Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Posts Tagged ‘Williams’

The End of the Age of Volunteerism

Ladies and gentlemen, we are gathered here today to mourn the death of the Age of Volunteerism. While there exist tiny spaces where true volunteers live and thrive in a bilateral exchange of freely given goodwill, by and large volunteerism has been extinguished by the actions of its historical recipients. Sunday marks my last day ever of hospital ER call, the end of 2 years of receiving token payment for making my expertise available following 25 years of doing so for free. My experience is typical, as is this denouement.

Once upon a time all of your doctors were in private practice. We all had tiny little cottage businesses, did our work, and billed you or your insurance company for the work we did. Some of us worked in tiny little groups, but it was the rare doctor who was part of a large group or business whether in a big city or out in the country. Even the slickest Madison Avenue internist was basically a country doc, just with a better, more expensive wardrobe. In addition to having a greater familiarity with our patients we also enjoyed a very clubby relationship with all of the other doctors where we practiced. There was a collegiality, a sense that we were all in the struggle together. Folks who shirked their duties, foisting them off on other docs, were quickly educated about proper protocol or left to toil alone.

Hospitals were different, too. Local or regional, they were hardly the gargantuan mega-businesses they’ve become. The org chart was shallow, and most local doctors were on a first name basis with the few administrators on the hospital payroll. You took call for the ER as a volunteer; the ER respected that you were donating your skill and your time and handled everything it could before calling you. Same thing for consultations. Your colleague only called you if they couldn’t figure out a problem or ran out beyond their scope of practice. There was a faint air of apology with each request, and a definite unspoken appreciation for the help that would be given. You helped because you were appreciated.

This is really no different from all manner of volunteerism in America. Smallish, closely knit organizations depending on the goodwill and generosity of members of their community pitching in to ensure success. Think local memorial 5K races, or CrossFit Games Regionals in the days before ESPN or the Home Depot Center. Countless small private schools that depended on the largesse and time offered by the families who sent their children there. You gladly accepted the opportunity to volunteer because you knew that without you the organization would not be able to function. You also knew that the recipient of your generosity not only appreciated your contribution, they really had no other options. Not only that, but if that organization somehow existed in your professional space you knew that it would never, not ever, abuse the trust necessary for volunteers to continue.

What happened? Money. Money and size and the distance that they create between an organization and its volunteers. Let’s go back to the hospital and the ER for a minute. Where once your efforts as a volunteer were deeply appreciated and those efforts rewarded with respect and care for your time and your expertise, the growth of employment of doctors by hospitals opened a gap between colleagues. No longer was there the esprit de corps, the shared notion that the primary target of our efforts was the patient was replaced by so very many doctors by the reality that they worked first for a business as faceless and uncaring as GM. Work that was once done by your colleague was now pushed to the volunteers whenever possible. It’s cheaper that way. Worse, boxes to be checked by the employed (to maximize revenue and minimize risk) meant demands made of volunteers, not requests. Worse, still, were discoveries that some “volunteers” were more equal than others: they were paid.

Innumerable examples are there for the picking. Some times it was just a case of laziness. Other times the insult was a clear effort to dump work on the volunteer. A critical care fellow requested a consult for acute narrow angle glaucoma. For those of you not medical this is one of the few “drop everything and go” consultations in eye care. When I arrived in the ICU I found a young patient with a black cornea who was mildly uncomfortable. I did what every highly experienced specialist does when they start a consultation, I asked the patient: “Hey, what’s up with your eye?” Turns out they had a blind, painful eye as the result of a surgical mishap, and surgery to remove the eye was already scheduled. Their discomfort was because none of the eye medications had been ordered; the fellow never asked. No doctor (or nurse) would have allowed this to happen in the Age of Volunteerism.

While this is nothing short of tragic in health care, it was inevitable once medical businesses were incentivized to grow ever larger. It is not confined to health care by any means. How do you think that volunteer at a Spartan Race feels when he learns how much his “team leader” is being paid? Have you ever “discovered” how much the Executive VP of your favorite professional organization is paid? As a people we Americans are generous to a fault. That generosity usually continues right up until we discover that we have been duped, and even worse that we have been purposely duped by the people who run the organizations for which we volunteer.

And so we gather here to mourn the passing of the Age of Volunteerism. Like so many things of wonder and goodness there remain pockets of resistance, little oases where the goodwill, honesty, and appreciation beget the kind of ebb and flow that made things so much better, kinder, more collegial at the apex of Volunteerism. My friend Tom Gardner was just named the president of the Society of Alumni of our Alma Mater. Tom has given tirelessly of his “spaces”, his timespace, brainspace and emotionalspace to help shepherd tiny Williams College as it flows on though time. Is this truly different? A tiny refuge from the Zombie Apocalypse of corporatization of all things to which we once volunteered?

