Sunday, October 27, 2013

Confessions and Speculations of an Addict

There's nothing more inspiring and simultaneously aggravating than a loved one who sets a good example.

My sister had problems for years. Bad problems. It's not my place to specify them, but they have been neutralized by her participation in a twelve-step program. It would be glib to say the meetings turned her life around; that would be oversimplifying the matter and making it sound far too easy.

I speculate that the reason it has worked so well is not the program itself, but the way in which it is practiced within a community: an association of addicts come together help one another from crossing back over onto the old rails. It's not the sort of thing one can easily do without encouragement.

"Patterns" is a recurring word throughout the literature of addiction study and treatment, inasmuch as addiction is a set of profoundly-ingrained habits centered around an extremely powerful reinforcing agent, and the reintroduction of that agent reactivates the litany of associated behaviors. Your opiates, alkaloids, and related chemicals are all tremendously potent reinforcers; that's why people's actions come to revolve around them. Reinforcement is the shaper of our lives; our behavioral repertoires accrue along the lines of exigency laid by our most powerful reinforcers the way interstellar gases and dust collect and condense within the gravitational fields of massive objects.

When my sister announced she had even quit smoking, I knew this was it: all of my own excuses for persisting in the habit were no longer convincing. There's a expansive psychic tract between denial and resolve where retreat is inexcusable and the prospect of moving forward and crossing over the borderline is frankly terrifying, and I'd been meandering through it for months. Years. It wasn't that I wanted to quit. I loved smoking. (Correction: I love smoking.) I knew it was blackening my lungs and poisoning my heart; I knew it was the reason my chest felts tight in the morning, but I had absolutely no desire to give it up. I knew it was costing me a small fortune; I knew it was making me lethargic. But if I heard somebody suggest that I should stop, no matter how gently they said it, there was a moment where I instantly hated their guts. Sometimes I noticed it wasn't as satisfying as it once was, and sometimes I had cause to wonder if it was ever really satisfying. (Oh, who was I kidding. of course it was.) Now and then I'd assure myself that it was temporary: I was going to quit because I had to quit. Just -- not that day. The day after was never looking good, either. But someday.

Around the middle of September I crossed over. I'm not smoking -- for now. If I see someone else walking down the street with a cigarette in his or her mouth, I find myself salivating and licking my lips. (My sister tells me that this doesn't stop.) But my chest doesn't hurt in the morning anymore and I don't get a sore throat every other week.

Sure, sure. Right. Congrats on quitting, some might want to say. I think it's too early for congratulations. And the process of dealing with this got me thinking again about what addiction is and what it means, and I don't feel very good about myself. There are so many things to which I'm still addicted.

Let's take our definition of addiction right from the first clause of the first sentence of its Wikipedia entry: addiction is the continued repetition of a behavior despite adverse consequences.

I'm addicted to driving, for one thing. I like to get in a car and go places I don't necessarily need to go,  or to which I could feasibly walk or bike. I know this habit pumps a few tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually, and I know that its increasing concentration of greenhouse gases will wreak havoc on the biosphere during my lifetime, but...well, you know. It's whatever. It's fine. (Well, not really, but you know, it''s whatever.)

I'm hooked on meat. I usually have at least one serving a day, even though I'm fully aware that meat production is an egregiously inefficient use of energy and land, another heavy producer of carbon emissions, and an altogether filthy and cruel business. But I'll order that BLT anyway. I'm aware of what I'm willfully contributing to, and I'll feel like an asshole for it. But...well, yeah. You know. I can always say I'll go vegetarian next week. If I don't follow through, I can just say it again.

From UCA News
We're coming to the time of year when I take the space heater out of the closet. Yes, yes, it sucks up a lot of electricity and I know that power generation is the leading cause of global carbon dioxide emissions. But it's either that or putting on a sweater, and I hate sweaters. This is the behavior of an addict.

I distrust Google. I dislike Amazon. I use both on a fairly regular basis. What can I say? It's a habit. The alternatives are inconvenient. I think Monsanto and Exxon-Mobil are appalling, but I buy their products because I like inexpensive, easily-acquired food and I've already said that I like driving to the supermarket to get it. Do I have an alternative? Probably, but it would be difficult and require me to change most of my habits, and I'm obviously unwilling to stop doing what I've been doing.

