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Bloody Thursday

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Bloody Thursday memorial at the ULWU office, Mason & Beach streets, San Francisco, 2009. Photo by Liz Allardyce.

Today is the anniversary of Bloody Thursday, a dark day of San Francisco’s Maritime Strike in 1934. In yesterday’s many noisy proclamations of gratitude for our freedom in the U.S.A., few probably remembered Bloody Thursday. (I myself had barely heard of it.)

On that day, in the midst of a long-term strike, two men were shot and killed by police as the police attempted to break up strike barricades that prevented the flow of goods to and from the port via the Embarcadero. Later that night, the strikers were forced to withdraw by the use of the California National Guard, but sympathy generated by the funerals of the two dead men changed the general tenor in San Francisco, and soon the International Longshoremen’s Association (now the International Longshore and Warehouse Union) was joined in a general strike by dozens of area unions. Although the ultimate settling of the series of strikes all up and down the West Coast did not grant unions every concession they sought, and though there was violence well beyond Bloody Thursday, it is often credited as being a turning point that helped to establish the power of labor.

The ILWU’s “Why We Continue to Honor Bloody Thursday”
A Washington State history site on the overall West Coast strikes of 1934
Trailer for a PBS film on Bloody Thursday

When I was growing up, my parents both belonged to the National Education Association, but to me it was indistinguishable from the many other professional organizations to which they belonged. It was a time when what unions had accomplished in the previous decades was taken for granted, and I was hardly aware that my parents were union members. No more. Unions are now under attack again in our country, and those of us who rely on them to assure our minimally fair treatment and compensation have cause to be worried.

It is also one of those things that makes my jaw drop with disbelief that anyone who is a working person today can speak out against unions. Not that unions are perfect—they are subject to the same kind of corruption and mis-management as any other kind of human organization—but they are indeed a prime support of the so-called “freedom” that we celebrate, unless, that is, we only celebrate the freedom of the wealthy. More and more, it seems that large segments of our population somehow believe that wealth is justification for anything.

The implication of this, of course, is that the wealthy are actually better than the rest of us and deserve what they have. This is part and parcel of the acceptance of Mitt Romney noting that he “won’t apologize for being successful.” But what does it mean that millions of working-class Americans buy this line of reasoning, at least when it comes along with largely fake “conservative” emotional appeals. (See here for a more thorough analysis of Romney’s finances, just out from Vanity Fair.)

I am stumped by this phenomenon, but I also believe it is related to the positive psychology movement that indicates we have a “choice” about everything that happens to us. And it is in this way that I believe that Oprah, who is a big Obama supporter, nonetheless undermines reality-based politics and policies with her incessant, wealthy-woman insistence on the legitimacy of positive psychology. I guess she needs to believe that she deserves all of her wealth and that the rest of us could have it, too, if we only believed in ourselves. She retains one foot in the real-person world based on her modest beginnings, and therefore she can show some sympathy to others, but still… she’s forgotten too much.

In a recent conversation with an old friend, an incident from my past came up. Once, when I was helping to register voters in a poor neighborhood, one older black woman collapsed wearily into a chair as I went over to help her fill out the form. I gave her a pen and asked if she had any questions about anything the form said or asked. She sat back for a moment and eyed me up and down with clear suspicion on her face. “How is it that you here?” she asked me. “A nice, white lady like you—how is it that you on our side?”

Without hesitating, or even really thinking, I answered her. “Ever since I was twelve years old and diagnosed with diabetes, I have known that people don’t always get what they deserve.”

She nodded and turned back to filling out the form, gripping the pen and bearing down hard.

Truly, though, I don’t know. I had parents and a brother who understood this without having had diabetes, and grandparents who did, too. It was an answer, at least, that the black lady filling out the form could believe in, and that has often made me think about how she needed a reason to trust me. Comprehension of her situation without a bridge was inconceivable to her.

Yet, I remain flabbergasted that people buy into the story that everyone gets what they deserve. I want to start a new mantra:

If you are dumb enough to believe that everyone gets what they deserve, then I can’t wait for you to get what you deserve.

Of course, I know that it’s just as likely that you won’t.

Does anyone understand this belief better than I do? Is there any explanation for people who resent their own lot in life but who are willing to point to the even more downtrodden and say they must deserve it? Is there any effective way to point out the delusion inherent in this line of thought?

In my musings on the anniversary of Bloody Thursday, I wonder why so many want to strip away protections from others rather than extending them to more. I wonder why if they don’t feel they have what they deserve in terms of job security and working conditions, they think that others shouldn’t have it either. I wonder that those who have health insurance want it denied to anyone else, and I wonder even more at those without it who don’t want to be “forced” to share the financial consequences of their health risks. I wonder at working people’s susceptibility these days to being divided and conquered by the wealthiest of the wealthy, whose only interest is in maintaining their own power, their freedom to do to the rest of us what they will and to use us for their own ends, their freedom to take away ours.

Freedom in this country at least theoretically means that people have the opportunities to pursue health and happiness. The growing income inequity impinges on that, as does a lack of basic healthcare provisions for all citizens. We need to make sure that we all have those opportunities, not just a select, self-appointed few.

I think in the future, I will celebrate July 5 right along with July 4. They seem to me two sides to the same coin of freedom–freedom to rise a little bit as much as the freedom to accumulate vast wealth unimpeded.

Little Murders

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I happened to mention to someone yesterday that I had written my previous post about dog poop, and that person exclaimed, “Oh, like Elliott Gould in Little Murders. He plays a photographer who has made dog poop his subject.”

I had never seen Little Murders, a 1971 satirical film directed by Alan Arkin and adapted by Jules Feiffer from his original play. The movie featured cameos for Donald Sutherland and Alan Arkin and starred Elliott Gould and Marcia Rodd as Alfred and Patsy, a pair of mis-matched lovers. When I looked it up, I just had to watch the whole thing, and it’s all available on YouTube, albeit in 16 installments.

The installment I’ve included above occurs early on in the film and features Albert meeting Patsy’s family and explaining his career choice to them. It’s a great little mini-commentary on the commercial art world. It also distills the main conflict of the first half of the movie—the fact that Alfred is a devoted “apatheist,” whereas Patsy wants to inspire him to feel again and to “fight” against a world gone sour. It’s a classic “optimist” vs. “pessimist” argument, and makes fun of both extremes. It is striking, however, that, at least for the first half of the film, Alfred, though the pessimist, seems more at peace and more sanguine than the passionate, smiling Patsy, who spends a lot of time yelling and pushing at him.

Little Murders is set in the time it was made—the early nineteen-seventies—when New York really seemed to be at low ebb. The dark atmosphere that can’t keep Patsy from waking up with a smile is filled with random murders (including that of one of her brothers), assaults in the street (Alfred is regularly beat up), power black-outs, frequent threatening anonymous phone calls, and the constant wailing of sirens. Patsy has to take Alfred out to the country to teach him to have fun.

