Animal & Nature Mentors

Tortoises Can Be Trained (and So Can Their People)

In breaking news, researchers have at long last confirmed that tortoises are intelligent, trainable and have memories like elephants.

This really is least for the rest of the world.

As for me, I have to admit I already knew all this.

Reason being - I live with a tortoise.

Of course, Malti is not a giant Galapagos or Aldabra tortoise like the ones from the research study. She doesn't live in a zoo. Her life expectancy is a mere 50 years rather than 100+.

But I suspect none of these variables actually matters much (if at all) and I further suspect it is only a matter of time before the researchers realize this too.

The tortoise research participants were trained to bite a ball of a certain color in exchange for a food reward. Each tortoise was then tested to make sure they remembered "their" color. Finally, after a period of nine years had elapsed, all tortoises were retested on both tasks.

Every single tortoise performed splendidly on all tasks on both occasions.

Malti is a South American redfooted tortoise. She, like all tortoises, comes out of the egg and is completely on her own from day one. It is on her to survive, find shelter, find food, find mates - the whole nine yards.

Malti came to me when she was five weeks old. For the first year she basically hid under her bedding like all hatchling tortoises tend to do.

But after year one, her smarts really started to show. She quickly figured out that all her victuals come from the big white box (the household refrigerator) and took it upon herself to start walking right up to it and biting on the door when she wanted to eat.

Watch for yourself and see!

Animal & Nature Mentors

Why Anthropomorphism Can Be a Good Thing

Anthropomorphism is a mouthful.

Basically, it means "assigning people qualities to non-human beings or things."

So let's say I am sitting beside my iPhone and no one is texting me. I might think to myself, "Poor iPhone is one wants to talk to it."


(For those of you who are wondering if it would still be anthropomorphism if my iPhone got any smarter and turned into an A.I., I have no idea. But probably it still would be.)

Or let's say I am in one room in my casa and my parrot, Pearl, is in the other room. He can't see me so he starts to scream. I think fondly to myself (as I am hurrying back to his side), "He misses me so much!"


When I wrote my second book, "Love & Feathers: what a palm-sized parrot has taught me about life, love, and healthy self-esteem," I took special care to devote a page in the front to the topic of anthropomorphism.

On this page, I explained why my openly anthropomorphic writing style was on some level necessary due to the nature of the content and yet how I understood that it represented shaky ground at best in humankind's eternal quest for improved interspecies understanding.

But now I am finding myself backtracking on that sentiment a little....or a lot.


The Year of Brave. Heal. Evolve.

For the past few years now, I have made it a point to blog about my New Year's intention here.

Not resolution, mind you, but intention.

This is because, for me at least, I can resolve to do something all day long and never get any further than the resolve phase.

But just watch me intend to do something and see what happens next.

Once I'm intending to do something, it's like some little part of me can't resist daring myself....

Oh c'mon. How hard could it be?

Pretty darned hard, as it so often turns out.

But, surprisingly, I can handle that. Because when I set an intention rather than a resolution, I no longer feel I have to do any of it perfectly the first time. Just doing it at all is plenty good enough for me.

And since this New Year marks not just the start of a whole near year but also the start of a whole new decade, I am doubling down on my New Year's intention....intentions.

This is for two reasons:

Because I can't pick just one.
Because I need them both.

My first New Year's intention is a carryover from two years ago when I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism and finally began to understand why the last several years previous had felt like one long slog through quicksand that never quite sucked me under but sure got close.

At that point, in December 2017, I got out a little chalkboard and wrote these words: "Heal/Brave."

Two years later, I feel like some of the basic kinks in the healing process are at last starting to work themselves out, so it is time to look ahead and see what all that hard work has won me....the chance to evolve.

Yet I am still healing, too. And for both continued healing and newfound evolution, I need to stay brave.

So my first New Year's intention for 2020 is as follows:

Animal & Nature Mentors

Learning to Operate Our Extra Fancy Fight-or-Flight Survival System

I love living with companion animals for many reasons.

But one of the most compelling of these reasons (other than "cuteness," of course) is this one:

When one of my trio gets startled, spooked or scared, their fight-or-flight survival response only lasts for long enough to shake it off and move along.

It's pretty marvelous, actually.

Let's take Pearl, my 21-year-old cockatiel. He is without a doubt our most anxious flock perhaps for yours truly.

On an average day, I probably apologize to him one or a hundred times when some little micro-movement I make sends him into a tailspin yet again.

But he shakes it off with equal rapidity. One minute he's on high alert, crest flattened, beak open and sharp, shrieking with the intensity of a petite prey animal desperate to avoid being somebody's lunch.

