Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Marshmallows and Self-Discipline

In a university study, children were presented with a dilemma: given a great big marshmallow on a plate, would they choose to eat it now, or would they be willing to wait and get two marshmallows in five minutes.  Only a few children were able to wait, most ate the marshmallow right away.  In the follow-up study, all the kids who ate the marshmallow right away ended up working for the kids who waited.

Not only were the wait-to-eat types financially more successful, they had better marriages, better health, and were happier than the eat-right-aways.  Self-discipline is clearly a valuable resource, and, thankfully, other studies show you can develop it even if by inclination, you're an eat-the-marshmallow-now type.

I think self-discipline does more for us than train us to be able to defer gratification - although this is very important.  You get a lot more satisfaction from something that was earned than something that was received.  Two marshmallows gained as a reward for waiting taste a lot better than one marshmallow that was just there on the plate.  In other words, not only are the payoffs bigger for self-discipline, we enjoy them more.  There's also a matter of contrast; if life is just a succession of one yummy marshmallow after another, our joy will begin to pale.  It's only by knowing we can't always have a marshmallow - even if it's by our own choice - that lets us savor the marshmallow when it finally comes around.

In Ancient Sparta, boys were taken from their parents at an early age, given one garment a year, and deliberately underfed.  I would never suggest raising children this way, but at least you can be sure grown Spartans were not inclined to bellyache about having to wait in line or being cut off in traffic.  They might slice you from nave to chaps, but they wouldn't waste time complaining about it.  Complaining is for people who've decided to be unhappy about something but lack the resources to do anything about it.

This is what strikes me troubling about 21st Century culture: it gives us no built-in opportunities to develop self-discipline, just the opposite.  If you're bored waiting for the next marshmallow, whip out the iphone and amuse yourself.  If you want something, get on the computer - chances are, you're on it right now anyway - and order it with a mouse-click.  It'll be there tomorrow.  Soon, thanks to Amazon drones, it'll be there even faster.  (Amazon calls its delivery service, "fulfillment."  Am I the only one who finds this disturbing?)  If real-life struggles are too tough, too complex, or too long-lasting to bother with, retreat into a video game, and you can conquer earth five times in an afternoon.

In short, we live in a world that promises instant gratification.  This observation is nothing new, but there's something really creepy about the way mass culture markets it.  In an early smart-phone commercial a desultory man sits moping on a rooftop as the announcer talks about life's lessons in disappointment.  In the background we see imaginative animated characters - such as a goofy blue-skinned critter with long eye-stalks - vanish one by one, symbolizing, I suppose, the death of our childhood dreams.  But then the grown-up is presented with a smartphone and a big smile replaces his expression of dissatisfaction as he begins surfing the internet or whatever he's doing.  The soundtrack strikes up "The Candyman" and two blue eye-stalks peep over the rooftop to watch.

The commercial is promising us, essentially, not just that the phone will make our lives better, but that it will transform the rest of our lives into candy: according to the song, one of the Candyman's recipes is taking a sunrise and "covering it in chocolate."  Eww.

Don't misunderstand, I love my iPhone, but there's something insidious about it, it and the rest of the our wonderful material comforts.  The world can be marshmallow, marshmallow, marshmallow if we let it, without the toughening experiences that are not merely part of life but an essential part of happiness.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

A Play in One Scene

CREW MEMBER ONE: Don't look now, but I think we're being followed by a big whale.

CREW MEMBER TWO: Actually, I think that's just a great fish.

CREW MEMBER TWO: No, that's definitely a whale.  Look at the size of it.

CREW MEMBER TWO: Fish get pretty big, too.  Especially if it's a great fish.  What do you think, Jonah?  Is that a fish or a whale?

JONAH: (Coughs nervously) I don't see anything.

CREW MEMBER ONE: It doesn't matter if it's a whale or a fish.  It's twice the size of our boat, and it's following us!

CREW MEMBER TWO: It's definitely a great fish.

CREW MEMBER ONE: We've got to do something.

CREW MEMBER THREE: Someone call the captain.

CAPTAIN: Avast ye, did someone call me?

CREW MEMBER ONE: The ship is being followed by a whale.

CAPTAIN: Are you sure that be a whale?  It look like a great fish to me.  Arr.

CREW MEMBER TWO: Told you.

