Tucson Lifestyle — August 2016
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All The World’s a Life Stage
Scott Barker

It’s mighty hard to know how to act sometimes, whether you’re a kid, a parent, a middle-aged adult, or in the last few scenes of life. Two internationally renowned experts who have researched those many roles live right here in Tucson. Executive Editor Scott Barker sat down with Kevin Leman, Ph.D., and Andrew Weil, M.D., for a chat.

KEVIN LEMAN, PH.D.

Dr.Kevin Leman is strolling through the halls of the Leman Academy of Excellence, kids gravitating toward him like static-charged socks to a blanket. Smiling as he goes, in his casual jeans and pale blue button-front shirt, he resembles a favorite uncle crossed with a savvy CEO, with a little 1960s-era standup comedian thrown in. If you watch the renowned child development authority and author at work, effortlessly providing encouragement and offering advice, you would never know that he was once a terrible student. In his youth, he had little prospect of graduating from school, much less one day running one named for him.

“I graduated fourth from the bottom of my class in high school,” he notes. “I ran across my ninth grade report card a few years ago, and I asked my publisher to reprint it in one of my books. I even flunked health and PE. I put that report card in the book because sometimes people think you’re stretching the truth.”

Through his transformation from an academically struggling class clown to a sought-after psychologist, he has gained a lot of insight. And being a parent (with Sande, his wife of 44 years) and grandparent, his approach to childrearing has been forged in the crucible of real-world experience.

What he has to say about raising healthy and responsible citizens — documented in New York Times bestsellers such as Have A New Kid By Friday, Parenting Your Powerful Child, and Planet Middle School, provides invaluable insight into one of the most difficult stages of our lives: childhood.

MYTHED BY A MILE

It seems that every celebrity who has young kids gets booked onto a talk show to explain how they manage to “do it all.” And there is no dearth of bloggers who have become famous (or notorious) for touting their various parenting techniques. One hardly knows who to believe anymore, in a world where an expert is simply someone with a large Facebook following.

Leman understands the frustrations of parents who may be getting advice from everyone from their in-laws to their gym buddies. His books, seminars and other instructional methods cut through a tangled mythos to get to the facts about what kids need.

“One of the biggest myths is that kids need to feel like they’re the center of the universe,” he observes, kicking back in a meeting room on the Leman Academy’s campus. “And if you look at how parents treat their kids today, for the most part, parents are driven by the belief that their child has to feel so special. Even though the kid strikes out at a Little League game, never lifts his bat, watches three straight pitches go by, which is a minor miracle if you’ve ever watch Little League baseball, the young parents are yelling, ‘Great at bat Michael! Great at bat!’ I’ve got news for you — it was a lousy at bat. He didn’t even swing. What would be helpful in that situation, rather than blow smoke at that child, is to say something like, ‘Hey, rough day at the plate today, Mike. I’m going to be home early on Wednesday and Thursday night if you’d like me to throw batting practice for you.’ In other words, failure is good. Home needs to be a place where you learn how to fail. Talk to any successful person, and they will point to failure in their life.”

It was the prospect of a lifetime of failure that caused Leman to finally learn to apply himself when he landed on the University of Arizona campus at the age of 19. “I had a sister who was perfect, and a brother who was the quarterback of the football team and a great student. So I became the best at being the worst,” he admits. His parents tried to manage his misbehavior with an authoritarian approach that was pretty standard for the post-war years. “In my house we were Irish Catholic, and my father used to threaten us with a shillelagh. I remember when I was nine years old hearing, ‘You want me to get the shillelagh?’ I never saw one … I didn’t know what one was. I was a sophomore at the University of Arizona when I discovered that it was a walking stick.”

As disastrous as it can be when a parent tries to rule with an iron fist, the opposite extreme, which Leman sees a lot of in his travels, can turn out just as bad. “Today, parents struggle because of this misunderstanding of what authority is, versus authoritarianism. In authoritarianism, you shame your kids. As an authority, you encourage your kids. Simple example: Kid brings home a report card with five A’s and a B. What do most parents say? ‘Hey, what’s with the B?’ If you say, ‘Five A’s and a B — good job! Looks like all that hard work is paying off.’ That’s ‘Vitamin E’ — Encouragement. Whereas, ‘Wow, you’re the best boy in the whole world! Here’s five dollars and I’m calling grandma right now,’ that’s the old praise technique. If you go on Good Morning America and try to tell people in six minutes that praise is destructive to children, they look at you like you’ve got a screw loose.”

