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Book Review — Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination

Walt Disney was not a trust fund kid. He grew up lower-middle class-ish, I think. I’m not sure how to classify a family in the early 1900’s that goes from a modest dwelling in Chicago, to a pretty nice farm in Missouri (that totally failed after a few years), to a decent house in Kansas City.

During Walt’s formative years his dad had a steady job. But early 1900’s dads are gonna early 1900’s dad, so of course Walt had to get up at 4am and deliver papers starting at age 9 and turn all the money over to his father to avoid beatings.

If you squint, you can see an upbringing of child labor and overall harshness that was downright Dickensian.

Neal Gabler’s Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination does a wonderful job of diving in to all those details. But it’s over 600 pages long and I lost interest after his early years, so this will review Walt’s life from the beginning through the creation Snow White.

Despite his rough start, Walt was able to break into superstardom through a combo of work ethic, talent, and an inhuman level of risk tolerance.

Work Ethic

Let’s talk about this mf’ing paper route. When I was 9, I played a lot of basketball and video games. When Walt was 9, his dad bought a paper route in Kansas City and seemingly thought to himself, “I may be older and kind of sickly, but that’s no problem, because I have a pre-teen boy I can work like a draft mule!”

I think it’s worth a couple long block quotes to get a feel for the misery:

Only nine years old, Walt was nevertheless tethered to the route. On weekdays he would rise early, in the darkness, to get his allotment of fifty papers and deliver them. He returned home at five-thirty or six, took a short nap, and then woke up and ate his breakfast. He had to leave school a half hour early to pick up the papers for the afternoon run. On Saturdays, in addition to delivering the papers, he collected the fees. And on Sundays, he had the double load.

It was worst, of course, in winter, when Walt had to trudge through the cold and snow, slipping on the icy steps, often crying at the knives of frost he said he endured. Some of the drifts into which he waded were so deep he sank to his neck. At times the cold and his tiredness would conspire, and Walt would fall asleep, curled inside his sack of papers or in the warm foyer of an apartment house to which he had delivered, and he would awaken to discover it was daylight and he had to race to finish the route.”

But he at least took time off, right? Ha!

“In six years on the route he missed only 5 weeks — two with severe cold, a third on a visit to his Aunt, and two more in 1916 when he kicked a piece of ice with a new boot and was stabbed by a nail hidden in the chunk. He screamed for help but had to wait twenty minutes before a deliveryman stopped, chopped the ice loose, and took him to a doctor, who pulled the nail out with pliers and gave him a tetanus shot.”

To pour salt in this tiny boy’s real wounds, he could not keep the money from the route. It all went to dad. So Walt took on even more jobs to make some money of his own, which…how? How did he have the energy?

Are the most successful people the ones with the most energy? Economics Professor Robin Hanson has commented on the overlooked importance of energy when it comes to success, and I think it’s important to consider.

Walt is clearly standard deviations above the norm, energy wise. I think this effect is understudied.

I also wonder about the extent to which the routes built character and work ethic and the extent to which they acted as a drag. Walt later said the route helped forge his character, but we don’t have the counterfactual. And I don’t think he was building much character when he was bleeding out in a snowbank in the early morning hours.

How much earlier could he have blossomed if he’d been allowed to spend more time with his art? Or would he merely have wasted his time in a less productive fashion if he wasn’t constantly at work?

I’m all for giving kids autonomy and responsibility, but I have issue with writers such as Simon Sarris, who wrote a piece about famous people who held jobs at a young age. He concludes:

In my examples the individuals were all doing from a young age, as opposed to merely schooling. And while they may not have wanted to work, the work was nonetheless something that both they and society felt was useful: something purposeful and appreciated. In a sense they had useful childhoods.

Sure, he was doing “useful” work in a sense. People need papers. The question is whether it was a net positive for young Walt.

Disney himself is conflicted on the issue.

Later in life, Walt would talk about how the route built character. He said he “developed an appreciation of what spare time I did have and used it to great advantage in my hobbies.” There’s something to that.

But he also admitted to having nightmares about the route long into his adulthood, waking up in sweats. There’s some deep trauma there.

I think the route was a big reason why Walt refused to send his parents money until well after he was one of the most famous people in the country. His Dad took the wrong side of the gamble when deciding to take his pre-pubescent son’s paper route earnings or build good will for the future.

