Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Zoom can't give you Vitamin P... Or can it?

 I have been writing about the new vitamin I discovered, Vitamin P.  You might not have heard about it yet, but lack of this vitamin might be EXACTLY what's troubling you!  Vitamin P (for people!) is needed to keep our energy rolling and our ideas flowing.  In its absence, we fall into a state of lassitude.  

At the beginning of lockdown, back in March 2020, we were all glad that "at lease we have Zoom." By now, we're over Zoom, and all I hear is "I want things to go back to normal -- Zoom isn't cutting it for me!" 

I say that this is a moment for deeper reflection.  On the one hand, the desire to rush around -- which is what "normal" was for most of us -- is winning the day.  On the other hand, the Delta variant is still out there -- tragically we just passed the mark of 1 in 500 Americans having died of Covid.  

The rational response is to take it a bit slow -- let's accumulate some data and slowly add activities, rather than opening everything at once.  (Not that Americans are rational.) 

Part of the rational response is to reflect on what we've learned about Zoom, including posing the question, "Can Zoom give us Vitamin P?" If Vitamin P is a pheromone that we have to smell, then the answer is "no." But if Vitamin P is new ideas that get our minds working, then the answer is "Yes, if we use it creatively."

Some of the things I've seen make Zoom fun and invigorating are:

  • Keeping the segments short.  I love it when people use the Pomodoro Technique to work in 25 minute segments, punctuated by 5 minute breaks.  Doctors are saying that we shouldn't sit for more than 20 minutes, so the Pomodoro Technique is a natural for standing up and moving a bit -- helps butt and brain!  
  • Having fun check-in questions.  Questions can cover a huge gamut of options, from silly to tragic. These small sharings build connection and add humanity.  Check-ins are not good for groups larger than 15 though, so this as limits.  
  • Using break-out rooms.  I asked a group of doctors to reflect on my model of Main Street as a metaphor for the organization of a hospital.  I was actually shocked at what a great job they did in the breakout rooms, using this metaphor and identifying lots of areas of social organization that might need attention.  They were attentive to my lecture, but they made something of it in the breakout part. 
  • Having people turn their cameras on.  Not everyone can have cameras on all the time, but the more the merrier is a real thing in a Zoom room. 
  • Accepting that Zoom is what it is.  It's not a walk in the park.  But it is a great tool for connection, and one we are just learning how to use.  Like many other parts of life that not all we want, we have to learn to accept and even have gratitude.  Every time you want to complain about Zoom, take a moment to imagine this: we went into lockdown and there was NO videoconferencing.  
While we are in this "GO SLOW" period, I suggest that we re-connect with the utility of Zoom, and explore the ways in which it can help us get our daily does of Vitamin P.  

Sunday, September 5, 2021

Are "new ideas" the real "Vitamin P"???

In an earlier post, I announced my discovery of "vitamin P[eople]" -- the essential nature of seeing other people in person.  Of course, the exact nature of vitamin P is not yet known -- it could be a chemical, like pheromones, that is smelled.  But an interesting article in New York Times opens another suggestion.  Claire Cain Miller, in an article on the utility of casual conversations at work, reports that casual, cross-fertilizing conversations have their most important utility in getting projects started.  Once started, individuals workers can bring projects to fruition. One example she offers of this is a water-cooler  conversation between Professor Katalin Kariko and Dr. Drew Weissman, which laid the groundwork for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines against SARS Cov-2, the virus that causes Covid-19. 

In our shelter-in-place life, our networks contracted. Not only didn't we see the people we would have seen at the water cooler, but also we didn't see all the people we used to see at big meetings, like faculty meetings or church services. For many people, Zoom was not a substitute, on the one hand, and, on the other, a great it was a great excuse for skipping a meeting. "It doesn't work me" became the "dog ate my paper" equivalent to a getting-out-of-meetings free card.  As someone who has been absent from many meetings that "didn't work me," I have lived this experience. 

But in my shrunken network, new ideas and experiences are hard to come by. I had a face-to-face encounter with exactly one entirely new person over the past year or so.  The well from which I drew inspiration has dried up, and I was languishing, as many people were.  My daughter moved in for a bit, in-person classes resumed, I got sent to physical therapy (punishment for being too sedentary during Covid), my storage unit got flooded by Hurricane Ida and suddenly my life and networks have opened up again.  And along with all that, new encounters have sparked new ideas. It is like an expansion of the old adage, "Move a muscle, change a thought," which we might rewrite as, "Encounter a person outside your close circle, and spark a new idea."

Can it be that "having a new idea" is what defeats languishing? That the encounter outside the small circle of our intimate lives is Vitamin P? As they say in science, "More research is needed." 

Saturday, August 21, 2021

Aesthetics of Equity

In Root Shock, the first volume of my urban restoration trilogy, I proposed that the key to a just and sustainable future was an "aesthetics of equity." In such an aesthetics, we would find the signs of inequality to be unattractive. For example, we would not celebrate the beauty of something because it was gilded. Nor would we love a statue that paid homage to someone who violated our values. 

We have taken many steps in the direction of this aesthetics in recent years. One that I read about in the New Yorker -- "Britain's Idyllic Country Houses Reveal a Darker Narrative" -- was particularly shocking. It gave details of the ways in which slavery created the wealth to build fabulous mansions.  The article made the case that seeing the story behind the wealth made the oohing and aahing over its trappings a new experience. The illustration that accompanied the article said it all, juxtaposing the iconic drawing of ship packed with people to be sold into bondage with a father and son traipsing through a mansion to see its splendors.  

In a somewhat similar vein, an article by Roberta Smith in today's New York Times about the painter Chuck Close explored how we might think about his work in light of the revelations of sexual harassment. Are we to stop looking at his paintings because of those revelations?  She argues perhaps not, though we should know his story.

I have thought about this issue a lot because it was revealed that my most beloved college professor -- Dr. Herbert Aptheker -- had molested his daughter Bettina. Dr. Aptheker's work is of monumental importance, but we can't just brush aside his crimes. Had he been convicted in his lifetime, he might have gone to prison, served time, and re-entered society, as millions of people are now doing. Are we to never forgive any of them? Will we discount whatever they do because of their crimes?

