Friday, June 18, 2010

10 More Underrated Pleasures

A few weeks back I wrote a post on underrated pleasures of life. These are the little things that help me slow down and appreciate life, no matter how fast paced it may get. Soon, I began noticing many more.

With that, here are 10 more underrated pleasures for your enjoyment:

1. Hand washing the dishes. I have a dishwasher, but there are times when I'd rather plunge my hands into warm, soapy water and do them myself. I don't rush through it. Instead, I focus on each dish and spend extra time ensuring that it's completely clean in a way that the dishwasher can't manage. There's something about holding up a wine glass and watching it catch the light that brings pleasure like nothing else.

2.  Sitting with a cup of coffee. Mornings in general are an underrated pleasure. No matter what time we have to get to work, many of us cut it too close to be able enjoy a few moments of silent contemplation before plunging into the rush of the day. I once got a yoga tape that included a "coffee asana." This involved holding the cup in both hands, deeply inhaling the rich aromas. Now that's my kind of yoga!

3. Dinner conversation with family. I read a horrifying statistic recently that said that only 30% of families have a sit down dinner together more than once a week. When I was a kid, we had dinner (or actually "supper") as a family every single night without fail. I guess I'm in a time warp, as this is still how my husband and I do it. It's like a punctuation mark at the end of each day.

4. Grocery shopping. There's shopping--the one most of us know too well, involving rushing down the aisle of the local Safeway and grabbing all of our usual, tried-and-true items--and then there's shopping. This is the one where you stop and take note of what you are buying, testing the weight of a cantaloupe, chatting with the butcher about the best cut of beef, and taking the time to ensure you've found the freshest sourdough baguette in the basket. To me, the difference is like night and day.

5. Sorting the recycling. Another "chore" that gets short shrift. Where I live, there are raccoons about, which means we can't put the garbage out the night before the truck arrives. If we do, the next morning we see our entire week's worth of trash strewn along the pavement. Instead, we rise early on Monday mornings and put all of it out then. I used to hate it. The smelly, fishy cat food cans, the soggy papers, the dirty recycling bins. Then one day I noticed how incredibly crisp the air is at that early hour. Fog drifts onto the street and mingles with the first sun rays of sun, turning every tree branch and rooftop luminous.

6. Clicking "no" to an invite. If you're like me, you get invited to a lot of random events through Facebook. Flattered, I often click the "maybe" button in the hope that somehow I'll fit in that extra networking event, birthday party, product release, handcar regatta, wine tasting or other meetup that I know full well isn't going to fit into my already packed schedule. The word "no" seems so final. But that's exactly what's right about doing it. Taking this step requires bravery, but in doing so, our world settles down. No more penciled-in, half-assed dates on the calendar. The joy of simplicity.

7. Listening to stuff. It's so tempting to wrap oneself in a cocoon of "chosen" sounds. In the car, we blast music or news. As we walk down the street, Pandora pipes our favorite tunes through iPhone earphones. Steve Jobs hath bestowed upon us this magical ability. But once in awhile, I decide to go the opposite way and let it all in. There's something anarchic and wild in the cacophony of street sounds. So much of what we call "noise pollution" can be music if we listen without judgment: the motorcycle engine rev as it blasts past us in traffic, the baby crying in the airplane, the click-click of a turnstile, the vroom of the bus. Even the tinny sounds issuing from others' earphones can be an accompaniment to one's day.

8. Sour food. Why is it that everything we eat and drink nowadays is judged by its level of sweetness? Maybe because sugar is added to so many products. Or perhaps we're all stuck in a perpetual childhood. Whatever the reason, it's rare, in the U.S. at least, to hear someone extol the wondrous sourness of something they just ate. But sour is one of the most basic tastes; our taste buds were specially designed to recognize it. To me, there's almost nothing better than biting into a slice of Meyer lemon, eating a spoonful of homemade yogurt, sipping a lemony soup, or eating one of those salty, sour Umeboshi plums they sell in Asian markets.

9. Doing something you're bad at. There's all kinds of reasons to pursue activities we are good at doing. Oftentimes, this is the key to success. But I've found immense pleasure in attempting stuff I'm bad at. I can't draw. I'm not a good dancer. As much as I love doing them, I pretty much suck at New York Times crossword puzzles. If you know you're bad at something, this gives you freedom. You can fall on your face. Make an utter fool of yourself. And if anyone criticizes, you can just laugh it off--you knew you were bad at it in the first place!

