Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Sunday musings: Think for Yourself

Sunday musings…

1) Aperitivo. 6:00 PM in Italy means retreating to a soothing spot for a drink and a small snack of some sort. Saying it that way really doesn’t do “aperitivo” justice in much the same way one would insult a siesta by calling it a nap.

One doesn’t have a slice of pizza and a Bud Light for Aperitivo.

2) Blend. In the wine world there is an age-old conflict over which is better: single vineyard or blended wines. It is no different in the wider spirits community that includes whiskey (or whisky, if you will) of any and all sorts. What the question boils down to is a simple one in which we are asked to determine if we value a unique, somewhat difficult to produce experience more or less than one that is reliably consistent. Is a wine produced entirely from the famous To Kalon vineyard more special than one that uses To Kalon grapes as part of a blend meant to be consistent year after year? Is single malt scotch which varies over the years a more pleasing experience than, say, Johnny Walker blends?

And what, for Heaven’s sake, does this have to do with fitness?

Of late I have found myself working a bit of supplementary work into my CrossFit training. This additional work is not on top of my CrossFit–I’m kinda old and additional volume just crushes me now. Rather, it is inserted between WOD’s for the dual purpose of continually working on the weaker links in my 10 Essential Areas of Fitness, and it is not really varied at all. I have come to liken Crossfit when constantly varied as akin to that single vineyard red wine: you get what the vineyard gives you in any given growing season and make the best wine you possibly can in that year. “Fran” comes up on a day when I am doing CrossFit and I feel young and strong, so I do it As Rx’d, for example.

My supplemental work comes at regular intervals and is quite planned and predictable. Longer, slower, lower intensity workouts in the oxidative pathway are easier on my joints, and they have the added benefit of allowing me the luxury of higher order cognitive engagement during the workout. Who among us is able to use anything but our reptilian brain during a full-on, high intensity CrossFit WOD? The latest version of CFSB provides me with a consistent schedule of full-body, functional movements that I am hopeful will allow me a lifetime of unassisted elevation off the loo. More along the lines of Opus One, the famed Napa Valley blend that aims for a consistent character each year.

The point, of course, is that neither is inherently better, though either may be the better choice at a given time and under given circumstances.

3) Commentary. How do you feel about celebrities of any sort offering up commentary on issues that are far afield from the activities that made them famous? While I confess that I am about to boycott any and all manner of reporting on what someone in power has said but not done, or might/could do but has not yet done, this is not an inquiry into what is opined so much as who is doing the opining. Does the fact that one is famous give one permission to speak on issues outside your direct sphere of influence, and if it does, are we to give more weight to the opinions of the famous simply because of their fame?

Why, for example, does anyone care about what George Clooney thinks about, well, anything?

I’ve long found it fascinating that talent and achievement in sports and entertainment seems to give both the famous and their followers the notion that a familiar name in, say, football makes one an expert in, oh, environmental policy. To be fair there are some celebrities who use their hard-won free time and riches to become experts in something that is far afield from their day jobs. Matt Damon and his efforts to provided potable water in developing countries comes to mind. Since it is not possible for a black man to no longer be black once he has reached a pinnacle in sports or entertainment it is entirely reasonable and appropriate for him to comment on social issues such as race, discrimination, and social mobility if he so chooses. Here I think of LeBron James and his increasing engagement in this kind of discussion.

What I am thinking about is more the question of whether celebrity ought give the speaker more gravitas, more influence in the discussion. Why should I care what the flavor of the day in Rap music thinks about immigration policy? Or that quarterback who is constantly being interviewed about reproductive rights? There isn’t an airsickness bag big enough to contain my reaction to the braying of the glitterati on both sides of the aisle in our last presidential election cycle. Why does anyone care who Tim Robbins or Kid Rock will be voting for and why?

Listen, I’d love to tell you that I am famous, and that this little rantlet is a classic pot calling the kettle black thing, but there are about 11 people who really read my drivel and 10 of them think I’m full of shit. No, what I’m saying here is really, really simple: think for yourself. Celebrities have a passkey to the bully pulpit, but they rarely have anything other than their fame that allows them to stake their claim to the podium. Seek out the thoughts and opinions of people who may be smarter than you are in a particular area and listen to what they have to say. Consume and digest views that are different from your assumptions, just realize that this dish should be consumed based on its quality, not the fame of the chef. Neither beauty nor fame nor fortune bestows upon the fortunate anything but an audience.

