Friday, November 14, 2008

Physiological Change III: Babies

I think I am unusual, or at least in the minority, among women my age, in that when I think critically about having children, my mind sort of recoils.

It's not that I don't have a biological clock. I do. It ticks at me as sporadically as one might expect given I still have a good ten years in which to populate my immediate area with squirming, diaper-soiling, ear-piercing, time-suckers who require me to serve their every whim, entertain them, and pay for their every need for 18 years, all the while contributing to the swelling of the human population and the razing of the earth's resources.

See? Recoils. If it sounds like I'm being harsh on children, let it be known that, cerebrally, biological clock aside, I am. Anyone who requires me to spend all my time with them gets at automatic veto from me. Boyfriends included. I require wind-down time greater than or equal to time spent socializing, and having a child pulling at my sleeve requiring me to entertain them when I'm trying to read just screams torture.

Babysitting was always the most uncomfortable experience when I was a teenager - not because I was responsible for another human's well-being, and I guess their survival, but because of the constant outward-turning of my brain and its resources. I had to constantly think of things that would be entertaining to another, alien person, and engage with them on not a daily but a minute-ly basis. It was like having responsibility for the stimulation of another's brain.

Since I wasn't wild about people stimulating my brain very often when I was young - I preferred reading or drawing in solitude - I don't actually understand what it feels like to be the kind of child that children seem to me to be: demanding, hungry for stimulation, with a super-short attention span and neverending energy. I don't know what they want from me and I don't know how to give it to them, whatever 'it' is. I still have nightmares about teaching preschool-age kids in Indonesia even as I have the same dreams about missing my older students.

So that - coupled with my firm belief that we as a race need to stop creating so many babies and start taking care of the unwanted babies already in existence, and then start controlling our numbers to a number appropriate for the size of the earth and our neighbors on it - makes me a prime candidate for either abstinence from pregnancy or adoption. There's no argument for me having children and every argument for me adopting an older child. Older children are the most in need. I like older children. Therefore...!

But my body will not listen to such reason. It's like,

BODY: You want to have a baby.

BRAIN: But I don't even think babies are cute. I see them on trains and buses and just think, that poor mother, carrying all that baby shit around all the time everywhere she goes. I don't even look at the baby.

BODY: But you want to have babies. You love babies. In fact, you want to have one right now.

BRAIN: But I don't have the income for a baby. And I don't like babies. I don't want babies. Everyone's having too many babies as it is.


And then, something shocking happens: my brain loses the argument! It starts waffling and hemming and hawing. And it starts searching for logical reasons to have a baby. It starts thinking about how differently it'll be forced to view the world when it's teaching everything to someone new, and how that might be kind of cool and freeing. It starts thinking about getting to relive all sorts of nostalgic things like first-grade projects and dressing up for Halloween. It starts thinking about who the baby might look like, all the different kinds of beautiful combinations that could happen.

It starts turning. It starts changing. It starts wanting a baby, not just being okay with it, or accepting it grudgingly, but really wanting a baby. My body wins. It wins! Despite the best logic in the world, and the true and sincere desire to contribute to the decline of the human population, my body wins the argument. All the debating and logic in the world can't help me to help be a part of the change I most want to see in the world - depopulation.

I can't imagine what it's like for people who actually want children.

Let's go back to the fill-in-the-blank, shall we?

Change is hard when you're fighting billions of years of biological programming.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Obvious Post

There can't be a blog about change without mentioning Obama's election! I mean, I'm sure there is one somewhere, but it's probably run by someone lazier than me who started neglecting it way back in 2006 or whatever, not just last month.

Change being the buzzword of the campaign, I'm surprised my blog didn't suddenly get a politically-crazed stream of visitors demanding to know how I linked my ideas about change and Obama's plans for change. In fact, as I am a politically crazed visitor myself, I'm surprised I didn't encounter my own blog when I obsessively googled and blog-hopped for election updates in the weeks leading up to November 4.

But there was nothing out there giving me inspiration to write, instead of read, until Obama's victory speech. I thought that he said something really brave and probably prescient. And risky. It was:

"This victory alone is not the change we seek; it is only the chance for us to make that change."

Buried as it was amongst barely veiled correlations between his election and the end of slavery, the New Deal, WWII ending, Martin Luther King's rise, a man walking on the moon, and the fall of the Berlin Wall, it stood out. Nobody I know agrees with me on this evaluation, but I did think the speech as a whole was a little bit overselfcongratulatory; not that this achievement wasn't an amazing step forward, but, I don't know, maybe just let someone else congratulate and praise you, you know? Especially if you're going to bring World War II and the Berlin Wall into it. However, that one lone sentence showed that he knew that just getting elected wasn't the end. That he didn't have the mindset of, well, I got elected, now I can relax my rhetoric and go back on all my promises, or at least pretend that everything I've said has already come to pass.

It would have been easy, and would have relieved, at least temporarily, much of the enormous pressure that's on him as president-elect, to simply imply that getting elected WAS the change America sought. People were ready to hear it, because they'd been reading about it, knocking on doors for it, volunteering for it, and generally using it as a goal. People probably wouldn't have called him out on it. They were all ready to rest after an exhausting campaign.

But instead, he chose to remind everyone that the actual change would take place only once he took office, appointed officials, started vetoing/approving bills, etc., only he put it in much more daunting terms, painting the picture of his coming presidency as a challenge that would be filled with obstacles to overcome and big, messy problems to solve. This only served to remind everyone of the heavy load of expectations resting squarely on Obama's shoulders, and made the load even heavier (or at least more towards the forefront of people's minds).

I thought that was brave, and not at all the easy way out.

I sort of liken this stage of the Obama presidency to New Years Resolution time in the life of us regular people (or you regular people anyway; I tend to make my resolutions at random times throughout the year). We've taken the time to get a piece of paper, find a working pen, and think about a list of resolutions are most important to follow through with. We have the paper hanging on our wall, decorated with curlicues. We've bought our gym membership, we've signed up for dance class, we've primed our abusive boyfriend's stuff for its new home on the front lawn, we've drafted the letter of resignation to the job we hate. But January 1 hasn't come yet, so it hasn't gone any further than that. We can't yet exactly say we've made a change. Per se. But we've made something.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Physiological Change II: Maturity

Maybe physiology isn't the right word for it, so much as 'maturity', but since the jury's out on what percentage of maturity comes from genes and what percent comes from the environment, I'll just call it what I want for now.

I was thinking about how slowly I grew up and how being way behind my peers in maturity caused certain kinds of change to be inconceivable. I mean, in high school - right up to my junior year, at least - I still thought it was perfectly acceptable to stalk a guy junior-high-style. Sitting at the park outside his house on weekends, having a picnic. Going to band early to creepily stand around, listening to him practice. Faking a photoshoot for art class just to have an excuse to take a picture of him. And, faced with him, straight out, asking me who I have a crush on? Lying. Lying right to his face, because the concept of telling a boy that I liked him, at the age of sixteen even, was flat-out unimaginable.

This was clearly behind the curve for my age group. Everyone else had already figured out the concept of subtlety, that always having an excuse to be near someone, no matter how valid or proveable the excuse may be, still suggests to that person that something weird is going on, because that person isn't an idiot.

Everyone else had also already figured out that crushes were not the be-all-end-all of life and that it was okay to air them out in the open - that it was a risk worth taking.

