Saturday, September 29, 2012

Personality: Production & Promotion

Recently, I've been reading Susan Cain's book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking (2012) and originally, that's what I thought I'd blog about.

But while reading Cain's book (which is, along with her TED talk, both very popular and very interesting), I was introduced to the work of Harvard professor Dr. Brian R. Little, and I decided that's what I really wanted to blog about.

As Cain points out in Chapter 9: When Should You Act More Extroverted Than You Really Are?, psychologists have long debated whether or not certain personality traits are relatively fixed--and therefore unchanging over time--or whether they fluctuate as a result of the specific situations an individual finds him- or herself in.

How can a professedly introverted person manage to behave in seemingly extroverted ways? If s/he is introverted, wouldn't those personality traits manifest themselves consistently, regardless of circumstances?

This is an experience many introverts share. In my own case, I lead a decidedly introverted life: reading, cooking, knitting, gardening and interacting with absolutely no one--with the exception of my cats--for an entire 48 hours is, in my humble opinion, a perfectly fine way to spend a beautiful weekend.

I don't feel tired or sad or lonely or depressed at the end of it. On the contrary, I often feel energized or reenergized, and any sensation of sadness comes from the thought that all good things must end.

And yet, I'm a professor who really likes to teach and discuss ideas. I'm pretty sure that, in the classroom, I come across as anything but shy or introspective.

This is the essence of the "person-situation debate."  Some psychologists believe personality traits--the "person" side of the debate--are fixed and inherent over an individual's lifespan. Others--known as "Situationists"-- argue that there is no inherently fixed personality.  In Cain's words, they claim that "there is no core self; there are only the various selves of Situations X, Y and Z" (206).

As Cain points out, over the years, this two-sided debate has become decidedly more nuanced.  Like the famous nature vs. nurture debate, science has increasingly come to adopt an "interactionist" perspective.

When scientists ask, "Nature or nurture?", the evidence now indicates that it's generally both, operating in conjunction with one another.

On the heels of these insights, Professor Brian R. Little has developed what is known as "Free Trait Theory" to explain situations like the one described above, in which an introvert seemingly "becomes" extroverted for a period of time, under specific circumstances.

In "Personal Projects and Free Traits: Personality and Motivation Reconsidered," Little identifies "personal projects" as (obviously) "extended sets of personally relevant action that range from daily defining life commitments."

As Little observes, "Research has confirmed that the quality of lives is enhanced when people are engaged in personal projects that they regard as meaningful, manageable, not unduly stressful, and supported by others."

Of particular importance, Little argues, are "core projects," that is, activities which "anchor an individual’s project system as a whole and are deeply infused with a sense of self-identity." Core projects are commitments that fundamentally define who we are.

To live happy lives, Little argues, human beings need to pursue core projects. In pursuit of these aims, individuals will often demonstrate what Little identifies as "free traits" or "strategic enactments designed to advance core projects."

According to Little, the concept of free traits explains why an introverted person can be extroverted at times. Despite "biogenic" factors (such as genetics) and "sociogenic" factors (such as cultural norms)--both of which are largely unconscious--an individual's "idiogenic" factors (the personal values, commitments and self-constructions that are the conscious result of self-reflection and deliberation) can and often will impel a person to manipulate sociogenic factors in pursuit of a core project.

As Little puts it, "Free traits emerge when individuals enact sociogenic scripts to advance idiogenic aims, irrespective of the person’s biogenic dispositions."

You hate schmoozing, but you do it because you're starting your own business and you want it to succeed. You typically avoid confrontation, but you see someone bullying your toddler, so you intervene.

In these cases, your idiogenic aim ("I want to be a successful businesswoman" or "I'm going to be an Awesome Mommy") drives your decision to schmooze and to intervene, respectively, because you know that those are the social scripts that will advance your personal values--your "core project."

One might say that, in these moments, you become a different person because you realize that you need to be in order to achieve or promote something that you value greatly.

Some call this hypocrisy, of course, or suggest that you aren't "really" who you thought you were in the first place--that, "in fact," you're an excellent schmoozer or that you're wasting your obvious talents by not signing up to be Class Mom.

Because free traits arise as a result of an interactive experience, however, it is dangerous to identify them as constitutive of who you "really" are. As Little notes, "free traits may enhance life quality by promoting core projects, but protracted free-traited behavior may compromise emotional and physical health."

