by Lili Loofbourow
I am an oblivious person. I don’t notice things that bother me.
That doesn’t mean I live a happy, contented life, or that I’m never bothered. I am bothered, I just don’t realize it. If my kitchen is messy, for example, which is often, I do not prepare food in it. That may sound like perfectly logical behavior, but logic plays no part in what is actually a series of competing impulses. The way I experience not-cooking as a function of kitchen messiness is as a Thing That Happens Over and Over Until I Start To Wonder If There’s a Correlation. It’s not a decision I’ve made; rather, it’s a behavior I have observed, as if I were my own lab rat. Never have I said to myself, “This kitchen strikes me as unhygienic. I don’t want any food that’s prepared in here. Maybe I should clean up.” Instead, I get up in the morning and blearily imagine making breakfast. Somehow it doesn’t seem appealing, so I don’t. Later I think about breakfast again, and it seems just as unappetizing. Then it’s 2:00 in the afternoon and I have a migraine from not eating. Am I conscious of how this came to pass? I am not.
Luckily, I live with someone who brings these things to my attention, and the best advice I received this year was from him. Weary of finding me an insomniac mess in the morning — often because I’d been cold all night because I went to bed with wet hair, for example — my boyfriend has made me a list of questions I need to ask myself at regular intervals. It’s a simple list and has proven very effective. My life is better because of it. Here is the list:
1. Am I cold?
2. Am I wet?
3. Am I hungry?
(Incidentally, while typing those questions out, I realized the answer to #1 was Yes, so I have relocated to the closet where I do most of my work and have turned on the space heater.)
It’s a good list, but my need for it makes it hard not to feel like a defective animal. I’ve thought about this a lot, about how I lost my body’s ability to signal to itself (assuming I ever had it). I have guesses, of course. I think a cultivated unconsciousness is a way of getting myself to do things I don’t want to do. (Because the fact is I don’t do things I don’t want to do. I’m lazy and willful. Therefore, the best solution for people like me is to trick ourselves, to not notice that we don’t want to do the things that need doing.)
I don’t notice, for example, that being in front of people takes a lot out of me. If I did, I might be forced to reevaluate my profession (I teach), or to find some real coping mechanisms, like exercise. Instead I teach, enjoy it immensely, and nurse the migraine that blooms by the time I get home. Is this repression? Some sort of complex? It feels more muscular, less tormented. I like teaching. I find it risky and enriching and — when done right — incredibly rewarding. That’s probably why I also unconsciously dread it. One of the truths my generation seems to miss is that anxiety can coexist with — and even intensify — enjoyment. Instead, we turn the volume down. We medicate, psychiatrically or psychologically. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s the uncritical pathologizing that seems problematic; anxiety, like stress and pain, does have positive value.) I do, too. The upshot is that I don’t realize I’m tired unless my eyes are closing, or that I’ve been stressed until a migraine retroactively tells me so. Historically, I’ve been fine with this. It’s frankly maladaptive to notice when you’re tired or stressed — you have to get the thing done, so what use it is to notice that you’re sleepy? Push that out of your conscious awareness until it goes away!
That’s the universalizing explanation I’ve come up with; that’s my sense of how I participate in The Way We Live Now. And yet, I’m not convinced that mindfulness — my generation’s answer to the generic version of this problem, this disconnect from the body — is the perfect panacea. It’s a step. A valuable step. But it can have pitfalls.
The fact is, noticing too much can be bad, particularly if you’re prone to migraine headaches. If you notice what starts them (or think you do — part of being a migraineur is feeling like a deluded hypochondriac) you can very quickly become a sad avoidant thing who relinquishes activity after activity, food after food, never going out, never seeing people, never traveling, until all you have is a darkroom instead of a life. This terrifies me, and I discovered this year that my prophylactic avoidance of avoidance, this willed oblivion, is well documented. Here’s an entry from an old journal I found this year. It’s dated August 12, 2001, long before I knew the things I got were migraines: “Woke up feeling sleepy and anticipatory, the way I probably feel before each of these monster headaches come along, if I bothered to pay attention.” The way I probably feel. My advice to self has always been don’t look too closely for cause and effect, because the real triggers are buried in all the noise. The noise is life, pretty much, and even if you shut everything out, a headache will find you in the silence.
