One way that life isn't better now

Tattoos are barbaric. They are the savage attempt to be 'somebody', when all else human fails. The fact that tattoos are mainstream, and became so within a young person's lifetime, is not a sign of our civilization's wellbeing. Jeans are unappealing to my eyes -- they manage to be scruffy and stiff at the same time, and unpleasantly coloured -- but tattoos are a sign of wholesale confusion, and the rejection of beauty for some tawdry low notion of 'distinction', which is no such thing.

What Dr Dao Should Have Done

Prescient advice from Christopher Buckley on how to get onto an airplane. He was writing about small planes, but really he was commenting on cramped spaces and schedules, so I think we can agree this has a more general usefulness -- especially in the light of recent events.

Before you go: 'Reserve a room at the hotel airport for three days on either side of theoretical departure date'.

Once at the airport: 'When you are told that the flight is overbooked and you have no seat, remain calm. This is a test to see if you have "the right stuff" and are worthy of the seat you booked to Bangor eight months ago. Screaming at the gate agent that you are extremely important, a close friend of the president of the airline, or a cardinal (in plainclothes) of the Catholic Church, etc., is a sign that you have "the wrong stuff." So is telling the agent that he is a baboon.

Instead, dress in surgical scrubs with hemostats clipped everywhere. These will look more impressive than a cashmere blazer and Italian loafers when you attempt to convey to the agent that it is critical that you be in Bangor by noon. For added emphasis, carry a small beach cooler prominently labeled HUMAN ORGAN'.

Once past the gate: 'Congratulations--you are one of the "chosen." But this is no time for complacency. [...]'

'Welcome Aboard: Get on first, regardless of row number. Once seated, permanently fasten yourself to your seat with chain, steel cable, or bicycle lock and heavy padlock to discourage the five other people who have also been assigned Seat 8A'.

-- From 'Small Aircraft Advisory', in But Enough About You: Essays, 2014

The coming lawsuit -- and we all know there will be one -- may go down in history as the Dao Ker Ching, an update on the original. 

 

Showing Your Home For Sale

OR JUST MAKING IT NICER TO LIVE IN!

I have sold a couple of homes of my own, and more than that, I've shown other homes that had to be sold while I was renting them, which put me in the odd position of wanting to display a space to advantage even though I myself had nothing to gain by it. But one way or another, I know a thing or two about how to show a living space to strangers so they might consider buying it.

Let's be clear: most people will choose a property in what is almost a snap decision: in less than a minute past the threshold, many of them have already voted 'Yes' or 'No' on the place in their heart and mind (when it comes to property, who can say where the mind 'ends' and the heart 'begins'?). Very often they are looking for features over which you have no control: a large garden or a small one; a few bathrooms or a massive kitchen; a separate dining room or something open-plan; lots of picture windows; a plot with acreage or privacy; and so on. That does not mean, however, that you can't win viewers over. I have gone to houses that I did not expect to love and yet, when actually on site, I knew that of all the options, this was the right one for us. What can you do to nudge your own potential buyer in that direction?

In the first place, I think you have to start looking at your home as though you were a magazine considering it for a photo shoot. Let's start with the kitchen. Would your kitchen as it now is look the part? If not, why not? Do you have (as I had) scruffy over-the-pantry-door wire shelving, with all the spices lying this way and that on the wires? Well, get rid of it. Buy a smart chrome or wood shelf, screw it neatly to the inside of the pantry door, and stack it just as neatly with jars that are not lying higgledy-piggledy. That's one suggestion. How are your pots, trays, and electric gadgets organized? Are they organized? Are the cabinets grotty and full of crumbs or have you vacuumed them out and lined them with crisp-looking lining material? Do the cupboard doors have grime, grease, and discolouration, or have you wiped, scrubbed, or polished them so they're nearly pristine? All these details will make a difference. Cast a critical eye around each room. What does your critical eye catch, and how might you improve it? What opportunities does your designing eye see?

Here are my general suggestions for bringing your home to a higher standard -- whether you want to enjoy it more for yourself, or whether you're hoping to sell it.

