On Robin Williams and the End of Life

In reading people’s reflections on Robin Williams, I’m amazed at how many people met him in “real life”. Nearly everyone has a story. Case in point. In the summer of 1997, our family was walking across the UNC Chapel Hill campus when I saw a crowd gathering. It was Williams on a break from filming Patch Adams. It didn’t matter that there were only twenty of us, he was “on”. My infant daughters were unimpressed until I told them he was Aladdin. In a few years, Mrs. Doubtfire would loop in our house for months on end.

I propose we make t-shirts for the minority of people ripping Williams for being selfish. The shirts could say, “I’m clueless about mental illness in general and severe depression in particular.” Or “I struggle to listen and learn.” Or “I lack understanding and empathy.” That way we could side step them altogether. When you don’t understand something like suicide, it’s okay to admit it. In fact, it’s admirable. We’d all be better off if we demonstrated more curiosity and humility.

I’m far from a mental health expert, but I’m indebted to some of my first year college writing students for teaching me about depression. Other people, like Molly Pohlig, continue to teach me about it. I’ve learned, as sad as it is, some people get so depressed they think they’re doing their family and friends a favor by ending their life.

Journalists writing about Williams often reference recent suicide statistics which I find staggering. Especially for my peers, white men, 50-54, who have the highest rate of suicide. We have to get better at identifying and helping the most susceptible among us.

A positive thought. In part, Williams will live on through his incessant television and film work. That’s a cool aspect of being a successful artist. An easily accessible legacy. Today, in the U.S., I’m struck by how we ignore the elderly and quickly forget the deceased.

In thinking about Williams’s legacy, I’ve thought some about my own. Initially I thought, if anyone wanted to remember me, all they’d have is lots of academic publications including a lengthy doctoral dissertation. And no one loves me enough to revisit those! In all likelihood, not even the occasional newspaper or magazine essay, or this blog’s archive, will live on.

If I’m lucky, I suppose, some aspects of my kind and caring Mrs. Doubtfire loving daughters will remind people of me on occasion. Somewhere in Florida or Indiana my sister is saying to herself, “It’s not all about you.” Since she’s right, more than likely then, like most people, I’ll be forgotten in relatively short order.

Recommended.

Maybe Our Most Perfect Drug

Lots of people are seeing therapists and taking meds to combat anxiety disorders and depression. Stacy Horn suggests a much less expensive alternative, join a choir. She explains:

. . . as science works to explain what every singer already knows, no matter where you fall on the voice suckage scale—sing. I know of no other activity that gives so much and is this eminently affordable and accessible: Just show up for choir practice. Singing might be our most perfect drug; the ultimate mood regulator, lowering rates of anxiety, depression and loneliness, while at the same time amplifying happiness and joy, with no discernible, unpleasant side effects. The nerds and the church people had it right.

In high school, following the lead of some close friends, I sang in a large Lutheran youth choir. We toured for two weeks each summer, wowing Lutheran congregations all over the fruited plains. One summer at Indiana University in Bloomington, we even won a large national competition. But, as any Lord’s Joyful alum will tell you, no thanks to me. When you look up “voice suckage” in the urban dictionary, you see my larynx. Little known fact. Kool Herc, Kurtis Blow, and The Sugarhill Gang started rapping in the late 70s so that I’d have an alternative to singing.

Horn earns my enduring affection with this confession:

One of my main goals in our weekly rehearsals is not being heard. Over the years I’ve become a master in the art of voice camouflage, perfecting a cunning combination of seat choice, head tilt, and volume.

As they liked to say on The Wire, I feel you!

My alternative drugs of choice, by which I mean social activities that help me maintain some semblance of mental health, are swimming, cycling, and running with friends.