So ignoring bodily cues becomes a habit. What’s interesting about migraines, though, is that they ladle you back into the animal self you spend all your energy ignoring. No “virtual” life on the internet or absorption in a book or Jedi mind tricks for not feeling what you’re feeling will let you escape the fact that you’re meat and nerves. You are in a body and you will notice it, by gum, and you won’t be able to notice very much else. When a headache hits, I am bovine.
This is all a preface to the point, which is that migraineurs get advice all the time. The bulk of the advice I’ve received this year (and others) has had to do with headaches. That’s not a complaint; I’m interested, and I really will try anything, but there does come a moment — when you’ve tried acupuncture and yoga and vitamin supplements and drinking lots of water and three different diets and prophylactic medication and meditation — when it all feels a bit like ways to fix the resolution and color cast of a photo that’s irretrievably blurry.
Then there’s the medical advice. Drink water. Exercise. Get on a regular sleep cycle. My doctor, to whom I’d confessed none of the above, said to try — actively — to bring back some of the things I’d unconsciously stopped doing out of fear of headaches. “Oh, I don’t do that,” I said. “Are you sure?” she said. “I know you think you don’t.”
It turns out there are hordes of us migraine people, and many of us go through a familiar cycle.
Step 1. Actively avoid triggers. This is the planning phase. Keep a headache diary. Feel in control for the first time in life. You can beat these headaches with charts and systematic elimination of foods!
Step 2. Realize how imprecise or broad your triggers are and how paralyzing avoiding them might actually turn out to be. Decide you don’t want to live your life preemptively. Actively avoid avoiding things.
Step 3. Get bored of thinking about headaches and not-thinking about headaches. Let go a little.
Step 4. End up passively, through inertia, not going to stuff, not seeing friends, not making plans. You don’t know it yet, but you’re back at Step 1, minus the illusion of control.
That’s the trouble. You thought you’d stopped structuring your life around avoidance, but when you stop and think about your daily patterns, avoidance is everywhere; it’s just gone underground, so much so that you can no longer distinguish a true preference from an avoidant technique. When someone asks me to coffee, my default response is “no.” I like the person in question. I like coffee. I like talking. I don’t know where the “no” is coming from. But out it comes, and I confabulate to make sense of it. I have too much work, I’m tired, etc., but it feels like I’m lying. Why is my default programming “no”? Headaches, of course. Just as your body develops an aversion to whatever you ate prior to getting the stomach flu, even though it had nothing to do with it, mine has decided that social engagements correlate with headaches.
How do you get out of this maze?
I guess there’s a Step 5.
I don’t know what it is, but in the meantime, I’m trying to recover the animal responses I’ve shut down, using the three questions (am I cold? wet? hungry?) to check in periodically and make a habit of what was once an instinct. Same goes for making Yes the default instead of no.
I recently had the chance to test this resolve. An opportunity arose to see animals, wild animals, up close and for real, and I said yes. I followed my father to South Africa, home to (among other, more complicated things) some of the biggest nature reserves in the world.
It turns out, unsurprisingly, that when you’re actually surrounded by animals, the kind of advice you give and get is very different. On the whole, there’s less of it. When I met the proprietress of a guesthouse in St. Lucia Estuary, a town actually inside South Africa’s iSimangaliso Wetlands Park, she kept it simple. The town was perfectly safe, she said, but I should stay in after dark. Why? I asked. “Because hippos walk the streets at night,” she said.
(I won’t lie. This thrilled me.)
