I’ve been watching more TV than usual this year. The recent crop of comic book shows got me, starting with Agents of SHIELD, then Daredevil, then Jessica Jones, and finally The Flash (trying to lighten things up). I loved comic books as a kid, collected Daredevil, Iron Man, The Hulk, Defenders, and some X-titles. I hear people complain about all the big budget superhero stuff, but I love it–so much fun to watch, and they generally do justice to the comic books.

But these TV shows are dark! After one particularly dark Jessica Jones (S1E9), I stopped watching everything to rethink. I realized that watching dark TV shows is the opposite of meditating. With meditation I observe my internal reality, as objectively as possible, in a way that decreases anxiety. When I watch dark TV I’m taking in someone else’s fantasy in a way that increases anxiety. It’s fun, but sometimes so creepy or scary or gross that I’m conflicted about watching the next episode, and when I do I’m sincerely hoping it’s not as f***ed up as the last one.

I’d been wanting to meditate more anyways, but hadn’t been finding time, so I decided to start buying solo TV time with meditation time, 1 for 1. (My wife is not into dark or comic books.) I counted up and I’d watched 27 hours (!) of TV since the first of the year, and meditated 8. So, 19 hours of meditating before any more TV. That was on February 20th.

It’s working out great so far. I’m carving out way more time to meditate, both in small chunks between clients or case notes, and in larger chunks in the mornings and evenings. And I’ve had no problem abstaining from solo TV watching, possibly because of having less time to carve out for it. I have not watched a single minute of solo TV since February 16, even as episodes of Agents of SHIELD began to pile up in iTunes.

I sat down to finish this post today, May 7, recounted, and found I’m up to 27 hours and 34 minutes of meditation so far in 2016. Ten more minutes and I can watch an episode of SHIELD…

One last point, for meditators only: I’d almost always meditated with a timer: set it for 30 or 45 minutes or whatever and sit until it went off. This seemed important because I didn’t want my stopping point determined by my inner state. I didn’t want to stop because I got too uncomfortable, for example, or to stay at it until I’d achieved a certain level of comfort. I was a bit nervous the shift to using a stopwatch would be bad for my meditation. So far, though, it hasn’t been a problem at all. I can meditate and stop meditating without mind games, and just feel glad I took the time.

I get to think and talk about insomnia a lot, because it is such a common symptom in my therapy clients (at least three-quarters of them) and because I’ve had plenty of it myself over the years. (Here is my advice for insomniacs.) Based on my experience, I’d like to propose a pattern of insomnia that I believe is the most common and hardest to overcome kind of insomnia: structural insomnia.

Imagine you were held prisoner for an interrogation. Your captors might try to make you pliable by depriving you of sleep. Maybe they don’t let you lie down, or force you to do some kind of work instead of sleep, or force you to drink caffeine to keep you awake, or use lights, sounds, music, or movement to keep you from sleeping. The lack of sleep you experience would be structural insomnia: lack of sleep created by your waking or sleeping environment, or by bad scheduling.

That would be a pretty cruel way to treat someone else, but when we do it to ourselves it seems pretty normal. Here are some of the most common ways we torture ourselves with structural insomnia:

We create sleeping spaces that are not dark, quiet, still, and/or comfortable.

We use caffeine less than 6 hours before wanting to fall asleep. It takes your liver 6 hours to process caffeine. You have to give it enough time to do it’s job.

We expose ourselves to light right up to when we want to fall asleep. Light tells your brain it’s day, which keeps it from producing the hormone that pressures and allows you to fall asleep.

We work up to the last minute, or stew on something provocative. You have to give yourself some mellow transition time between being on the ball and asleep.

We do not allow ourselves enough time fall asleep and sleep adequately before we have to wake up in the morning. This is a big one! If you need to wake up at 6am, you must be lying down in the dark, doing nothing but trying to fall asleep by 9:30pm in order to get 8 hours of sleep. And that’s if you can fall asleep in 30 minutes. If you know it takes you two hours to fall asleep, you need to schedule ten hours in bed to get your eight.

We wake up at night and shine light in our eyes. Phones, clocks, TV, refrigerator lights, etc.

We set an object right by our head that will randomly light up, play music, buzz, or make other alarm-like sounds. Phones, of course. Turn them off.