In short, people who continually pretend to be something that they're not in order to get ahead will ultimately pay a price for their behavior. In the end, identifying free traits as components of one's ingrained personality and behaving accordingly will, Little argues, take an emotional and physical toll on an individual's health and happiness.

This doesn't mean, however, that individuals need to simply surrender to their personalities. It does mean that they need to be more attentive to those personalities and to the ways in which free traits can work in their favor.

If you don't like to schmooze, you probably shouldn't--despite the fact that everyone is probably telling you that you "should" or that you "have to" and, worse yet, that you "should" "like it."

Intead of seeing it as an all-or-nothing proposition, however, both Cain and Little suggest that individuals should see if they can find ways to engage in modified social scripts in order to promote their personal aims.

I don't like to schmooze, so I'm obviously never going to take a job in sales. At the same time, however, my job does require a degree of self-promotion, so I have to pick my venues and adjust my strategies.

Large meetings, committees and/or cocktail parties are not my strengths, and if I'm required to attend them, as the song says, "in ten minutes I'll be late for the door": I feel uncomfortable when I'm at them, and exhausted and downright depressed after they're over (which is never soon enough to suit me).

(And no, alcohol doesn't help. Then I'm just uncomfortable and worried that I've had too much to drink and won't be able to drive home and sit with my cats. Which is what I desperately want to do. Immediately.)

Small committees (with clearly defined goals and an agenda) or a lunch or dinner with a colleague, on the other hand, is an enjoyable and productive experience for me: I learn things, I interact, I brainstorm, I laugh. I also don't mind hosting people or having small parties at my home, actually, because then I can interact with people in an environment in which I'm quite comfortable--my home.

This isn't schmoozing, but in many ways, it's better than schmoozing: it's a way of making productive connections with colleagues and advancing career goals in a way that doesn't feel awkward, artificial or emotionally draining.

In the end, the key to successfully using free traits to promote personal happiness lies in a recognition that they are in fact a means to an end. I want to be a good professor, and this requires that I be outgoing to some degree and in some circumstances. At the same time, however, my personality is such that I have come to realize that I will end up violently unhappy if I feel compelled to be outgoing all of the time.

So, at the end of the day, after lunch with a friend or colleague, a good class, and a series of productive conversations with students, my feeling is, "just take those old records off the shelf--I'll sit and listen to them by myself."

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Listening and Healing

I've been meaning to blog for days now about an interesting book that I read weeks ago, Arthur Kleinman's The Illness Narratives: Suffering, Healing and the Human Condition (1989). 

Kleinman is a psychiatrist and anthropologist; The Illness Narratives focuses on the interrelationship of illness, narrative and interpretation. (I previously blogged about his book, What Really Matters: Living a Moral Life amidst Uncertainty and Danger (2006) in my February 11th post, Foghorns & Lighthouses).

In particular, Kleinman argues that the experience and treatment of chronic illness should be understood as "a symbolic bridge that connects body, self, and society" and that one result of this interconnection is that "our social world is linked recursively to our inner experience."  Ultimately, "illness has meaning; and to understand how it obtains meaning is to understand something fundamental about illness, about  care, and perhaps about life generally."

Kleinman takes issue with the way in which medicine is typically practiced in the United States, arguing that "[o]ne unintended outcome of the modern transformation of the medical care system is that it does just about everything to drive the practitioner's attention away from the experience of illness."

In a system focused on diagnosis and treatment, we tend to lose sight of the fact that illness is not simply a clearly delineated medical condition, but a lived experience--and, in the case of chronic illness, it is typically a long-term and ongoing experience with ups, downs, and even occasional plateaus.  The American medical establishment is less comfortable with chronic illness, Kleinman argues, because chronic conditions don't generally follow a neat trajectory from symptom to diagnosis to treatment to cure.

Doctors too often fail to pay attention to what the illness means to the patient: in particular, Kleinman suggests, they are not trained to deal with the ways in which the patient's social and familial context, history and reaction can shape both their experience of their illness and its ongoing treatment.  As Kleinman points out, "there is a dialectic at the heart of healing that brings the care giver into the uncertain, fearful world of pain and disability...".

Kleinman makes this point most forcefully at the outset of his book when he describes how, as a med student, he was confronted with the case of a seven-year-old girl with severe burns:
She had to undergo a daily ordeal of a whirlpool bath during which the burnt flesh was tweezered away from her raw, open wounds.  This experience was horribly painful to her.  She screamed and moaned and begged the medical team, whose efforts she stubbornly fought off, not to hurt her anymore.
Kleinman's job was to hold her hand and, in essence, try to distract her so that the surgical resident could do his job.

