Floating in the Dark

I have just had my first experience of a “float,” or what is known, a bit misleadingly, as a sensory deprivation tank. And I feel great.

I decided to try it out as a bit of a birthday present to myself. I went down to Lift / Next Level Floats, where I spent an hour floating in the dark inside of a pod filled with high-density salt water.

One of the things about being 41 and having lived an active life is that most things I do now, even if they’re new experiences, are like other experiences I’ve already had. So: a float in a tank is like lying in the Dead Sea, but in a dark room and against a smooth surface rather than in the heat of the desert and with sharp salt balls underneath you. A float in a tank is like getting a massage, in that it’s an hourlong sensory experience that lets you drift. A float in a tank is like meditating, except that no one has told you to keep coming back to the breath. A float in a tank is like an afternoon nap, except you can’t roll over or quite get to sleep. A float in a tank is like being in your bed awake at 3 am with jet lag, in that you’re motionless in the dark at a time when your mind thinks you ought to be awake.

What’s surprising to me is how good — how relaxed — I felt when I was done and out the door. I don’t think I felt that relaxed during the session. As I began to float, I noticed exactly where all the tension was in my body: I could feel it in my legs, my arms, as they seized up while I tried to hold myself up, hold myself in place — which was, of course, unnecessary. The sharpest tension was in my neck and shoulders, which began to ache right away, such that I used the neck flotation pillow to hold up my head for maybe the first two thirds of the float.

After a while, once the water stopped moving, there was a curious sensation of solidity, as if I were lying on a solid surface perfectly contoured to my body. And it might have been this easing of the body into the float, and the melting away of physical tension, that led to the relaxed feeling I have now.

Whatever it was, I came out of the water feeling calm and mellow. We’ll see how this feeling unfolds over the rest of the day.

Vaccines and time

Remember the scare about EMFs? Remember Satanic ritual abuse? Remember how cell phones were going to give us brain cancer? The list of things we’ve been afraid of is long, but it changes over time.

That’s something to keep in mind as you consider the current dangerous anti-vaccine movement. Because these scares have no basis in fact, they’re not sticky. They’re fashion trends, and things go in and out of fashion. In particular, it’s worth noting that the anti-vaxx crowd consists of people who like to think they’re smarter than everyone else: lefty liberals, Northern Californians, Silicon Valley tech workers. Once your marvelous insight is shared by the great unwashed masses, it’s time to move on to something else.

Vaccines present an unusual problem because the panic has a meaningful way of manifesting: parents refuse to vaccinate their children. This is different from simply being freaked out about power lines or mobile phones. Nevertheless, I do think there’s some hope that this anti-vaccine trend will taper off with time — especially (alas!) after some children begin to die.

A worrying counter-trend is food fears, which do tend to last: people are still insisting on the dangers of aspartame and MSG and gluten long after the initial studies showing problems with these ingredients were overturned by better studies. I think that’s because of the ritual, almost spiritual quality of food in human life, and I hope that’s the case; if it’s more an issue of being afraid about what we put in our bodies, then the anti-vaccine problem might be stickier than I’m predicting.

Nevertheless, I do think there may be some possibility that the anti-vaccine epidemic, like so many earlier epidemics, will run its course with time. Hopefully we can inoculate ourselves against a recurrence.


Slate is running a diary this week by Rosemary Quigley, a bioethicist who has cystic fibrosis and recently underwent a double lung transplant. It brought to mind the experience of blogger ramerk, who was a close friend of my wife’s during high school (and who helped make the beautiful paper cranes for our wedding, which you can see in the wedding section of this website). Like Quigley, ramerk recently found herself with a new set of lungs, and her journal has chronicled both her increasing physical abilities and the personal adjustments they have required. (Go here for ramerk’s first post-operative reports.)

ramerk is also the author of Monkey of the Damned, a delightfully weird little comic strip.


On Tuesday night I went to the first session of a six-week, twice-weekly aikido class at a dojo on Smith Street, not far from where I live.

Man, was it fun!

Aikido is all about defense, and in fact has no attacks. The whole idea is that you disable your opponent without injuring him. After the class, I went online and found films of the founder of the discipline, O Sensei, a little bearded Japanese dude in his eighties, getting attacked by whole squads of young guys and dispatching one after another with what looks like little more than flicks of his wrist. The term aikido can be broken down as ai = harmony, ki = energy, do = way, which means it’s the path of harmonizing energies. The basic principle is that you use the energy of your opponent, redirecting it just enough that he throws himself on the floor instead of you.

In our first lesson, we went through a slightly complicated series of steps that you can use if someone grabs your wrist. Step in, pivot, grab the attacker’s wrist, pivot, twist, and there he is on the floor in front of you. Two more steps and another twist, and he’s on his belly, helpless. The whole thing is like square dancing, except someone falls down.

