A blog about nothing.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

TO THYSELF BE TRUE


How many times have you been inauthentic? How many times have you faked the funk in an attempt to fit in, saying things you don't mean, laughing at jokes you don't find funny, doing things you don't care to do? Lots, if you're like me. Going along with stuff pretty much defined my twenties.

Not good. As recent research reveals, hiding your true colors may make you feel "morally tainted."

Research at Harvard and Columbia business schools posited that like lying or cheating, inauthenticity is a violation of being true, whether to others or oneself. Behaviors like faking excitement and fitting in with a crowd that doesn't share your values amounts to lying about your true self. The result? Feelings of moral distress and impurity.

The findings, published in Psychological Science, are especially relevant to people who find themselves constantly having to perform on the job. Fulfilling the demands of customers and colleagues forces a person to behave outwardly in ways that do not match one's feelings or beliefs. As in the service industry, where employees must follow precise scripts and recite trite and hackneyed expressions. Or at work, where you must get along with so many insufferables!

What's the prescription, other than ditching that dead-end job, trading in those stale hobbies and recycling those heathens you call friends? Be true to yourself. Live authentically and in accordance with your sense of self, emotions and values. So what if that sounds like I got it off a bumber sticker. It's true. If everyone does the same and stays true, the world would be such a happy place you wouldn't have nearly as much difficulty tolerating it.

And if all else fails and you find yourself doing things you really don't want to do more than you care to do them, because of ineludible commitments or a vague sense of obligation or inner compulsion or being beholden or bullied or whatever, there's nothing a shot or two of Scotch won't fix. Just take my advice and make it single malt. Minimal hang-over. Don't hate. It got me through my twenties is all I'm sayin'.



Saturday, May 30, 2015

HERD IS A 4-LETTER WORD

In 1910, President William Howard Taft (the handsome man pictured above) urged Americans to take at least two months' vacation per year. Then came two world wars, the military industrial complex was formed and is now flying (pun intended: look at them drones!), and now Americans work harder than ever and rest much less.

Indeed overwork has made American vacation time rarer and more easily interrupted. Workers typically accrue paid vacation, but Americans are using less of it. On average workers failed to use 5 vacation days in 2013, and some of them didn't carry over. The average employee did $504 of free work instead of taking a vacay. This is $52 billion total.

And why? Most Americans say they are overworked. That the workload on return is too heavy, that nobody else can do the work, that they want to show dedication rather than seem replaceable. But even those that do, let's say, fly to Fiji, nearly 2/3 plan to work during their time off. This means email, text, phone calls and sessions on the laptop, which I hope is waterproof. 
  
Many factors have led to what Jack Dickey writing for Time calls an "undesirable destination," such as a pool of unskilled and interchangeable workers, the decline of organized labor, escalating travel costs when wages are stagnating. Workers are not secure and on edge. So they don't enjoy leisure time which has proven to be restorative and good for the heart. After all, the happy and rested employee does better work. Take Europe as an example. Luxembourg guarantees workers 35 yearly paid days off; Norway 29 days; Switzerland 28. These are not countries of slackers. Rather, they are the three OECD economies that finished ahead of the US in 2013 in GDP per capita, a measure of workforce productivity. Why did the US lag behind? Simple. A third of Americans say they are just plain exhausted. Harried days give way to stress-filled, sleepless nights. Depression and cardiovascular problems ensue. Productivity wanes.

And what is perhaps the most telling statistic is this: 33% of those polled said they didn't leave town because they could not afford to get away! You may think this is a reflection on poor wages, and it likely is, in part. Consider that in order to afford the cost of an average-size Los Angeles apartment ($1800) on a minimum wage of $9 you'd need to work about 200 hours that week. But rest assured, legislators are trying to increase it to $15 by 2020 and it's already being opposed, so good luck with that! A bigger contributor to overwork syndrome is the rise in consumerism dating back to the 1970s, forcing Americans to work more hours just to maintain a poorly-thought out standard of living.

And adding to this is the tech that's supposed to make you more efficient. That smart phone you're always on? A colorful and expensive ball and chain. Thanks very much, Steve Jobs!

What's sad is it wasn't supposed to turn out this way. As Dickey notes, economist John Maynard Keynes predicted in 1930 that in the 21st century our tech would be so savvy and hands-off that Americans would be free to do as we pleased, that we might work 15 hours a week, just to feel productive. Many Americans do work half weeks. Many don't work at all, but not out of choice. It's called being unemployed. Because with machines remaking the labor force, it is hard to find a job!

And so we wait for the expansion of the leisure class, which if it ever comes will be enthusiastically embraced. Or will it? Work too hard for too long and you become a philistine, defined as a person who does not know how to enjoyably spend leisure time. Why? because you are out of practice! Wired to be wired, you don't know how to unwind.

Companies recognize the benefits a little chillaxing has on job performance and are trying to add incentives to get employees to take that trip, but until paid vacation becomes mandatory, you will likely feel pressured to work yourself to the bone because everyone else in the office is doing it. The fear of falling behind.

What's more, more and more consumers are willing to rack up credit card debt to maintain a basic standard of living filled with its modern (if disposable and useless) pleasures. The result of "consumption smoothing" can be a deep financial hole out of which it is nearly impossible to climb. Lights on, food on the table, a roof over one's head is one (necessary) thing. Shopping sprees at Ross, Wall-mart and TJ Max, not so much. But everywhere you look, stuff is there, and it's so cheap! News flash: the stuff is mostly knock-offs. And homeless dudes collect a lot of crap too. Not something to aspire to.
Yes, higher wages and more stable employment would help many families with their financial troubles, as the study notes. But here's an idea: if you simply reduce your wants and live simply, you won't feel such acute economic pressure to work until you drop. As your expenses fall, income can give a little with it, no big deal. Granted, much of what people buy has a work-related purpose. The car to advertise status, the wardrobe updates to show you care about appearance, the latest smart phone so that you have all the major upgrades and run with the times.

But the major step in changing behavior is realizing how insane consumerism is in the first place. News flash: You are not your fancy car. You are not your Prada shoes. Nor the Gucci handbag or its knock-off. You are not the belly flab beneath your designer dress or its knock-off, though that fair weather flat tummy comes closer to the true you than anything you wear to cover it up. And yet these pretty products of your fancy come at the cost of your peace of mind, which is you, or as close as philosophers say you'll get to who you really are. Let's not descend into metaphysical speculation. The point is, we are running off a cliff, my friend - overworked and ill at ease and with smart phones in hand.


Consider the major result of our relentless pursuit of productivity. Technological development. Concomitant with the rise of tech has been a budding robophobia, a fear of unintended consequences that journalist Lev Grossman notes to be running through this summer's movies. And indeed the threat of robots destroying humanity has long been a major cinematic theme, now more than ever. Mostly, they take us over. Big budget Hollywood disaster flicks involving steely-eyed adversaries date back to Blade Runner and Terminator and have exploded into this century, with films like Avengers, Ex Machina, Tomorrowland and the eagerly-anticipated Ant-Man (how's that?) vying for advertising space next to Prada and Gucci. 