CREW MEMBER ONE: The question is, what are we going to do about it?

CREW MEMBER THREE: Maybe we should throw all the luggage overboard.

JONAH: I really think you're all making a big deal out of nothing.  I'm sure if we just ignore it, it'll go away.

CAPTAIN: And why would we throw out the luggage for?  Arr?

CREW MEMBER TWO: If it eats it, it'll prove it's a fish because whales can't eat luggage.

CREW MEMBER THREE: Actually, I was thinking it would make us go faster.  Lighten the ballast and all that.  That's what you call it, right?  Ballast?

CAPTAIN: Aye, matey, that be a good idea.  Avast with the luggage!

JONAH: I don't think that's a good --

CAPTAIN: Here goes the American Touristor.  Over ye go!

(SPLASH)

CREW MEMBER THREE: Good Lord!  It ate the suitcase!

CREW MEMBER TWO: That definitely proves it's a fish.

CREW MEMBER ONE: It's not necessarily a baleen whale.  You didn't think of that, did you?

CAPTAIN: Here goes the Samsonite!  Arr!

(SPLASH)

JONAH: Stop.

CREW MEMBER THREE: It ate that, too!

CAPTAIN: I'll grab another suitcase!  Arr.  Where be that Travelpro?

JONAH: Stop.  This isn't necessary.

(SPLASH)

CAPTAIN: That was me overnight case.

CREW MEMBER THREE: It ate that, too!  And it's not slowing down!  It's gaining on us!

CREW MEMBER ONE: We're going to be eaten by a whale!

CREW MEMBER TWO: We're going to be eaten by a great fish!

CAPTAIN: Step lively, me hearties!  Get the Eagle Creek, Tumi, and Delsey!  Over the side with 'em!

(SPLASH, SPLASH, SPLASH)

JONAH: Stop, stop!  Everyone just stop for a second!

CAPTAIN: We be in the midst of a nautical emergency, me hearty.  We don't have time for any landlubber prattle.

JONAH: The whale's after me.

CREW MEMBER THREE: What?

CREW MEMBER TWO: What?

CAPTAIN: Arr.  What?

CREW MEMBER TWO: I'm pretty sure it's a great fish.

JONAH: The fact is, I'm on the run from God Almighty.  Clearly he's the one who sent that whale or whatever it is.  The only way to get it off our tails is for me to go over the side myself.

CREW MEMBER THREE: Wait - Don't -

(SPLASH)

CREW MEMBER: What a brave act of self-sacrifice.

CAPTAIN: There he goes, to the bottom of the sea.  Arr.

CREW MEMBER TWO: The fish didn't eat him.

CREW MEMBER ONE: It was a whale.

WHALE OR POSSIBLY GREAT FISH: Please don't throw any more people at me.  I'm only following you boat because I like the taste of luggage.  Do you have any more Samsonite?

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Constructive Criticism for God

You Start Throwing in Chickens and It Just Makes
The Whole Thing Silly
Dear Lord,

I know trials and travails are sent to strengthen us, and I want to start by saying thanks loads.  You've certainly been a busy beaver in the strengthening department, a regular gym teacher, and I appreciate it.  Really.  Kudos.

However, if you wouldn't mind a little constructive criticism, meant in the kindest and most respectful way possible, it seems to me you sometimes overdo it a little bit.  It's not so much a matter of quantity as quality.  I don't want to sound harsh, but I think you're capable of better.

Take for example the night a car turned left out of a fast-food restaurant and smashed into me.  I was on my way to see my father-in-law who was in the hospital for congestive heart disease.  He'd already been there nine days because before they did anything for him, they wanted to figure out why his hemoglobin kept dropping below acceptable levels.  (They never did find the reason, and he was discharged, weak as a kitten.  Nancy took him back to Macon, where she could look after him and my mother-in-law who is entering her seventh year of Alzheimers.)  (Lest I forget to mention: that very weekend, I was also heading out of town, to Pensacola, to my uncle who also is facing end-of-life issues, and whose wife also has Alzheimers.)