The next minute he's so over the point where I'm still cuddling him and reciting "I'm so sorry" like a mantra and landing one apologetic belly kiss after another right in the middle of his soft feathery chest and he is clearly at a loss to understand why.

It really is that quick.

I mention this because I have recently realized our brains are wired quite differently in this particular area, which I think is why he is so consistently happy and I am often so consistently unhappy.

Sure, Pearl and I share the same ancient so-called "reptilian" brain stem, the part that registers and reacts to fight-or-flight stimuli with the same basic pattern of system shutdown and reboot.

But for me, sitting right on top of that trusty and amply tested survival system is a large and pesky prefrontal cortex, jam-packed with features I will mostly never begin to comprehend or use.

I'll give you an example.


Creativity Is a Survival Skill Worth Celebrating

My mom is a miracle worker in the kitchen.

I have literally decades of memories of watching her stand over a busy stove, one eye on her equally busy oven, as she stirs and mixes and mashes and rotates and flips and turns and somehow produces a four-course meal, all while exclaiming "how easy it is."

It's not easy.

I once rendered an apartment temporarily unlivable when I put brussels sprouts in a pot on the stove to steam...all that was missing was the water.

In the kitchen, I'm absent-minded, inattentive, outright forgetful and sometimes a danger to myself and others. So I do the right thing and stay out of the kitchen.

But my mom doesn't think her kitchen skills are creativity. For as many delicious recipes we have scarfed down right under her nose, she will as readily demur, "I'm not a creative cook. I just follow the recipe."

I am actually tempted to cook for her one day just to prove her wrong.

It seems worth mentioning that it is my 49th birthday today. On this day, 49 years ago, I popped out of my mom and into this round blue world, where I have lived ever since.

Birthdays are always a time of reflection for me. Where have I come from? Where am I now? Where do I want to go? Who was I? Who am I today? Who do I want to be? It can be a melancholy day, some least until someone says the magic words - "The birthday cake is served!"

But this year, I have chosen to celebrate myself because I am still here.


Be Willing to Be Supported

"Be willing to be supported."

The affirmation is sitting right there on my bathroom mirror. Staring at me.

I can feel its beady little eyes boring not just into my mind, but into my soul.

Because support, to me at least, has always been a terribly tenuous thing.

I will give you an example.

I have moved five times over the past 10 years. For reasons I am only just now starting to understand, each of these rental properties came to me bearing its own special noise challenge.

The first backed right up to a vacuum car wash. I didn't know it, however, until my tree-hating landlord chopped down the mini-forest around my casa that was blocking all that sound. From then on, I was bombarded with the endless whine of vacuums starting early in the morning, punctuated with disco music and, on slow days, soccer balls rebounding off the walls of my house.

In the second, I had a next door neighbor who threw raucous pool parties that started in the early am and lasted late into the night....and not just on weekends. He also offered his back yard to dog-owning friends as a temporary daytime dog park - can I just tell you how effective a large, deep swimming pool is at amplifying dog barks?

Being a serial renter, I had no idea that the third was located in one of the most up-and-coming desirable areas of town for new construction. During the three years of my tenancy, several historic houses were demolished all in a row starting right next door to me. Following that, 11 new three-story homes went up on my street.

The fourth was - well, nearly indescribable, really. I didn't find out until a few weeks after move-in that the neighborhood had let its housing association lapse. And for good reason, as it turned out - the neighbors were wild at heart and clearly deaf in hearing from all the gunshots, fireworks, DJ'd lawn parties and (I kid you not) a private fenced-in night club thinly disguised as a "car storage lot."

The fifth casa initially presented as a long-overdue welcome respite from the first through fourth. I moved in the summer when temperatures routinely reach three-digits and humidity is easily 100 percent before noon (point being, everyone is sealed inside their homes, a/c blasting). So it took me until the fall, when doors and windows opened again for the cooler breezes, to notice the ever-increasing volume of tunes and television programs emanating from the house sitting right in front of mine - my elderly landlord's home.

Last week, after more than a year of gentle, polite, in-person requests for a temporary daytime reduction in volume for "just a couple of hours so I can sit on my porch and work," one day it just got to be too much.

Mind, Senses & Silence

The Highly Anxious, Highly Sensitive Person

I have struggled off and on throughout life with anxiety.

When the anxiety gets too high, I will tumble into depression. When the depression gets too low, it triggers anxiety.

I also score quite high (oh so high) on Dr. Elaine Aron's self-test for high sensitivity (you can take her test here - it's free).

So I am a highly anxious, highly sensitive person.

