Random Connections

Today, I read Dr. George Dawson’s blog post, “How I ended up in a high-risk pancreatic cancer risk screening clinic.” As usual I was impressed with his erudition, scientific literacy, and rigorous objectivity, even as it pertained to a deadly disease which runs in his family genetic history. I couldn’t help admiring his courage.

And, whether this is a random connection or not, this somehow led to my remembering Dr. George Winokur, a giant in the scientific study (including genetics) of psychiatric diseases, especially mood disorders. He died of pancreatic cancer shortly after he was diagnosed with it in the spring of 1996.

Dr. Winokur was chair of the University of Iowa Department of Psychiatry from 1971 to 1990. He remained on faculty, actively involved in research and teaching up until the day of his death in October of 1996.

I was a resident in psychiatry at University of Iowa from 1992-1996 and I have a clear recollection of meeting with Dr. Winokur in his office during my last year, when I was preparing for job interviews. I knew he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

He had been actively recruiting me to accept a position in the department and did so even as we spoke briefly. I remember noticing that he gripped an electrical conduit on the wall next to his desk so tightly that I wondered if he were in pain.

He was the main reason I stayed in Iowa. He had a great sense of humor. All of us residents loved him. There was even a list of his “commandments” all new residents received when they began their residencies at Iowa.

Winokur’s 10 Commandments

  1. Thou shalt not sleep with any UI Psychiatry Hospital patient unless it be thy spouse.
  2. Thou shalt not accept recompense for patient care in this center outside thy salary.
  3. Thou shalt be on time for conferences and meetings.
  4. Thou shalt act toward the staff attending with courtesy.
  5. Thou shalt write progress notes even if no progress has been made.
  6. Thou shalt be prompt and on time with thy letters, admissions and discharge notes.
  7. Thou shalt not moonlight without permission under threat of excommunication.
  8. Data is thy God. No graven images will be accepted in its place.
  9. Thou shalt speak thy mind.
  10. Thou shalt comport thyself with modesty, not omniscience.

I never got the impression that George Winokur recruited me because I was black, although it was pretty obvious to me that I would be the first black University of Iowa psychiatry department faculty member. He had too much class to make that an issue.

I’ve known a few classy psychiatrists. Maybe the connection is not so random.

Exactly When Were the Good Old Days?

I just saw a short web article about Baby Boomers and their opinion of what’s going on these days and comparing it to the “good old days.”

There were the usual complaints about bad music, lack of teamwork, no effort to maintain social bonds, and the like.

I’m not sure I can identify any such good old days. I can think of good and bad times. I tend to think of them as being a byproduct of good experiences with people you enjoy being with—which don’t always fit with the times.

I grew up in the 1960s during the Civil Rights struggle, and I would be hard-pressed to call it the good old days. I can recall my mother trying her best to straighten out the curls of the hair of my younger brother and me with a lot of hair oil. It was almost painful as she tried to press the evidence of our mixed white and black parentage out of our hair.

I think the perception of what the good old days were might depend on your place in society at the time.

There’s this old Twilight Zone episode about a guy trying to make it in the tough business world and he wasn’t doing too well.

Spoiler Alert: I reveal what happens in the ending, just in case you want to try to find a YouTube.

On the train home from the office, he would dream of a place called Willoughby. It was a place years before his time. It was sunny. People were friendly, enjoyed picnics, went fishing and it was always summertime. He longed for it. His boss was a tyrant and his wife pretty much called him a failure. He got off the train at the Willoughby stop a few times and really enjoyed the good old days feel to the place. But he always got back on the train.

One day, he had that “last straw” moment. His boss was tyrannical; his wife belittled him and called him a loser. He got off the train at Willoughby, determined to stay in the good old days.

OK, this is the spoiler:

Willoughby turns out to be the name of the undertakers who pick him up where he jumped off the train and died.

Anyway, this “train” of thought led to Sena and I reminiscing about the trip to Hawaii we made way back in the day. The flight was long and excruciating. My ears were plugged most of the way there. We were both exhausted, but the tour group we traveled with were raring to go after we got to the hotel in Waikiki. They were mostly 3 decades older than us. I can’t remember if one of them or somebody else at the airport made a disparaging comment about Waikiki, something like: “I don’t know why anybody thinks Waikiki is anything special; what the hell, it’s just like Des Moines!”