I had not figured this out. I didn't figure it out until college. And as much as I sat around in high school, writing emo entries in my diary 'whyyy doesn't anybody lovvvve me... what can i dooo about it... i've tried eeeverything...' I couldn't change then - couldn't dooo anything about it - because I couldn't see the source of the problem. I had no other viewpoint to compare myself to.

I mean, I was the girl whose application essay for admittance into fucking Reed College was about an experience I had watching people smoke pot and feeling like it was wrong and weird. Reed College! Pot was wrong and weird! It was really dramatic, too, like that Coke can bong had altered my life in an intractable way. I didn't know my audience, obviously.

It's like when I was too old to admit here and was listening to the song 'With a Little Help From My Friends', when the line 'I get high with a little help from my friends' came up. I asked my mom, "Do they mean... drugs?"

"Yeah," she said.

"Wait, the Beatles did drugs??" I gasped.

My mom had to leave the room to keep from openly laughing at me. I was a true graduate of D.A.R.E. I mean, it and all its misinformation totally worked on me. I actually couldn't distinguish between heroin and marijuana for awhile - I would mix it up and call them 'maroin' and 'herijuana'. That's what D.A.R.E. taught; all drugs are equally evil and terrible. And I didn't have the comparative capacity yet to learn to distinguish them myself. Not until I was seventeen.

A few times I tried to write short stories about crime, or life on the street, or abusive parents, even though I had roughly the same understanding of these topics as I did of drugs. I thought they were really deep and hard hitting, that I could write from any point of view I chose and understand everything about it. It took until college to realize that fallacy.

But I couldn't know that I needed to be more educated until I was actually more educated enough to know that. Or until my brain had grown enough to encompass that. Either way.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Physiological Change: Habits, Time, and Climate

I haven't examined physiological barriers to psychological change yet, and I don't intend to, in depth, until I either know what I'm talking about or can convincingly fake it. But the continual trouble I've had waking up at 5:30AM has me wondering.

I can go to bed early, arrange to wake up to a relaxing, unstressful massage, turn on the lights immediately, and cement a routine all I want, but after a year and a half of having to wake up at 5:30 for work, it's still almost impossible. My body has not adjusted. Which I find odd, having lived halfway around the world which, if my body were really unable to adjust to a different rhythm, would've had me going to sleep at what felt like 8AM and waking up at what felt like 5PM. For six months. With no sign of it feeling natural. But it did feel natural there, after only a few days. I had to exert no effort to adjust. Here, with my 5:30AM alarm, I can exert all the effort in the world but it doesn't catch for some reason.

The book I'm reading has a section about how our systems are the most depressed (relaxed, not sad) between the hours of 4 and 6 AM and there's nothing much we can do about it. However, it doesn't make clear whether it's because of the local light-dark cycle or it's something that becomes ingrained in our bodies from the time zone we're born in. From my experience and a good dose of common sense, I'm guessing it's the former.

Here's another example. Right up until I went to Indonesia, I had pretty bad skin. Medicated scrubs did not help, eating less greasy food did not help, washing my face all the time did not help. Again, despite all efforts to change and erect a new habit, the habit, while duly erected, did not produce anything in the form of any physiological evidence of change. The only thing that ended the ten year Reign of Acne was changing climates. Only once I was enmeshed in 85+ degree air holding 85+ per cent humidity, and my pores started pouring constantly, rivering everything bad out 24/7, did my skin clear up, and, amazingly, has stayed basically that way since.

Both of these examples are painfully obvious, so painfully obvious that I feel stupid including them in a blog entry The reason for the psychological change failing is that it's powerless against the larger forces of biology.

It's slightly discouraging to think that, for all the problems we face, any one of them might have some kind of hidden monstrosity of a biological blockade that prevents us from getting anywhere with it, even if we try our hardest.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Accidental Change

I was looking for the old high school diary entry that I was going to reference, but it became long and involved and impossible, so I thought, screw it, just move, just act.

On Saturday Patrick had a laser tag birthday party. The words 'laser tag' still instill an old knee-jerk jolt of dread in me because of the last time I tried to play, which was in high school, I think. I made it through the vest-fitting stage, barely, shaking with panic at how everything was blacklit and the actual playing stage looked darker. How I didn't know whether I'd be startled every time someone shot me and my vest vibrated. How I didn't know what the sound of the lasers would be like, whether it would be too loud. And when they released us into the arena, it turned out to be a maze. A dark, windy, smoky, strobe-light-filled maze, and there was no way, just no chance at all, that I was going into it.

That high school experience ended in my sitting down outside the arena and regretting every second of my not joining in the fun while simultaneously feeling that it was impossible - impossible! - that I would now or ever be able to do something as scary as enter a smoky, stroby, maze with dark corners and suddenly firing guns. And the contrast between then (only 8 years ago at the most) and the experience Saturday shocked the hell out of me when I sat down to think about it later.

All I felt Saturday was a vague sense of anticipation, not more than leftover neural firings from high school. When they released us into the maze I ran straight into it and started playing, and all I thought was, this is so cool, this is so cool. But not even in a, 'this is so cool, I'm so glad I can do these sorts of things now since I never could before' kind of way... just in an in-the-moment kind of way.

So none of this occurred to me until later... but later it occurred to me in the form of a ton of bricks:

I spent a lot of high school wondering when I would just... spontaneously change. When my chemistry would shift and I would stop feeling sick and anxious all the time, or when I would be able to do the normal things that normal people did and react normally, instead of inevitably ending up far removed from it and on my way to some 'safe' place somewhere. I didn't really consider that in order to change I would have to take action. I just figured a doctor would eventually find the right medicine, give it to me, and I'd suddenly be better, be normal, without having to lift a finger.

Turned out I was right.

Well, sort of. Turned out I didn't need medicine, unless you count time as medicine, which I guess it is, especially when it's carrying you further from high school (and I say that as someone who liked high school, you know, as much as I could for someone who couldn't do a lot of normal, non-scary things). I did need to thrust myself into new situations over which I had no control, no safety net. But once I was there, I didn't have to do anything. I just had to live and suffer and live and suffer and watch my worst fears come true and blossom into no big deal.

And it happened so slowly that I didn't even notice it happening. I emerged on the other side of it not even knowing that I had travelled through a tunnel, and not even knowing that I should be falling on my knees and giving thanks every time I walked into a classroom and sat in the middle, or had a sleepover with a friend, or performed in a concert, or ran whooping into a laser tag arena.

It's the most personal evidence that I have of a sea change washing up slowly. I don't know what lessons to take from it since if I tried to replicate it, I know I couldn't. All I know is I changed my surroundings, I took away my safety net, I made it impossible for myself to escape, and it just happened. It would be a long leap from this to saying that it would happen like that every time. I wouldn't feel comfortable making that leap.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Choice and Change V: Regret

Seems like every post ends here, doesn't it? I'm writing and writing, and come to regret, and stop, uncertainly. Mostly it's because I feel every thread leads here, that it might be the most important bottom line I have, and I'm scared to screw it up. Scared to regret screwing it up later, one might say.

I had to return my library book o' fame, so there will be no quotes from it here. If you're sick of the regurgitation, I guess that's good news.)

The question is, would I post what I feared was a terribly written post on regret if I knew that I were going to die tomorrow? Probably not, if I hadn't written it yet - I'd want to spend my last hours doing other things, other insanely fun things with terrible consequences that I would never do otherwise (more on that later). But if I had written it? Still, probably not. I wouldn't want people to remember me by a last, stupid, journal entry, instead of a more well-written earlier one.

