The Nature of Faith

Posted on 15 April 2014 | No responses

Last Sunday, we had a closing four-hour retreat for the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults at St. Robert of Newminster. The session was pleasant and the people at that parish are really quite delightful. The experience, at the time when Palm Sunday opens Holy Week, reinforced for me a concept I don’t take seriously enough — that is, the role of religiosity in the lives of ordinary people.

The social scientists tell us that formal religious profession is on the wane. Only one in five Americans visits a place of worship in any given week. Although three-quarters of us confess Christianity, demographers project that Christianity will be a minority faith tradition by 2030 given that one-third of people under age 30 claim no religious affiliation whatsoever.

Yet the religious impulse, as a human phenomenon, is quite different from religious practice. For the unchurched or the atheistic, their religious impulses tend to find expression in other pursuits — sexual licentiousness, radical environmentalism, unfocused spiritualism, unfettered egoism, etc.

Look at the pseudo-messianic undertones of the climate-change True Believers. Some of them suggest that people who disagree with their interpretation of climate models aren’t just mistaken — they’re morally defective and ought to be silenced – or even put in jail. Look, too, at the furor over the departure of newly appointed Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich. Some representative supporters of same-sex marriage have argued, loudly, that one man’s private donation six years ago is a public matter because he’s a public face of a company. Think what you will about climate change and same-sex marriage: The zeal to persecute non-believers is a religious impulse that goes beyond mere disagreement about facts, theories or policies.

The phenomenon is simple, really. Human nature is what it is, and that nature prompts us to seek to belong to a tribe. The evolutionary biology and developmental psychology of humankind is fairly well understood on the matter, thanks to pioneering work by researchers like Jared Diamond. Our tribes both fuel and channel our passions and inspire emotional bonds that transcend abstract, dispassionate reason.

Tribes are funny things. In simplest form, they’re society’s little platoons, the places where we discern meaning and level-set sociocultural expectations and find refuge in a like-minded community. In years past, tribes in the United States looked like ethnic bars, churches, fraternal clubs and neighborhood associations. Yet these mediating institutions, across the board, are failing. Gentrification is leading to the erosion ethnic identity for most white Americans; church attendance is on the wane; fraternal organizations are a shell of their former glory; neighborhood civic groups have been superseded by online communities.

So how do we find our tribe? How do we belong? We do it the same way we always have — we find people who “look like us” and share our worldview. Except now, we’re not finding communal solace in religion or civic virtue but rather in political and public-policy forums, and our potential fellow travelers don’t need to hail from our neighborhood but rather can come from anywhere there’s broadband access. Hence the polarization of the electorate: We’re sorting ideologically across party lines because we have fewer purely local social ties to bind us.

Religiosity, when channeled through institutions that have had millennia to develop, is mostly benign. Religiosity, divorced of anchor institutions and self-directed through political channels, is harder to manage. Harder to mediate. Without a diversity of those “little platoons” to provide a broad-based context, we fall into the solipsism of a single-issue messiah. Political activism sourced from a wholly self-contained belief system cannot be reasoned with; it can only be confronted or accommodated.

Hebrews 11:1 reminds us that faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Faith compels us; even people who profess atheism nevertheless need faith in something. It’s hard-wired into us as humans. As the rich tapestry of competing loyalties — a diversity that helped to check the excesses of any single constituent part — fades for many of our fellow citizens into a single-issue monochromatic print, our faith loses its grounding.

Some may argue that religious conservatives are ignorant. Or superstitious. Some probably are. But their faith in something bigger than themselves offers their religiosity a more humble, more humane path. Those whose faith hails from their own privileged beliefs, answerable to no higher authority than their own egos, have a tougher struggle to maintain a similar humble, humane demeanor. And, in this poisoned climate, it shows.

As a Catholic, then, I must confess: I have not really appreciated the gift of faith until I finally understood people whose faith is little more than a megaphone for their own psyches.

Thwarted from writing by my arch-nemesis, Sleeping Cat.

Posted on 9 April 2014 | No responses

Thwarted from writing by my arch-nemesis, Sleeping Cat.

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What Does a Well-Educated Person Really Need to Know?

