If you are a New Yorker, you know how annoying it is when someone is walking too slowly. The sidewalks are crowded; the subway stairs are crowded. It’s like someone driving 45 on the highway. One person can really impede a lot of other people. And if you are walking four-wide on a crowded sidewalk in New York, you are the moral equivalent of a litterer. Put your trash in its proper receptacle! Detach your hip from the hips of your kith and kin! And don’t even get me started on people who stand on the subway escalator, without moving over to the right so people can pass. It’s exactly like driving — slow people on the right, fast people on the left! Look behind you at all the frustrated people with able quadriceps! But some people have no choice in being slow, and this is something we all need to think about in our careers and financial planning. (This column really is about careers).
You know how religious people often say things like “God gave our child Down Syndrome so he could teach everyone else kindness and patience”? Well, pure dumb luck gave me a vertigo-producing inner ear disorder, and it made me stop being an asshole, and think more about masterminding my career. One day in 2008, I answered a cell phone call and couldn’t understand what the caller was saying — it sounded like Charlie Brown’s teacher, or like a duck lamenting something from inside a cardboard box. “Hang on, I’ll call you back,” I said. I called back. It was the same. I switched the phone to the other ear. Then it was fine.
Then came the dizziness and vertigo. Ménière’s disease is a mysterious inner ear fuckup that can make you too dizzy to stand, cause hearing loss and/or constant ringing sounds, and, at its worst, lead to attacks of vertigo that permanently damage hearing. There’s a bar on 3rd Avenue called Vertigo, and every time I see it, I think about projectile vomiting, because that’s what happens when you have actual vertigo: imagine that you’re in bed, trying desperately not to move your head, but your eyeballs are spinning around all crazy in their sockets and you are sure that someone is spinning your bed in circles, for hours.
This happened on and off for about a year and a half (I’m fine now). I’d spend a day or two in bed, and then get up and be sort of okay — until I had to bend down and pick up a package, or a train went by and I forgot to close my eyes and consequently became dizzy from seeing a fast-moving object. (Spiral staircases, out of the question). When I was out and about, I was often weak and shaky: I’d walk down a city street staring straight ahead, lest I let my attention get caught by something and I turn my head too quickly. And the thing is: I was sure everyone could tell. Clearly, they’d be able to see that I was just barely walking and they would be very careful not to bump into me and naturally it was obvious to everyone that I was trying very, very hard to get from 7th Avenue to Broadway.
Of course, none of these things are true. Some slow-moving people are obviously moving slowly because they are chatting with their friends and not being considerate of people who are actually trying to move in an efficient manner. I still dislike those people. (And ditto on the four-wide walking and neglecting to step aside on an escalator). But many slow people are slow because they can’t help it. And I’m going to say something really, really obvious, so don’t be insulted that I think you don’t already know this, because I’m pretty sure this was just my being oblivious, or else something I knew logically but hadn’t yet had the chance to feel on a visceral level:
Slow people aren’t trying to make an argument that everyone else should be slow. They actually want to be fast, just like you!
I had this realization while walking down some subway steps, one step at a time, like a three-year-old. (Also carefully holding the railing and being grateful that I had hand sanitizer in my purse). And, of course, there I was, making people late. I wanted to tell them: Not only do I not want to make you late, I would like to go faster also! Can you not see my obvious desire to not be like this? And, of course, the answer is no. Men who normally, I think, would have thought I was pretty instead just pushed into me a lot.
During a later bout with vertigo, I was in bed, and my boyfriend-at-the-time was bringing me Gatorade and preparing to sleep on the couch to avoid jostling me. He said:
“If I had what you had, I’d kill myself.”
Nearly every boyfriend I’ve ever had has expressed some version of “If I’m ever paralyzed, kill me.” (I read in a review of the 2005 film Murderball that most quadriplegics who say that change their mind in a few weeks, and that’s why it’s important to have counselors for this, especially counselors who themselves are quadriplegics). None of my female friends have ever said this. Perhaps because it’s more “acceptable” for women to be in vulnerable positions.
After my ex-boyfriend said that and then walked away, I did some calculations (I had a lot of time to think). What if this kept going, forever? What if it happened more often? What if it turned out that I had to live like this 23 hours a day, and I got one decent hour during which I could get up and walk around? I’d take it, of course. I’ll take whatever I can get. Maybe that’s an effect of being an atheist, but there’s no Rapture after which you get a perfect body (some people really believe this) and access to your deceased grandparents in heaven. If you get one hour a day of walking around and living life freely, that’s better than what a lot of people get.
