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One good thing about the period after Christmas is that you don’t have to hear “Are you ready for Christmas?” all the time.

I have always struggled not to answer that question honestly.

The honest answer would be, “No, not even close. I’d be happy to fall into a coma until after New Year’s.”

But it’s a rhetorical question to initiate small talk. You’re supposed to either enthusiastically say yes or talk about how much there is left to do.

It’s like the question “How are you?” Even if you aren’t doing well, the correct answer is “Fine,” or a variation. Years ago a police captain I knew always answered that question with “If I was doing any better I couldn’t stand myself.”

The wrong answer is anything like “I don’t know, I must have eaten something last night that disagreed with me because I can’t stop running to the bathroom, and I’m gassy too. You might want to stand back.”

In some ways the question reminds me of one my father used to ask me after milestone birthdays: “Do you feel any different?”

I never felt any different. 20 felt just like 19, 30 felt just like 29, and 40 felt just like 39. He died when I was 44, so he couldn’t ask me at 50.

My answer would have been different that time.

It is not so much that I “feel” different now, at 53. I “feel” inside the same as I did at 35. But I am keenly aware, and seemingly more so each year, of the growing gap between feeling 35 and being the age I am, which I am reminded of at every turn. A couple of days ago a woman asked me whether I am retired. I wasn’t dressed like I had money, so I can only assume I looked old enough to her to be retired.

It only added to a growing sense of mortality, enhanced by the way that time seems to move faster the older you get.

It’s like being on a treadmill that goes a little faster each year, but behind the treadmill, right behind you, is a wood chipper. If the treadmill gets too fast, it’s going to toss you backwards right in that wood chipper.

“Are you ready for Christmas?” carries with it a sense of how many years I’ve heard that question, how much more quickly I move from one Christmas to the next than I used to, and how many more years I might hear it.

They ask, “Are you ready for Christmas?”

But part of me hears, “Are you ready for the abyss?”

A little more than a week before Christmas someone asked me again. I hesitated, with the honest answer rolling around my head.

“I’d really like to skip Christmas,” I wanted to say. “There are so many expectations and so many obligations, and before you even know it the year will fly past and we’ll be doing it all again.”

Instead, I thought of an answer that contained the truth but was a polite and acceptable response:

“Is anyone ever really ready for Christmas?”

She laughed.

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2019’s coming news

It wasn’t until a few years ago, when an editor friend who makes an annual address to a civic group elsewhere in North Carolina asked me for predictions of news in the coming year, that I realized I am a modern Nostradamus.

Since I started contributing, I have an accuracy rate of 100 percent. Or, in case you think “accuracy” should mean “things that came true,” that may be zero percent.

But some research reveals that still leaves me in the range of Nostradamus. (Full disclosure: no actual research was done.)

Lucky you!

So, following are my predictions for 2019. Take note, and plan accordingly:

Early in the year, Special Counsel Robert Mueller issues the formal report of his investigation, though it leaves many unanswered questions that set the world of political talk shows ablaze. Within hours, Mueller appears at a joint press conference with Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Paul Ryan, Chuck Schumer, Mitch McConnell and the presidents of Fox, CBS, NBC, ABC and CNN as they enthusiastically announce a five-year renewal of the hit reality series “Dystopia,” which all present then realize they forgot to announce the launch of in 2016.

A new biopharmaceutical foods company introduces bacon infused with pleasure-giving dopamines and neurotransmitters that simultaneously trigger “fear of missing out,” anxiety, wanderlust, nostalgia, jealousy and schadenfreude. Facebook stock collapses.

Responding to a continuing escalation in tariffs on products from Asian countries, a coalition of furniture companies establishes a floating factory complex operating from international waters that has the ability to navigate to avoid major storms. Shortly after beginning operations, however, it becomes mired in the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” of floating plastic debris and is unable to escape 2019’s first typhoon, which sinks the entire complex.

