Sunday, May 29, 2011

Hoarding

I have heard that there’s a reality show where professionals help obsessive hoarders get rid of accumulated stuff and organize their home. I don’t think I’m bad enough to be a candidate for that show. I don’t have to climb over stacks of newspapers to navigate from my living room to my bedroom and I don’t save every single paper clip, pencil stub, and plastic bag (although I admit I’m tempted). Nevertheless, the other day Akili accused me of being “an organized hoarder.” I have a lot of stuff that I don’t need but can’t quite part with. I have to keep telling myself that giving away objects does not diminish the experiences associated with them. I am not giving away the memories, only a thing that I associate with the memories. I won’t forget the great night out in Switzerland just because I got rid of the empty bottle of wine we drank (I still have that bottle on my kitchen window sill).

This past fall, I decided I needed to downsize my stuff. So each week, for several months, I forced myself to fill my trash can with things that had no earthly further functional use and I made a run each week to Goodwill with a load of items that still had some life in them. I hate the idea of sending stuff to landfill. I am the queen of recycling. But some things are really all used up; such as broken fishing rods, an unidentifiable plastic object the size of a large dog labeled “save for Akili’s car” (with a piece of tape on it that says “Akili says throw this out now”), sneakers that the children wore to shreds back in the 1990s, a game of Chutes and Ladders that is missing half the playing pieces, an in-dash tape player that was removed from a car in 1987, broken video tapes of Elmer Fudd cartoons, a stained and falling apart copy of a cookbook about cooking for a vegetarian baby, my father’s Tennessee license plates (he left Tennessee over 20 years ago), etc.

Now that I’ve removed the first level of stuff from my life, the harder work remains. I need to reassess the things that I still like to look at, but truthfully don’t need for anything. I have always collected beautiful objects. I have saved a million things my children made while growing up. I have hung onto old clothes that I loved that have too many holes and stains to wear anymore with the thought that I might cut them up and make something out of the material one day. Sigh. For the time being, I’m letting myself off the hook; but one day, when I move out of this house, I’ll get rid of that Rastafarian puppet Akili made in fifth grade. I swear.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Graduates

I spent the day yesterday at Cal State Monterey Bay at a graduation ceremony for the daughter of a good friend. Last year at this time we were at Akili’s graduation. He grew up with the young lady who graduated yesterday and I have known her since she was a little girl. We are extra proud of the accomplishments of these young people these days when the state colleges have raised the cost of tuition, making it more difficult for students to complete a degree. Our friend who graduated yesterday thinks she was perhaps the only Native American graduate from CSUMB in the 2011 class, and since there is no Native student association, she was invited by some of her African American friends to participate in “Black Grad” (a private celebration sponsored by the Black Student Union) earlier this week. Her mom told me that so few Native students attend college, or complete a degree course once started, that the Gates Foundation is phasing out the Native American portion of the Gates Millennium Scholarship (which the younger sister received and is using to pay for her college education).

When I went to college in the 70s, students normally completed their bachelor’s degree in four years. These days, according to the N.Y. Times, it takes college students an average of six years to complete a degree. The financial stress of this prolonged period in college is enormous. And, ironically, one of the reasons why it takes so long is because it costs so much to attend. Most students have to work while studying. Here in California, there is the added problem within the state college systems that class offerings have been reduced because of budget cuts so students have great difficulty getting the classes they need to complete their degree. Akili received a waiver for a couple of his requirements and was allowed to substitute other classes instead because the classes he needed were unavailable in his final year and he needed to graduate.