How many billion of me are on this planet?

This is what scares me about our world. By the above definition of addiction, we are all of us addicts. We're addicted to our technology, our conveniences, our opiates. Even though we know they're socially and ecologically carcinogenic, we can't give them up.

Of course we're addicted. We're crackbabies. We've been inundated in this shit since birth -- and it's common knowledge that the longer one indulges in addictive behavior, the more difficult its reduction or elimination becomes.

From The Indypendent
A note: the most deleterious of the "adverse consequences" of these addictions lack the immediacy to serve as effective "punishment" feedback. Even though we can appreciate their implications on an intellectual level, operant conditioning occurs when the punishment or reinforcer is a constituent of the present occasion. (The smoker cannot observe his lungs blackening or feel the tumors growing as he inhales; we don't receive any perceptible negative feedback when we contribute to the intensifying greenhouse effect or abet society's trajectory toward an outright oligarchy. To the contrary, the immediate feedback must be positive, since these behaviors are so persistent.) In light of this, any but the most optimistic behaviorist will have to conjecture that civilization is probably fucked, unless. . . . . . .

Well. Anyway.

For all the lip service we give to the necessity of reining in carbon emissions, for all our bemoaning of the buy-and-toss consumer culture, the perniciousness of the multinationals, and the fact that capitalism is deforming humanity and the modern "Western" lifestyle is destroying the planet, we're like the smoker or skinpopper telling himself that yeah, this sucks, this can't last, I have to stop. I'm going to stop; just not now -- because the chemicals are leeching into my brain. The Walking Dead is on and there's video games on sale at Wal Mart and the new iPhone is out and the McRib is coming back. And the lip service remains lip service. The smoker frets about cancer and says he's going to quit. Later. Before the cancer, surely. And we say we (or somebody else) will definitely get this overpopulation/resource depletion/greenhouse effect stuff sorted out sometime, surely, before we render the earth uninhabitable to ourselves.

That brings me back to the twelve step program. I wonder if there's a support group for people who don't want to do this shit anymore?

"Hi, my name is Patrick, and I'm an addict. I find my lifestyle and the problems to which it contributes abhorrent; I want to quit, but I can't break the cycle. I want your help. I want to do things differently."

I wonder. I wish. I hope.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Freedom vs. Satisfaction

Walden 7; from Hi. This is Barcelona.

Not very long ago I noticed an old acquaintance commenting on the difference between life in the liberal nannystate Northeast and in states further south. One reason for the purportedly better quality of life further south, he claimed, is that people there "have more freedom." It got me thinking once again about the idea of "freedom" as a societal virtue per se, and I'm still not convinced that there even is such a thing as freedom. (Frankly, I'm still willing to argue that there is not.)

But as far as the the happiness and life quality of a people is concerned, I believe the extent of their "freedom" is rather beside the point.

First: putting aside arguments about free will, let's agree that our implicit contract as members of any sort of organized society necessarily demands we do certain things and restricts us from doing others. Even if the government isn't telling you where to work and where to live, the exigencies of life probably compel you to spend most of the day at a place you'd probably rather not be and doing work you'd probably rather not be doing to keep a roof over your head (in a neighborhood you'd probably rather not be living).

Just for the sake of argument, let's compare a society to an office building. Imagine you have two companies in two different buildings, both involved in the same kind of business. It doesn't matter what business it is; let's just say that most of their employees' workdays consist of sitting in front of desktop computers. Imagine that one of the offices conscientiously devises a workplace environment and corporate culture with the aim of making employees' work satisfying, and while other takes a more laissez-faire approach, telling employees they can do whatever they please, as long as they get their work done on time and don't distract their coworkers. Whose employees are happier?

In both cases, the workers at both offices have to put in their required hours and do the work they're being paid to do. This component of the situation is unalterable. (Again: no matter how a society is organized, its subjects still have obligations.) But a workplace environment that is effectively designed to maximize employee satisfaction will undoubtedly be a cheerier place to be than one where the corporate culture is either treated as an afterthought or intentionally left to figure itself out.

