I Like Marmite

I've been eating a peanut butter sandwich for lunch literally every day for the past year, maybe longer. Before that, I was having a peanut butter sandwich for lunch almost every day. 

As you might well imagine, I've started to crave some variety in my lunch routine, but it's been hard to find viable alternatives. For one thing, I don't like lunch meat, and it's pretty expensive, anyway. Second, I tend to leave the leftovers for other family members to eat. Third, I don't like to eat meat three times a day because that much meat in a person's diet is correlated with an increased risk of cancer. Finally, I need something that conforms to the very-low carbohydrate diet that works for diabetics.

Enter: Marmite. 

Image courtesy Wikipedia.org

Marmite is essentially a reduction of brewer's yeast. What you do is you add salt to brewer's yeast, heat it up, boil it down, remove the husks, and you're left with a sticky, chocolate-brown paste. That's marmite. It's 100% vegetarian, has virtually no carbohydrates, and it's loaded with B-vitamins. So much so, in fact, that during WWI they gave marmite to soldiers to prevent them from getting beri-beri. 

So, at least on paper, marmite checks all the boxes: it's healthy, it's vegetarian, it's diabetic-friendly, it's cheap. Seemingly, it's the perfect peanut butter substitute. So, I ordered some from Amazon.com. (It's not commonly sold in American grocery stores.)

In case you're wondering, marmite is more or less the same stuff as the infamous Australian vegemite. The recipes and tastes are slightly different. I opted for marmite instead of vegemite because all the information I read stated that fans of marmite usually like both marmite and vegemite, but fans of vegemite usually only like vegemite.

I had my first marmite sandwich on Saturday. I put butter on one slice of bread, and then marmite on top of the butter. Then I put muenster cheese on top of the marmite, followed by another slice of bread. Basically a cheese sandwich with marmite on it. 

The taste was much different than I expected. All the reviews said it tastes like a combination of soy sauce and beer, which I guess is a fair approximation. However, it's extremely bitter. It tastes more like the bitterness you find in Swiss cheese. It was an odd flavor, but mostly because it was so unexpected. It was not repulsive. I finished the sandwich and was satisfied.

Today, I ate my second marmite sandwich. This time, I knew what to expect, so it didn't catch me off-guard. In fact, it was actually pretty tasty! It's a good flavor to pair with cheese. I can understand why it's often put on toast for breakfast, because it would taste nice with a cup of coffee, or really any breakfast food that isn't overly sweet.

If you like to try new things, I recommend that you give marmite a try. In the worst-case scenario, you might just decide you hate it. But in the better case, it's just one more healthy food option to add to your pantry, cheap and tasty-if-you-like-bitter-stuff.


Do More Good

An old college roommate of mine had a funny bit. When we’d ask him, “What are you eating for lunch?” he’d respond with a deadpan, one-word answer: “Food.” Okay, it might not seem particularly funny to you. Maybe you’d have to hear him say it, see his facial expression as he did it, and know his overall personality. Maybe then you’d have found it as funny as I did when I lived with him.

Of course, the crux of the gag is that my roommate’s answer was both completely true and totally unhelpful.

Recently, I asked my wife some question about something, and she gave me an answer that was on par with my old roommate’s gag, only she didn’t seem to be joking. So I asked some follow-up questions, and continued to get nowhere until I ultimately gave up and moved on with my day. I spent a few minutes feeling irritated by this. “She gave me an answer; why couldn’t she give me a useful answer?!” For a brief moment, I even considered the idea of saying this to her.

Then, suddenly, my sense of self-reflection kicked in and I recalled several of the countless times I’d done the same to her. Instantly, I knew it wouldn’t be fair to criticize her for something I regularly do myself. When was the last time you gave an answer that wasn’t particularly useful? I’d guess it was within the last week.

I took a moment to close the loop on these thoughts by committing to myself that I would always strive to provide not just any answer to questions that I choose to answer, but a useful answer. Otherwise, why bother?

