Rich Dlin – Reader Beware

Husband, Father, Math Teacher, Weightlifter

Gracefully Honest

In this blog I will talk about honesty – something I think many well-intentioned people struggle with. This is because sometimes it seems like lying is the right thing to do – and in some rare cases, it is. To paraphrase Sam Harris, when Nazis came looking for Anne Frank and her family, anyone lying about them not being hidden in the building was certainly doing the right thing.

That said, in all but the most extreme cases, people choose dishonesty for misguided reasons. This happens because sometimes the truth hurts. In fact, sometimes, truth is used as a weapon.

The confusion is, in part, because while honesty can be a good thing, there is no guarantee that it always is. Honesty must be wielded virtuously, which is not automatic. In fact on its own, honesty is not a virtue.

Honesty is not a virtue

In classical antiquity, there are the four cardinal virtues. In brief, here they are (these definitions are mine – for more formal details, check this link):

  • Prudence: The ability to judge the appropriateness of a possible course of action.
  • Courage: The strength to act in the presence of fear.
  • Temperance: The exercise of restraint in feeding an appetite.
  • Justice: The purest form of fairness, in a righteous sense.

So honesty is not a cardinal virtue. Now over the centuries, philosophers and theologians have added more virtues to the cardinal four. Of these there are three that I think are moral necessities. These are “love”, “charity” and “kindness”.

Still, on it’s own, honesty is not there. This is because honesty can be used morally (specifically in the context of love, charity and kindness), but it can also inflict pain – intentionally or not. Let’s have a look at that second situation first – the “brutal” honesty.

Brutal honesty

“I am going to be brutally honest with you.”

How many times have you encountered that sentiment? How many times have you said it? Let’s stop to consider what it prefaces: that the person is about to lay some bit of perspective on you that they know is going to hurt.

This is usually justified by the idea that you are deluded somehow, and need to “snap” out of it. Or you need a “hard” dose of reality. Or any other number of violent paradigm shifts the perpetrator feels they are uniquely prepared to impose. Because, after all, the world is full of people willing to coddle you, creating the need for someone righteous enough to tell you the truth, even though it will hurt.

This is bullshit.

This “brutal” honesty is really an attempted behaviour modification through punishment. The shock it is expected to impose is designed to somehow shine light on a deficiency in perception, so that you cease your persistence in pursuing some vision. A vision which, according to the person with the flashlight, is a fantasy. It tends to come from a place of anger and – make no mistake – is meant to make you suffer for whatever pain your apparent delusion has been causing them.

People who use this phrase like to project pride in their willingness to use it. You may hear them boast such claims as “Hey, I call it like I see it”, or “I’m a straight-shooter”. It comes with admonishments like “The truth hurts”, or “If you want to hear the truth then you don’t want to be around me”. They may be offering honest assessments, but they are nested in dishonest motivation, even though the motivation is sitting right there in the phrase. Brutal is not a nice word.

Definition of brutal

“Brutal.” Merriam-Webster.com, Merriam-Webster, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/brutal. Accessed Mar. 2017.

Check out that definition. There is nothing in there that speaks to any kind of morality or good intention, and certainly nothing virtuous. Even the entry about brutal truth contains no compassion. Accurate? Yes. But unpleasantly and incisively so.

So then someone who prefaces the delivery of truth with “I am going to be brutally honest” is – by their own admission – embarking on a non-virtuous wielding of honesty as a weapon to deliver misery. I propose that in the vast majority of situations, the fundamental reason for this is that even though they are using the word, they are not being honest about their own motivation – the desire to be brutal.

But I don’t want to be brutal!

It’s okay – I know. This notion of brutal honesty leads to a concern from good people who don’t want to be brutal. There is a perception that if the truth is brutal, or perhaps unsavoury, then a lie would be better. Keep in mind though that lies come with a heightened anxiety of their being discovered. This often leads to uncomfortable situations, where additional and more elaborate lies are needed to maintain the facade of truth.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There is a way to be honest and virtuous. I call it “graceful honesty”.

Honesty with grace

First, let’s have a look at the definition of grace, so that you can understand why I chose that word. Grace has many meanings, so I have highlighted the ones I am applying in this context:

Definition of grace

“Grace.” Merriam-Webster.com, Merriam-Webster, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/grace. Accessed Mar. 2017.

Recall earlier, when I spoke about the three virtues of “love”, “charity” and “kindness”. In many ways, the word grace encapsulates these, and so I choose it to describe the type of honesty I mean.

First, be honest with yourself

Graceful honesty isn’t difficult, but it does require some practice if you are not in the habit. The key to it is when you find yourself either tempted to be dishonest, or about to be brutally honest, you stop and spend some time being honest with yourself first. If your motivations are virtuous, then there will be a way to communicate honestly with grace. Conversely, if your intentions are nefarious, then hopefully you will be honest with yourself about that and choose some other course, having recognized the toxicity of your initial instinct. The key then, is to use self-reflection to uncover and put words to your motivation. I don’t want to use too many specific examples here, because it is easy to make arguments about the inaccuracy of an example as it applies to yourself, and then decide the concept is flawed, but I’ll indulge in one in the hope that it will be a good springboard.

Dinner at Kelly’s

Suppose you have been invited to dinner at your friend Kelly’s house, and you just don’t feel like going. The likelihood is that if you decide not to go, you will fabricate an excuse. Further, the excuse probably has a half-life greater than a few hours. What I mean by that is that it’s probably a concocted scenario that will likely be referred to at a later date. For example, you may claim “my kid is sick”, which you can bet Kelly will ask about in the next day or two, and may even ask your child. In this case you will have to remember the excuse so that you don’t accidentally contradict it later, and you may even have to recruit your family to perpetuate the dishonesty – something they are more likely to forget about, since they are not vested in the lie. Result? Anxiety.

Instead, consider this. You really do value your friendship with Kelly. You also don’t feel like going. Before choosing to be dishonest, you can spend some time in honest self-reflection. Why don’t you want to go? Be super analytical about that. You may discover that you actually do want to go, or you will confirm that you don’t. If you truthfully don’t want to go, you will now be better able to put into words what the real reason is, which will of necessity consist of the factors that are outweighing your legitimate desire to spend time with Kelly.

If you tell Kelly exactly that reason, and if Kelly is a good human, she will understand, because you have been fully honest and presented the reason in full context of how you struggled with the decision. She will appreciate the conflict, and understand the conclusion, even if she is disappointed.

But wait you say! I know Kelly! She would never understand! She would just be insulted! Well, I’m not foolish. I know this is also a possibility. But here’s the thing: this is only the current state of your relationship because of a history of implicit dishonesty about motivation. Which means there is room for more honesty – on her part and on yours. See, if at the core you both value each other and the friendship, then you mean no insult, and so how can she be insulted? And the core is all that actually matters – because it is impossible that either of you wants the other to be upset. That core exists, and honesty will land you there. Graceful honesty.

Graceful honesty doesn’t mean everyone is happy

In the example above, Kelly is probably going to be disappointed. You might also. That may seem contrary to virtue, but it isn’t. Not if you were honest about the factors that outweighed your desire to go. Disappointment isn’t a monster to be avoided at all costs. It’s a natural consequence of not being able to implement more than one choice at a time.

One of the great contributors to dishonesty is a desire to keep everyone happy – or at least not miserable. But it’s a trap. Lying by definition creates a false narrative. Perpetuating this to maintain a state of happiness, in fact maintains a state of delusion. One from which the participants (barring tragedy) must eventually emerge, and who’s discovery is unlikely to legitimize the illusion of peace they were enjoying. Put simply, the lie just sets everyone up for a bigger fall.

But life isn’t about being happy all the time! We all know this. We all experience negative emotions like sadness, anger, and disappointment. For the most part we don’t let these things impact the zoomed-out graph of our lives. Yet we find ourselves willing to skirt honesty with others to somehow shield them from these normal experiences.

Have you ever said something to someone in anger that you later regret? I’m betting you have. I’m betting some if it was pretty damn poisonous, and required a lot of apology, replete with the sentiment “I didn’t mean it”. But is that really true? More specifically, does “I didn’t mean it” mean the same thing as “it wasn’t true”?

My experience tells me that what we are really trying to say is “I regret using honesty to hurt you – it isn’t consistent with how I feel about you.” This can be about something you’ve been holding in for a while, or it can be about an emotion that was real in that moment, instigated by the anger. For example, “I hate you!” during an argument isn’t totally untrue, just imprecise: it really means “I hate this feeling I’m having right now that you are causing”, and it is 100% true. It is also 100% forgivable, because it is 100% understandable.

If you think about this for a while, you will see that the real mistake is not being honest earlier, when graceful honesty would have worked: “I love you, and I’m in it for the long haul, but I do get irritated when you don’t put the cap on the toothpaste. I do not equate this behaviour with you, and my irritation is therefore not aimed at you, but the behaviour.”

That last quote is wordy and annoying, I know. But it’s the idea I am trying to communicate, not a recipe for how to tell your husband to put the damn cap on the toothpaste. Very often we don’t disclose little irritants like that because we are concerned it will be taken as criticism of a loved one we don’t want to hurt, as opposed to observation of a behaviour that is independent of the reasons we care about the person exhibiting it. Graceful honesty would disclose all of that, and keep the barbs from growing onto a club that could be wielded in anger.

See, hiding the truth is silly. We are all in this reality together. We should share it. All of it.

Honesty is the sharing of reality.

Think about it. How can honesty be anything else? But as I said earlier, to do it with grace requires a deeper searching of our own motives than we normally do. So the next time you feel like a lie is warranted (or if you are tempted to inflict pain with truth), ask yourself why. What is motivating you? Who are you trying to protect? Who are you trying to help? When you feel the truth needs to be hidden, put away the issue whose truth is troubling you for a moment and look at the feeling itself – it will be the source of the honesty you should embrace. The reality you should share. It is the only way to build and maintain relationships that have value.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

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Open-Mindedness

Recently I have been thinking a lot about why so many people seem inconvincible of certain things which I hold to be true. And while I could certainly make a list of some of these things, that is not the intention of this blog entry. Instead, I have been reflecting on open-mindedness and wanted to share.

Many people – myself included – often enter into discourse with someone of a differing opinion with the intention of convincing them to change their mind. For example, maybe your friend Paul thinks all trees in your neighborhood that are taller than 12 feet should be pruned to 12 feet or less, so as not to obstruct anyone’s view of the lakefront. You know that he’s clearly wrong! You get into a discussion. Only it’s not really a discussion – it’s an argument each of you is trying to win. Maybe out of frustration you start incorporating personal attacks. Maybe you get so angry at Paul’s refusal to capitulate, as well as the horrible things he is saying about you, that it ends your friendship. Maybe in the middle of the night, Paul prunes all of your tall trees. Maybe the next night you erect a 30 foot statue on your lawn directly in Paul’s line of sight to the lake … and so on.

It’s sad, and you don’t even like the statue, but what choice is there? Paul must be taught a lesson.

I wish this was hyperbole. Sadly, it is not. And the conclusion is clearly suboptimal.

