Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Old Spurs

In spite of the proximity to tonight's game six and apart from the apparent word play and concurrent recognition it brings about, this piece does not concern the San Antonio basketball team.  It's really not about any sports activity at all, though if it makes reference to one it's the tennis I played in high school and college and then continued to play with some frequency till about the time I took sabbatical in 1989.  I don't recall playing much after that, perhaps only family tennis when we went to visit my parents in Boca Raton, which we did for a few days a couple of times a year.   Once the kids got a little older that stopped too.  So it's been a while.  If there is a connection, it provides an example of very long lags in causality at play.

I had always thought that with aging growth in the body ceases, cells simply wear out, and if not that then growth slows measurably.  It turns out that's not completely true.  In my case, I seem to have a proclivity for growing bone spurs.  Implicitly, I've known this for quite a long time.  I've got one that is apparent to the touch on the back of my left hand, near the wrist, and another on the left shoulder.  But I've only had it confirmed by medical professionals a couple of years ago.  I went to the doc then because I thought I had sciatica.  They took x-rays and sent me to an orthopedist.  I learned that I had arthritis in both hips and the lower back and that I had bone spurs there too.  One of them might have impinged on a nerve, which was why I was in such pain at the time.  Exercise was recommended as the best way to deal with that. 

Yesterday I went to a different orthopedist for a different problem.  I had a fall several weeks ago and as a consequence got a small tear in the rotator cuff in my right shoulder.  I needed that diagnosed.  The process in my HMO is to first go to the walk-in clinic to have a look by the doctor on call  (scheduling something with my primary care physician would  just take too long), then have an x-ray, then schedule a visit with a physician's assistant, then get an MRI, and finally have a meeting with the orthopedist.  They physician's assistant read the x-ray and pointed out a rather massive bone spur in the shoulder.  While the tear may have been due to the fall, there were some pre-existing chronic issues in the area that likely would create problems for me eventually, even without the fall.  The doctor gave me a cortisone shot for the pain, told me that arthroscopic surgery is a possibility in the future, and that the tear would not heal by itself; indeed it might get worse over time.  He also said that neither physical therapy nor any other form of exercise would be helpful, but that I should try to do some full range of motion movements with the arm, just to keep it functional.  I've been doing that, though it hurts.

I was never a great tennis player but I was on the high school team.  I played first doubles with Jimmy Kraft during our senior year, and was known to hit the ball hard, particularly the forehand and the serve.  I think that serve must have eventually done a number on my shoulder and is the source of the bone spur.  I told that to the doctor.  It only occurred to me this morning that some more recent activity may have exacerbated the problem. When I would do the treadmill I'd break up the monotony of that with some other mild exercise - stretches and lifting some light weights.  I'd do a rotation with some 5 lbs dumbbells - curls, reverse, curls, a different motion I made up to try to work the triceps a little, and some lateral raises.  In retrospect, I must have taken a very large stupid pill to have come up with that routine.  Other people try to grow muscles by working out.  Though I didn't know it at the time, I was growing bone spurs.  If I ever  get back to the treadmill (it's been nice outside so I've been going for walks instead) I will leave the weights for somebody else.

* * * * *

There is a different use of the word spur (definition 2)  that I'd like to discuss in the rest of the piece.  It is social conscience.  You see that spur providing motivation for certain high profile individuals, Diane Ravitch for example.  As interesting as her singlehandedly taking on the new Education establishment is, I find it more interesting to focus on the tenets of that social conscience.   What set them?  For what purpose do they exist?

I am now reading The Lost Promise of Progressivism.  I took a course at Cornell in the mid 1970s on American Political Thought.  It was taught by the author of the book, Eldon Eisenach.  Somehow there was a different spur inside me then to get at the root of these questions.  I was interested in political science more for the ideas that played a role in the background than for the rough and tumble of the current American politics.  (Between the Presidencies of Johnson and Nixon, the Watergate Hearings had recently concluded, I had my fill of the rough and tumble part.)  I am still extraordinarily interested in the ideas.  Eisenach's book has been an eye opener and a pleasure to read.

The core issue that underlies everything else in the book is whether the Declaration of Independence and The Constitution are "the Bible" from which all other American social ethics are derived or if Abramham Lincoln and the Civil War changed that, with a newer conception of "the Bible" necessary.  Eisenach refers to the former view as a rights-based approach and the latter view as nationalism.  The Progressivist thinkers who are the focus of this book advocated for nationalism as primary and did so based on a notion of American exceptionalism. 

Yesterday I read the chapter on public opinion.  It talks about a kind of intellectual noblesse oblige where the Progressivist thinkers would shape the ethos that would drive the the various institutions which were the backbone of the nation.  These institutions, in turn, served as more direct prods for ordinary people.  One point that comes through the book loud anr clear is that these thinkers were for the most part Evangelical Christians, but of a liberal kind.  The social ethic they advocated for was to them an American Religion, with its principles stemming directly from liberal Christian thinking.  In doing some background reading for this piece I found an essay, Calvin and American Exceptionalism, which appears to make Eisenach's analysis spot on.  In this sense Progressivism was the Puritan concept of the City on a Hill, updated for the early twentieth century.  That observation nonetheless, the ethics are not immediate.  They derive from a thoughtful working through of the implications from that image.  This is why there needs to be an intellectual elite to shape them.

I do not want to write a full book review in this post.  I will do that later when I've finished the book.  The only point I'd like to make here is that we need to do such an  exercise anew.  If the rights-based approach was flawed at the time of the Civil War it can be flawed 150 years later.  I think people sense this yet can't translate their intuitions into a well articulated and coherent set of positions. 

It is funny to me that my intellectual inclinations when I was at Cornell as an undergraduate are motivating me now, since I didn't pursue them when I went to graduate school and in my subsequent career as an economist.  Somehow what's inside you remains there, even as you take a new path.  And if this particular spur grows, that's a good thing.

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