now the utility of a word like "genderqueer". It's quite a wide umbrella term applying to anyone who doesn't identify with the gender that "matches" their biological sex: perhaps feeling like the opposite binary gender, or as a distinct non-binary gender, or as no gender, or shifting between genders, or any other non-traditional gender role. What am I exactly? I don't know, but I can say pretty confidently that I'm not comfortable playing the traditional masculine role. I don't seem to share many of the urges and inclinations of most of the males I interact with. So I could say I'm genderqueer. But what if I'm just misinterpreting the men around me, what if I'm projecting my painful impressions of masculinity onto them, what if the ugly traits of masculinity they display are actually only because they are pressured to adopt certain things and deep down they don't like it either? In that case I'm not unusual at all for a biological man, and the cultural stereotypes of masculinity are simply not well suited to the human experience.

Yeah, I think I feel comfortable enough with male pronouns, my male appearance, deepish voice, facial hair, broad shoulders etc. -- my body is pretty good, I like it well enough. I don't feel like it needs to be more female. Male is my sex, for sure, I have a penis, I have testes, I am fertile. Whatever. I might feel like female stereotypes align better with my worldview and personality and therefore wish I could be female gendered. But overall I don't want to honor the misguided constructs in any way. That's like saying, I've come to the conclusion that Christianity is wrong and religion is bullshit! Therefore I'm going to become a Hindu because I like their values better. That's a fair choice and plenty of people approach religion that way, but for me personally, it makes sense to just be an agnostic/atheist if you believe that religion is bullshit. And with gender I'm less mad about the specifics of male and female expectations, and more upset with the way that these expectations are seen as being of such fundamental importance, the way they are used to maintain power imbalances, the way they limit how people think of themselves and each other. It's the system that's the problem rather than the specific rules of the game.

I think gender is very fluid, gender being a very heavily loaded word representing ... your internal experience of your emotions interacting with the world and other people and how that drives you to live your life and express yourself? I guess? I'm really not sure what it represents. Maybe I'm kind of a gender atheist, it doesn't really exist as a thing that can be pointed at directly but rather we all have such widely varying attributes that trying to group personalities based on biological sex is a poor approximation of reality. In truth, everyone is genderqueer. Everyone is their own gender, because everyone has different experiences and emotions and interactions. Men don't all feel the same way about life and neither do women. Someone might happen to naturally fit the specific cultural notion of what a man or a woman should be, but that doesn't make them "normal" and everyone else "queer"; it just means that a broken clock is still right twice a day.

Maybe the solution isn't to identify myself as queer or abnormal. Maybe I'm profoundly normal in my individuality, and the point I want to make is: yeah I'm male physically but don't expect me to act "masculine" because that's such a narrow expectation, and why should I or anyone else be that way? It's a flawed construct and I don't like to imply that it is "normal" by calling myself "queer".

Someone will point out the part I said about how biological differences do have some effect. And I can agree that probably on average there is some difference in personality and action and preference between biological men and women. But I feel like it's a Venn diagram where the circles are 90% overlapping. You could take the extremes of each and say "there's the difference, there's what it means to be male and female!" but to imply that all members of a gender bear those attributes, or that an individual of one gender is significantly more likely than the other to bear those attributes, seems like a very poor prediction to the point that it's not useful or interesting anymore. To make such an assumption is to be unobservant of how complex people are, and to impose those differences on children can be harmful. Pretty much the only time it's useful is when collectively analyzing the behavior of large groups of men and women and looking for subtle differences in how they handle specific things. That's not a type of analysis that is often relevant to daily life.

OK -- I'll end this here. I have a lot of questions to think about, and I need to do some more thinking in order to unearth some of the questions which I will then need to think about more. So I don't have many answers at this point, but I thought I'd share my process. I'm very curious what other people think about this topic and what reactions you've had to my ideas, so please leave a comment or send me an email if you'd like to talk about this further.
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Thursday, August 3, 2017

Joe Omundson

Entering my 30s


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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Friday, July 7, 2017

Joe Omundson

Hitchhiking from Portland to Moab with heart infection symptoms and a stop at the Rainbow Gathering

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: surprise heart valve infection

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


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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Thursday, February 16, 2017

Joe Omundson

5 gram mushroom trip



At 10 AM I left town for the 25 mile drive into the desert. I traveled down gravel and dirt roads to a favorite campsite, one which doesn't see much traffic, on the edge of a beautiful canyon, dotted with scrubby juniper and big boulders, a playground for giants -- the same place I camped for my LSD trip. I spread crunchy peanut butter over a bagel and placed five grams of psilocybin mushrooms on top. I finished eating it by 11:15.


I did the usual things I do when I'm waiting for a trip to come on: organized my car camper, walked around, did some stretches and meditation. The most I'd taken before was 3.5 grams, and that was pretty intense, so I was prepared to get my world rocked. I had been preparing myself ever since I bought the mushrooms.