Whatever the case, Walt kept up a prodigious work ethic the rest of his life. He made art non-stop in his free time, he took night classes at art institutes, and he did twice what was expected of him when he finally landed a job drawing for an ad studio in Kansas City.

Still, he was laid off after 6 weeks due to budget cuts. Rather than mope, he started his own business and then went to work for a company making promotional ads that ran in movie theaters.

This is where he got his first taste of animation, and he went all in. He borrowed equipment from work and set up a studio in his garage to practice on his own. His schedule became very focucsed:

He would repair to the garage after work each day, emerge for dinner, then return to his camera stand. “When he’d come home and long after everybody else was in bed, Roy remembered, “Walt was out there still, puttering away, working away, experimenting, trying this and that, drawing, and so on.”

Because he was skilled and a hard worker, Walt probably felt more comfortable than most taking big swings with his career. This was an advantage, but damn, what a wild ride it became.

Talent

Around age 7, Walt discovered a love for drawing. Shoutout to the Aunt that encouraged him early on, leading Walt to say “She used to make me think that I was really a boy wonder!”

Another neighbor, Doc Sherwood, recognized Walt’s skills and asked him to draw his horse. Walt did a good job and Doc praised him. This brought young Walt to near ecstasy.

The drawing became, in his brother Roy’s hyperbolic words, “the highlight of Walt’s life.”

Walt’s talent would grow from there until he was known at his school as the art kid and was good enough to trade his pictures for free haircuts at a barbershop in Kansas City. The proprietor hung the pictures in his shop, thrilling young Walt. He was still writing to this barber 30 years later telling him how important his recognition was.

It’s fun to wonder about if these same people hadn’t encouraged him, Walt might have ended up working in a factory or delivering papers his whole life.

Later on he’d develop thick skin, but how would he have reacted if people squashed his dreams early on? You have to imagine that he really was exceptional, but still, how many hardscrabble midwesterners from 1910 took the time to care about a boy making art? I mean, Walt’s own best friend admitted that “It was kind of sissy for a guy to draw.”

So if you see a kid with talent, make sure to let them know! If you have an animal they can draw, or a barbershop you can display their work in, even better.

Early Walt drawing from his time with the Red Cross in WWI

Betting on himself

Two early Walt creations, Mickey and Oswald, interacting

Walt’s schooling ended in 7th grade, and he barely scraped by to make it that far. It’s hard not to fall asleep in class when you work day and night on a paper route designed by the villain from Saw.

7th grade dropouts with very little real work experience are not supposed to look around after a year at a company and think, “I’m not so into this whole working for other people thing. I think I’ll build an animation empire.”

But Walt went for it. He started making animated fairy tales on the side that attracted some positive reviews, but he failed when he went wide trying to sell them.

He was undeterred. This quote sums up Walt’s attitudes toward this failure and all subsequent ones:

Walt was far from defeated. On the contrary, he seemed strangely elated, certain that his fairy tales would find a distributor and that he would soon be running his own studio full time.

He was like freaking Rocky. Always getting up after being knocked down, always drumming up more money, learning more about his cameras, working more hours, spending all his money and a lot of other people’s money. Grinding.

He eventually left his stable job and started his own studio but it didn’t work and he went bankrupt.

Walt didn’t even think about using the bankruptcy as a sign that he should hang it up. There was no talk of joining his Dad and getting a job at the jello factory. Instead, he got on a train to LA and started the grind all over again.

He had a personality type built for the harsh realities of entrepreneurship.

A coworker through these trying times remarked on Walt’s unending optimism:

I never once heard Walt say anything that would sound like defeat. He was always optimistic about his ability and about the value of his ideas and about the possibilities of cartoons in the entertainment field. Never once did I hear him express anything except determination to go ahead.

Once in LA he proceeded to build Disney into a productive animation studio with a marketable star (Oswald the Rabbit) only to have everything come crashing down. The majority of his staff went behind his back to take their main project and start a competing studio, leaving him without his only piece of marketable material and like, two loyal workers, one of which was his brother.

But he just kept moving forward. If he could no longer legally make Oswald the Rabbit cartoons, he’d just think of something better. He made Mickey Mouse.

This mentality is so impressive. It would have been easy to wallow in pity. Walt is more like Giannis, who face setbacks with equanimity.

