Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Tending Your Culture

“When you decline to create or to curate a culture in your spaces, you’re responsible for what spawns in the vacuum.” –Leigh Alexander

Nature abhors a vacuum. In all ways and in all places. While I have never seen this immutable law applied to group culture that only speaks to my own lack of imagination and insight, and by extension Alexander’s surfeit of both. I use “spaces” a bit differently, preferring the term as a reference to internal or personal geography (timespace, brainspace, emotionalspace). Alexander’s choice of “space” rather than “place” adds to the brilliance, the “aha”-ness of the insight in that it specifically includes the virtual as well as the physical.

Some people exert, or could exert, enormous influence over very large spaces by either actively tending to the culture or by standing aside and simply observing what fills the vacuum. The just-retired CEO of our local medical behemoth has imposed his will at a very granular level on an organization that employs 10′s of thousands. Rules and regulations abound there. The opposite was the case, at least at the outset at CrossFit, Inc. The culture arose primarily from the founder’s libertarian philosophy and worldview. Pretty freewheeling, rough and tumble, then and to some degree now.

Think for a moment about your own spaces, maybe looking initially at the ones over which you might have a bit of control or influence. Work. Home. Third space. What has your role been in the creation and ongoing curation of the culture of those spaces? It’s a rather Taoist proposition, I think: to act is precisely equal to not acting, because one or the other course must be chosen. At my day job we actually did go about the task of creating a culture (A Tribe of Adults), and we knowingly curate that space by culling the tribe of those who don’t, won’t, or can’t acculturate.

In the end this is probably just another entreaty to consciously examine your own spaces, your world, and seek to exert whatever control you can wherever you can in order to live well. Whatever “well” means to you. Again, the Tao te Ching gives us some useful vocabulary, imagery we might reference. We are all more like the pebble in the stream than the reed in the field. We may aspire to live as the reed, flexible and ever able to flow with whatever breeze may blow through. The reality is that an untended culture surrounding us flows so powerfully that it, like the water in a stream, eventually reshapes us as it inevitably sculpts the stone in the stream.

The difference, as both Lao-tse and Leigh Alexander teach us, is that you have the ability to control the flow.

Sunday musings 1/14/18: On the Beach 2018

Sunday musings…

1) Anoesis. A state of mind consisting of pure sensation or emotion without cognitive thought.

Just thought you should know that.

2) Utility whiskey. What you drink after you can no longer tell that you are drinking the good stuff.

YMMV.

3) Smoke. “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” What do you do when the whole world is nothing but smoke?

4) Air-gapped. Not connected. As in a computer that is never, not even once, attached to the internet.

Like a book, or a notebook, with a plug.

5) Alarm. (Surely you knew this was coming) This weekend begins the Royal Hawaiian Eye Meeting, an annual gathering of eye surgeons that I have thus far managed to avoid attending every year of my career. Why, you ask? Meh. 6 time zones for 3 days of work is the best answer. If that doesn’t do it I’ll add that Mrs. bingo won’t join me for the trip, and I really dislike most travel without the company of Mrs. bingo.

As you may have heard there was a bit of excitement in Hawaii yesterday. Seems a rather fumble-fingered employee jabbed the “alert all” button when taking his turn at the helm of the Emergency Response Center and sent off a 1960′s style, death from the air is coming, curl up under your desk kids and kiss your ass goodbye nuclear attack warning. Funny (funnier?), the doof figured out what happened when he got a text on his own cellphone.

Note to Expedia: this guy needs his own “Wanna get away” commercial.

What was your reaction? Mrs. bingo is away visiting her ailing Mom so I was alone chez bingo to contemplate what I would have done (interestingly, I would have been alone in Hawaii as noted above for real). The good folks of Hawaii and their 10′s of thousands of weekend guests were handed the dubious privilege of contemplating, if for just 30 minutes or so, how they would spend the last couple of hours of their lives knowing that they were about to spend the last couple hours of their lives. Did this occur to you, too?

