The Social Media Echo Chamber

I honestly think we may be living through the weirdest period I’ve experienced in my lifetime.  I think the jumpy, panicky reaction many people seem to be having to the coronavirus — a jumpy, panicky reaction that has now extended for multiple days — is pretty much unprecedented.

We’re in a curious, alternative universe-type world where people react to news about a virus by going out and binge-buying toilet paper and multiple other items that have nothing to do with the medical condition at issue.  Even in a city like Columbus, where there have been no reported, confirmed cases of COVID-19, people have overreacted in ways that just aren’t rational.  Why is this so?  In the past we’ve live through medical scares, stock market plummets, and even terrorist attacks where people behaved more responsibly.  Why is the Great Coronavirus Crisis of 2020 so different?

I find myself wondering if social media plays a role.  Could social media be acting like a colossal echo chamber, taking individual concerns and amplifying them in ways that have contributed to the panicky reactions?  If people see posts from their friends on things like empty grocery store shelves in the toilet paper aisle, does that cause them to think that maybe they need to go out in a fruitless search for toilet paper, working themselves into a kind of frenzy even though they’ve got an ample supply on hand for the foreseeable future?  Are the standard bits of misinformation that frequently finds their way onto social media sites, where they are passed off as relevant, contributing to the jittery atmosphere?

It’s all very weird, and makes me wonder how people would respond to more significant issues.  We’re still figuring out coronavirus, to be sure, but if you go outside you will see people driving their cars, sweeping their sidewalks, doing their jobs, and going to restaurants and bars.  The NCAA Tournament and the Masters may have been cancelled, but for the vast majority of us life goes on — if we’d just peek out of the foxhole and recognize that.

I’m hoping that, over the weekend, people take a deep breath.

The Wisdom Of The Aged

When you’ve been around the block a few times, the experience gives you perspective.  Whether it’s a useful perspective or not is really up to you — but, inevitably, you draw upon your own life to inform your decisions going forward.  For most of us, at least, the so-called “wisdom of the aged” isn’t really wisdom at all — it’s just being able to learn from past mistakes.

I thought about this when I ran across this article about one person’s thoughts about the biggest wastes of time in their lives.  They are good ones — like trying to make bad relationships work, or dwelling on your mistakes and shortcomings — but all of the time-wasters, by definition, are drawn from the writer’s own personal experience.  The key is having the self-awareness to identify something that you’ve done as a waste of time in the first place, and the ability to learn from it and adapt your practices going forward, rather than stubbornly repeating the same mistakes over and over again.

And often the lesson isn’t something you can learn by reading or hearing about it — you’ve got to experience it yourself to really have the lesson sink in and leave a mark.  How many people is the history of humankind have heard an older person counsel them about ending a job or relationship that just isn’t working and then rationalized away the advice by concluding that they and their circumstances were different?  The best life lessons are those you learn yourself.

What would be the biggest time-wasters for me?  To the extent anyone cares, there are two I would put on my list.  One would be trying to follow the crowd and do what other people thought people in my circumstances should be doing — whether it is consciously trying to like music or TV shows or movies that just aren’t clicking for me, or “getting involved” in a bunch of activities because general “involvement” is good.  Once I decided to just trust myself and go with what I liked, I eliminated a lot of waste motion. 

And the other would be worrying — really worrying — about things you can’t control, either because they are far beyond your pay grade or because they are in someone else’s hands.  Focusing on things that you can actually affect dramatically shortens the to-do list to things that matter, where you can personally make a difference and move the needle.  That’s a life lesson, incidentally, that I’m drawing on right now.

 

Those Little Routines

Over the years I’ve always used some kind of coin container.  When I was in college, I used a large glass jar as the repository for pocket change — until one day the glass broke from the accumulated weight of the coins, and I switched to a smaller jar.  I’ve also used metal cans.  Now I use a nice wooden box that Kish got me long ago.

But whether the container is glass, or metal, or wood, the concept is the same:  when you come home, you empty your pockets.  in my case, the house keys go on the top of the dresser, the cell phone gets set down on the cordless charger contraption, and any loose change goes into the coin box.  It’s one of the little organizing principles that many of us use to order our lives and establish our small, personal routines.  Those little routines can add comforting structure to your day, and also mean you don’t have to go tearing the house apart looking for your keys and phone and glasses every morning.