But thinking up Mickey was not enough. His studio needed money to make the cartoon, and they had none. Some might have been tentative to take on too much risk, given all the recent setbacks. That’s not how Walt rolls. He sent an all caps telegram to his brother about how to get the money for the Mickey pilot:

MORTGAGE EVERYTHING

The Disney’s took loans from any friend, family member, or former co-worker who still saw their potential.

Obviously it worked, as we all know Mickey became a world wide hit, as did his next big character, Donald Duck. This put Disney on the map and made him an international celebrity, but it didn’t improve his financial situation as much as you might think.

Walt was bogged down in bad contracts and shady distribution deals, and there was never much profit to speak of. Whatever they did make was poured right back into the business, which actually helped them ride out the great depression better than a lot of businesses that were investing in the markets.

In typical Walt fashion, he rounded up every resource he had and plowed it into a new project: the first full length animated feature film, Snow White.

And we’re talking every resource. He put almost all of his 500 or so employees on the project and he personally oversaw almost every aspect of the production.

Then, when he needed an infusion of funding to keep the production of Snow White afloat, what does he do? Of course he takes out the equivalent of $20 million worth of loans in 2021 dollars, plus he mortgages the future earnings of his hit shorts. As Walt put it, in order to make Snow White:

I had to mortgage everything I owned, including Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck and everybody else.

Snow White made a gazillion dollars and was met with critical acclaim and Walt could finally relax with the whole “bet everything I own and much that I don’t” on animation projects. That must have felt good.

Lessons

From my read, the talent, the homies, and the work ethic were all key components to his success. But I think you could have turned the knobs down on those from a 10 to an 8 and still have churned out a Walt Disney. What I don’t think can be compromised on was the ability to calmly and repeatedly make risky bets, and keep making them even if the first few didn’t work out.

How many talented people quit after hitting their first roadblock? How many people reach a local maxima of success and are okay with that, rather than pushing forward? (e.g. making Mickey shorts forever and not doing risky full length features) How many people have Walt’s level self confidence and swing for the fences mentality? How many people can stare down financial catastrophe over and over and yet keep increasing the size of their bets? All that feels more rare than having work ethic and talent, though I don’t have supporting data.

My takeaway is that it would be quite awesome to follow the Disney blueprint, and many modern tech entrepreneurs do. But I also think I’ll be okay at slightly lower rungs of success that don’t require me to repeatedly bet literally everything I own in order to get where I want to go.

Book Review: Building a Life Worth Living by Marsha M. Linehan

When Marsha M. Linehan was 18, she went from prom queen nominee to suicidal mental hospital patient in a matter of months.

She cut herself, fought with staff, and smashed her head onto the concrete floor. Pretty quickly, her parents and therapists gave up hope of her getting better.

Fast forward 10 years after being committed and Marsha was well on her way to developing Dialectal Behavioral Therapy (DBT), which became the gold standard therapy to help patients suffering from her same illness — borderline personality disorder –actually get better.

This book tells the story of that incredible rise from the ashes.

The Epiphany

What drove her to such a dark place at age 18 is not that interesting. She isn’t really sure herself, other than that she suffered from low self esteem and her mother was invalidating. The best parts of the book are about how she battled her way out of a truly grim situation, so that’s what I’ll focus on.

Mental hospitals in Tulsa, OK in the 1960s were about as grisly as you would imagine. Marsha was forced to get multiple rounds of shock therapy, she was pumped full of drugs, and suffered various other indignities that would not fly nowadays.

Between the drugs, the intentionally smashing her head into hard surfaces, and the electric brain shocks, Marsha lost most of her memories of this period. She remembers breaking windows to get shards of glass to cut herself with, being placed in solitary confinement for months at a time, and callous nurses. She almost constantly wanted to die.

Her attitude started to change not because of a breakthrough therapy session, but because of an experience by herself at a piano.

Part of losing her memory was forgetting how to play the piano, an activity she used to be really good at. She liked to hang out at the piano anyway.

One afternoon, she sat at the piano and felt compelled to make a promise to god that she would get better. She promised she would help others like herself get better, too.

Here’s how Marsha describes it:

“The day when I was sitting in the piano room by myself, a lonely soul in the midst of other lonely souls on the unit, I can’t be sure what made me do what I did next. There and then I made a vow to god that I would get myself out of hell and that, once I did, I would go back into hell and get others out. That vow has guided and controlled most of my life since then.” 

