Mementos

I have a very strong aversion to clutter.  I frequently assess everything I own and chuck large portions of it into a charity bin.  Why I do this I couldn’t tell you; I admit that it is indeed a bizarre habit especially in an American culture where things define who you are and having more always seems to be better.  If I had to guess, I would say this proclivity is rooted in the notion that I like to be ready to flee the country or make a major life change at any given moment, and having to choose which things to bring would slow me down immensely.  I mean seriously, I have my passport with me at all times and if you say “let’s go to Ecuador right now” I would not hesitate to get on the next plane out of Newark- I’ve done it before and I wouldn’t think twice before doing it again.

But I digress.

Today, I was enlisted by my mum to assist with de-cluttering on a massive scale in our attic.  She had attempted this before but could never decide what to get rid of- however after about an hour I had torn through half the place leaving about a dozen big black rubbish bags in my wake.  Clearly, it is not difficult for me to throw away things that “have memories.”

Think about that.  “Things that have memories.”  Isn’t that a strange concept?  Of course things don’t have memories.  People have memories, but because our minds are so full of other mundane nonsense, we forget them.  To try to avoid forgetting our experiences, we trap them inside things. A ticket stub from a concert reminds us of great music; a dried corsage brings memories of prom weekend.

Three thoughts on this: First, if something was that memorable, how could you possibly forget it?  Perhaps it wouldn’t be in the front of your mind often, but the memory of an amazing experience should be burned into your mind.  Second, how often do you dig through your stuff to go through mementos and reminisce, and lastly does it make you happy?  Obviously I speak only for myself, but when I used to go through boxes of old stuff, it usually made me sad to think of times gone by rather than happy to think of good things that happened.  After I realised this, I went through my then-sizable collection of random stuff that evoked memories and instantly weeded out any that didn’t make me remember something positively delightful.  All I was left with were some old student IDs that showed the amusing progression of the enormous amount of hair I’ve cultivated on my head, a dog chain that I used to wear all throughout high school, and one of my dad’s old shirts.  I kept them because it seemed right, but I can honestly say that even these items I don’t think I would miss.

It may seem foolish to try to forget anything negative that happened, but we’re not really defined by them, are we?  We’re defined by how things that transpired resulted in our developing as humans.  We can’t control what happens, but we control how we process it- and going back to dwell on and re-process events will rarely change anything.  I find that happy memories stick with me regardless of whether or not I have physical evidence of them.  And even better, they get evoked unexpectedly by random events- it’s more common for me to hear a song that reminds me of a really fun night I had or to smell something that reminds me of a special person than for me to go digging through a box yearning for memories of days gone by.

To me, the ideal human condition involves total lack of attachment to physical things and the ability to navigate the world without any baggage.  Our concrete past doesn’t have nearly as much bearing on who we are as people as what we learned from it does.  Memories are nice, but they’re little more than an animal instinct- simply put, even a dog can remember being fed and associate its food bowl with mealtime.  Our true advantage as humans is our ability to remember that we liked Indian food last time we tried it, and to find a new restaurant with similar cuisine; to process the past in a way that allows us to gain a greater understanding of the world we live in- why waste time re-learning things you’ve already done through a box of old junk?

Marketing is Improving the Human Race

Wow, amazing how six weeks can fly by and still feel like an eternity- for better or for worse.  You’ve probably noticed I’ve been rather neglectful of this project; a main part of my job now is blogging every day so by the time I get home I’m a bit tired of staring at a computer putting thoughts together.  If you’re a marketing/technology/new media type, you may find my company’s blog interesting; if you’re not, I apologise for the shameless plug 😉

Anyway, I was thinking about my job recently, as one is prone to do when spending 40+ hours a week in any given place, and I was trying to reason with myself about working in marketing.  As someone who routinely goes through phases of moderate asceticism and hates mindless consumption, trying to convince people that they need to go out and buy things isn’t really aligned with my values.  But then I realised that marketing really isn’t about that anymore-yes, I know this sounds like denial- but bear with me.

There was a time when marketing and advertising was about reaching everyone and trying to attract the masses to your product and brand a la Mad Men.  But that’s simply not the state of the world anymore- now, consumers and people in general want to be understood.  We’re not loyal to brands the way our parents and grandparents were; we don’t necessarily buy things because everyone else has them or they’re the most expensive or we see a compelling advertisement on television.  We consume to express who we are.  We want to be courted by brands that identify with our values, to find products that align with our personalities.  With the prevalence of social media, we are all our own brand and we take care to project ourselves in a specific way.  How many times have you been in a situation and thought very carefully about how best to tweet about it?  How many times have you taken a photograph with the express purpose of putting it on Facebook?  Whether consciously or not, we all run very careful PR for ourselves- from each Facebook status to the beverages we consume.  If I drink Starbucks, what does that say about me as opposed to someone who drinks organic fair-trade green tea?

