Friday, February 17, 2012


Whatever is written here is generally composed at my office and begun, in a good week, on Wednesday, or at least Thursday. Once in a while, after a fretful night worried at having written nothing, I do face a completely blank page on Friday morning. I will not leave the office on Friday until I am able to hack out at least something that isn't embarrassing. Once or twice I haven't made it home for Shabbat until 7 or so, too late to start cooking, and had to resort to take out pizza. Whether a piece comes easily or is an excruciating struggle, posting it always results in a satisfying sensation of completion and having made the week worthwhile. I write this from home on Thursday afternoon where I am marooned waiting for a plumber. I keep an eye on the office email and there is nothing requiring much attention. I wash five loads of towels used prior to the arrival of the plumber but other than that, I've had a free morning to write. Usually my laptop at home is used for web surfing, email and crossword puzzles. there is a word processing program but the most recent document in the file is dated from my last trip to Santa Cruz, just about the only occasion I write not from work. It is one of those breezy electric blue days after a little rainstorm. Because the dog ripped the curtain rod off our living room window I have a lovely view, all bright green and blue. What a fine and homey place to write.

Which brings me now to Friday, and but for the tiny paragraph above, I am faced with a empty page. Having been unable to produce anything from my airy living room I am now returned to my windowless closet sized office where apparently, as a creature of habit, my inspiration flows more naturally. A friend marvels at how ritualized her retired husband has become, even leaving his slippers beside the bed in the perfect position to step into. Small potatoes. But I won't get into my own embarrassing details.

I am teaching Spuds to drive. The silver lining is that, as I'm dead unwilling to so instruct any grandchild, once Spuds is licensed I will never ever have to do this again. I have been driving now for forty years and, when, for example, I guide Spuds into a parking spot, he has to ponder each movement considerately and in order and I realize how I routinely I complete a long string of steps without even thinking about it.

The NY Times Magazine has a terrific article , ostensibly about Target Stores and their reliance on a sophisticated method of analyzing customer's buying habits. Target, and most other retailers (but apparently Target does it best) commission studies by scientists, sociologists, psychologists and statisticians in order to plan marketing strategies. Neuroscientists have experimented with rats, mazes and chocolate. By observing brain activity, researchers have divided habitual behavior into three distinct phases. The first is a cue, for the rats there is a distinctive noise when a gate opens the entry to the maze. The second is the automatic pilot phase. When the rats figure out the maze, their brain activity decreases more and more as the activity becomes habitual. The third, the catalyst for behaviors becoming habitual, is gratification, chocolate for the rats and maybe the driving corollary is not looking like an asshole if someone is watching you park.

The challenge for Target to get customers to spend more is to change deeply engrained shopping habits. Many customers are used to shopping at Target only for specific items, and ignore the huge variety of merchandise the store offers. Research determines that people are more likely to change habits when they are in the throes of a life change. The most dramatic of these is a pregnancy which is proven to be an incredibly fertile opportunity to change customer's buying habits. Target has access to a huge amount of demographic information and based on telltale purchases, like prenatal vitamins, attempts to snag customers even before the creation of a baby shower registry. Once it is determined that a shopper is most likely pregnant she is barraged with coupons for baby items, with offers for lawn mowers and detergent thrown in to make the targeting less obvious.

More challenging than encouraging a harried pregnant woman to turn to Target for one stop shopping is to change habitual behavior in those who are not facing a major life change. People who do not exercise regularly are divided into two test groups and prescribed an exercise routine. The only difference is that scientific findings regarding habitual behavior are shared with one group and members are encouraged to create cues and rewards. The other group is merely instructed to exercise. The subjects who understand their own brain chemistry spend twice as long exercising as do the members of the other test group.

I have been an off-and-on dieter and exerciser my whole life and it is only recently that I have started to understand how cues and rewards influence me. By leaving my sweats folded prominently and getting into the habit of rising early I think it is safe to say that I have developed the habit of walking every morning. I have never been a breakfast eater but because this is so encouraged in any literature pertinent to weight loss I begin to force myself to consume a morning meal. Now, after my walk, egg, wheat muffin, fake bacon and fruit are as delicious as any meal I've ever eaten. I set my place at the table and lay out a magazine and reading glasses the night before. I am shocked at how much pleasure this daily ritual affords. Occasionally, usually due to rain, I skip my walk but breakfast is still a must. I find that on days I haven't walked I have no enthusiasm for my a.m. repast and take little pleasure in eating it.

