Dopamine, Anticipation, Capitalism, Hollywood, and What Happens if Charlie Brown Never Kicks the Football?

When it comes to habits, the key takeaway is this: dopamine is released not only when you experience pleasure, but also when you anticipate it. Gambling addicts have a dopamine spike right before they place a bet, not after they win. Cocaine addicts get a surge of dopamine when they see the powder, not after they take it. Whenever you predict that an opportunity will be rewarding, your levels of dopamine spike in anticipation. And whenever dopamine rises, so does your motivation to act.

It is the anticipation of a reward—not the fulfillment of it—that gets us to take action.

Atomic Habits, by James Clear, p 106

I’ve been thinking about anticipation in our society. About how dopamine keeps flowing for a person who believes a reward is coming—and how capitalism is great at instilling belief in rewards by showing us other people receiving rewards and selling the idea that with enough work, it will be our turn, or at least our children’s turn. And, if that seems too obviously unrealistic, Christianity offers the back-up belief that rewards will be offered in the life to come, if we are good.

For our system (or those who profit by it), it’s good for people to believe in capitalism, religion, or both because it keeps them anticipating a reward. If people stop anticipating— because they stop believing the reward will manifest, or in the value of the reward — their dopamine levels could drop to such an extent that (like the rats mentioned in my previous post) they stop working. Which would be bad because everyone striving for their individual rewards within the system, is the system.

The pandemic has shown, in a small way, how when people can’t / won’t service the system, it’s inconvenient for the people who need a new bathroom vanities, cling peaches or car parts, and also threatening to the people who normally profit from all these transactions. I’m far from the first theorize that to keep things running, the system might ultimately have to provide rewards of actual value — like workplace safety, higher wages and maybe some other things, like respect and appreciation for one’s contributions and skills…etc.

Oops — I think most of that was a tangent. The real topic of this post, of course, is me.

Who am I? I’m a subset of person: a writer, existing in a subsector of the capitalist system: the entertainment industry. The rewards I want are the same boring things most people in my industry who aren’t sociopaths want: creative opportunities, a living wage, functional work relationships, etc. For a fair while, I’ve sustained myself with the anticipation of obtaining these, because I had some belief that it was possible. Like its parent system, Hollywood is great at saying “look at all these other people getting dopamine-triggering treats—if they can do it, you can too!”— and also selling the idea that if you are just good enough, God (or someone) will pick you and lift you up to heaven (or at least higher up the food chain).

The thing is, one starts to lose one’s ability to anticipate a bright future if this keeps happening:

If you don’t want to kick the ball anymore, CB, there’s thousands of writers out there who would kill for the chance.

Please know, that, within my field, I am in no way unique and this football-yanking happens to lots and lots of people, all the time. So this is not a plea for sympathy, inasmuch as a preamble for some self interrogation, wherein I ask:

Who’s at fault in the situation pictured above?

Is it Lucy, for being a jerk? For sure. But. Is it also Charlie Brown? Why does CB repeatedly come back to Lucy and her ball? Doesn’t he have other friends who treat him better? Is Lucy so much more glamorous and interesting than those friends? Or, is Lucy his only acquaintance with a football, and a football is the only kind of ball he wants to kick?

What’s with Charlie Brown’s obsession with that dumb football anyway? That question is facetious — I know the answer. He feels like he’s meant to kick that football. If he could just have that one chance, where the ball didn’t get pulled away, and his foot could connect — he can feel in his bones how that football would go flying! (And once that ball was in the air, the world would know, and soon he’d have his face on a cereal box or at least be kicking footballs everyday for money. It’s just one kick between him and living the dream!)

But who are we kidding? Lucy is literally incapable of not fucking with the ball. Like the proverbial scorpion, it’s in her nature to pull it away. Like Jessica Rabbit, she’s just drawn that way.

So the question becomes, what should Charlie Brown do now? I mean, shouldn’t he try playing some other game that doesn’t include Lucy? Like baseball or soccer, or Yahtzee? Or maybe he could start mowing lawns, and just buy his own football?

