Can I Discipline Myself to Be More Disciplined?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, August 3, 2020

The older I get the more undisciplined I get, but it’s an age when I need to be the most disciplined in life. As anyone who is getting older knows, the body begins to fall apart and the mind unravels. One way to counter this natural tendency is to get disciplined. But there’s a Catch-22. There’s also a growing impulse with aging to not give a fuck.

It’s taken me years to give up junk food — well, mostly. But I’m not sure if it’s being disciplined. If I indulge my body finds various ways to beat me up. So I’ve learned to mostly not do the things that cause immediate suffering. However, I can’t seem to learn to do the things that will improve my health or allow me to do more. I feel like I’m in a never ending trench war — I can’t take any new territory, and for the moment, I’m barely holding what territory I’ve have. Aging means losing territory. Discipline determines how fast.

I know defeat is the ultimate outcome. Death will eventually be the light at the end of the damn tunnel. But until then I have a finite number of days and I’m positive if I was more disciplined I could get greater use out of those days. The trouble is, when you’re old you just want to relax and take it easy, to float downstream. To get more out of life has always required paddling upstream against the current. That requires discipline.

For example I want to lose weight. I’ve been fighting the Battles of the Bulge for decades. I should just give up. I know plenty of people who have. But I have health problems and I know if I can lose weight it will counteract those health issues to a degree, or help delay them getting worse. For the past two years I’ve been doing the 16:8 intermittent fasting. Years ago I lost 30 pounds by going vegan, but I just couldn’t maintain that diet. When I went back to just being vegetarian I started gaining my weight back. When I saw that happening I switched to the 16:8 intermittent fasting, and stopped gaining weight. But I had already gained back 25 pounds. 16:8 means I eat 8 hours during the day and fast 16. If I do it without eating junk food I’ll even lose about 1 pound a month. However, I usually can’t avoid completely junk food, so I don’t lose that pound.

I’ve recently started throwing in a whole fasting day, and I’ve fought my way back down the scales by 7-8 pounds in a couple months. That’s very encouraging. If I can maintain that discipline I might be able to fight my way back down to my previous low, and even lose more weight. That could help a lot. But to go that day (actually 40 hours) without eating takes so much effort. I’m writing this today to help me get through not eating until tomorrow. (By the way, fasting actually makes me feel better in many ways — except for the not eating part.)

I’m fighting several other battles that require greater discipline. I’ve had a dream of getting a science fiction story published almost my whole life. The odds of succeeding at my age are extremely tiny, but I haven’t let the dream die yet. I know what’s required to do the work. It’s the discipline to stick to writing. Writing fiction is hard. I can write blog essays all day long with no trouble, but then I’ve put in my ten thousand hours. I’ve only logged several hundred hours writing fiction, and I need to put in several thousand more to take off. That will require developing a routine like I have with intermittent fasting.

The last thing I’ll mention, because I don’t want this essay to go on forever, is the idea of disciplined learning. I’ve written before how I’m a news junky, but I realize that’s not getting me where I want to go. A steady diet of constantly changing news items is a wasteful way of using my time. I do learn stuff, and I’m better informed than when not reading the news, but it’s like eating potato chips, not very nutritious.

I’ve been developing a new theory about news and learning. Instead of trying to cover any topic that comes along, I should pick just the topics I want to get know better. For example, I’m reading So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo, a well-written, carefully thought out book about a specific subject. What’s impressive about Oluo’s book is she set out to write something useful and worked to clearly define the problem of race. Her book made me realize I should focus on specific topics, such as Black Lives Matter, but go deeper than reading daily news reports.

I need to pick the newsworthy subjects I want to embrace and focus on them, while ignoring the firehose of all the rest. Logically, I know I neither have the time or energy to study many subjects. Since I realized that I’ve been paying attention to the news items I read each day. Most are quickly forgotten. Most are not worth my time on in the first place — they are like the evil calories of junk food. But disciplining my news intake is a lot like dieting — I need to give up junk news. That’s going to be hard. I have no practice at that, and I know from dieting that it takes a lot of failures before I can develop any discipline momentum.

It would be so much easier to kick back in my La-Z-Boy, eat oatmeal chocolate chip cookies from the deli at Sprouts, and watch old episodes of Gunsmoke. It’s pleasant, it’s enjoyable, it’s fun. But what does it get me beyond that? There are still things I want out of life, and to get them I must start paddling upstream against the current again.