I am thrilled when the show Fat Chef is announced but it is beyond awful and I feel sorry for the chubby cooks it features. Instead of capitalizing on the participant's love of food and encouraging these food professionals to create delicious cuisine that's high in flavor and low in fat,food is completely demonized. The participants are given a ridiculous (particularly for women) 16 weeks to reduce their body weight by 25%. Science has proven absolutely conclusively that rapid weight loss is dangerous and inevitably leads to weight gains well exceeding the original loss. Fat Chef contestants are put on a draconian diet and subjected to physical workouts that leave them weeping and/or barfing. Weight control for people who adore food is a big challenge but the Fat Chef approach flies in the face of all the recent research and any sequel will undoubtedly be called Fatter Chef.

It's ironic that research funded to get us to buy more stuff may be useful towards helping us better understand why we are vulnerable to habitual behavior. The awareness that a lot of compulsion is actually triggered by cues makes it easier to rework responses. Likewise, fully understanding the ramifications of cue triggered behavior might be useful towards managing it. Having skipped breakfast I always felt virtuous munching down a muffin or four or a couple of bagels at work in the course of a stressful morning. Surely muffins and bagels are way better than donuts. Actually some muffins have as many as 600 calories and the big modern bagel can have as many as 500 and both, of course, require cream cheese or butter. A glazed donut has about 170 calories. But an apple and a wedge of Laughing Cow cheese has even fewer and takes way longer to eat, is filling and tastes fine. I still struggle with eating as my cued response to stress (or happiness, sadness, depression or boredom) but with a bit of knowledge I do better at least in selecting my gratification.

The food industry fought like hell against posting calorie counts on restaurant menus. Statistics show that this indeed has influenced what people order and most chains have started to offer more low fat selections. Ironically, fast food purveyors are exempted from posting calorie counts on drive-thru menus although people who are too friggin' lazy to get out of their cars are probably the folks who would benefit most from this. Poor nutrition is almost as great a health danger as cigarette smoking and we all pick up the tab for treatment with tax dollars fueling publicly assisted healthcare or inevitably increased premiums from private insurers. Food industry lobbyists would go apoplectic but all food advertisements should contain nutritional information and foods that don't meet certain nutritional standards should be taxed, just like cigarettes. And at the risk of going into judgmental white lady mode, I don't think that Sunny Delight should qualify for purchase with Food Stamps. A huge public awareness campaign greatly reduced the number of smokers in America and nutrition is just as significant a health issue.

Back in my office cell where I belong, I am able to complete a short essay, as is my habit every Friday. I wonder how much Target has invested in sizing me up. They probably know more about me than I know myself but at least the research isn't all proprietary and by studying their tactics perhaps I can rechannel the evil as a force for good. My Target circular this week has coupons for Centrum Silver, Oil of Olay, Depends, and I guess to throw me of the scent about being spied on, Tampax.

1 comment:

FionnchĂș said...

Frank Bruni opines on Paula Deen's Revelation" and other hefty cooks on t.v.; he has written elsewhere of his life's struggles as a big guy in a big clan. He argues on a different tangent than yours above, but similar in that he decries the disconnect of cooking shows to reality, with "Fat Chef" the exception! I wonder what future decades will say of the current fetishizing of hoarders, stuffers, pickers, addicts, abusers, and more stuffers. This cable-led manufacturing of more and more shows on tattooes, Cajuns, midgets, transgendered, approved folks of varying ethnicities and accents with dead parents to mourn, trailer park this and dance mom that, hillbillies and plucky New Yawkers with sad childhoods and DSM-V approved disabilities to overcome by cooking up a storm: where will it end?

I note the morning ritual. I used to leave my berries out to warm up and put my vitamins out to remind me, and now I see a whole array of cutlery, pans, cups, and dishes out and even a place set for you at the table when I come home from work and find a ghosted presence in the darkened kitchen.

P.S. I'll never turn down pizza. But, yes, your home cooking is tops, as a certain Joe College attests to more than ever. xxx me