Sunday, December 14, 2014

Helping Hands

When was the last time you were hungry? I don’t mean standing in line for Sunday Brunch at the local diner and wow doesn’t that short stack of pancakes look amazing kind of hungry.  I’m talking about a distracting ache inside your stomach, a constant dull pain making you lightheaded, and an anxiety that spins inside, leaving you cranky, weak and miserable. 
                Right now I’m not thinking about eating because I’m too busy brushing the powdered potatoes off my shirt and wrestling with a carton of juice boxes that won’t close, wondering whether the crease on that can of corn is bad enough for me to toss it in the garbage pile.  I’m at the New Hampshire Food Bank near Manchester in the Salvage Sorting Room with a dozen volunteers combing through pallets of food.  I’ve joined the morning ritual, examining hundreds of pounds of boxes of reclaimed goods from local supermarkets, making sure what we have is good enough to pass onto the tens of thousands of our neighbors who aren’t sure where their next meal is coming from.

                The numbers are sobering.  There are close to 1.4 million residents in New Hampshire, and it’s estimated that one in nine suffers from food insecurity – not starvation like you’d see on the news from war-torn refugee camps – but very real and very much right next door.  Defined as a household which at some point in the year had limited or uncertain access to food, food insecurity is a huge problem both in New Hampshire and across the country.  Some suggest there are over 48 million Americans who suffer from food insecurity.  For a society that’ll drive 500 miles for a McRib and then build a website about it, we certainly get things backwards sometimes.

                The New Hampshire Food Bank was founded in 1984, and now in its thirtieth year, it’s never been busier.  “We delivered 8.5 million pounds of food last year and we’re on track to deliver about 10.5 million this year,” Bruce Wilson, the Bank’s Director of Operations tells me.  Nancy Mellitt, my host for the day and the Director of Development, chimes in, “That’s about 8.4 million meals, and we think there are another 24 million meals we could be serving if we had the resources.” That’s a lot of hungry Granite staters.

                This isn’t a corner food pantry with tidy rows of canned beans and a quaint pyramid of feed sacks – the Food Bank is a sophisticated distribution hub and cavernous warehouse that collects and distributes food to over 400 local agencies across the state. As its slogan attests, “We Feed the Programs That Feed the State.” Half of all the food and goods the soup kitchens, shelters, pantries and outreach programs distribute comes through these doors.  Forklifts move pallets of food as eighteen-wheelers drop off reclaimed supermarket goods, cars and vans arrive to pick up the day’s orders while quality control employees inspect items before they leave the warehouse while administrators process the dozens of online orders that come in weekly.

                Nancy introduces me to Erin D’Loughy, the Bank’s Volunteer Coordinator, who puts me to work in the Salvage Sorting Room with twelve or so determined and focused volunteers.  The room’s filled with rows of steel-topped tables where the donated food’s inspected, sorted and weighed, and I join the sorting line.  I learn quickly that no one’s here to chat.  Box after box of assorted items – everything from flour to sauces to stuffing to paper towels, Pop Tarts, coffee, cereal, cold medicine, pasta and beef stew – fly down the rollers for inspection.  Long-time volunteers Bo and David give me a quick tutorial, the prevailing advice being, “If in doubt, throw it out.”  We grab the boxes, check cans for dents, confirm expiration dates, see if we can save ripped bags of flour (we can’t) and set aside anything that can be taped or reasonably repackaged.  As an aside, would the owner of the Capri Sun Corporation of America please get in touch with the Quaker Oatmeal people and confer on making better boxes?  There isn’t a single box of those items that remains intact as we sort.

                We toss about fifteen percent of what comes down the line, and Mel Gosselin, the Food Bank’s Executive Director, who’s arrived to ensure I’m not making a mess of things, tells me, “Everything we throw out gets picked up by pig farmers in the area.  That saves us money.”  During a break, she explains that eighty five percent of everything in the warehouse handles has been donated.  “We’re not a state agency and we’re not a federal agency – we don’t get any funding from the government to run this place.”  It’s easy to see that this entire effort – from the long-time volunteers to the steady whirr and beeping of forklifts and trucks to the lean, talented staff that runs the center – is about New Hampshire taking care of itself.  “And I wonder all the time if we’re failing or are we doing what we can with what we have,” Mel says as the sorting restarts.

