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

Crime is Plunging

Thirty one summers ago, I spent ten weeks in inner city Boston interning at a Christian housing ministry. I spent two days a week as a day camp counselor at a park and two others working at a food bank. Every Wednesday, the eleven other interns and I attended seminars about urban issues. The most memorable one featured a retired South Boston high school principal who was one of the central figures in the 70s busing riots.

The first night, my fellow interns selected me “Most Likely to Get Mugged.” Fast forward to mid-summer when I was walking home from the food bank to the subway station through a dicey part of Jamaica Plains. Clean cut suburban dude with a college backpack, I may as well had a “Jump me!” sign on it. Stupidly, I walked right through a large, open fire hydrant water fight.

I realized the girlfriends were watching from a large porch far too late. Now. I’m. Screwed. A few of the young men, as if to fulfill my fellow interns’ prophecy, sprinted towards me, at which point, I did my best Carl Lewis impersonation. The only problem was I ran right into the heart of a tenement building courtyard. I’m still not sure how I got out of there and onto the subway in one piece. Maybe I should have been a punt returner.

According to The Economist, America’s cities have become vastly safer, and the rest of the developed world has followed. “From Japan to Estonia,” they report, “property and people are now safer than at almost any time since the 1970s.” Some highlights:

• Confounding expectations, the recession has not interrupted the downward trend. New data show the homicide rate for young Americans is at a 30-year low.

• Some crimes have all but died out. Last year there were just 69 armed robberies of banks, post offices, and other buildings in England and Wales, compared with 500 a year in the 1990s. In 1990 some 147,000 cars were stolen in New York. Last year fewer than 10,000 were.

• There is no single cause of the decline; rather, several have coincided. Western societies are growing older, and most crimes are committed by young men. Policing has improved greatly in recent decades, especially in big cities such as New York and London, with forces using computers to analyze the incidence of crime; in some parts of Manhattan this helped to reduce the robbery rate by over 95%. The epidemics of crack cocaine and heroin appear to have burnt out.

• The biggest factor may be simply that security measures have improved. Car immobilizers have killed joyriding; bullet proof screens, security guards, and marked money have all but done in bank robbery. Alarms, DNA databases, closed circuit television cameras, and security tags have increased the chance a burglar will be caught. Every survey of criminals shows, the main deterrent to crime is the fear of being caught.

• One in every hundred American adults is now in prison. If tough prison sentences were the cause, crime would not be falling in the Netherlands and Germany, which have reduced their prison populations. New York’s prison population has fallen by a quarter since 1999, yet its crime rate has dropped faster than that of many other cities.

• Harsh punishments, and in particular long mandatory sentences for certain crimes, look counterproductive. American prisons are full of old men (in CA more than 20% of inmates are over 50), many of whom are well past their criminal years, and non-violent drug users, who would be better off in treatment. To keep each California prisoner inside costs taxpayers $47,000 a year.

• Because prison stresses punishment rather than rehabilitation, most of what remains of the crime problem is really a recidivism issue. In England and Wales, for example, the number of first-time offenders has fallen by 44% since 2007. The number with more than 15 convictions has risen.

• Politicians seems to have grasped this. In America the number of new mandatory sentences enacted by Congress has fallen. Even in the Republican South, governors such as Rick Perry and Bobby Jindal have adopted policies favoring treatment over imprisonment for drug users.

• Better trained police officers could focus on new crimes. Traditional measures tend not include financial crimes such as credit-card fraud or tax evasion. Since these are seldom properly recorded, they have not contributed to the great fall in crime. As policing adapts to the technological age, it is as well to remember that criminals are doing so, too.

And The Atlantic Cities in a report titled “You’re More Likely to Die a Violent Death in Rural American Than in a City” details interesting findings from a large University of Pennsylvania study. Highlights:

• You’re about twice as likely to die in a car crash in rural America than in the most urban counties.

• Nationwide, the rate of “unintentional-injury death”—car crashes, drownings, falls, machinery accidents and the like—is about 15x the rate of homicide death. Add together all the ways in which you might die prematurely by intentional or unintentional injury (as opposed to illness), and your risk of death is actually about 22% higher in most rural counties in the America than in the most urban ones.

