Monday, July 25, 2016

Willpower Isn’t So Simple (And That’s A Good Thing)

The phrase “nose to the grindstone” makes no sense. How is pressing your nose to a grindstone a good idea?

When I was in college, I didn’t sit at the desks in front of the library’s floor-to-ceiling windows. I sat in enclosed cubbies: surrounded by blank walls, I thought I would concentrate better. How awful.

Sometimes I think civilizations advance, and individuals mature, when they figure out not everything is black and white.

And willpower is an example. It’s not so simple. It, or its lack, is not a matter of character.

You know the famous marshmallow test? Researchers told preschoolers they could have one marshmallow now or, if they waited a bit, they could have two. Then, the marshmallow in front of the child, the researchers left to see what the child would do.

Decades later, the kids who waited had better life outcomes: did better in school, had higher SAT scores, were in better health, were less likely to have gotten in trouble with the law and made more money than those who didn’t.

The news coverage of this was basically, “See? Willpower is good. And some people have it and others don’t.”

But that wasn’t it. The lead researcher has written a book and has been giving interviews, such as the ones here, here and here.

The real story is the kids who could wait knew how to wait. They played mental tricks on themselves. They turned their backs on the marshmallow. They sang to themselves.

Another researcher, with equally charming studies (one of his involving radishes and fresh-baked cookies) has shown that willpower is like muscle strength: it can be developed and wisely used.

It can (and should) be a happy thing – sitting in front of a pretty view or singing – not a grind. Yay.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Bad Superstitions

I never thought of myself as superstitious.

Friday the 13th?

Throw salt over your shoulder?

Black cats?

Nah, I don’t believe any of those. They’re silly.

But I’ve recently come to realize that my thinking is rife with superstitions – buried so deep, I didn’t even know I had them.

As this article points out, some superstitions can be positive, can even have a kind of placebo effect.

But mine tend to be negative.

For instance,

Under the theory that it’s the unexpected that will get you, I believe that if you think of all the bad things that can happen, then they won’t happen. My whole family operates under this belief. Does it keep bad things from happening? No. But it does make you miserable and afraid and exhausted. It’s the very definition of “hypervigiliance,” a symptom of anxiety that Pamela Cytrynbaum wrote about so devastatingly at Psychology Today.

If you are waiting for news that might be bad, don’t make plans for the future beyond that because you are tempting fate and it will slap you down. The problem with this one, besides that it is illogical, is that there is always potentially bad news around the corner, so you never make plans.

Related: Never be hopeful, don’t dare to talk about how things might go right, because, again, you are tempting fate. This is the “don’t jinx yourself” and “knock on wood” superstition.

Even writing this, saying that I see that these beliefs aren’t logical, is making me uneasy, to tell you the truth.

But’s it's crazy-making, this focus on the negative.

Are you really supposed to live your life on tenterhooks?

I don’t believe it. (Well, I’m working on that.)

How about you and your superstitions? Are they good or bad?

Friday, July 8, 2016


I always thought those funny turns of phrase people unwittingly say were malapropisms. But malapropisms are when someone, instead of using the word they meant, use another that sounds similar. Sometimes it can be funny but only because it doesn’t make sense. It’s like their spoken auto-correct went wrong.

What I’m thinking of are eggcorns. That’s when somebody uses a word or adjusts the word they use, not just because it sounds similar, but because it does make sense. The name “eggcorn” comes from a woman who thought that the word “acorn” was “eggcorn.” It made sense to her.

As Jan Freeman, who blogs about language, wrote six years ago when “eggcorn” was officially recognized as a word by the Oxford English Dictionary, “Because they make sense, eggcorns are interesting in a way that mere disfluencies and malapropisms are not: They show our minds at work on the language, reshaping an opaque phrase into something more plausible. They’re tiny linguistic treasures, pearls of imagination created by clothing an unfamiliar usage in a more recognizable costume.” She points out that eggcorns often go on to become an accepted part of our language. In other words, they help language evolve.

When Merriam Webster added eggcorn to its dictionary more recently, NPR and Time  published more examples and pointed out another nifty word: mondegreen, which is when people mishear song lyrics in ways that make goofy sense.

My favorite eggcorn was when my young daughter, referring to the kind of doctor women go to, called them “vaginacologists.”

She also came home from school one day excited to tell me all about the “Heimlich remover.”

My father, years ago, was talking about someone who had gone into a mental-health facility called Star Haven. He heard it as “Stark Raving.”

I love these.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Life is Good

You know how it sometimes seems like the person who can tell you exactly what you need to hear at that moment in your life suddenly shows up?

Yeah, that recently happened to me.

Robert Flatt is a wonderful photographer and an amazing person.

And I wrote about him for The Buzz Magazines.