While we camped out in our hotel room, the older folks went out to see Don Ho perform. When they got back, they said Don was drunk, they had a few drinks, and we just marveled at their energy.

We developed a friendship with a married couple in the tour group named Leota (Lee for short) and Norman. Lee took exception to Norman having a beer with the rest of us on some outing. I think it was about a health problem he had. He grumbled a little and we toasted the event anyway. Norman, who had been in the military, shed a few tears at the Pearl Harbor monument.

We traded Christmas cards with Lee and Norman until their children sent us a card telling us that Lee had died. Norman died several years later. We still have a photo of Sena with Lee and Norman taken while we were having a great time in Hawaii.

I guess you call those the good old days. Maybe you could even find a reason to call the present times the good old days after a while—if you were as drunk as Don Ho during the whole era.

Fathers Can Be a Pain in the Ass

I’m going to talk a little bit about fathers. Mothers are important too, but I’m a guy and I can talk about mothers another day. Because it’s a touchy subject, I’m going to begin with a Men in Black (MIB) joke, like I always do when I’m being defensive. There’s this MIB 3 scene in which Agent K and Agent J have this exchange:

Agent K: I used to play a game with my dad, what would you have for your last meal. You could do worse than this (explanation for this: they’re sitting in a restaurant and an eyeball in Agent K’s soup swivels around and stares at him).

Agent J: Oh, okay, I used to play a game with my dad called catch. Except I would throw the ball and it would just hit the wall, cause—he wasn’t there.

Agent K: Don’t bad mouth your old man.

Agent J: I’m not bad mouthing him, I just didn’t really know him.

Agent K: That’s not right.

Agent J: You’re damn right, it’s not right. A little boy needs a father.

On one level, this scene is just another way of showing the father/son, teacher/student, mentor/mentee relationship Agents K and J had with each other. By extension, their interaction says something about what happens in similar real-life relationships—in the shallow, cliché ways that movies always do.

I sometimes think about the relationship I had with learners when I was a teaching consultation-liaison (C-L) psychiatry. Often, I say to myself that I never had a mentor and I was never a mentor.

That’s not true. Although I never had a mentor who was formally assigned to me, there was more than one faculty member in the psychiatry department with whom I had an informal mentor/mentee relationship. And I was an informal mentor to at least a few trainees.

However, I was middle-aged by the time I entered medical school, which probably set the stage for awkward relationships with my fellow students and some teachers, partly because I was either the same age as or older than them.

That doesn’t mean I was wiser than them. It just means that I was conflicted about them. Later, in residency, I learned about transference and countertransference. In fact, I focused on the psychodynamic as well as the medical issues in teaching trainees. In the first C-L manual I wrote (the forerunner to the book I and my co-editor published later), I devoted a large section to psychodynamic factors relevant to doctor-patient relationships.

So, if you’re wondering when I’m going to start bad-mouthing my old man, you can stop wondering. I’m not going there. He wasn’t a hero, like Agent J’s father was (you need to see the movie to get this angle).

My dad was funny. I don’t think I got my own sense of humor from him, but it makes sense why I would have one—and just because “he wasn’t there” doesn’t explain everything. It never does.

Fathers can be a pain in the ass, not just because of dad jokes. Fathers can be a pain in the brain, too. Ask anybody who was a latchkey kid; I was one of those. We really don’t belong to any specific generation.

We also can’t just up and time travel like Agent J and find out about the father we never really knew. Mostly, it’s just bits and pieces, like a matchbook with a name and address from somebody on your paper route. The path it can lead to doesn’t always mean you find out that “Your daddy was a hero,” like a young Agent K tells young James (who becomes Agent J in the future) after he neuralyzes him to shield him from the hard truth about his father.

You’ll have to watch the movie to get that one.

More On Taming the Juggling Balls

I’ve been juggling for about 5 months now and reflecting on my progress. I think I’m doing OK for a geezer. Sena would call me a hot dog although I would still call it ugly juggling by any standard.