Triggered by the sudden explosion of the bacon market, pork belly futures skyrocket, and industrial pig farms in eastern North Carolina become the new center of the state’s economy. Twenty-story office towers appear in Smithfield and Kinston.

Facebook use falls to near zero, and the company files for bankruptcy protection. Days later, a weeping, hysterical Mark Zuckerberg is arrested after undressing inside a Publix, wrapping himself in bacon and trying to climb into shoppers’ carts.

Faced with the possibility of a clean break from the European Union without a new agreement on trade and travel, voters in Great Britain overwhelmingly approve a new referendum that literally says only, “Oh nevermind.”

Elon Musk, the eccentric CEO of car-maker Tesla, announces a new software update for something that is euphemistically called “emissions testing mode,” a built-in practical joke that can make the car emit farting noises when a turn signal is on. The car owner can choose from six different tooting sounds, including “Short Shorts Ripper,” “Ludicrous Fart” and “Neurastink.” … Oh, wait, nevermind, that actually happened in December 2018. (Seriously, it really happened. You can Google it if you don’t believe me.)

Late in the year, the company that revolutionized bacon expands into artificial intelligence with a neurotransmitter-bacon-skinned sex robot. Civilization collapses.

Bacon-loving America soon resembles a scene from “The Walking Dead” as those left alive wish they were dead and attempt to hickory-smoke members of opposing tribes.

As the Christmas season nears, the survivors of the Baconpocalypse find hope for world peace as observant Jews and observant Muslims, who don’t eat bacon, finally settle their rancor to make common cause against the only remaining world power, a multinational army of vegetarians and vegans sweeping across the continents of Europe and Asia.

Rarely has anyone asked me a question that I felt more certain about while answering.

Several times in the first week of the month, someone asked me the same question, and each time I felt the confidence swell up like a warm balloon inside of me. How dare they even ask? The answer was so obvious that I all but openly scoffed at the questioner.

“Do you think we’ll get any snow?” a co-worker asked.

Pfft.

My eyes narrowed and the corners of my mouth rose into a slight, cynical grin. My back stiffened. I felt like a sage asked to impart wisdom upon the uneducated masses. I waited a moment, letting the pause settle to the ground between us, before answering in a tone as calm and placid as the surface of a lake on a windless day.

“No,” I said. “Or we might get snow, but there is no way – absolutely no way – we are getting anything like a foot of it.”

I cited the lower end of the forecast, which at the time was around 6 inches, and said I’d be happily surprised if we got that much.

That was all the wiggle room I left myself.

I could easily remember all the times forecasters predicted the possibility of calamity – whether hurricanes, floods or blizzards – that never materialized, and times when predictions of tiny weather events fell disastrously short of what happened, as with last month’s ice storm.

More than that, I remembered all the times I hoped for big snowstorms, only to be disappointed.

Those memories fueled my sense of certainty. Those forecasters. They weren’t going to get my hopes up this time.

Early in the week, the forecast shifted from day to day, and it further fueled my certainty.

The shifting more or less stopped by Thursday, but I was not deterred.

“Do you think we’ll get any snow?” a co-worker asked me on Friday.

My eyes rolled so far back in my head I could see my brain pan.

“No,” I said, trying not to sneer, “certainly not 10 to 16 inches.”

And I added that since the highs were going to be in the 40s in the days before any snow fell, the ground would be warm and it would melt pretty quickly. There was no sense wringing hands about it.

I intentionally avoided the grocery store. I would not be held hostage in long lines of hysterics loading up for Snowmageddon.

My lone concession to the forecast was to agree it would be prudent to send last Sunday’s paper to press earlier than usual Saturday evening, just in case.

I woke after midnight that night and looked outside to see a dusting of snow on the grass, and a steady amount of new snow falling. I retrieved my News-Topic from the front sidewalk, shaking the snow from it, and went back to bed.