We can only hope. Hope that Tom and those like him who continue to find places and causes where their volunteerism is met with what we in medicine have had to bid farewell. We can only hope that there will be places where being a volunteer means receiving the respect and appreciation and even a kind of love in return for what we have given. We can only hope that there will continue to be places where the incessant drive to grow ever bigger, size measured on a spreadsheet rather than by heart, will be resisted. For if it can happen in medicine, if volunteerism can be killed in what is arguably the most noble of all endeavors, I fear that it is doomed everywhere.

We mourn the end of the Age of Volunteerism. We wait with equal parts sadness and fear for arrival of whatever comes next.

 

Sunday musings 10/14/18

Sunday musings…

1) Feral. Abbie the Wonder Dog was feral for the first 6 or 9 months of her life. I can’t remember exactly. She was live-trapped and rehabilitated by a Border Collie rescue organization in north central Ohio. When she frustrates me it is always helpful to remember this.

Having a formerly feral creature living in our midst is also a very good counter to the frustrations of modern life. I try to remember how far I am from true privation whenever I find myself railing agains the insanity and inherent indifference that the world clearly has toward my existence.

A quick thought of my clever (read: sneaky) pup is usually all it takes to quell my urge to explode when I encounter the tragedy of a poor internet connection…while hurtling through a mountain pass in a car going 80 MPH.

2) Test. Some 10 years ago or so I proposed that a true measurement of health should be possible. Something that combined the most basic of classic medical knowledge (weight, %BW fat, BP, Cholesterol, etc.) and the breakthrough notion that physical fitness could be measured and tracked. My theory included the necessity of including some sort of measurement of “well-being”, a mandate that was initially openly mocked but seems to have been rather meekly accepted as both logical and necessary.

Creation and launch of such a value, call it “Total Health” or something along that line, has fizzled due to the lack of consensus–nay, even interest–in coming up with a way to measure Fitness. Imagine, in a place like CrossFit where the very definition of Fitness was created, no one save me and a tiny group of equal obsessives has so much as let fly a tiny trial balloon. The original owners of CrossFit LA were the first to use a standard entry test. 500M Row/40 Squats/30 Sit-Ups/20 Push-Ups/10 Pull-ups. I suggested pulling from both traditional sources (The President’s Fitness Test) as well as CrossFit and the larger endurance communities: 2:00 each of PU/Push-Up/Sit-Up/Squat, 1RM Deadlift, 1 mile Run. We ran a competition once called the “Fittest Eye Doc” using this.

What is necessary is a test that is a) doable by the general public, and b) capable of creating a single value that can be measured and tracked. Once that is done mathematicians and statisticians can be let loose with the various factors and given the task of coming up with a formula that includes all three categories. Why bring this here, again, when thus far my previous dozen or so postings have been met with crickets? With the pivot to health and the rapid build-up of a cadre of physicians who are at least superficially interested in using high intensity exercise for the purpose of increasing health, I am hopeful of a broader dialogue that comes to an agreement on a test.

Challenge: create a test of fitness that is broadly accessible in all ways (scalable) that can be included in a definition of health. 3-2-1…Go.

3) Volunteerism. Ladies and gentlemen, we are gathered here today to mourn the death of the Age of Volunteerism. While there exist tiny spaces where true volunteers live and thrive in a bilateral exchange of freely given goodwill, by and large volunteerism has been extinguished by its historical recipients. Today marks my last day ever of hospital ER call, the end of 2 years of receiving token payment for making my expertise available following 25 years of doing so for free. My experience is typical, as is this denouement.

Once upon a time all of your doctors were in private practice. We all had tiny little cottage businesses, did our work, and billed you or your insurance company for the work we did. Some of us worked in tiny little groups, but it was the rare doctor who was part of a large group or business whether in a big city or out in the country. Even the slickest Madison Avenue internist was basically a country doc, just with a better, more expensive wardrobe. In addition to having a greater familiarity with our patients we also enjoyed a very clubby relationship with all of the other doctors where we practiced. There was a collegiality, a sense that we were all in the struggle together. Folks who shirked their duties, foisting them off on other docs, were quickly educated about proper protocol or left alone.

Hospitals were different, too. Local or regional, they were hardly the gargantuan mega-businesses they’ve become. The org chart was shallow, and most local doctors were on a first name basis with the few administrators on the hospital payroll. You took call for the ER as a volunteer; the ER respected that you were donating your skill and your time and handled everything it could before calling you. Same thing for consultations. Your colleague only called you if they couldn’t figure out a problem or ran out beyond their scope of practice. There was a faint air of apology with each request, and a definite unspoken appreciation for the help that would be given. You helped because you were appreciated.