Years ago, the change containers used to fill up a lot more quickly, because I would always pay for my lunches and small purchases with cash, and bringing home change was a nightly occurrence.  Now that using a payment card has become my most common form of payment, I often end the work day with no change at all — but habit makes me check my pockets for change, just the same.  The reduction of change in our lives is another simple sign that the economy is changing, and our personal practices are changing along with it.

But I still pay for some things with cash, and even if it takes longer than before, the change box gets filled.  Last night I noticed that the box is filled, again, so it’s time to empty it out, fill up the old-fashioned paper coin sleeves, and take them to the bank to add another $34 to the account and feel the satisfaction of saving.  That’s what will be on the schedule for tonight, and I’m kind of looking forward to it.

 

Looking Back Before Looking Forward

The turn of a new year is inevitably a time for looking forward:  for resolutions about how we’re going to change our bad habits, our diets, our savings patterns, and our exercise regimens, how we’re going to move the needle in a positive direction in our personal and professional relationships, and how we’re going to otherwise become the better people we hope we can be.

mus-fapc1114_850But before we start looking forward, I think it makes sense to look backward at the bearded, white-haired, old man year that is limping out the side door with that scythe and hourglass.  How did the past year go?  What did we accomplish?  Sure, a year is a somewhat arbitrary time period to use for assessment purposes, but thanks to the fact that it’s what marks another lap of the Earth around the Sun it’s what we’ve got to work with.

How do you evaluate an entire year?  I think there are certain baseline criteria, like health.  If you and your loved ones have made it through the year unscathed and without any significant health concerns, current or impending, you’ve got to chalk it up as a pretty darned good year.  By that means of measurement, 2019 was a good year for us and our immediate and extended families, and we’d take another one just like it.

You can also look at what you’ve done.  For 2019, I made some modest resolutions that I thought were reasonably achievable with a little effort, and I’m happy to say that I’ve accomplished every one.  In fact, I’m reading a pretty interesting and challenging book right now.  Perhaps my approach simply shows the value of going small, but it’s nice to know that I’ve met my resolutions for once.  Positive things also have happened on the work and home fronts.  We bought a new car that we like, and we enjoyed spending some time this past summer at our cottage in Stonington, where we’ve made some new friends and made progress at getting it to where we want it.  We’ve enjoyed some travel, and are ending up the year in a pretty place where it’s warm.  These may seem like little things, but in my experience the little things are the things that you can really control, and the little things add up.

Finally, you can compare the year to past and future years.  The past years tend to blend together, unless they are years marked by a life-changing event, like marriage or the birth of children, so it’s hard for me to do that.  As for 2020, it’s a presidential election year in a country where many of the people seem bitterly divided.  Who knows?  At the end of next year, we may well look back fondly on 2019 as a year of comparative peace and harmony.

Sure, I still weigh more than I would like, and my knees creak when I stand up after sitting for a while — there may be a connection there — and when I look at what’s going on in the big world outside our little world I wonder where we’re heading.   But that’s life for you.  All things considered, I think 2019 has been a pretty good year.

Warning Labels

Do warning labels really work?

Consider this pack of Gauloises that I saw on a bench at a nearby dock. It notes that smoking not only kills — quit now! — but also increases the risk of blindness. And to make the point visually, the pack features a large blind eye.

But did the warnings stop the smoker from buying the pack of Gauloises, or cause him to quit the habit that could blind and kill him? Nope! So what did the warnings accomplish, really?

Inferences From A Magazine Rack

When you’re killing time during a long layover in an airport, and a Hudson News is the only non-fast food place to visit, you tend to check out the magazine rack. So, what does the generic airport magazine rack tell you?

First, it tells you that magazines aren’t exactly thriving. The current magazine rack is pretty shrimpy by comparison to the full wall of magazines you found in the old days. Airport book options are shrinking, too.

Second, it suggests that modern Americans aren’t all that interested in serious reading. Once you go past The Economist, you’ve pretty much exhausted the serious reading category. Time and Newsweek have become the print equivalent of clickbait and don’t even try to present themselves as serious journalism. The rest of the shelves are devoted to the celebrity culture and the Royals — which is pretty much the same thing. How many interviews with, say, Taylor Swift is a person going to read?

And third, has any celebrity couple been the subject of a longer run in the romantic speculation/break-up/make-up category than Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt? Didn’t they first hit the gossip rags more than 20 years ago? And yet here they are, the subject of rumor and speculation and disclosures by purported insiders. In the history of American popular culture, is there any other couple that has had greater tittle-tattle staying power than these two?