Hell, he could start a lawn-mowing franchise and eventually buy a whole football team. By then he’d be past the prime for football-kicking himself, but he’d likely have friends who are more loyal than Lucy, clients who truly appreciate (and pay for) their evenly-cut lawns, and co-workers who invite him to BBQs and their kids’ birthday parties where they share inside jokes and compare lawn mowers.

Possibly, he could have a happy life with plenty of anticipation and dopamine despite never kicking a football!

Ugh, I just passed 1000 words! I didn’t want to do that. How can I wrap this up? Okay, here:

  • Capitalism is deeply flawed but seems poised to persist.
  • Given the fact that I’m not Neo, and can’t unplug from the Matrix, I need to live in it. (Matrix=capitalist system. I didn’t set up that metaphor, but it’s so commonly used I don’t need to, right?)
  • Within the capitalist system, my stubborn commitment to football kicking / i.e. screenwriting seems increasingly likely to end with me living underneath an overpass (between police sweeps), while Lucy / Hollywood forgets I ever existed and doesn’t feel the least bit guilty.
  • However, Hollywood is just one subsector of the big capitalist machine, and if I can quit sulking about the not-getting-to-kick-the-football thing, I could look for a different sector that doesn’t lead to the whole overpass scenario.
  • And in the process, I could even look for a sector with work-life balance, respect for my skills, and getting compensated happily and fairly instead of grudgingly and as little as possible. (I don’t know if this place actually exists, but what is life without a search for mythical lands?)
  • All of which would help renew my faith in humanity and the capitalist whole reward system, which would reset my ability anticipate good things, triggering the release of dopamine…

Sugar Water For My Dopamine-Depleted Brain, featuring George Saunders

The importance of dopamine became apparent in 1954 when the neuroscientists James Olds and Peter Milner ran an experiment that revealed the neurological processes behind craving and desire. By implanting electrodes in the brains of rats, the researchers blocked the release of dopamine. To the surprise of the scientists, the rats lost all will to live. They wouldn’t eat. they wouldn’t have sex. They didn’t crave anything. Within a few days the animals died of thirst.

In follow-up studies, other scientist also inhibited the dopamine-releasing parts of the brain, but this time, they squirted little droplets of sugar into the mouths of the dopamine-depleted rats. Their little rat faces lit up with pleasurable grins from the tasty substance. Even though dopamine was blocked, they liked the sugar just as much as before; they just didn’t want it anymore. The ability to experience pleasure remained, but without dopamine, desire died. And without desire, action stopped.

James Clear, Atomic Habits (p. 105)

Although I’m happily emerging from the slump, for much of this year to this point, I found myself relating to the rats described above, in that I had very little desire to do much of anything. Although this sounds like—and probably was—a classic depression symptom, I simultaneously observed that, like the rats, I didn’t feel particularly unhappy. I still enjoyed flowers and pretty scenery and conversations and food when—like sugar water getting dropped on the rats’ tongues—it was delivered to me with minimal effort on my part. Luckily, because I live with a man who is moved by his own appetites, much of the world is delivered to me: Marvel television programs appear on the screen, food arrives, I am ferried to various destinations. And as these things happened during this time, I thought mmmm, riding in the car in the sun is nice, this view is nice, this Modern Kale Ceasar Salad hits the spot.

The one arena where Paul could not do much for me was in my writing. With a kind of distanced concern, I observed that my sense of hope and ambition for my writing career had disappeared, and my desire to actually write had dwindled to almost nothing. This, more than anything else, highlighted for me the growing similarity between myself and the desire-less rats. I thought,

For most of my life I have cared about writing. While I don’t care right now, it seems probably that I will care again in the future so it makes sense that I should try to prolong my creative life until the caring kicks back in. To that end, maybe I should attempt to be not only the rats, but also play the role of scientists. (Not the scientists who let their rats die of starvation, but the ones who provided sugar water to keep the rats alive, albeit after cruelly disrupting their normal dopamine flow.)

In other words, I needed to procure my own source of sugar water.

