In the Heat of the Day

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It was an unseasonably hot day for April, but then every day has been unseasonable this year with cold weather returning in spring and violent storms blowing in for an hour to tear things apart and then leaving as fast as they came. There was a track meet that afternoon and somehow it seemed far too warm for the long distance runners, but their heat was scheduled for late in the day when the temperatures ease down a bit, so all seemed well. Then we received the last minute news that the schedule had been turned topsy turvy like the Mad Hatter’s tea party. First was last and last was first. Everything was in reverse which meant that there would be young women and men running the 3200 meter race in the hottest part of the day with the sun bearing down on them at near ninety degrees.

We rushed to the track to view the contest and had barely found our seats when the young women took their positions for the 3200 meter race and were off at the sound of the gun. At first they did not appear to  be affected by the heat that was burning the back of my neck and causing my blouse to stick to my skin. I presumed that they were in such good shape that they would hardly notice that it was not a time conducive to attempting to run at top speed for around two miles. After about four laps around the track the toll that the temperature was taking on their bodies became more and more obvious. Their faces were turning beet red and the strain registered on their faces. By the time they had finished the course many were vomiting and others were crumbling in exhaustion or even fainting. They had made it apparent that have such a long race in far too hot and humid conditions had been overly stressful to their bodies.

When running the body responds to the outside temperature in multiple ways. The longer the time spent pushing for speed, the more negative forces are placed on the mechanisms of the body. If it is sixty degrees the runner feels as though it is eighty degrees, so running for a prolonged period at eighty nine degrees means that the runner is experiencing a feeling inside his/her body as though it is actually one hundred nine degrees. If the humidity is also high it becomes difficult to sweat, which is a necessary way of keeping the internal body temperature within safe limits. The body begins to react to what it sees as an assault which is why some of those girls eventually puked and fainted. They had unwittingly sent their internal systems into a state of emergency.

The 3200 meter race for that day had originally been scheduled for around seven in the evening. Had that tradition been followed the sun would have been lower on the horizon and the temperature would have been more amenable to a prolonged physical effort. The short sprints should have been first just as they usually are. Those runners would not have been as affected by the heat because their attempts last under a minute. Putting the most grueling race first was a questionable decision for adult coaches who should have known better. They were lucky that nobody was hurt even more seriously.

My grandson was one of the runners in the boy’s 3200. He is usually a beast on the track with a final kick that sends him in front of his competitors on a regular basis. He is highly respected for his prowess and his ability to garner some inner force to get the job done. On this day with the heat raising the temperature to what felt like over one hundred degrees his body told him to be cautious. He was a contender for a mile, but then he felt everything inside him shutting down. He became seriously dehydrated and his muscles felt uncharacteristically weak. He sensed that pushing himself unnecessarily would be hazardous to his well being, and so he slowed his pace to a trot that allowed him to breathe and brought him a measure of control. Sadly this was the district meet that determined whether or not he would represent his school at the state contest, and he was considered to have a better than good shot at being one of the top four runners. On that day it was not to be. He finished in the middle of the pack with his face red from the exertion and his skin feeling as hot as if he were in the throes of a serious illness. It was a disappointing moment, and one wrought with a sense of anger that the adults who should have understood why having the longest race of the meet in such conditions was a bad, unfair and dangerous call.

As an educator I was taught to consider all of the possible unintended consequences of my decisions before enacting them. I understood that I was ultimately responsible for the well being of my students as long as they were in my care, and so I had to be conscious of everything from the structure of my classroom to the words that I uttered. My job was almost akin to policing or being on a battlefield in that I had to observe, and think, and be ready to change course in an instant in response to each of my kids. There were no excuses for letting down my guard. I was the bulwark against any harm that threatened to come to my kids, and if I was careful and on my toes things generally went well. It was only when I didn’t think things through that problems occurred. Luckily few of my faulty decisions involved the physical well being of my charges.

