38 Special

Today is Kish’s and my 38th wedding anniversary.  We were supposed to be in Austin, Texas to celebrate with Richard and Julianne and watch a performance of the Austin Symphony Orchestra, but of course COVID-19 quashed those plans.  It will be our first anniversary since the kids were little that we haven’t celebrated by going out to dinner or to some musical performance.

number-38_2227-93438 is one of those random numbers that wouldn’t seem very special by itself.  It’s not a prime number, or a multiple of 10, or even a multiple of 5.  It’s not one of those anniversary years that’s supposed to be marked by a gift of silver or china or some other substance.  And yet, I’m quite sure we’ll always view number 38 as very special — the year we celebrated our anniversary at home in German Village by direct order of Ohio’s Governor as part of the effort to flatten the coronavirus curve.  In fact, I’d wager that we’ll carry around more vivid memories of this anniversary, and the days directly surrounding it, than any other.

I’m very thankful and grateful that I’ve got such a wonderful person to share our snug little shelter in place during this terrible global pandemic.  We’ve developed new routines during this shut-in period, and I’ve really enjoyed our lunchtime walks together to get our daily allotment of permitted exercise while maintaining social distance from everyone else.

We never could have imagined, when we got married during the early years of the Reagan Administration amidst snow flurried in Vermilion, Ohio, that 38 years later we’d be dealing with such issues.  But that’s life’s unpredictability for you — and also a good reason to find that right, special someone to face the fates with you.

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.

 

Sock Suck

Socks are, for the most part, the article of clothing that is most likely to be taken for granted. Although a few Beau Brummells have tried to turn the sock into a colorful fashion accessory, for most men, and women too, the humble sock is a purely functional item. Socks are donned, then immediately covered by shoes, and after that happens we forget about them, They warm the foot, serve as an essential layer between foot and shoe so you don’t get a blister, soak up the smells feet are prone to produce, and are promptly tossed into the laundry basket at the end of the day without a second thought.

But when a sock fails of its essential purpose and acts in a way that demands attention, you’ve got a problem. And that’s what has happened with these “anklet” socks Kish got me to wear on my morning walks.

They go on just fine. But as soon as I start walking, the top of the sock inevitably departs the ankle region and starts inching down to the heel. I detect its progress, and suddenly I’m focused on my sock movement and not on my walk. A few more steps and the sock successfully rounds the heel and heads down to its preferred destination around the ball of the foot. By the the of my walk the Achilles tendon and heel are left wholly unprotected and the sock is bunched up and wadded around the tip of the foot, slides off when I remove my shoe, and then has to be fished out from deep within the shoe.

I don’t know if there is something weird about my walking gait or foot movement that causes this problem, but I do know that socks aren’t supposed to behave in this fashion. At least, my other socks don’t. And when a sock acts out, it’s really annoying. So these socks are going to be donated to Goodwill, where hopefully someone will have better luck with them.

Because life is too short to have socks that suck.

A Sign Enough

The Third Street Secret Signer has struck again, but this time the resulting message is a bit more cryptic — thanks to some bad luck.

For the first time, the TSSS has used both sides of the bridge, east and west. (The east side, which has no sidewalk, was previously functionally inaccessible because of the constant flow of traffic speeding onto the 70/71 on ramp, but that ramp is now closed.) The east side sign reads “You Are Enough,” which is apparently the title of a recent book for women. On the west side, which is the TSSS’ previously preferred sign-posting location, the TSSS had put a sign reading “You Are Valuable,” but by the time I walked home last night that sign had fallen down and lay crumpled on the sidewalk. I’m hoping the sign was just blown down, rather than being pulled down by some Grinchy jerk who is messing with the public positivity campaign of a Good Samaritan.

Even with the west side sign fall, I’m sure I’m not alone in appreciating another nice gesture by the TSSS. Hopefully s/he will take the remaining sign to heart and realize that their single sign effort is “enough” to give us a holiday boost heading into Thanksgiving.

Heeding The Call Of The Water

Here’s something to remember the next time you are planning a vacation or an extended holiday:  being near the water is good for you.  In fact, it’s really good for you.  Whether it’s ocean, lake, pond, river, or stream, proximity to water has measurable benefits for people — physically, mentally, and emotionally.

img_8827An increasing body of scientific and medical evidence confirms the therapeutic effects of “blue spaces” and the state of “outdoor wellbeing.”  This won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s taken a beach vacation or gone on a fishing trip.  The presence of the water tends to draw people outside, where they get more sunshine and enjoy the benefits of vitamin D.  They get more exercise because they are in attractive physical locations that motivate them to walk the beach or hike along the lakefront.  The sounds of ocean surf or running streams are calming.  The combination of exercise, fresh air, and pleasant sounds help visitors to get a good night’s sleep.

