Sunday, April 29, 2007

Stress -- Why the Bad Rap?

A few of my friends lately have talked about stress and its effect on their lives -- specifically, reaching their fitness goals. It's been well-documented that constant stress raises cortisol levels, and cortisol is a hormone that gets its kicks from helping the body store fat. So it leads to the conclusion that stress=bad. But that's a shame.

Once again our family has been though what could probably be defined as a stressful time. ER visits, especially with young children, usually tend to qualify for that label. Since we've been through things like this before, though, I'm starting to notice some interesting aspects of how I'm handling stress. And especially how my coping mechanisms have changed in the past few years.

Perhaps etymology, or word study, would be useful here. I see stress as neither good nor bad -- it's simply a thing. Like money, power, or time -- they're not moral in and of themselves. You can spend $20 on a meal, a toy for a homeless child, drugs, or time with a hooker (although for $20, I wouldn't expect much). But the currency is inherently neutral.

My theory is that stress is the same way. In fact, the Greek root word is perfectly neutral, and from that root we get the words "distress" and "eustress". Distress is bad, and eustress is good, but the good one is basically absent from the English language. And when Americans say the word "stress", we usually mean "distress", or bad stuff. Why is that?

When Jack is up all night with fever, and Jamie and I are able to stay awake to watch him, this is a good thing. Our physiological response raised our heart rate and blood pressure, diverted blood flow to our limbs and large muscle groups, increased brain activity, and so on. This kept us alert when Jack needed us. You've heard stories of children stuck in burning cars, where the mother heroically lifted the small car to save her child... what made that happen? Stress. Eustress. Getting our bodies to do what they need to do since our race began.

Without stress, one of my ancestors surely would have been eaten by a lion or would have starved to death because he slept through a wolf attack on his flock of sheep. Stress saves us in a crisis situation, and makes sure we can pass on our eustress-capable genetics on to the next generation.

Back to my original point, and how my own response to stressful times has changed. Basically, in chaotic weeks, I try to look at my life and see when stress is useful, and when it isn't. Staying awake at 2am when Jack has high fever? Useful. Constant jitters and worry when Jack is safely napping? Not useful. In fact, that's worse than useless-- it's dangerous.

That physiological response of stress is very good in short bursts, but devastating over long periods. We just aren't meant to operate like that for very long.

Sorry if this is coming off as preachy; that is not my intent. Just a ramble about something that's been rattling around in my fight-or-flight brain over the past week.

So maybe the next time someone tells me they've been stressed, and I discover they've been going through some kind of mild crisis (final exams, healthy childbirth, etc...), I'll say, "Good for you! Sounds like everything's working just as it should be!"

Thank God for stress response.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Stomach in knots, literally

Been a while since I've posted, but I've got a good excuse. Honest. But I'm way too exhausted to write it out prose-style, so here's a bulletpointed timeline from the past few days:

  • I go to work early and kick butt, big time. Lots of items completed. Jamie calls me at 9am to tell me that Jack is complaining of stomach pain. Specifically, he cried for a minute and kept saying, 'belly hurt!". Hmm.
  • Jamie calls again at 11am, this time from the doctor's office. They've referred Jack to the ER at Texas Children's Hospital, a place we know well. I leave the office to join them.
  • We get the diagnosis -- intussusception. His bowel has collapsed in on itself, just like a telescope that retracts. The pinching is extremely painful, blocks the pipes, and cuts off circulation to the pinched tissue. If we're lucky, an enema will fix it. If not, he'll need surgery to correct the collapse, and maybe cut out any dead tissue.
  • 4:30 pm, Jack is taken to the X-ray room, where the enema will be done (with barium fluid). He already had an IV in his hand (which he hates), and now it's time for the tube up his hoonanny to force fluids into this pipes and push out the collapsed section. You don't need to be a prophet to guess how much he appreciated that. He even vomited during the procedure, which added to the chaos. Jamie has the same response to extreme physical pain, but we'd never seen it in Jack before.
  • By 6pm, Jack is smiling, joking and playing in the hospital. Still, he needs to stay overnight for observation, as there is a 10% chance of intussesception recurrence in the next 24 hours. Jamie stays at the hospital with Jack all night, and I come home to Samantha, who had been with her grandparents since the afternoon.


