Attention spans aren’t what they used to be

The National Basketball Association (NBA) is considering shortening its games due to the decreasing attention spans of its up-and-coming fan base, the millennials, a generation born between 1982-2000 that is 83-million strong and represents 26% of the population.

It seems a small concession, given the NBA is one of the few professional sports leagues that enjoys a solid fan base. Baseball and football are hugely plagued with fan loss. But millennials follow basketball.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver announced in early January the league is looking at rule changes that would cater to millennial audiences. Greg Hadley’s story in the January 15, 2017 Sacramento Bee said the final 120 seconds of NBA games often drag out for nearly 10 minutes, largely due to intentional fouls and frantic play-outlining time outs, a time-honored, strategic tradition of a game’s final minutes.

Hadley cited a Chicago Tribune story that stated the final minute of the NBA game clock takes an average of 6.3 minutes to play. Both overall length of the 48-minute games and the format of their last two minutes are being given a fresh look for potential changes.

I don’t know what to say, except the day before I heard the news, I was in a furniture store and noticed many recliners are now the size of small beds and softer and fluffier than mattresses are. American sports-watching ritual has evolved to cushy furniture, drinking craft beers and impatiently channel surfing on big screen TVs. Sharp contrast to people sitting around on folding chairs in their pre-man cave garages, drinking PBR while listening to sporting events on the radio. Yet, we’re still bored.

Sports competitions have made the mistake of believing that since they are exciting, high-level athletic activities, spectators will naturally maintain interest. Imagine the embarrassment of discovering you are instead boring your arena and television audiences by not playing things out quickly enough. It’s like being told you are bad in bed.

Judging by lightning-fast commercials, professional sports might have taken the hint long ago that it was not quick or interesting enough. But it was probably too late to turn the tide by the time the major franchises discovered viewers were going to the kitchen and bathroom during play and remaining seated (on furniture more comfortable than toilets) during commercial breaks.

Just how long a stretch can the average American pay attention? Roughly eight seconds, according to a 2015 Microsoft study. Same as the minimal time a bullrider must stay atop his/her animal and slightly less time than a goldfish can stay focused. Yes, attention spans are now only eight seconds, down from 12 seconds in 2000. At that rate, we may soon be forgetting altogether about the food we dropped on the floor when we go to apply the five-second rule.

I say these things from a Baby Boomer perspective, coming from a generation notorious for over-considering everything. I have enough attention span to stink at multi-tasking and to have trouble tearing myself away from what I am reading, watching or working on when someone needs me to shift gears. Interruptions generally annoy the crap out of me. The multiple interruptions in the last minutes of NBA games feel like being stuck in heavy traffic.

If fans’ shortened attention spans are hampering sports, where marketers keep close tabs on their return on investment, how is attention span deficit playing out in relationships and workplaces, and at what cost? How can we hope to have quality interactions when we cannot sustain focus and interest much beyond “hello?” We’ve got to lengthen and strengthen our attention spans.

I Googled lifehack.com, my millennial son’s favorite web resource, for attention span-increasing tips. Of the several ideas mentioned, I noted these: exercise and hydrate more; determine what’s important; break big tasks into numerous small steps; work on one objective at a time; get rid of obvious distractions; practice sustained attention.

It’s a starting point. Plus, we all need to periodically put aside that most notorious of distractors, our cell phones, and sit still for a few minutes of person-to-person re-orientation (other than during forced times from battery failure). We could learn a thing or two from bullriders and goldfish.

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Shower curtains have great educational potential

Time for a new shower curtain. How do I know? The old one is looking threadbare. It’s been repeatedly splashed with water and a boatload of teenage body washes, hair goop and whatever the heck other kind of solvents get dragged into the shower in the name of cleanliness, hair removal, odor prevention and attractiveness enhancement for the other gender.

The holes at the top edge of my shower curtains (to snap the rod-hanging rings through) have been torn out and re-sewn or repositioned one too many times. Additionally, a non-eradicable mildew has settled at the bottom edges that never get a chance to fully dry between uses. It’s high time to say good-bye to this lowly bathroom accessory that’s disgustingly past its prime.