That purchase has an interesting story. It started by hitchhiking from Utah to Oregon and attending a music festival last summer. While I was there, at 3 in the morning I was resting in the "Snake Temple" and a young woman lay down next to me, and we held each other and talked for a while. That was pretty much our whole interaction, but we became Facebook friends, and 5 months later when I was traveling in California I visited her house which she shares with a community of ecstatic dancers. She and her partner sold me the mushrooms before I left, and I brought them back to Utah.

On a more abstract level, I arrived at this trip through the experiences of 20+ previous trips, my PCT hike, my move to Moab, and all the lessons I'd been learning in recent weeks. I probably felt a deeper level of self-acceptance and peace going into this trip than any other. I was mentally prepared, and I was in a beautiful place alone. I was confident that I would have a good experience even if things got intense.

The day was overcast, breezy, and a bit chilly, so I went into my car as the trip was starting and spent some time under my blankets. This was the period of self-calming through a maze of intense thoughts, some sad, some hilarious. I changed positions often, noticing discomforts and dwelling on them. I listened to music, halfway enjoying it. Eventually I slid onto my side and let go of what bothered me, melting into laughter and coziness. From there the trip got easier. I started addressing my needs and felt more positive, more able to venture out from my car and use my body.


Overall, I was a little surprised to find that my brain didn't melt any more than when I've taken 3 grams in the past. In fact, the most intense trip I'd had before was much crazier -- I'd thought I was living in a dream, that my body was somewhere else, and maybe that I had died and entered some kind of purgatory from which I would never escape. That was a difficult one, in a more chaotic setting. So although I was prepared to completely part with reality it never got to that point.

I opened the rear hatch and put on a really funky, dancy album by Opiuo, which sounded absolutely incredible, and I felt so happy walking around and dancing. I also listened to an ambient album by Secede which sounded magically intricate. I ventured farther from my car and entered a state of complete awe at my surroundings. In the hazy sunlight, the slickrock took on a pinkish hue, and was covered with colorful patches of lichen. I felt like I could stay there for a year and be happy. I wandered around slowly as though exploring a dream world, completely at peace, wondering at the beauty of all that my eyes took in.


The special thing about this trip was not a heightened intensity from taking a large dose, but the overwhelming sense of peace, wonder, and humility it provided. It was a highly spiritual experience, which was provided to me by another life form, a fungus, which has learned to create this chemical that has the ability to integrate my spirit with all of nature.

I began to consider the implications of this. I thought of how some fungi can infect ants and influence their actions so that they climb to a high point, where the fungus kills them and spreads its spores. I thought about how recent studies show that the microbiomes that permeate our bodies have direct links to neural inputs and play a large role in our health and happiness. I thought about how a network of mycelium permeates most of the soil on Earth, connecting plants, distributing nutrients; and how this is like a world-wide biological internet, a complex network, like a brain. In light of this I felt extremely humbled to be a mere human being.

Could it be that the greatest intelligence on Earth actually lies in the soil, in these vast networks of microbes? What if the mushrooms that create psilocybin are doing so intentionally with the knowledge that it will affect our thinking, much in the same way they can affect ants? The very fact that I was having these thoughts and developing a deep reverence for fungus after eating magic mushrooms seemed to validate the idea.

I don't necessarily believe the ideas that are about to follow, but I found them fascinating to consider. What if the development of human intelligence and spirituality has been an ongoing project of the fungus kingdom for thousands of years? What if they're intentionally raising us up from our meat-brained mammalian inferiority to be partners with them, so that one day we can build AI that is able to interface with them directly, or develop space travel that will allow all Earthly kingdoms of life to spread to other worlds? As a side effect, or perhaps as an integral part of the process, eating mushrooms helps us work through our personal anxiety, develop empathy for all living things, and live lives of greater connection, flexibility, and peace. As we come to respect and honor these creatures, it helps to ensure their survival and ours.

I also had a lot of thoughts about religion. I started to feel as though the consumption of psychedelic mushrooms might have been a contributing factor to the formation of most world religions. I thought of the story of the garden of Eden: God has created humans, and they are safe in the garden, but they don't know anything about good and evil, they only know they should obey without question. They are almost like robots or prisoners. Then here comes Satan, saying "don't you want to know for yourself? Here, eat this forbidden fruit and have your eyes opened." And maybe that fruit was mushrooms, expanding the minds of primitive creation.