Well … let me construct a basis for discussion with some (hopefully) fair assumptions. In doing so I’m going to have to use a little bit of math terminology, and it occurs to me that some people might not know precisely what I mean, or even be put-off by some of my more mathematical references. If you think this might be the case, I ask you to bear with me. The concepts and symbols I use are the best way for me to illustrate my point, and I’ve included here a bit of a math lesson, in case it is not something you’ve encountered in your life – it will clarify some of the words and concepts I use for the rest of this article. Of course, if you feel there’s no need for you to read this section, by all means scroll past it and keep reading (I won’t feel bad).


Some Math concepts

Sets
Mathematicians like to talk about collections of values that are somehow related, and when they do, they use the word set. We use curly brackets to list the objects (known as elements) of a set. So for example the set F=\{apple, orange, banana, kiwi, peach, nectarine\} is a set I have named F, and just so you know, it is the set containing all the fruits I might bring to work with me in my lunch. A subset of a set S is another set that only contains elements from S. So for example M=\{apple, kiwi\} is the set of fruits I brought to work in my lunch on Monday, and is a subset of F. On the other hand, A=\{apple, pineapple, banana\} is not a subset of F.

A Little Bit of Algebra (Apologies to the Arithmophobic)
Consider this simple algebra equation:
\displaystyle 3x+4y=7
The x and y are understood to be symbolic of numbers, but the use of symbols mean that they vary – which is to say, they are variable. The equation is a statement. In this particular statement,
x = 1, y=1
would be a valid solution (i.e., the equation becomes true), since
3\times 1 + 4\times 1=7.
So would
x = 5, y=-2,
since
3\times 5 + 4\times (-2)=7.
However
x = 5, y=2
would not be a solution (i.e., the equation becomes false), since
3\times 5 + 4\times 2=23,
which is not 7.

Statements
In math and philosophy, a statement is a sentence that must either be true or false (but not both, and not maybe). Very often the truth value (i.e., “true” or “false”) of the statement depends on values for variables contained in the statement. The algebra equation above is a statement. Another example is the statement “I like cheese”, which contains two variables: “I”, and “cheese”. If the “I” refers to “Rich Dlin” (i.e., it is me speaking and not you), and the “cheese” refers to “Havarti”, then the statement is true. If the “I” is “Rich Dlin”, and the “cheese” is “Cambozola”, the statement (I promise you) is false. Notice that if the “cheese” were to refer to “gingerbread cookie” the statement would be nonsense, since “gingerbread cookie” is not a cheese – even though it is true that I like gingerbread cookies, it is irrelevant in the context of this statement. A mathematician would say “gingerbread cookie” is not an element of the set of all cheeses. Going back to the algebra example, {(1,1),(3,-2)} is a subset of the set of solutions to the equation given. The actual set has an infinite number of solutions in it, but that’s more than I need to talk about here. What I will say is that the truth value of the statement “Three times John’s favorite number plus four times Gail’s favorite number will yield seven” is:

True if (“John’s favorite number“, “Gail’s favorite number“) belongs to the set of solutions of 3x + 4y = 7,

False if (“John’s favorite number“, “Gail’s favorite number“) does not belong to the set of solutions of 3x + 4y = 7, and

Nonsense if, for example, John claims his favorite number is “cinnamon“. Be on the lookout for nonsense – it is surprisingly common.



The Assumptions

Ok. Welcome back. Here are the assumptions I was talking about:

All questions have a right answer
… when the answer is justified properly with a well framed statement.
The truth value of the statement may be subject to variables that change which answer is correct, but with a fixed set of values for the variables, there is a right answer. For example, the question “Should all trees taller than 12 feet in our neighborhood be pruned?” could be answered “Yes”, justified with the statement “It is unacceptable for some trees in our neighborhood to block sight lines to the lakefront”. Note that here the answer to the question is “yes” if the statement is true, and “no” if the statement is false, and may reasonably depend on whether or not the tree is also so wide, or part of a grove, as to make it impossible for a resident to see the lakefront from a different angle standing on the same property. It may also depend on whether 12 feet is a reasonable height with respect to whether or not sight lines get blocked. In this case these variables need to be introduced into the statement, or else agreed upon as not being variable.

The right answer may well not be knowable
 … even with the variable values fixed – which doesn’t mean there is no right answer!
As an example, consider the question “How many humans are alive on Earth right now?”

  • The number changes many times in a short span of time. So the truth value of the answer depends on what time it is indexed to.
  • The answer is subject to a definition of “alive”, and the answers to whether or not some organisms are living humans are in dispute.
  • “On” Earth needs to be defined. If I am in an airplane, am I on Earth? What if I am in low orbit?
  • However there is an answer, if we fix the variables.
  • There is currently no way, even with the variables fixed, to know the answer.

Knowing the truth is inherently valuable.
This is a big one. Many people demonstrate by their behavior that they do not adhere to this assumption. A simple example is the person who refuses to go to the doctor about a problem because they are afraid of what they might find out. In some ways, not wanting to know the truth is a human quality, especially in situations where a false belief has spawned an entire tree of values and beliefs we have been living by. If the root belief is false, what happens to the tree?

When it Comes to Truth, What We Want Doesn’t Matter
So with these assumptions, my position is that for any belief I hold, I am either right or wrong, and that I may not be able to tell. So then what am I to make of someone who disagrees? Can I immediately conclude that they are wrong? Clearly not. However I freely admit I want them to be wrong, so that I don’t have to be. After all, being wrong has some negative implications. On a fairly benign end it means I have been somehow deluded, which injures my pride. On an extreme end it may mean I have to discard an entire tree of conclusions that were premised on my error, leaving behind a buzzing hive of uncomfortable questions and observations about my previous behavior. But if the root belief is actually wrong, what choice do I really have? Since it is rooted in falsehood, the whole tree is an illusion anyway.

Here is a hard truth: What we want has nothing to do with what is true. I want there to be peace in the Middle East. But there is not peace in the Middle East, and no amount of wishing on my part, no matter how fervent, can alter the truth value of this or any other statement. On the other hand, what is true can and should definitely impact what I want. What we all want.

Ok. Here is another statement that is tautologically true: In the set of things I hold to be true, some might be false. And from a probability perspective, I am also comfortable saying that in the set of things I hold to be true, some are true, and some are false. I want to say “most are true and some are false”, but I am honestly not sure I have a reasonable argument to claim that, so we’ll leave it there as a desire more than a fact.

Shades of Gray
Now I will focus on statements where the truth depends on fixing values for the variables in the statement., which to me is the core of the shades of gray argument: In cases where there is a continuum of possibilities between true and false, almost everything in the set of things I hold to be true lies somewhere within the boundaries of the continuum, rather than on one of the ends.

Here a philosopher or mathematician might (and should!) argue that there can be no continuum between true and false, since those are binary options. My response is that I am talking about a sphere of reasonable answers centered on the truth, where anything outside the sphere is easily demonstrated to be false (or worse, nonsense), but things get a little more touchy inside the sphere. This is a consequence of my point about the truth of a statement depending on fixing values for variables the statement depends upon. To elaborate on this, I am going to define something called an assumption set.

Assumption Set
Suppose a statement depends on a set of variables. For example, consider the statement “Running is good for you.” The truth of this is not absolute. It depends on some variables:

  • How much running (the quantity of the running)?
  • How intense (the quality of the running)?
  • What preconditions do you have that running would exacerbate (e.g, bad knees, asthma, heart problems)?
  • Where do you plan to do your running (road, track, beach)?
  • and many more.

So before we could discuss whether the statement is true, we would have to fix values for these variables. I call these fixed values the assumption set. So for example an assumption set for this statement could be
R=\{45 minutes per day, at 80\% of maximum heart rate, \{sensitive to sunlight, plantar fasciitis\}, track\}.
Notice that one of the elements (the preconditions) in this assumption set is itself a set – that’s completely acceptable. On the whole, I would judge this assumption set to be a reasonable one – which is to say, the elements of the set have a probability associated with them that makes them not unexpected in the context of discussing the claim that “Running is good for you.”
Another assumption set could be
S=\{15 hours per day, at 120\% of maximum heart rate, \{multiple hip replacements, torn Achilles tendon\}, Interstate Highways\}.
On the whole, I would judge this assumption set to be very unreasonable – which is to say, it is highly improbable that this would be an assumption set on which the claim “Running is good for you” would be a relevant discussion.

Reasonable Answers (Approximately True?)
A reasonable answer to a question can be defined as a statement that is true when evaluated with a plausible assumption set. That is to say, the assumption set is comprised of elements that have probabilities high enough that if we observed them we would not be surprised. In situations where the variables are in constant flux, the approximate truth value of a statement may be argued as the one that holds given the most likely assumption set. In cases like this, we may generalize a statement as true, while being willing to challenge it in the face of a game-changing assumption set. We maybe won’t talk about who gets to define “plausible”, even though there are times when that becomes the most relevant thing.

Arguing(?) With an Open Mind
Here I have chosen to use the word “arguing”, even though in truth I prefer the word “discussing”. That’s because most people seem to think that discussions between people in disagreement need to be arguments. I disagree. Remember the assumption that we are not right about everything? And remember the assumption that knowing the truth is inherently valuable? These two should premise every discussion we enter into. So when discussing the answers to questions, or the truth about statements, we need to do our best to remember that what we are trying to do is get as close to the center of the sphere as possible, because that is a good thing to do, and because we may not be there yet.

Of course, we all think we are closer than an opponent. If not, we wouldn’t be having the discussion in the first place. But keeping in mind that if two people are in disagreement, one of them must be wrong, a productive conversation is one where at the end of it the parties have converged on something they both hold to be as close to true as they can see getting. When this happens, the world gets a win. I’ll list some techniques for true open-mindedness.

Discussing With an Open Mind

  1. Remember that you might be wrong.
    Put another way, be willing to change your mind, or adjust the approximate truth of what you believe.
    See, you believe that you are probably right. You may even believe that you are certainly right (although for the truly reflective, certainty is a pretty difficult thing to attain). But your opponent has the same thoughts. Both of you probably have many reasons for these. And they probably have a lot to do with assumption sets, and which one of you is applying the most plausible set. Sometimes the discussion is not about the truth of the statement but on the plausibility of the assumption set. Keep that in mind. Yours may be the less plausible. Or maybe both assumption sets are equally plausible, in which case the statement can be split into two (or more) more detailed statements that include some of the differing assumptions explicitly. But keep in mind that emotional attachment to an assumption set can and will blind you to the plausibility of an alternate set, and ultimately cause you to refute a statement with unreasonable (even fanatical) obstinacy.
  2. Have higher expectations for yourself than you do for your opponent.
    This means you need to challenge yourself to inspect the assumptions and claims of yourself and your opponent objectively, even if they are not doing the same thing. When you do this – and do it out loud – they hear that. Look at elements of the assumption sets and objectively evaluate their probability. Also evaluate whether they change the truth value of the statement or not. And be prepared to evaluate whether or not they render the statement as nonsense – this happens surprisingly often but it’s not obvious until it is isolated. Discussing things this way models a behavior that is necessary for the two of you to converge on a conclusion you both agree with. And if you are consistent with it, your opponent will often adopt the same style, if only because they think this is the way to convince you they are right.
  3. Thank your opponent, regardless of the outcome.
    I don’t mean this as a politeness. I mean this in the most sincere sense. Any opportunity we get to reflect on our set of beliefs is valuable. Sometimes your opponent and you will converge. Sometimes you will not, and they leave the exchange completely unmoved, perhaps even claiming “victory”. This is sad, since the only true victory would be a convergence of opinion, but ultimately it is not relevant to your own experience. Make it so that if you have moved on a topic, it is because you discovered something you were not considering, or were considering incorrectly, and now you are closer to the center of the sphere of truth. If you do not move, make it because you were not presented with any strong evidence that you needed to. In either case your beliefs will have been strengthened in some way, either because you changed to something as a result of new insight, or because you were challenged in some way, and it was unsuccessful. For this you have your opponent to thank.

