The Case of Unintentional Weight Gain and the Killed Off Chips

Early Sunday morning, I discovered a killed off bag of Trader Joe’s Cornbread Crisps Sweet and Salty Cornbread Snack in the kitchen garbage pail. Using Judson Brewer’s work on addiction as a basis, I set out to investigate the chain of events that led to this crime of unintentional weight gain and snackicide.

The bag was killed off Saturday between the hours of 11:00 PM and Midnight. The guilty party, E. (who confessed on the condition that her name be withheld), had devoured the last of the chips after returning from a post-concert happy hour with a friend where the food options had failed to entice.

E. was not ignorant of the crime. She knew that the habit of late night snacking came with a sentence of bloated belly, unintentional weight gain, and clothes feeling snug around the waste. Unfortunately, the law-abiding, calorie conscious part of the brain tends to go off line when the the chips are down. In addiction acronym lingo, it’s advisable to HALT when Hungry-Angry-Lonely-or-Tired. As a crime prevention strategy, E. had placed a restraining order on having sweet and salty snack items in the home. So how did this bag sneak into the house and harm’s way?

At about 8:30 PM, Bruce, E.’s co-defendant, who didn’t attend the concert, opted to have a beer and watch the movie Kansas City Bomber instead. Bruce had had a light dinner, so he decided to eat some of the Cornbread Crisps, whose sweet saltiness complemented the beverage.

At 5:00 PM, Bruce had had a “dinner” consisting of Cornbread Crisps, a jalapeño cheddar roll, and an apple. Anticipating a happy hour menu later that evening, E. tried to avoid unintentional weight gain by eating a light supper of Cornbread Crisps, curried carrot and cashew dip, and a jalapeño cheddar roll.

At roughly 3:30 PM, after completing her 10,000 step walk, a hungry E. was shopping at Trader Joe’s, when she was entrapped by this copy. “Enjoy the flavor of freshly baked cornbread wherever you are–without turning on the oven. Made with fragrant cornmeal and a touch of sea salt, these slightly sweet, take-anywhere snacks are baked to a gold crisp. Crumble them into soup or salad for added crunch, serve them alongside warm chili & cream cheese dip, or simply eat by the handful.”

Though not admissible as evidence in this case, E. had been sentenced to unintentional weight gain for a prior conviction involving toast addiction. Her defense attorney at the time had pleaded clemency on the basis that when E. made toast to stave off hunger during her work day, her brain had formed a secondary habit, seeing toast as a relief from one or more job-related stressors. An expert witness testified that it’s this craving, seeing food as a pleasant way to relieve (or at least stop thinking about) some stressor other than hunger that turns eating into addiction.

At about 2:30 PM, E. paid a visit to Helen Bernhard Bakery, reinforcing the craving trigger for the crisps. She didn’t want to buy something that she’d have around for late night snacking, but committed a minor parole violation by purchasing the aforementioned jalapeño cheddar rolls. At this point, she stipulates that she was hungry. She had completed roughly half of her intended 10,000-step walk.

Aiding and abetting her entering Helen Bernhard Bakery was October’s  photo scavenger hunt. One of the prompts was “baked,” which further reinforced the craving for bread. Once inside the bakery to take a photo, the chances were slimmer that she’d escape without buying something. She could rationalize that it would be a misdemeanor to go into the store and take a photo of a “baked” good without buying it.

The piece of circumstantial evidence in the case of the killed off bag was a book E. checked out from the Staff Picks shelf of the library entitled The Rye Baker: Classic Breads from Europe and America.

Even if E. had been able to resist the prompting from the photo scavenger hunt cue, the memory of past bread pleasures reinforced by this book’s food porn photos and recipes would have likely enticed her to her criminal act.

In the end, we both plead guilty for knocking off that bag of Cornbread Crisps Sweet and Salty Cornbread Snack in less than a day. We know that it won’t bring it back to say that it was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, but are repentant none-the-less. We both plead temporary insanity and throw ourselves on the mercy of the court.