If you agree that it would be torture, or at least mistreatment, if you did this stuff to someone else, consider not doing it to yourself!

I’m still investigating bullying and interventions for bullied kids. Most of what I’ve come across is about how to support kids in not fighting back and telling an adult if they are getting bullied. Another take is learning the language of violence to become less of a target. Here are two videos about that.

The first video is a very short one (just watch the first 10 seconds), of a kid getting beaten up in a locker room. The second is a documentary of that same kid getting trained at the Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy. It’s a commercial for the Gracies, but I found it moving to watch them work with this kid, give him some traction in this situation. They show him self defense stuff and, building on that confidence, how to hold himself socially so that he’ll be less likely to need to fight. That’s what I’m most interested in, the reduction in violence.

 

Some folks think that learning to fight is a bad way to reduce violence, and as far as I know it’s still an empirical question, if knowing martial arts reduces the amount of school fighting you will become involved in. What protects them from the instrument fallacy, for example? If your hammer is Jiu-Jitsu, won’t more confrontations look like inevitable fights?

My guess, though, is that it does reduce violence, at least outside of formal sparring. There’s a potential leveling up, developmentally, in learning a martial art. At a certain age, establishing a dominance hierarchy makes developmental sense. Knowing how to handle oneself in violent situations, feeling less helpless and scared, could decrease the chances of a traumatic event slowing your progress out of that dominance-hierarchy stage. At the same time, martial arts usually come along with an ethical code, to use your skills only to defend yourself or someone else, for example. Any sufficiently sophisticated ethical code which is internalized will also help a kid progress out of might-makes-right. It will also likely help other kids around them do the same, just by seeing higher level ethics in action.

I’ve been thinking about bullying a lot lately. My younger clients are often getting bullied at school, so I started looking for videos about how to handle bullying. That genre, it turns out, is both boring and useless. On the way, though, I fell down the strange and compelling rabbit hole of bully-fail videos. Someone is getting picked on, has enough of it, and fights back effectively. The bully thinks they are picking on someone weak, but they turn out to be tough. They make me squirm, just watching people treat each other so badly, but there’s something gripping about them, too.

Here’s an example:

This  next one is a compilation mostly of the same type, but the section that got to me runs from 7:07 to 9:28, and is part of a less common but more moving version: Someone is getting bullied and someone else steps in to protect them.

I’ve watched the section from 7:07 to 9:28 many times now, and my reaction changed over time. The first time I was just really uncomfortable, waiting for Will to protect himself and then oh, so relieved when someone stepped up. After the first time, the painful part is how long it takes for anyone to stick up for him. I suppose they are giving him a chance to fight back, but it’s a really long chance. The other kids want to see a fight. After getting to that point, I started noticing how all these bully-fail videos are really bystander-fail videos. How is it OK, or even funny, that this particular bullying is going on? Where are all the tough but nice kids stepping in to stop bullies? There are no principles at play here except dominance, until someone steps up. And when someone does, it’s a major leveling up for the hero, from might-makes-right to some sense of principled right and wrong. From the standpoint of physical dominance hierarchies, protecting a weak person is taking on a liability to do the right thing. That weak person will be grateful, and might help you finish your math homework, but they will almost never help you out in a fight. And let’s face it – you probably don’t care much about your math homework.

I know those moments are a big deal because it happened to me. In 6th grade there was a kid who’d failed a couple times, much bigger than any of the other kids, who started pushing me around one day on the basketball court. I was small and sensitive and felt completely helpless. Suddenly, another kid knocked the first kid down, probably hit him a few times, and said something like, “If you touch my friend again, I’ll  kick your ass again.” I still feel choked up, thinking about it, more than 30 years later. That’s how it should go.

[I look for this hero every year or so on the internet and he’s never turned up. Terry Quakendal. I’d like to thank him, as an adult, for what he did.]

This last one is not a bully fail video, but quite interesting. An adult calls his childhood bully to talk about what happened:

“I like the brevity of the blog. You can make it quite short. You can just go on as long as you want to go and then just stop. It’s sort of like making a paper airplane…. I used to love to make paper airplanes. I made great paper airplanes.  You throw it out the window, it goes a little ways, turns and curves beautifully and then it’s gone forever. It’s like a blog.”