How to Spot Real Open-Mindedness
Many people claim to be open-minded. It may be true, or it may be a trick (some people say it so that when you fail to convince them of something it will prove they were right). True open-mindedness doesn’t mean you are ready to believe anything. It means you are willing to change your mind when presented with evidence that objectively compels you to do so. If you know of (or are) someone who has changed their mind in the moment, during rational discourse, but who was fairly slow to do so, they are probably the type of person I am describing. This goes back to my point that we are probably not right about everything we believe. Which means mind-changing can occur. Which means if you’ve seen it occur, it occurred in someone with an open mind.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

Phone Addiction is NOT Okay

Hi. My name is Rich and I am an addict.

iphone.jpgOk. I know that’s been borrowed from AA protocol countless times. Often in jest when not in the context of an actual meeting. But I’m not joking – I am an addict. I have had a few addictions in my life, thankfully not any of the big nasty ones like alcohol or drugs, but some of the ones I’ve had have had negative impact, for certain. The two most prominent are food and smartphones.

I am going to talk a little about the food addiction later in this article. But I mainly want to talk about the subtle and not-so-subtle evils that my phone addiction has wrought. The first is an obvious one, and it has been discussed to death. Still, it needs addressing:

Phone Addiction Steals You From The World

There are way too many times I have belatedly realized that my son, daughter, wife or close friend made an attempt to communicate with me while I was using my phone. And after they realize it’s like talking to a projection, they give up. The worst part is they seem to just accept it – that they are not going to win my attention over whatever clever post I am reading or writing, or whatever video about people hurting themselves doing stupid things I am watching, or whatever likes I am counting. What’s worse is that so many of those times they were the ones who had my attention first, but during a brief lull in our interaction I pulled out my phone to investigate a notification and was subsequently checked out. Most heart-wrenching is that it is out of respect for me that they give up and don’t try to interrupt my phone time. Clearly I don’t need to go further on the evil of this aspect. The next few are a little more subtle, but insidious.

Smartphone Addiction Erodes Your Ability to Focus

MMT TranscriptHumility aside, my concentration and focus used to be legendary. I could get lost in a process, with intense focus for hours on end. So much so that I would forget to eat or even go to the washroom, until the need for one or both of those became impossible to ignore and I would look at the clock and be shocked at the time. And the things I could do during that time were amazing. It’s how I got through my Masters degree with a GPA of 97%, for example (that and major support from my awesome wife and kids). Lately, my concentration sucks. I find myself looking for distraction only minutes after beginning something. At first, when I noticed this, I blamed my age. It’s no secret that aging can have an impact on brain function. But the truth is I am 48, and there are plenty of people older – even much older – than me who can concentrate on a task for a long period of time with no trouble. On a smartphone, nothing needs concentration, and everything is provided in quick bites. You flit from item to item like a politician moving through a political rally, shaking hands with everyone and meeting nobody. And you can tell yourself that this is behaviour limited to your phone time, but what you miss is that your brain is a learning machine, and it’s learning a behaviour. Your brain wires itself to adapt to your environment, even if that environment is the manufactured barrage of inanity you kill time with on your phone.

Possibly worse, is that we tell ourselves that the phone is a harmless distraction, and we use it at the weirdest times. I’ve used it while watching TV, thinking that surely the TV doesn’t care so no harm done. But while the TV doesn’t care, my brain does. Watching a television show requires focus. Not the same level as calculus mind you – but focus nonetheless. There’s a story unfolding and if you miss something the subsequent bits make less sense. So you are missing an opportunity to focus. To practice what I tell my students is the single most lacking skill in the computer generation: uni-tasking. I have heard many a person brag about their ability to multi-task, which is great, I guess. But smartphones have stolen our ability to focus on one thing for a long time. We can no longer effectively uni-task.

Smartphone Addiction Encourages Mistakes

Yeah, this one took me a while to clue into. I’ve noticed over the past couple of years that I am making more mistakes at things that I should be able to do automatically. Frighteningly, I don’t even notice them when I make them – only once they are pointed out, or long after, do I notice. And when I do notice I have no memory of making the mistake.

Now I hear you say Wait! That’s just a symptom of aging!

Well, yes. It could be. But the thing is, there is a thought groove I find myself in when these things happen – like a road I know I’ve been on because the landmarks are familiar but I can’t quite place it. Then it hit me. Autocorrect. Autocorrect and predictive text. Both of these so-called innovations have made it so that we don’t even have to concentrate on the simple act of typing a text, email, or post. Just type close to what you want and autocorrect will fix it for you. Not always correctly, mind you, but often. So much so that when it gets it wrong we don’t even notice until later, making for some humorous/embarrassing messages getting sent. I actually hated this feature, and turned off autocorrect some time ago, but I kept the predictive text on. And it works so well that I often only have to type the first 1-3 letters of what I want and an entire phrase is suggested to me – correctly. So I select it and don’t check it. And sometimes, my iPhone does the old bait-and-switch on me so that the thing I think I’m selecting changes to something else just before I select it, and I don’t even notice and the wrong thing gets sent.

Like I said before, the brain is a learning machine. And my smartphone addiction has taught my brain that you only have to start a thought to have it completed automatically. And that is what has manifested into these increasingly frequent mistakes. It is NOT age. I can feel it when it happens. It is the same thought groove as typing on my phone.

At Least I Remember When It Wasn’t So

The scariest thought to me is that these things I describe are changes. As in, it wasn’t always so for me. I am actually frightened about the generations that don’t have a comparison to make to a different time. A generation that believes that being able to concentrate on one thing for a long time is an unusual, maybe even useless skill. Or that being able catch every joke in a sitcom is a freakish ability. Or that being able to spell a word correctly on purpose is a worthwhile ability. With respect to the issues I have outlined, I want to go back to the way I was. But for many younger people, this is the way they have always been. There is nothing to go back to.

Quitting May Not Be the Answer

So the fix would seem obvious, wouldn’t it? Just stop. But that’s not realistic, or even really desirable. Many good things come from my smartphone. I have made friends – good friends – who live in different countries from me, and I stay in touch with them using my phone. There are legitimately useful apps, like the medication reminder, the shared grocery list. Or the math puzzle game Euclidea that actually reverses some of the deleterious concentration effects I described above. I use GPS apps all the time and get lost much less often (though sadly, I still manage to get lost sometimes). I listen to so much more music variety than I did in the days when you had to buy records, tapes or CD’s, and it is so much more easy to discover new music now than then. I take a lot of photos with my phone, and some of those are real treasures that I wouldn’t otherwise have. I read some great articles, and have learned a ton of cool things. Chances are super-high you are reading this on a smartphone. I believe these are good things. So I don’t want to quit. And I don’t think anyone has to. We live in a pretty plugged in world, and more and more there are things that are designed to be done on our devices that are actually difficult if not impossible to do otherwise. So modified usage is the key.

Modification Requires Discipline

Or does it? I mean, yeah, it does. Almost always. If you want to modify a behaviour it means breaking a habit, and that is not trivial. You need to be disciplined. And you need to believe that you can do it. Which I think, for many people, is the main obstacle to success. That belief that you can do it. Which leads me to my food addiction:

How I Modified My Eating Behaviour

The first addiction in my life I had to acknowledge was food. Maybe I was genetically doomed to that, or maybe it was my upbringing, but my addiction to food is real either way. It resulted in a max weight of 250 lbs, and an adulthood of gaining-losing-gaining, until my heart attack 3 years ago. The heart attack was actually not caused by my eating, or so the cardiologist says, but rather genetics. My arteries are shaped in a more clog-worthy way than you’d set out to do if you were designing a human from scratch. However there’s no argument that my food addiction wasn’t helping. The heart attack added a new tool to my psyche though – something that’s simultaneously heard and easy to describe: a hard stop. Before the heart attack meals were a negotiation in my head. And I often didn’t come out the winner in the bargain. Now there is no negotiation. I eat clean, all the time. I don’t overeat. I actually can have just one french fry. Truly! French fries are a food I will not allow myself to order or prepare anymore, but on occasion I have had just one from someone else’s meal – even though they were finished and offered me the rest. Just one, for the taste, and I have no desire to eat another. Cardio is now a non-negotiable habit as well. I don’t negotiate whether or not I will do it. I just do.

I am as fit as I’ve ever been and certainly as healthy as I’ve ever been. People often ask me how I did it and I sadly tell them that I wish I could give them the secret, but the secret is I had a heart attack and I don’t want another one.

The picture on the left features my beautiful niece at her first birthday. You may be distracted by her cuteness – I understand. Take your time. But when you are ready, the place to look is my belly protruding under my forearm. The picture on the right is a fun shot I took after a workout a couple of weeks ago. Oh, and by the way – both those photos were taken with my phone.

So. I have managed to find a way to live a healthy life despite a food addiction, even if the way I found was not something I’d wish on anyone. But after all, isn’t it all in my head? This new tool I called the hard stop?

Of course it is. And because it is I believe I can apply that rationale to my phone addiction. I have started to, and will continue to do so.

What I Am Doing to Fix it

I turned off all the features of my phone that try to think for me. Any typos or wrong words I send now are all mine. And there are so much fewer of them now! It takes me longer to compose a message. But it’s worth it.

I will not look at my phone while watching TV. Not even during commercials. Because you can’t force yourself to stop the moment the commercial is over.

If I am in the middle of a legitimate text conversation with someone, I make sure the people in the room with me know it, so they know why I am checked out. And when it is done, I tell them explicitly that I am done and I put my phone away so that they can have my distraction-free attention.

When I sit down to do focus-heavy tasks, like work or drawing, I put my brain in do-not-disturb mode, meaning I don’t check notifications at all, and my phone becomes a music player exclusively. When I do this, I let anyone know who would normally feel like they have 24/7 access to me that I have gone dark. This way if they need to communicate with me they know they need to either do it in person or call. Because as we all know, nobody ever uses their smartphone as a telephone, so when there is an actual call I know I should check to see who it is and probably answer.

