4,000 Ads A Day; 9 Ways To Be Happier

Have you ever been lied to? Has someone manipulated you to get what they wanted from you at your expense? Has someone broken a promise to you without regard to your needs or feelings? How did that make you feel?

What would you think if I told you that you are being manipulated over 4000 times a day? That is the number of advertisements that the average person is exposed to every 24 hours.

Advertisements have been used for hundreds, if not thousands of years. The majority of ads have one purpose, to get you to buy a service or product. And in the new millennium, we have reached a higher level of social intrusion with the advent of customized ads designed to target individuals based on their personalities and weaknesses.

If I want to sell you something, I need to convince you that what you have is not good enough, and I then need to offer you a solution. “Your teeth are not white enough; I have something that will make them look better.” I also need to give you a reason why white teeth are essential. This can be done in a variety of ways. For instance, I can show an unhappy, rejected person with yellow teeth. I can then show a beautiful white-toothed person hanging out with other beautiful people. Now white teeth are associated with youth, beauty, friends, and happiness. 

You may think that you can ignore ads, but the evidence suggests otherwise. A researcher had subjects purchase one of two pens. Of the two writing implements, one was superior. The researcher had the subjects watch a video, and in that video was embedded hidden ads for the inferior pen. At the end of the experiment, 60-80% of the subjects choose to purchase the inferior pen, despite objective evidence to the contrary. 

Adolescents see up to 30,000 TV commercials every year, and it has been shown that they negatively influence teens to eat more, drink more, and (in the day) smoke more. 

There is surprisingly little research on the impact of advertisements on happiness. However, a study was published in 2019 that tracked overall societal happiness compared with total ad money spent in a given country. There was a negative correlation between the two. In other words, more ads mean a less happy society. 

I have long been convinced that advertising, in general, makes people unhappy. Many ads make you feel inadequate personally, professionally, or socially. If the ad is convincing enough, you buy the product or service, and in most cases, you find that you are either not happier or only temporarily uplifted. The latter situation is worse because you get a positive jolt that quickly fades. Our brains are wired to identify these good feelings and to seek them. Your brain sees the problem and comes up with a solution.  What is that solution? Buy something else!  

The average person can continue to buy unneeded things because of another unhappiness maker, easy credit, and the credit card. Some people assume that the “money” that they have on their card is “free cash.” However, banks don’t give out free money. Forty-one percent (average group) to seventy-three percent (higher risk group) of credit card holders don’t pay off their balance at the end of the month. When these individuals use their credit cards, they are taking out very high-interest loans. 

The following pattern can emerge. An ad creates dissatisfaction and offers a solution. You buy into the message and purchase the service or product using your credit card. The product temporarily makes you feel better, but that happiness quickly fades, making you buy more items or services. Repeat the above. This leads to an additional problem, unnecessary debt, and all the stress that that brings. That stress leads to unhappiness, so what is the solution? Buy more!… and you are now in a purchase-debt-purchase cycle.

Many want to believe that there is an easy and painless way to feel whole and happy, and advertisers play on that desire. This rapid reward followed by quick removal of reward is a classic recipe for addictive behavior. The shorter the cycle, the stronger the addiction. However, you don’t have to be a compulsive shopper to deal with the negative side of purchasing unnecessary things. Let’s say that you need a car, but you really can’t afford a new one. However, with a little creative financing, you can have the luxury model of your dreams. A sensible used car would indeed transport you to your destination just as well. However, car salespeople don’t just sell cars; they sell fantasies. 

When I was younger, most buyers took a car loan that ran three or four years. Now the typical car loan is six years (72 months), and seven-year loans (84 months) are also very popular. Bigger cars are now widespread, and massive SUVs can cost $40,000 or more. I recently looked at new Ford pickup trucks and their sticker prices were in the $50,000 to $70,000 range. According to Experian, the interest rate on a 72-month car loan is between 4.9 and 6.7 percent. The average of those numbers is 5.85 percent. If a consumer borrows $45,000 for 72 months at 5.8%, they will be paying around $740 a month for the next six years. 

It was challenging to come up with hard facts, but the articles that I did locate suggested that many cars start to break down when they are around five years old. If you have a 6-year car loan or 7-year car loan, you will likely have to deal with both an expensive car payment as well as car repair costs. That car that made once made you feel happy is now a significant contributor to your unhappiness.

So is stuff the cause of unhappiness? No, stuff is just stuff. You may choose a minimalist lifestyle, but someone else may prefer more luxury. The critical thing to realize is that the buying of unnecessary items will not give you long term happiness, and may have the opposite effect.

So is lack of money the root cause of unhappiness? An often-cited 2010 Princeton study examined the correlation between money and happiness. The bottom line is that if you can’t meet your basic financial needs, you are more likely to be unhappy. As your income increases, you will become happier (generally). However, this effect tops out at around $75,000/year. People who made more money than $75,000 were not happier. In fact, there is some evidence to suggest that wealth may have the opposite effect.