Ten Minute Verdict

As punishment, we were sentenced to watch Justin Brewer’s Ted Talk: A Simple Way to Break a Bad Habit.

Mindfulness of Trauma

When it comes to post traumatic stress, the brain’s ability to reinvent itself can be a double-edged sword.

At 5:00 AM Saturday morning I was unloading my computer monitor and some other equipment from the back of my hatchback when I noticed a brawny dude in shabby clothing standing nearby.

He said, “I’m gonna need that.”

For a moment I was unclear about his meaning. Then I noticed he was looking at the things I was unloading from the car.

The man seemed out of it so I assumed he was on drugs. I assumed he intended to take the computer equipment to sell it to buy more drugs. My mind raced as I totaled up the cost of replacing the equipment. I didn’t want to fight him for it. I didn’t know if the guy had a weapon, but as I looked at his face, I noticed his nose had been broken. He had been in more fights than I had.

“This isn’t worth much,” I said.

There was more anger in his voice when he repeated, “I’m gonna need that!”

I didn’t like where this was going so I stepped away from the equipment and said, “Okay.”

Instead of calming down, the man seemed more agitated. He looked around to see if anyone was watching us.

There was a gun in my face. My heart raced. He pulled the trigger.

It was over.


I woke up. It had all been a nightmare.

I’m no stranger to nightmares, anxiety dreams. It’s always a relief to wake up and shake them off.

I would have shaken this one off, too, because I can’t think of a form of fiction more interesting to the creator and mind-numbingly boring for everybody else than dreams.

But later that Saturday morning, during a conversation about mindfulness and anxiety, the topic of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) arose. Out of curiosity, I read an article entitled “The Science of Trauma, Mindfulness, and PTSD,” by Jennifer Wolkin, which contained the following quote: “I believe that there’s nothing truly disordered about having a reaction to seeing atrocities and tragedies beyond our mind’s ability to fathom.”

This makes perfect sense when we recognize that almost all of the brain’s activity, including the tiny sliver that we can consciously control, is geared to keeping the body alive. Memories of life threatening moments will naturally receive the highest priority. Associations that trigger those memories will naturally create stress. And, thanks to neuroplasticity (the way the brain subtly rewires itself every time we repeat a certain thought process) the more often these memories come to mind, the more we increase the likelihood that they’ll come to mind in the future.

This mental activity becomes a “disorder” only because the physical stress it produces is more harmful than the associations that trigger it.

Virtual Atrocities and Tragedies

Let me briefly recount the “atrocities and tragedies” I witnessed in the hours before my nightmare.

I tour a quadruple murder scene in a hotel suite where bloody hand prints stain a carpet at a dead man’s feet, a second man’s corpse has been sliced at the skull and jawline. A severed arm on the floor. The corpse of the armless man has been thrown against a grand piano with such force that the piano has broken in half. Everything in the room has been smashed. There is blood everywhere. Another dead man’s legs lead to an unseen room.

A young man wakes up in his apartment to the sound of his landlord outside destroying his car with a hammer, he runs outside to stop him but the landlord continued his destruction, demands his $600 rent, and threatens to kill him with the hammer if he doesn’t pay up today.

A woman lay handcuffed to a bed when a stray bullet from a sniper’s rifle kills the man who has apparently abducted her.

Another young man is trying to use his computer hacking skills to break into a secure, remote building, guarded by a skinhead with a shotgun. A woman drives up and hacks the skinhead to death with a machete. She then comes for the hacker.

The first young man is taken on a reckless, life-threatening ride by an oblivious driver.

The machete woman drives the hacker to a gas station where she discovers the attendant has been murdered. When a man with a gun pops up from behind the counter, she shoots him. When a second man with a shotgun emerges from the gas station, she shoots him, too.

The first young man visits his sister. They play music together, he on the guitar, she on the drums. She looks down at her hand and sees that instead of holding a drum stick, she’s holding a carving knife that is cutting into her hand.