It Can Be Done

As they say, no need to throw the baby out with the bath water. You don’t have to quit if you can properly modify. And you can. I believe you don’t need a critical moment to be the catalyst. Just the knowledge that you can do it. And I really, really believe we need to.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences on smartphone addiction, and how it can be addressed. Feel free to share in the comments section.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

Our Schooling System is Broken

It has been a while since my last blog – it was never my intention to go so long between posts but you know … sometimes life hands you other things. In any case I plan to start writing again more frequently, starting with a subject that has been on my mind for a while now: Education.

See, I am thinking our system might be broken. Scratch that – I know it’s broken, and in many ways. But I am talking about a fundamental issue, which is the assumption that performance in a school system with a standardized curriculum is a key measure of personal value. I will try to explain, starting with some background for context.

I Am a Teacher

It’s true. I am a teacher. A very happy one at that. I love my job. I teach high school math in Ontario, Canada, and have been doing that for about 15 years. Prior to that I worked as a software developer for about 10 years. When people ask me what I do for a living (something other adults seem to have a deep need to know upon meeting each other), the conversation always goes roughly the same way:

Other Adult: “So Rich, what do you do for a living?”
Rich: “I’m a teacher.”
OA: “Oh? Nice. What do you teach?”
(Rich’s note: There may or may not be a “joke” here by OA along the lines of “Oh yeah? You know what they say: ‘Those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach’ hahahahaha”)
Rich (being honest, even though it’s not what they meant): “Kids.”
OA: “Oh, haha. But seriously, what subject?”
Rich (with an inward eye-roll – here it comes): “I teach high school math.”
OA: “Oh god. I hate math. I remember I used to be so good at it until grade 8 when I had Ms. Heffernan. She hated me! And she was so terrible to the kids. She made me hate math. I never understood anything in math after that. I am so bad at math! The other day I tried to help my 7 year-old with her homework and I couldn’t even understand what they were doing. Do you tutor? I think I may need to hire you to help little Kelly with her math. Math is so confusing. I keep telling her she doesn’t need it anyway. I mean, I run a multi-million dollar business and I never use any of the math they tried to teach me in high school. Why don’t you guys start teaching useful stuff like understanding financial statements and investing? I had to learn all that stuff on my own. I don’t see why math is so important. I am really successful and I was never any good at it thanks to Ms. Heffernan …..”
Rich: “I apologize on behalf of all my brethren. Please carry on with your successful math-free life. Yes, I’d be happy to help Kelly, but honestly she probably doesn’t need any help. She’s 7. She will conquer.”

You get the point. But as I said, I seriously love my job. For many reasons. But perhaps the main one is that it keeps me connected to the fluidity of humanity. I keep getting older, but my students do not. They are the same age every year. And because I spend a large number of hours each day immersed in their culture, it forces me to keep my thinking current, so that I can continue to effectively communicate. In this way I feel less like some sort of flotsam floating on the river of time and more like a beaver dam of sorts, constantly filtering new water on it’s way downstream, being shored up with new materials as each generation passes through. I am like a connection between the past and the future, and the older I get, the larger the gap I am privileged to span. And in any case, young people are perpetually awesome. It brings a faith in humanity I’m not sure I could get in other ways to see firsthand the caretakers of the future.

School Is Not Really About Education

I can hear your thoughts.

Um, what? Isn’t school by definition about education?

Well, yeah. Granted it’s supposed to be. But it isn’t. All you have to do is talk to almost any adult existing in Western society today about it and they will tell you (often with great relish, as though they are solving world hunger), they never use a single thing they learned in school in their day-to-day lives. Which is of course false. But mostly true. If you went to school in Canada you probably at some point had to know things like what year Champlain landed in Quebec (1608, in case you’re stumped – I just Googled it). I can say with a fair amount of confidence that whether or not you have that tidbit of info available in your memory banks is not affecting your life in any measurable way. You probably also had to know the quadratic formula at some point. I don’t have to Google that one. It’s x=\frac{-b\pm\sqrt{b^2-4ac}}{2a}. Nifty, isn’t it? Sorry if I scared you.

Here. Check out these definitions of “education”. I Googled it.

Definition of Education
Side note: Google is so cool. I’m 48. I have existed both with and without Google. I had to assimilate the use of Google as a verb into a lexicon that did not previously have it established that way. Your kids didn’t. They have to establish the word googol as a noun referring to the number 10^{100} into a lexicon that likely does not have it established that way.

See? The very first definition says I am wrong. School is about education, literally by definition. Oh, but check out definition number 2! Now that is a good one. Education is an enlightening experience! The thing is, in many cases, and for many people, school isn’t enlightening. In many cases, school is an exercise in conformity and alignment. It’s a system which simultaneously (and somewhat arbitrarily) defines success (um, I think I mean worth) and then provides measures for individuals to evaluate their success (yeah, I definitely mean worth).

Performance of Curriculum is a False Measure of Worth

Ok. So when you were a kid, around the age of 5, your parents sent you off to school. And almost immediately, you started to get report cards. They aren’t cards anymore. In many cases they aren’t even paper. But still called report cards. A figurative card summarizing your score on a number of predetermined criteria for success. And make no mistake – from that very first report card on, kids are sent the message that they must perform according to standards so that they get good report cards. I’m going to stay away from the early years, since that’s not my area of expertise, and fast forward to high school, which is. Let’s look at an example. This is based on a real person, whose name I’ve changed. Yes it’s anecdotal. It’s not meant as proof, only to demonstrate my point.

Sally is a young lady in grade 9 who has never particularly had an interest in math – at least in how it’s presented at school. She really doesn’t care about direct vs. partial variation, or the sum of the exterior angles of a polygon, or about how doubling the radius affects the volume of a sphere. But Sally goes to school, in a system which has not only determined that these things are important, they are also mandatory. So she has no choice but to engage in attempts to learn about these things, despite the fact that she is actually incapable of being interested in them. Sally is awesome, by the way. A genuinely caring human with deep empathy, intense loyalty, and a great sense of humour. Sally is also depressed, because she feels worthless. No matter how hard she tries, she can’t figure out how substituting 2r for r into the formula V=\frac{4}{3}\pi r^3 causes the volume to increase by a factor of 8. In a test designed to determine if Sally can do these things, her performance was dismal. Her mark on that test was a 58%. The class average was 85%. When the teacher returned the test, she made comments like “Well, I know that I taught about exterior angles, but it is clear that some of you did not learn it.” When Sally brought the test home to show her parents (who, incidentally, knew that Sally had the test coming up, hired a tutor to help her prepare, and then asked if she had gotten it back each day after school starting the day after it had been written until the day a week later when it was returned), her parents were frustrated and disappointed. Sally has been conditioned to believe that her ability to understand direct and partial variation is critical. Because it is mandatory, her inability to care or comprehend is forcibly highlighted. And subsequently, her performance is recorded for posterity on her report card. Sally’s final grade in math ends up being 61%. Her parents are disappointed. Sally is devastated. She believes there is something fundamentally wrong with her, because she legitimately can not measure up to the standards set in a system she has no choice but to be engaged in.

Breaking Down the Process

Let’s have a look at this situation of Sally’s, and the number of places where the system went wrong.

First off, the concepts Sally has to learn have honestly been arbitrarily determined. See, someone, somewhere, decided that Calculus is an important prerequisite subject for many university and college programs. And to learn Calculus (a grade 12 subject in Ontario), you arguably have to start with concepts like direct and partial variation in earlier grades. And because grade 9 is truly too early to know if programs that require Calculus are in your future, this pre-calculus material is incorporated into the curriculum for pretty much everybody.

Second, math is mandatory. In Ontario high school is a 4-year program, and you must have a minimum of 3 math credits to earn a high school diploma. All of this has nothing – and everything – to do with Sally. Next comes the process. Sally’s teacher created quite possibly an amazing series of lessons on these topics. Sally just doesn’t have the wiring for them, so even though the teacher may be phenomenal, it will have a marginal impact on Sally’s ability to synthesize the material. Sally used to ask questions in class. Now she doesn’t, because she learned that even when she asked, it didn’t help. Sally is deeply empathic – she has seen firsthand the good intentions and effort of her teachers in the past. She can read facial expressions and body language. She has seen her teachers answer her questions and try to help her and seen how much they believe the answers and help are working, so she has pretended that it was, since that was easier than admitting that it wasn’t, because it meant burdening herself with her inadequacy instead of her teachers.

Third, Sally has been conditioned to believe that it is all being done so that she can get high grades. Because ultimately her success is defined by her report card. And because pretty much everyone is telling her that you don’t need this stuff in life anyway. You just need to learn it to get high grades so you can be successful. Which means the only purpose to learning this stuff is the test you will eventually write on it. This is exacerbated by the well-intentioned parents who put so much emphasis on the test – both before and after. You’ve heard the question “When am I ever going to use this?” Well the answer for most kids is “Next week, when you are tested on it.”

See? It’s all artificial. Sally is a high-worth kid, forced into a situation she isn’t wired for, and told that her worth is defined by her performance in that situation. It’s incredibly sad to watch.

The Present and the Future

So here’s where we are now. Many kids and parents these day believe that high marks are critical. The perception is that material presented in school is not inherently valuable, but instead the value is that it is a vehicle to high marks. This means that kids will often do anything it takes to get the high marks. This includes cheating, but that’s not really what I am driving at. What I mean is that they develop strategies that focus on getting high marks, as opposed to learning. Cramming for tests, paying for courses in small private schools that guarantee (implicitly or explicitly) very high grades, or negotiating with teachers (even to the extent of aggressively bullying) after the fact are all standard operating procedure. What is so terrible is that Sally may be able to get high grades using any of these tactics. But Sally will also always know that she didn’t earn them. She will always know that she is not good at something that she should be good at if she is to be valuable. And if and when she manages to gets the high grades anyway, that sense of fraudulence will haunt her. I’ve seen it. It’s tragic. Sally has a great future if she can discover her true worth. The worth she was born with and the worth that her friends probably value more than anything she can do in a math class. But she may or may not discover it.

What I Do About It

I love people. And that includes the kids I teach. And I teach high level math, which is honestly not for everyone. I get a lot of kids coming through my classroom doors who are not there because they want to be, and who will not be able to draw the joy from studying math that I really, really do. I have constraints. I have to teach the material as it’s laid out by governmental process. I have to assign grades that reflect students’ performance against some pretty specific criteria. But within this I make sure that each and every kid I teach knows that I value them as a person. That I care about their story. That I see them not as a 2-dimensional projection of my consciousness, but as a multi-dimensional consciousness of their own, with a narrative as rich and intricate as mine. I make sure that they understand that any evaluation I do of their abilities in math is a tiny, tiny cog in the complex machinery of their existence, and has zero impact on my impressions of them as people, or on my estimation of their worth. I show them that it is totally acceptable to love and be passionate about math, without tying that love and passion to an evaluation. It’s not about the math. It’s about giving them permission to take joy out of abstractions, and to pursue the things that they were wired to do. I’m not always successful. Some kids are too preconditioned. But I will never stop trying.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

Thoughts From a Dance Dad

Lately it seems as though the amount of time I have to write is inversely proportional to the amount of ideas I have to write about. But today’s entry is about something I’ve been thinking about for years: Dance.