[This is for my wife Susan, who I think needs to get back to paddling too.]

JWH

Will Americans Ever Be United?

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, July 30, 2020

We might be the United States, but we’re hardly a united people. Hasn’t the melting pot of the world produced a particularly unhomogenized population?

If you pick any year in our history and study it, divisiveness is the norm. This has got me to wondering, are there topics of agreement that we mostly share?

For example, if we pass a law that means we want 100% of the people to abide by the law. Yet, a law can be passed by only a fraction of the population. Does it really make sense for 50% of the people to say how 100% of the people should act? But we’ll probably never get 100% agreement on anything. So, shouldn’t we think harder about what percentage of the vote equals a proper majority?

Would it be fair to require an 80% majority? That would still mean 20% of the population would oppose the law and would probably be unhappy. But it would also mean 80% of the population would be happy.

What we have is a happiness v. unhappiness ratio. Right now, we have a 50/50 ratio, which explains why our society is so polarized. Wouldn’t America be somewhat happier with a 60/40 ratio? And even happier with a 75/25 ratio?

We’re never going to have a 100% happy society. But shouldn’t we try to reduce the unhappy portion of the equation? My guess if we agreed to make 60% the required majority to win any vote, we’d see a shift in the contentment of the nation.

Ideally though, we’d eventually need to increase that to 75%, but right now that would be an impossibility. Just developing a 60% consensus would take a tremendous effort, mainly in learning how to make compromises.

Is It Time To Ditch News Feed Apps?

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, July 25, 2020

The sad truth is I’m a Flipboard addict. And if I’m really jonesing for news, I’ll also check Apple News and Google News. I compulsively tap my iPhone several times a day for more new news, speed reading through dozens of digital essays and news stories every day. But Flipboard is starting to irritate me with all its ads, and more than that, my comprehension skills are deteriorating.

Although the internet is instant, smartphones are convenient, and news feed apps are comprehensive, I’m not sure they are the best conduits of news. Oh, they definitely get me more news from a greater variety of sources updated by the second, but I’m not sure its the best way to stay informed. And I’m not sure if it’s not becoming abusive to my neurons.

People often say less is more. News feed apps work on the principle of sending you news customized for your interests. Often content is barely more than blurbs with ads, and generally the same information is repeated or restated by countless news outlets, sources, and publishers. There is lots of substantial content, but lately, more than not, it’s behind a paywall.

I’m reading in a hyperactive mental state, gobbling down facts in a frantic effort stay informed. But am I? I’m starting to wonder if I read less if I’d be more informed?

Could carefully choosing my own news sources be the wiser path? Could a couple of newspapers and a handful of magazines, digital or print, offer a better news experience than a news feed service? I don’t know, but I’m thinking about trying the route. I just don’t know if I can break the news feed app habit.

I’m also tempted to go back to printed magazines and newspapers for some of that reading. The cost of printing tends to control what is printed. And I’m also wondering if reading less from a slower source might be advantageous. I really have no answers right now, but my hunch at the moment is pushing me to read less news on my iPhone. However, I’m not sure I can give up that much convenience.

It occurs to me now that I actually enjoyed TV more when there were only three networks. And music was more fun when I could only afford to buy one new album a week. Maybe there’s a downside to convenient abundance.

JWH

There’s No Modesty at the Urologist

James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, July 15, 2020

I awoke from the anesthesia with a tremendous urge to pee. I might have already been telling the nurse that before I was conscious because she was holding a plastic bottle up to my penis. I was trying to get up and she was urging me to lie back. I was in the middle of the action and not remembering why. Then I recalled I had been put under general anesthesia for a biopsy on my bladder. The last thing I remember was the oxygen mask.

I desperately wanted to pee, but the only thing going into the bottle was thick blood. My mind was clearing fast and I realized my hope of getting home quickly wasn’t going to happen. We had arrived at the clinic at six for a seven o’clock procedure. The clock now said eight. Susan and I had talked about how great it would be if we could have gotten home by nine.

That wasn’t going to happen. Something had gone wrong. All I could think was “I wish I wasn’t here” but I knew my wishing was wasted thinking. I wanted to pray, “God, get me out of this” but I’m atheist and I knew my prayers wouldn’t be answered even if I was a believer. I had to deal with things as they were.

