Tag Archives: American culture

How to take a good sh*t

Nice title, right? The truth is, you may have been defecating incorrectly your entire life (well, from potty-trained toddlerhood onward).

“When nature is eased of any surcharge that oppresses it … relieved when overcharged,” the body feels one of its two great pleasures — the other of course is stuffing the other end with food and drink — according to Sir Thomas More in Utopia.

If relieving oneself regularly and easily is one of life’s great pleasures, then being frustrated by irregular and difficult bowel movements is nothing to scoff at. Indeed, a healthy digestive tract and colon is the very foundation of health. Think of the infrastructure of a building or city: The pipes must be clean, sound and flowing, or there will be some serious issues: sewage will get backed up, leading to impaction, infestation, and ultimately, ill health and disease.

We know that plenty of raw fruits and vegetables, moderate exercise (like walking), sound sleep, low stress and lots of water all help move things along. But there is something that virtually all of the oh-so-modern and sophisticated denizens of the civilized Western world are doing to thwart their poop processes.

The history of the toilet is an interesting one; flush toilets are as old as the Indus Valley Civilization circa 26th century BC. But the sit-down, throne-like “pedestal” porcelain version we are so used to using wasn’t invented until the mid-19th century; this contribution to mankind was designed for the Victorian royalty and aristocracy. What was good enough for the queen soon became standard, at least in certain spheres.

Supposedly, it is more civilized to sit than it is to squat. Our ancestors went out to the woods to relieve themselves, and our bodies are totally biologically designed to defecate in this manner. Try it when you are out camping. You will be surprised how quickly it all comes out. You begin to get what Sir Thomas was raving about.

Sitting puts a kink in our intestines and works against our bodies and against gravity. It makes the process less efficient and also causes some fecal matter to remain in the colon, which can lead to colon cancer. Sitting while defecating also can lead to prostate enlargement, prostate cancer and hemorrhoids; and, over a lifetime, leads to the deterioration of a balancing mechanism built into our heels for this purpose. (see this article for more information: http://aprovechoamerica.tripod.com/id10.html).

From a Wikipedia article on toilets in Japan:

A number of medical benefits are attributed to the squat toilet.[31] It has been suggested that the squatting strengthens the pelvic muscles of females, reducing the likelihood of incontinence.[dead link][32] Furthermore, it is said that this toilet builds up strength in the hips, and improves breathing and concentration. The upright squatting position also allows wastes to be eliminated more quickly and completely, reducing fecal transit time. Slow fecal transit is a major risk factor for colon cancer.[33]Other studies find that squatting prevents and cures hemorrhoids.[34] Assuming and maintaining the squatting position on a regular basis may also help maintain the flexibility of the knees.[35]

Squat toilets are very common in Japan, a place that prides itself on civility and cleanliness. (Bidets, another no-brainer, are also popular there as they are in Europe. Come on, America the greatest country on Earth? Not until we get with it in the bathroom). In fact, 75 percent of the world’s population squats to sit. Yes, a lot of this goes on in unsanitary conditions in the third world, but it is also common in developed countries throughout the world — countries such as Japan and France. A variation is the pedestal squat toilet used in India:

File:Pedestal-squat-toilet.jpg

If you don’t have a hole to squat over, don’t despair. You can get close to the same effect (although not quite to Utopian levels of defecatory ecstasy) by pulling up the resident bathroom trashcan and putting your feet on it. Some companies actually sell special foot stools for this purpose, but a trash can or anything that allows your feet to be elevated and your knees to bend will help.

I imagine that our ancestors’ waste matter was great for soil fertility, especially since their diet was largely plant-based. Modern day humans can go for a compost toilet; this one comes complete with attached footstool:

Sun-Mar Excel Self-Contained Composting Toilet, Model# Excel

Although the price is a little much. Shouldn’t pooping be free?

Along similar lines (literally), giving birth to a child is also best done in positions other than lying on one’s back. Documentaries such as The Business of Being Born and Pregnant in America talk about how our (must use the little quotey things) “modern, civilized” approach to birth — hospitals, exorbitant costs, forceps, drugs, pain, and generally long and unpleasant labor — is very unnatural. Many European and Eastern countries use midwives and time-tested methods to give birth at home. These processes are safe and often produce shorter, less painful labor, making the experience much more pleasant and comfortable. The mother should be able to move into a variety of positions (squatting, on all fours, etc.), listening to her body to tell her how to move and work with her body, the baby and with gravity.

