Start From The Bottom

I am compelled by blog history to write something about my current exercise regimen and the state of my fitness more generally.

But First, A Recap!

You may recall that last year was a bit of a strange one for me. I started out the year with hefty ambitions: I intended to complete a 100-day running streak while simultaneously working my way through the P90X program. What happened instead was that I ran for 65 consecutive days before pulling a calf muscle, bailed out of P90X due to excessive back pain, and had to spend the last half of the year only biking, not running at all, in order to allow myself to heal.

The smug take on all of this would be to say that I bit off more than I could chew. Some would say that it was a horrible idea to ever run and do P90X at the same time. Others would say that it was foolish and reckless to attempt 100 consecutive days of running. Most would certainly agree that doing both at the same time was a terrible idea. But I maintained at the time that, with enough self-awareness, this would all be perfectly fine. And today? Even after everything I went through last year, I still maintain that it was neither the running streak, the P90X, nor the combination of the two that ultimately did me in.

So what was it?

My thinking circa April 2017 was that I had some underlying weaknesses in my body that were aggravating me while exercising and causing injury. Over time, and with a lot of rest and careful rehabilitation, I came to realize that the major culprit was weak abdominal muscles, especially my lower abs. Improving my flexibility didn’t actually help. Relying on the bicycle and setting the running shoes aside only helped alleviate the most immediate pains. What really got the ball rolling was when I started doing dedicated abdominal muscle exercises – very slowly, very gently. I started far beneath my “ability level” (except that it wasn’t), and started building my abdominal muscles from the ground up.

Suddenly, I found that I could run again. But I didn’t just go back to running. I started very slowly and adjusted my stride, taking care to use more of my quadricep muscles and avoid straining my hip joints too much. I started with two or three miles, then gradually built back up. I continued my abdominal muscle exercises and expanded to full-body calisthenics. Things finally started getting better.

And Then, A Test

Finally, I started feeling stronger again. I was scrolling mindlessly through Facebook and noticed that Tony Horton, creator of P90X, was inviting people to join a Facebook group to start up a fresh cycle of the original P90X program starting January 1st, 2018. It proved to be just the push I needed to get back on track. I joined the group. I started the program.

And, incredibly, I committed to maintaining a daily running regimen on top of P90X. I was doing it all over again. (But this time, no 100-day running streak.)

Today was the first day of my being six weeks into the program. Last week, I ran 6 miles almost every day, and even went for a 10-mile long run on Saturday. I feel stronger than ever. In fact, once again, I feel like a superhero.

But this year, I feel different. After putting in the work to strengthen my lower abdominal muscles and taking extra care to do my exercises with proper form – especially during the initial weeks of P90X – my body now feels better able to handle what I’m doing. I still believe I have the same lower-ab weakness, but it is less pronounced and getting better every day. The result is that when I do P90X workouts today, I believe I can actually get more out of them. My posture has improved, and I can hold my legs, hips, and back in the correct place in order to successfully complete the workouts. My running speed is nearly up to what it “should be,” too, and I don’t feel so uneasy on my feet anymore.

In short, when you do things properly, you get much more out of them. This week marks the halfway point of the program, and the end is in my sights. If you had asked me last summer whether I’d be completing 10-mile runs by February, I would have told you, “No chance.” But here I am.

The Message For You

So much for my obligatory self-update. I’m not just writing stuff about myself to an audience of Russian bots. I mean, I’m doing that, but that’s not all I’m doing. I’m also trying to present lessons to those few people who ever-so-occasionally read my blog. There is a lesson here, and you, too, probably need to learn it.

The lesson is simply this: You have weaknesses, and if you don’t get the better of them, they will get the better of you. Furthermore, as frustrating as it might feel to you, correcting a weakness means going back to the drawing board. Nobody wants to be the skinny guy in the corner of the gym doing arm-circles when everyone else is benching their bodyweight. But you have to be the skinny guy doing those arm circles before you can ever be the P90X guy. Nobody wants to be the rickety cyclist panting to keep up with the big boys, but if you want your back to heal and your body to be ready for the next phase, you have to put in the time as a novice first.

