Some of the following first appeared in the “Adirondack Daily Enterprise.”
I recently read in the New York Times, the mother lode of things we should be afraid of, that rumination can cause all kinds of problems – anxiety, depression, probably diarrhea, certainly athlete’s foot. That’s bad. I ruminate a lot. I even put my ruminations in print and set them adrift, messages in a post-industrial bottle.
I don’t get it. Isn’t rumination the primary trait that distinguishes regular people from Donald Trump?
I may have to join Scientology and get clear.
Or maybe see a mental health practitioner of some sort for training in mindfulness meditation, which is said to be an antidote to rumination. (Some people also view it as the high road to happiness.)
But since Wikipedia makes rumination sound like a sin – venial if not mortal – perhaps a priest is my best bet. “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. My last confession was three weeks ago. Since then I’ve ruminated – I don’t know for sure – seven, maybe eight, times.”
An article in Psychology Today makes it sound like a confession of masturbation. “I’m still an inveterate ruminator, and for some reason ruminate mostly in the mornings, or when I’m doing physical exercise.” The similarity to masturbation begins to break down at this point, though I suppose some forms of exercise permit it. Come to think of it, I once saw a guy in Baghdad wanking off while riding a bicycle.
The confession continues. “These days, though, I’m at least aware of when I’m ruminating, and I can sense when the rumination is going too far and when it will start affecting my mood for the entire day. I can even stop it, when I get to this point.” That last part doesn’t sound like masturbation, does it?
No worries, the analogy comes right back to life. “But sometimes, even though I’m aware that I’m ruminating, I don’t want to stop; it feels good to ruminate.”
It doesn’t take much to start me ruminating. Just driving Baby Kitty to the vet the other day did it. She yowled the whole eight miles to Lake Placid, but purred all the way home. The winsome stray, Audrey Hepburn, used to do that, too. So did the inestimable Peewee.
Wouldn’t such mysteries cause anyone to ruminate at least a little? How can kitties know so much? Dogs and other pets offer up similar questions. Everyone who’s ever had a cat or a dog has a story about how it did something so remarkable and puzzling it seemed to have not merely a brain, but a mind.
Friends told me once about how one evening their aging pooch – Hallie, I believe her name was – made the rounds of Mom, Dad, and the three sons as they sat together watching television, put her head on each lap for a moment, then went out the door, and presumably gave up the ghost. In any case, she was never seen again. Maybe she just ran off. But the manner of her leave-taking suggests something else.
And then there was the behavior of a Schnauzer named Sigmund. In a friend’s last Alzheimer-stricken days, he had a separate bedroom in his home, and Siggy shared his bed. When my friend died in his sleep one night, Siggy went to the door and barked until someone came to see what was going on. Maybe he was calling for medical help, but the family thinks he was trying to get someone to open the door to let my friend’s spirit out. I prefer the family’s view. In either case, Sigmund, the Schnauzer recognized death when it came to call. It sounds like Hallie may have too.
One time, my cat Peewee jumped up on my sickbed and put his paws on either side of my neck. The pain from ulcers in my throat quickly abated, my fever broke, and for the first time is several days, I was able to sleep for a while.
Such not-uncommon mysterious occurrences encourage rumination.
It turns out I’m not alone in my interest in the mysteries of animal behavior. Researchers have trained dogs to remain motionless in the presence of banging noises, so that they can be subjected to MRI examinations meant to find out what goes on in their doggie brains.
I have reservations about knowing what’s happening to amino acids and synapses in the cranium of dogs. To know that about, say, working sheep dogs, would probably diminish the wonder of what they do. I prefer ruminating on it without having any information beyond what I can see with the naked eye or invent.
Driving back from the vet’s office, ruminating on why Baby Kitty had ceased her caterwauling, it was only a step or two to consideration of other animal mysteries.
What about, for example, the possibility that if Sigmund recognized the death of my friend, perhaps he and other animals are aware of their own mortality? Hallie seemed to have been. Certainty on this question is beyond the ability of science, of course. You just decide what you believe about it. My own answer has sure taken the fun out of eating meat.
Anyway, after reading that scary piece in the Times about what awaited me if I didn’t stop ruminating, I did a little research. To my relief, I learned that I was not in as much trouble as I had thought. There was just a semantic problem on the loose. The mental health people have taken a useful word in general parlance – rumination – and turned it into a self-serving term of art.
When they say “rumination,” they are not referring to what I do in these essays. They mean becoming so absorbed in some personal problem that you more or less lose your mind. Not to worry though, cures are available.
Curiously, the problem of pathological self-absorption is best whipped by piling on more self-absorption. It is recommended that you sit cross-legged on a cushion and concentrate on your breathing. You may recognize that practice as meditation, which it is, though a specialized form called mindfulness meditation is the latest treatment.
I got bogged down when reading about the differences between mindfulness and regular meditation. Perhaps if I were a better reader and a more empathetic person, I wouldn’t prefer the frontal assault found in old British movies. “Good Lord, man. Get a grip.” And when it comes to keeping my own snakes in their basket, I find quietly watching the sun come up through the maples and white pines and looking out over the cemetery beyond and reading the Daily Office to be a better practice. At least it doesn’t double down on self-absorption.
Anyway, I shall continue to ruminate without fear of untoward consequences.
In fact, I did it again the other day when I went grocery shopping in Lake Placid. Maybe there’s something about that slow twenty-minute drive through the white pines that sends a signal to the brain.
