Monthly Archives: October 2011

What to Think About at 3 a.m.

This is the goal. (Photo by Sally Reeder)

If you are an emergency room nurse or a policeman or an airline pilot and are on duty at 3 a.m., this is not for you.  Please stay awake!  However, if you’re one of those people who is supposed to be sleeping at that hour but is flopping around in bed instead, this just might help.

So you’re lying there, vaguely aware of the progress last night’s dinner is making through your alimentary tract.  What’s keeping you awake, though, is not what’s in your gut, it’s what’s in your mind — thoughts.  Specifically, you’re thinking about the wrong things.

Maybe you’re thinking about financial troubles, and that’s understandable.  But do you think the guy at the bank is losing sleep over your loan?  If he’s not, why should you?

Or perhaps your thoughts are focused on trying to recall the words to a song you loved back in 10th grade.  Thank you — we’re all grateful that you’re sacrificing a good night’s sleep to honor Whitney Houston’s lyricist.

A lot of awake-in-the-night is generated by relationship problems, and I know how much they can hurt.  Here’s something to remember, though:  Problems are patient.  They will be waiting for you in the morning.  Besides, even if you come up with the perfect solution at 3 a.m., you won’t be able to remember it by 8.

Another common mistake in the wee hours is thinking about what you have to do tomorrow.  The catch is, if you don’t go to sleep now, the most difficult thing you’ll have to do tomorrow will be trying to stay awake.

About now you’re saying, “Yeah, yeah, tell me something I don’t know.”  (Your irritability is probably due to lack of sleep.)  OK, here’s what I’m getting at.  If what we are thinking is the problem, let’s turn it around and make it the solution.  Just as you would with a toddler in a busy intersection, you have to take your mind by the hand and keep it from going in dangerous directions.  Lead it to sleep-inducing thoughts, like these…

•  Imagine that you have bad seats at a hockey game.  All your mind’s eye can see is players endlessly skating in circles and flailing with their sticks.  Guys skate backward… they bump into walls…  (If you’re Canadian and therefore understand the rules of hockey, imagine you’re at a synchronized-swimming event instead.)

•  Think about shopping with a friend; you’ve been at it for hours.  She says, “Would you hold these bags while I try on this sweater?”  As you mentally stand there in the store, all you want to do is lie down and put your feet up — oh wait, you actually are lying down!  Gosh, it feels good, doesn’t it?

Now imagine she’s saying from the dressing room, “Could you see if they have this in a medium?”  Keep thinking thoughts like that until the comfort of being in bed — and not in that store — overwhelms you.

•  Picture yourself sitting on an airplane next to a stranger who is telling you the plot of a novel he/she is thinking of writing.  None of it makes sense, but you’re trying to be polite and listen.  By the time the would-be author gets to the part about the hero turning into a unicorn, you’ll be snoring.

These are just examples, and they do require some mental effort — which is the point.  If you have other ideas about sure-fire ways to get to sleep, share them with us.  And please don’t say “Reading your blog, Tom.”  Then I won’t be able to sleep.

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Rx: Chocolate

This might be overdoing it.

In a song called “Born Under a Bad Sign”, blues singer Albert King wailed, “If it weren’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all.”  Sometimes the news feels that way, too, doesn’t it?  It all seems to be bad.

That’s why I recently flung my hat into the air and yelled “hurrah!” when I heard some great news for a change:  Chocolate might be good for us!

Over the years, a number of studies have been conducted on its possible health benefits.  People in lab coats have presumably been administering hot fudge sundaes and milk shakes, taking notes all the while.  A group of British researchers has since analyzed the data from seven such studies that had a total of 114,009 participants.

Here’s what they found, as reported in BMJ, the online British Medical Journal…  “Highest levels of chocolate consumption were associated with a 37% reduction in cardiovascular disease and a 29% reduction in stroke compared with the lowest levels.”  If I’m reading that correctly, that means eating chocolate could help reduce the risk of heart disease or strokes.

