Tag Archives: weird habits

108. Personal belongings

The slow process of shedding skin. Not the sort that hides my skeleton, but the sort that defines me in another way. My stuff. My acquisitions. From the $150 dollar mattress I bought last year to the perfectly good chair I snagged from beside the dumpster behind my apartment building, mostly everything has to be gone.

“Has to” is an interesting way to put it, but that’s what it feels like. Sure there’s plenty of things I possess with cherished connections to my past… trinkets, books, pieces of art. I can’t even get rid of a sweatshirt I never wear because at one point it was my favorite article of clothing I’d ever owned. There are plenty of things I’ve removed from the “Everything Must Go” liquidation, but when I look around, I see my things as nothing more than that: things. And I’m not bringing many things with me when I leave, so the non-valued personal belongings have to be gone.

It is quite the sensation to whittle away at your personal belongings. It is incredibly relieving to put more than half of your wardrobe into bags for donation, to just look at the things you possess with real, sensible honesty. Do I need this? Do I wear this? Have I even touched this item in the last six months? Mostly, I know which things I’m absolutely not going to need in the next four months, and also what I definitely won’t be using in a wet, humid, hot-as-hell tropical climate.

We don’t get to do this very often. Usually we have our things and that’s that. It takes a dramatic life move to compel us to get rid of a few things. Some of the simplest of us still live very cluttered lives, and this isn’t including the bills we pay to afford these cluttering devices. I mean, this is just what happens. Sit still for too long and moss is sure to grow.

There is more to shed. There are the things I can’t get rid of.

It is hard to suggest for people to rid themselves of their personal belongings for no good reason. It is best instead to express how the act of getting rid of things you don’t honestly need or use is an empowering choice to make. Plus you can make a small profit.

Know when you’re not going to miss something, let it go.

When you don’t need much, you spend less, and somehow it feels like you have more. I am aiming now for the simplest life I can get. I want all my things to fit into a backpack.

After all, the important stuff is shelter, food, water, air, and companionship. You can’t get that from an oak desk, or a stack of videogames, or extra pillows. We spend so much on things that do nothing for our well-being. We collect nonessentials compulsively. It is simply the way of the world, for the most part. We’re all hoarders to some degree. We take the truly important stuff for granted, measuring our lives not by how fresh the air is that we breathe, or how strong our relationships are, but with trophies of social value, like premium cable, ten thousand dollar weddings, and sports cars.

I’m not sure what a life without personal belongings feels like. At a certain point, I’m going to be rendered homeless. I will have my backpack and the clothes on my person, nothing more. I imagine I will feel extremely light. I will have so little to ground me in any place, and no need to collect things, moving in a consistent state of appreciating what’s around me. It’s not for everyone, to go to this extreme, but I do suggest taking a good hard look at the things you own and wonder why you own them.

Are you using it?

Do you care about it?

Then shed it. It’s weighing you down.

 

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98. Hoarders

There used to be just two of us. Remember those days?

I was the hunter. You, the gatherer.

Now I knew you had a propensity for collecting things. It was your nature. While I was out skinning sabre-toothed tigers, you were filling half the cave with acorns and wild berries so that we would have sustenance through the winter when the tigers migrated. There was a need to collect a lot of things. We survived because of the Gatherer’s want for many.

These days, we don’t need to fill pantries with pounds of loose nuts and berries. For many, all it takes is a trip to the corner market to get food, if not ten steps to the refrigerator. We don’t really gather the way we used to. Instead of food, we go out into the world to gather money. Gathering is also no longer a gendered term. Man or woman, we’re all suckers in the same rat race. That refrigerator won’t pay for itself.

The point is, gathering is in our nature.

I say this because now instead of using the term “gatherer,” we use “hoarder.”

There are people out there with huge collections of polished antique silverware, but we call them Collectors. It’s the one’s with hallways lined with towers of newspapers that we call Hoarders. Simply having a lot of something doesn’t make it a “collection,” though. A billion bath-toy ducks could even mark you as a Hoarder, because who the hell would want to keep a billion toy ducks around? If you’re confused about the distinction between Collector and Hoarder, just know that the Hoarder’s house will probably have more cats in it.

We make them out to be crazy. We treat them like they’re breaking some human law, when in fact it is the accuser that should be on trial. We chastise them for gathering supplies for their cave. It is the accuser that is fighting human nature by shaping their lives after an IKEA catalogue.