She blows right past how this breakthrough happened! Maybe she assumes the reader will understand that people who are raised religious tend to make unbreakable vows to god when at low point.

I wanted her to say so much more. That’s a massive decision and a big shift with little precipitating cause. At least from the reader’s perspective.

This was the same person who asked nurses to strap her to a bed while wrapping her up like a burrito in wet, cold, bed sheets. That was supposed to be punishment. Martha would request it because it would stop her from trying to hurt herself.

Then, bam, “I guess I’ll sit at the piano and decide to devote my life to getting better and to helping people.” And she actually does it, as opposed to most people, who can’t even commit to going to the gym after buying a membership.

Did she have other times she made promises but just not keep them that she left out? Was this kind of her schtick? We don’t know.

Her compact with god didn’t lead to instant healing, but there was clearly a shift that left her open to changing her predicament in ways that didn’t involve killing herself.

She says she finally realized that she actually didn’t want to kill herself when her doctor told her he stopped caring whether she died or not. He gratuitously added in that he would not go to her funeral. This feels harsh, but it fired Marsha up.

Her theory is that everyone worrying about her suicide attempts was encouraging her to do them more, for attention.

“When Dr. O’Brien made his stand that day, I came to realize for the first time that I did not want to die. That was the turning point. I realized that killing myself was incompatible with my vow to get myself out of hell. I had to find a way to stop wanting to kill myself, and I did.”

That’s hardcore! Hey, whatever works.

She soon gets another important motivational boost when she learns that if she didn’t get better her parents would put her in a state hospital instead of a the private facility she was in. If her facility was good in the grand scheme of things it would be real depressing to know what was bad. We have to imagine Marsha had an idea of how much worse it could get, because this threat scared her straight.

“When I heard that the hospital was giving up on me, and that my parents might really put me in a state hospital, I decided that I would prove them all wrong if it was the last thing I did on earth.”

I guess they should have threatened that sooner!

Her writing makes it seem like each event is an isolated catalyst and I wish she’d dug more into how they all built on each other and culminated in her breakthrough. It went something like → see God at piano → have doctor give up on her → have parents give up → feel righteous anger burning like a thousands suns → get act together. Not the order of events I would have guessed.

I am most struck by the original piano epiphany. Can that happen to the average person? Do you have to hit rock bottom? How do you cultivate what’s needed to get to that point when you are, again, spending much of your day literally hitting your head against a wall and being physically re-strained in freezing cold sheets?

I would have loved her to explore this more and cut out some of the fluff around her meditation retreats later on. I bet she’d say something about “finding your why” and this book made me want to take that a lot more seriously in case I find myself in a situation where my “why” is the only thing that keeps me going.

Setbacks, Getting Her Act Together, Facing New Challenges

Marsha starts living on her own at a YMCA and takes a secretarial job at her dad’s company. She struggles, and even tries to commit suicide multiple times by swallowing pills. The pact with god only got her so far.

She keeps chugging along, and eventually starts going to night school, meets someone, and falls in love. But it turns out he had a wife on the side. This crushes her but surprisingly does not send her into a suicidal tailspin, which is kind of remarkable considering her recent history.

She just sort of, got through it. How? Again, she’s just kinda unsure. Which is as remarkable as it is unhelpful to those trying to draw lessons. 

She writes:

“Within a year of leaving the institute of living [her mental hospital] and going back to Tulsa, I experienced a significant shift. It is hard to explain, but it was as if a new and happier me emerged from the cocoon of the anguished old me. And, remarkably, the metamorphosis just happened, unprompted by anything I said or did.”

I don’t buy that self analysis. It seems to me that it very much was prompted by things she said or did. She decided that she was going to devote her life to getting out of hell and helping others do the same.

She slipped up on this with her suicide attempts, but the decision and motivation still clearly meant something to her. And she also proved she can step out from under the shadow of her invalidating, emotionally unsupportive parents by earning some income and going back to school. And a huge part of what made her depressed at 18 was that she felt boys didn’t like her, so learning a boy could devote so much time to her must have been a boost to her ego, even if he ended up being pretty shitty.

Also, she was really drugged up at the institute, so maybe, ironically, it was a matter of getting off the antipsychotics that helped her improve.

I feel like clearing the drugs out of her system, plus the self esteem boost from love, earning a wage, and progress towards getting a degree was enough to push her into a state where she felt there was something to live for. 