You don’t need the opinion of a celebrity. Think for yourself.

I’ll see you next week…

–bingo

Offensitive Redux

These times in which so many are offended so often by so little reminded me of this previously posted essay.

 

One who is easily offended. Have you seen the sculpture at Wellesley College in Massachusetts that’s been causing such a stir? “Sleepwalker” is a lifelike depiction of a rather–OK, very–unappealing male sleepwalking in nothing but a pair of “tighty whities”. The appearance of the sculpture has created a spasm of outrage among the offensitive, those especially prone to being offended. It’s gone as far as a petition demanding the removal of the statue because its very presence is a kind of assault, a violation of the civil rights of the offended.

Think about that for a minute: art that offends, or even art that only provokes a bit of discomfort, is a violation of some sort of civil right.

What have we become when a statue that should be met with ridicule and contempt because it is actually quite banal is rather invoking reactions that imply some sort of assault on the collective population of Wellesley? Is it the topic, the subject, a nearly naked man, skinny fat with a paunch and a frog butt that fails to fill his skivvies? It does make one wonder, what with the venomous attacks on those who were offended some years ago by sculptures of a Crucifix covered with excrement, or years before that by various desecrations of the American flag. Have we succumbed to some sort of spiraling weakness of spirit or character in the ensuing years, a collective fragility driven by the growing population of the offensitive, or is there some qualitative difference in the “art”, who it offends, and how they are offended that is at issue?

That last part is a question that is probably above my pay grade, the relative effect of art on different audiences. There are a couple of things I do understand, though. Art, in all of its forms, is meant to provoke some sort of response in those who consume it. It’s my considered opinion that BETTER art makes you work a bit harder in its appreciation in order that you arrive at your own response; being bludgeoned by the artist’s intent markedly reduces my appreciation of any particular work. Some art makes some people uncomfortable, sometimes on purpose. I’m quite sure there’s a line beyond which it stops being art and truly does become an assault–free speech, after all, famously does not include the right to yell “FIRE” in a crowded theatre”–but “Sleepwalker” is as benign in this respect as it is banal.

The other question, that of our thin-skinned tendency to declare anything that makes us feel bad as some sort of assault, is something I also understand. We are trending as a society, at least at a certain educato-economic strata, to a level of offensitivity that threatens the fabric of our collective. Not only is there a greater tendency to be offended by ever tinier actions, but there is also a corresponding ratcheting up of the response to any offense. Call it the “offendedness arms race” if you will. Something that produces discomfort or offends is now something so much more. I mean, seriously, “Sleepwalker” violates civil rights laws? Other, even more trivial pieces of art have spawned lawsuits and public condemnation of any who have the audacity to question the fortitude of the offended. It’s all so silly. Have we in Western society so little to contend with in the prosecution of our daily survival that we have both the time and the energy to be offended by “Sleepwalker” and its ilk?

I dunno. Maybe it would have been different if “Sleepwalker” had been a CrossFitter.

A Dearth of Role Models

What then constitutes a role model? Who is qualified to fill this role? Who would be willing to do so? How do we find these people, these role models? In a world gone by that was much less heterogenous, where people of all stripes had more in common than not and acknowledged that fact, role models seemed to be a little easier to come by.

Audie Murphy. Stan Musial. Jackie Robinson. Heck, even a politician or two filled the bill. Every town had a teacher or a coach or a cop who everyone looked up to. Why then and not now? Partly because of that sense that we were all more the same than less, but partly because we only knew the good stuff about our role models. On top of that we only really wanted to know the good stuff, ya know?

Once upon a time to be a role model meant to be always trying to do the right thing for the right person at the right time. We forgave the occasional slip because we saw the effort and appreciated that ongoing effort. It inspired us to do better ourselves. We forgave the occasional failure because we knew how hard it is to always look to do that favor, to offer the helping hand, to put forth the best effort. Our sense of our own humanity was extended to our role models as a gift to them such that they would continue to lead us.

The perceived lack of role models in society today says more about us than it does about any role models that we may have discarded. We accentuate our differences rather than our commonalities, no matter how far on either end of the curve those differences may lie. We not only accept too much information about our all too human potential role models, we actively seek the “smoking gun” that will bury them. We are all the lesser for all of that, for we deny ourselves the potential that could come from having a role model just a little bit better than ourselves.