I would warn those who deal with sports or band practices or any sort of activity that is affected by extremes of temperature that they consider the possible problems with their schedules and the order in which they do things. The runners on that hot day that I witnessed had only exited their buses thirty minutes before the events began. That was hardly enough time to warm up for a very quick sprit halfway around the track much less an eight lap endurance test. That should have been obvious to the adults in charge by the end of the girls’ race. Sadly, to add insult to injury some of the coaches chided the long distance runners for being unable to prove their mettle regardless of what the heat was doing to their bodies. Of all people they should have been the most aware of the error of their decision, but they staunchly denied any problems when confronted by parents who were concerned by what had happened.

There will be other races for most of the kids, and they will learn and move on from the disappointment, but if the coaches don’t also learn a tragedy is waiting to happen. There is a reason that the 3200 race is usually the second to last event and it has a great deal to do with providing the athletes with time to warm up their bodies, and a consideration of the humid heat that reaches it peak in the shank of the afternoon. This travesty in timing should never happen again, and the coaches should be willing to admit the error of their ways.

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A State of Mind

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A couple of little girls were trying to guess my age and gingerly asked if I was over fifty. My response was a vague, “Sure,” which seemed to satisfy them and made me wonder how I actually appear to the world, not that it really matters. Getting older puts an all new meaning into the concept of making plans. There is always a somewhat higher probability that a sudden illness or some other change may alter a schedule. More and more often setting a calendar is a tentative affair barring undue circumstance. It makes for a bit of anxiety and uncertainty.

Last year hubby and I had tickets to go see Joe Bonamassa play his masterful guitar licks, but we had relied on memory rather than putting the date on a calendar, and memory failed us. We actually showed up a week too late. I understand that the performance was incredible, but we were not there to see it because we now know that our own minds are no longer as reliable as they once were. I should have realized that fact every time that I walked to another room to do something and then just stood there wondering what it was that I had set out to do.

This year we excitedly purchased tickets to see the Rolling Stones in what was supposed to be their final tour. Taking no chances, we recorded the date on a number of calendars and on all of our devices. We were confident that Google, Alexa, and our phones would provide us with enough reminders to get us there without a hitch this time. We were taking no chances on reliance of our “feeble” minds. Who knew that Mick Jagger would suddenly need heart surgery and have to cancel the tour? This is the man who at seventy five seemed ageless with his healthy lifestyle. If he is being called a septuagenarian in the press what hope is there for the rest of us? The irony is that Keith Richards who has ignored all of the conventional platitudes about clean living appears to be in relatively good health even as he chain smokes and ingests enough alcohol (among other things) to pickle his brain.

The fact is that we can do our best to take good care of ourselves but none of us are immortal or will miss the unavoidable signs of aging. I know people young enough to be my children who are scheduled for procedures like hip replacement, heart surgery, and chemotherapy. We may be able to stall the inevitable if we work hard to maintain our health, but nobody yet has found away to live forever. Such a realization can be depressing, or it can be an incentive to squeeze as much out of whatever time we each have as possible. It should prompt us to do that thing that we have always wanted to do, or to be that person that we have dreamed of being. The clock is ticking, but it isn’t holding us back.

I am in awe of friends my age who are still accomplishing wondrous things. They are learning how to paint, recording songs, writing novels. They go birding in the early morning hours and photograph the beautiful creatures that they see. They never miss a game or activity that involves their grandchildren. They are active in politics. Sometimes they work their adventures around doctors’ appointments and exercise regimens, but they are actively pushing themselves to enjoy each day and to continue to be part of the vibrancy of the world. They optimistically make plans, and when life throws them a curve they tackle the challenge and then get right back into the saddle.

I remember a time when a friend was caring for his mother who was not a great deal older than I am now. He often remarked that she had given up on herself and rarely left the confines of her home. She spent countless hours watching the news and becoming more and more depressed about the future. He felt that by isolating herself and giving up on the possibility of still finding meaning in each day she had condemned herself to a very dreary existence. In spite of his continual efforts to pull her from her self inflicted doom, she insisted that she just was just deferring to her age and the way life was supposed to be. She actually lived well into her late eighties with a kind of anger that drove her to complain about how long she had felt useless to the world.

