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The Sweet Spot Inside Your Head

There’s still turkey hanging around in my fridge, but Thanksgiving is in the rear view IMG_0886mirror, Christmas on the horizon. In the twilight zone between sleeping and waking this morning, a mental readout of the tasks that need to be completed in the next few weeks flashes by like a mileage sign on the highway. Suddenly I realize I haven’t written a November post and it’s the last day of the month.

Gripped by a sense of urgency with potential topics doing the jitterbug inside my head, I catch myself an instant before I pour tea over my oatmeal. That’s a good thing for two reasons: I didn’t have to toss out my oatmeal, and the near miss helped me put the brakes on the Runaway Brain Train.

If you’ve read my posts over the last several years, you know I am fascinated by discoveries about the brain. Neuroscience and related fields are producing a cascade of information about how and why certain things happen in our heads. That notion that we only use about ten percent of our brains turns out to be a myth, but a lot of pretty crazy discoveries grounded in solid science have recently emerged.

Thanks to David Rock’s Your Brain at Work, I know what’s happening inside my head at a chemical level as I narrowly avert that breakfast disaster. And I also know what to do about it. In simplest terms, the urgency I felt about the unwritten post produced a flood of dopamine and norepinephrine in my brain. Dopamine is released when the brain encounters novelty, something unexpected or new. Norepinephrine, also known as noradrenaline, shows up when we are fearful. Too little of this dynamic duo and we’re bored; too much and we’re anxious and stressed. It turns out there’s a sweet spot where that mix is just right. And peak performance, whether mental or physical, depends on hitting that sweet spot.

Back to the near miss with the oatmeal. As I set the teapot aside I realize I’ve blown right by the sweet spot. Now the most urgent task is to reduce the torrent of dopamine and norepinephrine to a more reasonable trickle. David Rock suggests some easy strategies to accomplish this: go for a walk or spend a few minutes focusing only on sounds, for instance. I chose the latter because I had a warm bowl of oatmeal waiting. The main thing is to be mindful of what’s happening in your head. Of course, as longtime researcher John Teasdale wrote: “What’s difficult is to remember to be mindful.” In this, as in so many things, practice makes perfect.

Dopamine and norepinephrine may not be the only chemicals we can change in our brains. Social psychologist Amy Cuddy claims that changing your body language changes the mix of testosterone and cortisol. Although the research remains controversial, if you haven’t watched Cuddy’s TED talk about the chemical effects of the Wonder Woman pose, cue it up now. There’s a reason why it’s the second most viewed TED talk to date.

Neuroscience also tells us that our brains devour glucose and oxygen at a phenomenal rate. Which means once you’re hungry, high level intellectual work is temporarily off the table. We all sort of know that instinctively, but it’s been verified in the lab as well.  So I’m heading down to make a turkey sandwich. Oh, and one more thing—that whole turkey, tryptophan, sleepiness connection that someone’s Aunt Mildred always brings up on Thanksgiving? That’s a myth too.

Take Your Brain for a Walk

IMG_0886As the dog and I took our three-to-four-mile daily jaunt this morning, I realized there is a great deal of similarity between dog walking and my writing work. Sounds strange, I know, but keep reading.

Without a long walk every day, I can’t live with Harley, my hyperactive two-year-old German Shepard/terrier mix. Harley gives me a pass only for pouring rain or a blizzard, neither of which has occurred very frequently of late here in drought-stricken California. My enthusiasm for our walk waxes and wanes, but by the time we return my mind is clear and my body feels better too.

In a similar vein, I have a hard time living with myself if I don’t work on one of my current writing projects every day. (Unless I’m on an awesome trip, like my recent expedition to Iceland.) Frequently my mind is muddled when I sit down; instead of a definitive path there’s a faint trail obscured by a jungle of doubt and uncertainty. Shaping my thoughts into some organized form is about as pleasant as the first half mile of Harley’s walk—which is to say, not pleasant at all. And yet when my scheduled writing time is over, my mind is clearer and as long as I remember to get up and stretch every hour, I feel better physically too.