I set about doing this by signing up for a session of the weekly writing workshop I sometimes do. It didn’t push me into writing pages as it normally would, but my sense of social obligation drove me to read other people’s work and give decent notes. There was some satisfaction in realizing that, after years of practice, seeking writing solutions when I read scripts is now as automatic as starting to chew after I’ve put food in my mouth. So I think my fellow writers benefitted and I exercised my brain a little. But after a couple of months, I was worn out even by this. I needed sugar water that required zero response.

Normally I keep a running list of the “content” I am watching and listening to, but I also didn’t care enough to do that. Much of what I was consumed was apparently not memorable, but I’ll mention a couple that were:

On Apple TV, there was Severance. Rather than attempt to say much about it, I’ll just recommend it, or recommend reading the second half of this essay in Electric Literature. (Or, like me, you could read the entire essay and then order the book that it talks about in the first half.)

On audio, there was the George Saunders’ book, A Fish in a Pond in the Rain.

In the first weeks after my surgery, my general I-can’t-make-myself-care mood persisted, mixed with a fair amount of physical pain.

“Are you okay?” asked our most curious neighbor, with some actual concern.

I was not great. I had little energy or desire to have back-and-forth conversations or observe the social niceties of stretching my face into different expressions. But as I slowly shuffled around the block like a battery-finally-depleted energizer bunny, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain was pure sugar water piped into my brain via my ears. Inside my head, and even inside my soul, “my little rat face lit up with pleasure.”

Although the book can be described as about writing, Saunders also weaves some discussion of morality, spirituality, human nature and the general poignant ridiculousness of people.

Saunders, like my husband, is an engineer-turned-writer, and it is interesting to observe the ways in which their minds think alike. Saunders elevates this by also being well-read and dedicated to efficiently and affectingly articulating his thoughts that are shaped by years of consideration and teaching.

In each section an actor reads a story by a Russian author you’ve heard of, and then Saunders analyzes each story, beat by beat, page by page, doing both a close reading,” and a larger structural analysis.

If you are a writer, a reader or a lover of stories, I highly recommend this book.

P.S. Though I’m a fan of George Saunders’ fiction, I became aware of A Swim in a Pond in the Rain via his Story Club newsletter which you can check out on SUBSTACK for free. I will admit to being months behind — apparently opening emails and reading things on my computer is less like sugar-water delivery and more akin to having to cross one’s cage for sustenance, and I’m not all the way there yet. The minute he compiles his posts into an audiobook or podcast, I will be the first to lay my money down.

Ups and Downs

(Second week after a full colectomy.)

Recovery— or I guess life— has its ups and downs.

The first rosy flush of “up” in my last post was followed by a couple days of down — of pain not diminishing as quickly as I hoped (or becoming less masked as I tapered back on the meds), of mysterious bruises and swellings that are probably normal and not worth a call to the doctor but the source of niggling worry because what if they are not?

And also the sadness of coming face-to-face emotionally with what I already knew logically — that surgery is crest of a hill but not the end of the journey. This goes beyond my physical recovery. I haven’t really gone into the details of how, in these past months I’ve struggled with focus and direction in my creative / career efforts, but at the same time allowed for the fact that the health situation would have me reasonably, distracted! And I’ve hoped that as I move past my issues of health, there will be a moment when I’ll again feel the desire to finish any of a dozen unfinished projects — and even the hope that one project will call to me louder than the others, providing a clarity I’ve been sorely lacking. Of course, rationally, I knew it was unrealistic to expect that this desire and certainty would descend upon in my in my first days home from the hospital, but irrationally, I was still disappointed that they didn’t.

But after a day or so, the mystery swelling went down in my body and I decided I could be gentler with myself in spirit. After a week of convalescence with my mom I headed home with Paul and we had a really nice Easter with family where I was feeling good. The next day, I received word that the pathology report for my surgery was back:

NO LYMPH NODES INVOLVE, NO CHEMO!

Which is, of course, great news.

I returned to a standing weekly client meeting, and feeling frisky, even shot off some emails, feeling cocky, yes, I know it’s less than two weeks, but energetically, I’m past it, it’s downhill from here!

