Reality TV Has the Answers

I am not a voyeur.  Yet, when Covid struck and channel surfing seemed more likely than ocean surfing, I clicked the remote until I came upon a couple of reality TV shows that hooked me.  My 600-Pound Life and Naked and Afraid are both full of lurid, ooh-ah moments designed to keep the TV viewers tuned in.

What can I say?  Last summer at this time I was reading a prize-winning book about brain chemistry, and this summer I’m into fat and naked people.

(Please note I didn’t combine those adjectives:  Six Hundred Pounds, Naked, and Afraid is a TV show still searching for an audience.)

These TV shows may offend more discerning tastes, but I have to say, I’ve learned a few things about human behavior watching them.  For example, people will eat anything, ANYTHING, when they are hungry.  A dieting, obese person will claw through the garbage, past coffee grounds and slimy peach pits, to get to the bag of potato chips they nobly threw away the day before.  Naked people may be afraid of the panther in the jungle, but they’re fearless about eating stinky skunk meat.  I’ve also learned will power is not necessarily won’t power, as in I won’t abandon this challenge.  People will “tap out” of the jungle and put on a pair of underwear if the chiggers get bad enough.  Obese people will go back to fried mayonnaise sandwiches if their only other option is lettuce (I don’t blame them).

A fascinating lesson from these shows has to do with resilience, the very trait needed to get through tough times.  I’ve thought about this lesson a lot lately with our pandemic, job losses, and social unrest.  How can we still be okay when life gets difficult?  How do some people on Naked and Afraid survive 21 days without food, water, or shelter being provided?  How is the 600-pound woman able to withstand a year of only 1200 calories-a-day, or less?  They somehow find the resilience they need to meet their challenge.

From the comfort of my couch I cheer them on, thankful I’m not in their situation—but wait, I AM in their situation.

We all live with some kind of struggle.  It may not be worthy of a reality TV program, but we all have some kind of problem we have to deal with, often on a daily basis.

One thing I try to keep in mind about reality TV is how orchestrated these shows are. There’s a certain amount of character and plot manipulation going on (remember that 1998 movie, The Truman Show?)  Yet, there’s also obvious instances of genuine human suffering on reality TV.  I’ve noticed successful show participants think and act more flexibly.  They demonstrate their resilience by making things better, even in the worst of circumstances. The couple abandoned in the wilds of Indonesia built a cozy hut and figured out how to turn a piece of bamboo into a water filter. The 600-pound man found a way to make his meals more appetizing without the extra calories.  He added colorful chopped vegetables and began experimenting with fresh fruit. They made their hardship less hard.

I thought about reality TV when I visited an old friend of mine who’s suffering from a re-occurrence of her cancer.  I’d been meaning to visit her, to see how she was doing, but couldn’t find a good time.  Finally, one day when I was running errands I stopped by her house.  I felt bad about not calling ahead and hoped, considering her recent bad news, she’d feel like talking with me.  I rang the doorbell and when no one answered, peeked into her back yard.  I’m not sure what I expected to find, but I didn’t anticipate my friend smiling and sitting with her husband in lawn chairs.  They were drinking a glass of wine and looking at the lovely white phlox blooming in her flower bed.  In the background I heard the sweet strains of violin music coming from speakers mounted above the patio.

My friend may only weigh 120 pounds, and she would never think of leaving her home without her clothes on, but she does have something in common with the people on reality TV:  she’s knows how to be resilient in a challenging time.

 

 

Image Credit:  Naked and Afraid    Image Credit:  photo by Diana Hooley

Image Credit:  Resilience

The Job of My Dreams

I was offered a job teaching kindergarten two mornings a week in the little village of Hammett, Idaho.  I considered taking the job even though I’ve spent my career teaching older students, adults and teens.  It was a thrill.  It was a challenge.  It was a nightmare.  No, not a nightmare—it was a dream.  My head nestled deep in a pillow, I’d dreamt about the Hammett job offer.  It wasn’t real.  I know some people still dream about their jobs, their careers, long past retirement:  waiting on tables, writing reports in an office, dealing with co-workers.  My farmer-husband woke up one morning this past summer and when I asked him over coffee how he’d slept, he said, “I worked all night.”

“No you didn’t,” I took a sip of my hot coffee.  “You snored all night.”

“That wasn’t a snore.  That was me grunting, trying to keep up with the farm (bailing hay, moving irrigation pipe, fixing the tractor).  There was too much pressure.  I had to wake up just to get some rest.”

Even though leaving our work identities behind after retirement can be both freeing and frightening, our careers, our work leaves marks on our psyche as deep and wide as Big Foot’s tracks on the forest floor.

