We should all be so unlucky

A young woman from my alma mater by the name of Aly Beebe is in her freshman year at Stanford University. She was a basketball superstar in high school, leading St. Joseph to a state championship (which, in California, is seriously difficult – the best high school girls’ team I ever saw never even made it to the finals.) I checked some box scores early in the season this year and found, to my dismay, that she was not getting into games. What I found out eventually is that she is ‘red-shirting’ this season, which means she is on the roster, practices and travels with the team, but does not play in games and (this is the key) does not use up one of her four seasons of eligibility. This made some sense, finally; Stanford is one of the deepest, most talented teams in the world of women’s college basketball and they have an amazing player named Chiney Ogwumike who plays the same position as Aly. (Here  is a good article about Chiney that appears on the sfgate.com site.)

After learning about this situation, I was actually foolish enough to feel sorry for Aly. I really wanted to see her play on the big stage. But the article on Chiney dumped a bucket of reality over my head, metaphorically speaking, and woke me up to the following:

1. Aly (an excellent student) is getting an education at a world-class university (free!) where she has the opportunity to take classes such as those described in the article.

2. She gets a year to adjust to a very different world from a small high school in the suburbs. As a point of comparison, the gym at St. Joe’s is probably smaller than the coach’s offices at Stanford.

3. She practices with and against players like Chiney every day in practice. She learns the plays, the defenses, and the work ethic that she’ll need for next year.

Not a bad deal, I think. I’ll just have to be patient and wait for my chance to see her shine.

Does diet soda cause depression?

Today I came across a statement from the American Academy of Neurology (here is the link):

People who drank more than four cans or cups per day of soda were 30 percent more likely to develop depression than those who drank no soda. Those who drank four cans of fruit punch per day were about 38 percent more likely to develop depression than those who did not drink sweetened drinks. People who drank four cups of coffee per day were about 10 percent less likely to develop depression than those who drank no coffee. The risk appeared to be greater for people who drank diet than regular soda, diet than regular fruit punches and for diet than regular iced tea.

“Our research suggests that cutting out or down on sweetened diet drinks or replacing them with unsweetened coffee may naturally help lower your depression risk,” said Chen. “More research is needed to confirm these findings, and people with depression should continue to take depression medications prescribed by their doctors.”

Everyone say it together: Correlation is NOT Causation. I will field this one from the perspective of someone who likes diet cola and who struggled with depression much of my life: you folks have it backwards. My depression predated my diet soda consumption by many years. For my part (and I suspect I speak for others), I found something cheap and legal that made me feel better for a while and I jumped into it — it’s called self-medication. The AAN may wish to study this concept. Seriously, I am glad they are doing studies like this, but do try to keep an open mind, people.

Milestones of aging

When I turned forty, I understood that I could no longer pretend to be a kid. Some of you may suggest the fact that I had a wife, four daughters, and a mortgage should have disabused me of that notion, but I will reply that you are merely clouding the issue with facts — we’re talking about self-perception, a realm where hard data has no purchase.

The next milestone was when I was introduced to my granddaughter Riley at Clovis Community Hospital. Becoming a grandparent sets off the aging alarms like few other things in this world, trust me. Even the marriage of her mother Amelia a few months prior hadn’t hit me with the same sort of emotional broadside. Holding a newborn is just more visceral, I think — you know on a deep level that you are in a life-changing moment.

Monday’s revelation took place on a light-rail train heading on the MAX line toward Beaverton Transit Center. I looked up from my reading of Old Man’s War by John Scalzi (a book that was born to read on a commute, if ever one was) to see a young woman waving to me. She was offering me her seat in the crowded car. Oh dear. Did I really look that old and feeble? I was tired, I had bags under my eyes, my knees hurt, but still… I was really old now. Sure, this was a small thing both in time and import, but it still made me sad for a second. (My emotional priorities shifted strongly when I got to work and read the e-mail announcing the sudden death of a friend, but that is another story).

Eventually I was able to laugh at myself for this foolishness. I am not old, you know – my grandmother is still alive, for all love! Everyone knows that old is always 10-15 years older than one is at the moment. Besides, I got more sleep last night and I am moving a little better after a visit to the chiropractor. And most of all, I am alive, my wife and the best dog in the world are alive, and I have things to do. Let’s move on, shall we?