Walking Harley and writing are both forms of exercise. It would be easy to categorize the two activities as serving two entirely different functions—one focused on the body, the other on the brain. Yet research shows that physical health and mental health are inextricably linked, that physical exercise benefits the brain, and by the same token, mental exercise benefits the body. Don’t believe me? Here are two articles, one from Harvard Medical School and the other from the New York Times, and a couple of books, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, and Brain Rules, that discuss these findings.

Scientists are quick to point out that they’re not sure yet whether one form of exercise benefits the brain more than others, so for now, I’ll stick with dog walking, plus seasonal extras like hiking and cross country skiing. There’s also debate about the types of mental activities that foster physical well-being. Research performed at the University of Texas by Dr. James Pennebaker shows that writing can provide both psychological and physiological benefits, and work done in New Zealand shows that writing can lower cortisol levels and boost immune function. Stay tuned for further developments around this topic.

Two final notes before I head off with Harley. First, if you’re still reading this—yay!—and thank you. I’ve been blogging for more than five years now, and even when it feels like I’m just talking to myself, I enjoy it. Of course, I hope you’ve found an interesting or entertaining tidbit along the journey with me. And second, I’m always on the lookout for great blogs, and I recently discovered a winner called Brain Pickings. It’s written weekly by Maria Popova, the Futures of Entertainment Fellow at MIT. Smart stuff for smart people. That’s you, right?

Food Fight

Today I’m reporting from the front lines of the Eat Locally and Eat Seasonally movements that have swept the country, including the mountain hamlet I call home. The best and most obvious path to local and seasonal eating is, of course, to grow your own vegetables, but here at 8,000 feet almost no one does so with any measure of success. Fortunately, fresh-from-the-field produce is now delivered to Mammoth Lakes weekly from small farms located near Fresno. There are countless articles, videos, and television shows extolling the virtues of eating locally and/or seasonally—gold stars and a macramé plant hanger for those who do both!—but it’s not all heirloom tomatoes and tiny, tasty carrots. Below I’ve detailed what I have discovered to be the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly about local and seasonal eating.

IMG_0886The Good: The fruits and vegetables I buy weekly from Abundant Harvest Organics are picked one day and trucked to my town the next. I don’t get to choose what’s in my box; the farmers do that for me. But I can add items I want or want more of. If they’re, you know, seasonal. The melons are sweet, the basil is fragrant, and how about that heirloom white eggplant! In short, buying locally grown, pesticide and herbicide-free produce has never been easier, and cutting out the supermarket middleman keeps prices reasonable.

The Bad: I’m almost ashamed to admit it, but sometimes I have a hankering for something out of season. I know pomegranates rather than peaches are in season, but that doesn’t keep me from wanting a peach. Also, I’m obligated to cook what’s in my box since I draw the line at throwing food away (okay, except for one item—see below). But what if I’m not feeling like patty pan squash again this week? Sometimes the siren song of the local Von’s store is more tempting than others. The plus side of this issue is that I’m learning to use items I normally wouldn’t buy, like lemongrass. And Abundant Harvest provides recipes for whatever’s in the box that week, which is a good thing since I didn’t have a clue what to do with that lemongrass.

The Ugly: Two words: lemon sorrel. In the summer I also buy greens from a local organic farmer, and “tart, assertive” lemon sorrel appeared in my bag week after week. I tried using it sparingly in salads, but it pretty much overpowers all the other greens. According coverto an article in the Huffington Post, during the Middle Ages, before Europeans had access to citrus fruit, sorrel was used to lend a sour flavor to dishes. And “sour” is by far the best adjective for this leafy green. The article went on to say that “Sorrel has been making a comeback.” Not in my kitchen. I confess that more than one bunch went straight to the trash.

