Monday, June 24, 2013

On Overeating

The American Medical Association recently classified Obesity as a disease rather than a condition. I am reluctant to even opine on whether this is correct or not, because the problem is very deep and complex in our culture, and I am no medical expert. However, I will share a story.

When I was in college, I spent a semester abroad eating candy bars. I might have squeezed in some other activities-- some museums and things-- but primarily, my job was eating candy bars. Or so it seems to my recollection some 15 years later. I had never been a compulsive eater before that, but something about the lack of parental or institutional oversight coupled with the stress of culture shock and intense academic expectations led me to ... you got it... candy bars.

It was a habit that started off innocently enough- sampling exotic foreign flavors of goo piled with other different kinds of goo and coated in chocolate. Who wouldn't be seduced? But it developed into quite a regular habit, to the point where I found myself nightly consuming one or more candy bars alone in my room, secretively and guiltily. The net result of my efforts was 10 or 15 pounds gained in the space of 4 months-- a shocking achievement.

Luckily, my indulgences were tied to triggers that I left behind in a foreign land. I returned to a normal diet and exercise habits when I came home, and eventually I also returned to a normal weight. It didn't take me long to figure out that my problem was with regulating my own emotions, learning how to put them into perspective- when to turn a blind eye toward them, when to extinguish them. I didn't know who I wanted to be, and so I had nothing to shape myself into. I figured it out and I stopped the problem.

I am not saying that everyone who develops an eating problem develops it for the same reason. I am genetically predisposed toward thinness and this was an aberration for me. Some people are genetically predisposed to be heavy-set, ad that is just the way they are made. For them, a healthy weight is somewhere far above what our culture says is "perfect"-- and I'm not even talking about those people... although I think it has to be harder for them to know when they have crossed over into dangerous territory. Others are biologically set up for obesity by the way their mothers ate when they were in the womb. Others are taught horrible eating habits when they are growing up. There are all sorts of causes of the problem. But it is a problem, and it's an emotional problem.

By designating obesity as a disease, there may be some real benefits to people who are over-weight. They may get much-needed insurance coverage for life-enhancing treatments. I can't argue with that. But I worry about the cultural concept that is created when we begin to think of obesity as a disease. It is something that a large swath of our population (more than half) struggles with, for various reasons. But it's not good. It's not something hideous; it is not a reason to condemn people; it is not a reason to discriminate. But it is still very, very unhealthy and it's something we should discuss and try to figure out. I think the answer to the problem is very personal and individual and emotionally-based. But I do think that common, every-day wisdom can be a huge antidote to the problem if we don't shy away from it as such a taboo topic. I think that classifying it as a disease keeps it in the realm of sealed lips, as something we can't talk about directly. That only worsens the problem.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Birthday Reflections

I'm 34 years old now. At once I feel incredibly powerful and incredibly weak. I feel powerful in that my lifetime persona, the odd combination of flaws and virtues that animate me, is fully formed. I know my role and it has depth. I am deeply enmeshed in fascinating casts of characters in my career, in the running world and in my family. I am treated as a valuable player in all of those realms, an equal among peers, a person with something definite to contribute.

But at the same time I feel the loss underneath it all that is constantly occurring- I see my oldest graduating from Kindergarten, I see the generation that taught me everything I know growing thinner and wrinklier even as I see the youth that will forever run through them flowing just as it always has, and I try to bury its beauty inside of me.

