Wednesday, August 27, 2008

August 27, 2008: The Day History Started Being Made

I am about to go on vacation, including a trip abroad and a stop off at the US Open on the way back. I will post about my experiences upon my return, with photos of course.

I have never seen Rafael Nadal in person and more than anything I look
forward to getting several photos of that spectacular ass. If you read stories about a Tennis Chick being questioned for stalking, it just might be me.

I also want to see Dinara playing up close. I am so impressed with her. But of course I will photograph as many players as I can. I love tennis far more than I like any particular players. And I will most definitely be praying for Federer's full recovery and return to world domination. Feel free to pray with me.

In the meantime, here is an article run by the AP today about Barack Obama's nomination.

I don't agree with their statement that history was made today. That implies a one-time accomplishment that we should all settle for - you know, as in he got the nomination, what more do you want?

No, today is just the start. I expect more from Mr. Obama and I know that he expects more of himself.

Today was the historic start of what I fully expect to be one of many stellar achievements.
Congratulations to Barack Obama. But let's not celebrate too soon because brother, it has only just begun. And whatever you do, don't forget to pay those bodyguards well. America is clearly ready for an African-American president but that does not mean that there aren't some loonies on the side that might not be tempted to see you six feet under.

Congrats also to Michelle Obama. Thank you for having the courage to be a strong Black woman
and for not backing down from that stance. Thank you also for the words that you used to announce to the world that your husband is someone special. To the convention audience, you proudly stated, "I come here as a wife who loves my husband and believes he will be an extraordinary president". And girlfriend I just love the hair. You have Tyra-big-forehead-Banks green with envy.

See you all in a few. Keep playing tennis!


Saturday, August 23, 2008

Fathers, daughters, and tennis ambitions

Anna Chadvetadze first came to my attention when news broke in December 2007 of her Moscow home being invaded by six men who tied up the tennis player and her father and robbed them of over $300,000. I remember wondering idly at the time where her mother was and how she had managed to escape this trauma.

Chadvetadze (right) is Russian with Georgian roots on her father’s side. But don’t ask her anything about that because she will assertively put you in your place and r
emind you that she is here to talk tennis thank you very much. You can however ask her about her tennis ambitions. She plans to become world #1. And she is going to do this with her father’s steady and unequivocal support.

Chadvetadze’s father is usually present at her matches. And she spends the entire match glancing up at him for apparent validation of her performance. Today, against Caroline Wozniaki – who
won the Pilot Pen finals, and who should not be confused with the Canadian Wozniak who also seems to be having a good year – Chadvetadze looked to her father to confirm that a shot was out, even though he was seated clear on the other side of the arena. She looks to him constantly. And he is always looking right back.

Chadvetadze has admitted that growing up, she used to look up to Anna Kournikova. I wonder if this is why she wears her hair in a similar braid and often attracts similar questions about a
future career in modeling. Kournikova became famous after her father sacrificed by sending his wife and daughter to America where he would later join them, and thereafter remain a visible presence in
the stands. I have always wondered at what point he became aware of his daughter’s involvement and later alleged secret marriage to the wealthy hockey player, Sergei Fedorov, who is 11 years her senior.

Like Anna Kournikova before them, tennis appears to have become for many attractive female players a means to a financial end. And fathers often seem to play a critical role in promoting their daughter’s ambitions.

And I don’t mean to give the impression that this is a uniquely Russian experience. There is no difference between these fathers and the African-American Richard Williams who, after watching a runner-up collect a check for $30,000, apparently persuaded then wife, Oracene Price, to have two more daughters who would become the source of a financial windfall. Having achieved his goals, Richard has been able to let go and allow his daughters to live their own lives, confident that they will never want for money.

Contrast th
is with many male tennis players whose fathers barely even attend their matches. Indeed, cases of emotionally enmeshed fathers are so few that they stand out. Agassi has been open about having to find a healthy balance between his father’s aspirations for him and his own ambitions for himself. Mark Philippoussis and his father have shared loud public screaming exchanges. But these stories stand out because of their infrequent occurrence.

