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Archive for July, 2016

A Wee Dram of Thought on Alcohol

Beth and I have been on an adventure cruise, a quest of sorts. We’ve been exploring the wonders of the classic cocktail. Today as we watch the final events of the CrossFit Games will be no different. Equal parts alchemy and indulgence, our trip has been more exciting (as all adventures are) because of the little bit of risk involved. What if we find one (or two, or…) we really like? Like many pleasures to drink is to willingly hold the proverbial double-edged sword in your hand; in this case the sword just happens to look like a martini glass.

Alcohol as both a substance and a subject is complex and rife with controversy. It’s legal, but only to a point. It’s beneficial, but with a caveat–people who drink just enough live longer than those who drink more, or not at all. As a chemical it’s a depressant, and yet in many circumstances it imbues joy in those who imbibe. It all comes down to a fine and delicate balance, not unlike a perfectly aged wine or single malt scotch.

The matter of regulation intrudes on the pleasure. Knowing the existence of the second edge and maintaining an awareness of its cut is both necessary and nettlesome. If you find this lurking behind every glass it may rob you of the joy; if you careen from joy to joy you will inevitably suffer its cut and bleed. Temperance, then, is the essential ingredient, the co-pilot who must be ever present on this particular trip. Ah, but temperance, willful self-control, can feel like a 50 MPH governor on a Ferrari, especially if you make the Indiana Jones-like cocktail discoveries we’ve made. It might be so difficult and so distasteful that you decide to roll your dice on the “not at all” line. “Abstinence is as easy to me as temperance would be difficult.” Samuel Johnson.

Indeed, temperance is so often fueled by the wraith “guilt.” There’s joy and pleasure to be had, but what if there’s too much? Ah, guilt. In the classic children’s book “The Little Prince”, one of the characters is known simply as The Drunkard. He explains to the Little Prince that he drinks to forget that he’s ashamed of drinking. How very sad, that.

It’s all so complicated, not unlike the math involved in the archaic elixirs we’ve been experiencing. So very hard sometimes to ease off the throttle without the aid of the governor. If the “Gizmo”, the “Sideswiped”, and the “El Dorado” be guilty pleasures we might ask the socialite turned fashion entrepreneur Charlotte Stockdale what she thinks of such things (quote from a Sunday interview a couple of years ago). “I don’t have a guilty pleasure. I don’t really feel guilty about anything. What’s the point?” As you listen there it is. Out of the corner of your eye you can just see it, the shadow of the double-edged sword. One edge Samuel, the other Charlotte.

[Tips glass]

Everything Changed. Forever.

“Just like that, everything changed. Forever.” –Beth White

Let me tell you a story about strength and love. It’s a story about the love parents have for a child, and about what appears to be super-human strength in expressing that love. The story starts with sorrow, at a funeral, the event that marked a forever change after a life both agonizingly short and blessedly long. The details make this particular version of the story very powerful, but in the end the heroes of my story would tell you that the details only describe their own individual version of a story that is told millions of times every day in millions of families around the world. Theirs was just more than a bit harder, and so the love and the strength was just a bit easier to see.

I’ve not asked if I could tell this story in its truest form; I will shelter the family by not using their names. Yesterday’s funeral was agonizing, as are all funerals when young parents bury a child. It’s hard work to raise a child, you know. Children don’t naturally come equipped with the “software” necessary to survive and thrive in a family group, much less a town, or a state, or a country. Equal parts love and leverage must be applied to instill in a child all of the trappings of civilization, lest the otherwise unquenchable twins Ego and ID ride roughshod over any and all who come in contact with that child. “Crazy hard” is how one could describe the process with a standard issue, healthy child, but words simply don’t exist to describe what it is like if a child is challenged physically or mentally from a very young age. My only advice to young parents-to-be is to be prepared for the biggest change you can ever imagine, the change that comes along with each subsequent child. No one is ever prepared for what comes when that child requires all-day, every-day care.

Where does the strength come from? The love I get, especially from parents steeped in the beliefs of a Religion based upon and built from a foundation of love. But the strength to bring that love to bear every minute of every day in the face of the crushing sadness of a child who you know you will lose, who will never follow any kind of normal path? Where does that come from? You can’t use our typical, run of the mill metaphors for this. You know, like “ice in their veins”, because no one who projects such unvarnished and unquestioning love can be filled with ice anywhere. No…no, I think it is molten iron that flowed through their veins. Yes, that must be it. Iron.