1. Look for dirt. Once you start actively looking for dirt, trust me: you will see it. And you'll be amazed at how much, in your busy life with important people and projects to attend to, you have happily turned a blind eye to it. Or have you? That dirty streak on the carpet: it's annoying, isn't it? That gouge out of the door frame; that mark on the wall: these things catch your eye and say 'must be fixed, really', but somehow it all seems too trivial and too much effort, at the same time. But a lot of items can be 'refurbished' simply by being cleaned, and perhaps also by being re-painted. The thorough cleaning of an item can make the difference between feeling that it ought to be replaced and appreciating it as an asset. To show a home, you should be prepared to do what I call a 'deep clean' -- meaning that you are willing to move furniture and climb up ladders to really get the corners and awkward spaces. Items that can greatly benefit from dusting or washing include:

  • chandeliers, pendant lights, and flushmounts
  • electric switch [outlet] plates
  • ceiling fans
  • skirting boards and door frames
  • bathroom and kitchen cabinets
  • all exterior doors, and sometimes interior ones, too
  • windows, inside and out
  • curtains and blinds
  • ovens and range tops
  • shower stalls
  • rugs, broadloom, wood and tile floors
  • mirrors and picture frames
  • lamp bases and lampshades
  • glass and ceramic ornaments.

Also, take the time to look overhead: do you have cobwebs swinging from the ceilings? And look below: do you have dog treats gathering mould and dust under the sofas? Buy the tools to help you, and get rid of them all.

2. Balance the sense of 'rest' and 'resources'. A 'resource' might be a candle or lamp, a book, and a coaster. 'Rest' might be the table they're sitting on, with nothing else there to clutter it up. A room does not need to be nearly empty to be orderly, and it shouldn't be too spartan if you want it to feel inviting. On the other hand, too much stuff can be oppressive instead of pleasing. An armchair can certainly have a cushion in the corner -- but three cushions would look and feel like too much! So ask yourself, in any given room: 'If I put the toys in a covered basket, how does that seem? If the music is all out of sight, how does that look? Do I want all my jewellery in a box, or does it please me to see some in a dish or on a jewellery tree?' Think about the effect of what you see: do you like it that way, or would the room look better without these things all open to view? And if you're planning to sell, how might the arrangement of your furnishings look to someone else? Are they 'resources' and decoration, or are they likely to be interpreted as self-indulgent, untidy, oddball and a bit of a mess? When selling, err on the side of conventionality. It may make you grit your teeth, but it helps to close the deal!

3. Assess the condition of your goods. Is it time for an update or a new purchase? Many items can look vastly better if we just give them a quick polish, a new coat of paint, or some other form of refurbishment. A worn and peeling pleather office chair, for instance, can be made like new with a quality form-fitting cover of new material. A grotty laundry basin could look surprisingly charming with a new mirror over it and a tasteful adhesive veneer around its edges. But if other things have had their day, and are past the point of effective repair or dressing-up, you'd be better off replacing them. If your bedspread is in tatters, your prints have faded away in their frames, or your tea caddy has more chips than tea bags in it, maybe it's time to buy new.

4. Replace grungy fixtures. You know the sort: taps where the red for hot and blue for cold have paled with use; where the finish is rusting or corroded or peeling, and it never takes a shine even with cleaning. Fixtures that remind you of 1980s-era cheap motels. Shower heads that don't work quite right. Towel bars that are all chunky ceramic and plastic rods (did I mention already the cheap motels?). Get rid of those. And if you have tacky cabinet knobs and drawer pulls, chuck those and invest in good ones. Visitors to your home may think that they don't notice such details as knobs, toilet-roll holders, drab lights, and mildew clinging to the old-style faucet control -- but believe me, the attentive ones do.