I don’t mean to say that having a clean and tidy house is a bad thing. In fact there are health benefits related with keeping one’s house in good shape. If we have gained anything from our loss of gathering desires, it’s longer lives.

I’d argue that there are many of us “evolved” folks that still gather in small ways. Books. We gather books. Women, you gather shoes. Gamers gather achievement points. We gather photographs. A lot of us have trinkets like porcelain angels or cow figurines or old WWII propoganda posters, things we clutter our shelves with. Things we consider extensions of ourselves.

Different, of course, than the man with a thousand ashtrays. Or the woman still in possession of every article of clothing she’s ever owned. These are the hoarders. But if I have every National Geographic magazine, I’m a Collector. I suppose it has to do with value, both monetary and social. We all have this pretty clear idea of something with value and something without, though obviously there are some differences of opinion.

To the Hoarders, be careful. You don’t live in a cave. You’ll survive the winter. You don’t need to have a thousand of anything. To everyone else, do not point fingers. A Hoarder is more human than you are, they just need a little coaxing out of the cave.

88. Time change

Why only one hour?

Time gives meaning to our rotation around the sun. We made it up. Time, not the rotation. The rotation will happen with our without our clocks. The universe follows no schedule, knows no hour. We made up time, like the gods, to help make sense of a lot of things. So we could plan things. So we could DVR the next episode of “Walking Dead” from our smartphones.

I ask again: Why only one hour?

The truth is we can never stop time now that it’s been created, like an avalanche. The hands of the clock only spin forward. All we can do is accept it because we can’t out run it.

I think this bothers us. I think our own construct got the best of us, and in a fit of jealous rage we decided not to let our own inventions determine how much time we spent with the sun. When the fall and winter rotation of our planet took the sun away, guess what we did? WE CHANGED TIME.

But for what? An extra hour of sunlight?

Some argue it saves energy costs by requiring less artificial light. Some argue it encourages evening activities. Some would say it gives farmers’ crops more sunlight. Some would say it’s part of a fight against the vampires.

I don’t care. I just do as I’m told.

But I think we need to get a little more creative with our Time Manipulation.

I want a six-hour rollback. I want to go to bed at 11:00 PM and wake up at 2:00 AM and feel totally rested. I want my midnight to be my noon. I want to go to school at 3:00 AM and be home in time for dinner at 11:00 AM. I’m not worried about taking advantage of the sunlight. I could sleep through the bright hours and take advantage of the moon, instead. Or maybe something less drastic. Roll back the clock fifteen minutes, once a week. Keep us on our toes. Maybe pick a day to roll forward twenty-four hours, then roll it back at the end of the month. Make February shorter. Make the summer longer. Split up a Wednesday and finish it later. Let us sleep more during the winter and make us active in the spring. Make one day last fifty hours. See what we can do with a two-hour Monday. Try out a twelve-day weekend that lasts nine hours, and somehow make that logically possible. Time is ours. Play with it.

Anyway, thanks for the extra hour of sleep.

87. Onions

Okay, okay, I get it. I get it now.

It took a Blimpie’s special-of-the-week 6-inch sandwich to prove it. I never thought I’d say this, but I have officially come to like onions. True story.

A few days ago, while ordering my sandwich, the bespectacled bald Blimpie’s owner with the middle-eastern accent asked me, motioning toward the smorgasbord of turkey, provolone, lettuce, pickle, tomato, salt, pepper, oil, and vinegar already smothering my choice of bread, “Onions?”

There was a hesitation.

For twenty-five years I had replied: “Nay, my friend. Onions don’t belong between those freshly-baked slices of honey-oat. Not now, not ever.”

I looked this man in the eyes. His hand, hovering over the plastic tin of white raw onion slices, shiny as slivers of the moon.

I didn’t think about my first McDonald’s hamburgers, where I’d pull off the bun and scrape off those onion pebbles into my cheese-smeared wrapper. I didn’t think about eating everything but the onions in mom’s dinner salads. I didn’t think of their crisp bite or the worry of onion-breath. Instead I felt something new: curiosity, but something more, like trust.

For the first time ever, I said, “Yes,” to onions.

A sandwich is a magical realm where all good things come together to share their talents by way of seducing your taste buds in an orgiastic assault that hits like a hard kiss. Obviously I was worried that inviting onions to the party would throw off the balance. I’d have a flavor that felt out of place–the awkward guy in the corner. How foolish I felt when I took my first bite and realized that onions are not only a valuable part of the sandwich dynamic, but they nearly deejay the whole shebang.

