Giving Thanks

As our country celebrates Thanksgiving, this is the perfect time for each of us to give thanks for the many wonderful people in our lives.

I’m an ardent fan of a quote by Marcel Proust that sums up my thinking:

“Let us be grateful to people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.”

I’ve always been a fan of giving thanks.  I raised my children to give thanks to others for whatever gifts or help they received, bolstering my words by reading and re-reading to them Richard Scarry’s “The Please and Thank You Book.”

But guess what.  Not everyone agrees with that sentiment.  These nay-sayers prefer to ignore the concept of gratitude.  They reject the idea of thanking others for anything, including any and all attempts to make them happy.

What dolts!

Recent research confirms my point of view.

According to a story in The New York Times earlier this year, new research revealed that people really like getting thank-you notes.  Two psychologists wanted to find out why so few people actually send these notes.  The 100 or so participants in their study were asked to write a short “gratitude letter” to someone who had helped them in some way.  It took most subjects less than five minutes to write these notes.

Although the notes’ senders typically guessed that their notes would evoke nothing more than 3 out of 5 on a happiness rating, the result was very different.  After receiving the thank-you notes, the recipients told them how happy they were to get them:  many said they were “ecstatic,” scoring 4 out of 5 on the happiness rating.

Conclusion?  People tend to undervalue the positive effect they can have on others, even with a tiny investment of time. The study was published in June 2018 in the journal Psychological Science.

A vast amount of psychological research affirms the value of gratitude.

I’ll begin with its positive effect on physical health.  According to a 2012 study published in Personality and Individual Differences, grateful people experience fewer aches and pains and report feeling healthier than other people.

Gratitude also improves psychological health, reducing a multitude of toxic emotions, from envy and resentment to frustration and regret.  A leading gratitude researcher, Robert Emmons, has conducted a number of studies on the link between gratitude and well-being, confirming that gratitude increases happiness and reduces depression.

Other positive benefits:  gratitude enhances empathy and reduces aggression (a 2012 study by the University of Kentucky), it improves sleep (a 2011 study in Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being), and it improves self-esteem (a 2014 study in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology).  The list goes on and on.

So, during this Thanksgiving week, let’s keep in mind the host of studies that have demonstrated the enormously positive role gratitude plays in our daily lives.

It’s true that some of us are luckier than others, leading lives that are filled with what might be called “blessings” while others have less to be grateful for.

For those of us who have much to be thankful for, let’s be especially grateful for all of the “charming gardeners who make our souls blossom,” those who bring happiness to our remarkably fortunate lives.

And let’s work towards a day when the less fortunate in our world can join us in our much more gratitude-worthy place on this planet.

 

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Remembering Stuff

Are you able to remember stuff pretty well?  If you learned that stuff quickly, you have a very good chance of retaining it.  Even if you spent less time studying it than you might have.

These conclusions arise from a new study by psychologists at Washington University in St. Louis.   According to its lead author, Christopher L. Zerr, “Quicker learning appears to be more durable learning.”

The study, published in the journal Psychological Science, tried a different way to gauge differences in how quickly and well people learn and retain information.  Using word-pairs that paired English with a difficult-to-learn language, Lithuanian, the researchers created a “learning-efficiency score” for each participant.

“In each case, initial learning speed proved to be a strong predictor of long-term retention,” said senior author Kathleen B. McDermott, professor of psychological and brain sciences at Washington University.

46 of the participants returned for a follow-up study three years later.  The results confirmed the earlier study’s results.

What explains this outcome?  The researchers suggest two possibilities.

First, individuals may differ because those with better attention-control can be more effective while learning material, thus avoiding distraction and forgetting.  Another explanation:  efficient learners use more effective learning strategies, like using a key word to relate two words in a pair.

The researchers don’t think their job is done.  Instead, they’d like to see future research on learning efficiency that would have an impact in educational and clinical settings.

The goal is to be able to teach students how to be efficient learners, and to forestall the effects of disease, aging, and neuropsychological disorders on learning and retention.

Conclusion:  If you’ve always been a quick learner, that’s probably stood you in good stead, enabling you to remember stuff you learned quickly in the first place.