I'll grant the metaphor isn't airtight, but the concept is no less valid where a larger polity is concerned. What if a society -- a town, a city, a nation -- were to be designed with an aim toward equality, stability, and the maximizing of its people's quality of life? Currently, we're operating under the basic assumption that the public will automatically tend towards order, harmony, and happiness if left to its own devices. But let's imagine that a more proactive, regimented approach were to be taken in building a happier society.

Even if it were a relatively small community, it would require some degree of social engineering, which is anathema to the classical liberal/modern libertarian. It implies top-down control; it necessarily requires certain "freedoms" be limited. The kneejerk reaction is that this is a most undesirable prospect, but I think that needs reexamination.

Given the choice, would you choose a life in which you had more options (freedom), or more satisfaction? (How often does more options mean more happiness?) If you're in an environment in which you feel fulfilled by your work and participation in civic/community life, is "freedom" a concern?

This isn't the place for an outline or a manifesto; I'm certainly not saying I've got the blueprints to utopia. But I'm fairly certain it's possible to design a better society, and I'm absolutely convinced that the engine on which we're currently running -- "allow the people do what they want and let the market sort it out" -- is dangerously outmoded.

"Freedom" doesn't necessarily lead to happiness. A sense of meaning and satisfaction from one's work and relationships leads to happiness, and it's definitely possible to create social environments more conducive to it than the one we've got.

The fact that people associate "freedom" with happiness suggests, more than anything, piss-poor social design, as does the popularity of the belief that the inverse of "freedom" must necessarily be "oppression."

Friday, October 18, 2013

I might as well switch to Tumblr at this point.

Braindead. Going through the trying-to-get-novel-published process. Again. I'm reminded of the myth about the female body producing a postpartum hormone that pokes a strategically placed hole in the memory of the experience pertaining to the pain, howling sleeplessness, torn perineum, etc.

So yeah, I don't have much in the way of new content. But since anything worth doing is worth doing poorly, here are a few pictures from around my neighborhood.

I really do wish I could claim to have caught these two grasshoppers in the act of mating (which would finally allow me to begin rebuilding the Beyond Easy brand as your go-to source for the birds and the bees of the bugs), but if you look at them closely you'll notice that there's no thorax-thorax contact. It seems that they're just spooning. (My apologies for the poor resolution; I don't carry around a camera and the one in my phone was built as an afterthought.)

My first guess was that they were cuddling and savoring the afterglow together, but then I read that grasshoppers tend to die immediately after sex--and some light prodding revealed these two to be very much alive. Perhaps they had just been getting to know each other. If you were on a date and you knew that you could only have sex once, with one person, would you be in a such a hurry?


A friend of mine who shall remain anonymous (his epithet rhymes with "Rangerous Rave") courageously leaked images from a local gathering of North Jersey high school guidance counselors. He described the experience as being like that scene from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas where Hunter Thompson/Raoul Duke sits undercover at the police convention.

But seriously. Kids getting wasted on sanitizer? Is this actually a thing?

(I was planning on posting a choice selection of Powerpoint slides from the meeting, but the idea seemed less funny the more I thought about it. The presentation is pretty much exactly what you'd expect: "It's 4:20. Do YOU know where your teen is?" "If a teen has the scent of liquor on his or her breath and is acting drunk, then maybe, just maybe, he or she has been consuming alcohol." "Marijuana, sometimes referred to as 'pot,' 'reefer,' 'blunts,' etc...")

On a somewhat related note: if, while going through an old drawer, you happen upon a beaded bracelet that says "TRANCE," it is a given that you have absolutely no recollection of where, when, or how you acquired it.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

More Buggy Blather

After that post about catching bumblebees in the act, I returned the field a few times, hoping to catch more insect couples in flagrante. Maybe I intended to do some kind of series?

But early fall isn't the best time to go out looking for bugs. The meadow is already much quieter than it was a month ago. I've been hearing katydids every now and then in the afternoons -- one of many small but unmistakable indicators that autumn is settling in.

Yes, yes. Katydids are summer insects, but during the summer they are nocturnal. AND THIS IS IMPORTANT ENOUGH FOR CAPS AND A TAGENT. Too many people, I find, mistake katydids for cicadas.