What do these films all have in common? An us against them premise, with them being genetically engineered or artificially-enhanced assassin, fiend, rogue force or mastermind, and us humans getting our asses handed to us, with or without a silver lining. In short, we are building the scenario we instinctively know may result in our destruction, meanwhile we are working ourselves senseless to make enough money to afford the ticket, so that we can watch as it all goes BOOM!
And unlike summer movies which have human beings usually winning in the end, in real life it may not be the hybrid dinosaurs (Jurassic World) who go extinct. Not all life's consequences are intended. Once upon a time we envisioned robots to make our existence easier by doing the menial tasks which would leave our hours free to pass at leisure, like wielding the broom and vacuum. Instead our machines may be the ones wielding the machine gun, machete or whatever new age weapon writers give our Hitman: Agent 47 to hold menacingly over our heads. And then we're done. Time's up. We can rest when we're dead. Because that's all we'll be able to do! But don't you have a say in how the real tomorrowland turns out?

Yes, you do. Even though you want to seem with it. We are social creatures hardwired with a desire to fit in with the group. But following along with whatever happens to be the prevailing behavior is also herd mentality, emblematic of the lower beasts, who lovable though they may be are not always known for their impeccable reasoning capabilities. 

And when the herd stampedes off a cliff, it's the one running in the opposite direction who seems out of his mind. And yet when the dust settles, you're the only one still alive. Save yourself while there's still time. Don't be fearful of going it alone. The herd mentality runs deep. Before long, there will be others flying right by your side.


Friday, May 29, 2015

MY HALFTIME SHOW


So I'm sitting with my father on his 76th birthday and I ask him what he sees for himself, you know, on the horizon like. An avid viewer of sporting events he puts it pretty succinctly when he says, "I'm in the 4th quarter of my life." And he is, when you think that most men die before the age of 100, so he's in the last 25 years of the game.

I made no reply, though to myself I remember thinking, the fourth quarter is really when the action gets good, events their most exciting, 'specially if it's college bowl day. The same can be said for NFL playoffs, though that can be hit or miss. So the fourth quarter can be a pretty cool place to be, provided you're still in the game. If it's a blowout, then well, some people just blow on out. My dad does own a couple firearms, not that he'd ever use them on himself. He's too much of a narcissist.


And really, my dad's still very much into playing the game of his life. Active law practice. Cutie wife 18 years his junior. The occasional Saturday night at the Body Shop on Sunset, but only when his sweetheart's out of town and his hormone's a-racin' - whatever's left in those steamed clams he calls balls, name the movie. Boy still has his mojo, does dad, and some of his hair, though I think I mentioned he's lost much of his sense of humor. Grumpy old man much?


But the guy is more restless than I am. There is something adolescent about his quick temper and moodiness. Always fidgeting, he spends his life on the edge of his seat. Whereas for me, the only time I am on the edge of my seat is when I am sitting in his hot rod sports car and he is taking corners at 60-plus. I'm white-knuckling it there with my dog on my lap, and it's the only time I've ever seen Max both shiver and pant at the same time. Dagnabbit!

USA Today recently ran a segment on how the life expectancy for Americans is higher than it's ever been. The average man can expect to live to 80; women closer to 85. This excludes infant mortality and early death, murders, suicides and the like, factors which if factored in skew the life expectancy towards a much earlier demise. As in Classical Rome, where the average was only 30-35 years, though if you could live to see 30 you'd likely live to be twice or thrice that. In other words a person living today who has reached 65, and therefore survived the effects of shoddy medicine, poor sanitation and risk-taking behaviors, can expect to live another 15 to 20 years.

I'm a pretty clean liver, so at the age of 42 I'm halfway to the end. To put it in my father's terms, I'm in the halftime of my life. Historically philosophers live to a ripe old age. Goethe and Voltaire and Spencer and Santayana all reached their 80s or close to it, as did the Indian sage Nisargadatta Maharaj. Ramana Maharshi was a spring chicken when a tumor took him at 70, the same age at which Socrates met his untimely demise, but the poor dude was branded a rabble-rouser and made to drink hemlock.


So I took a moment to reflect on what I have accomplished in my 4 decades of living, and what I still have yet to achieve. Thus far I've lived abroad (twice), learned a couple foreign languages, earned a graduate degree, run several marathons, written as many books, lived on my own, shared space with a sweetheart or two, worked various jobs from the menial to the managerial to the medical. I've traveled around the world and done a lot of drugs, some decent, others not so much, and read a ton of books and had a lot of sex, some - well, there has been sex. Still seeking a good time I guess. So, what's next?

Well, if you believe psychiatrist Jay N. Giedd writing for Scientific American, who in his article on the teen brain explains that "In the US, attainment of an adult role (is) often characterized by such events as getting married, having a child and owning a home" - all there is left for me to do is . . . grow the f*&^ up!

By Giedd's definition I am still in diapers! And yet I feel like an old man! Some old dudes do wear diapers, sad but true. What I mean is, I feel as if I have lived my life, that there is nothing more for me to do. I want only to be. Call me complacent. And yet it is oddly freeing. Besides I know several people who have been married and have kids. Some even own their own home - which they'll be paying off for the remainder of their lives. And yet these nice people are some of the most immature cats I know! There has to be more to adulthood than what (and who) you own!

As the actor Jeff Bridges has said, quoting a Zen saying: After ecstasy, the laundry. Which also is the title of a book. What does this mean? Enlightenment is not the end of the road, but the beginning. After you see things as they are, the goings-on of daily living don't change all that much. But how you go about things does change, as does your outlook, and how you react to life's events.

"Once you're in on the joke," says Bridges, "you can take care of business." Out of the mouth of the Dude himself.


The good Maharaj once said something similar when he remarked that the butcher after becoming realized doesn't go off into the mountains to pray and meditate but continues to chop up pigs for a living. So simple it's profound. Bridges would call this plorking, or worlay, terms he has invented for the combination of play and work. It's not what you do but the spirit in which you do it. Besides, those pigs are already dead.

Interesting to note that maximum lifespan has remained the same for 2000 years, at around 122 years young. Mostly it's females who live to see such a hoary age. If I reach this expiration date (the year will be 2095, by God) it means I'm only 1/3 of the way through this game called life. And already my youth is behind me. (Though I still have no gray hairs, praise be.) Middle age followed by withered and rickety senescence is what I have to look forward to. Don't we all. No wonder there aren't many dudes who stick around to see the century mark. The male ego is much too fragile.

A girlish 114. If I ever look like this, please just shoot me.
But wherever I am, and wherever, it doesn't really matter. One thing is for sure: I am. Whether the me is fat, bald and happy, or old and wrinkled and irritable, living alone or barely tolerating a life partner, married with (great grand)children or cutting up meat to make ends meet, it'll be the same I shining through those glaucomatous cataracts I once called eyes. What you do is not the issue. It's who you are that counts. Now excuse me while I go live the second half of my life. 
 
I'm thinking of maybe becoming a pimp.


MIRROR MIRROR


The 18th century French satirist Voltaire was known to isolate himself from his contemporaries, in order that close association with his fellow men and women would not interfere with his thoughts. The author of The Philosophical Dictionary was by all definitions an original thinker. There has never been anyone else like him, anywhere in the world, before or since. Apparently he was aware of his originality, which he guarded ever so jealously lest it become tainted by common notions tritely expressed.

Recently researchers have proven the truth of what this precious little man knew by intuition. Leave it to science to study what for most people is common sense, and to do so 200 years after the fact, and at the expense of taxpayer dollars I'm sure!