I find more hope in that story than just “one day I woke up and felt good, no idea why.”

It is hopeful that a change of scenery and a few lifestyle tweaks can blossom into very positive outcomes, even if you can’t pinpoint exactly what combination of changes made the difference.

On the Right Path , God Helps Out Again

She goes to Chicago, she works hard, she goes to school, her rich uncle agrees to pay for college. All looking mostly good! Marsha on the up and up! 

Yet again, the most intriguing part to me was an unexplainable moment that shifted Marsha internally and set her on a different path. 

As she worked toward a degree in night school, she was in a place where she did not want to kill herself. But she still felt despair, she still go depressed, and she still had low self esteem. 

Then this happened one day when she was feeling particulary bad:

“I went into the chapel, knelt at a pew, and gazed at the cross behind the altar. I don’t recall what I was saying to God at the time, if anything, but as I gazed at the large crucifix, all of a sudden the whole of the chapel became suffused with a bright golden light, shimmering all over. And I immediately, joyfully knew with complete certain that God loved me. That I was not alone.

She ran back to her room proclaiming how much she loved herself, and spends a page talking about how she felt like before that experience she was “split” and after she was healed and had become her true self in a way.

“I said out loud ‘I love myself.’ The minute the word ‘myself’ came out, I knew I had been transformed. If anyone had asked me up to that point, ‘Do you love yourself’ I might have answered ‘I love her.’ 

After I descended into hell in the institute, I had always though or spoken of myself in the third person, as if there were two of me, split somehow. I hadn’t been split like this before I went into the institute, but during that experience, until this moment in the chapel, I had been somehow split.” 

Wild! Out of nowhere spiritual healing experiences for the win. I guess if you pray enough this just might happen? I’ve had profound experiences meditating where I see all sorts of cool stuff, but nothing which healed something deep within me quite like Marsha’s experience.

I like how Marsha is very spiritual and not ashamed about it. Her vibe reminds me of how more scientists in the past used to be open about their delightfully weird spiritual beliefs. Isaac Newton spent a ton of time identifying hidden messages in the Bible, for instance. Erwin Schrodinger, of quantum mechanics fame, said that, “In the presentation of a scientific problem, the other player is the good Lord.” I think Marsha would agree.

Post church epiphany, Marsha’s up and down journey continues. She falls in and out of love, gets different jobs, tries new research methods, and starts to develop what will ultimately become Dialectal Behavioral Therapy (DBT).

She still struggles with wanting to die, which she differentiates from wanting to kill herself. She gets a good therapist and calls him at all hours of the night and is a bit of a wreck. She gets through it and does what Marsha does, which is to plow forward and work her ass off.

A couple other interesting tidbits from this period:

  • She became keen on taking troubled people into her house to live. One time she had someone on parole for murder mingling with her students during a study session. Her students were not woke enough to handle this and asked her to stop brining murderers around.
  • She quit smoking using the following strategy → She knew she needed a habit to replace getting cigs from her purse. She chose to grab a dime and transfer it from one jar to another, and to convince herself this is what she actually wanted to do. She stuck with this until it worked. Maybe borderline people are much better at convincing themselves of things? Or maybe I overestimate how hard it would be to convince myself of something. But this is bananas to me.

Living the Zen Life, Creating DBT

Spiritual experiences continue to influence Marsha’s life as she develops large chunks of DBT therapy while at a zen monastery.

She decides to go to a monastery on a whim and ends up loving it so much that she rearranges her schedule in order to stay longer. She has spiritual awakenings there, as one does when they spend 14 hours a day meditating. She cries at the feet of a Zen master named Willigus for a long time and then emerges back into society with a newfound ability to use what she calls “wise mind.” She eventually becomes one of the first therapists to bring mindfulness into western therapy practices, and her patients get a lot out of it.

I ended this section thinking academic tenure sounds pretty sweet, taking casual 4 month sojourns to zen monasteries for “work purposes” and whatnot.

I also think it’s cool that she didn’t read a book about Zen and then decide to start using it in therapy. She wasn’t doing this stuff based on theory alone. If Marsha was going to incorporate mindfulness and radical acceptance into her approach it’s because she went to a remote mountain and radically accepted herself for 4 months to see how it felt first hand.

Similarly, if she’s teaching that it’s important to say off the cuff, slightly ridiculous things during sessions even when tensions are high, it’s because she’s had success doing just that. She once had a patient say “A friend will take care of my dog if I killed myself and Marsha said, “No they won’t, because I’ll tell them not to.”