But change is difficult, even with mildew in the mix. I like my shower curtain and wish it could last forever, so I wouldn’t have to deal with the time, expense and selection process involved in finding and commissioning a new one.

I thought about writing a ditty about my shower curtain, perhaps sung to the tune of “This Old House,” but it’s an inanimate object that doesn’t really inspire happy memories. I mean, how many people wax nostalgic about their shower curtain, as in, “I’ll never forget when I was a kid that Christmas when my parents went to Bed, Bath and Beyond and got that wonderful Grinch shower curtain that really warmed my heart and lit up our bathroom.”

So why is my shower curtain so special to me? It’s a Titanic-themed one that features actual newspaper accounts about the 1912 ocean liner disaster and the aftermath. I regard it as a subtle way to educate my bathroom guests on an important part of our nation’s history, especially those whose only knowledge of the ship is that it was one of Leonardi DiCaprio’s vehicles to stardom.

My Titanic shower curtain is a mini-history lesson for those who can’t normally sit still long enough to read anything other than school closing announcements at the bottom of a TV screen. According to the Bathroom Reader Academy (a fictional organization I created for practical joke purposes) wisdom, “As you sit there on your duff, pass the time by reading stuff.” Plus, the shower curtain cost around $20, less a 20% off coupon at a local retailer – much more affordable than tuition for a college-level history course.

But the real reason I got the Titanic shower curtain was for its irreverence. The stark black and white design stood out in a curtained sea of silly beach scenes. In contrast to the sun, sand, surf, shells, driftwood, seagulls and beach birds, deeper waters and icebergs appealed to me.

You may be asking why this matters. Does anyone actually notice or give a darn about shower curtains? Well, on New Year’s Day, I posted on Facebook a photo of my sock monkey, Winston, puking into my toilet. Two people left comments about the shower curtain in the background, rather than the hungover monkey. I rest my case.

So I launched an online shower curtain search on the variety available. My research showed they retailed from $10-$300. Really. In addition to the usual wallpaperish-patterned fabrics, there were lots of flower and nature prints, animals, monograms, bold geometric designs, abstract images and fine art, from Mona Lisa to Salavdor Dali. Artists also were featured. I found no fewer than two Frida Kahlo designs.

A surprising category was scary shower curtains: everything from the Grim Reaper, to flesh hungry zombies and/or your favorite horror movie characters, with a bloody-looking tub rug sold separately. Not for the faint-hearted, but for the tell-tale heart, Edgar Allan Poe, JFK and Jesus were all available to shield you while you shower.

Holy huge array of choices, with lots of educational ones. Flags and maps were big, including one of the Boston transit system. There were also curtains featuring quotes from the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson, a textbook drawing of a human heart, a schematic drawing of a patent-pending product and a periodic table of the elements. Unfortunately, I don’t think my bathroom reader academy students are ready for any advanced subjects yet. Maybe next semester.

What should my adulthood scrapbook look like?

When I was a kid, my mother religiously kept scrapbooks for me. The opening pages started with congratulatory cards she received from people when she was expecting me, followed by a now-yellowed newspaper birth announcement that bore a double-chinned, very wrinkled and angry-looking newborn likeness of me.

I spent a lot of time during my childhood and later years studying that photo, trying to reconcile it with the image of who I thought myself to be. Would anyone have guessed the helpless infant pictured would have developed into someone spunky and resilient? Or go from wordless to never shutting up? Were there any clues to an emerging wicked sense of humor or warning signs that the yet-unfocused eyes would someday host a curmudgeonly outlook on life?

Flipping through the pages of my scrapbooks, I marveled at the many wonders contained: not just annual school photos, but other snapshots of me with trophy fish, 4-H projects and various animals, ranging from dogs to horses to cattle. And of course, chickens.

