Sunday, March 30, 2008

Endorphins Rule

“Researchers in Germany, using advances in neuroscience, report in the current issue of the journal Cerebral Cortex that the folk belief is true: Running does elicit a flood of endorphins in the brain. The endorphins are associated with mood changes, and the more endorphins a runner’s body pumps out, the greater the effect.”

I have started running again. For now it is just two days a week, but I will soon up that to three times a week and then to four over the next two months. I used to run a lot and then I hurt my back—two herniated disks down low at the same time. The pain was terrible and, needless to say, it put me off of running for quite a while. Swimming, sit-ups, and push-ups have improved my core strength and gotten me to the point where running is once again an option for me.
I saw the above report in the New York Times this week and it made me think about when I began running six years ago. It was during a long, hard slog through an Upstate New York winter. In February of 2002 Erica and I made up our minds that we were going to complete a marathon in the fall of the same year. We each had our own reasons for needing a huge goal to consume us and training for a marathon was just the right thing.
I can remember the first run I did in preparation for the marathon. It was a cold February evening and I didn’t own a pair of running shoes so I set out in my Chuck Taylors to run a 2.3 mile loop through our little town of Trumansburg. My lungs were seared by the cold air and my leg “muscles” hurt. I pushed into our living room and reported to Erica that “running is stupid.”
But I stuck with it and within a month my longest run had stretched to four miles. And then five. And soon enough I began to look forward to the long Sunday runs that were the heart of my training program. I was not aware of the endorphins flooding my brain, but flooding they were and I certainly did feel good about what I was doing.
Now that I look back at it all, there must have been a heck of a lot of endorphins in order to account for my behavior at the time. One stupid June Sunday I ran fourteen miles through a cold, windy rain. By that time I had running shoes, but because of the cold and the rain I made what turned out to be a BRD—a bad runner’s decision. I put on a pair of thick wool socks instead of my usual thin cotton socks and then went out into the downpour. My socks absorbed much of the rain that fell, causing them to swell up and fill my shoes too tightly. I won’t go into the gruesome details, but suffice it to say that the next day my two big toes were missing their toenails.
And I went out and ran five miles anyway. Endorphins kick ass.
In October of 2002 I made it through the Wineglass Marathon in and around the beautiful countryside of Corning, New York. It took me four and a half hours and even the endorphins were not enough to make that run anything but hard. But I finished.
Now, six years later I find myself needing a big goal again—something to help focus my energy and make me feel progress. I love what I do for work, but as a teacher I can’t always see concrete results from all the time and effort I put into my job. Running is different. I can see and feel progress from day to day and week to week. Four miles today felt far easier than four miles four weeks ago. But teaching a fifth grader how to use a comma appropriately doesn’t ever feel any easier. And there have been no studies so far to prove that teaching grammar to ten and eleven year olds releases any corresponding flood of endorphins. Unless and until teaching is shown to flood my brain with natural mood-lifters and pain-killers, I will continue to run. It works. Really. Dr. Henning Boecker proved it.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Behavioral Grammar

Erica and I went to the top of East Rock this Easter morning to attend an outdoor sunrise church service with some friends. It was a crisp, clear morning and the waning gibbous moon was setting to the west. As if on a cosmic seesaw, the sun was slowly rising as the moon fell. The service itself was led by pastors and preachers from several local congregations. It was cold and it was early, but I was very glad I had come. The service itself was short and vibrant and the setting lent an air of specialness. The people there were clearly happy to be there.

The actual moment of sunrise was pretty spectacular. The people around me were singing a song of joy as the first rays of red light hit my retina, ending their 93 million mile trip across cold, empty space. In that moment I had a mini-epiphany. It struck me right then that organized human religions and their beliefs are the spiritual equivalent of grammatical rules in languages.

When I teach grammar to my fifth and sixth grade students, I always start by having them imagine how a language comes into existence. I ask them to think about the process. I say, “Did a group of people sit down in a room and write the rules of proper English grammar BEFORE people began speaking English?” When put this way, the students begin to realize the organic nature of language. They can imagine how it grows naturally out of the needs of families and neighbors to talk to each other in a comprehensible manner.

Of course, there are exceptions to this process, but they are few and far between. Urdu was “invented” hundreds of years ago by an Islamic ruler in what is now Pakistan as a way to unify his kingdom. Esperanto was created in a vain attempt to give the world a single language. These exceptions are not unimportant. They serve to point out how natural and unplanned the creation of language generally is. The grammar of a particular language grows out of the needs of the people who speak that language to understand each other.

The point I make with my students is that grammar is not a set of prescriptive rules, but rather a set of descriptive observations. Proper grammar is simply a description of how a language is used by native speakers. It tells us how people speak when they are speaking properly, but it does not control how we actually speak.