It has long been known that humans are social creatures, and as such we mimic each other's posture, laughter and other behaviors, including how we speak. The study, published in the periodical Language Variation and Change, shows that people with similar views tend to more closely mirror, or align, each other's speech patterns. And if in conversation you share views with the speaker, you alter your speech to more closely match the sentence pattern she uses with you.

The linguists note that people tend to align speech patterns to facilitate communication; that it is through mimicry that sounds, words and sentence structures become more predictable, making it easier to understand each other. And that speaking in a way similar to others serves as a subtle means of influencing liking, trust and other interpersonal emotions.

But does the mimicry end once the conversation is over, or do you become like a parrot repeating the views and notions so recently shared? And does the mimicry spill over to other areas of your life, such as how you dress and what hairstyle you wear? Are we all just unconscious copycats? Why else do friends end up resembling each other so much as to be mistaken for siblings, or coworkers all look as though they shop at the same retail outlet? Do you think all valley girls sprang from the womb saying "like," "whatever" and "way? And did these frat boys coordinate their outfits, or were Bermuda shorts and bow ties merely an unfortunate coincidence? (Thanks Maher!)


I'm not saying to shut yourself up in your room like I do, only that you be aware of the dynamics at work, both at work and when you play. Take great care not to merge your mind with the minds of the many in your midst. It's a recipe for triviality. I'm sure you've heard that opinions are like assholes: everyone has one, and most of them stink. Though to the holder, one's cherished view smells like roses to be sure.

Merely take that millisecond to think before you speak, and listen to what is said. Watch what goes on, in your mind, out your mouth, and around you. Take pride in being one of a kind. In this carbon copy world of ours, originality is at a premium. Don't lose yours merely in order to fit in. Voltaire blazed the trail centuries ago and science still lights the way, so we say SHINE ON!

Thursday, May 28, 2015

THE VIRTUES OF BEING A VOYEUR

In the wildly entertaining 1969 novel Slaughterhouse Five, written by Kurt Vonnegut, the time-travelling war hero Billy Pilgrim is transported to the planet Tralfamadore where he and his mate, the voluptuous pornstar Montana Wildhack, are enclosed in a zoo and observed by the alien race, who watch them copulate through little peepholes. O, the virtues of voyeurism! But that is neither here nor there. The fact is, Montana wears a heart-shaped locket around her neck in memory of her mother. On it are inscribed these words:

"God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom always to tell the difference."

The Serenity Prayer, as it is called, is attributed to the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and has been adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs. In Vonnegut's book, Wildhack's mother was an alcoholic. But you don't need to "have a problem" to apply this wisdom to life; nor should you. Science is at last verifying the applicability of the virtue of acceptance to everyday events.

This according to new research from Johns Hopkins University, which appeared in a paper published in March 2015 on the website of the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science:

In the traditional view of control, a person takes action to ensure success in both the near and long terms. Primary control is gaining mastery by striving for goals and asserting one's will upon circumstances. But it turns out that “secondary control,” usually given short shrift in both the scientific literature and Western attitudes, and described as acceptance that life can’t always be bent to human will, is the wise choice in many of life's situations. Because most of daily living is simply "out of one's hands" as the saying goes, compelling the religiously-minded to commend her fate to a Higher Power with the words, "Thy will be done!" A saying for every season.

As assistant professor Eric Helzer, who was involved in the study, notes: "You don't have control over a lot of situations, at work or elsewhere in your life. But you do have control over your response to it, over the meaning you assign to the event."

Taking a big-picture, reflective view of life could "succeed in promoting feelings of daily happiness, warmth, and peace," even in the face of negative experiences. Gaining mastery over your circumstances doesn't mean conquering them. And acceptance is not a passive, last-resort strategy. It adds to a richer notion, characterized by greater satisfaction, of what it means to live a full life.

Each method of control, primary as well as secondary, operates in a unique way and contributes significantly to a person's sense of well-being. The wisdom, as written between those big titties, is telling the difference.

And since we're swapping sayings, remember: "Practice makes perfect."

BOUNCE WITH ME

Scientists have been assiduously tucked away in their labs studying resilience, the quality that explains why some people rebound so well from setbacks while others remain stuck like glue. And now researchers, including psychiatrist Dennis Charney, Dean of Icahn School of Medicine and his colleague, Yale professor Dr. Steven Southwick, have surfaced to share their findings with me and you.

As Mandy Oaklander writing for Time Magazine explains in her article on the science of bouncing back, resilience is essentially a set of skills that allow people not only to get through hard times but to thrive during and after them. Resilience is not a disposition, personality type or other fixed quality, so it can be learned. In short, rubber rebounds, so do resilient people.

Resilience training can transform the brain, making it more resistant to stress and trauma. And not a moment too soon. Stress is everywhere. As Oaklander notes, the boss gets on you, traffic tugs at your temper, spousal spats get you down, credit card bills and social commitments and correspondences of various types all conspire to fray the nerves, and this does not include the major traumatic stressors that at some point or other everyone will face. Accidents, catastrophes, untimely deaths. Because stress is at the heart of all major ills, including heart disease, appropriately enough, learning to better deal with stress can positively impact your life at every level.

Don't worry, I'm not about to launch into the benefits of meditation, although the article does endorse the practice for increasing resilience. Been there done it! So here are 10 other tips for resilience along with examples or explanations that may apply - or a silly space-filler when I can think of neither.

1. Develop a core set of beliefs that nothing can shake. Recognizing your identity with the Divinity that pervades all is a good place to start, or finish, or pretty much anything in between.

2. Try to find meaning in whatever stressful or traumatic thing has happened. Here I gotta cite Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi, the subject of a new VH1 video, who after losing the tips of his fingers in a welding accident thought his career was over, and before it had really even begun. A pep talk from the factory's manager led him to persevere in his playing, and by tinkering with the instrument's strings he eventually developed a new sound which led to Black Sabbath's astronomical rise in the world of metal.

3. Maintain a positive outlook. Needs no explanation. What's your favorite slogan? Sorry, "I'm the king of the world" is already taken. Care to be my queen? (Please, gals only need apply.)


4. Take cues from someone who is especially resilient.  Like your grandparents. Lloyd Christmas said it best: "The elderly, though slow and dangerous behind the wheel, can still serve a purpose."

5. Don't run from things that scare you: face them. Bullies don't just exist on the school playground. They lurk everywhere you turn. The mail carrier, the FedEx guy - okay that's just me being paranoid. But seriously, even last week's laundry can start to loom not to mention stink if you put it off too long. "Never do tomorrow what you can do today." That's Dickens.

6. Be quick to reach out for support when things go haywire. A good support system certainly helps. Imaginary friends will do in emergencies.

7. Learn new things as often as you can. The brain can create new neural connections well into the golden years, so developing new skills is a plus yada yada yada. Crosswords, Soduko. Learn to tongue-tie a cherry's stem for all I care. This one's so obvious it's a cliché. Come on, Time!

8. Find an exercise regimen you'll stick to. The scientists found that working the muscles makes the mind more resistant as well, because exercise spurs the development of new neurons. With time, regular workouts can tamp down the stress response. Another no-brainer, but not if you exercise!

9. Don't beat yourself up or dwell on the past. How does the saying go, "Never regret what you do, only what you don't do"? Still that leaves a lot of regrets. So, regret nothing. In a world perfectly orchestrated, where everything happens for a reason, and it is impossible to judge the parts by the whole, just try your best, keep the faith and strive on - and when in doubt use whatever other hackneyed phrase will help get you through. Call me a utilitarian. I'm only being practical.

