all of the selves we Have ever been
“A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” Arthur Fletcher, United Negro College Fund
“In my head I was thinking.”
The speaker loses me right there. His brain may be a luxury liner, and he may be about to tell me the secrets to world peace, climate change reversal, and how to grow thicker, more luxurious hair, but my thoughts dive overboard.
I replay his words while awaiting underwater rescue: “In my HEAD I was thinking.” “In my head I was THINKING.”
I want to interrupt the speaker and ask, “Where else would you be thinking?” But my son’s insistent voice tugs on my mind in the same urgent way that he pulls on my arm in a department store when I am about to confront a shoplifter: “Mom, it doesn’t work that way anymore.”
Oh! And uh-oh! Another reminder that I am either touched or out of touch, drowning in a sea of changes. The most fundamental truths no longer hold water: now we must qualify where our thoughts come from.
No expert, but ever curious about why people do what they do and say what they say, I take a deeper dive. What better arena to find people talking than in politics? I listen. I try to grasp the thoughts behind the words. I try different news sources, and then I ask myself: Did that really come out of the head of a person educated at Penn? Yale? Harvard? Stanford? Pretty pricey educations. And in my head I think I have found the reason to forgive student loans.
Just to be sure it’s not just me struggling with the question of where thought comes from I turn to a friend about one of her recent experiences. Needing assistance in a store, my friend approached the customer service desk where another woman was already waiting for help. No one came to staff the desk. After waiting a bit, the women approached an employee stationed in the self-checkout area to assist customers who, shockingly, were having problems with self-checkout. On the surface, it seemed like the customer service representative and the two women shared the same language, but this customer request for a manager or someone to assist them just did not seem to compute in the young employee’s head. Finally, he pulled a response from the same pocket where he keeps his much smarter phone: “There’s no one here that can help you.” End of discussion. Problem unsolved.
My friend, a very bright woman who carries a big engine in her own head, persisted, “Well, who would you call if the store caught on fire?”
That seemed to get the lights flickering in the young man’s eyes: “Oh! That would be Tom?”
“Well, could you call Tom?”
Tom never appeared but the two women with the thinking heads solved their own problems.
Back at home, I watch a neighbor walk down our shared hallway, dripping and dropping food onto the carpet as he goes. Not unnoticeable, and yet he keeps walking. Keeps dropping. Keeps spilling. And steps in it! Days pass. No attempt is made to clean up the mess. His smart phone is on and updated, but his beautiful head is on lockdown.
At work people appear to be busy on their computers. They receive a constant stream of music and podcasts from their earbuds. As their minds process all of that sensory stimulation, I wonder: where do they think? And when? I would ask them, but they can’t hear me.
Wonderful people I’ve known for a lifetime are suddenly up in arms about a variety of conspiracy theories. Salacious, crazy ideas picked ripe from the internet and social media are turning their good minds into debris fields. No thought or fact checking required. All of their mental input is handpicked and arranged by AI the new thought generator.
I contemplate the notion of “artificial” intelligence. Is that an oxymoron? Or a bad substitute like ill-fitting dentures? Whatever AI is, it bears a shocking resemblance to the artificial additives that enhance the color, flavor, shelf-life, and addictive qualities of processed food. All of the flavor but none of the calories. And none of the nutrition. Seems to me the food giants do their thinking in their wallets. Never mind that artificial ingredients have led to an obesity epidemic that is the leading cause of death in America. Perhaps they learned this approach from the tobacco industry whose product is known to kill one out of every two of its best customers. And so, in my head, I ponder: What does this new artificial substitute for thought mean for our minds?
After tobacco, it was food. Now it is technology. We are already experiencing AI poisoning. Maybe we will eventually kill each other. And like the tobacco and food companies before them, big tech owners will stand back and claim it was all “freedom” regardless of their industry’s psychological manipulation. But, by then, the big tech guys will own all the real estate on Mars and the only rockets to get there. Don’t you love freedom?
The life of the mind is under siege. The future of thought is not looking good. What is to become of that vault of jewels that makes us human, the many faceted gems of thought, wonder, creativity, and empathy polished by time, experience, education, flexibility, maturity, and relationships? What happens when our heads are as junk-clogged as our arteries?