According to the Pew Research Center (2009) some 37% of people age 18 to 29 are either unemployed or out of the work force, the highest rate in that age group in 40 years. And last week I read an article that stated that 85% of college graduates move back home with their parents after graduation. That’s unbelievable to me! When I was a 20-something, once you went away to school, you were gone, never moved home again. But these days, they can’t get work or can’t get work that pays enough to support them. (A lot of employers want new college grads to accept “unpaid internships,” which is in fact illegal.) Young people who completed that labor of love and obtained a college diploma now find themselves unable to land that elusive “career job.” They are bagging groceries, waiting tables, working retail, and basically filling low-skill jobs alongside high school students. It’s degrading. Our Akili delivered pizzas for several months. Yael worked as a receptionist and then went back to waiting tables (which is how she earned money while she was in college). Fortunately, Akili recently started a new job at a young company (building websites, doing graphics, and developing social marketing materials) and Yael is in a temporary job as an administrative assistant in a social marketing firm in the fashion industry (we hope it will become permanent with some luck in the fall).

Furthermore, the majority of these grads have college loans they need to be paying off, meanwhile they can’t earn enough money in a low-wage job to fully support themselves, let alone pay off that loan. I don’t think the whole college loan paradigm is viable anymore, but try telling that to the financial aid office. Young people come out of college carrying a huge debt that they can’t repay. They default on the loan, destroying their credit rating for years to come. Their financial situation is terribly stressful. They will never be able to buy a house because they have to pay off that loan first. A note of interest: President Obama still owed money on his student loans when he was elected to Congress.

Whether or not they have a college degree, more and more young people are moving back in with their folks (or never leaving). The N.Y. Times reports (2010) that, “In 1980, 11% of 25-to-34-year-olds were living in multi-generational households. By 2008, 20% were.” Furthermore, the Times states that 56% of men age 18 to 24 and 48% of women in the same age group live under the same roof as their parents. Some of these young people are married with children, mind you, and still need to live with their parents to make ends meet. They can’t find jobs and the jobs they do find don’t pay enough to live independently, often carrying no health benefits. The financial crisis has left an entire generation of hard-working young people pitching tents in the ruins of Wall Street. Or, more literally, pitching their tents in their parents’ back yard. Fortunately, the young lady who graduated yesterday has a terrific job waiting for her. She begins next month. One of the lucky ones. Yesterday was a wonderful celebration of her achievement.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

SPD Family

Last year I read an article about Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) and suddenly realized that my whole family has it, which explains a lot. I didn’t realize it was a disorder. I thought everyone was like us. When my children manifested issues with certain sensory inputs, I thought it was something all children did to greater and lesser degrees and each in their own unique way. But apparently “normal” children do it to a much lesser degree than my children did and it’s actually some type of genetically linked abnormality, formerly called “sensory integration dysfunction.” Not just our offspring, but Ron and I as well, manifest a laundry list of features associated with SPD. Our family is, in fact, officially (clinically even) “special.”

People with SPD have issues with certain sensory inputs, and the collection of inputs that bother people with SPD are individualized. The experts have categorized them under headings such as “auditory,” “visual,” “tactile,” etc. The bottom line is that people with SPD are very sensitive to certain inputs and can be grossly distracted and driven nuts by some of them.

Having SPD means that Ron doesn’t just dislike okra, because the way it was cooked for him as a child it seemed to be sautéed in snot, he actually gets a shiver at the mention of the word and his bottom lip involuntarily twists perpendicular to his top lip. I have silverware in the kitchen that Ron refuses to use because it isn’t heavy enough for him to eat with. There is a utility knife that I use daily that Ron will not even touch because he cannot abide the texture of the handle. He complains that I walk through the house too quickly and it makes a breeze, which chills him. In fact, he is remarkably sensitive to heat and cold. Threaten to put an ice cube down his back and he will spill his darkest secrets without hesitation. He won’t eat melons (except watermelon) or any fruit that has touched a melon (bad flavor).