This happens again and again in all aspects of life. Maybe you just started a new job; you have to spend some time being a know-nothing rookie before you can be a top performer. Maybe you play the guitar and you just discovered that your picking technique is preventing you from playing as fast as you want to. You have to go back to Square One, set the metronome to 60 bpm, and start from the bottom again, with the right technique this time. Maybe your relationship has gone far off course. You have to work with what you have, start every day, taking small steps to improve your daily interaction and rapport, in order to one day reap the benefits of a great relationship again.

But when you put in that kind of work, humble yourself, and do things right by starting from the beginning again, you will return stronger than ever before. Keep that humility, keep that work ethic, keep that conscientiousness. You can do it. We all can.


Beyond Bureaucracy

Spend any amount of time discussing politics on social media, and you'll soon discover that every conversation eventually becomes a race to the bottom of an endless pit of citations. Information is easy to come by these days. Cite-able sources are often just a click away. If you are able to produce an official government document that clearly states a policy, then who is anyone to disagree with what that policy is?

These are the inclinations of a bureaucrat. It might be well worth investigating whether our all having become a bunch of bureaucrats is due to some aspect of social media, the ever-expanding role that government plays in our daily lives, or the fact that the professional services economy in which so many Americans work primarily rewards bureaucrats.

Before I move on to my real point today, let's consider each possibility separately.

1. Social media turns us into bureaucrats. While I think this is a difficult position to argue for effectively, there is a kernel of truth here. X disagrees with Y. Y demands evidence for X's position. X produces some evidence. Y produces some counter-evidence. Now that the ball is rolling, the only way for X and Y to settle their dispute is to come to an agreement about which one has the more perfect evidence. This is no longer a material argument. X and Y aren't discussing the original issue anymore. Instead, they've migrated over to a meta-argument; Whose paper trail ends first?

2. The ever-expanding role of government in our lives turns us into bureaucrats. At first blush, this seems like a sort of unhinged, right-wing spook story. On closer inspection, though, the idea has teeth. We rely on the government for so many different things, and each thing requires its own unique set of policies and documentation. If we don't produce adequate documentation, then the policy says we must go home and try again. If we produce the right documentation, then our lives can go forward as planned. People who excel in producing the correct documentation are keen to offer advice to the rest of us for effectively navigating the labyrinthine policies of government. Sometimes it's not even good enough to comply with the policies. Sometimes it's a question of producing a new kind of documentation that changes the policy-definition of the problem. We experience this when we mail a letter, when we interact with the school systems, when we pay our taxes, when we pay our water bills, when we file insurance claims or fill a prescription. The more we interact with society on a bureaucratic level, the more incentive we ourselves have to become bureaucrats.

3. The professional services economy primarily rewards bureaucrats. Think of all the managers in your office. Are these people the best workers in the building, or are they the ones with the greatest familiarity with the company's policies and procedures. Be honest. Assuming you'd like your career to advance into the managerial level and beyond, what will be your strategy? Will you come up with an innovative job technique, or will you come up with some new bureaucratic policy that provides a paper trail that can be assumed synonymous with efficiency gains? Think about your own little corner of the professional universe. Would you get promoted if you invented a new product? Or, would you get promoted if you built a new ticketing system that enabled managers to more accurately track employee progress?

*        *        *

We've all been there. We receive a bill in the mail -- perhaps it's a telephone bill, or a utility bill -- and we notice a small error. We call customer service to have the matter corrected. Before we know it, we've sunk two hours into making a simple correction to our bill.

The underlying issue here isn't that the problem on our bill can't be fixed. Instead, the underlying issue is that we have to find the person who is bureaucratically assigned to the button that fixes this problem. Once we have that person on the other end of the line, we have to tell that person the right sequence of words. Only then will he or she be able to justify his/her pressing of the button. Only then will our billing issue be corrected. It's frustrating, but it's the way life works, at least in this bureaucratic world of ours.