I make a grocery run about once a week. I rather enjoy it, especially the overture, a stop at Saranac Sourdough for a grilled spicy Thai eggplant sandwich on hearty whole-grain bread. “Spicy” does not describe adequately the level of piquant that thing bears. It’s really hot and really good. I take a drug for acid reflux, and I’m told that my esophagus is looking rough and red and threatening. So? The proprietress asks, “your usual?” You bet. The threat of throat cancer is no match for the allure of that sandwich.
I leave the sandwich shop happily munching antacids, and make my way to the supermarket. Actually, to two supermarkets. One has better prices. One has superior produce.
Saranac Lake also has two supermarkets, but their primary virtue is that the limited selection and scruffy displays suppress your appetite and discourage overeating, sometimes eating at all. I go there for tortilla chips, avocados, and the Sunday New York Times. That’s about it.
We also have a co-op. Not a big one. Just a group of people who have a deal with a wholesaler to deliver an order of bulk items once a month. A tractor-trailer rig chugs in like a diesel-powered Wells Fargo wagon and parks by the train depot. The driver piles our stuff on the sidewalk, and we pick around among it until we fill our individual orders. There is bit of friendly conversation but not a lot. I don’t know many of the people I’m cooperating with. Anyway, it’s often so cold that standing around chatting has little appeal.
I find our twenty-five-pound bags of beans and oats, case of almond milk and nondairy “cheese,” big bags of walnuts (cheaper through the co-op, but still expensive), and various household products. (Unless we’re struck down with recurring cholera, we shouldn’t need any more toilet paper until around November of 2018.)
I suppose most of us get most of our groceries at supermarkets. They do a pretty good job of it. They offer a large variety of food, and we are only slightly limited by the planting/harvesting cycle. Fruits and vegetables are always ripe somewhere on the planet, and they are usually available at the American grocery store in cans or frozen or even fresh. Not “fresh” as in picked yesterday, though. Chilean grapes, Ecuadoran bananas, Dominican pineapples, and such arrive by rapid transit (by air in fancy stores), but the trip is still long enough that they have to be picked green. Apparently customers aren’t bothered much by that – shelves are continuously stocked with still-not-quite-ripe produce. But occasionally, something local is on offer, and we remember what it’s like to eat, say, a vine-ripened field tomato grown just up the road. .
Big cities offer a variation on the supermarket – the absurdly super market. When Ann and I find ourselves near one of those marvels of western civilization, we hurry in eagerly to have a look. On a trip to a suburb of Washington D.C., we enjoyed a self-guided tour (couldn’t find a docent) of a Wegmans. We strolled about in a state of mind resembling closely what we’d felt at the Smithsonian.
The absurdly super market is distinguished from the merely super market by being larger (the floor space is measured in acres); by offering lots of enticing prepared foods to take away or to eat on site; by presenting remarkably artful displays, a greater variety of produce, and astonishingly extensive choices of the same items. When my eye falls on those long, long rows of crackers and rice, I feel a surge of patriotic pride. America is exceptional .
When Whole Foods Market was getting started in the 1970s in Austin, it was different in important ways from what it has become. If memory serves, it began as a tiny shop – maybe 600 square feet – called the Good Food Store. It offered organic produce and no meat, and it pushed the idea of healthy eating when most stores relied for profit on Wonder Bread, bacon, and all things cholesterol. The fruits and vegetables at the Good Food Store were misshapen and unwashed, and customers couldn’t get enough of them.
Shopping there was a trip into the counter culture. The guys sported long hair and beards, and the young women displayed lots of flesh, exuding more heat than the spicy Thai eggplant sandwich that I have to make do with these days. And hanging in the air along with the aroma of Patchouli oil was a sense of righteousness.
The Whole Foods Market of today continues to promote organic food and healthy eating, and the sense of righteousness is still pervasive, but it has become mostly a fancy grocery store with a huge inventory and, for the most part, high prices. (Some Whole Foods Markets, such as the one in an Albany suburb, are sort of miniaturized versions of the full-size model.)
As meritorious as supermarkets are, as spectacular as the absurdly super ones are, they leave a good deal to be desired. There is a certain artificiality about them. They are about conspicuous consumption as much as about honest food. Shopping in one magically enhances self-esteem. There is something off about that.
In my growing up, getting food into the kitchen tended to involve more than driving to a store and entering into a commercial transaction. In its highest realization, the getting and cooking and coming together at the table was all of a piece.
One or two most memorable meals took place at the home of relatives who lived in the country. On those occasions, most of the food originated just a few feet away from the table. Someone would go out back and kill a couple of hens and pick tomatoes, lettuce, summer squash, and greens. Peaches and berries from the yard provided dessert. Maybe we’d have corn from some nearby farm stand. The grocery store’s contribution was potatoes, flour, cornmeal, lard, baking powder, sugar, milk, tea – mostly ingredients for biscuits, cornbread, pie dough, and other items to be made at home.
I expect supermarket chains have considered how to make shopping more connected to the table. So far they’ve not succeeded.
Happily, an antidote to supermarket artificiality – albeit a temporary one – is on its way. Farmers’ markets will soon be open again. Harvest festivals have long been common, but to my way of thinking, a greater occasion for celebration is the opening of booths in public squares and stands open along roadsides in late spring/early summer where the first fruits of the earth’s bounty are set out in boxes and on tables without overmuch attention to artistic display.
Now that’s something to ruminate on.