Sunday, July 30, 2017

Small steps - steps nonetheless...

“Our duty is not to overcome inequity everywhere.
Our duty is to overcome inequity in ourselves…”
– Anonymous

Dateline: San Diego
Time: 07:30
Temperature: 71 degrees (21C) – Humidity 72%

It was a typical summer’s morning in this west coast city. Locals say, “It’s just another day in paradise.” Molly and I lived here for five years and it would be hard to disagree that this is one of the loveliest places on the planet to live. It’s said that only three percent of the Earth's land mass has San Diego’s year-round temperate coastal-climate.

The spine meeting was in a hotel on the shore of the harbor, just west of Charles Lindbergh International Airport – some sixty yards from the water’s edge.

I headed out for a morning run, according to the Lindstrøm method, a Scandinavian approach I learned from its originator. It is a combination walk-jogging that works well for my aging architecture – in particular, ankles, knees, and hips. Think of Goldilocks and three bears as an example, but rather than porridge, it is about exercise intensity. Too little and the rewards are limited. Too much, and there is a risk of injury. The Lindstrøm method is intended for the movement to be just right! The guy who invented it is much better at it than I, but I continue to work on my technique in hopes that one day I will reach the mental and physical state he displays with such ease.

Usually, in the mornings, there is a marine layer along the coast. It forms from the cooling effect of the ocean water on the warmer air mass. In its most benign form, visibility is not affected, but a grayish cloud cover overcasts the sky that makes newcomers think it’s going to rain. In its strongest form, it cloaks the coastal city streets and highways in thick fog restricting visibility. Either way, by ten in the morning, most of it has burned off, and sunlight makes its way to the ground, covering everything in sight.

Loping along the harbor pathway, it was hard not to appreciate the beauty of the many sailboats moored off shore contrasted with the calm water and gray sky. Soon the sun would appear and make the boats against the San Diego Skyline look like toys on a shimmering carpet of blue water and framed in an azure blue sky.

There was another sight that caught my attention as I moved along the water’s edge. On several benches, meant for folks to sit and meditate at their good fortune as they quietly absorbed the beauty of this magnificent harbor, were homeless people just sitting up on the bench where they had spent the night. My clothes and belongings were in a dresser drawer and on the bathroom sink, theirs in a re-appropriated shopping cart or in one or two large, well-worn backpacks. At the end of my ‘Lindstrøm exercise,’ I would shower, change clothes, and get ready for the rest of the day. They would do neither.

My first experience in seeing a homeless person was in an early morning run in New Orleans decades ago. As I jogged around the person lying right in the middle of the sidewalk I was surprised to see him there. Later that morning, I felt as though I had been one of those Pharisees who bypassed the man eventually taken care of by the Good Samaritan in the Bible story I had known from my youth. It was a lovely story told by my mother as she tucked me in at night. I slipped into a reverie, content in the knowledge that God was good and all things eventually would work out. In New Orleans, the seeds were planted that everything would not work out in the end. It was a visceral reality that haunted my sleep for weeks.

Over the years, I have encountered hundreds of the homeless in situations just like this. There have been times when I provided a meal or a little cash, but in doing so, realized my impotence to make any kind of impact. I have come to understand there are many reasons people find themselves in a’ roofless’ life circumstance, many of which the result of poor mental health.

Whatever the reason for this outlier life journey, I have never come to grips with the real-life ‘Beauty and the Beast’ world in which we live. My upbringing in a modest minister’s family was on the ‘Beauty’ side of things. As challenging as circumstances might have been, I have never known the reality of the ‘Beast….’

As I headed back to the hotel, I was reminded of the story regarding the young boy and the thousands of sand-dollars on the beach. As he tossed them back into the ocean one by one, a man said to him, “Son, you will never be able to save these Sand-Dollars, there are simply too many.” The boy picked another one up and threw it into the water and said, “I saved that one!”

I thought to myself, I couldn't even save one...

- ted

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Collecting soft voices...

“Unfaithfulness in public stations is deeply criminal.
But there is not encouragement to be faithful.
Neither profit, nor honor, nor applause is
acquired by faithfulness…virtue is not
in fashion. Vice is not infamous…’
– John Adams, 2nd President of the
United States: Letter to wife Abigail.

How many times has someone given you assurances they would do something and did not follow through? How often has someone tried to sell, or succeeded in selling you something that did not meet expectations? How many times have you been betrayed in your life?

How good did it feel?