  • By 8am, Jack has progressed so quickly that the hospital releases him. He and Jamie arrive at home just as I was leaving to take Samantha to school. I take Samantha, then come home to spend the day with Jack and Jamie. It ends up being a laundry and dishes day, since we'd never caught up from our weekend trip.
  • Jack runs a slight fever, but nothing major.


  • I go back to work in the morning. Another productive day. Jamie calls at 3:30 pm to say that Jack just had another pain attack in his belly. And his fever is over 102. We get a doctor's appointment for 4:45.
  • I join them at the doctor (we're all late, but you try getting to any Houston location on time on a Friday rush hour... not possible). Jack checks out okay, with no belly pain, minimal fever and no signs that anything's wrong. He even asks for food and drink. We had plans to go to the outdoor theater (Berenstein Bears show) for a picnic dinner, but we canceled that. I picked up frozen pizza and we ate at home.
  • Jack ate pizza like a champ. Maybe his afternoon pain attack was just gas, or side effects from passing all that barium (that was pure joy for 48 hours and about 30 diapers).
  • At 6:40, Jack had another bout of extreme belly pain. Again at 7:00. And 7:15. Fever's going up, too. We call the doctor, but already made the decision to go back to the ER. Jamie takes him alone this time, and I just stay home with Samantha. We have a business card from the Surgical Director at Texas Children's, and he told us he would get Jack right through the system if we came back.
  • Jamie and Jack arrive at the hospital, and the Director comes through. Jack skips the queue, skips the ultrasound and goes straight to the X-ray room, this time for an air enema (thank you for no more barium). Again, it seems to work, and the post-procedure ultrasound confirms that there's no more intussesception.
  • They get home around 11pm. No IV, no overnight observation. Thank you, doc.


  • We all go out to breakfast at the Kolache Factory. If you don't know what a kolache is, you're missing out.
  • Jamie takes Samantha to a make-up swimming lesson, and then to a birthday party. I stay home with Jack during the day, and am concerned by Jack's fever. It was 103.4 at noon, so I gave him Motrin (we consider it our fever "big gun" fighter). An hour later his fever was still 103.2. It gradually drops from there.
  • We have a good afternoon, with the kids and Jamie all getting long naps. I also have a great talk with my Dad, getting some advice on a business issue I'm facing. He's been where I am and has some great tips.
  • Jack wakes up from his afternoon nap with a fever of 105. Medicine takes it down around 102.
  • Dinner, bath... the usual. Then Jacks wakes up again at 10:30 pm, this time with a fever of 106. Scary. We call the doc and she recommends putting Tylenol on top of the Motrin we've already given him. We do it and it slowly works, although none of us get much sleep.


  • Jack and Jamie stay home from church (duh). They go the hospital mid-morning for some blood tests, which show that Jack does not have a bacterial infection. This is just some major virus, and there's no way to know if it's related to the intussesception.
  • We are exhausted.

So that's it. Hopefully the belly pain won't come back, and from now on we can just deal with a good old-fashioned virus. God knows we have plenty of experience with that.

To go back to a previous post about the violinist playing in a public place, I've been thinking about appreciating beauty in every moment. Here are some moments from the past few days:

  • Samantha's hair color in the sunshine while we're feeding ducks on a pond (today at lunch). "Red" doesn't cover it -- it's a thousand colors and highlights.
  • Jack's sweet, drained voice saying "daddy" as he looks at me in bed last night at midnight. He was in our bed for a while when his fever was 106. He would wake up every few minutes, crack his eyes open to find me, and just say "daddy' in a matter-of-fact way, kinda like "there he is." The fact that my presence soothes him... well, it's a pretty good feeling.
  • Jamie and I steal a moment in the bedroom Saturday night. It's two tired people coming together for comfort, for fun, just for the simple fact that we could say we did it, in the midst of family sacrifice. A moment just for us.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Mondays with Chuck

Yesterday I got to play in a charity golf event to raise money for prostate cancer. 99% of the players were men... I've heard prostate cancer particularly targets them.