Tennis fathers for the most part seem to have no difficulty separating from their sons. But with their daughters some often become far more clingy.
Take for instance Yuri Sharapov (below). Have you ever seen a match involving Maria Sharapova at which he was not a hovering presence? I have not. I can’t tell you what Maria’s mother looks like because she is never there. But Yuri remains a constant presence, often sitting alone, interacting with no one. Come rain or shine, he is there to support h
is daughter’s unimpeded success.

And Sharapova, with earnings of over $26 million, has enjoyed success like few others. Indeed, she is currently the world's highest-paid female athlete. By the time she won Wimbledon at age 17 in 2004, she had already been signed to promoting Nike and Prince. [Because she was underaged, these deals would have had to have been signed by a parent]. The adult Maria has since inked deals with Canon, Colgate-Palmolive, Sony, Motorola, and Tiffany. (I have to admit that I became suspicious of her decision to pull out of the Olympics. It may not have been a good time to remind the world that a Russian player has attracted the kind of offers that American athletes would kill for.)

Some fathers are more brutal in their pursuit of their daughter’s tennis success. Will anyone ever forget the ugly events surrounding Evgenia Simonovna Linetskaya whose father allegedly beat her up after the Acura Classic in November 2005? At stake was reportedly her prize money of $250,000.

And before Linetskaya, there were ugly incidents involving Damir Dokic [father of Jelena Dokic], and Jim Pierce [father of Mary Pierce], both of whom were allegedly abusive to their daughters. Both were eventually banned from attending WTA events. Steffi Graf’s father was imprisoned for not paying taxes on his daughter’s earnings.

And while Monica Seles’ father was apparently a much more supportive presence, her emotional dependence on him seemed to border on the bizarre. His death from cancer would be emotionally devastating for her. She coped by wearing his wedding ring on a chain around her neck.

As a psychologist, I am intrigued by this father-daughter dynamic that has influenced success for so many tennis players while simultaneously causing so much pain. It seems to be the rare parent who is able to strike a healthy balance between emotionally supporting his daughter’s aspirations, while allowing her the space to define and pursue her own separate developmental strivings. Perhaps there are fathers who fear that letting go would mean that their daughters would end up as self-destructive as Jennifer Capriati or as lost as Patty Schnyder. Enmeshment is not however a healthy resolution.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Why the price of yam might go up in Jamaica

When I was a child, along with my brothers and sisters I would spend a portion of the summer vacation with my mother’s older sister. My aunt lived in the country, in a large sprawling house surrounded by fruit trees under which chickens would forage loudly for food. It was probably the sight of one of these hens being killed for the Sunday meal that may have influenced my teenage decision to stop eating meat altogether.

I had a ton of cousins in the country, some my age, others younger and older. My mother and her sister were fertile women.
Because we were from the city, our arrival would be greeted as something very special, not just by my country cousins but also by the children of the village. My siblings and I were keenly aware of our special status and would lord it over the country bumpkins. They in turn would perform special tre
ats for us and would often do our chores. I remember one cousin making me mashed potatoes thick with cream and butter almost every day for a month because I loved it so. My grandmother would later suck her teeth in irritation and wonder why her older daughter had allowed me to get so fat.

One summer, after I had obtained the highest score at school in the end-of-term exams, my aunt observed that I was not sleeping with a pillow. She asked me why, and I told her that I just did not enjoy sleeping with my head up high. I preferred to lay flat. The truth is, I had never enjoyed sleeping with a pillow, and that year I had finally built up enough self-confidence to abandon a sleeping style that left me feeling unrested in the morning or with a sore neck.

My aunt remarked that that probably explained why I was so bright and had done so well on my exams. It was probably because the blood circulated freely in my brain while I slept, she noted in an awestruck tone that suggested that she really should have thought
of this before. As a result, she took away every last pillow from my cousins’ beds and forced them to allow the blood to circulate in their brains for the rest of that vacation.

Needless to say, I immediately became persona non grata. My cousins were justifiably annoyed. At the same time, they believed that their mother might be right and that sleeping without pillows would magically transform them into exam-passing intellects. As a result, they alternated between rejecting me outright and regarding me with awe. I coped by sucking up to my aunt who taught me to cook just in case my big brain eventually interfered with my ability to find a husband.