I know this sounds like a bit of a departure from my usual “leave all your worldly possessions and live in a tree eating berries and nuts” ranting.  It is- and rest assured, there is still nothing I would love more than to leave all my worldly possessions and live in a tree eating berries and nuts- but that’s not the world we live in today.  People who do that eventually get in trouble for tax evasion.  I maintain that it’s important to stay in touch with nature and journey on your individual path to enlightenment, but it’s also irresponsible to forget that the earth is an ecosystem full of people.  You’re here for a reason, and if you don’t participate in the massive world around you it’s going to be mighty difficult for you to figure out what your dharma is.

But I digress.  Anyway, identity is the type of thing that marketers think of these days.  We’re not trying to reach everyone- we’re trying to reach the correct people.  Because of the colossal amount of data available to us- through traditional demographics as well as digital media- we can target better than ever so rather than being bombarded by noise, you’re only found by the people you want to be found by.  Rather than going out and consuming mindlessly, we’re learning to consume in a way that identifies who we are- for example, instead of going and buying a brand of toilet paper simply because I saw a nationally run commercial for it, I would choose a lesser known but more eco-friendly brand because by placing their message in the correct outlet for their target audience (me) to see it, they made me aware that theirs is a more relevant product to my lifestyle.

I’m not saying that all marketers understand this- obviously we all still get junk mail.  But at the same time, have you noticed that after researching which new car to buy, your banner ads now feature used models for sale in your area?  Have you recently bought a new yoga mat on Amazon and subsequently noticed a lot more advertisements for local yoga studios?  I even got tweeted at by @fiatnow after mentioning that I was shopping for a Mini Cooper, one of their major competitors.

It’s a bit disconcerting to hear that people are gaining such a comprehensive understanding of each other- but in a twisted, bizarre sort of way, it means we’re making great strides as a human race.  We may still be trashing the environment and waging wars against each other, but I like to think that perhaps we’re inching closer to a world of compassion where people identify with each other and create useful things to benefit one other.  And sure, it can be frightening to see just how much marketers know about you- but if it means that I get relevant information about new blends of organic tea on sale at Whole Foods instead of spammy offers to enlarge anatomy I don’t possess, sign me up!

A Technological Diet

On a note not entirely unrelated to my recent hiatus from all things internet, today’s post is about the damaging effect of excessive technology.  I haven’t been on the internet much for the last two weeks- the first was because the week before spring break is always hectic at school, and the second was because I took a spur of the moment trip to the Dominican Republic and there wasn’t much internet access.

Since essentially my entire job is based on the internet, I spent lots of time on my computer reading articles, tweeting, blogging, facebooking, and interacting with other organisations.  I obsessively read newsletters, try to keep up with all of the blogs that I follow, and bookmark interesting things to research and write about.  These aren’t the healthiest of things, but I still manage to set myself a limit (albeit a high one) of how much time I spend online.  I noticed a huge shift in my general well-being when I resolved to spend more time not staring at a computer screen.

I also noticed, however, that the amount of time spent around technology isn’t my only problem.  One effect of my self-imposed technology limit was that I was trying to cram everything I usually do into less time.  I was trying to rush through everything and absorb it all in far too little time.  I can control the quantity of my internet usage, but how efficiently I was using it proved much more difficult.  I think that technology itself isn’t what’s really to blame, but how we utilise it.  Instant communication and nearly unlimited information- how could it be a bad thing?  In reality, the availability of information is something that we don’t know how to deal with.  As humans, we just aren’t capable of processing all of the information we throw at ourselves.  Trying to keep track of hundreds of Facebook friends, reading cluttered Twitter feeds, watching viral videos and giggling at memes- though it all seems like mindless procrastination, it still takes brainpower.  Even right now you are processing information as you read this post about how damaging excessive information is.  Ironic.

Our technology is evolving faster than we are.  We’re a species with increasing health problems like carpal tunnel syndrome, twitching eyelids, and rapidly increasing ADD diagnoses.  We think this “progress” is helping us, but we’re not really sure how to deal with the information overload.  We’re losing analytical skills because we can look anything up instantly, our conversational abilities are diminishing with each tweet that we send, our memories are disintegrating, and interacting face-to-face is getting more and more difficult.