If she’s teaching patients to convince themselves they like something more healthy than their destructive habit it’s because she made herself want to move dimes from one jar to another instead of smoking cigarettes. Still can’t believe that one worked.

Through trial and error, intentional collection of feedback, and trips to monasteries, the standard version of DBT therapy started to take shape. As she was building the practice of DBT, Marsha focused above all else on finding something, anything, that actually helped people.

It’s worth stopping for a second to point out that those with borderline personality disorder are notoriously hard to treat. BPD is “characterized by emotion dysregulation, impulsivity, self-injurious behavior, and suicidal behavior all of which contribute to the highest emergency and inpatient service utilization of any psychiatric disorder.” There are also no effective drug treatments as of 2021.

That’s a tough situation to step into. As she was developing DBT, Marsha would to sit with patients while others watched her through a one way mirror. She’d try everything she could think, then everyone would review and say what went well and what didn’t. Then they’d iterate. It reminds me of comedians preparing their set by doing open mics. You bomb a lot, but you learn, and you build on the bits of laughter you did get. It’s kind of amazing this wasn’t standard practice with how to develop therapies before, or maybe it is and I just need to do more research. 

I was less interested in what DBT actually is than in how it came to be, but here’s a brief summary: DBT is the practice of accepting bad things as they are while also understanding that you can learn skills that will improve your life. It involves group therapy, phone coaching, mindfulness, and emotional regulation skills.

The therapist tries to strike a balance between accepting the patient fully, validating their problems, and making them feel heard while also encouraging them to change and teaching them how they can do that (hence the “dialectical” part of the name, which means striking a balance between two contrasting poles)

And all therapists practice in groups because the patients can be insanely taxing and the therapists need support, too.

Marsha admits DBT therapist turnover is very high and she kind of describes it like the investment banking of the therapy world. It’s an intense process where you learn a lot and work a lot but burn out quick. It’s like the investment banking of the therapy world, minus the high pay and the Adderall plus they actually help people.

This approach was a sea change in how people dealt with Borderline people previously. In the bad old days, all patients went through endless psychotherapy aimed at uncovering the source of their issues. This can help some patients, but suicidal people with borderline personality disorder had poor outcomes with traditional therapy.

Marsha was having none of that Freudian bullshit. She wanted to change behaviors and get people healthy, to hell with the source of their issues. She built a system based first and foremost on changing behaviors.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention one last, and, according to Marsha, crucial part of the DBT therapist toolkit — dance circles.

Marsha makes up her own moves and says patients love them and that everyone always cries tears of joy during the dances . I had a hard time believing this. I looked it up, and it’s real, but I can’t confirm tears of joy or transformational dance inspired breakthroughs. I just love that DBT is like “We use advanced techniques to help the hardest to treat patients and part of that is doing the horah, so what?”

The establishment was annoyed as hell by Marsha’s shenanigans, as it tends to go with establishments.

They’d be like “Wah, but how are you even helping these people, you’re just putting a band-aid on the problem.” And Marsha was like “well all your basic-ass talk therpay mumbo jumbo leaves a lot more dead bodies in its wake, so I’m going to keep doing me.”

I am totally on team Marsha with this one. The controversy reminded me of an anecdote from psychiatrist Scott Alexander about an effective treatment for a peculiar patient that had some docs applauding while others pulled their hair out:

The Hair Dryer Incident was probably the biggest dispute I’ve seen in the mental hospital where I work. Most of the time all the psychiatrists get along and have pretty much the same opinion about important things, but people were at each other’s throats about the Hair Dryer Incident.

Basically, this one obsessive compulsive woman would drive to work every morning and worry she had left the hair dryer on and it was going to burn down her house. So she’d drive back home to check that the hair dryer was off, then drive back to work, then worry that maybe she hadn’t really checked well enough, then drive back, and so on ten or twenty times a day.

It’s a pretty typical case of obsessive-compulsive disorder, but it was really interfering with her life. She worked some high-powered job – I think a lawyer – and she was constantly late to everything because of this driving back and forth, to the point where her career was in a downspin and she thought she would have to quit and go on disability. She wasn’t able to go out with friends, she wasn’t even able to go to restaurants because she would keep fretting she left the hair dryer on at home and have to rush back. She’d seen countless psychiatrists, psychologists, and counselors, she’d done all sorts of therapy, she’d taken every medication in the book, and none of them had helped.

