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little sparks and the way out
I was reading a New Yorker article about Ozempic—the weight loss drug originally created for people whose dieting has short-circuited their metabolisms, and recently co-opted by the Instagram set to burn those stubborn fifteen pounds—when I realized that the high I used to get from porkbelly cheeseburgers and doomscrolling Twitter has been transferred to Reddit, online shopping and burning my quads by barreling down trails on my fat tire bike.
Only one of these is healthy. Unless you crash, which I sometimes manage to avoid.
When watching The Whale I was shaking my head at what the writer got wrong. Brendan Fraser building a Cheetos and mayo sandwich and eating it like a flagellant monk whipping himself? That writer’s never been fat. You don’t eat like that to punish yourself, you do it to feel good, because a handful of Cheetos don’t cut it anymore. And in a country where cheeseburgers made with grilled cheese sandwiches or mini pepperoni pizzas for buns are commonplace on pub menus, Fraser’s terrible human metaphor is hardly alone. Why do we do it?
It’s the brain chemical that makes us feel good.
To quote Don Draper in Mad Men, “what is happiness? A moment before you need more happiness.” He’s predicting the alliance between psychologists and Madison Avenue that hyper-focused on the dopamine hits, and played humanity like a xylophone for the past fifty years. Social media and app makers tune into it; there are games like Monument Valley that specifically avoid this type of addictive play, but most go full bore, and want your face in front of a screen.
If I had endless wealth, I would get a package every day. During the pandemic, I started doing more shopping online. Everyone delivers and has low thresholds for free shipping, so I haven’t set foot in a Costco or a Target. I can get bulk toilet paper and vitamins delivered for free. The post office will even deliver stamps. If you space out your orders of pet food, coffee, and prescriptions, you can get a dopamine hit from seeing something stuffed in your mailbox a few times a week. This of course, can wreak havoc on your credit card. But they know how to feed it, by giving you constant updates. Your order is nearly ready! Oh, it’s at the shipper. Here’s the tracking number! The delivery day has been adjusted! Better open the tracking page and hit refresh to see how it’s traveling the world…Wait… wait… it’s out for delivery!!!! OMG it’s been delivered go get it before it’s stolen!
I left Twitter because of the negativity, but Reddit was easier to carve into a feed of cats, nature photos, and good news. You can scroll through that for hours! Then you reach the posts from yesterday, and the refresh button does nothing. If you’re lucky that happens right before you should go to bed, and before your vision gets fuzzy. Reddit has mastered the dopamine hamster wheel.
Restaurants know how to play you, too. That’s why American menus are ridiculous catalogs of excess. Nothing beats simple done well. A fried egg with a little salt. Nicely toasted bread with the spread of your choice. Cacio pepe pasta in Italy, which was fresh pasta, pepper, olive oil, and a little grate cheese, remains one of the best meals I’ve ever had. When I ordered at a restaurant in the U.S., they fried a ton of pancetta and added it, and while the fat made it decadent, it was no improvement. Every place from Applebee’s to high end are taking simple things like a cheeseburger and slathering more salt, fat, and sweet to sucker punch your mid-brain into dumping dopamine so you eat until you’re glutted and hate yourself. There were mornings when I was putting avocado, bacon, egg, cheese and salt on a piece of toast and tasting none of it; just a big mess of salt and fat. I had to cut it back down to really enjoy what I wanted: a piece of toast. Nothing too fancy, but I’ll recommend Dave’s Killer Bread, as they employ formerly incarcerated people and their bread makes good toast.
Like a metabolism gone haywire from crash diets and bingeing, your dopamine levels, and tolerance to it, can be put out of whack. So much that there’s a fad called “dopamine detox” which misapplies this much like a diet, when you can’t game your system and fix it, any more than you can “trick” your body into losing weight for more than a few weeks with diet fads.
What works for me is a walk in the woods without my phone in my hand. Or reading, or watching a movie… without my phone in my hand. “Watching” a movie with a phone in my hand became a think during the pandemic, and I can’t remember many of the movies I “watched” during that time because I wasn’t watching them. I often say that sometimes movies in other languages are genuinely better, but sometimes it’s having to read subtitles, and pay attention, that makes them seem engrossing. And I stand by it, especially in the Phone Age. We are not all there, most of the time.
A walk in the woods is wonderful, but still opens you to distraction. That’s one reason I started mountain biking, because the homogenous forests of South Jersey are beautiful but give you the equivalent of highway hypnosis when on a hike, as everything looks the same. I found myself pulling out my phone, if even to identify plants. I can’t do that on a bike (though they sell phone mounts for bike handlebars, which I’ve so far avoided). The endorphin rush of a hard bike ride is addictive in itself—I’m still feeling elated after yesterday’s afternoon ride—but it’s not the short zap of dopamine. If I build up a tolerance to this, I’ll just take longer rides. The most I’ve gone is seven miles, because I stay off the roads. Wharton forest has longer trails, so I’ll be exploring them on the weekends.
Meditation has never done much for me; I have mild ADHD and it’s very difficult to focus on my breathing. The only time that ever worked was at 3 AM during the pandemic when my heart was pounding over whether I’d find a job before my unemployment ran out, or I’d bring home a virus and kill my family. And even then, I think exhaustion was what really got me to sleep.
I have been remiss in continuing the Vardathon, but I will watch the next disc this week. Instead, I watched a Studio Ghibli film that I did not know, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. It is based on a Japanese folktale called The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, about an eponymous woodsman who finds a tiny baby inside a bamboo tree, a girl who grows magically fast. The bamboo keeps giving up treasure and robes for her, which the cutter takes as a sign that he should make her a princess, which makes her miserable. It’s a fun film and has a watercolor style that is very beautiful, but it’s a bit long, and there’s a very sudden plot twist near the end. It’s not Ghibli’s very best, but it’s still quite good and interesting.
As for engrossing books, I have begun reading Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, because my friend Johnny read it for his family book club. He hated it, but I’m still enjoying it, as much as one can. In 1985 it must have been something, a James Elroy epic of genocide in the American West compressed into a short novel of McCarthy hysteric-poetics. I have only read The Road and No Country for Old Men by him, and I liked them both enough; but like James Lee Burke, I am finding McCarthy’s overuse of language to feel strained at times. Like the avocado toast, lately I appreciate simplicity. Maybe not the excessive minimalism that Gordon Lish imposed upon Raymond Carver, but somewhere in between; Ursula K. Le Guin mastered it, so did Toni Morrison. I think I’ll read another Morrison next. I’ve also got If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler… by Italo Calvino, and Tumble Home by Amy Hempel staring me in the face, and they might just be the tonic I need after the palimpsest of slaughter that is Blood Meridian.
Musically, I have been enjoying an electronic ‘80s-retro band called Automatic, an acid jazz ensemble called Incognito, an Aussie indie band called The Beths. Their “Expert in a Dying Field” is an earworm that I often wake up to, so I bequeath this virus to you:
And in “good” news, the conviction of Alex Murdaugh has allowed the family of Stephen Smith, openly gay boy killed on the road near the Murdaugh compound, to reopen the case, which was dismissed by law enforcement as a hit-and-run when evidence (or lack thereof) pointed to other forms of homicide. It has long been rumored that he was murdered for being gay, and he went to high school with the surviving Murdaugh child, Buster. I hope the Smith family finds peace or justice through whatever means necessary.