A band of destructive marauders with baseball bats and crow bars emerge from a van and start destroying everything in their path to the first young man’s apartment. He cowers behind his guitar as the marauders destroy everything he owns. Seeing he’s lost everything, he smashes his guitar against the wall as well.

The landlord bursts into the destroyed apartment with a gun and threatens to kill the young man. He shoots, and the bullet ricochets off a microwave, several other things, and lodges in his skull. He drops dead.

Another pair of men murder a hotel manager with an electrified crossbow.

All of this stuff is, of course, run of the mill for a dramatic, hour-long TV show these days. What caught me off guard is that this graphic violence and destruction had all occurred during the first episode of a comedy series based on the work of Douglas Adams, best known for the mostly harmless “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”

Prior to this, “Breaking Bad” and “Homeland” were probably the most violent TV shows I’d watched. It’s likely not the violence that affected me, but the way the violence caught me off guard.

The intention was to watch a light and funny diversion at the end of a more-stressful-than-usual work week. Not exactly what you’d call trauma. Not exactly what you’d call stress.

Genuine Threats

On two occasions, I’ve been hit by drunk drivers while behind the wheel of a car. After those accidents, I noticed a mild trepidation when approaching the intersections where they had occurred. When I recognized the trepidation arising, I made a mental note that there was nothing special about the intersections (like their proximity to a bar) that made them more susceptible to drunk driving. My brain gradually reconfigured itself so that I could pass through them without undue stress.

I recognize that if someone had been injured or killed in either of those accidents, each time I approached those intersections, the strength of the unpleasant memories might well have reinforced the trepidation.

And it’s much easier to use mindful awareness to supplant a stressful event when you can anticipate a trigger (as you can when approaching a physical location) than when it comes out of nowhere (like unexpectedly graphic violence in a silly comedy).

Ten Minute Exercise

Some of the instructions from the mindfulness literature on building a more stress-resistant mind that are well worth ten minutes before bedtime include:

1. Recognizing the kinds of thoughts and emotions that lead to stress in yourself and others.

2. Recognizing the situations where these thoughts and emotions arise.

(Apparently watching graphic violence in comedy shows is stressful for me.)

3. Either avoiding those situations when optional or being vigilant about proactively supplanting stressful thoughts and emotions by cultivating beneficial thoughts and emotions if the situation is not optional.

(It’s easy for me to avoid watching violent comedies. I try to maintain vigilance while driving.)

 

Climate of Change

When faced with changes in our environment, our internal climate can be shaped by grief or gratitude.

Over the past week I got the opportunity to witness man-made climate change up close.

The Eagle Creek forest fire spread to 33,000 acres and counting, the smoke was so thick that it transformed the sun into a weak red orb so weak that I had to remind myself not to stare at it, the temperature fell far short of forecast highs, and the area was covered with more ash than it’s seen since Mt. St. Helen’s blew its top in 1980.

The fire affected many people’s internal climate, too. It was allegedly started by a teenage boy from Vancouver, Washington carelessly tossing firecrackers around on the popular trail. Those who have hiked that beautiful waterfall-lined trail faced the challenge of coming to grips with the destruction and the insult that it didn’t have to happen.

Maybe it did have to happen.

The young man who sparked the destruction was simply combining two things that he loved. I can’t blame him for loving Eagle Creek. I love Eagle Creek. I can’t blame him for loving fireworks. I was disappointed by the cancellation of the Oregon Symphony’s annual Waterfront Concert, which usually culminates in a performance of the 1812 Overture and a big, bombastic fireworks display. I know that fireworks are bad for the environment. I always keep my asthma inhaler handy in case wheezing is triggered by the air pollution the fireworks create.

What’s more fun than setting off firecrackers? How about setting off firecrackers and listening to them echo through Eagle Creek?

It’s not something I would do. But, I’m glad that I didn’t have the opportunity to do it when I was a teenager, before the judgment center in my frontal lobe developed.

When it comes to facing change in our environment, we can choose grief or gratitude. We grieve when we think of the good things we’ll miss. We’re grateful when we think of the good things we’ve had. I’m grateful that I knew Eagle Creek as it was before the fire, and I hope I’ll have a chance to return.