5. Consider re-arranging your furnishings or supplementing them with new purchases. I say this particularly for those that have lived in different homes and moved more than once or twice. So often, we have had to put the goods we bought from Previous Home A into harmony with Previous Home B, both of which were quite different from Previous Home C, which was not even in the same country. So for instance you have a hall cabinet which was ideal for solving the problem presented by Home A, but which doesn't fit anywhere in your current home (let's call it D). The bookcase from Home B looked fine under the window next to the mirror in Home C, but now you will need to think of a whole new location for it. Perhaps the mirror-bookcase pairing doesn't work any more: change it. Or perhaps you need to donate one of the two. Whatever you do, don't feel that you have to keep belongings of the past just because they served you in the old days. Ownership of goods is ownership not marriage -- and you own them: they do not own you.

6. Decorate with plants. Plants enliven a room as nothing else does. But the plants should be healthy and well-tended: unloved plants are distracting (and, for the plant-lover, mildly depressing). If more than one live plant is too much for your interest or suitable space, then buy a vase or two and stock them with fresh bouquets. Hint: if a few flowers die, there's no need to chuck out the whole bouquet: just remove the early die-ers and keep the remainder going with fresh water. I've had bouquets last for weeks, with luck and good management. A bowl of fresh fruit will have much the same effect as a bouquet -- though obviously a fruit bowl is restricted to dining room or kitchen, whereas flowers are suitable nearly everywhere. The fruit-bowl-and-flowers advice may be a cliché of selling a home, but they are always pleasing, and why argue with what works?

 

 

 

 

 

Why Diets Fail -- And What It Takes To Succeed

THE GRAVY BEYOND

There are two diet types, whatever foods they restrict or specifically call for: responsible diets, which aim to be healthy while you're on them and to help you in the long run -- and irresponsible diets, which seek only to reduce your calories now in any conceivable way, regardless of what it will cost you later. But whether responsible or irresponsible, all diets want you to lose weight, most of it fat. Yet what does that actually mean, practically speaking? If there is a line between eating just too much and eating just under enough so that your body burns fat, how do you ever know where that line is -- for you? Is it that diets fail, or that dieters fail to be disciplined, or is it instead that it's simply too hard to guess what 'too much' for you actually is?

To answer the question literally, it's not diets that 'fail' in their objective, it's the humans that fail: they not only have to eat, but they want certain tastes and can't help liking those particular tastes. Sour cream 'n onion potato chips? I'll eat a small bag and feel it wasn't quite enough. Treacle tart with fresh clotted cream? I'll have a large slice, please, with a nice big pot of tea. We have these tastes because Nature made us to have them. So not only do we have to eat, as all creatures do, but we have to have the taste sensitivities that omnivores in a food-scarcity situation should ideally have. Except that we are not living in food scarcity. We are not even living in the 1970s and 1980s supermarket era, when orange juice came as sweet crystals in a can, and ice cream came in a box labelled 'Neapolitan'. Swanson's TV dinners couldn't be microwaved, in the beginning at least, and they had more in common with airplane food of the time than I really like to remember. There was no such thing as pre-washed salads in a bag, and you couldn't buy whole ready-made meals of exotic and interesting cuisines. No wonder that, by and large, we were thinner in those days.

Appetite is nearly everything. You lose your appetite: you lose weight. You fail to satisfy your appetite: you lose weight. Of course, you are likely to lose some muscle along with the fat, which hurts you subsequently in two ways: 1) muscle is the first and most efficient repository for any calories you've just taken in -- otherwise they'll be shuffling off to your fat cells; and 2) fat begets fat, so that when you lose muscle you have created a more fat-friendly environment in your own body. So, given the importance of appetite and the need to control it, why don't we? 

I think the answer is that something within us actually prevents us from eating just to satiety, never mind stopping before we're really satisfied. If you live in Dire Straits and you don't know when your meal will be, what makes more sense: to eat just until you are full right then, or to pack yourself up with nutrients that the body is free to use later if it must? Exactly. If I have just left a sinking ship and am now on a deserted island, am I going to eat just half the sour cream 'n onion chip bag because I have my waistline to think of? Darn right: I'm going to eat that whole darn bag, whether I really need the calories that moment or not. The fact that there is another island with a Trader Joe's and a Fresh Market and a Waitrose on it, just a short canoe-trip away, is of no interest to my panicky body. It wants what it wants and it wants it now, whatever my rational mind might say. My rational mind has been operating on this level, within the species, for many thousands of years. But the mind that is governing my physical appetite has been operating on the same level pretty much since creature life came into existence.