Out Of Whack

I’ve been on the road a lot recently, and I feel like it’s had an impact on my normal routines.  I’ve moved back and forth between time zones, spent a lot of time on planes, gotten up at odd hours (even for me) and stayed up later than normal, and am no longer on the schedule that I’ve typically followed.

a41_lot271_2-maxAnd I’m feeling all of that, too.  My circadian rhythms are out of whack and off kilter.  I feel like an old golf ball that has lost its crisp bounce and now is just landing on the fairway or in the rough with a pathetic, disappointing thud.

The hoary saying is that you are only as old as you feel.  Of course, that saying suggests that there are times when you do feel older, and are reminded by mind and body that you’re not the spring chicken you used to be.  The realization that your rebound process seems to be taking a lot longer now than it did in the past is one of those times.  But right now I’m just too tired to care.

McMansion Envy

American homes are a lot roomier than they used to be.  In 1973, the Census Bureau determined that the median size of a new house was about 1,500 square feet.  As of 2015, that number had shot up to about 2,500 square feet.  And with Americans having fewer children on average, the increase in house size translated into a lot more square footage per resident — from 507 square feet per resident for new houses in 1973 to 971 square feet per resident for a new house built in 2015.

mcmansions-real-estateSo, are Americans a lot happier with their larger, roomier homes?  A researcher tried to figure that out and determined that the answer is:  not really.  Although American homes have grown significantly in terms of their square footage, overall house satisfaction hasn’t changed.  According to the research, the apparent reason is that some Americans are trapped in an endless cycle of house one-upsmanship.

The researcher concluded that Americans whose houses are among the largest in the neighborhood tend to be most prone to house unhappiness.  These homeowners build the biggest house around and are satisfied with it, but when somebody builds an even bigger McMansion on a nearby lot, knocking them out of the “biggest house in the neighborhood” slot, suddenly their satisfaction with their home drops.  The research also indicates that there’s been a kind of nuclear arms race at the top end of the American housing market, with the size of the largest 10 percent of houses increasing 1.4 times as fast as the size of the median house.  Evidently “keeping up with the Joneses” now means adding on to your house to maintain your status as king of the block.

I’m not sure about the statistical analysis used in the research and how you can determine with certainty whether people are dissatisfied with their already big house because it now isn’t the biggest house in the ‘hood, as opposed to other reasons for house dissatisfaction.  But I do know this:  I feel sorry for people who measure their own happiness and satisfaction by comparing their possessions, whether it is houses or cars or something else, to what is owned by others.  It’s a rat race that isn’t really winnable, because there’s always going to be someone with a bigger house and fancier car.

Such people are never really going to be happy — at least not for long.  Better to find a house that you and your family like, forget about participating in the pointless big house derby, and be amused as you watch the Joneses and their McMansions endlessly duke it out for top dog status.

Working For The Three-Day Weekend

In the distant, early days of Homo sapiens, there was no concept of “work” in the modern sense, and thus there were no holidays, either. Every day involved its many toils, from hunting and gathering to working to find shelter and water and protection against predators.

Then, as civilization developed, designated jobs became an inevitable part of the process. No city could exist without people charged with performing essential functions like laboring in the fields to bring in the crops, delivering food from the countryside, serving as scribe for Pharoah, or building the new pyramid or ziggurat.  The concept of holidays came later still. First, there were only religious holidays or seasonal holidays, to mark the Feast Day of Set or commemorate the harvest with a day of celebration. In the medieval era, when a saint’s day arrived, the duties of the job were replaced by lengthy religious obligations and, perhaps, fasting and the ritual wearing of a hair shirt.  It wasn’t exactly a laugh riot.

As humanity advanced even more, the concept of a work week was introduced and, then, secular holidays. When some brilliant soul realized that secular holidays really didn’t have to be tied to a specific date on the calendar and instead could float — so that the holiday could combine with a normal weekend to create a three-day weekend — it was a huge step forward in human development. And when an even more enlightened individual realized that we could use those three-day weekends to bookend the summer months, so that the joys of summer could begin with a glorious three-day revel in the warmth, it marked a true pinnacle in the annals of human achievement.

As we celebrate the joys of this three-day Memorial Day weekend, let’s remember those forgotten figures of human history who came up with the ideas that led us here — and be grateful that wearing sweaty hair shirts isn’t part of the equation.