Posted on 9 April 2014 | No responses

I’m working on a white paper about the basic skillset for practitioners of health care quality. The exercise, in addition to some of the discussion at a recent writer’s conference I attended, prompted reflection on what a “high performer” needs to know for a specific domain of excellence.

But what about the domain of life in general? Are there certain skills, knowledge or experience that an ordinary person ought to possess, to increase his odds of success over the long haul?

I think there are, and these bits of knowledge can usefully be presented in six increasingly broad categories. Let’s explore them, one by one.

Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse

What will you do when the fecal material hits the fan blades? The first and most basic category of knowledge is survival skills. I like the metaphor of a zombie apocalypse because one will never happen, but the metaphor really signifies any situation of a non-trivial period where a person’s life or health are at elevated risk and there’s little or no recourse to public authority for assistance. So Hurricane Katrina, for example, was a zombie apocalypse for the folks in southern Louisiana. So is sliding off a rural road in the middle of a blizzard, in a cellular dead zone. So is a solo hike in Denali National Park.

In a First World setting where we never really worry about the basics, we ought to know what to do in case those basics fail us. I think everyone needs to know how to start a fire, build a primitive shelter, forage for food on land and water, safely cook that food, collect and purify drinking water, and navigate by trail. You should know basic first aid and visual weather forecasting and campsite selection criteria. You need to know how to prioritize food, water, shelter and fire depending on the circumstances you’re dealing with.

I’m not suggesting that everyone ought to impersonate Les Straud or live a prepper lifestyle. I am suggesting you should be able to operate at Boy Scout level in the forest, without a support team to assist you.

For that matter: You should possess the basic skills to resolve routine inconveniences in a pinch, without relying on others – little things, like swapping a flat tire or unclogging a slow drain or repairing a broken kitchen drawer or controlling a major bleed. Instead of dialing 1-800-HELP-4ME, just take care of it.

Being able to survive a “zombie apocalypse” is less about specific skills and more about a specific state of mind. Ample evidence says that the people most likely to survive a catastrophe are the ones who feel prepared and in control of their own destiny. Backcountry and crisis-management skills build the confidence to weather the storm psychologically. A well-educated person will not simply curl up and die during a disaster.

The Social Graces

So, you’ve survived the zombie apocalypse. Congratulations. More difficult is taming that most wild of beasts, man.

The social graces include those skills you need to thrive in a community setting. Chief among these are communication techniques intended to defuse conflict, coupled with the self-defense skills to protect yourself from aggression when the situation cannot be resolved amicably.

Think of self-defense as managing three zones of risk. The first zone is situational awareness — of being competent at identifying potential threats, so you can avoid conflict in the first place. The second zone is conflict management. When you’re being confronted, responding appropriately with a mix of words and non-verbal cues can reduce the risk of an altercation — classic “how to deal with bullies” techniques. The third zone is combat. Even a little bit of self-defense training can help you hold your own in a bar fight or during a back-alley mugging attempt.

Cultivate a high level of emotional intelligence. Learn the basics of psychology, including paradigms like Maslow’s Hierarchy and the core psychological self-defense mechanisms. When you understand what motivates people, and what sorts of behaviors are learned versus instinctive, you can predict and perchance mold a tense situation to your benefit.

Being aware of the context in which others live is useful, too. If Siri misdirects you into the burned-out ruins of inner-city Detroit, then you hit a pothole and lose a tire, being aware of the particulars of urban culture can reduce your risk of victimization. Likewise, mastering the basics of cross-cultural communication could turn a blah dining experience at an ethnic restaurant into something magical.

Oh, and one more thing: A well-educated person is a master of civility, no matter the situation. Stiff upper lip, chap.

Life, the Universe & Everything

After you’ve made peace with your fellow humans, you need to make peace with your place in the cosmos — that is, by having a well-defined sense of the supernatural and how you plug into the universe’s grand design.

No one can ignore the God question. We may each come to different conclusions, but we cannot pretend like the question doesn’t exist. A coherent theology — even a negative theology like atheism — sets an existential framework for building a personal teleology. Agnosticism, embraced by some as a putative enlightened path, is intellectually indefensible: The Law of the Excluded Middle tells us that a binary question like the existence of God cannot admit to an I-don’t-know box on the ballot. So you have to pick a side, and live with both that choice and its real-world implications.