10. Recognize what makes you uniquely strong - and own it. Take stock of your strengths, and if you cultivate new skills you'll be adding to your armamentarium, proving that like fine wine you'll only get better with age, and like rubber - I can't think how to make rubber's aging be metaphorical for anything you want to be associated with, so I'll stop here.

I think we should add to this list the virtues of listening to music, which almost always offers stress-relief, depending of course on taste. Even The Dillinger Escape Plan offers their take on a slow jam.


Phew, a lot to think on. The cliff-note version: Rapper Jay-Z quite nicely summarized the findings of the aforementioned venerable clinicians nearly 20 years ago when he intoned, almost in a whisper, as though it were some valuable and top secret information, probably because it was at the time, though if you've read this far, it is no longer: "Bounce with me."

And clearly Jay-Z knows what he's rhyming about. He is after all an "eight-figga nigga." I will never be an 8-figure nigger. But only because I will never have 10 million dollars. Not because I am not a nigger. See, like other men of color I am free to bandy about the N-word since I can with confidence trace my genealogy back to the first man himself. I'm referring to Adam, who is also my namesake and who most certainly was a black man. Adam the African, he of the red earth, and my ancestor. I have the dusky skin to prove it, and also the 'fro.

So, my niggers, or if you prefer, niggas, join with me, brothers and sisters, and sing: "Can I get a what-what?"

Well, can I? Can you? Can we all what-what together? Rap music always makes me randy!

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

BE A KNIGHT IN RUSTY ARMOR


My favorite novel of all time, hands down, is Don Quixote. First because just getting through the behemoth of a book is an accomplishment worthy of the copious encomiums that embellish its pages (and if you can't make sense of that sentence, read what is widely considered the father of the modern novel and by its end you shall; just, you know, keep a dictionary close by). After all DQ does exceed 900 pages in length. (For the non-readers, several movies have been made since the book's 1615 publication. I recommend Man of la Mancha (1972) starring Peter O'Toole and Sophia Loren.) And it is so imaginative! Reading Cervantes' classic, which appears on many great books lists, often as number one, gave rise to the desire to write books myself. I have since authored six novels of my own. None of them have ever sold. Oh well. Like the protagonist, I dream big, but the results don't always match. Now I write a blog nobody reads and I'm fine with that. And Cervantes was 68 when DQ was published, so at 42 I still have time. Call me an idealist. That I am. And by the end of this, so shall be you.

The protagonist is the eponymous Don Quixote. He is a gentleman verging on fifty, "of tough constitution, lean-bodied, thin-faced, a great early riser," who filling his brain with tales of adventure (knight errantry books were en vogue at the time the novel was written) decides to leave the comfort of his hereditary estate to right the wrongs of the world. See, dream big is what I'm talking about.

Setting out on his quest with his squire Sancho Panza, Quixote views life through rose-colored glasses. The women he encounters, many of them harlots for hire, are fair damsels in need of assistance, ordinary windmills become great beasts to be slayed, the tedium of daily life turn into great adventures, and so on.

Seizing life by the horns, and dedicating his great feats of glory to the woman who has ravished his heart, the beauteous Dulcinea (who in "real" life is a mere peasant girl who does not even know he exists) Don Quixote receives more than his fair share of throttlings, but always comes out okay.

The reader gets the feeling that it is his outlook that saves him. And indeed the word quixotic was inspired by the man, and means "exceedingly idealistic." Not a bad perspective to add to one's repertoire.

In one of my favorite passages, the valorous Don soliloquizes as he so often does: "Happy the age and happy the times on which the ancients bestowed the name of golden," he says, "not because gold, which in this iron age of ours is rated so highly, was attainable without labor in those fortunate times, but rather because the people of those days did not know those two words thine and mine. In that blessed age all things were held in common. No man, to gain his common sustenance, needed to make any greater effort than to reach up his hand and pluck it from the strong oaks, which literally invited him to taste their sweet and savory fruit. Clear springs and running rivers offered him their sweet and limpid water in glorious abundance. All was peace then, all amity, all concord.

"In those days the soul's amorous fancies were clothed simply and plainly, exactly as they were conceived, without any search for artificial elaborations to enhance them. Nor had fraud, deceit, or malice mingled with truth and sincerity. Justice pursued her own proper purposes, undisturbed and unassailed by favor and interest. The law did not then depend on the judge's nice interpretations, for there were none to judge or to be judged."

A peaceful, amicable world without malice or deceit needs no bearer of arms to police it. Sounds like a pipe dream. But, my good friend, (these are my words, not the Don's), there are those who believe a new golden age has arrived, that utopia is upon us and that there are those living today, scattered amid the general populace, going about their daily lives in quiet anonymity, who are here to inaugurate heaven on earth. Does that mean you and me? Sounds like a fun part to play. Life is after all a stage.

Be the change you wish to see. Live simply with a kind heart and generous spirit. Wax quixotic in your dealings with your fellow men and women. Your life is a work of art. Let it be a symphony. Make our old valorous knight proud. Long-winded monologues are optional, of course, as are battles with windmills.

THE SOUND OF SILENCE


When I was twenty I decided to take a vow of silence. I'd been reading a biography on Mahatma Gandhi and learned that this is what he used to do, so in the spirit of what's good enough for the goose I shut my lips and bit my tongue.

When I was still speaking, I announced my vow to my family. This was a big mistake. Saying I planned to keep quiet called attention to a practice that should really go on inconspicuously. The sun had not yet set and I was back to gabbing away.

Had I to do it all over again, I would have modified my vow to allow me to speak only when absolutely necessary, as to convey important information that could not be communicated without words. Which is basically what I do now. Basically I am a living vow of silence. Writing is after all silent communication. Just don't invite me to your party or else I won't shut up.

If more people practiced silence, how much quieter society would be! It says in some book somewhere that you shouldn't take the Lord's name in vain. What exactly is the Lord's name? If the Lord is everything, then every word names God or God's attributes. So all language is really the Lord's name. All sound, even. So this commandment really means that you should not speak in vain.

And yet here we are, in an atmosphere of so much idle chatter and gossip. So much air pollution and not just automobiles to blame. Stop and listen to yourself speak. You'll find that most of what you say could be better left unsaid, or at least edited in the interest of brevity and clarity. I'm not being critical. It's plain truth.

Turns out silence has benefits other than not adding to the ambient noise. You'll be labeled a good listener, thoughtful, intelligent and sensitive. All are traits highly esteemed in the eyes of a potential mate. Look at me I'm single.

So starting today, say only that which is necessary. Another version of this is the lesson we were all taught and some of us learned in kindergarten: If you have nothing good to say, don't say anything at all. Just don't tell anyone about it!

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

DIFFERENT PATHS, SAME DESTINATION


As a contemplative practice, meditation is an ancient tradition with roots in nearly every major religion. In more recent times this time-tested practice has come under scientific scrutiny and evidence has emerged that meditation is more than just a pleasant way to pass a few minutes. Indeed quieting the mind can rewire brain circuits to produce health-promoting effects on the body as a whole.

Studies involving brain scanners have shown that the practitioner's brain moves through four phases. In the first part, distraction occurs. The second phase, the meditator is aware of a distraction. The third phase engages additional areas in the brain that "take back" one's attention by detaching it from any distracting stimulus. In the fourth and final phase, the meditator's attention remains directed toward an object such as the breathing.