My epiphany this morning was the realization that organized human religion is really a sort of behavioral grammar. And just as linguistic grammar gets mistaken for rules about how we must speak, these behavioral grammars sometimes get mistaken for rules about how we must live our lives.

Humans have felt the impulse to religion for as long as there have been people. It is a defining characteristic of our species that we look for causes, reasons, and explanations.

Over time and space, human societies have created religions around which they have organized their lives. Where I think people often “get it wrong” about religion is when they look at religion as a list of rules for how to live life. Just as linguistic grammars are descriptions of how people speak when they are speaking properly, religious systems are really just descriptions of how people would live if they were living properly. Organized religions describe our thoughts, dreams, aspirations, and hopes. We use religion to describe our best selves to ourselves.

In the same way that Arabic grammar and English grammar differ in their making of plurals and their placement of adjectives, religions differ in their descriptions of a good life. The faith of a particular region grows out of the needs of the people who live it and their search for daily understanding of each other and the world. It makes sense to me that people have come up with different religious systems in different places. While we all have the same wants and needs, the local expression of those wants and needs is bound to have a local flavor. For this same reason, people who push to have everyone in the world follow one religion ignore the lesson of Esperanto at their own risk.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

What Do You Worry About?

I got to thinking about worrying last night at one in the morning as I was leaving The Playwright in Hamden. I had spent a few hours watching Villanova upset Clemson and now I just wanted to get home and go to sleep. As I left the bar I reached into my pocket and took out the key to our Ford Windstar. And then I immediately put the key safely back in my pocket as I walked to the van.

Believe it or not, that key is probably the object I worry about most in my life. I have never assigned actual percentages to the things I worry about, but if I were to make a list and then divvy it up proportionally, I have a strong suspicion that key would top the list. It might even come out with a 20 or 25 percent share of all the object-related anxiety (ORA) in my life.

Some of the other objects on that list would include the roof of our house, my wallet, my shoelaces, my fake front tooth, my laptop, the wine glasses on our somewhat-tippy wine cabinet, my wife’s bank card, my wife’s sunglasses, my wife’s cell phone, our basement floor, our water heater, our furnace, and the dogfood bin on the floor of the kitchen.

Don’t get me wrong…I don’t spend huge amounts of time or energy worrying about objects in my life. It’s not like I have an ORA fixation or anything. Worrying is mostly a waste of time. To the extent that it makes you consider the possibility of things going wrong and then prods you to take measures to make it more likely that things will go right, then worrying can be said to be productive. But anything beyond that is really just a misappropriation of scarce mental resources.

But in the case of the key to our Ford, the amount of worrying I do feels entirely justified. You see, since we have owned the vehicle, we have had only one key for it. It is some special sort of key that can’t be duplicated at a standard hardware store. The dealer tells us that in order to get another key made, we will need to leave him the van for up to a week while they make one specially for us. It has been three years and, in spite of the potential hardships that would be brought on by the loss of that one stinkin’ key, we have not yet bitten the bullet and paid the $100.00 a new key would require of us.

Until we do, I always make sure to leave the key in my pocket until I am actually standing at the driver’s door. I can all-too-easily imagine the key falling from my hand and plummeting irretrievably down a sewer grate. Realizing how much of my actual worry-time was spent on that key made me wonder what other people worry about. I know we all have the standard stuff—job, family, spouse, economy, war and peace, etc—but in some ways these seem LESS interesting to me than the quirky and unusual tangible items we spend energy worrying about.

I don’t know how to do it, but someone should create a website where people can post lists of the things they worry about. I know I would check in there every once in a while just to see how crazy we all are.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Obama's Victory Speech

Barack Obama’s Philadelphia speech about race in America will go down alongside Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech as one of the most forthright, honest, and hopeful speeches in the last one hundred years of American history. Mr. Obama addressed the grievances of whites and blacks, the attitudes of whites and blacks, and the hopes of whites and blacks in a way that struck me mute.
In my class this year we are studying the broad sweep of human history on the planet. My underlying goal is that my students start to see that everywhere, throughout both time and space, humans have wanted the same things. A family in ancient China wanted to know it had firewood, drinking water, food, and protection from the Mongolian hordes. A family in Rome wanted firewood, drinking water, food, and protection from the Goths. A family in Selma today wants heat in the winter, safe water to drink, enough food on the table, and protection from al Queda.
Part of the genius of Obama’s speech today was that he was able to point to those underlying similarities between Americans of any race or ethnic background. He made it clear that we are much more alike than we are different. A leader that knows this truth in his or her heart has my vote.
Another element to his genius was his ability to tie us all together while at the same time recognizing the toll our history of slavery and division has exacted from us today. He is surely no pie-in-the-sky optimist, as he has been portrayed by Hillary Clinton. Instead, he is that rarest of politicians: the realistic optimist. He knows whites and blacks have their beefs. He knows their complaints are not to be glossed over. He knows, in fact, that there is a lot of hard work to be done if we are ever to match the promise of the words of the Constitution.
And still, he wants to be President. He WANTS the challenge of addressing these issues face-on and helping America and Americans become better--become who we are capable of being. The thought of the current occupant of the White House conceiving, writing, and delivering such a speech is beyond my meager imagination. After his speech today, Mr. Obama strikes me forcefully as America’s best hope for the next four years. He is not afraid to speak the truth to an electorate that has been underestimated for far too long. Today’s speech marks the real beginning of his march to victory in November.