But there’s more to it.  Water tends to have a curious effect on the human psyche — a kind of positive vibe that is mentally refreshing and restoring.  Studies have consistently shown that people who are near water regularly maintain a better mood, feel less stress, and describe themselves as happier than inlanders.  Maybe it’s the sights, maybe it’s the sounds, maybe it’s the smells . . . or maybe it’s that it all works in combination to make people near water a bit dreamier, a bit more contemplative, and a bit more reflective.  Perhaps when you’re looking out over a vast ocean your problems just seem a lot smaller and therefore more manageable.

None of this is new — we’ve just forgotten it.  In the first chapter of Moby Dick, published in 1851, Herman Melville’s character Ishmael writes:  “If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.”  But, as Melville notes, it’s not just the ocean that humans find attractive — it’s water, period.  He writes:

“Once more. Say you are in the country; in some high land of lakes. Take almost any path you please, and ten to one it carries you down in a dale, and leaves you there by a pool in the stream. There is magic in it. Let the most absent-minded of men be plunged in his deepest reveries—stand that man on his legs, set his feet a-going, and he will infallibly lead you to water, if water there be in all that region. Should you ever be athirst in the great American desert, try this experiment, if your caravan happen to be supplied with a metaphysical professor. Yes, as every one knows, meditation and water are wedded for ever.”

So, you want to feel better?  Get out your calendar and plan a trip that allows you to answer the call of the water.

Feel-Good Flowerpot

In Columbus, our mysterious messenger continues to distribute upbeat thoughts here and there in the downtown area. I noticed this pendant of purple positivity in one of the large concrete flowerpots in front of Mitchell’s Steakhouse as I was navigating through the flowerpots and pedestrian traffic on my way home this week.

What’s really going on here, with all of these uplifting messages?  Are we talking about one devotee of Norman Vincent Peale, or are we in a cascade effect where other people have caught the bug and decided to post some happy thoughts around town?  And why have they decided that Columbus should be the target for these relentless positive messages — as opposed to, say, Washington, D.C.?

Can a brightly colored stone with an inspirational thought in a downtown flowerpot make a difference?  Beats me!  But it can’t hurt, and it’s nice to know that somebody out there cares enough about the rest of us to make the attempt.

Stuart Smalley Sign

Our anonymous Third Street Bridge sign artist has struck again.  When I walked by yesterday morning, I saw that the latest hand-lettered sign channels an inner Stuart Smalley, the fictional character played by Al Franken on Saturday Night Live years ago.  You may recall that the mild-mannered, sweater-wearing Stuart gave a Daily Affirmation with a positive message that always concluded:  “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!”

I’d say that “You are worthy” falls squarely into the Stuart Smalley mindset.  (Those of us who don’t share Stuart Smalley’s hopeful and constructive world view might ask, in response, “Worthy of what?”  But never mind that.)

It’s nice to know that some unknown person cares enough about the well-being of their fellow Columbusites to create inspirational messages to help us feel good about ourselves and spur us forward on our days.  I’m looking forward to the next sign that helps to put a spring in my step on the way to work.

Dreaming About Smoking

It’s been more than a quarter century since I quit smoking.  I gave up the nasty habit back in in the early ’90s, when the kids were little, and I haven’t had a cigarette since.

how-to-get-rid-of-cigarette-smokeLast night, however, I had a very vivid dream about smoking.  I was sitting somewhere, among a group of people, lighting a cigarette and taking a deep puff.  I felt the familiar leaden sensation in my chest as I did so and the harsh, acrid taste in my mouth and throat.  Wherever I was, it was clear that I had been chain-smoking cigarette after cigarette.  My dream self was sadly aware that I had previously successfully quit smoking for a long period of time but had started up again for some reason and was now hooked once more.  As I puffed away, I felt tremendous feelings of regret and guilt and shame and embarrassment that I had been so weak and stupid to retreat and would now have to try to quit all over again.  It was an incredibly realistic, powerful dream that startled me awake in the middle of the night.

I don’t think I’ve ever had a prior dream about smoking — at least, not one that I remember.  I have no idea why I would have such a dream now, as I have zero interest in taking up smoking again.  It’s pretty amazing that a habit I ditched more than 25 years could still call up such vivid images.  I suppose it shows that the smoking memories and my prior smoking self are still in my consciousness somewhere, lurking deep below the surface, ready to be tapped during an unconscious moment.

I was very grateful when I awoke and realized it was all a dream and that I remained contentedly smoke-free.  In fact, I can’t think of a recent dream where I’ve been happier and more relieved to find it was only a dream.  If my subconscious, just to be on the safe side, was trying to send me a message that there should be no backsliding, the message was received.