Initially, Kleinman tries to talk to the girl about her life outside of her painful experience--he asks about "her home, her family, her school--almost anything that might draw her vigilant attention away from her suffering."  As he acknowledges, the experience of her treatment was almost more than he himself could bear--he admits, "I could barely tolerate the daily horror."

One day, however, he simply asks her to tell him what she is experiencing: "I found myself asking her to tell me how she tolerated it, what the feeling was like of being so badly burned and having to experience the awful surgical ritual, day after day after day."

To his surprise, she tells him:
She stopped, quite surprised, and looked at me from a face so disfigured it was difficult to read the expression; then, in terms direct and simple, she told me.  While she spoke, she grasped my hand harder and neither screamed nor fought off the surgeon or the nurse.  
This becomes their ritual; having established the child's trust, Kleinman finds himself listening on a daily basis to the girl's sense of her own traumatic injury and its experience.  And although simply listening might seem nearly unbearable under such circumstances, it appears to alleviate the child's experience of her treatment.

More importantly, Kleinman observes, this experience taught him "that it is possible to talk with patients, even those who are most distressed, about the actual experience of illness, and that witnessing and helping to order that experience can be of therapeutic value."

To listen is to help heal: this is the lesson that Kleinman internalizes and that he hopes American medicine can learn to practice more regularly and systematically.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Going Clubbing

Fooled you with the title, I bet.

I've decided to join The Classics Club.  The premise is relatively simple: members create a list of at least 50 "classic" books that they then commit to reading and blogging about within a five-year period.  When you finish one, you write a blog post about it--and actually, you can write about your progress while you're reading it.

The premise is simple; the promise may be less so.  But I love to read and Dewey's Read-a-thon is coming up in a couple of weeks, so... why not?

Here is my list.  Take a deep breath, and don't get scared:

Albee, Edward: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Atwood, Margaret: The Blind Assassin
Celine, Death on the Installment Plan
Colette: My Mother’s House
DeLillo: Underworld
Dillard, Annie: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (finish)
Dubois, W.E.B.: The Souls of Black Folk
Dostoevsky, Fydor: An Accidental Family (The Adolescent)
Goethe: Faust
Hasek, Jaroslav: The Good Soldier Svejk
Hong Kingston, Maxine: Tripmaster Monkey
Johnson, James Weldon: Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man
Lowell, Robert: Collected Poems
Mahfouz, Naguib: The Cairo Trilogy  (Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, Sugar Street)
Morrison, Toni: Jazz
Morrison, Toni: Sula
Murakami, Haruki: The Wild Sheep Chase
Murakami, Haruki: The Wind-up Bird Chronicle
Naylor, Gloria: The Women of Brewster Place
Norris, Frank: McTeague
O’Connor, Flannery: The Complete Stories (reread)
Pamuk, Orhan: My Name is Red
Petrushevskaia, Liudmila: The Time: Night
Proulx, Annie: Postcards (finish)
Solzhenitsyn, Alexander: The Gulag Archipelago
Sorokin, Vladimir: The Queue
Wallace, David Foster: Infinite Jest
West, Dorothy: The Wedding
Wilson, Harriet: Our Nig
Zamyatin, Yevgeny: We

I must confess, now that I'm looking at this list and thinking about what it entails, I'm kinda scared myself.  But I'll give it a try.

I've read a lot of "classics," so in creating my list, I tried to include things I haven't read, things I haven't read in years, things I've heard about and been told to read, but never got around to, and some "classics" not written by dead white men.  Only one or two are books I need to read for a class or a project: I really tried to create a list that wouldn't include things I'd be teaching.

As you'll see on the list, if it's a question of "rereading" or "finishing" a particular work, I've indicated as much.  There are 51 books on the list (one for good measure, I guess.)

I need to set a target-date, so how about we say that, by my birthday in 2016, I will have read and blogged about (gulp) all of these.  

That's October 18, 2016.  I'll be turning 48 that day (another gulp).

So please, watch me as I read and read me when I write.  Or, if you're a fellow-blogger, join The Classics Club and keep us company.

Monday, September 17, 2012

No Kill Shelters Work

This is why I think No Kill Shelters are a good idea. 

Provide love and support for previously unloved and unsupported animals and they CAN change.  It's the same with people.  

