Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Brief Thoughts While Abroad (from Sunday musings…)

Man, if you read pretty much any news item from any viewpoint it certainly sounds like the world is heading to hell in a hand basket. War, terrorism, and murder abound making the world less safe than 10 or 20 or 100 years ago. Life expectancy went down in the U.S.; diseases must be winning the war. We are destroying the planet with the effluent of human existence, and the scourges of poverty oppress and suppress more people to a greater degree as wealth disparity increases worldwide.

It’s enough to make you bag your WOD and belly up to Pizza Hut delivers.

Only none of it is true. Well, except for the increase in wealth disparity that is. Even here it’s important to note that across the world extreme poverty is roughly 25% of what it was just 30 years ago, and real famine now affects less than 1% of the world’s population. 55% of countries now allow their citizens to vote, up from 1% in the 1800′s. 85% of the world’s citizens can read and write. Death from war is 1/4 of what it was in 1980, 1/6 of what is what in 1970, and 1/16 of what it was in the 1950′s.

How about here at home? The homicide rate is down to 5.3/100,000 from 8.5 over the last 3 decades. We are 95% less likely to die on the job, 96% less likely to die in a car crash, and 99% less likely to die in a plane crash over the past century. We work 22 fewer hours per week than 1900, and lose 43 fewer hours to housework. All but the smallest minority of the poor are housed with heat and air conditioning, are not malnourished, and have access to modern “necessities” like the internet.

What about the environment? Aren’t we dooming our planet because of our ever-increasing insults to the land, water, and land? 30 years ago we in the U.S. delivered 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide and 34.5 million tons of particulate matter pollution into the air. Those numbers are now 4 million and 20.6 million despite more people, more production and more miles driven. In 1988 there were 46 major oil spills; in 2016 there were only 5.

My point is simple: the world is NOT getting worse. It is NOT worse than it was in 1990 or 1970 or 1950, it is better. In no way do I wish for you to think that I am telling you that we should be satisfied with this, only that we ought not be working to continue to improve our world from a Henny Penny, the world is falling point of view. Reasonable people can disagree on the effects of disproportionate distribution of wealth on a forward going basis, but any objective evaluation of the progress of the human condition across the globe over the last 30 years must certainly reach the conclusion that the world is better off today.

I have found over the course of my brief moment on this rock that I am simply better at my own tiny contribution to making a tiny slice of the rock better if I am coming from a place of optimism rather than one of despair. Your mileage may vary, and I certainly do not mean to dismiss the negative effects of very personal trauma and challenge. For me what I see is momentum, and a challenge to maintain this very positive momentum.

Equality and a Just Society

“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.

Sunday musings 2/4/18

Sunday musings…Planes, trains and automobiles. Stuck in airports and on tarmacs without real internet connections…

Each year around this time Mrs. bingo and I travel to Mexico, ostensibly for work. Actually, I really do work while I’m here, although it’s easy to pretend I’m just on vacation when it’s 80 degrees and blue sky sunny. Especially with snow in the forecast in The Land. Funny trip in many ways this year, maybe our 5th going to the same hotel. Some of the staff clearly have at least a fuzzy memory of our last visit (Mrs. bingo is nice to everyone!), and although we were in the lap of luxury there was a slightly heightened sense of the country’s culture which seemed to be more evident for some reason.

“When in Rome…” ┬áis an apt sentiment. Cultural sensitivity, being aware of where you are and those things that are just enough different there that you make an effort to avoid inadvertent offense, has gotten easier for me as I’ve gotten older. Wonder why that is? Anyway, I find myself on alert for little ways that I can demonstrate that I’m paying attention. For example, in Mexico your greeting changes with the time of day. “Hi, how are you?” fairly screams “American”, you know?

There are plenty of other examples of course, but the sentiment remains the same: open awareness that it is you who is the outsider, you who are the guest, should bring with it an effort at accommodating the customs of your hosts rather than the other way around. While I happen to be out of the country this is the case if you happen to be visiting a part of your home country that is starkly different from your home town. It’s a very simple kindness, too easy to offer to let the chance go by.

You know…like packing my red, white and blue #12 jersey during my layover in Philly.

I’ll see you next week…

–bingo

Sunday musings 1/28/18

Sunday musings…

1) Sun. The big yellow one is the sun. Cameo appearance in Cleveburg today.

2) Gentrification. Once applied only to neighborhoods that are taken over by younger, wealthier newcomers than present occupants, gentrify is now applied as a qualifier to anything that is “up-scaled”. Actually, anything that is so much as discovered and enjoyed.

Think collard green smoothies or beef-cheek pirogies.

3) Advice. “Never take advice from someone you wouldn’t want to change places with.” -Kelly Clarkson

Wow. Whether or not that is Ms. Clarkson’s own advice, or if she is passing on the best advice she’s ever received, that’s a pretty power-packed little morsel, would’t you say? I would amend it just a tad because for anyone who is content in life it is unlikely that there is anyone with whom you would do the total switch. How about “only take advice from someone who obviously took their own advice and saw stuff work out.”

4) Meaning. “Pursue what is meaningful, not [only] what is expedient.” -Jordan Peterson

How’s that for heavy advice? What Mr. Peterson is saying, I think, is that one should strive in at least some small part of one’s life to achieve an outcome that is even slightly more impactful than acquiring one’s next meal. Admittedly there is a part of the world for whom there is literally nothing more meaningful than that because doing so might take each waking hour to achieve, but face it, the simple fact that you are reading my drivel is evidence that you have covered the shelter, water, food thing.

So what’ll it be?

I really do think that the search for something meaningful need not involve something that will affect all of human life, though it certainly could. Bill Gates is interviewed in today’s NYT, and Mr. Gates not only has decided to pursue some pretty big, pretty meaningful things, he certainly has the wherewithal to succeed where you and I likely don’t even have the imagination to dream. Still, meaning in actions is there for the taking in endeavors of all sizes. What Mr. Peterson is suggesting is that one be more mindful as we choose at least some of our pursuits.

Today there will be minutes that are up for grabs, as this week there will be hours in play, and this year time for at least one bigger pursuit. This kind of exercise has been part of my make up for some years now, but Mr. Peterson’s elegant phrasing is worth noting for both internal and external consumption. You don’t have to start with something as grand as solving the world’s malaria problem a la Mr. Gates. Practicing, seeking to make more of the tiny actions meaningful, leads quite naturally in my experience to engaging in larger meaningful pursuits. Start small and work your way up.

Start today. Instead of Instagram or Facebook or Twitter tonight, pick up a child and read a little “Goodnight Moon” before bedtime.

I’ll see you next week…

–bingo

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.

On the Beach 2018

(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?

As it turns out this kind of hypothetical is not solely the enterprise of the nuclear age. In fact a Parisian newspaper asked essentially the same question of its readers in 1922, long before the dawn of the nuclear age. Marcel Proust, the famous philosopher, offered perhaps the most lovely response I’ve heard before or since. “I think life would suddenly seem wonderful to us if www were threatened to die as you say. Just think of how many projects, travels, love affairs, studies, it–our life–hides from us, made invisible by our laziness which, certain of a future, delays them incessantly. But let all this threaten to become impossible forever, how beautiful it would become again!”

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. Again, Proust: without the cataclysm “we find ourselves back in the heart of normal life, where negligence deadens desire. And yet we shouldn’t have needed the cataclysm to love life today.” 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.

Greater personal meaning will come from Proust: I will seek my people every day, for it is with them where lies joy. It is for others to seek the greater societal and geopolitical meaning and impact of yesterday’s blunder.

 

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.

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