How I Avoid Colds

I do not wish to jinx myself, but I have gone fourteen months without an upper respiratory infection.  Some reading I did about ten years back enabled me to cut their frequency from roughly three a year to one.  Since I work in a school, I know I am exposed to a lot of pathogens, so it is hard to minimize exposure.  But I have learned that the most important approach involves strengthening the immune system.

With a checklist of four priorities, I know that if I can address at least three at all times, I am far less likely to fall ill.  For some stretches of time, I can even manage all four.  Here are the items:

  • minimize stress
  • take daily megadoses of vitamin C
  • get a minimum of seven hours of sleep nightly
  • ensure prebiotic/probiotic intake

In my profession, the first is hardest.  I make a point to emphasize that we cannot entirely eliminate stress, but we can eliminate unnecessary stress.  My physician is a Sikh, who strongly recommends meditation, and I certainly agree that it has benefits.   Long before I took up that recommendation, however, he mentioned some of my risk factors for serious health problems in coming years, and he provided some resources for me that enabled me to adjust my manner of thinking about most things.  This slight change made a significant difference for me right away.  Mindfulness practice started with this and grew over the years to something far more meaningful.  Still, meditation and yoga will offer no guarantees in any set of circumstances, much less in our challenging modern world or in the profession of public education.  Some stress will inevitably present itself.  Stress hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine pose no harm when stress levels are manageable.  Chronic unmanaged stress, however, enables these endogenic substances to do gradual but serious harm to our organs and tissues, the cardiovascular system in particular.  The immune system is even more vulnerable.  Stress weakens it significantly and quickly.  Conversely, the immune system can rebound quickly in the absence of excess stress.

With regard to vitamin C, I learned in high school that it is water soluble.  Unlike fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E, and K, we need not worry about ingesting too much of it.  But it simply would not, by traditional understanding, yield any benefit to have beyond the recommended amount.  Nobel laureate Linus Pauling famously recommended megadoses for water-soluble vitamins, but he was not a physician, and during his lifetime, no empirical evidence emerged to support his recommendation.  In the late 1990’s, however, a study showed that vitamin C megadoses were indeed an effective treatment for cold and influenza.  Later studies demonstrated varying degrees of effectiveness–with some risk of stomach ailments and even kidney stones at very high quantities–in preventing respiratory infections in the first place with daily vitamin C megadosage.  I take 2000 milligrams per day, far higher then the federal government recommends, but not as high as some of the clinical trials I have read about.

Concerning sleep, the Mayo clinic explains the release of cytokines–proteins that play an essential role in the immune system–as we slumber.  One study in the late 2000’s that I read about in the newspaper (but cannot now find online) found that test subjects exposed to and infected with cold viruses were much less likely to come down with symptoms if they regularly slept over seven hours per night.  Its authors speculated that the nightly release of cytokines not only protects against pathogens but also regulates and moderates our immune systems.  Indeed, most cold viruses and even allergens do not directly cause symptoms.  Many illnesses, as well as allergic reactions, occur when our immune responses go too far.

Finally, I learned of the benefits of pre- and probiotic intake from reading an illuminating article by Michael Pollan in the New York Times Magazine earlier this decade.  In it, Pollan explains that scientists are just beginning to understand the role of the human microbiome in aiding our immune systems.  Prebiotic foods such as a variety of raw vegetables in ample quantities (I eat them, but they disgust me) foster helpful bacteria–some of which we have identified and find in foods such as yogurt–to flourish in our intestines.  Intriguingly, some studies associate healthy intestinal flora with lower levels of stress and depression.  Scientists have not drawn firm conclusions about the explanation, but many suspect the role of the vagus nerve which runs from the gut past the heart to the brain.

I am no doctor.  I merely read stuff.  My experimentation on myself does not rise to the level of empiricism.  Still, my strategies have made me healthier today than I was ten years ago.  I consider that a sizable slice of life.

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Mobius

Many of us remember from high school geometry class a brief lesson on the topic of a Mobius strip.  I remember being fascinated with this three-dimensional construct with only one side and also one outer edge.

As years passed, this concept took on a kind of wonder as I came to understand how this model–easily represented by twisting a strip of paper halfway and fastening the ends together–transcends the duality of opposites.