During the time that this was happening, sometimes I’d have one or two good working hours a day, or sometimes I’d save up my strength for an evening event and feel like I was climbing Kilimanjaro by being there. Tim Ferriss asked in The Four-Hour Workweek: “If you had a heart attack and had to work two hours per day, what would you do? If you had a second heart attack and had to work two hours per week, what would you do?” The point is to cut out all the busywork, the procrastination, the workaday bullshit that causes most people to actually only do two hours of work in an eight hour day. What if you really only had two hours? You would be ballsy and just send those difficult emails, call the person at the top, do what matters. You would cut the crap. So, you can cut the crap now, while you’re still healthy.
No one knows what causes Ménière’s disease, but I have a theory. After my perfectly healthy then-boyfriend had a vertigo attack in our very apartment, I said, dear god, I have to get out of this place. (My cat had also started wheezing). It was an old tenement-style building on W. 39th St, constantly fumigated and across the street from a construction site. I think it was killing me. I moved into a doorman building on Wall Street (thank dear fucking god that, prior to Ménière’s hitting, I had spent about six months doing unpaid training to get the job I now have and that made the move financially possible) and have been fine ever since.
But the experience was very useful — for some time, I just assumed that Ménière’s would come back, so I figured I’d better travel while I could remain upright. Even better, I figured I’d travel to countries where, if I collapsed in the street, socialized medicine would take better care of me than the NYC emergency room system (even if socialized medicine later sent me the bill). This is how I ended up in Stockholm. (See How to Travel Like a Gentlewoman).
The experience has also reminded me that disability insurance is a good idea. If you Google this, make sure to get “own-occupation” disability insurance — that is, insurance that will pay out if you become disabled in your current profession, even if you are still technically able to do some other, less desirable job. Be very careful when choosing an insurance plan, or looking through the plan offered by your job. Not all “own-occupation” plans are the same. The best ones will pay you forever if you cannot perform the job you had at the time of becoming disabled. Some will stop paying if you adopt a new profession that makes as much as your old one, or will reduce your payment accordingly. Some are a hybrid — it’s “own-occupation” insurance for, say, five years, after which it’s “any-occupation.” This article recommends that you ask your insurance agent, “Is this a pure own-occupation contract to age 65, or is this a ‘modified’ own-occupation policy that offsets for other income during a claim?”
In a column about saving up an emergency fund, I wrote about how I grew up reading Reader’s Digest‘s monthly “Drama in Real Life,” in which someone died slowly of an exotic cancer or had to cauterize his own recently-severed leg stumps with a blowtorch. So I just assumed that adult life would be cataclysmically disastrous, and that I should plan accordingly. I have always been specifically interested in being able to make a living if confined to a wheelchair, if confined to bed, if only able to move my eyes, etc.
Fortunately, technology has made all these things possible and more. I wrote an article in March about Tiffiny Carlson, who runs the site BeautyAbility and who has a spinal cord injury. I make a good deal of my living teaching in-person classes, but recently learned to teach those classes on an online platform, which of course not only provides me with a way to make a living in the case of certain personal calamities, but also, of course, allows me to teach people around the world (I may be teaching a class in 2011 for an audience in India and the Middle East).
And also, keep in mind that, if you plan to have a baby, you are likely to experience a decreased ability to make a living in the same way you are making a living now. This year, I watched through a series of Facebook updates as an acquaintance — a 25 year old woman with no previous health problems — became hospitalized for much of her pregnancy due to hyperemesis gravidarium, a condition in which a pregnant woman vomits so much that she can’t take in nutrients, can lose up to 20% of her body weight, and can suffer renal failure. None of us are invincible.
This is one reason I write articles about how you can’t just have a job. You need a sideline, you need multiple income streams, you need skills that will be useful in a Depression, you need to have something wealthy people want to pay for, you need an emergency fund, and you need an intangible emergency fund of good ideas, advance planning, and ballsiness. Right now I’m in the project of making twice as much money as I need so that, when I have a baby, if I can only make half that, I’ll be okay (see Financial Planning for Motherhood, Just in Case You’re Not Swedish). I believe in cultivating enough good ideas that, if you lost your job tomorrow or were confined to a chair in front of a computer, you know exactly what you’re going to do, and you’ve already made connections with the people you’ll need to know to do it. Don’t think this doesn’t apply to you. “Drama in Real Life” taught me that there’s always a train ready to speed off its track and pin you underneath its snack car.