This is why we need an aesthetics of equity. I do think that the question of forgiveness for crime will find a place in this philosophical endeavor. There is much to be explored. In the meantime, we can look skeptically at the houses of the rich and famous and wonder where the filthy lucre came from.  

Just as yin and yang are opposites, but always in relationship to one another, might we have an aesthetics that is non-dualistic, which sees good and evil as parts of the whole?

Thursday, August 12, 2021

What is Vitamin P and how do we treat Vitamin P deficiency when the Covid numbers are shooting up?

I have discovered a new vitamin: Vitamin P.  Two observations led to this discovery. 

First, my daughter came to stay at my house. I am on a tight timeline of summer work [yuck!] so at first I thought this would throw me off course. I was shocked to discover that the simple presence of another person around the house increased my efficiency one thousand percent. This was completely counter to my predictions. 

Second, a friend of mine was in tears, saying she couldn't get off her couch and was in a serious depression. I asked about her trip to Arizona the previous weekend,  "Oh I had a great time," she replied.  Now, in my book, serious depression does not let up for trips even to great places: it's socked in.  So my mind started scrolling through the reasons one might be tied to the sofa, thinking life is meaningless.  I was reminded that I was in a similar state on Monday when my daughter was gone, but got out of it on Tuesday, when she dropped by again.

That is when I made the historic discovery of Vitamin P and I don't mean Flavonoids, which will have to move to F or Fl, I mean Vitamin People.  I am a person with a Masters in Nutrition. I love the stories of the discoveries of the vitamins. I am very proud to be adding one to the list.  The point here is that the discovery of a vitamin depends on several factors. A vitamin, by definition, is a chemical that our bodies can't produce, but need to function.  We discover a vitamin by recognizing the deficiency and by "curing" the deficiency by supplying the nutrient. Vitamins have been discovered long before there was mastery of the chemistry to isolate the chemical, as with the discovery that limes prevented scurvy. In this case, I don't know what the chemical is that is supplied by People. I am convinced that there is one. 

Back in BC--Before Covid--when people were around all the time, we only had glimpses of the power of this vitamin. Eric Klinenberg's study of deaths in the 1995 Chicago heat wave pinpointed social isolation as in the pathway to demise. Other studies have said that loneliness is as bad for your health as smoking. 

But the removal of normal social exchange from all our lives -- this is the kind of "natural experiment" that scientists find reveals much about the hidden workings of the world, including the myriad ways in which we are hive beings, unable to function well absent the buzzing of our hivemates.  

The question of how to supply Vitamin P is a difficult one. We know that, despite the downsides of isolation, people have made some adjustments to it, and are hesitant to re-emerge into society. We also know that, thanks to our gross mismanagement of the Covid pandemic, we are now a new wave of illness caused by the highly infectious Delta variant.  

The steep sweep at the end is a very big problem, compounded by the incredibly stupid decision by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention not to monitor "breakthrough" infections, among others.

So what are we to do for a nation with Vitamin P deficiency, on the one hand, and risk of Covid infection, on the other?

This is where Klinenberg's observation about social networks becomes crucial. Not everyone is as isolated as everyone else. People who are in motion--and getting more or less enough Vitamin P--need to reach out to the people at home alone and get them out of the house: take them for a walk, for openers, to an outdoor restaurant for coffee, and eventually, as they build tolerance, to an outdoor concert. Take it slow. An hour a day with one person will be great at the beginning. And encourage that person to reach out to another isolee for the walks-coffee-concert series.  

I just want to be clear: we have to have our vitamins EVERY DAY.  This includes our Vitamin P.  I believe that the chemical is transmitted in person--think pheromones--so Zoom is no use for treating this problem. Getting a nation off the sofa is a challenge, but I think we can do it. Outdoors, slow re-acclimation to the Vitamin P, and daily dosage are the key.  

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

A cup of coffee on the dock

Molly Kaufman and I are visiting friends in Lodi, New York, which is on Seneca Lake.  We are staying in a small cabin with a deck that hangs over the lake.  This morning I made a rather perfect cup of Peets coffee and sat on the deck with my laptop.  Molly brought her laptop and coffee to the deck and we did some work, while also scrolling the New York Times, and answering a few emails.  It was the kind of summer moment that one remembers all winter.  The dock -- like a hotel balcony in Johannesburg overlooking Grant Street -- struck me as the perfect place to sit and write a book.  

Saturday, June 26, 2021

Redlining and Trees

The observation that the redlining imposed on American cities in the 1930s affects tree cover now is more and more widely appreciated.  This terrific piece in National Geographic includes a fantastic video about the topic.  Worth a read!

The piece also explores how to examine cities for the places of the haves and the have-nots, using the "transect," a walk along a boulevard that cuts across the neighborhoods.  Fascinating photos!

Bloomberg News/CityLab collaboration produced a superb report on the redevelopment of the Lower Hill District in Pittsburgh, a pivot point for the future of the historic African American neighborhood of The Hill -- famous as the setting of August Wilson's 10-play cycle.  My favorite line -- the project overall will be $1 billion dollars -- $50 million is slated to go to the residents of The Hill, who have suffered decades of displacement and disinvestment.  The developer said, "I think that's more than fair."  It's slightly better than the $15 million that was being bandied around by some developers who talked to me a couple of years ago.  But FAIR???? Have they completely ignored the news????  Did they visit The Hill????

In order to see this in your own city, you might find the article on "map twins" interesting -- a Chicago project to introduce people who have the same house number but live on different "sides" of the north-side divide of Madison Street.  It would be an interesting project to replicate, if your city has a nice long transect that cuts through a variety of neighborhoods. 

Some advice on building a healthy society by the leading American epidemiologist Dr. Sandro Galea, dean of Boston University School of Public Health.  At the heart of his advice: fairness.  

Saturday, June 19, 2021

Kdrama: Why did Ddol-bok and So-yi have to die?

The awesome website, kdramabeans, is my go-to site for step-by-step action of whatever kdrama I'm watching.  I'm one of the those people who looks at the end of the book soon after I start, and kdramabeans offers me that opportunity.  So I was intrigued when I read posting on episode 24 of "Tree with Deep Roots" and author questioned the deaths of the two young lovers, Ddol-bok and So-yi, 

I’m left to wonder why they couldn’t have just actually lived, and why that final scene we were shown truly couldn’t have come to pass. Did their deaths really change anything? Were those deaths necessary to propel the story? Not really.