The GalPal and I recently enjoyed catching up with old friends from the state that just decided to stop paying teachers extra for Masters degrees. One whom struggled with depression recently. Her most perfect drug? Caring for and riding a horse. Almost daily. At first glance, this activity isn’t as social as the others, but in fact, our friend always looks forward to seeing the same few horse owners at the medium-sized, community-based barn. A couple of times a week, after grooming and riding their horses, they cross the street to a golf course restaurant where they eat and visit. Her mental health in tact for another day.

Reduce anxiety and depression without therapy or meds. Follow Horn’s advice and join a community choir. Or follow my lead and swim, cycle, run, hike, or walk with another person. Or if you can afford it, horse around with friends. You feel me?

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Me at my last concert performance

A Panacea for Improved Health

I have a neighbor who makes money off of his car. He carefully shops for an underpriced used one, then takes immaculate care of it, and then gets reimbursed by his employer at 50+ cents per mile.

I admire his fiscal discipline, but who wants to spend their weekend washing their car the way he does? One time he yelled at another neighbor who was washing the bottom 90% of her van. “You gotta start with the roof and work down!” Best comeback ever, “No one’s gonna see the top!” Blood pressure spike. And he routinely rips me for using the last bit of dirty water in the bucket to wash my wheels, but I tell him my goal is for my car to be 90% as clean as his in 10% of the time. And normally it is.

We’re all obsessive about something. One could argue I substitute exercise for car washing. Last week was pretty typical for April. Four runs for 28.7 total miles. Two swims for 6,000 meters and two bike rides for 90 miles. And an hour lifting weights. Total time, 11-12 hours. People like me tend to have a lot of fitness activity-based friendships and we often find the swimming, cycling, and running enjoyable in and of itself. We’d still go out and run, swim, and cycle even if there weren’t empirical health benefits tied to those activities. We’re lucky that our hobbies come with health benefits.

Some people no doubt think about my commitment to fitness the same way I think about people who obsess about the stock market’s every move and spend their days thinking, talking, and writing about money. There’s an opportunity cost to finance tunnel vision. Life passes by. Investing wisely is a means towards other more meaningful ends—like learning about other people’s interests and engaging with them.

Like extreme car washing, there’s a tipping point where a person’s fitness routine can detract from their physical, emotional, and spiritual health. That’s where “Doc Mike Evans” comes in. He asks a great question near the end of this high-speed informative whiteboard lecture—Can you limit your sleeping and sitting to just 23.5 hours a day? 

Like my quicker, more casual approach to car washing, Doc Evans explains how you can achieve most of my health benefits in much less time. Walk 20-30 minutes a day. Even better if you integrate walking as a means of transportation by living within a mile of your work, a grocery store, and other stores. And of course driving less is good for your pocketbook and the environment too.

Forget my approach of driving to the pool and overdoing it in the form of occasional marathons and triathlons*. Instead, as Doc Evans advises, walk 20-30 minutes a day and enjoy markedly improved mental and physical health.

Maybe you’re already a walker, but wish there were even more tangible health benefits. Evans explains how you can reap additional benefits by extending the time and distance of your daily walks. But since time is most people’s greatest obstacle, I suggest picking up the intensity by choosing more hilly routes. My running teammates probably get tired of me saying, “The hills are our friends.” When I don’t feel like exerting myself much, which is a lot of the time, I sometimes commit to a hilly route because hills force me to increase the intensity. As an added benefit, when I’m running up hill, my conservative Republican Nutter friends don’t have enough oxygen to complain about the current political scene. If you’re a Florida or Texas flatlander, move.

We expect complexity today, but this isn’t. If you want to enjoy an improved quality (and quantity) of life, take a ten minute walk sometime today. And then repeat tomorrow. And the next day. Extend it to twenty minutes next week. And repeat. Every day.

* This summer I’m going to be more family focused than last year. We’re looking forward to a fair number of visitors from afar, and at the end of the summer, launching Seventeen at a still-to-be-decided college. I’m #34 on the RAMROD waitlist which means I’ll definitely get in and Danny and I plan on running the Wonderland Trail in mid-August. I may throw in a few short/medium distance triathlons on unscheduled weekends. Or maybe I’ll just take a walk.

