Old Well: UNC Chapel Hill Campus

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

I don't know about you, but ....

I don't know about you, but I worry a lot, even about little things, and I've been this way my whole life.  Maybe it's in the genes.  Now and then, I get these vivid flashbacks of my dad, a chronic worrier, ensconced in his armchair, peering out the window for long stretches, chin resting on his hand, like Rodin's Thinker.
Believe me!  I'm trying like the dickens to get free from its weight and adopt a more casual, perhaps fatalistic view of the way life works in a world often mediated by chance, not will, human or divine.  
Worrying displays my need to control, a rather arrogant pose if you think about it--as if any of us possess the key unlocking our hoard chest of desires.
It's a hard thing to quit once you're into it, which is odd, since worry has so little to recommend it, except to delude us into thinking we can keep destiny's jackals at bay.
This isn't to say we shouldn't prepare for tomorrow, say like getting an insurance policy or making a will.  In life's lottery, diligence has often proved our evolutionary savior.  Take the Dutch building their dykes, for example.
Oddly, it's the intelligent person who often gets himself caught on barbwire speculation.
In fact, worry may very well characterize intelligence.  In the February 1, 2012  Frontiers in Evolutionary Science, we learn of a research study involving 26 people with generalized  anxiety disorder and 18 healthy people without this disorder. Intelligence tests and brain activity scans showed anxiety and high intelligence were linked.
As I hinted earlier, worrying may have conferred survivability.
Then, should I continue to indulge my vice?
Think of it like salt and pepper: a little bit won't hurt, but no more than a pinch or you'll spoil the broth!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

We talk a lot about good health

We talk a lot about good health.  Given the increasing expense of medical care, it's understandable.  Costs seem to have no end in sight.  Mindful, health providers frequently feature free check ups to reduce future costs.  
We can do a lot to help ourselves: quit smoking; imbibe alcohol moderately, if at all; exercise; watch our weight; eat the right foods (low fat meats, lots of veggies and fruit), get a good night's sleep.
Truth is, even these good habits may not get us there.  The heart of the problem lies not in nutrition, but in daily stress.  There's plenty to go around these days, whether at work or at home.
I wasn't surprised to recently see the statistics.  According to a recent National Health Interview Survey, some 75% of us experience moderate to high stress in a given two week time frame.  In fact, stress is costing companies nearly 300 billion a year in claims, lost work days and productivity.
The American Medical Association tells us that up to 60% of all illness derives from stress.  I believe the mind and body are one.  When we're consistently stressed, our body bears the toll, whether in a weakened immune system, hypertension, or an increased acid digestive environment.  Ultimately, stress can affect our mental stability, work performance and our relationships.
But how do we lessen stress?  Here are ways that work for me.  I don't pretend I've made my way past anxiety.  But these have helped me and may help you.  
1.  Changing thoughts
I'm no guru, but anxiety, my particular consequence of stress, has been a close neighbor all too long.  I don't like its proximity, but I know it's not going to move away.  It's up to me to make the move.
I've tried medication to relieve my anxiety.  Frankly, I don't like this route and try to avoid it since every drug, even the seemingly innocuous, has its side effects like nausea, vomiting, diarrhea.  Meds often give me that hangover effect or sense of stupor.  They can lead to kidney and liver damage and, ironically, increase the anxiety for which they've been prescribed.  There is now convincing research evidence they may not work for many.  User success claims may well be due to a placebo effect. Minimal result differences exist, for example, between those treated with SSRIs (anti-depressants) and those in control groups receiving placebos.
Unfortunately, modern medicine generally treats symptoms, not causes.  I believe we find healing when we root out cause factors.  I wager that our thoughts greatly define who we are and how we feel.  If I can change my thoughts, I can  minimize my anxiety-laden emotions causing my stress.  
The good news is that we can find our way back to well-being, or wholeness of mind, body and spirit.  After all, you are what you think.