Yesterday also brought me a couple of articles in a similar vein. One, from the WSJ, was not quite so stark. It asked when you would take a pill that arrested the aging process. At what age would you decide that the balance of physical prowess and age-begotten wisdom was optimized? (N.B. this was going to be the main topic of “musings”…) I also stumbled across a review of a book or a movie or something in which 3 siblings are told as young children the precise date of their deaths. What followed was the decisions these young children made based on that knowledge. Gotta admit, I went right to that place when I heard about the Hawaiian modern air-raid siren.

T’was a time when this type of inquiry was a rather commonplace occurrence. You could do worse than reading Neville Shute’s novel or the Stanley Kramer movie “On the Beach” based on it to get a sense of what a nuclear fraught world felt like. Both the novel and the movie depict a world destroyed by nuclear war, and life in Australia as the end-of-life nuclear cloud approaches the continent. How and what normal people decide to do in the face of an unavoidable expiration date some weeks ahead is central to the story. Yesterday’s equivalent would have been some hours ahead it seems.

What would you have done? Would you have sought shelter, as suggested, and hoped to somehow miraculously escape incineration if you were at ground zero? (As an aside, can you even imagine the horror of taking part in the effort to get off the islands to escape the radiation? We’d learn what savages we actually are, I fear) Would you go all Sartre or Beckett and choose an earlier “departure” of your own making as did so many in “On the Beach”? If it were real, what do you think you would have done?

I surely know not what came before, as surely as none of us truly knows what, if anything, comes in the end. Questions that arise from the (usually) hypothetical “what if you knew when” scenarios lack the urgency to force an honest appraisal. It will be interesting for me to have a chance to chat with folks I know who are in Hawaii right now (a couple are close friends), but for now it was enough for me to have undergone this thought experiment for the umpteenth time and come to the same conclusion: I would have sought my people. Some how, in some way, with my last dwindling moments I would do whatever it took to be with my people.

It is for others to seek the greater societal and geopolitical meaning and impact of yesterday’s blunder.

I’ll see you next week…

–bingo

We Have More In Common Than Not

Several people of whom I am very fond have recently asked me to engage in something or another about which they are very, very passionate. In truth, my interest in any of these particular things/issues/ventures begins and ends with my friendship or association with the individual. For a number of reasons I just cannot find the time-space, brain-space, or emotional-space to engage in any but the most superficial manner in that which has my colleagues/associates/friends all fired-up.

In no way does this mean that these issues, etc. are not significant or important, it means only that they are not close enough to what is central to my core for me to become involved. Not becoming involved also does not mean that I think any less, or even any differently about the individuals involved. Not at all. That is the point, and more so, that I believe may be the tonic that is necessary to treat the virulent strain of discord that seems to have consumed so much of our discourse whether it be writ large of small.

We all have more in common than not. There are more things that we each hold dearly, that we feel are existentially important, than there are things on which we disagree to a point that we cannot inhabit the same space. This is the 80/20 rule of a functioning society.

Sure, maybe it’s 70/30 or 95/5, but does that really matter? Personally I think it’s more like 95/5 or even 98/2, but that may be a reflection of my worldview or frame of reference (when asked about my Holiday season I tell folks I batted .950). The point is that our commonality is far, far greater than not. If you and I agree on 95% of the things we might encounter but disagree on 5%, is our relationship over? If I do, in fact, agree with you but decide I do not have the time (or the stomach) to join you at the same level of commitment you’ve chosen, are we not able to continue our discourse? When I choose to spend 4 hours playing with the Man Cub and his Thomas the Tank Train rather than take up the mantel of your cause/issue/enterprise I am not really saying anything about those, or you, at all.

Where once Americans separated themselves along only large, even epic fissures (Religion, wealth, race, etc.) we now seem willing to render ourselves asunder over progressively smaller, hairline fractures in a connection. This is sad, and all the more sad because it is unnecessary. Pick a number–80/20, 95/5. Whatever. The solution to many of our social disquietudes lies in choosing to begin your engagement on the side of the larger of the two numbers, that which we have in common, before giving consideration to that which we may not share.

