Friday, July 17, 2009

Your Manhood Will Return to You Like a Boomerang

“We all try to escape pain and death, while we seek what is pleasant. We are all ruled in what we do by impulses; and these impulses are so organised that our actions in general serve for our self preservation and that of the race.”
-Albert Einstein

"Our nervous system developed for one sole purpose, to maintain our lives and satisfy our needs. All our reflexes serve this purpose. this makes us utterly egotistic. With rare exceptions people are really interested in one thing only: themselves. Everybody, by necessity, is the center of his own universe."
-Albert Szent-Gyorgyi

“We're horribly mundane, aggressively mundane individuals. We're the ninjas of the mundane, you might say.”
-Andy Partridge

This morning I was contemplating my wardrobe options, trying to find an outfit that looks at least remotely summery but is warm enough to insulate my body from the sub-zero temperature in my arctic-like office building. While I was debating the heat retention capacity of cotton vs. synthetics, in the background, NPR was reporting about suicide bombers in Indonesia.

Suddenly, what I chose to wear seemed completely trivial.

This is the perfect example of how, every now and then, the universe sends you a message. It may be subtle, it may be blatant, but the point is clear – don’t waste energy on the small stuff. There are plenty of big things more worthy of your attention.

A few weeks ago I was browsing the Sunday paper. On the left hand page, an article laid out the plight of the starving in third world countries, complete with photos of skeletal children. On the right hand page was a full size lingerie ad, complete with photoes of a model who looked nearly as thin as the starving children. The contrast could not have been better if it were planned. Good morning, this is the Universe with your wake-up call.

The problem is, we are not really designed to live in the bigger picture on an ongoing basis. Human beings evolved taking care of the basic needs in front of us every day: food, safety, social structure, and reproduction. We have the same programming today, but live in a very different environment.

Take food for example. Most of us (thankfully) don’t have to worry about getting enough food to survive. But we still obsess over food. The amount of advertising dollars spent in the food industry is astronomical. We spend huge amounts of time and energy thinking about food, preparing food, reading about food, fantasizing about food (okay maybe that’s just me with chocolate), talking about food, and actually eating food, is huge. There are television shows, web sites, books and even international tours all focused on food.

And, if there is one thing we are more obsessed about than food, it is sex. Guess what? Reproduction is no longer critical for the survival of the species! Look around, there are quite a few human beings here already. But our programming is geared toward reproduction at all costs, which translates into sex. Sex appeal, romantic relationships, physical attractiveness, and, oh yeah, sex itself. If you don’t believe that this is a national obsession, turn on your TV for five minutes. Or open a magazine. Or better yet, let your email address leak out into cyberspace.

For example, I never knew, until my email address found its way to several SPAM lists, just how insecure men are about their sexual performance. Based on the proportion of SPAM received on this topic, this must be the absolute number one concern of every man. Here are a few of my favorite subject lines. And no, I am not making these up:

  • We offer the best alarm-clocks for your small friend down there.
  • "Your device is so petite she barely finds it in bed?"
  • "Every man dreams of the power and stamina that never end." (okay, but if it lasts more than 8 hours, call a doctor)
  • "Break her down with your incompatible power." (to quote The Princess Bride, “I do not think that word means what you think it means”)
  • "Your manhood will return to you like a boomerang." (um, yeah, and hopefully it won’t hit you in the head)
As for women, our number one obsession (based on my extremely unscientific study of SPAM and FaceBook ads) is our appearance. We want to look younger. We want to be thinner. We want less wrinkles and cellulite and larger breasts and flatter stomachs. And despite our knowledge that there is no magic bullet for this (despite the ads for botox, acai berry, and miracle creams), we continue to hope. I often wonder what a difference women could make in the world if we all decided that we look just fine the way we are. Think of the vast pool of time, money and energy that would be freed up for something more productive.

My point is this. We are designed to worry about the immediate, mundane, in-your-face concerns. What will I eat today? What will I wear today? Does this make my butt look big? Paper or plastic? And we know, at some level, that this stuff isn’t all that important. World Peace is important. Saving the Planet is important. Helping to End Suffering in Third World Countries is important. But it’s really hard to live our lives staying focused on those bigger issues. We just are not wired to work that way. As long as our basic needs (and those of our immediate inner circle) are met, we are content.

Every now and then, the balance shifts when a tragedy forces the world to take a collective deep breath. Think about your life immediately after September 11th. Think about what seemed important and what suddenly seemed irrelevant. Think about how your priorities changed that day.

But the truth is, for better or worse, we are amazingly adaptable creatures. No matter how much we think something will “change our lives”, it very rarely does so in any significant manner. We are always amazed to find that we have somehow adjusted to the circumstances and are now re-focused on the same old short term concerns. Most of us prefer to hit the snooze button on the Universe’s alarm clock and go back to our comfortable lives. And at some level, many of us are conflicted about this.