Early Years

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My Little Ballerina (age 5)

My daughter is a competitive dancer. She’s 15, and has been dancing since she was around 3. She’s gone to countless dance camps, workshops, and of course classes. So I have been a dance spectator for about 12 years. Prior to that I knew next to nothing about dance, save for the fact that I have never been any good at it.

At first, dance was pretty much entirely about how cute the kids all looked executing choreography. They got to wear these elaborate costumes and perform for friends and family at recitals. The teachers and teaching assistants are always on stage at the same time as the kids, and the kids essentially never take their eyes off them, mimicking the movements they’ve all spent months in class learning. It’s exceedingly adorable, and naturally every person who comes to watch immediately rushes to them afterwards to tell them how wonderfully they danced. In short, it’s a typical exercise in getting kids involved in an activity that provides some structure around working toward a goal, and then the kids get congratulated on essentially existing for the duration. And it’s awesome.

As the years progressed, we saw less and less boys involved. I won’t attempt to analyze that or comment on why it might be, but political minefield notwithstanding, it is true. This meant that as the dancers grew, it became – for my daughter’s group at least – a girls-only activity.

Emerging Talents
1042Starting around the age of 8 or 9, and lasting for 3-4 years, it starts to become obvious which of the girls are well suited to dance and which are not. This obviousness is not lost on the girls. Dance becomes a micro-society where “Haves” and “Have-Nots” start to identify, and the behaviours that result are what you would expect. In a way it mirrors what is happening at that age in school, but from where I sat it was definitely magnified at dance. These can be pretty difficult years for the girls, and perhaps more so for the parents. As I watched from the sidelines, I always told myself that whether a Have or a Have-Not, there are very valuable lessons to be learned from these dramas, and whether my daughter was receiving or giving grief (it certainly seemed she was receiving a lot more than giving, but nobody ever accused a dad of being impartial), my wife and I always did our best to ground her in reality and look for the long-term life lessons that could be taken. I do think, subjectivity aside, that I can safely say my daughter began to show real talent for dance during this time. I can also say, objectively this time, that she emerged from this phase with an inner-strength and confidence that is astounding. As I watch her navigate the social quagmire of the tenth grade, I am exceedingly proud and awed at how well she manages to stay true to herself and her friends, while gliding above the drama that can consume most kids of that age. She never judges others, and always stays honest in helping her friends deal with whatever the current issue is. In and out of the dance world I have watched her handle victories with honest grace and compassion, and failures with resolute determination. She’s my hero, and I firmly believe we have the “emerging talent” years of the competitive dance program to thank for that.

From Girls to Women
As the girls mature into women, things change at dance in a way that I could never have understood if I were not so immersed in it. This phase is not something I came to understand only as my daughter entered it – the nice thing about being a dance dad is that every recital and dance competition you attend features dancers from all the age groups. So that long before my daughter was in high school I have been observing this stage of a dancer’s development. I also have the added advantage of being a high school teacher, and so for my entire career have had the pleasure of seeing how dancers take the lessons from dance into seemingly unrelated arenas, like a math classroom, which really is my domain. Having a daughter in dance always made me pay attention to how older dancers behaved, kind of as a way of glimpsing my daughter’s future. Here are some observations I’ve made over the years, and observations I have now had the pleasure of seeing manifest in my own daughter.

Dance is a Language
This is not metaphor. Dance actually is a language. It took me some time to fully appreciate that. Because of my daughter’s involvement in dance, our family has been marisa-dancewatching So You Think You Can Dance since season 2. It’s a great show to be sure, but I admit at first I was too absorbed in marveling at the physicality of it to understand what it communicates, despite the fact that the judges on the show really do a great job emphasizing this (I always assumed they were saying it metaphorically). But like a child that learns to speak simply from hearing the spoken word and contextually absorbing meaning from the sound, I began to absorb meaning from the movement. The first thing I realized was that unlike languages that use words, dance doesn’t translate to any other language, and communicates things which can’t be communicated any other way, with the possible exceptions of fine art, or poetry. Really good fine art will enthrall and speak to the viewer through infinite contemplation of something static. Really good poetry succeeds at using words which individually can be quite linear, by combining them in a way to create depth and consequently say something the language the poem is written in was not necessarily designed to say. Really good dance? A different thing entirely. It speaks to our humanity on multiple levels, and the fluidity of it allows the choreographer/dancer to tell us stories no written word could approach.

Words are discrete, and a picture is static. But motion is a continuous medium, and the very continuity of it results in an infinity of expression within a finite frame of time and space. It has been said that dance is poetry in motion, but I honestly have come to see it in the reverse. Poetry is dance stood still. I can’t find words to describe this any better, because words will fail here. If you want to know what I mean, watch dancers. And in the same way that second and third languages improve thought processes and imagination, so does dance – but it does so in a way that is magnified a thousandfold because of its unique method of delivery, and because of the world of thought and emotion it opens up for communication. It also is unique in that you don’t have to be able to speak it to understand it. You only have to watch.

Dancers Make the Best Actors
Because of my passion for theatre, I have had the immense pleasure of being both actor and director in various musicals. And here is what I’ve noticed – not all great actors are dancers, but all dancers are definitely great actors. To me there is no mystery as to why this is. Many actors focus on the words they’re saying or singing, trying to pour all of the character they’re portraying into the delivery of the lines or lyrics. Physicality is often an afterthought, or a simple by-product of the emotion they are feeling about the performance. For dancers it’s entirely different. Because of their fluency in dance, they are simultaneously vocalizing and dancing the performance. By dancing I don’t mean the choreography that often accompanies musical numbers, although naturally a dancer excels there. Rather I mean that they are speaking to us in two languages simultaneously. And even those of us not able to communicate with dance can still understand it. So I have often found myself thinking of a dancer “It’s not a je ne sais quois she has. It’s a je sais qu’elle est une danceuse” (yes, you have to speak some french for that one  😉 ).

Dance is Empowering
Okay. So obviously dance results in physical fitness. You can always spot a dancer by their muscle tone, posture and grace in simple movement. The importance of this can’t be underplayed. But the kind of empowerment I’m talking about here is more than that. I flying-marisaremember once at a dance recital there was a senior acro small group number about to start (see what I did there – Dance Dad knows the terminology). It was clear from the opening positions that one of the dancers was going to execute a crazy trick to start the dance. Before the music started there were hoots and hollers from the wings and from the audience, and one dancer’s voice from the wings rang out with “You GO girl!”. I was momentarily taken aback. I think maybe I had just read an article or watched a show where that phrase was called into question as demeaning to women. And then I looked around. The stage and venue was dense with strong, confident young women, certain of themselves and certain of their power. And the dancer who called it out numbered among them. I couldn’t see anything demeaning at that point about what she had said, but on a deeper level I realized just what dance had done for these kids. It showed them what inner strength, determination and dedication could do. And so naturally I began to think about the dancers I’ve taught in my math classroom and I had this moment of revelation. It is exactly that quality that has always made them stand out to me in that setting. Not that they all excel in math, because not all kids do. But that regardless of their abilities in math, there is always an inner strength and peace that says “I know who I am, I know what I can do, and I know how to commit to improving.” Where many students in high school still need the explicit motivation that our culture seems to thrive on too often, the dancers have internalized their motivation in the best way. I can’t say enough how important that is for success in life.

unsung-marisa

Thanks for reading,

Rich

The Arts – Polish For the Soul

First off, a quick apology to anyone who follows me for my lack of blog posts. I have been writing them – but they are all sitting in my draft folder. However this one is special.

So this past weekend I went to New York City with my son for a quick trip. We had tickets to see the Sunday matinee show of Hamilton, and at the last minute when we were there we also decided to get tickets to see Fiddler on the Roof. I could probably write a small novel on how awesome it was to spend a weekend in NYC with my almost 19-year old son, but that’s not what this is about.

This is about Art.

In my 47 years on this planet I have learned one thing about humans – we tarnish. Or more specifically, our souls tarnish. It’s not a bad thing – in sterling silver, tarnish is just a natural result of exposure to air. It does nothing to diminish the silver underneath, nor does it change the essence of the silver in any way. What it does is make the shining core progressively less visible to the world. With tarnished silver there are two ways to reveal the shine – you can score the surface where the tarnish is and reveal shining silver underneath, or you can gently polish the tarnish for the same result. Scoring the surface leaves scars, but does not affect the shine. Polishing leaves no scars.

When it comes to humans, we are all born shiny. Like new silver, our souls gleam and light the world around us. You don’t have to be a philosopher to know this – just watch the faces of all the adults the next time you see a little girl on the subway singing made up lyrics about the ads on the walls. Her soul is bright and shiny and we love it. But as we get older our exposure to life adds layers of tarnish. I get that this sounds negative but it really is not. It’s natural. Our light does not dim – it just becomes more hidden. Personally, I’ve seen three things that can bring it out again.

The first is grief. Live long enough and you will get scored by grief – it’s inevitable. It hurts like hell. But something miraculous also occurs. Grief cuts through the tarnish. In the terrible grasp of grief, people return to that vulnerable state of openness and childlike trust. It doesn’t make it hurt less, but it does remind us how beautiful our soul is. It leaves us scarred, but not less wonderful. It also leaves a memory of that vulnerability that was our souls shining where the tarnish was removed. It’s not a scary vulnerability but a precious one. However the tarnish returns, and nobody should ever be subjected to grief as a means of therapy.

The second is celebration. Weddings in particular are where I have seen peoples’ souls shine. Listen to wedding speeches from people who are truly in love – and even the speeches from their families and friends, and you’ll know what I mean.

The third, and to me the most significant in that it can be called upon at will, is art. I really do mean art in all forms (and as an aside, check out my other website where I feature my own drawings: Studio Dlin), but my focus here will be on theatre, and specifically on the shows my son and I saw this past weekend.

Saturday night was Fiddler on the Roof. This is a show I know very, very well. I actually have had the pleasure of performing the role of Tevye in it, and I love the show dearly. Anyone familiar with the show will know that Act 1 is loaded with warmth and humour, right up until the final scene. Act 2 is heavy, with not nearly as much laughter and with a lot of emotional, even painful moments. As you’d expect from Broadway, this cast and the production were outstanding. Because I know the play so well, and because I played Tevye, I was actually simultaneously performing the show in my head as it unfolded. I found myself in the story.

Tevye loves his daughters deeply and tenderly. I loved them too. Tevye loves his people and his town. I loved them too. Tevye suffers poverty with a smile and an honesty that is undeniably human, and I did too. In Matchmaker, his daughters discover how terrified they are of being committed for life to a marriage someone else chooses. I was terrified too. The townspeople suffer at the hands of an oppressive Tzar, and I suffered too. Tevye and his daughter Hodel say goodbye forever when she decides she must go live in Siberia when Perchik is arrested, and I was both father and daughter in that moment. Tevye then must say a much harsher goodbye to his daughter Chava when she decides to marry out of the faith, and his traditions force him (and to a slightly lesser extent his wife Golde) to treat Chava as dead. In that moment I was father, daughter, wife and husband. When all the Jews are forced to leave Anatevka at the end of Act 2, I was every one of them – even the Russian constable who had to inform them of the edict. I laughed, cried, danced in my seat and sang along (in my head!).