That which we have in common is the greater.

Anti-Elitism is a Dead-End Street

There is an antielitism in the air in much of society, Western and otherwise. It all seems new and shiny and unique to the young, but it’s just that part of the cycle right now. We’ve been here before, we’ll move past this soon, and we’ll get there again. A part of the nastiness of today’s particular version of this antielitism seems to stem from the intimate knowledge that we all have of the minutiae of the lives of the elite, in all its presumed glory. Moreso, a substantial portion of our modern elite seems not immune to the rampant over-sharing so prevalent today. And that just feels like bragging, doesn’t it?

There needs to be room for elite and elitism and elites, though, and there needs to be this room in all walks of life. Even more importantly, there needs to be room for those people who openly seek to become elite, better than most, maybe the best. Elitism is simply a harsher form of “meritocracy”, the notion that one can be rewarded for being better in some way at some thing. Elitism is synonymous with “best”, at least when the elite are gracious enough not to rub the rest of our noses in it (see above).

What’s hard for us who are not elite is to separate our jealousy and our anger at those who are truly elite from a couple of important things. We must realize that, without the elite we would forever be mired at an inexorably static mean. Part of a curve under which the volume never changes. It’s also vitally important that we rein in our apparent need to stop any and all who openly express their desire or their efforts to achieve anything above the mean by aspiring to something elite. After all, who knows which of those aspirants will become an elite thinker or doer, one who will drag us all to a higher mean?

Whether it’s in fitness, or in science or finance or philosophy or letters, the area under the curve is driven upward by someone who had whatever it took to become elite. We can learn from them, become a bit better at whatever it is that we do or we are, if we spent a bit less time seeking to drag them back to us.

As We Turn the Page on 2017

Chief Justice John Roberts gave a commencement speech to a group of 9th graders this year in which he wished them “bad luck”. Now, lest you think ill of the Chief Justice, that he was being churlish and mean-spirited, what he meant was that he wished that these young people would experience some degree of hardship in their youth so that they would develop tactics to persevere as adults when those same hardships inevitably arose.

“I hope you will be treated unfairly, to that you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal, because that will teach you the importance of loyalty. I hope that you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted. I wish you bad luck from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life, and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either.

And when you lose, as you will from time to time, I hope every now and then your opponent will gloat over your failure. It is a way for you to understand the importance of sportsmanship. I hope you’ll be ignored so that you know the importance of listening to others, and I hope you have just enough pain to learn compassion.”

My hope for each of you is encapsulated in Justice Roberts’ conclusion: I hope that you will have the ability to see the message in any of your misfortunes, and that you will express appreciation for the people who help you overcome them.

Let me leave 2017 with a final thought, inspired by Ben Reiter’s review of the movie “I, Tonya”.

“Each of us, “I, Tonya” suggests, is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done–or, in Tonya’s case, the worst thing she might have done.” In our present days of instantly available and infinitely scalable opinion, we should add that we are more than the worst thing that someone says we did.

Let us, each of us, resolve that in 2018 we will look first to that which is good about each other, and endeavor to see that each of us is more like the best thing we’ve ever done than not.

 

The Spirit of Giving

“Santa is the Spirit of Giving. He is always real.” –Beth White

Once again my darling wife Beth knocks it out of the park. We have a couple of little ones again in the White house, and because of that we will have a healthy dose of Santa in our lives. While I realize that Beth and I will not really have a say in whether or not the whole Santa Claus story plays out in our grandchildren’s houses, what he stands for is important. Important enough for us to have had him in all his splendor and glory when The Heir, Lovely Daughter, and Lil’bingo were growing up. Important for us to draw out the time before Lil’bingo came to the realization that Santa was not a real person for as long as possible, so deep was his love for the furry fat guy he called “Key Klaus”.