Several hours later I woke and looked outside to see that something close to 6 inches had fallen and piled up in the trees, and it was still snowing steadily. I checked my phone’s weather app, and it said there was a 100 percent chance of snow until early afternoon.

It appeared that I might have been wrong.

As the morning went on and the snow grew deeper, I began to worry about the amount of food in the refrigerator.

Around noon, when there clearly was much more than a foot of snow on the back patio, I worried about the power going out.

When the snow finally stopped, I went outside with an 18-inch ruler and pushed it down into the snow on my car. It sank to the tip.

I was wrong. Man, oh man, was I wrong.

You may ask, did I learn a lesson about acting so haughty?

Based on experience, I can answer with nearly absolute certainty, and I will be succinct: No, I learned nothing. No way.

You are changed by how you read

Reading is vital to the development of the human brain, but how we read – whether we read words printed on paper or words lit electronically on a digital device – may be more important still. The question is whether you should find that chilling.

Maryanne Wolfe, a professor in UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, recently wrote in an article for The Guardian – “Skim reading is the new normal. The effect on society is profound” – about research by her and others that has disturbing implications for the ability of people to comprehend what they are reading, to think critically and to act rationally.

“My research depicts how the present reading brain enables the development of some of our most important intellectual and affective processes: internalized knowledge, analogical reasoning, and inference; perspective-taking and empathy; critical analysis and the generation of insight,” Wolf wrote. “Research surfacing in many parts of the world now cautions that each of these essential ‘deep reading’ processes may be under threat as we move into digital-based modes of reading.”

Why should it make such a difference whether you are holding a paper book and turning physical pages rather than holding a Kindle and swiping left?

In part, Wolfe wrote, some research suggests that the physical sense of holding a book or newspaper and turning a physical page adds a spatial sense that helps the brain file the information away.

Other research suggests that it may be related to what paper does NOT do: enable you to stop reading and check Facebook, or text messages, or Twitter, or anything else you can do on an internet-connected device. Such multi-tasking trains the brain’s “reading circuit” how to behave, Wolf wrote.

“If the dominant medium advantages processes that are fast, multi-task oriented and well-suited for large volumes of information, like the current digital medium, so will the reading circuit. As UCLA psychologist Patricia Greenfield writes, the result is that less attention and time will be allocated to slower, time-demanding deep reading processes, like inference, critical analysis and empathy, all of which are indispensable to learning at any age,” she wrote.

This has enormous implications for what people will and won’t be able to do in all spheres of life – at school, at work, in personal interactions, in daily life. As Wolf wrote, people become impatient for quick bites of information and can’t devote the time it takes to understand something complex – including not just literature but such things as wills and contracts.

More disturbing, think of what this means for our ability to maintain a unified and relatively civil society. Consider all we know now about disinformation campaigns on social media. How much worse could things be as the ability to critically analyze information becomes increasingly rare?

“The subtle atrophy of critical analysis and empathy affects us all. It affects our ability to navigate a constant bombardment of information. It incentivizes a retreat to the most familiar silos of unchecked information, which require and receive no analysis, leaving us susceptible to false information and demagoguery,” Wolfe wrote.

Despite all that, Wolfe sounded a hopeful note: “There’s an old rule in neuroscience that does not alter with age: use it or lose it. It is a very hopeful principle when applied to critical thought in the reading brain because it implies choice.”

Cynical journalist that I am, though, I can’t help but see Wolf’s article through the lens of how the innovations of the digital revolution have disrupted my own industry and left it perhaps permanently diminished. My reading brain lingers on this passage:

“As MIT scholar Sherry Turkle has written, we do not err as a society when we innovate, but when we ignore what we disrupt or diminish while innovating.”

Statistically speaking, I probably reached my peak desirability three years ago.