I’m no better. I am notorious for not only cutting the tags out of my clothing but removing labels, tags, and stickers from anything that I bring into my house (from fruit to storage bins). I can’t sleep in socks because I get claustrophobic. I find pants grossly uncomfortable, probably because they are too tight (I only wear dresses). I need either long sleeves or sleeveless clothing, nothing in between (I cut the sleeves off all my T-shirts). I hate wearing a hat (headache). I wear gardening gloves because I am afraid of touching a worm with my bare finger. I am intolerably sensitive to perfumed scents (some I am OK with but others make me sick), and take my own bed pillow with me in my suitcase when I travel in case, heaven forbid, the pillow on my bed is sheathed in a pillow case washed in scented fabric softener. I have trouble with bright lights and usually can’t sleep in a room with any light source in it (even a little LED light on a DVD player). Ron says I’m the original princess and the pea. I confess that I actually dislike the color yellow in general (though not always in the specific). There are a limited number of yellow things that I find pleasing (sunflowers and lemons are OK, but I don’t much care for daffodils and yellow wallpaper makes my hair stand on end).

Everyone in our family is pathologically particular about what socks we will wear because we can’t handle lumps or prominent seams. When Yael was a toddler, on more than one occasion, she threw a face-down, on-the-floor, kicking-screaming tantrum if her socks had the hint of a lump in them. For more than ten years, Sudi refused to wear any socks other than one particular brand and type. And Sudi will eat hardly any kind of fruit because he dislikes the texture. He won’t even touch a peach skin with his finger (gives him the shivers), and, as a child, he even disliked the smell of strawberries. (Strawberries! Could anything smell better than strawberries?) Watermelon is the only type of melon Ron and Sudi will tolerate, and even then it has to be just perfect. Too ripe and it’s too mushy for them. Not ripe enough and it’s too cucumbery. It was Sudi who refused to read library books as a child because he said they smelled icky. I had to buy him books to get him to read them. Akili and Ron have acute hearing and can hear sounds that no one else notices. Hence, they both have difficulty with distracting and annoying background noises that “normal” people would block out. Akili also has a keen sense of smell (I do too). He claimed he could smell ants and would get upset when he smelled them in our kitchen at the Ranch. He was almost always right about it too; if he smelled ants then sure enough we would soon discover an invading contingent. Yael used to say she liked the way fresh eggs smelled. By fresh, she meant straight out from under the chicken, when we went to the neighbor’s at the Ranch each week to collect our eggs. One feature of auditory SPD is that the person who has it is aware of so much auditory stimulation that they have trouble weeding out and focusing on things said directly to them. So my boys could never remember what I had just told them. Seriously, aren’t all children like that? Is that really a significant feature of SPD? I’d always make my boys repeat back to me what I had just said. Half the time, they’d say, “Wait, what did you say again?”

I was always amazed at what other people’s children would eat because mine were such picky eaters. Vegetables? Forget it. Yael once lived on nothing but Barbara’s Natural Cheetos for several months. This is the same child who liked to eat raw, uncooked tofu. Go figure. I remember a Thanksgiving Dinner at which Akili ate nothing but canned pears. He used to put ketchup on everything. In fact, he put ketchup on his Thanksgiving turkey every year up until he was about 21 (we have photographs of him at the Thanksgiving table with a bottle of ketchup at his elbow). Yael puts soy sauce on everything. Sudi puts pepper or hot sauce on most of his food. On many occasions, I made a tray of enchiladas (for family dinner) that was elaborately divided by toothpicks marking where the cheddar enchiladas ended and the Monterey jack enchiladas began and where the beans only (no cheese) started and which ones had cilantro and which ones didn’t.

SPD is not considered a serious problem unless it interferes with functioning and quality of life. Children with problem SPD can apparently be successfully retrained to cope with sensory issues through gradual acclimation to them. In our family, we just took these things in stride and adapted to them by making the needed modifications. For instance, we cut the tags out of shirts, found socks without lumps and stuck to those brands/varieties, didn’t force anyone to eat things they didn’t like, adjusted lights and sounds if they were bothering someone, and, in Sudi’s case, didn’t forced him to read a library book. I am thinking that not every family had to be as creative as we have been to accommodate everyone’s oddities. I used to think that these sensory issues were signs that our family is highly intelligent and sensitive. And SPD is often associated with high intelligence and creativity, but not always. I was so smug about how smart and perceptive we are, but in reality we are just peculiar. And imagine an entire household of people with all these weird sensory issues? Imagine raising three children with them? OK, now give it to me, some sympathy please.