This is really no different from all manner of volunteerism in America. Smallish, closely knit organizations depending on the goodwill and generosity of members of their community pitching in to ensure success. Think local memorial 5K races, or CrossFit Games Regionals in the days before ESPN or the Home Depot Center. Countless small private schools that depended on the largesse and time offered by the families who sent their children there. You gladly accepted the opportunity to volunteer because you knew that without you the organization would not be able to function. You also knew that the recipient of your generosity not only appreciated your contribution, they really had no other options. Not only that, but if that organization somehow existed in your professional space you knew that it would never, not ever, abuse the trust necessary for volunteers to continue.

What happened? Money. Money and size and the distance that they create between an organization and its volunteers. Let’s go back to the hospital and the ER for a minute. Where once your efforts as a volunteer were deeply appreciated and those efforts rewarded with respect and care for your time and your expertise, the growth of employment of doctors by hospitals opened a gap between colleagues. No longer was there the esprit de corps, the shared notion that the primary target of our efforts was the patient was replaced by so very many doctors by the reality that they worked first for a business as faceless and uncaring as GM. Work that was once done by your colleague was now pushed to the volunteers whenever possible. Worse, boxes to be checked by the employed (to maximize revenue and minimize risk) meant demands made of volunteers, not requests. Worse, still, were discoveries that some “volunteers” were more equal than others: they were paid.

While this is nothing short of tragic in health care, it was inevitable once medical businesses were incentivized to grow ever larger. It is not confined to health care by any means. How do you think that volunteer at a Spartan Race feels when he learns how much his “team leader” is being paid? Have you ever “discovered” how much the Executive VP of your favorite professional organization is paid? As a people we Americans are generous to a fault. That generosity usually continues right up until we discover that we have been duped, and even worse that we have been purposely duped by the people who run the organizations for which we volunteer.

And so we gather here to mourn the passing of the Age of Volunteerism. Like so many things of wonder and goodness there remain pockets of resistance, little oases where the goodwill, honesty, and appreciation beget the kind of ebb and flow that made things so much better, kinder, more collegial at the apex of Volunteerism. My friend Tom Gardner was just named the president of the Society of Alumni of our Alma Mater. Tom has given tirelessly of his “spaces”, his timespace, brainspace and emotionalspace to help shepherd tiny Williams College as it flows on though time. Is this truly different? A tiny refuge from the Zombie Apocalypse of corporatization of all things to which we once volunteered?

We can only hope. Hope that Tom and those like him who continue to find places and causes where their volunteerism is met with what we in medicine have had to bid farewell. We can only hope that there will be places where being a volunteer means receiving the respect and appreciation and even a kind of love in return for what we have given. We can only hope that there will continue to be places where the incessant drive to grow ever bigger, size measured on a spreadsheet rather than by heart, will be resisted. For if it can happen in medicine, if volunteerism can be killed in what is arguably the most noble of all endeavors, I fear that it is doomed everywhere.

And so we mourn the end of the Age of Volunteerism. We wait with equal parts sadness and fear for arrival of what follows.

I’ll see you next week…

–bingo

 

The Solo System: Friendship and their Orbits

Friend: a person who has a strong liking for and trust in a another person. –Miriam-Webster’s

This weekend my wife and I will visit my closest (non-family) friend. Friendship has been on my mind of late. Truth be told, some version of that sentence accurately describes some part of my day pretty much every day, just a bit more so of late. You can never have enough friends and all. True enough that, but one should reflect a bit on what it is that constitutes friendship, and what it means to be a friend.

Once upon a time in college I embarked on an adventure, a hitchhiking journey to meet up with mates from college, eventually landing on the beach in North Carolina. My Dad was dead set against it. It was time for me to go to work for the summer, and quite honestly the itinerary was more than a little “skinny” on details.

Me: “But Dad, these guys are my friends!”

Dad: “Probably not. In 10 years you may not even know a single phone number for one person who was there. You are lucky if you have a single friend in the world.”

Man, I hated him for that. I left angry and returned triumphant (God watches over fools and Irishmen). Sure enough, only one among that group remains, and he only a warm afterthought. My Dad, of course, was spot on.

Each of us lives in a galaxy of people who swirl around us as if we were a pre-Galilean Earth. Think Brian Regan’s famous “Science Fair” bit: “The big yellow one is [me].” This very center of this solo system is made up of our friends, however few. They are close enough to touch, always in view. Surrounding this inner circle is a slightly larger one filled with friendly acquaintances, people who may once have been friends or may yet become friends, but at present a group of people we are genuinely happy to see but don’t necessarily go out of our way to do so. Next is that mass of people we’ve met, a group not notable for anything; we don’t think of them at all. There are enemies, too, but for now let’s leave them be. All of this floats in a universe of beings we’ve yet to, or will never meet.