Literature is filled with the stories of children neglected in the face of tragedy, or families torn asunder by either the suppressed pain at the injustice of an impaired child, or by the not unreasonable finite amount of love and strength in a family, with the other children, the marriage, or both left to fend for themselves as all energy is directed to the most needy family member. Not in this family. Theirs is a marriage forged in commitment deepened by their challenge. Theirs is a family tied closer because Mom and Dad never did that at all, never stopped parenting the other children, never stopped supporting those things that made each child unique in his or her own way. Never stopped working and worrying their way to preparing the other children for their own life’s journey.

Engulfed by love and raised by these iron-willed parents, this very special child lived more than a decade longer than the most optimistic expectations offered as a baby. Not just lived, though, but thrived. Because of this we attended a funeral where grief was all-consuming. A child much-beloved was lost, and we gathered in the hundreds to console his family. Will there be relief at some point? A sense of burden lifted? Of course. How can there not be? Relief, though, will not ever be the most powerful emotion for Mom, Dad, or siblings. This was a child who was loved fiercely, with ferocious strength and resolve by each member of the family. Everything has changed.

There is no word in any known language to describe a parent who has lost a child. Writing this it occurs to me that we are equally bereft of a word that would so name a sibling. Interesting, no? To have a child die before a parent is so unnatural that no part of the human race has ever come up for a word for it. This family lived for 21 years in the knowledge that it would happen to them, and yet when it did the loss was a crushing as a bolt from the blue. To feel this loss must be part of what it is to be human, no matter the details. It is the one place, the one thing that we all must certainly have in common. We need not experience the loss ourselves to have true empathy with those who have experienced it. So wired are we that understanding is unnecessary; we feel the loss as one.

We went to a funeral yesterday to share our love for a little boy who barely made it to manhood. His life was a triumph of love and resolve, of strength almost beyond belief. His parents would offer that each of us could have done it, done what they’d done if it had been demanded of us, instead. Every parent in the church checked their pulse, looked to see what flowed through their veins. In the end we all found the very same thing: tears heated by the loss we each could feel, for the little boy, his siblings, and his parents. A desperate hope that we would never find ourselves in that same place, at any time, for any reason.

Just like that, everything changed. Forever.

“Lift”, Fitness, and the CrossFit Games

Here we are, a couple of weeks away from the CrossFit Games. Getting pretty exciting, huh? Sadly, once again, due to an illness in my extended family, I will not be able to attend the Games in person this year. Last year turned out to be our last with my Dad. This year we are spending as much time as we can with Beth’s Dad. No need to feel sorry for me, though. I think I’ve made it to 8 of the Games, each time as a guest of Greg Glassman who is a most gracious host. I’ll  surf over to the Games site and check out all the different ways to watch our annual extravaganza from home. Maybe this is the event that finally pushes me to get that new, “big ass” TV I’ve been planning to buy for…oh…3 years now.

Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal has a book review on “Lift” by Daniel Kunitz, a history of fitness. According to the review, Kunitz is very complimentary of CrossFit and Coach Glassman. Interestingly, the author of the review is a gentleman named Michael Shermer. His personal fitness journey sounds remarkably like that of so many of us in the CrossFit community. Indeed, he even references both “What is Fitness?” and the Ten Essential Characteristics of Fitness. Shermer’s discussion of fitness, sport, and training brought me back to thoughts I have had about fitness as sport.

There is a tension that exists between CrossFit, the strength and conditioning program and CrossFit, the Sport of Fitness.This tension is usually expressed in the guise of criticism of various versions of CrossFit programming. What’s very interesting is the lack of tension on this topic among the truly elite CrossFit athletes. If you look at their programming it looks like they are training to become…wait for it…really good at CrossFit.

Weird, huh?

What does that mean, anyway? Good at CrossFit? Follow Mr. Kunitz’s lead. This is a perfect time for you to both re-read the seminal article “What is Fitness” in CFJ #2 and to recommend it to anyone who is either curious or unsure as to what constitutes CrossFit, and for the sake of this musings, CrossFit programming.

