For Those Who Drink Egg Nog

Nina loved egg nog, but her stomach worked in a peculiar way. She could only drink four ounces of egg not, and four ounces exactly. If she drank even a drop more than four ounces, she would get a stomach ache. If she drank even a drop less than four ounces, she would get a stomach ache. The only amount she was capable of drinking is four ounces exactly.

One day, she reached into her refrigerator and pulls out an already-open carton of egg nog. In fact, the carton was almost empty, and Nina guessed that it had only four ounces of egg nog left in it. Egg nog comes in one-quart cartons, and Nina reasoned that if she had been measuring correctly all along, she should have never ended up with less than four ounces in the carton, unless the carton was empty. “Uh oh,” she thought, “the stores are closed today, so I had better remember to pick up more egg nog from the market tomorrow.”

So, Nina dumped the entire contents of the carton into her glass. To her dismay, however, there was slightly more than four ounces in the glass. Nina reached for her special egg nog measuring cup: it was precisely four ounces in volume. She poured the egg nog into her measuring cup, but some of it spilled on the counter top, leaving her with something less than four ounces of egg nog.

In a last-ditch effort to salvage her cup of egg nog, Nina sopped up some of the spilled egg nog with a paper towel, and squeezed it into the measuring cup. The good news was that she managed to get her four ounces of egg nog. The bad news was that the egg nog was now dirty with crumbs and grease from the counter top.

She didn’t get a stomach ache, but her egg nog was ruined.

*        *        *

Tina and Simon both love egg nog. One day, Simon brought a carton of egg nog home with him after work, as a surprise for Tina. Over the next few days, Tina had a few cups of egg nog and reveled in its creamy and delicious taste. When Simon came home one day and tried to pour himself a cup of egg nog, he found that the carton was empty.

“You didn’t save me any egg nog?” he asked Tina.

Tina shot smirked at him and said, “I thought you bought it as a gift for me…”

She was right, Simon thought, but it would have been nice if Tina had left him some egg nog. “I did,” he said, “but I was hoping you would save me some.”

“You should have told me you wanted some when you brought it home,” Tina said, her eyes wide. “I would have saved you some, had I only known you wanted it.”

“You already know that I love egg nog,” said Simon.

“But you said you bought it for me. Here, would you like me to drive to the store and buy you some egg nog?”

“No, that’s okay,” Simon said, “I’ll just have tea instead. I’ll pick up some more egg nog tomorrow.”

The next day, he did indeed come home with more egg nog. Tina was quick to pour a cup for Simon. She gave it to him with a smile and a kiss.

A few minutes later, the phone rang. Tina answered, and Simon heard her laugh and talk excitedly with the person on the other end of the line. When she got off the phone, Tina announced, “My friend Mary is having an impromptu baby shower at her apartment in 15 minutes. I can’t go empty-handed. I’m going to take the carton of egg nog with me so that everyone has something to drink at the party.”

Simon frowned into his cup. “Well,” he said glumly, “at least I got to have one cup of egg nog this time.”

“Oh, don’t be like that,” said Tina. “I will buy you another carton of egg nog on my way home.” That made Simon feel better.

The next day, Simon came home from work and poured a cup of egg nog. Just then, Tina walked in, saw what Simon was doing, and said excitedly, “Egg nog! Can I have a cup, too?”

“Of course,” said Simon. He handed her the cup he had just poured, got another cup from the cupboard, and started pouring another cup for himself. Unfortunately, there was only half a cup of egg nog left in the carton. Simon was confused. “Didn’t you just buy this carton of egg nog after your party?”

“Not exactly,” said Tina. “We ran out of egg nog at the party, so I had to go to the store and get more. We didn’t finish that second carton, so I brought it home with me to give to you.” She smiled and winked.

“So… you didn’t actually buy me a carton of egg nog,” Simon said slowly.

Tina was surprised. “I brought some egg nog home for you, just like I said I would. Why does it have to be a special carton purchased only for you?”

“Oh, it isn’t that,” said Simon. “It’s just that I never seem to get any of the egg nog.”