The beauty is in its simplicity. Meditation can be done anywhere, and no fancy equipment is required. There are three basic forms of meditation, and as all roads lead to Rome - with Rome here standing in for a more stable and clear mind, emotional balance, a sense of caring mindfulness, as well as love and compassion, in other words home, which is where the heart is, so we can really say these roads lead to home - you can choose the method that suits your individual tastes. These methods are focused attention, mindfulness and compassion, according to researchers at the University of Wisconsin, who include author and Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard.

Focused attention
Aims to tame and anchor the mind in the present moment. Focusing on the breath or the one's heartbeat is often used, as is fixing the gaze on a candle flame. The practitioner must remain vigilant to distractions both internal (idle thoughts, physical discomfort) and external (sights and sounds that vie for attention) and fix the awareness on the point of interest, be it breath or flame.

Mindfulness
Seeks to cultivate a less emotionally reactive awareness to emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment to prevent them from spiraling out of control and creating mental distress. The practitioner remains attentive, moment by moment, to any experience she has without focusing on anything specific.

Compassion
Also called loving kindness, this practice fosters an altruistic perspective towards one's fellow human beings. It involves being aware of the needs of others and experiencing a sincere, compassionate desire to help. Another word for unconditional love, the highest goal of humanity.

So if you focus on your breathing, watch your thoughts, or engage in the selfless service of others, start meditating today. And remember, meditation isn't only done cross-legged in front of a flame. Expand your awareness and be cognizant of what you are thinking and feeling as well as what is going on around you. Then you take your practice with you wherever you go.

Caveat: Be aware that as with any useful practice, stumbling blocks do exist. Mental disturbances such as mania, psychosis, confusion and depression have been reported in those who meditate. If this happens, keep at it. It's like cleaning out your garage. You don't attempt the task without expecting to unearth some junk. It's not what you find in your mind but how you react that matters. And once you stop reacting, you've won.

Monday, May 25, 2015

DOOMSDAY SOON

The Doomsday Clock was devised nearly 70 years ago by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a watchdog group created at the end of World War II by Manhattan Project scientists (the guys who developed the A-bomb.) And this year the Clock moved forward for the first time since 2012, inching three minutes closer to midnight. It is now 11:57 pm. At the metaphorical midnight, the world will end.
 
What prompted the move closer to our doom? Scientists have cited a slowdown of nuclear disarmament and threats of climate change. Now there is nothing you or I can personally do about ending the threat of nuclear war. But what about climate change? Consider that deforestation has a major impact on global temperatures. Brazil's tropical forests pump 20 billion tons of water vapor daily into the atmosphere through leaf transpiration, and though destruction of forests plummeted in the last decade, since August 2014 tree cutting more than doubled in Brazil compared to the same period a year earlier.

Most of the land cleared will serve as cattle pasture, due to the higher global prices for beef. Richard Schiffman, writing for Scientific American, notes that cutting the forest for cattle ranches is the single largest driver of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, accounting for nearly 70 percent of clearing.

Scientists fear that if the practice goes on, it could lead to a permanent drought in Brazil, and tree loss there ripples beyond the South American country's boundaries, affecting weather systems a continent away. One study predicts that a fully deforested Amazon (it is currently nearly 20 percent tree-free) would mean 50 percent less snowfall in California's Sierra Nevada, which would reduce the spring runoff on which agriculture depends. I'd so miss my kiwis and plums and spinach, and yes garlic! And you thought we in the Golden State were in a drought now. If things don't change just you wait. No wonder why scientists are so concerned.

I visited the Amazon once, as a college student in the early 90s. This was during a 20-year period of increased forest clearing worldwide, a trend that ended in Brazil from 2004 to 2011. Back in the summer of 1994 the air was thick with the smoke from massive forest fires, and the sky loomed an angry black. I couldn't put out the flames, I'm only one dude, but I did choose against upholding the dietary habits for which the forest burns.

On the same trip I visited a cattle ranch. The rancher proudly showed me the testosterone he used to inject the steers. That extra testosterone of course makes its way into the meat and into the blood of humans who eat it. Too much testosterone is converted to DHT which contributes to male pattern baldness and prostate enlargement, even cancer. Practices not good for either man or beast.

What's more, consumption of animal protein is linked to overweight and obesity, which are associated with sleep apnea (snoring), a disorder shared by 25 million Americans, many of whom are obese. When a person puts on extra weight, fat narrows the tube of the airway, blocking the flow of air to the lungs. Sleep apnea can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, depression and an impaired ability to think clearly, which may be why meat eaters persist in their ways. Vicious cycle!


So beat the meat, save the world, ra ra ra. Insignificant though it may seem, the food an individual (you) consumes has far-reaching effects. Because the only thing good about being 2 Minutes to Midnight is the classic song by that name. There's no Living After Midnight in this scenario. So keep the Apocalypse at bay. Save the day. Choose plants.


 

FREEDOM FROM FEAR

V for Vendetta is a 2005 movie written by the Wachowski siblings (the minds who brought the Matrix trilogy) about a revolutionary wearing a Guy Fawkes mask and living in a future dystopia (set in Great Britain) where free thought is brutally suppressed. The victim of cruel experiments himself, and living alone underground, he plots to take down the system and while he's at it takes Natalie Portman under his wing. V, as he's called, puts his young charge through the test of all tests, when impersonating British officials he locks her in solitary confinement, starves her and sprays her with ice cold jets. He even almost drowns her in an effort to get her to confess all she knows. But she does not give in. And in the end he reveals his identity and tells her, "You have no fear no more. You're completely free."

Can you imagine a world in which you lived without fear? I can. And some already do. Take Taylor Momsen. This 21-year-old onetime child star walked away from an acting career at what people said was the height of her stardom. She had appeared opposite Jim Carrey in How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and for five years was a regular on the popular sitcom Gossip Girl.

 
She tells Entertainment Weekly magazine, "I think when I quit acting, everyone thought I was crazy, and now it's three number ones later, so they were wrong."
 
Yes, they were. She's breaking chart records with her band the Pretty Reckless, making her the first woman ever to land three consecutive No. 1 hits on the rock charts. Not even old favorites Stevie Nicks and the Pretenders managed that. And did I mention she's only twenty f%$%%$^ing one!
 
 
Had the young lass listened to naysayers, she'd not be rocking out with such aplomb, that's for sure. Just another shower crooner (like me). But dare I ask, was it even a choice? When you know what it is you love to do, you do it, come what may. Right? Of course, in Momsen's case it was a choice between making millions as an actress, or making millions as a rocker. So, millions either way.
 
In your case the choice may be a bit more complicated and less lucrative. Do I take a cut in pay in order to do something I enjoy a lot more? Do I do it for free? Isn't that what it means to follow your bliss? To do what you'd do for free (and hopefully get paid)?
 
So you can put off the inevitable life-changing decision or you can stop what you're doing (provided you don't like what you're doing) and follow your heart's desire. Just go for it, as the billion dollar slogan says. Nobody can take anything away from you when you've got nothing to lose.
 
So "follow me down," as Taylor sings. In this "messed up world," where everything is topsy-turvy, down likely means up so you'll wind up on top anyway.
 