A small example…
Some years ago we purchased a new car. After a fair amount of dealership visiting, question asking and test driving, we settled on a particular make and model. It also indicated good gas mileage. We bought it because it was a good fit. The promise of thirty-two miles per gallon was not the deciding factor, but in addition to liking the vehicle, it made us feel we were a little more environmentally responsible.

From the beginning, that car never got thirty-two miles per gallon (mpg). Even on long highway stretches using economy settings and riding gently downward sloping roads, we never got that kind of efficiency.

Because the expectation was set, and for a while, each time the tank was filled and the car got twenty-eight mpg, I was irritated for having been misled.

It’s not the mpg's…
It may only have been a car company/salesman adjusting mileage predictions to sweeten a sale….so what's the big deal?

Were it only companies selling cars.

When these things happen, they erode confidence in information sources. Not only for gas mileage, as in this circumstance, but a broader, subtle distrust of information we hear from many sources about many things. As more of these kinds of experiences happen, they shave millimeters of hope and faith from the edges of our minds. If they happen enough, they wear away the fabric of social trust. Like the frog placed in slowly heating water, changes happen so insidiously that we don’t notice our shifting perceptions and beliefs. As with the frog who does not recognize he is being cooked, slowly emerging realities have potentially dangerous implications.

Dean Acheson, an American Statesman who provided counsel to several American Presidents, said:

“For a long time we have gone along with some well-tested principles of conduct: that it was better to tell the truth than falsehoods; that a half-truth was no truth at all; that duties were older than and as fundamental as rights; that, as Justice Holmes put it, the mode by which the inevitable came to pass was effort; that to perpetuate a harm was always wrong, no matter how many joined in it, but to perpetuate it on a weaker person was particularly detestable ... Our institutions are founded on the assumption that most people will follow these principles most of the time because they want to, and the institutions work pretty well when this assumption is true…” (From speech at the Associated Harvard Clubs of Boston – 1946)

These are time tested words because they are resonant truths. Our American way of life is messy, but in its messiness, has provided a compelling ‘light on the hill’ that has drawn the hopeful to its shores for more than 200 years. It has been an awkward experiment, but one that has worked better – and on a scale – than any other system the world has known.

Clarion? Call?…
Each of us has a very small circle of influence in our lives. The most fundamental of which is the potential for self-control. It is here where faith, curiosity, and hope exists, driving us forward. After that is influence with our family, then friends. As the concentric circles expand, our impact diminishes dramatically – neighborhood, community, state, nation, and the world. With each outward step, the ‘sound of our voice’ becomes softer and more distant.

On the other hand, as Pope Francis said in a 2017 TED talk, when distant individual voices unite with other voices of hope, they provide the basis for a revolution of light that has always been the basis of communal (community) and societal resilience. 

Do unto others – you know…
It is easier to consider ‘returning in kind’  things that have been done to us (e.g. let down, misled, or betrayed). The problem is that one can never pay back the hurt and even the score. Pay back only doubles the hurt – to the aphorism "When you remain angry with the thief, he has stolen from you twice."

It is also easy to fall into the mindset that since everyone does it, it's okay to adjust the truth a little here and a little there for personal gain. No doubt all of us do this from time to time, for any number of reasons. But repeated unfettered selfishness is a cancer that destroys our character and on a larger scale is a very real threat to our way of life.

Why not simply withdraw, step away and let the societal waters slowly heat. After all, it is them…those people…the others…who initiate these problems – not us. The thing is there is no them and us. There is only us. When ‘they’ do hurtful things, we are in the same heating water. It is the collective of the faint voices of the common good that cool the temperatures and still the waters.

As Dean Acheson and Pope Francis alluded to, stability in our own and societal lives can only come when we come together in the common cause of truth, hope, faith, and love. These are the glue that holds our personal and collective lives together making us stronger.

Maybe “…everyone else is doing it, why not me?” is an easier path in the short run, but over time, consistency, honesty, and character will come to a grinding halt. 

Listen for the voices, keep the faith...

- ted

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Not always the data…

 “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby
some have entertained angels unawares.”
Hebrews 13:2 – Bible

Bill (not his real name) is a slender mid-fifty-year-old man with sparkling eyes, a compelling smile, and quick wit. He has long curly brown hair and stands a little over five-foot-ten. He’s an Ivy Leaguer who still works but is mostly retired. I first noticed him exercising at the local YMCA. He is a regular in the gym.

