Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Six Month Check Up

The wind is blowing dead leaves into my pool.

It’s a warm and windy day here on the Gulf coast of Florida. The white caps fly across the intercoastal, the fronds on the palm trees are swaying, and my biggest problem is those leaves. Actually, it’s not really my problem. The pool boy comes once a week. He’ll clean them out.

We’ve been here almost exactly six months, and six months is a good time period to take stock of all that’s good, bad, and ugly in a place or a situation. Before we moved here, I knew four things about Florida: warm weather, Disney, beaches, and hanging chads. Now that I’m a resident, though, it seems that every story about some weirdo doing something really wacky comes out of Florida. And, yes, unfortunately there’s also a lot of violence, not only of the Trayvon Martin variety, but it seems that parents abuse and murder their children on a regular basis here in the Sunshine state.

So what is it about Florida? Why do the weirdos and others who can’t seem to cope with the daily stresses of life all seem to be located in the state that 30 Rock’s Jack Donaghy once called “America’s penis?”

I think the combination of good weather and a low cost of living attracts a number of people who, for lack of a more delicate way of putting things, aren’t in complete possession of all ten jacks and the little red ball. That is certainly the only explanation I have for seeing things such as a woman in the back of a pick-up truck, sitting on an office chair and holding a mounted moose head in her lap.

The people of Florida are a wonderful mixture of contradictions. The flat land and great weather makes everyone a jogger or bicycle rider. But they also all smoke like chimneys. Have you ever gone running, only to find yourself behind another runner who is puffing away at the same time? It does spur you on to greater speeds as you attempt to pass her and remain upwind of the cigarette smoke.

There are bikers of both kinds, the cyclists and the motorcyclists. What these two groups have in common is that neither of them believes in helmets, and the state of Florida acquiesces by refusing to pass a law making them a requirement. I know nothing beats the feeling of the wind blowing in your hair, or what’s left of it (a lot of these motorcyclists are fat, bald old men). But cracking open your head against the pavement isn’t the world’s greatest feeling, either, and if I were a biker, I’d give up the former to avoid the latter. But most biking Floridians don’t agree with me.

The architecture seems to mirror these contradictions, at least in my own little corner of St. Petersburg. Where we lived in Maryland, zoning laws kept commercial establishments well away from residential areas, and HOAs made sure that all the homes in the neighborhood looked alike. There’s none of that foolishness here, which is why I live within walking distance to some very cheap motels and the houses around me look nothing like the one I live in.

Florida has also helped prove Darwin right, if not in terms of human evolution – there are several lines of humanity here that should have died out if survival of the fittest were still in play – but in how lower creatures evolve differently in different types of weather. Darwin went to the Galapagos Islands to discover that in isolated settings, larger species become smaller and smaller species become larger. What that means here is that instead of having your ordinary German cockroach prancing around your kitchen on occasion, we have the much larger Palmetto bugs who branch out into rooms such as bathrooms and bedrooms. Oh, and they can fly. In some cases, right into your hair. And then there are the rats. In Maryland, I was used to the concept of rats being small disgusting furry things that congregated in the dumpsters in urban alleyways or unfortunate NYC Burger Kings. In Florida they have evolved into fruit rats. Instead of garbage, they feast on the orange trees or whatever trees you might happen to have in your backyard. They run up and down the trunks of trees as you are trying to enjoy your nice outdoor meal in downtown St. Petersburg. They also enjoy backstroking in your pool and setting up shop in your attic. But luckily they are still small, disgusting and furry. Some things should not be tampered with.

On the whole, though, the weather and the beaches make up for the bikers and the bugs. So I hope we’ll be making Florida our permanent home, although the jury’s still out on what the foreseeable future might bring. Although if you read me posting about picking up smoking and driving around on a motorcycle without wearing a helmet, someone might need to shake some sense into me.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Happily Ever After

Tuesday night marks the end of Private Practice, a traditional nighttime soap with a loyal yet relatively small (compared to its parent show, Grey’s Anatomy) following. While ostensibly an ensemble, the show revolved around the trials and tribulations of Addison Montgomery, an OB-GYN/neonatologist who was as mixed up in her private life as she was brilliant in her profession. Addison is one of my all-time favorite fictional characters, so I’m sorry to see the show end. Even more disappointing, though, is the way the show is ending. Creator Shonda Rhimes decided to give Addison a “happily ever after,” marrying her off to a character who was basically a deus ex machina since he showed up a few seasons ago.