YOU’VE BEEN SCHOOLED

Working as a psychologist, talking to millions of people via TV appearances, and writing books on the valuable lessons he’s learned in his decades in the trenches, have all been wonderful experiences for Leman. But talk to him about the Leman Academy, which opened in August 2015, and his face really lights up.

“This school started over a cup of coffee with a friend of mine who said to me, ‘Kevin, would you ever want to have a school?’ I answered, ‘I’ve always wanted to, but how could I?’ And he said, ‘You could have a charter school.’ I said, ‘Speak to me. I don’t know what that even is.’ So he explained it to me, and 18 months after that conversation, I was welcoming parents into this building. It came together beautifully.”

The school, currently kindergarten through sixth grade, sits behind a shopping complex northwest of Tucson in Marana, looking both modern and airy, and yet solid and traditional. The appearance of the place is definitely echoed in the curriculum, which is classically based, acknowledges that each kid is a little different, and involves the time-honored basics in math, history and grammar, as well as Latin and logic. There also are sports programs, and it’s not uncommon for the school’s founder to turn up to watch the competition.

“It’s so much fun to watch it work,” Leman enthuses. “A lot of the things that I’ve written about, personal accountability and all that, they manifest themselves in our school. If you hire the right people — teachers and staff who have a heart for kids — it’s a winning combination.”

What is really interesting about the arrangement, however, is the ways in which kids have become involved in helping their peers. All too often we hear of children being bullied at school, on bus rides, through social media, but we don’t think of them being enlisted as a solution to the problem. On the Leman Academy’s grounds, there are designated benches where a kid can sit if he is having a problem, and a teacher or peer will spontaneously take a seat next to him to provide a friendly ear, and a dose of “Vitamin E.”

“Here we are encouraging kids. They’re learning at warp speed, we have all kinds of testimonies by parents on Facebook who say ‘My kid didn’t like school. Now he cries when he knows vacation is coming up.’ For a dummy like me who shouldn’t have gotten out of high school, the things that I’ve done in life, it’s a privilege to be here and walk out there and have the little ankle biters give me a hug,” says Leman. “They tell me about their loose tooth, or ‘My mommy’s going to have a baby.’ They’ll tell me anything at all.”

ROOM TO GROW

You probably will never hear Kevin Leman utter the phrase, “I’ve done enough.” By nature, he is driven to keep going, whether it’s for the next laugh he can coax from a visitor, or a new book he can write (he and former White House communications director Jeff Nesbit just published another thriller in their Worthington Destiny series), or additional steps for his school.

At press time, the Leman Academy was expanding into Sierra Vista, had just opened a school in Mesa, Arizona, and had its sights set on a location in Parker, Colorado. “I really believe we can put these schools all over the country and in some way make a dent in American education,” Leman says.

And already, the campus on North Silverbell is expanding. Next year the school will offer academics through seventh grade, and plans to expand to eighth grade by 2017. And it’s not lost on Leman that the lot next to the academy is vacant. “Yes, I want a high school,” he admits with a chuckle.

If that news creates a stampede among parents who want to sign their teens up for what may well be a life-changing experience, he doesn’t seem worried. He has learned that sometimes the best things happen in unexpected ways.

“Everything I’ve done, I never wanted to do,” he sums up. “I was teaching at the University of Arizona and people said, ‘You ought to write a book.’ I thought, ‘Yeah, right.’ After I heard it about 1,000 times, I thought, ‘I wonder if I could do that.’ That was 52 books ago.”

ANDREW WEIL, M.D.

DESERT SAGE

If you seek wisdom, go to the desert. There is something very pure and essential in the plants that survive here, in the weathered rocks that surround the Tucson valley, in the elements that shape the destiny of the landscape.

It’s the perfect place to find a wise man on a hike with his dogs.