Sunday afternoon came and it was time for Hamilton. My son and I have both listened to the soundtrack many, many times. Being younger and possessed of both a greater quantity and quality of brain cells, my son knows the lyrics practically by heart. I also know them very well. Not by rote, like with Fiddler, but well enough to sing along and certainly well enough that I know the whole story as told in the play. From the moment the lights went down to the moment it was time to leave I was once again living the story. Just as it was with Fiddler, every scene placed me firmly in the hearts of the characters. When Hamilton’s mother died holding him I died with her, and I survived with him. When Hamilton, Laurens, Mulligan and Lafayette are planning their glory, so was I. When Eliza was anxiously watching Alexander as he is trying to win over her father, I was all three sisters, I was Hamilton and I was Philip Schuyler. When Angelica told the story of falling for Alexander right before introducing him to her sister Eliza, I was all three of them. When Burr presented himself to Washington just before Hamilton arrived in the office I was Burr doing what he needed to do to get ahead, Washington carrying the burden of leadership and Hamilton with his burning desire for glory, not recognizing the real power that set him apart. I was Burr dismissed by Washington and Hamilton not knowing what Washington really wanted him for, and I was Washington seeing it all from the lens of maturity and wisdom and also knowing there’s no way to explain it to either Hamilton or Burr, and knowing that only life would teach them. I could go on.

And I will.

I was Samuel Seabury trying to defend a way of life I didn’t understand was an illusion, getting bullied by someone with more clarity and intelligence but not understanding what I was wrong about. I was King George, unable to see or comprehend a world outside the carefully constructed and preserved cocoon of royal privilege. I was an American soldier fighting for independence. I was Hercules Mulligan and I got knocked down and got the fuck back up again. I was a redcoat in a war decreed by my king, fighting across the sea away from my home. Fighting against people who were fighting for their home. I was Charles Lee, in over his head and not comprehending the stakes – only the glory of my title. I was the British soldier finally given permission by a superior officer to wave the white flag, and doing so with a weariness that permeated to my core.

I was Philip Hamilton showing off nervously for his imposing father, while honouring the lessons of his caring mother, and at the same time I was the father and the mother. I was Jefferson coming home, and Madison celebrating the return and the support of his like-minded friend. I agreed with Jefferson AND Hamilton, and felt both their passion. I was Washington knowing I had to step down, even if I knew that what was coming was not what I would have done. I was Maria Reynolds, so beaten down by cruelty that my principles were skewed to a place where any momentary relief from the reality of my life justified any means to get it. I was the asshole James Reynolds, and it sucked. I was Eliza realizing she’d been betrayed, and that sucked more.

I was George Eaker, cocky and arrogant, and Phillip Hamilton, the child-man. I was the shooter and the victim. And then I was the mother and the father, when my heart was thrown into a wood chipper as we watched Phillip die. I somehow continued to live, as they did. I was Burr campaigning, I was Hamilton supporting an enemy with principles over a friend without. I was Burr driven by frustration and rage, and I was Hamilton ultimately admitting defeat to the price his family had paid for his drive. I was Eliza for 50 years after that.

I was all of this and more, and all in two doses of 2 hours and 45 minutes (Hamilton and Fiddler have the same running time). In those moments my soul was shining thanks to the gentle polish of the performances, and it still is. And as I looked around the theatre after Hamilton it struck me. Hundreds of people had experienced the same thing. The same tarnished souls that had entered the theatre were all shining brightly as they left. The building glowed with it.

Now of course, just as sterling silver does, we will all tarnish again. But here is the beauty of art, and the point of this blog – the polish is always there. You just need to use it. Celebrate the arts. Partake. They are the real expression of our souls.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

On the One Year Anniversary of my Heart Attack

So August 26th of this year marked the one year anniversary of my heart attack. I actually haven’t written a blog since the one I wrote about that day. That’s not as significant as it might sound – I have rough drafts for 3 different ones that I started but I’ve been busy with other things and haven’t devoted as much time to writing as I’d like (something I regret quite a bit). But for the anniversary of H-Day I thought it would be good to write an update on what has happened this past year. I don’t think a chronological narrative would make much sense, and besides, I don’t have that great a memory. So I’ll go with more of a stream of consciousness approach.

As you may know I am a high school math teacher. The heart attack happened exactly one week before the start of the 2014-2015 school year. Although many people couldn’t understand how or why I did it, I actually worked right from the first day of school. I certainly could have taken some more time to recover, but I didn’t feel I needed it that badly and the doctor said that if my job didn’t require heavy lifting and I felt okay there was no reason not to work. My reasoning for starting was that it was easier for everyone involved – students wouldn’t have to adjust to a new teacher twice, the school wouldn’t have to scramble to find someone to cover my classes and my colleagues wouldn’t have to worry about teaching more than their own course load. Now, almost a year later, I can say that the decision to start right away was neither good nor bad. If I had waited things would have been just as fine as if I had not. It’s funny how so many decisions in life seem important when they really are trivial. I took things easy at first and let my body tell me when I could ramp up, always erring on the side of caution. For example I took the elevator instead of the stairs for a couple of weeks, and kept my boardwork lower on the board (so as not to raise my right arm too high after the angio) for about a week.

One thing that I learned from my first follow-up with the cardiologist was that I have no “modifiable risk factors” for heart attack. Basically it’s good old genetics. I don’t drink or smoke. I have low cholesterol and low blood pressure. At the time of the heart attack I was overweight but by no means obese. I was keeping fit with heavy weights and regular though limited cardio. This was disturbing news – I mean it would be nice if I could just stop something I was doing and know I was preventing another heart attack, but as the cardiologist said, at least now I know. I had three partially and one fully blocked arteries, and except for one of the partials they were all stented. The one that was not stented is very small and doesn’t supply a large area, so that other arteries nearby can cover what it doesn’t manage. I am on a cholesterol medication that has been shown to prevent plaque buildup in arteries and even to slightly reduce existing plaque. I am hyper-aware of my heart so if anything does deteriorate I will be on it right away. In the meantime I decided to do everything I could do. As soon as I got the green light to resume exercising I began a cardio regimen of 45 minutes, 5 times per week. As of this moment, I have averaged exactly that. I say averaged because there were three weeks where I didn’t manage to get all 5 sessions in, but always compensated in succeeding weeks by adding sessions. Three different vacations didn’t keep me from my cardio. Some people tell me “Hey, you’re on vacation, give yourself a break.” My response is my heart doesn’t know I’m on vacation, there is no such thing as a break.

I also cleaned up my diet. Not that it was that terribly unclean to begin with. But I did eat a lot of red meat (3-4 times per week, sometimes more), and 2-3 times per week allowed myself cheat meals like KFC or Burger King, or just really decadent meals at restaurants. Now I eat only lean red meat, and only 1-2 times every month. I’d say over the past year I’ve probably had red meat about 15 times. My protein mainly comes from white meat chicken, fish, and some vegetarian sources like beans, quinoa, and nuts or nut butters. I eat very little fat, and almost no saturated fat. What fats I do eat come from the fish or chicken, or light salad dressing, which I use extremely sparingly. I don’t measure my food, but I never eat until I am stuffed. That’s also a change from before. For this entire year I have not felt stuffed even once. And I still eat a lot – probably 7-8 times each day. A lot of fruits, berries, vegetables and nuts fill out my diet.

So what the diet and cardio have done is resulted in fat loss. I spent my entire adult life struggling with fat loss – often successfully but not always. Each time the goal was fat loss. Now the goal is not that at all. The cardio and diet are to keep my heart healthy. The fat loss is a side effect, albeit a pleasant one. When I had the heart attack I weighed 225 lbs (down from an all time high of 245). Because I am a hobby bodybuilder that’s not as heavy as it sounds, but I was certainly carrying too much fat by an obvious margin. My weight this this morning was 189. I won’t lie and say that I’m ambivalent about that – I am overjoyed. But it wasn’t and isn’t the goal.

Speaking of exercise I also resumed lifting weights about 6 weeks after H-Day. This was with the doctor’s blessing. At first I kept things very light and let my body tell me when it was ok to go heavier, again always erring on the side of caution. I don’t remember the exact timeline but I’d say after about 3 months I was more or less back to pre-heart attack form. The weights and the fat loss are visually pleasing to me. Here are a few vanity photos of the impact this has had on my look.

IMG_0160 IMG_0683

IMG_0078  IMG_0159

I’d actually like to include a photo I took when I was 245 lbs but my computer is currently deciding I’m not allowed to look through old photos – thanks Windows 10.

The great news is that after the heart attack the cardiologist who saw me at the hospital said my heart was damaged (on a scale of 1 – 4 where 1 is the best, mine was a 2), but on my six-month follow up visit I had managed to return it to a level 1. The words of the cardiologist were “Except for the presence of the stents you have the heart of a healthy, athletic adult male with no sign of trauma.” And that, ladies and gentlemen, mattered profoundly more to me than how I look, although that is what people see.

Whenever you lose a lot of weight, or otherwise significantly change your look to something more aesthetic, people always want to know how you did it. The truth is I did it by having a heart attack. That flicked a switch in my mind that had never been flicked before. I no longer have a choice about eating well and exercising, which can read differently than I mean it. What I mean to say is that I know all to well what a struggle it is to have to make good decisions about healthy eating and exercise. To choose not to have a sundae and opt instead for the fruit salad. For me, now, the sundae is not a choice. Nobody is forcing me not to have it – it has been removed from the list of options by something outside my control. It’s actually pretty liberating. So my answer when people ask how I did it is to say “Well, step 1 is … you don’t want to do step 1.” Because Step 1 was have a heart attack. I didn’t decide to start looking better and then do something about it. I had a heart attack and this is how I am doing my best to prevent a repeat. I will say that I have had the odd dessert here and there. But each time I have done so it’s literally been a tiny forkful (as in just the tip of the fork) so I could taste it. The forkful concept would have seemed ridiculous to me a year ago. Now it is legitimately enough. I don’t have the forkful and then look longingly at the rest, wishing I could have more. The forkful does what I needed – it gives me the taste and that is enough. Once again this is not a choice I am making, or a philosophy I am forcing myself to embrace. It just is the way my brain works now – I didn’t deliberately activate it. If I did I would write a book about how. Another example is that there have been 4 times (no, I’m not counting I just remember them) when I have eaten one french fry at a meal. Because I wanted the taste.

Emotionally/psychologically it would be a lie to say I have not been affected. The day I had the heart attack one of the reasons I didn’t call an ambulance as soon as I should have is because I didn’t want to scare the kids. There’s no way around the fact that when your dad has a heart attack it’s scary. Same goes for my wife. The very last thing I want to do is scare them or have them worry. That said I am now hyper-aware of what is going on in my body, and especially my chest. And guess what? Chest pain happens, and it’s not generally a heart attack. Gas happens (especially because it is a side effect of some of the medication I am on). The pain can cause anxiety. Anxiety can cause chest pain. It’s a hilarity-filled ride. I can’t specifically recall how the heart attack itself felt – I just know it hurt but was not as intense as you’d think. I feel as though if it were happening again I would be sure. But I’m not sure if that’s true. So there are days when I find myself worrying. However with the cardio regimen I’m on I can always reassure myself that I wouldn’t be able to do 45 minutes of intense cardio without accompanying intense pain if I was actually having another heart attack.