So, lemon sorrel aside, what are the takeaways from all this? Supporting local, family-owned organic farms is a good thing and so is learning to cook with the seasons. Eating locally and seasonally is not necessarily more convenient, though. There are, for example, no prewashed greens in handy bags or plastic containers. But perhaps putting convenience ahead of health and taste is where we started going wrong years ago.

 

Joyful or Joyless?

In the fall of 2012, I wrote about lessons I’d learned from backpacking over the summer—the most important being to ditch everything but the absolute essentials. When I applied that same idea to the stuff in my house, I was surprised how much the clean-out IMG_0886binge lifted my spirits. My own experience suggests that the title of Marie Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, is spot on. And since Kondo’s book became a bestseller almost immediately, I guess I’m not the only one who’s discovered that de-cuttering clears minds as well as living spaces.

Last year, my husband and I took the additional step of downsizing our living arrangements. While we didn’t join the small house movement by any means, downsizing nevertheless necessitated an even more rigorous round of tidying up. And it wasn’t just clutter that had to go, but pretty much half of everything we owned—the piano, most of our big furniture, bric-a-brac, even tools and garage items. If you’re part of a household in which the garage is sacrosanct, you can imagine the angst that caused.

Space is at a premium in our home now, which means anything we buy has to be evaluated on the basis of three questions: Do we really need it? Is there space for it? And even if there is, will we use it enough to justify the space it will occupy? If two of three questions get thumbs down, we pass on the purchase. I won’t claim we’re clutter free, but we’re definitely living lighter than we have in the past.

For those of us embarking on the final third of our lives, there’s an added benefit to de-cluttering and tidying up: everything we dispose of now means less for children or other loved ones to deal with after we’re gone. If you’ve cleaned out a house or apartment belonging to a deceased relative, you already know how physically and emotionally exhausting it is to sift through their belongings and decide what to save, what to donate, and what to throw away. Doing some of that now will be a tremendous gift to those who survive you.

Marie Kondo urges us to ask a single question of every item in our homes: Does it spark coverjoy? I’d never thought of the stuff I own in those terms, and I was shocked at how much of it sparked anxiety rather than joy. Once I’d separated the joyful from the joyless, bagging the latter up for the thrift shop became a breeze.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is available on Amazon. So is my novel, Yard Sale.

The Wild Year

They’re here in droves this year, their dirty clothes, matted hair, and body odor badges of honor in the quest to conquer the Pacific Crest Trail. The PCT, which stretches 2,663 miles between the Mexican and Canadian borders, is the Holy Grail for long-distance hikers, and our little town of Mammoth Lakes has historically been a resupply point for PCTers. This year the usual trickle of hikers has turned into a deluge thanks to Cheryl Strayed and Reese Witherspoon.

Cheryl Strayed’s book, Wild: Lost and Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, charts the course of her journey on the PCT. Reese Witherspoon, looking better after what is supposed to be a couple of months on the trail than most of us do after a couple of days, plays Strayed in the recent movie. Think Eat, Pray, Love on the PCT and you’ll get the gist of Strayed’s memoir.

Most of those who tackle the PCT spend months, if not years, researching, training, and preparing for the hike. Strayed, by her own admission, made a few trips to REI and hit the trail in boots a size too small with a ridiculously overloaded backpack. She ran out of water, got lost, and trashed her feet—all in the first weeks of her three-month journey—but she shrugs off a long list of poor decisions with a “Gee, it was bad, but I survived,” attitude. At one point, a woman with whom she became friends on the trail nicknamed Strayed the “hapless hiker,” an understatement if there ever was one.

Strayed had a history of risky behavior that included heroin use before she took to the trail. But on the PCT, or anywhere in the backcountry for that matter, risky behavior by a single individual puts others at risk as well. Every year search and rescue teams from California to Washington are called out to locate and extract lost, injured, and, in some cases, dead hikers from the PCT. Often those extractions take place in rough terrain that endangers the lives of rescuers. While accidents can happen to the most prepared of hikers, more often than not, it’s stupid decisions like those made by Strayed that trigger a rescue operation.