A poor swimmer in these uncharted waters I doggy paddle to stay afloat. I conclude that psychologically manipulated information--no matter the volume--is not thought any more than Cheetos are nutrition.
To the in-my-head-I-was-thinking-guy—I owe you an apology.
And some credit for trying.
Following my usual route along a nondescript section of urban bike trail,
I spot something new! A row of tall banners blows in the breeze and forms a lively parade along the guardrail. I look for the cause of such celebration. Beyond the guardrail and down a small slope on the far side of an enormous parking lot, a new establishment is open for business.
One of the signs unfurls on an east-to-west wind, and I see the words, “Dry Needling” displayed on a banner that looks like a boat sail. I repeat the words to myself as I move along the path: Dry needling? What can that be?
I scour my mental glossary and come up with an ancient parental rebuke, “Quit needling your sister!” The tone made it clear that continued needling came with consequences. And needle each other in public? A girl better be prepared to grow her hair out like Rapunzel if she ever wanted to leave her room again. These needling memories increase my curiosity, and I imagine a business built on a model developed by kids in junior high school. If only I had known then that I could build a profitable empire on those sarcastic, uninspired, and mean years!
Making my way home with the words dry needling still jabbing my brain, I look up the word needling and find that it is “a teasing or gibing remark.” But then I have to dig into the word gibing – “to make someone the object of unkind laughter, deride, jeer, laugh at, mock, ridicule, skewer, scoff, or make fun of.” Yep, my parents knew what they were talking about.
I dig deeper. What can dry needling be? My parents were not that explicit. Perhaps they assumed that at age 12 there was no alcohol involved in these exchanges of psychic puncture wounds. Therefore, I assume that despite the fanfare, this new establishment along the bike path is not a bar. I guess people of any age can needle while sober.
I walk the short distance home and think of how long it has been since my parents scolded us for needling. If only they had lived a little longer, they would have seen that those junior high skills and the art of needling can have a big pay-off. Today, we call it Twitter.
I return home from work to find a bag hanging from my doorknob. I know what’s in there, and I hurry to enter the house, tossing my keys to the table and my work bag to the floor.
A fresh crop of magazines! I have always loved them, but they have become too expensive to purchase often. Some now top $12.99 per issue with not much content, a real budget buster. There have been times when I considered selling my plasma in order to acquire a beautiful, fresh edition, but, thankfully, I have a magazine-loving neighbor, and we chase down back issues and re-circulate them. We don’t care if they are a few months out of date. They don’t spoil. Now and then, I leave a bag for her, and she returns a bag to me. It’s my bag now, and I can’t wait to see what’s inside.
I spill the contents of the bag onto the coffee table and study my options. Should I consume it all at once, or dole it out a day at a time? I brew some tea and settle in for a late night.
Magazines were a much bigger deal before the internet, and I became conditioned like Pavlov’s dog. Throw a magazine on the table, and I start salivating. I grew up with magazines piling up around the house—my father’s National Geographic and Popular Mechanics, Look, and Life, and my mother’s Redbook, Ladies Home Journal, and McCall’s. Magazines were meatier back then: beautiful photographs, informative articles, great short stories, recipes, and coupons! As I got older, I added my own favorites: Tiger Beat, Seventeen, Mademoiselle, and Glamour. I could spend hours on the phone turning the pages while my friend on the other end of the line did the same as we studied the magazine together, an early preview of the now popular Zoom call.
In 2020 when Oprah announced she would no longer produce her monthly print magazine O!, I mourned the death of magazines. If Oprah couldn’t make a go of it, what hope could there be for any others? Look was long out of sight, departing in 1971, with Life expiring in 2000. Mademoiselle said au revoir in 2001 and Teen in 2009. Most shocking of all was when US News & World Report ceased publication in 2010. Was there ever a high school report or a school debate that did not rely upon the facts in US News & World Report? No wonder no one trusts the news any more.
But back to the payload at hand. I begin sorting. I have before me now a familiar title that has managed to hang around since 1937: Woman’s Day, and a few relatively newer ones: Real Simple and Health. A couple of Vogue magazines are at the bottom of the heap. Vogue is the oracle of fashion and began as a newspaper in 1892 with a cover price of 10 cents. I stare at the December 2021 edition with a newsstand price of $7.99. I always thought Vogue was as out of my league. There is nothing haute about my couture, and so I have never been a subscriber or reader. But, hey, today’s price is right! And expensive magazines can afford to pay for good writing. I dig in.