You know when there’s a collective lull in conversation when you’re hanging out with people, but you’re thankful that there’s loud music playing to cover the silence? That’s what onions do.

The best thing about onions is that they don’t brag.

They knew I’d come around eventually, and so they waited, patiently, in the tins of sandwich shops, soaked in vinaigrette dressing at the bottom of a salad, snuck between the buns of a hamburger… They never forced themselves upon me. They waited until I was ready.

And they didn’t say, “I told you so.”

The point is, I think we should eat everything we can (and aren’t allergic to). Anything someone cooks for us. Finish your plate. Anything the man at Blimpie’s offers us. Don’t order the same-old-thing. Anything that exists on a menu, which somewhere, someone enjoys… Eat it. Try it. Put that in your mouth, chew on it, consume it, and make up your own opinion of it.

There are foods out there that you will love, but you don’t know it yet.

86. Favorites

Guest Thought from Jerry Carvalho

:::

We all have favorites: favorite movies, favorite songs, favorite foods, even favorite people. No one really knows why or how we choose our favorites. We could choose our favorites based on a smell, a touch, a fond memory, or a similarity to our own perceived condition. It does not really matter how or why we choose our favorites, it is just important that we have them because they help define who we are. When times are good we seek out new experiences with the hope of developing new favorites. Somehow, we hope that these new favorites will make us more popular, more hip, better people. However, when times are bad or stressful we always revert back to the comfort and familiarity of our good, old favorites.

85. Nostalgia

Guest Thought from Kelsey Taylor

:::

Nostalgic is one of those things that most people like to be; 90’s kids make Facebook groups or start forums where they talk about the awesome TV shows they used to watch and how they are infinitely better than Anything That Ever Was And Will Be.  “You kids don’t know what you’re missing!” they say. “Your childhood did not involve Robert Munsch or Pokémon and therefore is not as good as mine.”

Everyone has an image of an old relative or the grumpy old man on the porch who is convinced that they lived in the “good old days”, and that  society is on a downward spiral.  “Things just aren’t what they used to be,” they say.

People like to talk about what they’re nostalgic about, but don’t really think about why it can be a problem.

The middle-aged guy who can’t stop talking about how high school or university were the best years of his life: what about everything else?  Maybe you’re married.  Maybe you have kids, and if you do I’m sure they are an important part of your life.  You might not, but I’m sure you have friends and other people who are important to you.  You might have a job, and if you don’t like your job I’m sure you have some sort of hobby.  You probably read a newspaper, have opinions, and care about things.  Or did you write off the rest of your life when you graduated?

People will talk about how “chivalry is dead,” but forget that there was a feminist movement that started in between then and now.  Sometimes we get the sense that “old-fashioned” things are more sophisticated, and a lot of this gets ascribed to our conceptions of what is romantic, for example.

Nostalgia is looking at the past through tinted glasses, remembering everything that was good but forgetting the things that weren’t so great.  Or, they might’ve worked for you, but maybe some people or groups weren’t having the best time.  We also have new inventions, new books, new senses of humour, new ways of understanding the world.  The present is pretty awesome; we shouldn’t be viewing it through a lens of the past.

Remembering our past is an entirely different thing, though.  Things that remind us of the past give us a good feeling, and that’s not a bad thing.  That song that reminds you of drunk nights in university, that time you studied abroad, your wedding, whatever, might make you smile because it is linked to a good memory.  Maybe you have an inside joke with an old friend, and it will make you laugh to yourself while you’re taking the bus to work.  You get a warm and fuzzy feeling from the act of remembering, and we generally call this “nostalgia”.  These memories and associations are part of what construct our individual narratives.  They are part of our identity.  We are the culmination of our life experiences: my personality was certainly shaped, in part, by the fact that I was obsessed with Pokémon as a child or that I know all the actions to “Stop” by the Spice Girls.  …Somehow.

The difference, I think, is when we make value judgements about the past.  Nostalgia in the abstract is fine – and the things we choose to emphasize and remember make up who we are.  Our past definitely influences our present.

We just have to remember that everyone has experiences, and we shouldn’t let our past define our present so much that we forget to live now.

82. Puzzles

I’ve met my nemesis and it is called the Rubik’s Cube.