That word teleology is significant. Not only does a well-educated person grapple with the God question, but she also grapples with the big questions about the meaning of life. Teleology is the theory of being as understood in the context of a thing’s essential purpose. Humans largely write their own destiny. A well-educated person understands the things that contribute to human flourishing and what ingredients people need to thrive. And then she’ll live a life of self-actualization in line with her teleology of human excellence.

The Queen of the Sciences

Philosophy: Long may she reign supreme over the merely material sciences!

The benefit to studying philosophy is that the discipline teaches you how to think, and especially how to think objectively about difficult things that others ignorantly dismiss as being too highfalutin. Philosophy is the home of such valuable subjects as ethics, aesthetics, taxonomy, logic and epistemology. Philosophy teaches right and wrong, true and false, beautiful and ugly, reasonable and unreasonable. You learn how to examine an argument from any side and how to spot errors in reasoning that can lead to bad outcomes.

The other academic pursuits provide ample raw materials in the form of facts and figures and rules. But philosophy is the place where the application of those facts and figures and rules actually originates.

A well-educated person will be familiar with at least entry-level philosophy, such as that presented in Roger Scruton’s excellent Modern Philosophy.

This. Is. Jeopardy!

The broadest category of knowledge is that of standard academic learning. Although no one can know everything, everyone ought to know a little bit about a lot.

  • Humanities. Introduction to visual and performing arts. Ability to read music and at least poorly play an instrument. Study of a foreign language to at least the collegiate 202 level. Knowledge of the contents of the Western Canon and acquaintance with many of the titles therein. Deeper knowledge of world history (e.g., through a careful read of J.M. Roberts’s History of the World) and U.S. history.
  • Social Sciences.  Econ 101. Introductions to anthropology and sociology. Deeper understanding of psychology, with an emphasis on abnormal psych. Functional geographical literacy. Solid understanding of basic political theory and the structure of different forms of government.
  • Natural Sciences. Equivalents of a college seminar in each of astronomy, biology, chemistry, geology and physics.
  • Mathematics. Algebra and systems of equations. Set theory. Statistics, to include central tendency, dispersion, correlation, sampling, regression and visualization. Basic geometry and trigonometry.
  • Applied Sciences. Basics of agricultural practice. Business systems. Computer science, including at least an introduction to programming in any given language. Basics of mechanical and electrical engineering. Introduction to the fields of health care, law and journalism.

The Ephemera

Layer on top of all of the above, a smattering of knowledge about human health — fitness, diet, and the diagnosis and treatment of common ailments — and a wholesome acquaintanceship with one’s local environment, and you have a good start.

Lest we forget, a well-educated person should be acquainted, too, with pop culture. A shared vocabulary of pop music, TV shows, movie references and celebrity gossip helps to grease the wheels of interpersonal communication. Plus, sometimes pop-culture watching is a guilty pleasure.

Few people really fully possess what I’ve laid out here. The great thing, though, is that we’re all life-long learners, and there’s no sell-by date on a person’s ability to grow.

Besides, I hear the zombies don’t like rich, healthy brains — they go after the brains of the stupid, because they’re thinner and easier to digest. So there’s that.


Posted on 16 March 2014 | No responses

The laundry is done. The cats are sleeping. The kitchen is immaculate. Five of my six inboxes are devoid of pending emails. And I recline at my desk, feet propped on the sill, sipping some Johnnie Walker Swing, thinking.

Friends Moving On
Sad as it is, you can only do the heavy lifting in a friendship for so long before you realize that proximity and utility mean more to others than keeping a friendship well-tended. And that's OK. Lamentable, but OK.

The American with the best understanding of the Ukraine crisis is probably Jared Leto.

Just Show Up
Having just returned from a 1.5-day conference in Chicago, for the leaders of state healthcare-quality associations, I realize more than ever just how true the saying is: Eighty percent of success really is just showing up. Well, engaging, too — but strolling through the wide-open door is usually a good beginning. The rest is often gravy.

Las Vegas
I'm off soon to Las Vegas for another mini-vacation. The trip will be fun, as it always is — I think this will be my eighth or ninth excursion to Sin City in the last six years — and we shall see whether the Gamblin' Gods will be ever in my favor.

