Sunday afternoon, fast and slow

Last gasp of a bad habit

There’s not a more fraught period of time for me each week than Sunday afternoon. It’s 3:37 p.m. as I type, and the sun has finally come out on what was a chilly, gloomy weekend. Sunday afternoons are a time of rising panic, and deepening regret. Where did the weekend go? Why didn’t I have the time of my life? Shouldn’t I have been working in the yard, or going on a 50-mile bike ride, or finishing that overdue library book? And this dread goes back to my youth: a looming pile of unfinished homework, or returning to peers and teachers that I didn’t like very much.

But I think my horror of Sunday afternoons has its deepest roots in college. I remember the fall semester–I think it was junior year. Every Saturday night I’d be out all night drinking. I’d sleep in until noon. Then I’d grab the Sunday edition of The New York Times and stumble down to the commissary in the basement of John Jay Hall. (For the life of me, I can’t remember what that eatery was called.) I’d load up on coffee, eggs and bacon, and whatever else they were serving. I’d take my tray and my newspaper to a table in front of the television. And there I’d sit, Sunday afternoon after Sunday afternoon, reading the Times and watching professional football.

After the games were over, and after I’d trudged through the Times Magazine, the Book Review, the opinion columns, the Travel section, the Sports section, and all the rest, I would go upstairs and step outside in the darkening hours of Sunday. The day was shot, and I hadn’t begun to study. I hadn’t spoken to anyone. I felt very lonely.

So, I don’t exactly remember the moment when I started making changes. I do know that I have not been an avid fan of the NFL since college. Today, while I share some of the pious disdain people have for the crippling spectacle of American football, my revulsion truly stems from recognizing it as a colossal waste of autumnal Sunday afternoons.

It’s 3:50 now. The light is a little softer outside. I am trying to embrace Sunday afternoons as a time of rest and reflection, not an occasion for mounting anxiety and despair. Birds flit about outside my window. I played soccer this morning at Twin Lakes Park. I did some administrative work for Durham Atlético. S.O. has asked what kind of music she should put on. I asked her to put on Philip Glass. (Maybe we’ll catch some of this. Pricey, though.)

The photo at the top of this post shows two pipes I used to own for the purpose of vaping. I threw them away yesterday. It’s another milestone: on Memorial Day Weekend, 2015, I smoked my last tobacco product. I’d been a smoker, on and off, for 27 years. It’s true that I wasn’t a heavy smoker these last few years, but still I puffed, every day, even while getting lots of exercise, improving my diet, and losing weight. My use of tobacco was a crutch, as it is for many, a way to fiddle and stay busy, and find a release for tension and anxiety. I’d quit many times over the years, but I’d always returned to smoking. I didn’t smoke cigarettes so much as cheap cigars and cigarillos, a taste I developed living in New York City in the mid-’90s. In Brooklyn, on Eastern Parkway among the West Indians, I fit right in.

But on Memorial Day Weekend one and half years ago, I decided to give this vaping thing a try. Rather than attack the compulsion to smoke, I decided to change substances. I quickly discovered that I didn’t much care for inhaling the flavored gas that was heated in my pipe, but it was a close enough substitute for smoking tobacco. As unsatisfactory and thin an experience as vaping was, I still had my crutch, and at least I was no longer putting smoke into my lungs.

Six weeks ago, over Thanksgiving, I finally walked away from the crutch of a vape stick. I’d kept my pipes around–just in case–but yesterday I threw them away, just after snapping this photo.

So, I don’t inhale anything besides oxygen and nitrogen, and I don’t drink. I have a lot of thoughts about my past and perhaps future relationship with alcohol, but I’ll save that for another time.

I suppose I feel virtuous, but I also feel a sense of shame. I feel the weight of all those hours lost to lonely–if meditative–intoxication and stimulation. Opportunities I may have missed, money I wasted or didn’t earn, friends I lost or never made.