And then on Tuesday afternoon, I got hit by a mysterious new pain, between and under my ribs. It was alarming in that it was sharper, and in a different location than any previous post-surgical pain — but I know from experience that even the most dire-feeling Am-I-having-a-heart-attack? Am-I-dying?? pains are usually just “trapped gas.” Knowing this, I went outside to “walk it off,” only to return, defeated, after only half a block. I spent Tuesday night and Wednesday day and night curled around a hot water bottle.

But, now it’s Thursday morning and though I’m not 100%, the pain has subsided and shifted in a way that supports the idea that yes — even though I paged my doctor and considering the emergency room at one point — it was likely was just trapped gas that is running its course, if not so quickly as I may wish. There’s also a chance that this episode may be the first in a series known as “the new normal”— a non-serious but painful pain, that, as it comes and goes, will need to be analyzed (did I eat the wrong thing, or too quickly, or in the wrong order?), and ultimately incorporated—ie. balanced and juggled—along with the rest of life.

“Balancing and juggling” feels thematically appropriate to a tarot card I pulled last night. (Very recently I’ve been introduced to tarot cards, and have been drawing a card each morning and evening, not as prophesy, but as a way to learn the cards and think about life.) I drew the Two of Pentacles.

Also called “The Juggler,” the Two of Pentacles is about trying to keep all our earthly balls in the air— work, family, money, projects, food, clothing, shelter etc. And, of course, holding our temporary bodies together for as long as we can while we’re here!

I think I have a lot in common with the dude pictured on this card: We’re both running a little to stay underneath those “infinite” balls that we’re juggling or balancing— or both. Our shoes don’t match, but at least we’ve got some on — even if the same can’t be said for pants! Our boats rock on topsy, turvy, turbulent seas, but they’re still upright and moving forward. Sure, it all feels a little precarious, but somehow, nothing’s crashing to the ground. Maybe because we’ve both had some practice with boats and balls and waves all moving up and down, and understand that, tiring as it can be, there’s some fun in doing the dance, seeing how long we can keep it all going!

Write about THIS (All the Woo-Woo, #2)

In a previous post, I talked about my energy-healer friends C_ and D_ supporting me after my cancer diagnosis, and how Woo-woo visitors from the beyond joined our sessions. You can catch up here.

On my third session with C__ and D__’s another relative comes to visit. They think his name is Robert. “He’s dressed,” my friend C says – “like a Quaker, but he’s not a Quaker.” “He’s dressed like Benjamin Franklin,” D_ clarifies. (Apparently she can see him too?) “He’s like a Puritan, but he’s not a Puritan — he’s not someone who’s afraid of a drink.”

I’m getting the picture—my ancestors were Scotspeople, hard working pragmatists who likely did enjoy a drink. Judging from their descendants (the ones whom I’ve met or been told about) they weren’t much for coddling and were advocates of “getting on with things.

Which is in keeping with what Robert tells them to tell me. You’ll come through this. You come from “strong stock”  and there are “still important things you have to do.” *

Pretty much the same kind of tough love as I got from Beatrice, but with a little something added. I am, of course, interested in what “important things” Robert sees on my life’s to-do list. It’s fun to imagine doing something important, especially if it’s something that other people might think is important, too, or that might involves rewards like accolades! or money!! Though I’m guessing it might be writing a student referral letter that gets them into school, changing their life, or some step in my own development, like achieving more inner peace or paying off my college loans. If it’s like other predictions in my life, the trajectory will be that for a while I’ll remember and wonder in the back of my mind if every little thing is the important thing… and then I’ll forget all about it. And then much later I’ll remember again and, looking back, assign importance to to something I did in the interim when I wasn’t thinking about it at all.

But Robert isn’t the only one with a message for me this evening. My friend C__ says there are “others” who have come to visit as well. (As of now, for want of something appropriate to call these energetic beings from the beyond, I’m just going to call them, collectively, “the Woo-woo.”) C_ says the Woo-woo have some advise for me, and that advice is:

Write about THIS.

“THIS is in all caps” she says, relaying their vehemence. “Write about THIS.” 

“What does that mean?” I ask.

“I guess it means THIS, right here. What you’re going through now.”