And it really works. As the teacher put it, “In a lot of martial arts, the attacker is left thinking, ‘Wow, that hurt!’ In aikido, he ends up thinking, ‘How did I get here?'” As far as I can tell, what happens is that you take control of the other person’s wrist, twisting it in such a way that his body has no choice but to follow. To alleviate the pressure on the wrist, the person will actually fall down, then roll over, as you go through your moves. And of course, when it was my turn to be the attacker, the whole defense worked just as well on me.

Tonight I go in for the second lesson. Hopefully by the end of tonight I’ll be able to take down anyone who attacks me by grabbing one of my wrists. As long as he does it very, very slowly.

[working out]

 Considering that I’ve got time on my hands, and that I’ve been eating like a vacuum cleaner since I’ve gotten home — there is no Ben & Jerry’s in Asia — I’ve up and joined a gym. Yesterday I had my free workout with the personal trainer, and I have to say that it felt great.

I’ve never been much of an athlete. My favorite sport is hiking, which isn’t actually a sport but an activity. And while I’ve done my stints on exercise bikes to prepare for major backpacking excursions, I haven’t meaningfully touched a weight machine since high school. Not that I’ve taken on Ariel Sharon’s proportions, but all that neglect has taken its toll.

So I’m hoping I get it together to actually go to the gym with some regularity. Like I said, it feels good to get the muscles working and the body moving; it staves off depression, which is a lurking danger when you’re unemployed. And I can hope that I will be in meaningfully better shape by the time I move to a new apartment, which inevitably means a vast amount of laborious schlepping.

[fireworks and electroshocks]

 Last Friday night Jenny and I went to a great rooftop party in Brooklyn to watch the July 4th fireworks. We met new people and ate tofu-dogs and got tar on our shoes as the city around us crackled and popped and sparkled. As the time for the big show got closer, other groups began to appear on the roof: an older blue-collar couple, he with mullet and tattoos; an insular clan of young white hipsters like ourselves, from whose circle came wafting the occasional scent of marijuana; and finally a bunch of black kids in their late teens who seemed bent on blowing off somebody’s hand, as adolescents so often are on the 4th.

It was my first fireworks and my first July 4th in the US since 9/11, and it had certain curious overtones. I have to wonder what it must have been like last year, when it was New York’s first. For me it was jarring to see and hear all these explosions so soon after watching our Shock and Awe campaign in Iraq; I love fireworks and find them beautiful, but they’re explosions and they make me think about what it would be like to hear all this noise and know it’s hostile. We’re lucky that explosions are still cause for us to run upstairs to the roof, not downstairs to the basement.


Let me preface this next section by telling you that I’m fine. Okay, now that that’s out of the way …

Later that night, after Jenny had gone to bed, I felt my heart begin to beat irregularly. This has happened to me before pretty often — the first time it happened I was at summer camp, which gives you an idea — so I didn’t think too much of it. I’ve been told that my arrhythmia is called paroxysmal atrial tachycardia (PAT) or supraventricular tachycardia (SVT), and that it’s not especially dire, although it’s rather uncomfortable and unnerving. I tend to feel like my heart is both racing and not pumping enough blood; sometimes I get a little flushed, feel slightly nauseous or dizzy, or feel a tightness in my chest. Fortunately it usually goes away on its own, and I have pills in case it doesn’t.

On Friday night, though, the pills didn’t work. I ended up taking something like five of them over four hours, all the while afraid to go to sleep. After all, I’ve heard all my life about how my father’s father died when he waved off some chest pain and went to sleep, never to wake again. I finally collapsed at about 5 a.m. for a couple of hours of fitful sleep, but when I woke up I was still arrhythmic, so I woke Jenny and off we went to the emergency room.

I have to say that the Beth Israel ER staff was pretty good to me. I was told that what I had was a completely different type of arrhythmia from PAT/SVT, one that has no shared cause, and they were surprised to hear I had both. My new condition is called atrial fibrillation, and I was told that it’s so undangerous that “some people live in atrial fibrillation for years.” Considering my age and discomfort, however, they were determined to fix the problem.

Over the course of several hours I was given repeated doses of a drug that was supposed to slow my heart down, with the possible effect of kicking it back into normal rhythm. When that failed, I was rolled into a different room for electroshock. They shaved the left side of my chest, gave me heavy sedatives — Jenny tells me I babbled incoherently about trekking in Nepal until I passed out — and then zapped me. It did the trick, although unfortunately it left mild burns on my chest and back.

All of this I did uninsured, and it is a sign of the disastrous state of our health care system that two doctors, a nurse and a social worker all encouraged me toward various forms of fraud and obstructionism as methods of getting my bill paid. Fortunately Jenny was able to put me on her medical insurance and to make it retroactive to July 1st, which felt to us like a small bureaucratic miracle. And so life ticks on.