 

[This blog post is not the one I originally intended to write this month, when I planned to focus on how important it is to vote in the midterm elections in November.  Publishing my new novel, RED DIANA, this month has kept me from writing that post, but I hope to publish it at some point.  It would be something of a reprise of a post I published in September 2014, “What Women Need to Do.”]

Let’s keep going as long as we can

One thing everyone can agree on:  Every single day, we’re all getting older.

But we don’t have to let that indisputable fact stop us from doing what we want to do.

I just came across a spectacular example of a 96-year-old scientist who keeps on going and going and going….

By sheer coincidence, he’s a man who’s worked for decades in the field of battery speed and capacity.  And he’s very much more than good enough to serve as an astounding example of enduring optimism and hard work.

A Wall Street Journal story in August profiled John Goodenough, who helped invent the lithium-ion battery that’s used to recharge cell phones and a host of other electronic products.  By introducing lithium cobalt oxide to the inner workings of batteries in 1980, he made batteries not only more powerful but also more portable.

At age 96, he now wants to kill off his own creation by removing the cobalt that allowed his battery to charge faster and last longer.  In April 2018, he and three co-authors published research that may lead to a new battery that’s liquid-free and cobalt-free.

Initial research shows that the new battery could potentially double the energy density of the lithium-ion battery.  That would mean that an electric car, for example, could drive twice as far on one charge.

“My mission is to try to see if I can transform the battery world before I die,” Dr. Goodenough says.  He added that he has no plans to retire.  “When I’m no longer able to drive and I’m forced to go into a nursing home, then I suppose I will be retiring.”

Goodenough works in an untidy office at the University of Texas in Austin, where he’s a professor of engineering.  He begins work between 8 and 8:30 a.m., leaves around 6 p.m., and works from home throughout the weekend.

He hand-writes his research and doesn’t own a cell phone, rejecting the mobile technology that his batteries made possible.  His car is a 10-year-old Honda that he hopes will last as long as he does.

His motivation is to help electric cars wean society off its dependence on the combustion engine, like the one in his Honda.

“He is driven by scientific curiosity, and he really wants to do something for society with the science he does,” says one of his colleagues, another engineering professor at UT, Arumugam Manthiram.

Isn’t it heartening to come across someone like John Goodenough, a remarkable human being who refuses to quit?

His story energizes me.  Although I’m considerably younger than Goodenough, it encourages me to pursue my passions no matter how old I get.

Does his story energize you, too?

 

[This blog post is somewhat shorter than usual because I’m currently in the midst of publishing my third novel, RED DIANA.  I’m hoping it will be available soon at bookstores everywhere and on Amazon.com.]

 

Sunscreen–and a father who cared

August is on its last legs, but the sun’s rays are still potent. Potent enough to require that we use sunscreen. Especially those of us whose skin is most vulnerable to those rays.

I’ve been vulnerable to the harsh effects of the sun since birth.  And I now apply sunscreen religiously to my face, hands, and arms whenever I expect to encounter sunlight.

When I was younger, sunscreen wasn’t really around.  Fortunately for my skin, I spent most of my childhood and youth in cold-weather climates where the sun was absent much of the year.  Chicago and Boston, even St. Louis, had long winters featuring gray skies instead of sunshine.

I encountered the sun mostly during summers and a seven-month stay in Los Angeles.  But my sun exposure was limited.  It was only when I was about 28 and about to embark on a trip to Mexico that I first heard of “sunblock.”  Friends advised me to seek it out at the only location where it was known to be available, a small pharmacy in downtown Chicago.   I hastened to make my way there and buy a tube of the pasty white stuff, and once I hit the Mexican sun, I applied it to my skin, sparing myself a wretched sunburn.

The pasty white stuff was a powerful reminder of my father.  Before he died when I was 12, Daddy would cover my skin with something he called zinc oxide.

Daddy was a pharmacist by training, earning a degree in pharmacy from the University of Illinois at the age of 21.  One of my favorite family photos shows Daddy in a chemistry lab at the university, learning what he needed to know to earn that degree.  His first choice was to become a doctor, but because his own father had died during Daddy’s infancy, there was no way he could afford medical school.  An irascible uncle was a pharmacist and somehow pushed Daddy into pharmacy as a less expensive route to helping people via medicine.

