It’s the brown spots that worry me, the ones that appear on the edge of the avocado after you leave half in the refrigerator. Harmless or no? suggests that browning is a normal result of oxidation, and the avocado is perfectly safe to eat. I’m not talking about overall browning, though. I’m talking about distinct dark spots speckling the flesh. Are they brown or black? I’ve never been very good with colors. When clothes-shopping, I’ll ask my wife what she thinks of the green pants I’m holding. “Those are blue,” she’ll say, and I’ll feel like a typical man, demonstrating learned helplessness.

Substituting black for brown in my Google search changes the results substantially. Now the spots may be a sign that the avocado is beginning to rot. A simple smell test should suffice, except that I’ve never had a very good sense of smell. For years I blamed this on a deviated septum, but a doctor recently told me my airways looked clear. Apparently my nose just doesn’t work right.

Because I can’t smell the avocado, I take tiny bites to taste-test it. Except I suddenly can’t remember what an avocado is supposed to taste like: Savory? Slightly sweet? Umami? (What is umami, again?) As far as I can tell, the avocado doesn’t taste like anything at all. Test: inconclusive.

You might say, Eat it. What’s the worst that could happen? Well, about sixteen years ago I ate a bad burrito that had my stomach roiling for weeks—long enough that I went to the doctor, who prescribed a very strong antibiotic. Much later, different doctors blamed that antibiotic for a C. diff infection that started me on an even longer journey to a diagnosis of Crohn’s disease. So, what’s the worst that could happen? Picture this: I’m driving to the grocery store after a late lunch that included a questionable avocado when my gut seizes and I projectile-vomit all over the steering wheel and windshield. In a panic I abruptly change lanes and sideswipe an SUV. The impact sends my car spinning out on the snowy road, my head jerking around like a propeller, until I smash into one of the construction vehicles that are always sitting in the median, and all my most necessary bones are shattered into a million pieces.

So I throw the avocado away. Which makes me feel guilty. Don’t I care at all about food waste? Viral tweets regularly (and probably incorrectly) tell me that if all the wasted food in America were properly distributed, no one in this country would ever go hungry. Throwing away an avocado feels particularly decadent. Not long ago older generations were attacking avocado toast as an effete delicacy enjoyed by pampered millennials.

The real cost of my indecision comes when I check the clock and realize that I’ve wasted almost an hour trawling the internet, trying to understand “vascular browning.” One of the sixteen waking hours I will have today has been recklessly discarded in my search for answers, and the worst part is that I never came to a definite conclusion, meaning I will probably repeat the cycle the next time I consider eating half an avocado from the fridge.

In high school I was shown US Navy recruitment videos in which an actor’s voice, speaking over footage of Navy SEALs and aircraft carriers, said, “If someone wrote a book about your life, would anyone want to read it?” When I imagine a book about my life, I picture fifty pages dedicated to hypochondria, forty on unrequited crushes, ten on attempts to analyze my wife’s tone of voice, a hundred on internally relitigating the worst moments of my life, and at least a hundred more on catastrophizing.

Sometimes I’ll read thick biographies of men who mostly spent their lives screwing up the world for the rest of us, and I’ll think: What would it be like to plow through life like a shark, always moving forward, never stopping to second-guess?

This is why I shouldn’t think too hard about avocados: one minute I’m worrying about potentially spoiled fruit; the next I’m looking at my mental array of checked and unchecked boxes.

I swear my brain wasn’t always like this. I used to daydream during church sermons, school lessons, and long bus rides. I may have been a shy, awkward nerd with good grades and bad social skills, but inside I was building worlds, whole continents created from nothing and populated with sprawling cities, brave heroes, and looming threats. These days the continents are barren, the heroes defenseless against spotted produce.

Which sparks a fresh worry: Am I always going to be like this?

I’ve tried pretty much everything to combat anxiety and depression. The hypnotist seemed promising, until she started to hate me. On her walls she had diplomas and certificates and a photo of herself undergoing surgery with no anesthesia, just the power of hypnosis. But she never once succeeded in hypnotizing me. I believe she hated me for this. I would sit in her office week after week and, as she saw it, refuse to be hypnotized.

“Don’t you want this to work?” she would ask.

Perhaps I’ve invented that detail. I felt the question coming off her, anyway. And the truth is I did want it to work. I wanted a solution to my constant anxiety more than anything. But it’s also true that a part of me resisted, because there is a part of me that would rather be miserable than change.

So: Am I always going to be like this? Sometimes I answer yes, I will always think too hard about the avocado. Even in the year 3000, with my consciousness uploaded into Mark Zuckerberg’s eternal metaverse, I’ll still be thinking too hard about the avocado.

Then other times I remember the universes that were once at my fingertips.


My maternal grandparents recently passed away in short succession, and I took a flight from Wisconsin to North Carolina to attend their funeral. I’m not sure my grandmother or grandfather, who lived in a tiny town in mountainous western North Carolina, ever ate an avocado. The one time I brought my wife to visit them, they took us out to dinner at a restaurant that served sandwiches on Wonder Bread and packages of chips for sides. Next door was the town’s Republican campaign office, where a sign let passersby know they could have the distinct honor of signing President Trump’s birthday card. All signees would be entered into a lottery to win an AR15.

