Looking for trees? Check my mailbox.

Our mailman does not seem to like us although Barb and I both consider ourselves to be as likeable as the next guy. Whenever I meet him at our mailbox, he doesn’t respond to my characteristic jolly greeting, but simply hands me my mail, grunts, looks straight ahead and drives away. Old habits die hard and this old psychiatrist still tries to understand aberrant behaviors. Consequently, I have attempted to understand what may have precipitated his apparent animus.

 

The Investigation: Why does my mailman hate me?
It is true that I forgot to leave his traditional tip in the mailbox at Christmas time, but of course that was several months ago.

There was also the Floyd incident, but I wouldn’t anticipate his blaming me for my dog’s exuberant behavior. Floyd loves to ride in the car and isn’t choosy about the type of vehicle or driver. Consequently, when the mail truck pulled up to mailbox one summer day, Floyd seized the opportunity. He leaped into the mail truck with excitement with big plans to accompany our mailman on his route. Unfortunately, in the process Floyd was forced to run through a gauntlet of boxes and crates of mail resulting in the rearrangement of their contents. However, the mailman was remarkably calm throughout the incident and accepted my apology, although I did note that he was muttering to himself as he restored order to the crates of mail.

 

My Epiphany! It’s not me. It’s those damn catalogs.
After all of these deliberations, I have concluded that the ire exhibited by my mailman has the same genesis as my own.

You see, just yesterday he delivered 23 catalogs in addition to two magazines and multiple solicitations from organizations, some of whom I have never heard of, and this was only a routine day. If history is any guide, the volume will increase as the holiday season approaches. Instead of emptying my paper recycling bin once a month, I now must empty it every few days. No wonder my mailman becomes frustrated since he must stuff all that stuff in my mailbox daily.

 

Nothing unites like a common enemy.
His pain is my pain! I sympathize with my mailman’s frustration. I get angry each time I have to unload that mailbox, cursing as I sort the scams from the legitimate mail. As a bona fide card-carrying curmudgeon I must tell you that I remember the day when if one wanted a catalog they asked for it. Today, if you order something  from a catalog, you will soon be buried in an avalanche of slick pictures of beautiful people wearing cool clothes and hawking gadgets I’m sure I need but know I’ll never use. Not only do I resent their audacity of sending the catalog without me requesting it, I resent that they believe they can convince me that I look as cool in those duds as the suave handsome dude who models their stuff.
Some of these catalogs feature stuff way beyond my pay grade. For example, I do not ordinarily shop for $1500 leather jackets, $600 sweaters, or $750 shoes. One such high end catalog featured of all things a $250 pair of jeans faded in all the right places to make them look old. I do occasionally browse and sometimes find interesting inventory. For example, one which featured home health aides also had a two-page display of dildos. I was surprised to find they came in so many different sizes, shapes, and colors. Barb vigorously denies having ordered the catalog, but I have my suspicions.

 

The good ole’ days of face-to-face relationships
It is no secret that there is a flourishing market for names and addresses of potential customers and that these catalogers have no hesitation in selling us to the highest bidder. I recall the time of the mom and pop stores when the relationship between customer and seller was built on mutual trust and therefore personal. The storekeeper was more interested in customer loyalty than making a sale, trusting that if his customer was “treated right” he would come back. Likewise, the customer trusted the salesperson to give an honest representation of the product sold. In many cases shopping was as much of a social event as a series of business transactions. I suppose that now as even we former Sears catalog devotees fade-away, we will become even more depersonalized as we become numbers in Amazon’s super computer. Our computers will order from their computers, our orders will arrive untouched by human hands, and one more avenue of human interaction will close.
Shopping: Art, Science, Disease, or Therapy?
Enter my beautiful, charming, and aesthetically gifted wife. She is a former shopkeeper one of the last to conform to those qualities I mentioned, and whose store continues to receive rave reviews from former customers. Among her other talents she is a world class shopper. As our daughter Molly (now deceased) said regarding her Mother’s shopping prowess: “when Mom gets the scent, you better get out of her way.” For Barb, Christmas shopping is not a project, it is a mission. She scoffs at the idea that it would be much simpler for her to give the kids money and insists on finding a gift (or unfortunately–gifts…plural) which are perfect for each one whether they realize it or not. Things to be considered include: hair and eye color, stature, personality, and consideration of their known personal preferences unless those preferences are in extremely poor taste.
Within the past year the last department store as well as the last men’s store in our town closed their doors. I recall a time when our main street hosted three department stores and multiple specialty shops which have all folded as the big boxes took over. Having fought and lost the good fight with the big guys, and since she places online shopping in the same category as those big box adversaries, the best Barb can do is to reluctantly shop via catalogs even though she disapproved of the one featuring dildos. I presume this change in her shopping habits is responsible in large part for the appearance of our names on a few hundred mailing lists.