Andrew Weil, M.D., is at home in this terrain with his beloved Rhodesian Ridgebacks, in his modern-yet-classically- Southwestern house, in his field of integrative medicine, as a Buddhist monk is in his robes. A longtime Tucsonan and fixture in the community, he has become a worldwide go-to guy for information and advice about everything from nutrition to mindful living to the frontiers of health care.

He also knows a thing or two about growing old, which, having just turned 74, he observes with a smile “is not easy.”

But this Harvard-trained physician/ researcher/author/entrepreneur isn’t accustomed to doing anything the easy way, or worrying about maintaining the status quo. He pushed for changes way back in his student days in the 1960s, and was an early sojourner into the land of psychedelics. One glance at his writings, and you realize that he is every bit the iconoclast that James Dean was, just navigating an entirely different stretch of highway.

And this rebel with a cause has some very important things to say about the last chapters of our lives.

I SEE OLD PEOPLE

It’s a sobering statistic: each day for the next 20 years, some 10,000 baby boomers will turn 65. Marketing firms are cranking up their calliopes to bellow that age is just a number, 65 is the new 45, these are the best years, and so on. But the truth is, just like with an automobile, an older body tends to need more repairs/adjustments/ tweaks and with increased frequency.

The inevitable outcome is more strain on the health care system. “I’ve written a lot about this,” he says, dressed in a black shirt and jeans and seated in the living room of his foothills home. “I think there’s no way that we can deliver this expensive, high-tech medicine to everyone. I’ve long argued that integrative medicine has to be the future, where the high-tech stuff, including pharmaceutical drugs, is one component, but we need to look at less expensive ways of managing common conditions and really put effort into health promotion and prevention.”

Today’s health consumer has a dizzying array of choices when it comes to supplements that are intended to prevent certain ailments, or ameliorate the symptoms of something we already have. Grocery and drug stores are giving over substantial space to these pills, liquids and powders. But do any of them do anything to keep you out of the doctor’s office?

“Supplements are regulated now, and I think they could be regulated even better,” Weil observes. “It’s not a matter of denying people access to them, it’s making sure that they can obtain products that are safe and of good efficacy. There’s a lot of not-good stuff on the market, but I also think that things have gotten better because there have been regulations that have forced companies to adhere to proper manufacturing practices. The quality is better, but there needs to be more effective education of both doctors and patients about correct uses of these supplements. And I also argue that pharmacists are the people who ought to be doing that, because they should be expert in this area and be able to tell doctors and patients how to use them, what goes with what, what doesn’t go with what, but their education is deficient at the moment in herbs and dietary supplements.”

That breakdown in the knowledge stream can be traced back to what physicians and pharmacists are taught while in school. Not much attention is paid to supplemental vitamins and herbs. “Not only are they not aware of what these things are, but the information they get about drugs mostly comes from the manufacturers, not from objective sources. That’s of course what we’re trying to remedy in training physicians in integrative medicine.”

At press time, Dr. Weil was writing a book about medications called Mind Your Meds. “It’s about our over-medicated society. I tried to identify the categories of drugs that I think are most frequently overprescribed or misprescribed. This is being written for everybody, but I think it’s stuff that people really need to be aware of. Things like antibiotics and anti-anxiety drugs, antidepressants, steroids and all this. And to understand when it’s appropriate to use these and when it’s not, what the risks are and what the alternatives are.”

IT’S THE FOOD, DUDE

The Long Gray Line queuing up at the pharmacy counter may not be able to get all their concerns addressed about supplements just yet. And there is another area where across the spectrum — cradle to walker — it can be tough to get definitive answers: nutrition.

It’s an area that Weil is especially concerned with, having authored several very popular books on the topic, including the recently published Fast Food, Good Food: More than 150 Quick and Easy Ways to Put Healthy, Delicious Food on the Table. It was a logical choice for subject matter for a guy who a couple of years back collaborated with restaurateur Sam Fox to open the eatery True Food Kitchen.

“I’m a very good home cook, and over the years, lots of people said, ‘You ought to open a restaurant,” Weil explains. “I’m smart enough to know that I know nothing about the restaurant business. I was never tempted by that.”

