Hacking your mood with a Strawberry Letter

A couple of weeks ago, I popped into the First National Taphouse to pick up the dinner we’d ordered, and on their sound system was a song I hadn’t heard, or thought about, in years. It was the Brothers Johnson, singing their 1977 hit, “Strawberry Letter #23,” which has a fun, bouncy melody for the chorus, “A present froooom you, Strawberry Letter 22.” Or, alternatively, the line, “Feel sunshine sparkle pink and blue.” Check it out!

The premise is that the singer/narrator and his lover have been exchanging “strawberry letters” as tokens of love, and having just received her Strawberry Letter #22, this song is his response, #23. It was confusing at the time – we all thought the song title should or did include #22, not #23.

Anyway! After that Taphouse meal, I wrote “Strawberry Letter #23” into my ongoing, multi-page do-list and now, whenever I scroll down and come across it, voilà! A cheery, bouncy tune begins playing in the back of my mind, infusing its positive energy into my day. (Alternatively, if pop-funk is too perky for you, try this extremely infectious sea shanty, a recent TikTok craze.)

It’s basically the same phenomenon described in this recent Washington Post article about rewatching old movies and shows – and the same thing I wrote about a month or two ago, about taking a mental stay-cation. We can hack our own moods by setting aside some time to deliberately put our attention Continue reading

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Fairness and the “R” word

Last week I shared my concern that efforts to hold the United States accountable for what our society has done to handicap some population groups could lead to some very negative side-effects. That is, our discussions of collective responsibility could lead to a backlash and a disavowal of democracy altogether. If we shift to a form of government where citizens are only minimally involved – an authoritarian style where we leave responsibility to the person in charge – some might find that liberating.

As an example of such accountability efforts, I mentioned the idea of “reparations,” such as the original plan to give the newly emancipated African Americans 40 acres and a mule, and more recent suggestions by Ta-Nehisi Coates.


One of my readers (RT), made the point that “if people are disadvantaged in the present, we have a collective responsibility to do something about it regardless of what happened in the past.” I agree! Unfortunately, as this timely op-ed by Heather C. McGhee makes clear, the United States isn’t doing Continue reading

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One freedom may be the biggest threat to democracy

Today I want to talk about a perverse incentive that some Americans may have for preferring a more authoritarian government – it can give them a certain type of freedom that we don’t have in a democracy, the freedom to ignore collective responsibilities.

As we all know, there’s been considerable discussion lately about how much white America, and many white Americans, have profited from the labors of Black people. This Brookings Institute paper sums it up – when you compare the average “wealth” or “net worth” of white and Black Americans, the difference is shocking. If you add up the value of your house (if you own it), your car, your retirement fund, whatever’s in your bank accounts, and whatever other “stuff” you have, and subtract the balances left on your mortgage, your car loan, your student loans, and whatever else you owe like credit card debt, that’s your net worth. For white families, the average net worth is $171,000. For Black families, it’s only $17,600. The average white high school drop-out has a higher net worth than the average Black college graduate! Hard work and personal initiative cannot reliably make up the difference – there’s a huge gap. And that’s behind the reparations movement, the idea that we should collectively do something to make things more fair.

The paper notes that reparations are not unprecedented – we’ve supported compensation for Native Americans and Japanese-Americans, and we required Germany to compensate Holocaust victims after World War II. But although some slave owners received their own reparations to compensate them for the loss of their human “property,” the Emancipation promise of “40 acres and a mule” for African Americans was quickly rescinded. The paper also describes how Black Americans were largely excluded from the New Deal and the G.I. Bill – and we all know the attitude many Americans have toward Affirmative Action programs.


And then consider all the broken promises the U.S. government made to the hundreds of thousands of Native people deprived of their ancestral lands and livelihoods. Today’s Native people have the highest poverty rates and lowest education levels of any major population group in America, problems that have been compounded by Covid-19.

A great many of us would conclude that we as a nation are collectively indebted to the descendants of these people who were wronged by our government and our ancestors.

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The hidden danger of stories – and a friendly alternative

Audiences loved the 2019 Downton Abbey movie, but some reviewers found fault. The New York Times review noted there was “barely enough plot to go around.” The critic for RogerEbert.com frames it more positively: It’s a movie about seeing people take “care of the little details,” an “opportunity to watch people who are very good at ordinary, non-lethal tasks do those things with skill and imagination.” The general lack of suspense is, as a software geek might say, “not a bug, but a feature.”

In my last post, I took some pains to describe precisely what is, and is not, a “story.” That is, formally, a story or narrative has a protagonist facing a challenge, leading to suspense and then its resolution. And yet, although I love a good story as much as anyone, I don’t want to come across as a “story snob.”

We don’t need the conflict/resolution structure of a formal “story” to enjoy spending time immersed in another world or a different point of view.

This past year has been an excellent time to engage our imagination elsewhere. I described a few weeks’ mental recreation in Trieste in a recent blog post, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. My partner and I had great fun this year watching several “slice of life” anime series – we get to know some characters, things happen, other things happen, time passes. There’s no grand story arc, beyond “our protagonist(s) adapt(s) to changing situations.”

One of our favorites was We Never Learn: Bokuben, set in a modern Japanese high school. Yuiga is a very good student, but his family is poor, so he has to tutor three girls Continue reading

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When is a story not a story?

