I just finished reading the first chapter of Juan Chang’s Wild Swans and was still shaking my head and grimacing over the view and treatment of women in China barely a hundred years ago. A woman’s only real value was in pleasing men and bearing children. Anything else, even a word or a glance, could be grounds for expulsion from the family or death. It’s almost impossible for me to imagine such a world.
Then the pendulum swung far to the other side.
An organization called Campus Reform, who claims to be ‘America’s leading site for college news’ reports that just up the road at Clemson University, profs will be taught that expecting someone to show up on time is a racist position. Different cultures have different ideas about what ‘on-time’ means. So even though the class schedule says that Art History 101 begins at 0900 on Tuesday, there should be no expectation that people will actually show up at that time. To do so is a racist: you fail to recognize the wonderful characteristics of other cultures who don’t give a rat’s patootie about your time and effort.
Those Silly People Who Pay Your Wages
But I wonder if professors have to accommodate the lateness in their teaching and meetings? Or will it be up to students to figure out what they missed? I doubt it. To do so would be falling into the trap that college students desire to put forth effort for their education. The odd thing, unaddressed here, is the workplace. My employer has funny ideas about time. In fact, just about the only way I can be fired is to falsify a time sheet. So for the ethics philosophers out there: is it unethical to mark down that you started work at 0900 when in fact you showed up at 0920 based on your cultural view of time? I notice, too, that the Clemson profs will receive two email reminders take the inclusion class – isn’t that expectation exactly like expecting people to be on time?
On the topic of China, I have a boy who lived in Hong Kong for a year during college. He said that Chinese student culture is crazy. No one makes any real friends – you are in abject dog-eat-dog competition with every other student in the nation. He said that most people he knew are studying by six AM and will be at it until midnight. Every day. And everything else is secondary to school.
Welcome to Welfare!
So if you saunter into class or a meeting fifteen minutes late because that’s your cultural prerogative, I guess that will be fine at Clemson. But be prepared to be steamrolled in life by people who really, really want your job.
That different peoples have different ideas about time is well known and is a staple of International Studies programs. Read a brief overview here.
I admit that I’ve been wrong. I’ve long argued that people know what healthy habits are and that we just don’t do them. So I was shocked, recently, when a friend told me that he traded his cake and candy snacks for a jar of peanuts each day. “I’m trying to eat healthy”, he says. “Huh? You’re eating a jar a day?” “Yeah! Better than donuts, right.” Now he was shocked. “Probably not,” I said. “Good gawd. Do you know how many calories are in a jar of peanuts? Probably more calories than you need in an entire day. Dude, you’re going to end up weighing 300 pounds.” He didn’t believe me and grabbed the jar. Sure enough, the suggested serving size was one ounce or ‘about 29 peanuts’. That amount conferred 170 healthy calories. Multiply that by sixteen servings in the jar and you are inviting serious health issues. So don’t imagine that everyone knows the things that Agus writes about. They don’t. And few who do know what healthy means actually live by it.
We need good health advice but where to find it? The fact that my local Barnes and Noble bookstore reserves about fifty feet of shelf space for books offering conflicting advice isn’t a help. So when I find a book offering sane advice consistent with other sane advice, I’m happy to endorse and recommend it. A Short Guide to a Long Life is such a book.
Sane Advice is a Hard Sell
The book isn’t sexy and makes few promises. You will not be a skinny rich movie star pooping golden eggs after reading this book. But, even better, if you choose to do so, you can embark on a path to increased health and longevity. The book is small and short and this bothers some reviewers. I like that the book can be read in a couple hours. It makes it easy to grab from the shelf for a quick reminder of the path you’re on. In it, Agus lists sixty-five tidbits under three headings: What to Do, What to Avoid, and Doctor’s Orders. I’m sorry but there is nothing new, novel, or earth-shattering here. No magic pills or secret Chinese bulbs that will keep you in perfect health until age 150. What you will find is very excellent advice in all areas of health and well-being. Advice that is time-tested and accurate. Advice that actually will help you live longer and happier.
There is a good bit of Grandma’s advice here – grow a garden, don’t skip breakfast, have children (!) – but lots of new stuff, too, like scheduling your life on computer or getting a DNA screen. I especially liked the What to Avoid section where he slays a host of health myths: forget juicing (“Does your body really need ten carrots all at once?”), ignore `detoxes’, and no, GMOs are not going to kill you and your children.