I thought of that summer as I listened to comments by Bob Costas on NBC, the day after Usain Bolt broke the
record for the 100-meter dash. Costas has performed the role of lead anchor for NBC, but on all events Caribbean, he has often been accompanied by Ato Boldon. Unfortunately we rarely get to see Boldon and his sexy lips. Ato’s voice often performs backdrop against Bob Costas' face which resolutely refuses to age along with his hair that resolutely refuses to change color, even as his Hispanic name resolutely refuses to distract from his whiteness. But I digress.

After Usain won the 100 meters dash, a proud Ato Boldon could not restrain his excitement. Bob Costas played it cooler as he found himself forced to comment on successes not related to Michael Phelps that were amazingly still occurring in Beijing.

Of course, because Usain is not American, I was not privileged to see his race live. I accept that NBC has paid dearly for their gamble on Phelps and that a non-American breaking world records is just not going to be their main story. So I was grateful that I got to see this race at all.

After the race was over and the excitable Boldon had been dispatched, Costas reported on an interview with Usain Bolt’s father. We were not privileged to see this interview – after all Papa Bolt was no Mama Phelps. So we had to take Costas’ word for it. He informed us that Bolt’s father had apparently credited his son’s amazing success to his having been raised on a diet of the special type of yellow yam grown in northern Jamaica.

Here we go, I thought. The price of yam is about to go up in Jamaica.

After Usain smashed Michael Johnson’s record in the 200 meters, I seriously contemplated finding a way to buy stock in a Jamaican yam farm. As other Jamaican athletes have continued to be inspired by their countryman’s success, I have alternated between jumping with joy while secretly wondering how I could capitalize on the pending explosion of the cost of yam on that island.

But my enthusism is checked by the story of how my cousins got their pillows back. It had everything to do with abysmally failing their Xmas exams. The blood circulating through their collective brains had not made a bit of difference. So maybe the cost of yam will not go up in Jamaica after all.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Acute Stress Does Not Predict PTSD

If you’re trained as a psychologist, these may be fighting words. They call into question the very accuracy of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), otherwise known as the Psychologists’ Bible.

If you’re not a psychologist but happened across this blog because you were expecting me to comment on Nadal and Federer both winning gold in Beijing, sorry to disappoint you. Honestly, I think that Juan Del Potro of Argentina winning four straight tournaments is the far more intriguing story. I hope Del Potro has some energy left for Flushing Meadows. I’d hate to see him fizzle out aft
er the big boys return stateside.

But right now I have posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) on the mind because I have been preoccupied by the conflict in Georgia and by whether our already overtaxed military is going to have to get involved there. And what are the implications for world peace if two of the greatest superpowers do not succeed in finding a path towards peace through the powers of diplomacy? Really, can our service members take any more?

You see I am preoccupied by this because I know that a huge proportion of the soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq come back with symptoms of PTSD and traumatic brain injury [TBI]. The last thing they need is another conflict with exposure to even more combat stress. Dealing with terrorists who remain indistinguishable from everyday Afghans and Iraqis is hard enough on the psyche. Having to get involved in a conflict that represents a throwback to t
he era of George Smiley could push some over the edge.

This is the background preoccupation that continues like white noise as I read the results of a recent study conducted by a team of Australian researchers who found that there is no predictive link between ASD and PTSD. And so that I can explain to you why these may be fighting words, let me spend a minute defining each of these acronyms.

According to the current version of the DSM, a diagnosis of Acute Stress Disorder (ASD) is appropriate when an individual experiences a traumatic event that triggers symptoms similar to PTSD, but only if symptoms endure between two days and four weeks. If symptoms persist beyond a month, the individual then meets the criteria for a PTSD diagnosis. The essential difference between PTSD and ASD then is a matter of duration.

It is accepted as fact among most psychologists that people who develop ASD are at greater risk of developing PTSD. This assumes a natural progression between the disorders, and implies that one should be able to predict the latter from the existence of the former. In other words, while some individuals may recover from traumatic stress and may not go on to develop PTSD, one cannot develop PTSD without first going through a precursor phase of ASD.

