Book of the Week—Geezerball

I’m on a nice little reading roll, meaning a book a week. This week I cheated though when I subbed in a fun, short read, for a long, dryish, academic one that I was plodding through.

Geezerball: North Carolina Basketball at its Eldest (Sort of a Memoir) by Richie Zweigenhaft tells the story of the Guilford College noon pickup basketball game that I played in between 1993-1998 when I taught at the “small Quaker college”. The game is 44 years old and counting and some of the participants have been playing most or all of those years. One of the game’s mottos is “You don’t stop playing because you grow old; you grow old because you stop playing.”

Richie, also known as “The Commissioner” is an accomplished author of several books on diversity in the American power structure. Now 75 years young, he’s the glue that’s held the game together over the decades.

Geezerball prompted a lot of reminiscing about those years and reflection on what’s most important in life. I remember 11 of the 29 players on the current geezer email list which is pretty remarkable given how bad I am with names. It also speaks to the game’s stability and what demographers have been telling us for awhile—that Americans aren’t moving nearly as much as in the past.

The game combines two of the very few things upon which most medical doctors and social scientists respectively agree—the importance of exercise to our physical health and the importance of close interpersonal relationships to our mental health.

“My wife says she expects to get a call one day saying I’ve died on the basketball court,” one geezer writes in the book. “If that happens, she’ll know I died happy.” In actuality, the game is probably extending the life of the participants. Even more importantly, it’s adding tremendously to the quality of their lives. Their friendships, and the humor that marks their interactions, are testaments to the power of community.

Among other remarkable aspects of the game is the fact that nearly all the participants are men. As a runner, I can’t help but notice more women running together; like the geezers, strengthening their bodies, their hearts, and their minds simultaneously. Same with the Gal Pal and her girlfriends who go on long walks every Saturday morning while catching up on the week’s events. I don’t know if it’s true, but it seems like men are more prone than women to prioritize their work lives, often to their own detriment. Given that, I find it inspiring that a dozen men in Greensboro, NC have been defying that norm every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for 44 years.

The sort of memoir reminded me of exactly how cool of an addendum the game is to the participants’ lives. But now, upon further thought, I can’t help but wonder if when those men near the end of their lives, they’ll think of the game as one of the most essential parts of their lives, and their work as more of an addendum. Meaning, what if we all have it backwards? What if the GalPal’s Saturday morning walks, my Saturday morning group runs, my Tuesday and Thursday night group rides are the core and everything else is the periphery?

This line of thinking may be just one more example of my economic privilege at work, but I can’t help but wonder what would happen if we organized our lives around Geezerball-like communities, where we prioritized movement and friendship over material wealth and status? Put another way, how much is enough? When it comes to work hours and money, there’s always a point of diminishing returns. At a certain point, more work means more impoverished relationships with family and friends.

In contrast, when it comes to walking, running, cycling, swimming, surfing, or playing basketball or golf with friends, there is no point of diminishing returns. Our physical and mental health just keep improving. Our entire well-being. That’s the lesson of Geezerball.

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How to Do Nothing—Resisting the Attention Economy

By Jenny Odell. Even though I just finished it, I suspect Odell’s “How to Do Nothing” will be the most influential book I read in 2020 because it’s the most thought provoking book I’ve read since America the Anxious and Palaces of the People, books that also emphasize the importance of community, public places, and the common good. It is so unique, insightful, and challenging, I processed two-thirds of it at most; meaning, I need to reread it, which is a bit problematic since it’s due back at the library. I should probably make Eldest’s day, a true bibliophiliac, and just purchase it. Especially since it will take me a long time to even partially apply her numerous insights.

The front jacket lead, which I’ve amended, is a decent overview:

“A galvanizing critique of the forces vying for our attention—and our personal information—that redefines what we think of productivity, reconnects us with the environment, and reveals all that we’ve been (what we are) too distracted to see about ourselves and our world.”

If you are wary of individualism and seek more community, read Odell.

If you long for a more meaningful, less commercial existence, read Odell.

If you suspect your life might be enriched by less social media activity, read Odell.

If you want to think and care more deeply about your local ecology, climate change,  economic privilege, and alternative ways of thinking about progress, read Odell.

If you want to see Odell explain her book while reflecting on the challenges posed by its unexpected success, watch this November 2019 talk.

