As I looked around the waiting room of the children’s hospital, almost every face was illuminated by a screen. Parents and adolescents sat with their necks awkwardly craned downward, fingers sliding content in repetitive sweeps. Younger children had portable video games, which they intently played, ignoring the large toys and structures around them. One father was holding an iPhone six inches from the face of a 12-month-old. The child watched intently, sucking on a pacifier— I wondered if it was the screen which was actually more pacifying.
My colleague and I stood in the middle of the sea of screens, holding a box of books. It was a sinking feeling, holding that heavy box of books among that sea of screens.
We approached two children who were sitting down playing video games.
"Would you like to read a book with us?"
"No," they said in unison, without even looking up.
We moved on to ask some kids who were up and about, playing with the tangible toys and play structures around the room. I was optimistic they’d be more responsive, because at least there wasn’t a screen blocking us. However, many of them wanted to run about, rather than sit quietly and read. Fair. I could empathize with and endorse that.
After a few more denials, my colleague asked a boy, a third grader, if he wanted to read.
"Yes, I do!"
He seemed excited, but we were clearly more excited than he. He flipped through our box of books: The Magic School Bus, Berenstain Bears, D.W., Frog and Toad… so many priceless treasures. I was overcome with joyous nostalgia, seeing those books again.
He chose one, and read it out loud. He was a great reader.
A lit buoy floating on that expansive sea of screens. Little by little, other children gathered, drawn to this boy and his books.
A book about mountainous creatures, with “peek-a-boo” pages and tactile furs, became a popular hit. Kids counted animals, lifted pages, and stroked the faux fur as they learned about wonderful, wild creatures. Maybe this would spark their curiosity to learn more about the animals and mountains that surround the city in which they live.
"What kind of animal is that?"
"I don’t know."
"That’s a moose!"
My colleague had just introduced a new animal into this child’s world. I marveled at the beauty and potential of a child’s mind. So many things left to discover.
Maybe this would ignite a desire for them to read other engaging books. Maybe they would ask their parents to read to them when they got home. This was the hope— this was the reason we were there.
I appreciate the power of technology, and all it’s given us. But there is nothing like the power of a good book. And nothing so precious as witnessing the power a good book can have on a child.
3 AM. I’m only conscious enough to realize I’m not fully conscious. My senses aren’t fully functioning; proprioception initializes as I realize I am sitting straight up in bed. Every muscle in my body is tense. Something woke me from a dead sleep and placed my primitive senses on the highest degree of alertness. There is movement in my periphery; I look out my bedroom door and see the unmistakeable figure of a man. He has entered my front door and is walking across the living room. Toward me. Silently. I want to call out, but panic has risen from my chest into my throat, stifling me, choking me. I sit there, defenseless, paralyzed by confusion and fear. This is my second encounter with a nighttime invader in two consecutive days.
Before I can either consciously or unconsciously react, I see another figure. A smaller one. It moves closer to my room, and I hear a voice. A familiar one. “We’re so sorry we woke you and scared you!” my sister whispers empathetically as she closes my bedroom door.
I lay in bed and wait for my palpating heart and reticular activating system to reset so I can return to sleep. I begin to ponder how I would have reacted had my sister and her boyfriend actually been nighttime intruders, but decide instead to turn my thoughts toward gratitude for my safety and the softness of my bed. Comforted and calmed, I fall back into a deep sleep.
I bought a mango a few weeks ago. On the outside, it was brightly and artfully swirled with reds, oranges, & greens, as mangoes tend to be. I picked it up, held it, squeezed it. It was only slightly soft—clearly not yet ripe—but felt as though it would be in a few days’ time. I put it in my basket, bought it, brought it home.
I forgot about the mango for a few days. Worried it would over-ripen and spoil, I pulled it from my fruit basket and placed it in the refrigerator—in the “fresh drawer”, naturally. There it would keep for at least a few days longer; the magic plastic drawer would ensure of that.
A few days later, though, the mango wasn’t over-ripe at all. Quite the opposite: it still felt hard. As hard as it had been when I first bought it? Couldn’t be… I’d had it for over a week now! I put it back, confused and a bit disappointed, and decided to check on it again in a few days.
Two days later, the same! I was sure of it this time. I took the mango back out of the fridge, put it back among my other ripening fruits. That would help, surely. That was a more natural setting for a mango to ripen.
Over the next couple days, I wasn’t forgetting and re-remembering the mango like I had been before. No, no, it was on my mind. I checked it daily—with no sign of ripening. How was this even possible? Was it something I did? Didn’t do? Did its brief stint in the refrigerated air stunt its natural process? Or had the mango—so brightly and artfully swirled with reds, oranges, & greens, as mangoes tend to be—been internally defective all along?
Most importantly, was there anything left I could do? Or would this exotic fruit have to be entirely wasted?
I waited a few more days. At this point, I couldn’t even remember how long it had been since I’d first brought it home. I picked it up, squeezed it…… it hadn’t changed. I was tired of waiting. It was time to cut into this brightly swirled red/orange/green mango and examine its fruit. Who knew.. maybe, just maybe, the flesh would be brilliantly orange, juicy, and sweet— as mangoes tend to be.
I cut into the mango and carefully peeled back its colorful coat. Much to my disappointment (but not my surprise), the flesh was dully yellow and dry. I tasted it: sour. As I cut deeper, I discovered a dark brown spot of rot.
Frustrated, disappointed, and saddened by the waste, I began to gather the pieces of fruit. Just as I was about to toss the whole lot away, I suddenly changed my mind. Yes, the purely rotten pieces needed to go— consuming them would be unhealthy & unwise. Yet, the dully yellow, dry, and sour ones— surely they must have some use? They might not look great, nor taste good, but they must have been still quite wholesome.