I could not escape my situation and I knew how I handled it depended entirely on controlling my thoughts. Pain is so focusing. It was unreal waking up in this bizarre situation. I told myself this was just a bad trip I had to ride out and what I was experiencing was nothing compared to all the thousands of Covid patients were experiencing, much less people having cancer or heart attacks. Don’t whine, deal.

Still, I was doubling up in pain telling the nurse I had to go. She kept saying, use the urinal (which was only a plastic bottle). I told her it might help if I could sit on a toilet. I was in a recovery area with four or five bays behind curtains where patients were either being prepped for surgery or recovering. I thought for a second about modesty and then didn’t care. The nurse help wrap me up in my hospital gown and walked me to the bathroom. She put a plastic catcher over the rim of the commode before putting down the seat. She told me to pee into it because the doctor would want to see the results.

It was somewhat calming to be sitting in the bathroom by myself. I kept hoping pee would flush out all the blood, but it didn’t. All I could produce was blood as thick as Campbell’s soup just out of the can. And no matter how much blood I produced didn’t relieve the overwhelming urge to pee. I knew I needed a catheter and that’s something I’ve always dreaded. Again, it was all too obvious that what I wanted and what would happen was two different things.

I knocked on the door to get the nurse and told her it was no luck. She took me back to my bed and I begged for a catheter, but she already knew what I would want and need and had one ready. She asked if I wanted to be numbed first, I told her no, just do it, that I was dying to pee. So, she did. Six hours later, after flushing three bags of water through my system to clear out the blood I was able to go home with a catheter still in me. Unfortunately, this was Thursday and it was a three-day weekend because of the 4th of July. I’d had to live with the catheter until Monday.

Those four days were very educational. Pain is the perfect Zen Master. When a student’s mind wanders the Zen Master will whack their shoulders with a bamboo cane. The tube up my urethra would zap me with pain if I didn’t pay perfect attention. Luckily, the bladder spasms would only last five to ten seconds. I’d have to clutch something and kick the floor until they stopped.

My purpose here is not to bellyache about my pain, I know too many people who suffer far greater. No, I bring up this yucky incident to show how it affected my thought processes. The first title I had for this essay was “Thinking Clearly.” But I decided it was too boring to catch people’s attention. Then I thought of using “Pain is the Zen Master” but doubted it would attract much attention either. Then “There’s No Modesty at the Urologist” came to me and knew it was the kind of title that some people would click on. One of my most popular posts was “Losing My Modesty” about when three women holding me down to cut off a skin growth near my genitals.

I realized while in recovery that I needed to think clearly. Panic, fear, self-pity, anger, bargaining would not get me out of the situation. But neither would magical thinking of wishing or praying. And I realize that many of my thoughts were delusional or led to false assumptions. Making imaginary bargains, extrapolating from poor data, or speculating about the possibilities just generated endless possibilities that would never happen.

Let me give you one concrete example. Because I had a pain spasm every time my catheter was pulled or pushed I imagined that it was stuck to wounds within my urethra where healing and scabbing was taking place. I worried that pulling it out would be immensely painful, reopening the healing sites. I feared I’d need another catheter put right back in. I worried and thought about this for three days. Then Monday, the doctor pulled it right out with no pain, no fuss, and no bleeding. In other words, I worried for nothing.

In three days I theorized about endless possibilities — both positive and negative. Most of those thoughts was wasted thinking. As I wrote about earlier in “Expecting the Unexpected” I can’t predict the future. We can observe data to a small degree and act on it in small ways, but not in significant ways. For example, as my urine bag filled up I’d feel the need to pee. It would wake me up in the night just like when my bladder fills up. But I knew when I opened the tap on the urine bag the draining out of the urine would make a suction that caused a pain spasm. I deduced if I disconnected the bag’s hose to the catheter first that suction action wouldn’t affect me. That’s how far I could predict the future. Not much, huh?

Another example, I went back to the urologist on the 13th to hear the results of the biopsy. Of course, even though I’m not superstitious, I worried that might be a bad day to hear the report.

When the doctor told me I needed a biopsy weeks ago I realized that any speculation would be meaningless until I got the results. The answer would be like Schrodinger’s Cat — unknowable until I opened it. On the 13th the doctor told me the biopsy was clear. That was a huge relief. I can’t say I didn’t worry, but not much, most I spent a lot of time trying to imagine what I would do if the lab report had been positive.

