Just published: My Three Suicides: A Success Story...

Thursday, October 29, 2015

"Are you a 'guy,' or a 'gal'? Miss Higi asked when we were alone.

My main squeeze
Sunday was a beautiful day, but my blood felt thick and sluggish. I had no energy, no oomph. And I couldn’t think straight. I felt like a bobble-head guy – no circulation above my neck. “Just relax,” I kept telling myself. Sundays are a day of rest, right?
But I kept looking out the window and watching the gentle breeze blow golden leaves from summer’s trees. The world looked beautiful. I wanted to get out of the house, take a walk, get my blood moving again. Recover my élan vital. My wife was busy with a sewing project, so I decided to take a solo stroll in the Wissahickon woods. I left the house and drove to Bell’s Mill Road, my favorite spot for entering the park.
But hordes of other folks had got there before me and both parking lots were full. I still felt like I had the metabolism of a Galapagos tortoise. I needed to get out of my shell of lethargy. So I continued on to the gym in Roxborough. I’d use one of the cardio machines – start easy and work my way to a rapid heart rate till I felt better. Within five minutes I felt good, not creaky at all. Soon I reached my beats-per-minute goal and cruised through the rest of the session – 45 minutes. Then I eased down. My happy blood was flying happily through my body, carrying happiness and good will to every cell of my happy self. After a brief after-stretch, I left the gym. Aaahhh!
Then I made my mistake.
Instead of going home, I went into the pharmacy to see how my blood pressure was. I walked up to the far corner and took off my sweatshirt at the waiting bench. But what’s this? The old blood pressure machine was gone. In its place was a weird, modern device with a bench and a TV touch screen. I had never used one before, but it looked simple. Under “What do you want to do?” I touched the button for “Take my blood pressure.”
“Welcome to the Higi (pronounced “higgy”) Station,” said a cheerful female android from within. Let’s call her “Miss Higgy.” Filled with good will, eagerness and pep, she quickly followed with, “Let’s get started.” Huh? Females usually say, “Are you done yet”? to me. Before I could recover from this mild shock, the screen displayed two simplified gender icons, such as you see on airport lavatory doors. She said, “Are you a guy or a gal”? I guess I tapped the right icon because she immediately asked me, “When were you born”? I told her, deciding to be frank from the start of our time together. Then she told me to place my left arm in the cuff and “turn your palm to the sky.” Before I could tell her she had a gift for metaphor, she said, “Relax and breathe normally.” Oh boy, I thought. I smiled to the camera eye above the screen. That was when she began to squeeze my arm.
I must have flinched. “Relax,” she said. Then the screen rolled a commercial such as one sees on TV during Jeopardy! Two middle-aged guys are at a golf driving range and about to hit some balls, but one of them winces and says he can’t go on. His buddy expresses sympathy and says Oh Well they can get together another time. Drat! The afflicted fellow has shingles. They hurt. They’re awful. Fortunately, shingles prevention shots are available right here at the pharmacy.
My blood pressure began rising as I thought about all the things that can go wrong with the human body. I looked heavenward, but there was a second monitor on top of the machine playing the same dreadful commercial. No escape. I looked away. I wanted to relax. Clear your mind, I told myself, breath naturally. I looked to the right side of Miss Higgy. And saw a fire extinguisher on the wall. Fire extinguisher – that’s for when one’s house goes up in flames, right? Wait, don’t think that. I looked to the other side. Storage boxes of rubber gloves. Ugh. Nothing good ever happens when someone is wearing rubber gloves. The commercial wouldn’t shut up. I searched Miss Higgy’s facade for a speaker I could disconnect or cover with my hand. No. I vowed to ignore it. “Nah ah ah” the machine seemed to say. Squeeze, she took a fresh grasp on my arm, right below the threshold of pain. It reminded me of a video I once saw on YouTube where a python swallowed a crocodile.
No, don’t think about violence, I told myself. I closed my eyes, tried to clear my mind. The pharmacy’s speakers were vibrating a familiar song. I listened, hoping it held true that “Music has charms to soothe a savage breast.” But no! They were playing that damned song they played in the 80s when I and some gal were breaking up. What a mess that was. By now my blood pressure was really escalating.
“Almost done,” Miss Higgy said, “keep relaxing.” Then she chirped, “Okay, we’re done. Here are your results.” I was by then wild-eyed with nervousness and anticipation. I looked at the screen. A bad number appeared. It suggested I should go curl under a bush until the earth saw fit to recycle me.
Oh my goodness, I thought as I eased my arm from the constrictor, that was some awful ride. Restless earlier today, I did cardio at the gym and felt great. But then I met Miss Higgy. Serves me right, I thought. I turned to her one good eye and said, “I already had my shingles shot. Last year.”
“That’s it, then,” I thought she said. I staggered out, another 1980s break-up song coming out of the store’s speakers as I left. My blood turned back to sludge thicker than this morning’s.
Moral: Leave well enough alone, stay away from talking machines, and never, ever, seek objective proof of your happiness.
Hugh Gilmore is the author of the Kindle Top-100 memoir “My Three Suicides: A Success Story.” Also available in paperback wherever fine books are sold.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Opera Season opens, Part 1: Time to see what all the hollerin’s about

 Opera star, Anna Netrebko, in “Anna Bolena.”
                                         Opera star, Anna Netrebko, in “Anna Bolena.”