Well, it turns out that it is not entirely true. Results of a large study conducted by Richard Bryant, Ph.D. and his team of researchers at the University of New South Wales, have concluded that there is actually little predictive link between ASD and PTSD.

Bryant and his group studied 500 civilians who were admitted to four major trauma hospitals across Australia between April 2004 and April 2005. The causes of trauma ranged from injury due to a motor-vehicle accident [62%], a fall [16%], an industrial accident [8%], assault [5%], and a cluster of other reasons [9%]. Within one month of hospitalization, 33 individuals (or 6%) met criteria for a diagnosis of ASD. Three months later, only forty-nine individuals (or 10 % of the sample) met the criteria for PTSD. The researchers then examined how many of the 49 PTSD patients had been previously diagnosed with ASD. Turns out only 15 of them had. This translated to a 31 percent predictive value. In other words, 69% of the patients who were eventually diagnosed with PTSD were not initially assessed as having ASD.

There was however, one category of patient for whom ASD held better predictive value – and these were patients who had also experienced a brain injury. ASD predicted PTSD for 58 percent of the sub-group of subjects diagnosed with both PTSD and TBI.

This is the finding that got me thinking about the conflict in Georgia and its implications for service members for whom TBI has already been identified as the signature injury of the two existing conflicts in the Middle East. Really, most of them just cannot take any more.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

From Michael Phelps’ feet to Nadal’s butt

I was listening to All Things Considered on NPR on my way home today. An Indian scientist, Rajat Mittal, was explaining why fish swim faster under water than near the surface. Apparently it has everything to do with fluid dynamics.

Mittal currently teaches mechanical and aerospace engineering at the George Washington University in Washington, DC. But five years ago he was contracted by the US Navy to study the swimming patterns of dolphins, possibly because they are the most efficient swimmers in the water. Mittal explained
in a somewhat joking self-effacing manner how he has since extrapolated his findings to explain why Michael Phelps has been so successful in Beijing. It would appear that Phelps swims very much like a dolphin.

Phelps is even built like a dolphin. At 6-feet-4 and 195 pounds, he boasts an unusually small head and a long streamlined torso. When he breathes, his entire stomach concaves inward. His legs and elbows hyperextend easily, making him unnervingly flexible. He also has freakishly large size 14 feet that essentially serve as flippers. And his lung capacity is incredible, allowing him to remain underwater far longer than his opponents.

In other words, Michael Phelps swims like a dolphin. And if you were Hindu, you might even entertain the notion that Phelps may have been a dolphin in a previous life. He certainly undulates and kicks like one.

But Phelps did not invent the dolphin kick. It was of course first used by dolphins duh, and was then expertly copied 20 years ago by Olympic swimmer David Berkoff. In the NPR interview Berkoff himself commented on how he figured out that kicking underwater would help him to move significantly faster than swimming near the surface of the water. He was right. Mittal the scientist explained that this is because there is turbulence and air on the surface of the water that combine to impede fluidity by creating resistance.

The “Berkoff Blastoff” has since been upstaged by the Phelps Phenomenon. Phelps undulates his streamlined body underwater and kicks with his strong legs and flipper-like feet. Thus far, this has helped him win five Olympic gold medals. [He is gunning for the most ever in history.] And here’s how he does it. At the start of a race, Phelps may be just a bit in the lead. But after the turn when he pushes off against the wall and starts undulating those freakishly large size 14 flipper-like feet, he can end up as much as two or three body-lengths ahead. Amazing.

Which of course all got me to thinking of tennis and wondering if there are tennis players with freakishly unusual body parts that give them an edge in this sport. You know, kinda like the way the Chinese female gymnasts are all so incredibly petite that they make our American athletes look like Kentucky-fried overfed Amazons with no chance whatsoever of winning the gold but are instead forced to galumph their way to silver.