So far, it doesn't sound like a win-win.

But where I have found great relief is in understanding that there are names and sets of symptoms that accompany each of these elements of "me."

So when my anxiety begins to escalate, I can point to that and say - "I am feeling very anxious."

When I open my internet browser and the first headline is something about animals in trouble (or people in trouble) and my world starts to grey and wobble around the edges, I can point to that and say - "I am feeling very sensitive."

By being able to point to each state and give it a name, I can then head towards my toolkit for managing whatever-it-is and pick out something to try first, and next, and next, and so forth.

Perhaps the most useful tool of all, however, is simply knowing there is a difference.


You Can Like Who You Are Without Liking Where You Are

It has been just over a year since I last saw my now ex-longtime love.

We've had periods of time apart before now, but this is by far the longest.

Plus, it is permanent.

Over the last 12 months, I've done a lot of pondering. Sorting. Scrutinizing.

When did I become the person he no longer resonated with? When did he become someone I could no longer relate to?

The answers, thus far at least, have surprised me. For starters, I'm not sure I ever actually became a different person over the course of the 15 years we kept company.

Rather, I steadily uncovered more and more of myself, learning as I went along that underneath all the old habits and beliefs and patterns and just....junk....I actually quite like who I am.

This was about the same time I started to realize he didn't.

And it was about the same time I began to detect a difference between liking who I am and liking where I am. They are really, really different!

He also didn't seem to like or approve of where I was in my life at the time we parted ways. But I could live with that, especially since I agreed with him.

But not liking who I am - my sensitivity, my empathy, my love of animals (and especially my trio), my addiction to reading as well as writing, my connection to my family - without these qualities, I am not sure I would even know who I am, let alone want to continue on as me.

To that point, the day we ceased communicating was also the day I realized there wouldn't be any "us" anyway if I attempted to alter my fundamental me-ness.

For the record, I still wake up every day and don't really like where I am at this point in my life.


When Negativity Bias Goes Wrong

This is the month I turn 49.

49, of course, is just 12 short months away from my regularly scheduled midlife crisis.

In preparation, I have been experiencing ongoing minor bouts of anxiety over the last several months - and here, when I say "minor," I mean they haven't killed me yet.

It's not that I particularly want to have a midlife crisis. But so far I haven't found its "off" switch. And some part of me suspects it may end up being beneficial.

I say this because after each anxiety incident (which I absolutely hate, by the way) I emerge just that little bit stronger, clearer, saner, even.

I understand something about myself and how I've been living my life to date that I didn't understand before. Sometimes, I learn something new I didn't even know could be learned, at all or by me specifically.

For instance, after a panicked meltdown a few weeks ago, and the slow-burn of the ensuing healing process, I woke up one morning recently to realize how much more I like myself when I don't hate myself.

Here is an example just in case that isn't clear.

Body Image & Recovery

The Evolution of Have a Good Day

This morning something mind-blowing occurred to me.

It is impossible - literally impossible - to have a good day.

At least, it is impossible for me.

I could no sooner have a good day than I could have a good life or a good death.

This is because I am not there yet.

A good day, like a good life and a good death, is in my future rather than my present.

The most I can reasonably, feasibly expect myself to accomplish is a good second....maybe a good minute if I'm extra-focused and industrious.

This means I have been putting waaaaay too much pressure on myself pretty much forever. Which sucks. No wonder I have tended to be such an anxious type.

Even worse, I've probably been way too instrumental in fostering anxiety in others as well, going around as I tend to do, wishing everyone a good day.

I mean, I do want them to have a good day, in the same way I want me to have a good day. But it is a lot of pressure. It is a lot to ask or expect of myself or others (especially once you factor in each person's ideas about what having a good day should look like, which is a topic for a different blog post).

As with many of my personal aha moments now and anytime, this one came to me courtesy of my pets, Pearl, Malti and Bruce.

Not a one of them ever wakes up in the morning and tackles a whole day at once. I know this because of how each one handles disruptions to their regular daily routines.

I see it best and most easily in Pearl, my parrot life companion of nearly 21 years now. This is how his routine should play out, if nothing (like my own schedule) arises to disrupt it.

First we do parrot wake-up, followed by cleaning the parrot casa and then serving parrot breakfast. From there should come a smooth segue to Yoga with Pearl (online via YouTube with the lovely #yogawithadriene) and then parrot shower...and so on and so forth.

Pearl is so sensitive to when and how each event should unfold, not to mention where, that I often start getting "evening rice alerts" a full hour before his warmed portion of rice, quinoa and kale is supposed to be served.

So imagine what happens when the daily routine gets disrupted.