I'm not sure whether to call that a form of anticipated regret or not. I would think that I'm rational enough to know that I can't feel regret when I'm dead, but the reasoning goes the same way as it would go if I assumed I would be alive: 'don't post this. it's silly. people will laugh. you'll regret exposing your thoughts so early on in the process instead of waiting for them to mature.' It's still the same: not doing anything feels better, somehow, than doing something stupid, even though doing something stupid might be a more fun thing to do in the moment and nothing else but the moment matters because, hell, you're about to be dead.

It may seem obvious to state, but the people who are going to worry more about regret are the ones who know that they tend to fixate on the past. I am one of those people. I do the if-onlies all the time, and project onto my future self the if-onlies that she will project back onto me.

Seems like clouds of over-worrying and all sorts of fluffy, substanceless shit like the above totally obscure any sort of action at all, even though experience has shown me (and statistics have shown others) that people are more likely to regret what they haven't done than what they have. Knowing this (and I do think we know it consciously), there's got to be some other reason we refuse to take action, that we are frightened to take action. Fear of failure, of course, but if we were thinking straight we'd realize that failure is imminent with inaction.

We are not thinking straight. Something is preventing our thinking straight. I guess what I'm in the market for, is what that something is. I thought I was heading towards regret, but I guess I'm not, or maybe that something is tied in with regret, inexorably - that something is hidden within regret that makes us unable to predict what we'll actually regret, even as we logically see it, have empirical evidence for it, have personal experience with it, and talk about it with authority.

I touched on that briefly in the last Choice and Change installment - that we are terrible predictors of what we'll want in the future. Perhaps we are even worse predictors of what we'll regret in the future. But we blindly try to predict it anyway. And the more we're wrong, the more we see we're wrong, the more scared we are of regret, because we see that regret happens despite our best efforts to avoid it. And the scared we are of it, the more wrong decisions we make in order to avoid it. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy, but more than that, because it builds as it grows, like a snowball. It snowballs. You know, to be succinct about it and all.

People do emerge unscathed from the frost though, and I have a feeling it has to do with that something, which is either perfect foresight (unlikely) or the ability to just not give a fuck what their future self thinks about anything.

In other news, I dreamed that I was driving towards Santa Monica from the Malibu, and I was going home, but it was a sixties urban sprawl, or a seventies, and it was getting bombed. We had to lay in the crevices of gutters atop buildings to survive. Not past or future perhaps, but another way an alternate universe could have gone.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Dreams, or Time Travel

As I was falling asleep the other night I had a fleeting thought about dreams right before I started dreaming and I thought, what a prescient time to think about dreams, but what a terrible time to remember those thoughts.

But what occurred to me was something like that what we were dreaming about was ourselves in past lives or future lives, or both mixed together. Not necessarily real past or future lives, but how we imagined those lives might be. So dreaming was time travel, in a way, or at least the illusion (hallucination) of time travel.

That's always been in the back of my mind because I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about how my life would look from my younger self's perspective. Like, I probably think about it at least once every day. My younger self would certainly have a different opinion on my current self's surroundings - her boyfriend, her job, her looks, the bike she rides, the friends she has, the place she lives, the things she spends her time doing - than does my current self, who is relatively bored, or at least jaded, by it all.

But when I imagine my younger self's reaction to my current self, I'm only looking at a span of two decades at most, and usually less (because my four year old self would not have an opinion other than to want to go home and play the piano). When I look at dreams I imagine it's centuries, sometimes millenia, in the case of those really weird ones where you can breathe underwater, or tidal waves deposit you on deserted beaches, or you can fly effortlessly, or the air is made of smoke.

The feeling I get in dreams is so unlike anything I ever feel when I'm awake. It's an almost proprietary mix of wonder and familiarity. I'm basically unflappable and react calmly to any bizarre situation that's thrown at me, while still maintaining that what-the-fuck feeling you'd expect from being immersed in unpredictable weirdness. Half of me doesn't know what's going on, but the other half already knows how to react according to whatever dream laws of physics apply.

But the familiarity is almost a deja-vu kind of familiarity, which never fails to make me remember dreams as 'that time I time-traveled to the past', or to even think, when I wake up, 'oh... I'm back here...' as if I were somewhere way, way ahead of right now.

Like I had changed so much that what I left behind felt like a dream. I had changed so much that what I changed into felt like a dream.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Habitual Rituals

Over the long weekend, I was on a trip with my dad through Arches National Park, UT and Mesa Verde, CO. Being me, what I took most strongly away from the trip wasn't the way standing under the arches made me feel like I'd stumbled upon a world turned inside out, or one made of Play-Doh, or how the cliff dwellings looked like pueblo legos from far away on the other side of the canyon, or even how climbing a 32 foot ladder hanging onto the side of a sheer drop didn't scare me at all. It was my dad's reminder of a senseless ritual I used to require as a child.

I'm not sure whether to call this a habit or a ritual. Washing hands is a habit, washing them 3 times is a ritual, right. 'Ritual', I think, implies an extra layer of meaning given to an action, right? Washing hands once is for simply getting hands clean; washing them 3 times implies that the person has an obsession with cleanliness or maybe just an obsessive personality. Eating fish on Fridays might just be because you got used to the taste, but eating it on Fridays to follow a religious edict implies that eating fish carries a spiritual meaning on top of the nutrition/taste.

So I guess mine was a ritual. Every night before bed, I would recite mechanically to my parents, 'Good night, see you in the morning, sweet dreams, good night.' And they would have to recite it back. They had to say it in that order. They also had to say it last. And if either of those things happened wrong, I wouldn't be able to go to sleep. I would lay awake worrying about nameless things. Like maybe I would die in the night knowing my parents didn't say goodnight to me, and that when they came in and discovered me dead, they'd feel badly for not wishing me a good night. Something like that, although I'm sure I didn't put it into any sort of well-formed thought.

While my dad and I were on vacation, he still said, every night - tongue-in-cheek maybe, but still mechanically - 'Good night, see you in the morning, sweet dreams, good night.' Then when I was silent, he'd say, 'Say it! Say it!' just like I used to.

But on no night did he not say it. I sort of wondered if he had to, if it was a knee-jerk thing. I've grown out of it - it hasn't occurred to me in years - but I've changed my entire environment, left my house, left my parents, gone to sleep bidding goodnight to different people. He's still in the house where I grew up.

This makes me wonder: if I still lived at home and my parents were still together, as they were for the majority of my childhood, would I have never been forced to break out? Would I still be totally obsessive about this insane ritual, and others: like making my mom taste my seafood before I ate it to make sure it wasn't rotten; like having to finish walking up stairs with my right foot; like not being able to turn in a circle without then turning the other way; like always eating my food collatedly (peas, potatoes, steak, peas, potatoes..)? I stopped all that in college because it didn't occur to me to perform these things when in a completely alien environment. Within the context of the dorm, they were, if not impossible, totally out of place.

I'm sure a ritual can be broken while keeping its surroundings constant. But I'm sure it's easier if everything changes and becomes strange and new, and starts to require attention to every crazy detail.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Pregnancy Interlude

Recently I asked two people a question for which I thought the answer was obvious, but they both answered the opposite answer from me, and in turn thought their answer was obvious. It is rare that this happens, as socially backwards and morally ambiguous as I am/feel sometimes.