Here's a piece of practical advice that has worked for me in highly bureaucratic situations. When I run into a bureaucratic dead-end, and the person on the other end of the line insists that there's absolutely nothing more that they can do, I ask them this question: "If you were me, what would you do?" This phrase is like a magic key. It does a number of things. First, it helps crack the bureaucratic veneer a little bit; the person on the other end of the line starts to think of me as a fellow human, not just a policy obstacle or a form to fill out. Second, it changes the nature of the conversation; before, we were talking about what that person had to do because I had called, but now we're talking about all the things I might be willing to do after considering the person's professional advice. Third, it typically uncovers a bureaucratic path forward. Maybe he can't push the button I need pushed, but maybe people in my situation can have a different button pushed by a different person, elsewhere in the system.

Try it. It really works.

Sometimes, when I'm losing patience on the phone, I console myself by thinking about the fact that I'm the one who gets to push the button in some aspect of someone else's life. In some other telephone call in a parallel universe (or on another day of the week), it's the other person who's calling me, and I'm the one tasked to evaluate the credibility of his or her claim to my pushing of the button.

If you want to take a more productive attitude toward bureaucracy in today's world, then apply the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction. The bureaucrat who can fix the error on your water bill can assure your destruction today. Tomorrow, you can assure his destruction when he calls your office to get his own button pushed. Knowing this, none of us should have an incentive to give the other person too hard of a time since, after all, we'll need the other person to push our button tomorrow. We can be kind. We can be gracious. We can look for any credible reason to push the button and look for any excuse not to; after all, we'd want the same thing for ourselves when it's time to get our own button pushed. Focus on the people, not the policy. The policy was designed to involve your professional discretion. The policy was designed to create a justifiable paper trail. You don't need a policy justification to push the button, you just need a paper trail. It's the decent thing to do.

*        *        *

I know a guy who moved from Country X to Country Y. No, I'm not going to go into detail here. This is a real human being I'm talking about. I'm not going to disrupt his chi. When he received Country Y citizenship, way back when, he was expected to revoke his citizenship from his other country. I don't know exactly what he did, but he ended up with that Country Y citizenship.

Years later, he had a child. At some point, the man's home country created a temporary policy stating that the foreign-born children of any citizen could apply to gain citizenship. The man filed the application on behalf of his child. He ran into a little trouble when, somewhere within the application process, someone pointed out that he revoked his citizenship.

Now, look, we could all probably dig up some PDFs that validate this point of view. We could all dig up case law showing exactly where things stand. I'm here to tell you that none of this documentation means a darn thing.

Here's why: This man that I know called someone on the telephone and said that his native country could not deny him his birthright citizenship. The person he called agreed with him. Papers were filed, procedures were followed. Some months later, the man's child had dual citizenship.

How did this happen? I mean, in light of all those PDFs and case law citations and everything, how did this happen? The cynic would argue that it was a degradation or corruption of political institutions. But the truth is that the less bureaucratic your mind is, the more open you are to the many possible interpretations of a policy.

The key isn't what the policy states. The key is what the paper trail documents. If you can create a paper trail that says, for example, that a man was born in Country X, moved to Country Y, had a child, and then applied for the child's Country X citizenship, then there is nothing for the bureaucracy to question, because those are the facts, and that's what the paper trail says. If you instead choose to create a paper trail that says a man moved to Country Y and renounced his citizenship and now a foreign national is applying to have his child granted Country X citizenship, then of course that's nonsense.

But the difference isn't in the policy. The difference is in the paperwork.

In the real world, we don't live in policy documents. We live in the flesh. We touch each other, our voices quiver when we're angry, we drink wine, we shed tears, we eat pizza. We're human beings! We're in control of the paper we push around. He who can most accurately cite policy can win an internet argument, but the real winner is the one whose paper trail leads to a happy and comfortable life.

The next time you hear someone say that policy dictates that naturalized citizens of Country Y must renounce their citizenship, remember my friend from Country X. The next time you hear that policy must enforce the law equally, remember this little blog post here. The next time somebody in customer service tells you that you owe an extra $500 and, I'm sorry sir, it can't be helped because the policy dictates that such and such be so and so, remember the time that some pretty girl cried about it and they fixed it for her.