I gathered them up, along with a very ripe banana, some pineapple, and a few Mandarin oranges. I threw the whole mix into a blender, adding a touch of honey. Minutes later, I poured a brightly colored concoction into my cup. I took a sip: Delightful. The dully yellow, dry, and sour mango was masked, blended in among the other sweet, ripe fruits. I knew it was in there, contributing some nutrition, some fiber, some satiety to my experience. It had not, in the end, gone entirely to waste.
Still, there was one question that lingered. I pondered as I sipped my smoothie: How could I avoid picking such mangoes in the future? This one, after all, had looked just as exotic and appetizing as all the others piled high around it. Had I just been unlucky this time? Or am I unaware of some expert mango-picking technique?
I decided that next time I wouldn’t pick one that was almost ripe, then anticipate it would ripen within an expected time frame. I can no longer assume that a hardened mango, as equally beautiful as they might appear to be on the outside, would necessarily ever ripen, no matter what I tried, or how patiently I waited. Next time I would pick one that was brightly and artfully swirled with reds, oranges, & greens on the outside, and soft enough that I knew it was already brilliantly orange, juicy, and sweet on the inside— as most mangoes tend to be.
If scent is the most powerful provoker of memory, would a breath of you remind me what it’s like to be in love?
If we are not empty, we become a block of matter.
We cannot breathe, we cannot think.
To be empty means to be alive, to breathe in and to breathe out.
We cannot be alive if we are not empty.
Emptiness is impermanence, it is change.
We should not complain about impermanence,
because without impermanence, nothing is possible.
-Thich Nhat Hanh”
Considering that my primary undergraduate degree had a specific focus on addictions and substance use disorders and that my first job out of university was to research the genetics of alcoholism, the discussion I am about to bring forward may seem a bit… I don’t know… delayed? However, it is difficult to truly examine an issue with an unbiased, critical eye when you are a part if it. That is, how can I criticize the culture and the industry of alcohol consumption when, I, myself, partake in it readily?
Maybe my increasing disdain for the alcohol culture & industry in American society is a sign that I’m getting older or wiser [read: lamer]. Regardless, lately it has started to seem kind of crazy to me that the majority of social events in this country revolve around alcohol.
So being a spectator and imbibing alcohol appear to go together. But why is it that when our minds are engaged and our hands our free we feel the need to stick a pint glass in them? Are we attempting to enhance what we are viewing/experiencing with the pleasurable effects of ethanol? Or are we simply succumbing to the ever-present, unspoken peer pressure to drink because everyone around us is doing it? Is it incredibly ingrained social habits? i.e., we always drink in those situations so we don’t know how to act otherwise?
It’s not just being a spectator that elicits alcohol-seeking behaviors in Americans. Name any activity that young adults might do, for instance, and alcohol is most often involved:
Before I continue, I should take a time out to recognize a few things:
Ok, back to my critique…
One thing I find curious about being a patron, so to speak, of both the drinking culture and industry in America, is that I have such disdain for other industries that have essentially created social constructs in order to profit billions of dollars, year after year.
If you ask me what I think about the social “rules”, “obligations”, and “traditions” that the aforementioned industries have woven into the fabric of American culture, you better grab a seat (and a drink) because you are going to get an earful. However, I’ve never turned my disdainful eye or skeptical scorn on the alcohol industry, which makes tens of billions a year convincing us that life is better with a drink in our hand.
Because analyzing the American alcohol industry & culture would require me to admit my inability to separate myself from its massively pervasive pressure on my own social life.
It would require me to admit that while I gobble up nearly all the advice of my favorite neuroscientist about how to live a mindful, healthy life, I conveniently skim over his truthful statements regarding the neurotoxicity of alcohol.
It would also require me to think about a few alarming statistics, a little bit deeper.
Therefore, in this country we see an average of 40,000 deaths per year from alcohol alone (not including accidents/homicides that may have been fueled by EtOH intoxication), and 10,000-20,000 deaths from all illegal drugs combined.
Yet where is the focus of the “war on drugs” in America?
I’m not going to scurry down that rabbit hole— this is not a piece on the failed “war on drugs” in the U.S. Rather, I dug up the above statistics to provoke thought into why the media and the majority of government officials focus on illicit drug use and overdoses when alcohol is taking Americans’ lives at double the rate.
Let’s get back to the main point of this post, then, and summarize the culture of alcohol in America.
From the age of comprehension, Americans are bombarded with TV ads and giant billboards with the hottest beach babes and the bulkiest of bros sippin’ on Bud Light and clearly having the time of their lives. Hollywood pumps out a million and one American Pie-style movies which both glorify drinking and are marketed toward high school and college-aged kids. Meanwhile, a government-employed D.A.R.E. officer comes to our classrooms and tells us to “just say no” to marijuana and cocaine—which pose zero threat and a significantly marginal threat to our lives, respectively—but let us know that we can legally intoxicate ourselves with ethanol at age 21. Nonetheless, with the persuasive & pervasive alcohol culture surrounding us, we begin drinking at 16, 17, 18, and continue drinking 2-4 days a week, on average, until, well, we die.
I’m personally appalled at the thought of how much I’ve monetarily contributed to this unhealthful and -for some- arguably immoral business over the years. Yet when I look back on many of the good times I’ve had during the last decade, would they have been the same without America’s favorite social lubricant? I can’t help but feel that my inability to produce an unbiased cost-benefit analysis of this entire situation is because the Mother Culture of Alcohol has been whispering in my ear since before I could discern it.
Now that I can, though, what am I to do about it?