Romance is one of the most popular genres in fiction, whether that fiction be TV, film, or novel. And the best romances are drawn out as long as possible. It starts with that early tension; the “Will they or won’t they?” Obstacles on top of obstacles are thrown in the path of the would-be couple. They come together, only to break up, and then come together again. Only after they’ve been tested again and again do they earn a happily ever after. This formula is the one that hooks viewers and readers. It’s called “intermittent reinforcement,” and it’s akin to rats pressing a bar to receive a food pellet. The ones who receive a pellet every time give up as soon as the pellet stops coming. The ones who never received a pellet give up quickly too. But the ones who sometimes get a pellet and sometimes do not keep pressing that bar again and again and again. And humans too are much more likely to persist in an activity that gives them intermittent rewards, and watching their favorite couple finally come together again after a break up is a reward.

Addison had a relationship like that with Sam, her best friend Naomi’s ex-husband. Respecting Naomi’s feelings, Addison tried to stay away from Sam, and an entire season was dedicated to their “will they or won’t they.” Then Addison decided she wanted a baby, while Sam thought he was done with parenthood. When Sam finally came to his senses and proposed, Addison threw him over for Jake, the aforementioned deus ex machina. Jake, whose only flaw is caring too much, is the man Addison will marry tomorrow night.

What if Carrie had ended up with the Russian artist instead of Mr. Big at the end of Sex and the City? Even though the Baryshnikov character was based on SATC creator Candace Bushnell’s then husband, the producers realized that the viewers’ emotional satisfaction of seeing Carrie finally end up with Mr. Big after six seasons was more important than trying to recreate the creator’s own then-ending.

I believe that writers, be they in film, TV or book, have an obligation, when a romance is so central to the story, to deliver that emotional satisfaction to their fans. And that satisfaction is only delivered when the central couple comes together at the end of that long, rocky road. Otherwise, why bother taking that journey with them? Yes, I know that traditional daily soap operas, which are most invested in these types of relationships, are also the most constricted from being able to deliver that pay off. Unless canceled (and those canceled soap operas did deliver a few couples finally getting together after years of trials), most shows wind up losing an actor and therefore being unable to deliver the happily-ever-after – at least permanently. Recently General Hospital lost an actor who was part of not one, but two of these tortured couples, and he did get a happily-ever-after with his wife before being killed off. It wasn’t the ending the fans wanted, but the best the show could do when the actor left, and I think that fans – the sane ones, in any case – understand that. But when the show can deliver the experience the fan craves, and chooses not to, then it’s no surprise when fans turn their attention to something else.

Like romance novels, for instance. Romance is the top-selling genre, and each book features a central couple who go through “will they or won’t they”, many trials and tribulations, to end up together by the end of the book. It’s a proven formula that readers want.

But it’s not something that Private Practice will deliver tomorrow night. Yet, ironically, it is perhaps the most realistic ending. For in real life, when our relationships are so problematic, they end. And we end up with the guy with whom there was never any drama.

Of course, real life is the reason we watch soap operas.

Monday, January 14, 2013

No Pain, No Gain

This scenario happens on playing fields every day, all over the country: The coach notices there’s something wrong with his star player. Maybe he’s limping; maybe she’s pulling her arm. And the performance is being affected too – throws are off their mark; running time has slowed. The coach asks, “Everything okay? You look like you’re in pain.” And the player shrugs it off. “I’m fine, coach. Put me back in, coach. I’m the only one who can win this game for us.”