I'm not arguing for anarchy, but we're being dehumanized by bureaucracy. The re-humanization must begin somewhere.


Living Outside The Frame: How Context Poisons Everything

Alexandra Schwartz wrote an interesting article for The New Yorker. It's called "Improving Ourselves to Death," and it's all about the problems in the modern self-help movement. It is thought-provoking, well worth reading, and it identifies many of the worst problems with the self-help movement as it exists today: its inherent narcissism, its cock-eyed optimism, its obsession with better and more. The article doesn't stop there, it also criticizes the reaction against the self-help movement for its own shortcomings: Just because you're good enough as-is doesn't mean you can stop giving a flying so-and-so about your relationship to other people.

As any such article should, Schwartz's article ends without resolving the conflicts. It's a think piece, as in, doesn't-it-make-you. We're invited to assess for ourselves to what extent self improvement is a rat race and to what extent self acceptance is lazy and narcissistic in its own way. Both criticisms hit home, but if we're going to peer into that particular void it would be nice if something peered back into us in return. Schwartz's article doesn't give us that. Instead, it gives us a frame, a new way of seeing the self-help movement.

It's an interesting frame, sturdy and ornate. But we should see what's on the other side.

*        *        *

The main problem with Schwartz's article is something she herself can't escape. Of course she can't escape it, it's the main offer she's making us, it's the whole value proposition of her article. The frame. And that's precisely why her article, as good as it is, can't offer solutions. Maybe we can find those solutions, then, if we shine a light on the primary issue.

Consider the following excerpt, which might be considered the article's shark-jumping point (emphases mine):
After a while, Storr says, this rational response to economic pressures became instinctive habit: “Neoliberalism beams at us from many corners of our culture and we absorb it back into ourselves like radiation.” Like reality television before it, social media frames human relationships as a constant competition for popularity and approval. Donald Trump, with his greed-is-good hucksterism and his obsessive talk of “winners” and “losers,” is in the White House. (“Selfie” was published in England last year; Storr is adding a chapter about the President for the American edition.) Meanwhile, parents continue to feed their children the loving, well-intentioned lie that there are “no limits” and they can “be anything,” which leaves the kids blaming themselves, rather than the market’s brutality, when they inevitably come up short.
The phrases I've highlighted in bold above are loaded. They say so much more than what they say because they're absolutely loaded with context. They're mini-models. They're memes, shared beliefs held widely by many people that are designed to cast life in a certain light. Is anyone out there truly neutral to the word "neoliberalism" in this day and age? No, it conjures up not just one thought, but a whole set of thoughts, a whole pattern of thinking. It's a frame, if you will.

Use of the word "neoliberalism" is not so much a stand-alone point as it is an attempt to inject a particular kind of political context into a topic that wouldn't otherwise be overtly political. Asking you to think about the shortcomings of the self-help movement is one thing. Asking you to think about how the self-help movement plays into the scourge of neoliberalism is something else entirely.

In fact, all of the phrases I highlighted in bold -- and many others used throughout the article -- inject context. When Schwartz writes these things or quotes others who say these things, she's not elaborating or elucidating, she's pointing us to a correct framing of the whole issue. Reasonable people can come to different conclusions, so long as they arrive at those conclusions through the context of a discussion about "neoliberalism," or "social media," or "reality television," or etc., etc.

Like The Last Psychiatrist used to say: The media doesn't tell you what to want, it tells you how to want.

The way out of this trap is to eradicate the context. Let's give it a try:
  • It's possible to reject the major tenets of the self-help movement without thinking anything at all about "neoliberalism" or the current state of the political economy.
  • It's possible to embrace principles of self-improvement without embracing anything provided to you by the self-help movement.
  • It's possible to pursue career success for your own reasons, without viewing it as an act of "constant competition."
  • It's possible to believe that the sky is the limit without setting yourself -- or your children -- up for failure.
  • It's possible to avoid rampant consumerism while still favoring a free market economy.
Really, I mean it. All of these things are possible. If you can't imagine how you might accomplish one of these things, it's only because you're hung up on the context I am asking you to purge.

