The Rat and the Pellet, or, Why I Often Prefer Brooding in a Dark Bedroom to a Stroll in the Sun

January 3, 2010 at 4:26 am | Posted in Goal Progress, My Fascinating Mood, Philosophical Problems, Work Life | Leave a comment

A fine rat

Now where did I leave that damn cheese?

I remember reading somewhere (that is, I would like to tell you an apocryphal story) that if you give a rat a pellet when it steps on a lever, the rat will step on the lever whenever it is hungry. If you don’t give the rat any pellets, it won’t try the lever a second time. If, however, the lever only produces a pellet occasionally, the rat will jump up and down on that lever until it dies of exhaustion (the rat, not the lever).

People repeat this story because it neatly explains a problem in the human psyche. That is, Why do we pursue activities that typically end in frustration? The question and the rat came to mind while I was taking my stroll around the neighborhood yesterday morning. I perversely resisted taking my walk, then started enjoying it almost before I crossed my lawn. The sky was blue scored with tattered white clouds, and it was chilly — perhaps 55 degrees. Pigeons flew in formation. I thought, Why did I think that I would rather take a nap? Strangely, I think it’s because naps only work about ten percent of the time. That is, for every nine times I stare at the ceiling and absently pick my cuticles bloody, there’s one lovely, healing nap. So I jump on that bar daily.

In contrast, I have never once regretted going to a yoga class. After classes, I feel practically high, and I can feel the unkinking in my spine. Though the benefits of walking are mild by comparison, they’re still consistent. I love to get outside and look at things, particularly at the way tidy and shabby houses alternate in my neighborhood.

For some reason, the irregular reward appeals to me more than the consistent one. Every time I get a pellet, I think, Damn, what I need is a bigger, tastier, newer pellet — better keep jumping. I think this is perfectly normal, though self-defeating.

Sociologists have a name for the economic version of this: the hedonic treadmill. Work stresses you out, so you buy several gazingus pins. Once you’ve gone into debt acquiring the shiny but entirely useless stuff that bores you almost as soon as you buy it, you have to work harder and longer to pay off the gazingus pins you already have, and to buy more. No amount of gazingus pins will ever be enough, because they don’t address the fundamental problem: Your job stresses you out. (I owe the phrase “gazingus pin” to the authors of Your Money or Your Life, the best personal finance system that I don’t follow.)

If this is true, then changing habits is not a matter of depriving yourself of much-needed, hard-earned rest. Rather, it means retraining yourself to pursue the more consistent result. It’s more effective to look forward to the benefits of a new pursuit than it is to flog yourself with the consequences of your old habits. I didn’t learn yoga because I was afraid of losing muscle as I age; doing it made me feel good. The same goes for every good habit I’ve ever pursued, from praying the Liturgy of the Hours to cutting down on refined sugar.

I’d like to veer off course now to tell you all how glad I am to have escaped academia. It’s not just that there are no jobs in my field; it’s that succeeding in academia requires a tolerance for boredom of truly epic proportions. A friend of mine who remains in the game reminded me of this when he reminisced about when we took a date of mine to session at the Modern Languages Association convention. Half an hour into the first presentation, Greg was literally hunched over in his seat clutching his head in despair. We’re not talking pen-tapping or staring out into space — no, every line of his body spoke of the deepest anguish. My friend and I go off into gales of laughter whenever we remember that. The presentation wasn’t especially horrible, as academic presentations go. The author simply read 20-odd pages of jargon-larded prose about, say, the Frankfurt School in a rapid mumble. And it was followed by three more like that.

At the university where I got my doctorate, three-hour seminars of solid lecture were the norm. In my second year I sat through a talk on the Preface to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit that clocked in just shy of six hours. That professor, who was more amusing than most, was regarded as a lovable eccentric, not a possible source of deep-vein thrombosis. I do have a reasonably good understanding of Hegel, but my main memory of that evening consists of picking salt off of a couple of pretzels that I happened to have, and arranging the granules into triangles on the conference room table. He had the original German and two, perhaps three, translations (English, French, and, I seem to remember, Polish). I wish I were exaggerating, but I am absolutely not.

Heck, there were times in 90-minute classes when I would have paid to be transported to that seminar. I remember one gentleman who would murmur about, say Kant and the mathematical sublime, pausing occasionally to pat his face with a handkerchief and refer us to the critical work of Peter Szondi. I never met anyone who could make the least sense of anything he said that semester. If he hadn’t had a particularly coveted accent, we might have rebelled. As it was, we nodded, took notes, and relied on each other to crack the texts.

Another professor got a sincere round of applause on the last day of class for changing out of his usual suit of baby-blue polyester. (He was actually a wonderful, wonderful teacher who had the gift of regarding first-year graduate students rabid with their own knowledge with gentle patience.)

But I digress. The point here is that the terrors of corporate PowerPoint pale when compared to a typical academic talk. At a corporate pep rally you can scoff and jeer quietly. When you’re helping to reframe the discourse surrounding, say, irony, you have to persuade yourself that you are engaged in a crucial pursuit. You’re thinking, Well, you can’t pick apart the entire tradition of Western philosophy without breaking a couple of eggs.

In six or seven or eight years they pack you off to teach composition at a community college in Nebraska where the students decorate their papers with emoticons. Your friends, who are teaching adjunct at four far-flung colleges in Southern California (that’s called “freeway flying”), tell you how proud they are that you got a job. Meanwhile, you’re busy getting Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from the sheer weight of 80 students’ illiteracy each semester, plus research and administrative work. The whole time, you think to yourself, “Yes, but I am saving Western Civilization one comma splice at a time.” Uh-huh. You and your unfortunate kind will never prevail over the internet, texting, and TV.

Oh, and the reward? If you’re very, very good, and publish a couple of books, you may be permitted to do this for the rest of your life. Harlan Ellison, that master of invective, once said that writing screenplays in Hollywood is like climbing a pile of excrement to pluck a rose at the top. By the time you grab the flower, you can smell only shit. Exactly.

Well, that’s a very bitter rant. I adored graduate school, and wish that life were like that. Every day when I walked to class and looked up at the vultures soaring overhead, I would think, Wow, I’m really here, at the absolute epicenter of critical theory! A shameful admission: As an undergraduate I took a 16-week course where we read nothing but Conrad’s novella, The Heart of Darkness. I loved it, and came to dream of spending a lifetime engaging in Socratic thrust-and-parry. I should invoice the professor for the amount of my student loans.

I’m happy this morning. I am looking forward to my walk, and to hanging out with my parents and talking on the phone.

Love to all.

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