Wow, I thought, maybe I should step up my chocolate intake to, oh, maybe one Snicker bar every four hours.  Or possibly I should have a piece of devil’s food cake once in a while instead of a salad.

Of course, just when the news seemed to be so good, spoilsport dietitians started responding to the study results with their usual warnings.  They pointed out that our favorite chocolate treats are also full of sugar and fat, which potentially increase the risk of heart disease.  Even one of the people who conducted the chocolate study used the dreaded M word — moderation.

Scientists think that the antioxidant properties found in cocoa may have something to do with maintaining heart health; there is also an anti-inflammatory effect, although they’re not absolutely certain why.   But here’s some more hopeful news, couched in the dry language of scientists.  This is the conclusion that the study’s authors reached:

“Based on observational evidence, levels of chocolate consumption seem to be associated with a substantial reduction in the risk of cardiometabolic disorders.  Further experimental studies are required to confirm a potentially beneficial effect of chocolate consumption.”

Did you catch the good part?  “Further experimental studies are required”.  OK, I’m volunteering right now to be a chocolate guinea pig in the next study.  My only stipulation is that I don’t want to be part of the group that gets the placebo chocolate — I want the real thing.

I’m willing to advance the cause of science by submitting to profiteroles, to mint chocolate chip ice cream, to Girl Scout cookies, to chocolate mousse.  If need be, I’ll even report to the Ben & Jerry’s factory in Vermont.  This is important work, people — who’s with me?

What Power Looks Like

When Philip II became king of the Spanish empire in 1556, he was arguably the most powerful man in the world.  (Go ahead — argue with him, see what happens to you.)  During his reign, Philip directed the construction of a truly wow-inspiring structure.

It is formally known as Monasterio de San Lorenzo el Real de El Escorial, but this great brute of a building is usually just called El Escorial.  If you find yourself in Madrid, as we did recently, it’s worth a side trip to go see it.

Located about 30 miles northwest of Spain’s capital city and tucked up against a mountain range, El Escorial is easily reached by train for about $5 (round trip).  That low price is in contrast to the treasury-draining expense that Philip II poured into the construction of this… well, what is it?  El Escorial is part palace, part monastery, part basilica, part art museum, part library and part mausoleum.  Artists and craftsmen were summoned from all over Europe to apply their talents to it.  According to art historian Paul Johnson, it was “the greatest single artistic enterprise undertaken by a European monarch until Louis XIV built Versailles.”

That may be so, but somehow El Escorial feels a lot more muscular than Versailles.  Both have beautiful gardens and lavish ornamentation; the basilica at El Escorial is a tribute to the glory of gold (not a typo).  Versailles doesn’t seem like a fortress, though, and El Escorial does.  This was, after all, the headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition.

Below ground level is the Royal Pantheon, the bronze-and-marble resting place of almost every Spanish monarch from Philip II to the present day.  Their coffins are stacked on shelves in this octagonal chamber — kings on the left, queens on the right.  Among the responsibilities of the monks who reside in the monastery part of the El Escorial complex is to pray for these deceased royals.

One floor up from the building’s main entrance is the library, which will not remind you of the local branch of your public library.  The vaulted ceiling is adorned with brightly colored frescoes, and the collection includes thousands of rare manuscripts and books, dating back many centuries.

We noticed that the books were all shelved backward; that is, with the spines facing inward.  The edges of the pages, all coated with gold leaf, were facing out.  We had to ask about this unusual approach to storage, and the librarian explained to us that it had a couple of virtues:  it allowed the pages to “breathe”, she said, which helps in their preservation.  And according to her, the gold leaf repels bugs.

Along with Versailles and places like India’s Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China and the Acropolis in Athens, El Escorial is on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.  I’m pretty sure that designation doesn’t apply to the snack bar, though.  My sandwich was just ordinary.  Come to think of it, the one I had at Versailles wasn’t very good, either.