*        *        *

I know someone who doesn't like to watch exercise videos because she thinks the motivational bromides shouted at the viewer by the trainer are accusations of inadequacy. When they say, "Push harder," she hears, "You're not pushing hard enough!" When they say, "Doing it this way will burn more calories," she hears, "You're fat and need to burn more calories!"

Someone else I know told me that when people say, "You should find a romantic partner to share your life with," she thought it was an accusation that her life without a romantic partner wasn't good enough.

From the standpoint of internal motivation, I don't know why people do this sort of thing. They can take any positive, encouraging, or well-meaning suggestion and turn it upside-down, twisting it into a horrible black hole of criticism. I do, however, think I know why people do this from more of a mechanical point of view. They do this by injecting context into statements that are being made without context. They have a frame, and they intend to use it.

I use exercise videos, and I've never had a weight problem. I use them because they're fun. For me, there is no context of inadequacy through which to filter the encouraging bromides of the trainer. When he says, "Push through this set," or "I want you to give me a few more reps," I don't think he's telling me that I'm not good enough as-is. I don't inject that context into my exercise videos. When people suggest that I live my life differently, I don't always take their advice to heart, but I never think they're maligning my choices. I think they're promoting their own choices, and I am okay with that.

Motivationally, the added context serves no purpose for me. It doesn't help me achieve my goals and it doesn't give me greater insight into the statements I hear from other people. Thus, the added context is useless. I like to enter into situations neutrally and then consider the many possibilities that might come out of what's happening. I'll get a lot more out of an exercise video if I think it might genuinely help me than I will if I think it's just a bunch of spandex-clad salesmen who are calling me fat so that they can make money off me.

Maybe I'm wrong about the exercise video people, but even if so, how would the alternative viewpoint help me in my life? I reject the process of adding extraneous context to the exercise because I don't want to taint a potentially valuable tool with a mental model that presupposes criticism.

Note to all the charlatans out there: Even if you're only making fun of me, if I can benefit by being made fun of, I will endeavor to do so. That's how pragmatic people live their lives. I highly recommend it.

*        *        *

The basic self-help grift works like this: First they frame your life in a novel way, and then they use that frame to solve problems you didn't even know you had.

I could write a self-help book based on the premise that human behavior is not all together different from chimpanzee behavior. I could offer many research studies of chimpanzee behavior and use loose comparisons to human studies, drawing parallels, coming up with a just-so story about how the missing piece in your life is this thing that chimpanzees are really good at, but which civilization has managed to discourage in homo sapiens. I could then sell you on a path forward: be more chimp-like. It sounds ridiculous, but it would sell. Going Bonzo: How to Unleash Your Inner Chimp and Start Taking Life by the Banana.

Or I could write what would essentially be the same book, but instead of comparing us to chimps, I could compare us to a lost tribe in the Pacific islands. Or I could compare us to a successful corporation somewhere. Or I could compare us to Holocaust survivors. Or Nobel laureates. Or some five percent of the population who hold some trait that I could seek to promote. All of these comparisons have been made in self-help books before, and will be made again, not because the ideas have merit but because that's how the grift works. First I frame your life in a novel way, and then I use that frame to solve problems you didn't even know you had.

(See? There's another trick: I used repetition to reinforce my point.)

The trick isn't selling you on my solution, the trick is selling you on my frame. The trick is providing you with the desired context through which to see your life. After that, your ultimate conclusion will be consistent with me (and my book sales), regardless of what that conclusion is. You don't actually have to adopt a "growth mindset" in order to believe you need one.

*        *        *

Now back to Schwartz. I think part of her understands what I'm saying, but unfortunately the only part of her that understands it is the part that is skeptical of self-help books. The part of her that is skeptical of various political and economic beliefs, or beliefs about the modern human condition as told through the language of "neoliberalism" or "hucksterism" or "consumerism," or "the market's brutality," or etc., etc., has not yet learned to live outside the frame.