Hippos can stroll up to 30 km from the water in a single evening. That’s one of those factoids that are repeated to you by pamphlets and guides until it feels like something you too can pass on to newcomers. “Hippos,” one says, nodding sagely. “Great walkers. Like Rousseau.” Another fact, less easy to forget, is that hippos kill more people in Africa than any other animal (man and mosquito excepted). Last July, a man in St. Lucia lost his leg to a hippo attack in his garden. The hippo came into town looking for grass, and trampled his fence. When he heard his dogs barking, Anthony Swatton stepped outside to see what was going on. The hippo charged three times. First it broke three of Swatton’s ribs, then it bit off his left leg, and finally it gored his abdomen with one of his tusks. Swatton’s wife described the foot “hanging on by a sinew.” When she heard screaming and ran outside, the hippo (known to St. Lucia residents as “Vincent”) was calmly grazing in the yard, just a few feet from her bleeding, mangled husband.
Things get weirder. The hippo had only one ear. It had been nicknamed Vincent after Van Gogh. Locals held a “People and Hippos Car Wash” as a fundraiser to help Swatton with his recovery. I don’t know and have been unable to ascertain what part the hippos played in the car wash. It was probably just a gesture of inclusion. Maybe someday there will be a People and Hippos Diner. Swatton is recovering. In interviews, he wished the hippo well; he regretted only that they’d crossed each other’s paths at an inopportune time. As for Vincent, he was caught by the Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife Hluhluwe-Imfolozi game reserve when he returned to the scene of the crime. He had evidently been eyeing Swatton’s grass for some time; he was back three days later and captured while “munching vegetation in the same garden.” Rumor had it Vincent would be sold to a private game reserve. It recently emerged that this plan somehow fell through, and that Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife (an organization for which Anthony Swatton himself worked) decided to shoot Vincent and donate his flesh to Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini, whose royal pots he graced at the annual Reed Dance festival.
The impulse, whenever an encounter between a human and an animal goes badly, is to extract a lesson, but what moral can you draw from an encounter like this? What advice does one give on its basis? This is the sort of thing a community agonizes over after an animal attack, after a mass shooting, after a gang rape. How do you tell the story to strangers?
Well, you do what the guesthouse proprietress I met does. You leave out the details and offer the illusion of control, which is all advice is. She didn’t tell me about Anthony Swatton and Vincent. She told me not to go out after dark.
A ranger in Kruger Park had different advice as we walked with him through “the bush” (a phrase I can never say without feeling like an asshole — same applies to going “on safari”). He had a Winchester with him and, while tracking zebras, showed us some fairly fresh hippo tracks. Sometimes, he said, a male hippo will settle in a muddy water hole after it rains. He will decide it is his, and will indicate this by spraying his poop everywhere, using his tail as a sort of propeller. Sometimes, especially lately, those muddy water holes dry out, but the hippo won’t leave, because it’s his. So if you should encounter a male hippo in such a spot, know that his skin is cracking from exposure to the sun, that he is not sweating because he’s the only mammal that can’t, and that he has committed to defending what once was a wallow and is now just a dry hole. Know that you are in mortal danger, but do not run.
The ranger’s account is comforting because we understand it: imagine a hippo bull, irritated and drying out in the baked earth that was once his wallow. We are wrong to anthropomorphize, but we do: he has lost something he had. His investments, so to speak, have gone sour. There is cause and effect (which is every migraineur, control freak, scientist, and mystery lover’s dream).
People used this reasoning to defend Vincent, of course. He felt trapped, some said, invoking his animal nature. Others said one should never stand between a hippo and the water, though Swatton had no water in his garden. This should sound familiar to us too, this second-order level of explanation — we love to apply motive, to supply cause. But the explanations in St. Lucia eventually ran dry; Vincent was finally put down because he was designated — by the head of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife — a “problem animal.” He had lost his fear of humans. No rehabilitation possible. He had grown oblivious to the threat we represent.