I always felt sorry for both my friend and his mother because I had seen the example of my grandfather who never gave up squeezing the most out of life even as one challenge after another came along to defy his optimism. He lived to the ripe old age of one hundred eight and with the exception of the last few months he was clear headed and happy. The key to his joy filled longevity was certainly a bit of good DNA, but also his determination to greet each day with joy and gratitude. He loved the world and the people in it. He was fascinated by those who remained strong regardless of what they had to endure. He focused on actively treating his body and his brain with respect, and he believed that our best days are continually unfolding.

We’ve been told to hang on to our Rolling Stones tickets. Mick is vowing to recover quickly and reschedule the tour beginning in July. His surgery went well and he is determined to rock us once again.  He appears to be a believer that his story isn’t over until it is over, and so do I. I’ll keep making plans, taking new risks, learning new things, and getting out of my head and my house. I don’t feel thirty anymore, but that fifty that the little girls suggested as my age is about right. There is still way too much fun to be had to lock myself away with worry. Age really is a state of mind.

Lost

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Some stories stay in a little corner of the mind and never go away. I suppose for me one of those is something that I read in Texas Monthly magazine years ago. No doubt my reaction was tempered by my experience of caring for my mother when she was struggling with mental illness, but even beyond that it was a cautionary tale that said so much about the state of mental health in our society.

A college professor was enjoying coffee and a lively conversation with her colleagues inside a little cafe on the Drag just across the street from the University of Texas Austin campus. She was having a relaxing time until a bedraggled woman entered the eatery and began yelling at the cashier in the front of the establishment. Virtually all of the customers including the professor stared at the commotion with a sense of dismay and embarrassment. It was obvious that the woman was inebriated, high on drugs, or out of her mind. She wore the strange rags of a homeless person, her hair filled with tangles and even bits of debris. Nobody knew quite what to make of the situation or what to do. It was left to the manager to escort the woman back onto the street outside before things returned to normal.

At that moment the professor looked furtively at her watch and explained that she had forgotten an appointment with a student, and had to leave immediately. She apologetically put two twenty dollar bills on the table indicating that they should take care of her share of the charges and rushed out in a noticeably agitated state.

When she reached the sidewalk she searched for the woman who had just been in the cafe. She was relieved to see the old lady limping slowly just a few feet away. The professor rushed to the woman’s side, smiled and implored, “Mama, it’s me, your daughter Elizabeth. Do you remember me?”

The woman paused and with a faraway look appeared to be attempting to remember something very important. She touched the professor’s face with her grimy hands and then grinned as though a warm memory had come into her mind. “Lizzie,” she whispered, “I’m so glad to see you. How have you been?”

The professor expressed her own joy in finding her mother and then suggested that they go to her home where they might have a more comfortable place to catch up on what had been happening in their lives. She guided the still somewhat confused woman across the street, into the campus, and toward the parking spot where the car awaited. While the professor drove she exchanged small talk with her mother and thought of all of the time that had passed since she had last seen her.

The professor’s mom had been a brilliant and beautiful woman, an accomplished artist and a stunning mother. Life back then had been so happy and devoid of any indication that tragedy was looming. Her mother’s illness demonstrated itself quite slowly. At first it simply seemed as though the woman was a bit depressed, but the depression led to mania and the mania exhibited itself in paranoia. Before long the professor’s mom was undergoing treatments for mental illness that worked until she refused to take her medications. Then one day she disappeared. All efforts to find her had been in vain. The professor became frantic and lost all sense of normalcy while she invested in private detectives and spent evenings and weekends driving up and down streets hoping to find her mother. Was she in jail or dead or in another town?

Eventually so much time went by that everyone told the professor to just give up. She was becoming ill in her own way from all of the stress. It was time to live again, which she did, but always with the hope that one day she would find out what had happened to her mother. Now here she was sitting next to this raggedy lady who was not anything like the once accomplished person that she had called Mom.