Sunday, May 24, 2015

INTERMITTENT FASTING

Intermittent fasting, restricting food consumption to a short period of the day, has become all the rage, and not just among faddists and pseudoscientists. Respected medical professionals like Gabe Mirkin and Joe Mercola endorse the practice.

Mercola recommends confining food intake to the hours of noon to 6 pm, which he says reduces triglyceride levels, weight gain and inflammation - provided the foods eaten are vegetables and lean protein rather than refined carbohydrates. You can eat as much of these foods as you wish, but you must follow the prescribed eating schedule.

Mirkin recommends eating your normal diet 5 days a week, and choosing 2 days in which you consume a maximum of 700 calories, which for most people is 25 to 30% of their usual intake. Again, eat healthy foods, and there is no need to restrict intake on the 5 "regular" days. Some take it even farther and eat one meal a day, usually dinner, fasting before and after basically on air and water. Both doctors have studies to back up their claims.


Intermittent FastingBut a recent study proves otherwise. Skipping meals, which is what fasting for part of the day or some days a week essentially boils down to, is actually linked to abdominal weight gain. In the study, conducted at Ohio State University, mice ate all of their food as a single meal and fasted the rest of the day. Initially they slimmed down, but when they were allowed to eat without restriction they regained most of the weight back, with a disproportionate amount of it accumulating around the middle. This visceral adiposity, as it is called, led to insulin resistance - a telltale sign of prediabetes. Basically when the liver doesn't respond to insulin signals telling it to stop producing glucose, that extra sugar in the blood is stored as fat.

"This does support the notion that small meals throughout the day can be helpful for weight loss, though that may not be practical for many people," said Martha Belury, professor of human nutrition at The Ohio State University and senior author of the study. "But you definitely don't want to skip meals to save calories because it sets your body up for larger fluctuations in insulin and glucose and could be setting you up for more fat gain instead of fat loss." The mice following restricted diets also exhibited binge behaviors when allowed to consume food ad libitum.

These findings align with personal experience, which is often the best teacher. There have been times where I've restricted food intake during the day in favor of a large dinner, then come home and hoovered the contents of the fridge, often after priming my palate with a half pint of tequila. I simply could not eat or drink to enough to fill the bottomless pit that was my stomach. I had become a human black hole! As you are aware if you've ever skipped a meal or two and then sat down to make up for lost time, it is easy to consume more calories at one sitting when you are famished than you consume over an entire day of snacking and light meals. And the evidence is a beer gut!

Not only that, the types of food consumed when you're starving (as after an all-day fast) tend to be of the high-fat, high-refined carb variety. Like pizza. And fried chicken with biscuits. And as Dr. Wajahat Z. Mehal, director of research programs on inflammation, tells Scientific American, it is precisely these foods that trigger an inflammatory response that can have dire health consequences. Eating too much in one sitting, Dr. Mehal notes, triggers an acute episode of inflammation, and routinely eating so many calories that the body has to store them as fat leads to chronic inflammation, the disease process behind a range of conditions including Alzheimer's, atherosclerosis, insulin resistance and fatty liver disease, among others. While the anti-inflammatory benefits of fasting are well known, they are likely canceled out by the overeating that too often follows.

Now, I'm all for one major meal a day, defined as one daily meal that is cooked and concentrated in calories. But throughout the rest of the day it is best to intersperse small, 300-400-calorie snacks, like fresh fruits and fruit smoothies, or chia pudding, or perhaps even a raw salad with some avocado, which will keep the digestive flames stoked and cravings at bay but still leave you feeling light and free. That's the best of both worlds. And you'll have your flat tummy to prove it.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

IMPRESS YOUR FRIENDS AT PARTIES

Ever thought about how strange our relationships with animals can be? We spend billions annually on the care of our pets, but make no qualms about consuming other furry four-legged creatures, grilling, frying, slicing and dicing cows and calves and chickens and ducks and turkeys and pigs and an assortment of other beasts for food. Some people keep pigs for pets. I've seen a guy, walking a big black pig on a leash in Hollywood. That's where it really gets weird. Does he also eat ham? Would his pig, as ham, taste any different to him? I know pets resemble their owners, but don't pigs in general look an awful lot like humans?


Reminds me of a great line from Voltaire. "The custom of boiling and roasting a neighbor must be both ancient and natural, since it prevailed in both hemispheres; and therefore it must be an innate idea that men were hunted before beasts, because it was easier to kill men than wolves." Apparently eating wolves came later, followed by dogs. A tradition which persists in certain parts of the world. But suggest to a dog-owner that she eat - on second thought don't do that. I tried once. It didn't go well.

But cannibalism, now that would take us back to our roots. I wonder, does human flesh taste like chicken? The world is pretty overpopulated and all. And for you Bible scholars, the argument is that Cain killed Abel for the protein. Which I might add is a complete protein. Futurists beware: it's been done before. "Soylent Green is people!" And you thought Matrix was being original.


Here's the deal. Want to impress your friends at parties? The meat-eating friends, I mean. But are meat-eaters your friends? I for one have distanced myself from those who've failed to eliminate flesh foods from their diet. One friend told me that he was interested in giving up animal protein for the potential health benefits, but couldn't care less about the animal welfare part. Selfish bastard. Needless to say we are not that close anymore. Maybe I'm being too hard on people.

But really, the decision whether to persist in meat-eating once you've been informed of the many and pervasive drawbacks of such a diet-style is sort of an IQ test. Eat in such a way that is good for land and water and world hunger not to mention better for you, or make choices that put your health at risk and ravage the world. No brainer. Or be like me and avoid meat because that's what Alicia Silverstone does, and she's real purty.


Plus there's the consciousness difference. You can feel it after you give up eating meat for even a few days. Meat-eaters are on a different wavelength. I know because I've been there, feasting on flesh for more than a few months at a time, just because. I was grumpy and irascible and volatile and dense. Meat makes you dense. That's the best way to put it, blockhead! Not you. An erstwhile me.

But assuming you still associate with partakers of animal protein, here's how you can wow them by your powers of prediction at parties. Do it at parties. Ask a person why he chooses to eat meat, and before he has an opportunity to answer, interrupt him with his response, which you've anticipated, because the responses are so typical.

You see, the vast majority of omnivores (meat-eaters) defend consuming animals with one of four rationalizations, which scientists call the 4Ns. The Ns are for natural, necessary, normal and nice.

The Natural argument is that humans are natural born carnivores.

The Necessary argument is that meat provides essential nutrients.

The Normalist says he was raised eating meat.

And the Nice argument is that meat tastes good.

Scientists are quick to point out that the 4Ns are a "powerful pervasive tool employed by individuals to diffuse the guilt one might otherwise experience when consuming animal products," according to the study's author, Dr. Piazza. So after you've told your friend why he eats meat before he's had a chance to tell you, you can tell him why he feels that way, too.

Such are the powers of science. You can also take the time to refute the 4Ns by saying humans have digestive systems closely resembling apes, who are basically herbivores; the essential nutrients meat does provide are obtainable in plants or via supplement; we were all raised wearing diapers, yet how many sport them at parties?; and lots of things taste good that the conscientious consumer avoids in the interests of health and weight maintenance, so why not add meat to the list of such foods which if you ask me should include the Krispy Kreme Donut Hot Dog covered in bacon. Heart attack waiting to happen.