Also in attendance were the "legends", former baseball players in the MLBAA (Major League Baseball Alumni Association). They didn't just make an appearance, though -- these guys came to play.

Some big names like Jimmy Wynn and Jesse Barfield were there, which was pretty cool. I was a team captain, and joining my foursome was Chuck McElroy. I remembered seeing Chuck on WGN when he played for the Cubs. Lanky black guy, lefty, wore glasses, not a sneaky or dominating pitcher, just consistent and effective.

We had a great time chatting for five hours during the slow round of golf. He and I just gravitiated to each other, given my baseball background, the fact that we're both lefties, and I'm just so darn personable. Here's a summary of Chuck's insights, by topic:

Work ethic -- "I pitched in 600 games before I ever got a start. Loved it if I could pitch every day, or at least 70 games a year. One time I pitched in 14 straight games."

Durability -- "In 14 years of professional baseball, plus high school and college, I never missed a game due to injury. Never hurt my arm or my knees. You know what got me once, though? Chicken pox."

Little league -- "These kids throwing curveballs at 11 years old will never make it. Their arms aren't made for that. My sons are 10 and 12, and they won't start throwing curves or sliders until they're 18."

MLB lifestyle -- "There's lot of temptation, and the biggest problem is all the free time. On the road, you're maybe at the park six or seven hours, and what do you do for the rest of the day, away from home? Me and some other guys always had video games going in the hotel room. Kept us out of trouble.'

Going to the show -- "I played in the minors in '89, and should've been in Philly (for the major league team) from the beginning. But they said I needed more seasoning. My ERA was 2.20. Finally, when the rosters expanded in September, I got the call. Straight up from Double A. You know who was the first batter I faced? Barry Bonds. I was shaking so bad I could barely throw. Men at first and third, nobody out. Barry lasered one to second base, but our guy caught it. I'd faced my lefty, and was pulled. My hand was still shaking an hour later when I was trying to sign autographs for fans. I never went back to the minors after that."

Steroids -- "90% of players are on something illegal. 90%. Pitchers too."

Politics -- "From high school on, your manager can either help you or make your life hell. Or they can end your career, if they really don't like you. I played for 10 teams, and lots of different managers. You just gotta try to take things easy and not cause problems, but sometimes a guy won't like you just because."

1980s Cardinals teams -- "Man, how'd you like to face a lineup starting with Vince Coleman and Willie McGee? And watching Ozzie Smith play short... he was so smooth. John Tudor and that wicked curveball. Jack Clark could hit it a mile. But Willie... never throw the same pitch, same location to him in one game. He may watch the first one, but he'd crush the second one."

Life after baseball -- "I coach my kids' traveling teams, and help with training for five or six hours a day, five or six days a week. I'm also doing some real estate investing back home in Port Arthur, trying to get some reconstruction started after Hurricane Katrina. I figured, heck, I know the whole city council. It's my hometown, I've got some influence now. And I'll make some money while I'm at it."

Baseball and marriage -- "My wife knew the deal all along; her dad played in the pros too, so she grew up with it. It wasn't a big deal because we both knew all about the schedule and travel going in."

Travel -- "Man, I drive everywhere now. I flew six times a month for more than a decade. I love driving."

Superstitions -- "I had to chew gum in the even innings. Sunflower seeds in the odd innings. Used the bathroom every odd inning. If we won the game, I had to drive home along the same route I took to the ballpark. I guess it didn't really mean anything, but most of us had stuff like that."

Gratitude -- "C'mon, I got paid to play a kids' game. Just a kids' game, and I made a living out of it for 14 years."

He gave me two of his baseball cards when we finished up the round of golf. Neat guy. Lousy golfer. Easy smile, like he can't help but be happy. It was a good day.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Summit time!

I'm off to Little Rock, AR, for the annual JPFitness summit that starts on Friday. Won't be blogging again until the middle of next week.

