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.”

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.

Static Electricity and the Positive Effects of Negative Ions

plasma ball
Plasma ball

As a young boy, I was fascinated by static electricity. Electricity that I could produce! I wondered why some scientist hadn’t figured out how to harness this power to make electrical devices go. Those pops and zaps and sparks when we rub our feet on the carpet or take clothing off or out of the dryer seemed to come from nowhere.

I don’t recall ever having a science lesson in school about static electricity, though I have tenuous memories of rubbing balloons to produce it that may have been a class demonstration.

This morning there was a zap when I kissed my wife good morning. Ah, a spark is still there! I don’t want science to kill romance, but it led me to do some research into what was really happening.

Static electricity is one of the oldest scientific phenomena people observed and described. Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus made the first account; in his sixth century B.C. writings, he noted that if amber was rubbed hard enough, small dust particles will start sticking to it. Three hundred years later, Theophrastus followed up on Thales’ experiments by rubbing various kinds of stone and also observed the “power of attraction.” But neither of these natural philosophers found a satisfactory explanation for what they saw.                 Source 

Of course, it would be another two thousand years before the English word “electricity” was coined (from Latin “electricus,” meaning “like amber”). In that time, static electricity was more of a magic trick used to make things magically attract – like a paper to a charged hand.

Static electricity come from some electrons that are on the surface of any material. When certain materials rub against each other, electrons are pulled from the weaker material to the stronger binding force. Shuffle your feet along a carpet and then touch the metal doorknob and Zap, a small lightning bolt.

In winter or any time when the humidity is low, we notice it more because dry air is an electrical insulator. (Moist air acts as a conductor. )

How much power is in that spark? Typically, the amount is low. Well, the voltage can actually be very high – 100 times that of the outlet on the wall. But voltage is just a measure of the charge difference between objects. The thing you have to worry about is current. That is the measure of how many electrons are flowing and in your static electricity zaps it is just a few electrons. But those few electrons can have an impact.

On one dry winter day, I returned from a walk with my iPod Shuffle earbuds still in my ears listening to a podcast, and pulled off by zip-up sweatshirt and then touched the iPod. Pop! Not only did I feel a charge that ran up the wires to my ears, but the data stored on the device was damaged.

antistatic wristband

My experience didn’t damage the device itself, but static electricity can deliver a fatal charge to sensitive electronics. When people work on some electronics (such as inside a computer), they often wear an antistatic wristband. The wristband is grounded to some safe metal object nearby that wouldn’t be damaged by a static zap.  You could also ground yourself by touch a metal object or holding one (think of Ben Franklin’s key at the end of a kite string). Metal is a great conductor and the electrons are very happy to jump there.

A more serious though less likely threat is when you discharge electricity near flammable gases. My father showed me when I was quite young that when he was working on his car’s engine or around gasoline (including near a gas station pump), he would ground himself before touching the pumps or engine or car battery. I still do it when I’m working around my lawn mower and snowblower, though the risk is probably quite minimal.

People have humidifiers in their homes in winter for the positive effect it has on your skin and nasal passages, but it also reduces charge buildups. You might add fabric softener sheets to your dryer load to not only soften the clothing but to lessen static charges that make clothing cling. They actually tend to help balance out the electrons.

Woolen winter clothing and rubber-soled shoes will give you more of a static charge than cotton clothing and leather-soled shoes.

Does static electricity have any practical uses, as I had wondered in my childhood?  We have probably all seen a electrostatic generator make someone’s hair stand up or touched a ball that then produced lightning bolts from our fingers. But we can’t use it to power our smartphone – high voltage, low current. Still, it does have practical applications.

Electrostatic generators such as the Van de Graaff generator, and variations as the Pelletron, are used in physics research.

Many photocopiers use electric attraction to adhere charged toner particles onto paper. Some air fresheners (such as Fabreze) add more than a nice artificial fragrance because they are also discharging static electricity on dust particles which dissembles the bad smell.

Charged plates are used in some home heating and cooling systems and in industrial applications to capture dust, smoke and other minute particles. As particles move through the system, they pick up negative charges from a metal grid and are attracted to plates that are positively charged where they can be disposed of manually.

Static electricity is used in nanotechnology to pick up single atoms by laser beams. Nanoballoons can be switched between an inflated and a collapsed state using static electricity, and one day they might be used to deliver medication to specific tissues within the body.

negative ion band via Amazon

On a more personal level, you may also see some more New Age than scientific applications, such as wearing a negative ion band on your wrist. These wristbands are promoted as being useful for sports and any time or activity where you need a power boost or increased energy. In this stressed world, that probably means all day, every day.