What is it that moves one from the orbit of friendly acquaintances into that innermost sphere of friends? The mechanics of it are really quite banal: shared experiences, a kind of proximity (geographic or in our modern world electronic), enough values held in common that you can forgive those that are different. It’s subtle, the difference between a friendly acquaintance and a friend. Heck, you may have some friendly acquaintances who like you, like who you are just as much as your friend. Maybe more. The difference, I think, is not so much in the liking as it is in the trusting and the caring.

Your friend cares about you. Cares what you think. He pauses before he acts or speaks and takes a moment to think about you before he does either. Someone with whom you are friendly might meet you halfway on something, but your friend will go way beyond that toward you because he cares a bit more about what you think than maybe even what he might. While your friendly acquaintance will likely never hurt you your friend will protect you from hurt. Might even take the hit for you and suffer so that you might not.

Because of this you trust your friend in a way that you trust no one other than your closest family. In a sense you’ve pre-forgiven him because you know…you just know…that he not only will he not hurt you, but he will be ever vigilant against doing so even by accident. My Dad was right. You don’t get very many of these. Indeed, most are fortunate to get one at a time.

Your little solo system is ever-changing; people move in and out of orbits, sometimes inward and sadly occasionally out. People grow differently. They change or they move. The work of friendship is hard because it requires looking outward at the same time you allow another to look in. It’s a high wire/high risk enterprise, being someone’s friend. In many ways it’s as if your very soul is in the harness, and your friend is on belay. And in your hand you hold the rope that allow’s YOUR friend’s soul to soar.

Right beside yours.

Yours ever in friendship,

Careless Joy

Quiet house. Quiet lake. Quiet mind? Not so much.

When you are riding high, hitting all of your numbers, looking out over a quiet lake as far as the eye can see and embarking on another stretch of smooth sailing, are you the type that rides the crest of that wave with the carefree joy it deserves? Or are you rather the sort that cannot shake the awareness that below your tranquil waters there lies a hidden reef that portends despair should you happen upon it? The question is more than just the old “are you an optimist or a pessimist” saw, I think. At its core lies one of the keys to happiness: can you live in a happy moment without simultaneously giving space to another darker, sadder moment?

During the dance are you always on edge waiting for the other shoe to drop?

None among us lives a life filled with only joy and happiness. Indeed, there are those whose lives are a proverbial slog from one tragic moment to another. Blessedly, in our developed world, these “treadmills of tragedy” are actually quite rare. Likely as rare as the Unicorn lives filled with nothing but rainbows and Skittles. No, for most of us it’s simply a question of degree leavened by, I dunno, attitude I guess. Do we approach the smorgasbord of our lives as ones of “quiet desperation” as so many novelists propose, or do we rather travel in a state of “careless joy”?

Beth and I are hosted friends this weekend at Casa Blanco, the invitation having come spontaneously months prior and quite amazingly accepted and consummated. The one, a classmate from college, I’ve known for 40 years. The other is my classmate’s relatively new love. How they’ve arrived together at Casa Blanco is quite fascinating. One has lived a life which from the outside seems to have been charmed beyond belief, while the other has struggled mightily to overcome significant childhood traumas. One looks back and muses on choices made and how things might have turned out if present day insights might have been available when earlier crossroads were encountered, while the other has doggedly worked through each treacherous road into and out of those crossroads.

What they have in common, at least this weekend, is the apparent ability to live fully within the joy of whatever moment they are experiencing right now, without allowing the intrusion of the “other shoe”. I am quite sure that each has some something that weighs on the balance toward the negative side of the ledger, but for the life of me I haven’t seen it. Pollyanna or a gift? I’m going with “gift” and furthermore I’m going with being able to watch this couple give themselves completely to each moment we’ve shared as one of the most meaningful “hostess” gifts Beth and I have ever received.

Those couple of things in my life (or yours, or my friends’) that are sitting there ruining your winning streak? That other shoe you just know will drop at an inopportune moment? Meh, they aren’t going away regardless of how you decide to engage with the joyful steps in your life, on your journey. Right now there’s a workout to plan and a lake to jump into. Bacon’s on the griddle while I watch the chickadees eat breakfast. Tapping or shuffling, the sound of the shoes is that of happy dancing, and I am taking my cue from our guests and simply listening.

That other shoe will drop whenever but I’ll likely not notice.  I’ll be too busy dancing to worry about it.

A 35th Reunion: Sunday musings 6/11/17

Sunday musings…

1) Tech. There are no longer any toll booths on the Mass Pike. Big Brother simply knows you were there.