Call this a diary, if you will, of one man’s attempts to find what’s been missing from his life where opera is concerned. Until recently, I’ve been walking around the cultural fairgrounds of life with little interest in what goes on inside that particular big tent.
Because opera is satirized or parodied so often in popular entertainment, I assumed that it was just a big, silly, overblown mess that was patronized by rich dowagers and gents in top hats. You know, those cartoonish captains of industry who have to be shushed when they start snoring during the second act. Opera was just something that fancy people attended to show they were fancier than the rest of us.
Oh, I’m not a complete ignoramus. I love classical music and prefer it to all other kinds. I went to the Metropolitan Opera once when I was in college because I loved the story of “La bohème” – starving young artists in a garret, doomed love, beautiful love songs. And I owned some Pavarotti albums. And just loved the movie “Bizet’s Carmen” (with Placido Domingo) enough to have watched it about 20 times in the past 10 years.
And no one gets through life without humming snatches of Wagner every now and then, even if he doesn’t know they’re from Wagner. But I really never did anything to deepen my knowledge of opera.
For one thing, live opera tickets are fairly expensive. Listening to the radio is free and pleasurable, but doesn’t give one the satisfaction of watching the singers perform or seeing the spectacular costumes and staging. As for televised operatic performances: the operatic universe simply cannot be crammed into a nutshell. Then, a few years ago, my excuses were taken away when the mountain came to me.
In 2006, Metropolitan Opera Live in HD began broadcasting selected live performances to local theaters. Sent by special satellite hookups, these simulcasts of their star-studded shows brought to the big screen the same (usually Saturday matinée) programs that out-of-town radio fans had been faithfully listening to for years.
Suddenly, folks from Maine to Oregon, Florida to California, and many places in between, could “go to the opera” on a Saturday afternoon. Some of them love opera enough to drive 50 or 100 miles to get to a theater. Others, city dwellers such as myself, need expend no more effort than a brief drive to a local movie theater. The closest theater to our Chestnut Hill community is the AMC Plymouth Meeting Mall Cinema 12, a mere 20 minutes away.
Tickets are pricey, compared to a regular movie, but plenty cheap compared to the expense of going to the Met in New York. They were around $16 a few years ago, but have risen; I paid $21 for the show I saw this past weekend – Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” (The Troubadour).
Each year since the beginning, the Met has expanded its offerings. In the past several years they have averaged ten simulcasts, offered in more than 2,000 theaters in about 70 countries. Ticket sales have soared to more than $60 million on an average ticket cost of about $23. (Discounts are given for multiple event purchases.) For those who miss the Saturday afternoon transmissions, “encore” performances are offered, usually on the following Wednesday at 6:30 p.m.
Before going on, I must pause to be personal: In living my life, I have never been accused of rushing headlong toward maturity. I grew older but clung tenaciously to whatever might be called the opposite of wisdom. Now having passed what I imagine was the mid-point of my life, I have discovered pleasures I never knew existed. Simply by opening my mind and noticing that I didn’t know it all.
It’s as though every year I discover a beautiful garden on the other side of a wall I’d never peeked through, or walked around, or climbed over. In my eagerness to rush through my youth I missed the chance to enjoy a great deal. In short, I’ve been wrong more often than I’ve been right about what was worth spending time doing.
The upside of this newly bloomed awareness is that I’ve discovered so much new in the world. Not new to the world, just new to me. But that’s just as good. Each day takes on a special glow because of that.
Having these live simulcasts come to my neighborhood movie theater has made it easy for me to overcome my prejudices and start becoming an opera fan. I started going to these shows during the 2008-2009 season. I go to most of them each year. Usually alone. These experiences have provided the most intensely emotional artistic experiences I’ve felt in the past half-dozen years.
Opera, when it works, presents life at its aesthetic extremes. Not all the productions work for me, but the ones that do really work me over. When the curtain comes down and the characters on stage turn into smiling fellow humans, bowing before a wildly applauding audience, I feel exhilarated, overflowing with ideas for creative projects, insights into human nature, and love for all mankind. It’s a little late in the day, I guess, to take up a passionate new interest like this. But better than than never, eh?
More, with details, to follow as I offer some notes about this season.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Whatever your nature, you need nurture: David Epstein’s The Sports Gene

Argument settler, or argument provoker?
Malcolm Gladwell, in a recent blog, referred to The Sports Gene as the best sports science book around, so I thought I should check it out. The author, David Epstein, presents a survey of the entire field here in a clear and interesting fashion. Occasionally quite technical, it nevertheless should be an easy, handy read (and argument settler) for anyone who wants to know more about modern athletic physiology.

