Cracking Up

“Of course, all life is a process of breaking down, but the blows that do the dramatic side of the work—the big sudden blows that come, or seem to come, from outside—the ones you remember and blame things on and, in moments of weakness, tell your friends about, don’t show their effect all at once. There is another sort of blow that comes from within—that you don’t feel until it’s too late to do anything about it, until you realize with finality that in some regard you will never be as good a man again. The first sort of breakage seems to happen quick—the second kind happens almost without your knowing it but is realized suddenly indeed.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Crack-Up”

cracked plate

The end of the year and winter sometimes leads people into a kind of depression. When I was on the winter break of my high school senior year, I discovered F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Crack-Up” essays that were published in Esquire magazine in early 1936.  It was a “deep and dark December,” as Paul Simon described it for me.

I AM A ROCK
A winter’s day
In a deep and dark
December
I am alone
Gazing from my window to the streets below
On a freshly fallen silent shroud of snow

I’ve built walls
A fortress deep and mighty
That none may penetrate
I have no need of friendship,
friendship causes pain
It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain

Don’t talk of love
But I’ve heard the words before
It’s sleeping in my memory
I won’t disturb the slumber of feelings that have died
If I never loved I never would have cried

I have my books
And my poetry to protect me
I am shielded in my armor
Hiding in my room, safe within my womb
I touch no one and no one touches me
I am a rock
I am an island
And a rock feels no pain
And an island never cries

I was in my room with my books and poetry, Friendships had caused me pain and I felt that being alone would be safer.

Fitzgerald wrote: “I began to realize that for two years my life had been a drawing on resources that I did not possess, that I had been mortgaging myself physically and spiritually up to the hilt.” He’d “cracked like an old plate.”

He had a bad decade with his wife, Zelda, suffering her first breakdown and hospitalization, and he found himself in his mid-30s deep in debt and broken. He went to Hollywood to work on movie scripts because it paid well. He drank a lot. He worked on his final novel, The Last Tycoon.

In the second part of his essays, “Pasting It Together,” he went into the third person and said “this writer told about his realization that what he had before him was not the dish that he had ordered for his forties. In fact—since he and the dish were one, he described himself as a cracked plate, the kind that one wonders whether it is worth preserving. ”

I identified with that wondering about whether it was worth repairing and preserving that “plate.”

Ernest Hemingway was a friend to Scott – but not a good friend. It was a friendship that caused pain. They were so very different in life and in print and Hemingway said some unkind things about Fitzgerlad. That bothered me because I liked both of them as writers.

Hemingway wrote and seemed to believe that “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”

I think I believed in a kind of optimism that I would be “strong at the broken places.” I believed that I could come back from these depressive periods stronger.

I don’t believe that anymore. I reread “The Crack-Up” this past week and I am closer to Fitzgerald who wrote that “A clean break is something you cannot come back from; that is irretrievable because it makes the past cease to exist.”

I have come back from several depressive periods. Fitzgerald did not. He wrote in 1940 to his daughter Scottie that he had “the sense that life is essentially a cheat and its conditions are those of defeat, and that the redeeming things are not ‘happiness and pleasure’ but the deeper satisfactions that come out of struggle.”

That mixed message seems to be where he was in his life when on December 21 1940 F. Scott Fitzgerald died of a heart attack in Hollywood at the age of 44.

I am glad that I haven’t arrived at the place where Fitzgerald and Hemingway were at the end of their lives.  F

Fitzgerald wrote that “This is what I think now: that the natural state of the sentient adult is a qualified unhappiness.” There is no hope there, and he continued “I think also that in an adult the desire to be finer in grain that you are… only adds to this unhappiness in the end—that end that comes to our youth and hope.”

I have hope, and part of that hope is that you also have hope and do not find yourself in the state of Fitzgerald at the end. It was difficult for my high school self to get out of that room and be with old or new friends, but those two things were so important to my “pasting it together.”

I came to agree more with the line of poet John Donne that Paul Simon was rejecting in his song: “No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent.”

Social Media and Self-Esteem

woman on smartphone

The average person spends around 2 hours a day on social media (SM). Yes, there are plenty of people who spend zero hours on SM, but there are plenty of others who spend a lot more than two hours. That’s how averages work.

Our behavior on social media almost inevitably affects our self-esteem. How many retweets on Twitter and shares on Facebook did you get this past week? Usually, it is a social media manager at a company who check SM analytics, but anyone on SM takes note of their own numbers. Facebook, Twitter and others like to remind you about every like, share and retweet in your feed and about what photo was most favorited this year.