Sea Glass

Part of Our Collection

It was about 20 years ago when I first became aware of it.  Sally and I were strolling on the beach and noticed a woman who was walking very slowly and staring at the wet sand where the incoming waves exhaust themselves.  Occasionally she would bend down and pick up small objects.  I assumed they were shells or pebbles, but I asked anyway:  “What are you finding?”

“Sea glass,” she said.

In case you haven’t heard of it, sea glass is broken pieces of glass that have been bounced around by the waves until the sand has buffed them smooth and jewel-like (see photo).  Green, white and brown seem to be the most common bits, and it’s not difficult to imagine that those shards were once part of beer bottles or windshields.

We have found pale shades of blue that look like they were from a Bombay Sapphire gin bottle, and darker blues that we assume may have once contained Vicks VapoRub or Milk of Magnesia.  Other colors, like amber or yellow, turn up occasionally.

Red sea glass sets off an impromptu celebration on the beach when it is found because it is so rare.  Presumably, red pieces were originally car tail lights, or nautical running lights.

So what does one do with sea glass?  Some artisans make jewelry out of it, and others make “stained glass” art objects.  My running joke is that I intend to make a mosaic replica of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper” out of sea glass.  “Oh, this will be perfect for Peter’s robe,” I’ll say when I find a little nugget.  My wife smiles tolerantly since that is the 497th time she has heard some version of that same joke.

Mostly sea glass collecting is a hobby, in the same way that other people collect antique mousetraps or sock puppets.  For all I know there are probably organizations formed by those hobbyists, just as there is a North American Sea Glass Association.

That group concluded its annual festival in New Jersey on October 9th, at which a giant check for $1,000 was presented to the 2011 Grand Prize winner in the Shard of the Year contest.  (It was a very unusual orange piece that was once a toy watch.)

Incidentally, we are not members of that organization; we haven’t gotten to that level of sea glass commitment.  We’re content to just pick it up when we happen to see it, and appreciate the beauty that has developed from something that used to be trash. 

Sally once remarked that the same principle that makes sea glass so attractive may apply to people, too:  sometimes life has to toss us around a little to smooth out our rough edges.  No, actually I think her point was that someone who has been cast aside by one person can be seen as valuable by someone else.

Either way, she may be on to something, and here’s what I’m thinking…  maybe if I get tumbled for another 10 years or so, I might win one of those giant $1,000 checks!

Who Were the Whigs?

Millard Fillmore, the Last Big Whig

As president of the United States, Andrew Jackson bitterly attacked the Bank of the United States; eventually he succeeded in destroying it.  Jackson also opposed paper money, preferring gold or silver — hard money.  He would probably not be amused had he lived to see his likeness on the twenty-dollar bill, a piece of paper that says “Federal Reserve Note” on it.

Back in the 1820s and 30s Jackson was beloved by many but despised by many others, and it was his polarizing views that gave birth to a political party called the Whigs.  Led by Sen. Henry Clay of Kentucky and Sen. Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, disparate groups found common ground in their opposition to Andrew Jackson.  Whigs were eastern bankers, western farmers, southern planters — in general, they considered themselves men of property and character which, they were certain, Jacksonian Democrats were not.

They disparaged Jackson by calling him “King Andrew the First” and borrowed the name Whigs from British politics.  In England, the Whigs (whose opponents were the Tories) stood for limiting the power of the king.  The name has origins in Scottish Gaelic; according to Encyclopædia Britannica, “it was a term applied to horse thieves and, later, to Scottish Presbyterians.”  There are other theories, but the gist of most is that the word “whig” seems to have started as a term of derision.

Anyway, the Whig party in the United States had goals that included a well-regulated national currency, government help for economic expansion, and a relatively weak president.  They managed to elect two weak presidents, William Henry Harrison in 1840 and Zachary Taylor in 1848.  Both had been military heroes, but neither man lasted long in office.