Tina shot him a glare. “Would you like to have my cup of egg nog? Here.”

“I just thought you’d think of me, that’s all,” said Simon, realizing that the conversation had soured.

“I brought you home more egg nog,” said Tina, “what more do you want?”

“Well, I only have half a cup here—”

“I offered you my cup!” Tina interjected.

“But you wouldn’t have to do that if you had just bought a carton for me like you said you would,” said Simon.

“I brought home some egg nog!”

“I know, I know,” Simon said uneasily, “but that was egg nog you bought for your party. What you brought home wasn’t even enough for both of us.”

“I offered you my cup!”

“After I had given it to you,” said Simon a little louder. “I was thinking of you. I just wanted you to think of me, too.”

Tina pushed her cup of egg nog across the coffee table and went out to walk the dog. She called out through the closing door, “You only think about yourself!”

Simon didn’t feel like drinking egg nog anymore.

*        *        *

Mina walked through the front door after work and collapsed on the sofa.

Linus could see that she had had a bad day. “You look like you’ve had a rough day,” he said. “Shall I pour you a cup of egg nog?”

“Ugh!” grunted Nina. “I’m so sick of egg nog that I never want to think about it again!”

Simon put the carton back in the refrigerator, saying, “But we love egg nog! It’s our thing.”

Mina held out her hand. “Sorry,” she said. “Too much egg nog at all these office holiday parties, I guess.” Behind her, Linus shrugged as he sipped some egg nog from his own cup.

He didn't offer Mina any egg nog for several weeks, and she didn't seem to miss it. One night, they both had some spare time and Mina asked Linus what he wanted to do. "I think we should pour each other a cup of egg nog, just like old times, and reminisce about that trip we took to the East Coast!" He grinned at her conspiratorially.

She smiled. "That sounds nice."

Linus put on some candles and they got cozy on the couch with their cups. In between sips, he recounted some of the adventures they'd had: Did she remember how hard it was to get hot water to come out of the shower at the hotel? Did she remember that little gazebo they found while taking a shortcut through a little neighborhood park on their way to the pier? Who could forget the old man in the restaurant who tried to challenge Simon to a Scotch-drinking contest! They laughed and laughed.

As Linus finished off his second cup of egg nog, he glanced at Mina's cup. She had hardly touched it in the hours they'd been talking. "You still don't want to think much about egg nog, I see," he said.

Mina smiled and shook her head. "I tried some, but I guess I just don't like it anymore." She waited a beat before reassuring him, "This was nice, though!"

Linus smiled, too. "It was nice, wasn't it."

"I think I'd better get to bed," Mina told him then. "I have to get to work early tomorrow." She kissed him good night, stood up, and caused the candles to flicker as she swooped her scarf around on her way upstairs to bed.

Linus watched the flickering flames settle back down to their resting position: A perfect teardrop shape perched atop a long, white rod. A drop of melted wax rolled down the side of the candle as Linus reached over to finish Mina's cup of egg nog.

"Next time," he thought, "I'll buy scented candles. The smoke from these burns my eyes."


A Blue Valentine To Technology

Many years ago, I spent much of my time vying for the attention of a very lovely young woman. I showered her with gifts. I floated gently behind her on a cloud of euphoria the likes of which I had never experienced before. Willingly and ambitiously, I committed to remolding my weaknesses until I had transformed into a better version of myself in a daring plan to win her heart and build a perfect life together, filled with the promise of limitless possibilities. 

Young love is a language all its own, and we both proved to be multilingual. But it wasn’t just romance. I mean, she and I really were multilingual! I spoke English and Spanish, and dabbled in French. She spoke English and Bangla, and dabbled in many others. Our overlap was English, it was the language we shared, and thus became the language that defined our love affair. This didn’t seem right to me, though. In a truly epic love affair, I thought to myself, I’d speak her native tongue, too. Thus it happened that I started teaching myself Bangla.

The passion of youth is filled with optimism and hope, for despite there being no useful book or class for learning Bangla, I was certain it would be possible to master it. I searched the web deeply and uncovered a few important links. Then, with the help of my sweet paramour, I built my knowledge of Bangla from the ground up, one word at a time.