These examples are two of many in which we consider ourselves unequivocally advanced and superior to cultures anterior and contemporaneous, but may in fact  be utterly backwards. In my next blog I want to discuss the widely held assumption/misconception of future as equivalent to progress, and how ‘new’ does not always equal ‘better.’

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Working less, living more

As night descends upon this glorious Labor Day, I can imagine people all across the United States getting that terrible feeling of dread as they realize that tomorrow they have to get up and go back to work.

Americans’ unhealthy preoccupation with working their lives away is one of my favorite topics. I always find it amusing when people equate working longer hours with stronger overall economy. Greece, for example, has the second longest work week in the world, second only to South Korea. But because of their recent economic catastrophe, people imagine Greeks sitting around in plazas indulging themselves with fine Feta while more industrious Europeans, like the Germans, are hard at work.

This is extra amusing because Germans have a much shorter work week than most of the developed world, with the average worker clocking around 25-30 hours per week and enjoying about 34 paid holidays a year. Scandinavian countries Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands have the shortest work weeks (around 25) and yet their economies are robust and their standard of living among the best in the world.

“BUT” people then respond, “you cannot compare the United States with these much smaller countries.” Okay, well how about Canada then; their average citizen works several hours less than the average American, yet their average individual net worth recently surpassed ours.

Overall economy and average standard of living has more to do with how efficiently the government is run and where they are putting their taxpayers’ dollars than how many hours the average citizen is putting in. In other words, work smarter, not harder.

But there is a whole psychology behind Americans’ need to get up extra early, stay extra late, and put in overtime on the weekends. They equate working harder to being better. Back in the day, the ruling elite (the aristocratic one percent) had the opposite mindset — instead of toiling all day like a slave, they were able to spend their time in productive, enlightened pursuits.

Industry and productivity is indeed a virtue, but working efficiently and effectively is more often accomplished when not chained to a desk. Flexibility, creativity, innovation and a healthy work/life balance are more progressive workplace ideals than the need to spend all day long on the job, a trend that only came about during the industrial revolution.

“Since the 1960s, the consensus among anthropologists, historians, and sociologists has been that early hunter-gatherer societies enjoyed more leisure time than is permitted by capitalist and agrarian societies;[5][6] For instance, one camp of !Kung Bushmen was estimated to work two-and-a-half days per week, at around 6 hours a day.[7] Aggregated comparisons show that on average the working day was less than five hours.[5]

“The New Economics Foundation has recommended moving to a 21 hour standard work week to address problems with unemployment, high carbon emissions, low well-being, entrenched inequalities, overworking, family care, and the general lack of free time.[1][2][3] Actual work week lengths have been falling in the developed world.[4]” 

“In the United States, the working time for upper-income professionals has increased compared to 1965, while total annual working time for low-skill, low-income workers has decreased.[32] This effect is sometimes called the ‘leisure gap’.”

Read more here.

More depressing facts:

  • The U.S. is the ONLY country in the Americas without a national paid parental leave benefit. The average is over 12 weeks of paid leave anywhere other than Europe and over 20 weeks in Europe.
  • Zero industrialized nations are without a mandatory option for new parents to take parental leave. That is, except for the United States.
  • At least 134 countries have laws setting the maximum length of the work week; the U.S. does not.
  • In the U.S., 85.8 percent of males and 66.5 percent of females work more than 40 hours per week.
  • According to the ILO, “Americans work 137 more hours per year than Japanese workers, 260 more hours per year than British workers, and 499 more hours per year than French workers.”
  • Using data by the U.S. BLS, the average productivity per American worker has increased 400% since 1950. One way to look at that is that it should only take one-quarter the work hours, or 11 hours per week, to afford the same standard of living as a worker in 1950 (or our standard of living should be 4 times higher). Is that the case? Obviously not. Someone is profiting, it’s just not the average American worker.
  • There is not a federal law requiring paid sick days in the United States.
  • The U.S. remains the only industrialized country in the world that has no legally mandated annual leave.
  • In every country included except Canada and Japan (and the U.S., which averages 13 days/per year), workers get at least 20 paid vacation days.  In France and Finland, they get 30 – an entire month off, paid, every year.
  • The average worker in Germany and the Netherlands puts in 20% fewer hours in a year than the average worker in the United States.