It happened last week in the Redskins/Seahawks game. After insisting he was “hurt, but not injured,” RG3 collapsed while trying to field an errant snap. He had surgery a few days later on his previously repaired ACL. While there’s been a lot of discussion about whether Mike Shanahan made the right call -- believing his rookie quarterback and keeping him in the game when all evidence suggested he was too hurt to perform -- there’s been little-to-no discussion about the warrior culture that led an extremely talented young man to put his own future at risk rather than hand the ball to his very capable back-up. Simply put, this response was drilled into RG3 at a very young age: Only wimps cry about the pain.

Shortly after children leave toddlerhood behind, parents are told to ignore their cries on the playground. “He’s not hurt,” we’re told after our three-year-old falls face first off a swing. “Do you want your kid to become a cry baby?” So we tell them to “shake it off” or that they’re “not really hurt.” When they fall but don’t cry, we praise them for being tough. Soon, our children learn they can get attention from sustaining bumps and bruises without tears. If they’re really hurt, they best keep it to themselves.

It gets worse when our children start to play organized sports. Even though sports are beneficial for children of every ability, those who stand out are the ones who are rewarded. Children who run slowly, whose throws are erratic, and who – heaven forbid – cry when they’re hit in the face with a soccer ball – are marginalized and often quit before their efforts can result in improvement. And the better kids, seeing this, learn the lesson: Don’t show weakness. And don’t ever admit you’re in pain.

My son started playing organized sports in kindergarten. In the second grade, he took a soccer ball to the stomach. Even with his face buried in my stomach so his teammates wouldn’t see his tears, he insisted to his coach that he was just fine to go back out and play.

Later, he would forsake all other sports for baseball, a sport unique in that too much practice and too many games can be detrimental to players, especially younger ones. There was one kid, Jeffrey, who was a superstar all throughout middle school. Whenever he pitched against our team, we knew we’d lose. Yet at the same time, we knew Jeffrey was being overused and his days as a baseball superstar were probably numbered. Last I heard, arm injuries kept him from doing anything more than designated hitting.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of, “It’s just one game; how much can it hurt him.” With competition for playing time so fierce – even at the middle school age – a kid’s fortunes seem to rise and fall with every game. Consciously or subconsciously, the child gets the message to swallow his pain and go out there and play. When he was 12, my son walked around with an arm that was broken in two places for almost a week – and played half a baseball game before the pain got too bad. We joke now about how he hit a grand slam with that arm, but the truth is, he never should have been in the game to begin with.

My son was lucky enough to have coaches in middle school and high school who kept pitch counts and stressed arm health. Other than that broken arm, he never complained of pain – insisting, at my questioning, that there was a difference between being “sore” and being “hurt” – shades of RG3’s justification of hurt versus injured. Even so, he told me that every kid on his high school baseball team was playing with a hurt arm. Why don’t they tell the coach? I asked. Because then the coach wouldn’t let them play.

Does this type of attitude persist in female sports, or are women smarter about listening to the pain messages their bodies send? I tend to think not. Women are just as competitive as men, and the “mommy wars” have broadened to the very day of birth. Since the days of Lamaze, women are encouraged to forgo pain medication in order to have a “natural” birth. If you give in and ask for medication, you’re a failure.

Even with the explosion in prescription pain medication abuse, health experts say that doctors actually underprescribe pain medication and underestimate their patients’ levels of pain. Some of that may be fear of being tricked by an addict, but it’s an attitude that persists throughout society – suck it up. It doesn’t really hurt that bad.

Maybe this is a problem unique to playing fields and delivery rooms. After all, it’s hard to see how society is impacted because one boy doesn’t go on to play college baseball; one girl has to quit basketball. But I think it has a broader impact. By teaching children to ignore pain, we teach them to distrust their feelings and their bodies. They swallow pain; they swallow anger. But in the end, it always comes out. And sometimes the impact is a lot greater than a loss in a play-off game.

Monday, January 7, 2013

New Year, New You

It’s early January, so it’s that time again when millions of Americans make resolutions that are made to be broken. In fact, since today is the 7th, it’s possible that many of those millions have already fallen off the resolution wagon.

Most of these resolutions center around diet and weight loss. Unfortunately, we are already setting ourselves up to fail by making these promises in January, a cold month in which the body is biologically programmed to eat more and move less in order to conserve heat.