In the following days the professor took a sick leave from work. She cleaned up her mother, fed her healthy meals, gave her new clothes and a safe place to sleep. She made appointments with doctors and began to think that life was finally going to return to normal. The doctors agreed that her mother’s mental and physical health was so fragile that she needed to go to the hospital for a time. The professor visited her each morning and evening. The two women began to have conversations that made sense. They expressed their love and devotion for one another. They began to make plans for the future.

One afternoon the professor went to the hospital with a celebratory bouquet of flowers for her mom. She was over the moon with happiness as she went to her mother’s room until she opened the door and found the room empty. In a panic she rushed to the nurses’ station to find out what had happened. She was informed that her mother had been released earlier that day and nobody knew where she had gone.

The professor upbraided the staff demanding to know how they could have sent her away without any notification. She demanded to know what they had been thinking. Their response was that it was the woman’s right to leave without permission from anyone. The laws did not include making the professor a party to any decisions. They were sorry, but it was just the way things were.

The professor looked for her mom for weeks and then months all to no avail. Someone suggested that her mom might have taken a bus to another city like Houston or Dallas. The professor drove to those places on weekends in a fruitless attempt to find her mother. At the time that the article was published the professor still had no idea where her mom may have gone. She was lost to her once again.

Finding Hope

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Statistics can be a powerful way of understanding trends in our society, but they can also be misleading. Learning the truth about the numbers that we see requires analysis, critical thinking. Since we are continuously bombarded with information regarding the state of our world based on statistics we need to consider what that data is actually telling us. Something as simple as the intervals of a graph has the power of visually changing the way we interpret the facts. So it is with the ever recurring claim that the lifespan of the average American has continued in a downward direction since its apex in the nineteen sixties. It’s important that we begin to understand what that bit of information actually means, and what we may need to do to halt the decline.

We are often told of the need to improve medical care in this country by the use of this astounding statistic. For most of us it simply seems almost impossible to believe that we have such phenomenal medical facilities and still are losing the battle of saving lives, and yet it is real. A deeper analysis demonstrates that the downward trend is related mostly to alcoholism, drug abuse, and suicide. It is not so much that our country is lacking in quality medical care as that we have an epidemic of self harm that results in deaths from overdoses, cirrhosis of the liver, and increasing numbers of suicides, especially and shockingly among our middle age population. It is a quiet and grim trend about which we say little, but it is prevalent all across the country and most particularly in areas where businesses have failed and lifestyles have drastically changed.

HBO in conjunction with Dr. Sunjay Gupta filmed a documentary called One Nation Under Stress that attempted to get to the heart of why so many are turning to drugs, alcohol and even death as answers to problems. We know that addictions can be difficult to overcome, but what attracts people to chemical means of coping with anxiety in the first place? Why are ordinary middle class individuals in so much pain that they feel compelled to shut out their sadness with chemicals that alter their brains and damage their health?  What is really happening?

Dr. Gupta and the experts that he consulted note that our society is continuously and relentlessly changing, particularly in small towns that often rely on particular industries for the welfare of the populace. Many of the old avenues for work are being eliminated and in the process people find themselves suddenly left with no meaning or income in their lives. The losses that they incur both physically and emotionally drive them to seek solace in harmful ways or to despair entirely. Additionally our society has lost many of the support systems that were once so prevalent. The extended family units and neighborhood associations that were once so common have crumbled in many ways leaving individuals feeling alone and unable to cope. In fact, a certain irony is that recent immigrants are actually doing better than long time citizens because they cling to one another in communities that emphasize care and support.

Those in the middle of the economic spectrum are the most likely to feel the weight of stress. They are subjected to a kind of collective pressure and worry about losing their status and all of their comforts. They often feel quite alone in their struggles and so the abuses to their bodies and minds begin. They are reluctant to share their concerns, and often feel that they have nobody whom they trust enough to do so anyway. The anxiety bears down on them both mentally and physically.

