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.
I had not felt well for several days.
Sick of feeling miserable I got it into
my head that the cure was Cheetos,
but I had none. I learned long ago the dangers of keeping snack foods in the house, and so I never do.
But as I said, I got it into my head that the cure for my malaise was Cheetos, extra crunchy. So, in the middle of a thunderstorm, I got into my car and headed for the nearest convenience store. Of course, there were no snack-size bags available. It would be the share-size or nothing. The first warning bell rang.
Despite the sounding alarm, I did not run for the door. I stood there studying the image of the skateboarding cheetah in sunglasses. He looked happy with a giant Cheeto in his hand. His white high-top sneakers looked lovely too, and I couldn’t help but notice that he was quite slender, undernourished even, for a carnivore. Maybe Cheetos are a health food. I was easy prey, and I grabbed a bag.
I approached the check-out feeling like a teenager about to get an overhead price check on tampons or condoms, but there was no cashier behind the counter. The second warning bell chimed. For an instant, I pondered the possibility that God was giving me another chance to make a better decision.
I set the bag of Cheetos on the counter as I waited for the cashier. Though it was inadvertent, I had remarkable precision in aiming the price code at the resting scanner. The cash register began ringing up the Cheetos over and over again. Strike three and red alert! God was going rounds with the devil.
The cashier came running to the register from some unseen location behind me. It was too late now. The devil had gained the advantage. Now, I had to buy the Cheetos. As the young lady deleted the repeated charges and started to tally my actual purchase, I felt compelled to explain that I don’t usually eat such foods. “Mm-hmm.” I could see that she didn’t care one bit about my dietary habits or if I was telling the truth. She worked in a convenience store, for God’s sake, the devil’s outpost. She wasn’t there to hear confession.
I grabbed my purchase from the counter and dodged hail on my way back to the car. Alone inside my vehicle I tore open the package. Lightening flashed as I glanced at the calories per serving printed on the bag. Why did I do that? Now I knew the cost of sin. I set about negotiating. I vowed I would eat just one serving. And then I vowed that if I ate more than one serving, I would balance out the calories throughout the rest of the day. And then I vowed just to make it home.
I showed amazing restraint in the car. I ate just one Cheeto. I have to admit that it was pretty darn good. And then I made it all the way into the house. With each Cheeto I consumed, I renegotiated the serving size. Pretty soon, I did feel better.
How many Cheetos did it take to cure my ills? I’m not saying, but it was enough to leave a big orange stain on my soul.
I turn the page on my calendar and discover that today is World Tuna Day.
A sometimes lapsed Catholic, I wonder if this might be a new Holy Day of Obligation. For the non-Catholics out there, a Holy Day of Obligation is a day on which Catholics are expected to attend Mass and refrain from work and other activities that might interfere with their worship of God.
I consider attending Mass, but that sounds like work to me, and I am too late anyway. I will add this latest lapse to my growing list of sins to be reported the next time I seek confession which is a Sacrament, another type of obligation, but not one that takes up an entire day, unless you are a child of Satan and have a lot to report.
With my curiosity aroused, I turn to the Tree of Knowledge to fish for some answers.
According to the information posted on www.un.org, in 2016 the United Nations passed a resolution making May 2nd World Tuna Day in order to spread the word about the dangerous situation faced by this important fish. Apparently, the future of tuna is threatened by overwhelming demand and unsustainable fishing practices. Overfishing has endangered the species and the delicate ecosystem of the ocean’s food chain. Overfishing also threatens to impact the livelihoods of people all over the world, and the United Nations is taking measures to safeguard the value of tuna stocks—the Wall Street version, not the stack of cans in a good Catholic’s pantry.
Sailing around the internet, I learn that there are seven commercial species of tuna fished from four different oceans. All my life, I thought Charlie the Tuna was the only one. As of 2018, the tuna industry was worth about forty billion dollars, and that does not include the tuna fishing gear industry.