This is a wonderfully handy little guide that makes a useful reference. Two thumbs way up. Read it all the way through or read a chapter and then work on it for a week. Either way will lead you to better health.
I was at the hospital for a small and non-consequential procedure. Once prepped, I was left to my own devices in a hallway. I was hooked up to one of those heart rate monitors with a big digital readout and thought I would see how low I could get my heart rate to drop.
My normal night-time rate hovers in the mid-forties. But the harder I tried to calm myself and lower my rate – you know where this is going – the higher it crept. I couldn’t breach the 52 bpm basement. Finally, a nurse wheeled me into my room. My wife came in to wait with me and rubbed my neck and shoulders while we talked. After a couple of minutes, I looked up and was shocked to see that my rate had dropped to 48 bpm. Ha! I wasn’t even trying and I wasn’t on drugs yet. I had nothing else to attribute this to except the calm touch of my wife. It’s a good message: maybe what you need isn’t time alone or another glass of wine or a round of golf. Maye what you need is some focused time alone with someone who cares about you?
You Are A Stupid Man
Another time, I went to the emergency room for what turned out to be Bell’s Palsy. I drink a gallon or so of coffee every day and kept dribbling from my cup when I took a sip. I kept thinking that someone had done something to my cup. With each dribble I would swear and look for people laughing at me. What was really happening, though, was that I was losing control of the left side of my face. Very weird. Finally, my wife caught on and made me call the doctor. (Of course, as an American male, I was hiding this thinking I could take care of it myself.) I called my doctor and since it was Saturday and he recommended that I go to the hospital to definitively rule out a stroke.
At the hospital, I did the normal rounds. A nurse took my pulse with a quizzical look and then looked at the papers I filled out. She asked why I didn’t write down that I take high blood pressure medicine? I shrugged my shoulders. “I don’t take any medicine,” I said. She gave me that ‘I’m an expert and you are an idiot’ look. “You really need to talk to the doctor about it when you see him. Your heart rate is 180 beats per minute.” I laughed out loud. “You’re machine is busted. I guarantee you that my rate isn’t over 60.” She magnified her scorn and the angle of her eyebrows. “Awesome!,” she said. I noted a hint of sarcasm. “So you’re a doctor, too?” I struggled to keep my humble demeanor. “No, but I know my body. Either your machine is broken, it’s out of cal, or you didn’t take my pulse correctly.” She semi-stormed out of the room muttering and came back rolling a new machine. Of course, my rate was in the mid-fifties. She shrugged the thing off and said “Well ain’t that the damnedest thing? That other machine must be broke!”
My old pal Lin Yutang is lost in the shuffle these days. He was a lovely Chinese man who cultivated the wonderful art of laziness. He was smart as a whip, and successful by any measure, but extolled the art of lallygagging as a way of life.
In his book The Importance of Living (get a copy if you can find it), he notes three things under the heading of Three American Vices. He found (in 1937 no less!) that Americans worship
He makes no bones about it – it’s these things that “make the American so unhappy and nervous.”
They steal from their inalienable right of loafing and cheat them of many a good, idle and beautiful afternoon.
As is my wont, I wonder why there can’t be a happy middle between efficient and lazy? Believe me, we extol Lin’s three vices where I work. And why shouldn’t we? The business serves the public and these three things make our product, electricity, cost-effective and something people can count on. People like it when they flip the light switch and the lights go on. For much of the world, this isn’t a defacto reality by any means. And Lin’s homeland has done quite well for itself in the century since he wrote these words by adopting many of these vices.
I tend to carry these vices home, though. My days off are typically spent on punch-list items that I want to get done. I catch myself weighing silly things in my head: should I swim with the kids or install that new door knob? A new door knob is nice but the one there now will open the door. But how long will the girls want to do stuff with their old dad? So I’m taking Lin’s advice to heart at home. Read more. Lay about more. Maybe have someone over to dinner. Who knows? Maybe one day I’ll even take a nap?
It’s an area that I can improve in. Gladly, I have my wife whose expertise is in marital prodding. If I don’t make the right decision on my own then she helps me recognize my error and sets me on the right path. I’ve always argued that boys are stupid and freely admit that I’m a boy so it’s good to have help in this area.
I heard a new life motto that I like: Embrace Your Mediocrity.
