Saturday, March 18, 2006

snack time

I am the snack-whisperer. I think it started when I realized that my truck smells like fritos if i don't vacuum it out every once in a while. And then those half ounce bags of chips that come with deli sandwiches - the ones with about four whole chips - they're weirdly unexpected treasures. I horde them, little golden piles of plastic airbags in my cupboard.

The American Snack - you're completely inedible. That's what makes you so fascinating.

Snacks live in snack machines. A snack's natural habitat is to be lined up in rows facing a sheer vertical drop. The snack machine has a large glass wall so we can watch the snack as it lose its balance on the precipice. We then like to watch snacks fall, preferably a drop of three and a half feet. And we're infuriated when they don't fall. This is how snack machines get destoyed more often than not, by customer rage, not vandalism.

By the way, Japan has more vending machines per capita than anywhere else - one for every 23 humans. In Japan, vending machines also carry household items, underwear, umbrellas, and other important things for people-on-the-go. In America, aside from the amazing vend-o-mat phenemenon of the mid-twentieth century, the vending machine is filled with corn products, as well as candy bars and soda sweetened with corn products.

A little historical context: the vending machine was invented in 215B.C. in Alexandria. It's true; holy water was dispensed from a lever mechanism apparatus device situation that I don't really understand, but definitely involved placing a Greek coin into a slot. In general, all vending machines throughout history have operated under the principle of putting a coin into a slot. Modern snack machines now accept bills, of course, and some take credit cards, but the slot is still there, waiting to be filled by cash money.

Studies show, however, that people are less likely to purchase a snack when the "Exact Change ONly" warning light is flashing. People prefer to pay a little extra for their snack, probably because of the rain of coins into the change holder. Another mysterious feature is the plastic flap that covers the bin into which are snacks are caught, fallen from grace. Clearly, this feature of vending architecture has endured because many like to procure their food not through human interaction, but by sticking their hands into a dark hole covered by a plastic flap.

In closing, I'd like to meditate on this perennial question: Why do we like to watch corn products fall into a trough? It could have something to do with the triumph of the human spirit, but I'm open to suggestions.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Succubus bearing down

Sleep paralysis is some scary stuff. A friend of mine recently suffered from an particularly frightening episode. He woke up from a dream and found that he could not move his body. Not only that, but as he struggled to move, he felt the weight of an unseen force push down on him, as if he was being held in the grip of an invisible monster.

He isn't the first. The ancient myths of the incubus and succubus seem to be accounts of this physical malady - demons were reported to sit on the victims' stomachs and sometimes take advantage of them. Sleep paralysis is a completely normal phenomenon, but that doesn't mean it isn't terrifying. Actually, it may be the fear that is making the experience feel so awful. Physically, what is happening is an accidental tag-a-long of the paralysis that usually comes with dreams. This is an old adaptation - we probably developed paralysis during sleep to power down the body, with the added bonus of not stabbing our family when we dream about fighting off snaggily-toothed tigers. Our ancestors, then, were people who successfully didn't stab their clan while dreaming.

From a comparative perspective, sleep paralysis resembles out-of-body experiences and lucid dreams; besides being unable to move, people often report feeling a "presence" in the room, hearing weird sounds, seeing weird lights, and feeling a rush of energy. If you don't know what is going on, the fear usually becomes the strongest element of the experience. So whatever the victim fears the most could be manifested in a very realistic way. Makes me reconsider the medieval horror stories, a period of history when women likely feared sexual assault more than anything else. President Lyndon Johnson used to have sleep paralysis experiences during the Vietnam Conflict. After the Tet Offensive, Johnson woke in the Oval Office and found his body was paralysized, except it wasn't his body - but the body of Woodrow Wilson. Now that's just not right.

In sleep paralysis, the veil between the worlds is thin.

In a recent article in Dreaming, the Journal of the Association for the Study of Dreams, researchers suggest that sleep paralysis is a symptom of social anxiety. If you have sleep paralysis every night, it is likely you've got issues in your daily grind. Every once in a while - don't worry about it. Relax into the experience and maybe you'll experience the feeling of drifting out of your body. As another great president is rumored to have said, "The only succubus to fear is fear itself."

UPDATE: I've since written a book on the subject of sleep paralysis. Check it out on Amazon: Sleep Paralysis: A Guide to Hypnagogic Visions and Visitors of the Night.