Our society also tells us that stuff and money are the sources of happiness. Wealthy, successful people who possess all of the right “toys” are portrayed as happy. However, scientific evidence says that these factors are not the secret to happiness. So what does make us happy? Luckily, there has been quite a bit of research on this topic, and the news is not good for advertisers. Why? Because most of the things that make humans happy are FREE.

Nine totally free ways to become happier

Healthy lifestyle

Your mother was right; If you get enough sleep, exercise, reduce your stress level, and eat well, you will be happier. 

Attention!

If you stay more focused, you will be happier. Practices such as meditation can help you focus.

Time

Having free time makes you happier than having lots of money but little free time. No one on their deathbed wished that they would have worked more.

Stop racing

People who slow down and experience their surroundings are happier than those who rush through life. Smell the roses.  Check out a sunrise.

Acts of kindness

Volunteering, being a good friend, and other acts of kindness benefit not only the recipient but also the giver. Evidence suggests that the more personal the act, the happier it will make you feel. Volunteering at a soup kitchen will make you happier than writing a check to a random charity.

Spirituality/Religious life

People with a rich spiritual life and those that belong to a religion are not only happier, but feel more fulfilled.

Fun!

Will an expensive vacation make you happy? Possibly, but only if you can afford it. However, there are many other activities that you can do that are free. Have a picnic, go to a free concert, take a hike in the woods, have a friend over to watch a movie. Have fun, and you will feel happier.

Stay in the present

I love the saying, “If you have one foot in the past and the other foot in the future, you are peeing on the present.” Are you always thinking about past successes or failures? Stop it! Are you living for the weekends? Stop it! You are where you should be right now. Stay in the present and celebrate the moment.

Spend time with others, connect with others, and genuinely love others.

For the last 80 years, Harvard University has been running a longitudinal study on what makes people happy. They followed both Harvard students and inner-city men over their lifetime. Also, the study is now tracking the offspring of the original participants. They found that happiness not only makes you feel better it also leads to better physical health. So what was the most significant factor in determining a person’s happiness? Was it wealth, social status, profession, IQ, genes? No, the most significant factor that makes someone happy is having close interpersonal relationships.  

Bill Murphy Jr cites some sobering facts in his 2019 “Inc.” article.

  • 40% of adults sometimes or always feel that their social relationships are not meaningful.
  • 20% of Americans consider themselves socially isolated.
  • 28% of older adults live alone
  • Being lonely is the equivalent of smoking ¾ of a pack of cigarettes a day on a person’s physical health.

A close interpersonal relationship is not a popularity contest. A person with 1000 Facebook friends is not necessarily happier than the person with 10 Facebook friends. 

Do you have someone in your life who has your back? Someone who you can be yourself with? Someone who is there for you during hard times? Someone who loves and accepts you for who you are? If you answer yes to these questions, you have a close interpersonal relationship. Who the relationship is with is irrelevant. Can it be your spouse? Of course. But it can also be a sibling, coworker, or friend.


We have a right to be happy. Sadly, we are often manipulated down a path that leads to unhappiness. If you want to be happier, examine the above list, and determine ways that you can implement some of the happiness points. Anything that you will do will move you in a more positive direction. Changing behavior requires time and consistency. However, the reward will be great.

Mike

Here is the audio reading of this podcast:

http://psychiatricsecrets.libsyn.com/4000-ads-9-ways-to-be-happier

Unnecessary stuff is nice, but it won’t make you happy.

Three Real Ways To Change A Dysfunctional Behavior

One of the most challenging things that we humans do is to change dysfunctional behavior. Yet, it’s something that successful people must accomplish regularly. If you want to move forward, it is imperative to recognize problems in your life, address them, and fix them.

I believe that most of us know this, but many contemplate the need to change without ever acting on making a change. Others force themselves onto a radical path of change, and like a flash fire, they burn brightly, and then they flame out. An example of this is the classic New Year’s exercise resolution, “I need to exercise more.” Drive by any gym during the first week of January, and you see that the parking lot is bursting at its seams. If you want to get a good parking spot, just wait a few weeks for the resolutioners to fall back on their old behaviors.

As a therapist, I often saw patients who claimed that they wanted to change. In some instances, what they wanted was for other people to adapt to them so they could continue their dysfunctional actions. They wanted the world to change for them (good luck to that). However, I also treated individuals who sincerely wanted to take responsibility for their lives and were willing to put forth the effort to make change. It was then my job to teach them the tools to accomplish their goals. Naturally, there are many ways to elicit change so that I would customize my approach based on the person’s needs, personality, and behavioral style.  

Today I would like to share with three “generic” change approaches that you might consider. I’m going to do this by citing some examples from my own life.  

Method 1

Pairing a new behavior with things that you enjoy.