Daddy spent years bouncing between pharmacy and retailing, and sometimes he did both.  I treasure a photo of him as a young man standing in front of the drug store he owned on the South Side of Chicago.  When I was growing up, he sometimes worked at a pharmacy and sometimes in other retailing enterprises, but he never abandoned his knowledge of pharmaceuticals.  While working as a pharmacist, he would often bring home new drugs he believed would cure our problems.  One time I especially recall:  Because as a young child I suffered from allergies, Daddy was excited when a brand-new drug came along to help me deal with them, and he brought a bottle of it home for me.

As for preventing sunburn, Daddy would many times take a tube of zinc oxide and apply it to my skin.

One summer or two, I didn’t totally escape a couple of bad sunburns. Daddy must have been distracted just then, and I foolishly exposed my skin to the sun.  He later applied a greasy ointment called butesin picrate to soothe my burn. But I distinctly remember that he used his knowledge of chemistry to get out that tube of zinc oxide whenever he could.

After my pivotal trip to Mexico, sunblocks became much more available.  (I also acquired a number of sunhats to shield my face from the sun.)  But looking back, I wonder about the composition of some of the sunblocks I applied to my skin for decades.  Exactly what was I adding to my chemical burden?

In 2013, the FDA banned the use of the word “sunblock,” stating that it could mislead consumers into thinking that a product was more effective than it really was.  So sunblocks have become sunscreens, but some are more powerful than others.

A compelling reason to use powerful sunscreens?  The ozone layer that protected us in the past has undergone damage in recent years, and there’s scientific concern that more of the sun’s dangerous rays can penetrate that layer, leading to increased damage to our skin.

In recent years, I’ve paid a lot of attention to what’s in the sunscreens I choose.  Some of the chemicals in available sunscreens are now condemned by groups like the Environmental Working Group (EWG) as either ineffective or hazardous to your health. (Please check EWG’s 2018 Sunscreen Guide for well-researched and detailed information regarding sunscreens.)

Let’s note, too, that the state of Hawaii has banned the future use of sunscreens that include one of these chemicals, oxybenzone, because it washes off swimmers’ skin into ocean waters and has been shown to be harmful to coral reefs.  If it’s harming coral, what is it doing to us?

Because I now make the very deliberate choice to avoid using sunscreens harboring suspect chemicals, I use only those sunscreens whose active ingredients include—guess what– zinc oxide.   Sometimes another safe ingredient, titanium dioxide, is added.  The science behind these two mineral (rather than chemical) ingredients?   Both have inorganic particulates that reflect, scatter, and absorb damaging UVA and UVB rays.

Daddy, I think you’d be happy to know that science has acknowledged what you knew all those years ago.  Pasty white zinc oxide still stands tall as one of the very best barriers to repel the sun’s damaging rays.

In a lifetime filled with many setbacks, both physical and professional, my father always took joy in his family.  He showered us with his love, demonstrating that he cared for us in innumerable ways.

Every time I apply a sunscreen based on zinc oxide, I think of you, Daddy.  With love, with respect for your vast knowledge, and with gratitude that you cared so much for us and did everything you could to help us live a healthier life.

 

Another Benefit of Progeny

Being a grandparent?  It’s wonderful.  And I just learned about a benefit of spending time with my grandkids that I never knew.  What’s more, you don’t even have to be a grandparent to share this benefit with me.

If you’re lucky and you already have a grandchild, congrats!  Grandparenthood is an extraordinarily good thing.  Free of the challenges of parenthood, you’ve plunged into a whole new shimmering world. And unless you’ve had to assume parent-like responsibility for your grandchild, you’ll relish the many rewards you’re now entitled to enjoy.

Spending a day with my grandchildren is my idea of a perfectly splendid day.

(By the way, I don’t call it “babysitting”!  I view babysitting as a paid job—a job I did to earn money in my younger days.  By contrast, spending time with my grandkids is a joyful pursuit I welcome doing.)