Swan Serenity

For all I know, swans are inwardly tormented creatures. They could be wound tighter than a coil, churning on the inside with deep-seated angst and concern. But if that is in fact the case, swans are masters of concealment — for no other animal or bird projects a more placid demeanor than a swan gliding gracefully and calmly across the surface of a lake.

When you can start the day with a few laps around a peaceful lake on a crisp, bright morning, with a swan for company, it’s sure to put you in a serene frame of mind.

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.

The Power Of No

We’ve all got friends who seem to be absurdly stressed, all the time.  They’re constantly harried, rushing from one important commitment to another, complaining all the while about how incredibly busy they are.  They’ve got their jobs, of course, but also a number of other activities and obligations piled up on top of their work, occupying pretty much every minute of every day.

Three Signs In Male Fists Saying No, No and No Isolated on a White Background.If only they’d learned to say “no”!

Over the weekend The Guardian published an interesting article about saying no.  The article points out that people who are miserably overcommitted aren’t powerless — they can directly affect their situations by carefully considering their own interests and saying no to things that they really don’t want, or need, to do.  By declining unwanted invitations, and shedding obligations that aren’t really rewarding or essential, they free up time to do what they actually want to do with people they really like.  And, as a result, the stress level goes down and the enjoyment of life goes up.

This recommendation mirrors my own experience.  Some years ago I realized that, with work, charity involvements, and other obligations, I wasn’t enjoying much free time — on weekends, or otherwise.  I looked at what I was doing and decided I needed to lighten my load, and then I went through my commitments and decided which ones could reasonably be eliminated — and then I eliminated them.  When I did that, I felt like a weight was lifted from my shoulders and my free time was multiplied, and I’ve never regretted doing it.

I do disagree with The Guardian article in this sense:  it suggests that most of the over-busy folks are people-pleasers who feel they just have to say yes.  I’m sure there are people in that category, but I think there are two other categories at play.  One is people who want to help and make a contribution, and just find out that they can’t manage all of the obligations they’ve assumed.  The other is people who perversely like projecting to others how busy they are.  The first category just needs to understand the power of saying no.  The second category doesn’t want to say no.

Meal Emotions

Burger King wants you to know that it respects your emotions and that you should feel however you want to feel.

burger-king-real-meal-hero-1To celebrate Mental Health Awareness month, Burger King has rolled out a new promotion in certain cities in which it is offering “real meals” in different colored boxes that are supposed to promote the “overall mental health of all Americans.”  Pointedly, there is no “happy meal.”  Instead, you can get one of five boxes with mood-matching colors — red for “pissed,” blue for “sad,” teal for “salty,” purple for “YAAAS,” and black for “DGAF.”  (If, like me, you don’t know what the last two moods are, “YAAAS” reflects extreme excitement and the first three words of DGAF are “don’t give a” and you can figure out the rest.)

Burger King explained:  “With the pervasive nature of social media, there is so much pressure to appear happy and perfect.  With Real Meals, the Burger King brand celebrates being yourself and feeling however you want to feel.”  A commercial running in one of the markets where the promotion is being offered — Columbus isn’t one of them — ends with the statement:  “No one is happy all the time, and that’s OK.”

I’m all for promoting overall mental health, but I wish companies like Burger King would just stick to making the best food they can at the best prices, and not act like they care about their customers as unique individuals with their own emotional lives — because they don’t.  And that’s really all right, because Burger King’s job is just to sell food, and any time they veer into other territory, like focusing on customer mood, they’re just being distracted from being the best at what they’re supposed to be doing.

At bottom, getting a different colored box at a fast food joint to celebrate your “mood” seems like a pretty weird and superficial way of promoting mental health.  If you feel sad when you’re ordering your burger, do you really want to confess it to the kid wearing the paper hat behind the counter so your order can be put into a blue box rather than a purple one? And the superficial nature of the whole concept is confirmed by the fact that everyone who orders a “real meal” gets a Whopper, french fries, and a drink, whether they’re feeling “pissed” or “YAAAS.”

So if you’re at one end of the mood spectrum or another, it all boils down to a different colored flimsy cardboard box that will get pitched into the trash and whether you get a diet soda or not.  That doesn’t seem like much of a way to “celebrate being yourself and feeling however you want to feel,” does it?

Measuring National Happiness

What’s being called the “World Happiness Report” came out today.  Produced by the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, the report purports to evaluate the happiness level in individual countries by looking at things like income, healthy life expectancy, “social support,” freedom, trust, and generosity, with a focus on the general well-being of immigrants.

bigraykgtFor Americans, the report is a good news/bad news kind of thing.  The good news? America comes in at number 19, far ahead of the unhappiest country on earth, which is war-torn South Sudan.  The bad news?  America’s happiness rating is falling, and the number 19 position is our lowest rating yet.  Finland tops of the list and a number of other Nordic countries, like Denmark, Norway, Iceland, and Sweden, all are found in the top ten.