Rest assured, the parental units in Clan White did struggle with how to handle the inherent subterfuge that is necessary to have the Santa Claus story as part of our children’s upbringing. From the very beginning, though, the message was about the giving, about generosity and caring enough about someone else that you not only gave them a gift, but you gave them a gift that let them know how much you cared about them. You know, the “spirit” in the Spirit of Giving, if you will.

No matter how you massage it, that day of reckoning when your child finally realizes that the character Santa Claus is nothing more than the figurative representation of the giving concept can be fraught with all kinds of emotional trauma. For sure you might get a dose of “you lied to me”, but in my now decades of experience being around parents it’s actually rather rare for this one to pop up. What you generally face is sadness, with maybe a touch of disappointment and even mourning tossed in just to add a little sting to the moment. Like so much else about parenting, or even just about kindness, these are times when you get to talk about and teach really important lessons. Here the lesson is about giving of yourself, with or without a physical gift to actually give.

While thinking about this we stumbled upon a lovely little story about how one family handled both the “Santa isn’t real” revelation and the “Santa is real” in spirit thing. Heck, the story may even be true! A Dad sensed that his son was pretty much on the cusp of discovering that the guy in the red suit wasn’t really the real deal. His approach? He talked to his son about how he sensed that he, the son, looked like he was not too sure about the Santa Claus character. The Dad complimented his son on being a caring young man: “Everyone who cares, who is generous can be a Santa. I’m very impressed by how kind you are. I think you are ready to become a Santa, too.”

The Dad went on to ask his son to think about someone in his world who looked like they were sad. Maybe a bit lonely even. He tasked the boy with thinking very hard about what that person might really like as a present. Something they needed, and something that would express that whoever gave it to them realized this need, and cared enough to give them a present that helped to meet that need. There was a catch, though: the recipient was never to know who gave them the gift. For the son the satisfaction was in the caring and in the giving, not in the recognition and praise that might follow.

It doesn’t really matter who the child chose or what he gave; you can trust that the story–true or not–is just lovely right to the end. What matters is that this very young boy is escorted through what can be a very sad stage in a young life by a caring and thoughtful parent. On the other side of this journey emerges a young man who has learned the true meaning of Santa Claus in the secular Christmas story. He has learned that what matters about Santa Claus is real indeed, and always has been.

Santa Claus is the Spirit of Giving. He will always be real.

‘Tis the Season to Indulge

‘Tis the season, eh? Indulgence at this time of year, at least in the Judeo-Christian world, is rather obvious. I WAM my nutrition all year so that I can eat pie at Thanksgiving and cookies at Christmas. Neither of which I weigh or measure, by the way.

There’s an aspect of guilt when it comes to indulgence. It’s more than just the occasional treat. An inch of dark chocolate on your Paleo Diet doesn’t really cut it, and if you consider that an indulgence it’s probably time to loosen up a bit. I was thinking that the ultimate First World indulgence is the un-timed hot shower, but anything that occurs on a daily basis probably doesn’t count either.

Uh uh…indulgence involves a certain sense of not only excess but also a bit of “I really shouldn’t”. Jay McInerney: “I find the shadow of guilt always adds piquancy to any indulgence. It’s almost more pleasurable, feeling slightly guilty.” As a boy raised Catholic by a mother who openly admired the way her Jewish friends raised their kids (producing what I’ve come to call “double guilt”), I definitely get the “shadow of guilt” angle to indulgence, especially with ones that only occur on rare occasions.

Others, though, indulge in ways both frequent and grand. Indulgence writ large, if you will. Take, for example, Lilly Bollinger and her approach to Champagne: “I drink it when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company, I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise, I never touch it–unless I’m thirsty.” Man, THAT woman knows how to indulge. Not much guilt evident, either. I’m sure my Mom wouldn’t approve, and I’m equally sure that Lilly wouldn’t care.