[If you want to find out more about SPD, just google “sensory processing disorder.” You will never wear a pair of socks the same way again.]

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Ed’s Wealth

On Friday, my friend Ed left this world. He is the dad of one of my closest girlfriends. I think he was 82 (not sure). He lived in Tacoma, Washington and he was an avid outdoorsman who especially loved to fish. He spent many happy hours quietly fishing the Puget Sound. He was also a birder, and I’m told that shortly after he passed away, a large Pileated Woodpecker paid a call to his back yard. He loved animals, especially big galumphing gleeful dogs. He was attentive to wild creatures and knew a great deal about their habits. He appreciated the beauty of wildflowers and trees and green growing things and he took the time to stop and look at them. He worked hard his whole life, raised five children, and remained single (by conscious choice) after he and his wife parted ways some 40 years ago. He was an all-around good guy who invested his energy in friends and family. I can still hear his voice in my head saying his characteristic enthusiastic “you betcha” or “is that so?” He had a reverence for even the smallest of life’s miracles.

Now this is going to sound like a non sequitur, but bear with me. Last week I watched the film Inside Job about the millionaire-billionaires who caused the worldwide financial meltdown. You know the ones. They have never been prosecuted, they walked away with heaps of money, they destroyed the lives of millions of people, and some of these thieves continue to sit in high places in the Obama Administration and in the presidential inner circle. They show no remorse. But I was surprised that I didn’t feel angry at them. Instead I found myself pitying them. They are such limited souls.

Those millionaire-billionaires, with all their money, are such nothings. They are never satisfied, always trying to accumulate more wealth, always wanting more and more. Their lives are so loveless. They wasted their lives swindling people and causing harm. My friend Ed was such an infinitely better man than any of those rich and powerful financier-thieves. And Ed’s rather simple life was so much richer than theirs. Ed took the time to appreciate the beauty of the world, of nature, of the people around him (both passing acquaintances and those he loved dearly). Not everybody does that. Those poor millionaire-billionaires wasted their lives. Whereas Ed, my dear friend Ed, he took care that nothing was wasted, that every lovely living creature was noticed, every golden moment appreciated, and opportunities for good times with dear ones never squandered. Those millionaire-billionaires who own private jets, yachts, and mansions? They own garbage. Worthless garbage. They own zero compared to my friend Ed. Ed owned the world. My humble friend Ed lived a modest life that was infinitely richer than the lives of all of those millionaire-billionaires combined.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains

“What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains” is the subtitle of The Shallows by Nicholas Carr. He describes research proving that spending a significant amount of time on the internet impairs the ability to concentrate, focus, and engage in deep thought. By deep thought, Carr means contemplative reflection or concentrated creative thought. He means the ability to engage in sustained reading, not just skimming or speed reading; but the kind of concentrated reading in which the reader engages with the book’s author, experiencing a rich exchange of ideas (what I like to call “dwelling in a book”).

The internet fills our brains with so much clutter and clatter that we have difficulty truly concentrating. Spending time on the internet actually physically rewires the brain to process information in a different way, making it more difficult to focus for sustained reading of books (either printed or on e-readers) and also negatively impacting memory. Carr is talking about time spent specifically on the internet, not time spent generally on the computer (engaged in writing, or reading from an e-reader or downloaded material without distracting embedded hyperlinks). He is talking about time spent clicking around, checking Facebook, tweeting on Twitter, checking email and instant messages, googling, shopping, weather, news, whatever. He is talking about texting and checking email on a cell phone. He is talking about the distracted, all-over-the-place, time-wasting business that can consume a surprisingly large amount of time.