How do you possibly determine the “happiness” of an entire country?  According to the article linked above, the Nordic countries do well because they offer “healthy amounts of both personal freedom and social security that outweigh residents having to pay ‘some of the highest taxes in the world.'”  An individual quoted in the article explained:  “‘Briefly put, (Nordic countries) are good at converting wealth into well-being,” and the findings show that “the conditions that we live under matter greatly to our quality of life, that happiness is not only a matter of choice.”

The U.S. apparently is suffering in the rankings because, even though many incomes in America have increased, there is a perception of declining general health, increasing addiction (to a host of things, including cellphones, video gaming, and eating unhealthy foods), “declining social trust,” and “declining confidence in government.”

Is America, as a whole, unhappier now that it has been in the past?  Trying to measure an abstract concept like happiness on a country-wide basis seems like an impossible task to me, because the subjective values of the people doing the evaluations can’t help but affect the evaluation.  But I do believe this:  many Americans seem to be tapping a reservoir of anger, and seem a lot less willing to give people with opposing viewpoints the benefit of the doubt.  The kind of brooding, harsh anger that we see so often these days is not exactly a recipe for happiness.

Let The Sun Shine In?

I recently returned from a beach vacation.  One of our daily rituals was slathering on SPF 50 sunscreen to try to protect ourselves against the blazing sunshine.  We wanted to be in the warm sun rather than the gray cold Midwest, obviously, but we’d accepted the healthcare cautions about sunshine and skin cancer, and so the sunblock went on.

But what if the healthcare cautions that led to our lubing up are wrong — as in, 180-degree wrong?  What if exposure to sunshine is not only not bad for you, but in fact it helps you to be healthier in countless ways, by effectively and efficiently producing vitamin D, lowering blood pressure, making you feel happier, and having other therapeutic benefits?

6a00e5520572bb8834017d41062de7970c-320wiThat’s the intriguing conclusion of recent research that started with a look at the value of vitamin D supplements — which many people who avoid the sun are taking to try to compensate for the lack of solar-produced vitamin D.  Low vitamin D levels are associated with lots of bad stuff — cancer, diabetes, obesity, osteoporosis, heart attack, stroke, depression, cognitive impairment, autoimmune conditions — and vitamin D is required for calcium absorption and good bone health.  So vitamin D supplements should help, right?  But the research showed that vitamin D supplements weren’t having any discernible impact on cancer, heart disease, or stroke.

Scientists scratched their heads and looked into the unexpected result, and started to find evidence that it wasn’t high vitamin D levels that prevented the bad conditions.  Instead, the presence of vitamin D was just a marker, and the real cause for the positive health effects was that sunlight that was producing the vitamin D.  The people who had the high vitamin D and were avoiding the bad conditions were getting plenty of sunlight.  Exposure to sunshine also causes the skin to produce nitric oxide, which dilates blood vessels and reduces blood pressure — which, as the article linked above points out, helps to explain why “rates of high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and overall mortality all rise the farther you get from the sunny equator, and they all rise in the darker months.”

And the vitamin D/blood pressure effects may just be the start.  The article continues:  “Sunlight triggers the release of a number of other important compounds in the body, not only nitric oxide but also serotonin and endorphins. It reduces the risk of prostate, breast, colorectal, and pancreatic cancers. It improves circadian rhythms. It reduces inflammation and dampens autoimmune responses. It improves virtually every mental condition you can think of. And it’s free.”

But wait — won’t getting more sunshine cause skin cancer?  Yes, there is that risk — but the article points out that skin cancer is not nearly as lethal as the other diseases and conditions that exposure to sunlight helps prevent.  And, additionally, people who regularly get sunshine, avoid sunburns, and keep their tans going — like outdoor workers — are much less likely to experience melanoma, the less-common but potentially fatal kind of skin cancer.  In fact, the evidence indicates that long-term exposure to sun is associated with lower melanoma rates.

All of this will come as a surprise to people who are scared to death of skin cancer and buy sunblock by the carload, but it makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint.  Our half-naked distant ancestors didn’t have SPF50 to apply, and they were exposed to the sun on a much more prolonged basis than modern, largely indoor humans.  It makes sense that humans would evolve in ways that would favor those who were more efficient in using that abundant, constant sunshine in positive, healthy ways.

Think about that the next time you’re carefully applying that SPF50 sunblock and popping down vitamin D pills.