The website Politico has a link to the full text of the speech.

Monday, March 17, 2008


Compline (pronounced /ˈkɒmplɪn/; also Complin, Night Prayer, Prayers at the End of the Day) is the final church service of the day in the Christian tradition of canonical hours. The English word Compline is derived from the Latin completorium, as Compline is the completion of the working day.

Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, and certain other Christian denominations with liturgical traditions prescribe Compline services. Compline tends to be a contemplative Office that emphasizes spiritual peace. In many monasteries it is the custom to begin the "Great Silence" after Compline, during which the whole community, including guests, observe silence throughout the night until the morning service the next day.

I went to Compline services at Christ Church on Broadway in New Haven last night for the first time in a few weeks. And this morning as I was loading up the car to go to work, my daughter, Isabel, was taking more time than is strictly required to get some socks from her room and to eat her breakfast of cheesy toast. Normally, her delay would have me at a low boil. With my jaw set, I would be repeating (ad ridiculum) “Time for us to go, daughter.” But today I just took a deep breath, went out to the car, and sat waiting for Isabel with an actual smile on my face.
It may have been the sunshine and the promise of spring that had me responding with calm, cool, collectedness. But I think my equanimity is traceable to another cause. I am fairly certain my time in the dark at Christ Church is what allowed me to shrug off her lack of focus and our late departure for school.
Don’t get me wrong. For those of you who have read my thoughts on God and religion, don’t think that I am coming back around to subscribe to any particular brand of belief. Before I even try to explain what the Compline service did for me, let me just describe the setting in purely sensual terms. (It is the same each time I go, so I am going to make the editorial decision to keep the description in the present tense.)

As you walk in the doors of the church a robed singer is there to greet you. Even though it is dark outside, you realize that the streetlights, signs, store lights, and headlights of Broadway are brighter than you would have thought. It is dark inside the church. There are no electric lights at all, save the mandatory EXIT signs over the doors. It is hard to see anything at first except for the many candles flickering all around the church. You stop and stand still for a second, just to get your bearings and allow your eyes to begin the adjustment to real darkness. After a moment you can make out the rows of chairs and you choose one for yourself. If you have come in alone, as many of the congregants have, you sit alone, respecting the envelope of quiet each person comes quickly to occupy.
Speaking of quiet, you notice that the quiet of the church is deceptive. There is no radio, no background organ music, no lector reading announcements, no low hum of conversation. The traffic going by outside is three or four removes away. But still, the space is full of sounds. A woman clears the tickle in her throat. A man shifts his weight and his chair responds. Someone shuffles up the aisle to her seat and the sliding soles of her shoes sound almost like human speech. The building itself shifts its weight ever so slightly in a breeze. Your own breathing fills your ears and takes you by surprise.
Once you realize that you can hear your own breathing, you can’t help but focus on it, listen to it, claim it. You exercise control over it, making it deeper and slower. And then you realize that each inhalation is coating your olfactory bulb with a complicated incense. Because you have been in the dark for a few minutes, you can now see much better. Your eyes pick out the cloud of smoke rising from the altar and you can tell where the thick-but-not-unpleasant scent is coming from.
Just when you have settled into the quiet and forgotten your purpose for even being in the perfumed dark to begin with, four voices in harmony slide out of a side balcony and through the cloudy darkness and into the very middle of your consciousness. You realize that the minutes spent getting acclimated were essential to hearing the song in just the way it was intended to be heard: as the sound the Universe makes when given the chance to just be its best self.

I realized last night during a particularly beautiful “Amen” that as soon as the voices start, my other senses beat a hasty retreat, leaving my hearing to enjoy its moment in the sun. The candles, the incense, my awareness of other people, and even my own breathing all vaporize as the first ripples of sound waves set my eardrums to vibrating in natural sympathy with the music of the angels.

I emerged last night from Christ Church somewhat dazed and woozy, but certainly exponentially more calm than when I had entered. The feeling faded slowly, but it did not disappear the way a dream can upon waking. Instead, it faded into my background. When I woke up this morning and then started to move toward work, what rose up to take control was not the usual clock-focused dictator but instead the calm, centered church-sitter from last night. It was a real lesson for me in the value of meditation. I know reacting to stress with a deep breath and a smile is not something I can do each time, but it was nice to realize that I am capable of it once in a while.

