Sunday, July 15, 2012

Better Living Through...



This month's Atlantic Monthly has a cover article I totally agree with called "Why Women Still Can't Have It All" that I read for validation, but remembered largely for the cover art of a baby in a briefcase.  This is old news, at least for me.  Though in my twenties I did go to grad school and work and begin to raise six of my kids, I knew it was a deeply precarious situation.  T. Berry Brazelton, who was the parenting guru of the day, put the stakes in stark contrast when he said parents stretched so thin would have to skimp somewhere.  "Skimp at work" he said, and it freed me to do so without shame, not to do a bad job or get fired, or even to leave at the end of the day when important work was yet to be finished, but rather to make choices, steadily and consciously, that put my family before my career.  My ambition thus muted since I had in fact made my choice by becoming a parent to so many so young, I've enjoyed a solid career that never threatened to flip the equation.  Women like me apparently blossom in their fifties work lives as their children no longer pull, which might be nice, though I have some limitations now, and also lots of other interests that I might substitute for the fifteen practices, games, rides to school and loads of laundry I do every week.  We'll see.  http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/07/why-women-still-can-8217-t-have-it-all/9020/
The Atlantic - June 2012
No, it was the month before's cover article, "The Perfected Self," that was significant for me, and if you read the article, it was probably in the entirely opposite direction they intended.  The author was writing about his brother, who had lost nearly half his body weight by tracking his food intake on a smartphone app, and they listed a few available.  The subtitle is "How the creepy science of behavior modification is reshaping our desires."  His point is that if we use smartphone apps to manage our money, our weight and our time to a near perfection, we've lost our free will.  Though it was undoubtably great that his brother was able to get back to the size he was at age 23 and get off his diabetes medications, if we see perfection as a realistic goal, and grind towards it like hamsters on the proverbial wheel, we can hardly give credit to ourselves when we reach those goals.  It's an interesting article. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/06/the-perfected-self/8970/

What I took from it, of course, was that there were apps for my Droid that could help me reverse the backsliding I'd done with my weight since I lost 40 pounds at age 40 for a healthier middle-age.  Though I did all the things I was supposed to--track using my Weight Watchers logs, changing how I ate so that (my kids will tell you with disgust) there's nary an unhealthy food molecule in my kitchen, exercising the requisite hour a day--it crept back up, especially once I started again to get epidural steroid injections in my back this year.  My net gain on the weight loss (for this is how it always frames itself in my head) went from 40 pounds, to 30, to 20 this past March, and slipping.  I went directly from the kitchen where I read the article to the bedroom where my phone was charging and downloaded the app I now use, FitTracker.  http://fittracker.shapefit.com/ .  Better living through behavior modification.

As a psychologist I've always used behavior mod, and schooled others on ways to use it to improve their lives. I've tracked my own moods, pain levels, med uses, headaches, sleep cycles, pleasurable activities, skills use and exercise as well as my weight over the years, and it's always helped me get where I want to go.

The difference with the smartphone apps, and the reason they're so powerful, is the addition of immediate, specific feedback.  Each time I plug in a food, the daily nutritional goals that it sets based on my weight and activity level and weight loss goals are updated.  I can check back, with one wiggle of a finger, and see if I've had enough calcium, or protein, or too much fat.  It's exquisitely precise, giving me credit for 1% of my daily iron needs from a piece of licorice, and 117 extra calories to spend for a medium-intensity 30 minute walk with my dog.  I set it to lose a pound a week, and although the irrational part of my brain wanted to lose 2 pounds a week instead, I've lost...a pound a week.  Wholly unexciting, really, but 7 pounds in 7 weeks has made me oddly reinvigorated in terms of my free will.  See?  If I want to I can do it; my weight isn't an off-the-rails roller coaster to an uncomfortably (for me) abyss.  Which makes me wonder if, in a reverse psychology kind of way, this was one of the points of the Atlantic article.  Or whether it was simply cautioning me--don't get carried away.  Either way I've heeded that warning.  Beyond a simple tracker for my asthma peak flows that I assure you will thrill my doctor to no end, I've hunted no further for perfection, though a money tracker sounds might good.

It's made me attuned to the instant feedback I get in other ways.  Even your reading this blog changes what I write--there are three of my weekly posts out of the twelve I've written so far that are by far the most popular, and I've looked for the similarities between them, to see what strikes a chord in a reader.  It's like when I give a good gift, the the receiver smiles and squeals--instant reinforcement will make me do it again.   And yet, I can't get too addicted to it.  Sometimes a broader view is the key.

The walls of Lucca, Italy
My husband and I went to Italy a few years ago on a family trip with my mother and her cousins, and we stayed in a gorgeous corner of the world, the walled city of Lucca in Tuscany.  Each day we'd walk the wall, which was broad on the top, and filled with families during the late afternoon hours when shops were closed and working adults came home to spend time with their spouses and kids before going back to work for a few hours, all without a word from Dr. Brazelton.  What struck me most, however, was the way that it was hard to distinguish whose children belonged to which parent.  They were all instructed in almost identical ways, "stay close," "stop," "shh," all the basics, by whatever adult was nearby, and the chilrdren were almost uniformly well-behaved.  We walked for hours that week and marveled that despite the hundreds of children we saw, and the parents who were paying them little attention, focused as they were on their wife or father or best friend or whomever they were talking with, we never saw a meltdown.

I am entirely sure that if I walked into the McDonald's by my house I couldn't get out of there, even with no line,without witnessing at least one flaming tantrum of an out-of-control child and a frazzled parent, both yelling at each other, faces red with frustration and embarrassment, and everyone else looking away.  This is how it is for us--our societal norm is more chaotic, and individual.  In Lucca I daresay you could get away without going to church, but people would notice.  Maybe ask you if you were well, or ask your mother at church whether you were away, all with the intended effect of taking away the question, the free will, of the decision on Sunday mornings of whether to go to church or not.  It's mostly men that work, and women who run the homes and mind the children.  Men stay with their mother until they marry, because they need someone to cook for them.  Women resist bearing children because they prefer their freedom.  It's an imperfect culture, and the societal norms rigid.

But it sure is appealing in some ways, especially the ease with which they blend work and home, and even how limiting some choices frees your mind for appreciating other things.  They dress up when they go out--if I lived there I would too.  They take their kids to restaurants, and eat small portions of good food for hours with friends--how lovely.  They don't need their smart phone apps to stay thin, for the most part.  They have their culture.








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