But it’s also a time of social upheaval. When Patsy and Alfred decide to marry, they have to cast about to find a minister who will agree not to mention God in the ceremony, and it ends up taking place in a broken-down shell of a church with sitar music as accompaniment and the “outing” of Patsy’s brother, Kenny, as gay. Donald Sutherland, as the minister, delivers a hilarious talk about marriage, which I include below to honor my recent anniversary.

After that, the film takes a darker turn. It becomes the kind of comedy that doesn’t make you laugh. It’s funny, but painfully so. I won’t include any spoilers, but the latter part of the film (segment 14) includes a speech by Patsy’s father that seems more relevant today than ever, at least because of the contrast between how it must have been received then and how we live now. It’s a speech about how crazy the world has gotten and how he wants his freedom back—through the use of video surveillance and a system of fences around the block and IDs required for passage in and out (we didn’t really have the term “gated communities” back then). At the time, I’m sure that struck everyone as hilarious—to invoke security measures as a return to freedom—so it struck me now that now we actually live in that very state. We have given up our privacy for our safety and can no longer think of the possibility as humorous and far-fetched. It’s reality.

No doubt that’s a sad trade. Little Murders, however, notes other trades we’ve been willing to make. The characters in the film in the end are all corrupted by the violence around them, and the satire points to the absurdity of “fighting” in order to be happy, perhaps even of a certain kind of limited happiness (as expressed by Patsy’s mother at the very end). It doesn’t provide any easy answers to the conundrum, and this is one reason why it is such a fine piece of satire, which, in spite of its obvious time-limitations, still has a lot to offer.

Three Stories About Poop

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From an 1899 edition of The Emperor’s New Clothes, illustrated by Helen Stratton.

Today, I take a turn from the sacred and beautiful (kd lang, Leonard Cohen, Maya Lin, Pablo Neruda) to the profane and silly. It is time for a summer change of mood.

I have always loved Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes. In my younger years, I identified with the child who cried out, when no one else would, that the Emperor was “wearing nothing at all.” Now that I am older, I sometimes still identify with the child who finds the b.s. absurd and sometimes with the naked Emperor—if only the world could see my finery even though it exists mostly in my mind, if only I didn’t wish to believe in a more wonderful version of things than what is true.

As a writer, I am always fascinated by the vagaries of human behavior, and the way that expectations interact with interpretations often rises to the top of the list. Saturday, when Bruce and I drove around Orlando doing errands, we stumbled into a set of humorously-themed reminiscences about this very thing and had a good laugh.

* * *

Much can be disguised with chocolate.

When I was growing up, we fortunately had lots of books around the house, and one story from one of these books came back to me when I was broken-hearted by a hapless fellow during grad school. I recalled the story from one of Willie Morris’s memoirs about growing up in Yazoo, Mississippi—probably his first, North Toward Home. Morris would later become well-known for his book and the subsequent movie My Dog, Skip, but even earlier he was fond of tales of rambunctious shenanigans from an earlier era. He particularly loved dog stories.

The vignette involved a schoolteacher or some other figure of authority who had punished Morris as a boy. He struck upon a perfect revenge, and wrapped up a beautiful package that he sent as a gift through the mail: he filled the pretty little box with dog shit from his faithful companion pet. Appropriate hilarity ensued.

I never acted on my own desire for revenge—such pranks are no longer considered harmless—but I spent a good bit of time fantasizing about taking cat turds out of the litter box with toothpicks, slicing them up, and dipping them in melted chocolate so they would look like fine homemade candies. I just knew that if I left a pretty box of these bon-bons on my ex-boyfriend’s front porch, he and his housemates would dig right in. This household of men-boys had several female “friends” who would leave homemade goodies and farm produce for them in a hippie-cool people-alternative culture version of the age-old adage that a way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.

Over and over, I imagined the horrified surprise on the faces of those guys—the way they would smugly accept the anonymous gift, thinking it their fine lot in life to have such offerings at their doorstep, how whoever found it would show it to the others and they would gather around for the greedy unwrapping, how they would ooh and ahh, and then one would reach out with his long fingers and pop a candy in his mouth. I even thought that perhaps I could make the turd bits small enough that it would take a few bites for reality to dawn.

Sometimes, even I, all Miss Genuine though I generally am, see the advantages in creating mistaken perceptions. This little idea made me laugh enough to get me through a tough time.

* * *

“It’s too big to be a dog’s.”

My step-granny’s face expressed genuine horror one morning when she returned from a short walk before breakfast. One summer week in the sleepy year before I finished high school and went off to college, Billie and my granddad were visiting from Middle Tennessee. She stood in the kitchen with her mouth open in disbelief.

“What’s wrong?” my father asked her.

It was as if she had lost the ability to speak. She started and stopped a few times. Finally, she shook her head, and said, “Well, I don’t know how to say this. But apparently someone—some person—has taken a crap right out in the middle of the street in front of the mailbox. It’s too big to be a dog’s. Who would do such a thing?”

“What on earth?” My father frowned and looked at my brother and me, as though we would know. Shocked horror went around the table. My brother and I were “good kids,” and we’d grown up in suburbia, not a Willie Morris small town.

“I didn’t know what to think,” Granny Billie said, her pretty mouth pursed. “I’ve never seen anything like that.” She shook her head. Since Billie was a nurse, we knew she had seen her fair share of human excrement and should be a good judge.

After breakfast, my father went out with a spade and bag to clean it up. He eventually returned to the house as stunned as Billie. “It looked as though someone just dropped it right there,” he told my mother in hushed tones.

The incident haunted us all for several days—a tiny bit like having a cross burned in your yard, I thought at the time. Who could hate us so much? Since we didn’t have any real candidates on a list of enemies that bitter, we speculated that someone else had been out walking and just had an overwhelming urge, barely getting their trousers down in time. But we couldn’t imagine that they’d leave it there or not at least dash behind some shrubbery. Billie quit taking morning walks, and we all stayed just a little closer to home, the mystery hanging in the air as thickly as any smell.

A few days later, however, we learned the truth—our neighbors the Griegers had just gotten a new German Shepherd after the death a few weeks earlier of old Blitz. The dog evidently was adjusting to a new diet with prolific poops and was still oriented toward using a paved kennel-floor for his business rather than woods and leafy ground.

The question remained, of course, why the Griegers, perfectly respectable folks who we knew quite well, had left it there. I have to say that we always wondered. I still do.

* * *

Since Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 Fountain, it’s hard to determine the bounds of art.


One semester when Bruce was living in New York city on a sabbatical from Augustana College where he taught, his friend Keith visited him from Alberta. They embarked on a tour of numerous art galleries, painting being Keith’s profession, and gallery walks being one of their favorite city activities.

At one point, they stepped into a vast, echoing gallery space and began walking around. No one seemed to be there—not a gallery clerk in sight—but a large pile of what was apparently dog poop sat neatly in the middle of the floor, still seemingly steaming.

Bruce looked at Keith, and Keith looked at Bruce, and they both looked at the pile. There were several sculptures scattered about the room, and they looked to see if any of the others had kinetic properties such as steam or smell. They leaned over the pile to see if it might be made of anything but the real stuff.