First a bit of background -- this show is about the invention of the Korean alphabet by King Sejong in 1446 -- even before Columbus sailed the ocean blue.  This is a formidable feat, the making of a phonetic alphabet, easily learned by Koreans but also accessible to foreign students (I got the basics down in 59 minutes).  This drama centers around the ruling class's opposition to universal literacy. Ddol-bok and So-yi are servants who play important roles in the creation and dissemination of the language.  

Why do they die?  Could they lived modestly and happily ever after, having played a role in Korean history?  

Who knows what the authors were thinking, but I think all kdrama is metaphor, and therefore their deaths stand for a larger truth.  In this case the truth that the drama is exploring is the wisdom of the people.  The head of the opposition argues that the people will are protected from sophistry because of their lack of education.  They will be more vulnerable if they can read.  King Sejong doesn't buy that argument.  He replies that maybe sometimes, but not all the time, echoing Abraham Lincoln who famously said, "You can fool some of the people all the time, and you can fool all the people some of the time, but you can't fool all the people all the time."  In the meantime, the chance of literacy is a chance for dreams and hope.  

It is that dream for which Ddol-bok and So-yi are willing to risk their lives and die with pride.  Do they have to die? Well, of course not.  But their deaths signal the stake that working people have in literacy.  All working people have struggled for literacy, certainly including African Americans.  So I identify deeply with their commitment to this deep cause.  Ddol-bok and So-yi stand for the wisdom of the people in fighting for literacy and the chance to dream. 

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Small Pleasures

On Tuesday I bumped into some issues of aging. I felt discouraged and trapped by the inevitably of getting older and sicker. I slept well, but woke up in much the same sad, hopeless mood. One of my first activities was reading Father Richard Rohr's Daily Meditation, which had the title, Choosing Love in a Time of Evil.  He quotes from Viktor Frankl's book, Man's Search for Meaning, on his experience in a Nazi concentration camp.  Frankl noted:

Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food and various mental stresses may suggest that the inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision [emphasis mine], and not the result of camp influences alone. Fundamentally, therefore, any person can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of them—mentally and spiritually. They may retain their human dignity even in a concentration camp. . . . It is this spiritual freedom—which cannot be taken away—that makes life meaningful and purposeful. . . .

I know Viktor Frankl's work well, yet it shook me up -- it reminded me that I, too, had choice. I did not need to surrender my humanity to my troubles.  

With that in mind, I went about my day, focusing on the famous glass half-full.  When depression tugged at me, I pushed it away. After dinner, I found myself shelling roasted, salted pistachios for dessert. Each nut required that I push the two sides of the shell apart and scope out the nut meats. I was chewing on my third or fourth nut when I realized that I was sublimely happy. My problems had not changed since the day before, but my perspective had opened up. If someone in a concentration camp could hold on to their humanity through troubles, then so might I. That's the theory -- but sitting in my kitchen cracking pistachios, I had some proof that I could do it. It wasn't an automatic thing. I had to make the choice. And I had to push away my unhappiness throughout the day. The work, however, allowed me to recognize the pleasure of eating some nuts. 

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Coronavirus: India Under the Hammer

The New York Times has run a special section devoted to the lives of those we've lost to Covid-19. Today, in the print edition, it was devoted to people in India who have died, including a young American who was living there. 

As has been true throughout the year, we have lost dynamic people whose talents were devoted to making the world safe and fun for all of us.  It brings the tragedy home.  

Several of my friends are closely connected to organizations in India that are responding to the crisis and here's their advice on organizations worthy of support. 

Nupur Chaudhury recommends these:

This org is near and dear to my heart, and I continue to do service work in honor of Daxa Patel, who passed away recently. Working with her in rural health camps was my first job out of college. They work deep in the rural areas of Gujarat and Maharashtra, and were very involved in helping displaced families during the construction of the Narmada Dam. They continue to hold my heart as I continue to work to integrate service in my life. 
You’ll see that their website is bare bones. Don’t let that deter you from donating. 
Where to donate (USBased 501c3 to accept donations ):
If you do donate through PayPal, feel free to include a note saying that you were “referred by Nupur Chaudhury” so that they know it’s a legitimate donation—they don’t have a ton of donors. 

Manav Sadna
I worked with this org in the slums of Ahmedabad, Gujarat. They work mostly with the dalit commuity, and work out of Gandhi’s old ashram.

Latha Poonamallee shared this:

If you are looking for a trustworthy grassroots organization to help rural India, I would strongly recommend Tarun Bharat Sangh in Rajasthan, India. 

I have been involved in this organization from 2001 and know them intimately. Their ground game is exemplary and they have the infrastructure to reach nooks and corners of their part of the country through their networked parallel governance organization. Their leadership is morally upstanding and you can be assured that your donations are being put to good use.

Monday, May 10, 2021

Coronavirus: A Year of Cooking with my Daughter

I love Eric Kim's piece on a year of cooking with his mother, which he called "a masterclass in Korean Home Cooking." No children would move home to learn cooking from me. Their father and stepfather did the cooking, while I happily and occasionally baked -- to great acclaim, I might add.  Paul Hollywood is my idol -- 'nuf said.

This pandemic forced me to confront this lacunae in my homemaking skills. My daughter Molly took over my food life in gentle steps, first of which was bringing me food in those days when my age group was in lockdown and we were all living in terror of the unknown. Given raw ingredients, could I make something? It was a tad grim at first. Gradually, the meat-and-potatoes recipes I'd learned at my mother's side all fell into place. Beef stew, spaghetti and meat sauce, meatloaf -- you see the pattern here.  I ventured into lentil soup and rice and sweet potatoes.  

Then we went on a vacation for two weeks and I got to cook at Molly's side. She was at the beginning of a cooking adventure.  While we were at Plum Island, meals featured the fresh produce and amazing ice cream and bread that were to be found.  Chocolate milk ice cream, fresh corn on the cob. The house we were renting was equipped with a grill, reputed to work once you got past the cranky starter. Molly insisted I work this thing -- I was ready to quit when the starter acted up, but she powered us through that. We made hamburgers and hot dogs and veggies on that grill and ate on the porch overlooking the ocean. We were satiated.  We were not afraid.

