I Can See Clearly Now
On shifting baselines, grumpy old men and memory palaces. Plus, plant-based snacks!
The day I wore glasses for the first time remains one of my most vivid childhood memories. At nine years old, I walked out of the suburban Calgary shopping mall to a parking lot bursting with detail. I’ll never forget the sheer awe I felt seeing all the fine edges of the leaves on their individual branches, bustling in the breeze.
The strange thing about living in a body is that you don’t always notice when it’s changing. The outside world had been getting increasingly blurry over the past 18 months, but it wasn’t until I had difficulty making out the TV screen at my Air Bnb a few weeks ago that I realized my vision might have declined. My optometrist recently confirmed my suspicion—all the time spent indoors staring up close at screens has worsened my distance prescription. “Contact wearers are notoriously stubborn, they tend to settle for discomfort,” he told me. Apparently we don’t even realize how much we grow accustomed to being uncomfortable, until we get a taste of how we actually could be living.
Last week I heard of this social phenomenon called Shifting Baseline Syndrome on some pod I was listening to. Basically, as our natural environment changes, we gradually accept a new set of norms and forget the way we used to live. Over the centuries, it plays out as “generational amnesia,” where each generation accepts the situation they were raised in as being normal. But even within a person’s lifetime, studies find our perception changes—what we once considered a clean environment we may still see as relatively clean, even if it’s become more polluted and littered.
There is no finer example of shifting baselines at work than the pandemic. How many times have you heard the expression “the new normal”? The initial transition to life under lockdown was excruciating for some, but gradually, pretty much everyone developed a new baseline; we adjusted our expectations of what daily life should look like.
I see it too, in the way we adapt to different paces of life. When I first moved back to Toronto from New York, my city neighborhood felt like a small town. But when I moved back to that same Toronto neighborhood after spending a few months living in the burbs this winter, what once felt like a small town, now felt like a bustling city.
Shifting baseline syndrome—in the context of environmental degradation (where it’s typically discussed)—is seen as largely harmful (the idea being that it suppresses the urgency of climate change). But I think it can be a deceptive force in the context of our personal lives too.
How many people are in abusive relationships because their baseline has shifted? And it’s a slippery slope when it comes to our health. Shifting baseline syndrome explains why I often don’t realize how depressed I’ve been until I’m out of a depressive funk—over time my lower mood becomes the new normal. And when my distance vision starts to slip, I don’t realize it until it’s significantly worsened. Our incredible capacity for adaption hinders our ability to prevent our own misery.
But when our baseline swings in the positive direction, often due to circumstances out of our control, it can catalyze a reawakening of all that we’ve taken for granted. Just look at how incredible everything feels now—hugging, dining out, going to movies—after getting used to not having it during the pandemic. For the past 18 months, I assumed the fog I felt I was living in was just the pandemic blues. Now I realize that fog was literally not being able to see clearly.
The first time I walked outside with my new contacts this week, I was brought right back to that time in the parking lot when I was nine. I felt like a newborn baby. The trees had leaves, colours felt richer, the busyness of the streets felt sharp and energizing, rather than rushed and disorienting. But where I felt it most was walking around at night. What once was simply the orange glow of a bonfire at the beach, now had discernible faces encircling it. The lit windows of homes were now filled with paintings and pretty light fixtures and families gathered around the dinner table.
Looking up at the previously pitch black sky, now speckled with stars, my eyes welled with tears. I thought of my mom, and her disability; how much joy she could have felt if some of her bodily sensations hadn’t been muted. I recently interviewed Jennifer Norman on her skincare brand Humanist Beauty’s new Braille label for the visually impaired. While wearing a slightly worse eye prescription doesn’t compare to having a permanent visual impairment, I can now imagine what it would be like having one of my senses permanently compromised. It pains me to think there are so many people moving through the world right now unable to fully perceive all that their surroundings have to offer. The shifting baseline might help us adjust, but it doesn’t mean we should have to.
At dinner the other night, my friend and I talk about aging, how we lose our sense of taste and smell, our mobility. Mindful of being in his 60s, he says he wants to be active and eat all the foods now, while he still can enjoy them. “Life is short,” I tell him.
But maybe it’s not so much that life is short. Life is long. It’s the amount of time in which we’re physically able to fully embrace life that is short.
Joni Mitchell sings, “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” And while she has a point, it’s less when it’s gone, and more when we gain it back, that we feel true gratitude. I now see clearly—it’s not enough to simply acknowledge all I take for granted, it’s constantly recognizing, and actively resisting, my shifting baselines where the greatest potential for happiness lies.
👁 When a city regains all its senses.
🧠 Our brains are overtaxed, it’s time we think outside of them.
“The best chance we have to thrive in the extraordinarily complex world is to allow that world to assume some of our mental labor. Our brains can’t do it alone.” -Annie Murphy Paul.