                With the salvage sorting done, I meet Paul Barker, the Warehouse Manager, who sets me up with Mike Salinas.  Cordial, meticulous and a wizard of the forklift, Mike says, “Let’s fill this order.”  Paul reminds me I can’t drive the forklift, an excellent idea as I have visions of smashed jars of barbeque sauce and kidney beans covering the warehouse floor.  Mike zips the forklift across the concrete while I pick the items – this order’s for the Claremont Soup Kitchen, and I stack cartons of condiments, coffee, jelly, juice, freeze-dried fish and a dozen other items.  As we head into the deep freezer, Mike insists I wear a loaner coat.   “It’s a lot colder than you think,” he says as I search for a few cases of Hot Pockets and apple pies, and he’s right.  It’s minus 1 in here, the cold clearing out any of the exhaustion in my legs or head.  Mike moves the pallets into a staging area for tomorrow’s pickup, color codes and labels the items, and he’s off to pick another order. 
                Before the day ends, Nancy takes me upstairs to meet Chef Jayson McCarter.  In addition to being a vital cog in the state’s machinery to fight hunger, the Food Bank runs a culinary job training program teaching underemployed or unemployed adults how to prep, cook, clean and manage themselves in a commercial kitchen.  “We train fifteen students for eight weeks – for free,” Jayson tells me as enormous pile of cauliflower is wheeled towards a steam-jacketed kettle, more than I’ll ever eat in my lifetime.  It will be part of some of the 3,000 meals Chef Jayson, his assistant Chef Paul Morrison and these busy students will prepare for distribution across the state. In addition to the thousands of pounds of fresh produce, frozen meat and groceries given away every day, the Food Bank prides itself on filling kids’ bellies with hot, healthy meals prepared by dedicated pros.

                The Food Bank doesn’t waste time with the politics of hunger – not once did Nancy, Bruce, Mike or anyone else suggest why someone was hungry.  Politicians and pundits on both sides of the circus tent we call government today point fingers, confident they know the root causes of this growing food insecurity or blame the recipients for somehow cheating the rest of us out of something.  Meanwhile, thousands of our neighbors want to fill their stomachs so they can pay better attention in school or at work or sleep at night without the worry of where breakfast’s coming from.  Hungry doesn’t care about politics or opinions - hungry wants to go away forever.  The New Hampshire Food Bank’s doing something about it every single day.  Food insecurity for one family is a tragedy – food insecurity for tens of thousands of families is an embarrassment, and every day this place tries to eliminate that shame we should all feel while getting food to those who need it most.

Check out the New Hampshire Food Bank at where you can learn about its programs, make a donation or volunteer your time.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Democracy in Action

Feeling a little cynical these days?  Frustrated with your fellow citizens for choosing that bozo or reelecting such a nincompoop?  In the surge towards this year’s election, I’d been swimming in a sea of cynicism, drenched by negative ads and images that made me wonder if America’s Biggest Idiot was running against the World’s Greatest Liar in every race across the country.   Every two years I note the Facebook posts, watch the ads and read in the papers how my candidate is awesome while yours is not only terrible but also a fool and probably a cheater too.  And it feels like it’s always been this way.  In 1800, Thomas Jefferson accused John Adams of being a hermaphrodite while Adams labeled Jefferson an atheist, which in those days was like referring to someone as the cloven-hoofed Fallen Angel himself.  (“You’ve got man parts and lady parts!”  “Well, you’re the Devil!”  “Let’s be famous Americans!”)  Go figure.

Lately it’s felt like politics and elections are like a big bag of Doritos, promising things they can’t deliver (“real cheezy flavor!”) and ruining my health (disodium guanylate, anyone?).  The initial interaction is great – even inspiring.  That first chip is always a glorious moment when I think this is a new way of snacking – that all the Doritos in the past were nothing like this one special chip, the one I chose from this bag.  But midway through, that familiar, pedestrian taste returns, my belly feels uneasy, and I won’t dare put the bag down for fear that everyone’ll know I made a bad choice.  And of course, if these Doritos were from Connecticut or Louisiana, they’d go to jail for corruption and influence peddling, but that’s a story for another day.

I’ve found a way out of this cycle of self-inflicted misery.  I volunteered to help on Election Day in my local ward, convincing the Moderator, Dennis Thivierge, to let me join the ten or so elected officials and volunteers in Ward 7 for this year’s election.  Dennis invited me to be a Ballot Inspector, to sit at the front table as part of a two-person team checking in voters against the registration rolls, and I accepted immediately.