I hated exercise. When I was morbidly overweight, I sought the help of a weight-loss specialist. She was a thin wisp of a young girl who appeared to be very physically fit. I wondered if she could relate to me and understand the plight of an old fat man. 

She did some quick calculations of my weight and BMI and then scribbled a few numbers onto a pad of paper. Her approach was to talk to me about my need to exercise. Of course, I knew that exercise was important, but any past attempts on my part quickly failed, and I explained that to her.

She was unmoved and told me that I needed to exercise for an hour and a half a day vigorously.  By vigorous exercise, she was referring to a cardiovascular gym routine. She didn’t stop there; she also wanted me to do non-vigorous exercise for several hours a day. The non-vigorous activity would include things like walking, swimming, and biking. I tried to explain to her that I had difficulty climbing even a single flight of stairs. I told her that I knew that I needed to exercise, but I hated it and just couldn’t get myself to do it. I told her that I was working 60-80 hours a week, and didn’t have hours to spare during my day. She was unmoved, and instead of understanding me, she told me an “inspirational” story of a client of her’s (a former athlete) who had adopted her strategy and lost weight.

If you are or have been a fat person, you will understand what I am about to say next. I listened to her and felt even more hopeless about my plight; I gave up. On the surface, it appeared that I was paying attention as I nodded in false agreement. I left the appointment feeling worse than when I went in. I never adopted her exercised advice.

Fast forward to 5 years ago. My friend Tom was on his fitness journey and mentioned to me that he would buy me a coffee if I walked to the local Starbucks the next morning. I liked spending time with Tom, and so I was motivated to attempt this request. Further, one of the few exercises that I did like to do was to walk. With that said, I was uncertain if I could withstand the trip, and so I walked the route the night before, just to make sure.

That was five years ago, and I now exercise on (almost) a daily basis. That exercise has varied over time, and for the last several years, I have resumed my early morning walk to Starbucks. I look forward to talking this 3.5 mile round trip for several reasons. First, I love walking in the quiet of the early morning. I think, pray, meditate, and problem solve during that time. It isn’t uncommon for Tom to surprise me with a Starbucks visit, and of course, I enjoy that. However, I now know other regulars at the shop who greet and chat with me, as do the baristas. I bring along a computer on my walks, and I write most of these blogs at Starbucks. Starbucks is where I also write letters and emails to friends and family. By combining exercise with several other things that I like to do, I have transformed a negative into a positive. I certainly can now climb a flight of stairs without feeling like I need to call 911.

Writing a blog post after walking to Starbucks.

Method 2

Learning from past mistakes.

If you read my last post, you know that I’m currently on a spiritual fast. I have been on many restrictive weight-loss diets, and I have also tried a couple of spiritual fasts in the past, and so I had quite a bit of data to draw on to explore what kind of a fast that I could do that would have the greatest success of completion.  

Before I started this fast, I did a mental review of what worked, and just as importantly, what didn’t work with prior attempts to modify my eating. Based on this information, I devised a fasting plan that I thought would be challenging but doable. I’m now at the midpoint of this fast, and so far, I’m reasonably on target. 

This technique goes beyond personal growth; it can be applied to all levels of a human’s life. Does it always seem that you are getting the short stick when it comes to relationships? Look at the data. Is your career not moving the way you want it? Look at the data. Are you feeling like others are always taking advantage of you? Look at the data… and so on.

Explore the weaknesses in your behavioral patterns and find workable solutions to change them. If plan A doesn’t work, find a plan B. Reassess both your behavior and progress regularly, and modify as indicated.  

My plan is to have only bread and non-caloric drinks for two of my meals.

Method 3

Eating the elephant

One of my favorite sayings is, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time!”  

The home that I have lived in for thirty years has both a basement and crawl space. Both have become “junk magnets” over the decades, with the crawl space being the more pathological of the two. Any object that we no longer used but still seemed useful was buried there. The only things that we did need to store there were our Christmas decorations, and these items occupied a small portion of that vast space. The rest was filled to the brim with boxes, bags, and loose items.  

It is difficult to get into the crawl space, and once inside, you have to stoop down and crawl on very rough concrete. The idea of cleaning the area out was not only overwhelming to me but also my wife. It was just easier to pretend that it didn’t exist.

However, now that I’m retired I have the time to tackle such a project, but I didn’t want to do it. I don’t like the feeling that I have something hanging over my head, and I don’t like feeling guilty. With that said, it seemed like an impossible task.

What I needed to do is to come up with a plan. What could I do to solve this problem? I wasn’t dealing with a deadline; I had as much time as I needed. My idea was to remove three significant objects from the crawl space every week. An object could be a big box, a large item, or a garbage bag filled with loose pieces. To make it easier for me to navigate the crawl space, I found my old knee pads and my headlight. I place these items by the entrance to the crawl space, so they were at the ready, making my explorations easier.

The purging process went on for months, but doing it was simple — one box per trip, three boxes per week. Since I only had three weekly items, it didn’t even add a lot of work to my “garbage night” haulings.  