I have taken his words to heart. A few months ago I started checking Facebook more and more frequently. I had the sense that if I didn’t keep up with Facebook, I was missing something important I might want to know about my children, my nieces and nephews, my friends (both those around the corner and those on the other side of the world), and family. After reading Carr’s book, I am determined to significantly reduce the time I spend on Facebook. It is a good tool for communicating in some ways, but enough is enough. In the past few months I have also developed a bad habit of checking the top news every hour or so. Instead of letting my mind pause and wander while I am writing, so that thoughts can come to me from that mysterious well of creative reverie, I have gotten into the bad habit of taking little breaks from writing to click around on the internet on news items, Facebook, google, etc. Useless noise.

It was when I noticed that I am having difficulty writing fiction for sustained periods of time that I became motivated to go on an internet diet. I’m working on it (weaned myself quite a bit this past week and was able to get more creative writing done). I am grateful that I have not lost my ability to focus for long periods of time on sustained reading, although I have talked to people who spend a lot of time on the internet who say they are having trouble “getting into” a book these days and don’t read books much anymore. Fortunately, Carr provides conclusive evidence of the ongoing plasticity of the human brain. You can literally change your mind. The changes that have taken place in how my brain fires its electrical impulses because of my use of the internet can be reversed. I can retrain my brain. And I intend to do so. If you notice that you are having difficulty spending time in sustained reading, trouble “getting into” books, I want to suggest that you consider spending less time on the internet.

A couple of weeks ago I took a walk behind Lake Mendocino with my friend Kirsti and her children. While we were walking, six-year-old Teniya asked me, “What do you daydream about?” I loved the question and was blown away that she asked it. I told her I daydream about a story I am writing. She said she daydreams about stories she wants to write too! And when we returned to the house, she sat down immediately to write one that she had described to me on our walk.

Carr discusses the need of the human brain for quiet contemplative thought for creativity, pondering deeper questions about life, building memory, and a host of other higher order mental processes (one of which, by the way, is empathy!). He suggests that not only should we humans get off the internet, but that we should go out for a walk in nature, like me and little Teniya. I’m going to excerpt from the final pages of The Shallows, because I can’t say any of this any better than Carr. Here is what he says (abridged version): “A series of psychological studies has revealed that after spending time in a quiet rural setting, close to nature, people exhibit greater attentiveness, stronger memory, and generally improved cognition. Their brains become both calmer and sharper. When people aren’t being bombarded by external stimuli, their brains can, in effect, relax. They no longer have to tax their working memories by processing a stream of bottom-up distractions. The resulting state of contemplativeness strengthens their ability to control their mind.”

Carr cites a fascinating study that was done by Marc Berman at the University of Michigan. Berman had a group of people take a series of mentally rigorous tests. Then he sent half of them out to walk in the woods in a secluded location for an hour and he sent the other half to walk on busy downtown streets for an hour. Both groups took the mentally rigorous tests again upon their return. The people who walked in the woods significantly improved their performance on the cognitive tests (indicating an increase in attentiveness); but those who walked in the city showed no improvement on the tests. Now, get this, even more interesting. They did the test again on a different group of people only this time they didn’t send anyone out to walk. They had one group look at pictures of nature scenes and had the other group look at pictures of busy urban scenes between times taking the rigorous mental tests. The people who looked at the nature scenes showed significant improvement the second time they took the test and the people who looked at busy urban scenes did not!

Carr goes on to say: “On the internet, there is no peaceful spot where contemplativeness can work its restorative magic. There is only the endless, mesmerizing buzz of the urban street. The stimulations of the Net, like those of the city, can be invigorating and inspiring. We wouldn’t want to give them up. But they are, as well, exhausting and distracting. They can easily overwhelm all quieter modes of thought.”

We need uninterrupted, uncluttered, quiet time to reflect, to allow our minds to wander, for optimum brain function, for memory, for our creativity, to find answers to some of life’s biggest questions, to imagine what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes, and for peace of mind. So imagine my friend Teniya asking, “What do you daydream about?” and then log off the internet, go for a walk in the woods, and think about what you would tell her.