It’s not always easy to become a grandparent.  We all know you can’t make a grandchild appear with the wave of a magic wand.

First, you need to have a grown child or two.  Next, that child must want to have a child or two of his or her own.  (Let’s just say her.)

That child must be able to produce her own child.  Several routes now make that possible: the old-fashioned way; new ways to conceive and give birth, thanks to medical science; adoption; or becoming a step-parent.  (If you know of any other ways to produce a child, please let me know.)

Sometimes you can wait a long time.  A savvy parent doesn’t ask questions and doesn’t offer advice.  You need to be patient and let your child achieve parenthood whenever and however it works for her.

If, at last, your child has a child of her own, you are now officially a grandparent.

I’ve been lucky to have two exceptional daughters who both have children of their own.  And I delight in their company.

But even though I’ve always reveled in my role as a granny, empirical research has now uncovered a wonderful bonus:  It seems that spending time with your grandkids can significantly lower your risk of dying sooner rather than later.

A research study, published in May 2017 in Evolution & Human Behavior, concluded that caregiving both within and beyond the family is associated with lower mortality for the caregiver. This heartening conclusion seems to apply to every caregiver, grandparent or not.

The researchers from Switzerland, Germany, and Australia looked at data collected over two decades and focused specifically on grandparents. They concluded that “mortality hazards” for grandparents who provided childcare were 37% lower than for grandparents who did not.

Half of the caregiving grandparents lived for about 10 years after they were first interviewed for the highly-respected Berlin Aging Study, while half of those grandparents who did not provide childcare died within 5 years. These results held true even when the researchers controlled for such factors as physical health, age, and socioeconomic status.

What about non-grandparents and childless older adults?  The positive effects of caregiving also extended to them–if they acted as caregivers in some way.  For example, older parents who had no grandchildren but provided practical help to their adult children also lived longer than those who didn’t.

The results of this study are even more significant than they might have been in the past.  According to the federal government’s latest scorecard on aging, there’s been a drop in overall life expectancy. If your goal is to stick around as long as possible, you might want to think about providing care to others, even if they aren’t your own kids or grandkids.

No kids?  No grandkids?  Here’s my suggestion: Enhance your longevity by becoming a grandparent-surrogate.  Even if you think you might have a child or grandchild of your own someday, why not offer to spend time with other people’s kids or grandkids right now?

If you do, you can expect to see little faces light up when you arrive on the scene.  Parents will be forever grateful, and you’ll probably have lots of fun.

How long will each of us live?  Who the heck knows!  But you might as well do what you can to prolong your life.  Spending time with children and grandchildren, your own or others’, is a jim-dandy way to do it.

 

You CAN Go Home Again

Yes.  You can go home again.  I just did it.

After spending many (too many?) decades of my life in the Chicago area, I departed for San Francisco in 2005.  Forgive the cliché, but I’ve never looked back.

I had lots of good reasons to leave Chicago, and lots of good reasons to head for the West Coast.  At one time or another, I’d spent some of the happiest years of my life in California, and I looked forward to many more happy years in the Bay Area.

Thankfully, those happy years have become a reality, and returning to Chicago was never on my agenda.

Yes, I’d left behind some great friends and some family, too, and I did miss seeing them.  But I didn’t miss anything else in Chicago.

So why did I turn up there for a weekend in May?

Easy answer:  My older daughter (I’ll call her Mary) decided to celebrate her May birthday by taking her kids to Chicago to show them where she’d grown up.  She wanted to escort them to all of the places that had been important to her:  where we lived; where she went to school (from nursery school and elementary school to junior high and high school); where she spent countless hours at our lakefront park, our beach, our library, and all the rest.

And she asked me to tag along.

Of course I said “yes”!

After telling the kids story after story about these places since they were toddlers, we finally had a chance to show them what they’re really like.

So here’s how we spent the two full days we were there:

First day:  We explored the sites near our former home in a leafy suburb on the North Shore.  We first drove to the block where we lived; then to the elementary school two blocks away; to the even closer nursery school (like the one where I set a murder  in my fictional mystery, Jealous Mistress); and the small suburban downtown.  We frequently emerged from our rental car to get a close-up look.  Some things had changed; many had not.