I have never understood what it is that draws me to people. This feeling emerges somewhere inside, grows and if I don’t act in some way, it becomes uncomfortable…almost nagging. It also seems to be time sensitive, meaning if I don’t act…like the wind passing through the leaves of the trees…the ‘season’ passes and it is gone. I was drawn to Bill and caught him before the wind slipped away. I have not been disappointed.

As the scriptures say, one never knows where lie the angels. They are the messengers – earthly or heavenly. AND it is about the messages, isn't it?

There may be a context here…
The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), WebMD, Harvard News Letter, Silver Sneakers Newsletter, the American College of Sports Medicine, and a host of other e-publications inundate my email box with admonitions to be more active and healthy.

You know what I am talking about.

Pictures of happy, young, middle-aged or senior citizens, smiling as they exercise. The sun shines as they walk, jog, swim, bike ride, dance, play tennis, shuffle board…the list endless. One might even think cultural harmony and world peace could be achieved if only we wore brightly colored loose fitting ‘exercise appropriate’ clothes and headed to the…fill in the blank…for a little sweat inducing activity.

While there are other popular topics like getting proper sleep, good nutrition and managing life producing stress, most emails in all ways and by all means, return to exercise as the key to a healthy and productive life.

Exercise is touted as the best management approach for reducing the risk of injury, increasing quality of life, and if you have a chronic disease, the most effective way to minimize its encroachment on your ability to function day to day.

On the other hand, the majority of us are not physically active. It is work, and if you watch real people doing it, you do NOT see smiling faces. Rather, you see serious looks focusing on the activity at hand. Next time you see someone exercising in the gym or on the street, or small groups walking in a park, look for those smiling faces…there aren’t many. Like most things that cause growth in life, vigorous exercise is not comfortable. It takes work.

Here are the data…
In 2015 a Centers for Disease Control National Health Interview Survey of 103,798 people, showed that nearly eighty-percent did not meet activity minimums from federal guidelines (moderate to vigorous activity for 75 minutes a week - a little over 10 minutes per day). 

Catch 22

Most folks don’t like to exercise at all as the graphics suggest, and as we age, our interest in regularly activity diminishes further (First figure - click to enlarge). Culture and race didn’t make any meaningful difference (Second figure).

The idea of easing into the golden years takes hold, and as time flies by, we do less and less.

So what, who cares…
One hundred and seventeen million people have one or more preventable chronic diseases – heart, stroke, cancer, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and arthritis. The majority occur later in life and are a result of poor health choices – principle to this brief piece, lack of habitual exercise.

If a pattern of activity has not been established in earlier decades, the chances of being active when we are older slips further into the horizon of a progressively reduced quality of life, and increased risk of chronic disease.

There’s money on the table here…
In 2003, costs for managing these preventable health conditions was 297 Billion dollars. They are estimated to nearly triple by 2023 (Milken Institute State Chronic Disease Index). Medication costs alone, which often have significant side effects, are astronomical. Development of chronic disease, disability, and medication usage would be greatly reduced in later stages of life if we were more active from our twenties on (graphic 1 again).  But hey, we’re mostly not sick in our twenties!

Back to the gym…
It takes Bill a little more than five minutes to get from his car to the front door of the building. That would be from his handicap parking spot some fifty feet away. He uses hiking sticks for balance, making sure they are set firmly before taking halting and unsteady steps…each of which causes a hyperextension of his knees because he does not have enough muscle mass in his thighs. When he moves, his focus is the next step and making sure he doesn’t fall over.

Bill has muscular dystrophy, a progressive constellation of muscle syndromes for which there is no cure. His disease was not brought on by poor lifestyle choices. He understands being active is the only way he can resist each millimeter of function robbed from him by this progressive and terminal condition. He doesn’t know the data on chronic disease or its costs to society. He doesn’t care that the majority of people are not active enough to build barriers against debilitating chronicity – his reality is present and urgent.

And so he shows up at the gym and fights every distressing and uncomfortable barrier to capture as much life as he possibly can.

I have been an active exerciser most of my life. As I get older, it is harder to keep motivated to be in the gym or on the streets or in the pool. Part of it is the decline of functional capacity as time and gravity take their pound of flesh…part of it is waning interest.

Often times I need a little help to overcome the inertia of the comfortable chair in which I am sitting or project on which I am working.

When I want to stay in and take a break, what gets me going are NOT the smiling faces on email links I get or the knowledge that sedentary living potentially brings on insidious chronic disease, or that my health care costs might to be higher.

What gets me going?

The angel Bill!