As far as I can see, the only perfect role model continues to set an unachievable goal, however noble might be our effort. Sadly, He has been dead for some 2000 years now.

Clutter

In the never-ending battle for supremacy on the countertop, my wife Beth and I are ever engaged in a tug-of-war over clutter. Though we were until very recently unaware that this is a THING. Like, with a guru thing, one that people engage in quasi-worship and for which they pay real money. Some “Kon Marie” or something like that. Totally news to us. You?

The anti-clutter thing, such as it is, is dramatically more than the comical little game that Beth and I have going on. Adherents think there is a true spiritual goal, an attainable endpoint that must be reached and then maintained. And not just on the kitchen counter mind you. No, no…on every counter, real or virtual, in every “room” of your life. Now, don’t get me wrong, there is certainly a place for a bit of order in a life, and we could all stand to be a little lighter when it comes to our stuff, but the fervor and the zeal with which adherents of this THING take it is spooky. Weird bordering on abnormal. It reminds me of the kitchen drawer in the house owned by Ben Affleck’s character in The Accountant: one fork, one spoon, one knife.

There’s only one person living there, after all.

Like everything else we can find merit on both sides of the clutter coin. For example, my workouts in the Casa Blanco garage gym have been of much higher quality since a little construction project was completed and the Men With No Last Names cleared out along with all of their stuff. My cleans have been much better now that they are performed in a clean garage. The pleasure that Beth gets from seeing a clean kitchen counter would be comical if it wasn’t so genuine, and frankly my pleasure at seeing her so happy is pretty significant, too. (Note to self: Beth will be home in 2 hours; get cracking at clean up).

There’s a flip side, though. Apparently there is research that validates my little slice of the countertop: people are more creative if they are surrounded by a bit of clutter. As I muse my computer peeks out from a pile of old newspaper clippings, magazines and books, and various chochkies from our life as it is today. Oh, and there would also be the Man Cub’s toys. They are apparently to Kon Marie what kryptonite is to Superman. Though we now live in a tiny cottage, a life that has us in a constant state of “purging” our things, what remains is not so much clutter as it is a measure of our lives and our loves. A clean surface around my keyboard leads to a blank screen. One woman’s clutter is another man’s muse.

I guess this is really just one more essay on the concept of “enough”. The monastic pursuit of any unreachable, unachievable outcome is one that must be accompanied by some degree of unhappiness in my opinion. What joy is there in the perfectly uncluttered closet complete with one pair of perfectly ironed and folded socks if all your eye sees is the possibility of going to work barefoot?

It all makes me think of an essay I read last month about clutter. Have you ever noticed, as did the author, that the arch villain in every movie you’ve ever seen lives in a perfectly ordered home, devoid of any clutter whatsoever? The hero, on the other hand, can hardly find her feet, let alone her socks, as she wades through the clutter of her tiny little hovel. That villain has a plan, meticulously laid out and ready to be put in play with single-minded zeal. Funny thing, though: the hero always seems to make her breakthrough with creativity, flexibility, and something she finds among the clutter, right where she knew it had to be. Every single time.

Now that I think about it, we do have pretty impressive swaths of countertop that are as devoid of clutter as the desert in Lawrence of Arabia. No villains around here, though. I have my tiny little corner of the kitchen table, and as long as you don’t move my “cheese” I know where pretty much everything is. That doesn’t make me the hero, though.

Can we talk about my wife’s closet?

Unshakable Belief Meets Unmovable Facts

This week I spent some time talking to a couple of folks who, unbeknownst to them, were talking about each other. Well, talking to them is not really accurate–they were having a discussion and I was having a listen. Both were talking about the effects of a particular happening on a particular person they both knew, effects that both could surely see if only they cared to remove their blinders and look.

They told wildly different stories. Their belief sets were so unshakable, so impervious to penetration by petty inconveniences like facts and reality, it was as if they wore not lenses to clarify but masks to obscure. The blind running from the blind, if you will. I’m fascinated when I see this; I see this almost every day when I am plying my trade as an eye surgeon. So much of what is “known” about medicine isn’t really known at all but “felt”. I constantly run up against an unshakable belief that is often expressed in a statement that begins “well, I think…” Indeed, I heard this from both folks telling me what was transpiring.

