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Archive for the ‘Psychobabble’ Category

The Separation of Labor and Leisure

Tuesday, September 4th, 2012

SSP takes in the view at Sprague Lake

As a rule we are on-the-go vacationers.  We pick destinations that offer a wide variety of things to do and see.  And, accordingly, we make the most of our time on each vacation getting an early jump on the day and making each day a full one.  With kids in tow we carve out time for naps, but other than that we schedule very little down time.  By and large this kind of vacation really suits us – we love feeling productive and stimulated at the end of a day whether home or away.  There are times, though, when I long for something slower and quieter.

Last month we spent six days in Colorado escaping the Midwestern heat and busying ourselves with museums, baseball games, picnics, and hikes.  On Day Two of the trip, as we drove from Denver to Boulder I reminisced to GAP about the Colorado vacations of my childhood; full weeks spent in mountain cabins and filled with little more than hiking, fishing, and many games of cards.  I pined for that magnitude of escape – allowing myself to deeply disengage from the details of daily life and fully surrender to an existence that is wholly leisure.  GAP couldn’t understand why.

“But why can’t you do that at home? GAP asked.  “If you want to take a step back and enjoy some deep relaxation more often, there’s no reason you can’t do it at home.”

I responded, “At home I’m too aware of all the things I could be doing – laundry, cleaning the house, bathing the dogs, making baby food.  You name it.  There’s something about being away from home and removed from that to-do list that allows me to relax more completely.”

“But you like being busy.  If you wanted to relax more, you would.  You could take it easier on the weekends if you really wanted to.”

IEP and GAP stop to look for fish.

I told him that it is precisely because I keep myself busy under regular circumstances that I find the idea of a snail-paced vacation appealing.  I explained that the mere presence of potential productivity often overpowers potential relaxation and that is why I sometimes want to escape to a destination of forced down time

“That just doesn’t sound like the kind of vacation you’d enjoy,” he said.

“Why not?”

“Because you’re not that kind of person.  You keep yourself busy all the time.  I think you’d get bored after a couple of days.”

I offered up an analogy.  “That’s like you saying, ‘Gale, you’re a healthy eater.  You are the kind of person who pays close attention to diet and nutrition.  It just doesn’t make sense that you’d ever want to eat a cheeseburger.’  Of course I want to eat a cheeseburger.  It’s precisely because I’m so healthy most of the time that occasionally I really want to let myself enjoy the indulgence of a cheeseburger.”

Then he made me laugh at myself.  “No, that’s like saying, ‘I’m a healthy eater most of the time, but sometimes I have to go on vacation so that I can eat a cheeseburger.”  The boys were asleep in the back seat and I silently cracked up.  He had a point.

That conversation coursed through my mind several times over this past weekend.  We made the long weekend longer and headed to my in-laws’ house on Thursday for about four and a half days of utter and abject relaxation.   I did more sleeping and reading than I could ever manage at home.  Much of that was due the vast reduction in parenting responsibilities that comes with having two grandparents and multiple aunts and uncles on hand to help out with my kids.  But much of it was also due to the fact that I couldn’t have swept my baseboards even if I’d wanted to.  I was 200 miles away.

Does this little mini-break prove my point?  Is true relaxation is best done away from home.  And what role does willpower play?  Could I really disengage as much at home as I do when I’m gone?  Perhaps with some prep work.  If it’s the To-Do list that gets in the way then there a couple of ways to dispense with that.  Either I have to go far away from my To-Do list, or cross everything off of it.  These seem like extreme and impractical choices, but the other option – blowing off the To-Do list either in part or entirely – likely wouldn’t work for me.

I would like to be able to dial it down without leaving town.  It would probably be good for me.  And the fact that it rarely happens is nothing to be proud of.  I think I’d like to set a goal for myself of doing more relaxing at home.  I’d like to spend more time doing things that I find refreshing, rejuvenating, and not at all obligatory.  If this means that I do a better job of keeping the To-Do list short then all the better.