It has now become a powerful symbol in my view of the world and my existence.


Mobius

In pondering the scope of what exists,
The nonexistent soon confounds my ken.
And yet-to-be with was in tension twists;
As good with ill, live dead, me you, now then.
We thus belie our sense when Truth we know,
As wisdom lies where mysteries persist.
In two directions every line must go;
Two endless journeys simply to exist.
Infinity made fragment, faith made fact;
It leaves a mind to mourn Conception’s state:
A shadow shattered, its source still intact,
A mobius essence torn and then stretched straight.
          And now to mend that strip to make it whole—
          The noblest motive of my homeward soul.

Labor

Some days require much of us and reveal our true capacities, whether the effort energizes or enervates.

And such days reveal as well our limits, as we control so little and carry out so much.

When the sun sets and we step through the threshold of our abodes, we count ourselves fortunate if we have loved ones to receive us, a meal to restore us, and warm beds with soft pillows on which we may rest our heads.

And if our strength holds–through all the contradictions our most challenging days present–we may retire at night with a sound conscience…perhaps disappointed that our best exertions cannot always promise success, but assured despite our sadness that we carried on as best we could.

The next day is always its own entity.

Cursive and Croissants

Yesterday, I wrote about breakfast, but I chose to leave something out so I could give it its own post today.

For three years–ending last June–I invited my sixth, seventh, and eighth graders to come to school early on Fridays with their breakfasts.  Students who could get an early ride in and did not have band rehearsal would join me.  I would host anywhere from two to twenty children each Friday morning.

We talked about all sorts of things, from politics to literature to travel to aspirations.  It was a pleasant departure from and addition to our usual classroom discourse.

Also on Fridays, I would assign a writing topic when students came to class.  This topic, however, was not to be typed.  It was to be written on paper–in cursive.

I was pleasantly surprised by the degree to which almost every student enjoyed this weekly activity.  I was also a little concerned.  Kids are supposed to hate this kind of assignment.

After last June, I left the classroom to take a new job as principal at my district’s elementary school.  I missed my Friday breakfasts.

Then, in December, I received an email from a parent with a bright idea.  Principals receive many such emails and tend not to like them.  I make it a point, however, to consider all suggestions, even if I cannot use them.

This parent commented that cursive is a dying skill and that someone in the school should form a club that would promote it.

I immediately wrote back congratulating this woman for becoming the advisor of the school’s newest club.  I invited her in for a meeting during which we would discuss the details.  As we sat in my office, I shared my experiences at the middle school.

Within minutes, we knew the club would be called Cursive and Croissants.  We would meet each Friday in the school library for a half an hour prior to school, and children would be allowed to bring breakfast.  Participation was open to students in second through fourth grades.  Our first session would be the first Friday in January.

This poor woman was nervous about what she had taken on, and I could do little to reassure her.  How many student would show up?  I had no idea.  Would it be five, ten?  Could be twenty, I said.  Or zero.

We prepared materials the week after New Year’s Day and waited to see what would happen on Friday morning.

Over forty children showed up.  We didn’t have enough seats.  I made some quick arrangements to accommodate everyone, and we had a great first session.  We have kept this going now for over two months.

Each week we have contests: Best Signature, Best Alphabet, Best Composition, and–my favorite–Biggest Croissant.  One girl has one the latter competition twice by combining four containers of Pillsbury Crescent Rolls and shaping it into an enormous C.

Winning entries every week hang in the window of the main office–except for the croissant, of course.  That gets eaten.

My birthday fell on a Friday two weeks ago.  I received and ate several croissants.  It brought back all sorts of memories.

 

Breakfast

Breakfast has always been tied with two other meals for being my favorite meal of the day.

We grow up hearing that it is the most important meal, but I am not sure of that.  I certainly enjoy a good breakfast, and that is all the justification I need for eating each morning.

From a young age, I would eat three bowls of cereal to begin my day.  My mother would not likely have countenanced this.  I managed it by waking up early to join my father for breakfast before my mother was up.  He would pour me a bowl of whatever he was having.  I would then get dressed and return when my mom had made her way to the kitchen.  She usually let me have two bowls of cereal.  This started at age five.

