Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Archive for March, 2024

Easter Sunday musings…

It’s Easter Sunday, the holiest day in the Christian year. This year is the 65th Easter for me. Many of the recurring themes that roll around the space between my ears seem to coalesce each year on Easter Sunday. Family and friendship. Faith, religion, the unbreakable connection, and friction, between them . Whether or not there is an afterlife, and if there is might it be explainable through the concepts of Quantum Physics. Role models; the essential nature of Christ as the ultimate role model (“as you do unto others…”). As Christians we “celebrate” the ultimate sacrifice, the ultimate expression of altruism in the “history” of mankind. Men and women are tasked with following Him as the ultimate role model for how we are to live our lives.

If one does, indeed, believe, and if one does follow Him as the role model in one’s life, then all other talk of role models is irrelevant. Like so many other goals and targets, though, the Lamb as role model is ultimately unachievable by any and all, and thus we have the all too human phenomenon of other, human role models.

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

Heck, even a politician or two filled the bill, although we certainly seem to be rather bereft of those at the moment, don’t we? The wonderful writer Joseph Epstein wrote an insightful column in yesterday’s WSJ lamenting the fact that we haven’t had a President that we can feel good about, let alone emulate, in 50+ years. It is his contention that Ike was the last such President, although he admits to a fondness for Reagan that may not have been universal (more in a moment).

Every town had a teacher or a coach or a cop who everyone looked up to. Why then and not now? Partly because of that sense that we were all more the same than less, but partly because we only knew the good stuff about our role models, and on top of that we only really wanted to know the good stuff, ya know? Returning to Epstein, the last time I thought about this “out loud” a friend offered JFK and “ask not what your country can do…etc.” And yet now, in 2024, we know so much more about him that in hindsight, well, you know. But at the time, thinking of JFK and Gerald Ford and Reagan as role models, unaware of the brilliance of their speechwriters or any of their peccadilloes, for many they might have been candidates for the role.

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

How different are our times now. The perceived lack of role models in society today says more about us than it does about any role models that we may have discarded. We accentuate our differences rather than our commonalities, no matter how far on either end of the curve lie those differences; someone with whom we share 80 or 90% of our opinions, of our guiding beliefs is no longer an ally or a potential friend but rather an adversary with whom we battle 100% of the time over that 10% delta.

We not only accept too much information about our all too human potential role models, we actively seek the “smoking gun” that will bury them. See above Epstein and Kennedy, or spend 15 minutes with the archives of any national newspaper during a Presidential election year. The marvelous baseball player Ohtani will now spend literally years having every non-competitive minute of his life dissected over the indiscretions of an employee. Any and all of the good things he does will be buried under whatever clickbait might arise. We are all the lesser for all of that, for we deny ourselves the potential that could come from having a role model just a little bit better than ourselves.

Today, on Easter Sunday, whether through true faith or simply the mechanics of religion practiced over a lifetime, in the Christian world we celebrate. We see in ourselves our faults and our failures. After 40 days of contemplation, we seek a better version of ourselves in the coming year. We seek role models near and far, and if we are so inclined we may seek to be, in some small way, a role model for others. If we do make that effort we hope for the grace of yesteryear extended to us for our efforts. For the only perfect role model continues to set an unachievable goal, however noble might be our effort.

And He has been dead for some 2000 years now.

Happy Easter. I’ll see you next week…

Brain Health, Bringing It Home: Sunday musings…3/17/2024

There’s really an awful lot going on today, St. Patrick’s Day, 2024. So much that I am finding it a bit daunting to narrow down my focus for todays musings. Why so much? Well, actually, that question feeds right into the final piece of advice for my friend who has been so concerned about their risk to develop dementia given a strong family history and the recent death of a family member so afflicted. I am writing as I watch the 4th round of the 50 edition of the Player’s Championship while I rest up for another evening of dinner with Beth and the couple we met almost 39 years ago on our respective honeymoons.

The final piece of the puzzle, the last tactic to bullet proof your brain as you age is to forge and maintain close personal relationships.

We had a free weekend earlier this year when Beth and I were plotting out our calendar. Nothing really special about the dates, we just knew that this weekend fell between any other commitments and work, and that we could sneak away for 4 or 5 days to someplace warm. Our friends Dave and Suzi were free, too, so off we’ve gone together. While Beth and Suzi have been flexing their photographic muscles all over our little seaside spot, Dave and I have been going over our efforts to improve and prolong our respective healthspans. Turns out Dave has spent a bit more time on the financial planning, and I a tad more on the longevity and health thing. Lots of numbers from Dave and a bunch of science from me.