Thrilling turnarounds not reserved for the Super Bowl

Longtime acquaintances may wonder how I, as a San Francisco 49er supporter since 1972, am feeling today in the wake of the Niners losing the Super Bowl yesterday. The response, surprising as it may be to some, is “pretty cheerful, thanks.” I propose a couple of major reasons for this:

1. I was not at all cheerful after the opening kickoff of the second half was returned for a touchdown, making the score 28-6 in favor of the Ravens and making me wonder if the Niners were about to go completely off the rails. They didn’t, of course, taking advantage of a bizarre 34-minute power failure to regroup and turn the game around. They rallied furiously and had the ball inside the Baltimore 10-yard line with four chances to win the game with under two minutes remaining; how can I possibly be anything but thrilled about that? They showed commitment, resilience, and adaptability, all essential qualities for football excellence. Nothing to feel bad about there.

2. I was not as ridiculously invested in this game as I would have been in the “old days”. When the Niners last won the Super Bowl in 1995, I was living in a basement in Davis, California. I was working part-time, drinking heavily when I was wasn’t working, and generally wondering where I was and what I should be doing. I remember feeling that the Niners were the only bright spot in my life. That situation has also turned around dramatically, although it took longer than the second half of yesterday’s game (yes, I hear the jokes about how long that half was, babies born in less time, yes yes). I’ve gotten married, become a parent to four amazing daughters, and come to the Cross. Bad habits take a long time to die (which is why I hate the expression “dropped (something) like a bad habit, its *so* wrong!). My wife will tell you about the early days of our marriage when I would get so stressed watching a Niners game that she would keep the girls out of the room. I have slowly acquired some perspective over the years and gradually made some decisions about what is worth stressing about.

As longtime readers recall, my daughter Liza played basketball on an AAU 13 & under travel team. That team started out as green and inept as you could possibly imagine and eventually worked its way up to qualify for and play at the national tournament at Disney World. They won a lot of games, but my favorite memory comes from the last game in Florida. The girls were trying to protect a slim lead late in the game, but they kept losing players who fouled out. At the end of the last regulation period, they had four girls on the court, led by Liza. They came very close to pulling out the win, but eventually lost the game in overtime. I loved what those girls showed me that game, even the fact that they were sobbing with exhaustion and frustration at the end. (I also love that they were enjoying themselves at Disney World a few hours later.)

These days, I don’t worry as much about who wins; I hope that that my team plays with heart, commitment, and responds well to adversity, as the Niners did yesterday. That seems like a more useful approach to most things in life, to my mind.

High risk, low reward

Last night I stepped into the path of an oncoming train. It wasn’t deliberate, though this qualification would not change the results if we happened to collide. You may ask why an intelligent, educated person would cross a well-marked, sign-posted set of light-rail tracks without looking. After a fair amount of thinking about this, the only honest answer I can provide is that I was distracted enough that I did not consider the consequences.

I occasionally observe in others the kind of behavior that I label “high-risk low-reward”. We’ve all seen examples of this, where one takes a gamble whose negative consequences are far worse than the possible rewards — darting into traffic to retrieve an item that is easily and cheaply replaced, for instance. In my case, I decided to forego the trouble of stopping my movement across the tracks long enough to swivel my head to the right and check for an almost-certainly nonexistent oncoming train. There’s the problem, of course: the word “almost”. Yes, the odds of a train being close enough to threaten me with grievous bodily harm are very strongly in my favor, but this is the kind of gamble you may only be able to lose once. The downside potential of paying off the loss is enormous (for me, my family, and employer), while the possible reward — saving 3 seconds of glancing, plus perhaps 45 seconds I would have to spend waiting for the train to pass — looks pretty paltry in comparison. I made myself a poster child for high-risk, low-reward behavior.

It’s worth noting that less than half an hour before this thoughtless decision, I prayed as I waited for the light-rail to arrive in downtown Portland. I asked for protection and swift travel as I went home. It’s tempting to think that the fact that I am here to type this tale is proof of the prayer’s efficacy. I certainly thanked the Lord for His mercy, whether He chose to intervene directly or not. The problem would come if I chose to depend on prayers for protection from all my bad decisions. All it would take is for me to forget once, if you see what I mean. Probably better to pray for protection and to make better choices — make it more of a team effort.

I was a rock (but I got better)

I read an article on the front page of Sunday’s New York Times (for some reason, they keep throwing it in our driveway, though we’ve never ordered it) about a family working through grief. [Link: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/13/us/a-soldiers-family-mourning-but-moving-forward.html?_r=0]. It describes the family of Lt. Col. Paul Finken as they try to move forward years after his death on patrol in Afghanistan. Not too many years ago, I would have been impressed and thoughtful about such an article, but probably not moved. On Sunday, I wept openly.