This isn't necessarily her fault, and it's not my intention here to criticize her or change her mind. My goal here is to use her article to highlight how inevitable this trap is. We really have to fight to escape the sucking sound of an all-consuming context.

Don't believe me? Them just try to celebrate Christmas without a Christmas tree. "But putting up a Christmas tree is just what you do during Christmas!" Doesn't have to be. Try ordering a burger with no fries, just the burger. "But it's just not as satisfying without the fries!" It could be, if you wanted it to be. Try voting for a third party candidate. "But that just helps the party I hate win!" Uh, no, sorry.

Or, here's one: Try playing with your child without inserting the context of the parent-child dynamic. Just give it a try. Go to the playground and take your child's lead. See what happens. I dare you.

Try making love to your spouse like it's the first time. Forget the context provided by years of being together and live one night together without it. Wouldn't it be great to feel those butterflies again? You could, if you wanted to.

You could live outside the frame. I urge you to try.


Words Count

Although it’s easy to carry this sentiment too far, I believe that the way we use words has a big impact on how we think about what we’re saying.

A simple example of this, inspired by a cold winter day such as this one, would be what you say when you go outside. You might say, “It’s cold outside.” You might say instead, “It’s freezing outside.” Another thing you might say is, “It sure does feel like winter out here.” Now, I’m not going to try to predict what difference each one of these things makes when you say them. I only claim that each sentence, although similar in their essential meaning, will cause you to think differently about the weather. You think different things when you choose to use the word “freezing” instead of “cold.” You think something else when you say neither word and simply acknowledge that it feels like winter.

For me, “freezing” is more painful than “cold,” and if I simply said that it felt like winter, I’d be downplaying the cold I’m feeling and emphasizing that the physical sensation of cold is entirely to be expected because it’s winter. But that’s just me.

If we accept the above, then it stands to reason that the words you say to others will also inspire different thoughts in them. So, for example, I never use the phrase “make you feel better” with my daughter. I don’t want to make her feel anything. In fact, I can’t make her feel anything. Her feelings are all her own. Instead, I say “help you feel better.” That’s something I can do. I can help. I usually start helping by asking what she wants and letting her guide me through the process of recovery.

This was a deliberate parenting choice on my part, but when I started doing that, I soon realized that it didn’t make sense to say “make you feel better” to anyone. I stopped saying it to my wife, my friends, my family members. I started saying “help” instead. I have no idea whether they noticed, but what I noticed in myself is that I started to empathize a little better. Instead of offering people gestures that I assumed were kind, I started offering them anything they might need, letting them choose what might help them, and giving them that. I felt better about that, and I hope they did, too.

I was given some important advice a few months back: Stop saying, “I feel like...” You know, “I feel like people don’t pay attention when they drive.” Or maybe, “I feel like you don’t really like the hamburger you’re eating.” Or perhaps, “I feel like we’ve always done it this way.”

No, no, no. These are not feelings. These are thoughts. Feelings, I was advised, consist of just one word. I feel happy, or sad, or confused, or slighted, or angry, or jealous, or lonely, or misunderstood, or elated, or accomplished, or etc. See? Those are feelings. Just one word. If you need more than one word to say what you’re saying, then you’re probably not talking about a feeling anymore. You’re talking about a thought.

To be sure, thoughts are important. But they are distinct from feelings. We have circumstances that trigger thoughts, which trigger feelings, and then come actions inspired by all three. But circumstances, thoughts, feelings, and actions (or behaviors) are all separate things.

And finally, the words we choose to denote our feelings, the words we use to describe our thoughts, can all have a big impact on our actions/behaviors. We can’t always change our circumstances, but we can often change our thoughts and our feelings simply by describing them differently.

This technique - altering your thinking by changing the words you use - can be honed with practice and used to improve your life. But it takes time and it takes consistent practice. It’s worth it, though.


Magic Amulet

You went out looking for love.

You tried all the usual things. You met people through mutual friends and colleagues, at parties. You joined up with a bunch of clubs associated with your common interests. You went out to night clubs to meet new people. You tried internet dating, dating through you faith-based community, singles nights at various establishments, and so on. Nothing seemed to work.