In a perfect world we would all be more like Lilly Bollinger, indulging on a daily basis in something that brings us pleasure with or without a side of guilt. The world, as I’ve oft said, is messy, no matter where it is you might live. Indulgence is what you make of it, and it’s probably a good thing that we have this Holiday Season during which we give ourselves permission to indulge a bit. Life is messy and exercise is hard–you’ve earned it.

[Raises flute]

Evaluating and Treating Stress

Let’s talk about stress, shall we? It’s the Holiday Season in North America after all. Frankly, it’s been on my mind pretty much all day, every day, for a couple of years now. Probably because it appears to have taken up permanent residence in my body and soul for that same couple of years. Lots and lots of talk about stress around me, too. Everybody is talking about “having stress” in their lives, especially as the holidays roll around, so let’s talk.

First of all, as in all things it’s important that we lay some ground rules, establish some definitions so that we are sure to be talking about the same thing. Stress is what appears in your body in response to stressors; stressors are what you have in your life that produce stress, like serving dinner to family on Christmas Eve. I know, I know, it’s a pretty fine point, but bear with me because I think it will make a bit more sense in a moment.

In my day job I am constantly asked if various and sundry ailments are caused by stress. The most accurate and honest answer, from a strictly medical/scientific standpoint, is “yes”. What people are actually asking me, though, is: are the ailments that they have a direct result of the stressors in their lives? Again, perhaps a bit of a fine point, but it will matter. Everyone routinely conflates “stress” with “stressors”.

You can reduce the stress in your body; you may or may not be able to effectively reduce the stressors that cause it.

Think about that for a moment. You can do quite a few things that will reduce the ailments you may have because stress has been induced in your body. The simple science is that chronic stress throws your neuro-endocrine “fight or flight” response out of whack. Our bodies secrete cortisol when faced with acute stress. This is in turn associated with a release of adrenaline. Your pupils dilate, your BP and heart rate go up, and you shunt blood to skeletal muscle in preparation to do battle or to flee.

Chronic stress, on the other hand, causes an increase in both the basal cortisol secretion and a blunting of the normal daily secretion pattern of more in the AM and less in the PM. You have a flatter curve over the day, and the whole curve is elevated. In time you have a chronically elevated BP, and your state of chronic “readiness” begins to affect all manner of the rest of your systems. Stress then becomes a stressor itself, a repeating negative feedback loop. For example, your sleep pattern gets fried. Heck you may not sleep very much at all. That makes stress worse. That “lump in your throat” feeling when you are just pre-panic”? Yeah, that can be there all the time. It even has a name: globus.

Rather ominous word, that. Globus. Stresses me out just typing it.

Here’s the rub: if you could avoid stress—the adverse affect on your body—who wouldn’t do so? When people talk about trying to have less stress in their lives what they are actually saying is that they wish they had fewer and less powerful stressors causing that stress. Work issues, illness, family strife, money issues…life would just be better if we didn’t have them. Pretty simple. Get rid of stressors, get rid of stress. Sadly, our ability to excise stressors from our lives, or even insulate ourselves from them, is somewhere beyond inadequate and approaches impossible.

What to do then? If we cannot avoid the root causes of our stress, how can we relieve it? It turns out that both the magnitude and particular variety of stress can often be measured. Specific symptoms (sleep abnormalities, globus) will point toward equally specific interventions. There are laboratory tests that can be ordered given your particular stress (e.g. midline fat deposition); nutrition adjustments can be made in response (elevated cortisol reduces insulin sensitivity->consume carbohydrates during periods of lower daily cortisol levels).

For me the bottom line is this: we likely have little to no ability to control stressors, those exogenous factors that incite stress. Further, left to its own devices, our body will respond with stress. We can manage that stress by acknowledging it, evaluating it, and then proactively going about counteracting it. You are a Black Box experiment with an n=1.

Attack stress in exactly the way you attack fitness or nutrition. Weigh it, measure it, analyze it, and then attack it.

