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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The Overworked American

From True Wealth by Juliet Schor:

“Not surprisingly, over the last twenty years, a large number of U.S. employees report being overworked. A 2004 study found that 44 percent of respondents were often or very often overworked, overwhelmed at their job, or unable to step back and process what’s going on. A third reported being chronically overworked. These overworked employees had much higher stress levels, worse physical health, higher rates of depression, and reduced ability to take care of themselves than their less-pressured colleagues. Adverse effects of long hours, stress, and overwork have found in a number of studies, for a variety of physical, mental, and social health outcomes.”

Phenomenon like that inspired this blog’s name many moons ago. So, as the calendar year draws to a close, let’s step back and process what’s going on.

Why do so many U.S. workers subject themselves to the “adverse effects of long hours, stress, and overwork”? Is it because, as one of my friends insists, they have no choice, because their families have grown accustomed to uber-comfortable, expensive-to- maintain lifestyles? Is it as simple as mindless materialism or trying to keep pace with one’s neighbors conspicuous consumption? What if my friend went to his family and said, I want to invest less time at work and more strengthening our relationships and my physical, mental, and social health?

Overworked U.S. readers, what is keeping you from reducing your personal or family overhead and going half-time at work? Or if your employer doesn’t provide a half-time option, finding a different job that would require less of you so that you could prioritize, rather than continue neglecting, your physical, mental, and social health?

I don’t think my friend would admit it, but I’m convinced, despite his sporadic complaining about his work, he greatly prefers being at work to not. He does not have many interests outside of work. He’s good at what he does. Being good at what he does gives him an identity.

Maybe the central challenge for the overworked American isn’t figuring out how to down-size his or her lifestyle, it’s how to craft an identity from non-work interests and activities.

Postscript: Mea culpa. I should’ve woven this sentence in from Schor too. “Of course, for many earning less money is simply impossible, because their wages are too low.”

 

 

Living Healthily By Feel

As I wrote recently, modern life requires some dependence upon expert recommendations, but when it comes to our health, we’re too dependent upon scientists; when it comes to our money, we’re too dependent upon financial planners; and when it comes to our spirituality, we’re too dependent upon religious professionals.

A recent Wall Street Journal story described a study of older recreational athletes. The conclusion, past age 50, running more than 15-20 miles a week at faster than 7:30 per mile is associated with higher mortality rates. That makes sense since fast long distance running is a form of stress. So far, I’ve ran about 1,470 miles this year or almost exactly 30 a week. Most of those miles were in the 7:30 neighborhood (well, not the last 8 in Canada). In addition, I’ve swam about 185 miles and rode 5,272—all personal highs thanks to my Ironperson Canada prep.

According to some scientific experts, I’m killing myself in the predawn perpetual light rain, in the sense that I’m shortening my life. If you listen carefully, you can hear couch potatoes everywhere cheering lustily.

So do I dial things back? I accept the studies’ peer-reviewed conclusions, but I’m too skeptical to change my overly active lifestyle as a result of the study. When determining how far and fast to run, swim, and cycle; instead of living purely by science; I choose to live mostly by intuition or feel.

I know myself better than the scientists who conducted the study. Consequently, I’m just arrogant enough to think their study doesn’t apply to me. I’ve slowly built my endurance base over the last twenty years, I eat well, I prioritize sleep, and I’m pretty good about minimizing everyday stress. Regularly going semi-long contributes to the excellent quality of my life. I’m convinced I’m physically, mentally, and even spiritually healthier than I otherwise would be if I cut back based on this study’s recommendations.

I would like to live a long life, but I’m even more interested in maintaining a good quality of life. Late in life I want to remember my past; read The New Yorker; write regularly; and walk without falling down.

I could be wrong. About one of the most important decisions imaginable. The horrors, I may not be special. If some of you are at my funeral in two or twenty years, I give you permission to laugh one last time at me.

Saturday morning, I extended myself for only the second time since Ironperson Canada (the other was the Seattle Half Marathon two weeks ago). I ran 10 miles with my favorite right wing burners, inhaled a large bowl of oatmeal, and then celebrated Hob’s 52nd birthday by swimming 52 100’s. Dear longevity researchers, stick that in your pipe and smoke it.