Needless to say, Nancy and I are grateful for what we're sure is very helpful spiritual strength-training.  But the car wreck.  Was that really necessary?  It's not that I object to the wreck per se, it's just out of keeping with the general tone I think you ought to be striving for.  The day of the wreck, I had also learned that my wife had to sequester that chickens in the utility room again, because she'd caught a possum in the coop trying to get one.  You see what I'm talking about?  The high drama of heart disease and Alzheimers is spoiled when you go throwing in chickens and car wrecks.  Frankly, the chickens and car wrecks make the whole thing kind of silly.  I'm not complaining about the moral strengthening; bring it on, I say.  It's a matter of style.

If you can permit me another example.  Over Christmas, Nancy's dad was again in the hospital, again for congestive heart disease.  Meanwhile, one of the caregivers who looks after Nancy's mother had the flu.  Nancy's sister Donna, who is a stalwart, and to whom the lion's share of care-giving had fallen, also had the flu.  Both had to be quarantined.  Coping with Nancy's mother and sick father in these circumstances was wonderfully strengthening, and having it occur over Christmas was a master-touch.  But then - in the middle of that same hellish chaos - we discovered that the dog was deaf.

I hope you see what I'm driving at.  You have these weighty, serious, literally life-and-death issues, and you toss in canine deafness, and the whole thing falls flat.  It's not that you're overdoing it, but the dog's hearing loss could have been saved for another time when it wouldn't have made the entire ordeal seem ridiculous.

Again, I'm not complaining about the trials and tribulations themselves.  But I'm sure we would all get a lot more satisfaction from them if you'd refrain from tossing in irrelevant side-shows involving dogs, chickens, and car wrecks.  

It's all a question of style.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Some of the Things I Did, I Didn't Actually Do

Artist's Recreation of an Event That May or
May Not Have Actually Occurred
Some of the things I did I didn't actually do.  Allow me to explain.

Being a living legend in my own time, I frequently find things attributed to me which either were greatly exaggerated, done by other people, or never occurred at all.  This is a natural consequence of being so admired and wide-spreadedly beloved as I am, and it happens all the time to lots of other historical characters.  For example, George Washington did indeed cross the Potomac, but never did he - as legend asserts - throw a silver dollar across it.  Nor did he, as some believe, shout, "Hey, Wally!  Watch me hit that rock!"  These stories, charming as they are, we must consign to the realm of pleasant folktale.

Likewise with me.

So when you hear stories of my comic misadventures - especially from my wife - take them with a grain of salt.  If she tells you that on one occasion I tracked the floors with shoes that were not only crusted with chicken poop, but were visibly trailing large fluffy chicken feathers, take a moment to stop and consider.  Is such a thing really probable?  Wouldn't any person of ordinary intelligence have occasion to look down and see his sneakers festooned like an Indian head-dress in a John Wayne movie?  Likewise, she may tell you - if you're chump enough to believe her - that I recently trimmed a chicken's wings over the kitchen sink.  Now ask yourself, what sort of lunatic would bring a live chicken into the house at all, leave alone clip her wings over the sink - which is used in the preparation of food, mind you - with kitchen shears?

I'm not saying I did do these things, I am not saying I didn't; I merely point out that certain people are prone to exaggeration and I encourage you to draw your own conclusions.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

An Open Letter to God

I'm not complaining, but is this
really the best you could think of?
I do not wish to complain, because I'm sure You have thought this through more carefully than I, but it strikes me that the whole deal of death and dying could have been arranged a lot more simply.  The death part I'll take as a given.  Frankly, I don't really understand why people have to die, but I'll assume You have Your reasons.  But the dying part - honestly, was that the best You could come up with?

To begin with, it takes so lo-o-ong.  Like I'm only fifty-five, and I'm sure my actual death is a long way off, but I'm already starting to die.  Take for example, the backs of my hands which are now covered with these weird spots.  I know these are not likely to be fatal in themselves, but they're one of Your little signs, aren't they?  "You're going to die, sucker!  The clock is running!"  Ditto for my baldness and my poop, which now stinks exactly like my dad's.  My dad's, who by the way, is dead.  These and numerous other little tip-offs remind me on an increasingly regular basis that I am mortal.

Message received, Lord, thanks for the heads up.

But why draw it out so much?  If an orgasm is over in about .05 seconds, why should death be drawn out over - depending on who's counting - four to twenty years?  It seems to me that You could have easily altered the timing of those two in favor of orgasms.  Couldn't an orgasm last at least a week, and couldn't the dying part of death and dying be over in, say, a couple of days?  Like Tuesday, you develop a bad cough, and Wednesday you're dead?  Once we're dead, we're dead forever anyway, so why do you have to start us dying when we're still in our fifties?