I arrive at 6 AM, an hour before the polls open, and the place is in full swing.  Sample ballots to post, tables to arrange, pencils to sharpen, rules to explain and re-explain, voter rolls to prep, machines to power on and ballots to stack.  Dennis swears me in with an oath that I may, “Under God, uphold the Constitution of the state of New Hampshire and of the United States.”  This feels kind of cool, like I’m part of something that matters.
A line’s forming outside as we race to get everything ready.  Dennis and Jim Fowler, Ward 7’s Election Clerk, show me the Accu-Vote, a laptop-type scanner that accepts the ballots and counts them as they fall into a huge locked bin beneath.  Dennis reminds us about the need to see a photo ID and what we can and can’t ask for.  As the clock strikes 7 AM, he announces in a loud voice, “The polls at Ward 7 are now officially open for business.”  And from that moment on, save for an odd ten minutes here and there, the line of voters doesn’t stop for twelve straight hours, voter after voter standing in line, waiting for his or her turn to have a say in our democracy.  The tone is friendly but official – John Hattan, Ward 7’s Supervisor of Clerks, reminds me I need to repeat each voter’s name aloud twice while also stating the address.  I follow a strict protocol about what pencils to use, how to mark someone’s name as registered and where to send them if they don’t have an ID or choose not to share one.  Every few minutes or so John or his colleague Margaret Gegas interrupts to add a new Ward 7 voter to the rolls – in red pencil only.

I’m paired with Jemi Broussard, a veteran of this ballot inspecting game, and I follow her lead.  Hour after hour, voter after voter, Jemi and I greet neighbors, strangers, friends and family members, asking them for IDs, confirming addresses and handing them ballots as they breeze past us to the curtained booths.   Jemi chats with people she knows while voters in line connect with each other, little kids goof around under and between their parents’ legs, and people catch up on each other’s lives.  “Did you hear Liz is getting married this summer?”  “Kevin’s at Fort Hood so he won’t be voting today!” “Still teaching piano lessons?”  “Where’d you get your firewood this year?”  A few voters roll their eyes at the request for photo ID, and one irate gentleman slams his license down on the table in disgust.  Moments later a woman waits for me to ask for her ID and proudly produces it, saying, “I’m happy to do it!  I think it’s a great idea.”

A parade of people comes to vote – teachers, tutors, cops, doctors, lawyers, and politicians waiting to choose their own names, presumably.  We see moms and dads, grandparents and grandkids, heavyset voters, skinny voters, voters with pierced ears, noses and lips, voters in their teens, 80’s and 90’s, voters who can’t see, can’t hear and can’t walk, followed by sweaty voters who stop mid-training run to cast their opinions – even voters who talk so much that we politely ask them to take their ballots and move along.  I see my wife’s brother-in-law, the local rabbi, the woman who walks her tiny dog past my house, my son’s Little League coach, and the guy who makes the best egg and cheese sandwich in town.  I see men and women who’ve served in the wars we’ve fought since 1940, including one man in a USS Midway cap who’s been voting here since 1961, his daughter helping him to the voting booth.  Every time a young adult casts a ballot, Jim shouts out, “We have a first time voter!” and invariably the entire place erupts in applause, smiles creasing everyone’s faces.  I even see and shake the hand of the son of one of the soldiers who raised the American flag on Iwo Jima.  What a way to spend a day!
The polls close at 7 PM as Dennis closes and locks the door, and we take a few hours or so checking our rolls and providing counts of party affiliation as Dennis and Jim run and re-run the Accu-Vote machine for the final Ward 7 tally.  At the back table, the others pour over the write-in ballots.  Although David Bowie, Megatron and Santa Claus seem like reasonable write-in choices for County Sheriff, such suggestions are neither practical nor particularly helpful.

On the short drive home it hits me – this is what makes democracy so special.  Not the wasted money on negative ads, not the tedious speeches filled with hollow hopes, not the vitriol, or the winner-take-all attitude.  Our democracy is about community, about taking one day out of the year to spend a few minutes with our neighbors to choose something, whether it’s hope, or the promise of a better tomorrow or a distant future, or out of fear, faith, speculation or security.  I spent fifteen hours surrounded by engaged people who suspended their cynicism for a little while and contributed to the democratic process.  So the least I can do is hold on to this optimism for a while.  I may never think of Doritos the same way again.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

All by Myself, or Empty Nesting Rules!