Youth Is Wasted on 35-Year-Olds

Tuesday, August 28th, 2012

I was carrying two balls of dough and a salad out of our neighborhood pizza joint.  The boys and I were planning to have a Friday night pizza party at home so that IEP could sprinkle his own cheese, which is a favorite culinary activity of his.  As I walked out an older couple walked in.  He had grey hair and sunken eyes and walked with a cane.  Her whole body drooped to one side, giving the distinct impression of a mild stroke.  She wore the kind of sunglasses that are highly protective and not at all fashionable.  They walked slowly, but with slight smiles on their faces.  It’s hard to walk into our pizza place and not smile – it is filled with happy people and delicious food.  Nevertheless, they made me worry.

I walked to my car at a brisk pace, wanting to get home to the boys.  As I did I thought about that old saying, “Youth is wasted on the young.”  I’ve thought about it often since I had kids.  Children, of course, don’t realize how easy they have it.  They don’t understand how nice it is not to have to pay bills, or get cars serviced, or remember to give the dogs their flea medications each month.  They go through each day blissfully unaware of how unburdened they are.  I wondered if – even amongst the bridling responsibilities of adulthood – the same weren’t still true of me.

When you get right down to it, I too am blissfully unaware of how unburdened I am.  I can drive in heavy traffic without worrying about the acuity of my reflexes.  I can carry groceries in from the car.  I can open pickle jars with my non-arthritic hands.  I don’t have to worry about keeping medications straight or remembering to take them.  And I have the energy to work a full-time job and keep up with my two young sons. 

And I almost never stop to appreciate those facts.

“Youth is wasted on the young” is a relative statement.  To me kids, teenagers, and college students have no idea how easy they have it.  To someone whose knees are giving out or who can’t type anymore, I have no idea how good I have it.  The only difference between me and my kids is that I’ve lived long enough to have some perspective.  I know that wide, grassy path of the college years narrows and steepens with adulthood.  And I know that this path will continue to climb as I age. 

I suppose it could be depressing to think that life only gets harder, but I know that isn’t entirely true.  Perhaps I’ll never be as young and energetic as I am today.  But nor will I have to cut food into tiny pieces or travel with two car seats and a Pack N Play.  Some things will get harder, but others will get easier.  In the meantime, though, I want to do a better job of appreciating where I am today. 

My 35th birthday is on the horizon and I’m not especially excited about it.  It sounds old to me.  It sounds so “mom jeans and sensible shoes.”  And that’s not at all how I see myself.  I see myself as young, and while I may not be compared to a college sophomore, in the grand scheme of things I still am.  I should enjoy it.  I’m sure there are lots of people who would love to have the strength and energy of a 35-year-old.  I don’t want my own youth to be wasted on me.

Darwin and the Airplane

Thursday, June 7th, 2012

When she sat down she immediately pulled out her book.  She was relieved to see that the guy sitting next to her did the same.  She intended to fly to New Orleans quite happily without having to chit chat all the way there.  As it turned out, she married the guy about three years later.

The “she” I refer to?  One of my best friends from undergrad.  And yes, she married a guy she met on a flight.  Five years and two kids later, they are happy as can be.  Had they both kept their noses in their books as intended that likely wouldn’t be the case.

I got to thinking about my friend when I read this article about how Baltic Airlines intends to allow passengers to board planes according to their moods.  Worker bee travelers can tap away at their laptops in concert.  Those looking for networking opportunities can join up as well.  And those wanting to keep to themselves can select a “relax” option.  At first blush this strikes me as a genius idea.  We’ve all been stuck next to a Chatty Cathy when all we wanted was some peace and quiet.  I’ve also been in the inverse situation where after long and sometimes lonely business trips I’m looking for a conversation, only to get major nonverbal cues from my seatmates that they are not.  Nevertheless, there’s a part of me that bristles at this idea of mood-based seat assignments.