Don't just assume and act.  You have to believe first, then try.  Always, try.

Here is the story of my two rescued kitties.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Frugal Productivity

This has been a productive weekend for me, on a whole lot of levels.

First and foremost, I should say that several people have asked me how the "no shampoo thing" is going, and it's going great.  I haven't used commercial shampoo (or conditioner or hair gel or any kind of commercial product) on my hair in a month.  I just rinse it with water, and every couple of days, use baking soda and then follow up with the vinegar rinse.

My hair looks fine.  It's more manageable than ever.  No frizz, no fly-aways, not greasy, just soft and smooth.  My head doesn't itch or smell or whatever it is that people think it might do.  I can't say enough good things about making the switch.

The homemade deodorant is also working fine.  I use the 1 TBS batch once in a while, just to make sure I don't have a reaction from the 3 TBS batch.  For me, it's a question of quantity (not using too much and causing a rash), but obviously, for some people, baking-soda-based products may not work or may cause problems.

It works so well for me, that I put it in an actual deodorant container (if you let it get warm, it softens up--it will re-solidify when it cools down).  So it's official now.

The homemade lotion is wonderful.  My skin is soft and smooth, and again, the only adjustment is realizing you won't need as much.  I haven't finished off the first batch yet, and I tend to use it daily.  By next weekend, I'll probably need to make a new batch.

And yes, I bought lotion bottles, so that switch is also official.

I made my own lip balm.  It took all of about 45 seconds, using this recipe.  I made a double batch, actually, so I think I now have enough lip balm to last me until this time next year.

But I'm also beginning to investigate making my own soap.  I think I can make liquid soap pretty easily, actually; it will simply be a question of making the bars.  My main concern is handling the lye that you need to use in order to make it, but I'm reading up on it and I think I can do it.

And of course, since I can't do anything by halves, I'm looking into making my own lye.  Basically, if you have a fireplace, you can use the ashes from your fire to make lye in the form of potassium hydroxide (or "potash").  All it takes is water and a bit of time and a large dose of caution.  

Essentially, soap is a salt.  It's the result of combining an alkali (in particular, sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide) with a fatty acid.  Settlers and homesteaders use(d) animal fats.  If you're slaughtering your own animals (I'm not), you want to use every part of the animal--making soap is a way to use the leftover fat and grease.

The ashes from your fire and the fat from your butchered animals: these are what would make your soap, if you were an early American colonist.  Most colonists wouldn't have bothered making soap into bars--they'd just try to make a useable batch of the soft stuff.

It's a process, definitely, and there's a knack to it.  But I found an online site I think I can use, and in addition to a recipe for making a large batch, it actually gives a recipe for making only one bar--this is what I think I'm going to do.  Try making a single bar, and see how it goes.

In case you're wondering, castile soap is soap made from olive oil.   Authentic castile soap uses 100% olive oil, but a lot of castile soaps use other oils (including palm oil, which isn't great for the environment). You don't need to use animal fat to make soap-- you can use pretty much any kind of fat or oil, but the type that you use will affect the process of "saponification."  Saponification is the hydrolysis (or breakdown) of a fat that occurs when it comes into contact with an alkali--this is what produces the salt or, in this case, soap.

If you're using potash, you can't really use olive oil: the soap will be so soft, it won't work for anything except maybe dish detergent.  On the other hand, you can solidify soft soaps made with potash by adding salt during the process.

So this is what I'm looking into and thinking about in my spare time right now.

In the meantime, though, I'm also trying to get ready for winter and since I have a fireplace, I decided that this year I would be more proactive and stop using commercial fire-starters like Fatwood.  I have several pine trees in my yard that regularly drop pinecones and needles all over my yard, so this year, instead of raking and dumping them, I'm putting them to use.

Pinecones make great fire-starters: they burn quickly and smell quite nice.  (Dry pine needles also make excellent tinder.)  So, now that my trees have started to shed their cones, I'm gathering them up, putting them on a foil-lined cookie sheet, and baking them for about 1/2 hr. at 250 degrees.

Why, you ask?  (Or maybe at this point you don't ask anymore, but it doesn't matter, because I'm going to answer anyway.)  Baking the pinecones opens them up and releases the sap: if you burn them without doing this, you'll end up coating your chimney with creosote.  (This is why you put foil on the baking sheet: so the sap drips on the foil, not on your nice cookie sheet.)