No offense to its creator, Ernő Rubik, who in 1974 developed the puzzle cube. I bet you were a swell guy. The fact remains: This harmless little child’s toy with its impossible labyrinth of color shifting devilry has been a thorn in society’s side ever since.

I’ve never solved one. Obviously. Even the instructions I try to use from the internet betray me.

There are competitions, famous competitions, where people solve Rubik’s Cubes in the quickest or strangest ways. One-handed, blind-folded, floating in zero gravity. On a boat, on a kangaroo. People challenge themselves, but mostly they challenge the Rubik’s Cube, constantly stretching the boundaries of puzzle solving criteria. Soon we’ll be looking for the one who can swallow the cube whole and solve it with their digestive system.

Our fastest human solver of the Rubik’s cube is Feliks Zemdegs. The fastest computer solved it in 5.27 seconds. We’re not far behind at 5.66, thanks to Zemdegs. I guess we know who to call when during the robot uprising our species’ survival is based on the outcome of a Rubik’s Cube showdown.

More importantly, you should note, the puzzle that has taken me over twenty-five years to never complete was solved by an Australian teenager in slightly less than six full seconds.

Thanks.

But I keep going back to the the puzzle. I keep rotating at random. Sometimes I’ll have a moment of clarity and really see how the rotations work together, but I’d be lying if I said I had some kind of method. I don’t know any of the algorithms people use to solve the thing, I simply like to try sometimes. Like reading a book, picking up a Rubik’s Cube makes you feel smart, even if you’re just winging it.

What draws us back to these unsolvable puzzles though? We ache and groan because they defeat us regularly. We think we’ve figured it out, then it gets even more complicated. We might even tell ourselves that we’ve given up, but it never lasts. We’ve all got a Rubik or two in our lives.

I don’t think we can help it.

It’s boring to have everything figured out. It’s boring to solve all your problems.

We all need something on the backburner, even if the pots on the front burners are boiling over. Like a lighthouse beacon in the fog, these insistent background tasks, these puzzles you’ll never solve but never let go, they kind of remind us that there’s something to aim for, even if you never get there. It’s the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s our non-task that needs to never be completed because if we didn’t have these intangible, unrealistic goals, then we’d wander like sheep without fences.

I’m not saying the Rubik’s Cube has channeled my attention away from bigger and better things. We’re all capable of experiencing all of the life’s wonders, regardless of our puzzles. I’m only saying that I like to keep the cube around. I like to try and solve it once in a while, like catching up with an old friend. Like a grizzled cop meeting an uncatchable mobster in a coffee-shop, wanting to choke each other right there on the checkered linoleum, but sipping coffee with amicable smugness and understanding between them. I’ll never defeat the cube and the cube will never defeat me.

Live life. Pursue goals.

But not all the puzzles will be solved, and there will be goals that evade your reach like fireflies, flashing briefly before slipping away. Chase them, but do not be defeated by them. Know when to put the cube down for a while and take care of bigger things.

68. Shampoo

Every other day, I’m putting this colorful syrupy scented substance in my hair, scrubbing it diligently into every last strand as if my life depended on it. I scrub without question. Shampoo is just one of those things I’ve accepted as reality. In the same way we use toothpaste to keep our teeth in our mouths, I imagine shampoo is what keeps the hairs on my head.

But there’s probably more to it than that.

What does shampoo do? We all know it cleans your hair. Or something. It takes the grease away, gives hair its usual bounce. But how? And why? Shampoo is built of chemicals trained in the art of dirt and oil removal. But what are those chemicals? What serendipity led to the discovery that these chemicals were such good chums with human hair? Who stays up late trying to figure out hair moisturizing formulas?

I’m not trying to sound paranoid or anything, but I’ve been shampooing for twenty-five years and I’m just now realizing that I’ve been playing around with chemicals I don’t understand the whole time. Right next to my brain.

This is not leading to a boycott against shampoo, either, I simply I feel like half the stuff on the shampoo INGREDIENTS list is made up.

Other than water, shampoo also contains (among other ingredients): Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Dimethiconol, Carbomer, Glycol Distearate, Guar Hydroxypropyltrimonium Chloride, TEA-Dodecylbenzenesulfonate, and Citric Acid.

What the hell is “Guar Hydroxypropyltrimonium Chloride?”

To quote Wikipedia, it helps to “improve the ease of combing.”

Duh.