More broadly, our brain is designed to form habits and make it difficult to break those habits. Most diets fail, and dieters end up gaining even more weight. So it seems that in order to lose weight, one must break out of that pattern and find a completely different way to change behavior.

When we moved to Florida last summer, I was pretty much at my ideal weight, but still flabby in all kinds of places. Since I really don’t like the bony chest and sunken eyes look, I decided that rather than attempt to lose more weight, I’d hire a personal trainer, get serious about the weight lifting, and tighten up all those flabby areas. I’d been consistent about cardio, but there was no weight training in my exercise routine.

My new gym made it easy; it has you buy a package of sessions in which the price goes down the more you buy. The salesman at the gym gave me an enticing pitch – adding weight training to my routine would speed up my metabolism, allowing me to eat more and do less cardio. A sign posted near the treadmills emphasizes this message, saying that weight training burns nine times more calories than cardio alone.

So I developed a routine of having personal training sessions twice a week with a trainer who varied the routine every time and made each session more challenging. I even added a “learn to run” program a few months ago, spending 2-3 times a week on the treadmill trying to up the number of minutes in a half hour I could run.

So what happened? I’ve gained six pounds. And no, these are not “muscle weighs more than fat” pounds. These are “your favorite clothes don’t fit any more” pounds.

The stupid exercise that was supposed to tighten up my flab and rev up my metabolism made me constantly hungry all afternoon. I started snacking at times I hadn’t, and eating foods that I knew weren’t filling me up.

So while the evidence seems to say that the best way to lose the weight and go back to eating less would be to go back to being a couch potato, I like being stronger, having better balance and being able to run for longer than 90 seconds at a time. So it looks like it’s time to dive back into better eating habits.

I wanted to make “healthy eating” a habit just as much as going to the gym had become, so I bought two books: “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business,” by Charles Duhigg, and “The Willpower Instinct: How Self Control Works, Why it Matters, and What You can Do to Get More of It,” by Kelly McGonigal. Interestingly, both books contained – but did not acknowledge-- the same paradox: They both cited studies that people who had begun exercise or money management programs developed better habits in other areas of their lives, as well as studies that showed that willpower is a finite resource and people who use it in one area of their lives are left depleted in others (Hence, overeating after exercising.)

Duhigg’s book has a simple hypothesis that habit is formed through a trigger-action-reward chain, and just about any habit can be developed or broken by substituting one action for another in that chain. The trigger can be something as simple as a certain time of day or the sight of your spouse’s dirty socks on the floor. I found the hypothesis intriguing and some examples compelling, but I’m not sure it’s necessary helpful for people who chose the wrong foods. He did have a personal example of this; about eating a chocolate chip cookie every afternoon at work. He realized that he used the cookie as an excuse to get up and socialize and thus was able to eliminate it from his diet. Maybe if the trigger were actual hunger, it wouldn’t have been so easy. If so, it would be just as easy to substitute a banana for that chocolate chip cookie, and believe me, that’s not an easy substitution at all!

The willpower book was definitely more relevant to the eating right quandary. Although McGonigal also cited exercisers who blew their diets, she also looked at when, why and how willpower seems to be depleted and how to manufacture more of it. Along with the traditional “write down everything you eat” advice, McGonigal says that five minutes of meditation a day helps people keep focused on their willpower goals. She also recommends exercises that slow down the breathing to 2-4 breaths a minute.

This advice sounds easier that going back on Weight Watchers for the 100th time. (Although the meditation first struck me as “Great, another thing I have to do!”) For the past few days I’ve been writing down everything I’ve eaten, and I’m hoping to find a trigger and reward in order to make it a habit. Most dieters already do this, either through Weight Watchers or some other kind of program, but I’d always fall out of the habit because I eat mostly the same thing every day and could justify not writing it down since it was the same as the day before.

I do have other goals for 2013 – read more classics, watch less TV. I even have “take more baths” on that list because we have a huge Jacuzzi tub that I’ve only used twice since we moved in. I hope these books help me make these goals into habits. I really miss wearing my Calvin Klein skinny jeans.

Best of luck to everyone on meeting their 2013 goals!