Mostly, I was playing sports and opening presents. And I seemed to be blowing out birthday cake candles every other page. No wonder the time has flown by so quickly. The photos, including those from two proms and senior pictures that never looked like me (even at the time!), were held in place by black lick-and-stick photo corners. If we ever need a sample of my mother’s DNA, that’s where we’ll go!

In other photo albums, encased within wretched magnetic-sheeted pages, were programs from piano recitals and band concerts, track ribbons, patches from championship sports teams, old report cards, ACT scores and college acceptance letters.

I was amazed at many things. Mostly my mother’s diligence in chronicling the first third of my life. She’d collect her children’s memorabilia throughout the school year and spend her summers off from teaching school assembling it in scrapbooks. She covered all my developmental bases, 0-18.

Had I thought to do so, I could have used my mom’s extensive scrapbook documentation as a portfolio showcasing my potential to potential employers. All signs back then pointed to my meeting with success in adulthood. At the very least, they could have landed me a job as a tester at a birthday cake candle factory.

So what the heck happened? Where have all the ribbons and medals and promising prom dates gone? Did I inhale too much smoke at my birthday parties or accidentally eat poisonous candle wax? How many times am I going to have to start over and pay yet another set of life dues, accompanied by overdue notices, complete with interest?

Viewing my birth photo again, I decided that I have never looked more like my birth announcement photo than I do today: wrinkly, jowly and angry. Only God knows why, but I seem to be back where I started. Well not exactly where I started out. At least I’m not pooping my pants and screaming inconsolably. Only in my head.

I miss being a helpless burden on others. While I fought to earn my independence from the grown-ups and to chart my own life’s course, having someone else take care of me and clean up my (less stinky but equally disgusting) messes is sounding pretty good these days. I want to be the backseat driver in my parents’ car, not the insurer and maintainer of my own.

Do other people feel this way, or is it just me? As if that would make the truth any easier to take. Quite honestly, I feel more alone and behind than when I started in life. Actually, I’m further behind because I no longer have caregivers. It’s up to me to figure out and finance life’s parameters and answers. I want my mommy, but it’s too late. Time has reversed our caregiving roles.

So I’ll keep childishly fantasizing about creating a new, adult scrapbook for myself: one that sometimes features a slick series of self-indulgent selfies. It’s just my throat’s too dry from silently screaming to navigate the lick-and-stick photo corners. Won’t someone please do it for me? I’ll give you a medal and a slice of birthday cake in compensation. And take your picture.

Resolve to be less wasteful during new year

Once again, I was hard to buy Christmas presents for because I buy the things I need during the rest of the year as the need arises, versus going without to save ideas to put on my Christmas list. It’s the same thing for me when it comes to New Year’s resolutions: I consciously try to initiate personal tune-ups throughout the year rather than putting off change until January 1. However, in this unusual case, it’s been the slowdown in life busyness between Christmas and New Year’s Eve that triggered some deep thinking about a deep issue: waste.

Perhaps it was the extreme behaviors witnessed between Thanksgiving and Christmas that got my attention. Too many people appeared to be dashing through the snow on caffeinated and/or alcohol-fueled energy, going to an unwarranted number of places, making unnecessary preparations and spending unavailable funds. And in the name of what? Having a “good” Christmas.

What, exactly, is a good Christmas? While I can’t say for sure, I think it means one on par with what we’ve convinced ourselves others are executing and that we’re entitled to. Again, thank God I’m a Smith, who doesn’t need to worry about keeping up with those over-the-top, commercially-crass Joneses.

This year begat one of the best Christmases I’ve had in a long time, even though its scant wrapped components were purchased on clearance and it wasn’t spent with my kids, who were up north at the grandmother’s house with their dad. I financially supported a handful of community causes, played a lot of good piano, helped with a terrific children’s program at another church, attended services in three different communities on Christmas Eve, caught up with old friends afterward and visited cancer-battling friends at the U of M hospital with my trusty giant sock monkey, Winston, on Christmas Day. The day culminated in stopping with a new friend for Christmas dinner at Firekeeper’s casino on our way home.