These habits were things I did instead of doing things. I think back to those nights–night after night–on Eastern Parkway, where I had no social life, no worthwhile job, no money, no girlfriend, no courage, no path forward in the city. In the evenings, after another long day working as a legal assistant for a midtown Manhattan firm, I would go down to the pizza shop on Flatbush Avenue below Grand Army Plaza, grab a greasy slice of sausage-peppers-and-onion. At the bodega I would get a 40-oz bottle of Budweiser and a box of Phillies. Sometimes I sat in the bushes in the center of of the roundabout, out of everyone’s sight. I did this in the rain, in the winter, too.

I am scrambling now, trying to wring the most out of the years that are left to me. It’s easy to rid myself of these crutches when I have things to do that are more important.

Book I read:

Today is the day that the main branch of our local library closes for renovations. Voters passed a $43 million bond back in November, and as a result, the library will be closed for a whopping two years. I have mixed feelings about this. While our library was physically dingy, and socially dispiriting (it was filled every day with homeless people who need a daytime hangout), it’s a pretty decent one nonetheless. The programs aren’t bad, and the book collection is about as good as I think is reasonable to expect.

We have other branches, of course, so I’ll be able to request and check out books during the renovations. All this is preamble to noting that I have held onto an overdue library book for the stupidest reason: I want to refer to it while blogging here.

OK, Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. It comes freighted with heavy blurbs, like this from the Black Swan himself, Nassim Nicholas Taleb: “This is a landmark book in social thought, in the same league as Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams.”

That may be a bit much, but Taleb is all about going big or going home. I don’t have a coherent response to the Kahneman’s book, but I did find it a chore to finish. After a while, I felt like the chapters were one parlor trick after another, pulled from the back catalog of a long, distinguished academic career. But boy, there were a lot of nuggets, even if I think they should have constructed a more clear argument.

Here are a few, and this is the purpose of keeping the book around. I wanted to write down a few of these things.

“the world makes much less sense than you think. The coherence comes mostly from the way your mind works.”

Cognitive ease–reduce cognitive strain if you want to write a persuasive message. Use simple language. Put ideas in verse (!).

Halo effects.

Framing effects.

Heuristic questions.

[target] How much would you contribute to save an endangered species?

[heuristic] How much emotion do I feel when I think of dying dolphins?

Kahneman divides our thinking into System 1 and System 2. The first is the intuitive snap judgment generator. This is the source of our biases, of course. The second is our deeper reasoning. But it’s lazy.

Here are some characteristics of System 1, cribbed from page 105.

  • generates impressions, feelings, and inclinations; when endorsed by System 2 these become beliefs attitudes, and intentions
  • can be programmed by System 2 to mobilize attention when a particular pattern is detected (search)
  • links a sense of cognitive ease to illusions of truth, pleasant feelings, and reduced vigilance
  • distinguishes the surprising from the normal
  • infers and invents causes and intentions
  • neglects ambiguity and suppresses doubt
  • exaggerates emotional consistency (halo effect)
  • focuses on existing evidence and ignores absent evidence (WYSIATI)
  • sometimes substitutes an easier question for a difficult one (heuristics)
  • is more sensitive to changes than to states (prospect theory)
  • overweights low probabilities
  • shows diminishing sensitivity to quantity
  • responds more strongly to losses than to gains (loss aversion)
  • frames decision problems narrowly, in isolation from one another

This is all I have time for. I’m going to return this book and pay my fine. It’s 5:26 p.m., and, starting in 34 minutes, the library closes for the next two years. I’m going to miss it.

Movies:

Watched the first three episodes of The Night Manager, based on John LeCarré’s early-’90s novel. The cast (Hugh Laurie, Toms Hiddleston and Hollander, etc) is excellent, but it’s basically a coffeetable tale–like an investigative article in Vanity Fair or something. Glamorous and predictable. Perfectly watchable, though.

Saw the first two episodes of O.J. Simpson: Made in America. It’s every bit as good as advertised. Its director, Ezra Edelman, turns out to be the son of Marian Wright Edelman and Peter Edelman. The former spoke at my college graduation.

OK, off to the library. Then to walk the dog. It’s well past the magic hour outside. It’s getting dark.

UPDATE: Back from the library, where I grabbed a souvenir photo.

One last overdue book. See you in two years.