The other problem is, dying hurts.  It hurts like a bitch.  I haven't done it myself, of course, but I've seen other people doing it, and it doesn't look like fun.  Again, back to my orgasm example - and good job on the orgasms by the way, no complaint there - but why does something that feels so good last such a short time, and something that drags on for years hurt so bad?  What's up with that, really?

Again, I'm not complaining, I just don't understand Your reasoning.  And if you find some of my suggestions useful, vis-a-vis orgasms versus dying, feel free to use them.

With Best Wishes and Amen,

Man


Monday, January 5, 2015

Down to the Rutabagas

Rutabagas could almost be mistaken for turnips.
Only they're not turnips.
They're rutabagas.
The winter garden Nancy and I planted has exceeded all expectations.  It has survived.  So far, I've already brought in turnips, collards, broccoli, and cauliflower.  The cabbages seem to be forming heads, although I'm not sure.  These are thrilling developments for me, which gives you some idea what my life is like.

There's only one catch.  We also planted rutabagas.

Don't get me wrong: rutabagas are a wonderful, wonderful vegetable, only not for eating purposes.  You tell yourself when you plant rutabagas that there's no harm in it; after all, they're sure to die, if not from bad weather, then pure neglect.  Maybe you even whistle a happy tune as you plant them, never imagining these helpless-looking seedlings will one day grow into unpalatable root vegetables.  And then, one day you look into your garden and there they are.  Rutabagas.

Nancy is one of those people who likes rutabagas, but please don't hold that against her.  Every couple needs a list of foods that one partner enjoys but the other loathes.  This is so you can have at least one food all to yourself without being asked to share.  For example, I love licorice and Nancy can't abide it.  I can enjoy a box of licorice toffees or a bag of all-sorts, secure in the knowledge Nancy will not lean over and say, "Can I have some?"

Rutabagas, however, do not work like licorice.  It's not a case of, "That just means more rutabaga for me."  Like all vegetables, rutabagas are a communal food; both of you are expected to eat your share.

Each day when I go out to harvest more broccoli or cauliflower as the case may be, I see the rutabagas lying in the ground.  Waiting.  They could almost be mistaken for turnips.  But they aren't turnips.  They are rutabagas.  

The dilemma is, the longer I delay eating them, the bigger they grow, the more they soak up nutrients and transform them into rutabaga meat.  On the other hand, if I eat them now, what if a giant asteroid comes and smashes the earth to crumbs?  Wouldn't I feel like a chump knowing I'd eaten rutabagas just before the world ended and no one would ever have to eat rutabagas again?

But the world probably won't come to an end before the rutabagas get eaten.

As much as I'd like it to.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Old Man and the Blog

The old man was bald and white and had
not written a blog in two weeks
He was an old man who sat in the living room in his boxers every morning, and he'd gone two weeks without writing a blog.  At night he slept beside his wife, but after he began snoring, she said he was kipinuruwek, which is the worst kind of snoring, and she kicked him out of bed, and made him sleep in the guest room.  This way at least they both got some sleep, for the old man was tired of his wife hitting him in the ribs.  It made the old man sad when his wife hit him in the ribs for snoring and he said he didn't snore all that loud and besides she sometimes snored, too.  

The old man was bald and white and his bellybutton sometimes collected lint, for it was an innie.  Yellow blotches were on his boxer shorts, but not what you think, for he had made himself fried eggs that morning.  There were brown and yellow blotches on his tee-shirt as well, for he was also drinking coffee.  Some of the blotches were fresher than others.  His brown and yellow blotched tee-shirt did not cover his lint-filled bellybutton, which was an innie.  Or did I tell you that part already?

Every part about him was bald except his legs which were hairy and the inside of his nose, which looked like twin caves with shrubbery growing in them.  Of his toes, the less said the better.

"Sugar-dumpling," his wife said to him, "put a coaster under your coffee, for you will leave a ring."

But the old man was thinking of something else.  He began to write a blog.  It was not a good blog.  It was not a bad blog either.  But it was a blog, and it had been two weeks since he had written one.

"For God's sake," his wife said, "are you going to sit there in your underwear all day?"