What do you stand for?

What Do You Stand For

Last night, after the kids were down and the dishes were put away, I plopped down onto the couch with my wife and watched fifteen minutes of the Bachelor opening. For those lucky souls who don’t know what this is, it’s another reality show where lots of high-drama people are tossed into a pot and stirred until said drama ensues. It’s predictable, silly, and mindless but millions of people tune in weekly and lots of commercial space is sold.

During the season opener, most of the lovelorn wannabes are given a couple of minutes to tell their story as they stroll through the streets of their town. One woman was from small-town Arkansas (what else is there in Arkansas?) and talked about her boutique and about how dreamy the bachelor is and then said something interesting: she capped her introduction by saying that life, for her based on her small town Arkansanian roots, revolves around ‘the three F’s of faith, family, and football.’

It sounds like a cliché but I wonder how many of us could funnel what’s important to us down so succinctly. And just how powerful it is to be able to lay it down with a slap on the table: this is what I stand for!

What do you stand for?

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A tale of three smokers…

This post is about lightening up a little bit and getting to know yourself better. It’s about me and two good friends. We all used to smoke. Not like a chimney or a vaper but smokers nonetheless. Truth is that few things in my life were as gloriously satisfying as a Marlboro Light. I looked forward to hopping in the truck just so I could light one up and enjoy a deep and long drag.

Of course, I tried quitting. Several times. I had successes but never for more than a month or so. Finally I decided that I would never quit. Instead, I decided that I would take a year off. After a year, I could go and buy a carton if I wanted to. Well, I spent my year never even thinking about smoking. Somehow, for me, this little mind trick just removed the question from my brain. A year later, I actually bought a cigarette. (You could buy singles for seventy-five cents were I lived). It didn’t kill me but it had certainly lost its appeal. It stunk and tasted lousy and I didn’t want to spend the money on it. I’ve smoked a few times since then but just have no interest in it.

My buddy PE quit in a single day. He was a navy man and bought smokes at the commissary. One he walked in and the price of a carton had jumped from about twenty to thirty bucks and he refused to pay that much.  He claims to have never smoked since. His tightwad habits saved him from his nicotine habit.

AG tried quitting all kinds of ways. What worked for him was buying a book. It was about how tobacco companies use all kinds of fillers and chemicals to make their products cheaper and more addictive. I still don’t know how true it is – nicotine delivered in small, regular doses is fantastically addictive – but it worked for him. He was incensed for a year and vowed to never pay those asses a dime again.

There are two morals to the story. One is to know yourself. Try to figure out what drives you. I know that I want cookies and pie when I’m feeling lousy and that when I fight with my wife, I retreat. Knowing that I gravitate toward these behaviors helps me to change them. The other message is to keep trying. What worked for Raoul might not work for Julie. What does not work for Julie worked wonders for Ilsa. It’s hard to know why but we are all different with different experiences. So be kind to yourself and give some latitude and you will finally stumble on what you didn’t know you were looking for.


Have a little humility – life is mostly luck

The single most important thing you can do to ensure personal success is be born in a first world country. Almost everything else we do is just jockeying for position. Imagine being born in Albania or Madagascar in the 1950’s or ’60’s. Keeping your belly full without working yourself to death was a full-time job. In your spare time maybe you learned to read and maybe you didn’t.

I thought about this today while I read about a certain type of brain damage that exhibits in linguistic problems. Not in memory like with Alzheimer’s, but in word usage errors. In one form you lose an understanding of or an ability to use – no one knows for sure – connecting words. Your speech comes out like a telex: Food. Table. Sit. The person speaking doesn’t appear to know that he or she is speaking like this but they believe that they are chatting away like they always have. Do they wonder why people around them have scrunched faces and are not moving to the table for dinner? Apparently these folks can improve in speech over time. But for those who speak gibberish, it’s harder. These folks also think they are carrying on a conversation but their speech is a mixture of words both real and made up and in no order. It’s as if words are stored in file boxes and when we speak the brain selects words by box number. But someone has gone and mixed up the words and made new ones. When the speaker says , “Say, Jane, shall we chambre the wine? Jane hears “Bluster mid lamp lamp rain otit.” How to live with this I don’t know. From either side of the conversation.

I thought about how heart breaking it would be for my wife to have such an odd condition. Or my child. How hard it has to be to live with someone like this, with such confusion. How impossibly hard for the person with the condition to be trapped inside a world of people who seem to have lost understanding.

It makes be feel humble for what we have. We’ve worked for things, true, and we work hard on our family. But it can all fade. Today or maybe in the morning. When my Dad was dying he told me to do what ever I wanted to do today. Leave now! You might think you have tomorrow but it comes and goes almost too fast to see it.

Do it before the bad guys break in

I think about a lot of things when I run. Today I thought about the ring and necklace found sealed in a mug in the Auschwitz Museum that I mentioned yesterday.