This may all seem very obvious and indeed, regurgitative (if you'll pardon the association). But this is the nub for any dieter: you have to find the point -- the line, really -- between what you need to survive and thrive and what you want because your primitive cautious greedy food-mind demands it. You have to find the point where your inner Cookie Monster leaves off and your inner Kate Middleton begins. You have to ascertain, as ballet dancers do every day in the dancing season, exactly how much is enough to function -- and what beyond that is gravy. If you are eating the Gravy Beyond, you will find it hard to lose weight. And this is why losing weight is always so hard: we are most of us in love with the gravy.

 

 

Why People Won't Do What's 'Good' For Them

I read a great deal about fitness, nutrition, and health, and my latest purchase is Body by Science: A Research Based Program to Get the Results You Want in 12 Minutes a Week. The book needed a better editor: apart from the irrelevant and drawn-out chat about bell-curves and canopy trees in the beginning, there is no such word as 'inputted', and calories and muscles are measured as numbers not amounts. These quibbles aside, the book has a great deal of value to say. But it makes a couple of claims -- in the course of delivering all this otherwise valuable information -- that I'd like cordially to dispute.

The authors claim in the first place that obesity has mushroomed because human physiology doesn't have a 'negative feedback loop' that in effect raises the alarm, the red flag, and anything else that might scream STOP. But is that true? If 'the diseases of civilization' -- among them cancer, heart disease, common forms of dementia, diabetes, and hypertension, which were somewhat rare in the past and not only because people died younger -- are the result in large part of too much bodyfat, then how is that not a significant 'negative feedback loop'? Dying is pretty much a negative. We also have a feedback loop called Lost Dates, Lost Jobs, and The Mirror. The problem is that a) we have misdiagnosed the culprits, owing not least to the bullheaded prematureness of Ancel Keys, the 50's-era nutrition guru who blamed fats and was sympathetic to sugar in the diet; and b) we don't know what the solution is.

Authorities, however credentialed or experienced, are now telling everyone that resistance training -- working hard with some sort of weight -- is where it's at from the standpoint of overall health. Or as Little and McGuff put it: 'Strength training is the best preventive medicine in which a human being can engage'. Strong stuff: and I agree with it. But in the next sentence they say: 'In many instances, senior citizens are being medicated to improve those listed biomarkers of health, never having been told that it is fully within their power to achieve these same effects through proper resistance training' (p. 243). This may be true. But is it really the case that most old people are eager to hear the latest about strength training and only want the right encouragement to try it? I doubt it. I suspect that doctors don't try to press training on their patients for a number of reasons, and I think the doctors are right.

In the first place, never discount the fact that people see themselves and others in terms of categories: He's an athlete / She's a homebody / They're rich / She's creative / I can't draw / He's a math whiz / She's an Earth Mother / They're a power couple / He's a lady's man / She's a social butterfly. Simplistic, reductionist, limiting? You bet. The typical shorthand for how we often see things? You can bet some more. And if 'I'm an athlete' is not in one's self-categorization, anything that is demanding, sweaty, and physically hard is going to seem like someone else's business, not yours. That's the first thing.

Then there is the fact that people in general have no idea how exercise works. (If they did, people such as Little and McGuff would not have needed to write such a book.) They can't tell you what the difference is between physical activity, exercise, and physical training -- even though the differences are profound. They think that 'hard' physical work means an intolerable bootcamp of pain and misery. They probably have never had the experience of training past the point of inertia to the point, quite early on (a couple of weeks at most, in my own training) of wanting to do more because it feels so rewarding. To them, 'exercise' is a chore and a bore, and probably a pain, as well. Who can blame them?