👵🏻 Why we have to stop overlooking family caregivers (particularly daughters, and people of color).
“The feeling was not dissimilar from caring for a baby, only babies get older and their care gets easier. The opposite is true for elder care.” - Anne Helen Peterson.
👫🏻 Perhaps we should look to Singapore for an exemplary model of old age care, it looks like an intergenerational playground.
💁🏻♀️ Instead of communal living, we’ve entered an era of hyperreal individualism.
“Where Gen X and millennials were rolled into one category — the “hipster” — Gen Z has identified infinite, disparate, and chaotic combinations of tastes and consumer choices, mining from a limitless array of niche subcultures.” - Safy-Hallan Farah.
🤷🏻♀️ Maybe being alone for the rest of my life is the best thing that could happen to me.
🍬 Is the millennial obsession with aesthetics explained by the garbage and goo-themed cartoons of our childhoods? Also, snacks are the OG signifier (hello, Dunkaroos and Lunchables) and shelvies are the new selfies.
👩🦳 On the beauty of grey hair (shot by a former teacher of mine, Elinor Carucci!).
🦸🏻♂️ I’m not a big comics fan but I’m excited for Shang-Chi, Marvel’s first and only superhero film starring an Asian lead—Canadian Simu Liu from Kim’s Convenience!.
“We were very interested in portraying Shang-Chi as romantically viable as an Asian man, and simultaneously also very cognizant of the opposite stereotype of Asian women, where they’re over-sexualized or fetishized.” - Screenwriter David Callaham.
“Your Thirtysomething Body comes equipped with two large under-eye bags. These serve no purpose but also cannot be removed.” - Danielle Kraese.
Maybe it’s because I’m so familiar with grief, or that I grew up fast, but I’ve always felt like a granny stuck in a young person’s body—Golden Girls and Grace and Frankie have been recent comfort watches of mine. So naturally, I’m drawn to a show about two grumpy old men too—The Kominsky Method.
I don’t love Michael Douglas, who plays the protagonist Sandy Kominsky—a washed up acting coach—but I adore Alan Arkin, who plays his bitter, grieving best friend Norman. Without him I’d be out early—the show’s plot isn’t sustaining enough and Kominsky’s attempts at making some larger, existential statement on life fall flat. But it’s Norman’s frank commentary and hot takes on all the other characters that keeps me coming back.
Despite centering two old white guys at a time when television feels particularly self-conscious about diversity and inclusion, The Kominsky Method has an opportunity to go beyond the stereotypes, of both its millennial students and aging, lonely men. I’ll be curious to see if it does so successfully as I head into season three. It’s not the best show out there, but if you like dark comedies, it’s a light-hearted watch.
It won’t be long before my baseline shifts and I forget how incredible the world looks through my new eyes. Why does our memory so often fail us? This episode of Hidden Brain unpacks our misconceptions about how the brain remembers. Rather than simply retrieve our memories like they’re being held in a filing cabinet, remembering actually involves a complex reconstruction, leaving plenty of room for error.
Other surprising facts? The memory of old folks might not be as bad as we think.
“Because many individuals as they get older become more sensitive to potential problems with their cognition, whenever they have [memory] failures, those failures are more salient so they remember them more.” — Psychologist Ayanna Thomas.
The erosion of confidence makes older adults hyper-conscious of their memory’s performance, constantly seeking proof that it’s declining, even if it isn’t.
Good news for the young and old alike—we can train our memory muscles (apparently there’s even “memory athletes” who show off their memorization skills in memory competitions!). Thomas recommends building a “memory palace,” where you create a mental image of a familiar environment, plan a path through that space, and place the items you want to remember at conspicuous stops along the way. Apparently it works by attaching unfamiliar things to the familiar.
I might be an old soul but I’m definitely a millennial in my love of snacks. I’m also trying to gain weight, so I’ve been snacking a lot lately. While I’m not strictly tied to one diet, as a flexitarian trying to be kinder to the planet, I’ve been sampling a lot more vegan alternatives lately. Whenever I do, I feel this urge to tell someone my verdict. This new section will be a place for sips and snacks I’ve discovered lately that I just have to share (for omnivores and carnivores alike).
Here’s this week’s (plant-based) endorsement:
🍪 Sweet: Panela Lemon Vegan Stuffed Cookies — a packaged cookie from Vancouver that actually exceeds the calibre of bakery fresh.
🐟 Savory: Save Da Sea Vegan Smoked Salmon — another sustainable B.C.-based business. You would never guess this lox is made from carrots.
🥛 Sips: Koia Protein Shakes — surprisingly sweet despite being low in sugar (and without those added sugar alcohols to compensate). The Cinnamon Horchata has me dreaming of Mexico.
😴 Supplements: Plant People CBD Sleep Drops — it takes repeated use before it works but it really does help me sleep better, and quiets my daytime anxiety.