I thought first of height. Does a freakishly tall player have an edge in tennis? Iva Karlovic at 6 feet 10 inches immediately springs to mind. And he did recently beat Federer. But Karlovic has never won a Grand Slam – and if I were a betting person, I would bet a zillion dollars that he never will. Because he won’t.

Which does not mean that height is not an advantage in tennis. After all, 6 feet 6 inches Juan Del Potro just destroyed 6-foot Andy Roddick in Los Angeles last week. It was a good match. But I can’t say that I believe that Del Potro won simply because of his height. There was after all Roddick’s amazing lack of anticipation of Del Potro’s ability to easily return his serves. Not to mention Roddick’s stupid slapping forehands that continue to be tremendously overrated.

OK, so maybe freakish height is not a good example of an advantage in tennis.

What about wingspan? Let’s face it, Venus Williams has some long-assed arms. When Venus stretches both her arms wide, she can practically cover the width of a tennis court. Yes I exaggerate, but you get my point.

But is wingspan necessarily an asset in tennis? I don’t think so. Not when your knees are as fragile as a 50-year-old woman’s and you get injured every other month.

Which all brings me to Nadal’s butt. It is huge. It is actually freakishly large. Not in the same realm as J Lo’s or Serena’s but it is certainly up there. Can it possibly help to explain Nadal’s domination of the sport? Is there a muscle pack back there that he can rely on as he sprints low towards the ball and forces his opponents to play defensively? Can it help to explain his sudden, almost frightening eruptions into ferocity? Yes, I think so.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

A friend reports on her experience of Hurricane Dolly

The truck rolled slowly by, its loudspeaker blaring in Spanish. “We buy metal cans, old air conditions, scrap metal, tin roofs. Leave them out on the street in front of your house.” I looked out the window and saw the sign of the side of the truck. It said "We Buy Metal". I had heard it’s bell a block off. I had hoped it was an ice cream or snow cone truck. In the 98 degree heat I would have gone outside to buy one. This truck came around because the hurricane hit here last week and the trash…metal and trees were sprawled all over. The piles in the streets and alleys were seven feet high. The trucks for garbage pick up were trolling every day.

I have learned that these natural disasters have a mandate of their own w
hich they leave behind and it’s spelled Work. First there were the trees lying down broken all over my yard. The soil is porous, the roots are not long enough to hold them upright against the 95 -150 miles an hour winds.

Then there is the ice box without electricity for 5 days. I tried to cook up all the fresh pounds of salmon I had bought last week before the storm hit but most of it went to the trash. Even when I cooked it o
ver the charcoal fire in the back yard, the camp ice box couldn’t hold it fresh.

We had water most of the time which was a God send but we had filled up the bath tub anyway in case it went off. But the air conditioners went out when the electric went and it was gone for
5 days. The humidity kept everyone soaked all day from the sweat.

The worse thing for me was that there was no coffee. I went outside after th
e storm and all the stores were closed. No grocery stores. No gas stations. No Dairy Queen. No coffee. Later we traveled 50 miles north to check on my trailer but to tell you the truth, really I didn’t care what happened to that trailer, I just wanted to find some coffee.

As we were dr
iving up there, it looked like we were driving through the rice fields in India. Lakes along the highway stretched as far as the eye could see from water dumped by the hurricane. I about cried when I found that there was no coffee in Harlingen either. The stores were closed. The gas stations were closed. No electric. But finally we went to Valley Baptist Hospital and found some. I filled up my thermos.

The thing about this storm was that not only did no one believe it was really coming in here (because they always say its coming in here). But when it came it stalled off Padre Island and stayed there. It didn’t move. Most hurricanes travel slowly and keep moving but Dolly came to dinner and did not want to leave. They say that’s why it caused so much damage on the Island though it was a little storm. But I don’t know. I had no TV to watch or newspaper or even radio to track the storm. The only tracking I did was from my front door which I opened on occasion to see the howling winds outside and then slammed it shut. Once I climbed on the kitchen chair to peek outside over the window shutters. I was scared as I had seen the huge mesquite tree outside my house swaying 5 feet from the house. The other trees had fallen in the back yard and I knew this one would hit the house if it went down. It didn’t.

