Tag Archives: Tom Cheney

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Caffeine as Fuel for Writers, if Not Speakers

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[Back in 2015 I sung the praises of strong coffee as a sure aid in getting over writer’s block. It still has this virtue for many of us, but my aging self can’t handle a racing pulse from the same doses of caffeine. If, as they say, death is God’s way of telling us to slow down, more modest levels of caffeine may keep us in the game a little longer.]

Many of us owe the completion of at least a few big projects to the caffeine that the brain needs more than the stomach. New Yorker Cartoonist Tom Cheney obviously loves coffee. A lot of his cartoons have featured the stuff. My favorite is entitled the “Writer’s Food Pyramid,” with a food-group triangle of “essentials” for scribes that would give most dietitians severe heartburn. His pyramid was a play on those dietary charts that usually adorned classroom walls in the 80s. At the wide base of Cheney’s chart are “The Caffeine’s” of cola, coffee and tea.  They anchor the rest of a pyramid of necessities which include “The Nicotines,” “The Alcohols” and “Pizza” at the very top. Together they make the perfect fuel cell for a cultural worker. (OK; probably not nicotine, which is an addictive and deadly substance).

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Cheney obviously knows about writers, which a movie mogul in the age of the typewriter once dismissed as “Schmucks with Underwoods.” But there’s actually some method in all of this madness. Communication—at least the process of generating ideas—is clearly helped by the spur of this addictive substance. We have more than a few studies to suggest that writers and others who create things can indeed benefit from the stimulant. Notwithstanding a New Yorker article a few years back suggesting just the opposite, caffeine is likely to enhance a person’s creative powers if it is used in moderation. I’m sure I’m not alone in owing the completion of at least a few books to the sludge that now makes my heart race.

It turns out the stimulant has a complex effect on human chemistry. As the Atlantic’s James Hamblin explains, caffeine is weaker than a lot of stimulants such as Adderall, which can paralyze a person into focusing for too long on just thing. It’s moderate amounts that do the most good.  Even the doubting New Yorker article concedes the point: Caffeine

“boosts energy and decreases fatigue; enhances physical, cognitive, and motor performance; and aids short-term memory, problem solving, decision making, and concentration ... Caffeine prevents our focus from becoming too diffuse; it instead hones our attention in a hyper-vigilant fashion."

To put it simply, the synapses happen more easily when that triple latte finally kicks in. A morning cup dutifully carried to work even ranks over keeping a phone in one hand. And then there are more recent studies in the last few years linking moderate caffeine intake with lower rates of Type 2 Diabetes, lower rates of depression, reduced risk of heart disease, and even human longevity.

But there is an exception. A person giving a presentation to a live audience probably should avoid what amounts to a double dose of stimulation, given the natural increase in adrenaline that comes when we face a group waiting to hear from us.  For most of us a modest adrenaline rush is functional in helping us gain oral fluency.  It works to our benefit because it makes us more alert and maybe just a little smarter.  But combining what amounts to two stimulants can be counter productive. They can make a presenter wired tighter than the “C” string at the top of a piano keyboard. We all know the effects; instead of the eloquence of a heightened conversation, we get a jumble of ideas that are delivered fast and with too little explanation. In addition, tightened vocal folds mean that the pitch of our voice will usually rise, making even a baritone sound like a Disney character.

All of us are different. But to play the odds to your advantage, it is probably better to reserve the use of caffeine for acts of creation more than vocal performance.

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Our Iconoclastic Moment?


When did burning down the house become the preferred solution for sorting out its various problems? 

In the best of times persuading someone to do or believe something is difficult.  And these are definitely not the best of times.  One could be forgiven for assuming that self-destruction is not in our nature: that it doesn’t need to be proved or argued.  But watch enough Youtube videos of people engaging in behaviors that can only end badly, or Britons willingly separating their nation from its European neighbors, or voters who seem comfortable channeling their free-floating anger into a political movement, and you begin to wonder.  When did burning down the house become the preferred solution for sorting out its various problems?

A common theme on this site is that we are distracted and over-committed.  It’s harder to be thoughtful when time and fatigue overtake solid values like risk avoidance and forbearance.  The exasperation we all feel at times when incrementalism and caution seem too tepid sets us up to accept non-incremental change, even if adopting it means trashing rational impulses like fact-finding and circumspection.  Both are tools for informed change that can seem too slow to deal with the wounds of class, ethnic resentments, or the sloppy machinery of self-government.  They are easily vanquished  by the incendiary language of a demagogue.

If we are lucky, this phase of seeking big change with little understanding is only one moment in a political cycle that will change. That’s the conventional wisdom.  But a better case can be made that we are steadily moving toward a new kind of American politics where many in Congress and those seeking the presidency are motivated more by expressive opportunities than the actual work of governance. In the parlance of older members of the Senate, these folks are “show horses” rather than “work horses.”  Even shutting down the government–a draconian step taken by Ted Cruz in 2013 to deny a vote for the Affordable Care Act–was done with more defiance than shame. Governing through compromise and cooperation seems to not be in their nature, leading to outcomes where the spotlight on the successful conciliators would have to be shared. By contrast, demagogues inclined to use bumper-sticker solutions that resonate with an angry electorate may know that their methods are at odds with the deliberative nature of their work, but they also know that throwing rhetorical grenades will mean that they can have the spotlight to themselves.

This is a pattern that great writers on American democracy like Walter Lippmann worried about. The public, he noted, can be dangerously out of step with national needs, converting trumped up fantasies into the urge to push for too much too soon, or too little too late. Such it was with the Communist witch-hunts of the 30s and 40s, or the current fashion for deprecating diplomacy in favor of the raw application of military power.

The questions that are white-hot right now are part of the same maelstrom:  Should we block entry to the U.S. based on a visitor’s religious beliefs?  Will it help us in the long-run to strong-arm China, which owns so much of American debt? Should we deport the mostly hard-working undocumented families woven into the American fabric? These are blunt proposals, better written into the third acts of revenge films than ginned up to be the policy positions of a great nation.

There’s a Tom Cheney cartoon in the New Yorker of a frustrated office worker standing over his computer with his desk chair in his raised arms.  He’s ready to bring it crashing down on the non-functioning device, with its innocent screen command to “Strike any key to continue.”  We know the feeling, and there are times when we would give anything for the shortcut a grand unilateral gesture. But the current preference for trashing caution will fill us with regrets later.

Comments: woodward@tcnj.edu