Like A Dog In The Rain

Recently I went for my morning walk on a blustery, rainy day.  As I was walking along, struggling with my umbrella in the gusts and grumbling about the cold, crummy weather, I saw a raincoat-clad woman with a dog.  The woman also looked peevish about the rain and wind.

4149865894_7a5fd51c5a_oThe dog, however, was undisturbed.  It clearly recognized that, as a four-legged creature without clothes, rain slickers, or opposable thumbs capable of gripping an umbrella handle who was subject to the walking schedule and whims of its human companion, there really wasn’t much it could do about being out in the rain and the wind at that moment.  It obviously needed to get out, walk, and answer the call of nature.  And so, it just went about its business, as usual, without concern about the fact that it was getting soaked.

I was struck by the dog’s placid expression and its contrast with the stormy looks on my face and the face of the dog’s owner.  There were no snarls or bared teeth — by the dog, at least.  The dog, who was powerless to do anything about its situation, was imperturbable, while the humans who had total control were letting the bad weather bother them.

It was a very zen-like moment, and it made me realize that, in the right situations, there is value in following the dog’s example:  don’t worry about what you can’t change, accept your circumstances, go about your business, and when you get back to that safe, dry, warm place . . . shake it all off.

Found Money

On Thursday, drivers on U.S. Route 31 in Grand Haven, Michigan confronted one of those moral dilemmas that ethicists love to discuss.  A fellow driver somehow forgot that he left a cash box containing $30,000 on the bumper of his car.  As he drove on the highway, the box fell off the bumper and opened on impact with the pavement, and the thousands of dollars in cash spilled onto the road and into the air.

image-photo-money-thrown-in-the-air-april-2016And thus, the ethical thought experiment met reality:  if you were driving one of the following cars and saw the money on the road — where you were out in the open, surrounded by total strangers, where no cameras would see your conduct and no criminal consequences were likely to attach to what you did next — what would you do?

In this instance, other drivers immediately started stopping, scooping up the money, and driving off — conduct that, incidentally, caused a traffic tie-up on Route 31.  Of the $30,000 in the cash box, only $2,500 was immediately recovered and returned to the owner.  Since Thursday, police have appealed for drivers who pocketed the loot to probe their consciences and turn in the money.  Only some have done so.  Two teenagers turned in $630, which would sure seem like a lot of money to a kid, and one woman turned in nearly $3,900.  The police commended them for their honesty.  However, most of the money remains unrecovered.

Over the years, I’ve found wallets and car keys and credit cards and other valuable items, and I’ve always returned them immediately because I’d like to think other people would do the same with an item I misplaced.  But before I hurt my shoulder patting myself on the back, I also recognize that I haven’t been in desperate need of money on those occasions, either.  If you were at the end of your financial rope and suddenly saw hundred dollar bills on the Route 31 asphalt, would you do the honest thing — or would you think that your prayers had been answered and drive off with fistfuls of money without a second thought?

Going Off The Beaten Path

We’ve been watching Russell’s dog Betty recently.  She’s a very nice, well-trained dog — kudos to Russell on that! — who absolutely loves taking walks.  Every morning I leash her up and take her for a walk around Schiller Park so both she and I can get some fresh air and exercise first thing in the morning.

img_0028For the most part, Betty is an easy dog to walk.  She keeps her nose down, hunting for interesting smells, and stays on or in close proximity to the sidewalk, swiveling her head from side to side and remaining on absolute tactical alert for any random dog that might be seen off in the distance.

But the interesting thing is what happens when we depart from the sidewalk for even an instant — say, to drop a tied-off bag of doggie doo into one of the Schiller Park trash cans.  When that happens, Betty’s entire personality changes.  She goes from the dedicated, straight-ahead walker who diligently tracks down every stray scent to a young dog who clearly wants to frolic.  She does a kind of antic, bouncing dance, going down onto her paws then leaping into the air, makes a growling sound, veers suddenly from side to side with tremendous force, and then starts to nibble at my shoelaces while I’m trying to walk.  Frankly, it’s pretty annoying on a cold workday morning, but she’s just having a dog’s definition of fun.  After a few minutes of such play, I give her a tug on the leash and we head back home.

It’s instructive, isn’t it?  Betty likes her walks, to be sure, but what really charges her up is to go off the beaten path.  Betty’s little dance just demonstrates the value of departing from the straight line and going free form every once in a while.