It's not that you were an unattractive person. You often met people with whom you had a spark. You'd go out on a few dates, things would heat up a little, then ultimately fizzle out.

To your great frustration, some of the most attractive people you met were already attached to someone else. Every time you thought you'd met a really great potential match, they'd introduce you to their spouse or partner a few minutes later. It was very frustrating.

One day, you met a beggar on the street. Everyone was passing by the beggar without so much as a sideward glance, but when you looked at the old man, you noticed that he was limping badly and his leg was wrapped in a very dirty, old bandage. You greeted him, pressed a few bills into the palm of his hand, and asked him if he was alright.

He winked. Then he told you, "Indeed, I am, my boy. In fact, I am a sorcerer, and in exchange for showing me kindness, I will give you this powerful amulet. With it, you will be able to seduce anyone!" Then he disappeared into a cloud of smoke.

You turned the amulet over in your hands a few times and breathed a deep sigh. You knew that this was a very powerful gift, indeed, but that it was not really what you needed or wanted in your life. After all, you were not merely looking to seduce people. You were looking for love. You were looking for someone whose attraction to you and to your personality was enough to sustain a life-long partnership until the two of you grew old together and died.

Granted, with the power conferred by this amulet, you could choose any person in the whole world, invoke the power of the amulet, and keep them in love with you for the rest of both your lives. But that relationship would not be based on anything other than the power of the amulet. Without mutual interests and a shared admiration for each other, there would be nothing fulfilling about the relationship itself.

The love itself would be superficial. It would be something like teenagers feel for each other: They like how the other person looks, they can engage in a sort of nervous and likeable rapport with each other, they can share some high school social experiences. When push comes to shove, though, teenagers ultimately discover that the object of their affection doesn't ultimately have a lot in common with them. They grow bored, uninterested, and ultimately go their separate ways.

You thought about this for several weeks. You even tried it out a few times, sharing some exciting and passionate nights with a few beautiful strangers. The amulet did work. But, again, you were in search of love, not merely sex. If only you had met the sorcerer in your younger, less serious days!

Then, one day, you met your perfect match. She was beautiful, intelligent, witty, charming, and glamorous. She shared all your same interests. You happened to meet her through a mutual acquaintance. You both took to each other so quickly that you forgot all about the amulet and simply asked her out on a date.

The date went very well. You laughed together, you enjoyed each other's company. It was thrilling!

Halfway through the evening, she briefly excused herself for a moment. You took a sip of your wine and shifted in your chair. You felt something in your pocket that you had completely forgotten about: the amulet.

This young woman is wonderful, you thought to yourself, and she seems genuinely interested in me. I shouldn't have to use the amulet.

Just then she came back to the table. She apologized, but explained that something had just come up and that she had to attend to it. She said, "I know this sounds bad, but I really do have to go. I'm sorry. I'll call you."

With that, she stood up, left you money for her half of the restaurant bill, and hurried out.

You thought about it. You were both having a great time. Her apologies sounded genuine. She didn't seem to want to go. Still, she ditched you halfway through a good date. What were you to think about that?

Your thoughts returned to the amulet. That would be an easy solution, wouldn't it? You wouldn't have to spend time wondering whether she liked you. You'd know it for certain. You had such a spark with her that surely -- surely -- the power of the amulet would merely focus her attention on you until you both had a chance to build the foundation of a proper relationship, without magic.

You swallowed hard. You took a deep breath. You used the amulet.

Your relationship with the woman continued for several months. It was wonderful. It was the nicest relationship you had ever had with anyone. You spent many lazy afternoons wrapped in each other's arms, laughing and chatting. You played games together, cooked together, introduced each other to your friends and families. You talked about a future together. Indeed, you planned on it.

One day, while opening your drawer to get your watch, you noticed the amulet. It was still glowing. Its power was still working to maintain your relationship.

You remembered all the time you had spent with the woman who was likely to spend the rest of her life with you. You realized that you really had built the foundation for a wonderful, lifelong relationship. You thought, perhaps it was time to deactivate the amulet and live out the rest of your life with your paramour.