Sources: http://20somethingfinance.com/american-hours-worked-productivity-vacation/http://www.deanstalk.net/deanstalk/2008/04/putting-in-the.html

Working smarter, not harder, would boost productivity and progress as well as overall health and happiness. Working smarter could mean flexible hours and location as well as more progressive workplace processes and hierarchies. The ideal situation, in my opinion, is self-employment and entrepreneurship. Then you can work as long and hard as you want to with the aim of actualizing your dream, not someone else’s.

But shortening the work week won’t just make peoples’ lives better. It might also boost the national economy and reduce unemployment, as a recent Guardian article entitled “Why Americans should work less, the way Germans do” opined. So the next time you start feeling that ethnocentric, Puritan superiority complex taking over all logical thought, you might want to re-consider what really constitutes an ideal society and a high standard of living. Yes, we all need to work to live, but I myself wouldn’t mind doing it  a little more like the Samoans or the Italians — drinking wine, enjoying the sunset, and getting called lazy by all the miserable workaholics. And don’t forget, the more hours you sit a day, the sooner you will die!

Workinghours_2

American paid vacations

America the Ambiguous

A few days ago, us Americans oohed and ahhed over environmentally damaging fireworks displays (personally, I’d rather be able to see the stars at night), barbecued with our families and celebrated our independence. I am proud and grateful to be an American, but a little less so than I used to be, back when I wasn’t aware of all the problems this country has.

I love the country — the physical land itself. I can only imagine how glorious it was a couple centuries ago, before its forests were devastated, rivers dammed, lakes polluted and scenery blighted. I love the ideals and philosophies that the Founding Fathers based our constitution and government upon. I love certain things the country still stands for: entrepreneurship, equality and progress.

But I can’t mindlessly retort, as many do, that this is “The Greatest Country On Earth.” We are not the only country with great ideals, progressive people and high standards of living. In fact, the U.S. fails to crack the top 10 of “The Happiest Countries in the World,” and fails short in areas such as health care, education and work/life balance.

Of course, we are a lot better off than many other countries, and I don’t mean to frivolously cast aspersions. But I can’t blindly be obedient, either. Every person should love their native country, but what about North Koreans? At what point can pride and patriotism justifiably become criticism?

Republicans, Democrats, and — what the hell, why put a label on yourself — “The Others” think there are some serious problems with our current government. Tea Partiers, Occupiers, and anyone that isn’t solely fixated on Fox, CNN, MSN and Yahoo can see that we are more and more becoming a country ruled by the CEOs and for the CEOs. Our rights are being subtly and insidiously undermined to the point where you don’t know if you should be seriously freaked out, or carry on as usual. Paranoia or Prescience?

And at what point do you abandon trying to change the system from within and just give up and defect?

Here is a list of cultural differences between the U.S. and European countries. Interestingly, one point made is that “Few Europeans would mind rational criticisms of their country’s government, while a good deal of Americans find them offensive or disrespectful … some Americans go as far as regarding criticism of their government as a personal attack. Europeans are only too happy to hear other people criticizing their own politicians or their country’s problems.”

Here are some things I personally prefer about Europe: the food, architecture, culture, lifestyle, 4-6 weeks mandatory paid time off vacation, shorter work weeks, siestas, less chemicals and pesticides, multi-party systems, more enjoyment of life, less emphasis on job and work, trains and other public transportation, ability to walk and get around a city without a car, labeling of GMOs, bidets, free university education, dress style, sensuality, daily rhythms, aesthetics, coffee and wine, multilingualism, celebration of soccer, and just general outlook on life and beauty of the landscapes (natural and manmade).

To which I’m sure, some red-white-and-blue-blooded Bible Belter will surely scream, then get the hell out! To which I reply, if only I could, I’d take the next plane.

(Oh, and a fellow blogger just wrote a related post, comparing America to the uncool kid who, love him or hate him, is still the center of the world’s attention, and, in some respects, still Number One.)

One-way ticket to Rome

Yep, that’s right. Today I bought a one-way ticket to Rome. I’ve been thinking about going for some time, but something has kept me back; and it still haunts and threatens me.

No, I’m not talking about money. This is something intangible. I’m referring to my conditioning.