Adjustable Water Fan Paddles by the Water Gear company.Like a salt box, turning the dial one way lets the water through, while turning it the other gradually closes off the openings, making movement through the water harder. All with the aim of building upper body strength.

Adjustable Water Fan Paddles by the Water Gear company.Like a salt box, turning the dial one way lets the water through, while turning it the other gradually closes off the openings, making movement through the water harder. All with the aim of building upper body strength.

Take for instance my mother-in-law, who is in her early 80s. She does something called water aerobics nearly every day, but the movements are low-intensity so her body -- which is really to say her muscles, upon which everything else ultimately depends -- don't grow and improve. I offered her my water exercise paddles, since they were too light to do anything for me. But she said they were too difficult for her, even on the lightest setting. She gave them back and bought instead a pair of floaty things that won't challenge her muscles at all. In short, she made a big mistake. If she wants to improve in strength, she should have accepted my paddles with the understanding that they would feel difficult at first and that she would have to work her way up to using them frequently. Instead she wasted her money on paddles that might as well be make-believe because those are the ones she can easily use at the moment. But people that want to be fitter and healthier never do only what feels easiest at the moment. When they work, they work hard and they push themselves (within safe anatomical limits, one hopes). When they need to rest, they rest. But they don't try to get their rest somehow melded with their exertion. It would be like asking the Rollings Stones to sneak a few bars of Olivia Newton-John into 'Can't You Hear Me Knocking?'. Needless to say, it just wouldn't work.

But back to the question of why people won't do what's good for them. Part of it is the very problem already hinted at: that experts vary as to what is 'right' and 'wrong', and no one really knows who the experts are, anyway. For every article that says acupuncture and chiropractic may bring benefits, there are others raising serious doubts -- and worse. For every expert telling you not to skip breakfast and advocating several small meals a day, there is another now stating that breakfast can be a stumbling block and snacking is an insulin provocateur. At one time, in the 70s and 80s, we were told that 'aerobics' was the best, indeed the only respectable, type of exercise, by which was meant steady-state, same-pace, somewhat lengthy 'cardio' work like running. But running has been shown up as a terrible exercise for many if not most people (see Little and McGuff, for instance), not only because of the specific injuries it causes but also because it fails to deliver on its promises. If anything, it takes healthy people and makes them worse off. Oh, but what about Kathy Smith -- still going strong in her mid-60s and a pioneer of the aerobics video? Ah, but she always emphasized strength training, even in the early days when she wore a fetching bob. 'Backstage' footage shows her working hard at weight machines in the gym. This girl never ran her muscles away to nothing. She was a pioneer in knowing about them, too.

My mother-in-law, like many people her age and much younger, thinks that any kind of movement is a good thing. If she moves, she must be healthy to some degree. As Blackadder said to Baldrick about 2 + 2 equalling 'some beans', the answer is Yes... and No. Moving is a sign of life and to the extent that all movement is cardiovascular, we're doing it every moment -- and so we should. The alternative is death. But if you want to improve your fitness, if you want to be more functional, more powerful, and better at pre-empting disease, you need to do something more than move. You have to move or support whatever is heavy for you -- whether it's your own body or something else. You don't have to do it every day and it shouldn't take you very long. The discovery that this can be fun, enjoyable, exhilarating even, only adds to the boon.

 

 

 

 

What exactly is 'FEAR OF FLYING'?

How You Frame The Question Will Change The Answer You Get

Today's observation is not about tangibles but about the nature of perception: in this case, the aversion towards being a passenger on aircraft, invariably described as 'fear of flying'. That description or label of the experience simply assumes that 'fear of flying' means the irrational apprehension of death in an airplane. So it is easy to make those averse to flying seem silly, since they will usually ride in a car without trouble. But is the definition of the fearful flyer accurate? I don't think it is. In fact, it's not the fearful flyer that is simplistic; to the contrary, it's the categorization and dismissal of their experience that is simplistic. I write this as someone that has flown from early childhood and has never been a 'fearful flyer' in the normal sense of the term.