I thought about this today after reading a nice little article in Psychology Today. In it, Gina Barreca offers a long list of phrases we should say more often, and a shorter list of phrases we should say less. The article is short and well-worth reading, but it’s not rocket science. Still, it’s a useful exercise to consider not just what bad we should avoid, but which good we should do more of. So I’ll finish today’s post by offering my own list of phrases I should use more often.
  • Could you use some help?
  • Is there anything I can pick up for you while I'm out?
  • Can you help me better understand your thinking?
  • Tell me about the best thing that ever happened to you.
  • How did you get interested in that? 

I’d love to read some of yours, too. Please leave some ideas in the comments.


The Best Advice I Never Followed

I was eighteen years old and planning my college career when I had a very interesting conversation with an old mentor of mine.

This man, let's call him G, was about six years my senior and had been a star distance runner in high school and had gone on to have decent college running career afterward. I had met him when he was still in high school, but at the time of this particular conversation, he was donating some of his free time to being an assistant coach to my own high school cross-country team.

Because my school had never had a particularly great running program, it did not tend to garner a lot of attention from college athletics recruiters. As a result, I had to spend some of my time as a high school senior writing letters to college athletics programs in which I was interested, making them aware of both my interest in their program and my athletic career thus far. I certainly had the race times and competitive results to qualify for an athletic scholarship. What I didn't have was the attention of any of the recruiters.

So, as I went through this letter-writing and phone-call-making process of attempting to get an athletic scholarship, G presented me with a rather novel idea. At the time, my focus had been on local schools, where I wouldn't have to pay out-of-state tuition fees and would be close to home. G questioned my approach.

"I went to an out-of-state junior college for my first two years," he told me. "You save a ton of money on tuition, because you're at a junior college. If you get good grades for those two years, you can get an academic scholarship to a major university, no problem."

It got better. "Everyone [that was, all of the best high school distance runners - ed.] goes to a four-year university straight out of high school. You'll be a big fish in a small pond, one of the best runners at the junior college level, and then you'll be able to get a great scholarship to a four-year college once your two years are over."

His argument swayed me immediately. Part of it was the fact that it was a good argument that made a lot of sense, but I have to admit that the main selling point to me - which he never mentioned - was that I'd be able to escape the rather oppressively conservative Utah culture and hopefully find a place I'd fit in better.

After my conversation with G, I excitedly presented the argument to my parents. To my great disappointment, they poured water all over the idea. That alone was frustrating, but what really broke my heart was that they presented no argument for their case. They simply became angry and shut the conversation down. For reasons still unclear to me, they did not want me to leave the state. I guess they wanted me to stay nearby. I invested a couple of frustrating hours just trying to get them to admit to the bare minimum: that even if I didn't take G's advice, it was still good advice for somebody. My parents stubbornly dug in their heels and refused to admit even that much.

I stopped pursuing the idea and eventually found my way to a local university. I spent one year on an athletic scholarship, running for the team, but the environment was a bad match for me. Surrounded by the same "Happy Valley" culture from which I was desperate to escape, I eventually slipped into depression, quit the team, and found my destiny elsewhere.

In hindsight, though, I now wonder why I didn't completely disregard my parents' irrational insistence. Why didn't I just take up G's advice and go out of state? I was the one reaching out to all the college-level coaches, so I could have easily written a few letters to some out-of-state colleges. Had I been offered a scholarship from one such college, I would not have been reliant on my parents' money for my education. I could have found my own way there. In short, I can think of no reason why I didn't just do it anyway.

In fact, later in my university career I would spend summers taking "general education" courses from junior colleges, anyway, because the tuition was much less than what it would cost to take the same courses at my university. I'd take my diploma-track coursework during the Fall and Spring semesters at my university, and the gen-ed courses at a junior college during the summer while I was working. This, of course, highlights the fact that junior colleges are in many ways a much better deal than four-year universities. This was the late-nineties, and we were just discovering this; by now, it's common knowledge. G was ahead of his time.