(Brief digression: If C__ were the type to consciously or unconsciously embellish, this might be the moment. Nothing commits writers to life like a some project they feel they are “destined to write.” However, this is not some deathbed situation where I require new purpose to give me will to live, and C_ knows this. Also… I don’t think she’s not the type to make up the Woo-woo. So, if she says the Woo-woo is saying I should write about THIS, then she’s hearing the Woo-woo say I should write about THIS.

Okay. So what part of THIS are they referring to?

  • My health journey, either this particular cancer or, the mutation behind the cancer—the Lynch Syndrome? 
  • My journey into more WOO-WOO terrain, (such as the Woo-woo telling me to write about THIS”). 
  • Or just LIFE in general? A cancer / woo-woo combo?

Is my assignment from the Woo-woo is to keep some kind of Lynch-Syndrome-Life diary? That would be… serendipitous? Since it’s something I do already do here in this blog (albeit on a sporadic basis, and always with some sense of guilt for not spend the same time looking for a real job or writing things that I could show my agents or at least submit to literary journals). 

Although, when I mention I’ve already been writing about THIS, C_tells me, she thinks I’m supposed to make it easier to access. “Like a YouTube or a podcast.” I feel like this must involve at least some interpretation on C_’s part. A bunch of Woo-woo’s in Ben Franklin era clothes can’t be saying “make a YouTube channel” right? 

I don’t ask this aloud, but C_ answers anyway, “Not Youtube specifically, but something where people will see it or hear it.”

Here, I’ll mention that if you are reading this post, you should feel special, because out of the 7+ billion people in the world, fewer than 20 are likely to read this post,** and you are one of them! For me, one of the more freeing aspects of this blog is that almost nobody reads it. The almost is key. As a writer, I work and revise and publish on the premise that someone will probably read a post I write. I love my handful of subscribers (hi guys!) and the idea that a stranger might randomly happen upon any post at some point in the future. But there’s also security in being mostly lost in the online crowd, free from criticism, cancellation or multiple opinions for how I should revise my writing or my brand or whatever. 

It’s safe.

Which is NOT how I feel about talking to a camera on YouTube. I don’t love looking at myself on camera, feeling foolish and vulnerable and conscious of the growing waddle under my chin. Editing video is always tedious and frustrating. And I have mixed feelings about uploading them. What audience are they aimed for? Other people who have Lynch Syndrome, I guess? YouTube videos, like blog posts, can exist without getting any views. Is that what I want? Or does an unwatched video feel somehow sadder than an unread post?

I am resistant to the idea. Thinking about it makes my chest tight.

But in these last months, I’ve turned a corner in my appreciation for video and audio. While I’ve combed through a lot of medical journal articles, which were for informative but anxiety provoking, it was a relief when I could find explanations in video or a podcast form, delivered by a person. Personal delivery made information easier to digest, assuaged some of my anxieties, and reminded me I am not alone in my experiences. I was very grateful.

Would the Woo-woo tell me to Write about THIS simply because writing will be therapeutic for me? (Maybe… it could be, right?) Or are they pushing me to stretch and put myself out there for other people—to inform them or help them feel less scared and alone?

And, just to circle back around… could this effort —whether big or small, or the seeds of something else — be important?

I’m going to have to make a YouTube video, aren’t I? 

F*ck. 

*Robert doesn’t make any great efforts to prove his existence or his exact familial connection to me, but when I ask my mom later, it turns out there are plenty of Roberts on branches of our family tree across multiple generations.

**Extrapolating from historical statistics of average posts on this blog.

“My Hulk” published in Altered Reality Magazine

I wrote a short-short story called “My Hulk” that was posted yesterday in Altered Reality Magazine. Fun!

I have a writing / social group that I attend occasionally, and our ten-minute writing warmup consists free-writing from prompts. One of the prompts a few weeks ago was “the hulk is real.” This inspired a few paragraphs that I late spent about ten hours expanding and polishing.

I haven’t been writing a lot of fiction lately, nor finishing the various unfinished projects that weigh on my mind, so it’s nice to have something begun, finished and published!