I looked it up later and it turns out that statistics overwhelmingly support only one of them, despite the fact that they gave the same answer. You will see how this is possible in a minute. But now I am left with the odd feeling that my mind works in backwards, alien, screwed up, selfish ways! I mean, I knew that, but, um, what say you when given this choice, loyal 'multitudes'? I know you're loyal because you're still here!

Given this situation: you are pregnant. With a single child, twins, triplets, nonuplets... doesn't matter. You have complications. The doctor says to you that he can either save you or save your babies. Which do you choose?

One friend, a girl, said that she would choose the babies. My boyfriend, speaking as the male watching the mother of his child go through this, disturbingly (to me) also said he would choose the babies. Neither of them hesitated.

And I thought, really? See, I would choose myself in a second, and if it somehow were my husband/boyfriend going through this, I would choose his life with even more force than I chose my own! While taking into account that I am a crappy predictor, like the rest of the species, and just think I would choose that because I haven't yet felt that incredibly strong maternal bond that is said to exist, I still made a different snap certain decision from the other two, like it was obvious, like, who would really pick these unborn babies?

I recently read a book by Atul Gawande, the surgeon and writer, that cited a study that said that most mothers, when in that situation, choose to save their babies, while most fathers choose to save the mothers. Can I find this study on the internet somewhere? Hmm, no, but it was somewhere near this excerpt.

Now, this is a crazy oversimplification and I realize this, and I realize that by even bringing it up I'm being rude to sentimentalists and people with feelings everywhere, but could it be that both mother and father are choosing the choice that carries the least risk of crippling regret?

The mother, if she chooses to save herself, was still obviously extremely attached to her baby and might never forgive herself for not trying to save it. The father, if he chooses to save the baby, might feel doubly guilty for not saving his wife and depriving his child of a mother.

Or maybe people just choose to save those of whom they are most protective.

(I should have named this entry A Pregnancy Interlude, or: How I Successfully Put Off Writing About Regret Again.)

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Blame, Fault, and Other Slippery Words

A line from the book, p. 208 (I'm nearly through with it now and will soon stop touting it as though I'm getting paid to advertise it, though I do love it and recommend it to anyone who wants to dog-ear every page) gave me pause:

"Optimists explain successes with chronic, global, and personal causes and failures with transient, specific, and universal ones. Pessimists do the reverse. Optimists say things like 'I got an A' and 'She gave me a C'. Pessimists say things like 'I got a C' and 'He gave me an A'. And it is the pessimists who are candidates for depression."

Hmm... I know that the author's not trying to be exhaustive here, but I think there's more to it. There is definitely a large subset of pessimists who base their pessimism on the belief that the entire world is at fault, rather than even consider that they are. And there are an equal number of what the author might call 'optimists', taking proud credit for their successes, that are simply masquerading, and privately, even unconsciously, harbor doubt that they really did anything to deserve them.

I'll anticipate the obvious argument (I know it's coming) that these 'optimistic' masqueraders shouldn't be labeled optimists just because they're good actors. They should be labeled pessimists as they really are inside. Fine. But what about the pessimists who blame the world rather than themselves? We all know these people. There's probably one whining at you right now. He probably failed at asking out a hot girl because the hot girl was stupid and wouldn't recognize a manly sensitive studly catch of a guy if he was dropped in her lap (which, the complainer asks us to believe, he was). Or maybe she's telling you that she didn't get a promotion because her competition was some slut who sexual-favored her way up the ladder instead of working for it like an honest, hardworking sort of person (that would be her, of course).

Schwartz came into this line not too long after running through a bunch of studies about how animals who believe they are helpless are more depressed, and human infants who activate their crib mobiles with a turn of the head are more interested and happier with their mobiles than babies whose mobiles were activated by another baby turning their head. And old people in nursing homes who are given plants to take care or are happier than those who have their caregivers take care of the plants for them. The point, I think, was to prove that control, or at least a belief, mistaken or not, that one has control, makes one happier.

And then he turns around and says that people who are pessimists tend to be depressed and people who take the blame for their problems tend to be pessimists. Isn't taking the blame taking responsibility? And isn't taking responsibility supposed to tend oneself towards being happier? And isn't being happier the opposite of being a pessimist?

In this article about a talk by Martin Seligman, he goes deeper into the difference between responsibility and blame, and the difference between blaming the world and accepting that the world is sometimes just not in the right place for you at the moment. He also makes a big distinction between blaming yourself for events you have the ability to change and blaming yourself for being a specific, unchangable type of person. I wish Schwartz had inserted this article straight into his book.

Choice and Change IV: Memory and Prediction

Turns out that no one really knows what they want. Again, obvious, but let me paraphrase and quote actual studies (isn't it awesome that someone was able to think up a study that proves this?):

Experiment 1 - "Participants in a laboratory study were asked to listen to a pair of very loud, unpleasant noises played through headphones. One noise lasted for eight seconds. The other lasted sixteen. The first eight seconds of the second noise were identical to the first noise, whereas the second eight seconds, while still loud and unpleasant, were not as loud. Later, the participants were told that they would have to listen to one of the noises again, but that they could choose which one. Clearly the second noise is worse - the unpleasantness lasted twice as long. Nonetheless, the overwhelming majority of people chose the second to be repeated."*

They chose the second noise because it was less loud and annoying at the end, and that's all they could remember. Apparently people base their memories on two things: how they felt at the most extreme part of the experience, and how they felt at the end. So in this case, the peak was the same, but the end was less annoying; the second noise was remembered as less uncomfortable overall.

Experiment II: "Each week [college students] had a three-hour seminar with one break that allowed [them] to stretch their legs, use the bathroom, clear their heads, and have something to eat. When the professor asked the students to pick a snack for each of the next three weeks, the students picked a variety, thinking they'd get tired of the same snack every week. In contrast, another group in the same study got to choose their snack every week, and these students, choosing for one week at a time, tended to choose the same thing each week."*

Basically one group had to predict what they would feel like eating and the other only had to decide what they felt like eating at the time. The predictors thought they'd be sick of eating the same thing for three weeks, but we're more creatures of habit than we think we are.

It's starting to look very much like we can't even trust ourselves to make an accurate assessment of the things we prefer! Which means, when we make important decisions, that we're setting ourselves up for disappointment when we come to realize that we're crappy predictors because we have crappy memories and we actually are very unhappy with the thing we chose.

Which also leads to regret. I have been leading to regret for the last three posts and have been neglecting it/putting it off because it's such a hard topic, but I guess the next post in the thread will have it.

*All quotations taken from pp.49-52 of The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Choice and Change III: The Anatomy of a Decision

What I think I'll do now is take advantage of my natural tendency in fiction writing to give way, way too much detail about everything I describe, and slow time down to a crawl to pick apart the stages of a decision I made about a week ago.

(By the way, I'm not joking about that tendency. Once I spent four single spaced pages describing the way a cat moves. I have also spent twelve diving into the way a teacher looks at you when you ditch class. Five about the first step into an ice cave. The reason I sometimes sound stilted now is that I'm leaning purposefully in the opposite direction and sometimes I lean too far.)

It's not a big decision. Just a small decision. An everyday decision. What am I going to do now. That type of decision. The kind that accompanies every tiny crossroads - one path leading to quesadillas and one leading to warmed up soup. One leading to the library and research and one leading to someone's living room and a tabletop bong.

Last week's decision, though simple, is a three-crossroads-decision: work on the background organ chords of a song, struggle through further pages of a book that I mostly find unbearably trite but that my mom has insisted that I read, or watch an old episode of the disgustingly compelling show America's Next Top Model on YouTube.