I guess some of these big words are fancy ways of saying “cocunut extract” or “vitamin so-and-so.” You know scientists. They like tongue twisters. The ingredients aren’t as complex as they appear to be, although it’s not exactly something you can moonshine in your bathtub or cook up in an RV. Leave this to the professionals, Breaking Bad.

I’ve learned that the use of shampoo originally came about through head massages. Early shampoos were less concerned with the actual hair and more concerned with the feel-good results of a nice scrubbing. The smell of a shampoo was more important than its effects on dandruff and split-ends. I’m a fan of the “Ocean Breeze” aroma, myself.

The point is, shampoo gets a free pass, but I never stopped to wonder why. I’ve allowed dozens of different shampoo brands to navigate my hair follicles, and I never bothered to ask for identification. What the heck is this stuff? I was raised on shampoo. I never knew of any alternative, save for a head of greasy hair and an open invitation for a lice invasion.

I’m not saying we put our shampoo dependency on hold. I love it when my hair smells nice. But how it works and where that sweet aroma comes from, I have no idea. I’m just doing what I’m told.

64. Eavesdropping

The original eavesdroppers sat beneath the eaves of people’s windows, usually in the spot where the water dripped. They would literally stand in the eaves’ drop. Later, eavesdrop, as a noun, would come to mean a small hole bored through a wall for the purpose of overhearing a conversation. Eavesdrop, the verb, was used for the act of snooping beneath windows, and such behavior labeled you an eavesdropper. Got to be common enough that eavesdropping was declared a crime.

It’s also impossible not to do.

When I was abroad, there was little opportunity for eavesdropping unless I learned the local language, which I didn’t, so it was easy to tune out other conversations. Life was quieter. I thought a lot less about what other people were talking about.

As soon as I landed on U.S. soil, though, the eavesdropping began.

People told me that when I returned to the States, I’d find it to be loud. After months of isolated pockets of English, being submerged in the language again would feel like drowning in dialogue. It would be communication overload.

They were right.

It felt like everyone was trying to talk to me at the same time. I was smothered by English. All of a sudden I knew what people were saying, and my mind went wild trying to sort through it all, like I was channel-surfing at light speed.

You can’t help but eavesdrop. If you’ve got ears, then you’re listening. And we don’t need to hide under windows to hear what people are saying. Our windows are airport security lines, coffee-shops, grocery stores, and street corners. We could stand anywhere public and overhear a dozen conversations at once. People are pretty open when they speak.

Most of what you hear is decontextualized and strange, but that’s half the fun.

You’ll hear people say, “There’s no reason not to take the butter.”

Or, “…like he’s never seen a giraffe before.”

Or, “…nothing better than peeing after holding it in for a long time.”

And you want to ask, “What the hell are you talking about?”

The most common form of eavesdropping we have now is Facebook. It takes the effort out of it. Plus, it takes the spontaneity out of it. Rather than hearing snippets of honest dialogue, we get status updates and arguments in text boxes. The idea is the same: we scroll down to read details of our friends (and friends of friends) lives just like we open our ears in a public place to listen to a piece of local culture. Our curiosity drives us.

Don’t be ashamed of your curiosity. Don’t quit eavesdropping.

In fact, eavesdropping is usually how we meet people. We hear a snippet of conversation, something we’re interested in or something we want to contribute to, and so we speak up. We join the conversation.

I will recommend, however, the occasional vacation from eavesdropping.

If not a trip to another country where you don’t know the language, than at least take a camping trip somewhere isolated. Remove your ears from the daily hum of communication and listen to the earth. Listen to your own thoughts. Listen to your heart beat and the wind howl and the crickets chirp.

Just know it’s going to be loud when you get back.

62. Bad coffee

I love bad coffee.

I love the smell of it, the bitter stench of it, like caramel gone wrong. It reminds me of shady diner booths at three in the morning. Of long drives during long nights, the way it stains the upholstery and never fades. The smell of it has the peculiar charm of gasoline and magic markers.

I love the look of it. Black, always, unless I’m feeling sweet. When it’s black, it’s black, like oil spill black, like dilated pupil black, like the black gunk that builds up beneath your fingernails. If you catch the light just right, you’ll see a hint of brown hue, the shadow of its earthy origination.

I love the sound of it. A slow pour, a fifth refill, spawned from a machine that gurgles like a patient removed from life support. The swirl of it in the porcelain mug, that faint whistle sound of something being filled. Bad coffee sounds different than good coffee. It pours like a spilled secret, like a broken promise, like a lie in the face of your mother.