After the storm, they said that some of the hotels on the Island won’t be opening until Jan 2009. I find that hard to believe. But they did cancel the International Fishing Tournament that was supposed to be here next week saying there was no place to have it as the Auditorium lost its roof early on, along with the fire station. And so many stores with huge glass plate windows were a shower of glass and water and mangled wet T-shirts and beach clothes. The Palmetto Inn still stood untouched. I was relieved. It was our local tribute to Tex Mex greasy food, here since 1960’s.

The problems with the hotels is that building on an island, you have to sink piles into the sand that are almost as high as the building is going to be…which could be 25 storeys in some cases. That’s where the law suits are coming from. One new huge building was leaning over southward. Another was questionable before the hurricane but now. The demand for these condos is unabated by the winter tourist and yankees.

We went down to the old Wal Mart parking lot in Port Isabel after the storm. Huge trucks operated by HEB and local national guards soldiers were handing out free bags of ice, drinking water and boxes of instant meals that heat themselves. We were glad to get them. We were pushed into a line for breakfast and handed a plate of scrambled eggs and sausage and biscuit… It was delicious.

from Emily]

It’s the Hingis era all over again – minus the creativity

Sometimes women’s tennis really pisses me off. Really.

I go through periods of having to convince myself that women tennis players have every right to earn the same amount of money as men. I have argued long and hard that it is fair for women to play the best two sets out of three and still earn the same pay as men who play the best of five at major events. I have argued in favor of different but equal [and of course, not far from my mind is memory of the doctrine of separate-but-equal that was used to discriminate against Americans of color, and the thought unsettles me].

And then along comes someone like Jelena Jankovic who makes me question everything I believe in and makes me wonder if it’s all really fair.

You see, Jelena is about to become the world No. 1 player. And if you don’t know her, I would not be surprised. And your not knowing her would probably have everything to do with the ordinariness of her game. Jelena gets balls back. That is what she is the best at doing. She is a retriever. She has no shots worth selling the farm for. Her serve is ordinary. Her baseline returns are ordinary. Her vollies – when they occur – are breathtakingly ordinary. She even looks ordinary – and I recognize that that is an unforgiveable statement, but sometimes women’s tennis really pisses me off. Really.

Jelena is on the brink of becoming No. 1, but, in my opinion, she doesn’t deserve it. Don’t get me wrong – she has most certainly earned it. She has earned it the same way Hingis earned hers before she decided that cocaine was more important to her than tennis – by being the most consistent player in the WTA.

And you have every right to attack me for my double standard because I defended Hingis and am now attacking Jelena for the same achievement. I’d like to believe that the difference is that I respected Hingis’ incredible talent and creativity. Hingis was a crafty player who had the uncanny ability to anticipate her opponents and come up with a tremendously creative response. I miss seeing her play.

Jelena, on the other hand, gets the ball back. She wins by making you have to hit another shot. She is the queen of long boring rallies. She has zero creativity. She rarely ever does anything unexpected or original with the ball. She is as predictable as Brett LeFavre’s countless retirements. And she is about to become No. 1, not for being the best tennis player on the planet, but because she gets balls back. And that pisses me off. Really.

Jelena’s ascendance was clearly facilitated by the departure of Justine Henin. After being spanked by Dinara Safina and possibly recognizing that her last opponent was on the break of superstardom, Ms. Henin fled tennis. And apparently left a void that ordinary players like Jelena Jankovic are suddenly qualified to fill.

Contrast this with Dinara Safina [right]who, after beating Henin, has gone on to experience success after success. After Dinara made it to the finals of the French Open, I saluted her tremendous accomplishment. It bears mentioning that Dinara has just clinched the US Open Series, and is now a favorite for winning the US Open Grand Slam. She is the hottest player in women’s tennis right now.

Jelena Jankovic, on the other hand, has never even played in a Grand Slam Final. I kid you not. She has won six career titles. And she is a mere eight points ahead of her country woman – Ana Ivanovic – who faced a tired Dinara Safina in the finals of Roland Garros. [Hingis, on the other hand, won every Grand Slam except the French, where she made it to the finals against Iva Majoli.]