Harrison caught pneumonia at his inauguration and died a month later.  He was succeeded by his vice president John Tyler, who so offended the members of his own party that they denounced him as a traitor and booted him out of the Whigs while he was still president.

Zachary Taylor served 16 months before he, too, died in office.  Even in that short time he had managed to annoy members of his party who felt he was not pressing their agenda faithfully; you might say his approach was more “wing it” than Whig it.

Taylor was succeeded by Vice President Millard Fillmore, who thus became the last Whig president.  Fillmore has been characterized by some historians as “a handsome, dignified man of no great abilities.”  In his defense, he held the office during a period when his party was disintegrating over the issue of slavery.

Abraham Lincoln and other Whigs found their way to the new Republican party; others joined something called the American Party, which was referred to by its detractors as “The Know-Nothing Party”.  (It was sort of a secret organization; when members were asked to define their platform, they were instructed to say “I know nothing.”)

In 1856 Fillmore ran as the Know-Nothing candidate for president and got stomped by Democrat James Buchanan.  The Whigs didn’t even field a candidate in that election, or ever again.  In a little over 20 years the Whigs had emerged out of nowhere and then flamed out.

Looking back on this period of history — “King Andrew the First”, “Tyler the Traitor”, “The Know-Nothings” — serves to remind us of an essential fact of American politics:  the names change, but the name-calling doesn’t.

Vocabulary of Sighs

The Bridge of Sighs, Venice

To the astonishment of no one, research scientists have determined that when humans really have to pee, they can’t think straight. 

The international team of scientists who conducted the study didn’t state it quite that succinctly; their formal conclusion was “Having an extreme urge to void exerted a large negative effect on attentional and working memory functions.”

The methodology was almost cruel; according to the study’s authors, healthy young adults “consumed 250 ml of water every 15 minutes until they could no longer inhibit voiding.”  I guess we should be grateful to these test subjects who were willing to expand their bladders and scientific knowledge at the same time.

That study received the 2011 Ig Nobel prize for Medicine, presented by the Annals of Improbable Research.  As you may recall, the intention of the Ig Nobels is to “honor achievements that make people laugh, and then make them think.”

Among other winners this year was a study entitled “No Evidence of Contagious Yawning in the Red-Footed Tortoise”.  As far as I’m concerned, they spoiled the suspense by putting the conclusion right there in the title, but they got the Physiology award anyway.

The 2011 Ig Nobel winner that I found most intriguing was honored in the Psychology category.  A Norwegian scientist named Karl Halvor Teigen published a summary of several studies under the title “Is a Sigh ‘Just a Sigh’?:  Sighs as Emotional Signals and Responses to a Difficult Task”.  In other words, Dr. Teigen is trying to understand why people sometimes exhale audibly.

He concluded that sighs usually have negative associations; that they are perceived as signs of sadness or defeat or frustration.  In one study, sighs were generated by having subjects attempt to solve difficult puzzles, causing futile attempts at finding a solution.

I’m no scientist, but from my experience sighs can also convey positive emotions like relief or contentment.  When you think about it, a sigh can be a non-verbal way to express any one of a very broad range of ideas, such as:

“After a hard day at work, this hot tub feels great.”  “I guess we should say goodnight, but I don’t want to go.”  “OK, I’ll explain it once more — try listening this time.”  “What’d that sign say?  Road work next 12 miles?”  “Oh man, I’m only on page 12 of this 200-page report about yawning in the Red-Footed Tortoise.”  “Finally, the baby’s asleep.”  “I could swear I parked the car here in section B-7.”  “God, you’re beautiful.”

Every one of those thoughts can be conveyed by nothing more than a sigh, right?  Which leads me to believe that it is context that determines the meaning of any particular sigh.  It also suggests that the lyric from the song “As Time Goes By” is probably inaccurate:  a sigh is never just a sigh — it means something.

Hey, I sighed just now!  That probably means that I am deriving enjoyment from pondering a fascinating subject.  Or maybe it means I need to go to the bathroom.