CrossFit is the pursuit of a broad, inclusive general fitness where fitness is defined as work capacity across broad time and modal domains. In the vernacular, CrossFit trains and tests us to move larger loads further over a longer period of time. In order to do this Coach Glassman has identified 10 Essential characteristics of Fitness as so defined and noted in the book review, each of which needs to be equally expressed. Cardiovascular/Respiratory endurance; stamina; strength; flexibility; power; speed; coordination; agility; balance; accuracy.

Fitness as defined by CrossFit and Greg Glassman includes a precisely balanced degree of each of these 10 elements, with no one element being more of less important than any other. The CrossFit Games, and the athletes who take part, are simply an expression of the farthest right side reaches of the fitness Bell Curve. Look carefully and you will see that the events ask for equal competence in all 10 Elements; the athletes are simply better than the rest of us across the board. They get there because they do more work on all of the 10 Essential Elements.

While we here, and most folks in CrossFit Affiliate gyms, can assume agreement on the benefits of seeking Fitness as defined by CrossFit, this is not to say that either our definition of fitness or our particular way of seeking it (expressed through our CrossFit programming) is appropriate for every individual. Some people just like to run really long distances, while others are happiest when they lift really heavy stuff. Still others are interested only in the appearance of their body, and their entire fitness program is geared toward achieving a particular vision or visual. There is nothing inherently wrong with any of these desires, nor anything inherently wrong with the programming necessary to achieve these outcomes.

It just may not be CrossFit.

Because of this, the issue of programming is always on the table, especially during the Crossfit Games season that starts with the CrossFit Open and culminates in the spectacle in Carson, CA. Is there an optimal version of CrossFit programming? People take turns at supporting and denigrating the programming on the Main Page and in various CrossFit Affiliate gyms. Countless efforts are made to “improve” on the model you see on what we call “.com”. Some of these alternatives make sense, while others IMO are not really alternative CrossFit programming but alternatives to CrossFit itself. Most of these, indeed most of the conversations in general, have to do with strength and strength training. Are you (is anyone) strong enough? Will CrossFit.com or another version of CrossFit make you strong enough?

The 10 Essential Elements found in CFJ #2, “What is Fitness”, are also posted on Workout  030530 ( ironically on a day when heavy Deadlifts were prescribed). Pretty much all of the conversations noted about programming revolve around the premise that strength is somehow more important than other elements of fitness. Reasonable people can disagree on this point, but as a premise in discussing CrossFit the notion that strength is a, or the, primary element of fitness has no standing. There are 10 elements of Fitness, each no more and no less important than any other if we are seeking a broad, inclusive general physical preparedness that we call “fitness”. Full stop.

Whoa, wait a minute there pal, aren’t you the guy who co-wrote an article called “Strong Medicine” introducing a programming alternative called “CrossFit Strength Bias”? Hasn’t your home gym programming had supplemental strength training per CFSB principals since it opened? Isn’t that statement there just a bit, oh, duplicitous? Forked-typing?

Nope. Not at all. You see, if you read the original article you will see that CFSB is one way to address a DEFICIT in strength relative to the other 9 Essential Elements, not a program meant to gain strength at the EXPENSE of the other 9. As such it, like some others, is a program for the masses, a CrossFitter who perceives a hole in his/her fitness that needs to be addressed, not at all unlike a CrossFitter who does supplemental work on balance or flexibility. Additional Element-specific work, be it strength or agility or whatnot, that drives continued balance and improvement in all 10 Elements is very much CrossFit. All versions of CFSB (I am now using v3.2) are designed to be one way to address this imbalance. There are others that you may enjoy more (Wendler, Westside, Conjugate, etc.), and just like having personal goals, there is nothing inherently wrong with another supplemental strength program as long as it works without the need to sacrifice other competencies.

Whether you are looking at members of a CrossFit Box or competitors at the CrossFit Games, CrossFit is outcome based. The outcome desired is a broad-based fitness comprised of equal quantities of each of the 10 Essential Elements. What goes into the left side of the hypothetical Black Box should produce Work Capacity Across Broad Time and Modal Domains if the Black Box is a CrossFit athlete of any type. An increase in your Deadlift brought about by concentrating on strength training at the expense of cardiovascular/respiratory endurance will be accompanied by a decrease in your 5K run time and vice versa. This may be precisely in line with your goals, but it is not CrossFit as defined by Coach Glassman and expressed at its limits by Games athletes.

