Micro-Post: The World Is Pulling My Leg

At the Millcreek Mall, Micah and I pass the Food Court and a pet store on the way to the E-cig kiosk. Smells: from Subway to General Tso’s chicken to pizza to a chemical cleaner that’s no match for pet poo.

A couple of kids play with a pup–maybe a Weimaraner, not sure–through the glass. The transaction seems friendly. The kids aren’t taunting; the dog’s having fun, spinning, reaching its paws toward them.

As I wait for Micah to pick up his cappuccino-flavored liquid tobacco, I begin to feel as though I’m from another world. Earth is pulling my leg.

In front of me is an establishment devoted mostly to eyebrows and eyelashes.

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“Oh,” I think, “you can get some kind of fabric woven into your eyebrows if you want them darker or you can make a weak mustache sturdy with facial threading.” But an eye-hair business? In this world, gracious, what you can buy!

After Micah pays, we head back the way we came. “Can you believe it,” I say, “a place where all they do is weave fake hair into your eyebrows and grow your lashes?”

“Uh, Dad,” Micah says, “I think with threading they roll thread over your hair to pull it out.”

Ah. Duly noted.

Back by the pet store, the kids are gone. The dog is lying in its cage–looking for more kids?

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In this world, animals that we consider friends are for sale. Dozens here alone, like sofas or flat screen televisions.

We sell what can love, fear, even save. And we micro-manage our eyebrows.

Dear World, please stop fooling around. Some of these jokes make me tired and sad.

The Healing Properties of Sleep and “Tuxedo Junction”

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A crested duck, which I first encountered in Camden, Maine, where a flock of these darlings outside our hotel room kept wife Kathy and me up at night with their gossiping. (Credit: Anna Barberis)

Yesterday I felt like I was—as wise colleague Roy once put it—being pecked to death by ducks. The roads were populated by drivers who had cold lard for blood and cud for brains. Or they were staring at cell phones with that dazed, dunderheaded expression people wear when texting. Or they were fussing with the bag of frozen haddock or whatever in their backseat and assuming that the 153 cars behind them would gladly wait until all was situated.

I have a patience surplus everywhere except in the car, where I growl, grunt, sigh, squeal, sputter, and in moments of high upset, speak in Technicolor. You don’t have to count five 1000’s before reacting to the turning arrow. The %$&!# accelerator’s on the right! If you press your foot against it, your delightful Nissan Cube will get out of my crappy 1998 Mazda 626’s way. You’ll reach your destination. My sophomoric, un-centered spirit will unclench. It’s a win-win. Please. (Philosophical question: If you curse in your car and nobody hears, does it count against you?)

I’m ashamed of my traffic-temper, but take comfort that my ranting occurs in a contained space. And I don’t give people the finger or the skunk eye, either. But, boy, auto-John doesn’t gaze at humanity with compassionate eyes.

Of course, I can’t control the ducks behind other cars’ wheels, but I can silence the quacking from my radio—and did so this morning for sanity’s sake. On November 6th, as usual, Micah and I listened to National Public Radio for the ten minutes it took to get him to the day’s painting job, and the half-hour home, including a stop or two. The stories were newsworthy, but they struck me as crazy layered on crazy.

Story One

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So tired! (Credit: corbisimages.com)

“During the last few decades the average American has lost an hour and a half of sleep per night,” Marketplace’s Ashley Milne Tyte reports. “Sleep researchers at Harvard say the workplace is suffering to the tune of $63 billion a year as a result of insomnia, and all the health and productivity problems that go with it.” Gail DeBoer, a credit union president in Omaha, has felt the pain. “Her restless nights began when she got her first smartphone a few years ago. She’d look at email just before she went to bed. But it didn’t end there. ‘I’d wake up at two or three in the morning thinking about work situations,’ says DeBoer. ‘I’d start sending emails because it was on my mind.’ After that, she never really got back to sleep. She began having regular headaches. Still, she told herself she was fine on about five hours a night.” Eventually, she wised up, quit checking e-mail before bed, got eight hours of sleep, and—go figure—the headaches stopped.

We are such suckers! Notice I say we, as in me, too. Where did we ambitious Americans get the idea that we ought to be checking in with the office at 11:00 p.m.? And what denial are we in that e-mailing or texting at 2:00 a.m. on a regular basis seems healthy? Most of all, what makes us think our minds and bodies are going to comply with a 20% reduction in sleep? Huh?