Not exactly Norman Rockwell painting-inspiring stuff, but every moment was constructively accounted for: no part of the time went to waste. That brings me back to what I’ve been thinking about lately, “the American Way.” We might as well complete the phrase as, “the American Way of waste,” as our country is infamous for not just hogging, but wasting the world’s precious resources.

There are many categories of resources I could discuss, but for time and space purposes here, I will focus on water. According to what I read at the Environmental Protection Agency’s website, the average American, who comprises only 5% of the world’s population, uses 182 gallons per day, compared to the 7.5 gallons per day of someone in Senegal. If that does not overwhelm you, it would if you had to walk miles to carry it home.

This crossed my mind on one especially cold morning, as I crossly ran the bathroom sink faucet, waiting for its water to reach the preferred temperature for washing my face. Suddenly, it registered I had wasted nearly two gallons of water in the process, more water than a whole family has access to for the day in some drought-stricken countries. But there was no consequence for my resource-wasting behavior, other than quickly-passing guilt.

Just how much water do American’s use daily? Depending on which source you reference, estimates run up to 100 gallons per person. Holy crap! Those who keep the water running during their shaving or tooth-brushing might use as much as 200 gallons on those activities, alone, over a month’s time.

If you think that’s bad, each load of traditional machine-washed laundry requires an average of 50 gallons of water. The flush of a toilet uses up to seven gallons of water. Dishwashing may take as much as 20 gallons of water. Help! Someone throw me a life preserver. I’m drowning in EPA statistics. Worse yet, it’s a waste of my own making.

My New Year’s resolution is to be less wasteful of everything, regardless if I can “afford” to be wasteful. In a world where many live in a state of constant scarcity, I don’t want to be the “have” except in the sense of “have a heart.” Please consider signing on for the same.

Sock monkey socks it to the selfish side of us

bored-winstons-horz“I was officially there for a totally different reason, but then I got this nudge.” That’s how most of the most interesting episodes of my life have begun – with an opposite purpose. But somehow, because I came to that exact spot, at that exact time, the stars align and something unexpected and magical happens.

The Sunday after Thanksgiving was no exception to that pattern in my life. I had discovered the previous night, just 48 hours after making a huge Turkey feast for 26 people, that one of my younger guests had made off with the skeleton key that goes to my front door. While I thought I had kid-proofed my home, I had overlooked this one item, mostly because it wasn’t dangerous or breakable.

For 140 years, the key had quietly resided in its lock, but disappeared within seconds into the mechanically-capable hands of a riotous toddler. This wasn’t mere speculation on my part. When interrogated, several family members reported having witnessed him running around with it.

So I went to Allen – antique capital of Michigan, where they should have a key like that for sale – except the day I went, unless I wanted to buy an ancient door to go with it. Nuts! But while there, I found a glass lamp shade to replace the one I’d knocked off my piano while searching for the missing key. I also encountered a very odd antique mall object: A huge, newish sock monkey that looked to have been fashioned from a giant’s Rockford Red Heel socks!

What initially caught my attention was not simply the monkey’s size and counter-contextual presence, but that he was seated on a chair with his sock tail resting obscenely between his legs as though . . . Well, you know. It caused a very quick double-take. Naughty monkey!

My mind immediately clicked off what other kinds of mischief that monkey could get into under the tutelage of the right owner. I checked his price: $25. Wince. I’d just got my property tax bill and was still buying Christmas presents. So I’d have to pass on him. But all that week my mind kept going back to the monkey. Monkey mind! Plus, I know not noticing nudges negates many missions. So I left my son’s following Saturday wrestling tournament in Concord late afternoon and drove the wintry back roads to Allen. I reached the antique mall at 10 minutes to close and bought Mr. Monkey.

“Omigod, he’s so cute!” said another customer at the cash register. “Who you gonna give him to?” I told her I was keeping and purposing him for humor. She started laughing. “Wish I could witness all the trouble he’s going to get into.” If only she knew!