Betrothed and I walking

Amazing she’ll still hold hands with me after all these years

Innovations That Will Change Your Tomorrow

I acknowledge it’s odd, but despite being a late adaptor of technology, I’m an amateur futurist, by which I mean I like to read real futurists. As a result, I found the New York Times Magazine’s 32 innovations that will “change your tomorrow,” interesting reading.

A subset of the 32 will accelerate automation making it even more challenging to create enough jobs that pay livable wages. The people working in the labs creating the innovations will of course be well compensated. The people cleaning the labs at night not so much. There will be fewer middle class jobs that pay something less than scientists and more than janitors.

I’ve evaluated all 32 innovations for you and identified the five most promising and the one most ridiculous. Of course my choices reflect my subjectivity.

The five most noteworthy in increasing order of promise.

14. THE SHUT-UP GUN. By Catherine Rampell. When you aim the SpeechJammer at someone, it records that person’s voice and plays it back to him with a delay of a few hundred milliseconds. This seems to gum up the brain’s cognitive processes — a phenomenon known as delayed auditory feedback — and can painlessly render the person unable to speak. Kazutaka Kurihara, one of the SpeechJammer’s creators, sees it as a tool to prevent loudmouths from overtaking meetings and public forums, and he’d like to miniaturize his invention so that it can be built into cellphones. “It’s different from conventional weapons such as samurai swords,” Kurihara says. “We hope it will build a more peaceful world.” Years away: 2-4. [The promise of this innovation leaves me speechless.]

The 28. MICHELIN-STAR TV DINNERS. By Michael Ruhlman. Frozen food may soon be on par with anything you can get at a three-star restaurant. Sous vide — a process in which food is heated over a very long period in a low-temperature water bath — has been used in high-end restaurants for more than a decade. (Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud were early proponents.) But the once-rarefied technique is becoming mass market. Cuisine Solutions, the company that pioneered sous vide (Keller hired it to train his chefs), now supplies food to grocery stores and the U.S. military. Your local Costco or Wegmans may sell perfectly cooked sous vide lamb shanks, osso buco or turkey roulade. Unlike most meals in the freezer aisle, sous vide food can be reheated in a pot of boiling water and still taste as if it were just prepared. And because sous vide makes it almost impossible to overcook food, it’s perfect for the home cook. Fortunately, sous vide machines are becoming more affordable. “It’s like the microwave was 30 years ago,” Keller says. Years away: 0-2. [I love that I can’t screw up the Osso Buco, whatever that is. Hope for the culinary challenged like myself.]

24. SLEEP MINING. By Howie Kahn. Wearing a small sensor on your head, at home, while you sleep, could be the key to diagnosing diseases early and assessing overall health. “This tech,” says Dr. Philip Low, the founder of a medical technology firm called NeuroVigil, “enables us to look for faint signals of, say, schizophrenia, Parkinson’s, depression or Alzheimer’s in the brain, even though there may be no obvious symptoms.” Thus far, Low’s device has found a number of applications: evaluating children with autism, studying the efficacy of trial-phase drugs and assessing traumatic brain injury in soldiers. Currently, Low is working on a newer version of the device, which will be the size of a quarter and will transmit brain scans directly to smartphones and tablet computers. “We’re using sleep,” Low says, “as the gateway to the brain.” Years away: 0-2. [This one and the next are the most substantive, but some may not want to know that their future includes a debilitating illness.]