So she came to my hospital and was seen by a colleague of mine, who told her “Hey, have you thought about just bringing the hair dryer with you?”

And it worked.

For good measure, Marsha conducted a lot of studies showing how people actually do improve their self esteem when going through DBT therapy, they don’t just paper over their issues. Other studies have replicated these findings, and DBT is firmly cemented as the best treatment for borderline personality disorder these days.

No Excuses

Her writing style can be dry at times, but the content makes it a good read anyway. Everyone loves a good comeback story, and this is one for the ages. We all talk about proving the haters wrong. Few rise up from the depths of a wicked mental illness and actually do so. 

At the end of the book, Marsha revisits the mental hospital where she spent her most hellish years. She gives a moving speech where she reveals to the pubic her struggle for the first time. That’s so baller! It’s like the ultimate version of going back to your high school reunion and being better looking and richer than all the bullies. “Yeah, I used headbutt a concrete wall right over there just to feel something, but look at me now!

You can see how that would inspire so many people facing dark situations. If Marsha can climb out of mental hospital hell and become a world class therapist / dance choreographer, the rest of us have no excuses when it comes to overcoming hardships and following our dreams.

How I became a runner

I didn’t start running consistently until a few years ago. I used to absolutely despise running. Now it’s fun and meditative. Here’s how I got there.

Part I — Overcoming debilitating back pain

Before I could enjoy running as exercise, I had to learn how to not hate it.

For 20+ years of competitive basketball, my coaches used running as a form of punishment. Miss a free throw, run. Forget a play, run. Complain about all the running, run even more. I associated running with angry authority figures inflicting harm on me.

I also started having back spasms when I stopped playing basketball for a living. I was prescribed muscle relaxers, which treated the symptoms but did no prevent the spasms. I didn’t run, outside of playing basketball for fun sometimes, for probably 2 years.

Then one day it was really nice outside, I wanted to exercise, and I didn’t want to go to the gym. I decided to go for run and see what happened.

I went maybe half a mile before my back started hurting and I stopped. I figured that was a wrap on my running career.

But then I came across a book called “Healing Back Pain: The Mind Body Connection” by Dr. John Sarno.

Here’s a very quick summary of the book: Dr. Sarno says that body pain without an obvious cause is psychosomatic. It’s all in your head. The physical symptoms are real, but the cause is mental.

Dr. Sarno’s theory is that a lot of pain is caused by unresolved issues in your psyche. If you accept that, and tell yourself that there is no reason you should be in pain, the pain will dissipate. 

Importantly, you don’t need to actually resolve your psychic trauma for this method to work. You just have to be like, “Well, shit, there’s nothing structurally wrong with me. I guess I shouldn’t be in pain.”

He talks about how almost everyone with recurring pain can point back to an inciting incident that is the cause of their suffering.

They’ll be like, “I tweaked my ankle in 9th grade and that caused an imbalance and my right hip has hurt ever since.” I totally used to do that. Dr. Sarno is having none of it.

Nutrition expert and obesity researcher I really like, Stephan Guyenet, puts Sarno’s stance well in his review of “Mind Over Back Pain”:

There is not much evidence that garden-variety pain in the back, neck, and buttocks is related to structural features of the body, or that typical treatments offer anything better than a placebo effect.  The idea that our pain is caused by structural features is an assumption we make because it seems logical (i.e., we feel pain when we injure ourselves, therefore back pain must be due to some sort of injury).  This assumption is not supported by the evidence.

I am not kidding when I say that I read “Mind Over Back Pain” and my pain and spasms went away. For good. I haven’t had one since. The mind is a powerful drug. I felt like the great Larry David, who, upon realizing his arm pain was psychological, said, “it was the closest thing I’ve ever had to a religious experience. And I wept.”

Larry, after having his mind blown by Sarno’s teachings.

I started running soon after my spasms stopped and my back felt great. I then realized that if I can run without my knees or back being in pain, I actually like it. I love being outside, I love working out. So, boom. I guess I like running. What a revelation.

Part II — Overcoming neuroticism

I used to overthink my stride length and stress out about which part of my foot was hitting the ground when. I used to put a lot of weight in trying to run on the balls of my feet. Now I just run. I think my tendency is to mostly be on the balls of my feet, but if not, oh well. I’m not trying to run marathons. Having a heel strike now and then on a 3 mile run is not going to kill me.