Jelena will be the 4th No. 1 player so far this year. She was preceded by Maria Sharapova, and Ana Ivanovic, all in quick succession. This has never occurred before in the history of women’s tennis. And if Kuzetnova and Venus Williams decide that they really want this, it is mathematically possible for each of them to also get a turn at being No. 1 before the year is over. And this all because Henin decided that she had had enough of tennis and abdicated the No. 1 throne.

But in her defense, Jelena Jankovic has earned the No. 1 slot. She did not cheat her way there. She did not manipulate the system. She admits cheerfully that she hates practicing, so she keeps herself and her game fit by playing a lot of tennis. She enters the most tournaments and amasses the most points. And for this she has earned the title of becoming the 18th No. 1 player in the history of the WTA.

When told of her pending promotion, here was Jelena’s typically cheerful response: “When you get older, at least one day you can say you were No. 1 and no one can take that away from you.” And she’s right.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

When Black Women Sing the Blues

For all of her adult life, my mother had a superstitious belief that the first person she saw would end up influencing her energy level for the rest of the day. She believed that when she first looked out of her window at the crack of dawn, it was better to see an energetic hard-working individual rather than a sloth. She held on to this belief until the day she died.

At that time, we lived opposite a car repair place. The owner of this business was a hard-working older man. Every morning my mother would lean out of one of the front windows and call for Mr. Cox. They would exchange a few pleasantries as they both prepared for their day. She would then fasten the window to let the morning breezes in and would start singing gaily. It was her singing that would eventually wake me up.

Whenever my mother greeted the dawn with an exchange with hard-working Mr. Cox, she would spend the rest of the day in a flurry of activity. If however, another neighbor happened to intercept her plan – just happened to be passing by as she opened her window – she would suck her teeth in irritation, especially if said passer-by was known in the village as a good-for-nothing who wasted his time. My mother was convinced that this person’s energy would influence hers. She would spend the rest of the day complaining about having gotten nothing done thanks to that so-and-so that she saw first upon arising.

I believe that my mother may have been depressed just before she died. I remember that towards the end of her life, in the last few months before she died, she became more and more desperate about seeing Mr. Cox at the crack of dawn. And she complained that she did not understand why she was still so tired, even though her day had started right.

I found myself thinking about my mother as I perused the latest issue of “Psychiatric News”. A writer, Aaron Levin – who sounds neither female nor Black – was writing about depression among women of color. He believes that there are many factors that militate against the recognition and treatment of depression among African-American women. He makes the case that the most salient of these may be cultural.

Traditionally, epidemiological studies on the prevalence of depression have suggested that African-Americans are less likely than whites to be diagnosed with major depressive episode, major depressive disorder, or dysthymia. [Dysthymia is best described as a low-grade chronic sadness, similar in symptomatology to major depression but with significantly less intensity.] African-Americans are described as more likely to develop phobias or somatization disorders.

However, in 2005, a third study by the National Health and Nutrition Examination found higher rates of dysthymia among African-Americans and higher rates of depressive disorder among Whites. In other words, Black people appear to be less likely to suffer major depression, but are more likely to sing the chronic blues.

This finding has been endorsed by other more recent studies that have noted a closing of the depression gap between Blacks and Whites. One study found that African-American women born in the US were three times more likely to report depression than immigrants from Africa or the Caribbean. Apparently it's life in America that depresses the heck out of many Black women.

Allesa English, M.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Tennessee, Memphis Center for Health Science and director of its psychiatry residency program, believes that the problem is less diagnostic and more cultural. English maintains that African-American women simply present differently. They may be less likely to use words like ‘depressed’ or ‘sad’. They may be more likely to complain of feeling tired or to report nonspecific pain.

English believes that many Black women may be less willing to describe themselves as depressed as a result of the stigma attached to seeking help and the risk of being perceived as crazy. When some Black women summon up the nerve to seek help, they may spend more time describing aches and pains and less time labeling their condition as depression. In fact, some may feel offended if this word is used to describe their experiences.