Was it dog poop or was it art? They didn’t feel quite sure and laughed over the conundrum.

Soon enough, the gallery host returned to the room and came toward them with the usual slightly officious style. As he crossed the expanse of floor toward Bruce and Keith, his eyes encountered the pile, and he jumped back with a gasp.

“Oh, my,” he said, “how awful.” He ran to the back for a roll of paper towels and a mop.

* * *
Sometimes, I try to remember that even mis-apprehension can be productive, as long as it makes us wonder about the world around us. This week, I’m going to remember these stories and try to take a closer look around. Even though I am a devotee of something called “the genuine,” it is good to remember that it’s a wonderful and often hilarious part of life that things are not always what they seem to be.

Maurice Sendak

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Over the past few days, Maurice Sendak’s name and many accolades in his honor have been on the air and in print due to his death on Tuesday at the age of 83. I don’t have much to add to those surveys of his life and career, so I will link to a few of them below.

But I can add that, though I hadn’t dwelled on Sendak in years, he was a great influence on me, and I was in the very large camp of enthusiasts about his work. The New York Times obituary notes that his “books were essential ingredients of childhood for the generation born after 1960 or thereabouts, and in turn for their children,” and I was one of those children (born exactly in 1960). For many long years–long after I moved on from story-hour childhood–I had a Sendak poster on my wall—the one with Max swinging from the trees with his monster friends. I still have it tucked away somewhere, those nightmares and dreams of childhood put away but not forgotten.

It strikes me, too, that Sendak was a person after my own heart and in keeping with the themes of this blog. He was indeed a Joyous Crybaby, one who brought the sorrows of children into the light and made it okay, even imperative, to acknowledge them. It’s hard to imagine how it is that so many children have loved this quality in his work for so many years and yet so many adults have grown up to retreat into a hyper-cheerful denial with their memories of childhood’s insights buried all too far in the closet. Sendak believed in the “rightness of children’s perceptions,” and he has often noted how the demons of his own childhood—the Great Depression, World War II and the Holocaust, the kidnapping of the Lindberg baby, and his own experience of measles, pneumonia, and scarlet fever at a young age—did not go unnoticed in his own psyche. If, as Sendak’s work has always asserted, children can and do face the demons in their world, shouldn’t adults be able to acknowledge their existence, too?

Sendak was a touchstone of genuine emotion. He will be sorely missed.

Washington Post (contains numerous good links to other commentary)

New York Times

NPR’s Fresh Air

An Encounter with Buddhist Meditation

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In my ongoing quest for understanding about the life of the feelings, yesterday I attended a half-day event on “Dealing with Destructive Emotions.” Now, this was not some egregiously awful, dumbed-down positive psychology event, but a “meditation workshop” led by Dr. Barry Kerzin, personal physician of the Dalai Lama and a Buddhist monk.

I had had the pleasure of joining a group that took Dr. Kerzin to dinner on a previous visit to UCF last April, and I found him charming, compassionate, and intelligent. He had been particularly kind to me in that vulnerable time after my brain hemorrhage—that time when some people were so very kind and others showed their cruelty and indifference so clearly. I also know and admire the two organizers of the event, both of whom are leaving UCF for better positions elsewhere, and I wanted to support their final efforts here.

In addition, though I’m not a Buddhist and I can’t even claim to be all that knowledgeable, I was motivated to attend because I find much appealing in the Buddhist approach to happiness. I’ve posted before about the Buddhist concept of self-compassion, and there are other ways in which I think the Buddhists have it right. For one, they readily acknowledge that suffering is also a part of life, and they refrain from the blame that so many purveyors of popularized positive psychology allow themselves to indulge in.

For instance, in the talk I link to above, Dr. Kerzin cites a study about women with breast cancer and happiness. What’s different about this from so many of the kinds of “if you’re happier you will be healthier and live longer” assertions is that Kerzin notes not that the happier patients who lived longer were somehow innately more happy as persons (and therefore superior), but that they received tender loving care and that it was this compassion that contributed to their happiness and better health outcomes.

I think this is a radically important difference. In Buddhist thinking, we are responsible for helping ourselves be happier, but we are just as called upon to help other people. That mutuality and interdependence is key to keeping the search for happiness from becoming a weapon against those less fortunate than oneself. This kind of nuance distinguishes many Buddhist teachings from a lot of junk positive psychology, and so I feel myself more open to its strivings for a better world.

But I also attended with some apprehension based on my own make-up as a human being. As I put it to my husband yesterday, my pathology is such that group hugs just make me feel more alone and alienated than almost anything else. I am squeamish about crowds of all sorts, and the most common of types—the roaring audience of the sporting event or the rock concert—I find downright revolting, terrifying, really. Even a lecture given and a meditation practice led by someone I find intelligent and compelling can make me feel queasy in a large-group setting. When everyone else is sharing life-affirming togetherness, I usually feel more and more as though I don’t belong anywhere. So, I went with my mind as far open to that sort of thing as I could pry it, though I knew I would find myself uncomfortable. I assured myself that I nonetheless would be able to use it as a point of useful contemplation. Everything, as they say, is grist.

The day was divided into three segments, one before lunch and two after lunch. Each hour, Dr. Kerzin would talk for a while, take questions, and then lead a brief meditation.

In the opening session, Dr. Kerzin talked for quite a bit about where he had recently traveled, where he was traveling next, and the few days he had spent on a silent retreat near Deland, writing, reading, and kayaking. He talked a bit about his encounter on the St. John’s River with an alligator, which he would touch upon throughout the talk.

What I noticed right away was my own destructive impatience. I wanted Dr. Kerzin to start getting to the point, to give me something that I could take away from this talk. He wasn’t, after all, talking in any way about how to deal with destructive emotions, but about the pleasures and challenges of his lifestyle.

After a while, he transitioned into talking about the way that Buddhism defines “destructive emotions” or kleshas in Sanskrit. (He gave us Tibetan terms as well, but I could not venture to spell those.) He spoke of the three roots of these kleshas—anger, desire, and distorted ignorance—from which negative feelings arise. This all seemed obvious to me—of course, while I understand the need to define things clearly, I felt I knew what destructive emotions are, including the ones I was having in that moment. I wanted not to define them, but to work on “dealing with” them.

By the end of the day, I would realize, of course, that in itself this was a productive lesson for me. As the day went on, it dawned on me how utterly exhausted I would be by giving a program that lasted so many hours, especially one where my presence and wisdom might be sources of expected sustenance for so many. And yet, Dr. Kerzin did not show signs of exhaustion or stress. The slow pace of his talk, rather, allowed a relaxed approach that might help prevent burn-out. I will think much more about this as I return to teaching next year with a desire not to kill myself with frenzied overwork.

