A Wedding Most Wonderful, and The Tyranny of Influencing Choice

August 19, 2010

Dear Family and Friends,

I'm not a completely hopeless romantic, but I totally cried my eyes out during our neighbors' wedding last weekend. As I told Ben and Jem, it was one of the funnest they are ever likely to attend...

It was a gorgeous Saturday evening, and the music was incredible, and the ceremony was heart-breakingly sweet, and the brides and grooms (did I mention it was a double-wedding?) made respective promises that were individual and eyes-wide-open and funny and tender and real, and a huge tent was illuminated so the festivities could continue late into the night.

All this ritual and ruckus reminded _me_ of how wonderful it is to be In Love, and how fun it is to be married to Jeff, and how I love having a partner in this life (and how glad I am that never again will I ever have to spend months worrying about How The Weather Will Be on My Wedding Day).

Thanks, Graham and Otto, and Liz and Jared, for sharing your joyful partnerships with the rest of us!


One of the best parts of the wedding, in my unbiased opinion, was the feast-cooking. I coordinated four shifts of cooks – a team of 26+ people - to prepare a dinner to serve 400 (and potentially 200 of their closest friends). The menu: hors d'oeuvres and bread and butter (not by me), Green Salad with Lemon-Tahini Dressing, Jeweled Rice Salad, Mediterranean Pasta Salad, Broccoli-Cheddar Frittata, Cold Sesame Peanut Noodles, and Maple Glazed Tofu.

Since I have never, ever prepared that much food before, it was a great honor to be trusted with this job. And now that I know that People Eat A Lot Less When A Server Puts The Food On Their Plates (and, that People Seem To Eat A Lot Less When They Get Hors d'oeuvres First...), I'll be able to gauge quantities more accurately the next time I cook for 400.


Since most of you attended the festivities, I won't go into great detail concerning Grandma Lily's 95th birthday bash, but suffice to say that my mom and Aunt Sheryl threw a party on August 7 that will be talked about for years to come. There were long-unseen (as well as previously un-met) relatives, another gorgeous central NY afternoon, an incredible abundance of food, and new markets for Ben's origami.

On the morning of the party, many of us participated in the first annual 5K Run in “downtown” Prattsburgh. Matt and Jake came in 1st and 3rd in their age category, while I distinguished myself by actually completing the course and coming in 86th (for a total time of 36 minutes – was probably plumb last in my own age category) out of about 135 participants. Also, I had a rare chance to catch up with Donna while I jogged/walked briskly.

(Who knows?? I may someday become a Competitive Athlete.)


Another Big Event:

My gorgeous little blond baby who looks nothing like me has now somehow officially (as of August 5th) become an adorable little blond THREE-YEAR-OLD (who still looks nothing like me). We celebrated in style in Prattsburgh, where Jem received more small cars and toy balls than he's ever gotten in a day.


Other events:

--Grandpa Terry has introduced us all to the magic of chanterelle mushrooms. After several walks in the woods to top-secret locations, even Jem can identify these delicacies, and they're really delicious with poached eggs on top.

--I haven't completely lost my mind, but I may be coming close. The other night, I was so tired that I had a really bungled conversation with a neighbor – I thought it was his teenage son on the line, telling me that his dad was “sleeping”, when really I was talking to the person I'd meant to call in the first place, who was only trying to tell me that it _was_ him, “speaking.”

--In an unusual moment of Actually Buying Something For Ourselves As A Treat That Isn't Only Food, Jeff is now the proud owner of a Xootr with a magnesium deck. http://www.xootr.com/kick-scooter_mg.html?gclid=CM7i06y6waMCFeQD5QodpES… This truly is “The Porsche of Kick Scooters,” and if you come to visit, I bet he'll let you ride it.