We spent quite a bit of time on questions of testing. Full-body scans? Sure, if you can stand the claustrophobia of the tube. Genetic testing for cancers (Galleri)? Maybe. Gotta get a little better on the false positives since each positive test sends you off on a testing odyssey to find, and hopefully find an early cure, for whatever cancer you may have. Apropos of our brain health project, what about the APOE gene? This is a big one for Peter Attia the longevity doc. You can have zero, one, or two copies of this gene, with increasing risk for the disease as you have more copies. We are torn by this one. If you have done nothing to mitigate your risk for dementia taking this test and finding high risk gives you lots to work on (nutrition, sleep, exercise, alcohol consumption, etc.). But for Dave and for me the only thing really left would be abstaining from alcohol. Less joy, there. We tabled the test for the moment.

Which leaves the excellent research on health and happiness that began with a study of the men of the Harvard class of 1955 and the subsequent addition of high school boys in a lower economic area of Boston, now know as The Good Life Project. A book of the same name authored by the current custodians of the still ongoing study Drs. Robert Waldinger and Marc Shulz lays out the last piece of the puzzle that can be played: make and maintain close personal relationships. The original study on men of Harvard ’55 concluded that the presence of 3 or more friends (your wife did not count) was the key to lifelong happiness. It turns out that 3 (or more) is probably still a key number, but the updated research on the original subjects, their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren has concluded that it can really be anyone. Friend, spouse, child, doesn’t matter. What you need is a deep, close relationship.

From the earliest results to the most recent, happiness has correlated most strongly with friendship. More than professional success or wealth. Fame. All of the things we think must certainly be the prime drivers. All of them are dwarfed by the positive effect of making, maintaining and nurturing close relationships. Men and women alike like longer and live better, and experience less dementia than those who aren’t so fortunate.

And that, my friends, is why I find myself banging away at my keyboard late on this Sunday afternoon, rushing to finish the task I promised my friend I would take on so that I can post this before Beth and I meet Dave and Suzi for another great evening at a killer restaurant in paradise. But that’s not what makes it all so great, right? What makes this weekend so wonderful is that I am with the most important person in my life, and we are with close friends with whom we have a deep, abiding bond, and we are enveloped in the embrace of our friendship.

We are, all four of us, happy.

To that friend to whom I promised this series on brain health, I hope this has all been helpful. I hope that you are at least a bit comforted having read it. I know that most of what I’ve shared is stuff that you already have covered, and I hope that knowing this eases your mind, at least a bit. To those like Dave and Suzi who have long surrounded me with their friendship and accepted mine in turn, thank you. I’ll be calling you soon.

And as always, I’ll see all of you next week…

A Coda For Life Revisited: Sunday musings…3/102024

1 Thirsty. To want something very badly.

“He was thirsty for revenge.”

2 Sweaty. HT Brooks Barnes, Sunday NYT “Shop Talk”.

To be desperate for something. To want something so badly that the wanting becomes anxiety. A term from gaming culture which describes players who compete with a level of intensity that is so beyond the pale that their gaming controllers become covered in sweat. Trying too hard. The opposite of cool.

Not Sprezzatura.

3 Review. While lazing around at home, miserable weather, all chores completed. Beth: “Do you want to watch a movie?” And so we came to watch “Mr. Holmes”, a movie from 2015 now playing on Prime and the topic of this week’s report/review. Sherlock Holmes has retired. His memory is failing him, and he can’t bear to be even a little a lesser version on who he once was. He has retired to his bees in what appears to be a country estate in Dover. Assisted by a housekeeper and her 12ish year old son Roger, he obsesses over a quest to stall the loss of his still considerable. His search has brought him through Royal Jelly to an obscure Japanese plant called Prickly Ash.

Mr. Holmes is tortured by his final case. He cannot remember its final disposition, only that the version of the case written and published by his trusty companion John Watson is inaccurate. Encouraged by Roger who is eagerly reading each installment so painstakingly retrieved from Holmes’ memory, he creeps toward the true story. His final triumph not so much the outcome but the realization that his efforts to find a magic elixir that will restore his memories is but a dream destined to be unfulfilled (more in a moment). Still, we the audience see so much more as we watch his tortured efforts. I’ll not spoil your pleasure by revealing any more, but will only say that “Mr. Holmes” is worthy or your time.

And your tears.

4 Brain Health Part 3. My friend, the person to whom I have been writing this latest series on battling the scourges of aging, lost their mother last week. She succumbed to the most common variety of dementia, Alzheimer’s Disease. Like so many before, her family had long been mourning the loss of their matriarch. Emptied of her essence, her physical being was an increasingly empty vessel that once held within that which made her so special. Despite the months and years of “pre-mourning”, like so many of us my friend was nonetheless knocked off their feet by the loss.