If you have a hankerin' for a lengthy and fascinating read, try this article, and think about how often you just pause and take in the beauty around you.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Our pastime

Considering that baseball is my favorite sport, and that I played it for 20 years, it's interesting that I haven't written much about it. Time to remedy that.

Baseball is called "America's Pastime", although football and basketball are much more popular these days, and it's easy to see why. We continue to grow evermore fast-paced here in America, and baseball. Is. Just. Too. Darn. Sloooow. Football provides the violence and testosterone that we crave and basketball shows off some of the most incredible athletes in the world with a 24-second shot clock that guarantees plenty of scoring. Baseball just doesn't work that way.

I'll admit that I'd rather watch a good football game, or a college basketball game, over a professional baseball game. At least on TV. In person, baseball is right up there, and the slowness of the game, which makes it often unbearable on TV, is the very reason it's so great in person.

You have time to talk with people. You have time to think about the game situations, and to see how the players are reacting. There's time for dozens, if not hundreds, of little moments of mixups, stellar plays, decisions and momentum shifts that eventually add up to a win or loss. Then they do it again, 161 more times before the playoffs start.

Of course, I'm also biased because there's nowhere in the world I feel more at home than on the baseball field. When I'm standing on freshly cut grass in my uniform, with my glove or bat, and my hat, things just feel... right.

To honor the kickoff of the 2007 MLB season, here are my lists of top things I've witnessed in person at professional baseball games. I've only been to about 30 games, in three different cities (St. Louis, Kansas City, Houston), so this isn't a list of the all-time-best-ever-in-the-universe awards. Just the best I've seen from the stands.

Best Athlete -- Bo Jackson
Runner-up -- none

Simply incredible. Bo knows athleticism. In any game he played, he was the strongest man on the field, with the best arm and the most hitting power, while also being the fastest player on the field. How may people can say that? All this while he was playing the most body-damaging position in football for the Oakland Raiders in the "offseason".

He could hit balls 500 ft from the plate. Or he could stand at the plate and throw a ball over the fence. Yes, he really has done that. I also remember a time when he was on first base, and the pitcher made a quick move to first. No problem, Bo just sprinted to second before anybody could even get to the bag. I guess that's a stolen base, even though there was never a pitch.

One game in '89, the Royals held a 1-run lead in the ninth inning, and Jeff Montgomery was trying to get the save. The batter roped a line drive down the left-field line, and Montgomery said, "I put my head down and knew there was only one player in the world who could catch that. Then I remembered that player was my left-fielder. I looked up and Bo got it, and we won the game."

Bo also said that a few times every year, he would be at the plate and everything would slow down. When the pitch came, he could see the ball's stitches clearly, and could even read the lettering. I've had the same experience, and Bo's the only other guy I've heard talk about it. To be fair, though, I think he hit his super-slow-mo ball a little bit farther than I did.

Longest Home Run: Mark McGwire (circa 1992)
Runners-up: Albert Pujols and Shawn Green

Big Mac hit one over the foul pole at Kaufmann Stadium in Kansas City. Umpires had to deliberate for a minute to decide whether or not it was a fair ball. They counted it fair. Can't blame 'em.

Pujols and Green both hit monster shots at Minute Maid Park in Houston. Pujols hit it over the train tracks in left, while Green hit the top of the facade in deep left-center. That was impressive because it was easily over 480 feet, and it was to his opposite field.

Best Pitching Performance (Starter): Bret Saberhagen (1991)
Runners-up: Roy Oswalt and Roger Clemens

I've also seen Nolan Ryan pitch, but never on his best days. Saberhagen threw a complete game shutout in '91 that was amazing. He had four different pitches (fastball, curveball, slider, changeup) all working perfectly, and his fastball was well into the high 90s, although the stadium didn't have a scoreboard radar gun back then. He looked like he could've pitched 14 innings that day without breaking a sweat, and I'd bet if you asked him, he still remembers that game pretty vividly. Getting a chance to see an elite athlete really in the zone (even for him) is one of the reasons I go to games.

Roy and Roger aren't bad, either. But I haven't seen them as dominating as Saberhagen was in those nine innings sixteen years ago.