I already have my preconceptions of the outcome of all three of my choices. Mostly I have vaguely formed ideas that I haven't bothered to examine, but hopefully by the time I write it all down that won't be true anymore.

ANTM is the most lazy option and also the most confusing. I will be entertained despite, and between, bouts of shame. I can eat while doing it, pluck my eyebrows, lose my endless heavy thoughts. There is no risk of failing at watching a reality show (maybe failing BY watching a reality show, but this somehow doesn't make its way into my automated math-maker). It's easy. It's fun. But it makes me feel sick after awhile, and afterwards, I know I will feel regret at the opportunities to be productive that I missed (and back to opportunity cost there).

It's also hard to fail at reading a book. Even when the book is formulaic, as I feel this one is, I can be swept up in it. It's also lazy; I can eat dinner while doing that as well. I'll feel slightly more like I'm doing something worthwhile, but still be angry that I wasted time on something I've read 5,000 times in creative writing workshops. It's definitely the middle option; the settling option. If I'm afraid to fail at something creative but I'm also afraid of too sickening of a regretful feeling, so I go for the one that has the least risk of both.

If I work on my song, it is eminently likely that I'll fall short of my expectations and of how the song sounds in my head. My organ skills will prove to be poorer than those of my imagination, and I'll notice while I'm recording it that some vocal harmony sounds bad, and I'll re-record it, but as it turns out, I'll re-record it worse and then have lost the original. I might realize a portion of the lyrics don't make sense, or feel at a loss about how to string them into a logical end. I might have trouble with the bridge, because I always have trouble with bridges.

But if - miraculously - none of these things happen, I will have spent time creating something I'm proud of. I'll listen to it later and be glad I did. I won't regret the time spent working on it - and in fact, I won't regret it even it if turns out to not turn out well.

So it's pretty clear empirically which one is the best decision for me to make. But - though I did make the right decision last week - more often than not, when faced with a similar decision, I'll choose America's Next Top Model, or, barring that, freeze, and end up surfing the internet thinking I'll eventually make a decision until it becomes - oops! - too late to make a decision. Whoops! I guess it's not my fault, then, if I didn't have time to make a decision!

It's funny how I can so totally absolve myself of regret by convincing myself that I didn't have a choice.

Creeping Normalcy

Interesting... but actually obvious when you think about it.

The problem with putting it into play on purpose would be that it appears to work by virtue of total ignorance of its process. Note the phrase 'unnoticed increments'.

Although I'm sure a weaker version of it would make a change more palatable, even if it were on purpose. That's how most varieties of programs are generally advocated. There aren't many exercise programs out there advising beginning jazzercisers to start out with jump-splits and high kicks for an hour a day, or Buddhist monasteries insisting their new monks meditate for 20 hours a day and live on tea and bread. Are there? Maybe there are. I wouldn't know. I have no experience with being a jazzerciser except for the knowledge that that isn't a real noun, and no experience being a monk other than having lived with someone who meditated for five hours a day and went to a Buddhist university. I have experience with seeing a psychiatrist, though, during my high school years, and when they were advising me about my severe anxiety, none of them dared suggesting that I cure myself by immediately entering the school's talent show or sitting fenced in in the center of a large classroom. No, it was 'feel yourself out... go at your own pace' and 'why don't you try taking deep breaths and counting to ten' and 'maybe tomorrow you can sit one seat in from the door instead of right next to it' and 'could you maybe set a goal for next year of being able to play an obscure instrument in the school band production?'

Come to think of it, creeping normalcy never worked for me. All those suggestions fell flat. The only thing that ever worked for my anxiety was throwing myself into terrifying situations with no possible escape. Like sitting in the absolute center of the bleachers at a Shakespeare production, where the bleachers are tiny and have about an inch of escape room when everyone's sitting down, and it's considered a major faux pas to be standing and squeezing and excuse-me-ing through the crowd while Macduff is stabbing Macbeth or whatever. Or traveling to a very isolated area of a poor country where malaria and bird flu abounded and good hospitals did not (abound, that is).

But that just supports my theory (which I'm in the middle of in the 'Choice and Change' thread) about how tricking yourself into thinking you have no choice, or literally giving yourself no choice, may actually be a good thing in embarking on change.

Drug rehab programs must have recognized this. When you go to inpatient rehab (from what I've heard) you leave everything you know and are familiar with, and go to a place where you're treated as if you were at boarding school. You are accompanied everywhere... bathroom included, bedroom included. Checks at night. Body checks. Monitoring on your phone calls. No care packages. No possible way to possibly relapse. Free will plays no part in it; choice plays no part in it. That is, while you're there. Afterwards is another story.

Afterwards, choice comes flooding back in overwhelming quantities. Yes, you're supposed to keep up with a counselor and groups... but you don't have to, and it's easier not to. Yes, you're supposed to find new friends who enjoy things other than drugs... but you don't have to, and it's easier not to. Yes, you're supposed to fill your nights up with clean activities... but you don't have to, and it's easier not to. Are these choices easier or more difficult to resist after a period of such restricted choice? Do people just get used to doing what they were taught in rehab, or do they revel in their sudden freedom and relapse more easily?

I'm not sure if an enforced creeping normalcy would have higher success rates than rehab, which rarely jumps above 50%. I'm also not sure how enforced creeping normalcy would have to manifest itself. Slow replacement of (for example) drinking with other activities, one half hour at a time? Alcohol slowly becoming unavailable, out-of-place or inconvenient during these new activities? The new activities slowly becoming the norm?

Of course nobody can constrain their own freedom of choice forever, and that's why it's so difficult to sustain a new state.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Choice and Change II: Opportunity Cost

Luckily, I was right about The Paradox of Choice having all sorts of quotable post inspirations. I'm halfway through and have irresponsibly dog-eared at least 20 of its pages. Unfortunately, both my lack of internet on the weekends and my habit of reading in bed and falling asleep with an open book have prevented me from rushing to Blogger in the first throes of knowledge-orgasm and have therefore forced a chasm between me and what I thought I was going to say. But I'll do my best.

What struck me as shocking is that the book happened to have all sorts of anecdotes that were basically reinterpretations of my farmers market story. For example, to paraphrase:

A parent gave one child a bunch of cash and let the child decide the clothes she wanted to buy for the next year, and she was fine. He tried it with his other child; the other child froze up. She deliberated endlessly over every little thing, wondering if she bought this one outfit, would there be a better one in the next store? If she bought two pairs of pants, would she still have enough for a sweater?

Someone decides to go on vacation, and is leaning towards Cape Cod. But the more alternatives they consider, the less attractive Cape Cod looks. One vacation spot has better weather than Cape Cod; another has a better nightlife, another is closer to family, etc. The more this person thinks about all the other possibilities, the less certain they are about choosing one. What if another one would have been better?

So I guess someone thought about this kind of freezing up, and the sinking feeling that accompanies a tenuous choice made after this kind of frenzied deliberation, and came up with a name for the costs involved: opportunity costs. My choosing to go to the farmers market carried with it the opportunity costs of not getting to go to the beach, and possibly not getting to launch a water balloon assault.

People's tendency to see the choices they didn't make as a 'loss' (because they had the opportunity to choose them, but didn't) makes choices even harder, because apparently, studies have shown that people feel equivalent gains and losses unequally. The joy at winning $100 is proportionately less than the anger at losing $100. So when a person has to make a choice between lots of appealing and perfectly achievable choices, they feel happiness at gaining the experience of their first choice, but compounding unhappiness from all the other choices that they rejected.