Based on what I’ve seen and heard so far, the Wild year is going to set some records. Reports indicate that large groups of people—eighteen in one case—are hiking together, something the PCT was never meant to accommodate. Despite the fact that hikers are supposed to pack out every piece of trash, from toilet paper to peach pits, litter on the trail has increased substantially. Stops where PCTers have historically been allowed to camp are taking in the welcome mat, and it’s hard to blame them. Conquering nature, rather than enjoying and appreciating it as sacred space, has become the dominant metaphor; Bear Grylls has replaced John Muir.

I’m sure Cheryl Strayed did not intend to spawn the kind of destructive behavior we’re seeing on the PCT this year, but if the trend continues, more stringent regulations will inevitably follow. Which raises a fundamental question: To what extent can we regulate wilderness areas against overuse and abuse before they’re no longer wild?

If you’re interested in exploring that question further, find a copy of Roderick Nash’s classic, Wilderness and the American Mind. Or if you want more about the Sierra Nevada, minus the copious navel gazing in Strayed’s work, read John Muir’s My First Summer in the Sierra. (It’s less than a dollar on Amazon.) Both of those books, as well as my novel, Yard Sale, are available at Amazon.

In Praise of Great Teachers

This past week, a Facebook friend from high school posted the obituary for Margurette Troutman, an English teacher who impacted the lives of hundreds of students in Tyler, Texas during her long career. Mrs. Troutman’s unwavering intellect allowed no room for sloppy thinking or laziness, and, as an English teacher myself, I now know that she worked even harder than we did. In his post about Mrs. Troutman, Gene Barron wrote: “Very few ever possess such a Gift for reaching high school students at this difficult point in Life.” Again, having walked in her shoes, I know the truth of that statement.

Gene and I also chatted about other two other terrific teachers we shared in junior high: Twila Kimbrough and Mrs. Hendrix. That we remember these three women and the difference they made in our lives more than forty years later pretty much says it all.

Mrs. Kimbrough, in particular, played a critical role in my life. She was my English teacher twice during junior high, and she became a friend and mentor I continued to visit after I’d moved on to high school. Years passed, and though I thought of her often we lost touch until 2006, when I was preparing for a trip to South Africa. In preparation for that journey, I pulled out my battered, seventh-grade copy of Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country, which we studied with Mrs. Kimbrough. Rereading it, I was struck by the degree to which the book and her teaching had shaped my thinking about discrimination and inequality, and I marveled at the courage it took to teach that material in Texas during the early seventies, when racism was still very much a part of the air we breathed.

In our exchange of messages about this trio of amazing teachers, Gene wrote that it seemed less certain “one would get three or more enlightened English teachers in a public school system in Texas in 2015. I hope and pray, however, that those teachers exist outside elite private schools.” I’m hoping and praying along with Gene, because great teachers and life-changing classroom experiences should be part of every student’s education, not just those who attend elite private schools.

As a final note: after finishing Cry the Beloved Country again, I felt I had to find Mrs. Kimbrough and tell her that I am a different—better—person because of her teaching. Thanks to the Internet, I located her, and we have enjoyed several years of lively correspondence. She expressed gratitude that I’d gotten in touch. I assured her the gratitude was all mine.

My novel, Yard Sale, is available at Amazon.

Stranger than Fiction

The Wolfpack,” director Crystal Moselle’s documentary that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last month, is proof positive that truth is indeed stranger than fiction. Moselle’s film tells the story of six brothers who were locked inside their family’s shabby four-bedroom apartment on Manhattan’s Lower East Side from infancy to adolescence. Their father held the only key to the front door, and he kept it locked. Some years the boys were allowed outside three or four times, other years not at all.

The Angulo boys were home schooled by their mother. In their free time, they were allowed to watch movies nonstop on DVDs their father bought at a discount or borrowed from the library. By Moselle’s reckoning, the boys have seen upwards of 5,000 movies.