We all think too much. We have so little control. We want to believe we have magical powers to control reality with our wishes, but we don’t. I know this, but I still wasted a lot of time on endless useless thinking. Another example, while waiting for my results I craved sweets, but I was afraid to eat them because I thought it would cause the biopsy to come back positive. When I saw the floor was dirty I thought if I don’t sweep it immediately my biopsy will come back positive. I know such thinking is crazy, yet knowing that doesn’t stop such thoughts.

We live in a highly deterministic reality even though we want to believe that mind over matter works. Religious people use the word faith but it’s use is not exclusive to theology. Throughout this whole process I kept trying to outthink my doctor even though I know nothing of urology. The reality is I have to put faith in modern medicine. I can’t think my way around it. I don’t have any alternatives. I’d love if prayer work and a personal God was taking care of me like my nurse, but there’s just no evidence for that. I’d love if I had great mental powers so my will could alter reality to my whims, but there is no evidence for that either.

Even the simple desire for modesty was beyond my control. My nurse saved me that day. She attended to all my needs while also helping others. She rushed from bay to bay but was always there when I needed help, which was often. She didn’t always close the curtain and I thought about saying something, but I realized it was too petty, too nothing. It was only my thoughts that made me worry about modesty. So I let it go. If people walking by wanted to look at me I didn’t care. Actually, I felt sorry for them having to see a old guy with a bloody tube coming out of his dick. That must have been revolting.

When it was all over I understood it was just a big painful inconvenience, the pain had been bearable. I could survive because I did. At the time I told myself I never wanted this to happen again. I still need my prostate trimmed, so I need to go through this all over again. And I will.

I don’t know if I can apply the lessons I’ve learned to the next time. I might still worry needlessly, still try to bargain, pray, read omens, and act on superstitions. The reality is we might never be able to control our thoughts even when we know they are wasted thoughts. Can we ever just accept reality?

This Covid crisis is a parallel example. Too many people want to reject reality and act on magical thinking. I keep hoping our whole society will become rational and think clearly, but isn’t that wishful thinking too? Especially, if I can’t think clearly myself.

JWH

Do Your Possessions Reflect Your Personality?

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, July 1, 2020

I love to peer at what’s behind people in Zoom and Facetime calls. This is true for the people I know, as well as famous people on TV. I wonder if what they own and how they decorate reflects much about their personality? I know I instantly like people who have shelves of books behind them, but then that’s what I have. Of course, now that Covid-19 has pushed so many people to appear from home I assume more and more people stage their background. I even see articles about how to look more professional on Zoom. And I know YouTubers carefully construct a set to present a creative image for their viewers.

Back in the 1960s, there was a slogan, you are what you eat. Odd, I’ve forgotten why we said that. In the 1970s I learned the term GIGO in computer school, an acronym for Garbage In Garbage Out. Now I wonder if we are what we own? Yet, how much can we guess about a person by looking over their shoulders in a Zoom video? Does this fall under psychological analysis, archeology/anthropology, art criticism, or tea leaf reading?

What do our possessions say about us? Are they like Rorschach images that reveal something about our personalities? The other day I was FaceTiming with my friend Janis who lives in Mexico. She’s only been in her current house a couple of months but she has it fixed up elegantly despite having to bring her possessions there one suitcase at a time. She was giving me a video tour and I looked for indications of her personality in the objects I could see. My first reaction was to think she had nothing personal on display, that it was all decoration because I was only seeing the artwork on the wall and crafts on the flat surfaces. Some were new, and some were from her old house I used to visit.

I then realized my initial thoughts were lame — I wasn’t looking deep enough. It occurred to me that Janis’ personality is reflected in the art objects she buys. She’s a lifelong traveler and all those things I first thought of as decorations were really her art collection from her travels. Each one meant something to her and had a story. For example, the picture at the top of the page. I asked her for its story and she replied:

I found this picture of a girl on a skateboard at an artists’ market in a Mexico City neighborhood sometime around 2003. I had worked for several months in 2001 as a flight attendant with Northwest Airlines but was furloughed after 9/11. As a laid-off employee I had flight benefits with Northwest for almost three years so I traveled to Mexico City several times during long holiday weekends. One weekend at the Bazar Sabado I found this framed painting and talked with the artist, from whom I had bought previously. In the airport the following day, I sat at the departure lounge with this 27” x 31” piece of art, made larger by a hotel bellman who had carefully wrapped it, wondering what would become of the girl in pink since the picture was way too big to bring aboard a plane, but since I was a furloughed flight attendant, the crew greeted me warmly and the pilots offered to store the piece in the cockpit.