It also helped when I got very into the mindset of an overweight, depressed pest control worker turned Navy SEAL turned ultramarathoner turned best selling author David Goggins.

He’s a big fan of getting your ass out the door and running, not a huge fan of worrying about whether every aspect of your approach to running is perfect. His style speaks to me. He’s a savage. He likes to post slightly unhinged instagram videos of him on long runs screaming at his audience to be like his dog, who eats it’s food extremely fast because it is used to having to compete against 20 other puppies in order to eat. I love it. Go read his book if you ever need motivation.

I also used to treat every run like I was trying to break a record, but now I don’t. I found I was ending a lot of runs at the absolute bring of my physical limit. That meant feeling like I could collapse on my lawn in a pool of bodily fluids of all kinds. The neighbors would think I’d been poisoned. While I’m all for pushing the limits, running has felt more sustainable since I’ve dialed it back a bit. (Don’t tell Goggins.)

I recently started incorporating my dogs, which adds challenges but also keeps it interesting. Will they notice a squirrel and yank me off course, building my balance and core strength? Will they do a flying head first leap into a heap of snow as a desperate attempt to get me to stop so they can take a dump? Will they randomly pull like they are huskies in the Iditarod if a particularly intriguing car drives by, giving me a much needed boost? Yes.

Gotta get some tug of war in on the days it’s too cold to run.

Part III — Finding the right footwear

When I first started running, I was obsessed with wearing minimalist shoes. I had read “Born to Run” and decided wearing normal running shoes would throw off my gait. I powered through a lot of runs in what basically amounted to my bare feet before finally deciding that maybe someone built more like a running back than a south American marathoner would be better off in different footwear.

I still like those shoes, just not for running. I found my body feels so much better when I wear more traditional, thicker running shoes.

But that doesn’t mean I drop $150 on the fanciest Nikes. (Though I can’t say I’m not tempted.) I like these ones from New Balance, which I get for around $40 whenever there’s a sale.

From non-runner to 15 miles a week

I am not a star runner. I like 3-4 mile jogs. And I’m sure my form could be improved. But getting out and doing a run at all is huge for me.

When I am pushing myself and things get tough, I sometimes focus on my foot strikes and think, “That used to hurt and now it doesn’t, that used to hurt and now it doesn’t, that one would have hurt too, isn’t this amazing?”

It is.

Why I Moved to a Small City After Living in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York City & Chicago

I moved to a small city in southeast Wisconsin because I wanted a place to live that was close to family, close to nature, and affordable. I value natural beauty, financial independence, and proximity to family. I currently don’t care as much about shopping, dining out, in-person job opportunities, and nightlife. It’s the “30 years old, recently married, lucky enough to be able to work remote, depressed by the real estate prices in [choose your big city]” change that lots of people go through. Here’s how it all went down. 

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Summer Camp and Petty Crime in Prospect Park

During the summer, my local park turns into one massive summer camp. The baseball camp bleeds into the lacrosse camp bleeds into the Harry Potter camp bleeds into Percy Jackson Camp bleeds into the toddlers who pick at the grass and do singalongs bleeds into the Orthodox Jewish toddlers who pick and grass and do Orthodox Jewish singalongs.

Usually, I do my best to ignore them all as I take my daily walk, but one day last August I felt compelled to stop and watch an event that was unfolding on the main lawn.

Continue reading “Summer Camp and Petty Crime in Prospect Park”

Brooklyn Weirdos

The dogs in my Brooklyn neighborhood have it good. Birdie, Phoebe, Izzy, Charlie, Shady, Bluey, Ricky, Lacey, and even the dogs with names that don’t have an “e” sound at the end, are all treated like royalty.

They are free to roam off-leash almost every morning. Their perfectly groomed coats glisten in the sun as they accept fancy treats that their owner’s produce out of elaborate fanny packs.  They are even talked to like they have human-level intelligence. 

“Do you think you’ll want more water in a few minutes, Phoebe? Should we circle back to the water fountain later, after we play with your friend Charlie? Just let me know.” 

If these dogs are to be treated like they have critical thinking skills, fine. If they are going to have more expensive haircuts, better dental care, and wear nicer clothes than me, that’s cool, too. They just can’t also be allowed to pee on me. 

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