Kerzin’s entire first segment, it seems to me now, was about sticking with things and how you can do that in spite of impatience. He noted several times the Dalai Lama’s fondness for saying, “Never give up,” and he went through a long and rather elaborate description of various phases of awareness and practice—at first, you may have an intellectual understanding, and only later will that become felt or experienced. You start with an awareness that there’s another possible way of responding other than getting angry, and from the brief “sigh of relief” that can give, you keep trying and move on to being able to laugh at appearances, then to a point when “love boils up” and the conflictual appearances subside.

As I sat in the ballroom, I contemplated a task that faces me today—calling the health insurance company and the hospital about bills that I’ve been receiving and don’t understand. If there is one thing that sends me into a rage, it is dealing with the medical world in our bureaucratized and profit-motivated system. The last time I talked with someone in the billing department at the hospital and he kept repeating, “That’s our policy,” I ended up calling him a drone. He got all insulted and told me he was a human being. I told him he didn’t act like one. It was a terrible impasse all around. We’ll see if I can do better today, because one thing is certain, and it’s that my fury about this system does me no good on a daily basis. I need to transform that fury into larger action rather than letting it eat me up or letting it make me mean.

At one point, as in the video above, Kerzin asked the audience if there was anyone who had let go of all of his or her anger. There were actually a couple of people who raised their hands. Perhaps it was then I began to feel alienated. How can anyone claim that? I felt suddenly as though I were in a room of poseurs, fake Buddhas. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to have no anger left in me, only what it is like to keep trying to let go of it. Probably, if I’m honest, I’m not even fully convinced that I should let go of all of it.

Kerzin ended the first session by taking some questions and then leading us in a five-minute meditation, starting and ending with a toll of a chime, in which we were to empty our minds and concentrate only on our breathing. Once, years ago, when I regularly practiced yoga, I could sometimes do this. Lately, I can only observe as the thoughts fly in and out of my brain like so many pieces of confetti. If meditation could produce a panic attack, I’m a likely candidate these days.

Once dismissed for lunch, I discovered my blood sugar was a low 63, and I stumbled out onto the empty campus and found a vending machine. No doubt the low affected my responses, and I hoped I’d feel better later on. I had told myself that I would go to the library over the hour-and-a-half-long lunch period, but it was closed for semester break, and so I sat on a bench and enjoyed the sunshine until the ants started biting my ankles.

As I watched two middle-school-aged boys playing in the fountain, I contemplated Kerzin’s talk. I was grateful at his nuance. It seemed to me that some of the audience questions had been agenda-driven and tended toward the oversimplifications that so offend me. Kerzin always made important distinctions. “Anger,” he noted, “needs to be distinguished from strength and courage and passion. The problem with anger is that its motivation is harm or revenge, even directed at oneself.”

“Fear,” he noted, on the other hand, “can in itself be sensible.” When you face an alligator, he noted, some fear is a correct response and can keep you alive. “Fear becomes a problem when it becomes habitual anxiety that doesn’t serve to remove you from the danger.”

Dr. Kerzin started the afternoon sessions with reminders once again to be patient and to be gentle with ourselves and others. Once again, he made a distinction important to me: If you ever think you’ve “got it,” he said, you are falling into a trap, the trap of arrogance. He emphasized the lack of right answers and formulas.

He posed the question of how it is that distorted ignorance appears and noted that it’s built in to the assumptions we live with and are born into. Then he used an acronym—PPI—for permanent, partless, and independent. Leisurely, he discussed how people assume these qualities for themselves and other things in the world.

Another destructive emotion invaded me at this point… I felt a little bored. Certainly, on an intellectual basis, I have understood a world that is ever-changing, multi-faceted, and interdependent for a long time. True that I often don’t experience it that way, and in that ballroom I felt atomistic as can be. But this wasn’t introducing me to new concepts.

I felt relieved when we moved on to the practice of a new meditation—that he called “tonglen”—where you breathe in the sorrow or pain (of one person or animal or a group or opened to the general sorrow of the world), and then transform it on the out breath to healing love to alleviate that suffering. It was striking to me throughout the day that Dr. Kerzin included animals as sentient beings, especially because I was once again very worried about my elderly cat, who had done so well over the past couple of weeks but who has now taken another down turn. I was grateful to be able to focus my meditation at least in part on my little cat.

After this second meditation, while we took a short break, I also thought about how it is that I am a practice person rather than an intellectual one. This, of course, is always a factor in academia and one of the reasons why I seldom feel truly at home there. Academia is a traditionally scholarly place, and scholars are oriented toward concepts and ideas, whereas artists of various stripes are oriented toward practice.

This led me to thinking about myself in the context of a large lecture hall full of people. I feel so fortunate to teach the generally small and often truly intimate creative writing courses that I teach. For some in the ballroom yesterday, there was a sense of closeness and sharing encouraged by Dr. Kerzin, but because I am so used to the much more intimate workshop setting, it continued to feel rather abstract and distant to me. This made me grateful for the usual practice of which I’m a part, and reinforced once again my sense of the value and specialness of that method. There are workshops that do unfortunately become the site of intimate brutalization, but for the most part I think the creative writing workshop is a primary location of exploration and sharing of human qualities. When Kerzin mentioned how in his study with his Buddhist teachers, there was often a lot of laughter, I thought of my workshops.

The last hour of the day, Dr. Kerzin mostly took questions from the audience. Several people seemed to me again to have come with agendas—to show off their knowledge, to question him about Taoist principles (not his area), to demonstrate to this wise man how good they were. One even seemed to have that good old positive psychology agenda. I had heard him during the break talking about studies that supposedly showed that people could affect reality with the strength of their thoughts. He asked about the Buddhist precept that “nothing exists.”

Dr. Kerzin gently corrected him. The Buddha, he noted, taught that nothing exists in itself, but he also taught that there is a reality behind the common reality based on experience. The way that we commonly perceive things may be an illusion, but a belief that nothing exists at all would be considered nihilism, and is not a tenet of most kinds of Buddhism. (See also, the third paragraph in the Second Dharmachakra here.) This is another one of those oversimplifications that tend to infest people’s thinking, and I was grateful he pointed that out.

We ended the day with a walking meditation, in which we all stood, found a spot in the room and began walking as slowly as possible, paying attention to the way our feet moved and touched the carpet. This was delightfully new for me. Sitting meditation was always hard for my fluttering mind, but recently has also become physically hard for me with my back aches. Many of the yoga practices I used to do to work on my sense of balance (such as the tree pose), I simply can’t hold now. Even walking itself has sometimes become painful with my arthritic foot.

I found it amazingly challenging to walk so slowly, and it proved a great balance exercise. It also was easy on my foot, as the slowness prevented any pounding of my bones on the floor. Perhaps it was also true for me that the activity helped calm and focus my mind, so that I felt more meditative than I usually ever accomplish sitting.

Besides, as the featured video below will show, it’s wacky to do in close proximity to others, and I am always glad to greet the wacky. Finally, I enjoyed all the other people in the room, their various and varied bodies moving around the space, encountering each other and yet not colliding, all of us doing the best we could do at this deceptively simple task.