Don’t get down. Don’t beat yourself up. It just means that you recognize your limits. You look around the room and see that you’re one of the crowd. Just one more chimp trying to fit into the troop. It means that you are a human being.
Embrace the philosophy. Know thyself.
When you know yourself, you have a path. You can stay right there, piddling away at things that make you happy. Why not? Who says you have to be a super human or grace the cover of People Magazine? Or, if you choose, you can begin to put in the work to become something more than mediocre. Don’t be fooled. It’s a lot of work. Probably more than you want to invest. But for some, the costs are worth the reward.
It’s your choice and the only right answer is the one you choose.
I’ve always had a little hideaway where I can plink away at whatever I chose. When I was a boy, I had a corner slice of the garage that Dad let me have for my own. Lord knows, he didn’t need it. Even at eight or nine, I was the fix-it man around the house. So I set up a small desk and hung my three or four tools on the wall and mostly lolled about and took broken things apart. On rare occasions, I put broken things back together. Today we have elevated this space and call it a man cave. There is something noble in the name. It sounds tribal, like a place where men retreat to touch their spirit animal. To align with ancestral truths. To pray for the kill. In reality, I think the wife is just happy to shove the beer-swilling lout outside so she won’t have to clean up after him one more time.
But Roald Dahl carved out a wonderful little place in the world. His goal wasn’t a tribal dance or a tattoo. No. He wanted to be six years old again and to write about the world from those eyes. He obviously did it well. (Go here for his Amazon page). I can imagine his long days plopped into his chair. Writing, reading, and then writing some more. The room is spare with a few mementos. He preferred artificial light and lit the space with one bulb and a lamp. He used a kerosene heater to fend off chills. On cold winter days, he would ‘sit with a rug over him and his legs in a sleeping bag’. His hut was more than just an escape from cooking and kids. It was integral to his writing as he explains here:
“It’s really quite easy,” he would say. “I go down to my little hut, where it’s tight and dark and warm, and within minutes I can go back to being six or seven or eight again.”
Your Private Space
I like this whole idea and hope that you have a little private place where you can retreat to. Maybe it’s a desk. Or a corner of the garage. Maybe it’s as small as a computer keyboard or notebook that knows your hopes and dreams? What mementos do you keep there? What special things?
Certainly, art is a part of the Good Life. It challenges us to see things in different ways and lets us peer into the world through someone else’s experiences. Or see things through a historical lens. While my first love is evolution and biology, I was, for a time, an ardent art history major. True enough, the two disciplines are just about as far as you can get but there it is. For reasons that I probably shouldn’t explore, my favorite photographer is and was Francesca Woodman. She died young and sadly and never really crossed the line into a professional art career. Her work spans her young life as a student beginning with a self-portrait at 13.
Art of the Absurd
Somehow – and this is the wonder of art – she captures something that I don’t see on my own. Her photographs are typically of herself. She is often nude and often out of kilter and out of focus. There is always a faint coloring of the absurd. Looking at her photos reminds me of watching The Blair Witch Project: you know from the outset that it’s a ruse but you are still drawn in and tempted to believe. There is a pervasive sense of the in-between. Is she coming or going? Is she moving or is the photo blurred? Is she in or out of the wall or the window. In all cases, the lines are blurred between what we see and what we know to be real.
It’s known that she was burdened. I don’t know how her illness tied to her art but confusion is evident. She attempted suicide, spent time in therapy, and then, finally, leapt from an upstairs window.
I have a penchant for short, pithy explanations for things that people – mostly people selling things – try to make complicated. My favorite regarding healthy eating is Michael Pollan’s “Eat food, less of it, mostly plants”. There’s a whole lot of health and wisdom wrapped up in those seven words. Along those same lines, I like the advice offered by Runner’s World magazine for The Healthy Runner’s Diet. It lists six rules applicable to anyone interested in health and longevity:
1. Eat seeds or foods made from seeds
2. Eat five different colored fruits and vegetables daily
3. Eat plant foods with their skins intact
4. Drink milk and eat milk products that come from animals
5. Eat foods that come from cold water
6. Eat meat, poultry, or eggs from free-range or grass-fed animals
There are no calculations here and nothing to write down. And you don’t have to be a slave to every word. You won’t sprout hair on your palms if you forget your five colors a day. These are guidelines and not commandments.