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Napping in Costa Rica. (Credit: Wikipedia)

The news crackles lately with revelations not only of sleep’s necessity, but also its healing, restorative power. When I hear such reports, plump with research, I think to myself, “Yeah, no kidding.” It’s like hearing scientific evidence that your head’s going to hurt if you smack it against a cinder block. I’m glad that sleeping—and, therefore, napping—is slowly becoming smart and hip, but is our task-oriented tunnel vision so severe that we need to be convinced to get some sleep? I guess so.

Story Two

Investigating payday lenders, who do $49,000,000,000 in business each year, Planet Money’s Pam Fessler decided she’d go online, type in mostly fake personal information, and ask for $500. She didn’t really want a loan, only to see what the application process was like. Within a minute of clicking send, she got an offer of a loan up to $750. She’d have to pay it back within a week and the charge would be $224. That would be an annual rate of 1300%. No thanks. She logged off, but was hounded with phone calls from various lenders for months.

Fessler notes that if you take out such a loan, lenders require your bank account number, and whether you like it or not, you’re paying on time. They simply suck the dollars right out of your checkbook, ahead of your rent if necessary. They don’t care.

One comment/question: A 1300% yearly interest rate! Why is this practice legal?

Story Three

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From the Coleman family pantry. Don’t remember when we got them, but I guarantee they’re crispy.

According to Audie Cornish of All Things Considered, the Food and Drug Administration proposes that we do away with trans fats, also known as partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. The reason: people’s hearts are going bad. Adding “hydrogen atoms to a molecule of oil” keeps food from spoiling, but what’s more important, a box of Ritz Crackers that stays fresh for a decade or the cardiac health of the American public? The FDA says the latter.

I’m on the FDA’s side, but can’t help thinking that if we’re worried about the condition of people’s internal organs, we should take advantage of a two-for-one special and protect thousands of hearts and lungs by getting rid of cigarettes, which also harm bystanders. No innocent ever got heart disease from the second-hand partially hydrogenated vegetable oil of a Chips Ahoy.

Story Four

Another NPR report, which I’m not going to look up: an undocumented farm worker described through a translator how her boss made her go with him to an isolated field to get her paycheck. Before handing it over, he demanded her panties and oral sex. Such workers are reluctant to go to the police for fear of being deported or blackballed. What the hell?

Story Five

“Washington State Says ‘No’ to GMO Labels.” This report on whether we should be informed if our food has been genetically modified upsets me not because I care a great deal about the issue, but because of who’s in the fight. “Out of state companies such as Monsanto, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Nestle poured millions of dollars into the campaign against labeling, which argued that adding GMO designations would make food more expensive and confuse customers.” Ah yes, consumers need to be protected against their own stupidity. “In ads, they said that the labels would increase the price of food for a three-person household by $350 to $400 per year.”

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Soybeans: Bet you cash dollars they’re Monsanto’s. (Credit: corbisimages.com)

I first heard of Monsanto in the 2008 documentary Food, Inc., which you should watch only if you never want to look at your dinner plate the same way again. I seldom subscribe to guilt by association, but if Monsanto is on one side, I’m probably on the other. This agricultural giant was in the news recently because, according to techdirt.com, the Supreme Court decided in its favor that farmers “planting their own legally purchased and harvested seeds can be infringing” on Monsanto’s patent. Don’t believe me? Check it out. I honestly believe the company is evil.

There were other stories, but you get the point. I’ve mentioned in at least one previous post that I’ve cut back some on news consumption. What’s different about this particular day of underwear as ransom for a paycheck and our poor, sleep-deprived country was the physical effects listening had on me. My neck was tight, my throat made guttural comments, and the spot beneath my sternum that wants to push out a holler when I get mad was about to let loose.

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The single-engine plane Glenn Miller was flying in was lost over the English Channel in 1944. (Credit: Wikipedia)

I want to be an informed, responsible citizen, but Thich Nhat Hanh is right in observing that the media we ingest have as much of an impact on us as the food we eat. So I’m counting news calories today. The definition of the term is arbitrarily slanted toward the negative, as if it’s more urgent for us to know what’s tortured in the world than what’s redeeming. Until the pendulum swings the other way, I’m planning to preserve my mind and body and listen to the Glenn Miller station on Pandora.

After my nap, which is just ahead, I have to go pick up Micah. “Tuxedo Junction” will wake me up without bringing me down.