As we returned, the second wave took off, followed closely by the third wave.  We had to stay close to home.  Molly took up cooking with real seriousness.  She tried many recipes, investigated cookbooks, bought new spices.  She regularly shared what she was trying with me, by which I mean, we talked about it, as we rarely got to eat together.  We subscribe to the New York Times Cooking app, and discuss Sam Sifton's advice on a regular basis. She encouraged me to try certain recipes that she thought would be easy and satisfying.  Thanksgiving was a time for experimentation, as was Christmas.  We could only share in our small "pod," which put certain constraints on, for example, the number of pies we might bake.  The many satisfying discussions of stuffing were topped by a terrific meal.  Molly got me a Challenger bread pan for Christmas, which is one of the best presents I've ever received.  

As we come to the end of this year, I find that I am a very different cook.  Mainly this shows up in how comfortable I am in my kitchen.  My pots and pans are friends.  I can throw a meal together from what I have in the refrigerator.  I can steam, boil, bake, braise, sear, grill.  I chop with ease.  It doesn't always turn out well, and that usually happens when I get too freeform.  I'm much better off with a recipe.  But some things are so clear to me that whatever variations I try they work.  At the beginning of the pandemic, I could not make a decent pot of rice and now I can.  At the beginning of the pandemic, I rarely ate green leafy vegetables of my own volition.  Now cabbage, kale, collards and spinach are friends.  I even harvested dandelions from my garden and threw them into the pot of collards I was making.  I know how to freeze and unfreeze.  I can make a shopping list.  These are good things.  

The year of cooking with my daughter has been a master class in "try it, you'll like it."

Sunday, May 9, 2021

Happy Mother's Day!

I am in the process of packing up my research team's papers, which are set to go to the archive at Columbia University.  In the midst of the stacks of old transcripts and drafts of papers was a paper bag with things that belonged to my mom, Maggie Thompson.  At the bottom of the bag were a bunch of small pieces of paper.  I went through them very carefully, like a '49er shifting for gold.  Almost all were her to-do lists.  But one small piece rewarded my efforts: it was a joke that she'd gotten on the internet, printed out, cut off the parts of the page that weren't relevant, and then folded.  How it got into the bag I don't know.  I do know that the joke was so typical of my mother's sense of humor, I had a flash of her laugh, which was a delicious feeling.  

Here's the joke.

96 year old draws a bath.  She puts one foot in and pauses.  She yells to the other sisters, "Was I getting in or out of the bath?"

The 94 year old yells, "I don't know.  I'll come up and see."  She starts up the stairs and pauses.  "Was I going up the stairs or down?"

The 92 year old is sitting at the kitchen table having tea, listening to her sisters.  She shakes her head and says, "I sure hope I never get that forgetful."  She knocks on wood for good measure.  She then yells, "I'll come up and help both of you as soon as I see who's at the door."

Happy Mother's Day to All! 

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Coronavirus: The Day's Check-In Question

Check-in questions had gained traction in meetings before Covid struck, but they seem to be essential to building cohesion on Zoom. In a meeting the other day, my daughter Molly proposed the question, "What's something your family taught you to protect you from scams?"

It turns out that my family has quite a few stories and expressions on this topic. Molly mentioned my dad's saying, "You have a have a big ear to hear the big lie." I grew up knowing about and listening for the big lie. As a psychiatrist, I've cultivated my ear as my profession requires hearing what's between the lines. 

Revisiting those sayings reminded me of others. My mother loved a saying of an organized she worked with in the 1940s in Jersey City. When people were proposing preposterous ideas, he would say, "If we had cake, we could have cake and ice cream, if we had ice cream." I don't know why this saying always struck me as so happy. Perhaps because getting cake and getting ice cream always seemed possible.  

One of the expressions I am fascinated by in Kdrama is "by my side." While my image of love might be of an adoring lover gazing at the beloved's face, the image in the Kdrama is that of the lovers going through life side-by-side. "I hope you will stay by his side," Gu Jun-pyo's sister says to Geum Jan-di early in Boys over Flowers.  

It is hard to notice that this was interesting and got me thinking about so many things. That is certainly the challenge of Covid, in the slow progression of days. The experience of "excitement" has to fit my circumstances. As my mother always used to say, "Oh Lord, we are grateful for small favors." I hasten to add, she meant this ironically. But Covid has taught me to say it in a new way. "Oh Lord, we are grateful for small favors, tiny bits of joy that make this day unique."

Monday, April 26, 2021

Kdrama: Gu Jun-pyo's lunchbox

Probably the most striking change in my life during Covid is watching television, which I basically never did before and now do every day. I'm not very handy with all the controls, but my remote has a "Netflix" button. After I tired of American TV and Brit Box, I thought, "Why not try one of these kdramas Netflix is always advertising?" The rest is history, as they say. I have been thinking about my profound love of melodrama -- which these writers completely anticipate -- and how satisfying it is to worry about these fictional characters whose lives will move to the next thing in 16 or so episodes even though mine will not.  

Lately I've been caught in a love-hate relationship with Boys over Flowers. Very chaotic -- the two lovers at the center of the drama rarely had more than two calm minutes of connection before the next crisis took off. This disturbed my sleep, as you might imagine. The only saving grace was that Yoon Ji-hoo was devoted to Geum Jan-di and always showed up to her rescue (and mine). Not that he got to have the girl in the end... 

This is not the kind of tidy show that Crash Landing on You is. This was more like the erratic brainstorming of people who just needed to find the next fix of terror for the audience. So a question like, "Why does the plutocrat Gu Jun-pyo love commoner Geum Jan-di?" can never be answered except maybe "It made good television." But there is one exchange on this topic that is helpful. She asks, "Why me? I'm not cute, or smart, or wealthy." He replies, "I have all that: I'm handsome, smart and rich. I don't need anything. So just be you." Which evades the question -- what is about her that has captivated him?