I’m a list junkie. I make lists just for the fun of crossing things off my lists. A few days ago, I was looking through some paper and found an old list of Things to Think About. Right in the middle, between ‘vitamin D metabolism’ and ‘who/whom?’ is ‘Think about dying’.

Hang on to that and move to television. I watch The Americans. It’s the best show on TV though I am a lousy judge – it’s the only show I watch. This week, after retiring and living a life that he felt was important, John Boy from The Waltons, here an FBI station chief, is approached by the bad guys. He attempts to flee through a closed glass door and a shard of glass pierces his stomach. He lays there and in a matter of mere minutes his life and hopes and dreams and loves leak out in a mess on the floor around him. I turn to my wife: this can happen to any of us at any time. One blink and it’s gone.

Then there was my Father, dying of cancer and well aware of the fact. “Denn? I don’t care what you want to do. Do it today. All my life I’ve kept a list in my head of things I would do if I knew I was dying. Now I’m dying. Not only have I lost the physical power to do anything but I’ve lost the emotional will, too. I’m just too tired to even think about it.”

So I went out and bought a Porsche. I sold it later but it was great. Good gawd, it was glorious. Now, when my kids need me for the fourteenth time, or when my wife wants to watch The Americans, or when the dog stares at me with such a pure love for the alpha male that it’s comical, I try to enjoy the momoent knowing that at any moment the bad guys can break in.


Career Questions? Do You Have Options?

I didn’t give graduate school much thought. I was doing research as an undergrad and had already received a grant for the work I was doing. I assumed all along that I would go to grad school and then set up a lab to do amazingly fantastic and exciting work. The drudgery of wet biology didn’t faze me and I was prepared to drive used Porsches rather than new or classic models. I barely noticed when an investigator I knew didn’t have his grant renewed and went running from lab to lab looking for work so he could pay his bills. I was in the middle of applying for my program when a friend of mine – a part-time college prof who ran a fly genomics lab in Seattle – asked me to come and spend the day with him, meet some of the staff, and hang out in the lab.

It was great. It was Thursday when the lab did their in-house seminars and I thoroughly enjoyed listening to everyone explain what they were working on. I dinked around with some of the equipment and hung out with one of the researchers. He was on his third postdoc. Huh? Third? I thought you do one while you’re looking for a place to settle in. After all, at the time postdocs were making around $18,000 a year with all the burnt coffee they could handle. That would barely cover my rent. I asked if he was focusing his search on Seattle labs only? God no, he said. He would go anywhere. I wondered if he wasn’t quite up to par and then learned that he had published a dozen or so times and spoke three languages. He was no slouch. The plain fact was that there was just no work and hundreds of applicants applied for every bit of work that came up. He didn’t know if there was money to keep him in the lab for a fourth go ’round so his entire career was up in the air.

I didn’t know beforehand but my friend had set this conversation up. He was planning on having a tough-love chat with me over lunch. He knew that I had five kids at home and that in the best of cases I would be an abjectly poor lab rat for three or four years. If I were able to break out after that then I might have a shot at making a meager living in a lab or university. If all the stars aligned I might get a teaching job to pay the bills while I played in the lab in my spare time. Finally he fessed up and imparted his wisdom: “I would do this for free,” he said. “I’m driven every day to be here and tinker. I would work at McDonald’s if I had to to pay my bills and then come here at night to do research.” I nodded along not sure where he was going. “My advice to you is that if you can imagine doing anything else then you should do it. If you think you can be happy as a tech then do it. You’ll double my salary and have every benefit known to man on day one. If you can teach then do it. If you want to write or do sales then do it. But if you can’t then the decision is already made and you should tell your wife to keep her job and make the grocery money stretch.”

In possibly the only time in my life that I’ve taken advice, I decided not to go to grad school. I took a lab tech job in a great lab with a great investigator with lots of money. We published several papers a year and I learned a lot and enjoyed every minutes of it. And the advice I got was spot on. I had every opportunity to do as much science as I wanted. I had almost complete control of my schedule and got to have a relationship with my kids and even paid my bills. It was great.

Here is more advice to a grad student in the middle of research who feels his enthusiasm flagging. Just asking the question was hard enough. Good stuff from the journal Science.

My Adviser’s Best Advice by Josh Shiode. Printed in Science.

10 Reasons You Should Run A 5K – Even If You Can’t Run

5k1Make exercise work for you

Some of us are lonely soldiers when it comes to exercise and fitness. In all the years I’ve run, I’ve only gone out once with someone else. For me running is a way to reset a little bit and let the dross of daily living wash down the road behind me. I prefer to do this by myself. I have no beef about running with someone else but neither do I have any real desire to do so. Now my wife? Exercise for her should be a group affair. Preferably with catered dessert and aperitifs. If there are other people involved then it’s a go. If not. Ugh. Not her cup of tea.