It was a good way to end the day, and I came home with plenty to think about and the empty spaces in my head in which to do so.

I enjoyed the walking meditation so much, I’ll include links to a few more videos about it in addition to the one below.

Minimalist instructions (1 minute, 40 seconds)
Calming verbal instructions with pretty pictures (3:12)
Monk Thich Nhat Hanh demonstrating and discussing walking meditation (5:44)
Longer step-by-step instructions (10:00)
Perky, Westernized instructions (2:49 plus ad)

First, They Came for the Romantic Relationships…

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Conversation has become a luxury. The Conversation by Kobe de Peuter.

I think of my generation as the one in which the meaning of “love” shifted and became larger (a good thing) but also more confusing (a bad thing). My female college friends and I both celebrated and mourned the loss of the clarity that most of our mothers seemed to have about what love meant. To them, it meant marriage.

To us, it meant so many other things. For one thing, marriage wasn’t available for those among us who were gay. Yet it was becoming clearer and clearer that gay love was a reality that needed to be acknowledged. And at the same time, our heterosexual relationships were undergoing massive upheavals—marriage, though we didn’t wish to deny it to our gay friends, seemed to many heterosexual women like a “property relationship.” We wanted our love to be free, not attached to economic or child-rearing promises.

The men I knew often took perhaps unfair advantage of this. Even when what they felt was clearly not love to them, they might claim to love us, but to just not to want to participate in the strangling institution of marriage. For the most part, women still wanted to be loved. This made for a lot of broken hearts, and many women eventually “got over” their liberation from marriage. Women and men (gay, straight, and bisexual) began to redefine marriage in multiple ways that (we hope) retain the goodness of an institution of intimate commitment and jettison the woman-down or gays-denied aspects.

Not that the redefining of romantic love is over, but lately what I find shifting more radically is the meaning of friendship.

This weekend I read an article in the May 2012 issue of the Atlantic called “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” by Stephen Marche. It is one of many litanies lately about the dangers of our reliance on social networks on the Internet. Bruce also sent me a link of a TED talk by psychologist Sherry Turkle, who is mentioned in the Atlantic article and who has changed her once-upbeat take on the social network into a lament for the depth and spontaneity of real conversation.

These two commentaries bring so much to my mind. Mainly, they resonate. I myself can experience great loneliness in spite of the ever-enlarging circle of Facebook and blogging friends that I have. Blogging sometimes brings about more substantive exchanges, but even that is not real companionship.

And I have noticed that even my dearest friends no longer want to talk. Now, I am a “long-talker,” as my boss once told me, and I have tired people out for many years in that regard. But I feel more and more removed from this quick-take social interaction that has become the norm. I worry that my pleasure in and need for complex, digressive, even desultory conversation is becoming more and more anachronistic. My friends love me, and I love them, but we don’t have time to talk with each other. Conversation has become the ultimate luxury.

People don’t even like length in writing any more, as literary magazines shrink and shrink the length of manuscripts they will even consider for publication and as those of us teaching creative writing shrink and shrink the length of assignments we accept from our students because we have more and more students and therefore fewer and fewer hours to devote to critique of their work. We indeed are living in an aphoristic time.

Turkle, in her talk, reports that one 18-year-old, “who uses texting for almost everything,” told her “someday, someday, but certainly not now, I would like to learn to have a conversation.” And it is true that sometimes my students today have a hard time participating in a workshop at all. I have even had a few students so afraid that I had to coach them outside of class about how to manage to participate in class. I had to teach them how to have a conversation.

So, another thing that came to my mind is the continuing value of the creative writing workshop model. In creative writing workshops, we still talk. This may be on its way to becoming a lost art, but it may also be something that we should emphasize as part of the value of a liberal arts education. Rare skills can become extremely valuable, after all. And the magic that can sometimes happen in a creative writing workshop (the minds melding, the contributions mixing, the starts and stops coalescing into something new that no one thought of alone) will never, I believe, be replaced by even the most detailed online critique.

That some 18-year-old, who probably has hundreds of “friends” on Facebook, can have all those friends without conversations strikes me as odd. Yet I know that I have some friends on Facebook I have never met, or have met once or twice, or who simply “liked” some brief quip I made in response to someone else’s post.

And this phenomenon of friends we don’t really know is more and more being extended to relationships that have nothing to do with actual friendship and everything to do with business. I offer a mere two examples, though I could go on all day with more:

* I just recently had to purchase a new insulin pump. I’ll save the internecine details of this most recent set of frustrating health care exchanges for another time, but here I at least want to object to the constant reference by the insulin pump company to their being my “partner.” In fact, the company website refers to us as “partners for life.”

Forgive me if I view this with cynicism. I had to order a new pump because my previous one went completely kaput a few days after the warranty expired, not because I desired any of the minimally new features. (Most of which, I am finding, have created a kind of neurotic, nagging, numbing effect with lots of extra alarms.) Since the new pump takes a while to “process,” the company offered a loaner pump for the duration. However, they informed me that if I canceled my order, and didn’t buy my next pump from them, I would be charged $3600 for 90 days with the loaner.

If this is a “partnership,” it’s a coercive one.

* At least the pump company still uses a neutral word like “partner.” In other business news, however, Brighthouse has launched a new advertising campaign in which they pull out all the stops and go right to calling themselves my “friend,” your friend, everybody’s friend. That friendship could be offered to all comers for the price of subscribing to Brighthouse services totally perverts the meaning of the word, of course.

At first the only clue to the identity of who was paying for these prime-time and expensive Hello Friend ads was the combination of blue and yellow in the text portion of the ads. Now, they are gradually introducing ads that move from soft-touch pleasantries to out and out courting. Brighthouse wants to be your friend, the ads say.

How, I wonder, can anyone take this seriously?

Bruce tells me that the campaign is likely a response to the horrible customer service reviews that Brighthouse has received in the past on Internet complaint sites. “Brighthouse,” he said, “gives notoriously bad service. There are all kinds of comments like, ‘DirectTV is bad, but Brighthouse is the worst.’”

In fact, the campaign may actually indicate an actual change in policy that could be important. This would never have occurred to me if the folks who helped put in our new flower and garden beds last week hadn’t accidentally cut our Brighthouse cable. When we realized what had happened, I thwacked myself in the forehead repeatedly, cursing the fact that I’d mistakenly believed all the cables were away from our dig areas. How much would they have to dig up again, and how much would this foolish oversight cost us?

Within 24 hours, the repairman came, made a quick fix, and charged us nothing. I was so relieved not to be punished that I have to admit I felt almost like this man was my friend.

The ads, however, have made me feel simply that the world is more pathetic than ever. I wondered if it’s true that people are just getting more and more disconnected from other real humans and more lonely than ever. That such ads could be deemed effective seems to coincide with the research that Turkle and others report about heavy Facebook users being lonelier than those who use it less or not at all. And with the fact that more and more people use it regularly.