A Guitar in the Sky Brings Me Back to Myself

I’m not sure how to describe the last month. An awakening? A healing? Whatever. All I know is my spirit feels like my eyes do in the morning, after I rub them and the world comes into focus. What little truth I know has been closer to me than it has in years. The clarity hasn’t given itself all at once, but in instants of inconspicuous awareness.

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Amiable English professor Kirk and his pup Ryan.

One month ago today—September 19, 2013—while perched at Starbucks, I read a short piece in the Erie Times-News: “Coffee? Leave your gun at home.” “Starbucks,” the report begins, “says guns are no longer welcome in its cafes, though it is stopping short of an outright ban on firearms.” Whew. Glad I hadn’t brought my glock with me. My immediate thought: What’s the big deal? I understand the need for Starbucks to issue a press release to announce this—what?—friendly request, but what have we come to when a coffee shop has to ask patrons not to show up packing? A confederacy of dunces? I tore the article out and slipped it into my bag. A truth was being lifted up to me, something obvious when seen under a certain light. (Note: I happen to be writing this at Starbucks, where Kirk Nesset happily works away with Pomeranian pup Ryan on his lap. I suggest Starbucks put out word that well-behaved dogs are welcome.)

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“Iron Mike” Webster, who died at 50. His autopsy revealed chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Some doctors estimate that his brain had suffered the equivalent of 25,000 car crashes. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Then I watched “A League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis” on PBS’s Frontline, my jaw growing more slack by the moment. Everybody’s affronted by clear evidence that the National Football League has been playing dumb for years and covering up what it knew about how unhealthy it can be for a man to have his clock cleaned every Sunday. Seriously? The NFL deserves to get its knuckles cracked—more than 765,000,000 times—for letting its lucrative human demolition derby go on and on, but we’re not dealing with a league of denial here. We live on a planet of denial. What sane player or fan would suppose that you could repeatedly slam your head against other heads, bodies, and the ground and not spend your retirement dazed or worse? And don’t say, “Oh, but they wear helmets.” Um, okay, but no protection is going to prevent your brain from smashing about your skull if your head smacks into a hard surface. My point: this Frontline program holds a truth, but it’s not about football. It’s about a society’s capacity for reason. I love to watch football, but how compassionate is it to watch men risk destroying themselves? Time to give it up.

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A Rolodex like Mom’s, except hers was an ugly orange. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Next: on October 10, 2013, the Erie Times-News carried a short article by Patrick May of the San Jose Mercury News: “Tech stress: With proliferation of digital devices, we’re freaking out.” (Side note: Nobody forwarded me the memorandum announcing the change in practice of capitalizing first letters of words in a title. I’m not against it, but it looks wrong.) Mike Kushner, co-owner of Palo Alto, California’s Bay Area Computer Solutions, describes the rabid stress techno-junkies live with: “We see people crying; we see people angry; we have people lash out at us because we can’t recover what they lost . . . . People are under incredible pressure these days because of how dependent everybody is on their computers and especially their smart phones.” Boy, I’ll tell you, all this iTechnology is, in the words of Rick Postma of Holland, Michigan, “slicker than a harpooned hippo in a banana tree.” My mother of blessed memory kept a $1.99 K-Mart Rolodex on her end table and never once cried or lashed out over lost contacts. Meanwhile, I and thousands of others suffer from, as May puts it, “’phantom vibration syndrome,’ that creepy sensation that your smart phone is buzzing in your purse or pocket when in fact it isn’t.” As an iPhone owner, I ask members of the tribe, “Have we lost all good sense?” Suspected truth: We have.

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“”The Good Samaritan” by Amie Morot.

Next: A few days ago fellow Starbucks barfly Alan stepped out outside on the porch where I was sitting, raised his closed eyes to the clouds, and took in a cosmic breath. “Yeah,” I said, “things could be a lot worse, huh?” Alan is Zen2 (tall, lanky, constant half-smile, slightly wild gray hair). He told me about a twenty-year-old guy he met at the Regional Cancer Center: “My throat cancer was nothing compared to what that guy had.” We breathed together a few times, then he bowed slightly and walked to his car, chewing his scone on the way. Truth: at every possible opportunity, close my eyes, breathe, and bow to my neighbor. (“And who is my neighbor?”)

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“I want a human being.” (Credit: Wisson/Jordan)

Next: I was standing in line at the bank. An old guy sat in an armchair and voiced a single desire into his cell phone:  “No, I want to talk to a human being. No, I want a human being. Any human being who’s there. No, I want a human being.” Of course, he was speaking to an automaton, but speaking a sane truth all the same. Is it too much to ask for a human being? On the phone? At the grocery store check out? On the front porch? I’d like to invent a social media just for this man. I wouldn’t (and couldn’t) name it Facebook. I’d just call it Face.