2) NoNo. Meeting up with ages-old friends in our mid-50′s the topic of what children will call grandparents came up. The best one? “NoNo”. Can’t you just see how this one happens? That Mom who had all kinds of rules when you were a kid following behind the toddlers and telling them “no, no” every time they pick something up?

Not a one of us had the guts to let that one stand, but every single one of us thought about it.

3) Name. What’s in a name, eh? I met the husband of a long-time ago friend this weekend for the first time. (As an aside, we would be friends who saw each other all the time if we lived closer). The last name was different from my friend’s maiden name, but something was just a little bit more than different. After looking and looking I finally asked. Turns out these two wonderful people just couldn’t bear to give up their family names, but at the same time they wanted a shared last name for their own family.

No hyphens for them; they just put their names together and started with a new, shared name. How lovely.

4) Beginning. Beth and I are cruising along the highway on our way to my primordial home. We just spent the weekend in the company of many of my college classmates at a 35th college reunion. Such a funny tradition, coming together every 5 years to remember times so long past in a place that pretends it is always and ever as it was when we were there (my alma mater is 224 years old). A part of you kind of expects that you and everyone else will be just like you were when you showed up for Freshman Days, your role and your place as immutable as it is when you go to a family reunion.

And you arrive and realize that neither you nor any of your classmates bear more than a passing resemblance to the children who were emptied out of the family wagon 39 years earlier.

5 years ago I was doing just exactly what I’m about now, writing about my Reunion. My abiding sense that day was of opportunity missed (there were a bunch of folks I really met for the first time at my 30th who I wished I’d known in school). This year? It’s funny, really. Along with fantastic, ridiculous and over-the-top success and prosperity, the most interesting among us were those whose victories were balanced by challenges that maybe didn’t turn out so well. There was a certain humility that I don’t remember from years past which came out as we talked about our marriages, our children, and for some of us our grandchildren. It was very nice, actually, openly and honestly sharing those kinds of things with peers who we would have felt too competitive towards in years past to take that kind of chance.

Leaving reunions has always felt like so many Brigadoon moments: always the same. Nothing new. No growth and no change. It’s different this year, for whatever reason. Driving away this time actually feels like a new beginning. Weird, huh? We are even taking a new route “home”. Off I go as if I’ve graduated once again, this time with a recalibrated sense of who I’ve become and where my friends and I fit together at the start of the rest of our lives. Reunions are meant to turn our view back, but it’s forward I look with a new appreciation for where I am rather than where I (and my classmates) used to be. Forward, consciously choosing those friendship opportunities not to miss this time around.

Some of us take a bit longer to finish college I guess.

I’ll see you next week…

–bingo

Nothing Left to Lose

“When he lost his life, it was all he had left to lose.” –Lynard Skynard

Catching up on newspapers piled up while I was away last night I happened upon an article written by David Gregory, former moderator of “Meet the Press”. Mr. Gregory was on a bit of a spiritual quest, one that coincided with some turmoil in his professional life. As part of this journey he spent some time with an Erica Brown, a Jewish educator. After listening to his professional laments she offered this stunner: who would you be if you lost it all?

Stopped me right in my tracks, that one did.

Think about that for a minute. How the question was phrased and what she was asking. Not “what would you do?” or “how would you handle it?” but “who would you be?” The implication is that who you are at any given moment is only one version of who you might be capable of being given different circumstances, however wonderful or unpleasant. It dovetails very nicely, indeed, with my recent fascination with the multiverse, the quantum physics derived concept that there is an infinite number of versions of our universe in existence at any given moment.

Spend a few more minutes thinking about what it means to lose it all. For Mr. Gregory it meant losing his dream job, a job in which who he was became inextricably linked to what he did. I get that, but Mr. Gregory is still able to seek employment as a journalist, still able to work in his field. What if you could no longer do that? Say you’re a doctor and you lose either the ability or the right to practice medicine? Think “The Fugitive”. Trust me, doctors are way more wrapped up in the “what I do is who I am” thing than journalists. Just thinking about that–being prevented from being a doctor– makes me sick to my stomach. Imagine if you couldn’t work at all. Couldn’t support yourself or your loved ones and had to depend on others. That’s starting to close in a little bit more on “losing it all” I think. Who would you be then?

There’s no way of knowing if Ms. Brown meant to go this deeply, but in the developed world we live pretty well;  there’s actually a boatload of stuff we take for granted that could be lost. What if you lost your freedom? You are incarcerated, or in some way someone gains so much leverage over you that you must do their every biding. Who would you be, what part of who you have the capability of being would come to the fore if you were no longer free? Joe Coughlin, the central character in a Dennis Lehane novel I just finished compromised his father’s position as a police captain in order to buy favor and therefore survive in prison. In so doing he lost his freedom forever, even after leaving prison. He became a man without a moral compass, ruining and even taking lives in pursuit of other men’s goals.