I’m fascinated and exasperated in equal parts by this because of how completely this unshakable belief nullifies the otherwise logical power of observable, measurable fact. If I step back and think a little more deeply about this phenomenon I am also terrified that I, too, may harbor similarly unshakable beliefs that blind me to the truths of a fact-based reality. This weekend brought me to a gathering of true experts in a particular field of my day job, one I was quite flattered to attend. There were a couple of points that I’m just convinced my colleagues got wrong, points of view it looks like I shared only with myself. Am I right? Is my insight so keen, my ability to analyze the data presented so much better, that I am just a full step ahead? Or is it rather that I am clinging to a point of view supported only by the virtual facts created by personal beliefs I am unable or unwilling to walk away from?

This simple awareness and acknowledgement–that I may suffer from “belief” bias–might be enough to inoculate me.  I certainly owe my patients (and my readers) an effort to investigate that.

Equality is the Enemy of Enough

“Life’s not fair.” –Scar

What does equality mean? What does it mean to be equal? This came up this week in my day job. A study was done that proports to show that male and female eye doctors are paid unequally. The conclusions are false at the outset in this particular case because by law, services in this particular arena are paid exactly the same no matter who performs them, when or where. Unfortunately, the sensational lede taps into all kinds of notions of fairness, and all kinds of perceptions about what people assume must be true, that women make less than men for equal work. There is no question that this is the case is some walks of life, but interestingly the data (some of which the authors ignore in their quest to prove their preconception) proves otherwise in medicine. An opportunity to examine real differences in how men and women practice medicine is thus lost in the pursuit of an examination of the spiritual quest to combat inequality, even where none exists.

Is this the unicorn of equality? Is payment under government programs the only place where equality actually exists? Heck if I know. What interests me is the fact that the first assumption is that inequality is present. Inequality is the default setting. That there is an inherent degree of unfairness in pretty much any and every setting. Know what I think? Equality doesn’t exist. It cannot exist if we are to have an ever-improving world. There is nothing unfair about that in the least.

A just civilization establishes a floor below which allowing people to live is ethically wrong. For example, in healthcare it is my contention that we have a moral obligation to see that every citizen has access to care when they are sick. Inherent in this contention is that there is a basic level of care that meets this moral obligation by ensuring the same outcome as any other level of care. One could apply this same concept to food, clothing, and housing without missing a beat. We can think of the rights enshrined in the U.S. Declaration of Independence as a proxy for this baseline if you’d like. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness make a very fine baseline.

One’s right to “life” necessarily includes a right to be fed, would you agree? Equality would mean that if one among us dines on Beef Wellington, than each among us must do so as well. This is where unthinking and unquestioning fidelity to “equality” brings you. In so doing it forces everyone to expend energy protesting “inequality” better put toward fulfilling the moral obligation to see that no one goes without protein. In healthcare we see all kinds of protests againts the inequality of care demonstrated by the horror of a VIP of some sort or another recuperating from a procedure in a luxury suite, while the proletariat must recover in the equivalent of a Hotel 6. The reality is that the outcomes will be equal; the moral obligation has been fulfilled. Above a basic level in pretty much any domain you wish to examine, equality does not exist. Sorry. Scar is right. Life’s not fair.

Is he really though? Saying that it’s not fair is the same as saying that inequality above that level at which everyone has a right to live is wrong. Here is where I part company with those who hew to this viewpoint. What does it matter that someone drives a Cadillac while another drives a Kia? Do both not get you to work on time? Or that Beef Wellington again: do you not get the same amount of protein from a hamburger? The example I am using in another conversation about equality in healthcare is similar: if a medicine is effective taken 4 times a day, is the fact that someone can pay more for a version that must only be taken once a day a measurement of unfair inequality? I vote “no”.

My strong feeling is that energy spent in some way protesting “equality” is energy that is not expended on the much more important task of fulfilling the moral obligation of raising everyone to that acceptable basic level. In may, in fact, work against that effort. That constitutes unfairness in my opinion. Advocacy and protest should be directed there, toward making sure that everyone has that most basic obligation covered. Once universal entry is accomplished across all applicable domains, the next task is to continually raise that basic level for everyone, no matter how far the gulf may be between that level and whatever the “sky’s the limit” level might be. One need only look at “poverty” or “hunger” and how the bar has moved ever upward there to see how this might work.