We need to live with awareness of the bigger picture. Our time shouldn’t be spent worrying about the size of our thighs (or the size of our “friend down there”). But it is a balancing act. Focusing too much energy on the big things that you cannot control can also lead to problems. I am certain that one of the keys to a happy life is finding that perfect balance between our day-to-day concerns and the universe as a whole.

Let me know if you figure out how to do that. In the meantime, I’ll keep relying on messages from the Universe to keep me in line.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

It's All Talk

“Talk to me, you never talk to me. It seems that I can speak,
I can hear my voice shouting out, but there’s no reply at all.
Listen to me, you never listen to me…
I’ve been trying but we cannot connect. And there’s no reply at all, no reply at all.”
- Genesis

"If we could touch one another, if these our separate entities could come to grips, clenched like a Chinese puzzle...yesterday
I stood in a crowded street that was live with people, and no one spoke a word, and the morning shone. Everyone silent, moving...Take my hand. Speak to me."

- Muriel Rukeyser (from the poem Effort at Speech Between Two People)

“Everybody's talking and no one says a word” – John Lennon

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about communication. Well, really more about miscommunication. It seems that even with the vast array of interaction options available to the average person today, less actual communication is occurring.

The dictionary defines communication as “The exchange of thoughts, messages, or information, as by speech, signals, writing, or behavior.” The term dates to the 1300s, and is derived from the Latin word “communicare” which means “to impart, share”, or literally “to make common”.

Simply put, it is the exchange of ideas or concepts. It involves
1) a sender
2) a receiver
3) a concept
(Since dictating and/or pontificating does not qualify by this definition, we can now confirm what I’ve long suspected - no one on Fox News actually communicates).

Research shows that 55% of communication impact is determined by body language--postures, gestures, and eye contact. 38% is based on the tone of voice, and only 7% by the content or the words used in the communication process. (Mehrabian and Ferris. "Inference of Attitude from Nonverbal Communication in Two Channels". In: The Journal of Counseling Psychology Vol.31, 1967, pp.248-52)

That means that face to face situations provide the best chance for successful communication because 100% of the communication mechanisms can be put to good use. A phone conversation takes away a whopping 55% of those capabilities. Written communication brings you down to using only 7% of the available means, and that’s assuming you use well thought out words and content.

Which brings me to text messaging.

I’m not a big texter. In fact, I haven’t been able to figure out how to use mixed case, so any messages I send are in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS (giving the impression that I am very very enthusiastic about my message). But I suspect most of teenage America would quickly roll over and die without the ability to text message each other about every 20 seconds. And, call me crazy, but it seems like there is a lot more room for miscommunication here. Not only are you down to the 7% of communication mechanisms available to you, but, IMHO, you are not even using real words.

Then there is email, the communication method of choice for most of us over 30 (but under 65). You might think that with less abbreviations and less typing with our thumbs, we would have clearer communication, right? Yes, email is quick and yes, it is convenient. But I’m not so sure it is efficient or effective.

The main problem with email is that people assume that their intent is clear. They assume that their body language and tone of voice come through in an email. They add little emoticons :) or abbreviations (LOL) to try to convey what is nearly impossible to convey in brief written communication – the emotional context of the message. Consequently, messages often come across as abrupt, snarky, or downright rude when the writer had no intention of conveying any of those impressions.

I just did a quick check. So far this week, I have received, on average, 80 emails per day. It’s hard to believe that when I started working at this company, 15 years ago, we did NOT HAVE EMAIL (dramatic pause while anyone under the age of thirty picks their jaw up off the ground).

To further date myself, when I was in high school, we DID NOT HAVE COMPUTERS OR CELL PHONES (anyone under thirty is now thinking, “come on, you’re making this up!” No, it is true, I swear!).

How on earth did we communicate with each other in those dark, dark ages?

Let’s see….we wrote letters, memos, and notes. We talked on land lines (*gasp*) using phones with cords that anchored you within 8 feet of the base unit (unless your parents were really nice and bought the 20 foot phone cord that reached your bedroom). Sometimes we even talked in person!

When I was in high school, we passed the time in our more boring classes (read: all of our classes), by writing each other notes. We wrote about our crushes, about our families, about our thoughts. We folded these notes into intricate shapes and slipped them to each other when passing in the hall between classes.

To this day I can recognize the handwriting of any of my high school friends. I still have a box of these notes in my attic. Can text messaging really replace all that?

Even in person, we don’t communicate well. We pass others on the street and avoid eye contact, all the while talking on our cell phones. We greet our co-workers with “how are you” but don’t expect to hear anything other than “fine, and you?”. We don’t know our grocery store clerk, our dry cleaner, or our bank teller.

I know that some actual communication must be taking place, or we would cease to function as a society. But lately, anytime I’m in public, I am reminded of the words of Simon and Garfunkel:
And in the naked light I saw
ten thousand people, maybe more.
People talking without speaking,
people hearing without listening

Think about it. And the next time you ask someone “how are you?”, try looking them in the eye, and paying attention to the answer.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Up Up and Away

"Every time I fly and am forced to remove my shoes, I'm grateful Richard Reid is not known as the Underwear Bomber."