Personally I prefer leading by example to preaching, but since we've come this far, while you're at it seize the opportunity to inform the group that has now gathered around the punch bowl to listen to the mind-reader you have proven yourself to be that meat-eaters who employ the 4Ns as justification for a behavior that is becoming more and more socially unacceptable also think cows are stupid and support (scientists used the word "tolerate") social inequality.

Unless you don't want to seem like a major know it all, you could end your performance by pointing out that although research indicates Americans are more tolerant than ever before, the only thing we refuse to tolerate is intolerance itself. So why they gotta hate on the poor? Or is that a stretch?

Say that loud enough and you just may start a brawl. You know what they say, parties can be such a riot!

Love your neighbor.

GET OFF THE CRAPPER!

When I was a kid I used to get these really bad stomach aches. Each year from the 2nd through the 6th grades I'd be visited by incapacitating pain. It was always in the same place, just to the left of my belly button, where it would radiate down into my groin. It was crampy and achy and a major pain in the, well, belly. And when these stomach aches came, and it happened randomly, I'd be kept up all night, curled in a fetal position on the floor, unable to eat or sleep or think of anything but how much it hurt. Then the following morning, as if by magic, the pain would disappear.

My parents took me to the pediatrician, who was at a loss to explain it. Maybe growing pains? Food poisoning? Gastrointestinal upset, cause unknown was the diagnosis he gave me, I think. And GI upset is one of the most common childhood ailments, I'd come to find when I became a doctor myself. When treating a kid whose tummy hurt I'd usually just tell mom what my doctor told me, which was that the pain would go away on its own. And usually it did. This of course after I had ruled out conditions such as pancreatitis and kidney stones, which are thankfully rare.

But what happens when stomachaches occur in adults? And they occur oftener than you may think. Perhaps to you? These patients come in with a list of symptoms including bloat, gas, stomach upset, cramps, possibly diarrhea or constipation, seemingly unrelated to what they eat. I'd assemble a list of differential diagnoses and by examination aided with lab studies rule out possible culprits, which include inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), as both Crohn's and ulcerative colitis are more common in adults than in kids.

Usually there was no disease at work, and I felt powerless to help these poor people, who were clearly in great pain and distress. The diagnosis I'd pencil in in such cases was IBS, or irritable bowel syndrome. Back when I was in clinic there was no real effective treatment for IBS, and the underlying cause was unknown. I couldn't tell my patients that their symptoms would make like they appeared and go away on their own, because often IBS is a life-long condition.

As I bid goodbye to these individuals I secretly wished they'd never return with the same complaint. Because if they didn't come back, it meant they were cured - I hoped. But if they did return, it was only a reminder of how powerless the medical profession can be in the face of the most basic ailments. Go to the hospital with chest pain or a broken bone and get taken care of quick and effectively (albeit after a rather long wait in the ER). But suffer from headache, neck pain, the common cold, and yes, IBS, and you're likely as leave the doctor as stumped as you were when you came, and stuck with the bill.

Now however scientists may be onto something. A study published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE showed that IBS, which characteristically proves resistant to standard therapies such as dietary modifications, over-the-counter medications and fiber supplements, can improve with relaxation techniques, which the researchers call "mind/body intervention."

This makes sense. Consider that the GI tract in order to function properly requires an adequate blood supply. Your intestines and associate organs (liver and pancreas) are governed by the parasympathetic nervous system, whose functions are to "rest and digest."

By contrast, the sympathetic nervous system runs the "flight or fight" response which shunts blood from the organs to the muscles, heart and lungs. As you see, the two activities, digesting and fighting, oppose each other. Which is why mom says to wait a while after eating before you swim.


But the 21st century is one in which the sympathetic nervous system, primed to fight or flee, dominates. Because today's world is rife with stressors. The phone with its constant barrage of texts, tweets, emails and messages. Traffic. Work deadlines. Family functions. Your children's activities. Global warming. Taxes. Bills. Construction. Commercials. Fox News. TSA. (Add your top three stressors here.)

In a stress-filled climate our bodies surge with adrenaline, which charges the heart and flexes the muscles. Cortisol floods our arteries, shutting down the organs of rest and digest. This leaves the digestive system and its contents on hold until deadlines are met and bills get paid and the phone stops buzzing. In other words until life slows down, which may only come when you sleep, and God help you if you're one of the nearly 50% of people who experiences insomnia.

To help understand a colon starved for nutrients, consider what happens to muscles when they don't get enough oxygen. Go outside and run as fast as you can. Witness your quads as they burn and cramp, caused by a build-up of lactic acid, a byproduct of anaerobic respiration, which is the metabolic pathway your muscles must use when they run out of air. This same phenomenon occurs in the IBS sufferer, whose intestines get neglected as you attack the varied tasks of the day.

So slow down. The study, which followed 48 adult participants for nine weeks, included relaxation response training, defined as "a physiologic state of deep rest induced by practices such as meditation, yoga and prayer." It took only 15 to 20 minutes of such training each day to achieve "significantly improved disease-related symptoms, anxiety and overall quality of life, not only at the end of the study period but also three weeks later."

In only 20 minutes? That's the length of time some poor suckers spend on the shitter! If relaxation is effective in treating IBS's constipation, consider it so much time saved.

So take a chill pill today, and kiss that grumpy tummy away.

Friday, May 22, 2015

R U A GIVER OR A GETTER?

I used to believe that everyone who gave to charity was an altruist in the truest sense of the word. Unselfishly devoted to the welfare of others, as opposed to egoist. Sure, I'd hear them brag, and they seemed so proud, but pride and generosity are not mutually exclusive personality traits, and a virtue like giving can coexist with a vice like being proud because of it. But how many charitable donations come from those who practice dishonest professions? Like investment bankers, who a recent study published in the November issue of Nature suggest work in an industry that "weakens and undermines the honesty norm," according to one of the authors.


Does giving a drop off the top of money a person comes by dishonestly make him feel okay about the devious means used to earn the 98% he keeps? (About 85% of Americans donate less than 2 percent of their income to charity, according to a great article in this month's issue of The Atlantic.) And how many of us give with strings attached, or help others simply to feel better about ourselves?

Call me a pessimist, but this distrust of the ulterior motives of even the goodest Samaritan echoes the teachings of many philosophers and mystics, who say that one should avoid donating to charity or engaging in sweeping acts of kindness and public service because of the egoism involved. Most altruists are really doing it for themselves, not for so-called unfortunate others. And if looked at this way, selflessness is actually a form of selfishness.

(One exception. To the kind man who not long ago picked me up by the side of the road after I'd fallen off my bike and broken my leg: Joel, you are an angel.)

Personally, I never give money to charity because I hardly have any money and because I assume that most organizations, even so-called non-profits and not-for-profits, are all schemes to extract your money by manipulating your emotions only to pocket the goodness of your heart in tax-free dollars and cents. I mean, does the dollar I'd like to be used to buy food for that starving child with the sad eyes in the wasteland setting of a remote continent actually enter his mouth in a form he can digest, or does it go to the maker of the commercial in which the child appears, as cash? Take that to the bank.


Am I being too suspicious? Hardly. Recent studies involving stroke patients are proving that the giver, in giving, also gets a great deal. Particularly, patients whose cerebrovascular accident involves the frontal lobes, the part of the brain that helps with social reasoning and weighing different courses of action, show a tendency to give give away everything they have, despite the family problems this causes. They give until they have nothing left. When asked why, these accidental altruists say because it makes them feel good.