It seems that via social media and other electronic conveniences we are increasingly able to control what exposure we have to people around us.  We can use Facebook to “check in” at various locations and events, enabling us to find people we already know in the same place.  We can hunker down into our smartphones, iPads, and Kindles while waiting for restaurant tables.  We can chat on the phone while riding in taxis.  And now we can have some say in how we are seated on airplanes to ensure that we either are or aren’t disturbed, according to our mood.

It’s not that I mean to be a total grinch / luddite / hater.  I believe that all of these conveniences have real value.  But I also think there is real value in facing the unexpected.  For starters, the real world brings unexpected things our way all the time.  How are we to learn to deal with them if we never have to?  We read in parenting magazines and blogs that we have to allow our children the opportunity to fight and fail and resolve conflict because our interventions will ultimately prove counterproductive.  I can’t help but wonder if the same isn’t true at some level for adults.

Not every unexpected encounter is one for the history books.  Plenty of them come and go without lasting in our memories.  But I think that the more we minimize or narrowly select our human interactions the worse we become at interacting.  And then a cycle starts:  The worse we are the less we want to do it.  The less we do it the worse we get.  And so on.  And that is why I believe there is value in chatting up the bartender while you wait for your date.  There is value in smiling and nodding while a person tells a story that doesn’t particularly interest you.  There is value in sitting next to a person on an airline with whom you have nothing in common.  Relating to people is the only way we learn how to relate to people.  (How’s that for meta logic?)  I fear that this Darwinian selection process of only linking up within our existing cohorts will ultimately make us socially weaker.  We will never have to flex new and different interpersonal muscles.

The traveler who wants to work or network or sit silently may get more out of a flight by electing to sit next to someone just like him.  But  with that he loses the opportunity to find that he has something in common with a person who, on the surface, seems foreign to him.  The soccer mom and the tattoo artist who both have kids leaving for college.  The sales guy and the computer programmer who just finished the same book.  He also lose the opportunity to meet someone who is truly different.  The musician going out on tour.  The person who writes mobile phone apps.  The person who used to work for the Fed and now drives a cab.

When you get down to it, I suppose this is a post about being open minded.  Finding like-minded people quickly and easily via the vast electronic capabilities available to us today is an incredible thing.  The world can be an isolating place and I think it is often made better by the ability to seek out compadres we might otherwise not have found.  But I think we have to be careful not to let the pendulum of our interactions with the world swing too far in the other direction.  We can’t allow ourselves to only find like-minded people or we’ll lose the ability to relate to anyone who isn’t already a kindred spirit.

Back to my friend who met her husband on a plane.  The irony of it is that they both intended to avoid each other and ended up finding a connection in spite of themselves.  Sometimes life throws people at us and we must interact no matter how much we don’t want to.  Nevertheless, I think we have to beware the pitfalls of keeping our circles small.  There’s a whole world out there that is filled with people we might not want to miss.

Theirs to Lose

Thursday, May 3rd, 2012

So far I’d say most of our parenting strategies have developed organically.  We didn’t make conscious decisions ahead of time about many aspects of our parenting.  Rather, we dealt with situations as they arose and a methodology of sorts naturally emerged.  By and large, I think this approach has served us well.  It’s interesting, though, because only in retrospect could I really tell you what our parenting philosophy has been at any step of the way.

Given that, I always find it interesting to hear older parents – people who’ve traveled more of this road than I have – talk about their perspective on parenting.  Last week I was sitting in a  conference room waiting for a meeting to start.  I got to chatting with a colleague and she offered some commentary on one of her parenting philosophies regarding her now-college-aged kids and it struck me as interesting.

She said, “We assumed the privileges were a given.  We didn’t make the kids earn them.  They were going to get video games, cars, clothes, and so on.  But all of those privileges were theirs to lose.  We made it clear to them that their number one job was to get good grades and be good citizens at school.  And the moment those things (and others) started to suffer the privileges would be revoked until they were earned back.”