 

The List Contagion: It’s a real thing
It’s not only the merchandisers who will pursue you. Barb is a sucker for those tear-jerking ads on TV, which has resulted in reams of solicitations for real and non-existent charities. I wonder if they make more money selling my name and address than from my feeble contributions. In my zeal to become a good steward of my government, I once made the mistake of contributing to a political campaign online. Now, I start my day by deleting pleas to contribute to this or that political cause or candidate. They assure me that without my contribution a worldwide calamity is immanent or that I will be to blame for the extinction of the white rhino.

 

Privacy?
On a more serious note, it has been said that with a few key strokes one can know more about me than I do about myself. This is undoubtedly true e.g. I don’t know where I ate a year ago but that info is available somewhere. Our privacy is said to have been eroded, but it is probably more accurate to say it is gone. Now, as more DNA results are collected not only will more be known about your behavior but your body and your relatives. Nevertheless, the blatant disregard of our rights to privacy as this little essay illustrates is only one small example yet enough to piss me off big time.

 

Ground Zero
Maybe my overzealous anger about the catalogs goes beyond the senseless time spent sorting and recycling and even beyond the invasion of my privacy. Maybe it’s a symptom of something bigger that concerns me. A change in our society that is worrisome. While many say technological changes make it easier than ever to connect with one another, it seems we are more disconnected than ever. Less human interaction. More loneliness. Clicking the chat button as you order gifts on the internet, or even talking to a live person when you order from one of the thousand or so catalogs, is a poor substitute for the process of old-fashioned shopping at the aforementioned brick and mortar establishments where you talked to retail clerks, shop owners, and even fellow shoppers.

 

A little over 100 years ago, a sociologist name of Emile Durkheim coined the term Anomie which he used to describe situations where societies in large measure feel a sense of alienation because their only feeling of attachment is to the system in which they don’t believe or feel a part of. He thought this came about due to division of labor (this was in the midst of the industrial revolution) and rapid change from a traditional society to a modern society.

 

The pace of changes which Durkheim witnessed were trivial compared to the last 50 years, and it change continues to accelerate at a speed almost beyond our ability to comprehend. Yesterday, I awoke to hear news of the second mass shooting in less than two weeks. I believe it noteworthy that most of the perpetrators of these horrible acts were described as people with few if any acquaintances and no one who was willing to call them a friend. They were described as quiet and uninvolved in their communities, in short: alienated.

 

It also seems noteworthy that in spite of relatively good economic times, suicide rates in the U.S. have increased 24% from 1999 to 2014. Likewise, murders increased 8.6% in only one year (2016). According to the non-profit that tracks gun violence in the USA, (www.gunviolence.org) incidents have increased each year since they started tracking statistics in 2014. Conventional wisdom is that our current President was elected and continues to have widespread support from those who feel they have been “disenfranchised.”

 

Who is the patient?
This all suggests to me that we need to look farther than individuals with mental illness as the major factor in gun violence. It may be that it is our society that is ill, and in need of treatment. Human connection, kindness, and compassion might not help cure all of society’s mental illnesses, but it can’t hurt.