I gave the sock monkey a few days to acclimate to his new home before pressing him into service. I decided he would not be just a cutie-patootie, but a monkey with a message, less insipid than “Elf on a Shelf,” to which he’s been compared. Sock monkey represents the part of us that operates on good intentions and the belief life is good as long as we get our needs met and don’t harm anyone else in the process. He’s naughty shallowness personified.

That in mind, I put a leopard-print Santa hat and my daughter’s fuzzy winter boots on the still-nameless monkey and photographed him in all kinds of goofy scenarios, which I’ve posted daily on Facebook (see my Kristy Ann Smith page). Friends have responded positively and relate to the awkward corners into which the hapless monkey paints himself.

I pondered monkey names, wanting something different, but fitting. Settled on the name “Winston,” as it paid homage to my dad, who never believed the Winstons he smoked individually over the years would ever add up to the lung cancer that killed him. But they did. The name fit.

In no time, Winston has taken on a life of his own, allowing the rest of us to vicariously do slapstick battle with the human tendencies that most plague: impatience, procrastination, poor planning, wishful thinking, unfinished business, selfishness, and other shortcomings. Although Winston’s not real, we can’t help but see ourselves through his banana-smeared lens.

Rank means everything in food name game

I don’t know if this has occurred to you, but I have noticed many businesses use military names or patriotic terms to draw in potential customers. This came to my attention the week I read the newspaper headline, “Chef credited with inventing General Tso’s Chicken dies.”

This caught my attention because I’ve always wondered about the origin of General Tso’s Chicken, which I sometimes order when I do Chinese take-out. Turns out, it had little or nothing to do with the 19th Century Hunan Province military leader and/or Chinese culinary tradition. Go figure.

This sweet fried chicken dish is more like a culinary tourist trap, where we only THINK we are eating something traditionally Chinese or paying homage to its namesake, when the reality has to do more with fortune-making than fortune cookies.

What, then, is the origin of General Tso’s Chicken? A December 4, 2016 Associated Press newspaper article stated it was created by Peng Chang-kuei in 1950’s Taiwan, to where he had fled in 1949 when Chiang Kai-shek ruled and communism had taken over his homeland. After making the dish for several years in Taiwan, and serving as the chef who had welcomed the commander of the U.S. 7th Fleet with a Chinese banquet during a state visit, Peng started serving General Tso’s Chicken at the New York restaurant he ran near the United Nations headquarters.

According to the newspaper account, “General Tso’s Chicken is so famous because of (former international diplomat) Henry Kissinger – because he was among the first to eat it, and he liked it, so others followed.” The dish includes mounds of deep-fried chunks of floured chicken, smothered in sweetness, typically including soy sauce, sugar, ginger and other spices.

Jennifer Lee’s book, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, traces the dish’s history: “The march of General Tso’s chicken has been long and wide. It’s the most popular of Chinese dishes in America.” That means its firmly anchored in our culture and is here to stay.” When its creator, Peng Chang-kuei, died at the age of 98, he was till cooking it in his Taipei restaurant.

If that news were not enough to digest, I also got it on good authority that same week that the creator of McDonald’s Big Mac sandwich had died. Found dead in a pool of special sauce. Not really, but I couldn’t resist writing that.

Michael James Dellighatti, the man responsible for creating the culturally-iconic sandwich, was a McDonald’s franchise owner who listened to his customers’ requests for a larger sandwich and used his 47 Pittsburgh area McDonald’s stores as taste testing grounds for the Big Mac. He truly believed in the cause he was championing. According to Delligatti, who ate at least one Big Mac a week forever, McDonald’s originally resisted putting the sandwich on its menu because the existing product mix was already working well. Today, McDonald’s without a Big Mac is unimaginable.

I can remember when, late 1970s, McDonald’s did call-in, win a Big Mac promotional contest where a certain number caller would have to rattle off the entire contents of a Big Mac in under five seconds, in one very big breath. I can still do it. I was coached by my best friend’s brother, who was a McDonald’s crew member then, when more fast food workers were fresh-faced and didn’t look like serial killers: “Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun.”