Entirely apart from the problem of habit (which I will get around to when I have something to back myself up) this explains why it's so tough to break a routine. Following a set routine, you feel no particular gain or loss; it's merely comfortable, merely satisfactory. Comfortable and satisfactory isn't great - a prolonged stint in that state breeds yearning for change and excitement and fulfillment - but at least it's not risky. You won't lose anything from staying put. Whereas if you decide to take the leap...

... a phalanx of choices and the associated headaching lays itself before you. What are you trying to achieve with this change? Whatever it is, what is the best way to go about achieving it? Could you be spending your time in a more productive way? What if you focus your efforts into making this change when you would be happier focusing your efforts into another?

And perhaps worst of all: what if you so carefully and delicately choose the change and the method, and despite your best efforts, fail?

In my opinion, that's the biggest obstacle to change that there is. Trying and failing is a blow to the ego (and time, and resources, and etc.) that staying with the status quo can never be. In terms of those studies about loss being a bigger blow than an equivalent gain is a bolster, the risk, in our minds, is mathematically not worth it. Whether we know that it's mathematical or not is, apparently, unimportant, because we calculate it unconsciously and decide accordingly.

I must be calculating away up there in my unconscious brain calculator, because the outcome of my decisions frequently follow this formula. That is to say, change is often harder for me when the risk of failing is greater.

The next post will be a continuation of this post, since I had no idea how seamlessly it would bleed into the end of this one So I'm just going to carry on later and all three of you will just have to deal with this topic being really, really longwinded (and if you read me normally then you shouldn't have a problem because you will be used to it). The only reason I'm not carrying on now is that I have run out of time. Look forward to more excessively wordy fleshing out of this fascinating topic tomorrow!

Regret On Behalf of a Town

I fittingly overheard this at a sheepskin boots booth at the Boulder Fine Arts Festival:

"And every time she goes back there she gets an overwhelming sense of regret, because everything she remembers has changed."

Odd, to feel regret on behalf of something else (in this case, presumably a city or a town). I always thought of regret as being defined by something you wish you had done differently. Not something that, out of your hands, turned out differently by itself. I am assuming here, of course, that the woman in question didn't leave her hometown in flames, set off by her lighting fire to the city hall after freeing all the prisoners from the jailhouse and inciting revolutionary thoughts in all the townsfolk.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Choice and Change 1: The Farmers Market Example

Though I was, by my own memory, for the most part, a low-maintenance child who was content to read in her bedroom, sing herself to sleep, and play quietly on the piano in the living room, the one thing I would really work myself up into a rage about was being asked to make small, unimportant decisions.

Every Saturday, there was a farmers market about a mile from our house. Every Saturday, my mom asked me whether I wanted to go with her to the market or stay home with my dad. And every Saturday, without fail, my endless and increasingly desperate deliberations ended with me howling in the entryway with one foot outside the house and one foot inside the house, watching my mom walk down the street towards the car and feeling my body pushed and pulled from both directions as I frantically thought about the wonderful things that would undoubtably happen at the market if I stayed home, and the wonderful things that would undoubtably happen at home if I went to the market.

There were so many things for my small, obsessive mind to consider. The farmers market was a mixed bag. Occasionally, we'd take my little portable keyboard with us and I'd improvise songs on it while sitting next to the carrot-seller. People would throw me money whether they could hear what I was playing or not (and usually they couldn't because I was shy and turned the volume way down) because I was little and cute. However, the ground was uncomfortable and the noise was distracting and people would fawn over me, my mom included, and the one thing I hated more than anything was being fawned over. So usually we didn't bring the keyboard.

Keyboard aside, there were so many other things. I liked choosing what we would buy. I had strong opinions about which vegetables I liked and which vegetables I didn't. I liked all fruit, but I was picky about bruises and ripeness. Sometimes there were seafood stands and they would give samples of fine lox and even caviar. Hippies, who weren't quite as prevalent in the 80's, proffered granola, which my mom, and therefore I, distrusted. And other men, usually grizzled and in wide-brimmed hats, would be playing their guitars next to their favorite vendors, and my mom would give me a dollar and let me creep up next to him and drop it in his open case. That short bout of being in front of the crowd was about all I could take. No thank-you's or what's-your-name's or invitations to sing along to children's songs. Just a dollar in the case and a hurried return to my mom.

But sometimes I got tired of the market. I was, even then, an introvert. Grownups and conversation and the sun and the crowds eventually got under my skin and I would start whining and acting like a spoiled bratty only child, which, of course, I was. All I ever ended up wanting to do, after an hour at the market, was to flop on the couch with a book and a bunch of carrots. I hated this feeling of dragging my sluggish feet around and having to smile whenever we ran into anyone my mom knew, which was everyone, since she taught in the local school system, and answer questions about how my piano playing was going and what new songs I was learning.

With one foot out and one foot in the house, I'd consider all these things, and more. My best friend who lived across the street might come home while I was at the market and want to do something fun - more fun than going to the market. Like having a water balloon advance against some unsuspecting kid's porch, or throwing our plastic parachuters off the roof. By the time I got back from the market, he might be gone!

I could also go to the beach - while also sunny, and filled with people who knew my parents, the advantage to the beach was that I could lay down and read and still have the general feeling of having done something social. But I might miss my favorite guitar man, or my mom might not bring home the right kind of apples.

The bottom line was that I was positive that whichever totally insignificant path I chose, I would spend the time steeping in regret for having made the 'wrong choice'. Even though it was clear that going to the farmers market or not going to the farmers market wouldn't have any huge, lasting impact on my life, I was convinced that it would.

Similar quandaries happened when: my mom asked me what I wanted to eat for breakfast; whether I wanted to take the car or the train downtown; whether I wanted to have my birthday dinner on my birthday or on the nearest weekend night... the list goes on and on.

I remember laying in bed on a school morning and my mom asking me what I wanted for breakfast. Listing off all my options. Pancakes. Scrambled eggs. Hard boiled eggs. Cream of Wheat. Toast. I could never decide. And then my dad would be yelling at my mom: 'Why give her a choice? You're doing her a favor! Make what you want to make! If she doesn't like it, she'll have to deal with it or else make her own!'

The funny thing is, even as I lay worrying about tragically making the wrong breakfast choice and having to suffer the regretful consequences, I realized that I would have actually preferred it had she just chosen something and made it for me without asking. Even if I hadn't particularly felt like whatever-it-was, I could just think, gross, Cream of Wheat', probably sulk a little, because I was spoiled, and then eat it and get over it with little result except maybe a less-than-satisfied stomach. Instead of having to agonize over a decision, get the pancakes, eat them, and think, if only I had gotten the Cream of Wheat.

I realize that this entry is ridiculous, because my child's mind had no idea how to distinguish important decisions from unimportant ones, and so I'm forced to write about the intricacies of breakfast cereal, but I think it does have larger implications. Namely, I still have less trouble with the outcome of a crossroads if it was forced upon me, and more trouble if I was responsible for choosing.

So obviously that causes me to wonder if it's possible to fool oneself into changing by making it seem like it's a forced change, and not a willpower-based-change. I'll hold off on commenting further, though, until I read the next book from the library that I have, which is called The Paradox of Choice and which has, I'm sure, insight that I can draw on if not totally just quote wildly and at will.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Fire Drill Example

Up in the bathroom at work (in other rooms, too, I'm sure, but in no other room am I forced to sit still with no distractions and stare forward straight at it) is a fire escape plan. It details the most direct route of escape from the building from the bathroom. It also uses an arrow to direct which way you're supposed to go after you evacuate. In our case, everyone evacuating the building is supposed to gather in the parking lot of the building directly east of us.