Those who know me well have heard me bring up this topic time and time again. They are either sick of it or are too conditioned themselves to acknowledge it. Most people respond with any critical comment of America with, “This is the greatest country in the world.”

I am by no means a black-and-white thinker. I understand that every situation, person and place has its good and bad. I am grateful to be an American and to enjoy the rights that I do; I love my job and my life. But none of that negates my point: Americans, in general, work too much.

And I’m not just BSing. Numerous objective studies consistently place the States far down the list of the best countries to work in. Here are the top 10, as reported by the Huffington Post: Denmark, Norway, Netherlands, Finland, Belgium, Switzerland, Sweden, Germany, Portugal, France.

This was based on work-life balance (how much paid time off is afforded, how many hours worked a week, how much paid leave for parents, etc.)

It is a well-known fact that most countries in Europe mandate a 5-6 week PAID vacation. Of course, Americans get about 2 weeks if they are lucky. 21 days is considered phenomenal. The problem is that most workplaces discourage people from taking off more than a week at once, even if it is unpaid. Therefore, most people are not able to take extended vacations.

Everything is relative. Some people have it far worse and I know I am lucky. But to many, travel is not considered a self-indulgent luxury, but one of life’s greatest and most fulfilling, educational experiences. In fact, one of elderly people’s frequent greatest regrets is that they did not travel more when they were younger (another is wishing they had worked less).

Trips — and not of the weekend resort/Disneyland variety, although those are nice too — are often the highlights and hallmarks of a lifetime. Who wants to do the same thing, in the same place, every day for years upon years? Who doesn’t yearn to admire our planet’s great natural and manmade wonders, to immerse completely in the utter foreignness of other lands, to interface with our brothers and sisters across the seas?

This article, by the Atlantic, goes more in-depth on the subject. It details the top 23 countries to work, with the States dead last. I also encourage you to read the top comments, comments like this:

“Americans work longer days and get less vacation then our European counterparts. Did you know that more German made cars are sold than American made cars? Yet German auto workers make twice what American auto workers make and , get better benefits and more vacation? I’m sure thats all just stacked against the good ol USA.  Wake up, look around. Instead of believing the old BS learn about the reality you are living in.”

and

“I work in the Netherlands. I get 8 weeks paid holiday, a very reasonably priced health insurance plan and I work for a company that has flex hours. We have public transportation that is clean, efficient and plentiful. The Netherlands is an extremely integrated society. There are people from all walks of life living in Holland. And oddly enough, they have almost none of the social problems that the US has.

Are you kidding me? It’s a fantastic life and one I thoroughly love. I’m privileged to be able to work there and live there. And yes, all of these countries are in Europe. That should tell you something. ”

Just to give you some perspective. CNN also featured an article entitled “Why is America the no-vacation nation?” I HIGHLY RECOMMEND you read this article. It discusses the fact that not only do Americans get barely any vacation opportunities, but they are CONDITIONED to think that they SHOULD NOT BE taking the vacation — my original premise. They (I) feel guilty; I should instead be working diligently, impressing my superiors, climbing the ladder, stacking the cash and saving for the future. Taking a vacation is impractical, self-indulgent, immature and reckless. These are the thoughts nagging me (while the other me is saying go enjoy life and have adventures while you still can).

I doubt that Europeans feel guilty while they are out enjoying life and not chained to their desks. And I’m rather perturbed by the commentary I get in response to these statements — one, people are under the impression that their current economic crisis is a direct result of working less hours. How does this make sense when the U.S. is the one that set off the global recession; when you observe that Europe prospered for years and that people who work hard and long in sweatshops, for example, have little to no effect on their country’s GDP, let alone their own personal well-being. Any cursory survey of world history will prove the correlation of more hours worked to national financial health to be a fallacy. The real culprits are corruption and mismanagement in the upper echelons.

The other response I often get is something along the lines of, “everyone in the world wants to come here; at least you can say what you want without getting shot.” There is truth to this. There are many opportunities in this land of plenty and people, for the most part, are allowed to voice their opinion. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t improve or learn anything from others.

Plus, taking vacations is supposed to improve health, relieve stress, and improve cognition and creativity — all things which contribute to a higher quality of productive output.

Make space for what matters

I have written before about how many Americans are conditioned to want more and more things. Besides being a waste of money, a misguided focusing of energy, and potentially detrimental to the environment, there is another negative consequence: clutter.