Everything that I have always striven for and at some level now attained is painfully obviously fleeting. This must be the feeling of mid-life-- a time when you are at the top of the bell curve, full of precisely the same amount of potential and kinetic energy, feeling collapsed into the same moment all of the past and future- like you are the Little Prince treading constantly against the spin of a tiny globe- forever keeping pace only to the precise moment in which you are, every moment, present.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Stop & Frisk

The NYPD's Stop & Frisk policy is currently the subject of a federal court case and of many news reports. The policy allows police officers who have a reasonable suspicion that someone has committed or is about to commit a crime to stop and question them. If the officer then has reasonable suspicion that he is in danger of physical injury, he can frisk the suspect for weapons. During such frisks, suspects are asked to empty their pockets, which has in many instances led to convictions for drug possession. Four men who claim that they were stopped by the police solely due to racial profiling are challenging the policy in federal court, and there is some pretty good data to back up their claim. According to the ACLU, "innocent New Yorkers have been subjected to police stops and street interrogations more than 4 million times since 2002, and ... black and Latino communities continue to be the overwhelming target of these tactics. Nearly nine out of 10 stopped-and-frisked New Yorkers have been completely innocent, according to the NYPD’s own reports." ( 

I seriously doubt that the police officers who are using Stop & Frisk in an apparently discriminatory manner are doing so intentionally. They are probably exhibiting the covert racism that runs through the fabric of American society and that haunts the subconscious thoughts, bleeding over into the subtle behaviors of-- dare I say-- all of us. 

I am a typical middle class white American. I grew up in a small town where, in my graduating class of over 400 students, we had fewer than 10 African Americans. I heard racial slurs and jokes on an inconsistent but regular basis. Despite formulating a generalized underlying negativity toward black people through indirect means, I also had black friends and I have some family members who are black and who I love dearly. I don't think I'm atypical in having, somewhere deeply embedded in my subconscious, a negative generalization about black people that persists despite probing myself very deeply in attempts to remove these ideas. They operate at an automatic level that I constantly, consciously fight. And at the same time, those generalizations and automatic assumptions never, ever apply to the black people who I actually know and interact with. It is strange and unsettling to me that my mind operates in this way, and that I don't have complete control over it. 

But this is a cultural problem that we all have to confront. The question is how to do that, exactly. Knowing that this bias exists in our culture, that it operates in the back room of everybody's minds as we go about our daily affairs, how can we trust people who make decisions affecting the life and liberty of black people to treat them fairly? We cannot trust our own minds not to deceive us in this regard. Even when we try, we are not fair. Because of this, the idea of colleges using admissions quotas to help ensure that a proportionate number of minorities end up being accepted into incoming freshman classes makes good sense to me, as does making sure that if a policy like Stop & Frisk continues, some attention is paid to the number of white people vs. minorities who are stopped. Using a numbers system is not perfect. It's artificial. It's a way of double checking our behavior to eliminate bias. 

Using statistics and quotas to eliminate racism reminds me of what I do when I'm trying to nail a running pace. The ideal is to have the proper pace internalized so that you can simply tell by feel whether you're running at the desired speed. But learning a pace is not intuitive. You need practice and lots of experience, and outside help. I use a GPS watch to tell me my pace when I'm first learning it, and I repeat it over and over again until I know what it feels like to do it properly. Once I have internalized the feel, I check back in with the GPS occasionally to make sure I'm still on target, because it's easy, even after you think you've learned a pace, to go off the rails. This particularly happens when external conditions change, such as when you are running a race as opposed to just doing a training run.

Just as with learning a running pace, I think learning to extricate the traces of covert racism requires some sort of external reference point, some check on behavior to make sure you're really changing. The ideal, of course, is to internalize a new underlying attitude, to make a real internal change so that you just really ARE NOT racist, at all, anywhere, even deep down inside under a rock you forgot to turn over. That's where the statistics come in. We need to make sure we are not behaving in a racist manner and attributing it to something else. We can't trust ourselves because we suck. Deep, deep down inside. We really suck. We need help.

Racism is a spiritual disease that blights us all.  I hate it in myself and am just as much a victim of it as the people who it oppresses. But my suffering is nothing compared to the people who actually are oppressed by my and every other white person's unintentional behavior. I don't think we have even begun to understand the reach of racism's effects, the way the daily slights that black people receive from white people who-- whether they are trying or not to rid themselves of prejudice-- continue to inflict little wounds with their subconscious attitudes. Several studies have been conducted which point to a correlation between people's perception of being discriminated against on the basis of race and the rate of cancer (e.g., It's wild to think that the tiny behaviors that slip out from some dirty part of millions of subconscious minds are slowly wearing away at the well-being of an entire group of our society. 