I leveraged Google’s technology for this. With their transliteration tool and their documents platform, I was able to achieve significant success in my undertaking, building language skills that would prove to be useful for a lifetime, a genuine lifetime. My heart swelled and the love between the young woman and I grew ever deeper. So, too, grew my love for the technology that made this possible.

Inevitably, however, the passion of young love fades. No, don’t worry: the young lady stuck with me. It’s my love affair with technology that soured over the years. Technology is the one that got away. She broke my heart. It’s a terrible tale.

Google swept me off my feet back then. It gave me the tools – free tools – with which to build a blossoming love affair into a lifelong romance; it helped me learn something that no teacher was available to teach me: a rare-to-North-America language that almost no one learns if they are not raised in Bangladesh. In Blogger, it gave me a platform with which to share my knowledge and perhaps acquire more through social networking. My use of Blogger soon opened doors to new opportunities in the form of occasional articles written for other websites. The future was unfolding her wings and flying me into the heart of the sun.

Then one day technology flew me to an entirely new high. My cell phone buzzed while I was driving. I glanced at the screen and saw a notification. I was headed straight for a traffic jam. That’s a useful alert, but Google took this even a step further: it automatically offered an alternative route, even though I wasn’t using the GPS system. That’s the power of technology working for me.

By god, it didn’t stop there! Soon all sorts of interesting and useful predictive technology was being used to improve my life. Google offered me reminders of things I had never expressly asked to be reminded of – and those reminders were just what I needed. I was getting updates on my package shipments. I was getting updates on, not only my own personal air flights, but also those of my friends and family members. This information was being funneled to me through my smart phone. I didn’t have to go searching for it, it was right there on my home screen.

Once I finally warmed up to this, I started taking it as far as it would go. I reveled in the sweet possibilities of what I had been offered. I voice-controlled Google into setting reminders for myself, which would translate into alarms on my phone. I created shopping lists, shared them with friends. I created a fillable online form that could track and predict my blood glucose levels. Everything was moving in the same wonderful direction. With a simple digital assistant, an artificial intelligence tucked into my smart phone, provided to me as a free feature on top of all the other things a smart phone “really” does, I was expanding my ability to live the good life. Technology and I really could build a future together.

It was beautiful.

And then it was gone.

As is so often the case for these relationships, I’m not exactly sure when it happened. The love faded gradually as all of that wonderful functionality disappeared, replaced with news stories and monetization. And boredom.

The truth is, I hadn’t really even noticed what I’d been missing until today, when I read an article about it at Computer World. “Google Now” fluttered away lethargically, like a lover who simply loses interest and grows cold. The passion of our earlier relationship had disappeared. Eventually I forgot that Google Now was even around. It took a wake-up call in the form of that Computer World article to remind me what I had lost, and what I had lost was truly wonderful.

Shuffling past the Amazon devices that now control my light bulbs, I felt a pang. Years ago, what Google and other technology firms were building was something that could have made for a genuinely epic marriage of human needs and algorithmic supplementation. Our mere acquainting ourselves with one another was enough to inspire a relationship between us that soon became something new unto itself. My relationship to technology wasn’t just that of a man and a computer in his pocket. I learned languages, improved my health, shortened my daily commute, made new friends. Every marriage should be what this was.

And now? Sure enough, I can voice-control my lightbulbs. I can set reminders and access my calendar. I can read a curated list of recent headlines. I do all this through sundry apps, none of which are powerful to offer me the future I had imagined, all of which are trying to monetize my interaction with it.

But what really hurts is the lost sense of limitless possibilities that I once had. If I had met my wife last year, I doubt I would ever have thought to leverage Google’s applications to teach myself a new language. I certainly wouldn’t have created my own blood glucose predictive analysis. Granted, I can hack together a lot of what I want to do with a combination of clunky apps. If I keep one eye occasionally dialed into my GPS system, I can watch for bad traffic; but I don’t get automatic notifications about it anymore, for example. And while I enjoy what Alexa can do for me, her user interface is slow and complicated compared to the old “Google Cards” interface.