I love the feel of it. Its warmth is an affront to better tasting beverages, a façade. It is warm in the way that the wolf is trustworthy. It steams the way freshly laid concrete sizzles in a hot sun. Inside, swallowed, it spreads like an alien embryo where it will grow in your belly and burst from your chest. Bad coffee feels like an uninvited houseguest that puts its feet on your furniture and ignores the stack of drink coasters on the table.

But most of all, I love the taste of it. I love the havoc it wreaks on my taste buds and the lingering regret that it leaves behind. I love the knee-jerk cringe of bad coffee sliding down my throat to the tune of nails on a chalkboard. It is a hideous, over-extracted, charred disaster in my mouth; a terrorist attack on my digestive system that I do nothing to prevent.

It is an abomination, yet I love it.

I don’t care how bad it is.

Refills are free.

38. Sleep varieties

Ever have one of those sleeps where you close your eyes at night and the next instant it’s morning and you’re wide awake? Feels like no time passed at all. Feels like a trick. Did any time actually pass? Sure, the sun’s out, but you start to think there’s been a mistake. It couldn’t have gone by that fast. You didn’t even have a chance to dream.

Or what about the sleep that yanks you back at the last second? There you are, slowly falling asleep, sinking down into dreamland, and just before you’ve settled in for the night, sleep conjures up a falling sensation to startle you, or makes you feel like you’re tripping, and in the real world you bolt upright trying to catch yourself. Welcome back to the waking world, sucker.

Maybe nothing is worse than the reluctant sleep cycle. You’ve probably got something you need to wake up early for. Too bad. You’ll be waking up every half hour for no reason at all. Hope you like watching informercials.

Then there’s the sensitive sleep, which lets you rest but only in total darkness and complete silence. If so much as a flicker of light or whisper breaks the charm, you’ll be wide awake in an instant. It’s like you’ve suddenly acquired Spidey-Sense, but not for fighting crime, just for fighting against REM.

There’s the heavy sleep, which is basically when a two-ton elephant sits on your brain and puts you into an overnight coma. Literally nothing will wake you up. You could sink with the Titanic. You’ll wake up with drool all over your pillow and still, somehow, feel tired.

Of course sometimes you get those sleeps full of really weird, miserable, dysfunctional, twisted dreams. It’s like you went to bed watching A Clockwork Orange through a kaleidoscope while listening to the audio book of Stephen King’s greatest hits after eating lots of shellfish for dinner.

Sometimes you’re too cold when you sleep, sometimes you’re too hot. Sometimes no position is comfortable. Sometimes you fall asleep in  your clothes. Some people sleep walk. Some people snore. Some people talk in their sleep, and some people sleep with their eyes open. We’re certainly odd creatures when we’re unconscious.

It’s a strange thing, sleep. We need it, but sometimes it feels like sleep is working against us.

And what’s the deal with this formula?

  • 0 – 2 hours: fully rested.
  • 2 – 5 hours: kill me now.
  • 5 – 8 hours: rested enough.
  • 8 + hours: exhausted.

I’ll never understand that…

36. Breathing in tunnels

Does anyone else still hold their breath when they’re in a car going through a tunnel? I can’t seem to kick the habit, and no matter how long that tunnel is, I’ll turn blue before I dare exhale underground.

What’s the big idea? I hope I’m not alone in this bizarre ritual.

The closest logical explanation I can come up with for not breathing in a tunnel is the concern that dust and mountain guts will fill our lungs. Who knows what hazardous vapors or airborne chemicals we might’ve unearthed out from the bowels of the planet? In a car or not, the rumor spread that if you didn’t hold your breath during passage through a tunnel, you’d come out on the other side with a lung full of ancient cancer-causing mountain extract.

Or maybe it’s a little more fantastical.

Maybe it’s not the physical remnants of a hollowed planet we’re worried about, but the unforgiving soul of Mother Earth that we fear. I mean, if someone carved a tunnel through my skin, I’d be a little pissed. I can see how our ancestors might’ve come to consider tunnels as passageways of bad omens, of a sign that humanity had gone a step too far in its reconstruction of the planet. Who were we to blast holes into mountains? Who were we to dig corridors through Earth’s fine soil?

