What do you stand for?

Faith and football? Huh?

I guess this is how you get the girl in Arkansas?

Last night, after the kids were down and the dishes 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 and no doubt contributed to the rise of The Donald.  

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. 


War, belonging, and evolution

Evolution explains why soldiers long to be back in the battle

I listened to an interview with Sebastian Junger recently about war, belonging, and his new book Tribe.

His take comes from evolutionary biology and the idea of the environment of evolutionary adaptedness. This term is used to describe the context in which organisms evolve. It’s an tacit argument that we are best suited for a particular environment and that, when put in a novel circumstance, we may or may not be able to perform at our best or in predictable ways. (And many people believe that all of modern civilization is a novelty that we are unprepared for.) It’s the putative explanation for the ‘paleo diet’ (that and money) and for deer standing still in headlights: there is nothing in their evolutionary past that prepares them for a three thousand pound piece of steel moving toward them so fast that they aren’t able to respond.

Junger is a war reporter and, among other things, argues that human beings are happiest living in groups. Groups provide meaning and purpose to individuals who tend to be lost when unconnected. He notes that while women tend toward thoughtful organization, young men are hard-wired to protect and provide. He reports of repeated findings that young men, after returning home from overseas duty, long for the days of  battle. They had a noble purpose, camaraderie, and a common goal. In one study, cortisol levels were checked in a group of soldiers in the battle field. The results were reversed from what was expected. Without an enemy, the stress hormone was high. When the enemy was spotted, and a timeframe for the potentially lethal battle was known, nerves calmed and cortisol dropped. The explanation is that there is uncertainty before the battle. But when the enemy is spotted, then training kicks in. Polishing guns and stacking sandbags and loading ammo all become part of a familiar dance that you will perform with your closest friends. Like Northmen ravaging England, soldiers are happy to die in this way.  Then, imagine the confusion of coming home. After being relied on to defend and to save the country, we bring these men and women home to relative isolation and treat them as broken.

Junger notes that problems with these mostly young people don’t show up in the field but at home back on friendly soil. Once the homecoming parties are over, the vet is left alone without any overarching purpose except for whatever he or she can generate for themselves. Our prosperity and safety, it seems, contribute to our national problems by leaving people wired to do things with nothing to do. In the past, this was different. During WWII, the men who fought came home as heroes with a new charge of rebuilding the country.  Plumbing and truck driving were honorable professions that contributed to the country. Vets went to college in droves. Today we put vets on permanent disability when they self-identify as having PTSD. We treat them as broken and, when they recognize their brokenness, we reward them for it.

So what does this all mean? The ramifications swing from enormous to simple. It helps me understand why humans search for meaning. It makes me wonder how isolation contributes to health issues for Westerners everywhere. It makes me wonder how much life I’ve missed out on by keeping away from groups? It tells me to let the young kids sleep in the same room as mom and dad – this is, after all, how all animals live. It tells me, as evolution always seems to, that our history is a key to our future.


Have a little humility – life is mostly luck

Remember a little humility. Success in life is mostly luck.

Copyright Dennis Mitton

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 god 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 enjoy it knowing that at any moment the bad guys can break in.


Graduate school? Career questions? Here is one adviser’s best advice.

Copyright 2016, Dennis Mitton
Feeling a little frazzled about your decision?

I didn’t give graduate school much thought. I was doing research as an undergrad (mycoplasma chromosome mapping) 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 keep going to 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.

Fitness50 – 10 Reasons you should run a 5K – even if you can’t run

[This is an installment in a series I’m writing on living long and living well. I expect to take about fifty years to write it. Go here to read the introduction. At this point I have no plans for scheduled installments and I’m not following any couch to marathon plan. I write about fitness and food but am also deeply interested in more nuanced things that make life good. If you would like to know when I publish please enter your email address in the follow button at the top right of any page. Thanks!]

Copyright 2015, Dennis Mitton

5k1Some of us are voluntary 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. I don’t consider myself overtly social and running is one way that I reset a little bit and let the dross of daily living wash down the road behind me. I guess I prefer to do this by myself. I have no real 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 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.)

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 goalThere 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, provides a real benefit, and can be lots of fun.
  2. You’ll see that there is nothing to be intimidated aboutShe 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 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 caresLots 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 confidenceHow 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 forThis 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 and hour or more. 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 bodyThis 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
    Every step gets you closer…

    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 on to a new you who can live longer and enjoy life more.
  10. You can build new memories with friendsThe 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 fresh canape? rewards afterward?