I hadn’t really thought about the chicken and egg nature of parenting before, but in this arena I think I like her tack.  I like the idea of telling a kid that the basic assumption is that his behavior will be good; that he uses good judgment and makes good decisions; that his default setting is one that entitles him to certain privileges.  I think it sends a good message.  By comparison the alternative seems to me a bit harsh.  That is, “You have to earn your privileges because it is our assumption that you might not do so.  And until you prove us wrong you have to do without.”  In the world of self-fulfilling prophecies I’d much prefer to set the former into motion than the latter.

I’m sure my parents made plenty of mistakes in their parenting, just like anyone else.  But one thing I think they did right was to impress upon me that they trusted me.  If they told me once they told me 800,000 times that I had good judgment.  I suspect that they hoped that if and when I ever found myself in a situation where I had to choose between a smart and a stupid decision that I would think to myself at some unconscious level, “I am a person with good judgment, so I will not make the stupid decision.”  I can’t say for sure if it worked, but I can say for sure that I was one of the least rebellious kids I’ve ever met.

I have wonderful kids.  That’s easy to say at this point because they’ve had very few opportunities to let me down.  And while I’m quite sure that at some point down the road they will do just that, I like the idea of parenting from a position of faith in my kids.  I like the idea that they would know that, unless they give me a reason to think otherwise, I will believe in their goodness, patience, tolerance, kindness, intelligence, work ethic, and sound judgment.  Because to whatever extent I have the ability to shape their perception of themselves, that is the perception I want to create.

Not Applicable

Thursday, March 22nd, 2012

I’ve made mention here before of the fact that GAP and I intend to adopt.  Well, now that we have our two biological children we have set out on the path toward adoption.  It feels a wee bit crazy to be starting this next parenting adventure before the most recent addition is even sleeping through the night.  But when you consider that the process takes about two years it makes a bit more sense.

We submitted our application a few weeks ago and right now the name of the game is: paperwork.  And lots of it.  Forms, forms, and more forms.  Most of them are fairly predictable – employment verifications, tax returns, medical exam results, and so on.  One form, however, is more of a doozy.  We each have to fill out a 16-page personal information form that addresses everything from our parents’ marital status to what we might do if our adopted child wants to seek out his birth parents.

Not surprisingly when it comes to international adoption there is quite a bit of focus on the racial aspect of things.  We intend to adopt from Asia which means that, by definition, our adopted children will not have the same fair skin and blue eyes that our biological sons have.  The adoption agency – quite rightly – wants to know how we will help our adopted kids deal with any discrimination they may face as minorities, and in that vein asks about what discrimination we have faced in our own lives and how we coped.  One such field requested: Talk about a time when someone made an assumption about you based only on how you look.

I was stumped.

I called my sister and she knew exactly why I was at a loss.  I’m a completely normal looking white woman.  I am of average height and build.  I grew up around people who look largely like I do.  I currently live in an area where most people look largely like I do.  I imagine people have made all sorts of assumptions about me based on my appearance, but none to my detriment.  And that is almost certainly what the adoption form’s question is trying to unveil.  And I wonder about the effect this has on how I go about my way in the world.

Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t mean to sit here and say, “It’s too bad I’ve never been misjudged or discriminated against based on appearances.  My life would really be a lot more colorful if I had some experience in this realm.”  I should be – and am – incredibly grateful that I’m struggling with this question.  But if I am to answer it with a true story (which I will, some way, somehow), I’m going to have to dig to come up with it.

As I talked through it with my sister she told me about a friend of hers.  This friend was from an affluent community in the mid-Atlantic region.  She ended up attending Prestigious University A for undergrad, but amongst her other applications was Prestigious University B.  Prestigious University  B’s application asked her to describe a time when she had been discriminated against based on her race.  In her teenage naiveté she wrote, without a trace of irony, “Not applicable.”  The story is funny now because as adults we all understand that this is the kind of question we are supposed to answer with nuanced empathy.  But a part of me applauds her response for its candor and honesty.  For truly, if you’ve never experienced discrimination of any kind, isn’t it insulting to those who have to pretend that you know anything of what they’ve legitimately endured?