Some studies have shown that teenagers largely based their beauty and validation amongst their peers on two factors: 1) how many likes they had received on their pictures or posts  2) how many followers they had on their social media.  Their perception of themselves (and their friends) was not based on individual merits or qualities, but on their perception of how they presented on social media.

However, studies also show that there are positive effects of social media on self-esteem. For example, people who are loners or who don’t feel accepted in the “real-world” can feel acceptance, “love” and approval on social media.

One study measured women’s self-esteem after being exposed to pictures of slender models. Women who were physically unlike the models in the pictures were reported to have lower self-esteem and feelings of inadequacy after viewing these images. However, those women who were a similar weight category to the models in the pictures rated themselves as more confident and happy in their image. (Wilcox & Laird, 1999).

Though social media has its plusses and can create community and healthy sharing, the overuse of social media is clearly unhealthy and damaging to any person’s self-esteem. Younger girls are particularly more vulnerable, especially when using image-based (rather than text-only) social media due to their impressionability and eagerness to emulate the “standards” presented on social media – much in the way of all advertising on all mediums.

Drawn Towards Water

waterfalls

I have always been drawn to water. I’m not alone in feeling this pull.

Perhaps there is something to that lunar pull that moves the tides.  The “lunar effect” is usually defined as a real or imaginary correlation between specific stages of the roughly 29.5-day lunar cycle and behavior and physiological changes in living beings on Earth, including humans. Examples of this belief have been found in ancient Assyrian/Babylonian writing.

There have been plenty of studies to consider any effects on humans. Some studies have found no correlation between the lunar cycle and human biology or on our behavior. One that I found seemed to indicate that there seems to be an effect on humans based on the amount of moonlight rather than tidal pull. An ancient belief that survived into modern times was that the monthly cycle of menstruation in women was lunar based, ut that is now considered a coincidence in timing without lunar influence.

I don’t feel any monthly pull to water, but like Ishmael in the opening of Moby-Dick, I do find myself drawn to the ocean several times a year.

“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off- then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.”

Maybe Ishmael was suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). As someone who grew up with time at the Jersey Shore every summer of my life, I find that “high time to get to sea” more of a spring event than a November one.

My most regular pull to water is to local waters. There are brooks and creeks in the woods where I frequently walk that I am always drawn to visit.  There is something in the tumbling water that I find very appealing.

That is magnified when I visit waterfalls nearby, from the small Hemlock Falls that was childhood destination to the Great Falls of the Passaic River. (Take a look at the Great Falls.)

There is science to this attraction. The dispersion of water from waterfalls, waves, or even lightning and water evaporation from plants, create hydrogen ions by splitting water molecules. The negative electrons join up with other free positive electrons in the air neutralizing their electrical charge. That is why people buy air ionizers (negative ion generator) which uses a high voltage charge to ionize air molecules and generate negative ions. Negative, in this case, is a good thing. A trendy, new-age version is the Himalayan salt lamps that are sold.

Naturally-occurring negative ions are said to have health benefits including enhancing the immune system, increasing alertness, productivity, and concentration. There are claims that you can get relief from sinus, migraine headaches, allergies, and asthma attacks.  Some tests have shown that negative ions can stabilize alpha rhythms in the human brain. (Alpha waves usually occur when we are awake and relaxed.)

I would consider water therapy as effective as “forest bathing” and other get-into-nature therapies.

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink,” is a common English proverb.  It’s an old one, going back to 1175 in Old English Homilies: “Hwa is thet mei thet hors wettrien the him self nule drinken” which is translated as “who can give water to the horse that will not drink of its own accord?”

You can lead people into nature or to the water, but they may not drink in its benefits. You have to be drawn towards it on your own.

As a child, Cub and Boy Scout and independent hiker and walker of the woods, I discovered early on that I was attracted, like other animals, to water. Animal paths made by deer and other creatures inevitably lead to a water source. Another quote from Moby-Dick, talks about this attraction to water and not only the sea.

“Take almost any path you please, and ten to one it carries you down in a dale, and leaves you there by a pool in the stream. There is magic in it. Let the most absent-minded of men be plunged in his deepest reveries–stand that man on his legs, set his feet a-going, and he will infallibly lead you to water, if water there be in all that region. Should you ever be athirst in the great American desert, try this experiment, if your caravan happen to be supplied with a metaphysical professor. Yes, as every one knows, meditation and water are wedded for ever.” 

