Archive for May, 2010

Happily Kidnapped

Monday, May 24th, 2010

You probably didn’t see any news about my unorthodox and irregular kidnapping Thursday afternoon. Not only was it splendidly un-newsworthy, the saga didn’t resolve itself until late Friday afternoon, much too long for today’s short-fuse news cycles.

Thursday afternoon I left work having changed into uncommon garb for me: a suit and tie. (Yes, shoes, too.) I had happily agreed to spend my birthday evening attending an upscale dinner celebrating the accomplishments of ten noteworthy Atlantans, including the man responsible for the medical treatment and research facility at which my wife is employed.

But when I picked her up at the office, my wife handed me a “To Do” card which did not include a posh banquet. Instead, it had words like “sail,” “dinner for two,” “carafe of coffee,” “anchor overnight,” and “lose the suit.” I was uncharacteristically speechless.

In practically no time we were wrapping ourselves around a very nice dinner at the Third Coast, then frantically shoveling piles of our belongings into the cabin of a Catalina 250 as the sinking sun threatened to trap us in the middle of the lake. We would have been somewhat more organized, except that my clever spouse had sustained the surprise by packing the trunk over several days via random trips to the car while I was otherwise occupied.

The wind was favorable, and we anchored in a small cove just as the sun faded behind the overcast clouds. We sat on deck watching night fall. A few stars appeared and tried to compete with the half-moon until the clouds rolled in.

We retreated to the coziness of the cabin, and to sleep. I got up several times during the night to check that the boat was staying put, and once to close the overhead hatch when the rain started.

Friday morning we snacked on Cheetos, almonds, and Kashi bars, with the still-almost-hot coffee Third Coast had filled our carafe with.

After we had fully enjoyed the quiet solitude of the morning, I braved the light rain to raise the anchor, hoist the sail, and head back to the marina, while Jayne made sense of the pile of bedclothes, peopleclothes, cups and miscellaneous detritus.

The rest of the day was equally relaxing, and included Second Breakfast at Cracker Barrrrrel (that’s what pirates call it), a sightseeing trip up McEver road to Gainesville, and a return to our land-locked domicile, where guest cat O’Connor demanded to know where we had been and what we had been doing.

Which, of course, is why I wrote the story down. O’Connor always prefers the printed word to idle chatter.

Frozen in time

Monday, May 17th, 2010

Sunday morning was a moment frozen in time (OK, it was actually frozen in the notes I took on a completed newspaper crossword – one of my favorite places to jot transient thoughts and reminders.)

I was sitting at a picnic table overlooking a small vegetable garden. Day had broken, but the sun was still struggling to get free of the horizon and over the tree line. The slight breeze made the temperature perfect. At hand were a book, an unfinished crossword, and an electronic game.

The electronic game, so clearly a manufactured object, at first seemed out of place. Then I realized that nearly everything I saw, the picnic table, the garden, the neatly trimmed grass, the fence, the book, the cell phone in the table, the crossword, the pen, the porch roof, all bore the human touch. If I could see air at a molecular level, I could detect human effects on it – organic esters, oxides, tiny airborne rubber compounds from all the tires that are wearing out, other things only chemists understand. Or if I could see electromagnetic waves, the scene would be awash in radio, television, phone, and GPS signals, perhaps over a faint background of cosmic communications. (That could be a pretty confusing superpower. I’ll think twice before picking that one.)

I sat there for an hour, alternately entertained by the objects I had brought, and by other creatures. There were birds singing to encourage the sun, including a distant, patient owl. There was an ant on the picnic table. He struggled long and hard to move a winged insect twice his size, ultimately succeeding in removing both it and himself from my view. For a few minutes, a small, wire-haired dog scratched the dirt with her paw, carefully smelling where she had dug, then she retreated to lie in a cooler, darker spot.

The moment finally un-froze when the cell phone blinked to life, its gentle vibratory buzz announcing the call I had been anticipating. I turned from the world of ant, owl, and breeze, and stepped into another world, through the electronic portal of telecommunications, happy, indeed, to do so, yet simultaneously saddened to leave the rare, frozen moment.

I wish for you, patient reader, a sensitivity to gentle moments, frozen in time, and the enjoyment thereof.


Monday, May 10th, 2010

Engineering stress

From one perspective, engineers are mostly concerned with failure. The optimal engineering solution uses the least material and the most efficient assembly methods to get the job done. (More on that later.) Because of this, engineers, particularly mechanical and civil engineers, study stress. Stress refers to the forces that try to tear apart a structural element or assembly. At first our mathematical tools could only calculate simple stresses like shear (such as the force on your mailbox post when your teenage neighbor runs into it) and torsion (the force on the drive shaft as the teenager was accelerating. And probably texting, too.)