I think what the adoption agency wants to learn is how I will empathize with and support my adopted children when they are  on the receiving end of ignorant and hurtful assumptions based on their race (as they almost certainly will be at some point).  And the fact of the matter is that no matter how genius a response I dream up for my personal information form, I can’t honestly say that I’ve ever experienced what my children will.  When it happens I will listen to them.  I will explain that some people are ignorant, and judgmental, and bigoted.  I will ring up GAP’s brother or sister (both of whom are Asian and were adopted in the mid-’80s) and ask for their perspective and guidance.  And I have confidence that GAP and I together will chart those waters successfully, if imperfectly.

I think it’s a shame that I can’t respond to the form’s query honestly.  A lot of people in this world have lived through real, painful, and damaging discrimination.  And it feels a bit disingenuous for me to claim that I, in any way, am one of them.

Small Accomplishments

Tuesday, March 20th, 2012

I’m certainly not alone in finding satisfaction in certain accomplishments.  It feels good to sit back and acknowledge the fruits of your labor.  It’s nice to know that something got done.  A job well done – even if you’re the only one who knows about it – is a welcome addition to any day.  Things like painting a room, finishing a long book, or spring cleaning the whole house are enormously satisfying.  Sadly, though, I’m not crossing many big projects off of my list these days.

Don’t get me wrong, I have plenty of semi-ambitious projects queued up.  I still have plans to start an herb garden this spring.  And I want to refinish the coffe and side tables in our basement.  And I will get through A Tale of Two Cities at some point this year if it kills me.  But for the moment (this moment when sleep and energy are far too dear) I’m finding my satisfaction in smaller accomplishments. 

Sunday was a perfect example.  For a variety of reasons we skipped church on Sunday.*  The boys and I spent the morning puttering around the house, not breaking our necks, but slowly tackling little projects.  Sheets and towels were changed.  Both boys’ dressers were culled of clothes that no longer fit.  My closets were switched out, summer for winter clothes.  A Goodwill donation pile was started.  Two loaves of bread were baked.  A couple dozen sugar cookies were frosted.  Both dogs were bathed and walked.  And both boys took solid afternoon naps. 

At the end of the day I looked back at it and thought, “This was a good day.”  And it was.

As I’ve thought about it since then I have recognized that in their own way, small accomplishments like these can be even more satisfying than big ones.  Perhaps I only feel that way because I’ve lowered the bar lately.  But perhaps there is some truth in it.  On Sunday morning I didn’t set out to have an excessively productive day.  And it was only in the absence of any larger goal that I had the time and inclination to knock out several smaller projects.  I was almost surprised at all that I had accomplished, and tickled by the fact that I wasn’t spurred on by any stress or ambition.  The day turned out to be - as my mother would say -  a pleasant surprise. 

I’m still looking forward to starting my herb garden, getting back into reading, and painting our basement tables.  But in the meantime I’m quite enjoying opening my closet to see all of my spring skirts and blouses.  These small accomplishments can be quite big in their own way. 

*The Calvinist in me must justify myself: GAP is in the throes of a monster month at work and had to spend the entire weekend at the office.  I’m certainly game for doing church with the boys on my own, but given the current sleep deficit I’m facing I just couldn’t muster the wherewithal.  Also, my parents were in town for a weekend visit and they were hitting the road just about half an hour before the service started.  There.  I’ve explained myself.  (You can take the girl out of the Presbyterian church, but you can’t take the Presbyterian church out of the girl…)

Gwen Stefani vs. Sarah Jessica Parker

Monday, January 30th, 2012

I will go ahead and say it: I tend to bounce back from pregnancy pretty quickly.  Many women spend months – or even years – trying to reclaim their pre-pregnancy bodies.  And now for the second time, I have thankfully gotten back into my old wardrobe by the time I returned to work.  I am lucky.  I realize this.   And I do not take it for granted.  But it brings with it a question for me.  And that question leads me to a larger question.  The first question is, what should I say when people comment on my weight?  The second question is, are there social rules around these things?  And if not, are there sweeping social preferences?