As I wander in the woods, naturally-made paths do lead downhill because they were first worn by rainwater and then by animals making their way to a pool, pond or stream.

We are drawn to water. And that is a good thing.

 

Two Hours in Nature

Nature is not a place to visit. It is home.
Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild

We are bombarded online with advice on how to be healthier and happier. I just read recently that coffee is not bad for me. In fact, it can reduce my risk of cancer, Type 2 diabetes, Parkinson’s, heart disease, increase my short-term focus and endurance and increase your life span. Talk about a wonder drug.

Of course, research next year may say the opposite about coffee.

But a new research study about spending time in nature is one that I will accept no matter what the next study finds.

It comes from the University of Exeter and was published in the journal Scientific Reports. It uses data from 20,000 people, so this is no little study in a lab with 20 people.

This survey asked participants how much time they spent in “open spaces in and around towns and cities, including parks, canals and nature areas; the coast and beaches; and the countryside including farmland, woodland, hills, and rivers” in the past week. They also asked about their health and wellbeing.

This study found that people who had spent two hours or more in nature the previous week displayed “consistently higher levels of both health and well-being than those who reported no exposure.”

Two hours.

The participants who had spent little or no time in parks, beaches or woods in the past seven days, close to half reported low levels of life satisfaction and one in four said they were in poor health.

What about spending more than two hours out in nature? Oddly, there were diminishing returns.

Some interpretations have considered that the health benefits might be a byproduct of physical activity, exposure to sunlight and not contact with nature.

I was surprised, as were the researchers, that it did not matter whether the two hours in nature were taken in one session or in a series of shorter visits. It also didn’t seem to matter whether people went to an urban park, woodlands or the beach.

I have written here about nature deficit disorder  and forest bathing and the benefits of just being in nature in all its forms.

Two hours a week in nature doesn’t sound like a difficult thing to achieve in order to be healthier in mind and body. But isn’t an attainable target for everyone.

Articles online point out that it would be difficult for people with disabilities. In the most urban of areas, there may not even be a nearby woods, a patch of green space or park. And even if some nature is available, some people don’t seem to be able to find the time – though I find that a flimsy excuse if you only need to accomplish a total of two hours per week.  That’s only a bit more than 15 minutes a day. Coffee or lunch break?

The idea of spending time in nature for your health is not at all new, and I find examples of some interesting nature prescriptions regularly. In the Shetland Islands (UK), they are prescribed to visit seabird colonies, build woodland dens or simply appreciate the shapes of clouds.

Eco-therapy in New Zealand produced improvements after six months in two-thirds of patients given green prescriptions.  By gardening or working on conservation projects they were happier, lost weight and even seemed to be helped with mild to moderate depression.

Still, the takeaway from that new study is that if you can just get two hours in some kind of natural place per week, you’re going to benefit.

Green Childhood, Happier Adulthood

forest trees woods

On this Mothers’ Day, I am remembering my mother, now gone 8 years. I believe my childhood might be considered tough by other people’s standards. My father had a serious illness and died much too young. My sister was born with mental and learning issues. We were certainly lower-middle-class. I was forced into adulthood by circumstances at age 11. But my mother was always there, and my overall memory of childhood  – those first 10 years and especially the summers – is of many good days.

Though I lived in a very urban, densely populated town in New Jersey, there were pockets of green in my neighborhood and green places that I could escape to on my bicycle.

From our backyard garden of vegetables and the apple, peach and plum trees, to the front rock garden full of my mother’s flowers, I felt surrounded by nature.

I am convinced that the greenish light, the smells of soil and herbs and flowers, and learning about plants and trees had a powerful effect on my life. Our dog, our rabbits, even the salamanders, turtles and safe snakes that I temporarily had as pets and then released to their real homes made me feel connected to what we later called the “web of life.”

So, I am not surprised when I read articles that confirm that researchers believe that a greener childhood is associated with a happier adulthood.

I have written here before about related topics such as forest bathing and the healing effects of the forest.

Being in my current little garden in the backyard, walking through the nearby smallish woods or a local park with a tiny creek and pond are still ways that I slow down time and immerse in nature.

Of course, I love getting out into a big forest or on a tropical island, but those experiences are out of my ordinary life. And so, I cling to those same islands of green that fascinated me as a child and offered me refuge as a teenager in a troubled home.

park bridge

Green spaces are shrinking. Scientists are still studying the association between green spaces and mental health. I’m glad that research shows that growing up around green (vegetation) is associated with a significantly lower risk of mental health disorders in adulthood. But I knew that.