This question comes up a lot in my line of work – honestly, all too often. Let’s start with a definition. A story is a description of a particular event or series of events with a focus on one or more problems and their resolution, over time. It’s coherent; all the information in the story is in some way relevant. And it has emotional resonance; reading or hearing a story leads you to feel some suspense, followed by its relief.

irisOne thing that isn’t a story is a description of sensations and impressions. It could be the wildflowers you saw on your walk through the woods, a strange cloud in the sky, the interesting melody that’s stuck in your head, the happiness you felt when your extra-shy kitten reached with his extra-big paws to grab at your hand. None of those are stories. This distinction points out a key difference between people with moderately advanced dementia and people with healthier brains, by the way: Once you’ve got dementia, your brain still has plenty of input of what’s going on around you – you still see and hear things – but you tend to lose your ability to connect your impressions coherently, which includes being able to tell a full-scale story about them.

Cultural scripts, which include what psychologists call “event schemas,” aren’t stories either. For example, when you got to the supermarket, there’s a cultural script you need Continue reading

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Whose Law? Whose Order?

The shocking, yet not at all surprising, events in the U.S. Capitol this week revitalized a question I’ve been asking myself lately: How do we reconcile a president’s repeated call for “law and order” with his obvious delight in sheer, utter chaos?

Way back in the mists of time – that is, when I was a college freshman – my friends Dave and Wayne introduced me to a fun new game, Dungeons & Dragons. I soon learned that everything in D&D, from characters to monsters to random objects, has an “alignment.” Everything is somewhere on a scale from pure good to pure evil, and also on a separate scale from “lawful” to “chaotic.”

In ancient Babylon, their creation myth tells the story of how the human-shaped god, Marduk, representing order and civilization, vanquishes Tiamat, the “mother of monsters,” a force of primordial chaos.


If they thought seriously about such abstractions, the Babylonians may have conflated “lawful” with “good” and “chaotic” with “evil.” But today we can think of the two ideas Continue reading

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Postcards from my Istrian “stay-cation”

If I were to step outside here in Eugene, in the final days of 2020, I’d find rainy, windy, winter. Thankfully, I’ve had an alternative – I’ve spent much of the past week or two in sunny, cheery, Trieste and the nearby Istrian coast. I’ve never been there, mind you, but the powers of “narrative transportation” have let me experience my chosen destination from many angles.

It started a few weeks ago, when Finding Your Roots, Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s PBS genealogy show, dove into the background of TV chef Lidia Bastianich. Lidia was raised Italian, in the coastal city of Pula, which was part of Yugoslavia when she was born (more or less) and is now in independent Croatia. The show got me thinking about how complicated it must be to live in a city where your ethnic identity has to change, depending on who’s in charge – her family name (Matticchio) was changed from Italian to Croat, but the researchers found that it had been Croat even earlier too.

Then, last week, our PBS station showed a 2010 episode of Rick Steves’ Europe, in which Rick visited a fascinating part of Slovenia near the coast (just miles from Bastianich’s Pula), where the Soča river cuts a deep gorge through limestone cliffs, and where the beauty of the Julian Alps is sometimes overshadowed by memories of some of the bloodiest fighting in the first World War.


At this point, I remembered that the library had recently lent me a book by British writer Jan Morris – her meditations on the city of Trieste, once the seaport for the Continue reading

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Category Fun with Fiske and Pepper, Part 2

Welcome back! It’s time for more ideas about ideas.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Alan Page Fiske’s way of categorizing human relationship types. In our social worlds, there may be contexts where people are essentially the same as us (as in, our votes all count equally). People may be ranked higher or lower, as in an aristocracy or in the military or other organizations that value hierarchy. We can think in terms of reciprocating, an important type of fairness. And we can think in terms of ratios and exchanges, where one hour of my time is worth some amount of dollars, which I could then take to the supermarket to trade for beer-cheese soup and ciabatta rolls, like we had tonight for dinner. One thing that especially interested me about Fiske’s ideas was that he came up with a system of four distinct categories that are also related.

Today I want to turn to another cool category system. This one’s from philosopher Stephen C. Pepper, who published a book in 1942 on what he called “world hypotheses.” Pepper believed there were four “adequate” ways of understanding everything that Continue reading

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Category Fun with Fiske and Pepper, Part 1

Here’s a post for those of you who like playing with ideas. It’s not politics or history, and it’s not narrative psychology, exactly – rather, it’s about some of the ways that are sometimes used in social science for organizing ideas and making categories that are, intellectually, really cool.

I’ll start with Alan Page Fiske, who wrote a fascinating paper in 1992 called, “The Four Elementary Forms of Sociality: Framework for a Unified Theory of Social Relation.” Fiske is a “psychological anthropologist” who’s studied the nature of human relationships, and how the types of relationships vary in different cultures. While doing fieldwork in a traditional West African village, he discovered four patterns of interaction that apply to all human relationships. Different cultures do things Continue reading

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The secret to social change

We all have a lot of ideas about what people should be doing differently. What am I talking about? Well, pretty much everything – every topic of laws and norms and morality that affect other people’s decisions. It could be smoking cigarettes (or something more potent); it could be recycling; it could be sex; it could be buying cars that use gasoline rather than some alternative fuel.

And that’s our job as citizens, in a democracy – deciding collectively what people should be able to do and encouraged to do. We don’t just leave it to a king or some other power to declare from on high; we get to have these discussions ourselves. Continue reading

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