My children left home for school a few months ago.  My wife and I dropped our son off first, followed by our daughter a week later.  We hugged them both, reminded them to stay in touch and told them we loved them.  The confusion and sadness that overtook us on that second ride home was palpable and painful until about two minutes after we arrived at the house.  We walked in, looked around, high-fived each other and rejoiced in the words, “Empty Nest!”  You might view that jubilation as bad parenting or the height of selfishness, but I encourage you to climb back into your helicopter and finish your kid’s homework because we’re Empty Nesters and loving every minute of it!

Days into this new arrangement I realized every conversation I’ve had with an adult since can be described in one of two ways.  Either you’re the Sad Comforter or the Giggler.  Most are of the first stripe – they feel really bad about your sad, lonely house and assume you’re miserable, offering comments like, “Will you ever stop crying?” and “So how ARE you?  No really – how are you DOING with this?  Big changes . . .” as they stare off into a future landscape where their ungrateful offspring forget to call home on major birthdays and holy days of obligation.  The Gigglers, on the other hand, express interest in your new-found freedoms by adopting the persona of that kid you knew in middle school who was the only one who actually saw Porky’s.  “Wow!  I can’t even imagine that!” and, “What’s THAT like?” as they snort, chortle or let loose an outright guffaw.  “I mean, pretty awesome, right?  Har har har!”  When they stare off into the distance, I’m pretty sure skipped phone calls on Assumption Thursday are not what they’re thinking about.

When I reminded my younger brother he was talking to an Empty Nester, he asked, “Do you guys walk around in the nude drinking red wine all day?  And other stuff?”  Considering I only recently stopped wearing bathing trunks in the shower, I can confirm that no, we don’t saunter about our poorly heated home in our birthday suits; and I don’t know what he meant by “other stuff.”  Scrapbooking?  Malaysian Shadow Puppet lessons?  As for inquires about increased wine consumption, an Empty Nester needs his secrets, and such queries shall go unaddressed.
It’s true empty nesting comes with a twinge of melancholy.  On the first school day of September, as I sipped my coffee in the kitchen, I figured this was the first morning in almost eighteen years I hadn’t packed a lunch or snack of some sort.  That sadness dissipated by the time I had my second cup, recalling how each fall I’d start with the best nutritional intentions, packing a balanced mix of grains, dairy, protein, vegetables and sugar-free fluids for my cherubs.  By mid-November, it was a different story as I tried to pass off a can of 7UP, a slightly expired strawberry Go-Gurt, five loose Triscuits and the Special Dark candy bars left in the bottom of the Halloween bowl as not only a fun lunch but also a pragmatically creative and spontaneous one as well.

My favorite thing about empty nesting – after the deep, abiding love I feel for my children, the two greatest things in my life etc. etc. – is having the freedom to listen to my own music.  Now I choose the radio station in the car, and if I want to play my records, I’ll go right ahead and do it to my tuition check-writing heart’s content.   Side A of Rubber Soul and then flip to side 3 of London Calling?  Done.  Bob Dylan and Joe Jackson back to back?  Perfect.   Lately, I’ve had The Who’s double album, The Kids are Alright, on heavy rotation.  There are few moments more liberating as an empty nester than air guitar with Pete Townsend followed by an explosive air drum solo tribute to Keith Moon in all his white jump-suited hedonistic glory.  I wonder if I had children and then sent them away just to better appreciate my vinyl record collection.

A few Sundays ago, we visited a local orchard for cider and donuts, arriving as it opened.   Just then a minivan pulled in next to us, and parents emerged with toddlers in tow.  The adults didn’t say much but didn’t need to – their faces told their stories.  The dad wore a look of, “I’ve been up since 4, read nine picture books, changed three diapers, watched enough Doc McStuffins to scar me permanently, and I’m gonna hire that apple picker over there to babysit while I get some rest.”  His wife’s body language told a different story.  “Are you seriously talking about lattes versus cafĂ© au laits and how long your bike ride will be later today?  Take me with you.  Please, I beg you.”  We chose lattes, and our bike ride lasted over two hours, if you must know.  And we didn’t invite her to join us.