We have a moral obligation to see that true rights are available to all. It is unfair to those who have not yet achieved that most basic level when efforts to help them are diverted to the pursuit of an unachievable conceptual goal that neither feeds nor clothes nor cures those in need: equality.

 

It’s Too Expensive to Eat Healthy Food, Right?

While I write this I am in the company of a group of women who ride horses. Some of them have nearly limitless means and the expense of owning and riding horses does not require any sacrifice whatsoever. Others, once having identified their passion, must prioritize their financial world, dropping things that others consider essential so that they can continue to pursue their equestrian goals. When we discuss proper nutrition one of the first things I hear is something along the lines of “it’s too expensive to eat well.”

I don’t buy it.

How often have you heard some version of that phrase. Whether it be Zone, Paleo, Whole 30, or just “stay out of the middle of the grocery store”, this is uttered with some degree of exasperation and oppression with a kind of mind-numbing, self-fulfilling frequency.

How so? Per the folks at Whole Foods, regularly skewered for being too expensive (seriously, they sell fancy potatoes), on average we in America spend 7% of our disposable personal income–that’s SEVEN–on food. 50 years ago that number was 16%. We now spend less than 1/2 of our after-tax income on food compared with what we spent 50 years ago.

And eating well is too expensive.

If we dig deeper into that stat alone we see that modern food production has decreased the cost of food relative to both income and inflation. The cost of producing food of all kinds has risen much more slowly than income. Why? Partly because junk, carb-laden food is cheap. High-fructose corn syrup costs a fraction of grain sugar. Corn-fed protein sources, with or without antibiotics or steroids, is grown faster and cheaper than grass-fed. Stuff like that. Less expensive to produce + incomes risen at a greater rate across the entire spectrum, top to bottom.

How then is it too expensive to eat a more healthy diet. We have 9% of our after-tax income to play with, right? Is some other necessity (shelter, transportation, medical care, etc) eating that up? What are we doing with that 9% (16-7) that we can’t find some of it to eat better? Ah, Grasshopper, now we begin to see. It’s a ‘Nando thing, it’s superficial. It’s not how healthy you are, it’s how you look, or something like that.

Some stuff might be more expensive, but the seemingly obvious culprits are actually false targets (eg. healthcare which for this audience represents only a tiny % of new cost c/w 50 years ago because of insurance, govt. programs, etc. despite all of the apocalyptic talk on SM). Nope, it’s how we CHOOSE to spend that freed-up 9% that makes it feel like we don’t have money to buy better food.

Think about that household in the 1960′s or even the 70′s. One car. One TV. One radio. Once purchased all data was free. A pair of shoes and a pair of boots. Sneaks if you were a jock. You didn’t get your hair done if you were a guy, you got a haircut. You didn’t get your acrylics touched up every 2 weeks; if you wanted long nails you grew ‘em. Stuff like that.

Fast forward to today and think about the stuff you’ve acquired, stuff you are convinced you can’t live without, stuff that costs money that you choose to spend every single day. The ratio of drivers to cars in a household is seldom less than 1.5 people/car, and it’s usually closer to 1:1. The ratio of phones to people over the age of 10 is seldom less than 1/1—everyone carries a phone. It’s not enough to have a phone, or even a phone with an unlimited text plan, nope, it’s gotta be a phone that will let you post your thoughts on today’s weather in Bimini to FB. Right now, from anywhere. If you don’t have Netflix available on each of the 4 flat-screen TV’s in the house you are considered a Luddite.

Listen, I certainly am not saying that all that stuff isn’t great, that it’s not a ton of fun and really convenient (as I type on one of the Apple products that literally litter our household, through the WiFi network at the barn, so I don’t deplete the battery on my phone by using it as a hotspot), or anything like that. What I most certainly AM saying, though, is that people who whine about how hard it is to afford to eat better almost always do so via a FB post from their iPhone 7 while sitting in the salon having their hair done, hungover from too much Bellevedere they consumed last night while noshing on Doritos smothered in Cheez-Wiz.

9 %. The stark reality is that we have let our things become more important than ourselves.

I’ll see you next week…

–bingo

Who Would Write Your Obituary? What Would it Say Today?