In short, the romance is gone. I now look at the so-called Internet of Things and think to myself, why on earth do I need my refrigerator to me “smart?” A few years ago, I would have guessed that I’d one day live in a world in which a smart refrigerator could assemble my favorite ingredients before I even wake up. That really would be something. But algorithmic temperature control is definitely not worth dinner and movie, much less the hundreds of dollars extra I’d have to spend to buy the algorithm. My smart watch, a beautiful thing, has all the sensors required to predict my VO2 max. It doesn’t do it, though. Garmin reserves that particular algorithm for customers who buy one of their more expensive watches, despite the fact that this is a simple software operation. They’re withholding smart services from me that they could offer me, but don’t.

So this is the crushing weight of the end of a love affair. This is the moment, years after that sweet initial romance period, where I have discovered that my beloved was tantalizing me with gifts I would have to beg for – or pay for – later on; that every new desire in my affair with technology has become quid-pro-quo. I see in others pale and partial glimpses of the fire that engulfed me during the early years, whether it’s Alexa’s shopping lists or Android Auto’s voice-texting service; but these are only bits and pieces of what I thought I was getting. All these years later, we’re both tired of trying so damn hard. The future isn’t possibilities, it’s a few fond tools that can be called upon when we’re both willing to think about it at the same time. The eagerness to please, the dream we both once shared, is like a miasma that hangs in the periphery behind me.

Gradually and silently, I’ve admitted that, when it comes to technology, I hoped for more than I ended up with, and I dream that someone out there might come along with, if not the same functionality technology used to promise us all, at least that same sense of hope.


Creatures Of Habit

Imagine that you’re an infant. In the main, you get what you want by crying. If you’re hungry, you cry, and then someone arrives to hold you, comfort you and give you food. If you’re tired, you cry, and then someone comes along and holds you close, rocks you back and forth, and helps you to sleep.  A dirty diaper yields more of the same: you cry, someone solves your problem. You’re not quite fully comfortable in your crib: you cry, someone walks in and fixes your problem.

Pretty much every problem you have can be solved primarily by crying. You reach this conclusion because the first thing you do in any bad situation is cry. All else follows that.

It takes you several months to learn that the people who walk in and solve your problems for you are dealing directly with those problems. It’s not your crying that’s responsible for your relief, it’s the actions of a third party, tackling those problems head-on.

Once you learn this, you continue to cry when bad things happen because, although you may understand that your real problem is, say, hunger, you’re not capable of solving that problem yourself. The crying becomes a signal to others that you want them to come and help. When you need them, they’re there for you.

However, in some situations, you eventually learn that you don’t need them. You don’t need them because your problem doesn’t involve physical needs. Sometimes you’re just cranky. Babies get cranky just like everyone else.

Okay, stop imagining. Now go back to being an adult. As an adult, you get cranky and, no matter how much you cry, no one comes around to magically fix your mood. So you figure out other ways to address your crankiness: You exercise, or you listen to music, or you read a book, or you go find a happy place, or whatever it is.

You self-soothe.

We’re babies again. We know we’re cranky and that nothing will fix it. We learn that what we need is self-soothing. Some of us learn that we just need to suck on something - it’s not that we’re hungry, we just need to mimic the scenario that is naturally most relaxing to us, which is suckling. We don’t have a breast or a bottle or a binky, so we use our thumb instead.

It works. We self-soothe. Our caretakers get a good night’s rest. Everybody’s happy. This becomes a habit, and for a long period of time, it seems to be a good habit. We get what we need, and our caretakers seem less cranky when we really do need something.

Eventually, though, this good habit becomes a bad one. We suck our thumbs too long. We’re no longer babies, now we’re toddlers, and some of us are still sucking our thumbs. We look ridiculous, we’re spreading disease, we’re making our teeth crooked, and our caretakers are no longer so thrilled about this thumb-sucking situation. What was once good is now bad. Everything goes haywire.