Other studies seem to indicate that a lack of green space increases the risk of mood disorders and schizophrenia and can even affect cognitive development.

The green of my childhood couldn’t prevent my father’s illness or my sister’s cognitive development, but it helped me. I don’t want to overstate the power of green spaces. One of the scientists in those studies cautions that studies have limitations: and some of the findings are correlational. They can’t definitively say that growing up near green space reduces risk of mental illness.

Many questions remain. Would a forest have more impact than a park? Are positive effects evolutionary or cultural? Can the effects be physiological as well as psychological? Maybe having more green spaces around us simply encourage social interaction and exercise, both of which improve mood. Does a decrease in air, water and noise pollution have a positive impact on mental health?

My non-scientist mother maintained that exposure to the dirt (a wider diversity of microbes) would make me healthier. Mom knew.

Getting Into a Flow State

creek

Having just come back from a vacation, I thought about the idea of being in a kind of blissful flow state. What is this state of flow? The term comes from positive psychology. A colloquial term for this state is being “in the zone,” when you feel completely immersed in a task, with complete concentration but also enjoyment in the task. It may seem wonderful or frightening that it also means you lose track of your surroundings, and even time. “Where did the time go?” up may wonder after being in this state – and that is a good loss of time, not a wasted two hours of your life. On my vacation, there were several time when not having looked at a clock (or even had one available) I realized that hours had pleasantly passed as I was snorkeling or walking the beach looking for shells. But while losing track of time may be part of the flow state, the flow state is not present whenever we lose our sense of time. There was no flow state in my snorkeling or walk; I was just distracted and focused on other things.

Experiments that I have read about make the process seem rather cold and analytical, but there is a good possibility that you have been in a flow state quite naturally. If so, then the goal would be to be able to achieve it again by choice.

The term “hyperfocus” seems related to flow but actually can be seen as the opposite state. Hyperfocus is an intense mental concentration but in a way that can distract from other tasks, such as when someone is hyperfocused while playing videogames. Some things I have read consider this to be a symptom of ADHD.

You can also find articles that relate flow to form of meditation because of the intense and focused concentration on the present moment and future commitments and past events fall away.

But this doesn’t have to be sitting-on-cushion kind of focus and action and awareness can merge in a way that actions feel like an extension of mind.

You often hear about losing your self-consciousness or awareness of ourselves which is useful for feeling less self-critical.

People who study this flow or experience it for themselves will recognize hat this letting go of personal control over the situation or activity can also be viewed as frightening to some people.

Part of reward of being in the flow state is not some result of our actions. There was no result or product from my snorkeling or walking, but the intrinsic reward came from performing the task.

It may also seem frightening that we might forget about other needs. You may forget to drink, eat, or about others around us.

But again, this is not a monk-on-a rock focus. It often happens to athletes, or an artist working on their piece. It can benefit performance. The flow state allows for the release of dopamine, which not only makes us “feel good” but enhances things like pattern recognition, attention and the ability to dismiss distractions.

Being in a flow state “accidentally” is good, but better is to able to create that state when needed or desired. I had listened a few years ago to an audiobook by Nathan DeWall who is a psychology professor who studied self-control as a way to achieve flow. He had suggestion on how to develop that self-control.

Setting goals, especially a series of smaller ones, helps. If you want to write that novel, setting a daily word count goal is one way to start. You also need to have a way to monitor your goals.

He notes that because our energy fluctuates throughout the day, so does our willpower, so we will have more self-control and willpower when we have more energy. You need to find when your energy level peaks and use that.

A perhaps counterintuitive suggestion is to push yourself a bit out of your comfort zone so that both body and mind are better about adapting to more challenging environments.

Whether it is playing tennis, painting or writing poetry, to experience the flow, you need the knowledge and skills to complete a task. You’re not going to be a better tennis player just because you focus on being better.

Unfortunately, flow states are easier to achieve when we feel the task is purposeful. If we feel connected and passionate about something, attention comes easier. It will be harder (maybe impossible) to make reading a dozen financial reports and summarizing them in the office today turn into a flow state. Still, you may be able to find ways of making it important – it will help your job performance or it will free up your weekend.

Reward is the last part of the state of flow, but it is also a starting place because it will motivate you. You need to see some reward for your efforts. It certainly does not need to be a “real” reward (for example, money) but it needs to be something that is personally worthwhile.