Hi, Anxiety.

Kat Kinsman is a food writer who used to run CNN’s Eatocracy site and now is the senior food and drinks editor at Extra Crispy, a site (also owned by Time, Inc.) dedicated solely to breakfast. She’s also lived with anxiety, panic, and depression for just about her entire life, and since 2014 has been very public about these conditions and the steps she has to take to manage them. Her first book, Hi, Anxiety: Life with a Bad Case of Nerves, is a memoir of a disordered life that is, by turns, funny, sad, aggravating, and most of all, hopeful, as Kinsman has had to overcome mental health challenges beyond what I would call the ‘average’ sufferer has to face – and has done so enough to write this very witty, big-hearted book about it all.

Kinsman’s book is not a how-to, or a self-help book, but is more of a confessional, as she details events or periods of her life, often exposing herself in ways that I imagine were painful for someone with an anxious mind, that were ultimately dictated by her mental health issues. Her mother also had serious depression and anxiety, as well as mini-strokes that appear to have presaged dementia and Parkinson’s, and living with her mom taught Kinsman how to be anxious – how to worry about everything, to blame herself for things beyond her control, and to expect the worst even in harmless situations. Because anxiety tends to feed itself, growing up anxious put Kinsman into more situations that exacerbated the problem, and the medications pushed on her while she was young did not particularly help her and often made things worse.

I’ve written a few times about my own anxiety, including growing up anxious, so the emotional ground Kinsman covers in Hi, Anxiety is familiar to me … but her case is or was certainly more severe than mine. I’ve had lifelong stomach issues, largely related to anxiety, but Kinsman has had to put up with stronger physical manifestations of her anxiety and panic than I ever have, and she’s also had to work harder to maintain control of her environment than I have. She expands on these points in amusing interludes delineating her “irrational fears,” like driving, being driven, or getting her hair cut (in which she also discusses the anxiety around tipping, which I fully appreciate), mundane events that, to most people, pose no problem at all. If you’re anxious, even the simplest tasks become fraught with peril – getting the mail or answering the phone, because you’re afraid it will bring some terrible news or a huge bill; driving to the store, because you might hit someone, or get hit, or just do the wrong thing and make all the other drivers laugh at or scorn your incompetence.

That’s where Hi, Anxiety succeeds most – Kinsman humanizes an anxious life by giving so much detail on episodes from childhood through her marriage where anxiety (and/or depression) prevented her from doing ordinary things, or altered outcomes when she did do something. Many of these events weren’t Kinsman’s fault – she had a few bad boyfriends, one of whom really did a number on her in a way that I won’t spoil because it’s such a “holy shit” moment in the book – but when you’re anxious, you kind of believe the universe is operating against you, or at least that your account with the universe is permanently in arrears, so of course it was your fault, or you had it coming, and why didn’t you prepare better for it?

Kinsman also gets into the techniques that have helped her live with her condition – and those that haven’t, like medications – but is careful not to prescribe for the reader, making it clear in the concluding essay that she doesn’t have the answer and that every anxious person will have to find his/her own solution. For her, it’s talk therapy, some supplements, occasional hypnosis, and avoiding certain known triggers. For me, with a milder case, it’s medication, occasional therapy, some mindfulness techniques, and exercise. Each person’s case is different; there is no single etiology of anxiety or panic disorder and thus no single trick to help you. Hi, Anxiety is the book to help someone understand more about what it’s like to live with a serious mental illness, whether the reader is suffering from it or knows someone who is, and perhaps the spur to go seek treatment. It’s such a quick, compulsive read – I crushed it inside of 24 hours – that you could really recommend it to anyone, even someone with no concept of mental illness, to help them understand something of what it’s like to live with a brain that spends much of its time working against you.

The Body Keeps the Score.

I’ve been open about my own mental health issues, such as this piece I wrote on being anxious throughout my childhood, but am fortunate in one respect in that my childhood was also relatively free of trauma. I grew up in a loving family, didn’t lose any close family members until I was a teenager – both of my grandmothers lived to their 100th birthdays – and never had to deal with the effects of divorce or abuse, to pick just two possible traumas that affect kids. Events I might recall as “traumatic” pale in comparison to what others grew up with.