“How to Do Nothing” is especially important for anyone thinking, “No way am I spending 23 minutes I don’t have to watch the video.”

Everything From This Point Is Extra Credit

I’ve made a lot of bad decisions in my life.

  • Angel Flight pants paired with a silk shirt. Really a two-fer.
  • At age 16, getting shit-faced and hurling in the Disneyland parking lot after trying to sneak in through the employees’ exit. While wearing Angel Flight pants and a silk shirt. Can all of a person’s bad decisions coalesce in a single night?
  • Last Monday at Tumwater Valley golf course, repeatedly hitting gap wedge instead of pitching wedge and coming up short.
  • Weeding amongst poison oak in shorts and t-shirts. A couple of times.
  • Asking my eight year old daughter to help me jump start the car.
  • Running the first half of the Boston Marathon way too fast.
  • Using a clueless, commission-based financial planner.
  • Attempting to put Christmas lights on top of the steep ass roof.
  • Watching the Seahawks throw from the one yard line for a second Super Bowl victory.

Fortunately though, the biggies have gone especially well. I picked excellent parents who provided a loving foundation. I went to the right college because I had to work harder than I ever had to succeed there. And I am a much better person for partnering with The Good Wife.

Also, half way through college, discerning that I wanted to teach. And related to that, earning a doctorate early on opened doors to what has been an extremely fulfilling career in higher education. And while in graduate school, committing to daily exercise which continues to add to the quality of my life.

Recently, I reflected on these life decisions when a friend, the same age as me, late 50’s, opened up about her desire to change the world. It surprised me because she’s contributed a lot to a better world as an especially caring mother and volunteer. In hindsight, she said parenting was fulfilling, but only to a point. She regretted staying home with her son and daughter as long as she did. As she talked excitedly about plans to work outside the home going forward, I couldn’t help but think how different my mindset is.

If I’m honest with myself, I do not want to change the world too terribly much anymore. Why?

I think my spirit is relatively settled because of my decision to teach. The psychic renumeration has run circles around the financial. My soul is satiated with decades and decades of meaningful relationships with numerous students and co-workers. When deciding between vocations, young people don’t factor that in nearly enough. Being in debt certainly doesn’t help.

One huge advantage of working with adult students is after a class is over they often take time to write or say how much they appreciate my teaching efforts. And for all of the downsides to social media, it’s pretty cool to get “friended” by a former student who is flourishing as a teacher or social worker him or herself in some distant corner of the country or world.

If someone tapped me on the shoulder this September and said, “Sorry dude, but we have to go younger, you know, someone with hair,” I’d be cool with it. Absent that shoulder tap, I plan on continuing half-time for the foreseeable future because I think my teaching is mutually beneficial to both my students and me. At minimum, their idealism inspires me and they help me focus on more than baby rabbits.

I do not want to change the world in the manner my more energetic and ambitious friend does, but that doesn’t preclude me from doing so in small, subtle, nuanced ways.

If I don’t want to change the world, what do I want?

I want to invest in old and new friendships by slowing down and making time for others. I want to spend more time in the kitchen. I want to sit on the deck and watch and see if the four baby rabbits cuddling together in the planter survive the eagles’ daily fly-bys. I want to enjoy art, especially excellent literature and independent film. I want to swim, run, and cycle in nature. Mostly though, I want to be present in my marriage and as a father. I want to listen and understand my wife’s and daughters’ dreams and cheer them on as they achieve them.

And I still want to help others take small steps toward thriving families, schools and communities by putting pen to paper or keyboard to screen*.

*awkward phrase, one more bad life decision

 

 

 

The Simplest Way to Change the World

Form a family. Of any sort, biological or otherwise. Eat dinner together nightly. Repeat.

In that spirit, here’s a paragraph to ponder from the reading journal of one of my January-term students*:

“Since both my parents had careers in the Air Force, my family was run in a military manner with strict rules, many activities, and time management. We had timers to regulate our homework, play, and exercise. Our family vacations were notoriously un-relaxing, with us often traversing 6 different cities in two weeks or cycling the entire coast of a country. However, one area in which we were a “slow” family is related to dinner. My mom very strictly required that we have a sit-down family meal together at 6:00 P.M. every night, at which we were expected to try every food item on the table, chat about our days. Skipping or arriving late to dinner was unacceptable, as was leaving the table before 7:00 P.M. My brothers and I rotated through chores of setting the table, helping cook the meal, and loading the dishwasher. I thought this was normal until I found that none of my college friends had routine family dinners growing up. Though I resented this forced family interaction time, it became the stabilizing force in my life, a chance to wind down and reconnect with my family. Is this family priority outdated, unrealistic, and a little ridiculous?”