Sunday musings 12/17/17

Sunday mornings are quiet mornings at Casa Blanco. Re-rack after feeding the dogs, catch up with newspapers that have piled up in addition to the Sunday papers, a third cup of coffee just for the linger. Over the course of a week I collect thoughts and ideas for either musings or an eventual longer piece here, but as often as not it’s something that I read over coffee that turns up in my little Sunday piece. One fertile hunting ground is The Ethicist in the Sunday NYT Magazine, and it is here that I found my muse this week.

I have offered, here and elsewhere, that it is perfectly proper to make an enemy as long as you do it with forethought, and do it on purpose. In my long-held opinion to make an enemy by accident is the second greatest insult one can extend to another human being; it suggests that the newly formed enemy was not even significant enough to consider that they existed prior to your actions (or inactions). This leads, of course, to the single greatest insult that you could ever foment: to actively and purposely choose indifference to the existence of another.

This is a part of a topic addressed by The Ethicist on Sunday. He defines a “decent person” in part by whether or not they have what philosophers call appropriate “reactive attitudes”. In short how we react to others, and by extension how we react to what others in turn display toward us. The philosopher Peter F. Strawson mentions resentment, gratitude, and anger that we may have in response to how we perceive that others have treated us, or treated someone who we care about. Simply feeling these emotional reactions acknowledges that we feel the others are a part of our lives. They exist. They matter.

This time of year is fraught with the entire spectrum of emotions as we come into close contact with family and others with whom we have history. The simple fact that we come together means that we are not, cannot be, indifferent to either them or their feelings about us. Now to be sure there are some among us who have family members who are truly disturbed and either cannot or will not extend any type of goodwill or positive emotion whatsoever. Those, I believe, are rare exceptions, and to you who may be in this position you have my deepest, heartfelt sympathy. For the rest of us, though, in North America the Holiday season presents us an opportunity to re-boot our “reactive attitudes” toward family and friends.

Do you remember what it felt like to go home those first couple of years after you got out of high school? Remember how excited you were to see your folks, your grandparents, and your siblings? There was a buzz in your circle of friends as you conspired to sneak away and re-convene right where you left off the last time you were together. Remember? Trust me, the feeling was at least mutual (if not even stronger) on the part of your parents (and grandparents).

Families are complex and messy, but for all of that no matter what your particular story may be families are never indifferent. You could certainly take the position that we should always be connecting with family, and that the pressure of the Holidays would be lessened if we made more of an effort to be with those who trigger our “reactive attitudes” throughout the year. I’m OK with that. Actually, as a son, brother, in-law, father and grandfather I’d be thrilled with that. But here we are during Hanukkah, with Christmas a week away, so how much we see folks over the year is a topic for another Sunday.

Today, it’s time to go home.

 

The Scourge that is Expectation

I have fought the beast that is expectation my entire life. As a father and a spouse I have tried my very best to teach my family the dangers inherent in having expectations. They can be small and trivial (a special flavor will be available at the Scoop), or so meaningful that they approach the existential (a best friend will honor a commitment). Writ large or small, expectation is inextricably tethered to its alter ego, disappointment.

The expectation that others will share your beliefs is particularly dangerous, especially if doing a right or good thing is part of your very DNA. The more common manifestation of this trap is expecting another to work as hard as you do, or care as much about the quality of an outcome in a shared endeavor. It doesn’t matter whether you are north or south on the org chart, either.

Try as one might, we all have expectations of others, even if they are buried so deeply in our subconscious we are barely aware of them. When these expectations are not met the disappointment is all the more powerful for the ambush involved. The action of the other is typically so far beyond the reach of expectation that it shakes your belief system.

Sitting quietly last night I contemplated just such an ambush and the need to be in the company of one for whom I had one of those deep, hidden expectations. Sadly and completely unexpectedly, unmet. My disappointment is like a bruise on my soul. How, if at all, should I respond?

After all, I am aware that people have expectations of me as well.