• Across the whole population, the top three causes of death were motor vehicle crashes, firearms, and poisoning. Motor vehicle crashes lead to 27.61 deaths per 100,000 people in the most rural counties and just 10.58 per 100,000 in the most urban.

African-American PerspectiveS on Obama’s Trayvon Martin Comments

Once, while I was teaching at a Southern college, African-American student leaders attended a faculty meeting to explain some of their frustrations with us, including some faculty’s expectations that individual black students speak on behalf of African-Americans more generally. Ten years later, in the coffee obsessed upper left-hand corner of the country, a student of mine pressed a classmate to explain the black perspective on the topic at hand. I intervened and explained why “She doesn’t have to answer that.” After class she thanked me for the time out.

Following the release of Do the Right Thing, I remember watching an interviewer pressing Spike Lee to explain the meaning of contrasting MLK Jr. and Malcolm X quotes at the film’s conclusion. He sidestepped the question, saying that film is art, and therefore open to different interpretations. I could tell he resented the question, probably thinking most filmmakers wouldn’t have been asked it.

Three refreshingly different African-American opinion leaders’ reactions to Obama’s recent comments about Trayvon Martin serve as an excellent reminder that there’s more diversity within ethnic groups as there is between them. Seems like a simple point, but it’s often lost on people. Consider each.

1) Tavis Smiley, Sunday on Meet the Press, after previously tweeting, “Obama’s speech was weak as pre-sweetened Kool-Aid.”

I appreciate and applaud the fact that the president did finally show up. But … he did not walk to the podium for an impromptu address to the nation. He was pushed to that podium. A week of protests outside the White House, pressure building on him inside the White House, pushed him to that podium.

2) Charles Ogletree, National Public Radio:

It was the most refreshing, startling and amazing comment I’ve ever heard him make in the 25 years I’ve known him on the issue of race; very poignant, very personal . . .

3) Eugene Robinson, The Washington Post:

The designation ‘first black (fill in the blank)’ always brings with it unfair burdens, and one of Obama’s. . . is that almost anything he says about race will be seen by some as favoring the interests of black Americans over white Americans.

At this point in his presidency, Obama could ignore this absurd reality and say whatever he wants. He must be sorely tempted. But the unfortunate fact is that if his aim is to promote dialogue about race, speaking his mind is demonstrably counterproductive.

Obama does more to change racial attitudes and challenge prejudices simply by performing his functions as head of state and commander in chief. A dozen speeches about the long struggle for racial equality and justice would not have the impact of one picture of the first family — the proud, African-American first family — walking across the White House lawn. No caption necessary.

Near the end of his comments, Obama encouraged people to think about whether they are “wringing as much bias out” of themselves as possible. Borrowing from King, he suggested asking, “Am I judging people as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin, but the content of their character?”

One element of “content of character” thinking is acknowledging, if not embracing, intellectual diversity within ethnic groups.

Should Schools Be Responsible for Childhood Obesity Prevention?

No. No. No.

According to Emily Richmond, Kaiser Permanente recently conducted a nationwide survey and found that 90 percent of respondents believed schools should “play a role in reducing obesity in their community” and 64 percent supported it being “a major role.”

Richmond also notes that The American Medical Association has recommended that K-12 students be taught about the dangers of obesity and supported using revenue from proposed taxes on sugary sodas to help schools pay for such educational programs.

Mayor Bloomberg, at least, would be down with that.

Sixty-four percent of the public and the AMA are wrong. Schools absolutely should not be responsible for childhood obesity prevention.

With every societal problem teachers take on, public criticism of their work, already considerable, will increase. That’s because they’ll have less time to teach students to read, write, and ‘rithmatic and any progress in solving the problem will be so slow as to be imperceptible. A double whammy.

No one asks whether doctors should be responsible for cancer prevention because they’ve done a great job of saying there are many contributing factors—genetics, nutrition, smoking, environmental factors, etc.—and no cure in the foreseeable future. Teachers should eschew their built-in altruism and say, “Enough already. We love our students, but many things are outside of our control and we refuse to be substitute parents.”