What’s striking, at least to me, is the little bit of science I can find on the web about juggling. I hear the term “muscle memory” when it comes to learning juggling. Actually, there’s some truth to that. There are different kinds of memory. For example, most of us know about declarative memory, which about memorizing facts, because we use it to prepare for exams. Those of us who went to medical school remember the agony of taking tests for the basic sciences.

But so-called muscle memory, or the memory for learning new skills like juggling, takes place in the brain. There was a study published in 2009 which found changes in both gray and white matter of subjects before and after learning to juggle (Scholz J, Klein MC, Behrens TE, Johansen-Berg H. Training induces changes in white-matter architecture. Nat Neurosci. 2009;12(11):1370-1371. doi:10.1038/nn.2412).

The study about correlation of the inability to stand on one leg for 10 seconds with higher mortality in older patients, which I relate to the ability to do the under the leg juggling trick, was published last year (Araujo CG, de Souza e Silva CG, Laukkanen JA, et al. Successful 10-second one-legged stance performance predicts survival in middle-aged and older individuals. British Journal of Sports Medicine 2022; 56:975-980.)

I talk a lot about juggling as though I’m a teacher. I’m not a juggling instructor by any means. You can find better juggling teachers on the web. But my approach to talking about juggling in terms of it being a hobby for me is really not different from how I talked about consultation-liaison psychiatry before and after I retired. I’m still a teacher—just evolving in retirement.

However, you can find much better resources for learning how to juggle at the following websites:


Have fun!

Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks

While we were out for a walk yesterday, we ran into someone walking her chocolate Labrador retriever. His name is Hunter and he had a tree branch longer than him in his jaws. He looked like he was having a great time gnawing on it and swinging it around.

I didn’t envy his owner when it came time to going home and taking it away from him.

Mostly younger dogs like to chew on old sticks and some say it might be a good idea to bring a chew toy along with you when you take a dog outside for a walk. It can be tough to persuade a dog to just let the stick go.

As a retired consultation-liaison psychiatrist, I sometimes compare myself to a dog who latches on to a stick and is reluctant to let it go. I’m an old dog that way and, as I’ve mentioned before, it’s a little hard to teach an old dog new tricks.

There are examples of this issue. I rarely go grocery shopping and I still have a lot to learn. I was not good about grocery shopping and other non-work-related chores when I was a doctor for about 28 years, counting residency. Medical school kept me pretty busy too.

Anyway, I went grocery shopping yesterday and I thought I did OK although I had to wander around quite a bit to find everything on my list. Sena doesn’t need a list. She pointed out that I got the unsalted butter—which she never buys. I wondered how I managed to pick up unsalted butter. I thought I was doing good to get the Great Value brand rather than the more expensive brand.

The package was blue instead of red. You mean I have to read the package?

I got a package of chicken breasts and congratulated myself on that. Sena said they were really thin and noticed that they included rib meat—which she normally doesn’t buy. That slipped by me.

I bought a lot of items that we needed; you know, things like milk, eggs, bread, nuclear weapons, etc. But I really didn’t get anything that you could actually make a bona fide meal out of in the sense of cooking something.

Well, I did get a couple of frozen pizzas. This brought the total of frozen pizzas in our freezer to a number I’m not willing to divulge at this time.

I had to maneuver around several shoppers who were filling orders for customers who ordered their groceries on line. I tried that a very few times and it’s more difficult than I thought.

When I got up to the cashier, I just stood there while she rang up my purchases, bagged them—and then she started to put the bags in my cart. She didn’t say anything but a tiny bell in my brain rang somewhere and it occurred to me that I was supposed to put the bags in the cart. I apologized and got to work right away when I noticed. I recalled that it was probably just that mistake that led to my leaving an item at the store the last time I shopped.

Sena went to the grocery store after I got home and returned with items that could be used in menus. I think that is called meal planning.

But I did make dinner last night, meaning I reheated left-over chili and chopped up some vegetables for salads. Oh, and I got the saltines out for the bread group.

Sena is still trying to coax me to let go of the stick.

About Those Stages of Retirement

We got our new wall clock on the wall the other day. It got me to thinking about how I view time and other matters now that I’ve been retired for about two and a half years.

