Archives for posts with tag: culture

Ponder: your body as a clock.

Human bodies are splendid, intricate clocks with symphonies of hormones and neurotransmitters instead of gears, and a suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) in our heads that syncs them all up to the natural cycle of day and night.

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Ideally, they work so magnificently that we don’t have to think about them. We’re either lucky enough to have bodies that take all kinds of crazy without complaint, or we follow the old wisdom: sleeping, eating, moving at intervals and durations regular enough for our inner processes to co-operate with one another. Our dopamine rises as the sun climbs the sky, our stomachs produce digestive juices in anticipation of the breakfast they have been trained to expect, wavelets of melatonin lull us into slumber at night—if we’re smart enough not to resist them with late night television and Facebook.

But we Americans are greedy. So we do resist, not just the gentle promptings of our natural cycles, but the constraints these promptings represent. Resist isn’t really a violent enough word for what we do. We say we hack life in an attempt to eke more out of our finite time and energy. In many cases, this means we’re hacking our bodies. Writers and athletes with day jobs are often advised to “simply get up an hour earlier” to fit in a session before other responsibilities press in. This works great for some people, but for others, it means cutting sleep short in a way that erodes the body’s ability to support labor of any kind.

Chasing the buzz of achieving our ambitions, whatever they are, can make us prone to finding more and better ways to circumvent our bodies’ default settings. In another post, I’ll explore this in more depth—and, to be clear, I’m not against it. But we can break our body clocks without knowing it, making it harder to do the things we thought we wanted to do in the first place.

I think here of a guy I knew in college who, having got clean of coke and assorted other drugs, crushed No Doze to stay up all night talking with a group of companions who were, to my mind, increasingly dull as the hours wore themselves out. When I saw him leaning over the tabletop to snort a line, I realized it was time I listened to my own exhaustion. (Before I feel too superior about my own life choices, let’s note that a cup of joe steams delectably by my keyboard as I type. Living in Utah, I have cause to remember that my preferred stimulant is someone else’s off-label use of No Doze.)

The danger of ignoring our body clocks is not always evident. Eventually, the resilience to abuse burns away. Bodies present complex arrangements of symptoms we may never recognize as having roots in our temporalities: aches, poor digestion, skin conditions, extra pounds, cravings, chronic irritation or malaise… I’m not saying all these conditions always relate to a smashed body clock. But if you’re a relatively neurotypical person with health issues, including garden-variety anxiety, OCD, or depression, then it’s worth taking a look at your chronotype—your body’s built-in preferences for the timing and duration of physical processes.

Anyone attempting to balance the tricky triumvirate–making art, making a living, and making a life–will benefit from reducing the heavy toll health issues take on the capacity to be productive and enjoy a good quality of life.

For a practical guide to chronotypes and the importance of understanding your body as a clock, check out The Power of When by Michael Brues. In addition to the book, he has a free web quiz you can take to get to learn your chronotype as defined by his categories: Bear, Wolf, Dolphin, and Lion. Regardless of how you feel about such labels, the insights are consistent with what others working in the field of chronobiology are saying about the interrelationship of body, time, and well-being.

P.S. According to his quiz, I’m a Bear, and though not every observation he offers fits me exactly, I have found working some of his recommendations into my lifestyle has helped me improve my ability to work with, not against, my body clock. Especially helpful: more light, not more coffee, first thing in the morning helps me feel alert and ready for the day.

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TOOTHBRUSH

Back when Dave was my boyfriend, we drove a million miles in his Jeep Wrangler to visit his family in Virginia. After rattling and jouncing us like a mechanical bull for ten hours, that Jeep died a sudden and complete death two miles from our destination. First thing the next day, his dad took him to a car place which is how I was stranded with his mother and umpteen thousand teenaged siblings.

It would have been fine, really, like I’d told Dave when he left, except I discovered why I couldn’t find my toothbrush the night before: I hadn’t packed one. More than a temporary hygiene challenge: lacking dental insurance, I lived in terror of plaque. So it was an economic and mental health issue too.

A store was just a couple miles off and, carless for several of my adult years, I still considered walking to be viable transportation. But when I told Dave’s mom, Teresita, what I planned to do, she was all no, no—there aren’t sidewalks, the road is busy, it’s not a good walk. I’ll drive you.

I thanked her and, somehow under the impression we’d be leaving any minute, grabbed money and shoes from the guest room and reported to the living room with near-military hustle. Good to go, I perched on the couch and waited for my host.

And waited.

You should know that at this time in my life, simmering beneath every single interaction, every single thing I thought and did, was a consuming urgency intensified by grad school. For reasons outside of my control, I was a late bloomer with the sense that I’d die without doing whatever I was supposed to do in this life unless I rode hell for leather whenever possible. I couldn’t control how fast or slow ideas happened, but I could, by God, minimize or eliminate all other elements of life so I could sit in front of my computer pondering the blinking cursor until a story or essay emerged. I was like a house with a fire inside its walls, one that looked fairly ordinary on the outside but exhaled smoke from its outlets.