— Douglas Manuel, aerospace executive, USA Today, March 13, 2003

I recently returned from yet another business trip. I’ve been spending a lot of time traveling by air over the last couple years, and there are a few things about airline flying that never cease to intrigue, amuse, and/or frustrate me.

    How insane is that? We are ground-dwelling creatures flying through the air at over 500 miles per hour, 30,000 feet above the earth. It’s crazy, really.

    We are sitting in a small metal and plastic container (likely built before most of us were born) that rattles and shakes like a 25 year old Datsun…and we sit there calmly drinking ginger ale and eating peanuts. It’s just plain ridiculous.

    And, oh by the way, we are doing this on purpose. In fact, we pay money to do it.

  2. Security Policies
    Couldn’t the ingredients to make a toxic substance be placed in 3 oz containers and then mixed together in flight? Why does the Ziploc baggie have to be see-through if they are going to X-ray it anyhow? What is it that they can see in a laptop computer alone in a bin that they couldn’t see if it remained in its case? What can I hide in my flip flop sandals that I couldn’t also carry in my pocket? Has the rate of foot fungus acquired in airports risen dramatically since 9/11? Is security level Orange better or worse than Yellow? These are some of the things I ponder as I wait, and wait, and wait…

  3. The Personal Space Issue
    Flying, especially in coach, presents an awkward social situation. On any domestic flight over 100 people are packed like sardines into seats that were built for people prior to the weight of the average American rising from 150 to 180 lbs. Plainly put, many of us don’t fit in the seats without touching the people next to us. And touching, among strangers, is, well, uncomfortable.

    We cope with this discomfort by practicing what I call “Active Ignorance”. We put ourselves into a state of altered reality where we can read our newspapers, work on our laptops, and take naps (complete with snoring) seemingly oblivious to the fact that the person next to us is most definitely invading our personal space. This not unlike the strategy employed by my 13 year old Labrador Retriever when I use any sentence not containing the word “treat”.

  4. Air Sickness Bags
    Tiny paper bags with the words “For Motion Discomfort”. First of all, speaking as one who suffers from motion sickness, “discomfort” might rank among the largest understatements in modern culture. How about “For Holding Over Your Mouth When You Are Writhing in Agony and Can No Longer Retain The Contents Of Your Stomach”?

    Secondly, why paper bags, and why so tiny? Think about it.

  5. First Class
    They board the plane first. Their seats are wider. They watch all the poor lower class schmucks pass them on the way to the tiny seats in the back of the plane. They get free drinks, and often a meal. They get the nice stewardess (see #6). A curtain separates them from the rest of the plane. The restroom at the front of the plane is reserved for their use, supposedly “to avoid congestion in the aisles” (more like to avoid contamination from the untouchables in the back).

    If this does not reinforce a class-divided hierarchical society, I’m not sure what does.

  6. Mean Stewardesses
    I know, I know, we are supposed to call them Flight Attendants. But it seems it’s always the older female ones who are mean, and I still think of them as stewardesses.

    I suspect they started their careers back in the day when only the rich and powerful traveled by air, and they are bitter about having to wait on us average folks. Or maybe they are mad because no one calls them stewardesses anymore. Whatever it is, one nasty stewardess can ruin the day of everyone in coach. And they don’t even know it.

  7. Airplane Food
    Food that can be pre-made, frozen, then heated and served in a kitchen the size of a locker. Enough said.

  8. Me First Me First!” – aka The Deplaning Game
    The plane lands. We taxi to the gate. The seatbelt sign goes off. And even if I’m in the very last row of the largest and longest plane imaginable, everyone around me jumps out of their seats and begins gathering their luggage as if they are going to walk off the plane immediately.

    But it never works that way. The doors have to be opened. First class has to be personally escorted off the plane led by an adorable small child strewing rose petals in their path. The rose petals have to be cleaned up. Then, and only then, does coach class even begin the process of leaving the plane. The PSJUs (Premature-Seat-Jumper-Uppers) quickly realize they are not going anywhere soon. Refusing to admit defeat, they continue to stand, avoiding eye contact, awkwardly hunched under the low ceiling until at last we begin to sense movement ahead.

    A side note: Given the Personal Space Issue (see #3), the desired for escape is completely understandable. But the outcome is always the same. The basic principals of behavior modification would predict that after a few flights, people would understand that they are not going anywhere quickly and would choose to remain seated. But this is not the case. The behavior pattern is definitely fodder for someone’s psychological doctorate.

Air travel truly is a wonderful thing. With it we can traverse distances in timeframes that were unimaginable even 100 years ago. It is truly one of the greatest inventions in the history of humankind.

Now if they could just do something about the tiny bathrooms…