And so I bring to them, and to you, Part 3 of my little series on brain health and the effort to bomb-proof yourself against dementia of all types. I should mention if I haven’t already that genetic tests exist to add a degree of quantification to one’s quest to stave off this terrible loss. For me knowing or not knowing will not really change my approach or my effort; knowing that my risk is X% higher would, for me, simply create a cloud over every hour I lived, putting at risk my ability to find the joy inherent in the fact that I was still alive and still me. You may feel otherwise, and will have to choose accordingly.

Thus far we have covered nutrition and sleep. Next up is exercise. Physical fitness. Conceptually this is actually probably the easiest of the four areas we will eventually cover. Get your buttocks off the bench and get in the game. Like to run? Run. Does lifting heavy stuff off the ground move you? Feel free to grunt all you want and drop your bumper plates with abandon. Pretty much everything in between probably works, too. Seriously, when it comes to brain health the data just doesn’t convince me that any one particular type of exercise is the magic prescription that will inoculate you against dementia. VO2 Max vs. Max Deadlift? Nobody knows if one is better than the other, but you and I both know that in one way or another you will be better off overall if you do some of both.

My CrossFit buddies of yore will argue in favor of CVFMHI, and the editors of Outside Magazine et al will argue for Triathalons and Ultras, with a tiny chorus of folks off to the side sitting on their stones and their loaded barbells and shaking their heads at all of the low BFI folks crowding the room. I think what you do is a distant second to that you do, indeed, do it. Make exercise the third leg of your lifestyle intervention stool. Everything I’ve read and seen and done tells me that exercise is powerful preventative medicine to ward off dementia.

Just as everything I’ve read and see and done confirms for me, as it did for Holmes, that no magic potion or pill exists that will do it for us.

5 Coda. I came across a bit of correspondence between a friend I’ve known for 35 years in which we remembered advice I offered almost all of those years ago. It got me to thinking and reminiscing about the 3 core guiding principles that helped me (and in many ways him) make it through our training and early professional careers. All 3 have stood the test of time, have continued to inform my best decisions both professional and personal, and over the 35 years now since I first said them out loud I’ve only needed to add one additional guideline.

“Knowledge is power.” One is at such a profound disadvantage if there is asymmetry in the amount of information they possess relative to those with whom they interact that at a certain point they cease to be independent entities. Without knowledge, awareness of the ground as Sun Tzu would say, you are at the mercy of another and must depend upon their kindness for, well, almost everything.

“Perception is more important than reality.” The explanation of this, of course, is that perception is the reality of perceiver. While you could say that this is simply an extension of the first guideline–creating the perception is in some way controlling the knowledge–I would simply say that one need only look at the deeply held worldview of some of the U.S. voting public, their perception of what is real and what is important, to illustrate that perception comes from within. Understanding this should inform your approach to any situation whatsoever. What does this individual perceive at this moment? That becomes the reality with which you will deal, your version notwithstanding.

“Evolution is better than revolution.” I first made this statement in a public forum on CrossFit.com, the home of a truly disruptive revolution in fitness. Here is where my conversation with my friend was so helpful, for he was (and still is) a man in a hurry to effect change for the better: evolution involves a conscious attempt to minimize unnecessary collateral damage. Sometimes that damage is directed at oneself, and thinking more along the lines of the “long game” is also sometimes a very reasonable approach to self-preservation. The fire of revolution burns brighter the nearer it gets to the revolutionary. My friend, nearly exactly my age, continues to seeks change in the cool contemplative glow somewhat removed from the fire, conscious always of the need to care for, and be careful for, the growing flock that has surrounded him as he grew older.

These 3 guidelines have served me well, lo these 35 years or so. They may or may not work for you; they may be nothing more than tinder to light the fire of your own guiding principles, or even less, simply the empty musings of an older man much too impressed with his own ideas. I have shared the epiphanies of 9/11 and Heinlein that underly the tactical application of these 3 strategies, and perhaps it is time for me to spend a moment or two reexamining them, as they may or may not apply today. But I believe that there remains plenty to think about in these simple suggestions. “Knowledge is power.” “Perception is more important than reality.” “Evolution is better than revolution.”

They have been a formidable foundation for the coda that guides me, still.