Best Pitching Performance (Reliever): Brad Lidge (2004)
Runner-up: Billy Wagner

I got to see both Lidge and Wagner plenty of times, and they had a lot in common. Both threw 100mph with the fastball, and both had a good slider to go with it. But Lidge's was nastier, far nastier.

And Brad Lidge in 2004 was one of the best seasons for any pitcher, ever. He had 157 strikeouts in 97 innings. Did you catch that? 157 Ks in 97 innings. He was absolutely unhittable for weeks at a time. Jeff Bagwell (former 1B for the Astros) has talked about that summer and noted that if Lidge ever walked a batter (that's pretty much the only way they reached base), they would trot to first base, look at Bagwell with stars in their eyes, and simply say, "Oh. My. God."

Makes me sad to see how terribly Lidge has performed that past couple of years. Oh well, at least he burned bright for a little while, and that slider was a thing of beauty. 90mph and dropped two and a half feet, down and to the left. Good luck.

Most Obviously Juiced Player: Jose Canseco
Runners-up: Ken Caminiti, Jeff Bagwell, Sammy Sosa and Ron Gant

I've seen many amazing natural athletes in my life, yet I've also played enough sports to be able to recognize when things go beyond natural. Canseco wasn't even close, and the runners-up were pretty obvious too. Here are my two neon signs for illegal performance-enhancing substances:

  1. Major body changes (20+ pounds of muscle) in a single offseason, especially for older players (cough..Bret Boone in 2001 at 32 years of age... cough...oh yeah, it was his contract year... cough).
  2. Maintaining peak condition, speed and power after 100 games in 115 days.

So that's it. What's the best you've seen?

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Why I love movies

On the fitness forum I frequent (see my links on the right side of the page), one of the members said two interesting things about movies. If you have read my blog before (and judging by the fact you're reading this sentence, I'm guessing you have), then you know how much I love movies. Here's what she said:

  1. What makes a movie great is its dialogue. When the characters are having a conversation that you'd like to join, then it's a great movie.
  2. Movies should make us better people. There are too many lessons in a good film to regularly hit the "Eject" button on our DVD players and keep making the same mistakes in life.

Wow, I couldn't agree more. Here then is my own take on those two points.

Say What??

Dialolgue is certainly a differentator between an OK movie and a classic. It takes great writing, great acting and some sort of magic chemistry to really pull of great conversations on the screen. Here's a list of my recent views that I think did it right:

  • Junebug -- The plot summary would make you think, "Boooring." But every character feels genuine, and says just what you think they should.
  • The Station Agent -- Sweet, funny film with poignant moments throughout. Again, no huge plot twists. Just good conversations.
  • 25th Hour -- Reminds me that even 30-year-olds are still growing up, everybody needs good friends, and bad choices always come with consequences.
  • V for Vendetta -- The pen is mightier than the sword, and the tongue is mightier than the greatest bomb. Alliteration galore.
  • Kiss Kiss Bang Bang -- This country is a crazy melting pot. And humor (especially in the form of sarcasm) is a great survival tool.
  • What's Eating Gilbert Grape -- We all have our burdens, some more than others. But there's still room for us to lead a life that is solely ours. Small towns don't always mean small minds.

How I Apply It

When I say that I want to use film to make me a better human being, I really mean it. Sure, there's a time for pure entertainment, and I enjoy those types of movies too. But I acknowledge it, while also striving to watch other things that will challenge me. You won't find me renting "Underworld" and then claiming it was to learn from the despairing existentialism of immortals. No, I rented that see Kate Beckinsale in a leather outfit, shooting guns and taking on werewolves and vampires. And it delivered.

Most of the time, though, I'm looking for something more. Here's an example.

A few weeks ago Jamie and I watched "Monster", for which Charlize Theron won the Oscar for portraying a prostitute who kills seven of her clients. Sounds fun, huh? It's based on the true story of Aileen Wuornos, who was executed by lethal injection in 2002.

