Thursday, May 28, 2009

Why the Good Die Young

Why the Good Die Young

The suicide of former South Korean president, Roh Moo-hyun, earlier this week was a tragic reminder of the all too high suicide rate, especially among  extreme male high achievers living in industrialized nations. If there was full acknowledgment of this well- documented vulnerability in men, you’d think assistance would be close at hand.  Yet men like Mr. Roh, who have made genuine contributions to society, too often take their lives rather than lose face or seek help for depression or despair. Mr. Roh had spent the first part of his career as a human rights lawyer and had committed his second act to public service and clean government in South Korea. But according to a suicide note, he couldn’t face the “shame” of a political smear campaign, and after a period of insomnia  and loss of appetite—both typical symptoms of clinical depression—he jumped off a cliff. Hence, no third act. Like 10% of male leaders in democratic countries (and 85% of male rulers outside democracies) Mr. Roh’s ended his political career in a casket. Given the odds, it takes a an extreme personality—one not afraid of mortal risks—to enter public life. An insouciance about one’s future, combined with single-mindedness—is also why a climber named Frank Ziebarth  died after an ascent to Everest this week. He was a purist who wanted to scale the death zone of the summit without the “help” of oxygen. Like David Foster Wallace, who  Los Angeles Times book editor David Ulin called "one of the most influential and innovative writers of the last 20 years," and who sadly, took his own life last September, these are extreme, yet vulnerable men  could have continued to make their unique contributions if they had moderated their standards, or sought perspicacious assistance before it was too late. Instead, unlike most women who are more likely to reach out to others for help when in distress, they were more likely to die young, and to die all alone.




Wednesday, May 20, 2009

What You Want


            As spring advances and retreats, more and more of my friends and relations are telling me about their exciting summer plans. And it occurs to me that, uncharacteristically, I have none. One reason is that it’s my intention to read up and do research for my next writing project. With any luck I’ll do some of that in a hammock. But another is that there’s a recession and I’m supposed to be saving money. But aren’t there cheap ways to have fun and see new sites, other than the landscapes provided by Amazon?

            Several ideas pop into my head that don’t require airfare. How about a 4-5  day biking trip through verdant Vermont, one of the most lovable states in the union? A dear friend on the west coast said she was biking through Napa valley with a well -organized group, Vermont Bicycle Tours. After just 2 clicks I discovered that a 5 day trip with some, but not all meals included  would cost $1545 USD. Hmmm. That would be more than $4500 for three: me, my husband and my youngest son—for an experience that would last less than a week. Can that be worth it? Instead, we could pack our bikes onto our car and do-it-ourselves…  planning our own route and most certainly getting lost…schlepping our bikes on the car, and tents on the bikes, and setting up camp after 50 miles of cycling --then cooking, washing up, and sleeping in the rainy, buggy, albeit pristine, New England woods hardly sounds like a vacation to me. When it comes to end of a big day on holiday, I much prefer a hot shower with those twee littletea-tree scented soaps , then spending the night under a thick  duvet--preferably after eating a nice meal served on real, breakable plates—a meal I don’t cook myself, of course.

            The real question is whether any future indulgence is worth it. Will we regret doing without when the market, and our bank accounts recover? After all, youngest sons grow up and aging knees give out. Vermont will always be there, but a summer holiday is highly perishable, especially in Canada. In the Anne Enright short story I  just read, What You Want (part of her brilliant collection of stories, Yesterday’s Weather), an Irish single mom sacrifices the present;  she works as a cleaner in a department store so that in the future her only son will have everything. Then she regrets it. “Jimmy has all the CDs in their box sets… he has it all now,  down to the slice of lime in his gin and tonic, and he never—he very rarely—gives himself away. Oh, be careful what you want.”

             In fact, having 20-20 hindsight about what you want, or looking down from an imaginary perch on the fun you  wished you had makes experiences, even pricey experiences,  worth more to most people than having cash in the bank right now, according to research on “hyperopia,” or  the far-sightedness of planning too far ahead. Ran Kivetza professor of marketing at Columbia Business School, summarized his research this way: “People feel guilty about hedonism right afterwards, but as time passes the guilt dissipates. At some point there’s a reversal and what builds up is this wistful feeling of missing out on life’s pleasures,” he told John Tierney of the New York Times. So the question is not whether I spend a small fortune to huff and puff up the Green Mountains, all for a superb view of church spires from the top. The question is whether I can really get that hill-top perspective while swinging in my hammock down here. 

Women’s Secret Weapon

Some people collect elephant figurines, cranberry glass, first editions or vintage sports cars. I collect weird facts, especially ones that differentiate the two sexes, though to be frank, I never decided to amass these bits and pieces. They just drift towards me as if equipped with their own magnetic charges, often via email messages from acquaintances and virtual strangers. Sometimes the facts are actually handed to me in person. That’s what happened yesterday as I sipped a tall glass of iced coffee in Em Café, in the Mile End on a balmy spring afternoon in Montreal. The journalist, Éveline, who was writing about me in a French psychology magazine, flounced in, as blond and breezy as the day, and spotted me right away, having seen me give a public lecture on the Sexual Paradox at a library ( just a few days before. Even before we shook hands she proferred a ragged clipping from that morning’s French newspaper, le Devoir, entitled: L’Oestrogène, l’arme secrète des femmes (Estrogen, Women’s Secret Weapon):

The clipping described the latest research of Dr. Maya Saleh and her team of microbiologists at McGill just published in yesterday’s PNAS ( which shows how estrogen offers a measure of protection against illness that men just don’t have. Apparently, estrogen blocks production of an enzyme called Caspase-12. Caspase-12 makes us weaker—more vulnerable to marauding infections by preventing inflammation, the body’s way of telling an invader to back off. Without this chemical shield provided by estrogen, males are more likely to get sick, one reason why men everywhere have a higher rate of just about every chronic and infectious illness around, why they’re 70% more likely than women to die from hospital based infections like C-difficile, and why, despite dying with the most toys, they tend to die a whole lot younger. Yale anthropologist, Richard Bribiescas summed up the male lifespan as Stud, Dud, Thud. But that was before hormone replacement therapy for guys. Dr. Saleh said that dosing men regularly with estrogen instead of multivitamins might work as prevention, but might not be such a great plan because then their bodies might start to acquire female features. Now that’s what I call a trade-off, exchanging a few inches of biceps and body hair for a few extra years of life. Any takers?

Meanwhile, last week an email mysteriously arrived from a guy named Patrick, who for the last few days has been dosing my inbox regularly with tidbits like this one: Without estrogen, the brain doesn’t process sounds too well. Apparently, estrogen tells the brain to lay down the neurons that make us highly sensitive to sounds ( The researcher, Raphael Pinaud, extrapolated from his findings from birds and how they use songs to communicate with each other. Apparently, estrogen is not why the caged bird sings, but why she’s very likely to remember the song. Now, that’s what I call a secret weapon.