May 11, 2012

Thank God The 'Heart Attack Grill' Is A Great Name; Also, How To Learn French

Heart Attack Grill.jpg

The Son Of Man will watch over you

Did you hear about the restaurant called "The Heart Attack Grill?"

For the second time in two months, a customer at Las Vegas' Heart Attack Grill collapsed mid-meal and was carted off to a hospital.

Yummy.  Here's another:

The Heart Attack Grill in Las Vegas, Nev., has come under scrutiny since one of its patrons suffered an actual heart attack while eating a Triple Bypass Burger there earlier this week.


(CBS News) Another patron of the Heart Attack Grill has reportedly fallen ill during a meal at the hospital-themed Las Vegas restaurant.

Seems like such a frivolous story couldn't possibly be of any value to anyone.  And yet, I'm about to make a mountain out of a molehill.  Who wants to see something ugly about themselves?


You might guess that this news story is itself a kind of advertising for the Grill.  This cynical view places not just two heart attack victims but all of CBS News at the service of a company's self-promotion.  And you'd be right, another branding piece pretending to be a news story.

But we know what the author wants to be true, the question is what you want to be true: how does this story, like all pop-culture and pop-news, represent a wish fulfillment?  The story does not exist as information, in fact it is deliberately misleading-- the patron didn't have a heart attack. There is no information there.  It is there in order for you to talk about it-- so you have something to talk to others about, through a screen darkly or face to face, because if it weren't for these meaningless media stories which includes all partisan politics people would have nothing to say to each other, and society's collapse into hikikomori narcissism would be total.  Which is why it is correct to say that pop culture isn't a symptom of our dying society, it is its heroic measures.   So take your medicine: what do you want to say about some dummy who had a heart attack at the Heart Attack Grill?

First interesting observation: the reflex position is to defend the corporation, in the guise of pseudo-libertarianism: "No one forced her to eat there!" and, "no one takes responsibility for their own actions!" and "hey, dummy, how could you go to a place called the Heart Attack Grill and not know you'd have a heart attack, what did you expect?" 

This position isn't necessarily wrong, but it is very much a mark of our time that the reflexive emotional position isn't, "those corporate scum shouldn't be allowed to serve that poison, do they feel no responsibility for this?"

Which leads to the second interesting observation: this position is delivered as if it were a minority opinion, full of wisdom, against an uneducated crowd-- as if everyone else blamed the Grill.   And yet a glance at the comments reveals that no one blames the Grill, everyone blames the dummy.  The only blame they get is for using the story as marketing.

If you consider how ready we are to blame corporate scum for everything else, giving them immunity to this obvious blame seems paradoxical. 

So the question for the individual is, why is it so important to be allowed to eat at the Heart Attack Grill yet accepted that there's a good chance you're going to get exactly what you paid for?  I'm going to hide under the bed and wait for your answer.   "Is it freedom of choice?"  Here's a hint: that's never the answer.


You can run the list of "defense mechanisms" and try to link each one to specific personality disorders, which will help you understand the spouse who left you or the spouse you're never going to leave but the point for now is that what makes them defenses is not that they protect you from pain-- they don't, clearly.  They suck at doing this, look around. 

The purpose of defense mechanisms is to stop you from changing.  So that after the trauma or the break-up or the loss you are still you. More sad/ashamed/impotent/enraged/depressed  is fine as long as you're the same guy.

This is what makes treating narcissism particularly difficult: the pathology's Number 1 characteristic is identity preservation. "I want to change."  Nope.   You want to be happier, sure, more successful, feel love, drink less, but you want to remain you.  But that won't work.  The identity you've chosen blows, ask anyone.  Change is only possible when you say,  "I want to stop making everyone cry." The first step isn't admitting you have a problem but identifying precisely how you are a problem for other people.  But I'll save you the trouble, you'll fail at this, too, because of the Number 2 characteristic of narcissism: inability to see things from the other's perspective.  "This isn't really therapeutic, jerk.  You call yourself a psychiatrist?"  Mother's Day is Sunday, get her anything?  I know, I know, she's a jerk, too.


If you want to watch these invisible unconscious defenses play out right in front of you, in real time, in a real way, watch an adult American try to learn a second language.

