Opening Letters

COLUMN: Good Habits, Bad Timing

self-care tips you might keep in your back pocket for the next plague

Eric Rasmussen, illustrated by Lydia "Nibs" Noble |

Let’s talk about the worst year in human history. Believe me, it was rough. Tough decisions were made in the pursuit of health and survival. Those who persisted will forever wear the completion of this 12 stretch like a merit badge. They dug deep and they endured.

I’m referring, of course, to the year 536.

What a doozy it was! A cataclysmic volcano in Iceland blanketed the planet in a mysterious fog. It snowed all summer. Crops died. The resulting famine set the stage for bubonic plague outbreaks that decimated the Roman Empire, leading to its collapse. Also that year, Netflix canceled all its most popular shows, there was a huge toilet paper shortage, and EVERYONE had to postpone their vacations. It cannot be stated any clearer than this: 536 A.D. sucked.

2020 was pretty bad, too. But while marveling at how people survived 536 can offer hours of historical fun, I’d like to make a prediction: We will stop talking about 2020 as soon as possible. Continuing to review why it was so terrible will start to feel like a Christmas tree left up in February. The time has come to move on.

But before I toss my 2020 in the wood chipper, there’s something I need to do. This past year I developed strategies for coping in the face of the closures, quarantines, divisive politics, racial violence, murder hornets, and everything else. And who knows – 2023 might be super crappy. 2027 might be worse. If I can keep up some of what I’ve learned, I might thank myself later.

eric rasmussen

But before I toss my 2020 in the wood chipper, there’s something I need to do. This past year I developed strategies for coping in the face of the closures, quarantines, divisive politics, racial violence, murder hornets, and everything else. And who knows – 2023 might be super crappy. 2027 might be worse. If I can keep up some of what I’ve learned, I might thank myself later.

But maintaining good habits takes a ton of work, so of all of my 2020 self-care endeavors, I’m only keeping one, and I’ve narrowed it down to two candidates.

First, I learned how to meditate.

I’m sure you’re picturing me ascending a mountain in Tibet, rags on my feet, walking staff in my hand, seeking the ancient art of mindfulness from a long-forgotten sect of Buddhist monks. But it wasn’t quite like that. My journey involved downloading an app, then forgetting to delete it before the annual subscription fee kicked in. This was back in March, when we still thought breathing too deeply around our grocery bags would kill us, and my family desperately needed some emotional soothing. Every day at 4pm, we shuffled into the basement, where I put a YouTube video on the TV of a babbling brook, and we all laid on the floor and listened to a satin-voiced gentleman explain how to pay attention to our shoulder muscles.

Since then, my 10- and 12-year-old have shunned the ancient art of connecting Bluetooth speakers to their phones so a stranger could direct them to the secrets of existence. But I’ve kept it up, and it’s helped me fall asleep, navigate stress, and detach from the anxiety of an increasingly digital life.

For my second 2020 coping strategy, I got really into alcohol.

Allow me to explain.

The pull to “drink the pandemic away” has become a bit cliché, but that’s not the sort of boozing I dabbled in. Instead, I became a Scotch whiskey collector. It’s like Pokémon cards for grown-ups. For a few years, I’ve attended the Chippewa Valley Whiskey Club, which meets monthly at Coffee Grounds or Mousetrap (when not on COVID hiatus), where I learned to swirl tiny servings of the beverage around silly looking glasses while commenting on its “nose” and “mouth feel.” Then, when I found myself this spring with loads of extra time and all my unspent spring break cash, spirits-as-a-hobby felt like a winning diversion.

My whiskey friends were thoroughly impressed.

My wife was not.

So, as we open the calendar onto 2021, this is where I find myself. Whiskey or meditating? Despite my adherence to the surgeon general’s recommendations for weekly alcohol consumption, mediating is the healthier choice. But it doesn’t offer the thrill of finding a new gem for the collection, nor is there as much opportunity for social connection. Both pursuits contain the potential for pretension, whether I’m waxing on the sulfur, grass, and blackberry notes of a particular Clynelish malt, or insisting the world’s problems would be solved if we all just breathed deeply for a few minutes. The memories prompted by each of these options helped me survive a really tough year, and I wouldn’t give any of them back, no matter what.

Someday, 2020 will feel like history instead of memory, even to many of us who lived through it, and this is what I shall keep in mind as I make this decision. Like my ancestors in the days of 537, I shall lay on a yoga mat, sipping a dram of 19-year-old Glenlossie, until I get this figured out.