Instead of thinking about how much more I had to do, I would celebrate that one less box was in the crawl space. I would pat myself on the back for accomplishing my job, which often only took a few minutes. Each “bite of the elephant” seemed trivial, but eventually, I ate the whole elephant.

Some changes in life must be done immediately and wholly. If you want to stop smoking, you need to apply total abstinence to increase your chance of success. However, many changes can be made gradually. Just have a real plan and direction. 

The crawl space finally cleaned out…one bite at a time.

So there you have it — three ways to change behavior. There are more ways that I may share with you in another post.

Cheers!

Mike

Why Am I Fasting?

People fast to improve their physical, mental, and spiritual health.

Two weeks ago, a new series started at my church. The series, called “Make Room,” explores how some religious practices can help you make room for the Holy Spirit in your life. The first topic was fasting, and our lead pastor specifically challenged the congregation to consider 21 days of fasting and prayer. This request resonated with me, but I still can’t say why.

In simple terms, fasting is the process of abstaining or reducing some food or drink for a period of time. There are many different ways to fast that range from complete abstinence to a voluntary elimination of some category of food. For instance, the Catholic practice of giving up a food category during Lent could be considered a fast as could the Muslim practice of not eating or drinking from dawn to dust during Ramadan.

I listened to Pastor Dave describe the history of Christian fasting. However, something odd happened to me when he talked about the reasons to fast… I blanked out. After the sermon, I asked Julie to repeat the reasons he cited, and I quickly forgot them. I then turned to the internet and did some reading on spiritual fasting.

Interestingly, I couldn’t recall the salient points of those readings either. I am a professional student who has spent a lifetime memorizing random groups of facts, but I couldn’t remember a couple of them presented in a seron. Why is that? My conclusion is that I’m being compelled to fast for another reason. Not everything in life fits into a set of bullet points.

Here are some of my thoughts on the topic.

What kind of fast should I do?

Simply stated, I should do a fast that I have a reasonable chance of completing. I can’t go 21 days without eating food, in fact, my past history suggests that I can’t go several food-free days without becoming severely hypoglycemic.  

I also know that if I only allow myself only a single meal per day, it is likely that I’ll binge eat during that meal. If I eat an entire Thanksgiving Day sized meal, am I fasting? Probably not.

I have gone on bizarre diets through the years in weight loss attempts, and I don’t do well eating only a single category of food, like fruit. In fact, such efforts caused me to transition from my usual sweet self (my personal opinion) into an angry SOB. Making my loved ones miserable seems counter to an exercise done to promote a better spiritual life.

Many years ago I decided to try a bread and water fast. This was likely because I had romanticized the 1918 Eric Enstrom photograph “Grace.” I spent several days eating white bread and drinking water. I found that I was hungry, but I could no longer bear to eat dry bread washed down with incipit tap water. The fast was a failure as all I could focus on was what I would eat after I ended that torture.

Based on the above knowledge, I devised a fast that should work for me. During the workweek, I will continue my custom of eating three times a day. However, for two of those meals, I will only have bread and a non-caloric drink. I made some 100% whole wheat loaves that should be more nutritious than the store-bought stuff. I’m allowing myself to use calorie-free toppings (sugar-free jellies) on the bread as I have difficulty swallowing dry foods. For fluids, I’ll drink non-caloric drinks such as water, tea, and coffee. One time a day (likely lunch), I’ll eat a “basic” meal. For instance, a bowl of soup.  

I made some 100% whole wheat bread, which should be more nutritious than the store bought stuff.
My plan is to have only bread and non-caloric drinks for two of my meals.
Soaking beans for a basic bean soup.

On the weekends, I’ll have a bread meal once a day, along with two small and simple meals. I think that this flexibility is essential for me as a lot of my social connections over weekends involve “breaking bread” with someone. 

Prayer and meditation

I define prayer as a conversation with God and meditation as a practice of quieting my mind to become more spiritually aware.  

Currently, I do these practices during quiet times during the day, such as my early morning walks. I am curious to see if the quality of my efforts will change with the addition of fasting.

My church has offered to send daily Bible verses via email during the fast, and I have signed up for them. They also have a little video vignette (sort of a mini-sermon) component on these verses. I find the combo much more helpful than just reading a couple of lines of scripture and trying to interpret it myself. 

The problem

I feel compelled to fast, but I’m not sure why. Further, I can’t remember the part of the sermon where the pastor talked about this. I have concluded that I can’t remember his bullet points because they don’t apply to my particular reason for fasting.

As I start my fast, I am trying to open up my mind to elucidate why I am doing this process. This is what I have come up with so far:

Why fast?

It is an act of discipline.  

It is a willingness to commit to do something and to continue to do that thing despite the lack of a guaranteed return. It is a statement that announces that I am more than my physical needs while also admitting that my physical needs and spiritual needs are not separate but connected.