Okay, back to adulthood. Some of us learn to self-soothe with alcohol. Others learn to self-soothe by controlling how we eat. Others learn to self-soothe by cutting. Others act out. It’s clear that we’re aiming for a productive goal, but it’s also clear that our methods undermine our needs, just like thumb-sucking.

Like thumb-sucking, we developed some bad habits by engaging in behavior that was initially good. Perhaps the cutter started out by screaming into a pillow or punching a cushion, then gravitated toward more painful processes to achieve self-soothing more immediately. Perhaps the anorexic gained a sense of control initially by focusing on a very productive act of self-healing: eating; but this  got all tied-up with body image and took a turn for the worse. Perhaps the alcoholic got into drinking by talking about his problems with his friends over a beer, and gradually built that ritual into his reflective process.

Whatever the details, the story is roughly the same: What starts out as a genuinely good idea becomes a habit, and then the habit takes over and a genuinely good example of self-soothing becomes an act of self-destruction.

There is no threshold. It’s not as if punching a pillow twelve times is perfectly safe, but that thirteenth time results in a rug-burn on your knuckles and now you’ve achieved self-harm. It’s not as if sticking to twelve punches is all you need to keep things under control. Twelve becomes thirteen because you needed an extra punch one day. And then one day you needed another. And then another. And then another. And then one day you punched the table instead of the pillow and your knuckles bled, and that was when you felt better. So the next time you needed to feel better, you just went to the table the first time, to cut straight to the chase.

Babies don’t set out to suck their thumbs. It’s behavior that proves useful in a particular situation. It doesn’t start out as a habit, it merely becomes one because it proves so useful.

Similarly, as adults, our self-soothing choices may have started out perfectly reasonable. But if you find yourself locked into a bad habit, you have to recognize: it’s not the “thing” that you’re looking for. It’s not the alcohol, or the cutting, or the starving. It’s not the rage. These habits just grew out of what you were really looking for: relief.

Of course, it’s easier said than done to replace your bad habits with more constructive actions that address your relief more directly. If it were easy, no one would ever have any kind bad habit at all. Still, what other choice do you have?


Moby Ryan

I need to write more.

I need to write more because I want to be a writer. I met a role model of mine recently, and he suggested that I consider writing. It was an inspirational suggestion, but I hasten to add that I have long wanted to be a writer. Indeed, I've been writing this blog and contributing contributions here and there for a long time. But I've never been a writer.

When people think about becoming writers, I think their minds subconsciously vector toward that image of a bearded, greying alcoholic with a brown sport coat and crippling depression. Also, someone who is poor and hard-lived. I don't want to be that kind of writer.

I also don't want to be a professional writer. I already make money doing something well enough that I can pay my bills doing it. I don't need a new job. That's not why I want to be a writer.

I also don't want to be a writer to turn myself into the next J.K. Rowling, nor even into the next Kurt Vonnegut, or the next whoever-is-supposed-to-be-the-writer-we-all-aspire-to-be. I don't want to write the Great American Anything.

I started re-reading Moby Dick. I'm reading it with my daughter at night, before she goes to sleep. She's too young to understand it, but where else is she going to hear that kind of prose? She shouldn't have to wait until her teens to hear beautiful language like that. Anyway, she sometimes resists her bedtime, and so long as I'm coaxing her back into bed, I may as well get something out of it myself. I want to read Moby Dick. It's a wonderful book.

I read on Wikipedia that Herman Melville made practically no money from writing, and that he eventually retired from it once someone had secured for him a good, steady job doing something else. I don't want to overly romanticize it, but I find it encouraging that such a brilliant writer could create his masterpiece mostly for the love of it. It must have hurt that nobody loved it while he was still alive, but it's still a masterpiece.

I want to be that kind of writer. I want to be the kind of writer who produces a masterpiece, whether anyone reads it or not. I want to write for me.

So I'll start by writing some more blog posts. I'll practice. I'll practice covering economic topics, like I used to. I'll practice my prose. I'll practice my story-telling. And I'll keep writing my book outlines, which currently number in the dozen or so and are stowed safely in a private place.

One day, with practice, I might actually succeed in becoming a writer, and that will be an accomplishment.