College is a time for young people to find themselves and start out "on their own." Perhaps I just wasn't ready to cut the cord during my senior year of high school. Still, if I had done so, I would have avoided years of depression, saved a ton of money, and probably would have spent more years running in college. I'd likely be a more independent person than I am today.

G's advice might have been the best advice I ever received. I'll never know.


Antisocial Media

Yesterday, I happened across an article about how Ed Sheeran "quit Twitter" because he thought it was nothing more than a place to be mean.

By coincidence (or perhaps Big Data knew this about me, and fed me the Ed Sheeran article in response), I happened to have recently uninstalled Twitter. I don't miss it. Like Ed, I noticed that nothing good gets said on Twitter. People mostly just exchange escalating levels of 140-character snark.

Some people are "good" at the skill of delivering extremely insulting one-liners. In the old days, these folks would have become comedians. Today, they just disappear into the endless pool of ill will that Twitter has become. Comedians have the social benefit of providing entertainment to an engaged public. People on Twitter confer absolutely no social benefit whatsoever. It's not clear that they want to entertain anyone. More often than not, they're serious in what they say, ie. they're not doing it for cheap laughs but rather to have the last laugh. We've all seen humorous tweets before, but they usually come at the expense of someone's art, someone's thoughts, someone's opinions. Whole lives have been destroyed on Twitter, from the women who get "doxxed" to the guy who suffered a seizure from a tormentor's animated gif, to the employees who got fired for bad tweets, to the CEOs who had to step down. And so on, and so forth. It's a race to the bottom on Twitter.

Whether Twitter is mean because people or mean, or people are mean because Twitter makes them mean, is a question for open debate. What matters here is the simple reality that the more time a person spends actively engaging on Twitter, the more that person acquires a Twitter-based psychological rewards system.

It is generally a bad idea to craft every thought in such a way that it garners the widest possible audience and the largest number of favorable opinions. At best, you'll communicate nothing other than vapid pleasantries ("Have a great day, everybody!") and at worst you'll ignore unpleasant truths in favor of narcissistic supply. Actually, at worst, you'll become an insufferable monster, eager to shout down anyone if you stand to gain a few likes from a broad audience. But either way, you get my point.

All this suggests that, for the sake of your own happiness and common decency, you should probably avoid hanging out in situations that bring out the worst in you, starting with Twitter. In time, you will develop a rewards system based on the other ways you choose to spend your time. If you're like most people, that will likely involve time spent with family and friends, who generally reward you for behavior becoming of yourself. That's a Pareto-improving move.

I'm not sure other social media are any better. Facebook -- once a good place to post pictures of last weekend's shenanigans, then later a great place to share family photos with loved ones around the world -- has become more of a long-form Twitter. Instagram appears to be a marketing vehicle more than anything else. Snapchat seems to be nothing more than an Instagram that destroys the evidence a short while later.

Across all of these media, one thing stands out to me: Despite the name, these media are not particularly social. In the olden days, "being social" meant going out to where other people were and interacting with them in a way that made them think more highly of you. You might have gone to the store and run into your neighbors; you might have gone to church and shared a prayer; you might have gone to a club or a public meeting of some kind. You'd go out into the world and say something to others, and then they'd make eye contact with you and say something back. If you didn't say it correctly, you'd insult each other and make sometimes lifelong enemies, and this was considered bad. The community would try to bring you together, or else laugh at you behind your backs, but in no case would you actually come out ahead by making enemies of people in the public square.

We live in an anthropologically interesting age. Never before have human beings interacted with each other so much, and yet never before have our interactions been so simultaneously vapid and infuriating. Still, this is one social change that will not come from within "the system." If you want to become a happier, nicer person who is better able to communicate with others, at a certain point you will have to stop using all these social media in lieu of real, face-to-face interaction. The person who masters the ability to make eye contact and deliver kind, confident statements is the person who will rule the world of tomorrow.