It is an act of sacrifice. 

The word sacrifice seems to carry a negative valence and conjures up images of pain and torture in my emotional mind. However, my thinking self understands this term differently. Sacrifice is giving up something for a more significant cause. A sacrifice can be material, such as giving money to the poor. It also can be emotional, as in sitting with a friend during a difficult time. When I sacrifice, I realize that I am not the center of the universe.

It is a way to delay gratification

As a child, I had little, and any luxury item that I possessed was acquired through hard work and diligent saving. This process caused me to value those things. In my current instant gratification world, many things that were once valued now have little value. With a credit card and the internet, it is possible to meet any need 24 hours a day. I can stream a movie at will, or order a pair of shoes at 3 AM. Also, I can eat at any time that I wish as my pantry and fridge are overflowing. Delaying eating despite being hungry is another form of delayed gratification that forces me to be grateful for the food that I eat.

It deemphasizes food

There was a time that I was obsessed with food, and my life revolved around my next snack. Thankfully, that changed several years ago when I gave up eating concentrated forms of sugar. I believe that what I really had was an addiction to sugar, and that addiction drove me to seek it in any way available. It is great to be freed from sugary snacks. With that said, I would like to deemphasize food further. My fasting plan is basic and straightforward. It is designed to provide edible meals that are routine. I know I will eat, but I don’t have to think about what I will eat.

It is a way to have increased awareness of the world around me

Like many, I love a big hearty meal. After I’m done feasting, I find myself lethargic and somewhat self-absorbed. I believe that the converse is true when I eat less. The discomfort that is caused by hunger makes me more alert and aware. That alertness makes me feel connected to the people and things around me.

It is a way to put worldly things in their place

I don’t consider myself ascetic, and anyone who has seen my Amazon shipments would agree. However, I firmly believe that reliance on worldly possessions for a sense of worth or fulfillment is a recipe for an empty and hollow life. A fast is a way to simplify my life and indirectly place less emphasis on “stuff.”


These are the rationale that I have come up with for my desire to fast. Yet, I’m uncertain that they are the right reason(s). As a scientist, I am driven to understand the “whys” of everything. However, I may never find the true “why” of why I feel compelled to fast. It is also possible that I will discover the reason, but that awareness will happen at some point in the distant future. Naturally, I have a secret hope that I will be guided in a significant life direction because of fasting. However, I accept that this likely won’t be the case. Every event in life doesn’t translate into a transparent process with a definable outcome. At times it is vital to act not out of mechanistic rationality but out of faith.

Happy trails!

Mike

Here is the audio link for this post: http://psychiatricsecrets.libsyn.com/why-am-i-fasting

Slow Down

I write this at the start of a new year and a new decade. Today is Saturday, January 4th, 2020. It is 2 PM, and so I’m not at my usual Starbucks writing post. Instead, I’m sitting in an overstuffed leather chair in my home study. On my legs sits my lap table, with its cushioned bottom and bright blue plastic surface. On the lap table is my MacBook with its defective keyboard. It is a computer recalled by Apple, but one that they refuse to fix because I purchased it from a third party. The house is quiet, as only William is home. He is in the family room and busy doing his own thing. My sole contact with him today was to ask him how he was feeling, as he is recovering from a cold. “Better,” was his reply.  

Julie is at work in her new office space. Will and I helped her move a few days ago. It was there that I pulled out my back. Although improved, it is still quite sore, and I find that the padding of my comfortable recliner provides better support than the mesh back of my rolling desk chair.  

I awoke a little before 4 AM today, but I hit the snooze bar a few times before I got up. While I was in bed, my back felt normal. However, it felt tight and sore as soon as I went from a horizontal to a vertical position. After dressing, I went outside and brushed a light dusting of snow off of my 11-year-old blue Honda Fit. Twelve minutes later, I was in the drive-through line of the Dunkin Donuts on New York Street. “Medium black, and a medium with cream,” I announced into the speaker. I recognized the responding voice as the Hispanic man who usually works that shift. Despite my using a different vehicle, he knew me. When I reached the window, he was ready with my coffees in a carrier, and his terminal out to accept my Apple Pay. We wished each other a good day and drove the three additional blocks to Tom’s house.

Tom was waiting for me, and in his customary fashion, he put his finger to his lips, warning me to be quiet as the rest of the house was sleeping. I always find this humorous, as he is much louder than I am. I gave him his black coffee and sat next to him on the long bench that he uses as a desk chair. Tom is always researching something, and we chatted about his latest discovery before we started to write this week’s post for his construction blog. I had already uploaded a bunch of photos that I thought would be useful. With his approval, we started the composition, which was on repairing a sunroom. I have a love of construction, and after years of listening to Tom describe the process, I can usually compose a post that only requires a few revisions. With edits complete, I published the post to his website, and then linked it to Facebook, Linkedin, Pinterest, and Instagram.