I experienced a kind of microcosm of such feelings during the rains of hurricane Harvey which so inundated my city. My husband Mike and I were alone in our home hearing reports of devastation that was affecting both strangers and dear friends and family. Mike had suffered from a stroke only a few weeks earlier and we had been told that his chances of suffering from another attack were at their highest during this time. I was quietly frantic with worry, so much so that I was hardly sleeping and had to keep my mind occupied by preparing my home for the possibility that it might flood. When my daughter and her family had to leave their neighborhood for fear that the levee that protected their home high fail I felt incredibly alone with the realization that they were now so far away and Mike and I were so isolated from everyone. It was a series of reassuring texts from a former student who assured me that he was on alert if Mike and I needed a rescue that kept me from totally losing my composure. The lifeline that he gave me quelled my fears as did the random meetings with a neighbor across the street with whom I spoke as we both assessed the drainage system that was working to keep the water away from our homes. Facebook also gave me a way of knowing what was happening to friends and members of my family. It provided me with a way of expressing my anxiety rather than bottling it up inside. Ultimately I made it through those horrific days, but I found myself wondering if it would have been possible without those human connections that kept me grounded.

What happens when a person feels that there is no one to help? How does one cope when the pressure is not for just a few days but over a long period of time? What might each of us do to help those who have lost their way? Do we sometimes underestimate the power of a text, a message, a phone call in changing the tenor of a person’s thoughts? Have we emphasized independence so much that we have lost the emotional support of multi-generations living and working together?

Mike and I were recently discussing the Great Depression. Our parents were children during that time. It was our grandparents who bore the full brunt of that era. We noted that they survived by sharing responsibilities and resources. Whole families of sons and daughters and cousins and grandparents pooled their funds and their food to keep afloat. It was a cooperative effort that brought our ancestors through the tragedy. Hidden in their efforts was a great deal of love. Our people understood that the were going to make it because so many cared about the welfare of each individual.

We would do well to reinstate the power of family and neighbors to ease suffering. Old people should feel assured that they will find the care that they need if they become sick. Young folk should know that they will have the encouragement and support to launch themselves as adults even when they make mistakes. Those in the middle should never be reluctant to ask for help when things go awry. If we open our hearts and begin to embrace the people for whom we care perhaps we can stem the tide of self medication and self destruction that is literally killing people in our midst. The change that we need is to be found inside our relationships. If we focus on strengthening them many of our problems will be solved.

Hubris

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Elizabeth Holmes has been featured in an episode of 20/20 and in an HBO documentary. A movie starring Jennifer Lawrence is in the works as well. Her story is rather amazing. She founded a company at the age of 19 that at one time had an estimated worth of billions of dollars. She was a young woman with a vivid imagination who graced the covers of magazines. Her ideas began to unfold when she was still a child drawing detailed diagrams of a time machine, and other flights of fancy. As a freshman at Stanford University she came up with an idea for a patch that would be able to detect an infection and then administer a dose of antibiotics. She applied for a patent for her idea but sadly such a mechanism was entirely infeasible and came to naught. She moved on the the big invention that would make her one of the youngest CEOs and billionaires in the country.

Elizabeth wanted to create a simple way of testing blood for disease. She hated the way blood is drawn with needles and multiple tubes. She wanted to create a machine that would be able to perform all of the necessary tests from only a pen prick of blood. She imagined a way of getting the blood and then testing it in a machine so small that it might be carried into a battlefield. She was so proud of her idea that she called it” the Edison” in honor of the famous inventor who had inspired her from the time she was a child. She called her company “Theranos”, an amalgam of the words therapy and diagnosis. She saw her invention as a revolutionary way of delivering diagnoses that would change medicine all over the world. Her backers were so excited by the possibilities that they gave her hundreds of millions of dollars without securing any evidence that she was indeed capable of creating the needed technology.