I believe the answer lies in the humble lunchbox, which shows up, by my count on five occasions, and leads me to assume that the archetype here is the Snow Queen. The frozen boy immediately recognizes the warmth Geum Jan-di exudes and sees in everything about her life the possibility to be engaged and friendly -- literally, to be warm. He wants to eat her lunch from the first time he sees her with her lunchbox. He asks her to make it for him. The first time she does, he has been dragged off by the Snow Queen. She sits waiting for him: eventually Yoon Ji-hoo arrives and takes her home. The second time they do get to picnic and he loves the lunchbox, but it is the occasion for her to say she can't take the no-holds-barred battering she is getting from his mother.  (This image is from Cooking Gallery)

An aside: She's actually not that forthright -- his mother's attacks on her friends are more than she could take so she retreats. These shows are very roundabout and key people may or may not ever know what's "really" going on. People have to have their own moral or emotional compass; alternatively, a very strong friend network will suffice and might share the news. 

The third appearance of the lunchbox is not in person, but in Geum Jan-di's recounting to the Snow Queen what her son likes. Gu Jun-pyo has been injured in an accident. As soon as he is pronounced out of danger, his mother turns to leave. His sister screams at her, "Do you know anything about your son, like what he likes to eat?" Of course she doesn't. As she walks away, she suddenly feels weak and sits down on a bench. Geum Jan-di sits down next to her and explains that Gu Jun-pyo likes to go on a picnic and have rolled eggs. Geum Jan-di smiles with deep joy at the memory. The Snow Queen, who has done her best to destroy Geum Jan-di, feels the warmth of this young woman: it is the exact moment when the ice in her heart melts.  

Gu Jun-pyo recovers from the accident but has amnesia about Geum Jan-di. The fourth appearance of the lunchbox is Geum Jan-di's effort to get him to remember her. She leaves it by his hospital bed while he is sleeping. Gu Jun-pyo recognizes the taste. Unfortunately, a snow princess (the fifth!) has snuck into the action and claims that she made it. He falls for this, of course. He likes it so much he asks her to make it again. In the fairytales this is when her falsehood would be discovered, but not here. Snow princess pulls off the deception for a bit more. This fifth appearance of the lunchbox was, for me, the most terrifying of all the terrors in the 25 episodes of the show, because snow princess would freeze Gu Jun-pyo for good. So much evil. Geum Jan-di finds the way to his heart and all ends as well as it can in kdrama, which falls short of my standard for happily ever after. And perhaps especially with this anxiety-provoking show -- can we please let these two have a couple of years of joy??? 

Back to the humble lunchbox. In another scene, Gu Jun-pyo insists that Geum Jan-di make him her special ramen. She brings it to him on fine china. He says, "Where's the lid? I want the lid." By this he means he wants to eat it from the pot, using the lid as a plate. His joy at eating it that way is world-encompassing. These small objects -- the lunchbox and the lid -- enable him to be alive in a way that is denied him in his silver-spoon world. At one point, his sister, recognizing the dilemma he is in, asks, "How far will you go?" Meaning "Will you give up all this?" The survival of his family depends on his answer, and ultimately he finds a way that is consistent with his principles. 

As my favorite reviewer noted, Boys over Flowers is rough, but ultimately I am grateful for the experience. I wish I could have watched it in 2009 with all of Korea -- it was a tad lonely to go through all this melodrama on my own, which is why I'm sharing it here! And that's a wrap! 

Friday, April 16, 2021

Coronavirus: Yellow Daffodils on a Gray Day

Yesterday it was gray and sometimes rainy.  Sitting in my kitchen, I caught a glimpse of yellow daffodils, their bright color intensified in the setting of dull skies.  It seemed to me a metaphor for what I have looked for every day in this long year of Covid-19.  A year ago, in the first shock of lockdown, I took photos every day of the lilacs that were coming into bloom.  It was, I thought then, a spiritual exercise to follow the small changes, appreciating each day's advance to full bloom, full perfume.  On the Kdramas I watch, the practice of saying "thank you" -- like the practice of saying "I'm sorry" -- is emphasized.  People say, "Thank you for getting well."  Or "Thank you for being here when I got home."  It's very much gratitude for the grace of presence.  And so yesterday I said to the daffodils, "Thank you for being here."  And as the daffodils fade, the lilacs will bloom.  I didn't know, before this year, why gardeners think so deeply about the flow of bloom and form throughout the year.  Now I know that it means that everyday there is something to remind me of hope, something that gives me a chance to say, "Thank you."

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Coronavirus: The Long-Handled Spoon

I was reflecting on the ultra-marathon we've all run over the past year when I received an email from Nicole Crooks of Overtown, Florida.  She wrote to thank me for the 400 Years of Inequality timeline and my work on root shock.  I was very touched to receive a note from a stranger who'd taken time to find my email and write some kind words.  

It reminded me of a story I once heard about a man who visited Hell and Heaven with an angel.  Hell was horrible.  Everyone was at a banquet, but starving, trying to get the plentiful food into their mouths, but the spoons they were using had handles too long to fit -- they kept missing their mouths.  Then the angel took the man to Heaven -- same setup, everyone at a banquet table, same long-handled spoons but everyone was having a great time. "What's different?" the man asked. The angel replied, "They've learned to feed one another and so get fed themselves."  The long-handled spoons worked perfectly for giving food to another person.  

If we were running a marathon, there would be people lining the side of the course and handing us cups of water as we went by.  There's nobody outside this marathon who can hand a runner water -- we're all runners.  But what if we thought of this as a problem of long-handled spoons?  Nicole, from her own goodness, gave me a sip of kindness.  What if each of us could share out a bit of kindness with another? I don't think we'd say, "Wow, this is Heaven," but I do think each day might be a little easier and we'd emerge from pandemic state in better shape.  

Monday, April 5, 2021

Coronavirus: The loneliness of the long distance runner

Sarah Lyall, writing in The New York Times on April 4th, 2021, noted that the long-term stress of the past year had created a state of lassitude and forgetfulness in the millions of us ungrounding from our "normal" lives.  Forming memories and formulating plans are equally difficult in this state, as is finding the way to be joyful and energetic.  She concluded:

"But in general, your guess for how to make this strange time easier is as good as anyone's.  'I don't know,' one person wrote [about what to do]. 'If you find out, tell me."

I loved this article, as it answered the question that has been on my mind: why are so many people I know feeling miserable?  I do have ideas, of course, for how to manage what she describes so precisely.  We have a combination of several challenges that, taken together, create the "loneliness of the long distance runner." 