2.   Exercise
It's incredible how well our bodies function when we exercise regularly.  By exercise I mean what gets your heart pounding for a minimum 30 minutes, five times weekly.  It doesn't matter whether it's running, swimming, or the elliptical machine in your basement or at the gym.  LDL gets pushed down; HDL (the good stuff), goes higher; weight gain comes under control; blood pressure is lowered, etc. When I exercise, I feel better.
3.  Relaxation strategies

Lately  I've been turning to the East with its bottomless wisdom nurtured over centuries into a profundity often missed in our materialistic, frenzied West.  Recently, I found a book with simple yoga exercises designed for stressed people like myself.  They take only twenty minutes to do without all the twist gyrations traditionally associated with Hatha yoga, the form most practiced in the West for its physical regimen.
Yoga has its spiritual side, releasing us from everyday stresses.  When I lie on my mat and practice progressive relaxation and visualization, it helps me to divert.  When I breathe properly, that is, deeply, I can actually feel my tightened muscles relax and my mind yield to prevailing calm.  Yoga teaches me that I can transcend my worries and achieve a richer life free from angst.  Yoga frees me from reacting to the gauntlet  of pummeling circumstance. In its place comes mindfulness, the importance of living in the Now.  Through meditation, I am learning how to control my thoughts.  Detached from my anxieties, I find my worries far away, or like passing clouds in a tall sky. 
When I lie down on my mat, breathe deeply, chant my mantra, or fixation aid, my limbs  seem to have fallen through. I am become like a bird buoyed on a thermal, removed from earth, empowered for flight.
In my kindling of interest in the East I have found Qi Gong and Tai Chi buttress what Yoga does. Because of its simplicity, Qi Gong can be done in a chair. You might think of it as a take-it-with-you exercise.

As for Tai Chi, it's one of China's foremost cultural achievements.  When I think of China, I visualize multitudes of young and old, gathered in parks, invigorated by early morning coolness, anointed by the sun's first rays, shifting their balance from foot to foot, arms moving slowly, rhthmically.
4.  Music
Shakespeare tells us that music has charms to soothe the savage beast.  I would say it a more modern way: music has capacity to heal the troubled psyche.  I think of David singing psalms before troubled King Saul. While I like many kinds of music,  I prefer classical Indian music best when it comes to fostering relaxation.  Enya also is very special.
5.  Reading
I've always read a lot.  At times when I cannot sleep,  I will read.  Better than a pill, it usually works.
6.  Hobbies
Nobody should be without one.  Hobbies divert, providing a way out from stress.  They also promote the best part of ourselves, the Eros (creative) rather than the Thanatos (the negative or death element.  There are two dynamics, like laws of physics, embracing the universe and individuals: one fostering creation; the other, destruction.  One is positive; the other, negative.  Hobbies foster the right choice.  I happen to indulge in gardening and studying languages.  They've proved unstinting in their capacity to delight me and bring peace.
7.  Social
We need each other.  Get out.  Be with others.  Like many of you, I often would prefer to stay home bound, but when I do go out, I'm usually glad I went. Besides, there are dividends.  Psychology tells us that when we connect, we're happier and live longer.
8.  Humor
Again, Shakespeare rises to the occasion.  "A merry heart doeth good like a medicine."  In short, laugh and be well. I turned on the comedy channel last week when I was emotionally fidgeting.  Shakespeare was right.
9.  Good deeds.

Wordsworth, that great poet of memory, tells of how recalling his acts of kindness afforded him peace despite the varied, unceasing shocks of life.  A shy person, I'm not there yet. But I'm making effort to go out and do.  To find a cause.  To engage.  Again, Shakespeare reminds us that “Joy’s soul lies in the doing.”
10. Writing
I could have included writing under hobbies, but I wanted to give it emphasis by listing it separately.  Writing offers me catharsis for pent up emotions.  But it also becomes my act of self-discovery, my journey into self-knowledge.  Writing clarifies, helps me see patterns, staves off my too often impulsiveness for making grand, sweeping generalizations and, in being superficial, to be silly.  I'm always wiser when I reflect.
11.  Quietness
I am learning to take time out.  To take time to let go.  To take time to do nothing.  I am learning  to be quiet.  To listen. To learn.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Here we are again at Father's Day.