It has come to my attention that some of my Dear Readers are slightly tired of reading about GAPS. Good news! Soon, we'll be starting a new and (I hope) complementary treatment program with Ben, and it even has an acronym. This way you won't only have to hear about our family's food intake; I'll keep you posted. Meanwhile, lest you feel bereft without any mention of the specific carbohydrate diet, I'll give you a short list for the week:

Things That Ben Rarely or Never Did Before GAPS, but which He Now Does Often:
--Goes outside without me or Jeff _and_ without having a panic attack (SUPER big deal, because he'd never gone outside alone during the entire two years we'd lived here).
--Talks to other adults directly (rather than exclusively about them, in the third person, through Jeff or me).
--Is starting to interact with his peers.
--Eats fermented vegetables, green juice, fish oil, eggs, avocados, and some cooked vegetables, as well as “egg things” (which consist of bone broth, vegetables, meats, fats, and eggs, all blended up and baked). This is the most balanced diet he has ever eaten. (Getting to this point involved a crazy amount of stamina – see my June updates.)
--Will occasionally try a tiny taste of new foods.
--Can handle crowds, and social encounters, and me talking with a neighbor, and me talking on the phone, often _without_ a guaranteed post-event screaming fit.
--Has many days where he does not have screaming fits at all.
--Sustains profound and prolonged eye-contact, rather than always turning his head away while talking.
--Is starting to understand logical explanations even in the heat of the moment; is becoming more resilient at handling his own frustration.
--Participates in conversations with nearly-normal back-and-forth interaction (rather than repeating questions over and over to the exclusion of natural dialogue, which was his default before).
--Can listen to stories read aloud to him, and follow the idea of a linear fictitious plot (i.e. he can listen to read-aloud “chapter books” for the first time in his life).
--Has smooth, non-rashy skin.
--Had about six weeks where he didn't chew his clothes at all; currently he is again, but now we know that someday soon, he'll likely be able to stop.
--Speaks with more animation (not only a monotone).
--Runs around, like a kid! (He rarely ran before.)
--Smiles and laughs, many times a day, like a kid! (He used to be somber on the good days, and downright morose most of the rest of the time.)
--Has drastically fewer painful gastrointestinal symptoms.

After four months of this craziness, we're not out of the woods (and my own PTSD is next in line for treatment)--but despite my burgeoning bushy crop of gray hairs, I'd say this list is a good reminder that progress is happening.


Just skimmed a mediocre book called “Building a Home with My Husband,” by Rachel Simon. Note to self: avoid reading books by childless, happily employed writers whose greatest challenge appears to be implementing a home renovation along with a devoted architect husband. Reading such books does not cause me to erupt with charitable or sympathetic feelings. (Even though, to be fair, she's a good writer.)

There _was_ a nice little bit where Simon describes having to pack up all her old mementos. After decades of collecting, she realizes that she's dangerously close to the metaphorical fate of drowning in her own possessions.

So instead of hanging on to all these old tchotchkes, Simon gathers them all into a huge pile...and gives them away. The thing is, she doesn't just re-gift the objects - as she gives each item to someone who really wants it, she tells the recipient about how she got the thing, and who the original giver was. She passes on her stories, and finds better homes for her keepsakes, and gets an uncluttered house...who could ask for anything more??



Ben on taxes: “Do you _have_ to pay them?” There's a saying, Jeff tells him: nothing's for sure but death and taxes. “But,” Ben points out, “They're _totally_ different things!”

An astute economist and origami salesman, Ben notes: “People usually pay more the first time they buy something.”



“Two by once” - a phrase denoting when something is happening two at a time, like, “I eat eggs two by once!”

When Ben went wallet-shopping recently, Jem found a tiny change pouch that he decided to get himself, with his “own” money (a gift from Aunt Simi, about which he has almost entirely no understanding, except that his Big Brother seems to like it therefore it must be wonderful). He showed it to me reverently. “I got a WALLET!” he said, and clutched it all the way home. “Is it a toy?” he asked Jeff, wanting to make sure, maybe, that this new acquisition was as real as he thought it might be. It's a real wallet, we assured him. “Do you want to put your money in it, Jem?” Ben asked. “No,” Jem said decisively. “I want to put in my _cars_.”

“I not want to die.” (Silence.) I know Jem, I answer for the umpteenth time. Nobody does! (The room goes quiet. Is he asleep?) “I want to stay agether.” We'll stay together for a long time, Jem. (Silence. Is he asleep?) “Mama!” Jem says urgently. _What?_ I say. “I not want short legs.”


There's this great bit in Nick Hornby's “Slam,” where the teenage protagonist has just discovered that he got his girlfriend pregnant, and is agonizing about how to tell his mom. She knows something is wrong, and has no idea what it is.

Suddenly, she realizes! She and her son and her son's father just HAVE to see a family therapist, because she knows in an instant that her boy is suffering from the effects of the parental breakup that occurred when her son was an infant. It's all her fault! This breakup has caused so many problems... She knows this for sure...