Programming for CrossFit should be aimed first and foremost at CrossFit outcomes. For most people, ever increasing fitness as described and defined by CrossFit results in increased health. What you find on CrossFit.com, and what you should probably expect to find as the primary goal in a CrossFit Affiliate gym, is programming that seeks to balance all 10 of the Essential Elements of Fitness, doing extra work in a lagging domain, and increasing all of them in an effort to produce increased work capacity across broad time and modal domains.

A demonstration of CrossFit programming will be available in a couple of weeks online and on ESPN. We call it the CrossFit Games. While I won’t be able to accept my invitation to visit my CrossFit friends and see it in person, rest assured that I will be glued to my (hopefully big ass) TV and watching nonetheless.

 

–bingo

Understanding is the Bridge to Empathy in Race Matters

Only twice in my life have I ever noticed that I was different. That I was, or could be identified, as “other”. Now to be sure, at neither time did this realization make me uncomfortable. That’s probably because I was in a relatively familiar setting, just among a rather homogenous group of people where I was the guy who stood out. Being the only person in church or on the basketball court who is NOT of color was for me, a non-large very white male, more a case of “huh, that’s different” than a case of ” be on guard”.

More than anything else, that is likely part of the core of what is meant when we hear talk of “white privilege”: I am only at risk if I actually do something wrong.

Sitting here in suburbia, in middle-age, it’s instructive to look back at how I’ve arrived at such a place. A place where I always feel like I could belong no matter where my place takes me. The town of my earliest youth is probably most responsible for this. Southbridge was a dying mill town in Central Massachusetts, although none of us kids new it was dying at the time. Settled initially by French-Canadien ex-pats, a second wave of migration from Puerto Rico occurred before I went to grade school. 10 or 15 percent of my classmates were children of Puerto Rican immigrants, but I knew them only as kids in school or teammates on the various fields of our youth. We fought side-by-side 100 times more often than we ever fought facing each other. Sure, they were different. Their grandparents spoke Spanish while most of ours spoke French.

Home since childhood has been driven more by economics than any other factor. Most of my life since then has been lived in worlds that roughly track the Southbridge of my youth, roughly 80% White/20% Black or Brown. People of color were either there when I arrived (and so belonged as much as I), or arrived the same way I did (and so belonged as much as I). At this point I should confess that I’ve never given too very much thought to the color mix of my surroundings. This may also constitute “white privilege” I suppose, the privilege of not needing to be aware of color at all. What makes that kind of funny is that until the very last major move of my life, each time I’ve moved to a new place, many people assumed that I was Black prior to my arrival. Darrell White the presumably Black football player arriving at a new high school or at college? Nope. Short, skinny white guy. Darrell White the first ever Black med student or Black resident at my respective schools? Sorry to disappoint. Still, short skinny white guy. Only my voice is 6’5″, and with no accent whatsoever it is colorless.

How about those two instances where I did feel different, in church and on the basketball court? In church it was mostly humorous since the other congregants made such a huge effort to make me feel welcome. Indeed, as the only White family among the churchgoers at the Black Baptist church one Christmas it was more than comical when the pastor, my friend the Rev. Mel Woodard, introduced us from the altar (over my gentle objection) to the congregation. “Please welcome The Whites!” With a twinkle in her eye “Lovely Daughter” leaned over to me in the pew: “Duh!” No, other than the obvious pointed out by Megan, in that setting the group made sure that only the most superficial differences existed for me in that room. I would only be “other” if I chose to be.

The basketball court just down the street from Wills Eye was a bit of a different matter, and because of that more instructive when examined through the  magnification of the retrospectometer. The rules of pick-up ball are clear, and they are largely consistent in every park in America. There’s a line-up of who has “next”, and if you are not a regular you just call “next”, wait at the end of the line, and hope that you can assemble enough talent on your team to last more than one game. Here, like in church with Mel, mine was almost the only White face, but here I was “other” in every sense of the word. My turn as “next” kept getting lost on the list, the wait for that one game almost 2 hours before one of the park leaders acknowledged the tiny injustice and put my team on the court simply by joining us as our fifth guy. The other White guy was on the team, of course, and he was a stud baller. A bit to the right of average for that park, that game was the first time in my life when I was more conscious of what my game looked like than how I was playing. Who do I pass to? Do I take the open shot?