 

P.S. Catalog UPDATE
By the way, I just now picked up today’s mail and there were only 18 catalogs, but an armload of solicitations for money, some bills, and a letter from my only friend who still writes via snail mail.  Remember to be kind to your mailperson (especially this time of year).  There may be other Floyds out there and I’m sure there are even more catalog targets like me and Barb on every mail carrier’s route.  (Break for reminiscing): When I was in college a couple of centuries ago I worked as a mailman during Christmas breaks, and occasionally someone would invite me in for a cup of hot chocolate on the coldest days.  I wonder if that happens anymore.

Editors Note: While editing eshrink’s blog, I found this non-profit whose mission is to help us cancel unwanted catalogs: Catalog Choice . However, I haven’t told eshrink yet because I don’t want to rain on his curmudgeon complaint parade…he’s on a roll and I think it energizes him! Love you dad.

CURMUDGEONS RISE UP!

Since the polls seem to indicate that my politically oriented blogs have had little effect on solving the world’s problems, I have decided to concentrate on using what energies I have left, to do what we old folks do best. With decades of experience watching the world become even more screwed-up than it was when we entered the picture, we are in a position to become expert complainers. BONUS: now that we are retired, we have the time to exercise that talent.

COULDN’T I BE RIGHT JUST ONCE?
Unfortunately, as Barb can attest, in my zeal to exercise that hard-won ability, I usually become all puffed up, well-rehearsed, and ready to raise hell, only to be deflated when I find out that my complaint was not valid. Just today, I called ready to do battle with my trash collecting company because I thought they had come on the wrong day. I vowed not to be deterred from my mission by the sweet little voice who answered the phone, but as usual, I was wrong about the schedule. It seems the time spent rehearsing my vituperative speech was all for naught.

 

I DON’T GET NO RESPECT
This kind of experience happens to me all too often, especially now that my brain has been softened by the effects of the mild cognitive impairment that is common to us old farts. It is true that I have never been particularly adept at confrontation except when I am in control, as in the case of most therapeutic relationships. Teddy Roosevelt famously advised: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” I am a soft speaker, but evidently my stick is not large enough. Therefore, I envy those guys whose commanding voices garner instant attention while my feeble attempts at conversation are drowned. It occurs to me that perhaps this accounts for my choice of writing as a way to register my complaints (my shrink would have been proud of me for such an insight).

 

TIME TO LET IT ALL HANG OUT
Due to my limited capacity to vocalize my disdain, I now find myself bulging with unleashed bitching. Some of you who have read my previous blogs (there must be someone who has) may have noticed that I have already listed a number of complaints, but rest assured my reservoir is a bottomless pit. Previous complaints have been of national or global import but since they have had no effect on the screwed-up world, I have decided to start at the bottom and work my way up to the big stuff such as climate change, environmental degradation, bigotry, poverty, and crooked, lying or impaired government leaders.

THE WAR OF WORDS (OR LACK THEREOF): ACRONYM ASSAULT IS ON
With that in mind I have decided to start on an issue which many would consider minor, but which bugs me to distraction. It is the current fad that anything of importance must be abbreviated. In my opinion acronyms should be banned from everything except kid’s cellphones (most don’t learn spelling in school). They have their own phonetic system of short hand for their digital meanderings.

 

IT’S NOT THAT I AM SENILE
The use of its beginning letter as a substitute for a word has long frustrated me to the point of unexpressed profanity, but has become even more of a problem as I see my short-term memory decay along with the rest of me. It is unclear to me when the use of acronyms in the scientific literature first began, but as research became more complex the words got longer and the acronyms more frequent. It has now become SOP (see what I did there?) for every key word or phrase to appear once, thence its acronym is used throughout the rest of the paper. There are so many key words or phrases in any paper, that I find myself going back frequently to find the word which defines the acronym. Fortunately, my long-term memory is still intact and I do recall having the same problem when I was a young whippersnapper.

 

MODERATION WOULD BE GOOD
Now, I realize that DNA is easier to say or write than deoxyribonucleic acid, and that CRISPR is a much more sensible name for the process used in genome editing technology than “Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats.” Nevertheless, I challenge anyone to read any issue of The American Journal of Psychiatry, for example without becoming confused by all the abbreviations. I can handle a few of these lingual abominations, but doubt that the use of words would take up so much space as to cause the use of more pages.