But even at that, Coughlin hadn’t yet lost everything. What brought him to that precipice was the loss of his people. You’ve watched “Law and Order” I’m sure. I don’t remember many individual episodes of any series I ever watch, but one “Law and Order” dealing with loss comes to mind. The detectives discover a man in an institution who is mute, nearly catatonic. They need his testimony; he is the only witness to a heinous crime. In order to gain access to his memory they obtain a court order to treat him for his depression. His recovery is miraculous, and initially he is grateful for his awakening, grateful to meet distant relatives who are delighted for the return of an uncle they’d lost. All well and good until it is time to testify and we learn that he lost his job, his ability to work, and his entire immediate family in that heinous crime. Awakening means remembering that he has truly lost it all.

Who would you be if you lost it all? This poor man had nothing, and he discovered that without his people he was no one. Who would you be? His answer was “no one at all”. He refused treatment and slid back inward to nothing.

There’s a point here. A couple of them, actually. The first is that each one of us has much, much more of pretty much everything than we realize. Most of what we might lose is not really all that close to any type of “everything”, and that should inform how we view what we do have and what we are willing to do to keep it. Who would you be BEFORE losing something in order to not actually lose it? To know this is to know what we are willing to do if we need to fight not to lose everything. It’s a little closer to knowing who we really are, now.

Read this backwards from here. It hurts to lose stuff. It’s hard to get by with less money if you’ve tasted more, especially if you think you’ve become someone else because of that stuff. It’s worse if you kinda like that someone; losing the kind of job Mr. Gregory had stings. Time and again, though, we see that true loss is less easily quantified than a spreadsheet or income statement or title. To lose your people is to truly lose everything. No amount of fight is too great to not have to learn who you would be after this type of loss. Losing your freedom makes it easier to lose your people. Someone else plots your every course. Who you are needs to be someone who does as much as humanly possible to remain free.

Mr. Gregory seems to have made this leap. In the end his job was simply what he did at the time for work. Losing it actually brought his spiritual quest home, to his people. That’s the other point, right? It’s your people. You’ve not lost everything if you’ve not lost your people. Know who your people are and hold them close. Cherish and nurture them. Do it out loud and without either fear or shame.

Do whatever it takes to never have to learn who you would be if you did, truly, lose everything.

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.

 

Erase the Past? Shame for a Collective Past? Calling Out Williams College

My alma mater, like so many of its ilk, is at present engulfed in a paroxysm of guilt over centuries of success. It, like its brethren institutions, is consumed by the frail sensitivities of the micro-aggrieved. The administration is overwhelmed by the manufactured obligation to prevent even the slightest of emotional discomfort in a single one of its young charges. The most recent “trigger” is a decades old mural of Col. Ephraim Williams and a Mohawk Chief. As we know this is but a mirror of what is happening in our society at large, so fearful are we supposed to be of hurting someone’s feelings, so badly are we to feel if we are–gasp!–successful. Williams College is being asked to rid itself of any historical figure or image that raises a discordant note in our modern societal symphony. While it, and its students and faculty, profess to want honest, open, inclusive dialogue on topics that have the offended seeking a sponsored safe place, they have pre-judged this and other issues while seeking to nullify the contributions of large parts of the College’s community based on gender and race.

I call bullshit, and I’m neither sorry nor ashamed to do so.

Let’s take two of the issues raised by the Williams administration, similar to those at Amherst College (spawned, incidentally, from Williams in 1846), Princeton, and elsewhere: the attempt to cleanse the campus of any references to historical figures or events that do not fit in our modern philosophical canon, and the notion that some monolithic groups are somehow not entitled to success, not worthy to have their opinions noted, and that they must somehow atone for a sort of sin of being.

The first, that history that does not jive with present sensibilities should be expunged, should be such a revolting concept that it is beyond amazing that it is even considered. We may rightly recoil from any modern version of conquest that necessarily includes the subjugation or destruction of the vanquished, but we simply cannot escape the fact that our country as it is today was built upon just such a campaign. It was called “Manifest Destiny”, and you can probably only find mention of it now in used history texts pre-1970 on Amazon.com.  How can we learn from history if history is varnished to remove the stains of lessons we ought not learn again? Is there not a profound lesson for today’s leaders in the devastation wreaked upon the Mohawks of New England by Lord Jeffrey Amherst when he “gifted” them with smallpox infected blankets?