The first challenge we'll call the "finish line" problem.  A colleague of mine, Rebecca Jordan-Young, wrote a book about testosterone.  In the course of her research she met a lot of world-class athletes.  She learned that the hardest aspect of a race for sprinters to master was to aim to run past the finish line.  Otherwise, if they thought the finish line was the goal, they'd slow down and add seconds to their time.   We can see the finish line out ahead -- tantalizing us -- but we have to aim past that point.  Because we aren't finished with the work of this pandemic until we've rebuilt the country.  

The second challenge we'll call the "depletion" problem.  Too much stress depletes many parts of the endocrine system and leaves us weak.  We have nothing left for the ongoing stress.  This is a time when people fall apart, both mentally and physically.  This is compounded by the finish line problem -- we can't just stop just yet.

The third challenge we'll call the "loneliness" problem.  This year of sheltering in place has left us very lonely, not just for hugs from loved ones, but for the general feeling of the madding crowd.  The frenzy of people bustling through the train station or shopping on Main Street is a feeling that echoes deeply in the human soul and which we have missed enormously.  Our offices we might eschew, but a ball game would be great about now.  

How do these three problems come together to offer us a way forward?  It makes me think of the 1962 British film, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.  This was shown at the art film house in my youth.  I saw it on Main Street in East Orange -- I think the theater was called the Ormont.  It is the story of a teen rebel, ready to pay the price to defy authority.  What comes to mind, at this moment, are the scenes of the hero running through the countryside -- just alone.  

In long distance running there are moments of profound exhaustion -- one hits a wall, as we all have at this moment -- and one has to run through such moments.  The image of that young man running and running is comforting to me.  And, I know from the film, he finds strength in running.  It's this that is part of the solution -- we can connect with the strength that gets called up by this kind of trek.  

We also have to respect the depletion of our stress management systems.  For those of us in North America, we are in luck because the sun is rising and the days are getting longer.  Get out and get some sun.  Dig in some dirt, even if it's just a pot.  Feel the wind.  Commune with the insects that are waking up after a long sleep.  

Finally, forget whatever you're thinking about "this will be over."  If there was ever a time to keep it in the day, it's this time.  Getting into this mess was very fast, but getting out will be much slower -- more like evolution than revolution.    

A long distance run is a time of altered consciousness, it's a time of stress, and it's a time of loneliness.  What the film reveals to us is that it's also a time of discovery.  The hero of the film is able to use the challenges of the long distance run to get perspective on his life and he uses that knowledge to come to a decision -- he refuses to comply with authority, despite the personal cost.  I'm not advocating that as a choice, I'm just saying that percolating in each of us on this particular ultra marathon is some precious knowledge about life that will help as we enter the "what next?"  

Don't miss the chance to hear what the universe is telling you about running a great race -- it might not be the answer you expect, but it will be the right answer for your life.  Enjoy the run!

Sunday, April 4, 2021

The Tao of Kdrama

I believe that Korean situation stories hold much relevance for people seeking enlightenment.  When I watch them, I laugh, I cry, I learn.  Here is the "Tao of Kdrama" I laid out to reflect on what I'd learned.  It's a listicle.  

1. “I'm sorry”+bow

Life means always having to say you’re sorry, Erich Segal notwithstanding.  Everybody in Kdrama says it all the time. 


2. No excuses. 

This is shocking to me, as crafting a “good” excuse is second nature.  Traffic, the paper-eating dog, Covid (the master excuse) – whatever, there’s ALWAYS a reason.  Nope, they don’t offer a reason, just an apology.  See #1.


3. Gossip is necessary. 

Happily, since you can't offer the excuse yourself, the friends tell all and it straightens out many a difficult moment.  Consider this from Crash Landing on You: Yoon Se-ri has missed her flight because she had to save Captain Ri’s life.  He wakes up and yells at her that she wasn’t on the flight, for which he has risked his life.  She says, “I'm sorry” and flees the room.  The nurse and doctor come in.  The nurse says, “You and your girlfriend are perfect for each other – thank goodness she has your blood type, you might have died.”  Captain Ri gets out of the sick bed, goes to find Yoon Se-ri and gives her a kiss. 


4. There is suffering.

Everybody has substantial trauma – a lost parent or sibling, being raised in an orphanage, abuse at work. 


5.  There is a path away from suffering.

Bond with your people, don’t be greedy, live up to your name.                                                                                                                    

6.  Shop. 

“Do all rich guys think they’re in Pretty Woman?” Eun Ha-won asks in Cinderella and the Four Knights.  Yes, is the answer. 


7.  Laugh. 


8.  Listen. 

The magic’s in the music, and often the key to the story. 


9.  Be true to your Self. 

Goo Hae-ryung, in Rookie Historian, refuses to be a princess just because she loves a prince.  She wants to be a historian.  There’s no path forward except one’s own path. 


10.  Chop vegetables. 

Everybody can cook and so can we!

Friday, March 19, 2021

Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois's "Litany for Atlanta"

As result of the 1906 Massacre in Atlanta left between 10 and 100 African Americans were left dead. Wikipedia notes, "According to the Atlanta History Center, some black Americans were hanged from lamposts; others were shot, beaten or stabbed to death. They were pulled from street cars and attacked on the street; white mobs invaded black neighborhoods, destroying homes and businesses." Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois, then a professor at Atlanta University, penned "Litany for Atlanta." It seems appropriate to revisit Dr. Du Bois's words as we mourn 8 people killed this week in Atlanta.  An excerpt from the original:

 A city lay in travail, God our Lord, and from her loins sprang twin Murder and Black Hate. Red was the midnight; clang, crack and cry of death and fury filled the air and trembled underneath the stars when church spires pointed silently to Thee. And all this was to sate the greed of greedy men who hide behind the veil of vengeance!
    Bend us Thine ear, O Lord!
  In the pale, still morning we looked upon the deed. We stopped our ears and held our leaping hands, but they—did they not wag their heads and leer and cry with bloody jaws: Cease from Crime! The word was mockery, for thus they train a hundred crimes while we do cure one.
    Turn again our captivity, O Lord!

Friday, March 5, 2021

Our Rehab: A Mushroom on the Seder Plate

I want to propose adding a mushroom to the Seder plate this year.  

