29 October 2009

Miss Manners Talks About California Weather

April or October?Growing up in California - a land of mostly immigrants tacked onto the left edge of an even more enormous land of mostly immigrants - you notice that certain migrants from the east coast are sometimes opinionated. It's hard to get affirmation from an east coast person, especially when it comes to evaluating the weather.

For example, if you say, It's cold today. They will reply, No it's not. They say these three words as if they were one syllable. So say it as fast as you can: Noitsnot. That's how they say it. Similarly, if you say, Gee, it's hot today, guess what they say? Noitsnot.

So it seems that because we lack humidity in the form of snow, and in the form of ...steam, we are not entitled to make any claims of extreme weather. Things are just too dry here, except when they're foggy, but fog, for some reason, doesn't count as snow. Mark Twain did say that the coldest winter he ever spent was a summer in San Francisco, but he was prone to hyperbole, and from the midwest.

I learned recently that when referring to trees on the east coast, you can't say trees, you have to say foliage. Which is just flashy. Sure, I remember years ago coming in for landing in Charlotte, North Carolina, looking down at the landscape and seeing that it looked really bizarre down there and asking what those things were. (I'm not making this up.) My husband took a quick peek out the airplane window, replied, "trees" and went back to sleep. He should have said foliage but perhaps thought I might not understand.

If someone put a blindfold on you for say several months, then gave you a California tree to look at, you would have no idea what the date was. California perennials are just too subtle, they're all bark, they can't say anything about the calendar. So even though you're in California, and you feel autumn in your bones, in your skin (dry), you see it in the bright thin light, you feel the crisp, cool air, just remember that it doesn't count for jack unless there's a lot of leafy east coast bling.

Miss Manners hopes you will keep all this in mind when you talk about the weather and the...plant life, in mixed company, in California.

(photo of redwood trees from Brooklyn Token's photostream on flickr)

08 October 2009

A Very Special Pill

From ‘The Happiness Hypothesis’ by Jonathan Haidt:

Suppose you read about a pill that you could take once a day to reduce anxiety and increase your contentment. Would you take it? Suppose further that the pill has a great variety of side-effects, all of them good: increased self-esteem, empathy, and trust; it even improves memory. Suppose, finally, that the pill is all natural and costs nothing. Now would you take it?

The pill exists. It is meditation.
This excerpt from Haidt's interesting book is fascinating. I love it because everything it says is true - medically documented even - and yet, practically speaking, it gives an entirely wrong impression. Why? Because the actual experience of taking a pill - which is how most Americans want to deal with life's problems - takes no effort at all, and no time. No time and no effort: this is almost a secret motto for Americans. This is our approach to vacations, to preparing and eating food, and to dealing with challenges, physical and mental - we like it fast and easy, as in, swallowing a hopefully not too large or bad-tasting pill. Don't get me wrong, pills can of course solve some problems! But Haidt seems to be suggesting here, if you want all these benefits, all you need to do is meditate, which takes no effort at all, and no time, just like taking a pill! Which is just bonkers, as the English say.

Of course this isn't what he is actually saying. He is saying that the benefits of the mythical pill match the benefits of meditation. He's saying, if you want these benefits, meditate and you will have them, that simple. But it's not that simple, at all, or not for most of us. There is a major difference practically speaking between taking a pill and meditating, that is, meditating generally involves a lot of time, and more than anything, persistent effort. Meditation means engaging our energy and interest, it means working with our own mind and body through direct experience, cultivating patience...it means taking time - to be corny for a moment - for peace. Meditation is a slow (and often very enjoyable) manual reorientation of oneself.

Whereas when we take a pill, in a way, we aren't doing anything at all.

01 October 2009


"Ever find yourself sitting down at the computer just for a second to find out what other movie you saw that actress in, only to look up and realize the search has led to an hour of Googling?"

"...our brains are designed to more easily be stimulated than satisfied."

The articles below are fascinating. They attempt to show the effects of technology - basically the internet - on our ability to read books and generally sustain attention; on our brains, especially pleasure centers; and on quality of life from a Buddhist perspective.

I got completely 'unwired' on a three month retreat this year, and life was just unbelievably long during that time. Each day seemed endlessly spacious - even though we had a full program. But what we were doing was simple, and slow. We meditated, did rituals, cooked food, looked at the sky, talked about the Dhamma, handwashed our clothes, and all nestled in the beautiful rocky mountains near PeƱarroya.

It didn't seem like we were on a retreat. It seemed like we had moved in together to a situation where we lived communally and did a lot of practice. We were 22 women doing almost everything together.

I returned to San Francisco in mid-August, and during that time I've been slowly building up and reinforcing my addiction to stimulation. The last few days I've been watching several episodes of 30Rock on my laptop at night before I go to bed. I can feel my experience of life becoming more and more superficial, a bit number, a bit more of a kind of electric buzz with no content always humming on the surface. As the first quote above notes, I look up actors on imdb. I interact with people a lot through email. It is a completely different life, often unpleasantly composed only of streams of bits and bytes, but somehow very hard to resist...

Is Google Making Us Stupid?
[the atlantic]

How the brain hard-wires us to love Google, Twitter, and texting. And why that's dangerous.

Awareness in our Technological World
...a look at the double-edged sword of our hyper-connected world.

[NY Times]

[Psychology Today]

See also my other post:

Addiction to Computers and Other Screens
(image by andy goldsworthy)
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