Is it human nature to take simple things and make them unnecessarily complex? For the last six months or so, I've been wrestling with a problem that, at first blush, seems trivial. Yet I'm not "there" yet with a solution. Every possible answer merely suggests a different set of permutations. Meanwhile, the problem remains unresolved. Perhaps I don't want to solve it?

Faith without doubt is meaningless. Faith that boasts of its truthfulness is dangerous. No system of belief — religious, political, scientific — should demand unnecessary dogmas or subvert necessary caveats.

Blowin’ in the Wind …

Posted on 4 March 2014 | No responses

Behold the whirlwind.

Where to begin? I’ve posted photos of the drama related to my dining-room window. The broken pane is from a century-old window, so the glass repair is taking some time. The storm window is in place — the A/C unit is now in front of my bedroom fireplace — so it’s not terrible, but I do occasionally feel a draft. Ugh.

Two weeks ago, I went on a casino trip to Detroit (MGM Grand, Motor City and Greektown) as well as Caesar’s Windsor and Hollywood Casino Toledo. Tony and Roux attended. It was a great time — we covered it in a podcast last week — but regrettably expensive.

Last Friday, a six-hour board meeting of the Michigan Association for Healthcare Quality. In Mount Pleasant. The board accepted my proposal, endorsed by the MAHQ education committee, to hold our annual conference in early October in Traverse City. Can you say “wine tour?” Lots of good planning, though — I think we have a real opportunity to coordinate more with leaders in Lansing about state health policy, and the board endorsed my fuzzy proposal to deliberately cultivate contacts in state government.

This coming weekend, I’ll be in Chicago for a state-leaders conference sponsored by the National Association for Healthcare Quality. Should be a good networking opportunity. The folks at NAHQ asked me to help moderate a speed-networking event on Saturday morning.

Life has been busy, but good. My normal routine still hasn’t recovered from NaNoWriMo, though. I’ve done a bit of writing, mostly Saturday mornings with Brittany. Caught the Lego Movie with Duane on Sunday.

I’m really excited about some upcoming scuba trips. I had dinner two weeks ago with Jen, Dave and Tawnya. T is my new dive buddy; she just got certified and just bought her gear. Woohoo. We’re planning a weekend trip to Gilboa, Ohio, for late June. Of course, we’ll have to do some local lake diving in late May and early June to get Tawnya some logged dives. I’ve already paid for a advanced cert course through the dive shop. I think I’m going to target “Level 4″ status in SSI by the end of the season. That’s basically 50 dives and four additional courses, plus Stress and Rescue training. If I can get that nailed, then next year I can work toward Divemaster in 2015. I’m thinking maybe I’ll do deep diving, Nitrox, navigation and wreck diving. We’ll see.

The feline overlords are doing well. One of them has decided that I make a great elevator, so when I’m crouched over or kneeling down, he sometimes hops on my back/shoulders and expects a pony ride to whatever shelf or cabinet he cannot otherwise access. It’s cute.

I have officially loved this winter. We have the second-snowiest winter in Grand Rapids history this year, and we’re like #2 nationally for snow cover. Yay. I have 4WD and my landlord shovels/snowblows, so for me, it’s just been fun. I grow weary of everyone bitching about how much they hate the winter.

Although, come to think of it, drivers do piss me off. I’m glad you treehuggers out there buy your Priuses and Civics, but in Michigan, those vehicles aren’t exactly prudent between Nov. 1 and April 1. Sheesh. And since so few people are shoveling their on-street parking curbs, I’m having fun counting how many cars have a smashed driver-side mirror. In some stretches of road, every fourth or fifth car has a missing or damaged mirror.

Writing has been slow. I’m still pleased with my novel, but I’m hung up on Chapter 4. To me, it’s obviously an addition that stuffs in material that counterbalances content in the second half of the novel. I think I need to remove it and find other ways of addressing plot continuity deficiencies.

I’m woefully behind on a bunch of chores, though. All the travel and events I’ve been doing in January and February have conspired to deprive me of time to get stuff done at home. I’m behind on routine paperwork, and the re-launch of some of my business properties is delayed thanks to some tax/legal considerations. Oh, and I need to pay Abbi for her excellent design work so far.

I might have some time in late March. I’ve got a long-planned return trek to Las Vegas scheduled. I’ll do three nights in Sin City. Knowing my travel companions as I do, I figure my mornings will be free to work on stuff. Since I’m the only person who seems to arise before the sun begins to set.