The claim – which may be definitively unproven but has some science behind it – is that the negative ions can “balance” you and can help sleep, sinuses, hay fever, asthma, the immune system, relaxation, stability, energy levels, concentration, joint and muscle aches, arthritis, circulation and more. Sounds rather miraculous.

Negative ions are odorless, tasteless, and invisible molecules and we inhale them in abundance in certain places (those waterfalls, beaches, mountain streams).  When I’m watching the ocean waves on a beach or standing by falling water, I do feel “better.” Of course, some of that feeling comes from the natural beauty of the setting, but research also seems to indicate that some of that positivity in me comes from the higher number of negative ions there. Yes, this negative is positive in another sense. The opposite effects occur in a sealed office building: more positive ions, less aesthetics, more stress.

On the website webmd.com, I read that negative ions that get into our bloodstream are believed to produce biochemical reactions that increase levels of the mood chemical serotonin, helping to alleviate depression, relieve stress, and boost our daytime energy.

I wrote an entire post some years ago about the positive effects of negative ions, but I didn’t make the connection to static electricity.

We know that 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.

An air ionizer (or negative ion generator) is a device that uses a high voltage charge to ionize air molecules and generate negative ions. Air ionizers are often used in air purifiers so that particles are attracted to the electrode in an effect similar to static electricity. These devices can cost hundreds of dollars for “professional” ionizers and less for household room devices.

One trendy application I see in offices lately are Himalayan salt lamps.
These are made from Himalayan pink salt which has minerals and is supposedly free from toxins. Lit and heated by a small lightbulb inside the hollowed out salt, it releases negative ions.

In a new Age way, these are said to create harmony and balance mind, body, and soul , and so make a good addition to a place used for meditation, yoga, or sleeping. I suppose the idea of having them in offices is to balance the positive ions that dominate those sterile spaces. Maybe they add some earth and fire elements to the feng shui of the space.

I say “New Age” when explaining these lamps because I could find no scientific evidence that they have any positive effects on people near them. But I don’t dismiss any possible placebo effect.

Can any type of device that produces negative ions have a positive effect on people and perhaps even act like a mild antidepressant? It seems too early to know for sure. Does filtering out dust mites and dander improve health? Sounds logical. Does putting negative ions into the air improve your mood? There is some evidence that it does.

Of course, the negative ions when I’m standing next to the Great Falls of the Passaic River blow away the ones coming off a salt lamp, so I will stick to natural negative ion producers for the time being.

The Great Falls of the Passaic River in Paterson, New Jersey by Wally Gobet on Flickr

 

Restructuring Your Thoughts

As a seeker, I have gone down many roads. One thing I’ve decided traveling all those roads is that it is you are primarily responsible for what you get in life.

I have found that certain mottoes or mantras or whatever you want to call them talk about this idea. I have found this in religions and self-help books. It’s a wide range.

I don’t advocate the  idea that you can  visualize what you want from life, though that certainly will be an appealing way to attract followers. I’m also don’t buy into the law of attraction.

So many of these approaches involve thinking positively, and having a positive attitude is certainly better than having a negative one. The more scientific (or psychological) version of this is something I encountered when I was “in therapy.” That is cognitive restructuring. Right off, let me say that this helped me, but it was not enough on its own. It was a tool in the toolbox.

I have also seen this called cognitive reframing. I don’t have the degrees to explain all this properly but this technique is part of cognitive therapy. My doctor wanted me to identify and then change thought patterns and beliefs that were causing stress and/or depression.

When I was depressed, I found everything meaningless. I had a very difficult time naming any things – food, places, activities – that I enjoyed or that I felt were really were important. At the time, that did not seem odd. Now, it seems very odd – and sad.

The doctor wanted me to keep a journal, which is easy for me because I have been doing it most of life. I agree that writing our thoughts down is one way to take control of them. I do it currently with food as part of a diet I am following.

From my journal entries, the doctor observed that a lot of my anxiety seemed to come out of my imagined scenarios of situations that were really quite unlikely to happen. This observation made sense to me, but controlling or training my mind to think constructively and positively was difficult. It wasn’t working and I just could not believe that I could change things in my life by thinking differently about them.

I looked back at my journal from that period and found an entry that had the line “Reframe Your Negative Thoughts and Beliefs” written at the top.

Therapists like to turn your comments into questions. It is some kind of reflection technique. I was unhappy with my work life at that time.
“Why are you unhappy with your job,” he asked.
Well, for one thing, I’m making less money than my previous job.
“Do you equate happiness with financial status?”
No, but it would be nice to be paid what I think I am worth, and it would be great to get things I want and not worry about bills.