The “stabilizing force in my life”.

Social scientific research on the effects of family dinners is eye-opening. How can something so simple have so many positive correlations? From “The Importance of Eating Together” in the Atlantic:

“. . . children who do eat dinner with their parents five or more days a week have less trouble with drugs and alcohol, eat healthier, show better academic performance, and report being closer with their parents than children who eat dinner with their parents less often, according to a study conducted by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.”

Consider the flip side, the negative consequences of families who do not eat together with any regularity:

“There are two big reasons for. . . negative effects associated with not eating meals together: the first is simply that when we eat out—especially at the inexpensive fast food and take-out places that most children go to when not eating with their family—we tend not to eat very healthy things. As Michael Pollan wrote in his most recent book, Cooked, meals eaten outside of the home are almost uniformly less healthy than homemade foods, generally having higher fat, salt, and caloric content.

The other reason is that eating alone can be alienating. The dinner table can act as a unifier, a place of community. Sharing a meal is an excuse to catch up and talk, one of the few times where people are happy to put aside their work and take time out of their day.”

Why don’t we eat dinner together more? Have we convinced ourselves we lack the time or are we unaware of the positive effects?

The more we follow the lead of my student’s mother, the better the world and we will be.

*shared by permission

On Blogging—Eight Years and 978 Posts In

By conventional measures, meaning numbers of daily eyeballs, I have not succeeded as a blogger. Here’s why:

• An uninspiring template or graphic interface. I lack the technical chops to improve it and don’t know who might help.

• People seek out blogs that help them with something rather specific—improving their finances, buying personal sports technology, understanding economics and finding other people interested in it. In contrast, I shift topics too much and only occasionally offer any real help. My sporadic helpful posts are my most widely read, which brings me to the crucial third point.

• Pre-PressingPause, I remember talking to a writer friend who has written two very well received books. I told him I’d really enjoy writing a newspaper column. Smiling, he said careful what you ask for, that producing solid content twice a week is way more difficult than people realize. Now I get it. When I look at my most widely read 20+ posts, I realize most of the time I was agitated about something. Typically, the more irritated I am by something, the better. And therein lies the challenge, the older I get, and the more comfortable my life becomes as a result of mounting privilege, the less fired up I am about things. Case in point. Yesterday. Sunday. What irritated me? The people at church who over pass the peace. You know who you are. You’re the person who has to leave the pew and greet damn near everyone in the building with an affectionate hug. That’s not how God intended the peace to be passed. A few handshakes with the peeps to the right and left, front and back. There’s no biblical justification for the irrationally exuberant wandering. That has the makings of a great post doesn’t it? Not.

I will continue because it’s a way for me to connect with other people I know and like, but I’m feeling a need to mix it up. Not sure how yet. You can help by irritating me.

Are Women Smarter Then Men?

The seven minute video story at the bottom, about a group of friends in Chile, is a true joy. Do yourself a favor and start your week with it. How wonderful that these women have been friends for six decades. And I love their quirky personalities and exquisite taste in baked goods. Best of all, the beautiful “punchline” at the very end.

The Good Wife has had a similar group of close friends for close to two decades. To the Chileans, the Olympia Coffee Klatchers are mere pups.

For decades, in Ybor City, FL, Mother Dear has spent almost every Saturday morning enjoying Cuban coffee and cheese bread with the same girlfriends.

Big Sissy has been walking her Northwest Indiana ‘hood with the same few girlfriends for decades.

Increasingly, positive psychologists are telling us what we already instinctively know. Life is most meaningful when lived in community.

In fairness, some men make time for one another. My closest friend at work has helped lead a raucous book club in Tacoma, WA for the last 20-30 years. Of course, when Oprah learned about “Gower”, they were invited onto her show. And Older SoCal Bro gathers for coffee with a few male friends most Saturdays. And I run with the same group of male misfits a few times a week. We’ve had women members, but we’re so uncouth, they don’t last long.

Despite some evidence of male bonding, I can’t help but conclude women are more intentional, and therefore smarter, about investing in friendships. Why is that?

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