That’s just another story, of course, and it doesn’t hold water, not for a minute. South Africans objected to Vincent’s treatment and questioned Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife’s decision to put him down. If Vincent had become truly oblivious to humans, he wouldn’t have gored Swatton. He would have been as indifferent to Swatton as he was to Swatton’s barking dogs. What really happened was much more complex: Vincent got used to humans in the environment and started seeing us as creatures with whom he could interact. The language of Vincent’s story becomes strangely legal in the arguments that follow his death: articles speculated as to whether the attack was “provoked” or “unprovoked.” If Vincent was provoked, then he was acting in accordance with what we understand animal behavior to be. If he was not, then Vincent was classified a problem animal. The case hinged, then, on whether Swatton going out to his barking dogs in the yard constituted a “provocation.” Did an oblivious Swatton go out to meet an equally oblivious Vincent and surprise him unawares? If everyone is surprised, then everyone is innocent.
You know how this story ends. Only it happened in the most artificial way imaginable.
There is a dam, one of many in Kruger Park. The map says I should drive across it. Or rather, my father says this is what the map says. I don’t believe either the map or my father at first — there’s a substantial pool of water in the middle of this “road,” really just a narrow shelf, less than a lane, between the cement wall retaining the water at a higher level on the left and the water below to the right. My dad points and explains until I’m forced to acknowledge that he’s right, and we start across.
Driving from the right side of the car has scrambled our spatial affiliations. We have no instinct for where the left side of the car — usually right next to us — might actually be. My father (formerly liberal, now a conservative) drifts happily left when he drives. Frequently we’re actually on the shoulder; once we drive into a curb. Less oblivious than is my wont, I find myself noticing and saying what bothers me, loudly and often: “Move right. Right!” Meanwhile I (a conservative-cum-leftist) compensate by driving so far to the right that I get honked at, repeatedly, by oncoming traffic. During this trip I wonder if our politics, like our driving, are compensatory. We’re close, my dad and I, but when you stop living together, you miss the steps of each other’s journeys. (Not just the journeys, the destinations, too. Where’d you land, dad? Where’d you go, kid? What values do we still share?) The best thing about this trip turns out to be the quiet ways our worst fears about each other are assuaged. I don’t hate men. He doesn’t think the poor should die. We’re not particularly expressive people, but I sometimes think of our behavior in traffic — him left, me right — as a sublimated gesture of goodwill, a conciliatory tending toward the other. (Then again, we both keep accidentally turning on the windshield wipers. There are limits to how much interpretive weight our bad driving will bear.)
This particular dam is built such that the cement wall retaining the water on the left comes three-quarters of the way up the car. I’m driving slowly, nervously. I’m eyeing the right edge of the shelf, it feels too narrow, like we might slip off, when I realize (unprompted!) that I’m cold. I open the windows and flood the car with warm humid air. It’s a small victory for my animal self, and the drive across the dam suddenly seems less harrowing. My dad is typically unconcerned about the crossing: a diabetic, he is testing his blood sugar, which he suspects is a little on the low side. (It is.) We’re halfway across the dam when I stop to take a photo of some water lilies in the water at shoulder-level on our left. I’m excited about the angle; it’s like a frog’s-eye view of a lily-pad. I say this to my father, who, unimpressed, starts to unwrap a Lunch Bar.
That’s when the hippo surfaces. It’s next to the lily-pad, close enough to make me slam hard on the brakes. We’re in a dry sports utility vehicle; the hippo is fully submerged in water except for its eyes and ears, and yet we are — in what will strike me later as an incredibly strange configuration — nose to nose and eye to eye. Its ears start wiggling. (In South Africa, instead of saying “that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” you say, “That’s just the ears of the hippopotamus.”) Our windows are open. Our windows are open! I freeze, sure we are safe — we are safe, right? We’re enclosed in a metal case. The hippo would have to throw itself across the ledge to get to us, stick its head in through the car window. Impossible.
It disappears under water. When it resurfaces, it’s closer — so close I can’t get the telephoto lens I have on my camera to focus properly.
It doesn’t jump, of course. We stare at each other for a few long seconds, and then we go our separate ways, but there is this — an image, slightly blurry, of the time three oblivious animals (one of them wet, one of them cold, one of them hungry) noticed each other across the bizarre equalizing plane that brought them together and kept them, thankfully, apart.
Previously in series: The Question