Lent begins tomorrow. Interesting perspective on the Lent/Easter cycle given my time this year as an RCIA sponsor. I think I will, for the first time ever, attend a Chrism Mass at the Cathedral. Maybe I’ll get to meet the new bishop.

All for now.

Last week’s icicle of doom decided to kiss the living-room…

Posted on 19 February 2014 | No responses

Last week’s icicle of doom decided to kiss the living-room window. At 6:45 a.m.

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Note to self: Don’t use the side door.

Posted on 10 February 2014 | No responses

Note to self: Don’t use the side door.

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Well, January Was Interesting …

Posted on 1 February 2014 | No responses

I might ordinarily say, “gosh, I can’t believe it’s been a month since my last blog post,” except this time that little introductory spiel would be a big fat lie. I haven’t posted because I’ve been so busy and so behind that I even took a day off, yesterday, just to unbury from the mandatory stuff. Like laundry.

Tidbits, in no particular order:

  • Work has been insanely busy.  I’ve been responsible for the technical training for two new analysts we hired at the beginning of the month, in addition to launching a new project related to inpatient readmissions analytics. I co-recorded an ICD-10 webinar for the National Association for Healthcare Quality, to be released this month, and have been up to my eyeballs as the president-elect of the Michigan Association for Healthcare Quality. The MAHQ P-E is responsible for conference planning, so … yeah, this is my busy time, including setting the date/venue for the conference and adopting a theme. And on top of it, I was at work until roughly 9 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday to sit behind the glass for four focus groups related to diabetes self-management. Today’s public service announcement: You do NOT want to get diabetes. So drop the cupcake and head to the gym before it’s too late. Seriously.
  • I am now an RCIA sponsor. A friend of mine wants to join the Catholic Church, so I’m his sponsor. He selected St. Robert of Newminster as his home parish. The team there has been quite engaging. I had been poking my head in at the Cathedral, since I live a scant 10-minute walk away, but the experience at St. Robert ironically makes me more eager to return to St. Anthony after my tour of duty ends during the Easter season.
  • My social calendar has been full-to-overflowing. With the monthly write-in and cigar night, plus a day of podcasting and the infamous Game Night, plus the Vice Lounge best-year-yet retreat, in addition to RCIA meetings and one-off cups of coffee with friends, my schedule has been full. Which is good — it’s always nice to stay connected with people — but also bad, insofar as my time available to myself for my own goals has pretty much plummeted to zero.
  • My 2014 travel schedule is getting fuller. This month, I have the Detroit/Windsor/Toledo casino trip with Tony and Roux. In March, it’s a two-day healthcare-quality state-leaders convention in Chicago, as well as a Vegas trip that’s already paid for. I’m confirmed for another Isle Royale trip in May, then Europe in July, Boston in August, Nashville in September, Vegas again in October, and potentially a road trip to Florida in early December.
  • The snow has been fun. Although people have been kvetching about the below-normal temperatures and above-average snowfall — we’re officially at 80.2″ for the season as of today, with much more predicted for the coming week; we had 66″ last season and average 71.6″ — the benefits of having a 4-wheel-drive vehicle are apparent and I haven’t really had much trouble with the weather. I’m actually enjoying it. I like strong seasonal variation, which remains one of the distinct charms of Michigan. Especially when shoveling is the landlord’s job. But really … where else can you go from having 18″ of snow and wind chills of minus 20 in the winter, to summer swells of 100-degree days at 95 percent relative humidity? And don’t forget those perfect spring and autumn days of temps in the upper 60s with clear skies and low humidity and abundant wildlife sans mammals that can eat you or insects that can sting you to death.
  • I ordered scuba gear last week. I’m getting an Aqua Lung Dimension i3 BCD, an Apeks XTX-50 regulator, an alternate air source that’s optimized for the i3′s low-profile design, a standard pressure gauge with compass plus a Suunto Zoop computer, an Aqua Lung Alu Trio 3 light and a roomy dive bag. I also ordered a dive skin separately online. Everything should be delivered by Friday, and I’ve also booked both a scuba refresher course plus a specialty course through the dive shop. Andy, the owner of Moby’s, has been awesome to work with.
  • … So I’m fully equipped! The dive gear finishes the acquisition of my sporting gear. I am already fully geared out for backcountry hiking and for kayaking, and now I’ve got diving done, too. Yay. I’m looking forward to this summer. I’ve got at least one significant hiking trip planned, and I already know I can get my friend Jen to go diving with me (better yet, her husband can come and we can needle our friend Tawnya to take the plunge), and I’m pretty sure I can get Tony to go kayaking with me. So yay.
  • The novel is progressing. I’ve tweaked through Chapter 4, but still don’t like how the chapter looks. I haven’t gotten as much done as I wanted in January — too many other things have popped up — but I’m still plugging away at it. The Write On! gang has offered nice comments to aid with revisions.
  • I bought a telephoto lens for my camera. The Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED IF AF-S VR Nikkor arrived last week and plugs in nicely with my Nikon D3100. The camera body isn’t exactly a top-of-the-line model, but it works for my relative level of amateurism. I’ve done some trial shots to make sure the new lens works as it should, so my SD card is filling with at-a-distance close-ups of cats behaving badly, but I look forward to the chance to take the new lens for a spin outside. I might have to coax my friend Melanie to take me out on a photo shoot if I promise to buy her lunch.
  • The cats continue to change behavior patterns. Which is funny, really. Lately, Fifi has been sleeping with me. She wants to curl up under my right arm about 20 minutes after I go to bed, and she stays there for an hour or so. Prior to last week, the cats never slept on my bed at all, ever. What’s with the change? Heck if I know.
  • I had to replace the starter in my Jimmy. On the 10th, the beast wouldn’t start. Had to have it towed, and it was out of commission for four days. The cost of repair, plus inspection, plus an oil change, plus the towing, plus daily cab fare to/from work clocked in at just under $1k. Expensive, but the Jimmy has treated me well and has been a heck of a steal, all things considered.