In addition, I think it’s a documentable fact that more and more of our daily needs are met through these large corporate entities. There are few family-owned corner grocery stores, gas stations, drug stores, hardware stores, and pet food stores, so we don’t have even the same kind of superficial acquaintances that we know over a long period of time and that might bloom into something like genuine friendliness, even if not intimate knowledge. I visit the same stores over and over again and hardly ever see the same clerk twice because they are chains that move people around and that people leave at the next best opportunity.

We also have witnessed the rise of various kinds of stealth marketing, where people who purport to be our friends are actually (or also) trying to use us for financial ends. To me, these practices are particularly heinous because I like to know when a spade is a spade. But many young people today live lives much more merged with advertising than an oldster like me is comfortable with. They see nothing wrong with defining themselves with logos, with trying out free sample products and sharing them with friends, and so on. For them, there is no private sphere.

(And there are so many how-tos and analyses of these kinds of marketing that I can’t find a single link to represent them, but if you’re interested, the key terms are stealth marketing, viral marketing, word-of-mouth marketing. And don’t forget product placement!)

These secret agendas also exist in terms of pyramid schemes like Amway, Landmark Forum, and Stargate. Whenever someone approaches you with some ulterior motive, there’s a kind of strain. This person is not approaching with an open mind or with curiosity, but with a pre-determined agenda: to get you to join so that they can get a discount on their own self-help seminars.

One of the most disturbing trends noted by Stephen Marche in the Atlantic is this: “In 1985, only 10 percent of Americans said they had no one with whom to discuss important matters, and 15 percent said they had only one such good friend. By 2004, 25 percent had nobody to talk to, and 20 percent had only one confidant.”

And so we also pay others to listen to us. Marche also reports on the dramatic rise in the numbers of psychologists, other kinds of therapists and counselors, and life coaches. This marketplace is more legitimate—at least most of the time you know what you are paying for and it’s about your own needs, whereas the stealth marketers are lying to you to meet their needs. But sometimes even that gets confusing. In my dealings with Landmark Forum, I encountered several members who had also become independent life coaches—they had little in the way of credentials I would recognize for advising others about their lives, but there is no licensing necessary for life coaching. Even in the realm of professional “friends,” the stakes can get confused these days.

What many commentators have begun to notice, including Stephen Marche and Sherry Turkle, is that what many of these online friendship forums promote is a kind of uber cheerfulness, an editing of our personal lives into success stories and personal p.r. campaigns.

I think, however, this trend goes far beyond and certainly doesn’t originate in online social networks. Landmark Forum, Oprah, Dr. Oz, Kris Carr, and the whole host of self-help gurus have over the past decade moved so deeply into the superficial tenets of positive psychology that this kind of self-editing has become ubiquitous. Everyone, nowadays, fears being a “drag,” whether in person or online.

Marche’s article thankfully makes this connection, and he cites a recent study by Iris Mauss and others at the University of Denver that finds that valuing and seeking happiness can doom people to disappointment. Mauss and her fellow psychologists all consider themselves to be working in the arena of positive psychology, and in other writings that I found, she seems a true believer, even in “positive neuroscience.” They apparently expected happiness to be like other goals—those that value academic achievement usually make better grades in school. But they found the opposite—at least in situations of low stress, the valuation of happiness correlated with lower happiness and life satisfaction and higher symptoms of depression.

So, I believe that what Stephen Marche points out about Facebook’s pitfalls is actually something that spreads beyond the online environment. I suppose it’s a chicken-and-egg question whether our online habits have created the changes in our psyches concerning friendship, but I do know that it’s not only online that this issue exists.

However, in a live chat about his Atlantic article, Marche just now referred to another article he wrote—for Toronto Life—about his institution of a Digital Sabbath. I know that I agree with him fully that simple pleasures have become filled with distraction. He mentions playing Legos with his son; for me, this shows up in a variety of ways. How often do I sit quietly with a cat on my lap without checking Facebook and email on my phone every few minutes? How many nights do I wake up and cuddle with a Scrabble game rather than with my sleeping husband? How often when I’m talking on the phone with my mother am I also answering emails?

It seems a supreme irony that we learn so much on Facebook and other online forums and yet also isolate ourselves this way. We won’t give them up, and doing so even on a Sabbath seems unlikely for many. I do hope, however, that we can strive to use them more thoughtfully. No doubt, the meaning of “friend” has changed permanently. But it’s good to remember what’s at the core of it. Else, I fear, friendship will see a worse fate than the changes wrought in the world of romantic love. Sex, after all, still cements romance in the physical world. Friendship may not have such a tangible hold.

Coffee Shop Consequences

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I like my decaf coffee as strong as any caffeine-lover.

I’m about to offend some of you addicts: coffee addicts in particular. I put it this way because what I want to say is that caffeine is a drug, and it’s a drug whose consequences are mightily ignored. I had reason to contemplate this fact yesterday because I went into a coffee shop.

The man behind the counter was about my age—the hair drawn back into a pony tail had grayed, and wrinkles crisscrossed his forehead and cheeks. When I entered through the back door (from the parking lot), he was seated at a large sink washing plates. He looked up sideways at me, but didn’t move. The recognition that passed over his face wasn’t real recognition, just typing. Immediately, I could see he didn’t like me.

Mind you, I had never been in this coffee shop before. I knew of it from my students, who sometimes spoke of its open-mic nights and artsy vibe. The only reason I had stopped there was because it sat directly between the hardware store, where I had gone to buy some plant potting supplies after my haircut appointment, and the hospital medical plaza, where I was due in an hour for an MRI, another MRI.

While I stood waiting, I glanced around the dingy interior. A young man sat behind me at a table, tapping into his laptop, a knit cap pulled down over his head in spite of the 85-degree day. A young couple sat holding hands on one of the sofas in the open area up front, a laptop on the coffee table in front of them, their intensity focused between the three of them. In an upholstered chair, another young man sat with his back to the counter; I couldn’t see his face, but he, too, was young and seemed to be reading, his hair sticking up with gel around his cranium as though very excited about the ideas he encountered. But he slumped in the chair, one leg thrust out as though barely able to hold him up. Bright mid-afternoon light streamed through the front windows, picking up every crumb and smear on the filthy floor. I didn’t mind. I have worked in many a dirty restaurant in the past. All I wanted was a peaceful place to pass half an hour or so, reading the book I’d brought along for this very possibility of a time gap.

Finally, the aging hipster stood up, wiped his hands across his apron and asked me, “What can I get you?”

“A medium decaf latte, with skim if you have it,” I said.

He moved over to the espresso machine. “What size?”

“Medium,” I said. I liked that Austin’s menu board used small, medium, and large instead of the deceptive and silly tall, grande, and venti.

“You said decaf, right?”

“Yes,” I said, and then because the barista response is so predictable, I tried to make light of my request. “You don’t want to see me on caffeine.” I wiggled my fingers in the air.

He did not smile. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. But I was starting to get worried. I mean, I was the brain patient, and my short-term memory seemed better than his.

“What kind of milk do you want? We have whole, half and half, two percent, soy, and skim.”

“Skim is good,” I said.