Does everything we own have a wonderful story like this? Looking around my office here I see that I could probably tell a tale about everything in it. But to be honest, I’m not sure everything reflects my personality — at least not directly. For example, I have a picture of an old man praying. I am not religious, but my mother was, and this picture is something that used to belong to her. And that triggered another line of thinking. Whatever it meant to my mother is something different than what it reveals about me. But whatever anyone else sees into that picture can be completely different again.

Years before my mother died she started talking about how she wanted people to have certain belongings of hers. I’ve known many old people who have done this. I realize now that their possessions were an extension of their personality and they hoped to be remembered by them. Sadly, and I’m not sure I should admit it, but I didn’t keep most of the things my mom left. First of all, she left a whole house full of stuff. My sister and I took what meant something to each of us, but we gave most everything else away. Of my mother’s things I loved the photographs most. Becky, my sister seemed to be partial to mementos more. For many of the possessions my mother left, whatever they meant to her did not come through to me. She collected them before I was born, or after I left home. I didn’t have their story. I kept things like the quilts she made me because I knew their story. And my Mom wasn’t that sentimental sometimes, I once found Becky’s and my Baby Books in my Mom’s garbage can. I kidded her about that.

I’ve always worked at a different level. I don’t care much for things. But I do think photographs are very personal. I think the photographs we keep reveal a lot about us. Susan (my wife) and I have lots of family pictures on our walls, but we don’t collect artwork like Janis. I found seeing these two photos from Janis’ house far more revealing than her artwork.

Janis Mom and Dad

This is the story that goes with it:

These are my favorite photos of my parents. When my dad retired thirty years ago, he and my mother spent five weeks in London in a flat overlooking St. James Park where they could see the Royal Guards pass on the way to Buckingham Palace. This picture was taken in a Turkish restaurant where they ate often during their stay. This photo of my mother was taken when she was 18 years old and was singing with a band in Evansville, Indiana.

Janis has often told me many stories about her Mom and Dad, especially how her Mom used to be a singer and acted in the local theater until late in life. But maybe I’m being too basic in equating pictures of people as being more personal than the objects we own. It’s logical to think family is an extension of someone’s personality, it’s harder to think of the artwork they love as having a deeper personal meaning. Once I started thinking about Janis and how travel is the real love of her life, the artwork she picked up from around the world probably resonates deeply with her personality. But how much could I understand about Janis from just looking at her artwork? Don’t I also need the story?

I realize my casual efforts to decipher people by what they own were much too superficial, but it was educational. I then decided I need to reverse engineer the thought and ask: “Do things I own say anything about my personality?”

Of all my possessions, these are what I relate to the deepest way:

Books April 2020 cropped

Other than judging me a bookworm I’m not sure people can make much from seeing my books. Even though this collection has been curated from decades of experience and distilled down from thousands of other books, I’m not sure what anyone would learn about me by reading their titles or even reading their content. Like the art on Janis’ wall, they need a story. I used to believe the stories in the books reveal something about me, but I don’t think that’s true anymore. First, there are too many.

This gave me an idea for another project. List the exact short stories that would reveal the most about how I felt about this life. Here are three, “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany, “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” by Roger Zelazny, and “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes.

Before everything went digital I loved judging people by their books, albums, and movies they owned. I remember once going to William Faulkner’s house and looking at all his books, and I imagined a chunk of his personality was left in those bookcases. Like my Mom, this is how I used to want to be remembered after I died — even though I’m quite confident that a few weeks after my passing Susan would call up Salvation Army and have them haul it all away. And that’s the right thing to do.

By the way, this is how I remembered my mother on what would have been her 100th birthday. My father would have turned 100 in October and I plan to write my memories of him then. In both cases, I’m not sure I can ever know who my parents were. The possessions they left gave no real clues, and I now imagine they could be misleading in countless ways. It’s a shame they weren’t bloggers. That’s about the best way I could imagine for knowing who they were after they died. I wish all my friends were bloggers. They could at least post photos of what they own and give their stories.

I should give up guessing about people from their possessions (but I probably won’t). However, I am going to ask for more stories.

JWH