I am more than a little surprised that with all that is at stake the United Nations waited until after Lent to bring this up. Let’s face it, observant Catholics are complicit in this developing tragedy. Before Charlie the Tuna, Jesus was a pretty well-known spokesperson. Jesus was really into fishing. Some of his apostles were actual fishermen before Jesus made them fishers of men. Jesus was also known for his famous loaves and fishes routine. I am pretty sure that was when the tuna fish sandwich became popular on the Catholic menu.
By the 1950s, the decade in which I was born, tuna noodle casserole was a mainstay of the American Catholic’s diet on Friday nights and all throughout the season of Lent. It was cheap to make, the ingredients were easy to find and non-perishable to boot. The meal was easy to prepare and provided leftovers. It was also popular at church potlucks and a nice gesture of comfort in times of tragedy.
I think we all have something to confess here.
But the Church is good at granting dispensations-- an act for which a lawful superior grants relaxation from an existing law in a particular case. You might need that if you find yourself craving tuna noodle casserole given the plight of the tuna. You might want to shoot for Eat What You Want Day which is coming up on May 11th. Eat What You Want Day is a day to eat whatever you want without fretting over fats or fishing. A day without guilt. I’m pretty sure that can’t be a Catholic Church holiday.
The food pyramid is ancient history,
and food in its natural form is becoming an artifact, too.
We are changing shape and raising the bar. Individually packaged slender rectangles that fit in a purse, a gym bag, or a pocket are now the shape of food. Once a to-go meal for astronauts, condensed chewy food has replaced traditional farm table fixings.
From the cereal aisle to the pharmacy aisle, a growing number of bars crowd the grocery store shelves. There are bars for strength, recovery, weight loss, and calorie supplementation. There are breakfast bars, cereal bars, meal bars, snack bars, and energy bars. Each type of bar comes in a multitude of varieties: gluten free, vegan, low carb, high protein, and keto. No longer is the consumer limited to the basic flavors of chocolate and vanilla. Add to the flavor menu peanut butter, birthday cake, maple donut, orange soda, coconut, and mint chocolate chip to name a few.
I admit it; I have tried quite a few bars, but I don’t think I will live long enough to try them all. Though we are people on the run, I can’t eat fast enough to keep up with the speedy supply of emerging types and flavors.
The new magic ingredient in this food is protein. It doesn’t matter how much sugar, sodium, or cholesterol the food contains. Somehow, the protein nullifies the ill effects of the other not-so-healthy ingredients. Because this new food originated with the astronauts as space food sticks in the 1960s and was later promoted as power bars by the athletic industry in the 1980s, we assume this culinary innovation must be the brainchild of science, and therefore, it must be good for us. And who doesn’t want to be an astronaut or an elite athlete? We love convenience foods, and if we can make good health simple and convenient, so much the better.
Leave it to the powerful food industry to deliver on our other childhood dreams. Large, individually wrapped cookies are marketed as the next innovation in health food. My inner child squeals with delight. She has always known that a row of Oreos paired with a glass of milk was the real breakfast of champions. Boxes of protein cookies now sit next to the bars on the store shelves. They also appear at fast food restaurants. In a plexi-glass case displaying large soft sugar and chocolate chip cookies, there is a rack designated for the oatmeal bars. They show up on the breakfast menu. I try one. My brain says “cookie,” but the menu says “breakfast.” Life can get better with age.
Last week I discovered that the food industry isn’t stopping with the cookie. The ultimate dream of every child who ever hated long family dinners, hard broccoli, and slimy fish is now being realized. Boxes filled with small, individually wrapped squares called “healthy candy” fill the end-caps of the health/pharmacy aisles. I pinch myself, “Am I dreaming?” Move over Russell Stover and Whitman; there is a new kid on the block. I will miss the guessing game of choosing a flavor, and the tiny, ruffled paper cups, but some compromises must be made. After all, this candy is serious; it is a meal not an after dinner holiday treat.
Though my soft, sweet, innocent inner child is exuberant, the hard shelled outer adult is prone to doubt and worry. What can be next when all of your food dreams are realized? Could food go digital? Will the byte replace the bite? Will food be reimagined or just imaginary? Even my inner child would find that hard to swallow.