Elizabeth hired a team of experts and filled her board of directors with some of the biggest names in the world. She built a magnificent headquarters in the heart of Silicon Valley and staffed it with brilliant and  innovative young minds. She fashioned herself as a new Steve Jobs dressing all in black and creating advertisements for her company that were sleek and exciting. Unfortunately even after years her idea did not work. In spite of all of the assertions that she was on the cusp of a whole new world, she was chasing after a dream that was probably never going to happen. After an journalistic expose revealed that “the Edison” did not work her company began to collapse. In the end it was worth less than zero.

When I heard about Elizabeth Holmes I wondered how she was able to muster the confidence to scam people with little more than an idea and nothing to prove that the technology would be effective and reliable. A bit of research into her background gave me some insights into the workings of her mind, or at least provided me with some theories about what made her tick.

Elizabeth was the granddaughter of a physician who founded a hospital and enjoyed a notable and productive career, so there is little doubt in my mind that she is a highly intelligent woman who came from intelligent stock. Her genetic background as well as her education seem to prove that Elizabeth had great potential. She lived for a time in my city, Houston, while her father was a vice president at Enron, a company that was built on smoke and mirrors that ultimately collapsed. She attended St. John’s School, an elite institution with a long waiting list that only the best, brightest and wealthiest children are able to attend. The school exists in  a rarified atmosphere of influence and power. It would be easy to see Elizabeth developing an exalted opinion of herself from being one of the chosen few able to go to such a prestigious place. Being accepted to the Engineering program at Stanford University would have reinforced her feelings about her self worth.

Elizabeth must have seen herself as someone who was going to change the world, and she was in a big hurry to do so. Her professors realized that she was brilliant and even one of the top students that they had ever met, but for some of them she was annoying in her insistence that she knew more than they did. She sought them out as mentors and then ignored them whenever they honestly critiqued her ideas. She often spoke of how Thomas Edison had to make ten thousand mistakes before some of his inventions worked. She truly believed that she was able to see the world more clearly than even her more experienced teachers.

She parlayed her connections and her confidence into a business that fooled even brilliant people like Bill Clinton who was one of her admirers. It’s possible that she believed her own press for a time, but at some point she had to realize that her company was little more than a scam much like Enron where her father had once worked. If she did continue to believe that she was on to something big, then she was quite deluded because it was clear to many of the employees that nothing was working as it should even as she advertised untruths. Evidence seems to indicate that she knew exactly what was happening and did her best to cover for the lack of progress by instituting an atmosphere of secrecy.

Most children have fantastical ideas. Some even make those ideas become reality. My brother dreamed of sending humans to the moon. The work of thousands of talented scientists and engineers made it happen. We need people who think out of the box and take us into uncharted territory, but they have to be honest about what they are actually achieving. Elizabeth Holmes was not. She lied again and again perhaps to keep the funds rolling in because she really did think that one day a eureka moment would occur, or maybe she was just hiding her failures. Sadly her actions hurt every person who attempts to find support for a reasonable idea.

I know some young men who worked very hard to find backers for what might have been an amazing tech company. I have rooted for a man who wants to make wind power a reality for anyone who wants to install his equipment in the backyard. Most people provide evidence that their inventions will actually work before they ask for funding. To make untrue claims in the hopes that they will one day come true is a fraud.

Elizabeth Holmes is a fascinating young woman, but also someone who seems to have little concern for all of the people that she scammed. That is the definition of a sociopath. While her idea was grounded in good intentions she was unwilling to do all of the hard work that is usually required of anyone who wants to change the world for the better. Perhaps her grandiose opinion of herself along with a great deal of immaturity lead her to her ultimate failure. Somewhere along the way she might have done the right thing by admitting that she was stumped. Instead she lied and even sent faulty test results to patients who were grievously harmed. She has yet to admit her responsibility for a fiasco. Her hubris is a tragedy not just for her but for everyone who believed in her. She has cast a shadow of doubt on anyone who is attempting to launch the next truly great idea. Who will now believe?