10. Board games. OK OK I can hear you saying now that I'm turning this post into little more than a nostalgia trip into days gone by when the kids played Monopoly while the grownups drank cocktails, puffed on their pipes and played whist around a rickety, card table covered in cheap baize. But to me, there's something amazing about playing a game that requires absolutely no mobile phone, PC, Macbook or other electronic involvement. Picking up that metal car with one's hand and moving it around the squares without punching a single button. Heaven.

What are your underrated pleasures of life? I'd be very interested to hear, so please feel free to leave them in the comments field.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Pollsters miss the point on the economy (and everything else)

This past weekend our household was contacted by Gallup for a poll they were conducting on the nation's sense of health and well being. At first, it was exciting. I'd never talked to a pollster before, and I happen to know that it's a small handful of Americans who are chosen to participate.

The young woman on the phone asked me a lot of questions. They were all about me and how I was feeling. Who wouldn't want that kind of call on a Sunday afternoon? It was like getting a free therapy session. The first question had an almost hypnotic effect on me.

"Imagine that your life is a stairway," she said, her tone low and melodious. "At the very top step is the best life you could be having, that's a 10. The bottom step is your worst life, a one. What step are you on?"

I didn't want to seem cocky, so I said "nine." I could see myself standing there, on the ninth step. One foot was already lifting and getting ready for the top of the stairs. As if reading my mind, the pollster asked me which step I saw myself headed towards.

"Ten!" I said, feeling the elation spread through me.

After that, things started to take a turn for the worse. It was like going back to elementary school. I was being quizzed. There were all sorts of questions designed to see if I felt squeezed financially. Then there were the rather intrusive health questions. How many days in the past week had I eaten five or more servings of fruits and vegetables? Had I exercised? How often? Was it for 30 minutes or longer?

I tried to explain that I hadn't expected to receive such a call, and so I had paid no attention to these details. She hid any disappointment she might have had. She asked a question that I could tell was considered a key indicator according to nice people at Gallup.

"Do you have enough time to get the things done that you need to do?"

A long pause ensued. This was, for me, an unanswerable question. If I said "yes," then that meant I  had bought into the presupposition that somehow time was an external factor over which I had no control. If I said "no," then that implied the same thing--only now I was admitting that time had taken such a toll on me that I was failing to keep up with its demands.

Either way, I was trapped. I would be accepting the belief--widely held in this culture, of course--that time is our enemy. It takes away our ability to get things done. How does it do this? Why, it runs out, of course! Like the hourglass in The Wizard of Oz, it drops, one blood red grain of sand at a time, until we have none left. We couldn't do those things that we wanted to do, because time took them away from us. Sneaky bugger.

But of course, this is completely wrong. It's a subjective belief, not an external reality. In fact, the more we believe that time is our problem, the more of a problem it becomes. As Professor Philip Zimbardo explains in this video, people in different cultures experience time in all kinds of ways. In the U.S., we are more "time crunched" than ever. His research found that Americans were admitting that they sacrificed friends, family and sleep in order to get more things done.

Here's the mindblowing part. They then asked people, "suppose you had an eight day week? What would you do with that extra day?" The answer? They would spend that time achieving more. Working harder. Not spending time with friends and family. Not even sleeping more.

There's yet another unexamined assumption buried in that pollster's innocent sounding question. It is the idea that there are things that I "need" to do.  Reasonable enough, on the surface. I'm a functioning member of society. I need to work, earn a living, take care of my home, take care of my family, and so on. But when you take a step back from it, there's a strong implication there that life is essentially made up of activities we just have to do. We're like walking lists, endlessly checking things off of ourselves and then adding more as we go.

Just as with the idea of time, this implies a victim mentality. I am robbed of choice. I don't choose to do things. I just do them, because I must. In fact, the question wouldn't work if they allowed for the presupposition that our lives are our own.

Imagine if she had asked: "do you have the time to do the things you choose to do?"

It sounds ridiculous, doesn't it? If I choose to do things, then of course I'll make time to do them. Otherwise, I wouldn't be choosing them in the first place. Here's a radical thought. What if we chose to do everything we did? What if all these things we say we "need" to do were just stuff we convinced ourselves we had to do? As Deepak Chopra once noted--the goal of our lives should be to do less and achieve more. Ultimately, the goal is to do nothing and achieve everything.

I'm not saying that Gallup is biased. Bias implies a certain angle on a topic. This runs far deeper than that. It reflects a widely held set of beliefs--a sort of complete wrapper around our culture--that separates us from our own lives, turning us into automatons who do nothing but run around doing, buying and running around some more (this time to achieve our proscribed 30-minutes, three times a week exercise). It's the ultimate victim mentality--about as far from the original American ideal of independence as you can get!