My Seder plate from 2010

I want to start by noting that "Our Rehab" is a new topic for my blog. We are coming out of the pandemic with three metrics: hospitalizations, deaths and vaccinations. But those fall far short of capturing the misery of the past year.  What are the numbers of mothers depressed? Evictions hanging over people? Low wage people who's employers went out of business? Main Street businesses that closed? Elderly who didn't exercise and are deconditioned? Children who fell behind in school? People who discovered that they didn't want to work as frantically as they had? New gourmet cooks who'd rather cook than do take out?  The suffering and the ways we found to endure are the real measures of where we are at this point in time.  

When I look at those numbers, I say, "This is as serious as a heart attack!"

Well, if you or I had had a heart attack, we'd go to cardiac rehab! If we'd hit a bottom from drugs or alcohol, we'd go to rehab. If we were injured in a car crash -- as was our beloved Tiger Woods -- we'd go to rehab. You get where I'm going with this: we need rehab. "Our Rehab" is a new project of the University of Orange to ask all organizations to help us get back on our feet.  

I propose that we start Our Rehab this Passover on Sunday, March 28th. While Passover is a Jewish holiday, the Jews I know are happy to invite others over for the observance. And, having grown up on Paul Robeson singing the African American spiritual "Let My People Go," I always felt a deep identification with the story of Exodus -- I know this is shared by many African Americans, although we haven't had a festival for it.  

In Jewish tradition, the observance of holidays, and especially Passover, is a family task. Families make the meal and carry out the ceremony, using a Haggadah for the telling of the story. The meal is organized around a ceremonial Seder plate, on which are items symbolic of many parts of the story. Families can add to the Seder plate, for example families have added an orange for LGBTQ+ equality. This year, my family and my church family will be adding a mushroom to the Seder plate. Why, you might ask?

Mushrooms are remarkable organisms that represent the upthrusting of dense underground mycelial networks. They come up and then disappear, but this does not mean the underground network has died. Mushrooms are a metaphor for communities, as we require dense networks, even when the connections are not visible to the naked eye. We celebrate the moments when the community comes together to show its ability to solve problems or help the vulnerable -- when it mushrooms, we might say -- but we rely on the connections every day of our lives.  

The battering we've taken in the past year has strained our connections and taught us that injustice has put all of us at risk. We need to repair as much of that injury -- that of the past year and the past 400 years -- as we can. This is Our Rehab. Just as rehab can prevent a second heart attack, Our Rehab can protect us from future plagues, help us manage climate change, and prepare us for a just and sustainable future. If we fail to do Our Rehab, we put ourselves at risk of more plagues. It took ten plagues before Pharaoh let the Jews go free: how many will we need before we make the changes we need to make? The mushroom on the Seder plate poses the question to us: will we repair the strains and injustices that undermine our communities or do we need more plagues to wake up to these tasks?

My community will hold seder on March 28th at 4pm est: you are welcome to join us. Or join another Seder or host one of your own. Remember to put a mushroom on the Seder plate and ask, "How many more plagues before God's people are free?"

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Coronavirus: Hope you are well and vaccinated!

For months, like everyone with whom I correspond, I've started emails with the prayer, "I hope you and yours are well."  I got my first vaccination shot on Thursday at Kmart -- one of the sites Essex County, NJ, is using.  It was an awesome experience in logistics.  I arrived for my 2:10 appointment and was out by 2:30 -- that included the 15 minute waiting period!  I'm very proud of my vaccination card and looking forward to next month when I'll be fully vaccinated.  In my mind, I'm planning all kinds of crazy things, although I realize that we're not out of the woods with the variants and probably I need to calm down.  So today I was writing to a friend my age -- that is to say, old enough to be vaccinated already -- and I found myself making a new wish: "I hope you are well and vaccinated!"

Monday, February 22, 2021

Coronavirus: Lingering and kdrama

Sunday, February 22, 2012, The New York Times had a stunning graphic of the nearly 500,000 deaths from Covid-19.  This graphic occupied the middle of the whole front page.  The headline of the lead story, to the right, was "Storms exposing a nation primed for catastrophe." Another section had the word "Unraveling" as its graphic, for a story about people with dementia falling apart during Covid.  And the Home section had an image of a person, under the covers, lingering in bed, captioned by the words, "We're lingering just a little while longer."  

When I was a medical student rotating on surgery -- which was one of the highlights of my life -- we had a patient named Mr. Rodriguez who had pain of unknown origin which seemed to be located in his leg.  He stayed under the covers, moaning, and the fellow medical student who was in charge of his case referred to this as "UTB" -- under the blanket.  The team debated amputating the painful leg, well aware that this was not necessarily reasonable or even a cure: it was just what surgeons could do and he was on a surgical service.   

But here I am, 40+ years later, lingering under the covers, just as the Times said, identifying with Mr. Rodriguez and his moaning.  I have developed a second method of being UTB: watching a lot of TV.  I'm never been a TV watcher before this. My ability to operate my TV is limited.  I have, however,  got a "Netflix" button on my remote and Netflix, it turns out, has a very large supply of kdrama, and this, it turns out, is a very good blanket.  

My delight in kdrama is utterly unexpected by me, as I'm not that interested in popular culture.  But apparently South Korea knew me better than I knew myself: throw some life issues, romance and silly jokes together with a good soundtrack is all I am looking for.  I think it helps that these are not American stories.  Not one to do things by halves, I joined the masses learning Korean and I have listened carefully to the soundtracks, as half the story is in the songs.  I joined a TV Club, which helps me understand what I'm seeing.  

I have asked numerous wise people if binge-watching kdrama all weekend is bad for my health and I have been reassured that it's quite normal.  I think what they are saying is that it is OK to have some laughs on the weekends, as they help me squarely face the truths, like the truth that our nation is primed for catastrophe.  It has been the work I chose for myself -- to name the processes that were tearing at the nation and to explain them to other people.  I do this because I was trained as a physician that correct diagnosis leads to correct treatment.  I love the work, but, despite my lifelong habit of working all the time, I just can't do that at this moment.  I need to sneak away and watch some incredibly beautiful movie stars stare deeply into each other's eyes, while the theme song swells in the background.  I need to see the antics of the designated clowns, which keep me chuckling even while reading about catastrophe all week long.  I need to see stories I've never seen before, like the fracture of Korea into north and south.    