Unlike the statisticians, I respect the fearful flyers. And I could very easily become one of them, if any nightmare scenario should happen to me -- as they happen to passengers all the time. Here's my argument.

In the first place, cars are radically different environments from airplanes. The car I'm in is usually mine; it is driven by me or someone I trust -- and over whom I have some authority; it is a vehicle I've maintained and monitored so that if anything goes wrong, I am bound to notice, but at the same time it is not likely to be a life-threatening malfunction. If the weather gets bad, we can stop the car. If the visibility is poor, we can stop the car. If we want, we can even turn around and cancel the trip. Perhaps most importantly, if the car malfunctions or the road is impassable, we can choose to get out. But an airplane, except in the direst circumstances, is expected to plough on. People have destinations they think they have to get to; and airlines can't have a reputation for unreliability. I may feel that I'd rather turn the plane around than avoid circling Boston for a few hours in a snowstorm, but I am only one passenger, and anyway on an airplane my wishes and judgement mean nothing whatsoever. That is the first problem. In a car of one's own, one has control of the vehicle, and one can exercise judgement about what to do with the vehicle. In an airplane, we are all completely dependent on the diligence and the judgement of others. We are also not free to leave when we've had enough, but must stay in place without knowledge or a guaranteed end to our ordeal, as if we were no better than prisoners. This is a position that I, as a free and mentally competent adult, strive to avoid whenever possible. The 'fear of flying' dismissal considers this to be a non-problem, as if normal adults should of course be content to put their lives, for any number of hours, in the power of complete strangers.

But it's not just about our lives as such: fear of flying is not simply fear of dying. It's the fear of being trapped in a very small, submarine-like space, with completely randomly 'self-selected' strangers, for the better part of a day or more -- as my husband was, when the plane he was on landed, only to sit on the tarmac for seven hours, with no food offered and scarcely anything to drink. That is a psychological trial that few people wish to endure even once, never mind risk a second or third time. When shall we get off the plane? Why won't they let us go? Why are we stuck here? I'm hungry. I need the bathroom and I don't want to use the public cubicle again. I'm feeling claustrophobic. I want fresh air. I'm tired of sitting in this tiny seat. I want to go for a walk. I need a drink. I want to call my wife. I won't get any sleep tonight. I'll miss my appointment and I won't get the job. When am I going to get out of here? Who wants to go through that distressing thought loop for seven hours? It's appalling. But according to the 'fear of flying' gurus, that's just so much babyish nonsense.

The other point about an airplane is that, unlike surface transport -- car, boat, train, donkey -- if god forbid there is an accident, your chances of surviving it are pretty poor. On land or water, you might be a burn victim, you might lose some body parts, and you might have months of gruelling physical therapy, but unless you are very unlucky, you will survive. An airplane crash is not so forgiving. If something goes seriously wrong in an airplane, the only way out is down and the likelihood of walking away from that is very small indeed. Just ask John Denver. Ask John F. Kennedy Jr -- and his passengers. And several members of the band Lynyrd Skynyrd. And Buddy Holly..... I used to pay attention to the water evacuation drill on airplanes, mainly because I was interested in everything to do with the plane and also because I am an uncured sunny optimist. But let's face it: how many of us really expect that if the plane has to make an ocean landing, we'll get out on a lovely floaty slide? There is a reason that Captain Chesley Sullenberger is an uncommon hero indeed. 

Lastly, an airplane as an isolated yet public place is an ideal target for terrorist attack -- or even just the sabotage of a crazy person. The world knew this long before the 9/11 massacres, and in particular I recall being dreadfully riveted by the December 1999 hijacking of Indian Airlines Flight 814, which not only was traumatic for all on board but also resulted in a young man's murder (his new bride was on the plane: they were returning home from their honeymoon). If that seven-day hijack wasn't enough to churn your stomach, then nothing is (I had to stop watching the news, since my feeling on their behalf wasn't helping them and it wasn't helping me, either). The fact is that no one can assure you that an airplane, when those doors close behind you with no chance of escape, holds only good, reasonable people and not any other kind.