Maybe it would have offended my grandparents for me to share that. My grandfather had a special hatred of the word redneck and the lack of sophistication it implied. I wouldn’t want him to think that I didn’t respect him. He survived being run over by a tractor; I barely survived my last colonoscopy. The point is, he was an altogether different kind of man than I am—the kind who wasn’t preoccupied with spots on produce.

My wife couldn’t make it to the funeral, so I traveled alone. From the airport I rode with my sisters and my future brother-in-law to the Airbnb where we would all be staying, in an even tinier town than my grandparents’. The rental had a view of rolling hills and distant mountains topped with blinking radio antennas. If there were other houses below us, they were invisible among the dense carpet of trees.

I was in a near panic over the accommodations. Five people sharing two bathrooms is not an arrangement a Crohn’s sufferer longs for. Before I’d left Wisconsin, my two therapists—the one I pay and my wife—had to talk me out of getting my own motel room.

As the first night in the Airbnb wore on, I started to relax. The old family patterns and jokes reasserted themselves. We made fun of the home’s absurdly kitschy bear theme, including a huge, possibly culturally insensitive bear totem by the front door. Then we all went to bed, and at around 3:30 AM, as usual, I woke up like I’d been electroshocked, having to use the bathroom. I went to step into the hallway and found that the door to my room wouldn’t open. The handle turned, but the lock stayed in place.

Later my family would ask me why I’d locked the door at all. What a strange question. So I couldn’t be taken unawares, obviously. Once, a therapist told me that I behave like a veteran with PTSD, which seems dubious and somehow unfair to the troops.

Anyway, the door wouldn’t open. I’d been through similar situations in my nightmares, so I managed to stay calm. Still, it was a trying half hour or so before my sister heard my rattling attempts to force the door and managed to open the lock with a pen. Phew, right? I even felt a kick of elation at having survived a worst-case scenario. It felt like progress.

The next day I locked myself in again.


The funeral was pleasant enough. I added a shovelful of dirt over my grandparents’ ashes in their church’s garden. It reminded me of how much pleasure I used to get from digging enormous holes. Once, I stayed at a beach house with a friend, and we dug a pit so large that we had to carve a long, twisting ramp to get in and out.

After the funeral my sister suggested we drive over to our grandparents’ old place. I walked aimlessly around their property: the empty house; the garage that stored old, unused cars; the untended garden running riot. Someone recalled how my grandmother used to make us sit in front of the garden in rusting metal chairs, waiting for the exact moment—dusk? dawn? I can’t remember—when a certain flower would bloom. There was the basketball court where I would shoot baskets alone in the cold for hours, and the wall that I remembered bouncing a tennis ball off of with increasing fury because I couldn’t put my thrumming anxiety about a school project out of my mind.

Their yard was a perfect playground for freeze tag and Easter-egg hunts, though I remembered it more as a place I could go to be on my own, away from the extended family crowded into my grandparents’ modest home. When I was young, one of my favorite activities was something my parents called “blowing things up”: I imagined armies clashing and battleships exploding, sometimes accompanied by my imitation of machine-gun fire. I liked to stroll between the bucolic rows of their garden and annihilate invading paratroopers before going back inside, exhausted, to watch my grandmother ace Jeopardy!

As I grew older, my explosive scenarios evolved into vast, multipart sagas that I could revisit and revise on a whim. There was hardly anything I liked more than shooting hoops while my mind drifted to the continued adventures of characters whose names I no longer remember. I contained whole worlds, dozens of them that I could scroll through like options on Netflix. My mind had so many places to go.

I had friends, too, I swear! Real ones. And from all the hours of basketball practice I developed a reliable, if unorthodox, jump shot that defenders mocked at their peril. I was always a worrier, but there was so much back then that I didn’t know to worry about.

Now, when I reach for my imaginary childhood worlds, they aren’t there. I try to write them down, only to produce pale shadows. The places my mind will go instead are irritatingly banal. Today it was whether I have a vitamin-D deficiency. I spend so little time outside during Wisconsin winters that I worry I’m not getting enough sun. And, no, the UV goodness can’t penetrate window glass. The concern runs around and around in my head, fueling countless internet searches, until finally I put on my heavy coat, fleece-lined pants, wool socks, boots, gloves, a fleece-lined toboggan, and a neck warmer that I pull up over my nose. Then I step outside, in temperatures trending into negative territory, to sit on my postage stamp of a porch for twenty minutes. Really? my wife’s side-eye look seems to say. Really.

Huddled against the cold, I wonder whether I even have enough skin exposed to get any vitamin D. The world is covered in a layer of drab, dirty snow. To my right is my dentist’s office, and to my left is a busy road beside a rail line. Across a short alley is an apartment building with plenty of porches, all unoccupied. In fact, I can’t see anyone else outside at all.

And that’s when I drift someplace else, away from avocados and optimizable routines, to a new world I’ve been tinkering with, when I can make it there. A city I call Kir, a Gilded Age vision crawling with warring clans and revolutionaries and gods. It’s nothing I plan to write down. I don’t have the words for it, anyway. It’s just for me to enjoy, for a few minutes, while I sit out in the cold.