When you have a big house with lots of space, shelves and closets, it’s not so bad (until you move and have to deal with three enormous U-Hauls of crap). Many people stuff their garages to the brim, while others have to overflow into spare rooms or storage units.

This MSN Money article discusses the phenomenon of the storage industry, as does this longer but fascinating New York Times feature. It’s interesting to note that people with a small to average-sized storage unit can end up paying tens of thousands of dollars on a long-term basis [monthly unity cost ($120) x 7 years = $10,080].

Some things are priceless: old photos and nostalgic, sentiment-saturated mementos. We can’t throw everything away. We can give some things away. We can go years without coming into contact with many of these things, often forgetting just what is lying around in all those cardboard boxes. Yet we are comforted that they are there, safe and sound.

It turns into love-hate. We feel burdened by all our things, yet we don’t want to part with them. We are overwhelmed with the task of organizing and cataloguing them. If there are too many things, we lose them and can spend anxious hours searching. Once high-priced items rapidly depreciate; last year’s showroom furniture can turn into tomorrow’s Craigslist ad or garage sale.

And we keep buying more.

Of course, the question of how much is too much depends on who you are and what you value. I found a recent summary of a TEDTalk inspiring and enlightening. It discusses how to “edit your life” down to what really matters. It concludes with this:

“2012 is the time to edit. We edit for the sake of the planet, for the sake of our pocketbooks, for the sake of our happiness.

Your personal edit might be buying a smaller home, participating in a car share, or buying one less pair of jeans. The specifics are not important. Simply remember that everything you add to your life that is not important, detracts from everything that is.”

You can read the rest of the article and watch the original TEDTalk here.

This Mother Jones article (which they shamelessly recycled from 2007, but hey, it’s still relevant) has some crazy statistics related to Americans’ pathological accumulation tendencies.

I’m no saint. I’ve definitely down-sized, yet I still love to get a new pair of high heels every now and then. I couldn’t throw my life into a backpack and travel the world — not unless I moved everything into a relative’s attic or a storage unit. But I do plan to think about editing my life in 2012 — making space, time and money for what matters, and getting rid of everything else.

Well-endowed actor has a brain to match his …

I have never watched HBO’s “Hung” nor do I ever plan to, and apparently, neither does its star, Thomas Jane.

In this recent Huffington Post article, he eschews all “in-depth brainwashing that’s done by CNN or any news show or any television show.”

His awesome interview continues:

“People’s reactions to the world around them, if you give them drugs and alcohol, they tend to not worry too much that you’re ripping them off on the parking meters and you’re putting people in office that don’t know what the f*ck they’re doing. We can go down to the bar and complain about it there instead of going down to f*cking Congress and complaining to the people who really f*cking need to hear it, you’ll find yourself down at the corner bar, yelling at the f*cking bartender, who could give a f*ck, is just waiting to go home and turn on the goddamn TV.

“I find a nation of sleepers and slackers, and it’s not our fault, we’ve been conditioned to stay asleep… We wake up briefly, but by then we’re too tired and shell shocked and beaten down to do anything about it, because we realize half of our life is gone. Generally, the easiest thing to do is to fall back asleep and just sort of nestle in and wait for a bit until we slough off the mortal coil and call it quits. That’s the metaphor in our film of death …

“That’s what school is, it’s a prison for your mind, and it’s a travesty that we do this to our children, it’s an open letter that Rockefeller wrote to the President of the United States saying, ‘We need workers,'” he says, noting that he does not send his own children to American public schools. “And that’s why we have the school system that we have in our country, is that Rockefeller said we need workers, people who follow directions, who are able to stay in one place for about eight hours a day, and people who fear authority…

“Really? I’m 40 years old and still wearing the same goddamn uniform that I wore in my 20s? So what’s the new uniform — a suit? Well, okay, everyone wears a f*cking suit. With that, you’re just a suit, you’re a zombie, there’s no self-expression. There’s no individuality within that. So it’s either blend in and become a zombie, or revert to your 20s. We got nothing.”

It has accrued over a thousand comments so far. Negative comments range from “nothing new” to “self-important ex-junkie” to “B.S.” Positive comments abound as well. No matter which side you are on, however, you have to admit that it is astoundingly refreshing to hear someone part of the vapid Hollywood world come out and make statements like this. Statements that, you know, actually make you think a little.