Short of cauterizing your own genitals, nothing seems like it would change who you are like speaking in an-other's language.  Blech, I'd rather wear someone else's underwear, no thanks, I'll take the 12 credits but no way am I retaining anything.  "Well, science says you lose the ability to learn languages as you get older."  Oh, did NPR just interview TED?   Dummies in other countries and dummies in the CIA learn as adults, are they all using different science?  An American describes another American who is fluent in French as "oh my God, he's so smart, he speaks French and everything" but this statement is easily unmasked as a defense by getting him to describe a Frenchman who speaks English: "well, they all speak English over there."  The bilingualism is robbed of the "intelligence" signification because it's seen as customary.... who they are.  America is a branded-identity nation, which means hearing yourself speak in not-your accent, with not-your vocabulary sounds very not-you, which is why when an American tries to speak French he feels self-conscious, but the Frenchman hearing it feels you aren't even trying.  He'd be wrong, you are trying: trying not to become French.

"Ugh, I hate psychobabble, why can't you be more like Malcolm Gladwell and give me  practical neuroscience based tips like 'get up before dawn' or 'play basketball annoyingly'?"  Fine, here's your concrete advice that you won't take for shaving 6 months off your second language acquisition: master the accent first. Before even one word of vocabulary.  The accent will teach you the rhythm of the words and the grammar-- it will make it okay for you to learn the vocabulary.  And you will think differently.  American exceptiono-isolationism isn't arrogance, it's a cognitive bias impressed on us from kindergarten when we learn that there are only two languages in the world, English and Everything Else.  Which teaches us that a German is more similar to an Italian than a Texan to a New Yorker, and I can predict with 100% accuracy that if that made you pause you only speak English.  Can't wait to hear your foreign policy ideas over drinks.  You should work for NPR.

Once you have the accent down, pick a foreign language actor or actress you admire, and learn the language as if you were them.  Talk like them.  This trick works because you are thinking like someone else, acting like someone else, yet simultaneously distancing yourself from this change-- I'm doing this, but it's not me, I'm just pretending.  The self-consciousness is removed because it's not "you" who is doing it.  Yet it is; and after a time, you'll become it-- and the positive benefit for society is you'll hate the guy you used to be.  C'est la vie.

Which brings us back to the Heart Attack Grill.  All psychological defenses have a common structure: that two legitimate but contradictory beliefs are held simultaneously, one consciously, one unconsciously, alternating variously.  That way all possibilities are covered.  Change is neutralized.


"Hey dummy, what did you expect would happen if you ate at the Heart Attack Grill?"

Why did you expect it?  Be careful.  It isn't because you knew the food is unhealthy, and I know this because you don't actually know what the food is.  You have no idea if a "Triple  Bypass Burger" is in any way worse than a Big Mac except that it is branded as worse.  If it said "Double Healthy Burger," would you believe that, or does your cynicism only run in one direction? (Let me check the calendar: it only runs in one direction.)  "Well, there's a picture of the giant  burger right there at the top."  Run all you like, Gingerbread Man, I'm still going to catch you.   The truth is you assumed the burger was extra-unhealthy as soon as you read the title, before you knew anything else.  So why are you trying to pretend otherwise?

Take an alternative headline and meditate: "Man Has Heart Attack At Hooters."  Hooters food is poison but there the implication is that the waitresses' boobs were to blame.  But the Heart Attack Grill has equally sexy waitresses and no one blames their boobs.

So the expectation is exclusively the result of the names "Hooters" or "Heart Attack" and the connotations they carry.  Not the reality-- the connotations of the words.  But connotation is the purpose of branding.  So "hey dummy, how could you go to the Heart Attack Grill and not know you'd have a heart attack?"  reveals our secret hope about branding: that it is true, that it has power to affect reality. 

I sense the resistance to this idea.  The simple act of naming doesn't give it power, right?  The restaurant has to live up to its name.  Well, now it has.  Still think you should be allowed to eat there? 


Is the name 'Heart Attack Grill' meant ironically?  The waitstaff are dressed like sexy nurses and doctors, which is meant ironically, i.e. what they provide (fatty food) runs counter to the sartorial expectations.  But the name is... not ironic, it's literally correct-- right?