I’ve only come to learn about trauma and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) in the last handful of years, due to several close friends who suffer from it and how its effects can often include problems I’ve dealt with, including anxiety, panic, depression. Somewhere along the way I heard about Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s seminal 2015 book The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, which I have since learned is an incredibly influential and important book in the world of mental health professionals. Dr. van der Kolk has spent decades working with trauma victims and was one of the leading proponents of the hypothesis, later supported by fMRI and similar evidence, that trauma actually alters the brain in a physical sense rather than just a mental one, and that even minor events can still have traumatic effects on our brains, especially when they happen while we’re young.

Dr. van der Kolk spends the first part of The Body Keeps the Score discussing his own history in working with trauma victims and the difficulty he and other colleagues had in even gaining acceptance for the idea of the aftermath of trauma as a distinct medical disorder. PTSD was only recognized by the American Psychiatric Association as a formal diagnosis in 1980, when it was included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders‘s third edition (DSM-III), thanks to a surge in sufferers among soldiers who returned from fighting in Vietnam. Awareness of the condition dates back to ancient Greece, and is well-documented in medical and popular literature from the 1800s forward under terms like “shell shock” (whence our word “shell-shocked” derives), but people with PTSD prior to 1980 were treated as if they had a panoply of other, seemingly unrelated mental health disorders, which led to problems like overmedication and a lack of any progress back towards a normal life.

From there, the author discusses new evidence from the world of neuroscience to support his and others’ hypotheses that the brain of a trauma victim works differently than the brain of someone without PTSD. Different parts of the brain are activated in similar situations, although among trauma victims there can be varying responses, from panic to dissociation to shutdown. He also discusses the various ways we develop PTSD, often in excruciating details of childhood abuse or wartime atrocities, tying these underlying conditions to changes in methylation of genes that can even be passed on to offspring, a process known as “epigenetics,” that also explains how the brains of trauma victims end up operating on a different BIOS than those of others.

The prose here can feel a bit academic, perhaps the result of van der Kolk’s background but also that he’s a native Dutch speaker and writing in his second language. In part five, which constitutes nearly half of the book, the writing livens up as he delves into various methods of attacking trauma and retraining the brain not to panic, dissociate, or just peace out when the person is presented with a trigger. Some suggestions are obvious or well-known, like using yoga or EMDR therapy (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, which sounds like it shouldn’t work, but does help trauma victims), while others are novel and surprising, including participation in theater or similar role-playing activities, or using a computer program to try to ‘reprogram’ the brain not just in its fear response but all of the time. He includes EEG graphs that show patterns of attention in the brains of study participants where the trauma victims’ brain waves are less tightly connected and even diverge in the milliseconds after the subject was presented with information for the brain to process. Neurofeedback, which allows the user to regulate his/her own brain function with the help of software that displays EEG results, has shown promise for trauma victims and people with other mental health disorders to reestablish control over their brains’ betrayals. Dr. van der Kolk also goes into heart-rate variability training, self-leadership of the different parts of our personality (not quite dissociative identity disorder, but leaning that way), and the pros and cons of cognitive behavioral therapy or medication for PTSD sufferers.

If you or someone close to you is a trauma victim of any sort, even if it seems like a ‘minor’ trauma, The Body Keeps a Score will be an illuminating read that could help alter the course of your/your intimate’s treatment. Even just the final section, where he points out why things like CBT aren’t effective (discussing the trauma over and over doesn’t actually change the way the brain responds to it or other triggers) and gives numerous suggestions for other remedies, would be useful. If you can get through some of the more technical language earlier in the book, though, the entire read is worthwhile, especially as van der Kolk explains his own journey of understanding through decades of working with veterans, children, and other trauma victims to get to this comprehensive theory of how best to treat these people – often people who were considered untreatable by previous generations of psychiatrists.

Stick to baseball, 11/11/17.