Improved analysis tools now allow engineers to understand different combinations of stress, and how they are distributed within a given structure. This gives us, for example, lighter cars that still resist collision damage. Or hundred-foot tall windmills. Or mile-deep oil pipes. (OK, maybe not the best example this week.)

Medical stress

Around the 1600s, those curious and intelligent humans who became the first medical doctors began to associate medical problems with visibly detectable conditions – not just broken bones, but broken livers, lungs, and stomachs. Obviously some of these observations required delving into the patients, literally. But at least there was a visible explanation.

In typical scientific hubris, most of the early medical community, euphoric with their new knowledge, chose to ignore, or even actively refute, factors that we couldn’t see, even though many primitive cultures showed evidence of the existence of these invisible factors. Although we instinctively knew they were there, because we couldn’t see emotions, things like love, and fear, they were discounted in the increasingly scientific study of medicine. An entire class of problems were dismissed because they were “all in your head.”

Fast-forward to the mid-1930s, after chemistry had begun to contribute to medical understanding, when an endocrinologist named Hans Selye was studying the effect of hormones using rats as subjects. Some of his results led him to think that he was on the verge of discovering a new hormone, so he broadened the experiments, injecting various chemical compounds into the test subjects, and measuring the results. In yet another “successful failure” for science, his results convinced him he had in fact, not discovered a new hormone. It turns out that it wasn’t what he was injecting in the rats that caused the reaction he measured, but the fact that he was injecting them. (Ouch!)

After studying this new effect for another 20 years or so, one of his key innovations was to apply the term “stress,” formerly used only in the previously described engineering context, to refer to the human reaction to sudden change. Not only that, he also associated this “stress” with the existing the term “distress,” referring to negative changes that affect us. He further coined an opposite term, “eustress,” which refers to positive changes that cause stress. (For some reason “weddings” come to mind here, but that probably isn’t a really good example.) Note also which term has survived in the popular vernacular!

To me this distinction seems a little like the factors engineers must consider to “get the job done,” as I called it above. You could refer to the “good” stresses (the things a structure is designed to withstand under normal conditions) and “bad” stresses (planning for the structure to withstand abnormal events – hurricanes, snow loads, earthquakes, etc.)

Selye characterized the stress reaction by the term “General Adaptation Syndrome,” and went around the world explaining his findings to people in many countries. As he travelled, he taught them the word “stress”, which is why it is apparently pronounced the same in all of the countries he visited, including Germany and Japan. These visits made him quite popular with the world-wide public, probably because what he was describing aligned with their personal experiences, but, as is often the case, reduced his standing in the scientific community. For some reason, popularity and science are not often connected.

Medical measurements of chemical and electrical changes have now advanced to the point that we are able to better detect and measure the presence and flow of hormones and nerve chemicals. In the mid-1990s, a doctor named Esther Sternberg was studying links between stress and illness from an academic perspective. Trying to work while also caring for her mother, she found herself sitting in a hospital room trying to explain to her mother why she wasn’t also including the links between belief and healing.

After the eventual death of her mother to breast cancer, and the associated intense stress, Esther herself came down with rheumatoid arthritis. This directed her research in a more personal direction, and in 2001 she published a book entitled The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health & Emotions.

Intending to do some more writing, Esther then traveled to a Greek temple on the island of Crete, former home to Asclepius, the ancient Greek god of medicine and healing. Asclepius’ daughters, by the way, are Hygieia, Iaso, Aceso, Aglaea, and Panacea, which mean, respectively, Hygiene, Medicine, Healing, Healthy Glow, and Universal Remedy. (I have no idea where those names rank in the How to Name Your Baby book, but I’m guessing not very high.)

Stymied by an uncooperative laptop voltage converter, instead of writing, she wound up relaxing, hiking, swimming, and resting, rather than working, which led to significant relief from her rheumatoid arthritis symptoms, and to a better understanding of the impact of stress on illness. In a way, for Esther at least, it seemed that Science had finally caught up with the ancient Greeks.

As Sternberg describes it, we have learned that it is not stress itself that harms us. In fact it is largely responsble for our survival, in the form of the fight-or-flee reaction, which has wisely adapted itself to help us drive in traffic.