I turn back the cover and my eyes fall upon a very slender woman dressed in a pair of…well, I’m not sure what to call them…Pants? Leggings? Tights? Spanx? Whatever they are, they cover her high-heeled shoes as well. They are…? Again, I am not sure what the word is for that color—somewhere on the spectrum of very old and worn cardboard boxes with the deep green Gucci logo all over. Complementing these, for a lack of proper vocabulary, these bottoms, is a long-sleeved shirred purple top with a thick diagonal red and black stripe. At the midriff is a large jewelry-like piece holding the shirring together. The outfit is accessorized with elbow-length metallic gold gloves, a purple #10 baseball cap, and a large dangling nose ring that covers the model’s lips. It hangs down like a long, thick, and sparkling booger. If I had more class, I would say, “a piece of dried nasal mucous.”
This is called high fashion. Perhaps that is because a person must be high in order to wear it. I come from the low place where young women match their purses to their shoes and jewelry only finds its way up the noses of curious toddlers who get expensive trips to the emergency room. I shake my head. I could never carry this off. I would be picked up immediately for prostitution, a mental health assessment, or a stay in a homeless shelter. My mind drifts to the image of a coffee cup I once saw in a Spencer’s gift catalog when I was still a high schooler. It featured a drawing by a kindergartner with the words: “Your face is ugly and your mother dresses you funny.”
But that’s the first page. Maybe the editor is just trying to get my attention. A few more pages in and I see an ad for Valentino. Three strikingly slender and beautiful people lounge on a red leather sofa. The female models are wearing what appear to be oversized blouses, but they don’t appear to be wearing pants. Perhaps in high society, pants are optional.
I study a multi-page ad for a high-fashion line of purses, something I understand. The bags look sturdy and reasonable, but reasonable ends at the price tag. They run from $328 a piece to $568. Since the price is shown for each bag, I am assuming that, in the Vogue circle, these are considered a real bargain. But I cannot afford the purse or a security detail to follow me around just to protect my bag.
I continue flipping pages. I see an ad for a skin care line I’ve never heard of. It is a two-page spread. The left page features a picture of the very fit and handsome founder and CEO. How come he gets to wear pants? And not just pants, but some comfortable blue jeans and a plain old white t-shirt? He looks handsome instead of ridiculous. I check him out online. If I stick with him, I can remove my eye make-up for $30.00 which is more than my monthly water bill. This makes me think he can afford a better t-shirt.
The next article is about “fringe benefits.” The fringe is four-inch eyelashes “for everyone.” Apparently, eyelashes are “rewriting the rules of who gets to be glamorous.” Uh-oh! More bitter confirmation that I am not in that club either. Even if I wanted to be a member, I would have to trade my vision for glamour. I would not be able to fit my glasses over those lashes. Perhaps it is true at a certain level of society that “men never make passes at girls who wear glasses,” but I’ve grown partial to my eyesight. I favor it over fringe benefits.
Another article describes a new class of at-home devices that lift, smooth, de-puff, re-plump, and revive pandemic-weary complexions. This silver bullet we’ve all been waiting for costs $2,499.00, but don’t think that will save the female consumer from the need for micro-current…and you do also have to be “reasonable” in your expectations: “No device can turn back the clock.” Well, maybe not, but it can certainly set back the 401(k).
Now in a low mood, I close the book on high fashion. It is confirmed: I do not own the right bag; I am not glamorous; I cannot afford silver bullets. But I sulk only for a moment because those are not the things I wish for or dream about.
I return to my familiar magazines, to my life of soap and water--sans electric current, and I put on some pants.
It is the first snowfall of the season.
Through my window it is a wonderland of undisturbed white powder and winter quiet. This beautiful landscape portrait conceals the blistering wind that strikes my cheeks and the thick, crunchy ice that causes my feet to slip and slide as I step outside to warm up the car.
When I was young, I wondered why older adults went to Florida for the winter. It seemed to me that the heat, humidity, and bugs would be a deterrent to anyone still in her right mind. Perhaps my mind is no longer right. Sunny locations with clear, dry roads sound lovely. Cruising around tropical islands and sipping sweet drinks from a pineapple don’t sound too bad either.