I actually tried to ease into retirement by getting a 3-year phased retirement contract. I thought that might help me get adjusted to not being a fire fighter as a consultation-liaison psychiatrist. I don’t know how helpful that was.

So, I looked up the stages of retirement on the web. There are slightly different versions but most of them have 5 stages:

  • Realization
  • Honeymoon
  • Disenchantment
  • Reorientation
  • Stability

I guess I’m somewhere at the tail end of disenchantment and the beginning of reorientation. I have to point out a few things about me and the clock on the wall to help get my point across.

When I was running around the hospital, I used to pay a lot of attention to the clock. One example is how I helped medical nurses and doctors diagnose and manage catatonia. That’s a complicated and potentially life-threatening condition linked to a lot of medical and psychiatric disorders. It can make people afflicted with it look like they have a primary mental illness and they can look and act spooky.

Most people with catatonia are mute and immobile. They could also have wild, purposeless agitation but the mute and immobile type is more common. I would recommend administering injectable medicine in the class of benzodiazepines, often lorazepam.

Often the catatonic person would wake up and start answering questions after being like a statue only minutes before the injection. I watched the clock very closely, and the nurse and I watched the vital signs even more closely.

The recovery from a catatonic state looks like a miracle, which often made me look like a hero—despite the fact I could not explain exactly the mechanism of how catatonic states begin or how injectable benzodiazepines work to reverse the state. In most situations, on the general medical and surgery wards, the cause was not infrequently a medical emergency.

That made retirement difficult. I often didn’t notice time passing when I was working. In fact, my job as a C-L psychiatrist was marked by a series of emergencies, hence the fire fighter feel the job held for me.

Somehow, interrupting my schedule (if you can call firefighting a schedule), didn’t help me very much in my adjustment to retirement.

Right from the start, I noticed I missed being a hero. By the time I got to the first stage, Realization, I was already part of the way into the Disenchantment stage. I don’t really recall the Honeymoon stage.

Time passed slowly after full retirement for me. Not even the phased retirement schedule prepared me for it. It was excruciating. I have never slept very well, but my insomnia got worse after retirement.

I had fleeting thoughts about returning to work, and that’s the surprising thing. You’d think I would have just dropped the whole retirement thing and get right back in the fire truck.

But I didn’t. Part of me knew that the job consumed me and burnout was a consequence. My focus on work did not help me be a good husband. On the other hand, retirement by itself didn’t help either.

It’s still hard, but not as difficult as it was at first. I would say that I’m somewhere between the latter part of Disenchantment and the beginning of Reorientation. I’m not anywhere near Stability.

I have replaced my schedule to some degree. Most days, I exercise and practice mindfulness meditation. I have also recently taken up juggling, as many of my readers know.

But any YouTube videos of me “cooking” are bogus. Sena takes video of me messing around making pizza and whatnot as if I know what I’m doing—but she’s giving me cues every step of the way. I’m allergic to kitchens and I probably always will be.

Anyway, I have a different relationship with the clock nowadays. I’m still hoping that I’ll evolve into somebody who knows how to manage not just retirement better, but a whole lot of things in a more adaptive way.

I sure hope so. According to some statistics, at my age I’ve got a limited time to improve. So, I need to get busy.

Terry Trueblood Outing Today or How to Find Hearts Needing a Home

We had enough of bad news on the web, so we went out to Terry Trueblood Recreation Area today. Good things are happening around here, including what we found at Trueblood. Sena ordered some items last week. One is a clock, which we’ll hang somewhere and then not look at. Another is a chair that I will put together, and which will probably give me a reason to use up at least some of the oversupply of band aids.

The best deliveries, in my humble opinion, will be a couple of brand-new sets of juggling balls. One reason for buying them is that my other juggling balls are already starting to leak their millet fillings.

Millet is bird seed. I first noticed it on my hands, and then saw it on book shelves and my chair. I practice juggling every day, and see to it that they get banged up as much as possible, even if that happens to involve impacts with my head. Many juggling balls are stuffed with something: plastic pellets, sand, dandruff from extraterrestrials—no reason to avoid millet.