It’s a losing battle, and not one that we can just walk away from.  After my four days with basically no internet, I came back to 297 emails.  Nothing catastrophic had happened while I was gone, but there were also dozens of things that required immediate attention and that I couldn’t just ignore.  We are all involved in the technological world and there’s really no way to avoid it entirely.

I’ve been mostly successful in preventing a complete media overload by avoiding live television and trying to stay away from overly commercial locations like shopping malls.  Keeping myself sane while working on my own computer has proven to be a lot more difficult though, especially given my current job as a content and social media manager.  I still feel the need to read everything that could possibly be relevant to my life or job and stay somewhat involved with online communities, and I do check Facebook more than I would care to admit.

I’m pretty good at problem-solving, but this one continues to confound me.  How do you avoid a technology overload?  Do you just learn to cope?

Eating Organic Without Going (more) Broke

Eating organic is often included in the green and healthy lifestyle that many people are starting to adopt.  Obviously it’s healthier to eat foods that haven’t been doused in pesticides or injected with hormones, but it is definitely an expensive option.  My good friend is taking a class in which she has to eat not only organic, but also only entirely unprocessed foods for two days.  This is going to be very expensive for poor college students, which will quite possibly turn off the entire class from every trying to eat organic.  I think it’s very important to realise that eating healthy and organic isn’t an all-or-nothing decision.  You don’t have to throw away all of your prepared foods or shun cheese forever, because even just making small changes does help.

It’s important to know the differences in terminology before you go shopping.  “Natural” means basically nothing- it is a term that is not really regulated by the FDA.  “100% organic” clearly means that there are no synthetic ingredients in the food.  “Organic” means that 95% of a food’s ingredients are organic.  “Made with Organic Ingredients” means that 70% of the food’s ingredients must be organic- these three terms are regulated by the FDA.

Some foods are more important to eat organic than others.  For example, fruits with thick peels are more resistant to pesticides, so it’s not always imperative to buy those organic.  If you eat meat on the other hand, it’s pretty important to make sure it hasn’t been fed antibiotics or hormones.  Here’s a brief list of some of the most and least important foods to worry about.

Watch out for:

  • Apples, peaches, and other tree fruits
  • Celery
  • Berries
  • Leafy greens
  • Bell Peppers
  • Grapes, raisins, and wine
  • Potatoes
  • Meats, milk- the fat retains pesticides that the animals ingested
  • Coffee, chocolate- The beans are often grown in countries with few regulations
  • Rice
  • Green Beans
  • Cucumbers

Don’t worry about:

  • Sweet Corn
  • Pineapple
  • Sweet peas
  • Mango
  • Eggplant
  • Cantaloupe
  • Cabbage
  • Watermelon
  • Sweet Potatoes
  • Grapefruit
  • Mushrooms
  • Papaya
  • Broccoli
  • Cabbage
  • Bananas
  • Kiwi
  • Asparagus
  • Mango
  • Avocado
  • Onions

There are other ways to save money while trying to stay healthy and unprocessed as well.

  • Buying in bulk is always great if you know it won’t go bad and you have space to store it.
  • Take a page out of your granny’s book and use coupons– seriously, I LOVE coupons.  Sometimes I leave the store with them practically paying me.
  • Buying generic is a good idea- a store brand of plain organic vegetables is usually pretty indistinguishable from a fancy brand.
  • See if you can buy frozen– if you’re just making soup or smoothies, frozen fruits and vegetables are adequate.  Also, sometimes canned goods are great too.  The canning process actually sometimes gets rid of pesticides, but you do have to worry about BPA in the can linings.
  • Buy local and in season– obviously strawberries are going to be expensive in January when they have to come from some distant land.  Also, it’s more eco friendly since your food hasn’t travelled as far and healthier since they haven’t been treated with chemicals for the long journey.
  • Buy less processed food– not only is this far healthier, it will obviously save you money because you’re not paying for labor.  You’ll consume less sodium, oils, and chemicals with frighteningly long names.  Also, many foods lose nutritional value when they’re overcooked as they often are in prepared foods.  Make your own prepared foods by going on a cooking spree every few days and storing individual portions.

If you can’t find or afford organic goods, just make sure you do the best you can by washing food, peeling skins and outer leaves, and trimming fats.

Remember, it’s not an all-or-nothing approach.  Little efforts do add up!