Keep in mind this Empty Nest thing isn’t all sleep-ins, espresso drinks and rock and roll.  If only there were an adage I could find in needlepoint, suitable for framing with the words, “Empty Nest, Full Pockets.”  Alas, no such maxim exists because the opposite is true.  Maybe I could instead coin the phrase, “Empty Nest, Full Glass!” but I’m sure there’d be objections.
For those of you out there dreading your time in the Empty Nest, fret not the loneliness but embrace it.  Your kids will relish the freedom, they’ll text you enough to make you feel loved (or at least noticed), and you’ll enjoy the fewer loads of laundry, the naps with impunity, the end to mandatory vegetables at dinner and the bag lunch-free mornings.  Take it from a recent convert - the kids really are alright, and so are the parents.  Now, about that red wine . . .

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Shaman of the Stick Shift

When I was little, I loved race cars.  I never missed a Memorial Day broadcast of the Indianapolis 500, heard Chris Economaki in my sleep and thought of Watkins Glen as a dream world where everyone drove Formula 1 cars to work, weaving their way through the streets at unsafe speeds.  I imagined a day I’d drive like Jackie Stewart, shifting gears, revving my engine and blasting down the road.  This dream died slowly, year after year, as the steady parade of family cars in our driveway mocked my hopes for something better.  There is no faster way to neuter a young man’s primal urge to go fast than teaching him to drive in an ‘82 Chevy Malibu wagon; I wanted to be Bo or Luke Duke and ended up more like Driving Miss Daisy.

Since earning my license, I’ve opted for safe cars with tame engines and great gas mileage, rejecting the idea that driving could be more than getting from A to B.  I’ve never learned to operate anything other than an automatic, owning cars where turning the key, pressing the gas and choosing either the Jefferson Starship or the Wang Chung CD were my only concerns.  This fact raises hackles in those who swear by the manual transmission.  “Any guy who can’t drive a stick shift is instantly unattractive to me,” a freckled female friend said to me in college.  Upon learning I couldn’t drive a standard, my sister exclaimed, “You don’t know how to drive a manual transmission?” uttered with the inflection of someone saying, “You don’t brush your teeth?”

But a man can change, and I found just the person to help me.  Like a prophet emerging from the smoke of a thousand screeching custom tires, a savior has arisen.  Carmine Tomas, a man who bleeds motor oil, a man who once burst into tears at the New York City Auto Show’s Ferrari booth, a man who drives fast, fancy cars with passion unmatched, offers to teach me the lost art of the manual transmission.
We agree to meet in an abandoned parking lot on the outskirts of town.  Carmine advises me to, “Wear thin-soled shoes to maximize your sense of the pedals.  No man clogs.”  His advice is unnecessary – if I know anything, it’s not to show up for male-type stuff in clogs.  But then again, the first car I bought was a Subaru station wagon, so he has a point.

Carmine arrives in a slick white 2012 VW Golf R with fancy tires, and we begin.  “Patience is the key,” he says as he points me to the passenger seat.  Like a shaman of the stick shift, Carmine preaches as he drives.   “I see this as a societal issue.  We live in an age of automation, where everything’s done for us.  Driving a car like this is one of the few ways to interact with something mechanical.  You’re about 15 to 20 years too late for this lesson because the manual transmission is disappearing.  We need to save the manuals!” he shouts, and for a moment I’m not sure he remembers I’m in the car.  I say nothing and watch his feet and hands as we zip through the parking lot.

This mystic of the manual transmission is like my spirit animal, but instead of a hawk or majestic elk, Carmine is my Spirit Dude, a man who drives loud cars, grows a thick mustache overnight and cooks a Chicken Marsala so tasty you’ll curse the mere existence of the Olive Garden as a blight upon humanity.  Brother Carmine continues.  “We’re a few years away from a driverless car,” he says with real contempt, looking genuinely forlorn at the thought of Americans completely disengaged from the road.  “Driving a manual car allows us to transcend the everyday experience.  And it’s really (adjective redacted) fun,” he says as he parks and hands me the key.

I get in the driver’s seat and Carmine instructs, explaining, “You’ll learn to feather the clutch,” and “Feel for those engagement points,” reminding me about the interplay between the pedals, telling me to “listen to the car.”  But feathers and listening skills mean as much as the resale value of a ’74 Pinto if I can’t get this car into first gear.  “You want to be as smooth as possible.  Give it some gas,” he says as we start moving.  Slowly but surely, with my Spirit Dude coaching me, I learn first gear into second, second into third, third into fourth.  The car responds to my movements, and we zoom around the empty spaces.