UTB is temporizing, a kind of partition of my own life, a respite.  Paradoxically, it is helping me grow as a person -- I'm learning my limits, expanding my horizons, learning a new language.  I think I'm learning something else, which is that these kdrama songs and stories of yearning are the real meat-and-potatoes of my life just now.  I am yearning for a vaccination, a vacation, world peace, better national infrastructure, the reunification of the Korean peninsula, the salvation of all the species.  Watching two people who yearn for each other stands for all my yearning and I clap and cry when they connect.  It gives me hope.  

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Death threats and national life

This morning I was reading the obituary of the great baseball star, Hank Aaron. I remember when he hit 715, and passed the record set by Babe Ruth -- what a great day that was! But for Aaron, it was somewhat spoiled by racist attacks, including death threats. This hit me hard, because we've been bombarded with reports of death threats -- death threats to election officials, death threats to elected officials. Whoever heard of death threats to people who oversee elections?

But when I think about it in relation to Hank Aaron, I am forced to think across a longer span of time, about a very long history of death threats, and not only threats, but actual lynchings or even legally sanctioned murder, such as the killings of Native People, or the massacre in Tulsa, among others.  

I asked British urbanist, Andy Merrifield, if this were true in his country as well as mine. He wrote back that, no, there were lots of things wrong in England, but not the kind of naked violence that exists in the US -- in that the US is unique.

Somehow, artist Tim O'Brien was able to put it all together for us in one startling image, which Time magazine put on its cover.  I am studying this image as it helps me wrap my mind around the task ahead.  

Addendum, 1.16.21

New York Times today had a count of Donald Trump's attacks on Twitter -- depending on how you define "attack," the number was between 6,000 and 10,000, beginning with the announcement of his campaign for President in 2015.  

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

What happened over the last four years was _______________.

Here's the question hanging over Inauguration Day: What happened?  This is a fill-in the blank question.  What happened over the last four years was _____________.  

There are lots of answers bouncing around and you guess is as good as any.

My feeling over the last six months or so was that we were victims of domestic violence, locked in with our abuser who launched violent attacks on our humanity, while denying us succor for our most urgent needs for health care and disaster relief.  

The sudden quiet from the silencing of Trump's Twitter account has been a great relief.  Someone was quoted as saying it was a like a car alarm -- you can ignore it for the first hour, but then it gets incredibly irritating.  I have a neighbor whose car alarm goes off from time to time.  It takes a few moments to realize it's stopped, so that the relief settles in slowly but expands to fill my whole body -- I am feeling that now, relieved of Twitter attacks on any and everybody.

I am glad we elected Joe Biden because I don't think he'll attack anybody.  What a relief!  

But of course now we are back to the baseline of all the inequalities and abuse embedded in American Jim Crow capitalism.  Not exactly a happy baseline, which is part of the reason some people got so mad they voted for Trump, and some people just didn't vote, and some of us voted but complained bitterly.

As Reverend Dr. William Barber said on election night, "Whoever wins tonight, there will still 140 million poor and low wealth in the United States tomorrow."  

I'm ready to keep fighting AND it is really lovely that the car alarm has been shut off.  

Friday, January 15, 2021

Rob Wallace on the Metabolic Rift

Rob Wallace is a scientist looking at the links between agribusiness and infectious disease.  Here's an article worth your attention.  

Thursday, January 14, 2021

On "non-sense"

Back in the 1990s, while my research team was studying the collapse of the Harlem neighborhood, I developed a "stage-state model of community disintegration." This model was based on our observation that a series of noxious policies of federal, state and city governments had undermined the social cohesion of the neighborhood in a stepwise fashion over a period of 50 years.  This is the diagram of the model and some of the policies we identified as contributing to the neighborhood's changing state.  

The endpoints -- "model" and "collection" -- are terms created by the great social psychiatrist, Alexander Leighton.  "Model" was the term he used for a community with strong social bonds, able to carry out work like problem solving, and with strong shared sentiments and a sense of "We." "Collection" was the term he used for communities that had lost the interpersonal bonds, lacked widely shared sentiments, and in which the disconnected individuals thought in terms only of "I."  

At the time we were making this diagram, we had seen evidence of what we proposed as the lowest level of this model --non-sense -- in the madness that ruled the streets at the height of "mad plagues" of AIDS, crack cocaine addiction, violence, and trauma.  While it was completely clear to us that epidemics in Harlem spread outward geographically and upward in the social hierarchy, at the time I had no clear idea of what that would look like.  

Two articles this week in the Washington Post helped me identify non-sense as it now appears on the national stage.  One, of course, had to do with the putsch attempt on the Capitol on January 6th.  While it was going on, staffers were hiding in offices.  The younger staffers remembered lessons from active shooter drills in their schools, and used those techniques to stay hidden while insurrectionists roamed the halls.  The second had to do with the influence that the conspiracy theory QAnon has gained in the Republican Party. That neither grammar school exercises on protecting against mass shootings nor conspiracy theorists taking over government should have anything to do with a sane nation is patently obvious.  

But the diagram offers some crucial information on the manner in which we got to this point.  The policies of urban renewal, deindustrialization, planned shrinkage, and gentrification (to name a few) have all been promoted by governments as "progress" for the people, though they were not, and their harmful effects have been left to fester under the proposition "you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet." 

The epitome of this, I believe, is in Margaret Thatcher's "No such thing as society speech." She said, 
I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand ‘I have a problem, it is the Government’s job to cope with it!’ or ‘I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!’ ‘I am homeless, the Government must house me!’ and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first. (emphasis added)
She was, of course, articulating the ideology of neoliberalism, which sought to eliminate social constraints on making profit and concentrating wealth in the hands of a few.  

It's not, I think, that people as smart as she did not know the damage they would do with such rhetoric and such policies.  Rather, I think, it's that they counted on staying, as we used to say, "one step ahead of the debt collector." That we were running the risk of creating non-sense at the level of a whole society was understood by social psychiatrists and many others, but our protests could not overcome the massive lies.  It is clear, in this moment, that Donald Trump lied.  But we have many more lies to excavate than his if we are to right the wrong of the part decades, nay centuries, and get our lives on the right path.

That we are in profound trouble is quite clear.  That we might rebuild is less obvious, but not to be doubted.  Society is so real that it is encoded in our DNA.  We can make a model society that can do the hard work of survival now on the agenda for us.