I shall redouble my efforts to post more consistently. If I can find the time.

Welcome to 2014 — Get Ready to Rumble!

Posted on 1 January 2014 | No responses

Welcome to 2014.

I write this post from my home office, overlooking a quiet, snowy street. To my right, a coffee mug with fresh-ground Starbucks and a splash of Irish cream steams in the cool air. To my left, both cats sleep peacefully upon their pillows. Things around here are still. Serene.

The last 12 hours provided an excellent segue between calendar years. Last night, I made a pan of my spicy Andouille jambalaya, with which I paired a lovely white Michigan wine — the bottle was a gift from my neighbor, whom I helped get un-stuck from a snowbank yesterday afternoon. I built a roaring fire in the fireplace and wrote a new chapter in my novel, bringing the total now to just under 56k words. I chatted on Skype with some friends and traded celebratory text messages, then went to bed shortly after midnight. This morning, all is calm and the outlook is bright.

In retrospect, 2013 was a year of “two steps forward, one step sideways.” Let me elaborate:

  • On the health front, despite some ups and downs, I’m in fundamentally the same place as I was a year ago, and the year before that. I’ll take a “step sideways” instead of a “step backwards” any day, but this year, it’ll need to be “two steps forward.”
  • I finally got my mind wrapped around a long-term personal finance plan that will get me debt-free and ahead of the game (relative to the median of my peer cohort) for retirement savings over the next few years.
  • I competed in, and “won,” National Novel Writing Month, and I’m still working on the manuscript with the hopes of shopping it to an agent or publisher in the next few weeks or so. Much of this growth as a writer came with the support of my WriteOn! friends in the West Michigan area.
  • The podcast has grown by leaps and bounds, aided by the support of a handful of friends across the Western Hemisphere as well as the key learnings we took away from our two Las Vegas trips (the 360Vegas Vacation and the Vegas Internet Mafia Family Picnic). I peg our current listenership at between 3,000 and 5,000 per episode, based on file-touch data from my file server.
  • I swapped jobs, moving from a somewhat personally unsatisfying role as a report writer for the hospital to being a full-fledged data scientist in the insurance company’s Quality Improvement team.
  • I have grown in professional service, being asked to stay on for another three-year term as a section officer in the American Statistical Association as well as bumping up a notch in volunteer leadership within the National Association for Healthcare Quality. And … drumroll … I was the only nominee for 2014 president-elect of the Michigan Association for Healthcare Quality.
  • I finally made the Isle Royale trip last Memorial Day, knocking off a bucket-list item.