Initially the movies provided the Angulo brothers a means of escape from their crowded apartment. They transcribed the scripts of their favorite films and acted them out. Costumes were constructed from thrift shop clothing; props fashioned from materials scrounged in the apartment. Reservoir Dogs and The Dark Knight Rises were two of their favorite films, largely because there were enough parts to go around.

As the boys became adolescents, the movies assumed another role.

In one of the pivotal scenes from the film, Batman stands tall against the dull light filtering through a grimy window. “Wearing this costume gave me the courage to go outside,” Bhagavan Angulo says solemnly. As the camera gradually zooms in, you realize the black mask is papier-mâché and Batman’s weapons are cardboard and aluminum foil. The vest, he reveals a moment later, is made of yoga mats cut and sewn together.

At their best, movies entertain, enlighten, and perhaps disturb us. It is rare indeed that a film manages to do all three, but Moselle pulls it off. She allows the boys to tell the story; there is no narration, no judgment save theirs—and yours as you watch. Which is part of what makes the movie so compelling.

“The Wolfpack” captured the grand jury prize for best documentary at Sundance and will begin playing in theaters on June 12. In the meantime, check out the brothers reenacting scenes from one of their recent favorites, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” on Facebook.

My novel, Yard Sale, is available at Amazon.

Missed Opportunities

I struggled up Lake Mary Road on my cross-country skate skis, heart pounding, breath sawing in and out of my lungs. For the hundredth or so time, I wondered what had possessed me to take up skate skiing—a full-body, intensive cardio workout even on a day when the snow didn’t feel like carpet under my skis.

Just as I thought about tossing in the towel, I heard my swim coach’s ear-piercing two-finger whistle interspersed with shouts of encouragement in my head. Johnny Griffith has been dead for close to forty years, but it’s still his voice I hear when I need it most.

Johnny was brutally honest with me about my potential as a competitive swimmer. “You’re not the most talented kid in the pool,” he said, “but you don’t have to be. You just have to want it more than anyone else.” Johnny also had all sorts of nuggets he’d share right before it was time to climb on the starting block. “Remember,” he’d say, “the fastest girl in your heat puts her suit on one leg at a time, just like you do.”

Johnny’s encouragement and his belief in me influenced more than my competitive swimming career; it changed my life. I learned how to persist even when the odds of succeeding were long. I learned how to find that last bit of energy even when I thought the tank was empty. And I learned that giving it all you’ve got matters more than winning. Those lessons stuck, and I’m a different person because of Johnny.

I quit swimming in high school, and then left for college without telling Johnny how much he meant to me. By the time I really understood the impact he’d had on my life, he was gone. And the saddest part is I know how much a few words would have meant to him, because students I taught and mentored have come back to tell me what a difference I made for them.

I hope every kid out there has a Johnny Griffith in his or her life—a parent, a teacher, a covercoach, or a neighbor who provides the kind of support and encouragement that changes a life. And I hope if you have or had a person like that in your life, you thank them for being there. I missed that opportunity with Johnny, but I promised myself I’d never make that mistake again. Maybe that was the most important lesson of all.

My novel, Yard Sale, is available on Amazon.

Just Write

“I’ve always wanted to write.” If I had a nickel for every person who’s said that to me, I’d be a wealthy woman. When the people who make that comment are strangers, I don’t have a chance to inquire further about their literary aspirations. But if friends and acquaintances express an interest in writing, each time I see them I ask whether they’ve made any progress. Of that group, only three people have started and finished writing projects. The sad truth, I’ve concluded, is that few of those who say they want to write actually follow through. There are valid reasons for this, some of which I’ll explore below. On the other hand, research has supplied some surprising reasons to persevere.