And the mom falls into a several-day spiral of guilt before she finally finds out that her son was stewing about his own impending fatherhood, and not at all about his parents' split so long ago.

I think there's a little bit of universal truth in that little vignette: often we can never know what another person is really feeling or thinking, and guilt can result from thinking that we do.

(I currently often imagine that all of Ben's trials, tribulations, frustrations, and challenges stem from the fact that his diet is so restrictive...and why didn't I just do this when he was younger, so he wouldn't feel _different_ from other people...why didn't _I_ do it while I was pregnant with him, come to think of it...and why can't I just protect him from the world?...and...etc. Etc. etc. I think maybe I should stop with this particular guilt trip. Not to mention how that might help me better understand what's going on in Ben's head at a given moment.)


Zoe recently sent me a fascinating article about microflora in breast-fed babies' guts.

(I swear, this isn't about GAPS at all.) It's about scientists who are finding that up to 21% of human breast milk is composed of sugars that cannot be digested by the baby, but rather nourish a protective population of good bacteria in the infant's gut.



Have you read “The China Study?” I haven't yet, not completely, but am intrigued since the author, Cornell professor T. Colin Campbell, is currently responsible for a small new wave of veganism that is sweeping Ithaca (and possibly, the nation).

When I have some time, I'm planning to finish the book, and read these two links, both of which point toward an incredibly scholarly-seeming refutation of the book's main point (=animal protein is responsible for most illness and disease) by a woman named Denise Minger.

Minger sifted through the actual raw data that Campbell collected, analyzed it herself, and now politely asserts that he made some unscientific and biased analysis in order to come to the conclusion that veganism is the healthiest way to eat. Evidently, Campbell subsequently and very impolitely published some ad hominem attacks against Minger, and now the soap-opera continues.

I'm interested in how Minger found that the strongest pattern in Campbell's data was not a correlation between meat-eating and ill-health, but rather a huge association between wheat consumption and coronary heart disease.



I know, I know--no more writing about the GAPS diet, and how stressed out I am by dealing with related issues, etc.

But I feel like I have a tiny excuse for the stress, because on top of everything else, our family has almost completely altered our eating patterns. This means that eating, which should, evolutionarily, be fairly straightforward, has been catapulted into the realm of Decisions That Must Be Carefully Considered and Made Hundreds of Times per Day...

Two days after it was due at the library, I started skimming a book called “Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness.” From the back jacket: “Nudge is about choices--how we make them and how we're led to make better ones. ...Citing decades of cutting-edge behavioral science research, they demonstrate that sensible 'choice architecture' can successfully nudge people toward the best decision without restricting their freedom of choice.”

(This was a NY Times bestseller, and the Economist named it “A Best Book of the Year.” So how could I return it without at least a cursory glance??)

The introduction begins with a slightly fictionalized scenario: Carolyn is the director of food service for a school system's cafeterias. Based on the results of careful experimentation, Carolyn discovers that she can significantly influence students' food choices, not by offering different foods, but by displaying them in different ways: putting the carrot sticks lower than or before the French Fries, say, or placing dessert at the middle vs. at the end of the line. It turns out that the students are up to 25% more or less likely to choose a certain food, just based on its position in line.

Carolyn's conclusion: “...school children, like adults, can be greatly influenced by small changes in the context.” So: should Carolyn try to influence the kids' choices? Or, should she remain neutral? After finding how the students tend to behave based on various ways the food can be displayed, she could:

“1. Arrange the food to make the students best off, all things considered.
“2. Choose the food order at random.
“3. Try to arrange the food to get the kids to pick the same foods they would choose on their own.
“4. Maximize the sales of the items from the suppliers that are willing to offer the largest bribes.
“5. Maximize profits, period.”

“Carolyn is what we will be calling a _choice architect_. A choice architect has the responsibility for organizing the context in which people make decisions...”

The crucial point to consider, Thaler and Sunstein writes, is that “there is no such thing as a 'neutral' design.” _Any_ design will encourage or discourage various behaviors and choices. In their fictitious example (as well as when advising others in positions of influence), they claim that the best course of action for “a choice architect like Carolyn...[is to] nudge.”