We lost the game, of course. Not so much because of anything I did or didn’t do during the game as that the other team had a guy named “Jelly Bean”  and no one could stop him (pretty decent player; I think his son was somebody in the NBA or something). In the comfort of not needing to be the least bit introspective, of not needing to learn anything at all from that morning, all I got until this past week from my encounter with Philadelphia inner city hoops was pissed off that I only got a single run after waiting two hours for my “next”. It’s only now as I look back that I realize my sense of being scrutinized, of being conscious of how I looked while playing rather than just playing, needing to be much, much better than the other “average” ballers there that day because I was White.

The events–church, a pick-up basketball game–are trivial, but the fall-out, however long in coming, is not. The fact that it is now 30 years since my non-battle with Kobe’s dad and I am just now aware of how I felt may be part of what is called “White privilege”, but moments like this are to be encouraged however long they are in coming, don’t you think? My oldest friends of color, roommates and groomsmen, as well as friends of more recent vintage will likely welcome this sense with little more than a playful “what took you so long” wink, and begin the dialogue. The Rev. Woodard’s congregants didn’t even need the comfort and cover of friendship to offer a wink (and in their collective case, countless hugs), so aware were they of how it feels to be “other” until proven otherwise.

Sympathy, my friends, is not enough. Sympathy is situational and episodic, and is therefore also transient. After all, who among us but the most hardened bigots or the most unreachable psychopaths cannot find sympathy for the family of the man killed while instinctively reaching for his wallet, or the families of the officers gunned down while on duty? No, sympathy is not enough because it is only something that we feel, and not something that we are, or even choose to be. Empathy is the magic elixir because empathy cannot be set aside. Empathy is to feel with, not simply to feel for, because it is a part of who we are. But empathy is hard, and empathy takes time. No one would wish the loss of a loved one on another in order to feel “with”. Sometimes empathy is little more than a spark, and sometimes that spark is so small that it goes unnoticed or ignored.

There is a bridge, though, between sympathy and empathy, and it is understanding. Like a physical bridge one must look to the other side and seek to be there. Like any bridge one must have the faith that over the crest in the middle, beyond the road you can see, there lies ahead a clear path to the other side. The trip may be a difficult one, but as with all trips, it will pass much more easily if in the company of others who either seek to understand as well, or better yet others who already do. Like all those men and women who came up to me in church and hugged me after Mel’s introduction. Like the guy at the park who joined my team, made sure I got “next”, and told me to come back for a run the next Saturday.

Like Sheldon and Steve, Rasesh and Mel who will hold my hand and guide me  as I climb the bridge myself.

 

Sunday musings (from the country)…

Sunday musings (from Amish Country)…

1) Buggy. Some of the fanciest horses I’ve ever seen pull a buggy. Only on Sunday.

2) Croce. The late singer Jim Croce is part of the fabric of my in-laws’ culture. His children grew up with my wife, and his music is often the soundtrack of our Hurst family gatherings. So it is today as I sit here musing. Classic Jim Croce on vinyl no less!

3) Culture. Specifically, cultural sensitivity. Being in a cultural enclave of law-abiding citizens who have done their very best to accommodate their deeply held religious beliefs with the larger culture of the country that surrounds them makes it all the more maddening to see other groups insulate themselves behind a virtual wall of disgust for everything non-them. The Amish and Mennonite communities of East PA live quiet lives of varying degrees of piety, inter-woven with the “English” that live around them. Indeed, they make more allowances for us, both large and small, than we make for them by at least 2 orders of magnitude.

Mrs. bingo and I were out on our daily walk through and around the farms that surround her folks’ house commenting on this. Now, it was in rather stark relief not so much because of the actions of the Amish as it was the gross insensitivity demonstrated by the tourists visiting on this Holiday weekend. Cars and motorcycles screamed by buggies and bicycles on their way to or from Sunday services, horns howling and fists shaking at the very things they presumably had traveled so far to see. The behavior of the “English” was appalling, mostly in that it was so unnecessary.