Feel free to disagree, just explain where we should draw the line. Should schools be responsible for making sure students brush their teeth regularly, floss, make their beds, leave campsites nicer than they find them, get adequate sleep, exercise, limit television, avoid violent video games, and never ever text or post anything unkind on Facebook?

When considering a blurring of the lines between schooling and public health, it’s important to remember that students spend approximately 23% of the time that they’re awake each year in school. Richmond hits a homerun here:

As the Las Vegas Sun’s education reporter, I did some quality control spot checks at various campuses after Nevada’s junk food ban was passed. I found that bottled water and graham crackers had indeed replaced the sports drinks and chocolate bars — with one notable exception: the machines in the faculty lounges were fully stocked with the familiar array of candy, chips and sugary sodas. That the ban didn’t extend to the adults on campus illustrates the larger challenge facing schools, families, and communities as a whole.

Amen. Until adults figure out how to eat and live more healthily no amount of in-school teaching or behavior mod will have any kind of lasting effect. The only guaranteed outcome is a further devaluing of teachers.

The Little Way of Ruthie Leming

Is a successful career or an especially close extended family more important? Why bother being introspective? Why are sibling relations often strained? Can family members reconcile given longstanding dysfunction?

These are some of the questions Rod Dreher takes up in his brilliant book about his sister’s life. Put down whatever you’re reading and travel to rural Louisiana with Dreher and Leming. The subtitle is “A Southern Girl, A Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life”. Dreher’s book is more novel (or Shakespearean play) than social science essay. He writes extremely well and tells a riveting story that was so sad in parts I didn’t even bother tilting my head back.

Dreher contrasts his sister’s life with his own and finds his wanting. He prioritized career, often moving to pursue better journalism jobs. In contrast, Ruthie married her high school sweetheart, went to college thirty minutes away, and then returned home to teach, live next to her parents, and raise her three daughters.

Dreher’s story made my head spin. He mostly idolizes his sister’s life choices, but clearly he wouldn’t have become as outstanding a writer if as a teen he hadn’t gone to a selective, public boarding school, or if he hadn’t taken successively more challenging journalism gigs. His ambition and career trajectory enabled him to tell his sister’s story so beautifully. And yet, he’s eloquent about the costs of his professional ambition to his relationship with his sister, his parents, his nieces, and his hometown.

As young adults, nearly everyone in my extended family moved far away from their parents. Now sprinkled all over the country, we’re held together by email, airplanes, and an aging matriarch. Except for the conservative politics, I am Rod Dreher, by which I mean I’m often too introspective for my own good. Then again, without introspection, Dreher never would have bothered with the story in the first place.

While reading “The Little Way” I thought about my dad who had unimaginable career success, my sister whose longstanding commitment to her small community and her family reminded me of Ruthie, and most of all, my daughters. What will be more important to them, ambition or relationships? Will they keep the “family moving away” streak alive? Previously, I’ve written about the key ingredient to tight-knit extended families—a vision for closeness coupled with an intentionality that fosters that. Dreher’s experience, especially his father’s regrets in life, makes me think inertia probably plays a part too.

In the end, Dreher zigs when you think he’s going to zag. He doesn’t offer his beloved sister’s life as a model, or his own, instead he thoughtfully recommends something in between.

One question Dreher inspired is what’s the best way for the GalPal and I to encourage my adult daughters to live within a half day’s drive? I know I probably shouldn’t do or say anything to compromise the freedom I enjoyed in my early twenties, but our laissez-faire approach to extended family has serious limits. Maybe it’s time for some sort of an audible. Reading and talking about “The Little Way” would be an excellent start. We have to do something because I can’t take much more air travel.

imagesNext in the queue—Nate in Venice by Richard Russo. Next next—The Unwinding by George Packer.  Next next next—College (Un)Bound by Jeffrey Selingo.

Stoicism Fail

A wannabe Cicero, I’ve enjoyed thinking about and trying to apply aspects of Stoicism to my life ever since reading William Irvine’s “A Guide to the Good Life” four or five years ago. The ancient philosophy’s anti-materialist emphasis on tranquility and joy resonates with me.

Irvine thoughtfully explains how to apply the ancient concepts to modern times. One stoic insight concerns internal goal setting. Irvine argues that we often succumb to negative emotions—anger, fear, grief, anxiety, and envy—because we focus too much on things outside of our control.