Even when diagnosed with depression, many Black women resist or delay taking antidepressant medications, as a result of a distrust of the medical community or the fear of unknown side effects and/or drug dependence. In other words, Black women are more likely to allow themselves to suffer. And this makes sense, because many have suffered for so long, what’s a little more?

I think of all this as I think of my mother. Her desperate superstitious belief that the mere sight of Mr. Cox was enough to get her energized for the day may have served to distract her from a growing awareness of an underlying dysthymia. Her fatigue as she neared the end of her life may have been her body’s way of telling her that she was going to die unhappy. And she did.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

How I Spent My Stimulus Check

When I got a letter telling me to expect a $600. stimulus check, I became a bit sceptical. I had registered for the refund to be automatically deposited to my account, so I did not expect to receive either the notification or the check by mail.

At first I thought that it must be one of those Nigerian schemes involving the putatively wealthy son of an African king who cannot access his money but if you send him $10,000. of yours, he would repay you in millions. I know that there are people who actually fall for these schemes. I am happy to not be one of them.

When my stimulus check finally arrived, I found myself momentarily unsettled. How on earth was I going to spend it? Should I use it to help defray my mounting bills? Should I put it all on a credit card? Or could I possibly indulge a portion of it in a new Coach handbag? What to do? What to do?

Thanks to the writings of psychologist Daniel Kahneman, I now know that there is a psychology behind the way we spend money. In October 2002, this Princeton psychologist was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his groundbreaking work in applying psychological insights to economic theory, particularly in the areas of judgment and decision-making under the influence of uncertainty.

Kahneman and his deceased research partner, Amos Tversky, PhD, were honored for their pioneering research that countered some of the assumptions of traditional economic theory. They called their alternative theory “prospect theory”.

Prospect theory examines the process of financial decision-making under conditions of risk and uncertainty. The prospect model explains why periodically there are such wide fluctuations in the stock market. It predicted the housing debacle. And it makes sense of why people would drive all the way to a distant Wal-Mart to save a few dollars on a small purchase, but would not do the same for a discount on an expensive Coach handbag.

Traditional economic theory, on the other hand, argues that people make basically rational choices out of self-interest. In other words, we generally spend money wisely but selfishly.

And certainly, when I recently read about accusations of corruption against a certain Alaskan Senator, I thought that traditional economic theory made possible sense of some aspects of his behavior. Some people do indeed use rational decision-making to rob others blind. And they do so for utterly selfish reasons.

But Kahneman and Tversky also discovered that people often fail to analyze situations fully when making complex judgments. Instead, we often make decisions using rules of thumb rather than rational analysis. They found that humans sometimes make decisions based on factors that economists traditionally don't include, such as what is considered to be fair, what happened in the past, and how to avoid losing what we have worked so hard to gain.

In other words, a corrupt Senator may steal because he might consider it unfair that others had stolen in the past and got away with it so why shouldn’t he be entitled to the same? And, having stolen, he may feel compelled to find creative ways to hide ill-gotten gains. Or remain in denial that what he did can be categorized as stealing. Or find ways to justify holding on to “gifts” from his constituents.

Because my stimulus check was honestly earned, I experienced no moral quandary whatsoever over how to spend it. My conflict was far more traditional – should I use it to pay bills or should I stimulate the economy by being utterly selfish? The situation seemed so either-or that I could perceive little risk. In the end, I strove for a compromise. I went to T J Maxx and indulged to the tune of $100. A chunk of the remaining $500. went towards paying bills.

But back to Kahneman and Tversky whose theory also helps to explain the amazing generosity of everyday Americans, and our willingness to sacrifice for others. In one study, these researchers asked people to choose between two hypothetical procedures to cure a disease. Most respondents selected the procedure that saved 80 percent of lives over the one that killed 20 percent -- regardless of the cost. In other words, most respondents chose the altruistic option over the money-saving one.

Traditional economic theory does not explain such altruism. Nor does it explain why a portion of my stimulus check went towards paying for a friend to play tennis at my club several weeks in a row. I have never told her that there is a visitor’s fee – I simply paid it. I’d like to believe that I am just generous that way.

UPDATE: Link to a recent interview with Dr. Kahneman