But back to my original observation about using military terms to add credibility to food products. Online, I found a large pizza chain called “Sgt. Pepperoni’s Pizza,” as well as “Major Seafood Distributors.” They’re not yet up there in the ranks with Colonel Sanders’ huge chicken enterprise, but have room for promotion.

There’s something about a soldier that gets others falling in line and following where the palate leads. I’m still waiting for the term “lieutenant” to catch on, but there’s a substantial spelling barrier to overcome. And “private” is in a class all by itself, if you count the many claims of “private dining.” Still looking for a restaurant or food that tries to capitalize on the rank of “corporal.” As with the military, top brass names remain in charge.

Caped Crusader wear creeps into wardrobes

I’m not someone who pays much attention to fashion. The only thing I’m really into is washable fabrics. I mostly dress for comfort and self-entertainment. But if someone else gets a kick out of what I’m wearing, so much the better. I like unusual colors and textures. I have fun dressing thematically for special occasions. And I especially like dressing to publicly embarrass my children.

How can I tell when I’m successful? Not long ago, I was walking toward the jiu jitsu studio with my son (incidentally, on the day the month’s tuition was due) and he tried to subtly ditch me. When I continued walking with him, he stopped me and asked, “Could you stop looking like such a mom?”

I wasn’t sure what to say, as I resemble that description and can’t look like anything else, really. But I responded, “Right now I am pretending to look like the payer of your tuition, but I am more than willing to change THAT look. Right here. Right now.” My point was well-taken.

Later, I gave the “looking like such a mom” thing more thought. Probably much more than it deserved. Then, during Tekonsha’s Labor Day Weekend community-wide garage sale, I scouted for something cheap and image-changing. Score! For a buck, I found a red and black buffalo plaid cape. New without tags – NWOT! Right price and fun style.

Truth told, I have always admired women who confidently wear capes. Perhaps it harkens back to growing up in the Jackie O era or watching one too many Ann Margaret movies. But most likely it’s from watching the hokey Batman and Robin TV show after school. Biff! Pow! Wham! Before you know it, I’m middle-aged and dressing like them.

Apparently, I’m not the only one. It seems like all ages are wearing what amounts to leftover theatrical costumes. I notice this mainly from looking at holiday store fliers. It’s a year when numerous fashion trends, many of which transcend common sense, have converged to give off a totally unintended effect.

Follow my math: when boots, leggings/tights and capes are all popular at once, it adds up to modified superhero wear down to our underwear! Many people appear to be only one mask short of being able to save a small town before sundown. Holy Batright!

By the way, when I say “capes,” I include all oversized, loose-fitting outerwear, ranging from wraps, cloaks, shrugs and roomy shawls, to ponchos, aka glorified blankets with head-openings. To quote something explained by fashion magazine elle a few years back, “a cape is as close as you can get to wearing a blanket in public.” As campy as summer camp.

For your education, let me further differentiate clothing terms: a shawl is used to cover shoulders only, whereas a wrap is larger than a shawl and overlaps in front, covering more of one’s torso. A cloak falls more evenly and loosely, and often has a hood, which can be lowered at crucial times within the drama of your life to reveal your formerly-secret identity to advance the plot. Think Little Red Riding Hood!

But back to the cape/boots/tights combination I opened with: to take the superlative pressure off of myself, I avoid wearing all three of these fashion items on the same day. It helps that I don’t own tights or leggings. Still, on the day I paired some tall black boots with my cape, I could tell I was walking with more of a swagger, as opposed to my usual, overburdened mom trudging.

While the cape, itself, was cool, me wearing it was not. I got it in my oatmeal at breakfast, shut it in the car door on the way to work, accidentally dipped its tail in the toilet at break time and nearly caught it on fire while lighting a candle. I also managed to trip myself three times by stepping on it while getting out of my chair, not to mention feeling overheated all day.

So much for sophistication: I was more like Jackie O-NO! This caped crusader is hanging up her low-budget costume for safety and sanity reasons. Someone else will need to save the small town before sundown!

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