Cruises can be expensive, and with COVID and its many variants circulating, they are also a bad idea. While my mind may no longer be right, I do seem to recall a certain inexpensive cruise line that promises restoration of the spirit. That would kill two birds with one stone—help me to succeed with my New Year’s resolution and get me away from it all. Did I mention that it is also affordable? There is no need to contact a travel agent. How does it work? You climb into your bathtub, say the magic words: Calgon, take me away! And you have set sail.
I remember the ads and the foil covered cardboard boxes that sometimes sat on the edge of our bathtub at home. I’m not sure if my mom got to sail away that often. A military wife and working woman with four children didn’t have much time to sit down. The box may have offered some hope or a chance to dream, but it was we children who poured far too much of the magic powder into the tub and used up all of the fragrant journeys.
I rarely take a bath any more. I am strictly a shower person unless I am nursing some pain. Even then, I am reluctant to sit down in the tub. Seems like too much trouble, the getting in and the getting out, and the cleaning up. Takes too much time, too. That’s way too long to be naked at my age, not to mention my general sagging condition. What if something sticks to the porcelain? As I grow older, I am hounded by doctors, nurses, and ads reminding me that I could slip and fall. The bathtub is certainly a new danger zone.
No wonder my divine spark is dying. I guess we grow old by exchanging adventure for safety. We no longer sail away, we slip away. I think about these things as I shovel a foot of snow from around my car. Twenty-five mile per hour winds blast my face with an icy mist. I realize that I am a much braver woman when I am dressed in multiple layers from head to toe and have something I can throw.
With this new insight and a tablespoon of resolve, I go inside and search the internet. OMG! Calgon still makes the magical powdery elixir. On their website, I find this reassuring description: For over 70 years, Calgon™ has been dedicated to creating uniquely exhilarating bath and body experiences that stimulate the senses, restore the spirit and take you on a special, fragrant journey to the place you want to be.
Yep, that’s the stuff, and it’s been around longer than me. Must be true or else hope dies hard.
I wait for the trucks to come by with the road salt so that I can get to the bath salts. I vow to be brave: I will trade a thimble of safety for a tub of adventure. I book my passage. I am setting sail.
Mick Jagger turns 78 today.
Poor guy. He just can’t get no satisfaction.
Mick does try. And he tries. And he tries. Mick may be more famous for his persistence than his rock ‘n roll. In the fifty-six years since Mick sang those words, sharing the pain of sexual frustration and American consumerism, Mick has had eight children with five different women, five grandchildren, and a great grandchild who is older than Mick’s youngest child. Jagger’s chronic dissatisfaction has resulted in a net worth estimated at $500 million. Maybe that helps to ease the pain.
I have a net worth of about $5.00, but I am more easily satisfied than Mick Jagger, and I don’t even try. Yesterday, I found a solid wood Ethan Allen side table sitting up pretty next to the dumpster. I live in a college town, and that’s what people do with good stuff when they move. Instead of taking the bulky items to Goodwill or another charity donation center, they set the items near, but slightly apart from, the regular trash as an offering to their neighbors. If passers-by spot the items before it rains or snows, they get a great deal. It troubles me that so much of this perfectly fine stuff ends up in the landfill. I try to recycle it by using it myself, passing it on, or taking it to a donation center.
When I was growing up, we were not so carefree with our belongings. Our homes were furnished with good quality hand-me-downs from the generations before us. Every item had a story, and we waited patiently to contribute our chapter. Furniture was sturdy and made of real wood and natural fabrics. Our clothes were sturdy, too. We got new clothes at the start of each school year and for the big holidays like Christmas and Easter, unless we had a growth spurt in between. Being the oldest or the only might mean new stuff--unless there were cousins. Being a younger sibling meant hand-me-downs. We had school shoes, Sunday shoes, and play shoes. Play shoes were often just our worn out old school shoes. We changed into our play clothes the MINUTE we came home from school or church, and we hung them up IMMEDIATELY.
There was no shame in patches or in mending, especially when the handiwork was skillfully done, and most moms were skillful. Girls endured life-long apprenticeships for their roles as mothers. They came to the mending game experienced. Most dads were tinkerers and fixed the other broken and weary stuff. They did not have to storm the legislature to demand right-to-repair laws. Not to repair was an insult to rugged individualism and American know-how. No one needed a special amendment to the constitution to carry a wrench. There was pride in making things last, an essential strategy in the pursuit of happiness.