I never understood this before our first work-wide fire drill (which was a joke because it turns out we don't have internal fire alarms or smoke detectors so they had to set off the burglar alarm and explain to us later how our building was a total matchbox waiting to light itself and how if we saw a fire we had to use our voiceboxes as fire alarms, but I digress). The bathroom is on the west side of the building and the gathering place is on the east side. In a fire, why would I want to double back by the burning, billowy building just to meet up with a bunch of coworkers, instead of running like hell in the opposite direction?

During those collective trips to the bathroom, I made my decision: I will choose the running-like-hell option, should the choice ever present itself. I didn't see what the big deal was about everyone gathering, as long as everyone was individually safe. Right?

Well, the fire chief told us a story. She told us that in houses where the family scatters - some end up in the front yard, some in the backyard, some across the street - a parent will panic when they see their child isn't in the immediate vicinity, run back into the house to save them, and die in the fire. Apparently, it's even common. So even small families have to have a meeting plan in case of fire. It's not enough to get out safely. Everyone has to see that everyone else is safe so that heroes don't try to be heroes saving their loved ones. The firemen even have to ask the people who have made it out safely whether everyone in the house/building is there. If they're not, the firemen are required to go in and try to save them.

The story, while told gruffly and a bit accusingly (we weren't very good at gathering quickly - we sauntered) made me change my mind about my plan. I decided that I would be willing to walk through an uncomfortable - not life threatening - vicinity to keep firemen or coworkers from reentering a building unnecessarily for me.

It always helps to change your mind when you know what will be the purpose or the outcome of your changing it. Turning it around to fit into the fill-in-the-blank of two entries ago -

Change is hard when you can't see a good reason to change.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Self-Help Taboo

Whenever I wander through a bookstore, I wander through a fairly wide selection of sections - medicine, graphic novels, classics, sociology, physical anthropology, zoology - but I still check the room to make sure nobody I know is around before I duck into the self-help section. I'm sure everyone does. I pick up random books from every conceivable genre to flip through them all the time, but I'll carefully inspect the book jacket to make sure the cover is easily hide-able before I sit down on a chair and flip through anything even vaguely self-help-esque.

I feel slightly the same way about this blog, and I'm working hard to steer it away from having that self-helpy connotation. Sometimes when I use the terms 'we should' and 'we do' followed by universal things that 'we should do', I feel sleazy. I feel like I'm writing something embarrassing, like recaps of a reality show that are nowhere near as funny and spot-on as these recaps are.

Hopefully behavioral psychology, which I guess this falls under, can be steered far enough away from conclusions that turn into preachy quoteables that turn into pushy slogans or cheesy recitations. I am not interested in unearthing 'the one right way to change'. I am not interested in 'finding myself and encouraging others to do the same'... in exactly the manner I did, so I can smugly boast to them when I give advice from on high. I am not interested, in fact, in discovering some sort of golden conclusion, the be-all-end-all of struggle.

The Scandinavian Shower Example

This will illustrate how far into the dark, webby corners of the internet I often go (referencing blog comments?), but in a comment on Becca's Belgian blog, someone mentioned how in Scandinavia if you're in the communal apartment shower for more than three minutes, someone will knock on the door and 'remind you that you're not in a Turkish bath or spa'.

If I were to visit that part of Scandinavia and find myself in that situation, I'd take the three minute shower so nobody thought I was a pampered brat, but in my mind, I'd be blubbering like a baby, and for the length of my visit, I'd be missing my decadent 25 minute showers where I shampoo and condition and scrub and shave and luxuriate under the near-scalding stream. I would count the days until I found myself back home, or in a high-class hotel, or anywhere at all that would accept my doing that.

In other words, it would be hard for me to change my shower habits. Do these bathroom-door-knockers spend their paltry - and environmentally responsible - showers dreaming of decadent, water-wasting, irresponsible showers? I don't know, but if anyone knows, please leave a comment and tell me. It would go a long way towards helping me to understand habits as they relate to desires.

What I'm guessing - and what I will assume until I find differently or enough people argue with me - is that they do not. There's a big mental difference between having had and lost than never having had at all (try teaching THAT as an ESL teacher). The difference between living on a $20k/year salary straight out of college - eating ramen noodles and pizza, using disgusting bathroom, and sleeping in creaking bunk beds - and living on a $20k/year salary after living for 30 years making six figures - driving around in luxury cars, eating in gourmet restaurants, and travelling the world with little regard to cost - is huge.

Both individuals will, I'm sure, long for more money. Both might play the lottery, constantly skim job ads looking for something better, gamble, feel jealous of richer friends (and help coin the term 'more successful' for them - what is the deal with that phrase??), et cetera. But the second individual featured will also feel not only a sense of loss, and maybe guilt or regret, for whatever they did to lose what they had, and maybe shame, for falling 'below' their old friends, but also - and I think this would be the hardest to deal with - a complete disconnect from the comforts and habits of their old life. They'll instinctively try keep their weekly massage appointments, their semi-weekly golf dates, their monthly trips to Mexico, then realize there's no place in the budget for them. When they have to miss these things, and instead sit at home in their new austere apartment with its bare walls and food from the grocery store, they'll feel depressed. And they'll think, 'how do people live like this?'

People, namely my parents, have implied this when they have visited me in the studio apartments of the past. They can't believe I don't have: a microwave/an oven/a shower mat/a proper bed, rather than a futon on the floor. They wouldn't be able to live without these things and assume I wouldn't either.

But hardly anyone who's lived on that salary all their life would sit at home feeling depressed because they couldn't get massages, play golf, and go to Mexico. It would feel ridiculous to do it. It's not that they wouldn't want to get massages, play golf, and go to Mexico, but it wouldn't feel like a loss in their life, like something vitally necessary was missing.

It is harder to change to something 'lesser than', than to have lived at the 'lesser than' level and to continue to live there. Even though the end result is the same. The conditions are the same. Human necessities for life remain the same (and incidentally, are set far lower than the 'lower than' conditions I've set out). These two people could be living identical lives, but their perceptions of them will make the lives seem radically different.

The conclusion of that little aside doesn't, however, lead to the further extrapolated conclusion that 'change is hard'. It's not difficult for a person suddenly given a $100k raise or in the sudden possession of lottery winnings to adjust to a life of luxury. It can take less than a month, I'm sure. And no person will then lay back on their massage bed in a hotel on a Caribbean beach and long for their tiny, noisy, dirty apartment. They won't miss paying the minimum balance on their credit card and living with tooth pain because dentists are expensive and worrying about whether time off from work will be paid or unpaid and how that'll affect their upcoming yearly family reunion. Habits in that case fall flat. They're dropped like hotplates. Things that have been second nature for years go out the window with no trouble whatsoever.

So the new extrapolated conclusion would be what - 'Change is hard when _______'?

It's not 'Change is hard when you're moving from something simple to something complicated.' Managing millions of dollars is not simple. Hiring an accountant to do your crazy taxes after you invest your money in a bunch of stocks is not simple. Organizing your jaunts to other countries around the builder for your new mansion's schedule is not simple. And I'm not sure that anyone would call it fun, either.