By age nine, I had started swimming competitively.  My appetite only increased.  I could no longer get up with my father because we had moved.  He now had to get up much earlier, and he ate at work.  Since my mother had taken a job, she had much to do in order to get ready for her own day, so I could usually sneak a third bowl.  I would try to have toast and jam, too, if I could get away with it.

We went to Disney World that year and stayed at the Contemporary Hotel.  They had a breakfast buffet.  When my mother explained that my brother and I could take as much as we wanted, we were incredulous.  We were there for about two hours the first day.  People stared.  My parents looked sheepishly at the other diners as if to try to dispel suspicions that they never fed us at home.

By high school, I had begun again to double up on breakfast.  First, the usual three bowls at home, then my mom would drop me off at my friend’s house the next town over, since I went to a private school that did not send a bus to where I lived.  My friend’s parents would insist I join them at their table each morning.  What was I going to say?

Swimming kept me thin, I guess.  And the metabolism of a teenager.

My father took me out to breakfast one summer morning after a Saturday swim practice.  More stares.  Two eggs over easy, bacon, sausage, home fries, toast.  And, uh, two–no, no! Make that three–pancakes.  And a glass of orange juice.  Large.  Glass of milk, too, thanks.  No coffee until after my milk shake–chocolate, please.  After the pancakes.

I continued to swim even after college.  Then, some years later, a relocation took me too far away from a pool to do my daily workout.  My routines changed.  And…I turned 30.

I adjusted.

Today, I am pleased to say, I wear essentially the same size clothes as I did when I swam 25,000 yards per week.

But I eat no lunch.  Instead of a lunch break, I have my only breakfast of the day at around 10:30 in my office.

And what is that breakfast?  A single pain au chocolat, one cup of caffelatte, and the New York Times crossword puzzle (and some of you know about that).

Often, it is the most pleasant and peaceful half hour of my day.

The rest of the day, I’m busy and hungry–but then, that is consistent with most of human history.

 

For Students: the Real Reason We Go to School

When I was a child, nobody could explain to me why I had to go to school.  At least they could not explain it so I could understand. “You have to learn,” they said.  That meant nothing to me. I could learn by watching TV.

When I got older, some grown-ups would tell me that I needed to learn so I could get a job when I grew up.  They also told me that I needed to learn math so I could count my change after I bought something at the store.

I always thought I could learn those things in less than 13 years.  Why waste all of that time going from kindergarten through grade 12?

Every year the stories and books got longer, the math got harder, social studies got more boring, and the science lessons were always about air and bugs, not interesting things like space and electricity.

And I didn’t understand why everybody needed to learn all of those things if they weren’t needed for their jobs as grown-ups.

All I wanted to do was watch TV, play video games, and ride my bike with my friends.  And if I were a kid today, I would probably want to watch YouTube and play Fortnite, too.

Now that I am grown up, I know why I had to go to school.  I know the real reason.

But if I tell you, you have to try your best to understand because the real reason is hard to follow.

Are you ready?

You go to school not only so you can learn to read and write.  You go to school because we live in a world with lots of people.  The world is confusing, and it has problems.

Today’s grown ups cannot fix the world.  They will grow old and die before the work is done.  Kids have to grow up and continue the work.

Yes, you understand correctly: you and your classmates will take over the world.  And you will fix many of its problems.

If you have ever done a nice thing in school to make someone sad feel better, you are learning to be a good human being.

If you have ever helped someone read a word or solve a math problem, you are learning more than reading or math; you are learning to help others grow.

If you have ever asked a friend not to do something that is wrong, you are learning that you have a superpower for saving people from mistakes.

If you have ever told your teacher about how you enjoy learning in the classroom, you are giving that teacher and your whole class more strength.

If you have ever made your classroom better or the cafeteria cleaner or the hallways safer, you are changing the world.

If you have ever done something wrong in school and then said you were sorry, you showed everyone exactly how we learn from mistakes.

For these reasons, your school is important to you, and you are very important to your school.

One day, you will make the real world better than any video game and better than any movie.  You will make it so good that kids won’t want to use their parents’ phones in waiting rooms and at restaurants.

In fact, you have already begun to do this.  That is why you go to school.

That is why you are important.

One More Post on Music

In posting this week about music and its gifts to me, I mentioned my experiences as a drummer.  I explained a condition in my left hand that required an adjustment to my playing, as well as the consequent enrichment of my engagement with music.