Roger Angell, at 95, on The New Yorker Radio Hour

Ah, yes, it’s so easy to write a blog post. To the extent that writing anything meaningful is easy, writing a blog post is easy. It’s as low stakes as public writing gets, especially on a small-time blog like mine. Nothing for sale, no sponsors, few readers.

And yet I haven’t been writing, despite all the inspiration and satisfaction I’ve gotten from it over the years. My list of ideas for blog posts has more words in it than I’ve actually posted in the last 10 months. It makes me sad to think about. I miss the way writing clarifies my thinking. I miss the way writing makes some contact with the friends and family members who don’t live next door to me. I’m out of touch with so many of you. And I’ve had too many interesting ideas swim in and back out of my head, unchecked by writing.

I’ve also been noticing how not writing makes my internet presence stagnate. I’ve been listening to a ton of podcasts and audio books on my commute, often in intense imaginary conversations in my head with the authors/podcasters. I’d like to be getting in touch with them on Twitter or something, at least to say thanks. When I remember that my last blog post is about the common ants of Joshua Tree, though, I refrain. I love that post, but it’s a funny way to represent myself, especially as the only public observation I’ve made in ten months.

The thing is, I’m working like crazy on getting my license for marriage and family therapy. I talk to clients and write case notes all day, which is not inspiring writing and results in too much time looking at a computer screen. If I have energy after work, I can’t be sitting down writing. I need to go the gym or scramble on some rocks. Or play piano, or rest, or spend time with my wife and family, or get ready for work or bed. It’s a good life, just no blogging for now. I’ll be back.

Ants come out in force after a rain event in Joshua Tree, new hills popping up everywhere. I suspect that this is for the same reason that we humans here break out our shovels after rain: the digging is easy.

I got out my seldom-used macro lens and got photos of all of the ants you can normally see around here. I’ll show them from biggest to smallest. If I had more time, I’d identify them with Latin names (maybe with my new app Lookup Life) but I don’t, so I’ll leave it up to you. (If you know, please tell me!)

We call these "big purple ants." They are not too common, and it's a good thing because their bite hurts the worst of any ant in the area, throbbing for an hour or more.

We call these “big purple ants,” about 5/16″ long. They are not too common, and it’s a good thing because their bite hurts the worst of any ant in the area, throbbing for an hour or more.

We call these "big red ants" or "big red and black ants." They are a little smaller than big purple ants, and their bite hurts a little bit less. You still want to avoid them. They are the most common ant around, these days, though it seems like that's a change from when I was a kid, when black ants dominated.

We call these “big red ants” or “big red and black ants” if we’ve got a lot of time on our hands. They are a little smaller than big purple ants, and their bite hurts a little bit less. You still want to avoid them. They are the most common ant around, these days, though it seems like that’s a change from when I was a kid, when black ants dominated.

We call these "black ants." They don't bite, or if they do, you can't feel it, so we think of them as the good guys. They are significantly smaller than big red ants, here seen moving a creosote seed.

We call these “black ants.” They don’t bite, or if they do, you can’t feel it, so we think of them as the good guys. They are significantly smaller than big red ants, here seen moving a creosote seed.

We call these "little red ants." They are significantly smaller than black ants and are very fast. I had a hard time getting a photo. They are prolific biters and their bites itch pretty bad. And they tend to swarm you. I once had to play a drumming gig barefoot with super itchy feet from getting swarmed while I was loading my kit.

We call these “little red ants.” They are significantly smaller than black ants and are very fast. I had a hard time getting a photo. They are prolific biters and their bites itch pretty bad. And they tend to swarm you. I once had to play a drumming gig barefoot with super itchy feet after getting swarmed while I was loading my kit.

Head shot of a little red ant, peering over a tiny fragment of a stick.

Head shot of a little red ant, peering over a tiny fragment of a stick.

These ants are unusual to see, so we don't really have a name for them, but they are tiny, significantly smaller than little red ants, so let's call them "tiny black ants." They move really slowly. I don't know if they bite.

These ants are unusual to see, so we don’t really have a name for them, but they are tiny, significantly smaller than little red ants, so let’s call them “tiny black ants.” They move really slowly. I don’t know if they bite.