On that note, when I started the cardio after the heart attack I was keeping my pulse rate in the 120’s, although my doctor did say I would be able to push it higher as I healed. As of today I usually use my elliptical machine (I have a gym in my basement although it has evolved since that blog about it), and the heart rate monitor I bought shows I’m keeping my heart rate in the 140-150 zone, which I made sure was ok with the cardiologist. Speaking of heart rate, I also take my blood pressure daily, and it stays in the 115/75 zone, with a resting heart rate of around 60 bpm.

One thing I have found recently (as in, the last 5 weeks or so) is that drawing is great therapy. It is extremely calming and does a great job of centering my thoughts. I highly recommend it. Another thing I’d have said if you’d asked me a year ago was that I can’t draw for beans. I never really believed I had any talent in that regard. But I have watched hours of YouTube tutorials and have been drawing every day. The therapeutic aspect can’t be overstated. It turns out when you practice something you also improve. Here is one of my earliest attempts at a portrait and one of my most recent ones. I’m no pro and may never be one, but the improvement is real and that’s only about a month. Therapeutic, fun, and inexpensive – I highly recommend it.

IMG_0442  IMG_1164

Wow. Ok this really has been stream of consciousness style. My writing is usually more organized than that. Ah well. This one wasn’t about writing, more about an anniversary summary. I admit I didn’t proofread that carefully either – forgive the errors. I am always happy to answer questions or offer assistance if I can. Leave me a comment and I will respond.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

So This Guy Has a Heart Attack

On Tuesday, August 26, 2014 I had a heart attack. I’m not the type of guy you would expect that to happen to. Shortly after it happened I wrote a long description of the events to share with friends. Some have told me that it may actually prove helpful for other people, so I am reposting it here on my blog.

First, as soon as it happened and as people found out, I received so many emails, texts, phone calls, and visits that I can’t even begin to count them. It’s like the support system of family, friends and colleagues is a big inflatable cushion that kind of hovers underneath as I move through life, inflating like an airbag in a crash when they are needed to carry me through. It’s overwhelming. Thank you.

I’ve gotten a lot of the same reaction from people when they find out.

“WTF? You’re so young and you exercise and eat right. How could this happen?” is a basic summary. Trust me, it summarizes my reaction as well. People have also asked more specific questions like how did I know it was happening and what did it feel like. I will answer with a narrative of events.

On Saturday August 23 I was doing cardio on the elliptical. Lately I’d been doing 45 minute sessions, 3 times a week. Towards the end of that session, I felt some pain in my chest which I thought was odd, but I chalked it up to asthma aggravated by the dust in the basement because we’ve had contractors in to finish the other side of the basement (my gym is the left side) for a couple of weeks. Once I got off the elliptical the pain went away, confirming my suspicion. It was not intense pain. Sunday, August 24 we went to Gravenhurst to spend the day at the cottage with my dad. It was a relaxing day where I didn’t do much, although my dad did buy a new barbecue and I carried it in from the car by myself, with no discomfort or trouble at all. The drive home took a lot longer than we thought because of traffic and I went straight to a rehearsal for the show I was supposed to be in. Rehearsal was fine and I went home and went to sleep. Monday, August 25 was the day I planned to start getting ready for the new school year. I had some boxes of vases from old parties and we are donating them to the school where I teach so I loaded them into the trunk of the car, along with a plastic bin full of empty binders. Got to school and brought the bin in and upstairs to the staff room. I was struggling quite a bit with it but attributed it to the heat. On my way up the stairs with the bin I had chest pains again and was sweating quite a bit, which I found very odd because the bin was not that heavy. At that point I was a little scared, but I sat down and recovered quickly. I went home, told my wife Marla what happened, and had a nap. Apparently Marla checked on me a few times during that nap to make sure I was breathing. I thought she was overreacting. Monday night we had rehearsal again and I went, and felt fine. Went home and went to sleep around 11, with slight pain in my chest but it felt a lot like heartburn, which I do suffer from regularly.

Tuesday morning I woke up at 4:00 and the chest pain was still there, only more intense. It still felt like heartburn and I wasn’t sure what to do. I was up for an hour, and Marla woke up around 4:45 or so asking if I was ok. I really wasn’t sure. I googled symptoms of heart attack and it’s a pretty wide range of things it can feel like actually, although chest pain that lasts for more than 5 minutes is not to be ignored. I also read that driving (or being driven) to the ER is not recommended, since if you call an ambulance you will be treated sooner (by the EMT’s) and also because the EMT’s can assess your condition and potentially take you to a different facility. At 5:00 am I decided to call 911. I was very upset at the thought of the kids waking up and finding emergency vehicles and people in the house. If the kids were not home I probably would have called earlier. I desperately didn’t want to scare them. It was bad enough I had already scared Marla. When you call an ambulance for chest pain they will also dispatch firefighters, because they can respond more quickly and are trained for first aid. While waiting I got dressed, brushed my teeth and sat down on the couch. The pain didn’t go away. Firefighters arrived and asked me a lot of questions about where the pain was and how intense. Shortly after that the EMT’s arrived and the firefighters filled them in as they hooked me up to an EKG monitor. The first readout showed something that concerned them a little, but two more readouts showed as normal. They asked me to rate the pain on a scale of 1-10, which I’ve always found odd since if I say 6 what does that mean to them? For all they know I would call a papercut a 10 (and now that I think about it I’ve had some pretty painful papercuts – every get one from cardboard? The worst). I said it was around a 3. They decided based on the first concerning readout not to take me to the closest hospital, which is Mackenzie Health, but to go a bit farther to Southlake, which is in Newmarket, because they have a cath lab there which is needed for angiograms and angioplasty. Score one for calling an ambulance instead of driving to the ER. We stopped at some point between my house and the hospital to meet another ambulance and a different EMT came in to attend to me. He’s the one who put the IV in and they gave me morphine for the pain (which was fluctuating between a 2 and a 7) and baby aspirin to thin my blood. At this point I still didn’t know if I was having a heart attack or they were just taking precautions. They called ahead to Southlake to have a team ready at the cath lab. We arrived and they wheeled me straight to the lab – do not pass Go, do not collect $200 – but there was no team there. Turns out they had accidentally called Sunnybrook, where there was certainly a team waiting for me, so they wheeled me to the cardiac care unit (CCU). This was around 6:30 am or so. The nurse in the CCU at Southlake called the team, which is always 20 minutes out. Meanwhile the cardiologist on duty came to see me. He looked at the EKG readout and was the first person to tell me with certainty that I was having a heart attack. In the meantime Marla had woken the kids and followed the ambulance up to the hospital, so they were already there. The kids were a little freaked out for sure, but I think the calm way everyone was dealing with it helped them a lot.

So anyway the cardiologist decided not to have the team come in since the morning shift was starting at 7 and they could do the procedure. He explained it to me and I had to sign some forms, and they wheeled me back in to the cath lab. They said the procedure would take about an hour. Nurses had shaved and washed my wrist and groin since those are the sites where they may insert the catheter. Once in the cath lab they must have put some good stuff into my IV because although I was conscious throughout the procedure it seemed to me to last about 15 minutes. It was actually an hour. The doctor decided to go through the wrist, and he explained everything as he did it. There was some pain from the freezing, and I could feel the catheter going up my arm. That sounds worse than it is – it’s really just a kind of pushing feeling. At one point my whole chest got warm. I said “My whole chest just got warm – is that you guys?” he said it was the dye the use for the angiogram. There’s a huge bank of screens that he watches as he does the procedure, and an x-ray device that moves back and forth over your chest as he works – it’s very cool. Kinda robotic. Anway I heard him asking the nurse for stents and I swear I could tell the moment he put them in because the chest pain went from about 5 to zero in an instant.

Once the procedure was done they wheeled me back to my room in CCU where Marla and the kids were waiting. There was a blue clamp bracelet on my wrist that was pretty damn tight (still bruised a month later) but otherwise I felt fine. My brother came and stayed for a while, then left and took the kids home. Marla stayed with me every second. The nurse came in often and was slowly releasing the clamp until he felt he could apply a pressure bandage instead, which he did. At that point I was overcome with nausea from the anesthetic and I vomited, which turned out to be bad for my wrist, which immediately swelled up and started bleeding (which it turns out is the reason I am still bruised). After applying pressure with his fingers for a while the nurse reapplied the blue clamp, leaving it on for much longer this time until he felt he could replace it with a pressure bandage.

In the meatime I was visitied by the cardiologist who performed the procedure. He told me I had one fully blocked artery and 3 partially blocked. He had stented the big one and two smaller ones but left one very small artery partially blocked and unstented, because it is very small and because it is not fully blocked and because too many stents at once is not the best thing for the body in any case. Additionally with a small artery like that one the body will create new arteries to replace it. I have before and after pictures of my arteries from the angiogram. They are spooky. That cardiologist also said that “most guys take at least a month of work” which shocked me as I felt ready to rock right then! I was also informed that I couldn’t stay at Southlake because I live closer to Mackenzie, and that as soon as there was a bed at Mackenzie I would be “repatriated”. Yes that is the word they used. I would have preferred extradited but it turns out there is no extradition treaty between Newmarket and Vaughan. A few hours later and they did have a bed at Mackenzie, so they called an ambulance to transport me there. I was sad to leave Southlake. It’s beautiful there, the nurses were superb, and I had a private room, but alas I am not a citizen of Newmarket.

At Mackenzie they wheeled me into a quad ward staffed with two dedicated nurses. The nurses there weren’t quite as attentive as the ones at Southlake, but then again I was somewhat out of the woods. They were very knowledgeable and answered all my questions patiently and thoroughly. Marla had followed the ambulance from Southlake to Mackenzie so she came right into the ward with me, and immediately got kicked out so that the nurses could apply about 763 new electrode pads to me (in addition to the 451 I already had), hook me up to a blood pressure cuff that automatically inflated every hour on the hour, and in general affix me to my bed with wires. Once that was done Marla came back in. She didn’t leave until long after visiting hours were over, and then only reluctantly. At Mackenzie I had a lot of visitors including my dad and his girlfriend, my two sisters, and my brother who came back.