So the year just past was good to me. I had goals — many of which I met or exceeded — and I made some good life choices. I’m satisfied with the outcome. But mere satisfaction isn’t sufficient; you have to embrace change and create growth opportunities to meet your fullest potential. Herewith my goals for 2014:

  • Return to 2009-levels of fitness. Technically, not a big deal. I have incentive — my 20-year reunion, summertime trips, etc. — that provide motivation. Plus, I finally (as in, just last week) cracked the code about scheduling my day to make a dedicated fitness program work like it used to. Surprisingly simple after it dawned on me that I can walk and chew gum at the same time.
  • Get active in church/volunteering again. I’ve been “off duty” at church for the last five or so years. I’ve also been church-hopping, a practice made easier given that I live almost in the shadow of the cathedral. I’m sponsoring a friend into the Catholic Church this year, and his chosen parish has an involved RCIA program, so I’ll work with him through that, then probably meander back permanently to St. Anthony during the Easter season.
  • Take next step in higher education. I’ve already got the application paperwork for a particular Ph.D. program I’m interested in and will file it this month. And, I do have a Plan B if that doesn’t work out.
  • Get the novel published. This goal looks like a win for before Valentine’s Day, at least in terms of getting the final MS ready for distribution. I intend to give it a bit of time to circulate among potential agents and publishers, but I’m aware that the odds of being snagged are vanishingly small. So I’ll probably self-publish in early summer after a sufficiently large number of rejection letters arrive.
  • Upgrade my station license. Easy win for late winter. I have the study materials, I just need to prep for the exam and take it. At a minimum, I want my radio license at General class, but if the mood strikes — and if I get involved in the Kalamazoo group, which seems more with-it than the Grand Rapids group — I might push for the top-level Extra class.
  • Compete AOW + Rescue diver certification. I am friends with two certified divers, but I haven’t been under the water in years. That needs to change. Over the next few years I want to get divemaster certification, but for 2014 I’ll settle for Advanced Open Water and Rescue, which are the foundations for most other specialty certifications anyway. That means I’ll need to invest in gear, but … I need to anyway.
  • Build an emergency fund. I’m usually so focused on doing things that my income is like a conveyer belt, going in one side and out the other without really stopping in the middle. I need a fund for emergencies — car window smashes, cat vet trips, etc., so I’m not caught S.O.L. if disaster strikes. I’m aiming for $2,400 by the end of the year, just $200 per month into the secret envelope.
  • Run in the 2014 Metro Health Marathon. Finishing a marathon is part of the bucket list. With a renewed emphasis on diving and hiking and fitness, targeting a marathon in 2014 makes sense to ensure I’m at adequate cardiovascular levels for all the other things that require, you know, breathing.
  • Return trip to Isle Royale. Looks like this one is already pretty solid for the Memorial Day holiday week, too. Some of my writing friends are contemplating a trip (probably to stay at the lodge at Rock Harbor), and my brother is strongly interested in going too.
  • Hard-book a 2015 hiking trip to Denali. This will probably be the big trip of 2015 — two weeks in the Great Wilderness. The commute isn’t actually bad — just two days by road, mostly through Canada, if you want to avoid the pain of flying into Fairbanks. Denali is a different class of hike than Isle Royale; both are remote, but Denali has bears and (in most places) no trails at all. You’re just blazing away but still carefully honor Leave No Trace principles.
  • Visit Europe. This one should be easy, too, since I’m technically committed to attend a conference in Utrecht, July 23-25. The only real challenge is that I technically need to be in Boston on August 2 for a different conference. So I might fly into Amsterdam, do the conference, take a week’s vacation, maybe Eurorail it from Utrecht to, say, Paris or London via Paris, and then head to Boston directly or back home for a day or two before Boston.
  • Continue growing the podcast.  Tony and I are planning a pair of return trips to Las Vegas, including one for the 2014 VIMFP, so that networking helps. Plus, we’re working through a long-term plan this coming weekend, thinking through ways of monetizing the show and expanding our reach through alternative distribution channels.

So. A lot on the plate, but it’s all doable, and much if it is already teed-up.

I had a good 2013, and I look forward to a good 2014. And I hope and pray that your 2014 is your best year yet.