This is why retirement for many people is such a dramatic sea change. It’s not just changing our behaviors, it’s changing how we think.  In light of such a big transition, some of us choose to hang on to our jobs. I hiked with a friend in the foothills north of Boise, Idaho the other day, and she told me her brother, at 76, plans to keep his career as a communications professor at Portland State University, as long as he can.  Sitting on a restaurant patio last week, I ran into another old friend, Fred, who’s been a practicing mental health therapist for at least thirty years.  Fred told me he’d probably work until the day he dies.  And like the great therapist he is, Fred didn’t want to talk about himself, he wanted to talk about me.

“So Diana,” he said, “I hear you’re doing a lot of writing these days…”

My husband and I have another friend, Bob, who has a decidedly different take on retirement.  Bob said, “It takes guts to retire.”  He went on to talk about the courage it took for him to sit with feelings of boredom and aimlessness—a perspective I found interesting.  Some people say they’re busier than ever in retirement.

Still, Bob had a point.  Retirement is often a process:  binge-watching Netflix shows until you feel ready to move on to something else.

Ironically now, I remember what a drag having a job was when I was a teenager in the 60’s and 70’s.  Maynard G. Krebs, the deadbeat beatnik on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis show expressed the sentiment of me and my peers on the topic of work.  Whenever Maynard heard the word, “work,” he repeated it with a shout, like he had Tourettes and work was a dirty word.  Then there’s the Civil War era poet, Walt Whitman, for whom having a job was—a distraction.  Whitman’s family lamented his “laziness,” but Whitman didn’t want regular employment with its “usual rewards.”  He preferred instead, to wander the beaches of Long Island and create great masterpieces of poetry like his collection, Leaves of Grass.

For many years, my job meant a lot to me.  I liked the routine, the money, and the title: Dr. Hooley. 

But when I retired, the veneer of self-importance fell away, and I was left with just me.  Not the professor, or coach, or director, or committee member.  Just me.  And for most of us, that’s not such a bad thing.  Retirement means we finally have the time to consider what we want to do, instead of what we have to do.  And honestly, being a kindergarten teacher in Hammett, Idaho was never high on my list.

 

 

Image Credit:  Hammett sign    Image Credit: The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis        Image Credit:  Walt Whitman

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to Change Your Mind Book Review

How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelic Drugs Teaches Us (Nonfiction)
By Michael Pollen

Have you ever felt trapped in your mind, repeating the same depressing thoughts and longing for fresh eyes and a new perspective? This is one good reason people like to travel.  In How to Change Your Mind, author Michael Pollen (The Omnivore’s Dilemma) suggests a different kind of “trip” using psychedelics drugs to refresh your spirit and expand your mind.

As a child of the 60’s I’d heard all the horror stories about hallucinatory drugs: bad acid trips, ugly flashbacks, and Art Linkletter’s daughter jumping out of a window because she’d taken LSD (toxicology reports found no evidence of drugs in her system). Pollen says due to the vilification of psychedelics and their association with other addictive and dangerous drugs, for over 40 years the medical community lost sight of their astonishing therapeutic value. That changed in 2006 when a landmark clinical study demonstrated how these drugs have the potential to positively affect our life experience.

Some fascinating chapters in the book are devoted to Pollen’s own first-time experience with hallucinatory drugs at the age of 60. His plan was to be a part of the drug trials undertaken at John Hopkins University and NYU (but first he had to check with his cardiologist to make sure his heart would tolerate the “trips”). A self-described non-religious journalist, Pollen testified that he experienced altered states of consciousness and a type of spiritual awakening under psychedelics. More importantly, the drugs enabled him to disengage from his ego, allowing a remarkable feeling of well-being. As cliched as it sounds, Pollen says he felt and understood in new, profound ways the significance of love.

I liked the last third of the book best, the chemistry and analysis of why and how these drugs might help people dealing with addictions, depression, and imminent death. I had no idea that “Bill W,” the founder of AA, took a hallucinogenic, Belladonna, to help him with his alcoholism. Nor did I know that the research in the 1950’s and 60’s on psychedelics lead to the development of SSRI antidepressants. Pollen also reveals that in the NYU and Hopkins trials, “ . . . 80% of cancer patients showed clinically significant reductions in standard measures of anxiety and depression, an effect that endured for at least six months after their psilocybin (magic mushroom) session.”

Pollen’s book is exhaustively researched and full of the colorful characters that people the history of psychedelics, including well-known figures like William James, Aldous Huxley, and Timothy Leary, as well as lesser known scientists and researchers like the Swiss discoverer of LSD, Albert Hofmann, and one of the country’s leading experts on the genus Psilocybe (hallucinatory mushrooms) Paul Stamets.

Though I currently have no addictions, no cancer diagnosis, and am not depressed, Pollen’s book made me curious how hallucinatory drugs might help us. I’d never considered how psychologically tyrannical and destructive our ego can be, how instrumental the ego is in the repression of joy. Portions of Pollen’s book is too detailed and ponderous for my taste.  But other parts are not only fascinating, but wise and thoughtful.  He’s an excellent writer.  This book is well worth the read.