It also gets rid of bugs--because there will be bugs in your pinecones.  That's just the way it is.

Some people dip the pinecones in leftover wax from candles, or they soak them in various substances and let them dry, and then when they burn, they create blue or yellow or green flames.  All I can say is, they burn fast, so I'm not feeling like it's worth the time and energy for me to soak them and then let them dry.

In the meantime, I made another batch of pesto to freeze.  Whew.  Almost done with that job for the year.

And yesterday, I spent a really nice morning at the beach doing a beach cleanup.  You grab a bag, put on gloves, and go clean up the crap that washes up (or that people leave) on the beach.  It's quite a workout, actually, since your bag will eventually get quite heavy (I picked up about 25 lbs worth of trash) and you're climbing on rocks and trudging across the sand with said bag.

And occasionally, you'll have to drag in a rusted out old lobster trap or some other oddity that you happen upon.

But it's a great feeling at the end of a couple of hours, seeing all of those bags that all of the volunteers filled being loaded onto a truck and knowing that this stuff is no longer clogging up the shoreline.

In a similar vein, I'm trying to put the finishing touches on a couple of blankets and then they'll be ready to give to Project Linus (the homemade blankets go to families and children in need).  I have a couple that I made with the scraps of yarn I have left over from all of my other projects: if you knit as much as I do, eventually, you have huge quantities of leftover yarn--not enough to make any single item, but (eventually) enough to make a scrap-based blanket.  Or two.  Or three.  So that's what I've been doing.

Frugality and productivity rule.  I think it's clear that those are some serious habits of mine (addictions, some might say).

But don't worry: if I finish what I have planned and get my homework done today, I've promised myself I can go out and play tomorrow.  So, on that note...

Friday, September 14, 2012

Force of Habit

I've been reading Charles Duhigg's The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.  It's extremely interesting and engaging reading for anyone who has ever wondered why they do the things they do and can't seem to stop doing them, even though they may know full well that those things are not good or useful--even if they're not particularly "bad," per se.

Duhigg's book examines the latest research on the function and formation of habits and explores a wide range of examples from business, athletics and everyday life.

How come some people can suddenly decide to lose 30 lbs, quit smoking and radically change their lives, while others can't resist a chocolate chip cookie for more than 30 seconds?


Most of what we do, we do without thinking.  (That includes those of us who dub ourselves "the thinker.")  As Duhigg observes, a 2006 study "found that more than 40 percent of the actions people performed each day weren't actual decisions, but habits." 

Habits serve a cognitive purpose.  The brain can't function efficiently unless it does something called "chunking"--it converts specific sequences of actions into automatic routines so that you don't have to think about them every single time you do them (Duhigg uses the example of backing your car out of the driveway).

At the same time, however, there are definitely times when it's in our best interests to pay attention, so the brain has that contingency covered as well.  When mentally surveying any activity, the brain looks for a "cue" to indicate that it's okay to switch on the auto-pilot and resort to a habitual pattern.

The result, Duhigg argues, is "the habit loop": an initial "cue" triggers an automatic response or "routine" which results in a "reward."  The "reward" is what alerts your brain that this pattern is worth remembering and making into a habit.  As Duhigg observes, "Over time, this loop--cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward--becomes more and more automatic.  The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges."
So, in order to stop doing something we wish we didn't do, we first have to notice that we're doing it and then figure out why exactly we're doing it.  We need to isolate the "cue," identify the "routine," and consider the "reward."

But awareness is only step 1.

As numerous brain scans have shown, habits never disappear.  The automatic patterns are always there, lying in wait in your brain.  This is why habits are so hard to break, why addictions are so devastatingly durable, and why change is so difficult.

The good news is, habits can be overwritten--and overridden-- by new neurological patterns.  People can stop biting their nails, addicts can quit, and everyone can change.  But first they need to know how.

This is the substance of Duhigg's book: he examines the way in which habit functions in order to suggest what works--and doesn't work--in the making and breaking of habitual behaviors.  (On his website, Duhigg offers a flowchart for "How to Change a Habit.)

Some habits, for example, are more potent.  Known as "keystone habits," these behaviors "start a process that, over time, transforms everything"--as Duhigg notes, "The habits that matter most are the ones that, when they start to shift, dislodge and remake other patterns."

As Duhigg points out, "Keystone habits offer what is known within academic literature as 'small wins.'  They help other habits to flourish by creating new structures, and they establish cultures where change becomes contagious."