When a spare part or something new was needed, we turned to the Sears catalog. While I have attributed my love of reading to Nancy Drew, I don’t think I gave Sears, Roebuck and Company enough credit for the growth of my mind. I have to acknowledge the Sears catalog for helping me to become a visual learner. The catalog was also a free course on how to write descriptions. That big catalog sold everything including houses. I dog-eared plenty of pages and starred many illustrations of the items I wanted, but I didn’t really expect to get them all. Dreaming was another American past time. It did not fill me with dissatisfaction; it fed my imagination. There was no keeping up with the Joneses. Not one of my friends would be getting that stuff either. Sure, we argued over who saw it first and who deserved to have it, but we easily tired of the competition and got back to Barbies, the sprinkler, and chasing fireflies.
The advertising industry has exploded since those days, and with ample supply, convenient access to shops, and on-line retailers with promises of two-hour delivery, we don’t give consumption the thought we once did. Back when Mick announced his dissatisfaction, there were just a couple of seasons in the fashion industry—warm and cold, and later, spring, summer, fall, and winter. I recently heard that some retailers change fashion styles weekly in order to drive up sales. Some of the prior “season’s” clothing is removed from the racks, shredded, and tossed into the landfill. There are no free lunches or leggings in America.
Someone said, “You can never get enough of what you don’t really want.” Well, the pandemic changed all of that for me. A year of social isolation showed me just how much I really do need. Turns out, it isn’t much. A little does go a long way toward satisfaction. And my little is so much more than many others have.
Mick Jagger, I think you may be trying too hard. Meet me at the dumpster.
I pick up a new book, Buy Nothing, Get Everything.
On page 21, I come to a shocking statistic: The average American home is filled with more than 300,000 items.
Confident that I am below average in yet another category, I read on: according to a study of possessions in homes, there is a correlation between the number of magnets on refrigerators and the amount of stuff in the household.
Those words tear through my storage unit of denial like a Florida hurricane. From my seat at the dining room table, I eye both the overflowing bookshelves in the living room and the layer of magnets covering my refrigerator door.
I immediately go to the kitchen and gaze into my personal magnetosphere. In this new state of enlightenment, I realize those small advertisements and souvenirs hold more power than meets the eye. If they can suck that much stuff into your house, surely, they can stop a pacemaker cold or wipe the memory from a desktop computer. I fear for my visitors with metal joint replacements. After wrapping some yellow caution tape around my front door, I don a hazmat suit and get to work. I commit to clearing magnets from my refrigerator door.
Step one? Self-examination. Why do I have so many magnets in the first place?
Some are so cute and well-crafted that they look like real strawberries, bananas, and cookies. Works of art they are. And speaking of art, some of the magnets are actual handcrafted artwork—projects made by my children as Mother’s Day gifts 25 years ago when the children were small. It is hard to part with sentiment. There also a few magnets spouting funny and inspirational sayings such as the one black and white photo of a woman in a 1950s’ era bathing suit: “I’m one stomach flu away from my goal weight.” It was a gift from a friend during one of my many weight loss attempts. Humor, sentiment, gift, and reminder. It is practically a medical device for overall well-being.
But the majority of the magnets are business advertisements. I have 12 copies of the same magnet from a bread company reminding me how to warm up a loaf of their bread. Most of the other magnets came to me as promotions from now defunct businesses.
I get to work removing magnets…except for the really cute ones…and the sentimental ones. I put the remaining extra magnets into a plastic bag. I walk them to the storage closet to add to my box of miscellaneous items where I find more sandwich bags filled with refrigerator magnets from previous but forgotten episodes of clean-off the refrigerator. Apparently, refrigerator magnets can also wipe the human memory clean.
Why can’t I just walk my bags full of magnets to the dumpster? I face a dilemma. With my new understanding of the power of refrigerator magnets, do I dare just toss them in the trash? What happens when all of those magnets get buried in the landfill? Will they suck passing automobiles into the rubble? Turn the world upside down? Pull Asia up by the roots? Airplanes out of the sky?