I tried not to stare as he moved around the space, tamping the coffee and turning the levers, so I looked back out the front window as a kid wheeled off on a bicycle. When I turned back, the guy was putting the whole milk back in the fridge. I decided to let it go.

Then he asked if I wanted whipped cream. A little surprised—since when is whipped cream part of a latte?—I shook my head and said no emphatically. He poured the last of the milk with its top of foam into the cup, then lifted a plastic bottle and squirted Hershey’s chocolate syrup all over the top before I could say a word. Who puts chocolate syrup on a latte? My god, I thought, he must have a lot of those little girl customers to whom coffee drink means sugar drink.

I gave the man my five-dollar bill, then transferred the change into his huge and stuffed tip jar. Briefly I contemplated the ridiculousness of this current coffee fad. We’ve all gotten used to the idea that these large sums are worth it to get exactly what we want in a cup of coffee.

However, I at least seldom get exactly what I want in a cup of coffee at a coffee shop, and I am vowing now to give it up pretty much entirely. If I have to meet someone at a coffee shop, I will order something else. Because I am very tired of baristas giving me caffeinated coffee when I order decaf. And I am tired of the attitude that also sometimes comes with such a request. Still, I would rather have the put-down attitude and get my decaf than have the silent but disobedient person who chuckles as he gives me a drug that my body cannot handle.

One barista even asked me once why I bothered if I was going to have decaf. Usually I am mild in my response—after all, these people have my coffee in their hands—but what I always want to say is, “Can’t you see that the person who orders decaf is the one that really loves coffee? All I want it for is the flavor. You caffeine drinkers are simply using it as a vehicle for your stimulant. Why not just take it in a pill if that’s your motivation for drinking coffee?”

I am a genuine coffee lover. I love the smell of it, I love the taste of it, the darker the better. Unless I drink the occasional latte, I drink it black as I can get it. I seek out French roast or at least Italian when buying it for home use, though it can be hard to find. I virtually never add sugar to it.

Yet, over and over and over and over, these macho little baristas (who are indeed always skinny) turn up their twitchy noses and their stubbled chins at me, and treat me like I’m some sort of inferior being for asking for decaf.

Maybe they find an excuse to treat every mature person this way. I forgive them over and over and over again for being young. I was young once myself, and in my waitressing days, there were numerous times when I would pour a decaf refill from the regular pot. But I only did it in an emergency—when the decaf pot had run dry. True, I didn’t fully understand the importance of the request, but I never sneered. Still, sometimes I tell myself that every time I get a cup of caffeinated coffee it’s just karmic justice. But I’ve paid those dues enough now, and I’m over it. And there’s no excuse for a middle-aged barista acting this way. The coffee world has supposedly opened up in the past decade, and the idea is that there’s a wider variety available and more understanding about coffee.

However, no one wants to hear much about the destructive nature of caffeine or admit it by providing someone a decaf. Smokers love smokers, and caffeine junkies love caffeine junkies. Mind you, I have nothing against caffeine junkies—unlike smokers, their addiction doesn’t waft over into my nostrils. Unlike over-drinkers, they don’t wreck cars and kill people.

Or maybe they do. We’re all familiar with the upside of caffeine consumption—the alertness and fatigue-fighting aspects that seem to apply to both cognition and physical activity. But there are downsides, too. The Mayo Clinic website reports that in addition to the usual side-effects of insomnia, nervousness, restlessness, and irritability, more than 500-600 milligrams of caffeine (about two Starbucks tall coffees) a day can produce stomach problems, fast heartbeat, and muscle tremors. Jack James of the National University of Ireland, Galway, notes (about halfway through this interview) that blood pressure changes from caffeine consumption may be a major factor in cardiovascular disease. A whole host of studies note the bad along with the good in caffeine consumption:

* Good news, bad news
* Fitness benefits and risks
* Be cautious
* Negative may outweigh any positive
* Cognitive impact is mixed

You’ll note that all of these studies rely on an understanding of how much caffeine is consumed, and if you’re curious for yourself, here are some tools for gauging your own intake:

* The Caffeine Database
* Center for Science in the Public Interest caffeine chart
* Starbucks caffeine information

Of course, as with any drug, people’s reactions to caffeine vary enormously based on an individual’s sensitivity. Caffeine is associated with panic attacks, and studies have clearly shown this association, especially for those prone to panic attacks or major depression. But even some in healthy control groups reacted to caffeine with panic attacks or anxiety, whereas none did without caffeine.

And, though not prone to panic attacks or major depression, I’m one of those people who is sensitive to caffeine. Even one cup can make my hands shake and, later, will most assuredly keep me awake all night, no matter how exhausted and strung out I am. This is what happened to me yesterday.

I sat down with my cuppa in Austin’s and opened my book in pleasurable anticipation of my hour of reading. The music blaring from the speakers distracted me a little, but again I felt good-humored about the off-key adenoidal voice, amateurish strumming, and angry-young-man lyrics. “Everyone is interesting but you,” sang the adolescent, who then spat out several expletives. I decided it was the nastiest acoustic music I had ever heard, and it amused me no end that this placid coffee house in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods of Orlando ebbed and flowed with such anger. It went on song after song, and I wondered if the recording featured some local singer, or even the barista himself. It was so bad I had to wonder.

My lack of suitability for this place also flowed over me with the music. I was too old, had no tattoos or body piercings, and was wearing light-colored cotton and sandals. My difference didn’t really matter to me, but soon enough I would think it merited punishment from the coffee tsar. I sat back and turned the pages in my book.

Then my fingers started to feel a little panicky.

Now, an MRI is not an experience to relish. Before yesterday, I’d already had two in the previous 16 months, and I wasn’t really looking forward to another hour in the noise chamber with my head in the tight frame and my eyes shut to prevent claustrophobia, trying to keep my mind busy with thoughts of words, and glasses of wine, and the smell of jasmine on the breeze. So I thought I was just getting nervous about that. Eventually I closed up my book, tossed the cup with its last bit of chocolate syrup and milk foam in the trash, and headed for the hospital, leaving the grunge scene behind.

The MRI was uneventful except inside me. I struggled to hold still as I had never done before. I could feel my fingers and toes wiggle slightly as though they belonged to a different person than me. Half way through, the technician pulled me out of the tube in order to inject me with a contrast dye, and I asked him if I could please please move my hands just a tiny bit.

“As long as you don’t move your head,” he said. It was almost a relief when he pulled my hand over to the side and flexed it back and forth, tied the strip of rubber around my wrist, then slid the needle into the vein above my metacarpals.

During the second set of scans, I found myself holding my breath in order to try to stay still. When I let my breath out, I felt the air rush past my philtrum, tickling me in agonizing fashion. “Be still,” I thought, “and dream of Jean-Dominique Bauby.” It might cause some people panic to think of something like locked-in syndrome when inside an MRI machine, but the experience inevitably makes me think about what I would do if I couldn’t move forever. I try to think about the centrality of my mind to the life I live. I wonder about staying in my mind forever.