Here we are again at Father's Day.  Tell you the truth, I don't think about it all that much now.  My father passed away in 1977.  My wife put the whole thing succinctly last night. Sparked by one of those many Father's Day TV commercials, she lamented on no longer having a father to send a card to this year.  We lost Dad just this past February, a gentle, good man with simple tastes and abundant kindness.  I miss him, too.
Losing parents are markers of our own journey in life's rhythms such as finishing school, getting our first job, falling in love, and becoming parents in turn.  When we lose our parents we find ourselves advanced to taking the point position.  Now that can be pretty sobering.
I can't send a card anymore to my own Dad, make a call, or do a visit.  After some thirty-five years, do I ever think about my father?  Might as well forget there's a sunrise, I think of him so often.
Pa, as we called him, was uneven as a performing father.  He had excess appetites, particularly for alcohol.  He could be crude and sometimes violent, not just when he boozed. He treated Ma badly and drove her from us.  He was very Irish in the wrong way.
And yet I can honestly say I owe him considerable debts.  I know no one who's influenced me more.  We don't get to choose our parents, and some are blessed with drawing the best hand.  I had to play with the hand I was dealt.
Pa taught me to be discerning when it came to people.  Though poorly educated, not uncommon for workers born before 1900, he could read the con and cross the street in time.  
I became a news buff like him.  Each day, there he was, in his leather chair in the kitchen, by the window, bent over the Philly paper, often reading portions to me.  On Sunday mornings, he'd send me up the street to get the massive paper, a feast for both of us, as he'd give me one portion while he read another.  There I was, a ten year old boy, sprawled on the living room floor, reading the latest about the Korean War.  It almost seemed I knew Harry Truman personally.
Pa didn't like you wearing a hat at the supper table.  He found it rude to wear a cap in the house, period.  There was this one time my brother didn't respond to his request to take off his hat at the supper table.  Pa never asked twice.  Suddenly his hand struck.  To this day I have an aversion to people wearing hats while eating.  Today he'd be aghast at how common it is, whether in restaurants or classrooms.  Pa was spared seeing men not removing their caps at the ball park while the National Anthem is played.
He taught through example the virtue of working hard. I know of no man who worked harder.  On occasion, I'd visit him at the leather factory just around he corner,  You could smell its toxins on those unrelieved humid summer nights in Philly, not a breeze between the Schuylkill and the Delaware.  He worked on the third floor, tacking skins to boards, nails held between his lips, several of his fingers of his nailing hand permanently positioned from long years of tacking, a family tradition for us in those days when America made its own shoes.  Fiercely independent, he eschewed welfare.  
Pa was an obsessive letter writer and in the ensuing years when life found his four children scattered across the landscape, he unceasingly wrote all of us, urging us to stay connected, and we did and still do.  Like him, in those days when email, messaging, cell phones and Skype were unknowns, we became letter writers in turn.
One of my best memories of Pa was his love for baseball.  We didn't have a TV in those days, so while I played with my toy trucks on the floor, I'd be imbibing radio broadcasts of the Philly and Athletic games. A New Englander, his real passion was the Red Sox, an addiction he passed on to me, adding to life's groans.  Mornings saw me playing stick ball against factory walls, into the hours, with my fellow Fishtown rogues.
Like a good many Irish, he excelled in story telling.  How often into the night, no matter the retellings, I listened entranced to stories of his own parents or of the World War I battlefield, or of his run for political office, or of his work struggles during the Great Depression, or of his replay on getting the Pearl Harbor news that terrible Sunday morning, and best, those anecdotes of the family tribe, of aunts and uncles and countless cousins, of rumored Indian origins.  Fact or fiction?  Who the hell cared.  The embroidery was wonderful!
Pa was a grab-bag of good and bad.  There was the drinking and its legacy for bad memories.  But then he was also a victim of a hand-me-down culture, or as James Joyce memorably put it, "Ireland sober is Ireland free," a witticism that liberally applies to its Diaspora.
I think it was Nietzsche who said that if one didn't have a good father, it was necessary to create one. I don't think that's what I'm doing here.  I see it more from the reality of acknowledging the human condition, or as Anais Nin said so well, as always, "The human father has to be confronted and recognized as human."
Whatever Pa's faults, good things fell from his table, and in reconciling the books, I've found the assets outweigh the liabilities, and for this I remain a grateful son, his bucko still.


Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Ephemeral--now that's a mouthful....

Ephemeral--now that's a mouthful for a word infrequently used, and meaning short-lived. Still, it's one of the most vitalizing words in the English language. That is, if we can grasp its implications--that ending hovers over everything, over what and whom we love.

Mortality lies at the groundswell of poetry, that time erodes and even memory dulls, that it brings with it alteration. Its waves, often unperceived in the languorous satiety of life, nonetheless sweep in and out, cast up, then take away. Life has its rhythms. There is a time to be born and a time to die, as Ecclesiastes tells us.

I contemplate not upon human mortality only, but upon best friendships, happy events, kind deeds, promises made, hopes gathered of good health, material comfort, my children's happiness. I know now that even the mountains grow and die.