A bit later, Carmine points me to his secret race track, a quarter-mile straightaway far from any homes, a place where he’s been known to “exercise” his automobiles.  We head to this undisclosed section of an unnamed part of the state, and I drive that VW like I’m Steve McQueen in Le Mans.    First into second then to third and fourth and then, to both our surprises, I slide the gear into fifth, my feet and hands working together as the pistons fire.  I downshift into neutral as we reach the stop sign.  “And you haven’t stalled once!” Carmine exclaims.  Just then, my confidence overflows, and I stall the car.  Ten feet later I stall again, but Carmine mentors me back to success.
We’re off into traffic, taking three long loops through neighborhoods, my shifting getting smoother by the quarter mile.  I stall three more times trying to get the clutch-gas equation down as impatient drivers wait behind me, but on the whole, I nail it.

Minutes later we’re in Carmine’s garage as his sons stand watching.  “Mr. O’Shea did a great job.”  He turns to me and says, “I trust you – you could drive the kids anywhere in my car.”  The boys wince slightly and slowly back away unconvinced as Carmine leads me to a beautiful black car in his barn.  “This is a 1988 BMW M5 with a motorsport-derived, hand-built inline 6, custom wheels, lowered suspension, and tuned exhaust,” he says.  The only words I can conjure are “shiny,” “cool” and “boxy.” Carmine even talks prettier than I do. 
He takes the wheel, and we drive to the secret straightaway where he shows me what controlled powerful driving is really like.  My torso slams flat against the seat as Carmine shifts with deftness, the car’s engine responding, the tires hugging the pavement as we defy local speed ordinances.  He demonstrates something called “throttle blipping” as well as a maneuver where he uses his right foot on both the brake and gas at the same time.  “This is what we call ‘heel-toe’ driving,” he shouts above the engine’s sultry din.  “You blip the throttle so the revs will match where the car wants to be in second gear. You want to get the car to the limit of adhesion, so I do the heel-toe for smoothness.” I think he’s speaking in tongues, but like any decent convert, I sit, listen and nod. 
I’m rewarded with the keys, and I put my lessons into action, driving that car well enough to make Jackie Stewart’s tartan angel wings flutter in approval.  I cruise around the parking lot islands, shifting from gear to gear seamlessly.  For a few minutes I’m one with the car.  I don’t hear Carmine’s encouragement, just the engine and my body in sync, the memory of an ’82 automatic Malibu fading further and further in my memory.  I get it now, and Carmine’s right - we need to save the manuals.  Anyone want to buy an ’06 Volvo wagon?  I’ll throw in a Wang Chung CD for free.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

TJ Hooker and the Art of Relaxation

I’m working hard at relaxing.  As I reach the twilight of my youthful ‘40s, I seek those moments where my yesterdays and tomorrows are less important than my todays. Mental exercises, desk yoga, mild sedatives, pirate-type drinking, Frisbee on the quad, silent garage karate and deep naps on quiet Sunday afternoons have given me glimpses of an inner calm, but none lasts very long.  Counting to ten, quaint cups of herbal tea and reruns of TJ Hooker aren’t much help either, although that Bill Shatner is a heck of an actor.

I remain skeptical of the more extreme versions of the pursuit of peaceful self-awareness, like transcendental meditation, sensory deprivation tanks and Crosby, Stills and Nash music, but I need to try something.  A man can wiggle his feet, rearrange his sock drawer and check and recheck his Facebook only so many times before he asks, “What is this ‘relaxation’ you speak of, and how does one find it?”

It’s not easy being the unrelaxable type.  When you see a parade, I see mountains of tickertape that need vacuuming.  Enjoying a nice holiday meal?  The dishes!  Dear God, look at the pile of dishes.  I’m not sure where people actually “live in the moment,” and I’m missing my map to get myself there.