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So I was on that couch pretending to be patient because, hey, I barely knew these folks. But inside, I was writhing because how could I do anything productive when I was told we’d be leaving “soon”?

Yet whenever Teresita drifted by, car keys jingling, a different teen would appear from God knows where and—

Teen: Hey, Momi, you going out?

Teresita: Yes!

Teen: Can you take me to ___________ (location many miles in the opposite direction from the store)?

Teresita: Of course!

(Teen disappears and I discover later it’s to take a shower. Being a teen, it’s a long shower followed by, no doubt, much with the blow dryer and outfit selection.)

At no point does Teresita say to the assorted youth, “We’re leaving in an hour, go get ready or stay home.” Which is the sort of thing my parents would have said. Instead, each new addition to the errand-running party was daisy-chained until “soon” was a dwindling speck on the horizon.

Three hours after my initial request, we finally climb into Tere’s minivan and travel from place to place in a giant clump. I got that toothbrush, yes, and also learned which of my future sisters-in-law liked sparkle nail polish, that my future brother-in-law did yoga, why Pop-Eye’s chicken was a big deal, and that no one but me thought it weird to spend prime work hours driving in circles around Dale City, Virginia.

As an adult and parent, I now recognize that Dave’s mom may have had reasons for wanting all of us under her watchful eye. But at the time I was bewildered. As an adult, even though a guest, wasn’t I supposed to get some say in how I spent my time? How did signing up for a quick run for a toothbrush translate into being trapped in the back seat of a minivan for hours of overwhelming human contact?

TIME CLASH

When I was a kid, my family of origin occasionally went to the mall with a clock at its center. Memory tells me this clock looked like a giant Cogsworth from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, but kind of sinister and sans song-and-dance skills. Parent-people would declare a specific time at which each of us would report back to the clock. Then as if playing Kick the Can, we’d scatter, each taking a different wing.

As a loose federation of introverts, my family considered shopping, like everything else,  a solo act. Possibly a duet. Never an ensemble.

Even now, our gatherings tend to be bordered by Newtonian time. That way you can say, “Fascinated as I am by your theory of aliens being demons, it’s eight.” This means the whole thing is out of your hands: even if you wanted to hear another crackpot idea, by objective measure, it’s time to leave. Thus, the introvert may enjoy social gatherings secure that they will end.

(To this day I do not know how to choose a box of cereal if someone is talking at me—a real problem when stopping for groceries with a chatty kid.)

Stupidly assuming that my limited experience was a reliable teacher for how the world ought to be, I was stymied by the Jacinto-Hawkins method of toothbrush shopping. Decades later, I now can perceive something of the intricate webs of beliefs, values, and assumptions that inform a group’s time culture. The clash between my experience with Teresita and my assumptions about how time should be shaped and managed—even my assumption that time is something that ought to be shaped and managed—is an example of a culture clash garnished by a temporality twist. A time clash.

TIME & CULTURE

As I’ve mentioned in this blog before, temporality is the state of being in and relating to time. It’s your time personality. And like other aspects of our identities, our temporalities are a confluence of factors, one of which is culture.

In this example, the dominant temporality in Dave’s family is what social psychologist Robert Levine calls “event time.” As Levine points out, cultures that place a higher value on the collective than the individual are more likely to run on event time than cultures that don’t. In Dave’s family, relationships, familia, get top billing in the list of shared values.

While my clan appreciates family, independence and autonomy usually outrank it. And these values aren’t just appealing to the introverts among us: they’re helpful for art-making. If you’re constantly on call for family whenever you aren’t doing paid work, how on earth can you get your projects done?

Not surprisingly, I have a lot of clock-loving German and Swiss ancestors perched in my family tree.

It’s also been pointed out that cultures in areas that are relatively unstable, whether politically, geologically, or otherwise, tend to rely on event time. Makes sense: you’ll just drive yourself nuts expecting a bus to run according to a printed timetable when monsoons flood the roads. That’s important to remember. Even here in the U.S., many people live in conditions that make time-related behaviors such as punctuality more difficult to achieve. Students and coworkers without reliable housing and food security may have to work around the schedule of a benefactor to get a shower or a meal. Parents of infants and children with special needs often need to show up late or cancel.

I think again of Teresita wrangling all those teenagers with a whole new appreciation. Seriously, I find the curveballs thrown by just two kids schedule-busting enough. If I had a whole pack of them, I might abandon the clock altogether. Especially since I have come to question the socio-political implications of marching to the minutes; i.e., Do I really want my kids to be so clock-ruled they’re unable to ride the flow of organic connection?

No, I want them to learn how to float on the twin pontoons of event time and clock time. I want them to recognize the context and lean one way or the other as needed. To be productive and connected—the temporal secret, Levine says, to The Good Life.

Footnote

Of course, a family is a multifarious, dynamic entity. My own has changed a great deal in its structure and operation since I was in grad school and even more since the time I internalized the temporality described above. For example, my mother has been known to shop with her daughter-in-law once a year, at Christmastime, when the malls blare good will music at tinseled trees and felt-dressed elves with nary a Cogsworth in sight.

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