I come from a tradition of stoicism and disengagement, where one appreciates the travails of others but does not connect emotionally, especially not with strangers. It would have been hard to imagine tears rolling down my face as they did on Sunday. That’s the difference that years of living with Karen and the girls has made in my life. Somehow, without knowing it, I made the decision that it was okay to feel strongly about a situation, to empathize enough to share someone’s pain. I have to say that I like the change and I have my family to thank for it.

It’s never too early to show some grace

My cell phone rang at 2:45 this morning. Here’s how the conversation went:


“I’m pregnant.” (spoken by a woman in a husky voice)

“Who is this?”

“It’s me.”

“Who is me?”


“Who is calling please?” (I am getting steamed now.)

“Who is this?”

“Who are you calling?”

“Is this Irvin?”

“No, you have a wrong number and it’s the middle of the f*****g night.”

Whereupon I snapped the phone shut. I tried to settle down and get back to sleep, since I had to get up for work in a few hours. But once the anger faded, I began to feel sheepish. “Convicted,” as they say in church. I handled that badly, especially the cursing. This woman was clearly unhappy and wanted to talk to this Irvin character. If she really is pregnant (which given the way she said it, I tend to doubt), her agitation would be very understandable. If she was simply drunk and lonely, who am I to condemn her for lack of courtesy (and poor memory for phone numbers)? At least she was trying (badly, yes) to reach out to someone. I really want to try to handle it better next time something like this happens. I think it would be okay to gently point out that it’s 2:45 in the morning, but it would also be better for both of us to offer her some encouragement, to think beyond my own pique at being awakened.

I would have called her back, but she had her number blocked on Caller ID. So I will simply have to try to learn from my mistake and offer some grace next time someone needs it. Lord knows I have accepted enough for myself.

Tolkien fans should rejoice in The Hobbit

Karen and I saw The Hobbit on Sunday afternoon. We opted for the low-tech version — both of us are more interested in old-fashioned virtues like acting and storytelling. As we sat through the endless previews, I commented to Karen that I couldn’t remember the last time I had been in a theater. After a brief review, we decided that the last film that had convinced me to buy a seat was The Return of The King. It seems, therefore, that I have high expectations when Peter Jackson takes us on a journey to Middle-Earth, and it makes me happy to state that my expectations were fully met by The Hobbit.

Minor plot spoilers below

The screenplay works well for me, in general, and very well in some scenes. I know there are folks who get their knickers in a twist at every departure from the holy writ of JRRT, who insist that any film must be slavishly loyal to the book’s plot. The politest thing I can say to such zealots is that I am very glad you didn’t make the film.  Film and novels are very different media, with different strengths and demands. (You want a film that faithfully follows the book? Go see the first Harry Potter movie again. Feel better now? I wouldn’t.) The Hobbit’s screenplay fixes some of the narrative issues I have with the book. Two examples:

(1) Face it, the book’s dwarves-in-the-trees scene is very silly. I don’t want to imagine how cringeworthy that whole tableau would be if PJ had tried to shoot it exactly as written. Happily, he didn’t. The presence of Azog raises the stakes and makes it dramatically tighter, as well as propelling the plot along better and more energetically.

(2) The gathering of the White Council, which is only alluded to in the book, comes off as a dreary departmental meeting in some government office, with Saruman in the role of droning Chief Minister. I loved it, both as a reason for the delay in facing the Necromancer and as an affirmation of the timeless truth that committees rarely make bold strokes.

I really enjoyed how much the film individualizes the dwarves. Nori and Balin stand out, but they all manage to make distinctive choices. I found it very easy to care for them and invest in their hopes. All the acting is strong and faultless; this is an ensemble piece and the actors fully inhabit the world of Jackson’s Middle-Earth.

You want one more reason to see this? It’s not The Phantom Menace. Enjoy!

What is the price?

I saw this in a blog post on Slate and wanted to share it. The author is Marine Garrett Anderson:

My dead brothers will walk with me and all of the others who remember them. That is part of our service, in this our joy is shared and the important sting of their loss is a reminder to remember how different this gathering of family could be and how each one was a loss that eternally disrupts history. When I awoke the day after Corporal Michael Cohen was killed I had an epiphany that life would forever be this way. I knew he would be attached to me for every happy moment of my life, but he tells me it’s only because he wants to see too, so I let him.

There is no reaction like overreaction

In the wake of the election, I am seeing occasional articles about people who are so upset by the result that they want to secede from the Union. My advice to these sore losers is: don’t the border crossing gate hit you on the way out. Seriously, you can’t put up with a hack politician for four years? As Bobby Shaftoe says in Neal Stephenson’s immortal Cryptonomicon, “Display some f****** adaptability.”