“Do you want to go to breakfast?” Tom asked. “Sure,” was my reply. I was assuming that we were going to go to Harner’s, a pleasant and cheap breakfast joint in Aurora. So I was surprised when he turned onto I88 and headed into the city. He was taking us to our favorite breakfast spot, The Palace Sandwich Shop. There we were greeted by Brandy, the waitress who asked how we were doing and how Tom’s son, Charlie, was. Tom said that Charlie was excellent and recalled the time when Charlie, at age 5, punched George, the restaurant’s owner, directly in the…let me just say below his stomach. On a previous trip to the restaurant, George told Tom that he would never forget Charlie because of that event.

I ordered two eggs over easy with bacon and a fruit cup. Tom ordered the Western Skillet. Our conversation continued, jumping from topic to topic as we talked about politics, movies, real estate, and food. With breakfast complete, Tom generously paid the bill. Brandy wanted to take a picture of Tom to place on the restaurant’s Instagram feed. He held his hand in front of his face and so the photo only showed his hand and me standing in the background. It is doubtful that I’ll make the Instagram cut.

Back in the car, our conversation continued. I started to offer unsolicited advice, and at one point, Tom called me “dad” in a genial tone. Back in Naperville, he wanted to show me a neighborhood that he is thinking about. Tom feels that his house is too big for three occupants, and he has been considering moving to a smaller dwelling. We drove up and down the streets of this pleasant neighborhood to get a vibe for the community.

I returned home to a quiet house and went up to my bedroom to find Julie just finishing a shower. She was getting ready to go to work. She left, and I was left in a quiet house.

I had productive plans, but my sore back continued to bother me, and despite taking a double dose of Alieve, it was tight and tender. I watched YouTube videos until I reached my saturation point and then headed downstairs to the kitchen. In the fridge, I found the pizza box from the Lou Malnati’s pizza that Julie ordered the day before. It was a deep dish spinach pizza with a butter crust. I put two slices on a little aluminum tray and popped the tray into our toaster oven for 8 minutes. Hot and crispy, the pizza served as an excellent lunch. 

Which brings me sitting in my overstuffed leather chair, looking out at the snow, typing, thinking. Soon Julie will return home, and we will plot a course for the rest of the day.

I’m sure many of you are wondering why I am writing about such an ordinary day. There is a part of me that would like to answer that question by stating that no day is average or typical. There is another part of me that would like to say the opposite, that today was indeed ordinary. My stream of consciousness is moving me in the latter direction, so I think I’ll go there with today’s post.

In the past, I was always busy, and I always felt like I didn’t have enough time. However, I have been fortunate as of late to have time, and with time I have discovered an entirely new dimension to life. I find a particular joy in the fact that the Dunkin Donuts man and Brandy, the waitress, know who I am. I celebrate that I can spend long periods with my friend, Tom, and never get bored. I have the time to look forward to when Julie will return home. If she is excited and wants to do something, that would be great. However, if she is tired and crabby, I’m OK with that too.  

Since I have allowed myself to slow down colors seem more vivid, sounds are sharper, tastes have become more intense. I don’t feel like I’m wasting time, I feel like I’m experiencing it more naturally. I am more connected and grounded to the world around me.  

I have stopped asking myself the question, “What will I do when I grow up.” I’m no longer frantically seeking my next career. Instead, I’m trying to listen to my heart, and I’m trying to allow God to act through me. That latter point is a bit scary, as I’m a bit of a control freak. However, when I stop trying to control everything around me, stuff happens. I have become ever more aware that my talents are best utilized on a small, one to one scale. I always thought that I had a higher and more grandiose purpose, but now I embrace the above reality.

I feel moved to slow down enough so I can see the next steps that I should take. My current back issues have forced a further slowing, and so I embrace the pain as it allows me to listen to thoughts with greater clarity. 

If I can’t be a good father, husband, friend, or customer, can I be anything authentic? These roles define me. They are not roles that take me away from my life’s mission, they are my mission. I feel that additional tasks and drives will present themselves as long as I keep myself open, willing, and authentic.

In a day, I will start a modified fast, which will consist of one meal a day with bread and water for the other two. I hope to continue this plan for 21 days as I pray and meditate to open myself to the will of God. I can assure you that the thought of me giving up control to anyone is a frightening thing to do. I will try to use the support of those people who love me as I attempt this difficult challenge. I know that I will need to continue to slow down and “be.” I’m not expecting a radical transformation. To be honest, I don’t know what to expect. 

My retirement has been different from what I initially envisioned. It has become more personal and rich. I wish I could describe this to you in a more elegant fashion, but the words to do so escape me. However, dear reader, I am not static, I am definitely moving forward.  

Peace

Mike

Here is the audio reading of this podcast: http://psychiatricsecrets.libsyn.com/slow-down

Christmas Past, Christmas Present

Christmas Past, Christmas Present

I savored the trinity of holidays when I was a kid. Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. This triple threat commenced with the relatively unimportant Halloween, then moved to the more significant Thanksgiving, and culminated in the ultimate holiday, Christmas. 