A friend, Margaret, tells me about a technique she’s tried, a relaxation method that helps with insomnia and anxiety, something that’s gained popularity recently.  She doesn’t offer much, other than it works for her.  She sends me a link with the description “ASMR Ear Nose and Throat Examination Role Play.” I click on it, but something’s not right.  I expect a lady in a leotard teaching me how to “breathe earnestly,” but instead, I’m confronted with a young woman’s face filling the entire screen, calling herself “Doctor Feather.”  Before I know what’s happening, she’s whispering and putting on rubber gloves, every sound she makes amplified and crackling in my ears.  This feels wrong, like the deep bass soundtrack’s about to start any moment, and I’ll find myself explaining my browser history to my internet provider.  I close out the window and step away.

I email Margaret back to make sure this is OK to watch.  She responds with, “You have to stop smirking and actually try and ‘get in the room’ with the practitioner. I recommend headphones.   I personally got pretty relaxed and smooth-feeling. That is very good, health-wise, to enjoy some of that every day.” I find headphones, an hour to myself and go back to Dr. Feather’s office for an appointment, suspending my disbelief.  Over the next hour, I listen and watch Dr. Feather check my ears, open Band-Aids, take my blood pressure and whisper things in my ears like, “Fonzie,” “Spock,” and “I’m going to occlude each nostril.”  Her movements are methodical, her words chosen carefully and her voice never above a whisper.
ASMR, or “Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response,” is a relaxation therapy based on the idea that certain sounds can produce feelings of calm, reducing stress and anxiety.  The sounds are meant to give the viewer a “tingling” feeling, and as I dig more into what’s out there on the web for ASMR, “getting the tingles” is a steady theme.  Some define ASMR as, “deriving pleasure in your head through stimulus.”  I’m not sure Dr. Feather pretend-examining my hairy Hobbit-like ears is pleasure, but it’s not terrible either.

As I poke around online, I discover a galaxy of ASMR videos – thousands of them.  And these haven’t been watched a few dozen times – Dr. Heather’s ENT exam has almost half a million views, for example.  I look for the most popular ASMR videos and find a woman named Maria GentleWhispering who spends an hour fitting me for a custom suit, petting the fabrics, clicking the shirt buttons and softly clawing at a photo of a man in a suit with her lacquered nails.  Her voice is soothing, but I can’t let go of this lingering feeling that even though I’m not doing anything wrong, I don’t want my family walking in on me.  Good thing I locked the door.  It’s a sign I may never get over this sense that even though over 2 million people have tuned into to hear Maria play with fabric swatches, I’m not relaxing – even if my skull is tingling like mad and I fell asleep somewhere between the shoulder measurement and the button selection.

A day later I see another video from Ms. GentleWhispering that’s been viewed 6.5 million times – a short one intended to induce sleep.  That’s like the entire population of Indiana lulled into the Land of Nod by a blonde lady tapping her fingers on a hairbrush, saying things like, “I’ll help you drift away as long as you trust me.”

I watch a video of a man whispering almost inaudibly as he disassembles a computer mouse; in another, a man takes apart his laptop.  I find a popular ASMR practitioner named Whispers Red, a British woman with auburn hair, who appears to be heavily medicated and standing in front of a wicker basket filled with fake Easter grass.  She’s smiling in an off-putting way as she reaches into the plastic grass and pulls out a series of “tingly things.”  She’s grinning in such a way that I’m terrified at what she might pull out of her basket.

To validate whether my growing doubts are unfounded, I sit my daughter down for a few minutes of “Halo Hair Salon,” a video that almost 3 million people have viewed.  A red-headed young woman with giant white teeth tries to give us both a head massage in our kitchen.  “This makes me uncomfortable,” my daughter says.

“It’s not creepy!  It’s not like she’s nude or anything,” I say in response.

“There are things that aren’t nude that can still make me uncomfortable,” she announces as she sprints off.  Such comments are neither productive nor supportive, but she has a point.  There’s something about these ASMR videos that are having the opposite effect on me.  After six hours of listening, watching and doing my best to live in the moment – just me and strange ladies pretending to brush my hair and shave my face – I’m less relaxed, focused more on why this isn’t working and if I should be doing this than on giving in and letting go.  Watching these videos makes me feel like I’m two clicks away from comparing Greedo mask prices and planning my Brony weekend getaway with Glitter Gallop and Fancy Prance.

I’m no better at relaxing after my ASMR flirtation, but I see the appeal.  One man’s glass of warm milk is another man’s aural-induced mental massage.  I think my moment of bliss is somewhere in the middle.  I just need to keep looking.  TJ Hooker marathon anyone?