I have a new boardgame review at Paste, covering the card-drafting game Skyward. I also had two Insider posts go up earlier this week, one previewing some potential offseason trade targets, the other ranking the top 50 free agents this winter. And I held a Klawchat on Thursday.

Feel free to sign up for my free email newsletter, which I send out … I guess whenever I feel like it. I aim for once a week, although I’ve gone as long as two weeks between issues when I haven’t had much to say. You can see past issues at that link.

Also, don’t forget to buy copies of Smart Baseball for everyone on your Christmas list! Except for infants. They might eat the pages. Get them the audiobook instead.

And now, the links…

Stick to baseball, 10/13/17.

For Insiders this week, I posted my first batch of scouting notes from the Arizona Fall League, covering prospects from the Cardinals, Yankees, Brewers, Orioles, Padres, Cubs, Rockies, and Twins. I also held a Klawchat on Friday.

Later today (Saturday) I will be at Changing Hands in Phoenix, at 2 pm, to talk about and sign copies of Smart Baseball. I’ll also be signing books at PAX Unplugged, a new boardgaming convention that takes place in Philadelphia the weekend before Thanksgiving.

And now, the links…

Stick to baseball, 5/6/17.

Smart Baseball is out! Buy it here or at any local bookstore. It’s available in the US and Canada, in print, ebook, and audiobook forms. I have inquired about distribution elsewhere in the world but I can only report that we’re looking into it and nothing is imminent.

My one piece for Insiders this week covered the very limited market for Eric Hosmer this upcoming winter, given his lack of production and how few teams have openings at first or DH. I held a Klawchat, a bit shorter than normal, on Thursday.

I did an interview with the folks behind the Pocket bookmarketing app, and appeared on the public radio program AirTalk, both to talk about Smart Baseball. I also spoke with ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap on his radio show The Sporting Life.

* Anti-vaxxers have targeted Somali immigrants in Minnesota and caused a measles outbreak there. While I understand that we try not to criminalize speech here, how is this – claiming vaccines cause autism, a bad hypothesis fully debunked by science – any different than shouting “fire” in a crowded theater, causing needless panic and great public harm? (And yes, the Holmes quote is itself problematic, and he started walking it back almost immediately.) And why do we permit Wakefield to operate in the U.S.? We could easily deny him entry; he’s a greater threat to the broader population than suspected Islamic militants.

* George Will dropped two strong columns this past week for the Washington Post. The one you might have seen says the President has “a dangerous disability” and calls him unfit for office. The one you might have missed argues for repealing the mortgage interest tax deduction, which costs the US government about $100 billion annually in foregone revenues. This is an unpopular and controversial proposal; passing it would cause a one-time hit to housing prices and put many people underwater on their loans. But the exemption amounts to a regressive tax, and at the very least we should limit such deductions to primary residences (not second or third houses).

* Will’s column about the President came a few days after the vulgar talking yam was inconsistent and even incoherent after a long day of interviews. Remember when he questioned whether Hillary Clinton would have the stamina to be President? That was fun.

* Dion Walters of the Miami Heat wrote a hilarious and poignant piece for the Players Tribune at the end of April, which I missed because it went up the day Smart Baseball was released.

* NPR wrote about northerners flying the Confederate flag while openly denying that it is a racist symbol that stood for and will always stand for slavery. If one of my neighbors put one up outside his house and refused to remove it, I’d take it down by force. It’s no better than flying a flag with a swastika.

* While driving around southern California this week, I spent a lot of time listening to the indispensable NPR One app, which brought me some great stories and several episodes of a new podcast, The Grift, which I highly recommend. Two stories I liked enough to share: how the autocratic state government in Texas is destroying local government powers, and on the development of the Cosmic Crisp apple in Washington, which might be the next big hit apple with consumers.

* An epidemiologist explains why science is never perfect – that studies nearly always have some sort of flaws or biases, but that those don’t invalidate the results or make the studies worthless (a common claim of deniers like anti-vaxxers).