It turns out that in these patients, and in everyone who gives, fMRI scans reveal an increase in activity in the mesolimbic system of the brain, the area governing animalistic pleasure centers, which usually light up in the presence of food, sex and drugs like cocaine. Because stroke patients lack inhibition from the higher centers, they are free to cater freely to the dictates of the pleasure circuits, and to give until it hurts. Giving as indulging in junk food, or a few bumps of cocaine, as the case may be, prompting scientists to call it pathological generosity. These individuals are addicted to philanthropy, and their numbers may be greater than most neurologists realize, since most doctors are like most people and don't regard increased charitable giving as a negative side effect. So it goes largely ignored.

This is not to say that giving doesn't serve a valuable purpose in society. Normal giving brings people together and encourages acts of reciprocity. It fosters cohesion within groups, and leads to cooperation. Indeed evolutionists believe this is why generosity took root in the human brain in the first place. Kin selection is the term used to explain instances in which a person puts others, like her siblings, before herself. Helping one's siblings survive may sacrifice a person's well-being in the short term, but will ultimately boost the chances of your genes being carried on in the future.

And group selection explains how those who cooperate with each other, and who give without expecting personal reward, tend to fare better in tasks like waging war and hunting game, allowing them to survive and become the progenitors of our race. So we are hard-wired to give, and this is a good thing. But that good feeling you get when you give, that sense of exhilaration? That's the dopamine flooding your system. The same dopamine that comes with illicit sex, drugs and pizza, and shopping sprees too.

So in generosity you may be getting just as much as you give, if not more. But at least you are giving. And considering the risks involved in indulging in vices, not just to your pocketbook but to your health too, the next time you are looking for that quick fix, instead of reaching for the cookie jar, remember that altruism, with your time, your money or your wisdom, is the safest bet.

And remember that charity does start at home, as they say. 'Course, if you want to give to the homeless, helpless or poor, there's probably a stranger waiting on a corner near you. Go put food directly in his hand. That way you know your money is well-spent. If you give him those cookies you thought about eating, you've saved some calories as well. Give to get I guess.

R U GAY?


In his Autobiography, the British philosopher John Stuart Mill writes: "Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so." (BTW he just had a birthday. Happy 209th JS! You know what they say, with age comes wisdom!)

And yet these days the venerable Mr. Mill's words have fallen on deaf ears. If anything happiness is the buzzword. There are TV shows (Showtime's Happyish), movies (1998's Happiness, 2006's Pursuit of Happyness). Scores of books have been written on the subject. The Happiness Advantage, The Happiness Mindset, The Happiness Project, The Happiness Guide are only a few of them. Happiness is now an art, and a science. Most major magazines regularly publish articles on being happy. As does this blog which nobody reads.

There's the Pharrell song, called of course "Happy," which is so gay! Gay as in not happy. Gay as in it makes me want to flush my head down the toilet, and I'm not usually so scatological. Don't get me wrong, I love gay guys. Just like I love cheese and corn but use the terms cheesy and corny to describe things like . . . Pharrell's song! I don't know what it is about the song. It's so on the sleeve that it just gets under my skin. Impossible though that may seem. I know I know, Adam, if you don't have anything nice to say . . . P's cool though.


And now scientists are busy studying the emotion/phenomenon/some say our natural state, call it what you will. And their findings on being gay (as in happy) are neither cheesy nor corny. Psychologists at the University of Bolton recently recreated a 1938 study on happiness. Eighty years ago, security, knowledge and religion were the three most important aspects of a person's wellbeing. Whereas now good humor has replaced knowledge and leisure has replaced religion, while security has moved from first to third place.

What does this say about you? Well, not all that much, unless you happen to live in the Bolton, a town in Manchester, England. To apply the results to the entire globe is a stretch, but we can say that in general people value what is precious and rare. In 1938 the world was on the precipice of a second World War, which threatened personal liberties, for example the freedom to practice religion - if Hitler's extermination of the Jews had been successful.

Knowledge might have been rated highly in 1938 since a college education was harder to come by - 50% of high school graduates went on to college in 1940, 65% do today - and books used to be harder to find than in today's digital world where if you have a Kindle you can read the classics of every major culture instantly and for free. Security is a no-brainer. It will always be integral to our happiness, since we cannot live without food, clothing, shelter and the money to procure these essentials of survival. Good luck being happy if you are not around to enjoy it.

But why in today's world (or at least in Bolton) are humor and leisure valued so highly? Is it because they are harder to come by now more than ever? This is certainly the case when it comes to leisure time. Our frenetic, wired lives keep us on the edge. Lyndon Stambler, writing for U Magazine, explains:

"Americans are overwhelmed. Living in chronic-stress mode, our days running 24/7, our senses assaulted by the pinging of smart phones and our attention diverted by relentless tweets, texts and emails, we are in constant quest of all that is new and different and exciting. All this more, better, bigger, faster, sooner, now, now, NOOOWWW is driving us to the edge. The constant strain of our modern lives leads to anxiety, depression, insomnia, obesity and a host of other illnesses."

As one scientists puts it, technology and social media have "led to a net decrease in well-being." So much digital data is "hijacking people's behavior and making them responsive to their devices in a way that prevents them from implementing their own willed intentions."

The prescription, Stambler notes after interviewing various psychiatrists, authors and mindfulness practitioners, is to take a deep breath, turn off the cell phone and slow the hell down. And if you're afraid you'll fall behind, don't. Believe whoever said "slow and steady wins the race," because it does. Admit it, as kids we all rooted for the tortoise over the hare. There, now that we crossed leisure off the list, let's get back to work!


What about good humor? Also at a premium in this harried century? Of course there is no shortage of potty jokes if you binge watch Will Ferrell (that blowjob scene in the movie Get Hard is hilarious), and Comedy Central runs some great shows. I can't believe the Diceman is still at it, and staying hard!


But turn on Fox News or visit a discussion board or chat room or comment thread on any video or article and pretty much everyone takes themselves and current events so seriously! Lighten up, bras! Must all comedy be staged? Not if we learn to laugh at ourselves. But fret not, it seems that with age we begin to take ourselves less seriously, if you believe the polls.

The consumer insights company CivicScience polled over 250,000 Americans and found the happiness is somewhat within your control. Being gleeful is a function of health, having a job you enjoy, and enough money to buy yourself a nice piece of jewelry should the urge visit you. And oh, yes, age. Beginning at 30, every age group gets progressively happier. Overall, the general population is six times more likely to say they are happy versus unhappy.

So why all the haters? Personally, I think those polled are full of it. Prove it, I say. Show me your glee. I can tell a fake smile when I see one. But even those who are genuinely content, could being asked what makes you happy actually make you sad? Could considering your level of contentment diminish it?

If you listen to our man Mill, then yes. His view was that the mind should be fixed on something other than one's own happiness. This could be the happiness of others, the improvement of mankind, or some artistic or creative pursuit, followed not as a means for making you happy, but as an end in itself. A life thus spent encounters happiness effortlessly, as a sort of by-product. Whereas dwelling on happiness or over-thinking it "puts it to flight by fatal questioning." Rather, keep busy doing what you enjoy doing and you will "inhale happiness with the air you breathe."

Sounds like good advice. So in order to be happy, stop thinking about it. Go have fun, and forget you ever read this!