Once everyone left and the night nurses settled in I tried to sleep but I had slept so much during the day that I could only drift in and out. Instead I answered texts and emails throughout the night. In the morning I saw the cardiologist at Mackenzie, who explained more specifically what had happened. I asked him what caused it. He said genetics – would have happened no matter what. He ordered some more tests, and left. The nurses told me that once he saw the results from the ECG I could most likely go home if I wanted to. ECG is an ultrasound on steroids, and shows the extent of damage caused by the heart attack. They wheeled me down to “nucular medicine” (I always laugh when people pronounce nuclear that way) and the lady there did the ECG. Marla was there too and got to watch. Said I might be pregnant. After that it was a short time before the cardiologist came back. He said that they rate hearts on a scale of 1-4, where 1 is a perfectly healthy heart and 4 is, well, not. Apparently there was damage done to the underside of my heart and I am at a 2. That’s good. He said that with a good rehab program getting to a 1 is possible, either by improving the damaged section or, if that’s not possible, by improving the parts that are not damaged to compensate. He put me on about 19 different drugs, gave me the prescription and sent me home. I didn’t have any clothes so Marla’s sister, who had driven in from out of town and was with the kids at our house, raided my wardrobe and brought some stuff for me. I was also visited by a good friend of ours who is a doctor – not my doctor but does rounds at Mackenzie – who was so nice to stop by and answer my stream of questions. Again the support from the community was overwhelming. I can’t even wrap my head around it.

When I saw the cardiologist again I asked him (I also our friend) if there was anything I did to bring this on. He said no. My blood cholesterol is normal, I have a low blood pressure, my heart rate is around 60 bpm, I am not diabetic, I exercise regularly, I don’t drink and I don’t smoke. He said it was hereditary. The good news to me is that arteries don’t block overnight so I imagine I’ll be feeling better than I have in a long time pretty soon. I am also on a drug regimen now that is designed to keep this from happening again. I certainly hope so! In retrospect it wasn’t that much fun.

If there’s a moral to this story, it is this:

DON’T IGNORE CHEST PAIN.

Follow up:

I have since been to a cardiac rehab orientation session that was chock full of information I already knew, have seen my family doctor and been to the cardiologist for follow-up. I’ve asked a lot of questions about why this happened. The answer is fully genetic. My arteries are bent a little too much in places. The bends cause turbulence as the blood flows awkwardly around them. The turbulence causes cholesterol to gather, which blocks the arteries. The stents prevent this from happening again, as does the regimen of drugs I am on now. The cardiologist did a cardiac stress test, which is basically a session on a treadmill where you are wired to machines that monitor your heart, and they slowly make the exercise more difficult. Since then I got the go ahead to resume exercise, so I have been lifting weights and doing cardio on the elliptical. I wasn’t significantly overweight before, but now that I am much more conscious of eating only heart-healthy meals I have lost about 12 lbs and am still losing fat. I am naturally concerned about a repeat episode, but the doctors assure me that with healthy living and the drugs, there is no reason to walk around worrying I might have another heart attack. So I do not.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

Customer Service Goodness

These days any time I have an encounter where I don’t receive crappy customer service I celebrate. Anyone I talk to generally agrees with this. Before entering teaching I worked in a software company, often supporting clients with questions or issues with our product. They would sometimes call feeling angry, frustrated and looking for someone’s head to rip off. Even though the problem was generally something they did, I always made sure to treat them with respect, absorb the negativity, and channel it into a solution. I never engaged in arguments or accusations, and I always made sure that if I said I was going to get something done for them I did, and right away. After all it wasn’t my reputation on the line but that of the company I worked for. But this attitude in customer service seems to be almost extinct.

Take Rogers for example (if you’re not from Eastern Canada, that’s one of the big telecommunications companies we have little choice but to deal with in these parts). Any time there is any issue we have to call about, my wife and I end up putting it off because we know, from experience, that it will be at least an hour on the phone, after which whatever we thought we had settled on would be incorrectly implemented and billed, so that upon receiving the next statement we would have another minimum one hour phone call to make.

So in the face of this dearth of good customer service, I decided to write today about a few extremely positive experiences I have had. People should definitely know about these, and hopefully bring their business to these companies. I also encourage you to share your own examples of excellent customer service in the comments. I’d love to read about them and reward them with my business when possible.

 

Example 1: Ontario Gas BBQ (http://www.bbqs.com)

A few years ago I had a Weber gas barbecue that I used all year round and I never covered it in the winter (so I wouldn’t have to clean ice and snow off a cover to use it). Because of this, the burners had quite a bit of rust on them, something for which I blamed nobody but myself. It got to the point where the flame was so uneven I couldn’t use the barbecue properly. So I figured I needed to buy new burners. To make sure I got the right ones, I took out the existing burners and brought them to Ontario Gas BBQ to buy replacements. The owner happened to serve me. He took my burners, went to the back and got the replacements and brought them to the cash. I had my credit card out ready to pay – it was about $120. Then he looked at the burners I had brought in and asked me why I was replacing them. I told him they were blocked and unusable from rust. He said

“Nonsense. They just need to be cleaned.” and then proceeded to clean them for me. Took him about 20 minutes. He charged me nothing. The man could have easily made a $120 sale and I would have been happy. He would not have lost my business because I love that place. I never would have known I’d wasted my money, but he would have. So that’s what he did. What I did was turn around and buy a $100 barbecue cover that I didn’t really intend to buy, because I wanted him to make some money from me that day.

(Epilogue: I used that cover but one day it blew off in a windstorm and I never found it. I suspect it is now being used as a tent in some Costa Rican honeymoon resort)

 

Example 2: Longo’s (http://www.longos.com/Home/Home.aspx)

Longo’s is a chain of grocery stores in my area. I don’t know how far out of the Greater Toronto Area they have stores, but if you have one near you, shop there. Longo’s has one of those loyalty programs that everyone seems to have these days. At the beginning, you could redeem earned points for merchandise from their website. My wife and I needed a new cookware set and they had one on their site that we really liked. Lagostina set, retails for about $320.

 

lagostina

Lagostina cookware set. Currently $320 at The Bay.

So we were saving our points for that. Then one day when I was cashing out at Longo’s the cashier told me that they were phasing out their merchandise rewards in favour of cash rewards in the store. I was sad about that, because we were still about 3000 points short for the set and we really wanted it. To earn 3000 points we’d need to spend another $1500 in groceries in a few weeks, which was obviously not going to happen. I emailed Longo’s and asked if there was any way to pay the difference between the points we had earned thus far and what we needed for the cookware set. If they had given me a dollar amount I needed to pay I would have been very happy with the service. Instead they immediately credited my points account with the 3000 extra points I needed (at no charge), and I ordered the set (it’s awesome, by the way). This was far beyond anything I had expected them to do, even in the best case.

 

Example 3: Mophie (http://www.mophie.com)

I have an iPhone 5 that I use intensely. I find that the battery life for me is only good for about 2/3 of a day. I decided I wanted a battery case for the phone and Mophie cases are a great (but expensive) choice. I had a case that I liked, the juice pack helium, but it only added about 80% more battery life to the phone and after about a year I decided to upgrade to the case that adds 120%. It’s the juice pack plus. That case also comes in red (part of the (Red) campaign), but it’s a little extra.

mophie_plus_red

Mophie juice pack plus, (Red)

For my birthday my brother and some good friends chipped in and bought me that case. With tax that’s about $150, which was certainly very nice of them. After a couple of months I started to suspect that there was something wrong with the battery in the case. It’s hard to be sure, but it seemed to me that I was consistently getting less battery life with the new case than I was with the old one, which makes no sense. The old one would take me from 20% battery to full charge and then some. The new case would often only get me to around 95%. I contacted Mophie through their website and explained the potential problem. Their response came the next morning, asking me to submit the serial number of the case and a scanned receipt. I responded telling them I had no receipt because it was a gift, but of course I did have the serial number. The next morning their response to that was to confirm my shipping address and they shipped me a new case, indicating that it was not necessary for me to return the old one. Wow. I received the new case 3 days later. When I plugged it in to charge it charged, but when I connected it to my phone the phone did not charge immediately, though it eventually did. I emailed them to let them know about that and their response was once again immediate. They shipped me another new one – no need to return the old one. In both cases I would have fully expected to have to return the old case, and not seen that as a problem. I received the second new one 3 days later. I posted about this excellent service on Facebook but the story doesn’t end there. A few days after receiving the second case I got an invoice from FedEx for customs charges for the first case. The phone cases were shipped from Michigan and I guess when they go through customs FedEx covers any charges at the border then bills the recipient. I figured I’d get a second bill from FedEx for the second case, which I did. Once I had both bills I contacted Mophie and without any argument (in fact, with an apology!) they asked me to send they scanned copies of the invoices so that they could pay them.

 

There you have it. These are three examples of beyond excellent customer service I have received. The sad part is that it’s the only three examples I can think of, but I know you have more. Please share your good ones in the comments section, so that more people can know about them, and please give your business to the three I’ve listed!

Thanks for reading,

Rich

Grief vs. Misery

During a conversation with a friend today I had occasion to think about the grief and misery I felt when my mother passed away almost five years ago, and also when the very young son of a close friend of mine passed away about two years before that. Grief. Misery. Two highly emotional words. I never really thought about them separately before, but they are quite different.

In both experiences the grief of the loss was immediate and profound. And in both cases the misery was painfully intense. In my conversation today I realized how separate these two emotions are when it comes to loss. Grief is a natural emotion stemming from losing someone you love. It’s that feeling of having something critical to your existence removed, violently and without your permission. It’s a feeling that combines powerlessness, loss and anger. It’s natural and even essential for continued survival. It paves the way for acceptance and growth.

When I think of my mother these days, I think of her beautiful soul, her love, and all that she gave me that makes me who I am now, and who I am now is someone I like. I owe her that, and my grief over her loss provided an intensification of my understanding of that.

When I think of my friend’s son, I remember how happy he was, how much joy he brought with him into a room, and the way he played with my kids when he visited from out of town, as if they’d been friends forever. I remember the way his passing brought so many people together – people who unquestioningly put aside any issues they may have had with each other so that they could be there to support the family and show that in times of extreme despair there is a community whose arms you can fall into when tragedy buckles your knees. To him I owe my ability to see past the petty sheen of casual interaction through to the deeper beauty of humanity. My grief over his loss brought me there.

Both losses still make me sad. That does not make me angry. I accept the sadness as part of my understanding of myself and others around me. The sadness is completely intertwined with my gratitude for having known them. When it surfaces, I feel the gratitude and joy right there with the sadness and I smile. The emotions coexist, as they should.

But then there’s misery. Misery doesn’t teach you anything and it doesn’t help you grow. Misery is a manifestation of your desire to punish yourself as a way of dealing with grief. When you lose someone, your helplessness can overwhelm you. It makes you want to hurt yourself as punishment, and misery is the device your brain will use to that purpose. When you let your grief bring misery, especially prolonged misery, what you are doing is enabling a self-induced torture to atone for your inability to recover the loss, and/or for your guilt at survival. Because you can neither bring a lost loved one back, nor justify emotionally your survival over theirs, you invoke misery as a way of evening the cosmic scale. But it’s a false need and it blocks your grief. Your loved one does not want you to suffer the misery. They want you to absorb their legacy and use it to be bigger and better than you were.

So accept your grief and let it wash over you, but resist the temptation to fall into misery. Nobody can control whether an emotion surfaces or not, but you can use your rational brain to evaluate the source. Experience the grief, and it will pass into something more. Reject the misery.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

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