We proceeded up the North Shore to look at New Trier High School, Mary’s alma mater.  Then we spent the afternoon at the Chicago Botanic Garden (actually located in Glencoe), a fabulous garden filled with astounding plants, a charming waterfall, three islands featuring Japanese gardens, and a remarkable sculpture of Carl Linnaeus.  Mary and I fondly recalled how much she, her father, her sister, and I had relished our countless visits there.

The first day included mouth-watering meals at favorite spots like Walker Brothers pancake house (it’s called Palmer Brothers in Jealous Mistress), where we devoured its revered apple pancakes, and Lou Malnati’s, where we eagerly consumed some of the deep-dish pizza Chicago has made famous.

Second day:  We drove into the city and parked at Navy Pier, planning to hit some of the city’s highlights.  Navy Pier, renovated in the ‘90s as a playground for Chicagoans, was a great place to start.  We braved the hot sun and waited in line to board the Centennial Wheel, a recently redesigned Ferris wheel that now sports large enclosed gondola cars with huge windows providing magnificent city views.  We even bought copies of the corny tourist-rooking photo taken of us just before we boarded.  After lunch at a casual spot on the pier, we hopped on a shuttle bus to Michigan Avenue.  It dropped us off close to our destination:  the Michigan Avenue Bridge over the Chicago River, where we’d take the renowned 90-minute architectural boat tour.

We indulged in treats at the Ghirardelli Square outpost in the Wrigley Building as we gazed at the historic Tribune Tower. Then we boarded the “First Lady” cruise to see the notable architecture along the Chicago River.  We were lucky to have a remarkably knowledgeable tour guide associated with the Chicago Architecture Foundation.

We marveled at the great architecture and the many stories about the tall buildings sited along the riverfront.  But there was one enormous blot on the riverscape:  a sleek 92-story building, so shiny it reflects the Chicago skyline on its stunning glass façade.  Unfortunately, the outward appearance of this otherwise beautiful building is sullied by the enormous name erected at the very top in enormous capital letters:  T—-P.

This building looms so large, and in such a prominent location along the river (on the former site of the Chicago Sun-Times plaza, where my high school choir once sang Christmas carols), that the name at the top infuriated me.  Weren’t the residents of Chicago, who voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton in 2016 (she won over 83% of the votes in Chicago, while her opponent squeaked out 12%), appalled that they must confront this name on a regular basis?  Although a few mild protests have been mounted, the name remains.  But take heart.  The Chicago Tribune reported on May 30 that the real-estate firm advertising space in the building has chosen to downplay the name: Its brand-new brochure doesn’t even mention it.  Others avoiding any connection with the name include the building’s architects, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, who refer to it by its address, not its name, on the firm’s website.

Still, if I lived in Chicago, I’d go further than that.  I’d organize an effort to remove that name from everyone’s sight.  I really would.

When we left the boat, we speedily walked south on Michigan Avenue, headed for Millennium Park and our dinner reservation at Gage, a gastropub directly across from the park.  After a great meal celebrating Mary’s birthday, complete with cake and candles, we made a bee-line for the park and its now-famous “Bean.”  After a good look around the park, we made our way back to Navy Pier to collect our car and drive back to our hotel.

Before heading to O’Hare for our return home, we managed to squeeze in encounters with several wonderful old friends and a few family members, along with a sentimental return to a favorite Evanston restaurant, Olive Mountain.

Did I forget to mention that we hit extraordinarily beautiful weather?  Sunshine and temperatures in the 70s reminded us of Bay Area weather, not the kind of weather we’d managed to survive in Chicago year after year.  We made sure to let the kids know that this weather was not typical for Chicago!

In short, you can go home again.  Not to make it your home again.  But to spend a delightful weekend visiting old haunts and new attractions.  Sharing the experience with good friends and loved ones makes it even better.

 

 

 

A Snowy April 1st

On the morning of April 1st, The New York Times reported that the city had woken up to an April snowstorm, “with about 5 inches of snow expected to produce slushy streets and a tough morning commute.”  The storm followed a string of storms that had hit the East Coast in March with heavy snows and damaging winds.