There appears to be no evaluation of the net contribution of historical figures, only room for condemnation of their very real faults. Woodrow Wilson was an unrepentant racist, and yet it is the height of intellectual dishonesty to disregard his monumental contributions to not only Princeton but to his country in spite this. Removing his name from Princeton for his racial views is as silly as renaming Amherst College because of Lord Jeff’s actions in a declared war, and almost as silly as renaming the eponymous town in which Amherst resides. We study the flaws of historical figures so that our contemporary leaders might be equally profound but less flawed. Historically significant individuals such as Woodrow Wilson, and historical images such as the meeting between a Mohawk Chief and Ephraim Williams hanging in the Williams’ college pub, should be pushed front and center for just such historical consideration. They shouldn’t be shunned or covered in sheets.

As far as the second goes, that large groups of Americans need to somehow overcome some sort of “original sin” that makes their success illegitimate and nullifies any opinion they might hold, well, perhaps we should take a look back at the evolution of that group a bit before we decide to lay on a mandatory guilt tax. It turns out that “white males” is not such a monolithic, homogenous group at all. Done any reading on the Irish in the Northeast in the 1800′s through the late 1960′s? Funny though, although certainly not a people of color, there didn’t seem to be a whole heck of a lot of privilege coming the way of the Irish in their first 100 or so years on our shores. Not only was it tough to get a job if you were Irish, there were neighborhoods that were off limits and colleges that all but had a “No Irish Need Apply” sign on the front door. In the 1930′s, 40′s and 50′s lunch in the White house in Waltham, MA was more often than not a “wish sandwich”: two pieces of Wonder Bread and you “wished” you had some meat to put in the middle. White privilege? Hardly. My father was the first member of his family to go to college, the only member until my generation came along. Dad was the first to “shower before work”, the first to make a living with his mind rather than his hands. His generation lived as what we would now call “working poor”. No privilege to be found there.

How, then, am I supposed to feel guilt about my own success, built as it is on the foundation of one man’s climb? Despite his success my father faced subtle but real discrimination throughout his entire working life. Richard White was blackballed for his entire career from a number of business associations because he was Irish Catholic, discrimination that affected his livelihood. Why is the fact that the discrimination that my father faced through the 1990′s is now nearly gone, that for a single generation white Irish males do not feel the sting of discrimination somehow now my shame to carry? There is a danger in the broad-brush approach to assigning anything to a group as superficially defined as Irish. Or even white. Or male. The fact that the Irish in America no longer fear discrimination is a victory to be savored by Americans of all colors, a badge of honor for our society. It is not some sort of scarlet letter, not a collective shame or sin for which the Irish are now inherently guilty, a stain that nullifies my very right to opine or renders illegitimate the success of the men in my generation.

The fact that we no longer see prejudice agains the Irish does not in any way diminish the fact of the existence of discrimination against other groups. Discrimination is real and exists today. There is a larger point, however. Without historical context we risk applying the same type of unacceptable bias and prejudice to any group whatsoever–in this case white males– to whatever bias and prejudice we are attempting to prevent. The notion that I have no standing in the conversation about cultural issues at my Alma Mater is just such an example. It is this backward-looking effort to somehow atone for historical wrongs, and the energy expended in the effort, that so hinders our more laudable goal of removing all barriers placed in front of any group defined by how they look, or where they came from, or who their parents are, or where and how or if they worship. The feel-good notion that we can somehow make the forward-going efforts easier by cleansing our environment of the mention of past wrongs, misdeeds, or unsavory beliefs is at best naive and at worst an Orwellian trap that should be inconceivable in our country as a whole, let alone on any college campus. To compound this wrong-headed approach by questioning the legitimacy of the successes of any group simply by dint of their existence is not worthy of those who claim the high moral ground on behalf of those who may truly suffer real discrimination today.

Neither erase nor forget a difficult past. Do punish present day acts of real discrimination or moral decrepitude, but do not shield the young from the discomfort created by history and historical remnants of either. Hold them up to the bright light of the day and learn from them lest we see their faults and failures repeated. Cherish and champion the successes of any and all. Forgive a past over which your peers had no influence and move forward together.

 

Musings on Small Time Sports and CrossFit

It’s opening weekend for the NFL, the closest thing we have in the U.S. to a collective religion. The U.S. Tennis Open has finals in women’s today and men’s tomorrow night (shame on them for putting that on a school night). MLB is lurching toward the playoffs (with both Pittsburgh and Cleveland still in the hunt!). And major college football is in week 2, still in its version of the silly season.

What’s the connection? All of these, including D1 football, are examples of big-time sports. Sport as business. The only difference between them is that in football they don’t pay the minor leaguers, the college athletes. And please, spare me any sanctimonious drivel about getting an education for free–nothing is free. D1 football is a job, no less than AAA baseball or Junior A hockey. The difference is that every other sport openly pays its minor leaguers, while Big Time college football continues to wallow in the cynical swamp of exploitation of its athletes. The same is true, of course, of Big Time college basketball.