Reasonably Achievable Resolutions

Did you make a New Year’s resolution?  If so, how’s it going?  According to a social network called Strava, which somehow conducted some research into the topic, most people who make New Year’s resolutions end up breaking them by January 12.  So hang in there: you apparently only have to suffer through a few more days of compliance before you can go back to those old habits.

The Strava research seems to have focused on exercise and dietary resolutions, which are probably the most challenging resolutions of all.  People buy that health club membership and start eating leafy green vegetables for dinner with the best of intentions, but are felled by unrealistic expectations of what will happen.  When those unrealistic expectations aren’t met, they fall off the wagon.  And then, after they fall off the wagon, they figure it’s hopeless to try to change and totally give up.

I think making resolutions makes some sense, and the start of a new year is as good a time as any for some self-reflection and consideration of how a beneficial behavioral change might be in order.  There’s nothing wrong with trying to get more exercise and be more healthy, but why stake your New Year’s resolutions entirely upon goals that experience teaches are incredibly difficult to reach?  Maybe we should start small, and think about little, reasonably achievable resolutions that might just make you a better person and improve your life at the same time.  Consider, for example, this list of 58 New Year’s resolutions that don’t involve dieting or exercise.  It’s not exhaustive and right for everyone, of course, but it may give you ideas for the kind of resolutions that are suitable for you.

This year, I’m going small with my resolutions.  I’m going to clean out my closet and give the clothes that aren’t being used to a charitable organization.  I want to go through what we’ve got stored in the basement and the pantry, figure out whether we’re using it, and donate what’s unneeded to the Goodwill.  I’m going to tackle my emailboxes and iPhone photos, delete what I don’t want to store forever, be happy about the reduced clutter, and see whether that improves my phone battery life.  And while I’ve done a better job of leisure reading this past year, in 2019 I’m going to up the ante by identifying and then reading through to the end at least one really mentally challenging book.

Making goals is a good thing, but reaching those goals is even better.

 

That Extra Hour

I woke up this morning, looked at the clock, and then realized with a bright surge of delight that we had “fallen back” an hour overnight.  So I rolled over and enjoyed a pleasant doze and some rambling dreams to commemorate the occasion.

img_7460After getting up, I made a fine cup of coffee and continued the celebration by walking around the house, changing the settings on all of the clocks that aren’t “smart” — which means pretty much every clock in our house except the ones on our cellphones and the computer — and relished rolling them back an hour.  I punched the new time into the clock on the microwave, and rewound the old-fashioned art deco clocks at our bedsides.  It’s all part of the ritual, as important to the proper observance of the time change as any aspect of any religious service.  Some people recite the Rosary, some people sing the Doxology, I happily engage in the Liturgy of the Extra Hour.

Because getting an extra hour on a Sunday that dawns bright and crisp and clear and full of possibilities is truly a cause of rejoicing.

Birdbaths And Breadboxes

The other day I was out for a walk and saw a birdbath.  As I walked by, I thought:  boy, you don’t many birdbaths these days — even though they were a common feature that you saw in people’s yards when I was growing up.

It made me think about other once-common things that have pretty much vanished from the everyday scene.  Like breadboxes, for example.  When I was a kid, we had a wooden breadbox in our kitchen.  Every house seemed to have one.  In our case, it was part of a decorated matched set with the flour and sugar and coffee containers, and when you wanted to get the Wonder Bread to make your peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich you went to the breadbox, flipped down the front lid, took out the bread in its plastic wrapping with the red, yellow and blue balloons, and made the sandwich on the back part of the flipped-down lid.  I’m not sure whether breadboxes were supposed to really serve any meaningful function in terms of keeping bread from going stale, or whether people just wanted to have a central place to store their bread.  In any case, nobody puts a breadbox on their kitchen counter anymore, I doubt if anyone sells breadboxes anymore, and I imagine if you gave a breadbox to somebody under 35 they would have no idea what it was.  At some point, Americans collectively made the decision that it was better to put bread in the refrigerator, and breadboxes went into the dustbin of history.

Breadboxes.  Rotary telephones.  Rabbit ear interior TV antennas and elaborate TV antennae on rooftops.  Fancy silver tea sets, always slightly tarnished, on dining room tables.  Elaborate ashtrays on coffee tables and end tables and standing cigarette lighters. They’ve all been left behind as America has moved on and tastes have changed.

And birdbaths have been left behind, too.  Which makes me wonder:  where do birds go to freshen up these days?