This New York story about snow on April 1st reminded me of another April 1st snowstorm:  The one in Chicago that changed my life.

In the spring of 1970, I was already questioning whether I wanted to spend another year in Chicago.  My work at the Appellate and Test Case Division of the Chicago Legal Aid Bureau had its good points.  I was co-counsel with a lawyer at the Roger Baldwin Foundation of the ACLU (who happily became a lifelong friend) in a case challenging the restrictive Illinois abortion law, a law that made any abortion nearly impossible for all but the most affluent women in Illinois.  Our case was moving forward and had already secured a TRO allowing a teenage rape victim an emergency abortion.  A great legal victory!

But the rest of my life was at a standstill.  I was dating some of the men I’d met, but I hadn’t encountered anyone I wanted to pair up with.  In fact, I’d recently dumped a persistent suitor I found much too boring.  Relying on old friendships led to occasional lunches with both men and women I’d known in school, but the women were happily married and had limited time for a single woman friend.  I tried striking up friendships with other women as well as men, but so far that hadn’t expanded my social life very much.

I also haunted the Art Institute of Chicago, attending evening lectures and lunchtime events.  The art was exhilarating, but good times there were few.  When I turned up for an event one Sunday afternoon and left a few hours later, planning to take a bus home, I was surprised to see almost no one else on Michigan Avenue, leaving me feeling isolated and (in today’s parlance) somewhat creeped-out.  (In 1970 Chicago hadn’t yet embarked on the kind of Sunday shopping that would bring people downtown on a Sunday afternoon.)  Similarly, I bought tickets for a piano series at Symphony Hall, and a series of opera tickets, but again I many times felt alone among a group of strangers.

I still had lots of family in the area.  But being surrounded by family wasn’t exactly what I was looking for just then.

So although I was feeling somewhat wobbly about staying in Chicago, the question of where to settle instead loomed large.  When I’d left law school three years earlier and assumed a two-year clerkship with a federal judge in Chicago, I’d intended to head for Washington DC when my clerkship ended.  But in the interim Tricky Dick Nixon had lied his way into the White House, and I couldn’t abide the idea of moving there while he was in charge.

My thoughts then turned to California.  I’d briefly lived in Los Angeles during 8th grade (a story for another day) and very much wanted to stay, but my mother’s desire to return to Chicago after my father’s death won out.  Now I remembered how much I loved living in sunny California.  A February trip to Mexico had reinforced my thinking that I could happily live out my days in a warm-weather climate instead of slogging away in Chicago, winter after Chicago winter.

So I began making tentative efforts to seek out work in either LA or San Francisco, cities where I already had some good friends.

What happened on April 1st sealed the deal.  I’d made my way to work that morning despite the heavy snow that had fallen, and I took my usual ride home on a bus going down Michigan Avenue to where I lived just north of Oak Street.  The bus lumbered along, making its way through the snow-covered city, its major arteries by that time cleared by the city’s snow plows.  When the bus driver pulled up at the stop just across Lake Shore Drive from my apartment building, he opened the bus’s door, and I unsuspectingly descended the stairs to emerge outside.

Then, it happened.  I put a foot out the door, and it sank into a drift of snow as high as my knee.  I was wearing the miniskirts I favored back then, and my foot and leg were now stuck in the snow.  The bus abruptly closed its door, and I was left, stranded in a snowbank, forced to pull myself out of it and attempt to cross busy Lake Shore Drive.

On April 1st.

Then and there I resolved to leave Chicago.  No ifs, ands, or buts about it.  I made up my mind to leave the snow-ridden city and head for warmer climes.

And I did.  After a May trip to the sunny West Coast, where I interviewed for jobs in both Los Angeles and San Francisco (with kind friends hosting me in both cities), I wound up accepting a job offer at a poverty-law support center at UCLA law school and renting a furnished apartment just across Gayley Avenue from the campus.

The rest is (my personal) history.  I immediately loved my new home and my new job.  Welcomed by friends, both old and new (including my brand-new colleagues at UCLA), I was happy to have left Chicago and its dreary winters behind.  And six weeks after arriving in LA, I met the wonderful guy I married a few months later.