Jason’s 10 Rules for Staying Healthy, Happy & Sane

Posted on 29 December 2013 | No responses

A recent conversation with a friend about encouraging better health choices prompted me to reflect on the advice I’d give to people about the best way to live a long and healthy life. Although I’m not a licensed clinician, I’ve worked in various clinical quality improvement roles in the health care industry for more than a decade. You learn some stuff along the way by reading the literature, interviewing the docs and diving into public-health data.

Anyway, here’s my list of rules:

  1. Watch what you eat. Forget the special diets like South Beach, Paleo, etc. The one and only surefire way to manage your weight is to assess your current resting basal metabolic rate and adjust your daily net calorie intake accordingly. If you need 3,500 calories each day to maintain, and you want to lose one pound per week, then aim for net calorie intake of 3,000 per day. A deficit or surplus of 3,500 calories equals one pound of weight. You adjust your weight not by exercising, but by moderating calorie intake. So although you should aim for the obvious — don’t overdo sodium, avoid saturated fats, get fiber through veggies, etc. – the best bet is to eat a variety of foods from the various food groups and keep careful eye on your calories.
  2. Get at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise each day. Do your steps. Run or cycle a bit. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Just move.
  3. Eliminate your stressors. Stress raises your blood pressure and encourages you to splurge on comfort foods. Stress is a subtle fiend; it attacks your resolve and prompts you to act defensively without really thinking. Find out what’s gnawing at you from within, then squash it without mercy.
  4. Track your biometrics. Every week, record your blood pressure and weight. If you’re diabetic or closing in on pre-diabetes, track your fasting blood glucose. Get your labs done annually — cholesterol, etc. Look for things in your family history; if thyroid disorders run in the family, for example, get your TSH tested with every lab draw. Know what’s going on inside so you can make changes before things get out of hand.
  5. Beware the latest fad. Lots of people publish research or findings that simply cannot be validated by other researchers. A new drug trial, a special diet plan, a new surgical procedure — things get hyped and then cannot be demonstrated in peer-reviewed literature to actually have a statistically significant benefit. Diet and supplements are the worst of the lot; overwhelmingly, claims aren’t supported by valid, double-blind research trials. So if you see some new innovation that sounds great, hold your horses. Give the industry time to catch up. Even things like the barefoot running craze have seen some significant reversals and re-reversals in the clinical trials. The folks who produce documentaries about food are often the worst offenders at presenting misleading information about the benefit or organic or local or “sustainable” food choices, relying on emotional tugging instead of hard science, so think twice before you make changes based on the propaganda pieces of professional activists.
  6. See your providers regularly. Visit your doctor annually for a physical with labs. See your dentist twice per year. See your eye doctor annually. If you need a specialist, keep up with your recommended appointment schedule. Just do it.
  7. Develop a life goal and a support network. People who have a sense of purpose and a support network to help them during difficult times are more likely to self-manage chronic disease more effectively and recover from injury or illness faster. Plus, they’re significantly less likely to develop depression, a comorbid condition that’s truly a silent killer. So get a plan, get a group, and get going.
  8. Drink enough water. A majority of Americans are chronically dehydrated, leading to lower immune response, less restful sleep and more difficult kidney function. Just drinking adequate amounts of water — so you urinate roughly every three hours, at very pale color — helps with appetite control and feelings of energy.
  9. Get enough sleep. A majority of Americans also consistently fail to get adequate rest. Adults, usually, need 7 or 8 hours of restful sleep per night. Chronic sleep deprivation leads to lower immune response, reduced impulse control, slower mental reactions and irritability. Ensure you get a restful slumber, and remember — shut off the glowing screens an hour or more before hitting the sack. Exposure to bright lights can disrupt your sleep cycles.
  10. Moderate your vices. Don’t drink alcohol to excess. Don’t pig out on truffles every day. If you smoke, consider e-cigs or nicotine patches to step down the habit. Don’t spend all day watching porn or playing video games. In short: If you indulge, indulge responsibly.

It’s not hard to stay healthy, really. There are no secrets or tricks. Just exert the daily effort to maintain and grow. Anyone who tries to sell you on a magic formula or secret shortcut isn’t doing you any favors. Health is a choice, not a product. Choose wisely.

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