Finding time to write is the most daunting obstacle for many of us. We tend to see writers as people who somehow manage to carve out big blocks of time to work, and few of us are able to do that. But that picture is less than true than ever before. Writers I know work on airplanes, in hotel rooms, in doctor’s waiting rooms. Accepting that it’s a matter of making time to write, whenever and wherever, is the first step in the journey. I’m not suggesting this is easy, but, as novelist Margaret Atwood says: “If you’re waiting for the perfect moment you’ll never write a thing because it will never arrive.”

The second obstacle is as much cultural as it is personal. We live in a world that offers unlimited distraction. The Internet beckons twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Our phones and tablets play music and movies and provide entire libraries at the swipe of a fingertip. Yet creative endeavors require a certain amount of quiet and mental, if not physical, privacy. There are still places we can find quiet and privacy even in a noisy, distracting world, but I am concerned that our capacity for relative silence, with no company save our own thoughts, is diminishing. And to the extent that we allow that trend to continue, artistic pursuits of every stripe will suffer.

Let’s assume—and it’s a big assumption, I know—that you find time and mental space to begin a writing project. Then, one day early in the undertaking, you stare at what you’ve written, and you realize your sentences are flat, your words forced. You find absolutely nothing redeeming in the work you’ve done. Meet obstacle number three: the bestseller complex.

The New York Times bestseller list has long been the Holy Grail for writers. We all want to drink from that cup, and there’s nothing wrong with aspiring to greatness—unless it keeps you from writing. Like the fledgling painter who gives up because she’s never going to rival Monet or Van Gogh, many of us stop writing because our work will never equal that of our favorite authors. It’s a lousy excuse, but—and here I speak from personal experience—it can be the toughest to overcome.

By now you’re probably thinking it would be easier to scale Mt. Everest than take on a writing project. But before you abandon the idea, consider what Dr. James Pennebaker at the University of Texas has discovered about writing. For nearly 20 years, Pennebaker, a psychology professor, has studied the beneficial effects of expressive writing. Pennebaker used writing as a vehicle for students, and later for patients, to articulate thoughts and feelings about stressful events or emotional upheavals. Pennebaker’s work, and that of researchers in New Zealand, has shown that writing can improve the function of the immune system, help physical injuries heal faster, boost mood, and reduce the severity of asthma attacks.

But you don’t need to be stressed out or dealing with a traumatic event to benefit from writing—even blogging has been shown to produce positive psychological and physiological effects. Researchers are currently exploring the neurobiology of the writing process, and at this point, the leading theory is that it triggers dopamine release in the brain, as do activities such as listening to music and running.

So forget the Great American Novel. Find fifteen minutes, shut down your browser, and silence your phone. Write a paragraph about the latest run-in you had with your crusty neighbor or blog a few hundred words about a movie or book you loved (or hated). Put aside any preconceived notions you may have about quality and quantity and just write. Because the act of writing itself is therapeutic—good for your brain and good for your body.

The essay above appeared in the Winter 2014 edition of the Austin College Magazine. My novel, Yard Sale, is (still) available on Amazon.

The Importance of Being Prepared

Earlier this month, I participated in Mammoth Medical Missions three-day Mass Casualty Seminar. Below is the feature article I wrote about my experience that appeared in the September 18 issue of the Mammoth Times

Blood spurted from the femoral artery of our first victim as I applied pressure and Katie Dease tightened the tourniquet on his upper thigh. Our team leader, third-year medical student Jayce Porter, had already established an airway and was inserting a second chest tube. In the aftermath of the 6.8 magnitude earthquake that had rocked Mono County moments before, we knew this was just the beginning.

We’d barely stabilized the first patient when the lights went out in the operating room and our second casualty arrived. He’d sustained crush injuries to his lower torso, including a broken pelvis, and he wasn’t breathing. Katie and I bound the victim’s pelvis by the light of our headlamps with the only thing we could find—a surgical gown—while Jayce once again worked to restore breathing.