As you reached for it, though, you realized that there was a chance that everything you had experienced thus far was nothing more than the power of the amulet. Left to her own volition, perhaps she never would have invested so much time in you. Perhaps she would have grown weary of your ways, or annoyed by your quirks. Perhaps she didn't really find you all that physically attractive to begin with.

Perhaps she really was blowing you off that one night, months ago, on your first date.

You could easily find out the truth by deactivating the amulet and finding out what happens. The problem now is that you don't want to know the truth. You want to live the life that you had begun to live with this woman, the love of your life. You can't bear losing her. You can't live without her.

You turn the amulet over again and again in your hand, wondering what to do. This is what you always wanted, and yet it might all be disingenuous.

So you think, and you wonder, and you don't know what to do.


Don't Call Your Child Names

Anyone who has ever had the experience of watching 2-year-olds play together knows that it is not all fun and games. At age 2, children have figured out that might-makes-right, but they have not figured out concepts like private property, or the benefits of sharing, or the benefits of playing together as equals. As a result, there is about as much crying as there is laughter.

For many parents, this can be jarring. The desire to step in and equally distribute toys and treats, to police the process of taking turns, and to generally manage every step of the playing process on behalf of the children, is almost overwhelming. To do this, however, is a big mistake. Children must learn how to resolve their own conflicts. It's an ugly process with a lot of tears, but if we don't leave them to it, then the only thing they ever learn is that whenever somebody cries, a parent or authority figure is there to step in and give them direction. Ultimately, this stunts their emotional development. Thus, we have to leave them to their messy play.

Some parents, however, respond differently. Rather than being surprised or alarmed, they laugh. They see children running around, stealing each other's toys, cooking up schemes to gain an extra turn on the playground slide or an extra five minutes with a favorite stuffed animal, and they (the parents) think it's funny on some level.

Although it's a mistake to step in and try to manage the situation for the children, I believe it's also a mistake to sit back and laugh. They don't need mom and dad to just do it for them, but they certainly shouldn't be taught that their inability to cooperate is a laughing matter. If the micro-managing approach to parenting teaches the children to rely too much on parents and authority figures, the laughter approach teaches them that it's funny to scheme and to get what you want at the expense of other people.

What children need in these scenarios is guidance. Over time, and with lots of repetition through practice and consistent parental messaging, children must learn that the reason it's nice to share is that, in the long run, everyone has more fun together that way. It might feel instantly gratifying to hoard the prettiest blue ball, but in five minutes, when your best friend has ripped it out of your hands and you don't get to bounce it for the rest of the night, you'll realize the value of finding a way to provide more harmonious access to toys. In a perfect world, we teach our children to do that.

By chance, I happened to meet a parent in the "laughter" category. This parent told me about how difficult one the family's children had been. The child often misbehaved, often threw tantrums, often rebelled. The child seldom obeyed the parents and seldom followed the rules. This caused such a major headache for the parents that it negatively influenced their desire for more children.

Ultimately, they did have a second child, though, and the second child was much more peaceful and cooperative than the first. Already only a year into the second child's life, an insidious narrative had begun to take hold. The second child was the "easy" one, and the "good" one. The first child was, and I quote, "a little shit."

Today, the two children are still quite young. They have a lot of life ahead of them. That life is going to be very difficult and complicated for them - especially for the older child - if the younger one accepts the "easy/good" narrative and the older one comes to believe that s/he really is "a little shit." My heart goes out to them both.

More importantly, my heart goes out to my own child, who I could never even imagine thinking such things about. She doesn't always do everything right, but I couldn't in a thousand years drum up the willingness to call her a name like that. My chest hurts just thinking about it.

Is there any connection between the fact that the so-called "little shit" received parental laughter and joy when acting out as a youngster, and the fact that the misbehavior became more prevalent and problematic later on? There probably is, isn't there.

Will there be any connection between the child's future bad behavior and the names his/her parents call him/her at home and in conversations with other parents? Certainly.


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."