Keystone habits help to explain why productive and successful people are often productive and successful in many ways.  Simply put, they have a few good habits, and those habits set the stage for other good habits.

For example, if you make your bed in the morning, research shows that you are more likely to exhibit "better productivity, a greater sense of well-being, and stronger skills at sticking with a budget."  There's no big "win" or "reward" that comes along with making your bed, obviously, but for some reason, "those initial shifts start chain reactions that help other good habits take hold."

As Duhigg observes, "Small wins fuel transformative changes by leveraging tiny advantages into patterns that convince people that bigger achievements are within reach."  Ultimately, "small wins have enormous power, an influence disproportionate to the accomplishments of the victories themselves."

Speaking as someone who always makes her bed within 10-15 minutes of leaving it, I can't even imagine not making my bed.  It's a habit.  Not doing it would feel extremely uncomfortable.

The notion of keystone habits explains why, in so many cases, when people do change their lives, they ultimately--and seemingly systematically--change a lot.  In many cases, they suddenly begin doing things they never seemed to be able to do before, leaving the rest of us to wonder, how did they suddenly acquire all of that wonderful willpower?

As Duhigg points out, studies have shown that, contrary to popular belief, willpower isn't a skill--instead, it's more like a "muscle."  You have to exercise it regularly, but if you overdo it, your willpower, like your muscles, will get tired and give out.  Ask, tell or otherwise try to compel someone to exert their willpower for long enough, and eventually, they'll collapse and give in to temptation.

Unless they have a plan.

As it turns out, people who are self-disciplined, who always appear to exert a strong sense of willpower, have actually made willpower a habit.  One way of doing this, Duhigg notes, is to prepare for "inflection points," or moments when the greatest willpower will be required.  You prepare for these moments by figuring out ahead of time what you'll do when you reach them.  By crafting a plan of action, you prepare for potential vulnerability by shoring up your willpower ahead of time.

That doesn't mean it's easy, of course.  Telling yourself, "When I want to eat that cookie, I'm going to take a nice long walk instead!" is all well and good, but the fact that so many of us will still find ourselves and our good intentions slumped on the couch, littered with cookie crumbs, is testimony to the force of habit.

Duhigg notes that there are two additional components that become extremely helpful in the formation of good habits: belief and support.  Going it alone is tough, but finding a community of others who either possess or are striving to possess the habits you'd like to call your own, can be extremely helpful.

And in the end, belief is key.  Interestingly enough, studies have shown that it doesn't even matter if the belief is necessarily valid or accurate.  Duhigg cites the example of a woman who decided she was going to take a trip across the Egyptian desert.  She believed she needed to quit smoking and lose weight in order to do so, so that's what she did.

The fact that she eventually crossed the desert "in an air-conditioned and motorized tour," equipped with every amenity, made no difference: her initial belief fueled the changes in her habits.

As Duhigg points out, researchers studying the techniques used by Alcoholics Anonymous were initially frustrated by the fact that recovering addicts who maintain years of sobriety repeatedly testify that their success ultimately hinges on a belief in God or some other form of spirituality.  When they attempted recovery without that belief, they asserted, they relapsed into addiction.

What researchers eventually discovered was, "[i]t wasn't God that mattered... It was belief itself that made a difference."  Quite a few members of Alcoholics Anonymous are agnostics or even atheists, but the acknowledgement of the presence of some form of higher power in their lives seemed to correlate with a better ability to maintain sobriety under situations of extreme life stress.  At those times, habit replacement alone--the recognition of "cues" and "triggers" and the substitution of new "routines" and "rewards"--simply wasn't sufficient to override previous neurological patterns of addiction.

As one researcher put it, "You don't have to believe in God, but you do need the capacity to believe that things will get better. ...What can make a difference is believing that they can cope with that stress without alcohol."  The support of the group obviously works to reinforce that belief, at the same time that it works on habit replacement.

The flip side of all of this, of course, is the fact that companies looking to sell a product can use human habits to turn a tidy profit.  There's a reason every McDonalds looks almost exactly the same.  There's a reason Cinnabon isn't usually located in the food court--the (unimpeded) smell of cinnamon is a powerful sensory trigger.  And there's a reason Starbucks baristas are so polite and engaging.

They're tapping into the force of habit and, if you're not aware of it, it'll get you coming and going.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Sweet Smell of Success Or, Cleaning Up, Part II

I did it.  I made my own deodorant.  And it WORKS.