I have both good and bad Christmas memories. Still, my overall reminiscence of the season was one of excitement and joy. I enjoyed school, but the idea of getting two weeks off from it at the height of winter was exhilarating. However, it seemed that the week that preceded winter break expanded to infinity, moving ever slower as each day inched towards the holiday weekend. 

The first few days off of school were magical, and all possibilities appeared to be within my grasp. I could stay up, I could sleep in, I didn’t have homework to weigh me down, and school seemed like a lightyear away. 

Christmas Eve celebration took place at my grandparent’s walk-up flat on Chicago’s West Side. I didn’t like going there as it smelled strongly of garlic and BenGay. Worse, everyone spoke in Slovak, a language that I could neither speak nor understand. However, Christmas Eve was different, as all of my cousins were in attendance. The family was packed into the tiny place as we laughed and celebrated. My grandmother was an excellent ethnic cook, and we dined on her Christmas cabbage soup, which was accompanied by homemade rye bread, kolacky, and yeast coffee cakes filled with sweet poppy seed or fruit fillings. The kids would be relegated to a makeshift table in one of the bedrooms that was adorned with mismatched plates and bowls. Before we started our meal, a thin host like wafer would be passed among us. Each of us would break off a piece, which we dripped in honey and ate. I’m unsure of the significance of this wafer, which was called Oplatki. I thought it had something to do with Holy Communion, but that is just my conjecture.

Sometime after 11 PM, we would put on our coats and go to Assumption BVM Catholic Church for Midnight Mass. This was an ethnic church, and so the service was in Slovak. The place would be filled with parishioners, and once again, my nose would be assaulted by the smell of garlic, this time punctuated by the pungent odor of mothballs used to prevent insect destruction of  the congregations’ wool dress coats. It was not uncommon for one of my siblings to start to laugh, and like a wave, their mirth would spread to the rest of us. Each child desperately trying to stifle their sacrilegious giggles. Of course, that was impossible, and the more we tried, the more we laughed. Although we were met with angry glares, I remember those incidents with full satisfaction.

After services, we returned to my grandparents’ house for another meal. Our Christmas Eve dinner was meat-free, but our 1 AM meal was not. I don’t recall everything that we ate during that meal. Still, perogies and a delicious Slovak sausage called Droby stand out in my memory. My grandmother would bake the latter with bacon until both the bacon and sausage casings were crisp and delicious. Stuffed to our limit, we would then pile into our respective cars and return home. Christmas Eve was a day where a young kid could stay up ridiculously late without being scolded by a parent. 

Thanksgiving and Christmas Day were the only times that we ate in our dining room, and they were also the only days that we used our good china. Our china consisted of thin white porcelain dishes that had a silver ring around their edges, and an outer margin decorated with pink roses. I thought it was very fancy. Typically, we would eat our meals at our old Formica kitchen table using worn melamine dishes, so eating in the dining room was very special.

My mother would make a massive feast for Christmas Day. We would start off with a small glass of tomato juice and some canned fruit salad and then move onto the main course, a full Thanksgiving-style meal plus dumplings, pork roast, and Polish sausage with sauerkraut. There would be more kolache and yeast coffee cakes. Also, there could be a pie, cookies, nut cups, date bars, and other delectables.  

My two maiden aunts always celebrated Christmas dinner with us. So we weren’t allowed to open presents until dinner was over. This could be agony for me as all of my friends opened gifts either on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning. 

Despite having a pile of presents under the tree, the actual number of gifts per person was small and mostly unremarkable. Usually, the best gifts went to my parents’ Godchildren as my folks didn’t want to seem cheap to the other relatives. I often bought my gifts from the Spencer Catalog, a mail-order house where you could get fabulous items for $1 to 3 dollars. Most of the gifts that I received were functional and not very inspired. However, there were a few standout years that I remember.

I started to listen to the radio when I was in early grade school. I would tune our old Aiwa kitchen radio carefully to pick up far off cities as their amplitude modulated signals ebbed and flowed with the shifting ionosphere. Discovering these hidden signals was seminal in broadening my overall view of the world around me, and I wanted a radio for my very own. Christmas was approaching, and I remember telling my mother of this fervent wish.

That year, my mother decided to wrap presents early, and to prevent package prodding, she used a “secret code” to identify whose gifts were whose. This didn’t stop me from investigating the wrapped packages, and I found one rectangular box that was just the right size and weight for a little tabletop radio. I could hardly wait for Christmas.

Christmas arrived that I was given my present to open, it was THE box! I started to carefully rip the wrapping paper, which revealed the word “Westinghouse.” Holy cow, I was really going to get a radio! I now tore off the rest of the paper and literally started to shriek, “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! I really wanted this, thank you!” My mother had a puzzled look on her face, and took the box from me. “This is for your brother.” She had read the wrong code, and I got the wrong gift. True story. Later, as a teenager and adult, I collected radios of all sorts, eventually owning dozens of them… I’m sure this is only a coincidence.