* How’s this for a bad headline. Something called the “Washington Free Beacon” wrote that a Democratic Congressional candidate in Montana said climate change deniers should kill themselves. What he actually said: “If any those of you that feel like this is not a problem, I challenge you to go into your car in your garage, start your car, and see what happens there.” This is obviously a ham-handed and scientifically weak attempt to point out the effects of burning fossil fuels on our atmosphere. But hey, gotta get dem clicks.

* ThinkProgress’ Lindsay Gibbs weighs in on the myth that ESPN is “liberal” simply because we argue against domestic violence or discrimination.

* Speaking of which, those liberal firebrands at Consumer Reports write that the Affordable Care Act led to a decline in personal bankruptcies.

* Someone in Russia is blinding Putin’s opponents with chemical attacks. It can’t happen here, though, right?

* You’ve probably seen the outrage among scientists that the New York Times hired a climate-change denier, Bret Stephens, in the name of “balance.” Did you also catch their publication of a bogus story on “alternative” medicine? Remember: There is no “alternative” medicine. If it works, it’s medicine. Otherwise, it’s bullshit.

* The passage of the AHCA, with many Congresspersons voting for it against the wishes of their constituents, has led to some direct financial results already:

* The Washington Post explains why that organic milk you bought might not be organic. The USDA’s organic labeling program has been a total failure, one of many examples where that agency has raised costs and wasted taxpayer money with no benefit to consumers. FWIW, I do buy organic milk because I want to support antibiotic-free husbandry, and “organic” is a fair proxy for that, but I don’t think the claimed health benefits of milk from grass-fed cows are proven.

* The James Beard Restaurant/Chef Awards are out! The winners include former Top Chef contestant Sarah Grueneberg, who won Best Chef: Great Lakes; her restaurant, Monteverde, provided one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten when I visited last July.

* This piece exhorting us to stop using public wifi networks makes sense, but is not terribly practical. Mobile data remains expensive and can’t match wifi speeds. The solution would seem to lie in making such networks more secure for most uses – although logging into your bank or credit card accounts on those networks will always be a bad idea.

* A new bill in Hawai’i’s legislature is essentially a sweetheart giveaway of state land rights to private tenants.

* Author/writer/Twitter wit Kelly Oxford discusses coming to terms with her panic disorder in an excerpt from her new book, When You Find Out the World Is Against You: And Other Funny Memories About Awful Moments.

* The Atlantic‘s Conor Friedersdorf argues that smugness isn’t a liberal characteristic, but a universal one. People at either extreme can veer into condescension of those with opposing views. Of course, the targets of condescension may have earned such disdain if they’re spouting conspiracy theories or outright falsehoods; treating cranks with respect isn’t going to accomplish anything either.

* If you live in Florida and believe convicted felons who have completed their jail terms should regain their rights to vote – as they would in 40 other states – there is a petition you can sign and group you can join to try to help make that a reality.

Stick to baseball, 12/17/16.

My main piece for Insiders this week went up this morning, on the many lost opportunities in MLB’s new collective bargaining agreement, discussing money and rights the union may have left on the table, and why the agreement seemed to come together so late. I also wrote about the Dodgers’ two re-signings earlier in the week, and I held a Klawchat here on Thursday.

At Paste this week I ranked the ten best boardgames I saw in 2016. A few folks have asked why the highly-rated Scythe isn’t on the list; I think that game is too long and overly complicated, with playing times that can top two hours (and a retail price of $90). All ten games I listed are clearly better, in my opinion.

In case you missed it, my list of my 100 favorite songs of 2016 went up here on Wednesday night.

You can preorder my upcoming book, Smart Baseball, on amazon. Also, please sign up for my more-or-less weekly email newsletter.

And now, the links…

Stick to baseball, 7/22/16.

My one Insider piece this week ranked the top five farm systems in baseball, a list that may look different by August 2nd. I also held a Klawchat on Thursday, and reviewed the reissue of the boardgame Agricola for Paste.

And now, the links…


My ranking of all 30 MLB farm systems is now up for Insiders! The top 100 prospect list goes up in the morning, and I’ll hold a chat here at 1 pm ET.

Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking felt, at first glance, like a fluffy self-help book. It certainly opens that way, as if the book’s purpose is to make introverts feel better about their introversion in a world that does indeed reward and revere the gregarious and the garrulous. But there’s a modicum of science behind Cain’s arguments and a lot of insight from experts that allow her to present the case that introverts can be just as important and productive and happy as extroverts can, as long as we allow them to be who they really are.

Cain starts out on the wrong foot, talking about the history of extroverts and introverts, explaining how we got to this point where extroverts are lauded as, essentially, better people. It helps create a narrative, but feels like padding when there’s real insight coming shortly afterwards, like the third chapter, where Cain goes into the evidence (some anecdotal) on how extroverts working together come up with inferior results to introverts working alone, and how forced teamwork can subvert the creativity of introverts by muting them and putting them in a space where they can’t produce. Not only is it well-presented and well-argued, but it’s insight with a specific call to action for employers, teachers, group leaders, anyone who is responsible for overseeing a team or collection of people in pursuit of a common task or goal.

(This is probably where I should step in and reveal myself as something of an introvert. I fell right in the middle of the twenty-question quiz Cain presents, which would make me an “ambivert” – kind of like Pat Venditte – but my introvert tendencies are very strong. I enjoy solitude, I do my best work on my own – this isn’t even close – I like celebrations to be small and intimate, and so on. I was very shy as a kid, and I still have a lot of shyness even today. I can get on a plane, read one book for five hours, speaking to no one but the flight attendant, and call it an afternoon well spent. Or on that same flight, I can sit down and write four articles or dish posts in a row like it’s nothing, because I get focused and thrive in an environment without interruptions. I can also sometimes come across as aloof or diffident, have people think I don’t like them when that’s very rarely the case, and I get lost in my own thoughts at least once a day. Prior to taking anti-anxiety medication, I was very sensitive, not just emotionally but even physically, being oddly jumpy when hit or touched. It’s just who I am, and big chunks of this book spoke very directly to my sense of self.)

Cain takes advantage of recent fMRI studies, without which I think the entire subgenre of pop-science books may not exist, in this case showing neurological responses like extroverts having more active dopamine pathways, so they get a faster reward response from activities like stock-trading or gambling, whereas introverts get less of a buzz and thus are better able to regulate their activities. She also discusses the relationship between the amygdala, an ancient part of the human brain found even in primitive mammals, and the relatively new prefrontal cortex, which helps regulate the high-reactive features of the amygdala. When you learn a fear or anxiety, your amygdala holds on to that pretty much forever; your prefrontal cortex is where you learn that, hey, you’re really not bad in crowds, and you’re totally fine to give that speech. Extroverts work better in situations with distractions like loud noises. Introverts are more sensitive and thus more empathetic.

Where Quiet gets really interesting is when Cain looks at introverts in marriages and in the classroom. She examines conflicts between couples comprising one introvert and one extrovert, dismantling the inane axiom about Venus and Mars and pointing out how two people of such different personality types can argue right past each other and end up with one partner feeling like the argument was productive while the other is deeply wounded. She also looks at introverted kids in the classroom and how the growing emphasis on group learning may leave those kids behind. My daughter, who is quite extroverted, is in a Montessori school, where most activities are done collectively; it’s a great fit for her, but would have been a total disaster for me.

I may have felt the greatest connection with Cain’s book in chapter 9, “When Should You Act More Extroverted?,” which looks at introverts who have to gear up to play the extrovert, often for work. I go on television a few dozen times a year, often for an hour at a clip, as part of my job. Doing so, especially when it’s two hourlong shows in one night, is absolutely exhausting. It is not physically demanding – although standing for an hour in dress shoes is no picnic for my joints – but the physical exhaustion is quite real, because I have to shift modes to become the extrovert on TV. (It turns out that I am a “high self-monitor,” a term that relates to how people behave around others and whether such behavior is dictated by internal controls or social cues.) As it turns out, what I do – playing the extrovert in my work life – is quite normal, but it’s also legitimately taxing, and playing someone you’re not too often can have physical consequences. Too much TV really might be bad for my health. (It probably doesn’t help that my TV work often ends at 1 or 2 in the morning.) Going to games, on the other hand, where I am often working alone and rarely talk to more than a couple of people, is quite relaxing even though it’s every bit as much an evening at the metaphorical office as a night in Bristol.