I will add another three:
7. There are no forbidden foods. No food will make you die tomorrow. Observe moderation
8. There are no superfoods. No food will impart immediate health and longevity
9. Anyone who tells you to avoid this one food! or to eat this one food! is selling you something
Stay healthy and, as always, please share tips.
Sensible advice here from Monica Reinagel, The Nutrition Diva
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The importance of doing can hardly be overstated. It sharpens the mind and works the body. It opens us to new ideas. It works muscles in new ways. It often brings us together with other people in meaningful ways. So do crosswords. Go on walks. Work in the yard. Learn Russian. Do something. But doing is only part of the equation. The missing part that tips the cart in your favor is doing something unfamiliar or hard or doing something to the level of mastery. These are things that we tend to avoid as we age.
As an example, take crosswords. It’s easy to find puzzles that can be completed in ten minutes without mistakes. They’re enjoyable and help maintain a level of mental acuity. But they don’t improve your ability or your mental state. To improve my thinking, I need to form new neural connections. These are the nerve paths that connect one part of our brain to other parts of the brain or to our body. It’s kind of like string-art with each nail a node. The more strings you have the more nails are connected. (This is why babies crawl before they walk. Crawling builds a scaffold of connections between brain and body that finally allows the child to move their legs and balance themselves with control.) How do we form new neural connections? By doing things that are different or hard to us.
I’ll stick with crosswords but you can insert your hobby or activity here. I maintain the level of ability I have for crosswords by doing the same kinds of puzzles over and over. It’s the same if you can do five push-ups: you can maintain that ability by doing five push-ups a day. I consider myself a Monday/Tuesday New York Times puzzler. The easy stuff. I have never in my life completed a Saturday NYT puzzle. (I read once that President Clinton finished the NYT puzzle each morning before breakfast. Forget Oxford and the Rhodes Scholarship. That Saturday puzzle is his crowning achievement.) If I want to get better – and by better I mean strengthening existing ‘crossword neural paths’ and building new ones – then I need to do puzzles that make me wince. That help me see clues and answers from different perspectives. That make me think hard about who won Best Actress in 1976 (Louise Fetcher, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). So take what you like and ramp it up to the next level. Learn to enjoy the angst of not knowing.
Learning new things is key to continued and improved mental acuity. What is something you’ve always wanted to try but never have? Learning a language? Making wine? Bonsai? A few years ago, I was going to sign-up for a voice over acting class at our local college. I didn’t – we moved a few hundred miles away – but I thought that this was so far out of the realm of what I normally do that it would be a whole new world for me. I would meet an entirely different group of people, learn all kinds of new words, and stretch myself in ways that would make me squirm. Exactly the kind of things that cause us to grow.
Wayne Dyer said that when he was a practicing therapist and people would come into his office complaining of depression he would try to get them outside. “Let’s go shoot some hoops or ride bikes and get an ice cream,” he would suggest. His argument is that our mental and physical states are intertwined and that it’s hard to be depressed when you are shooting baskets. I run a lot and read testimonials in every running magazine from people who run to ‘clear their head’ or to reorient thoughts. It sounds silly but I write with my left hand sometimes. It’s hard and sloppy and my wrist never holds quite right but that uncomfortable physical act puts a whole raft of thinking in place that contributes to growth. Probably won’t lead me to a Nobel Prize but, as in all things healthy, it all adds up.
You already enjoy something – now master it. Jump into it with both feet and become an expert. Engaging your mind like this – or your body – heightens your experience and by definition improves your abilities. Start with something easy. If you do woodwork and build furniture learn to master a simple joint. Not just the sawing and chiseling but they whys. Why does it work this way? Why use this joint rather than another joint? If you cook, learn to make the perfect macaroon. Learn to make a cookie so damned good that your neighbors make excuses to visit you. Then, when you master one rudiment move onto another and build a repertoire. It makes whatever you do more enjoyable and puts you on a continued path of growth.
If you are old enough and nerdy enough, you will remember the Star Trek: Next Generation episode where Dr. Beverly Crusher falls in love with a symbiont and its host. The being is lovely, sensitive, warm, and looks amazingly like a dripping wet esophagus just pulled from a dead cow. Not the stuff human dreams are made of. But the host? Now the host is one good lookin’ man who is able to bring Beverly and the symbiont together in, well, special ways. But, alas, the host is dying. Unable to save him, the symbiont takes on a new host. Beverly is excited and anxious to resume their love and when they meet we are all shocked to learn that the new host is an attractive woman. Beverly is unable to reconcile her love for the symbiont with her reticence to have this relationship with a female host and breaks off the relationship. It was pretty racy for 1991 but sounds pretty tame today. (Go here for the full episode description.)