What happened next?  I’ll save that for still another day.  But here’s the take-away:  a snowstorm on April 1st changed my life.  Maybe it can change yours, too.

 

Who the Heck Knows?

I have a new catch phrase:  “Who the heck knows?”

I started using it last fall, and ever since then I’ve found that it applies to almost everything that might arise in the future.

I don’t claim originality, but here’s how I came up with it:

At a class reunion in October, I was asked to be part of a panel of law school classmates who had veered off the usual lawyer-track and now worked in a totally different area.

Specifically, I was asked to address a simple question:  Why did I leave my work as a lawyer/law professor and decide to focus primarily on writing?

First, I explained that I’d always loved writing, continued to write even while I worked as a lawyer, and left my law-related jobs when they no longer seemed meaningful.  I added that my move to San Francisco led to launching my blog and publishing my first two novels.

I concluded:

“If I stay healthy and my brain keeps functioning, I want to continue to write, with an increasing focus on memoirs….  I’ll keep putting a lot of this kind of stuff on my blog.  And maybe it will turn into a book or books someday.

“Who the heck knows?”

 

After I said all that, I realized that my final sentence was the perfect way to respond to almost any question about the future.

Here’s why it seems to me to apply to almost everything:

None of us knows what the next day will bring.  Still, we think about it.

In “Men Explain Things to Me,” the author Rebecca Solnit notes “that we don’t know what will happen next, and the unlikely and the unimaginable transpire quite regularly.”  She finds uncertainty hopeful, while viewing despair as “a form of certainty,” certainty that that “the future will be a lot like the present or will decline from it.”

Let’s cast certainty aside and agree, with Solnit, that uncertainty is hopeful.  Let’s go on to question what might happen in the uncertain future.

For example:

We wonder whether the midterm elections will change anything.

We wonder whether our kids will choose to follow our career choices or do something totally different.

We wonder whether our family history of a deadly disease will lead to having it ourselves.

We wonder whether to plan a trip to Peru.

We wonder whether we’re saving enough money for retirement.

We wonder how the U.S. Supreme Court will rule in an upcoming case.

We wonder what our hair will look like ten years from now.

We wonder what the weather will be like next week.

And we wonder what the current occupant of the White House will say or do regarding just about anything.

 

You may have an answer in mind, one that’s based on reason or knowledge or probability.   But if you’re uncertain…in almost every case, the best response is:  Who the heck knows?

If you’re stating this response to others, I suggest using “heck” instead of a word that might offend anyone.  It also lends a less serious tone to all of the unknowns out there, some of which are undoubtedly scary.

If you prefer to use a more serious tone, you can of course phrase things differently.

But I think I’ll stick with “Who the heck knows?”

Warning:  If you spend any time with me, you’ll probably hear me say it, again and again.

But then, who the heck knows?

How Big Is Your Signature?

I’ll bet you never thought that the size of your signature meant a darned thing.  But guess what.  It does.

A recent study by a business school professor at Washington University in St. Louis found that an oversized signature is correlated with an oversized ego, and a great big ego can have practical business consequences.

In my view, the research findings apply to people running enterprises in a whole lot of areas other than corporations, including the White House.

The research by Professor Chad Ham, a professor at Wash U’s Olin Business School, concluded that a CFO (chief financial officer) with an oversized signature is more likely to make questionable choices because of his/her oversized ego.

Professor Ham’s research, described in a paper published in the December issue of the Journal of Accounting Research, showed that “narcissistic CFOs are less likely to recognize losses” promptly, and that this behavior is “consistent with a willingness to cover up past mistakes.”

Ham’s research team, which included academics from the University of North Carolina, the University of Maryland, and Rice University, looked at the size of a CFO’s signature and how it related to his/her level of narcissism. They then connected those findings to the financial reporting by each CFO’s corporation.

The research team compared the performance of the companies before and after the CFO was appointed.  The result was telling.  The firms became “more aggressive” when narcissistic CFOs were appointed.