Wrong.  The name Heart Attack Grill is ironic, because the expectation is that you won't get a heart attack there, and the reason you know you won't get a heart attack at the Heart Attack Grill is -- and this is where you need to judge the strength of your soul--  exactly that it is called Heart Attack Grill.  That's why it is safe to eat there. 

This will sound confusing, because if you actually have a heart attack at the Heart Attack Grill, inevitably someone who thinks Kristen Wiig is funny will say: "umm, hel-lo? Mayor McCheese? What did you expect would happen?"  Well, not this.... I thought the name was ironic.

God may be dead, but we're not yet ready to shine a flashlight into the abyss to see just how abyssy it is; so we put a distance between ourselves and the dark abyssiness of reality, and by "distance" I mean literally "some other omnipotent entity."  And we make that entity exert its power-- prove it has power-- through language.  If something is called the Heart Attack Grill, then it could not possibly actually cause heart attacks because no one would ever allow such a thing, any more than they would allow a Vegas brothel called "Syphilis House"-- unless it was actually free of syphilis.  The final step is the trickiest to understand but the most natural to execute-- it is the atemporal logic of narcissism, aka magical thinking:  the naming of it prevents it from being true. Saying it is ironic is protective.

This is why blaming the dummy is pseudo-libertarianism.  It seems that we don't want any restrictions on our freedom, we want to be free to do things even if they are harmful; but that freedom is always predicated on "some other omnipotent entity"'s supervision.  We want our freedom to eat unhealthily as long as it is "USDA Grade A" meat from a "Board Of Health" restaurant, cooked not by Mexican illegals with no training in handwashing but by chefs-- sorry, not precise enough:  "...cooked by Mexican illegals as long as they are called chefs."  We want things to be as regulated as possible with two absolute conditions: 1.  there must be symbols of the omnipotent entity's existence showing we are being cared for, like a Grade A seal or the absence of the 13th floor or the word "chefs";   2.  the implementation of the power must be invisible so we can disavow it.   And at the very last step of a carefully managed outcome we can bask in the freedom of our pretend choice.     In other words, the fact that we are allowed  to choose something dangerous must mean that it isn't really that dangerous, which is more accurately but confusingly translated: the fact that we are allowed to choose something dangerous causes it to be safe.   And thank God.   "There is no God."  Oh, that explains all the passive voice.




Two simple examples of this process.

1. In normal people who did not grow up on a farm, drinking milk from a cow will seem more disgusting than drinking it from a milk carton.  The explanation will be that it isn't "pasteurized and homogenized," which is both true and simultaneously a lie, because you know milk is dispensed after pasteurization from an industrial vat into a carton

industrial milk.jpg

but if you had to pick between drinking from that carton at the supermarket vs. from that industrial vat, you'd still pick the carton.  The carton clearly displays symbols of regulation and control, but the vat is too real to drink from.

2. Even if we agree that "taxes are too high" the psychological importance of lowering them is that the regulations that we know to exist will still continue to exist but we are distanced from them; to the point that the person who pays no taxes, or the man who pulls off the grid feels he is no longer affected by those controls; but of course everything he touches is still the result of those forces-- his Cabela's hat and camo jacket are flammability regulated, certain dyes prohibited, factories free of glass shards; all things that he knows are true, but blocks from his consciousness.  "I'm totally self-sufficient."  Ok.  So on the one hand he knows  (unconsciously) he enjoys the protection of the regulations, on the other hand knows (consciously) he is entirely free of their influence.  This will alternate on the day he e.g. catches fire.  This is not a criticism but an explanation: since this disavowal/magical thinking is a narcissistic defense, it's easy to predict that he will have other narcissistic problems, e.g. alcohol, rage, misogyny, etc.

To be clear: what makes this a defense is not that he is wrong, but that he is right, he has a legitimate point--  taxes may indeed be too high, the government too large, too many regulations, etc. If he believed something that was not true he'd be delusional.   The defense is effective only if two incompatible truths are held simultaneously, alternating variously depending on what's going on, so that change is neutralized.