Maybe we hold our breath because inside those tunnels we are susceptible to Mother Earth’s angry, grasping fingers, looking to choke out the souls who ravaged its surface. Obviously that’s not true, since countless people commute through tunnels without harm every day, and I doubt they’re all holding their breath.

So why do it? What keeps this seemingly ridiculous pattern alive? To this day I try my damnedest not to breathe in a tunnel (hypocritically, however, not when I’m riding the subway).

I suppose it could be superstition, the same kind that sends salt over shoulders. There’s comfort in them, if not some degree of insanity. Comfort in rituals. Comfort in at least attempting to thwart whatever back luck or ill omen was once imagined to result from a lack of said ritual. I mean, we don’t want to tempt fate.

In truth, this is a form of engrained fear. I don’t know why I hold my breath in tunnels, but I’m pretty sure I do it because I don’t want to find out what happens if I don’t. Strange, the power of superstition.

Strange, that we can follow an idea without ever really knowing why.

My point is, I suppose, is to question those small habits we still hold onto. Question our rituals and ask ourselves if it’s time we broke those rituals. Breathe in the tunnels, spill salt, tempt fate, and take control of yourself again.

34. Horror and spice

I equate a good horror movie to a really spicy meal. When a movie is really scary, it gets your heart racing, it makes you sweat, and it makes you uncomfortable in your seat. A spicy meal will do the same thing. Both the movie and the meal are a form of self-abuse, if you think about it. We knowingly bring terror into our lives or we knowingly set our tongues and mouths on fire. But why?

I’d argue first and foremost that it’s because of the rush.

Can I handle this? Can I handle watching The Ring in the dark? Can I handle a full bite of jalapeño chili? I’ll never know unless I try, and even if it brings me to tears, I can’t give up once I’ve started. There’s more at stake here than simply watching a movie or eating a meal. This is about taking your heart and stomach on a rollercoaster with no brakes. This is about pushing your psychiatric well-being to its snapping point and giving your sweat glands a work-out. That’s the rush.

We watch horror movies as a way of release, and we eat spicy foods as a way of cleansing.

After a good horror movie, I feel elated. I feel like a survivor. I’ve just witnessed sheer terror and probably jumped out of my skin a half dozen times, and I’m sure I spent half the time cowering behind my knees with a hand held over my mouth. All that stress, all that tension, it fills me up like a balloon and, eventually, something will burst out of the shadows and pop that stress balloon–perhaps resulting in an embarrassing shriek. It feels good. When I’m watching a horror movie, I’m not thinking about my job, my school work, my taxes, or my petty concerns. There are people in much greater danger than I am on the screen, and I can take comfort in knowing that no matter how crappy my day was, at least I’m not being chased down by a man in flesh mask wielding a chainsaw.

Spicy food does the same thing. Most of the food we eat, delicious as it is, doesn’t really affect you the way spicy food does. A plate of spaghetti does not have the same physical impact as a bad-ass salsa. We seek the cleanse, which comes not specifically from the food, but the results that come from eating it. Truly spicy food will make your face turn red. It’ll wreck havoc on your digestive system. It’ll make you wish you’d never been born. Yet the abuse is somehow tolerated because, in the end, we feel better and we feel stronger. If we can survive that cayenne red pepper sauce, we can survive anything. The sweat, the charred roof of your mouth, and the feeling that you’ve just swallowed a bucket of hot coals is completely validated once the burning goes away. You’ve just sweated out a bunch of toxins and forced your body into immediate survival mode. It’s a wake up call, a test. This is cleansing, even if it hurts, and this is why we do it.

We need a good release. We deserve a good cleanse now and then. We’re a species with a tendency to worry too much, to fear too much, and to repress too much. This leads to toxic build up.

Let that stuff out. Stretch yourself. Go see a scary movie, release that tension. Go eat some spicy food, cleanse your taste-buds.

And if you want, find an alternative. Find another way to feel the rush and push your limits. You’ll feel remarkably better afterward.

8. Whistling

This year, I made it a goal to learn the art of whistling. Go ahead and laugh, but I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who doesn’t know how. I also can’t blow a bubble with bubble-gum. Does this make me a lesser person? Nor can I touch my nose with my tongue, do a cartwheel, or lift one eyebrow at a time. I can’t even touch my toes. These are the simpler human tricks. I won’t get into the wilder circus act miracles that some people are able to perform because those are simply beyond me.

For examples, just youtube search: amazing human feats.

But what’s the point? Why do we possess some of these skills at all?