The new juggling balls will be bigger and heavier: a little over 2.5 inches in diameter and around 130 grams. I’ll probably knock myself unconscious dropping them on my head. One set of 3 will be as close to Iowa Hawkeye colors as I can get: black and yellow (which is what black and gold usually look like to me). The other set will be multicolored and have 12 panels. Balls covered with leather or other material have to be sewn shut and some say that the more panels, the more the impact will be spread, possibly reducing the risk for breakage. On the other hand, I can’t help wondering if there are more seams, wouldn’t it be more likely they’d be split when (not if) I drop them?

I’ll think about that later. We had the best time today at Trueblood. In fact, a lot of people were having a great time out there. The weather was fantastic; the temperature was in the fifties. One trail walker claimed she saw 16 bald eagles! I took this with a grain of salt, but then we saw at least a half dozen, though they were flying too high to get good photos. There were plenty of shore birds.

The best sightings were the quilted hearts hung on several trees. They are from an organization called “I Found A Quilted Heart” and you can learn more about the people who got this started at their web site www.ifoundaquiltedheart.com. Volunteers place the small quilted hearts in various places, often local parks. The sole purpose is to brighten your day. That beats the daily news any time.

What we didn’t know was that we could keep the quilted hearts we found. We saw 4 of them. We’re going to let others find them and share the joy.

Thoughts on Regrets

I’ve been thinking about Dr. Moffic’s article on regret, posted on February 16, 2023 in Psychiatric Times.

I’ve dwelt on it long enough that I feel compelled to inject humor into the subject. It’s one of my many defenses.

There’s a quote from Men in Black 3 involving a short telephone conversation between Agent K and Agent J:

Agent K: Do you know the most destructive force in the universe?

Agent J: Sugar?

Agent K: Regret.

You could probably sense that joke coming. Whenever there is talk of regrets, I always recall maybe one or two remarkable episodes which led to lifelong regret. Because regret is pretty corrosive, as noted by Agent K, I need something to counter it.

My trouble is that I have many regrets. Am I so different in that regard?

Sometime in mid-career, a very important leader told me, frankly and calmly, “You’ll never be a scientist.”

Well, by then it was far too late for me to change life course. It was true; I’ve always been the rodeo clown, never the matador.

On the other hand, I know one thing I’ve never regretted and that’s my retirement. At least I think I haven’t regretted it. I have this recurring dream. It’s not every night, but often enough to make me wonder what I should do about it.

In the dream, I’m late for an exam or class and I fear I’m going to flunk. I look for the building where the exam is going to be held. I can never find it. Hallways appear and look vaguely familiar, but as I wander about looking for the bookstore or classroom or exam room, I feel like I’m in a maze, climbing stairs, almost like an Escher drawing.

That reminds me. Incidentally, several years ago, one of the medical students rotating on the psychiatry consult service drew a picture entitled “The Practical Psychosomaticist” which contained images of stairs running in different directions similar to an Escher drawing (see the featured image). It was really just her expression of how I got around the hospital. I avoided elevators and always took the stairs.

Anyway, I’m carrying several notebooks and loose papers keep falling out. I get lost in this jumble of halls and stairways, never finding my destination.

The dream is probably just me telling myself I’m failing at something in my waking life. It’s not like I need a dream to notify me.

This is a long way of saying I have many regrets, and that I may not know exactly how many. Some of them are less important than others. Take the “I’ll never be a scientist” theme. I’m not terribly broken up about it.

After all, rodeo clowns do pretty important things.

In Search of Al Martin

Today, I was thinking of a guy named Al Martin, who was one of the few African American role models for me when I was a teenager in Mason City, Iowa. I thought of him a couple of years ago, googled his name and couldn’t find him. I mentioned him anyway in a blog post at that time, “Snow Moon Reflections.” A major topic was black male role models.

Today, for some reason I thought of him again. I googled his name once more and found an obituary for a man named Allen Henry Martin. This particular Martin was a black man who was 83 years old when he died just this last November of 2022. The obituary stated that he was a talented artist, just as I recall. Despite the many decades gone by, his photograph looked familiar to me.

He was a sculptor and photographer as well as a painter. He worked several different jobs. He had a great sense of humor. He worked as a land surveyor for several years, which I connect with because I did that for a while when I was young.