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A guitar in the sky brings me back to myself.

Finally: Micah needed a drum pad, so we stopped at Erie’s World of Music. As he walked to the door, I stayed in the car and reached for my iPhone—a habit, impulse. For no particular reason, as I thumbed my phone’s snotty leather cover, I looked out my window at the sky and saw a guitar. I used to park in that lot once a week for Micah’s drum lessons and never noticed that guitar next to the World of Music sign. A wordless question brought me to myself: John, aren’t there better things to look at than text messages, e-mails, and ABC’s news stories? Check out the guitar in the sky and while you’re at it, receive the sky.

I’ve don’t think objectivity exists, but I do believe in truths. Though I’m not smart enough to define them, I now have sightings. Truths rest at my feet or hover in the sky when I’m aware, when I breathe. I see them and give thanks. I feel like myself. I feel at home.

Is Your Ego Depleted? Try a Cookie and a Nap.

Samuel Butler, by Charles Gogin (died 1931), g...

Portrait of Samuel Butler by Charles Gogin (Credit: Wikipedia)

Victorian-era novelist Samuel Butler (1835-1902) was a quotation machine, maybe because he jotted down his every thought. At least it seems that way. Here are a few samples:

  • Morality turns on whether the pleasure precedes or follows the pain. Thus, it is immoral to get drunk because the headache comes after the drinking, but if the headache came first, and the drunkenness afterwards, it would be moral to get drunk. (Huh?)
  • The whole life of some people is a kind of partial death—a long, lingering death-bed, so to speak, of stagnation and nonentity on which death is but the seal, or solemn signing, as the abnegation of all further act and deed on the part of the signer. Death robs these people of even that little strength which they appeared to have and gives them nothing but repose. (Aw, quit blowing sunshine.)
  • Never consciously agonise; the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong. Moments of extreme issue are unconscious and must be left to take care of themselves. During conscious moments take reasonable pains but no more and, above all, work so slowly as never to get out of breath. Take it easy, in fact, until forced not to do so. (Count me in.)
  • A piece of string is a thing that, in the main, makes for togetheriness; whereas a knife is, in the main, a thing that makes for splitty-uppiness; still, there is an odour of togetheriness hanging about a knife also, for it tends to bring potatoes into a man’s stomach. (The hell you say!)

Butler also observed that his parents were “brutal and stupid by nature,” which has a catchy, though dark, lilt. He wrote Erehwon, a novel I’m disinclined to read because, even though it’s satire, nowhere in reverse is ham-handed.

But all splitty-uppiness and low-brow moves are excused on the merit of a single Butler-ism: “Life is one long process of getting tired.” If the author had written nothing else, this eight-word string of togetheriness would make him a prophet. I’m only half-kidding. Some months back I ran across a New York Times article asking, “Do You Suffer from Decision Fatigue?” Turns out Samuel Butler was speaking both spiritually and scientifically.

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Sigmund Freud: love those glasses (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Mulling over an impressive, scary body of research, Times science columnist John Tierney fleshes out Butler’s claim. “Decision fatigue,” he writes, “is the newest discovery involving a phenomenon called ego depletion, a term coined by the social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister in homage to a Freudian hypothesis. Freud speculated that the self, or ego, depended on mental activities involving the transfer of energy.” Baumeister and his colleagues have conducted studies in recent years demonstrating that making choices is measurably and significantly tiring.

  • Jonathan Levav of Stanford and Shai Danziger of Ben-Gurion University looked at the parole system in Israel and discovered “by analyzing more than 1,100 [parole board] decisions over the course of a year . . . [that a prisoner’s] probability of being paroled fluctuated wildly throughout the day.  Prisoners who appeared early in the morning received parole about 70 percent of the time, while those who appeared late in the day were paroled less than 10 percent of the time.” So basically a considerable hunk of a human being’s life can hinge on judges’ glucose levels and their reluctance to nap, both of which—some carbohydrates and/or twenty minutes of rest—might bring about a fair as opposed to a weary, pessimistic verdict.
  • And decisions don’t have to be monumental to be draining. Tierney: The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in two very different ways. One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences. (Sure, tweet that photo! What could go wrong?) The other shortcut is the ultimate energy saver: do nothing. Instead of agonizing over decisions, avoid any choice . . . . So the fatigued judge on a parole board takes the easy way out, and the prisoner keeps doing time.
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Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The life decisions that wear us down like a tire with the steel belt showing through are everywhere. One researcher, Jean Twenge, who found the process of planning her wedding exhausting, gave her colleagues a great lead for a study. A department store in their vicinity was holding a going-out-of-business sale, so she and others went, bought junk like mad, and messed with subjects’ heads. “When they came to the lab, the students were told they would get to keep one item at the end of the experiment, but first they had to make a series of choices? Would they prefer a pen or a candle? A vanilla-scented candle or an almond-scented one?” And so on. Other subjects were asked to view and comment on the same articles without making any choices among them. “Afterward, all the participants were given one of the classic tests of self-control: holding your hand in ice water for as long as you can.” The deciders averaged twenty-eight seconds, the non-deciders sixty-seven.

