Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

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Anti-Elitism is a Dead-End Street

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

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

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

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

As We Turn the Page on 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Spirit of Giving

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Tis the Season to Indulge

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

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

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

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

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

[Raises flute]

Evaluating and Treating Stress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday musings 12/17/17

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today, it’s time to go home.


The Scourge that is Expectation

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

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

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

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

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

Actions Speak Louder Than Words: Wisdom From Dad

When it came time to pick a location for their CrossFit Affiliate my sons were adamant that there be no question that they were opening their Box in a truly new, unserved area. They disqualified several fertile locations, only doing market research in areas well outside of the catchment zone of the Boxes then open. Their intent was righteous and above reproach.

Interestingly, although the boys were quite vocal about why they opened where they did, only one of the established Affiliate owners ever acknowledged this. “The Heir” and Lil’bingo walked away from their home town and all of their parents’ contacts, a simply terrible business decision. They felt it was somehow wrong, unseemly even, to move into the close proximity of gyms they felt were doing CrossFit the right way.

We’ve been parsing the lessons taught by my Dad over the years. On his 75th birthday we gathered 75 of them, and the list has been making the rounds among people he’d touched in life. One of them was an admonition to judge a man based on what he did, not what he said he’d do. The lesson was deep, deeper than any of us knew at the time. Folks make all kinds of promises and give all kinds of assurances, but in the end you only know who they really are by what they actually do. One can divine intent only when one can examine action.

In the end the lesson is that we will learn who you are not by what you say you will do, but by what you actually do. You may make the wrong decision for the right reason, but experience teaches that this is quite rare on a micro, personal level. No amount of explanation or rationalization will hide intent forever. That was the follow-up lesson from my Dad. Eventually, what you’ve done tells the rest of us who you are. “The Heir” and Lil’bingo told the world who they are by what they did. Few people listened, and fewer still understood. They paid a dear price, but they upheld their honor and did the right and righteous thing.

It’s not what you say you will do or why, it’s what you choose to do that tells us who you really are.

The Right Decision

There are some really big decisions in a life. I mean huge, consequential decisions that simply must be made. To do so is very, very hard. There is simply no escaping that fact. You reach a point where you have to make a call on something that matters. Really matters. Like, rest of your life hinges on your decision matters. As part of this monumental process you must make peace with the concept of “certainty”.

You can–you really must, actually– be certain that this is a really big decision, but you must at the same time be cognizant that you cannot be certain that you are making the best decision possible.

I am forever in search of a better vocabulary to describe things I know or things I feel very deeply. In that never-ending search I came across an article about the former GM of the Philadelphia 76′ers, Sam Hinkie. Mr. Hinkie is a polymath who is at any particular time either wildly sentimental or icily objective. Fascinating guy, actually (you can read the article in SI 12/5/16). Throughout the article it was somewhat difficult for me to establish common ground with him (except for our shared devotion to precise language) until I came upon a brief discussion of “certainty” in decision making. Both Hinkie and I had the same decision to make–to prioritize our courtship and subsequent marriage over other pursuits like education and vocation–and we both not only made the same call but continue to describe it as the best call we ever made.

We were certain of its importance, and in response at some point we went “all in” on the decision. Here is Hinkie on the process:

“You have to be careful that you are thinking reasonably. People are too willing to scratch the itch of the near thing. Discipline is the difference between what you want and what you really, really want…I think people often don’t bring that kind of rigor to whatever it is, if it’s important. Because they’d rather make lots of little tiny decisions that a few big ones.”

Certainty is a sword that cuts both ways. One cut you control is the one of knowing that something is really big. Something you really, really want. Something that matters. The quality of the next cut depends on your decision making process: are your motives proper? Are you making the decision in such a way that you not only maximize your chances of success, but at the same time minimize the likelihood that you will suffer remorse at the outcome? You cannot be certain that you will make the right decision, but the only way forward once you are certain about something is to pour everything you have into whatever that thing is.

Hinkie: “What wouldn’t you pay to make it so, if it’s right?”

Today, We Ride

Death is stalking the White Family. This makes us no different from your family; death comes for us all. Rare among us is the one who knows when the knock will come. Yet come it will. Sometimes it comes at what feels like an appointed hour, as it did this Spring for my father-in-law. Other times it makes no sense at all as when it came for a little girl who rode horses with Beth. She was taken at 12, alone in the gloaming, an unseen calamity leaving behind, well, everything and everyone. In this there is nothing special about our family. It is simply our time, our turn for Death to stalk our circle. Death takes us all, and we have very little choice about when it does.

Life, though, is a very different thing entirely. Life, you see, can be taken by the reins and ridden for all its worth. We need not sit back and let life come to us like a horse at the far end of the field. It may, come for us that is, but it just as well may not. Like that horse, though, we can go right over and get it, hop on, and ride like hell.

That’s the beauty of life. Of living. Being alive is a full-contact participatory sport. Every day you get to wake up is just chockablock filled with literally herds of horses just there for the riding. Some days you’re ready for literally anything and it’s off after that fire-breathing stallion and a gallop for the ages. Others, it’s all you can do to pull yourself into the creaky old saddle of a ancient herdy-gerdy pony barely able to put one foot ahead of the other.

No matter. You’re alive. You woke up again and you looked into that pasture at all of those horses, chose one, and started to ride.

Death may indeed be stalking us, stalking you and me, but today is not our day. Uh uh, not today. Today we are alive. We are surrounded by our people, here and everywhere. Our circle is full. Today you have your people, and your people have you. This is not a day to be “not dying”, this is a day to be living. Choose a horse. Take the reins.

For today, we ride.

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