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Everything Free Day

Two weeks ago Megan McArdle reviewed a few books on consumption. Early in the review she reveals she recently bought a $1,500 food processor. Who knew one could drop 1.5 large on a food processor?

The Saturday morning after Black Friday my betrothed filled me in on the L.A. shopper who pepper-sprayed several other X-box shopper-competitors before fleeing the scene. The good news is I don’t think anyone was trampled to death in Toys R’ Us this year. On Black Friday I subscribed to consumerreports.org in the a.m. and then spent a chunk of the p.m. shopping for new kitchen appliances at home in my pepper spray-free environment.

I spent part of Thanksgiving Day shopping too. Well, kind of. While watching Ndamukong Suh stomp on a Packer o-lineman, I blew through 90% of the 90 lbs. of newspaper ad inserts. Took everything the labradude had to drag that bad boy to the front door. Who knew Wal-Mart sells decent looking jeans for $10? And a decent Timex Ironman-brand watch for $10? Maybe they won’t stop stomping their suppliers until they can sell everything for $10 or less.

Remember the crazy shopping spree marketing prizes in the 70’s or 80’s? Some lucky winner would get an hour in a grocery store and they’d sprint up and down the aisle frantically loading a few baskets with a little of everything? And we’d watch imagining how much faster we’d go or how we’d be more strategic and target the most expensive goods that take up the least space.

What if Black Friday was “National Reduce Inventory” day and everything was free? Nothing sold out, no servers crashed, perfect availability. What would you have brought home? What about those you live with? Where/how would you have stored everything? How would those new possessions have changed your life? Would you be much happier?

At minimum, I would have ordered a few new kitchen appliances and brought home some of Costco’s most expensive vino, a new bicycle computer, and a McArdle food processor in a new Seal Gray 2012 Porsche 911. Initially at least, I would have been much happier. Among other ripple effects though, I’d have to work more hours to pay for more expensive car insurance and maintenance costs and over the course of a few weeks, months, and years, I probably wouldn’t be any happier at all.

I don’t assume what’s true for me is true for you, but I’m learning the things that make me happiest—friendship, good health, film, literature, exercising in natural settings, writing this blog, helping others—can’t be purchased in a store or ordered on-line. I could spend tons of time and energy shopping in stores and on-line at this time of year, brag about my good bargains, but not improve the quality of my life.

If there’s ever a time of the year for reflecting on this dynamic it’s now. The thrill of even great purchases quickly fades so invest time and energy in the people and things that bring lasting joy.

Related Graham Hill TED Talk titled “Less Stuff, More Happiness”.

The Nostalgia Trap

As I age, I’d like to avoid many middle-aged and elderly people’s penchant for complaining that “compared to back in the day, the world is going to hell.” Much of that pessimism rests on selective perception. Except for the clinically depressed, isn’t life a constantly shifting mix of good and bad?

Here’s a related NYT book review excerpt from a new novel “Super Sad” which takes place in the near future.

“Mr. Shteyngart has extrapolated every toxic development already at large in America to farcical extremes. The United States is at war in Venezuela, and its national debt has soared to the point where the Chinese are threatening to pull the plug. There are National Guard checkpoints around New York, and riots in the city’s parks. Books are regarded as a distasteful, papery-smelling anachronism by young people who know only how to text-scan for data, and privacy has become a relic of the past. Everyone carries around a device called an äppärät, which can live-stream its owner’s thoughts and conversations, and broadcast their “hotness” quotient to others. People are obsessed with their health — Lenny works as a Life Lovers Outreach Coordinator (Grade G) for a firm that specializes in life extension — and shopping is the favorite pastime of anyone with money. It’s “zero hour for our economy,” says one of Lenny’s friends, “zero hour for our military might, zero hour for everything that used to make us proud to be ourselves.”

Is your relative optimism or pessimism based upon the quality of your nation’s governance, economy, and military, or as I suspect, more on the nature of your personal budget, the status of your family’s and your health, the quality of your friendships, and the relative purposefulness of your work.

I’m feeling positive about life today in part because of a post run lake swim, an enjoyable dinner with three friends, and an amazing sunset over the sound.

I have downer moments, days, and weeks like everyone.

I prefer spending time with people who reject the myth of a golden yesteryear and what sociologists refer to as “deficit model” thinking and show empathy for the truly unfortunate. People whose thoughts, words, and deeds are more hopeful than cynical.