 

ETYMOLOGY
As to the origin of such ubiquitous use of acronyms in the scientific literature in medicine, I suspect that it has to do with the fact that prior to the digital age physicians spent endless hours writing reports, clinical records, treatment notes, etc., long hand. Since we were always in a hurry, it is not surprising that our writing would eventually become illegible. I was one of those dinosaurs who found writing BPH rather than Benign Prostate Hypertrophy was a time saver, likewise CHF for Congestive Heart Failure or COPD for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. There are abbreviations for every diagnosis or procedure imaginable, but in a time when most young doctors type faster than we can talk, or in many cases, Alexa types for them, why not use words?

 

FOLLOW THE MONEY
In 1969, the FDA in their infinite wisdom decided to allow pharmaceutical advertising and the drug companies jumped on the bandwagon presumably thinking that they would sound more medical with acronyms. The first such ad that came to my attention featured Viagra as a treatment for erectile dysfunction, or ED for short. It was endorsed by, of all people, Bob Dole, a senior senator who was defeated in a bid for President by Bill Clinton in 1996. It is true that following the divorce from his first wife, Bob married a much younger woman. Consequently, he may have become sufficiently impressed with the efficacy of Viagra that he became an ardent supporter and wanted to spread the good news to fellow ED sufferers.

I can attest to the fact that there are many such enthusiasts. I recall the first time I prescribed Viagra. It was so successful that my patient called less than a week later requesting a refill in spite of my having prescribed 10 tablets with directions to be used “as needed.” Nevertheless, in Bob’s case I suspect that financial rather than public service interests motivated him to share more about his personal life than we wanted to know.

 

I FEEL BETTER, HBU?
But the beat goes on for just last night I saw an ad on television repeated ad nauseum hawking medication for PE and DVT, and I won’t tell you what diagnoses they represent. See what I mean? In spite of the realization that my complaint will be “little noted or long remembered” and have no effect on how we communicate, I do feel some relief. Additionally, I am comforted by the belief that Miss Higgins (my high school English teacher) would be proud of me for she had described the use of the contraction “ain’t” in the place of “isn’t” as “a willingness to corrupt language in order to avoid one syllable.”

WHO CRITIQUES THE CRITICS?

The critics of the world are puzzling to me. I am puzzled not only by what they say, but how they become experts in the particular activities they critique. I have always seen myself as the possessor of normal intelligence and on good days think I may even belong on the plus side of that bell-shaped curve. But when I read some of the reviews of music, books, movies, art and even scientific articles, I realize how really stupid I must be. I often have no idea what they are talking about, and wonder if I am on the wrong page.
It reminds me of something one of my patients said when describing his former psychiatrist’s intelligence. His assessment was: “He was so smart that I could hardly understand a word he said.” I admit that I have used the big word tactic in the past hoping to impress people of my superior intellect, and with that in mind have accumulated several multi-syllabic ones which I keep in reserve for special occasions, but I could never compete with these guys in the weird word department.
Most of my exposure to critics comes from the several publications to which I subscribe (and sometimes even read). Much of human behavior can be explained in my opinion by our origins as herd animals, and to be a good member of the herd one must follow the leader or in this case the expert. As a relatively compliant human I tend to take seriously the critics’ recommendations, but often find their assessment so far from mine that I have difficulty touting it to others. All is not lost in those situations for it gives me the opportunity to let my audience know that I am well read and something of a connoisseur myself. If that is well received I may even launch an attack on the critic.
Their in-depth analyses especially of artistic stuff runs so deep that I often find myself drowning. It has been said that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, and I suppose that also applies to ugliness. For example, the music that is pleasing to my grandchildren is experienced by me as simply loud and irritating noise. This would not likely result in an objective review by me of the latest hip hop or rap song. In like fashion, my parents were turned off by the swing music of the ’40s and ’50s with which I grew up.