Ham’s research went beyond that of CFOs.  It also looked at CEOs and linked management results with their level of narcissism.  Narcissistic CEOs—those with larger signatures—tended to over-invest in riskier projects and received higher compensation despite poor financial performance.

Why did the researchers focus so much on signature size?  According to Ham, it was one way to “capture narcissism.”  They couldn’t simply ask top corporate executives to submit to a personality test.  So they used signature size as a proxy for the level of narcissism.

In other research, the team paired student volunteers, and asked them to allocate $5 between themselves and their anonymous partners.   After that assignment, the students had to fill out a personality test and sign their names.  The result?  Students with larger signatures tended to be more narcissistic, and the more narcissistic participants were more likely to keep a larger share of the $5 for themselves and to misreport how they allocated the other half of that amount.

Ham doesn’t advocate that corporate boards avoid hiring as CEOs and CFOs everyone with a large signature.  It’s not that simple.  A single narcissistic CFO might benefit the company in ways not measured in this study.  But Ham concluded that corporate leaders should be aware of their colleagues’ narcissistic tendencies in order to keep “appropriate checks and balances in place.”

Wow.  I think this research can be extrapolated to the heads of entities other than corporations.  For example, the current occupant of the White House likes to show off his oversized signature on whatever documents he signs.  His large signature is just one indication of his level of narcissism, which is related to his eagerness to embark in risky projects, to misreport how he allocates funds, and to cover up his past mistakes.

As for keeping appropriate “checks and balances in place,” we might as well forget it.  Where are the other leaders of our government—in particular, those currently belonging to the majority party in Congress–who could exhibit some strength of character and insist that “checks and balances,” a long-held principle of our democracy, are observed?

They’re nowhere to be found.

I’m wondering just how big their signatures are.

A new book you may want to know about

There’s one thing we can all agree on:  Trying to stay healthy.

That’s why you may want to know about a new book, Killer diseases, modern-day epidemics:  Keys to stopping heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and obesity in their tracks, by Swarna Moldanado, PhD, MPH, and Alex Moldanado, MD.

In this extraordinary book, the authors have pulled together an invaluable compendium of both evidence and advice on how to stop the “killer diseases” they call “modern-day epidemics.”

First, using their accumulated wisdom and experience in public health, nursing science, and family medical practice, Swarna and Alex Moldanado offer the reader a wide array of scientific evidence.  Next, they present their well-thought-out conclusions on how this evidence supports their theories of how to combat the killer diseases that plague us today.

Their most compelling conclusion:  Lifestyle choices have an overwhelming impact on our health.  So although some individuals may suffer from diseases that are unavoidable, evidence points to the tremendous importance of lifestyle choices.

Specifically, the authors note that evidence “points to the fact that some of the most lethal cancers are attributable to lifestyle choices.”  Choosing to smoke tobacco or consume alcohol in excess are examples of the sort of risky lifestyle choices that can lead to this killer disease.

Similarly, cardiovascular diseases–diseases of the heart and blood vessels–share many common risk factors.  Clear evidence demonstrates that eating an unhealthy diet, a diet that includes too many saturated fats—fatty meats, baked goods, and certain dairy products—is a critical factor in the development of cardiovascular disease. The increasing size of food portions in our diet is another risk factor many people may not be aware of.

On the other hand, most of us are aware of the dangers of physical inactivity.  But knowledge of these dangers is not enough.  Many of us must change our lifestyle choices.  Those of us in sedentary careers, for example, must become much more physically active than our lifestyles lend themselves to.

Yes, the basics of this information appear frequently in the media.  But the Moldanados reveal a great deal of scientific evidence you might not know about.

Even more importantly, in Chapter 8, “Making and Keeping the Right Lifestyle Choices,” the authors step up to the plate in a big way.  Here they clearly and forcefully state their specific recommendations for succeeding in the fight against killer diseases.

Following these recommendations could lead all of us to a healthier and brighter outcome.

Kudos to the authors for collecting an enormous volume of evidence, clearly presenting it to us, and concluding with their invaluable recommendations.

No more excuses!  Let’s resolve to follow their advice and move in the right direction to help ensure our good health.