SourceSource

Noise

A few days ago, I got this email from WWF about noise pollution destroying natural habitats in the Arctic.  Though this particular issue is that drilling for oil creates noise that is harmful to animals, it made me think about how it’s also an increasing problem for humans.

We all know that noise is bad for us- loud rock concerts, screaming children, a particularly loud brass player in the next practice room-whatever.  Blaring advertisements and overstimulation are part of our everyday life.  But there’s a far more innocuous type of noise that’s just as negative- background noise.  It’s something that we all think we tune out, but it still takes a toll on our bodies.  According to this article from Women’s Health, excessive noise doesn’t allow our bodies time to recover, so they produce negative stress hormones, causing weakened immune systems, excessive nervousness, and even heart disease.  Small noises even affect your concentration.  What I found interesting to read about wasn’t just the obvious idea that noise is negative, but that the reason why we tolerate it is out of a sort of unwillingness to be introspective: we are too afraid of our own thoughts, so we drown them out.  This article even suggestions mindful meditation to get used to hearing your own thoughts so that silence is no longer frightening.

This is a thought that really rang true for me.  I remember a time when I used to blast really loud music so I couldn’t hear my thoughts, and in fact I still do it sometimes.  When I’m at the gym, I pump my music up loud so I can’t hear myself getting tired (I really do have a lot of terrible gym habits that I am not proud of…).  It wasn’t until I really started to engage in yoga and meditation that I began to appreciate quiet.  I can understand that meditation really is difficult at first, though- and it doesn’t get easier overnight.  It’s also hard for us with our Western way of thinking to believe that it’s productive to sit and literally do nothing even for 20 minutes.  It really is, though- if you can channel your thoughts and learn to tune out the noise- not just audible noise, but also unimportant thoughts, pains, and pollution from the media- your mind will become much sharper and more efficient.  You can train your mind to do anything, with enough time- to feel physical pain less, to react differently to negativity, to focus on one task to get it done.  If you can train yourself to enjoy listening to your mind, I guarantee that you will feel better for it.  It sounds cheesy, but you really will get to know yourself better and that’s an integral part of the journey towards finding peace.  It’s worth struggling through 10 or 20 minutes of spending time with only your mind for company, no distractions.  Perhaps a mantra will help you as well.

Anyway, I know that this isn’t quite in the spirit of Fat Tuesday celebrations, but I’m sure that tomorrow everyone will appreciate a bit of quiet 😉  Namaste!

Valentine’s Day

I am not bitter.

Really.

But I do detest Valentine’s Day.  I’m consistent though- I also can’t stand Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Thanksgiving- basically any holiday that implies that we should treat people specially for only one day of the year.  Don’t get me wrong, I still get my mum some flowers and a nice card in May and if I’m dating someone, he gets a present on that random day in February.  I’m not trying to make a political statement.  All I’m saying is I think we should all be nice to everyone all the time without having to be told to do so for one specific day of the year by corporations and/or irrelevant ancient rituals.

It means a lot more to me when a friend comes up to me and says “Hey, you look like you’re having a rough day.  Let’s get coffee.” than when some poor guy I’m dating spends loads of money on a bunch of roses (I prefer jasmine), an expensive dinner (I really like cooking), and jewellery (…okay, I do like jewellery) on some random day just because society expects him to.  Seriously.

Holidays like this promote the idea that it’s not important to do nice things for people all the time.  It’s the equivalent of cramming for a final exam- you can do nothing all year, but on one day if you go absolutely crazy it still works?  I don’t think so.  It’s a karmic fail.  Not to mention the idea that this is all bestowed upon one person!  Aren’t your efforts better spent treating friends to lunch every once in awhile or even just taking the time to call someone you don’t get to chat with too often?  Wouldn’t you rather be invited over for dinner on a random rainy friday night just because instead of having ridiculous expectations for some grandiose gesture on one very specific day of the year? Where’s the spontaneity in that?  Where’s the excitement?  Honestly, I would be happier to get smiled at by a stranger on a day that I wasn’t feeling so great than having all of those things bestowed upon me on one fateful day of the year.  I came upon this article from Women’s Health that shows that I’m not alone in thinking this way, either.  Why not give year round?

Look, I’m not trying to rain on any parades here.  If you like getting roses and expensive things and going to crowded restaurants, that’s great.  Really, I don’t judge you for it any more than I expect to be judged for not liking all that.  All I’m saying is maybe we as a society should re-evaluate our priorities in terms of how we spread kindness and treat other people.  Don’t forget, in the simple act of giving alone, you receive.