As a college student, I once wrote a poem about a tree outside my class window--its pregnant fullness, its long life with more to come, the irony that a tree like some Galapagos sea turtle should outlive humans, evolution's crowning achievement. Several months later, the bulldozers moved in.

Again, I think of so many poems I have loved, poignant in their melancholy of demise and ending: Shakespeare's "Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day?"; Yeats's "The Wild Swans Of Coole"; Dylan Thomas's "Fern Hill"; Houseman's "Loveliest of Trees, the Cherry Now"; my favorite, Keats' "Ode to a Nightingale".

At times I have felt like the Psalmist who wrote of weeping by the waters of Babylon in recall of Zion’s pre-Captivity halcyon past. Like him, I know that even nations rise and fall.

I know, too, that time fades the sensory past and often bequeaths a future not granting great expectations.

Yet I do not mourn life's ephemerality, for I have learned to revere what I cannot keep, to indulge each new day, to love more fully.

With much that's taken, much is given.

We have only the Now in which to seek and find the Grail.


Sunday, June 10, 2012

Lately I've been reading....

Lately I've been reading F. Scott Fitzgerald's lesser known novel, This Side of Paradise. It's one of those freebies you can now download, given its removal from copyright after fifty years.

This novel focuses on the character Amory Blaine. There's not much to like about Amory, particularly his conceit. He interests me because he resembles many of us. He likes control. He has a zeal to be noticed. He's self conscious in everything he does. He must be perfect. He must be liked. In his self-absorption, he's quick to take offense.

In the course of things, he meets his third cousin, Clara Page, with whom he falls in love. Widowed and impoverished, she nonetheless has a compelling resilience about her and an insightful way of getting to the core of things. As her first name suggests, she functions as a clarifier in her intuitive keenness. She sees, for example, the source of Amory's vanity and sensitivity to criticism.

Clara is direct in her dissection of Amory's egotism as a mask for deeply seated feelings of personal inadequacy:

"You sink to the third hell of depression when you think you've been slighted. In fact, you haven't much self-respect."

Here, as elsewhere in this novel, Fitzgerald proves a keen observer of the psychological motives behind outward behavior.

When we wound easily or strive overly it often stems from a sense we don't measure up. Perfectionists, we yearn for approval as evidence of our self-worth. Over achievers, we require validation.

Clara again hits the nail on the head, exclaiming, "The reason you have so little self-confidence, even though you gravely announce to the occasional philistine that you're a genius, is that you've attributed all sorts of faults to yourself and are trying to live up to them."

Amory suffers from a common anxiety malaise that can shackle our potential for finding happiness. It becomes difficult to elude its hydra tentacles, as it requires an honest and painful, acknowledgment of our weaknesses. But it's the only way out. Until we can live with ourselves, warts and all, we can't really find contentment.

This doesn't mean getting into self-flagellation. It isn't wallowing we're after. It's self-acceptance. Only then can true healing begin. We become lovable when we learn to love ourselves. Forgiving ourselves, we can forgive others.

Mitch Albom got it right in his The Five People You Meet in Heaven: "'You have peace, the old woman said, 'when you make peace with yourself.'"


Thursday, June 7, 2012

Hats off to Wisconsin governor Scott Walker....

Hats off to Wisconsin governor Scott Walker on his victory in Tuesday's recall election.  I say this not because I am a Republican.  I am not.  In fact, I find much of their current agenda extreme in its callousness to the growing divide between the prosperous few and the beleaguered middle class.  I dislike their injection of evangelical overtones that would impose on the private interest. I could go on.  
I just happen to admire the governor for standing tall.  He never flinched or played the expedience game as most politicians do.  Apparently, many Wisconsin voters agreed, the governor winning by a hefty seven percent margin in what was supposed to be a close election.  
At the heart of my relief are two factors:  the first, the threat recall elections pose to the democratic process; the second, the heavy toll on federal and state budget deficits inflated by rising pension and health care costs for those in the public sector.  In parody of Shakespeare, I would suggest that public workers protest too much.
In the first instance, I have posted previously (see Aug.11, 2011) on the threat recall elections pose to political stability.  I abhor recall petitions for a recall and hence overturning of an election.  Truth is,  Wisconsin has already suffered several recall elections that included a judge, who also survived.  It amounts to government by the mob.  Don't like a decision? Then throw the bum out.  It hasn't anything to do with criminality.  Nor are we in a town meeting at the local courthouse.