This movie was not fun. Not at all. But two things really struck me as I watched it. First, I have no idea what kind of person I would be if I grew up in the same family as Aileen. She never knew her father (a blessing, since he was an insane child molester who commited suicide), was abandoned by her mother, and finally abused by her adoptive grandparents. That is some seriously messed up stuff, enough to scar anybody. Given that background, I may not have turned to hooking, but drug dealing would have probably seemed like a good career. I realized I have it very, very good, and that I basically hit the jackpot when I was born. Unfortunately life ain't always fair, and not everybody is given the same chance. All men are created equal, but they sure aren't created the same.

The second takeaway hit me like a body blow when watching Aileen try to interview for a real job (legal secretary, I think). Of course it goes horribly, and minutes later she's at the bar, ranting and raving to everyone around her about those stupid, useless f@$ckin' lawyers, and how she is better than them anyway.

Last fall I was pushing for a promotion to Director at my company. I felt I had the experience, credentials and proven results to qualify, and that it was just my time. For a while things were looking good and everything was falling into place, but eventually it didn't work out and I made a sideways move in the company, to a job with more responsibility and the same pay.

I reacted exactly like Aileen. Maybe I didn't get drunk, and maybe I chose different words, but that doesn't really matter. For weeks (okay, months), I inwardly belittled and criticized the upper management of my company, basically saying "Who needs you anyway?". Eventually the bitterness subsided, I gained some momentum in the new role, and things are now going very well. But it was a truly humbling and sobering experience to see my character traits in a withered, angry, drunken prostitute and murderer.

Next time I feel slighted by someone, maybe I won't immediately try to tear them down to make me feel better. If I'm able to do that, it will be somewhat due to Aileen Wuornos, and to the people who recorded, filmed and acted out her story.

That's why I love movies.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Lots to do at the fishy zoo

Two weekends ago we went to Sea World in San Antonio. What a great trip! This was really the first time the four of us have gone on a good old fashioned vacation to somewhere that wasn't a meeting with extended family.

We drove there on Thursday night (only takes about three hours) and ordered room service at the hotel for dinner. That was a good call -- there are times it's worth the extra expense for the convenience to avoid the hassle of eating out in a city we're not familiar with. Then it was a quick dip in the pool and off to bed.

Friday morning we got to Sea World right at opening time. Our hotel was only 2 miles away and ran a free shuttle every hour, which was very nice. We had a great morning of aquarium visits and the Shamu show, then Jack took a nap on Jamie's shoulder while we ate lunch. Then we played at the kids' area (basically a jungle gym on steroids, plus a huge sandbox) and went to a sea lion show.

Pretty much we were burning time until our scheduled dinner with Shamu at 5pm. It was amazing, and may have been the highlight of our whole trip. The pictures below are actually the view from our table. The food was a delicious buffet, but the scenery was unbeatable.

On Saturday we were scheduled to take the behind-the-scenes tour of Sea World. This meant we got to enter the park two hours before opening time, get breakfast, and see all the animals up close and personal. It was a lot of fun, but ended up being nearly a 6-hour tour. Too long for two little kids. Still, I'm glad we did it.

What I learned on vacation:

  • Manatees can do crunches to burn the blubber (this was a trick they did in one of the shows)
  • Jack has no known fears. None. Killer whales, sharks, and stingrays seemed to have little effect on him.
  • While not afraid, when Jack actually got to touch a stingray, it gave him the booboo jeebies. He did a hilarious little shake after feeling it.
  • Samantha is not nearly as afraid as we thought she was. Our tour passes from Saturday enabled us to skip the lines for any ride (yes, we were those people you hate). Samantha and Jamie went together on a pretty fast ride, and they both loved it. Picture below.
  • As fun as Sea World is, sometimes the best moments are cooking smores with the kids out by the pool at the hotel.
  • Portable DVD players are the greatest invention in the history of parenting, just ahead of Benadryl and swaddling blankets.
  • Being a father gives me a great excuse to go on fun kiddie vacations. This was my first trip to Sea World, and I loved it as much as anybody.

Note: To explain the title of this post, Jack just couldn't pronounce "Sea World", so he began to call it the "Fishy Zoo". Before long that's what we all called it.