For the record: if you're in the eastern United States on a hot summer afternoon and a sound like this passes through you, what you're experiencing is a cicada. If you're out at night during the same months and these noises are bearing down on you from every direction, you're surrounded by katydids.

Katydids are elusive little buggers. You'll step outside and hear hundreds of them, night after night, but never see one. They're built and programmed for secrecy: they look like leaves, they hang out in trees, and they stop making noise and sit still when they notice you approaching.

This summer was my first time actually seeing a katydid up close when one chanced to wander out of the trees and get caught away from its camouflage. It was really quite adorable: since it didn't have the faculties to understand that the jig was already up, it just went on behaving like it would under its usual, more advantageous circumstances:

Click for full size! (Fixed!)

True story!

(And sorry. That was two tangents.)

Anyway: once autumn is underway, katydids become active during the daytime, but only in thickly wooded and shaded places. I don't know what causes this shift in behavior (light? temperature?), and I wasn't able to find much information about it. (Though I did find an article repeating a bit of folklore claiming that the first frost will occur six weeks after the first katydids are heard during the day.) At any rate, the autumn diurnal katydids are few and far between. They're the stragglers from the summer, still going at it after most of their peers have turned in, striculating with less and less vigor as the temperatures drop.

I used to hear the solitary October katydid and think of an old gentleman I used to work with at an office job: he was seventy-something years old and dying of lung cancer, but still coming into work six days a week because that's what he'd always done. I'm not sure he knew how to act otherwise. And when I heard the autumn katydids just puttering on, they seemed enervated and lonely to me, and somehow existentially tragic: they didn't know how to do anything but keep being katydids, calling out for more katydids, unaware that they were the only ones left.

My better-hearted and probably more optimistic friend Chris sees it differently: he recently compared them to those kids who are doing bumps at 4:45 AM and urging their fatigued buddies to rally, to head with them to the after-after party across town. The October katydids aren't lonesome old men: they're party people, raging and raving past the sunrise and into the morning and beyond, all the way up until the first fall frost turns the music off at last.

I think I prefer Chris's reading.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Another Crisis: Real-time Reporting, Retweets, and Restraint

Pheme, Greek Goddess of Twitter
I'm phasing social media and (non-BBC) Internet news back in after conscientiously abstaining from them (for the most part) for the last month. I can't say I missed them terribly, but this is the 21st century and I should be at least somewhat attentive to the culture of my age.

I came back just in time, too. Early this afternoon, the retweets and Facebook updates came rolling right in. Capitol shooting. Gunman at large. Actually, suspect is a woman. Actually, she doesn't have a gun. The only shots were fired by police. But she seems to have been up to something. Yes she was. No she wasn't. Anyway this is all the [conservatives/liberals]'s fault and would never happen if it weren't for [overzealous, trigger happy, possibly racist law enforcement/the general toxicity of American Culture/Obama]. Shut up, you're wrong.

Flashing forward: I was relieved to hear this evening's All Things Considered steering away from minute-by-minute crisis mode reporting and keeping its focus on the continuing circus shit show of American Democracy. I'll be happy to read or listen to a report on the shooting and its aftermath tomorrow, after the journalists have had more time to collect and collocate the facts.

Although the trickle of information and its magnification on Twitter wasn't as panicked, politicized, or irresponsible as the chatter following the Boston Marathon attack, I was still disheartened to see folks backsliding into the same sort of behavior we seemed to collectively agree not to repeat during the next sudden violent crisis. It's possible my recollection is skewed or screwy, but didn't we walk away with the lesson that that it's more sensible not to credulously accept, disseminate, and make conjecture on every particle of new information because a lot of it will be out of context, muddled, unsubstantiated, and very possibly inaccurate?

Right, right; it's the Internet and people will talk. And it's not the Internet's fault, either: Rumor was born at the same time as Communication. I know. But I can still disapprove of the web being used to undermine its essential purpose.

I once met a reference librarian/archivist whose sensibilities toward cataloging were led by the doctrine that no information is better than bad information, which I've since added to my own store of guiding aphorisms. And all I'm saying really is that early, fragmented, reactive, and emotionally-charged information might not be what I'd consider "good."