I would have guessed it was longer ago than that, but science says otherwise. If only I had known so I could savor the year of my peak sexiness. Maybe I could have gotten someone else to buy most of my beer. Maybe I could have gotten some big discounts by fluttering my eyelashes. Sometimes people let me cut in line at Food Lion. I’d hate to think that’s all I got to show for it. Alas, the opportunity for more has passed.

The Washington Post reported this week on a study in the journal Science Advances that analyzed data from thousands of users of an unidentified “popular, free online dating service” in four major U.S. cities: Boston, Chicago, New York and Seattle.

The user data did not include names, personal details or message content. The scientists involved analyzed how many messages users sent and received, how long those messages were and whether they got a response, and cross-referenced that information with users’ age, ethnicity and education.

The study established “a hierarchy of desirability” defined by the number of messages someone received, and it compared that to the desirability of the people sending those messages. In other words, a person who received a lot of messages from people wanting to get a date rated as highly desirable.

The study found that men’s desirability increased with age – up to a point. The peak desirability was at 50.

Maybe that’s why you don’t see George Clooney in movies anymore. For a while he was everywhere, box office gold, but now he is 57 and the luster has been fading for seven years. That’s four years past my age, so it would make him even less desirable than I am. (Wouldn’t it? Don’t answer that.)

The study also found that men are shallow and insecure. At least that’s how I interpret the information that women were most desirable at age 18 and less so from then on — and that more highly educated women were particularly less desirable.

Elizabeth Bruch, lead author of the study and a sociologist at the University of Michigan, told the Post that this data means scientists can now answer the question, “What would it mean scientifically for someone to be ‘out of your league?’ ”

The answer is that if you are the one initiating contact, you’re already pushing the upper limits of your league.

Both men and women sent first messages to potential partners who were on average 25 percent more desirable than they were, and men wrote more first messages than women did.

The length of the messages also corresponded to how much more desirable the message’s recipient was than the sender. So, if you are trying to ask someone out on a first date and find yourself going on and on, babbling, unable to stop yourself, recognize that on some level you know you are seriously out of your league.

I take my analysis of this study’s information a step further than the Post’s story does: Even though men seemed most interested in very young women, at all age levels they tended to initiate contact, which means at all age levels the women they contacted were still on average 25 percent more desirable than they were, often much more than that. The likelihood, then, is that on any resulting date, the man should have felt lucky even to be at the table because he was probably out of his league.

In other words, science now confirms what all smart men openly acknowledge: Almost all of us marry up.


There may well be a sucker born every minute, but don’t place the credit or blame for that observation on P.T. Barnum.

Phineas Taylor Barnum, the showman perhaps best known for founding the Barnum & Bailey Circus, was the source of a number of pithy saying about human nature and business, but perhaps the most widely circulated saying attributed to him is the cynical, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” It is cited often in laments about the gullibility of the public.

A friend who posted another of Barnum’s quote on Facebook also posted that the “sucker” quote was not actually Barnum’s. That set me searching.

According to the Quote Investigator website, there is “no persuasive evidence that Phineas Taylor Barnum who died in 1891 spoke or wrote this saying.”

“Researcher Ralph Keyes presented a skeptical stance with his assertion in ‘The Quote Verifier’ that ‘No modern historian takes seriously the routine attribution of this slogan to P. T. Barnum,’” Quote Investigator said.

The website posted a list of related sayings that had been documented, the oldest appearing in 1806. Barnum wasn’t even born until 1810.

In an 1806 an article titled “Essay on False Genius” in “The European Magazine and London Review” had this fictional account involving the reply of salesman “to whom some person had expressed his astonishment at his being able to sell his damaged and worthless commodities, ‘That there vash von fool born every minute.’ And perhaps the calculation might be brought to the proof, that not more than fifty men of genius are born in half a century.”

Without the phonetic spelling: There was one fool born every minute.