See you at Compline?

Friday, March 14, 2008

StickK To It

Humans, as far as we are able to tell, are the only species capable of formulating long-term goals. We can imagine a future that is different from today. Different, in fact, from the whole long chain of days that have led to this day. And once we imagine something different, we can formulate a plan and put it into action. Things don’t always go the way we predict or hope they will go, but sometimes they do. And, sometimes when they do it can feel pretty darn good.

Being a human myself, I have goals. There are many things I wish to accomplish. Some of these things I keep to myself and others of these I share with Erica and Isabel or my students or friends. I have to be careful about which goals I say out loud. Revealing a goal to someone else puts pressure on me to then actually do something in an effort to accomplish the goal. Keeping that in mind, I have something I need to say:

I want to be in the best shape of my life by the middle of September, 2008.

There. I have said it out loud. I won’t bore you with the details of my plan to accomplish this goal. Suffice it to say that there are no surgical procedures or banned substances involved. Just lots of daily and weekly grunt work. I have chosen mid-September because that is when I will run a 200-mile relay race as part of a twelve-person team. The race is called Reach the Beach and it begins in the mountains of New Hampshire and ends thirty-some hours later at the ocean.

In an effort to keep myself on-track I have signed on to a website called StickK. It is a place to make public goals and then hold yourself accountable. Right now I have posted two goals, one involving push-ups, (the exercise, not the bra), and one involving running. When you post a goal you have the option of having money go to a third party if you fail to meet your goal. You can choose to send the money to a charity whose aims you support, or you can choose to send your money to a group you strongly DISAGREE with. I have set my payouts to come to me if I reach a goal and to go to organizations I despise if I fall short.

This way when it is 11:30 at night and I still have thirty push-ups to go to reach my daily quota, I can make myself put my book down, get out of bed, and crank out thirty more. It helps knowing that if I don’t, the NRA will get a donation from me.

Click on the link under "Sites I Visit" to check out the site.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Daylight Saving Time

I was not awake at 1:59 Sunday morning. But if I had been, would I have felt a momentary disorientation in time and space as the clock went directly to 3:00 a.m.? I am imagining something like a small earthquake. Only, the slight sway of the lamp and the clinking of wine glasses on the shelf would be replaced by a small dizziness and a feeling of having missed or possibly forgotten something.

Einstein has posited a relationship between speed, gravity, and one’s experience of time. Other scientists have gathered evidence supporting his ideas. In one famous thought experiment he described twin brothers, one of whom stays on Earth while the other boards a rocket and travels at close to the speed of light for what feels like only a short time—maybe a year. When the rocket returns to Earth, the astronaut-brother reunites with the terrestrial-brother only to find that his sibling is now many years older than he. Something about traveling at great speeds and little gravity slows the passage of time. When I first heard about this idea I wondered right away what would happen if the two brothers each had clocks set at the exact same moment right before lift-off? Would their clocks also record a difference in the passage of time?

When I put this idea together with our seemingly-careless manipulation of time, it makes me wonder what sort of unintended consequences we may be subjecting ourselves and our planet to. When I take the cheap plastic clock down off the wall in my classroom and spin the little dial that moves the minute hand ahead sixty minutes, am I somehow having an effect on the speed and gravity of those around me? After all, if speed and gravity affect time, shouldn’t the reverse be true?

There are some counties in Arizona and Indiana that opt out of these Spring-Forward-Fall-Back shenanigans. Do the citizens of those locales accrue some sort of fourth-dimensional benefit (or detriment) by keeping their clocks set right where they were? Or are they steamrolled by the mere fact of all the rest of us speeding through that mystical hour twice a year? Are my students now relatively younger than their peers in Bloomington, Indiana?

And just why is it that an hour spent flyfishing on the Stillwater River in Montana passes so much faster than an hour spent driving to New York City on I-95? I can’t prove it, but I bet dollars to doughnuts it has something to do with Daylight Saving Time.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Reading Buddies

I am sitting in a preschool classroom, immersed in the buzz of 9 different pairs of students reading books to each other. I have been working on report cards, but I realized the medium-loud hum of voices has knocked for a loop my ability to concentrate on anything. Rather than being upset or disappointed by my inability to focus, I am just sitting here, enjoying the fact that my fifth and sixth grade students are reading books and maybe learning a little about being good citizens. I LOVE the fact that words on a page, combined with some pictures, can bridge the space between older and younger. The books are a bridge from my kids to these other, younger little humans. Being a witness to this is bringing a smile to my face that writing comments on report cards, no matter how positive or caring, could never bring.