Then we would talk about what I might do to get a raise in salary or a promotion or even apply for other jobs that could give me what I was seeking. Of course, it was really about not just the money but feeling like my work was not valued in non-monetary ways too.

I had read back then that we have somewhere 10 and 20,000 thoughts per hour. This statistic freaked me out. Too too much thinking. In my insomniac nights (of which there were many in that period), I just could not turn off thoughts. Despite years of meditation training and practice, nothing worked.

This was a time before smartphones and early in the Internet days, but the therapist wanted me to tune out the news on TV and radio. (Probably more important today to do some tuning out, especially if you are anxious or depressed.) He suggested that I return to some print novels that I had loved earlier in life. But since most of us are online a lot (and you are online now reading this), and not everyone can afford or is willing to go into therapy, you can find websites with names like TheEmotionMachine.com and VeryWellMind.com that might get you started.

I can’t say that it did not help me, but I can’t say it was the action that pulled me out of that negative state. There were drugs, which I was opposed to at first, but seemed to help too. There were other changes in my life – some made by me, some made to my life by others.

Have you had any experience with this approach to making your life better?  Comments welcome.

Living in the Past

There are some serious and some pop philosophies that extol “living in the moment.”  It makes sense to live in the now. In a very unenlightened sense, you have no choice since that is where we are. But many people cannot easily get over their past. They cannot leave behind events or people. Is this harmful?

I have always liked collecting quotations.  Here are two about this – serious: “The past has no power over the present moment.” – Eckhart Tolle; and pop: – “Don’t let yesterday take up too much of today” – Will Rogers.

Eckhart Tolle has written about this in The Power of Now and says that the natural enemy to enlightenment is the mind. He feels that we are our own creator of pain and the cure is living fully in the present.

The past is important. It is clearly part of you and it is what formed the person we are in the now.  It shouldn’t be forgotten. Sometimes, it can’t be forgotten, though we may want to forget parts of it.

But sometimes letting go of the past is necessary to move on with our life. Obviously, we cannot change the past, even if it has changed our present.

Can you be selective in when and how you access your past? Being a product of the past is not the same as being a prisoner of the past.

I think of some of this mental time traveling as harmless. I tend to still listen to the music of my youth. Serendipitously, I heard the song “Living in the Past” by Jethro Tull yesterday which was recorded when I was in high school. Harmless nostalgia, right? Well, it does trouble me that I have almost no interest in new music. I was so involved in pop music at one time. That is gone. Is that bad?

But that is not as serious as a person who more generally finds it difficult to accept new experiences and are more likely to recreate past experiences in more important ways than music you listen to.

I found a series of articles online about this approach. In Psychology Today, I found both ideas about living in the past and also the idea that “No one lives in the past. The past is the past. It’s gone. You don’t ever have to put the past behind you. It’s always behind you.”

When living is the past goes beyond nostalgic time traveling, it is associated with the fear of making changes, complaining more about the current situation, and isolation.

You can find those who will say that those who don’t remember or learn from the past will be forced to repeat it. But sometimes those who focus on the past, unconsciously, end up repeating similar, and not positive, situations.

This living in the present approach can start to sound like a song from the movie Frozen that was so annoyingly popular a few years ago and became a meme for other kinds of letting go of your past.

It’s funny how some distance makes everything seem small
And the fears that once controlled me can’t get to me at all
It’s time to see what I can do
To test the limits and break through
No right, no wrong, no rules for me
I’m free
Let it go, let it go

Living in the past also nurtures regrets for things done or undone that cannot be changed.

In my most serious period of Buddhist studies, I fully embraced the now.

“If you are depressed, you are living in the past;
If you are anxious, you are living in the future;
If you are at peace, you are living in the present.”
–  Lao Tzu

But I still found myself depressed and anxious in the present. A teacher would tell me that was because I was not really in the present.

Fears are normal. Phobias are not. When visiting the past becomes living in the past, there is cause for concern.

Still, living in the now is not easy. People who are depressed are often fearful of the future. Their negative and anxious expectations encourage them to go back and letting go of the past is very difficult.

It is hard to see some negative past experiences as ones that ultimately make us wiser or put us on a better path. And some negative experiences don’t do us any good. They hurt and scar us.

Finally, the most frightening form of this seems to me to be something a friend is still going through after the death of their child. They don’t feel they can control the present. And that means they certainly can’t have any power over their future. She sees this as not only her problem, but a problem that “all of us” are dealing with in the current state of “the world.”

Sorry – no solutions here. Just acknowledgement of something I am observing.