On Twitter a rather erudite retired surgeon posted the obituary of a 72 yo physician who died from cancer. She’d been sick and dying, knowing that she would die from her cancer, for some 2 years. Her obituary, obviously written herself, was funny and self-deprecating, an obvious attempt to soothe the sorrow of those she left behind. A women’s basketball player from Northwestern was killed by suicide last week. Who will write her obituary, and what will it say? One of my local colleagues died very suddenly and unexpectedly on Friday at the age of 50, roughly 24 hours after being diagnosed with cancer. Who will write his obituary, and what will it say?

2016 was notable for the number of rather famous people who died. This particular sector of humanity is famous enough that many media outlets pre-prepare obituaries so that they will have material ready to publish shortly after there announcement that the famous individual is deceased. It is unusual that someone not so famous, even someone of a degree of local fame, should have an obituary ready to go. More unusual, to be sure, for that obituary to be as light-hearted a read as that Minnesota MD. No, for the majority of humanity, at least here in the U.S., an obituary is a rather slap dash on-the-fly “just the facts, M’am” effort by whoever is at the desk at the local funeral home.

I know this, of course, because my Mom sent us the draft of my Dad’s obituary before she gave the OK to publish. Now, my Dad was a very good man, hardly great in the sense of, say, FDR or Red Auerbach, but he certainly deserved more than a rote regurgitation of his stats written in 6th grade English. Since I spend more time exercising my writing muscles than my siblings, or maybe just because I can type faster, the job fell to me to capsulize a man who was larger than life to his family, just like I’m sure is the case with my just deceased colleague and that Northwestern basketball player.

The grains of sand that pass through the funnel of life’s hourglass are only dry if observed from afar; up close each one is as colorful as any rainbow, as full of energy as any thunder storm. Poetry is there for the asking.

For most of us there is still a long journey ahead. The bulb atop our hourglass still holds innumerable grains of sand, a countless number of memories yet to create. We have years, nay decades of love yet to give and receive. Life is actually quite long for all but the unfortunate, unlucky few. Their lesson for us is simple, I think: Who will write your obituary? What will it say if it needed writing today?

Emotional Well-Being: Mental Health Deserves Equal Footing

Some time ago I wrote about creating a way to measure health. Real health. Health that encompasses every aspect of what it means to be alive and well. As a CrossFitter I definitely included Coach Glassman’s Disease -> Health -> Wellness continuum, and I also acknowledged the critical importance of his concept of “Fitness over Time”. As a classically trained physician/scientist there is clearly a place for more traditional metrics like blood pressure, serum lipids and the like, although they may, indeed, be an variable that is ultimately tied to fitness.

Where my thoughts on defining and measuring health seem to depart from most current trends is in the recognition that mental health–emotional wellbeing—is as much a part of being healthy as any other thing we might examine.

Think about it for just a moment. Most of what we would classify as mental illness has as many outward signs that we can see as diabetes and hypertension. Which is to say, none. Yet we—all of us, not just CrossFitters—see nothing but the good in treating diseases like diabetes openly and aggressively. There is no stigma attached to seeking care for your hypertension or your elevated LDL. To the contrary, if someone who loves you discovers you quit measuring your glucose before you bolus your insulin, they are for sure gonna get in your grill.

For whatever reason, mental illnesses, including addiction, are looked at quite differently. No one is asking the person with chronic depression whether she is taking her life-saving medication, for example. We might notice an insulin pump on a friend or family member, but then it’s quickly forgotten. Everyone seems to be very uncomfortable around the young man who has very obvious hand tremors from the life-saving medication he takes for his Bipolar disease. We all seem to be so much more understanding when we have to wait for a response from someone suffering from Parkinson’s Disease than from the young women who has the same symptoms as a side-effect from the medicine that quiets the dangerous thoughts in her head from Schizophrenia.

It’s not even necessary to look only at these kinds of severe mental illnesses when we are examining the importance of mental or emotional wellbeing as an integral part of being healthy. What good does it do to have a 5:00 mile, a 500 lb. deadlift, and a 1:59 “Fran” if it was self-loathing that drove you in the gym to get there? You may be quite accomplished, the envy of your peers, at the peak of whatever life mountain you wished to climb, and yet you cannot feel joy. How is it possible to be healthy without joy? I look at Usain Bolt and what I see is quite possibly the healthiest man alive. My friend Tim, the writer, tells me that Justin Gatlin has nearly everything that Bolt has—youth, fitness, wealth—but the combination of failure to knock off Bolt, and the public disapproval reigned on him as boos from the Rio stands has left him emotionally broken. It’s subtle, but if you look at his face in the blocks of the 100M Final it’s there.