I go to the tree of knowledge to do some research. I Google “refrigerator magnets” and learn that collecting magnets can be a bona fide hobby. There is no recognized term for someone who collects refrigerator magnets, but there is a woman collector identified in the Guinness Book of World Records. Her name is Louise Greenfarb, and she lives in Henderson, Nevada. Back in 2015, Louise had 45,000 unduplicated magnets. Dear Lord, how many household items does she have?
I dig further to see if there is a known ratio of magnets to stuff. I do not find the formula, but I do find a magazine for refrigerator magnet collectors called Collector’s Lot Magazine. Perhaps you have to be a paid-subscriber to access that that kind of critical information.
As I tend to do when I am in a quandary, I get back to my book, and I discover a new term: nillionaire. A nillionaire is person who has bought nothing for months or years. The book does not say what nillionaires do with their old refrigerator magnets, but they must have some strategy for breaking the force field. Until I unravel this mystery of how to dispose of my refrigerator magnets, I wrap them in plastic, place them in a box, and bury them deep within my storage closet. I vow to become a nillionaire.
Now, with this major reduction in magnetic force, maybe I can let go of all of those twisty-ties.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic,
as cases surged, government and health officials continued to believe they could harness the energy of youth and youthful feelings of invulnerability by pleading with young people to stay home and save old people from the coronavirus.
Let’s get real. Young people don’t go to crowded
bars to drink to the health of senior citizens.
The public has been confronted with horror stories about droves of older adults dying in nursing homes. Many young people, and some not so young, don’t know anyone living in a skilled nursing facility. Some folks believe that older adults go to nursing homes to die, so what’s the big deal? With all of the focus on frailty and “underlying conditions,” the picture painted is one of aging citizens about to tip over the edge at any moment. Why shut down the economy for such a hopeless cause? Never mind that 42 is the median age of COVID-19 cases in my state of Ohio.
Advertising adds to the misperceptions of older adulthood. If most of your education about aging comes from television, what is a person to believe about the quality of life and the value of seniors?
Let’s take a look. Turn on your televisions sets. Stop with the Pilates and pay attention.
Senior citizens watch a lot of television and are big consumers of cable TV services. Cable? Yes, cable. How quaint. Didn’t cable go out of style along with typewriters and rabbit ears? How can you take someone seriously who doesn’t stream?
“Active” seniors are depicted out in the park walking their dogs. The really hip grandparents are busy snapping smartphone photographs of their pets and sending three of those pictures each day to their grandchildren. What a full life! Really groovy grandparents might work part-time and still manage to walk a couple of miles twice a week, but the fact that they can still concentrate and remember their names is due to brain-preserving over-the-counter medications.
And speaking of medications…how many erectile dysfunction advertisements do you think a child sees in the years from preschool through college? Is it any wonder young people can’t imagine adults with intimate relationships and full lives? Based on advertising, a viewer might believe the number one problem facing older adults is sexual dysfunction.
And why would senior citizens care about sex when they are the subject of so much advertising for arthritis pain relievers, heart disease remedies, and diabetes medications? How about those sexy ads for bladder and bowel leakage products? If you were a teen, wouldn’t you rather die from COVID-19 than humiliation?
Body and mind problems aside, older adults fall and they can’t get up. When the ads come on, they take notes about term life insurance, reverse mortgages, and pre-paid funeral services. None of those products implies a future.
Add to the regular diet of product advertising, more recent election campaign ads zeroed in on helpless seniors. How about the one in which an older woman, one with a landline, is trying to call 9-1-1 while an intruder with a crow bar breaks through her front door? Of course, the police have been defunded and the woman’s call goes unanswered. The intruder enters her home and the phone falls to the floor.
The media paint a pathetic portrait of growing older in America. Most of the sad images are of women. Now I don’t expect to overturn the developmental processes of youth and the accompanying lack of insight about aging and responsibility to elders, but I would like to see more images of the men and women that I know. Show me the seniors who stream, run marathons, and direct corporations. Let me see some sexy women on Mediterranean diets with robust health and a string of boyfriends. Give me a gal who comes to her own defense, tripping the intruder with her running shoes, clobbering him with her hand weights, and tying him up with her shoe laces. Show me the lives of the older people that I know, lives with a quality that even a teen can deem worth saving. Then we can all meet at a bar and drink to that!