When I was in 6th grade, my oldest sister Carol married. That Christmas, she gave me a little wrapped box for my gift. It was so light that I thought it was empty. I opened the box to find a note, that note led me to another note, which led me to another note. Eventually, I found myself outside of the house, marching down the street to my sister and her husband’s car. The trunk of the sedan was partially open, and sticking out of it was a huge rectangular box. The box had a little piece of a scrap of paper taped to it that said, “For Michael.” I was utterly bewildered. I started to rip a corner off the box only to find metal parts inside. I tore the box further, and I couldn’t believe my eyes. Carol and Bob had bought me a bicycle. My current bike from my parents was a cast-off from one of my cousins. It was so old and worn that I couldn’t even turn the crank arm, and so it sat in the garage unused. Now, I had a brand new, bright red bike! It also had a battery-operated headlight and a package rack on its back fender. I had never received such a generous gift, and I was utterly overwhelmed. My eyes filled with tears as I tried to pull it out the trunk of the car, but my young body didn’t have enough strength. I looked up to find Bob and Carol standing next to me, and with one pull, Bob lifted the box and carried it inside of the house. I rode that bike for many years and even wore out multiple sets of tires on my travels. That Christmas was the best Christmas ever. 

My early Christmases all followed the same prescribed formula. All of my family would gather, and the same rituals were followed every year. There was stability and predictability during the holiday during those times. The routine felt good.

On Christmas Eve, we attended the 5 PM service at Community Christian Church and then immediately headed to our final Christmas party at my nephew Tommy’s house. Since I get up at 4 AM to walk, I was ready to leave the party once the clock chimed nine.

Julie and I both agreed that we would have a low key Christmas Day this year. After attending a variety of pre-Christmas get-togethers, our introverted selves needed some time to recharge. Our two remaining kids were in agreement with scaled-down Christmas plans, and we all relished the idea of staying in our PJs as long as we wanted to on Christmas Day. For many years our family has been somewhat fractured on Christmas, as my oldest daughter was typically unable to travel and celebrate with us. However, this year things would be even worse. My second oldest was now in the Peace Corps and serving in Africa. Not only would we not see her, but we weren’t even sure if we would hear from her due to connectivity uncertainties. 

On Christmas Day, I kept my early walk tradition, but the rest of the family took their time to rise from bed. Julie was the first one up. She poked her head into my study to wish me a “Merry Christmas” and then headed into the kitchen. Soon I heard the whir of our coffee grinder and then the electronic beeps of the oven as Julie programmed it for 350F. She had assembled an overnight egg dish the day before, and she was getting ready to bake it for our Christmas brunch. 

She brought me a cup of coffee, and we chatted for a moment before she returned to the kitchen. Slowly Grace and Will emerged from their respective bedrooms. It was time to open presents. We had texted Kathryn, our Peace Corps daughter, and she said she would try to call us on Christmas morning. That is if she could set a good enough internet connection. As we started to open our gifts, Julie’s iPhone rang. It was Kathryn calling on WhatsApp. She had a good enough wifi connection for a video call! She was able to stay online until we completed our openings as we chatted with her and showed her our presents. It almost seemed like she was with us.

That evening we changed things up by going to our first ever Christmas Day movie. We all enjoyed, “Knives Out,” a who-done-it mystery. Then after a day of rest, we traveled to see our oldest child, Anne. She had an appointment in Normal, IL, and we decided to meet her and our grandkids at a restaurant there. We ate, talked, and laughed as we opened presents and took pictures. Another non-traditional meeting for us, but it was great none-the-less. 

I write this on New Year’s Eve. Our non-traditional Christmas celebrations are behind us, as we face not only a new year, but also a new decade.

I did enjoy the routine and traditions of Christmas past. However, it was not possible for my family and me to have a classic Christmas in 2019. What were my options? I could have demanded that all of my kids be present, but that would have been ridiculous. I could have sulked and felt sorry for myself, but that would only make the situation worse. I choose option three, to not only accept the change but to make the most out of it. By being flexible, I was able to have contact with all of my kids during the holiday. I had an enjoyable Christmas Day punctuated by a first, a Christmas Day movie. It was all excellent. 

It is easy to get locked into a rigid holiday tradition, which can serve as a point of disappointment or conflict if the exact requirements of that expectations are not met. However, such stiffness serves no purpose. I choose to be grateful for what I have instead of being resentful for what I don’t. 

Happy holidays,

Mike

Here is the audio link to this podcast: http://psychiatricsecrets.libsyn.com/christmas-past-christmas-present?fbclid=IwAR2PR7F3Jxb_oXIP0bJm7GbaV_tbWLIGcZiXGC2F5K-Qts96CWUAMHisdhM