My greatest hope is in my children, and in their children, in generation after generation of new people who are hopefully all less and less affected by the mental blight that resides in me and mine.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Thinking Obliquely

I have been fortunate to have some formative professional experiences with creative thinkers who understand how to work with their subconscious minds in order to solve complex problems. I think it's possible to ape their behavior in order to achieve similar results, and so I think their stories are worth sharing. I refer to their analytical style as "thinking obliquely," for lack of a better term. 

My first encounter with this style of thinking was in the person of Jim Eiss, my boss of the last (gulp) 12 years. I've never met anyone who mulls things over more than he does, and it's the thing I love about him. It's why he is one of the most brilliant immigration attorneys. He is well aware of the fact that his subconscious brain contains a spark of genius and he knows how to work WITH it, even though he doesn't know how exactly it works. It's like a mysterious machine that he knows how to operate. So Jim gets a call from a client with a difficult case and he has the vague shape of a solution in his brain. He has a way of satisfying the client that he will figure out their case even though he hasn't nailed down the solution yet (another art form that will no doubt result in a future blog entry). Then his next step is to read absolutely everything he can find about the subject. Often he then comes to me to discuss it. We bounce the idea back and forth and flesh it out a little more. Then he sleeps on it. It's like he's sowed a seed and just has to wait for it to sprout. And then he doesn't talk about it until he's ready. He's like a grandma with something in the oven who magically knows when it's ready to come out. And then a day later, maybe 3 days later, maybe a week, he will just pop out some ingenious solution to the complex problem. 

My second encounter with the notion of oblique thinking was with this writing professor in law school, Janet Lindgren. She accepted me for an independent research project for a semester. I had decided to write proposed regulations on AC21 (an immigration law from 2001 that still hasn't been regulated to this day), and I was slogging my way through it for several weeks. About halfway through the semester she told me she thought that she was getting to the bottom of what my writing problem was and that she needed to approach it in another way, so she had me quit working on the regulations and asked me to bring in a brief I was working on at work. So I did. She helped me to rewrite that brief for a very difficult permanent resident application into one of the best things I'd ever written, and I think it was because of that that the client became a permanent resident. 

I thought that switching tracks at that point was rather odd, but she seemed to have a plan so I didn't question her methods. I intrigued by them, though, and after the fact tried to get her to explain why she'd diverted me into another project. (We did eventually get back to hammering out the regulations). Her only explanation was something about it being like needing to use her peripheral vision to hone in on what was right in front of her. She needed to see a completely different writing sample from me- something that would point in a different way at what was the flaw in my approach. In the end, she nailed it perfectly: she said I needed to take my hands off the reader's neck. It sounds so obvious and simple but it's revolutionized the way that I think and write. I never trusted the reader before that to understand the point I was making and so I would over-explain it to the point of insulting the reader.

Both Jim and Professor Lindgren have a similar approach to solving complex problems. They study the problem in depth, until they understand it inside and out, and then they back away from it and allow their subconscious minds to process it. They trust some part of themselves to work out the problem away from their conscious gaze. It's something I try to emulate. I think that just being aware that the brain is capable of functioning in this way can revolutionize one's approach to problem solving. 

Friday, June 7, 2013

Pythagorean Aesthetics

Your body is the shape of your habits
Like the shape in the sand
Is the picture of an ideal
In the mind of a man
Who believes in a universal order
That we shadow with our efforts
When we strive toward a perfection in form.

What this points toward
Is that beauty is what isn't--
It's the flower in the sidewalk,
It's the joy that's born of sorrow--
It's the soul's resolution
That fills up every space in our thoughts.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Glass House

The woman in the glass knows
She can never cast a stone
Because the one who holds her captive
Knows the name that breaks her bones.

The mirror brings together
The accuser and accused-
It is the prison glass that shields us
When we come to break the news.