Art: Ugly or Genius?

Nowhere is the critic more likely to wax poetic than when reviewing visual art. For me a painting for example is either pleasing or not, but these guys find hidden meanings which continue to be invisible to me even after they point them out. I am very fond of the impressionists who were the “Polly-Annas”  of the art world in that they chose to enhance the beauty of things they portrayed. I do realize that ugly has a legitimate placed in the art world. If the purpose of art is to elicit emotions, then art can be a powerful tool which forces us to face the world’s ugliness. Unfortunately, it appears to me that much art that is ugly was not intended to be so, nevertheless it may be taken by some critics to be a mark of genius. It has occurred to me that were Picasso to have shown up in an art therapy session in my hospital and do his cubism thing, I would have set about forming a plan of treatment for his psychosis.
Could this be yet another example of the “Tail Wagging the Dog?”

The better-known critics have a great deal of power. A favorable review from a big-time critic can put a starving artist into a much higher tax bracket, or conversely send him looking for a low paying day job. Many critics become celebrities in their own right. I can only imagine how many wannabes would gladly suck up to an art critic from the New York Times. Likewise, a visit from one of these gurus must be a major coup for a gallery owner. With all this influence available could it be that this is another example of the tail wagging the dog? Are the ever-changing fads in art due to boredom with the status quo or simply another instance of follow the leader?
Poetry: Schizophrenic Word Salad or Genius?

Perhaps the most glaring example of my literary deficiency lies in the inability to understand much of contemporary poetry. Admittedly, when it comes to poetry, I am a simple-minded person of the roses are red, violets are blue category. However, I recently inadvertently read a rave review of a book of poetry and subsequently happened on one of the poems in that collection. It reminded me of the “word salad” sometimes heard from those who suffer from a severe form of schizophrenia. The alleged profound thoughts these words were to elicit never reached my brain. It probably sounds heretical to many, but I can’t help wondering if I am really missing something or if these guys are just blowing smoke.
Art: The Language of Feelings

As you might expect, an old-fashioned guy like me is a big fan of Robert Frost. I must have been in junior high school when I first read his classic “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” After all these years I am amazed at how it still takes me to that place and time, and leaves me in that snowy place for a minute or so. Were I a critic, I might describe the last three lines of the poem (“I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep “) as a metaphor for life, but I choose to simply luxuriate in the feelings the poem elicits. When I attempt to define those feelings, I am at a loss for words, but perhaps that is what art is all about i.e. the language of feelings.

 

Music

Music is another category of which I am blissfully ignorant. Having flunked out of a couple of attempts to learn to play a musical instrument, I am vaguely aware of the complexities involved, and have the greatest respect for musicians of all stripes not only for their talent but dedication and work ethic. Nevertheless; since I am unencumbered by enough knowledge to analyze music I am left free to either enjoy or abhor it

Movies

When it comes to movie critics, my favorite hands down was the Siskel and Ebert TV show which lasted nearly 25 years. These two guys who must have spent most of their waking hours watching movies presented their opinions of current movies. The interesting part was that they frequently and sometimes violently disagreed in their critiques. Their debates demonstrated that pronouncements by experts are by definition subjective.
Where the Critics Really Shine: Scientific Literature

None of this is meant to diminish the value of critics for we are in need of those who can sort through the massive amounts of information dumped on us, and make recommendations. Nowhere are critics not only important but essential than in scientific literature.  Studies are often very complex and beyond our ability to understand.  Fortunately, there are always other scientists familiar with the subject at hand who are passionate about the pursuit of truth, eager to examine the data, and study the design and conclusions.

The Undiscovered Geniuses are Waiting…

No matter the subject scrutinized, it behooves us to remember that that in most cases such critiques are only opinions, and one should not close their mind to other possibilities. Undoubtedly, there are many undiscovered geniuses among us. What a tragedy if there were a Michelangelo or Shakespeare out there somewhere lost in the crowd.

P. S.To the best of my knowledge there are no blog critics active as yet, but if you happen to be one please be merciful.