I’m not absolutely certain that Allen Henry Martin is the same Al Martin who I looked up to when I was at a tender age. But for now, I’m going to assume they were one and the same.

One time, Al Martin took me to an art show where he set up many of his pictures. It was a brisk autumn day. We drank a lot of coffee, partly to keep warm. I remember how uncomfortable I felt because of my full bladder. The wind was cold.

I don’t know why I remember this, but Al one time spoke of his children and he happened to mention what he did when they felt sick to the stomach. It sounds gross, but he made the story comical and said something like, “Many a time I caught vomit in my hands!” It was disgusting—but funny at the same time, the way he told that little story. You really had to be there to get it.

As I read this, I catch myself thinking I should have something more solemn and dignified to say about Al.

But this is not an obituary. These are just my memories of Al Martin which are fading the older I get, and I’m entitled to them. Al Martin was a great guy.

Iowa State University African American Science Graduates

I was thinking about what to write for the first day of Black History Month, which starts today on February 1, 2023.

As usual, I started to reminisce about my time at Iowa State University (ISU) in Ames, Iowa. I usually don’t talk about my undergraduate days. In fact, I had a little trouble finding my diploma. It was in storage in the first place I should have looked. I graduated from ISU in 1985.

The Iowa State Daily ran a story, “Black scientists from Iowa State,” published on February 4, 2021, obviously in honor of Black History Month. Of course, it featured ISU’s most illustrious graduate, George Washington Carver, who earned his graduate degree in 1894. Carver also loved poetry and painting, which I didn’t know.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1928

Carver was a scientist and put it to practical use. It fits with the ISU motto, which was short and to the point: “Science with Practice.”

I transferred credit to ISU in the mid-1970s from one of the country’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Huston-Tillotson College (now Huston-Tillotson University). I submitted a poem to the college’s annual student poetry contest sponsored by one of the English Professors, Dr. Jenny Lind Porter-Scott. My poem didn’t make the cut, but many students got their work published in the little book, Habari Gani (Swahili for “What’s Going On”), which published the best poems.

Part of the reason I went to ISU was the encouragement I got from my bosses at WHKS &Co, consulting engineers. I was a surveyor’s assistant and drafter. I was the only African-American employee working there.

The idea behind going to ISU initially was to pursue a degree in engineering. That didn’t happen because frankly, I didn’t have a head for the mathematics. On the other hand, I got interested in biology, chemistry, and zoology and finally ended up in medical school at The University of Iowa in Iowa City. The rest is history, as they say, which allows the usual cover up of a multitude of sins.

At the time Sena and moved to Ames in the early 1980s, it was a quiet little town, except during VEISHEA, an annual spring celebration on campus. The event got out of hand many times and it was finally banned in 2014.

Back in the days of George Washington Carver, African American students were not allowed to room with other students who did not have black skin on campus. By the time we moved to Ames, the most uncomfortable racial incident I can recall personally was being the butt of a “nigger” joke at a barbershop. I had to find another place to get my hair cut.

I still had a lot of science to digest at ISU after switching my major from engineering to the life sciences. I remember a chemistry professor who looked like the typical hippie who demonstrated how electrons get excited by stacking chairs on top of the counter in front of the chalkboard (which teachers were still using) and climbing to the top and nervously doing a shaky little dance showing what an excited electron he was. I think all of us collectively held our breath, waiting for him to tumble to the floor.

I really had a tough time learning organic chemistry. You had to draw diagrams showing how the molecules and atoms connected after each reaction. I will never forget an Asian Teacher’s Assistant who patiently tutored me, despite my having a very bad cold and a bad attitude to boot.

I graduated and then returned to get more credits to try getting into medical school after finding it very difficult to find employment with my Bachelor of Science degree. It took about 9 months before I finally landed a job in the clinical lab at one of the hospitals in Des Moines. The lab director worked there for a very short time while I was there, and then left to go to medical school.

That was my cue. I think it worked out for the best. By the way, the engraved crystal in the featured image is an appreciation gift from The University of Iowa for my years of service.

And I guess that’s about enough reminiscence for now.

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