I wore it to boxing class on Thursday, and afterward, I felt confident enough to stop at the CVS and buy chips to eat with my salsa.

I rest my case.

The recipe is by no means mine, of course.  I got it from another blogger named angry chicken.  And she's right: it works wonderfully!  Like her, I bought the ingredients at Mountain Rose Herbs, but I'm pretty certain you could find them locally, if you weren't lazy like me and unwilling to spend time driving around and looking for things in stores.

The recipe makes about 3-4 ozs.  Here's what the finished product looks like.

You can buy deodorant roll containers--or save the ones you have--but personally, I wanted to make sure it worked before I went whole-hog.

But it does work, so this is good.

A few caveats: some people react to baking soda-based deodorants.  I had a slight reaction at first, but I kind of knew it was the baking soda, because I had tried using baking soda alone at one point and had a similar reaction.

Another blogger, liselise, explains why many people react.  My skin irritation was by no means as extreme as what some of the comments describe: it burned a bit and got a little pink, so I washed it off, let my skin recover overnight, and then applied FAR less the next morning.

I think the trick is to apply very small amounts--especially at first.  And by small, I'm talking tiny.  You really, really don't need as much of this as you do of the commercial stuff, so if you're used to putting a significant swath of it on in the mornings, you'll need to cut that back by at least half.  And if you apply it morning and night, don't bother: once will do.

And certainly don't apply it right after you shave under your arms: that will not feel good.  Personally, I never applied the commercial stuff after shaving either, so I didn't run into that problem.

Right now, I'm in the process of letting a batch set: for this batch, I cut back dramatically on the baking soda--from 3 TBS to only 1 TBS.  I'll see how that goes.

The beauty of it all is, to alleviate my minor skin irritation, I simply used my other triumph: homemade lotion!

Here it is.  It's equally wonderful, and again, very little is needed to accomplish the work of several tablespoons of commercial lotion.

I got the recipe from  They actually have two recipes that I checked out: I made the lotion, but I'm also hoping to try out the body butter sometime as well.

The trick with the lotion is, you need to whisk it until it cools.  Remember the old adage, "Oil and water don't mix"?  Well, that's because oil and water don't mix, and you're using both oil and water in this recipe, so you'll have to keep whisking it until it cools and gets to a creamy consistency.

If that sounds daunting, remember: you're not cooking anything to make this recipe.  You're simply melting the ingredients on very low heat, and once they've melted you take them off the heat.  So the mixture will cool down quite quickly.

If you're a bit impatient, like I am, you can also pop it into the fridge to cool it a bit quicker, once it starts getting somewhat creamy.  The trick is, you don't want the oil and water to separate, so you've got to make sure it's combined and reasonably cool already before you stop whisking it to put it in the fridge.

Next time around, I think I'll whisk mine a bit longer and perhaps add a bit more cocoa butter, since I like my lotion a little less creamy than what I currently have.  With do-it-yourself anything, you have to go through a bit of trial-and-error, but the beauty of it is, in the end you'll have a product tailored to your own liking.

Again, you can buy or use recycled bottles to store the lotion in, but again, I wanted to make sure it would work, first.

And the upshot of it all is, it works wonderfully, smells great, and again, has NO added toxins.

In case you're wondering how labor-intensive this process is, I can tell you that it took me less than half and hour to make BOTH recipes.  It's so easy, it's unbelievable.  The deodorant took five minutes.  That's IT.  The lotion, maybe about 15 minutes this time around, so I'm thinking next time, maybe 20 minutes, if I whisk it a bit longer.

If you use clear containers, like I did, then you'll need to store your lotion and deodorant in a dark place.  I put mine in the medicine cabinet anyway, so this was a non-issue for me.  Because you're using natural oils in these recipes, they will spoil over time.  You'll need to keep the unused ingredients in the fridge and pay attention to the labels regarding their shelf-life.

The nice thing is, both recipes only make small batches (about 4 ozs), so you can make a small batch, use it, then try again.  And really, I cannot stress this enough: you will be using a fraction of what you used of the commercial products.

And spending far less money on them.  And avoiding potentially toxic substances. 

Success.  How sweet it is.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Back On Track is a scam. DON'T download my page from them: my site is always available at

In case you're wondering what I'm talking about, I found out that the site was putting links to my blog content on their webpage and indicating that viewers should download it if they wanted to read my posts.

There is NOTHING to download. This is how they install spyware and malware on unsuspecting computer-users.