In the second instance, I have always been ambivalent about unions.  My dad always  feared a union takeover where he worked.  For him, unions brought strife.
As a teen, I refused my first job in a supermarket, since they required union membership.  I didn't like a policy abrogating choice. I found it un-American and still do.
Here in Kentucky, Toyota workers have consistently shunned union representation.  They are remunerated well, whether in pay or other benefits.  They know the score.
Unions decry the loss of manufacturing jobs to other countries when the truth is their incessant greed has increasingly infringed upon profitability margins for the entrepreneur.   Consumers themselves will choose lower prices over nationalism when pushing comes to shove.  Have unions not learned from the likes of box stores such as Walmart?
Unions cost local economies.  Consider Boeing in Seattle, where my son-in-law works.  Because of inveterate union demands, particularly on the part of the Machinist Union, Boeing recently opted for a new assembly plant in South Carolina.  Let me tell you,  Boeing workers are hardly underpaid.
When it comes to pensions for public workers, why should they be endowed with 30-year pensions in the first place?  The vast majority of us have to work into our sixties, if we're able to retire even then.  In Kentucky, nearly a third of teachers retiring in their early fifties return to the job they supposedly retired from.
I can see thirty year pensions for those in risk occupations: military, police and fire workers, though disability benefits need greater monitoring in the latter occupations.  
And why shouldn't workers such as teachers and those in federal, state, and local government contribute more to their health and retirement costs?  The rest of us do.  Note that I say this, even though my wife is a teacher.
Why should we have to pay for them, resulting in increasing cutbacks in other areas, ironically, including education and government?
No longer can the public support these lavish payouts.  At present, only two states are solvent when it comes to pension funding. The other states are in the hock for billions. Some of them face insolvency, complicated by the downturn in the economy and decreased tax revenue.
This is why Scott Walker won.  
I am glad he won.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Stress can take its toll on your health

Stress can take its toll on your health.  Unabated, it can shorten your life.  I keep telling myself this, since it's been a long time bug-a- boo for me. You see, I'm a chronic worrier.
Stress comes in many wrappings.  More commonly, it comes from our dodgem affair with everyday life: work, relationships, unemployment, health issues, a loved one's death.  I bet you could add to the list. There's enough to go around, that's for sure.
A lot of times, we can't avoid stress.  It's the entrance fee for pursuing a full life.  We may sometimes wish for lotus land, but it's in the striving, not escape, we achieve and find fulfillment.  Mark Twain, a guy increasingly compelling for me in his common sense observations, said he would find heaven a boring place. I agree.  
But as I hinted, sometimes stress is of our own making.  Like an ulcer, it can erode life's joy. I consider myself relatively intelligent and rational, yet I worry a lot, even about little things, like Did I say the right thing? What will people think?  Did I sign the check I just stashed in the envelope?  
Lately, as an older person, I've been worried about my health. My body doesn't work as well. Increasingly, I've had to turn sentry to preserve what health remains. Like a car gathering miles, things start to go wrong, sometimes suddenly.
I think my recent nemesis, or anxiety, has its more immediate source in a common human malady: the angst of mortality.  When we're young, we don't think about it much, at least most of us. As I write, I think of Auden's exquisite poem, "Musee des Beaux Arts," with its allusion to children for whom grief and death, the epitomies of life's drama, absent themselves in the intensity of their play.
When we get older, we become more aware.  We take insurance and what we pay is determined by scientifically based actuary tables.  
We all worry, but some of us worry far too much, gashing the tree of life in getting too close with our weed-eater approach, trimming away life's unevenness.
Buddhism has it right in its simple maxim that all suffering comes of desire.  We want too much what we often lack power to control. With acceptance comes peace. This is the great moral of Sophocles' ancient, yet still riveting play, Oedipus the King, its protagonist determined to outwit Fate.
Worrying comes from a need to control, when what we really need is to let go. Things get a whole lot lighter when we hurl our sack of anxieties over the mountain side.
You see, the best of living comes with living in the moment.  The past is what it is, and we're not guaranteed a future.
I'm not there yet. The trail up the mountain is arduous in its steep, but I'm making the trek, one step at a time. I have found wise counsel, helpful books, and to my delight, yoga with its progressive relaxation postures, deep breathing, and meditation aspects. I'm curious about Tai Chi.
I've been learning to replace negative thoughts, the source of emotional pain, with positive alternatives. I have returned to daily physical exercise, a great stress-buster, too.
I am worrying less. I enjoy life more.