Today, I wish to share my impressions of another musician’s experience.  He actually lost his entire left arm in an accident.  His name is Rick Allen, and people such as myself who came of age during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s know him as the drummer for the British band Def Leppard.  His story does not so much appeal to me as a drummer but as a human being.

In December of 1984, Allen was 21 years old and had already achieved veteran status in the world of rock and roll.  Between the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, he was home in Yorkshire, and he went for a ride with his girlfriend in a Corvette he had had shipped over from the States.   At one point, he was driving somewhat aggressively, having been frustrated by a driver who resisted letting him pass.  Allen then took the unfortunate risk of forcing the issue.  His car was a left-hand drive vehicle, which in the UK introduces yet more peril to such a situation.  The result was an accident that injured only himself as his vehicle lost control and went off the road.  As Allen was thrown from the car, an improperly-fastened seatbelt caught his left arm and severed it.

Allen’s arm was reattached in the hospital but soon became gangrenous. It had to be removed permanently, and there was no certain news of what would become of his career or his band.  From this shattering experience, Allen rebounded and rebuilt his career, transforming himself into one of the most durable and influential drummers in rock history. 

Some interesting factors lined up in order to make this possible.  One was the prior influence of the band’s studio producer.  Four years prior to Allen’s accident, Mercury Records assigned Mutt Lange the job of producing Def Leppard’s second album, High ‘n’ Dry.  Having worked with bands such as AC-DC, Lange had a reputation for getting groups to simplify their drum and bass tracks, leaving the more ornate flourishes to guitarists and vocalists.  This required a significant adjustment for Allen, who at the young age of 17 had played remarkably technical tracks for Def Leppard’s debut album, On Through the Night.  The change worked well for the band, however, and High ‘n’ Dry went on to sell far better than their first album.  Lange continued to push Allen in the direction of solid, very basic beats and fill-ins on the next album, Pyromania.  This may have seemed a serious waste of Allen’s talents, but given the unfortunate events to come, Lange’s influence proved providential.

Allen came by his decision to persevere while still in his hospital bed.  In his boredom, he began tapping his feet against the footboard, imagining the possibilities they had for compensating for his missing left arm.  With significant injuries to his remaining arm and lots of rehabilitation ahead, playing drums would require fortitude, patience and ingenuity.  With help from engineers at Simmons, a company that makes electronic drums, Allen designed a drum kit fitted with multiple pedals for his left foot.  This enabled him to play with his foot the sounds that his missing hand would have played on various drums.  This solution, though clever and extremely helpful, left Allen with the task of learning to play drums anew.

Despite the challenges, within two years of his accident, Def Leppard was back in the studio, with Allen playing all of his own drum tracks. Some months later, the band played some live concerts. For the initial shows, Allen had support drummer Jeff Rich of the band Status Quo on stage to play along with him, but Rich soon declared himself unnecessary.  Allen was fully back in form.

Characterizing Allen’s comeback as complete at that stage was no exaggeration, and possibly an understatement.  Allen’s bandmates, particularly lead singer Joe Elliot, have commented to reporters that in many ways, Allen’s drumming became better after the accident. Artistically, Mutt Lange’s advice and influence on Allen may have continued to sink in after Allen’s injury and recovery, and the death of bandmate and guitarist Steve Clark would have pulled be bandmates closer together creatively.  On the technical side, online concert videos show Allen playing drum solos at the ends of the songs “Let It Go” and “Switch 625” that are superior to the ones on the band’s studio recordings three years before the accident.  This imparts a dramatic effect, particularly since Leppard fans are familiar with Allen’s story.

And Allen has used his transformative experience to help enrich and support others. He works with other disabled musicians as well as disabled war veterans and fellow victims of post-traumatic stress disorder, sharing experiences with them and imparting hope and inspiration.

I am not a particular follower of Def Leppard, though I have enjoyed their music through the years.  I simply recount this story because Rick Allen always reminds me of why I have enormous faith in human potential.  Interestingly, Allen, at the age of 55, has done more recording and touring and has experienced far more success than he had before that horrible day at the end of 1984.  This would defy conventional thinking, but such is often the case when we truly understand our humanity.

Photo credit: Rico Figliolini