Finally, the technician extracted me from the machine. Even after just an hour, I was stiff and took a few minutes to shift around and stand up. I was very happy to get into my regular clothes and walk down the hall and out into the now waning sunshine and to drive home to my dinner.

It wasn’t until midnight that I fully realized the barista had given me caffeinated coffee. In typical fashion, I simply couldn’t unwind and get drowsy. I was tired, exhausted even, from the hour of assaultive noise in the machine and the long day of now-distant work before that. I had watched mind-numbingly dumb TV for two hours, and I expected to sail away into slumber readily. The past three weeks had been some of my best sleep nights in several years. All the work that my husband and I had been doing to help me sleep had been working.

But, no. I tossed, I turned, I played game after game of Scrabble on the iPhone. I turned the phone off and counted backwards from a thousand. I got down to one and started back up, trying to count by threes so some concentration would be required. Bruce sighed and turned over again.

Then it hit me.

“The bastard,” I said out loud.

“Wha?” Bruce roused from his sleep briefly.

“That bastard gave me caffeinated coffee!”

Eventually I got out of bed, took a Tylenol PM, went to the spare bed on the other side of the house so I wouldn’t disturb Bruce any further, cursing the Austin coffee man in one fluid tirade. I felt almost as though I’d been slipped a mickey or doped with rufies.

I gave up caffeine years ago during graduate school because I noticed not only that it kept me from sleeping well, but that it made me irritable and easily annoyed. It made me say things I didn’t mean or that I shouldn’t have said even when I had thought them. Once, at the over-caffeinated end of a long semester, I told a fellow grad student that I hoped I never had another class with her. She’d been characterized by snide asides and had given the most idiotic presentation I’d ever heard in a graduate seminar, but there was no point in me being mean to her. Later, I apologized, but I knew in the immediate aftermath that I had to give up the drug.

All these years later, I wonder if anyone could devise a study that would look into the social cost of caffeine. Sometimes I’m so astounded by the rampant aggression around me—that anger that seems to be bubbling right under the surface so much of the time—that I feel the only rational explanation is that caffeine is making everyone crazy. I think about the Romans and their lead pipes and cooking vessels perhaps being a contributing factor to the downfall of their civilization. While the lead poisoning theory remains unproven and under continuing investigation, I can’t help but think sometimes that I am caught in the midst of a decline in our society that seems to have some chemical basis.

One report in the Washington Times notes that “the rise of coffee parallels the rise of the Internet” and that because of our increasingly connected world and the demands of “economic turmoil in a hypercompetitive global economy,” we “need caffeine… more than ever.” It also notes the increasing concerns about the use of caffeine (usually in the form of soda or energy drinks) in children and adolescents.

What studies show—and, I might add, what just makes sense—is that the combination of this stressful world and the biochemical effects of caffeine is preventing people from getting the sleep they need to be effective and is irritating the heck out of people.

We don’t usually factor in caffeine’s effects when we track causes for auto accidents, though at least one driver recently claimed “caffeine psychosis” for his running over several people. There’s even a growing sense that using a little caffeine to make driving home after drinking a little safer relies on a dangerous myth: drunkenness is simply combined with inappropriate bravado rather than alertness. One trucker comments on Life As a Trucker about “the adverse effects of sleep deprivation and excess intake of caffeine” contributing to road rage. One attorney’s webpage notes that even without alcohol some caffeine-induced symptoms can “dramatically increase the likelihood that a driver will operate his or her vehicle in an aggressive manner or succumb to road rage.”

We don’t factor in caffeine the way we do alcohol and crack when people are arrested for violent crimes. While I agree with the author of this editorial published in the University of South Carolina’s student newspaper—that caffeine intoxication should not usually offer a good insanity defense in criminal cases—the fact that a few people are claiming it indicates that it’s becoming more believable. Most of the cases in which caffeine is correlated with behavioral problems seem to involve the combination of alcohol and caffeine found in some energy drinks and in “monk’s juice.” But in spite of pre-packaged alcoholic energy drinks being banned in 2011 by the FDA, due to numerous college-student deaths and studies that show they break down inhibitions dramatically, the ingredients to make your own are readily available and commonly used. Even energy drinks that don’t contain alcohol are beginning to be linked—in studies and in patterns noted by police forces—to risky and anti-social behavior. A handful of studies are cited on the LiveStrong page about Caffeine & Psychosis, noting that these studies do demonstrate that caffeine can exacerbate certain mental illnesses.

We certainly don’t factor in caffeine when we talk about the ridiculous and verbally violent depths to which our political rhetoric has fallen. Although there seems to be an anecdotal consensus that something has changed in the tone of our national and local politics, the evidence is frequently cited that politics has always contained its share of abuse and conflict. Certainly, as this slide show indicates, politicians have been drinking coffee regularly for quite some time. There is, however, one blog, started in 2011 and partly covering the current presidential campaign, that has been perhaps appropriately titled Caffeinated Politics.

Something else has also shifted: while awareness of caffeine’s two-sided impact, both bad and good, has become more widely understood, it has attracted its own fanatics on both sides of the issue. We have anti-caffeine crusaders and we have pro-caffeine defenders reminiscent of the temperance reformers vs. the anti-prohibitionists in the early twentieth century and creating something like the current hostile divide between Republicans and Democrats.

Let me say very plainly that I’m not a prohibitionist in terms of alcohol or caffeine. I even believe that most drugs that are illegal today should be legalized or at least decriminalized and that our funding should go to treatment of addictions rather than punishments for them. (And I am well aware that decaf coffee is not completely caffeine-free, so I am even indulging in that drug myself in a small way, as well as the occasional drink.)

But I am very tired of being mistaken for a prohibition-like fanatic when I request decaf (or, for that matter, when I don’t spend my entire evening slurping down massive quantities of alcohol). Baristas, bar tenders, and partiers have a tendency to treat me as though I offend their sensibilities. What I offend, of course, is their dedication to their drug, a clear sign of addiction.

This reverse moral opprobrium is fascinating to me. We have gone so far beyond the mentality that drugs are bad that a person who doesn’t partake of them is somehow the one labeled negatively. Although the political parallels eventually break down, there’s still a similarity to the world of extremes.

Of course, what this has to do with is the kind of phenomenon my husband fondly refers to as tribalism. We live in a time when we can’t be sure who we’re with and to what extent they are like us. Even the trivial bond becomes all important. Do you share my love of caffeinated coffee or might you betray me? It’s laughable, really, but it happens all the time.

Bruce has never been a coffee fan. He never drinks it either at home or away. When he walks into a coffee shop, he orders tea and never has to utter the dirty “decaf” word. He is also one of the calmest, most considered, most fair-minded men I know. I won’t give up my beloved decaf French roast in the privacy of my own home, but I am thinking I will adopt Bruce’s habit in the coffee shop world. As a tea-drinker, even an herbal tea-drinker, I may not be a compatriot, but I’m less likely to seem like some caffeine addict’s enemy and find myself secretly drugged.