25. A BLOOD TEST FOR DEPRESSION. By Elizabeth Weil. This year, Eva Redei, a professor at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine, published a paper that identified molecules in the blood that correlated to major depression in a small group of teenagers. Ridge Diagnostics has also started to roll out a test analyzing 10 biomarkers linked to depression in adults. “Part of the reason there’s a stigma for mental illness, including depression, is that people think it’s only in their heads,” Redei says. “As long as there’s no measurable, objective sign, we’re going to stay in that mind-set of ‘Just snap out of it.’ ” Blood tests will take mental illness out of the squishy realm of feelings. And as Lonna Williams, C.E.O. of Ridge Diagnostics, says, they’ll help people understand “it’s not their fault.” Years away: 4+. 

6. THE CONGESTION KILLER. By Tom Vanderbilt. Traffic jams can form out of the simplest things. One driver gets too close to another and has to brake, as does the driver behind, as does the driver behind him — pretty soon, the first driver has sent a stop-and-go shock wave down the highway. One driving-simulator study found that nearly half the time one vehicle passed another, the lead vehicle had a faster average speed. All this leads to highway turbulence, which is why many traffic modelers see adaptive cruise control (A.C.C.) — which automatically maintains a set distance behind a car and the vehicle in front of it — as the key to congestion relief. Simulations have found that if some 20 percent of vehicles on a highway were equipped with advanced A.C.C., certain jams could be avoided simply through harmonizing speeds and smoothing driver reactions. One study shows that even a highway that is running at peak capacity has only 4.5 percent of its surface area occupied. More sophisticated adaptive cruse control systems could presumably fit more cars on the road. Years away: 0-2. [Why is this innovation deemed even more promising than the two previous ones? Because freeway traffic is slowly killing me.] 

And the most ridiculous innovation that someone offered up when the editor sent out an email titled “Come on people, stuck on 31, have to have a 32nd.”

3. ANALYTICAL UNDIES. By Gretchen Reynolds. Your spandex can now subtly nag you to work out. A Finnish company, Myontec, recently began marketing underwear embedded with electromyographic sensors that tell you how hard you’re working your quadriceps, hamstring and gluteus muscles. It then sends that data to a computer for analysis. Although the skintight shorts are being marketed to athletes and coaches, they could be useful for the deskbound. The hope, according to Arto Pesola, who is working on an advanced version of the sensors, is that when you see data telling you just how inert you really are, you’ll be inspired to lead a less sedentary life. Years away: 0-2. [Imagine the convo. Dude! You look great. Have you started working out or something? Yeah, thanks. It wasn’t until I started pouring over my undie data before bed each night that I realized I’d become a sedentary sad sack.] 

Points to Ponder

• From Jonathan Haidt in the Happiness Hypothesis-Finding Modern Truth in Ancient WisdomPleasure comes more from making progress toward goals than from achieving them.

• From The Atlantic: Loneliness and being alone are not the same thing, but both are on the rise. We meet fewer people. We gather less. And when we gather, our bonds are less meaningful and less easy. The decrease in confidants—that is, in quality social connections—has been dramatic over the past 25 years. In one survey, the mean size of networks of personal confidants decreased from 2.94 people in 1985 to 2.08 in 2004. Similarly, in 1985, only 10 percent of Americans said they had no one with whom to discuss important matters, and 15 percent said they had only one such good friend. By 2004, 25 percent had nobody to talk to, and 20 percent had only one confidant. [strong counter argument]

• From Sports IllustratedIt’s hard to come up with any measure sufficient to characterize the strength of the Kenyan marathon army, but try this: Sixteen American men in history have run faster than 2:10 (a 4:58 per mile pace); 38 Kenyan men did it in October.

Grit follow up. In Monday’s Boston Marathon, the dude on the far left, Michel Butter, from the Nederlands, was hangin with the Kenyans. Pre-race, the Dutch track federation told him if he finished in the top ten they’d put him on the Olympic team. He finished seventh because of training sessions like this one.