This very headset is actually what got us into the economic mess we're in now. If you look deeply enough, what really caused the recent downturn was the pressure to ensure that the economy continually grew at all costs. Every company had (and still has) to show "growth." Not depth. Not that it served some larger purpose. Just that it got bigger. And so the engines that run the economy had to keep figuring out ways to keep inflating this balloon. The result was that eventually, there was nowhere left to go. The balloon could not get larger. Instead, it popped. And so, Gallup is measuring the little scattered pieces that fell to the ground, never noticing that the balloon isn't us. It isn't even necessary. We'll all be fine without it. We might even be better.

Oh, and by the way, I did finally answer the question. I just couldn't bear to disappoint the lady from Gallup. I said "yes."

Friday, June 4, 2010

A spirited aptonym

By golly, I've found yet another brilliant aptonym--this in the world of wine and food blogging. I speak of Mr. Rick Bakas. Rick is the social media director at St. Supery Winery in the Napa Valley. He's been in branding and marketing for years, and recently he's become something of a social media celebrity. His book "Quick Bites: 75 Savory Tips for Social Media Success" is due out at the end of this month.

As some readers of this blog know, I'm particularly obsessed with the phenomenon of nominative determinism, also known as the "aptonym." This is when a person's name matches their personality or career choice. For example, Dennis Rodman's father, a known philanderer who married four times and had 27 children, is named Philander Rodman. (I don't know why, but that's still my favorite.) There are also many examples of doctors named Doctor, dentists named Tooth, attorneys called Sue, and so on.

Bacchus is the name of the Roman God of Wine. Rick notes on his blog that his family name was originally spelled that way, but his great-grandfather changed it to Bakas so that it would sound more American. The Greeks called this god Dionysus.

I've been following Rick on Twitter for some time now, enjoying his tweets about food, wine and social media commentary. For someone in a field known for its pleasure and relaxation, he seems to have the energy of ten people or more--continually posting videos, photos and other tidbits that pour out of him like an endless, bottomless jug. In Greek and Cretian myth, Dionysus (Bacchus) was half mortal and half god. The Greeks said he was fathered by none other than Zeus.

I got in touch with Rick on Twitter and asked him to comment. Did he get into wine because of his name? Had he ever thought of himself as a Roman god? He was surprised by the request but gamely responded with the following email:

"I didn’t get into the wine biz because of my name, it just happened. I was bit by the wine bug when I turned 21. That year, my parents opened a 1985 Stag’s Leap Cask 23 during the holidays. That was the first wine I had that had quality and age on it. The light bulb went off and I was hooked. Before that, any alcohol I drank came out of a hose connected to a keg in college.
 So I subscribed to every wine publication I could get my hands on and started learning and tasting everything. That led to my wine collection, that led to getting a job as a wine sales rep. Eventually I became a wine broker. 

If I had to recreate the path I’ve taken, I probably couldn’t reproduce it. It’s been a string of happy occurrences. As for my last name, it was actually spelled, 'Bacchus' but when my great-grandparents came to the U.S. In 1912 they Americanized the spelling (which is a bummer). They changed the spelling from Bacchus to Bakas."

He attached this--his version of the family crest:
Rick encouraged me to get in touch with Emily Wines, who is the Master Sommelier at Fifth Floor restaurant in San Francisco. That is truly the consummate definition of an aptonym par excellence. Emily Wines, and her job is to choose and serve... well, um... wines! Unfortunately I didn't hear back from Emily by press time, but all we can do is marvel at the total aptness of her name from afar.

Update!! We have heard from Emily Wines. She sends the following missive about her truly apt-o-nym:

"My name always comes up in my business. My getting into wine was a coincidence rather than being influenced by my name. Sometimes I think it opened doors as people remembered it though. People always comment on my name. It would seem that my name is Emily 'yes that really is her name' Wines. I usually joke about how if my last name were 'Beers,' I would be in a different career. I first got interested in wine by working in restaurants. As a server, I felt that if I knew more about what I was selling I would be a better waitress. Which is true -- however, as I started reading and exploring I got really hooked on the stories and cultures that inform wine as well as the beverage itself. I began doing side work in the restaurant to learn more which eventually led me to become a sommelier. I am the only person in my family in the wine business. In fact, growing up, my family rarely even drank wine! That has changed now, thanks to me. Now I can't get them off the stuff."

We raise a glass to both Emily and Rick.