Last week was my first full week back in the office, and with it came a number of comments about my weight that left me feeling a bit awkward.  Naturally I said thank you.  But each comment seemed to come with the expectation of an explanation; like I was supposed to substantiate myself somehow.  Usually I just chalked it up to nursing (which burns beaucoup calories) but, like most things, there is more to the story than that.  That “more” is threefold.  1) I went to painstaking lengths to manage my weight gain during pregnancy.  And 2) as soon as I got the all-clear from my doctor, I resumed my normal workout routine.  And… 3) I am lucky.  But which answer do I  give?

This conundrum reminds me of interviews I’ve read with Gwen Stefani and Sarah Jessica Parker.  When asked about her (literally) rock star body, Gwen Stefani always states quite plainly that she works for it, and hard.  Those abs are the result of intense effort in the diet and exercise arenas and she doesn’t try to hide it.  SJP, on the other hand, is much more evasive about her svelte (sinewy?) figure.  She usually claims that she’s just been blessed with a thin frame.  I recall one interview I read wherein she claimed to have eaten steak, mashed potatoes, creme brûlée, and myriad other indulgences in a single meal for dinner the night before.  (“Yeah, right!” I thought.)  Of course there are women who have won the genetic lottery and came out with lithe figures and fast metabolisms.  But I would wager that most women who have bodies that qualify as enviable do so because they work for them.  Even the Heidi Klums of the world maintain a regular exercise regimen.

But which version would we rather hear such people lay claim to?  What is the most socially acceptable answer?  When one person compliments another’s body it almost always comes with either the explicit or implicit desire for more information.  What is her diet like?  What is her exercise routine?  And how unrealistic would it be to incorporate such (presumably intense) measures into our own lives?  Or, did she just luck out?  Which answer would we rather hear?  Each one comes with implications that we may or may not like.

If the answer is Gwen’s – “I have this body because I work my tail off for it” – then are we relieved to know that we too could have abs and shoulders like hers if only we were willing to put in the gym hours?  Are we relieved to know that this beautiful and successful woman at least has to sweat it out like a normal person to look like she does?  Or do we take it as a referendum on ourselves in the vein of, “You could look awesome too if you were willing to work for it, but you’re not.”

Conversely, if the answer is Sarah Jessica’s – “I was born with this body and it’s just my natural build” – do we hate her for it?  Or are we relieved to learn that we can sit on the couch guilt free knowing that she drew the long straw, we did not, and we will never look like that so we’d might as well just enjoy our bon bons?  (Side bar – what exactly is a bon bon?)

I think for me I’d rather have this conversation with Gwen Stefani than Sarah Jessica Parker.  I’d rather know that she’s a human being who works and struggles along with the rest of us.  I’d rather know that I’m not utterly devoid of the chance to achieve a rock star physique, even if I never avail myself of the opportunity.  But I don’t know if I’m in the majority here.

So what about you?  Would you rather hear about hard work or good luck?  Or do you just avoid such topics altogether?  I’m not sure there’s a right answer here.  But I’m curious about the nature of our gut reactions.

Inside My Movie-going Head

Wednesday, October 5th, 2011

Last weekend GAP and I watched our latest Netflix delivery: Inside Man starring Clive Owen and Denzel Washington.  I should have loved it, and up until the very end, I did.

This movie qualifies in one of my favorite movie genres – the “stunt movie.”  In Gale parlance a “stunt movie” is basically any kind of heist movie.  The Sting, of course, is the all-time classic stunt movie.  Ocean’s Eleven and The Thomas Crown Affair (Pierce Brosnan version) are my modern day favorites.  In the stunt movie the protagonist is usually the thief, and the bad guys are law enforcement or other such jerks on the side of the establishment.  The stunt movie is action-packed, but not violent; suspenseful, but not scary; and usually contains some sort of romance, humor, or luxury as a subplot.  There’s nothing not to love.