I was trying to figure out the value of whistling and the first thing I thought about was a pair of early human ancestors out hunting antelope, signaling to each other from across the grassland, or perhaps making this high-pitched noise to confuse their prey. Maybe it’s a form of early communication. When I try and whistle, I can make one steady note, but the experts can make melodies, and maybe it was through a variety of melodies that we used to hold conversations.

Nowadays, I still think whistlers are show-offs. But it’s the bubble-gum bubble-blowers that really turn me green with jealousy. You can explain it to me a million times, draw me a step-by-step guide, and give a thousand demonstrations, but my mouth refuses to play along. I feel like a Korean trying to correctly pronounce “Little Lillian’s lolly fell.” Whereas I think I can master whistling with a lifetime of patience, the bubble-blowing gene must’ve skipped a generation. Oh well. I can’t think of a good reason for humans to blow bubbles, anyway.

My point is, we’re strange creatures. I can’t think of any other animals on this planet who go around showing off their tricks to each other. I don’t see elephants whistling. I don’t expect a lion to burp the alphabet. These aren’t evolutionarily valuable skills.

Imagine if wild animals gathered together to out-trick each other. Alligators doing the worm. Chimpanzees performing parkour. Giraffes rolling their tongues like ocean waves. Fifteen zebras stacking themselves into a pyramid. Albeit these things would be incredible to observe, but don’t expect your African safari to turn into an episode of The X Factor. Animals stick to what they’re designed to do. They don’t slide swords down their throats or fold themselves into little boxes.

Our tricks might be one of our biggest differences between us and other animals. If you’ve got a strange skill, by no means do I suggest that you give it up. On the contrary, perform it proudly. We’re lucky as humans to have this construct known as society that permits us detachment from our basic needs. Unlike the other animals, we don’t need to hunt and gather and migrate, so we’ve got all this time to express individuality, pursue hobbies, and discover hidden talents. To whistle a melody is to say, “I am human.”

To blow a bubble-gum bubble is to say, “Sorry, Chris. You’ll never be as cool as me.”

5. Cardboard boxes

Call me crazy, but one of my favorite toys as a kid was a cardboard box. Don’t get me wrong, I had plenty of other things to keep my attention, but there was nothing quite like coming home from a long day at elementary school and taking a box out into the backyard to kick the shit out of it. I’d make sure it was put together all perfectly with the ends folded together tight (best ones were taped shut), then I’d just go wild. I’d kick it off the porch. I’d kick it high enough to where I could kick it before it touched the ground. You’d be surprised how long a cardboard box can endure this torture, but eventually it would fall to pieces and the game would be done. I’d go inside and drink a Capri-Sun and watch Wile E. Coyote cartoons.

But why the hell did I do that?

I liked the process of destruction. I liked figuring out how to make each new box last longer than the one before, how certain kicks resulted in specific outcomes. It became a science, and I even got a little exercise out of it from running around chasing those damn boxes around the yard. I can only imagine my mom watching from the back porch, sipping a bloody mary and thinking, “My God, what have I done?”

This leads me to my next point, however.

Mom shouldn’t have been asking herself what she had done wrong with me (her box-kicking son), but what she had done wrong with herself. Why wasn’t she out there kicking boxes with me? What happens to us that removes our ability to be entertained by simple things? Sure, we’re not cats chasing laser pointers, but should we be ashamed to find beauty or amusement in the mundane? I didn’t need an expensive gadget or Direct TV subscription to keep me entertained as a kid. Just an open yard and a declaration of war against all things cubed and cardboard. Mom should’ve come out and battled those paper products with me. Cats don’t need laser pointers or electric mice or plastic balls, they just need a scrap of paper and a piece of string. I think we could learn a little from our feline friends.

I won’t be picking up the habit again any time soon, but I still fondly remember my days of kicking boxes and I wonder where that part of me has gone. When did I grow up? Who told me, “Boy, you oughtta be kickin gas pedals and breakin girls’ hearts, not goofin around with them boxes in the yard.” They had no imagination, whoever they were, and they infested me with their same near-sightedness.

I mean, don’t you remember your childhood? A cardboard box could be a fort, a robot costume, a barricade, a time machine, a prison cell or a lava-resistent vehicle. I used it for all those things and more, then took it out to the pasture to put it down like an old horse.

We lose our childish cat-like infatuation with the world around us, and it’s a pity.

Find your cardboard box before it’s too late.