Irvine:

When a Stoic concerns himself with things over which he has some but not complete control, such as winning a tennis match, he will be very careful about the goals he sets for himself. In particular, he will be careful to set internal rather than external goals. Thus is goal in playing tennis will not be to win a match (something external, over which he has only partial control) but to play to the best of his ability in the match (something internal, over which he has complete control). By choosing this goal, he will spare himself frustration or disappointment should he lose the match: Since it was not his goal to win the match, he will not have failed to attain his goal, as long as he played his best. His tranquility will not be disrupted.

This weekend, at my first triathlon competition in 10 plus months, I learned how far I have to go to apply this more Eastern, process-oriented approach to goal setting. I’ve always really enjoyed competing at Hagg Lake, a large clean body of water surrounded by dense woods 30 minutes west of Portland.

There’s another Olympic distance (1500m swim, 40k bike, 10k run) race in Portland every June that draws four times as many participants probably because it’s flat. The 11 mile road that loops Hagg Lake has one 300 meter flat stretch across the dam. Total elevation on the bike is 1,500′. The run is up and down throughout as well. It’s a course that’s perfectly suited to me. The hills are our friends.

Check out my times from my three Hagg Lake races.

Swim T1 Bike T2 Run Overall Time
2004 23:17 2:54 1:17:15 1:24 44:37 2:29:27
2007 23:08 3:37 1:16:16 1:32 45:23 2:29:56
2013 26:21 2:40 1:14:28 1:24 46:29 2:31:22

Note that I forgot to race in 2010. My goals for this year were to beat my 2004, 42 year-old self course record. I thought I could drop enough time in the bike leg to make up for a slight loss of time in the swim and run. Pretty darn Stoic I thought, racing against myself. But then I wavered. I looked up some of the guys who pre-registered and I knew I was faster than them based on previous races. I thought I could win my smallish, oldster age group.

Then I raced to the best of my ability. Which, if I was any kind of student of Stoicism, would be the end of the story. But of course it’s not. I passed a few guys in my age group during the run and thought I was probably second. In the finishing chute a 33 year old, who I had been leap frogging back and forth with throughout the bike and run, sprinted past me to finish 1 second ahead of me. He was pumped. I didn’t remind him that my wave started five minutes after his and that I beat him by 4:59. Hey everybody, gather round. Watch Ron carom off the Stoic rails.

After a dip in the lake with the world’s best wife but worst race photog, I checked out the results. Damn. I got spanked by four fellow geezers and finished fifth out of fifteen in my age group. Forget that “best of my ability” bullshit, I felt like I had failed. Doubly, as an athlete and Stoic. Why dear friends did I let the computer printout alter my mindset so much? I lost touch with the fact that I’m really lucky to both have the resources and be healthy enough to compete in a beautiful natural setting. And I lost touch with just how inconsequential my triathlon performance is in the grander scheme of things that matter even a little bit in life.

In hindsight, fifth out of fifteen isn’t terrible, but after my excellent performance at Canada last year (14th out of 217), I started to get cocky. In Canada I rolled for almost eleven hours, what’s two and a half? It showed in my poor race prep. Pre-race I ran twice off the bike for a total of 7 miles. And this summer I’ve blown off as many swim workouts as I’ve completed. And my cavalier attitude culminated in me forgetting my wetsuit which explains most of the additional time in the swim.

Truthfully though, best case scenario, had I remembered my wetsuit and trained with greater focus and intensity, I could have gone four or five minutes faster, but I still would have finished third or fourth.

See that, still focusing on time and placement. I have even more work to do as a Stoic than I do as a triathlete.

Pre-race breakfast at McMennamin's the Grand Lodge. The GalPal gave me the bottom bunk.

Pre-race breakfast at McMennamin’s the Grand Lodge. The GalPal gave me the bottom bunk.

Perfect weather, calm, 60 degrees, lake was 75

Perfect weather, calm, 60 degrees, lake was 75

Rockin' the daughter's sweatshirt

Rockin’ the daughter’s sweatshirt

The failed Stoic post-race

The failed Stoic post-race