There is an antidote for this. It’s called Small Time. That should probably be all lower case, too. Should be “small time”. Sport for the sake of sport. Putting in the time in practice to play the games because the games are fun. They are meaningful as an end in themselves, not as a means to some end of the rainbow pot of gold end. All of the stuff that the fat cat moneybags trot out as justification for athletic programs in the Big Ten, Big 12, Pac10, ACC etc.–alumni loyalty, creation of a communal atmosphere, a reason to return to Alma Mater–that’s all there is in “small time” sports.

I played a couple of sports at the D III level. Pretty pitiful lacrosse player and golfer relative to my teammates, relatively OK football player. Not a one of us made a pro roster. Indeed, not a single athlete from any team sport in the entire NESCAC (comprising some 10 or so small schools in New England) in that era played a single minute as a pro in anything. As a group we all went on to do rather pedestrian things like become teachers and cops and doctors and lawyers and bankers and…well, you get the idea.

Were our games any less meaningful than last night’s ND/Michigan game? I’m certainly biased, but how can the answer be anything other than ‘no’? We sweated and suffered and sacrificed our time for the joy of playing the games. Our schoolmates came to watch us play. Alums followed the teams whether or not they played on them. Follow them still. The games and the teams keep Alma Mater connected, provide a little line that ties us to our school in a way that is no different than the pull of Ohio State.

There is a purity in the “small time” that should shame the shamans of the Big Time, so sullied are they by the continual necessity to pretend that the Big Time is nothing more than the “small time”, only bigger. It just isn’t so. There is an honesty in the “small time” that is simply absent in the Big Time. The very best D III teams, the ones that win championships, still send only a trivial number of players to the pros in any sport, and therefore have as little relationship to A-level baseball as do those teams that never see an NCAA D III playoff game.

What does this have to do with CrossFit? Fair question; like anything else written on Sunday the answer may be ‘nothing’! But I do see more than a little similarity between CrossFit as The Sport of Fitness and college athletics. What I see is that same honesty present in the “small time” college athletics, though, even at the highest levels of our sport. There’s money to be made at the top, but there is no subterfuge, no obfuscation or deceit: if you are really good you can make money doing CrossFit. Period. Not being able to make money at it does not exclude anyone else. Period.

Very few people make a living from CrossFit, as competitors or trainers or trainers-of-trainers. The ratio of participants to pros is rather similar to any professional sport you wish to use as an example. Like “small time” college sports we have all manner of competitions we can enter as CrossFitters; if you enjoy the games and you wish to compete, the games are there for you to play and for everyone else who wishes to watch.

Unlike the Big Time, in the “small time” the games are simply part of who you are, not why you are.

 

Williams College 30th Reunion: Friendships Found

It’s been 30 years since I left the Purple Valley and Williams College. How fun it was to spend the weekend surrounded by my fellow Ephs.

I learned a little bit about my younger self this weekend and in doing so gained a tiny bit of insight into the maturing adult I am striving to become. I graduated from college 30 years ago along with around 400 classmates. 100 or so of us returned for our Reunion weekend. You would think that in a class that small each of us would at least be on a “hi, how are you” first name basis with everyone who was there, right?

Not even close. There were folks there who I’m quite sure I never even saw in 4 years of college. Never, as in not a single time. Even more than that, there was a measurable number of really nice people with whom I had zero interaction after freshman year. How could that have been? I was a pretty social character in college. You’re shocked, I know. What’s up with that?

At a time and an age where it should be all about expansion, expanding one’s mind, experiences, circles of acquaintances and friends, quite the opposite was happening at Williams when it came to the people part of the equation. And it wasn’t just me, either; this mini-epiphany was shared almost universally at breakfast the last morning by all present.

There seem to be a couple of teachable moments in this experience, only one of which is for the younger version of me. It’s obvious looking through the retrospectometer that one should harvest as many friendships, plant as many of the seeds of friendship when one is young and still living among other young people. Makes a ton of sense, so much so that it seems almost trite. Yet here were 100 reasonably accomplished adults who’d grown up out of reasonably accomplished youngsters who almost universally let this opportunity slide by. At a minimum, we collectively failed to reap or sow as much friendship as we could have.

And for us now? We who are now 10, 20, (gasp) 30 years removed from those fertile school year fields, what is the lesson for us? Much simpler, I think. You can never have enough friends. Whether across the street and there for a wave with the retrieval of the morning paper, or across a continent and only touched when one sends news and a photo of classmates doing their tiny part to make the world a better place, you can never have enough friends.

Even more, as we learned this weekend, it’s never to late to make a new friend.