The Amish and the “English” who live side-by-side do so in quiet respect and with quiet understanding, two peaceful peoples who want nothing more than to live together in harmony.

4) Nutrition. Welp, my great nutritional experiment, begun with so much optimism in January, has gone almost completely off the rails. Now to be truthful, my serum cortisol–the stress hormone–did go down ~20% over the last 6 months, and I will have to say that I am sleeping better, but man, everything else came a-cropper. My total cholesterol went up 25%, and my LDL (the bad stuff) shot up 33% (still waiting on the fasting glucose that drove so much of my decision making).

Whoa.

Brief recount: in response to a dramatically elevated cortisol curve and fasting glucose I shifted my carb intake so that it was very low in the AM and rather high in the PM. Fat intake was relatively flat; protein up a bit. Consistent with the general macro- plan I made less of an effort to choose low glycemic index carbs, and in order to get enough of them in at night I ate rather high carb-load foods. Unfortunately this all went along at the same time that I had major abdominal surgery, and while I have been suffering from a mysterious glute issue. These conspired to reduce both my exercise volume and intensity. What a disaster.

We talk about fitness studies performed with an n=1, and this is a great example. In an effort to fix one area I messed up two others. It’s back to the drawing board for me now. For the moment I will return to the Zone-like, low GI carb diet of the last 10 years in an attempt to return to my 12/2015 baseline and go on from there. At the same time I will do my best to maintain the strength gains I’ve made while simultaneously working classic CF high intensity work into my ever-busier weekly schedule.

Measurable, observable, repeatable is an ever-evolving, never static process.

5) Breath. “To die before age 40 is uncommon; to die is not.” Paul Kalanithi M.D. When Breath Becomes Air

On January 8th, 2009 I began “Turning 50″. Man, I really sucked a turning 50. Funny thing, though: I’ve been relatively good at being 50+. Our mutual CF friend Hari shared the wisdom that allowed this. Prior to 50 it’s all about preparing, either yourself for what’s to come, or your children for what they have upcoming. After 50 you’ve done all of the preparing and it’s time to just live. Beautiful words shared with me at precisely the right time. Thank you again, Hari.

It turns out that there is just a bit of preparing for us over the age of 50, though. Both preparing ourselves and once again preparing others. I shared with you last week that I am really missing my Dad, gone since October. My good friend Dave shared in a simply lovely FB post that he found himself in conversation with his late father on Father’s Day, a conversation that seems to occur more often as time goes on rather than less. My visit to Pennsylvania Amish country is a bit about that last bit of preparing, I think.

The men in my family have tended toward cardiac calamity relatively young in life. Hence my efforts noted above in #4. In a reasonably good version of my world I’ll stick around a bit, or at the very least not get taken our by a (reasonably) controllable cardiac risk. Dr. Kalanithi is precisely right above. To die young is uncommon and unfortunate; it is much more likely that we North Americans will live long lives, and therefore our responsibility to prepare in order to make those later years good ones. It is the second part of his statement that asks us 50+’ers to prepare ourselves and others, the part about death being common. While we continually push the eventuality out further and further, it is after all still an eventuality.

And so it is that I find myself here, in this peaceful enclave of Amish and “English” life, making one of a dwindling number of visits to my wife’s ancestral home to visit her folks. To join her Dad as he so aggressively and positively continues to live at a time when most other’s would be simply about the doings of dying. We are preparing, Bob and I, for that most eventual of commonalities. Preparing ourselves, our family members, and each other. Such a lovely man. Such a lovely spirit. We come from backgrounds so vastly different it’s nothing short of miraculous that we’ve been such good friends these 35 or so years. Part of our preparing has been about that, finding the closest distance between those differences, directly and by proxy. Doing so, in the end, we will be as close in all ways for all things as we will ever have been.

What a blessing it has been, is, and will continue to be to be able to share this bit of living with him. Hari was mostly right, that we are done preparing once we hit 50. And if you look at a certain way, he may actually have it all the way right. We’ve most likely prepared for this simply by living for ourselves and our loved ones once we stopped preparing. Preparing now may be little more than doing more than “not dying” today. Having prepared is to be living today, like my father-in-law Bob is doing with such grace and dignity.

There’s may be no other way to prepare, for either or any of us, for what comes next.

I’ll see you next week…

–bingo

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