Tiny black ants seem to live with these giant-headed ants. They were crawling in and out of the same hill. Also, the honey-colored ant in the picture was just wandering by. You very rarely see them. This was the only one I saw all day, and I looked all over the property. They get into the trailer sometimes at night, so maybe they're nocturnal.

Tiny black ants seem to live with these giant-headed ants. They were crawling in and out of the same hill. Also, the honey-colored ant in the picture was just wandering by. You very rarely see them. This was the only one I saw all day, and I looked all over the property. They get into the trailer sometimes at night, so maybe they’re nocturnal.

That's all the ants, but dang, isn't our sand photogenic? I got a lot of shots like this, trying to photograph little red ants without getting bitten.

That’s all the ants, but dang, isn’t our sand photogenic? I got a lot of shots like this, trying to photograph little red ants without getting bitten.

Sometime last year, on his now-defunct tumblr feed, Recursive Muffin, Ethan Mitchell asked a question I thought the folks on This Week In Microbiology (which I’ve written about here and here) might be able to answer. I emailed them and they did so, at the end of episode 73. I thought the question and answer were interesting enough to transcribe here:

Question of the day: A strain of Flavobacterium (KI72) evolved the capacity to digest nylon, obviously in recent history. Fine and well. How long will it be until one of the cariogenic bacteria species evolves the ability to digest dental resin? After all, we are putting a lot of it on their dinner table.

Answered primarily by Michael Schmidt, who teaches microbiology to dental students at MUSC, with help by Michele Swanson and Vincent Racaniello. Keep in mind that this is a transcribed conversation, so informal, and that I don’t know how to spell some of these words:

Michael: This has already happened to some extent. In the United States we currently spend 5 billion dollars a year replacing resin-based composite fillings due to failure. The average lifespan of a resin-based filling that a dentist will put in today is around 6 years. And the recurrent decay usually compromises the restoration earlier in its lifespan, and that’s when the bacteria are effectively going after the “glue.” And they’re going—because it’s a polymerization and the microbes—if the restoration isn’t properly fixed and properly cured there’s enough carbon in there that they can get at before the polymerization is completely done, that they can actually get after it. And then afterwards, matrix metalloproteinases and cathepsins places the longevity ceiling at that 6 years, even at healthy and bacterial free restorations. And so these matrix metalloproteinases and cathepsins which are expressed specifically in dentin, they come in and they cause the restoration to fail.

Michele: But those are bacterial, Michael, or those are…

Michael: No, those are eukaryotic. The bacterial failure… places the longevity cap at around 6 years, so there’s currently a resin-based product in the market that’s from a Japanese company that puts chlorhexidine into some of these resin-based products in order to prevent microbial attack and to take out the… bacterial attack. So we’ve been looking at copper nano-particles to effectively prevent some of this decay, but what he is hypothesizing has already been happening in the US and it happens throughout the developed world, anyplace people are using resin-based fillings. The old silver fillings typically last 25-30 years without incident. Most people were concerned about the mercury issue but the amount of mercury in an amalgam based filling is insignificant in terms of health consequences if you look at the evidence-based literature. It really has no issue associated with the health of the individual.

Michele: And I don’t suppose there’s any data saying the half-life of the resin is decreasing? Which would be consistent with this idea that we’ve selected for bacteria, we’re enriching for bacteria, that can break it down more readily?

Michael: No, because the resins have gotten better. The polymerization agents and the curing times, so we don’t have a clean experiment to do it. The folks haven’t actually looked to see if resin-based dissolving bacteria… but that’s a question that I can ask my friends at the Forsyth Institute to see if they’ve hunted to see if there are any resin-eating bacteria out there. But it’s all about the polymerization because the polymer needs to be perfectly cured and any of you who’ve had a recent composite filling you remember the dentist putting on the dark glasses and giving you a pair of dark glasses and they put the magic light into your mouth to cure the filling. And typically they only put the UV lamp in there for 20-30 seconds and that’s what starts the curing process. And we’ve all made polyacrylamide gels and it’s a variation of polyacrylamide gels except we use… Temid and whats the inorganic… the inorganic salt. I haven’t made a gel in…

Vincent: I can’t remember either.

Michael: Because you just pull MP… not MPS…

Vincent: APS

Michael: APS. Ammonium persulfate and that’s what goes bad. The binary catalyst.