Happy Birthday, Dad

On February 17, 1986, shortly after excusing himself from the ice for a breather from the hockey game he was playing with my brothers and some friends, my father collapsed and died from “massive coronary failure”. Had he lived, today would have been his 70th birthday.

Bud - WeddingI usually refrain from writing anything that is overly personal here on this blog, but my dad deserves much of the credit for my interests and my direction in life. The things that make their way onto this blog are things that he and I would no doubt have spent many hours discussing over the years.

My sense of humor, my interest in how things work, and an unquenchable curiosity about the connectedness of everything can be directly traced back to the time he and spent together watching Monty Python’s Flying Circus and James Burke’s Connections on PBS during my formative years. The former gave me an appreciation of why we shouldn’t take anything too seriously, and the latter was the catalyst that eventually led me down the path of complexity and knowledge management.

My appreciation for the importance of doing a job well, and for taking care of the people for whom you are responsible, come from his willingness to take me along on the job – he was a Roadmaster for the Missouri Pacific Railroad. This came in very handy in my early career as an Army officer. Aside from the sorrow inherent in losing a parent so early, I was also saddened by the fact that he didn’t live to see me receive my commission and that he and I never had a chance to swap “war stories” about life as a leader of men.

My greatest sadness from his early death is that he never really got to know my wife, Julie, and that he never had the opportunity to meet his grandkids. I am very happy that Julie and dad did meet, even if only twice and then only briefly. My sons would only have benefited from knowing my dad, and I daresay he would have “corrupted” them even more than I have managed to do on my own. I can only imagine how dad would have reacted to Zeke’s autism, but I have the feeling he would have taken it in stride and treated Zeke just like any other kid.

Although I am saddened by the time I’ve not had with my dad for the past 20+ years, I am very thankful for the time I did have with him. Like any teenager / young adult, I have the feeling I didn’t appreciate him as much as I probably should have at the time. Like any parent of teenagers, I have the feeling that my kids don’t appreciate me as much as I think they should. I can only hope that one day they will look back on this time in our lives and appreciate it as much as I do mine.

So, on this day of thanks giving I would like to say, “Thanks, Dad.”

And Happy Birthday.

Autism and the “helicopter parent”

Every now and then someone will write an article – or a comment on an article – that pins the cause of autism on “overprotective” parents. These parents – also known as “helicopter parents” – are so involved in their kids lives, the argument goes, that they warp them into being autistic. (Almost the opposite of the old “refrigerator mother” theory, since this new “cause” is the result of too much – not too little – love and affection.)

flyingwoman1Before I go any further here, let me say emphatically and without qualification that I don’t believe helicopter parents – or any parent, for that matter – can cause autism by spending too much (or too little) time and attention on their kids.

I do think, however, that helicopter parents may play a potentially significant role in the ever increasing number of autism diagnoses.  Consider this definition of helicopter parents from wikipedia:

Helicopter parent is a colloquial, early 21st-century term for a parent who pays extremely close attention to his or her child’s or children’s experiences and problems, particularly at educational institutions…. Helicopters parents are so named because, like helicopters, they hover closely overhead, rarely out of reach, whether their children need them or not.

Who better to recognize early signs of autism and bring them to the attention of a doctor for evaluation. So in addition to “increased awareness of autism” as a possible reason for the increased number of diagnoses, we should also consider that “increased awareness of your child” might be contributing to the number of people who have their children evaluated. Which in turn will lead to a higher number of diagnoses.

The interesting thing here, at least to me, is that once a child is diagnosed as autistic the natural tendency of parents, especially those who are already “helicopter parents”, is to become even more involved in their kids lives, to become more overprotective. The nature and structure of our society, especially our education system, builds on this natural tendency to make it for all intents and purposes a necessity.

The challenge for parents is to figure out how to remain involved, as an advocate, in their child’s life without trying to live their child’s life for them. They need to figure out how to evolve, over time, from being a helicopter parent to a young child to being a slow-parent to a young adult.

If only it were as easy to do as to say.

A systems approach to food and nutrition – Michael Pollan’s “In Defense of Food”

Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.

These seven words make up the entirety of the “eater’s manifesto” that is the subtitle of Michael Pollan‘s book In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. Of course, if the “doing” were as easy as the “saying”, Pollan wouldn’t have needed 200+ pages to explain the three rules embodied in these seven words.

At its core, Pollan’s argument is one for a systems view of food and nutrition and against attempts to reduce the complexity of the “food web” into its various components, each considered in isolation from the other. He points to the Western conception of food, especially our current “food science” and “nutrition industry”, as an example of the dangers of the reductionist view point.

As Pollan himself mentions in the introduction, it seemed to me at first to be a little bit strange for someone to be telling me to “eat food”. I mean, what else would I eat? The answer, as it turns out, is that a lot of what I – and quite probably you – eat is actually what Pollan refers to as “edible food-like substances”.

These food-like substances are, according to Pollan, the result of “nutritionism”, a deliberate effort by food scientists – and the companies that employ them – to break food down into it’s component parts, the macro- and micro-nutrients, so that these nutrients can be efficiently – and profitably – delivered to consumers.

map-in-defense-of-food

The topics on the left side of the mind map above give an idea of how Pollan believes “nutritionism” has led to many of our current health problems, including the epidemic of obesity. He covers these in the first two sections of the book.

The topics on the right side give an idea of  the key points behind the three rules of his eater’s manifesto and how they all work together as a system. He covers this in section 3 of the book.

If you are inclined to systems thinking, Pollan’s argument will make perfect sense. There may be some areas you could nit-pick, but the overall approach is sound. If, on the other hand, you are not a “systems-thinker”, you may very well find yourself a bit confused and uncomfortable. We are, in general, so accustomed to worrying about all the parts of nutrition that it will take a very concerted – and conscious – effort, to “let go” and trust the system.

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The mind map in Mind Manager 6 Pro format.