It's not 'Change is hard when you're moving from something better for you to something worse for you.' Rich people aren't necessarily known for their sunny personalities and cheery dispositions. They're also not known for their healthy lifestyles. Just because someone has a lot of money doesn't mean they're going to buy wheatgrass shots and royal jelly spoonfuls and hire a raw food chef and a personal trainer. And speaking of personal trainers, if the above conclusion were true, then beginning a workout regimen would be easy. Nothing more needs to be said to disprove THAT one.

Is it 'Change is hard when you're moving from something comfortable to something uncomfortable?' Maybe. Comfort is obviously hard to define, as in, say when lounging around on the couch watching video marathons is relaxing and fun and easy to do, but causes a sick sort of emptiness when you're done (the emptiness I would personally categorize as very uncomfortable).

Perhaps comfort only comes after someone has settled into a habit, and comfort is only another word for familiarity, in which case the above conclusion is a tricky little circle of logic that only leads to the following: Change itself is (initially) uncomfortable. Which, as we have already seen in the case of lottery winner, it is not.

'Change is hard when __________.' Fill in the blank in the comments. I will continue trying to do so myself.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The First Rumblings

I got the idea to do something, not necessarily this blog, but something nonetheless, when I was walking into a mid-sized organic market near my house. The purse I was wearing was full of library books and there was a new sign on the sliding doors: We Appreciate Your Efforts In Bringing Your Own Bags!

The sign was no doubt meant to induce a mild infusion of environmentalist shame in those who so carelessly expected disposable bags to be provided. But when I looked at it, all I felt was wishy-washy politeness, a sign taking a position without sacrificing its friendliness. Bring your own bags if you want, it seemed to say, I mean, we'd appreciate it, we're totally for recycling and cutting down on wastefulness and all that kind of stuff. But if you don't, that's totally cool. We have plastic bags ready for you. Paper, too! We've got them if you need them, so don't feel the need to, like, go out of your way to change.

Since I have no training in the type of psychology that researches this kind of thing, I don't know if my gut feeling was true, but my gut feeling was that this sign, and others with that kind of message, wouldn't work. They wouldn't compel people to start bringing their own reuseable bags. They wouldn't force people to think about the effect of endless plastic bags on the environment. And they especially wouldn't make bringing reusable bags a widespread, effortless habit, something every member of the organic grocery shopping population just does, without thinking about it. They wouldn't turn those people who still insisted on being handed unlimited free plastic bags with their purchases into social pariahs.

So what would do all those things? That's what this blog was created to figure out. Not just what would make people start using reusable bags. (I think that needs to be made clear at this point; this is not about to be a blog about raising awareness about the importance of reusable bags - that would be crazy, and also about as useful as that sign in the organic market.) What is needed for a single person to stop a lifelong habit of nail biting? Not just stopping the actual biting, but stopping the desire to bite, until not biting is just as easy as biting ever was? What is needed for a whole population to start believing that driving a car is not an innate privilege, and to consider the actual consequences? And after the consequences have been considered, what is needed for the population to decide that biking, walking, bussing, should be and are now the norms?

There's a big gap between believing and knowing, and then an even bigger one between knowing and acting. Those gaps are big enough for me to consider them disconnects. Embarrassing, yet telling examples from my own life include:

-Understanding the ridiculousness of recyclables going into landfills to sit and rot for all eternity or similar (I realize that's a ridiculous oversimplication), but still tossing paper and plastic into the trash fairly regularly because I don't feel like sorting them out, finding separate containers, or really, just bothering to do it. I know that that simple type of recycling is something even people who eat shark fin soup for dinner, wear fur stoles, and smoke cigarettes occasionally do - and it gives me an incredible guilt complex that I don't - but I can't, or won't, tumble over that pathetic invisible hurdle to actually move from understanding it to doing it.

- Understanding that staying in and surfing the web aimlessly and watching terrible YouTube videos makes me feel sick to my stomach and intellectually stunted, but often doing it anyway. On the other side of it, understanding that writing music and singing and exercising and other such sunny, creative, wholesome activities all make me feel free and happy and excited... but instead choosing to watch terrible YouTube videos. It is easier to do the thing that makes me feel sick. Why is that? Why are my habits (and most people's habits) naturally centered around things that aren't good for them? Why is it so easy to do things that aren't good for you? What's so damn easy about surfing the web aimlessly that isn't easy about writing a rant like this?


1. Plain old habit. When technology comes out with something undeniably awesome, like the ability to watch TV shows for free whenever it's convenient, or search for endless videos of cute cats, or, well, look up free information on any topic that strikes your particular fancy at the moment (a treatise on the history and application of elevators? Look no further. Want to see what happens when anyone can edit an article about a controversial political figure? Voila! Despairing about your job and how awful it is? Find gruesome relief.) you'll become quickly fascinated and spend hours lost in it. Before long, it will be hard to remember the days when you had to go to the library to read an essay on particle physics, or actually be at home when your favorite show was on, or shuffle through heavy, often irrelevant old dusty books to write a research paper. Once you're used to finding everything on the internet, you spend your time, um, finding everything on the internet. The internet is easy, convenient, and has now wormed its way into your comfort zone, and as we know, there is no worse place for something dangerous to settle than your comfort zone.

2. Jadedness.

Is 'jadedness' a word? Oh well, someone knows. It's probably listed, or unlisted, in a thousand different online dictionaries. Someone else will look it up. Well, I could look it up. Hmm, it is. Looks like someone already did the research to find out. Why should I bother working out the grammar rules to figure out if jaded can be suffixed with -ness, if I can just click twice and find out? Oh, hey, is 'suffixed' a word? Doesn't matter. Everyone's constantly introducing new words into modern parlance. I could do it, but someone probably already has, so why bother? Oh, but wait! I could write about about how words come to be added to the dictionary! That'd be interesting... oh, shit.  That's totally been done.  Well, here's my keyboard... I could improvise music like I used to do when I was little. But every time I do it it becomes painfully obvious that people who have been practicing diligently their whole lives are way better than I will ever be. So why bother even doing it, if it'll be painful to listen to myself do it?

May as well just read and enjoy the things that have been written. May as well just listen and enjoy the things that have been created.


On that note, hey! I have an idea. How about I dedicate a bunch of time to researching and writing a blog or book about the moment at which population customs change and a trend becomes a habit? I saw this sign at the food market and it totally made me think and stuff!

Nobody's done that, right? Nobody's written a national bestseller about that already... RIGHT?

Okay, I read this book before I started this blog. I started this blog even though the book is similar, even though the inclination to give up because someone's already done it was strong. My aims are a little different - I want to focus on each individual's personal tipping point, because I don't believe everyone's is the same - but I admit that there is a similar treatise out there already.

However, this treatise didn't answer all of my sometimes burning, sometimes dormant questions. I feel like it's up to me to go in search of answers myself, despite the real possibility that there is endless research like my own splashed all over the internet already. I feel like it's up to me to organize all of it in a cohesive manner and find my own answers. And that is an odd feeling, because it's a total change from the way I normally look at things (the normal way I look at things is depressingly similar to #2 above).

Whether this change proves to be a permanent, habit-forming tip in my behaviour or not remains to be seen. And I feel foolishly meta for pointing this out, but the existence of this blog about strategies for change and characteristics of change depends wholly on my own personal ability to change, which is both entertaining and hazardous given my history. Most people's history, I would assume.

Suggestions, links, ideas, and dialogue will help us all along.