What really sucks in the blogging world (in my opinion) is the extent to which ne'er-do-well's will take advantage of a blog's feed. I had reinstated my blog's RSS feed, and the amount of referrer-spam I began receiving doubled within hours.

Bastards. So I took it down. Again. It would be nice to be able to have a feed, but it just isn't worth it for the amount of "bad" traffic it brings to my page.

I can't speak for the other bloggers out there, but I like genuine readers, and I don't care about the "numbers." I was elated when the whack-job who hacked her boyfriend's email and stalked my site FINALLY took the bookmark to my feed off her computer.

She's one of those women who, if she doesn't have a boyfriend to stalk, will sit online all day long, whether on a laptop or mobile phone, desperately trying to get people to pay attention to her so that she can feel important, somehow.  For most of the past year, she didn't have a job either, so that certainly didn't help matters.

As a result, my blog was getting pinged constantly.   After her subsequent relationship failed last winter, she went back to regularly hacking her ex's email, and I ended up getting 1800 pageviews per month on my blog. When I found out about the hacking and reported it, my monthly pageviews dropped to 900.

So that's what I'm talking about.  A year and a half of that.

I was equally glad to get rid of her ex-boyfriend and his sister, who both pretended to be shocked and "sorry" at the way things had "turned into a mess."  Actually, both of them played pretty significant roles in creating the "mess."

So like I said, genuine readers, please.  And certainly not hackers, spammers or malware-pushers. Not cool, guys.

I hope everyone had a wonderful Labor Day weekend. I actually had a very nice one, and that's two years in a row for me.

Last year, I posted about the fact that I think everyone has a "holiday" that seems to be riddled with bad luck for them. If you're somewhat lucky, it isn't Christmas or one of the other big, present-and-candy-receiving days.

For me, it's Labor Day. Ironically, I posted last year about how I had turned it around and had a wonderful weekend, only to have the stalker ex-girlfriend write a long message about how she was sorry her ex-boyfriend had "screwed me over," but that she had dumped him and "broken his heart" because she "simply didn't love him" "as much" as "he loved her."

She then went on about the rebound-relationship she was currently in, and the joys of once again finding a "mutual love." (Yes, they broke up. Of course they did.)

Soooo... that was an odd bit of fiction to dump in my Labor Day lap last year, and I ended up taking that post down because I didn't want to deal with additional crap.

I mean, who cares, really? You break up with someone, you leave. Or, they break up with you, you leave.

Either way, the end result is the same.

One of my friends commented, "This guy, his ex-girlfriends (all however many of them there are at this point), his sister, her ex-boyfriends... it's like the Hotel California. No one ever leaves."

I guess I was supposed to read the ex-girlfriend's message and begin weeping and wailing, "WHY?! WHY? My god, why didn't he love ME?" And then go about trying to get him to love me, somehow, anyhow.

Instead, all I could think was, "Thank God he didn't love me." Casually dating him was bad enough: I ended up spending two years fixing the problems it created in my life. I can only imagine what happens to the lives of women he's in a "relationship" with.

But the problems are fixed now, and as a result, my Labor Day this year was wonderful, and I can say so openly and freely, without fearing the reprisal of weirdos. It was actually a happy, healthy, productive weekend for me, and I was all the more appreciative of that fact because I remembered what had happened the previous year and the year before that, courtesy of the above-mentioned losers.

This year, I'm nearly finished with an article on Moby-Dick that is shaping up pretty nicely.  I finished a tank-top I was knitting, and it is perfect, actually.  Very psyched with it.  I also finished a hat and 3/4ths of a scarf.  I also have another top I'm working on, and I love the yarn and the style and the drape.

And then I found two more patterns I love, and realized I had the yarn to make those too.

If you're a knitter, you'll totally understand why this was a fun and relaxing and wonderful weekend.  If you're not, you'll just have to take my word for it.

I also found a good book and read like there was no tomorrow, and in the process, I came up with another idea for another article.  I bought a new mattress and made arrangements to get some windows replaced (so that I won't freeze this winter).

As Kahlil Gibran once wrote, "Work is love made visible."

The only down side was that I fell behind a bit on blogging, so I'm hoping over the next week to catch up. I've been reading a lot, and I've come across some interesting ideas that I just need to find time to write up.

So that's the teaser for the month of September. I still can't quite believe the summer is "over," but I'm looking forward to the fall. It's a chance to get back on track.