Our complex and conflicted attitudes and feelings about mental illness are especially evident when the topic of suicide comes up. Just typing the word makes me uncomfortable. Even how we describe suicide is fraught with hidden meaning that reflects our discomfort: someone has “committed suicide”. Right? Someone committed an act that we simply cannot fathom, one that leaves the survivors completely without any understanding whatsoever. How could someone DO that? It’s as if every suicide is the same as the suicide of the crooked prison warden in The Shawshank Redemption when he looks out the window and sees his fate arrive in the front seat of a State Trooper’s car.

In reality most of the time it’s simply not like that at all. Nothing about it is simple at all.

The outer walls at the periphery of my world have been breeched by suicide twice in the last couple of months. One of them actually does feel a bit like that prison warden. Frankly, I am too conflicted, too aware of the external circumstances and not enough aware of the internal life of the deceased to offer much right now. The other one, however, just stopped me in my tracks when I heard. The loss was profound.It has also introduced to me a new vocabulary that I truly believe provides a starting line from which we can change how we think about not only suicide, but all of mental illness. A friendly acquaintance lost his wife when she was killed by suicide.

We don’t need to know all of the details of the story. Suffice it to say that in the face of a child’s illness she suffered quietly. Too quietly to be noticed. Perhaps she didn’t realize how badly she was suffering, or maybe she was like so many of us and couldn’t bring herself to see her illness for the life-threatening entity that it was. No one will ever know. What is clear, though, is that this was not anything about commitment. Kidney failure may be cause of death in a diabetic, but it is diabetes that kills him. There is no difference here. The cause of death was suicide. Her disease, her depression is what killed this young woman.

Each of us has a very few moments in our lifetimes that forever change us. On the second Tuesday of July in 2006, unbeknownst to me, one of those moments was transpiring in a lonely, dark corner. Joyfully, the moment was a beginning, not an ending. Regardless, once learning of the moment I was changed forever. Now I knew. You cannot see any marks from mental illness, no swollen appendage or insulin pump. But it is there all the same, and it must be acknowledged and accorded the same degree of care as any other disease that may take our loved ones from us. Mental illnesses are real, and they can be deadly. There ought not be any conflict or discomfort in treating them.

We may stop losing so many of our loved ones when start to see emotional wellbeing as part of being healthy.

 

A Struggle Just to be Average

Lake Wobegone, where every child is above average. Remember that? It’s a joke, of course, but it’s funnier if you have even the tiniest bit of comfort with numbers, statistics, and probabilities. Every parent wishes for that, right? To have raised a child who rose even just a little bit above.

What does it mean to be average? It begins with the cohort, the population you are evaluating, and the particular variable that is to be measured. The average Division 3 cornerback is a decidedly different specimen than the average guy playing on Sunday. The average working vocabulary in a room filled with Pulitzer Prize winners is quite a bit different than that of, say, the Green Bay Packers booster club luncheon yesterday. On the other hand, the average VO2 max in those latter two groups is likely pretty similar.

Along with average comes a range in any curve. Some groups are tightly bunched around the mean, the average; being average is an expectation. On the line at Ford your performance has to be average at worst. If you are above or below the average in any other group it probably is helpful to know how big the range of differences is in that group. For example, if we are measuring 400M run times at the Olympics there’s a pretty skinny range beyond which below or above average makes you stick out, good and bad.

Average does not necessarily mean mediocre.

I got to thinking about this yesterday when I heard from a bunch of my college buddies sending along birthday wishes. In my life there have been two places where I’ve been average: Williams College and CrossFit. Both here in the CrossFit world and in my college years at Williams it has taken everything that I have just to be in the middle of the pack. This is a double-edged sword. It’s humbling to have to literally give it your all just to hit the mean. However, placed into a group or given a task in which you have the potential to excel, to bust the curve if you will, the experience of having to work so hard just to be middling should drive you to do the same when you have a chance to be the best.

My Mom and Dad did, indeed, raise kids who were above average. It appears that Beth and I may have done so, too. If we are lucky, the Man Cub and his cousins will follow suit. The only way I will know is because I had the privilege of struggling to be average in the company of two very extraordinary groups of people.

My classmates and teammates at Williams, and my fellow CrossFitters.