Correction from the exceptional The Science of Sport blog: Michel Butter’s requirement was either to run 2:10, or finish in the top 8 with a 2:12 or faster. He ran 2:16:38 for 7th. So he got the place, but missed the time, and hence the Olympic spot. That’s a bitter pill to swallow, because as I mentioned earlier, the elite men were 7.8% slower than last year’s times, and about 5% slower than their typical race times. Butter missed the target time by 5.1% (the 2:12 standard). Bearing this mind, and that Boston is typically a slower course than the flat races of Rotterdam, London, Berlin etc, I would use discretion and pick him anyway…

Young, Anxious, Depressed

Today five to eight times as many high school and college students meet the criteria for diagnosis of major depression and/or an anxiety disorder as was true half a century or more ago. This increased psychopathology is not the result of changed diagnostic criteria; it holds even when the measures and criteria are constant.

That’s from Peter Gray, research psychologist and professor and Psychology Today blogger. The entire post is here.

Readers’ Digest version.

First, Gray explains:

The increased psychopathology seems to have nothing to do with realistic dangers and uncertainties in the larger world. The changes do not correlate with economic cycles, wars, or any of the other kinds of world events that people often talk about as affecting children’s mental states. Rates of anxiety and depression among children and adolescents were far lower during the Great Depression, during World War II, during the Cold War, and during the turbulent 1960s and early ‘70s than they are today. The changes seem to have much more to do with the way young people view the world than with the way the world actually is.

Next, he highlights two reasons. Still quoting:

1) A decline in young people’s sense of personal control over their fate. People who believe that they are in charge of their own fate are less likely to become anxious or depressed than are those who believe that they are victims of circumstances beyond their control. The data indicate that young people’s belief that they have control over their own destinies has declined sharply over the decades. When people believe that they have little or no control over their fate they become anxious. “Something terrible can happen to me at any time and I will be unable to do anything about it.” When the anxiety and sense of helplessness become too great people become depressed. “There is no use trying; I’m doomed.”

2) A shift toward extrinsic, rather than intrinsic goals. Intrinsic goals are those that have to do with one’s own development as a person–such as becoming competent in endeavors of one’s choosing and developing a meaningful philosophy of life. Extrinsic goals, on the other hand, are those that have to do with material rewards and other people’s judgments. They include goals of high income, status, and good looks. There’s evidence that young people today are, on average, more oriented toward extrinsic goals and less oriented toward intrinsic goals than they were in the past.

Gray sees the two primary reasons as interrelated:

The shift toward extrinsic goals could well be related causally to the shift toward an external locus of control. We have much less personal control over achievement of extrinsic goals than intrinsic goals. I can, through personal effort, quite definitely improve my competence, but that doesn’t guarantee that I’ll get rich. I can, through spiritual practices or philosophical delving, find my own sense of meaning in life, but that doesn’t guarantee that people will find me more attractive or lavish praise on me. To the extent that my emotional sense of satisfaction comes from progress toward intrinsic goals I can control my emotional wellbeing. To the extent that my satisfaction comes from others’ judgments and rewards, I have much less control over my emotional state.

Gray concludes by suggesting formal schooling is a large part of the problem. His solution? Less time in school, more time in unstructured outside of school activities. Over time, I’ve become more enamored with alternative education; consequently, I find his argument somewhat convincing. But I find his description of the problem more illuminating than his suggested remedy.

Here are three things, that in my opinion, could reduce anxiety and depression in young people.

1) More sleep.

2) More movement. With friends and minimal adult supervision (so that it’s more fun). Fifteen has been taking “Zumba” aerobic-like classes with a friend a few afternoons a week at the “Y”. Even better, thirty minutes of walking or running or swimming or cycling or weight lifting five or six mornings a week. I’d like to see clinical trials studying the effects of this proposal on adolescent anxiety and depression.

3) Compulsory service-learning as a school requirement. I could be talked into a year of National Service quite easily too. Recall the quote, “Something terrible can happen to me at any time and I will be unable to do anything about it.” I have no evidence, just a gut instinct that a substantive “other-regarding” experience would reduce anxiety and depression.