So back to Inside Man.  It was a classic stunt movie and throughout it I was hooked.  But the ending left me cold.  Without giving anything critical away, there was  something off about the character development.  Denzel Washington’s detective was mostly the protagonist to Clive Owen’s mostly bad villain.  Neither one of them totally won or lost.  And we are led to believe that the true bad guy will get his comeuppance, though we never get the satisfaction of seeing it.

All of this is well and good, and not necessarily that interesting on its face.  Gale had a lukewarm response to a movie. So what?

Well, what’s got my wheels spinning five days later is the fact that I cared so much.  I consider myself to be a reasonably evolved person.  I’m comfortable with nuance and greys and the loose ends of real life.  Measured by that yardstick Inside Man should have fallen squarely into my comfort zone.  It contained all manner of true-to-life complications and double standards.  Yet in a movie setting it turned me off.  Why?  Why do I need movies to be tied off with a bow when in real life – when it really matters – I’m usually at peace with much messier results?

I suppose it’s because in real life I know that I can never expect things to resolve as cleanly as they do in the movies.  But in the movies, they can.  That’s part of why we go.  So often in real life the bad guy gets off, the good guy gets overlooked, the kiss-up gets the promotion, and the jerk gets the girl.  But in the movies things tend to pan out the way we think they’re supposed to.  So when it doesn’t work out that way on screen we (or at least I) feel shortchanged.

Life is an untidy endeavor most days.  If I can come home and see the good guy win and the bad guy lose, and suspend my disbelief long enough to find satisfaction in that then I suppose it’s a good thing.  Last weekend’s selection left me cold.  Perhaps this weekend I’ll schedule my date with Paul Newman or George Clooney.  I know they won’t let me down.

The Second Chance of Retrospection

Wednesday, September 14th, 2011

I really should get out the door on time in the morning.  When I’m not running late I catch more of NPR’s Morning Edition than just the business news.  And – you’ll be shocked to learn this – they cover some really interesting topics.  On Monday I had an earlier-than-usual meeting and left at what should be considered “on time” but actually registers as “early” for me.  As I drove I listened to this story about “Dignity Therapy” for dying people, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

The long and short of it is that impending death – not surprisingly - changes our outlook on things, particularly our own lives.  A psychiatrist named Harvey Chochinov who counsels the dying took particular note of this and wanted to explore what about death caused such a shift in our vantage points.  According to the NPR piece, “[w]hat he found was that what people found most assaulting and annihilating was this idea that who they were would completely cease to exist after their death.  And so Chochinov decided to do something about it.”

The solution was to work with his clients to document their lives.  This documentation provided his clients the assurance that something about themselves will live on beyond their deaths.  For some of his clients they were assuaged by the mere knowledge that their stories would continue.  Others – those whose lives were troubled – told their stories to serve as a warning to younger friends or family members.

NPR’s recount of Chochinov’s work mentions that, “[t]he stories we tell about ourselves at the end of our lives are often very different than the stories that we tell about ourselves at other points.”  We remember things differently when faced with death, and this quite normal.  What fascinates me about this is not that we do it in the first place, but that whether or not we look back over our lives with accuracy has no bearing on how therapeutic the retrospective exercise is.

Apparently when it comes to evaluating the whole of our lives we may reframe many parts of them.  We may choose to remember only the good or only the bad, and this is okay.  When we look back over an entire life we have the benefit of seeing how a particular event played out, and what light best to cast it in for others.  Much like an author crafting a story, dying people can see the whole picture, understand how each of the moving parts interacts, and emphasize or downplay various events based on their ultimate significance to the larger narrative.  This isn’t something we can do with such events as they play out in real time.