And the funny thing is, I feel like Jesus has more in common with Satan than he does God. God so vehemently hated the rebellion and sinfulness of his creation, chose just one tribe to be "his" people and sent them to kill many others, destroyed the whole world in a flood, sent his people into slavery, allowed great suffering and set up rigid, barbaric rules for people to follow if they wanted to please him. The God of the Old Testament is just about the most misanthropic tyrant to exist in all of fiction. Then here comes Jesus, showing great compassion for the most sinful people, defying the traditions of the religious rulers, spreading ideas that made people question their previous beliefs, causing a major diversion from the Judaism that God had set up. Jesus seems more like an adversary of the Old Testament God rather than his son. Like Satan, he is not a "deceiver" but a revealer of truth to humankind, in protest of a vengeful and cruel God. They are both advocates of psychedelic thought.

Jesus's compassionate teachings seem to be in line with what mushrooms teach experientially. Eating this fungal "fruit of the Spirit" can help people grow in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. As a result of the times I've taken mushrooms in my life I feel much more empathetic, gentle, peaceful, and open-minded. Jesus lived an alternative lifestyle if ever there was one, going out into the desert for 40 days at a time, wandering around at the charity of other people, teaching his own beliefs in spite of the establishment and shaking up people's conceptions of the world. As I thought about these things I wondered if his story was inspired by eating mushrooms -- whether he existed as a historical figure or not.

All of this might seem like the talk of a crazy person, some real Terence McKenna shit that most people would reject as laughable. But that's exactly my point. By simply ingesting a certain biological entity, our minds can be made to see the world differently. Fungus is a powerful thing! This scares a lot of people and prevents them from trying it. "Sure Joe, you think mushrooms are so great because you took them and they messed with your mind, how can anyone trust what you're saying to be reliable? Maybe you're just crazy." That's a fair point because maybe a meth head thinks meth is great too. I guess you can only judge by the results you see in someone's life. What results do you see in the life of a meth user, in their spirit, versus mine? The result of taking psychedelics has encouraged me to find a place of greater peace and to pursue my individual goals. Even this may not be good evidence for the average person, since the trend in my life has been to distance myself from typical pursuits of career and security; but sometimes we need to let go of what society values in order to find what's healthy for us.


Am I making myself crazy? I don't think so, but I'm not very afraid of that anymore. Drugs aren't the only things that affect our brains. Before I tried mushrooms I expressed my fear of having my mind altered permanently to a friend; he said, "everything alters your mind. Even the words I am saying now." And it was true, because I never forgot those words.

Everything we encounter has a permanent effect on us, and we all live with neuroses and believe in some kind of insanity. Even if you try to keep everything in your life sterile and predictable and sane, you might develop dementia from having your brain locked into a routine! So, choose your poison. For my life, the benefits seem to far outweigh the risks. The emotional healing, fascinating insights, and vivid experiences are exactly what I'm passionate about in life, so for my goals it absolutely makes sense to take psychedelics. I will always be careful to treat them respectfully and not go too far overboard. So far, I feel like it has actually reduced my neuroses in lasting ways, rather than increased them.

I had two items which I kept outside of my car: a camp chair, and a gallon of water. My interaction with these things taught me a lesson. It was windy, so at first I set the gallon of water on the chair to keep it from falling over. But then a big gust came and blew it over anyway, knocking the chair into a puddle, sending the gallon crashing to the ground. Later, as I was sitting on the chair with the gallon on the ground next to me, I realized that keeping the water on the chair was symbolic: sometimes in life we perceive certain things to be valuable and stable, so we use them to hold down what we're afraid might topple. Yet this top-heavy arrangement can end in disaster when the unstable thing propping up the important thing succumbs to natural laws and collapses. And it's based in fear, in some assumption about the future that isn't necessarily true: I need to keep my chair and my water out here in the wind because I'm going to want to sit in it, so I better make sure it will be stable.

If I instead make the arrangement based on the present moment, when I am actually sitting in the chair, it leads to a more stable arrangement. The chair can't be prevented from falling over once I leave it, so I might as well leave the gallon of water on the ground and allow the chair to blow over. It will fall over harmlessly and my valuable water will be safe on the ground. Maybe an analogy of this is relationships: sometimes we are afraid to be alone, we love someone and we hope that in the future they will love us back and provide what we need. So we arrange our lives around that fear and that hope for the future, keeping ourselves available for them, trying to make plans that will lead to closeness. Yet by doing this we miss out on the organic energy that flows around the present day when we are not trying to push toward a future result, and this in fact prevents that desired future result from coming to pass, as we find that we are sacrificing self-care and pursuit of personal interests and this makes us less happy and attractive.

Toward evening, the sky cleared up partially, enough to allow a beautiful sunset. Though movement was nice, I chose to sit by a pothole full of water and meditate, letting action dissolve into rest. I looked into the water and saw a .22 shell casing, reached in and picked it up. I saw several more and thought to gather them, but wondered whether my hand's contact with the fragile ecosystem had more potential to cause harm than the empty casings remaining there. So I held the single casing in my open palm as I sat restfully, acknowledging it, making it an offering. What has been done cannot be undone, and to fixate anxiously on it only makes it worse. The direction is peace and acceptance, humility and love.


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