Another website, Brook Browse, says that the “sucker” quote was attributed to Barnum in 1868 by a business rival, David Hannum. Hannum had been drawing large crowds to see a “fossilized giant” he had bought, and Barnum created his own giant out of plaster and drew crowds away, infuriating Hannum. Turns out that Hannum’s also was fake, created by an Iowa man — so in the end Hannum was the sucker because he had believed it was real and bought it.

The website Brainy Quote gives a long list of Barnum’s quotes, which cover a variety of topics, only a few of them about business or making money, but even those are much more eloquent than “there’s a sucker born every minute.”

The one that comes closest to making money by drawing people in is, “Every crowd has a silver lining.”

One that I like about money is, “Money is in some respects life’s fire: it is a very excellent servant, but a terrible master.”

But the one that began my research, pulling me in on Facebook in my friend’s post, has perhaps more resonance for me than all the others:

“He who is without a newspaper is cut off from his species.”

It was true before Barnum said it, but I will happily credit him for that observation.

We have begun election season, and candidates should heed the advice of experienced political consultants that putting out a ton of yard signs doesn’t work.

The only thing it accomplishes is creating lots of visual clutter and post-election litter.

If you want voters to remember your name, there is solid evidence of where candidates get the most bang for their buck: in elevators.

The evidence comes in the form of a recent poll by Elon University testing how well registered voters know who their elected officials are.

Overall, voters’ knowledge is pretty bad.

People generally know the name of the president, vice president, and probably the governor and at least one U.S. senator, but after that, the poll shows, their knowledge goes off a cliff.

Only 22 percent can identify who represents them in the N.C. House of Representatives. Around here, that could be understandable. Destin Hall was first elected only a year and a half ago, and he’s young enough (31) that he hadn’t had much time to make a public impression before he ran for office.

Only 17 percent can identify who represents them in the state Senate. Again, around here that could be understandable, but for different reasons. Caldwell County keeps getting shifted to different Senate districts as the legislature and the courts tussle over redistricting maps. Until a few weeks ago, our senator was Deanna Ballard, who is from Watauga County and like Hall was first elected in 2016. Ballard replaced another Watauga County resident who resigned. (Nothing against Watauga County residents, but people are less likely to recognize the name of out-of-towners who show up mainly for ribbon-cuttings and ceremonies.) For the past few weeks our senator has been Warren Daniel of Burke County – who had been our senator before a previous round of redistricting.

Only 11 percent know the name of the president of the state Senate, who many observers convincingly argue is the most powerful politician in North Carolina at the moment. His name is Phil Berger, he is from Rockingham County, and if you were on the email list to receive his press releases you surely wouldn’t forget him because almost everything issued by his office is like digital napalm employed in a constant political war.

A big exception to this lack of knowledge about the state’s elected leaders, Elon’s poll said, is that 49 percent can identify the state’s commissioner of labor. That’s a slightly higher percentage than can identify their local sheriff.

But the reason people stand about a 50-50 chance of identifying her is the unofficial title people give her: “Elevator Lady.”

Cherie Berry’s name and photograph appear in the little window every elevator in the state has for displaying its inspection certificate.

Berry was the first N.C. labor commissioner to put her photo with her signature on the certificates. Critics complained, but clearly the tactic worked. She has now been in office for 25 years.

The conclusion we can draw, then, is that constant exposure to a candidate’s name on signs displayed in residential yards and in the medians of heavily traveled roads does little to sway voters. But putting a person’s name and face in the line of sight where people will spend a few quiet moments riding in awkward silence, scanning the walls for anything to divert their attention from the strangers around them, creates a lasting impression.

Unfortunately, Caldwell County does not have many elevators. This leaves local candidates with just one real option: Spend most of the campaign riding up and down inside Caldwell Memorial Hospital.

I promise you, candidates, it will have an effect: The hospital has the county’s highest elevator, therefore the longest rides, and the added awkwardness of the hospital setting will make you and your steady smile truly unforgettable to each voter you encounter.

And those of us who don’t visit the hospital will appreciate the respite from campaigning.