The noise swelled in volume. The smoke was so thick we could barely see those working a few feet away. Friends and family members clamored for information about their loved ones, adding to the chaos. And then the team leader at one of the other operating tables suffered a mental breakdown and fell to the floor, taking an entire tray of surgical instruments with him.

Forty-five minutes after the first victims had reached the operating room, the lights flicked on, the screeching stopped, and Dr. Mike Karch called time on the mass casualty simulation drill that capped the three-day seminar put on by Mammoth Medical Missions. Still breathing hard, I glanced at the watery red puddle under the operating table and wondered if a real victim would have survived our fumbles with the tourniquet. As I dropped my mask, someone threw the doors of the cadaver trailer open to let the smoke out.

I wasn’t sure exactly what I was in for when I signed up for the third annual Mammoth Mass Casualty Seminar, which was held at Eagle Lodge, September 10-12. Because medical and emergency services personnel receive continuing education credits for the program, I knew most of the participants would probably fall into one of those two categories. But I figured I could learn something valuable, even if a lot of the material went over my head.

We spent the first day listening to a fast-paced series of lectures on topics ranging from the innovations in military medicine and how they’re impacting civilian mass casualty treatment to the legal ramifications of rescue under California law. Some of the medical jargon eluded me, but in general the material was very accessible, even to someone lacking formal training.

Best takeaways from that first day? I loved the light, flexible Goal Zero solar panels Scott McGuire showed us, and Dr. Sierra Bourne’s nugget about treating infected wounds with honey (ideally medical grade, but in a pinch you can use what you’ve got in the kitchen) in the absence of antibiotics was a real revelation.

On day two, we began putting into practice what we’d learned in the lectures. In small groups, with multiple instructors per group, we rotated through seven stations where we worked on skill sets critical in a mass casualty situation. My group started outside with the basics of setting up a field hospital, complete with operating room, in an austere environment. Next we moved into the cadaver lab, where we practiced our ABCs, assessing and treating issues with Airway, Breathing, and Circulation, on the amazing Worldpoint Cut Suit. No one was allowed to be a shrinking violet—I took my turn inserting breathing and chest tubes alongside the doctors and nurses in my group.

Down the line, as we prepared to treat compartment syndrome on a cadaver, Dr. Richard Brown polled the group in regard to their medical expertise. When I admitted I had none, he slapped the scalpel in my hand and said, “You’re up first.” And yeah, I sliced a little deep the first time, mainly because other than accidentally cutting myself with a kitchen knife, I‘d never applied a blade to human skin before. But I learned, and in an extreme situation I now know I could perform the procedure if I had to.

On the final day of the seminar, the rubber really met the road. Participants were divided into three teams, and we cycled through three one-hour simulations while the instructors critiqued our performance.

Our team began by constructing a fully operational field hospital from scrap lumber, while simultaneously maintaining order in the distraught “crowd” clamoring for immediate treatment.

In our second rotation, we performed triage and treatment on a group of earthquake “victims” that included civilians, as well as Forest Service personnel. All of them delivered very vocal, Oscar-worthy performances.

And then it was our turn to experience the chaos of the cadaver trailer. Early in the seminar, Dr. Karch mentioned that simulations like the one I described at the beginning of this article have been shown to raise alpha-amylase levels in participants’ saliva just as real-life traumatic events do. Based on my own reactions, I have no trouble believing those findings.

Several people asked why I’d chosen to spend three days immersing myself in the nitty-gritty of dealing with a mass casualty scenario. The obvious answer—at least it’s obvious to me—is that as many of us as possible need to be prepared for such a situation.

We live in a relatively remote area with one way in and one way out. Given our location, earthquakes top the list of disasters we’re likely to experience, but wildfires, airplane or bus crashes, and school shootings are also distinct possibilities.

Few of us want to dwell on these horrific scenarios. But thinking them through and acting them out actually lessened my anxiety because I feel more confident about my ability to cope with such a situation. Next year’s Mammoth Mass Casualty Seminar is scheduled for September 24-26. I can’t think of a more important way to spend three days.