The title is just a bit misleading since there is no single “sports” gene – for any event. Epstein reports that single genes have effects so tiny as to be undetectable in small studies: “Modern scientists have begun to abandon small single-gene studies in favor of looking at how the interplay of biological endowments and rigorous training affects athleticism.”

He writes, “The broad truth is that nature and nurture are so interlaced in any realm of athletic performance that the answer always is: It’s both.” But how? he asks. And to what degree? Does one outweigh the other in some cases? Epstein looks for answers in unexpected places.

For example, he tells us that in the early 1940s a Dutch chess master and psychologist named Adriaan de Groot sought to know the core of chess mastery. He devised a test for a panel of chess players who represented four skill levels: A world champion, a master, a city champion and an average club player. He flashed before them, for three seconds, a chessboard with chess pieces set up in realistic game scenarios. Then he took the board away, gave them blank boards and pieces, and asked them to recreate what they’d seen.

The grandmaster could recreate the board exactly. The master performed not perfectly, but very well. Neither of the other two could recreate the board accurately. An interesting finding, but did these findings indicate a superior visual memory, or some other, acquired skill?

Three decades later, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University repeated the de Groot experiment – with a twist. They showed four levels of players a chessboard whose pieces had been set up in random situations that could never occur in an actual game. After a five-seconds look, the players were asked to recreate what they’d seen. This time the masters were no better than the others.

Apparently, randomized boards defying the rules of chess are unreadable. Players who know the rules governing the movement of pieces notice only meaningful situations on a set-up board. Masters are quicker recognizers of rule-governed patterns.

Sports scientists have noticed that successful baseball batters can watch the initial movements of a pitcher’s shoulder, torso and arm and predict what kind of pitch is coming. Similarly, a football running back can run through “holes” in the line of scrimmage just as they form. And basketball players on a three-on-two break can “see the future” forming.

In other words, there is a mental element in sports. Not a “thinking element,” but a rapid perception of where one is in space, taking into account one’s speed, and angle of approach relative to the other players. Elite athletes, according to Epstein, (paraphrasing the research of Bruce Abernethy, a Queensland sports scientist)“need less time and less visual information” to know what to do next.

Is this simply “instinct,” a genetic gift? Yes and no. All other things being equal, practice makes a big difference. Malcolm Gladwell, in his recent book “Outliers,” popularized the notion of “10,000 hours” as the amount of time one needs to master an endeavor. This “rule” applies to violin playing, basketball, chess, track and field events, golf – you name it. It implies that, even without superior genes, practicing can make one a champ.

All things being equal, that is true – but only sometimes. In a large population, all things are seldom equal when you consider how many hope to be a world champion and how few succeed. Some people are born gifted with the ability to perform at a high level with comparatively little practice.

Epstein cites a four-year study of L.A. Dodgers baseball players whose visual acuity averaged 20/13. Such superior vision is found in about 18 percent of the average population. Studies from the Netherlands revealed that the youths who eventually signed professional soccer contracts had been 0.2 seconds faster than their teammates even back when they were tested at ages 12, 13, 14, 15 and 16.

In fact, it sometimes happens that a person who puts in 10,000 hours of practice loses a competition to someone who has practiced, say, only 5,000 hours (or less), but has more innate talent. Epstein’s mantra is that every case involves “both hardware and software.”

A fascinating phenomenon he reports on is that athletic body types have changed over the years. Fifty years ago a single idealized athletic physique seemed appropriate to most events. Today’s athletic bodies conform to their specialization’s needs. Michael Phelps, for example, the swimming champion, is six four, with disproportionally small legs, extra-long forearms and hands, and small hips. Ideal for cutting through water at high speeds.

Female gymnasts are usually small in stature, have little body fat, and very small hips. Track sprinters have more “fast twitch” fibers in their muscles, allowing them to win events that call for speed and explosive power. The bulk of the muscles in their calves and thighs is located high on the bone, almost a physics text design for a fast leg.

Fast-twitch muscle fibers aren’t very efficient at longer distances, however, because they don’t correlate with long-term oxygen debt over time. Distance running favors smaller, less overtly muscular bodies with more slow-twitch muscles fibers that use oxygen more efficiently.

Some of these requisite body sizes are found more often in certain “populations” than others. (Anthropologists and sports physiologists dismiss the word “race” as scientifically useless.) These findings are the subject of several chapters of the book and their results are discussed in an informed and interesting manner.

The most important thing to learn from this highly readable synthesis of the available information is that body, mind and will govern all athletic ability. But, sadly, for most American sports buffs, however, all other things being equal, talent will win nearly every time. Not an American thing to say. Too elitist. Undemocratic. This book dispels that and many other illusions.

Hugh Gilmore is the author of the Kindle Top-100 memoir: “My Three Suicides: A Success Story.” Available in paperback too, through Amazon.com.

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