I’ll see you next week…

Sprezzatura: Sunday musings…3/3/2024

This is just perfect. It’s as if the titans of journalism, the wizards behind the curtain at the Wall Street Journal and the New York times, looked into the ether, found the thread that contained my musings, and ordered me up a fully formed essay. Gift wrapped and delivered to my doorstep yesterday and today. My newspapers were even delivered on time, not a particularly frequent event. After reading yesterday’s WSJ Off Duty section on men who became icons of style without any sense that they cared one way or the other about style, my Sunday NYT arrived with a Men’s Fashion of the Times magazine laden with images of men bent double in the effort.

Seriously. Batting practice fastball. They even pre-installed the vocabulary.

The greats, the true icons of yore and near-yore fairly ooze style without seeming to make any effort whatsoever. Italians have a word for that: sprezzatura. It means the art of dressing in a nonchalant, tradition-flouting way (wording from WSJ). I like the use of flout, too. To openly disregard convention. Think James Dean and Steve McQueen. James Baldwin. Younger, more current examples per WSJ might be Brad Pitt or Keanu Reeves. I buy ’em all. Each of these men look like they’ve long ago run out of f^ck$ to give when they go in the closet to pull out the day’s look.

Which of course brings up the obvious question since nonchalant is the sine qua non of sprezzatura: is “chalant” a word and is it the opposite of nonchalant? I’m a words guy as you know and this is just fascinating. It turns out that the answer is no, chalant is not a word. Nonchalant is what is known as an unpaired word, one that sounds as if it should have an opposite, an antonym, but in fact does not (HT Quora). Our English word comes to us via the French “non” (not) “chaloir” (caring). Hence “nonchalant” is “not caring”.

Like I said, one f^ck short…

To be schooled in the polar opposite one could do worse than picking up today’s Men’s Fashion of the Times. Seriously, it is just littered with “too hard”, pretentious nonsense like transparent pants. And I’m not talking just the right wrong light transparent like the debacle that is the new MLB uniforms, I mean like cellophane trousers transparent. Where the sprezzatura stars might embellish their worn-in chinos with a thin chain worn over their tee shirt or a vintage wristwatch (think Paul Newman), the models in the articles and the celebrities in the ads are adorned with enough hardware to make Mr. T. blush. Michael Stipe wearing a bracelet that my Gama, she of the elegant jade bracelets, would find impossibly garish. A model wearing a string of white flowers in place of a tie to accompany a white suit coat and matching shorts.

And the logos. Oh my heavens, the logos! Again, in the WSJ a few folks on the street were interviewed and one of them just nailed the whole logo thing. JF, a 61 year old guy who offered that at his age “big logos just look kind of foolish”. Like me he prefers tiny logos, or even better, no logos at all. When I traveled to Ireland to embarrass myself on the golf course I discovered that I no longer owned any long-sleeve golf shirts. To my delight I was able to find a purveyor of men’s clothes that makes super high quality polos without feeling the need to let everyone know about it. They were perfect, looking like they were made by “somebody”, an implied logo (HT: JF). What a great phrase, “implied logo”.

The chaloir in the NYT? Goodness, they are literally buried in logos. I’m a huge fan of LeBron James. Not just the athlete but the man in full. But really? All those “LV’s” on whatever you call that outfit? If you looked quickly he just blended in with the luggage. Yup, all those logos and you had to look twice to see that they were worn by one of the most famous men in the world.

Now, you could reasonably say that I, a middle-aged White male, have no business looking at a fashion magazine filled with images of naked male models cavorting in nothing but a pea coat, and I would find your position reasonable. You could also say that I am hopelessly out of fashion, or that I have no understanding of modern fashion or the fashion mores of the young or the hip or the wealthy. Again, I would agree that you are on solid ground. I mean, come on, my professional sartorial calling card is a bow tie. Not exactly the strongest foundation from which to lob opinions in the direction of the “chaloir”, I’ll admit.

On the cover of today’s weekly NYT magazine is a picture of a model wearing the denim version of MC Hammer’s parachute pants and a statement that these pants says something about “us”. As you can imagine, this part of “us” won’t be trying that hard. And yet, I find myself somehow validated. Seen, you could even say. I grew up wearing tan pants made by Dickies and thought they were chinos. After an adult lifetime of searching for my next version of the perfect khakis, of wearing logo-free, sun-bleached monochrome polos until they are threadbare to the point of almost qualifying for a pic on a model in the NYT. Of disappearing from my professional self as easily as Harry Potter and his cloak, simply by removing my bow tie. I have found what for me stands for fashion, however aspirational it may be to become nonchalant to the point of truly not caring.

Perhaps, if I can somehow try very hard not to try at all, I, too, might be sprezzatura.

I’ll see you next week…

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