Instead, it is our reaction to stress that causes problems. And our reactions are due to lots of things, including our perception of the event, related memories, and even our genetics (heredity). So, as it turns out, it is “all in your head,” but that means a whole lot more than it used to, and these reactions are now medically measurable.

When it is working correctly, reaction to stress can result in the sort of inflammation needed to support and repair the area around a wound or a broken bone. But if our bodies don’t turn off the “react” switch, we can suffer from certain types of diseases such as arthritis, or from reduced efficiency of our immune system, increased susceptibility to disease, and overall decreased health.

As an MD, Esther makes it clear that she is not a “self-help” fanatic, but subscribes to what is now being called “integrative medicine,” which is described in WebMD as “new ways to treat body, mind and spirit, all at the same time.”

So if our lives are unavoidably subject to stress, and stress often produces an over-reaction, what can we do? Clearly, we can’t change our genetics. We might be able to change how we perceive the world around us (sounds difficult), or our reaction to our memories (even more difficult).

In the interest of time, allow me to jump to Esther’s answer:

“There’s no question that there is a lot of fear and stress out there. And it may not always be possible, but I do think we need, each one of us, to find our place of peace and go there every day. We take our cars in to be serviced every five thousand miles, but we don’t do that with ourselves. I’m sure it’s different for every person. Some people may find it through meditation, some through prayer, some through yoga, some through exercise, some through music, some through reading, some through art, whatever it is that does it for you. Any amount of time that you can devote to going off-line, in whatever way you find, will help.”

So, it seems that my morning walks not only help my heart, lungs, muscles, and joints, they may be very well improving my reaction to stress. Cool!

Notes and credits

Most of the medical stress content comes from Krista Tippett‘s interview with Esther Sternberg as described in the book Einstein’s God. I must confess that in reading the book, I am having more fun than a dog rolling in the grass. (Yes, I know dogs are perhaps better known for rolling around in other stuff, but that wouldn’t be such a good analogy, now, would it?) It’s just really interesting for me to hear what a variety of scientists think about areas generally considered non-scientific.

Esther’s answer that I quote in bold is taken directly from the book.

In addition to The Balance Within, Esther has published a second book entitled Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well Being

Her web site also lists her professional publications.

I obtained supplementary information from a couple of other web sites:

Recently I was looking for techniques for learning to be positive when stuck in a negative environment, and on Saturday morning I found a news clip in Christian Century about that very topic. The news clip references a study recently reported in WebMD:

While I was looking at that one, I also saw this shorter, related article:

Lastly, Sternberg’s description of the healing power of the former Greek temple reminded me of a book that I tried to read when I was much younger, more or less about a mountain sanitorium for TB patients, called The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. After reading a couple of web entries about the book, I can see why the amount I can recall is relatively small. Apparently it has multiple layers of meaning and obscure references. After I finish Joyce’s Ulysses, I may go back and try to climb that mountain again.

Three Hour Tour

Monday, May 3rd, 2010

The Skipper and Ginger went for a sail yesterday. The sailing club had a 25-foot Catalina available, and the weather looked promising. You want wind, but not too much, and sun, but not too much.

It had been so long that I had to actually use the pre-sail checklist. Speaking of which, there’s a new book about the benefits of checklists, written by Atul Gawande. I recommend ’em highly.

As required by the marina, we motored out of the no-wake zone then hoisted the main. Turns out the previous user had left it half-reefed, which gave the sail a really funny, bellied-out shape. Since there was traffic in the Big Creek inlet, I didn’t want to float around straightening it out, so we unfurled the jib and limped on out into the main channel.

It didn’t take long to hank the bitter end of the reef line onto the leech reef point and set sail under a properly-reefed main, at least as far as my novice eye could tell. (You can always tell a novice sailor by his indiscriminate over-use of sailing terminology. But you can’t tell him much.)

The wind was consistent, if a bit gusty. No “bob-and-bake”, thank goodness.

Ginger is actually a better crew than I am a skipper. She calmly hangs on when a puff heels us over, and can even catch a nap on the leeward side mere inches away from the waves.

Since the wind was blowing directly out of the club slip area, it took us longer to get back than usual, but it was really good just to get on the water and brush up our mad tacking skillz. We’re not quite ready for the America’s Cup yet. I would say perhaps the Neighborhood Cup, but since I know how well some of my neighbors can sail, I think I will go for the Neighborhood Shot Glass (whatever that is.)

The rest of the weekend was delightful, with two music gigs, some visiting progeny and their quite qute quadrapeds, interspersed with some great meals. The afternoon tour around the lake capped it off nicely.

Now off to work to get some rest. 🙂