Whichever side of that line you fall on, if you are working on improving your fitness then please consider signing up for a local 5k run/walk/race and play along. I can almost guarantee that you will find one near you on almost any weekend of the year. I use Running in the USA to look up races. Bring some friends along and dress goofy if you want. Walk a bit if you’re tired. But get a sweat going and get some oxygen pumping. You’ll have a great time and will feel better for it. (Note: ‘5k’ is shorthand for five kilometers which translates to 3.1 miles.)

The 10 reasons

Here are 10 reasons why you should run a 5K in a local race no matter your level of fitness:

  1. It gives you a tangible and reachable goal.

    There will come a time when you enjoy your work outs. You will look forward to running. You will schedule your day around yoga. You might even pass up a date because it’s leg night at the gym. It took me about a year to come to that place. Until then? Well, it can be a bit of a grind. One way to get through the it’s-not-really-that-fun phase is to set small and easily achievable goals and this one is perfect. It’s easy, requires a minimum amount of training or equipment, provides a real benefit, and can be lots of fun.

  2. You’ll see that there is nothing to be intimidated about.

    See that woman running on the side of the road? She how fit she is? That woman is just like you. She worries about all the same things. Some days she likes her workout and some days she can barely make it out the door. She will embrace you fully at whatever place you are. There is an almost universal attitude among the running crowd that ‘doing’ is the goal. The goal is to get off the couch. Walk, trot, or push a walker. If you show up then you are one of the cool kids. You’ll be accepted and encouraged wherever you are in the continuum between couch and finish line. It can be nice to find a group like this.

  3. You can walk that far if you can’t run – and no one cares.

    Lots of people walk at 5ks. Lots of 5ks are advertised as a run/walk event. There will be speedsters there but they’ll be so far ahead that you can ignore them. You probably don’t even need to train for a 5k. If you can work in the garden, or vacuum the house for an hour then you can walk 3.1 miles. It’s not that hard. And if you go with a couple of friends it will be even easier.

  4. 5k2
    Okay. Maybe too much fun!

    It is fun.

    Dress up like a turkey if you like. A lot of local 5k races are themed. It’s entirely acceptable and encouraged to goof off, dress up, and have some fun along the way. So dress like a turkey or wear your Santa stockings. Put on a wig. Wear a tutu. Enjoy yourself! Why the hell not?

  5. You will get a huge shot of confidence.

    How many times have you set a fitness goal and felt lousy as it slipped right by you? This one is easy. Pay your entry fee, show up, have some fun walking or trotting, and mark it off your list. You’ll feel good, you’ll feel motivated to accomplish your next goal, and you had fun doing it. It’s a win all the way around.

  6. It’s easy and not too time consuming to train for.

    This is one of the reasons I run 5ks. I know folks who start out with the goal of running a marathon. Running – by necessity and I’m not complaining – takes over their free time. It has too. They will learn all about toe nails falling off and just how stiff you can be the next day. They will either miss the birthday party or run laps in the dark around the neighborhood for two hours. “Gotta get my fourteen miler in!” This is why I don’t race over 5k. I have that kind of personality and pretty soon I will be weighing a nice lunch with my wife vs. a sixteen-mile training run. And I’ll be in trouble for making the wrong decision. If you haven’t run before then you’ll probably want to do some kind of training plan. Even if you are fit enough to do the running it’s a good way to train your mind for the task of putting foot in front of foot for half an hour. There are too many good running websites to count but a good place to start is Runner’s World  where they have advice for everything from diet to clothing to running plans. If you’re a more serious beginner consider reading Build Your Best Running Body. It’s a great book that covers the gamut of fitness running. Go here for my quick review.

  7. It’s easy on the body.

    This is especially important if you’re just starting out. I suppose it’s possible to run marathons or half-marathons without undue stress and injury but it’s tough. Everyone I know who runs marathons deals with foot, knee, and hip aches that I just don’t feel when training for a 5k. Aches and stresses come with any workout but you just aren’t beating your body up on short runs like you would for marathons This is just easy math: compare possibilities for strains and stress between running maybe six miles a week vs. twenty or more. Probability is on your side.

  8. You’ll feel like an athlete.

    There’s some truth to the adage that you start to look like the people you spend time with. If you do a bit of training and then run a race or two you just might begin thinking of yourself as an athlete. And if not an athlete then at least as someone interested in fitness. This will bleed over into eating habits, sleep habits, confidence, and might just make you better at conversation. Do it enough and you’ll start looking pretty good in your sweatpants?