I’m also grateful for the ongoing efforts of the firefighters to preserve what remains. I’m grateful that folks will still be able to visit the Multnomah Falls Lodge. I know many homeowners are grateful that their houses were saved.

And, when the fire finally burns out, as it will, I’m grateful that the fire scar will be there as a reminder that we mustn’t take such precious gifts as the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area for granted. Maybe the lasting impression of one moment of carelessness will cause others to think twice before accidentally sparking fires of their own.

This weekend I hiked the Heart of the Park loop of Forest Park and added a little extra gratitude to my forest bathing. I try never to take Forest Park for granted. But I’m grateful for what destruction has taught me.

The first time I took an awe walk by Mt. St. Helen’s, sixteen years after the blast, my jaw dropped at the scope of the blast zone. Yet the ranger on the tour by Johnston Ridge kept pointing out signs of how new life was taking hold where the old had been obliterated.

On the drive back home, I marveled as I walked along the Hummocks Trail at the miniature forest taking root in the wake of the one that had been decimated. On a subsequent visit, ten years later, I marveled again at how fast the trees had grown.

Awe Walks Made Easy

Awe can be a powerful antidote to the apathy that arises from depression. But, since it sometimes takes effort to chase it, here are some ideas for finding it right outside your door.

According to The Greater Good Science Center’s recommendations for an awe walk, places of great physical vastness and novelty increase the likelihood of awe.

Though I can check off most of the recommended natural, urban, and indoor settings for awe walks within a two hour’s drive of Portland, I wanted to see what I could do simply by adjusting the route of my daily walk.

I usually head for a lovely tree-lined park, which always fills me gratitude and awe. It also lets me relax because I don’t have to cross so many streets. Today, I decided to change up and go with novelty.

To begin with, I separated myself from my phone. I didn’t want my awe to be interrupted.

I did a couple rounds of breathing with longer exhales than inhales. This helps engage the parasympathetic nervous system: rest and digest vs. the sympathetic’s fight or flight. Since an awe walk asks us to tune into our senses and let them guide us, I wanted to start from a place of calm instead of anxiety. If low energy keeps you from getting out the door, you can try a few long inhales and short exhales for starters.

Crater Lake

The sight of a U-Haul truck prompted some interesting thoughts about the awe-inspiring Crater Lake, reminding me that it’s the deepest in the United States. I wonder whether the deepwater discoveries inspired this section of the mural that I encountered later on the walk.

Mural Fish

The first sound that caught my attention was unexpected running water. It reminded me of my connection to the vast array of pipes that run just beneath the city’s surface, and the path that water takes, down from the melting snows on Mt. Hood to get there.

Flush

My sense of sight was first to notice this flower that I didn’t recognize as being in bloom yet this year. I leaned in to let it engage my sense of smell, too.

Flowers

I passed a couple restaurants on my return trip, but didn’t stop in to explore my sense of taste. I came across the official vehicle of Pip’s Original Oregon Dept. of Doughnuts, which I occasionally pass on other walks. The smell of the fresh doughnuts has, on occasion, drawn me in to inspire my taste buds.

Pip's Original

When it comes to touch, I was aware of the summer sun on my skin. I was grateful that I wasn’t wearing a dense fur coat like my canine friend here, but the pooch seemed happy to have found a shady spot.

I certainly found last week’s eclipse experience to be awe inspiring, but finding awe in everyday life is often just a matter of having the right mindset and leading where your sensory experience takes you.

Sure, it’s fun when the sun eclipses the moon, but under the right circumstances, it can be pretty awe inspiring when we eclipse part of the moon, too.

Bat Night

Ten Minute Exercise

Check out the interview between Academy Award Winning Pixar Director Pete Docter and Dacher Keltner about the benefits of a savoring walk on this episode of The Science of Happiness Podcast.  The entire episode takes twenty-three minutes, but you can start at the three minute mark to catch the discussion of the walking experience in ten minutes.