Tierney’s compilation of examples of ego depletion and decision fatigue goes on at length:

  • Research conducted at German car dealerships found that customers could be worn down by the number of options to choose from, and “by manipulating the order of the car buyers’ choices, the researchers found that the customers would end up settling for different kinds of options, and the average difference totaled more than 1,500 euros per car (about $2000 at the time).” Note to self: next time you make a complicated purchase, go in ahead of time, get the list of choices, and decide at home.
  • Here’s something to keep in mind if you ever grumble that the poor are mostly to blame for their troubles: “Shopping can be especially tiring for the poor, who have to struggle continually with trade-offs.” Dean Spears of Princeton University “offered people in 20 villages in Rajasthan in northwestern India the chance to buy a couple of bars of brand-name soap for the equivalent of less than 20 cents. It was a steep discount off the regular price, yet even that sum was a strain for the people in the 10 poorest villages.” Their decision fatigue was considerable, “as measured afterward in a test of how long they could squeeze a hand grip.” Life is one long process of . . . trying to be strong. Is it any wonder that people who don’t have enough money to make ends meet sometimes make what appear to be foolish choices, like using food stamps to buy filet mignon? Always having to distinquish wants from needs is exhausting and leads to oh-what-the-hell mistakes.
  • The irony of decision fatigue is its antidote: glucose. Several Baumeister et. al. studies demonstrate that people are able to exercise willpower and make wise short- and long-term decisions when they’re given a blast of glucose. They stick with problem solving tasks longer than the glucose-deprived and make more prudent, less impulsive financial decisions. Even dogs are well-served by carbohydrates. “After obeying sit and stay commands for 10 minutes,” University of Kentucky researchers found, “the dogs performed worse on self-control tests and were also more likely to make the dangerous decision to challenge another dog’s turf. But a dose of glucose restored their willpower.” The shortcoming in this equation for diabetics like me who are constantly trying to lose twenty pounds is obvious. As Tierney puts it, “1. In order not to eat, a dieter needs willpower. 2. In order to have willpower, a dieter needs to eat.” Dang!
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Eh, no thanks. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Baumeister (along with co-authors Bratslavsky, Muraven, and Rice) summarize the sad reality in a 1998 article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: “Ego Depletion: Is the Active Self a Limited Resource?” Of course, they believe so. Here are a couple snippets from the abstract:

  • People who forced themselves to eat radishes instead of tempting chocolates subsequently quit faster on unsolvable puzzles than people who had not had to exert self-control over eating.  
  • Suppressing emotion led to a subsequent drop in performance of solvable anagrams.  (So it’s not just about making choices, but trying to control ourselves in any way that depletes our ego.)
  • These results suggest that the self’s capacity for active volition is limited and that a range of seemingly different, unrelated acts share a common resource.

In short, then, thinking makes us tired, and when we get tired, stupid statements come out of our mouths and dumb and sometimes harmful decisions come out of our brains. No wonder many of us walk around yawning and saying, “I need a nap” Life is one long process of getting tired. The active self is a limited resource.

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Homeless Russian men napping on their blankies–no milk and cookies. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Robert Fulghum’s folksy advice is grounded in science, and we should listen: “Think what a better world it would be if we all—the whole world—had cookies and milk about three o’clock every afternoon and then lay down with our blankies for a nap.” Judges in every country should have a couple of Lorna Doones and a siesta for the sake of the afternoon docket. Folks in the market for a car ought to sip orange juice and nap before talking to a car dealer.

As for myself, I have the midday rest part down. The problem is, I don’t know how to eat just a few cookies.

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Not Lorna Doones, but I’d eat them. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)