  9. Your brain health increases

    Over the last couple of decades, we see more and more research that shows how much exercise contributes to brain health. Your brain – that little eight-pound ball of fat in your head – is only a small portion of your body but uses over 25% of your oxygen and nutrition. The more clean blood you can get pumping through there the healthier it is. Strengthen your heart, clean your blood vessels, lose a few pounds, and oxygenate your brain and you’re onto a new you who can live longer and enjoy life more.

  10. You can build new memories with friends

    The component of health that we rarely hear talked about is the importance of happy and meaningful relationships. Getting together for a race is a great way to enjoy each other’s company, do something a little bit difficult, encourage each other, and accomplish goals together. Maybe my wife is right? Maybe the best exercise is done in a group with cannolis served afterward?


She hired a track coach at 77. You think you are old?

What Makes Olga Run?

My Grandfather and then my Father died at 67. A hop and a skip from where I sit. Both from cancer. Best guess on my Grandfather’s was granite dust. He was a stone cutter as a young man and turned stone pillars for government buildings all over Washington State. He didn’t smoke and had no history of cancer so granite is the only guess the doctors had. No one is sure about Dad. He smoked but never had problems with his lungs. His mom died at 92 and lived the life of Annie Oakley until the Saturday morning she died. Twice a week she drove her golden boat – a 1967 Ford Galaxy four-door – from Milton to Tacoma for organ lessons. Wise drivers pulled over as she went by. Only the top of her head peaked from above the steering wheel and she took up two of the four lanes along the road. Trouble was no one could be sure which two she would take. And she didn’t much care. There were organs to be played!

Living Well is the Goal

We are far from figuring out aging though we are learning much. Exercise is essential. A good diet necessary. Good friends and healthy relationships help. The right genetics are necessary but not as much as we once thought. But living long is only half the calculation. I want to live well. I want to be engaged in life. I want to learn. I want to race my Grand Daughter in he first 5k. And beat her. I want to watch my girl’s guitar recital. I want to hug my wife when the twins move to Paris to live out their dreams – Reagan to be a great artist and Madison to design clothes for pets.

Living well is the goal. One person who lived long and well was Olga Kotelko. She began competing in track and field at 77, about thirty years after most people have died inside. By the time of her death at 95 she won hundreds of gold medals and held almost every master’s record for her events and age groups. How? What was unique about Olga? In many ways, the author of What Makes Olga Run?, finds, nothing. Most of her medical metrics were normal or close to it. She ate a healthy but not exotic or rigorous diet. She exercised daily. She maintained a positive outlook. But certainly she was unique. Somehow all those normal parts added up to an extraordinary whole. The book offers no magic. No crazy diets. Only good advice that is easy to follow for healthy and happy living. Following is my review of the book. It’s an interesting and provoking read.

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Book Review – What Makes Olga Run?

Olga Kotelko was an elite masters track star who, upon her death in 2014, at age 95, heldolga hundreds of gold medals in track and field, none of which she earned prior to her 77th birthday.

In What Makes Olga Run? Bruce Grierson jumps head first into the life of Olga to try to understand what makes her tick. What he finds is that this extraordinary woman is, by most metrics, not very extraordinary. There is no magic here. Readers looking for super foods, esoteric yoga mantras, or exotic training regimens won’t find them here. Olga’s story is remarkable in how unremarkable it is. Grierson follows Olga through just about every test one can think of: stress tests, DNA analyses, diets, psychological examinations – in every case she comes out normal or close to it. But somehow, in Olga, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Olga is extraordinary. At 77, when most people are dead or dying, she hires a Hungarian track coach and begins a daily training regimen. She eats a nutritious but not remarkable diet. She loves competition. She loves to win. She was upbeat and refused to dwell on the dark side of things. Somehow all of that added up to an uncommon life of steady and satisfying accomplishment.

The book is not meant to be a text book. There are passages, especially concerning biology, that – in my humble opinion – could have been written more precisely. But precision in a book like this usually translates into boring. And the book is not boring. It is well written, reads easily, and is adequately documented.

There are three main take-aways:

  1. What you already know about good health is true. Eat well. Exercise. Sweat a little every day. Enjoy friends a family.
  2. Maintain a good attitude. Embrace optimism. Eschew pessimism. Keep a good perspective.
  3. Your bad habits can be reversed. You can improve your heart health. You can enjoy time with your family again. Every decision, every step, every bite represents a fork in the road that leads to an end that you chose.

The author ends with Nine Rules for Living that summarize simplicity and health. But for him, ‘Olga’s biggest gift’ is a change in perspective. He records her advice:

Look around. These are your kids. This is your wife. This is your life. Its awesomeness is eluding you. Pay attention. Yes, there will come a time when you have genuine, life-threatening ailments. But, for now, stop your kvetching. And stop dreading birthdays that end in zeros. Those zeros can pull you under, like stones in your pocket. At your age, your story is not ending: you know that.

An uplifting read.

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