Thaler and Sunstein call their philosophy “Libertarian Paternalism.” “The libertarian aspect of our strategies lies in the straightforward insistence that, in general, people should be free to do what they like--and to opt out of undesirable arrangements if they want to do so. ...The paternalistic aspect lies in the claim that it is legitimate for choice architects to try to influence people's behavior in order to make their lives longer, healthier, and better. In other words, we argue for self-conscious efforts, by institutions in the private sector and also by government, to steer people's choices in directions that will improve their lives. In our understanding, a policy is 'paternalistic' if it tries to influence choices in a way that will make choosers better off, _as judged by themselves_. Drawing on some well-established findings in social science, we show that in many cases, individuals make pretty bad decisions--decisions they would not have made if they had paid full attention and possessed complete information, unlimited cognitive abilities, and complete self-control.

“Libertarian paternalisms is a relatively weak, soft, and non-intrusive type of paternalism because choices are not blocked, fenced off, or significantly burdened. ...Rather, they are self-consciously attempting to move people in directions that will make their lives better. They nudge.

“A nudge, as we will use the term, is any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people's behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives. To count as a mere nudge, the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid.”

An important note, Thaler and Sunstein write, is that “hundreds of studies confirm that human forecasts are flawed and biased. Human decision making is not so great either. Again to take just one example, consider what is called the 'status quo bias,' a fancy name of inertia. For a host of reasons, which we shall explore, people have a strong tendency to go along with the status quo or default option.” Just knowing that, “private companies or public officials...can greatly influence the outcome by choosing it as the default [while not eliminating any of the other options].”

(Incidentally, I often notice that people ask “Why are you choosing to homeschool?” and yet are unsettled when I ask, “Why are you choosing to send your child to school?” It is fairly unsettling to realize how many choices we really have.)

According to the authors, one misconception regarding any sort of paternalism is that it is even possible to avoid influencing people's choices. “[The second misconception is that] paternalism always involves coercion.”

Suddenly, Doing the Right Thing doesn't seem very straightforward any more! This raises all sorts of questions: What _do_ people want, if they're clearheaded enough to consider the options?? What happens when small groups or individuals are responsible for setting the “default” for hundreds or thousands or millions of individuals? What if the choices are a lot more shadowy and cagey and complicated than merely setting carrot sticks before the Twinkies in the cafeteria line up? (What if you're tasked with creating nutrition guidelines for an entire _nation_??) How _sure_ do you have to be that you're right about what another person might want, before you're entitled to set their default option and knowingly possibly influence their lives? What is your responsibility if it turns out you were wrong? Is your responsibility different when you've actively sought power (i.e. run for elected office) vs. when you've had power thrust upon you? If you realize you have this power, does that make all your ensuing actions more reprehensible if they turn out to be wrong? Is there any way to back out of your responsibility as choice architect once you realize all of this? Can individual states secede from the Union, now that it's nearly certain that large groups are really pretty impossibly unwieldy??

I may rack up some library fines before I find out whether the authors can answer these questions.

The thing is--and you knew I was getting to this--just substitute “Parent” for “choice architect,” and note how “parents” set the household's “status quo”, at least when children are young. Remember how paralyzed the fictitious Carolyn was, as she considered the best way to set up lunch line for the school children?? Well, she should be thankful that she only has to plan one meal a day--and that she doesn't have to help kids choose GAPS foods--and that she doesn't have to do the cooking and cleaning!

Imagine a family's dinner table. Imagine the food choices made by billions of parents the world over. Imagine the billions of choices you make and defaults you set for your kids (if you have them) every DAY, in every aspect of their lives...

The Pandora's Box, it seems to me, is simply that knowledge - anytime we learn that we have power to influence someone else's choices, we have to make a decision, which will potentially be wrong, about what is right not only for ourselves, but for someone else.

And that brings us back to the topic of self-control http://www.fastcompany.com/video/why-change-is-so-hard-self-control-is-… , and why I'm attempting to cut myself a little slack right now when my Parenting Career feels so fraught with pitfalls and pratfalls and choices and consideration. The amount of things I'm attempting to consider simultaneously is paralyzing, and this gives me a bit of insight into why our elected officials generally appear to be either completely corrupt or utterly ineffectual.


If you've made it to the end of this, I'm curious about any recent experiences with choice architecture, and decision-making-bias, and how best to enjoy the human experience once you realize how fallible we all can be!