You Are Only 10% Human and 90% Microbiome
It’s a stretch but I thought of this when I read the fascinating report from ScienceDaily (here) that humans have ten times more microbial cells on, in, and around them than they have human cells. Does that make ‘you’ only ten percent human? Not quite. The NIH says here that about 1-3% of your body mass (1-5 pounds or so) is microbial. Because bacterial cells are so tiny their mass is much less than their number in this regard. But in a very real sense, humans are simply a scaffold for an enormous denizen of energetically reproducing microbial colonies that live on and in you.
The study asks how important these microbes are to human health and well-being. It’s known that we are hosts to all kinds of microbes but their numbers, diversity, and effects on health are largely a mystery. An interesting finding is host specificity. Though the cited research can’t be considered definitive due to the small sample population, the study found that about 50% of microbe populations are shared by everyone. The other 50% are host specific. More research is needed but I wonder if these are specific to individuals or to families or maybe even to residents of the same area? Could this be one way that you differentiate your brother from your boyfriend? Could bacteria specific to you make you smell a certain way? Psychologists have shown that family members don’t find their sibling’s natural scent attractive – could this be due to microbes that label siblings as familial? Could these specific microbe populations confer immunity or disease? Why are some people sensitive to things like grains and other aren’t? Could there be a microbial component?
What About the Gut Microbiome?
Similar questions are asked about gut microbes. It appears that obese people share certain microbe populations that non-obese people don’t. Could these microbes contribute to obesity? Or is it more accurate to say that the habits of the obese promote these populations? Some researchers consider our microbiome a bodily organ. Just like your lungs or your bones, they say, this population provides essential mechanisms for many functions and you likely can’t live without it. Paul Eckberg of Stanford University argues that the human microbiome is an organ that helps nourish us, helps to regulate skin development, and confers some level of immunity (cf here).
There is much to learn here but it is clear that our natural microbe population helps our body in many ways. And in many ways, we truly are a host. There are some who say that humans have primarily evolved to give these bacteria and fungi a place to live. Not quite the vaulted place in the universe that we like to think of for ourselves but interesting nonetheless.
Feed Your Bugs
If you want to feed your little monsters just say ‘Pass the Kefir!’ (I always knew there was a reason I love that stuff.) I drink Lifeway kefir just because I like it. I fake out the kids and tell them it’s a blueberry milkshake and they like it too. (Yes. I will lie to get the kids to eat real food.) There are probably healthier brands – and it’s supposedly easy to make – but I’m not a fan of warm, lumpy fermented goat’s milk.
Please ignore anyone selling you pills or expensive, secret elixirs to maintain, grow, preen, etc, etc, your microbiome. They are selling something you do not need. Eat an apple. Drink water. Lick the dirt from your lips. Eat real food and you will be fine.
Fun Stuff About Your Bacteria
Were you delivered vaginally or through c-section? It makes a difference. This page from the University of Utah Department of Health Sciences begins with “Our first dose of microbes comes from our mother. Babies delivered vaginally are covered in a film of microbes as they pass through the birth canal. Included in the mix are bacteria that help babies digest their first meal. Babies delivered by cesarean section are colonized mainly by skin microbes—a very different set of species.” From there it briefly describes how the microbiome changes as we age.
I was happy to learn that researchers find ‘significant difference between stool and mucosa community composition’. Thank you. Except for my language, I’ve always hoped that what was in my mouth was substantially different that what is in my rear-end.
Knowing how we are covered in microbes, fungi, and critters should prod us into taking care of our skin: it’s the most important barrier between our insides and a very dangerous world. So take care of those tiny cuts and scratches.
For some people with medical conditions, poop-pills have become an important treatment. Yes. Poop-pills. Read about it here.
So learn to love your bugs! When they feel better you will too!
A fun read – 80 million (!) bacteria pass between lips with a 10-second kiss. See here.
Wiki on the Human Microbiome here.
Nice summary at The Scientist here. (Maybe NSFW if you work with idiots…)
Lifeway Kefir – good stuff. Here. And no, I get nothing from them. I just like it.