Cain’s book may have just been marketing incorrectly – or maybe marketed well, for more sales to a wider audience, when in fact she has crafted a scholarly work on a topic that generally doesn’t get such serious treatment. You might wish for more science to back up some of her theories, but she does include quite a bit of research and brings in a number of scientists and researchers to discuss their ideas. It’s also a book with a number of clear calls to action, for parents, bosses, teachers, and introverts themselves looking to find a bit more self-assurance in a society that tends to praise the things they’re not.

Saturday five, 8/7/15.

This week’s Klawchat transcript is up, and I also reviewed Broom Service, a fun family-strategy boardgame that’s been nominated for the Spiel des Jahres award, for Paste.

And now, this week’s links…saturdayfive

Saturday five, 8/1/15.

So I was kind of busy this week, writing these pieces for Insiders on the major trades leading up to Friday’s trade deadline.

Yoenis Cespedes to the Mets
Mike Leake to San Francisco
Latos/Olivera/Wood three-team trade
David Price to Toronto
Joakim Soria to Pittsburgh
Carlos Gomez/Mike Fiers to Houston
Brandon Moss to St. Louis
Cole Hamels to Texas
Jonathan Papelbon to Washington
Ben Zobrist to Kansas City
Troy Tulowitzki to Toronto
Tyler Clippard to the Mets
Johnny Cueto to Kansas City
Several smaller trades
The Mets/Carlos Gomez trade that didn’t happen

I also have a scouting post up on some Mets and Yankees AA prospects.

And now, the links… saturdayfive

  • Earlier this month, a fan at a Brewers game was hit in the face by a line drive, severely injuring her and missing killing her by centimeters. There’s a fundraising page for her medical bills if you’d like to donate.
  • Twitter is now hiding plagiarized jokes and other tweets if the original authors file complaints. It’s a minor issue compared to some of the abuse hurled at women and minorities on Twitter, but I’ll take any step toward greater editorial control on Twitter as a positive.
  • Molly Knight talked to Lasorda’s Lair about her book on the Dodgers and her history of anxiety disorder. If you haven’t yet, you should buy her book.
  • The Shreveport Times has a sharp opinion piece on how the Lafayette massacre won’t change anything. The piece specifically singles out Louisiana’s “weak and non-existent gun control.” It’s on us, though; you vote for candidates who take money from the NRA, this is what you get. If you don’t like it, get out there and campaign for the other side.
  • Is the song “Happy Birthday” still protected by copyright? It appears it may not be, although we’ll need the judge’s ruling to be sure. There’s a big fight coming in 2018 over expiring copyrights, one that puts me (in favor of putting many older works in the public domain) on the opposite side from my employer (Disney, which has a fair concern about Mickey Mouse falling into p.d.).
  • The Fibonacci shelf takes the mathematical sequence and turns it into stackable furniture. I want this.
  • Three “next-level” recipes for rum punch. That first one, a planter’s punch with homemade grenadine, sounds right up my alley; planter’s punch is the first strong (may I say “grown-up?”) cocktail I liked.
  • Go ahead, be sarcastic, at least with people you know well: it can boost creative thinking, according to a new study by three business school professors.
  • A fantastic profile of prodigy turned mathematician Terry Tao, considered (per the piece) “the finest mathematician of his generation,” and more broadly a piece on number theory. I share Tao’s love of the original computer game Civilization and the difficulty in putting it aside; it occupied a huge portion of the fall semester of my junior year of college, unfortunately. That said, it kills me that the article’s author felt that “prime number” required a definition. You shouldn’t be able to get to high school without knowing what that means.