I think someday (hopefully not for a very long while) I will find peace in such retrospection.  But I wonder if it isn’t a good thing not to have such context in the present moment.  We live our lives as though nearly everything is important.  Even in situations where we can see that something good or bad going on really doesn’t carry significant weight in the long run, we don’t stop experiencing it because of that.  I’m inclined to think it is beneficial to our lives that each moment is lived on roughly equal footing – that is, with comparable significance ascribed to it in the present tense.  Otherwise we might be inclined to behave lazily toward moments we know to hold no long-term meaning, or to overly stress about those we know will live with us for a long time.

The most comforting thing about these little rewrites that we make in the face of death, though, is that we can ultimately render any moment in any light we choose.  The successes can be painted with humility, the failures with grace.  Our hindsight is nearly always nearly perfect.  It is a balm to me to know that even my foibles will be salvaged in some way when I look back on them.  And in the meantime I don’t have to concern myself with which moments may or may not be “major” in the long run, but just live my life as best I can in the present moment, and count on seeing the larger portrait of my life only after it is complete.

A Carnivore’s Conscience

Monday, September 12th, 2011

Much has been made in recent years of the costs of factory farming.  The antibiotics.  The sewage.  The animals who die of illness before they can be slaughtered.  Because of these things it is now reasonably easy to find grass fed beef, free range eggs, pastured hens, and so on.  But there is another cost of factory farming that I hadn’t really contemplated until I read this article from The Atlantic on the psychology of factory farming.

Author James McWilliams posits that large scale animal husbandry divorces humans from the unique welfare of individual animals; that commoditizing them eliminates the unhappy business of seeing an animal you carefully raised be slaughtered because the rancher no longer has any kind of relationship with each animal whose demise might cause him guilt or remorse.  McWilliams comments that in the bluntest terms, factory farming allows the rancher “to kill thousands of animals a year and remain a happy person.”

As I pondered the implications of that statement I surprised myself.  I thought that, upon reflection, I would reach the conclusion that the bond between animal and rancher should exist for its own sake; that animals have a right to such a relationship.  Interestingly, though (at least to me…) that’s not where I landed.  I think the psychology of factory farming is dangerous not because the animals are deprived of any relationship.  I find it more important that they are deprived of the byproducts of such a relationship.

When we have a relationship with an animal we treat it accordingly.  We ensure that it is healthy.  We ensure that it isn’t overly stressed.  We ensure that its life is reasonably comfortable.  These qualities translate differently for steers than for lap dogs, naturally.  But they still exist in some measure in both situations.  When our level of concern for an animal relates to its ability to produce a profit, and not to our personal relationship to it we treat it much differently.  We don’t worry about its levels of stress or comfort.  We worry about its health only to the extent that such health affects profit margins.  We allow ourselves to get away with behavior which under any other circumstances we would find abusive.

I believe that in the long run we only hurt ourselves with this approach to animal husbandry.  We poison our land with petroleum-based fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides that grow the grain that feeds the animals.  We increase the strength and drug resistance of various bacteria by pumping animal feed full of antibiotics.  We increase the saturated fat content and decrease the omega-3 and omega-6 content of the meat we consume.  And, by supporting an industry that produces meat so cheaply we ultimately consume more meat and animal fat than is healthy.  We lose on every count.

Don’t mistake me, though.  It’s not only about the human fallout for me.  I don’t view livestock as pets, but I still believe that animals deserve some base level of care that is not met by factory farming.  Further still, as humans I believe it is innate to us to develop relationships – with each other, with pets, with working animals, and with food animals.  In the case of food animals our ability and desire to bond with those animals in some sense protects us from ourselves.

With factory farming we have managed to turn a blind eye to one of our basic human predilections and many people think that it’s a win-win situation because hamburger meat costs $1.49/pound.  But the fact remains, we pay the price somewhere, even if it isn’t at the grocery store checkout line.

Many thanks to loyal reader Rebecca at It’s Kili Time for recommending this article to me.  I love getting blog fodder from readers!