Still, he says that he was disappointed with his options for dining out, even in foodie cities such as New York. “I would go to places, and more often than not I was disappointed because I could make better food at home. That was one of my motivations — to create a restaurant that would serve what I consider to be good food that happened to conform to good nutritional science, and see if people would like that.”

True Food Kitchen is doing well, with locations in Phoenix, Scottsdale, Atlanta, Austin, Dallas, Houston, Denver, El Segundo, Newport Beach, San Diego, Santa Monica and Fairfax, with more to come soon. Folks are eager to sample menu items such as Spaghetti Squash Casserole, Braised Artichoke Pizza, and Sustainable Seabass.

“For me, first of all food has to taste good. So I start with very good ingredients. I use fresh food, cook from scratch, and use spices and flavors creatively,” Weil says of his own culinary undertakings. “But I don’t make overly complicated dishes. That’s one of my complaints about most restaurant food lately is that it’s too gussied up. I like simple, bold flavors. I like the flavors of good ingredients to come through. So my preparations are very simple but I think very tasty.”

One thing you may not see in his pantry is any item that includes GMO’s. “I think the science is contradictory on them. There are some real concerns, and at the very least we ought to be notified whenever we buy something that’s GMO. It’s just unconscionable that Monsanto and other companies can manipulate public opinion to vote against labeling. I don’t know what arguments you could make against putting information on food.”

IT’S ALL IN YOUR HEAD

Attending to the body and leaving the mind out of the equation is a little like playing a piano concerto with just the right hand. Weil has always been a leader when it comes to the mind-body connection, and he has some definite advice about keeping things aligned as we try to stay on the plus side of healthy.

“For intellectual stimulation … I read a lot. I really like films. I teach, so I interact with people often. I write, so I’m constantly involved with information. My mind is very active in that sense. Actually, I think one of the dangers is how do you deal with information overload. I think that’s a real problem for many people, a source of stress.

“I generally try to disconnect from my computer and email somewhere in the early afternoon,” he reveals. “I may check things one time in the evening, but I really try fairly early in the afternoon to be disengaged. It used to be that email was my greatest problem. Now texting is getting to be!” he adds with a laugh.

He also has long been a proponent of meditation, although if you picture him ringing a temple bell each morning while shrouded in a cloud of incense, you may be imagining the wrong sort of guru. Weil is more time-tested-practical than he is ethereal. “Meditation is still a part of my routine, but if I don’t do it when I first get up, I don’t do it, because I get caught up in the day’s activities. I really try to make an effort. I get up, brush my teeth, sit down and try to do my meditation then. It really is just focused attention. I think the goal of meditation is not necessarily to sit still, it’s to be able to develop focused awareness and mindfulness, and be able to carry that through all the activities of the day. I think it’s training the mind to be fully present in the moment.”

Back in Weil’s med student days, he understood the need for controlling set (mindset) and setting (physical environment, including one’s companions) when using any sort of psychedelic substance. He was fortunate enough to study the work of some of the pioneers of the field, including Dr. Timothy Leary and Dr. Richard Alpert (aka Ram Dass). When psychoactive drugs became a free-for-all in the late 1960s, the potential to seriously evaluate them got flushed faster than contraband during a police raid.

“There’s active research going on in that area for the first time in a while, so I think the prospects are good that we’re going to reevaluate them and be able to bring them in again,” Weil says. “I think that would be a very useful thing.”

There is much potential for psychedelics such as LSD to help in assisting patients in dealing with things like chronic pain, as well as ease anxiety as the end of life approaches.

It’s not the way that most of us were taught to think about these substances. “During the Nixon era, no question, it was that these are the scariest, most dangerous drugs, and the irony is on the physical level they are some of the safest that we know, and there is a lot of evidence that if we pay attention to the set and setting in which they are used, you can get positive results with them. At the moment, you can’t even use marijuana or just talk about it at a hospice if they receive Medicare funds, so hopefully that will change soon.”

WHAT’S UP NEXT, DOC?

At the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona, where Weil is the founder and director, there is exciting progress to report. “We’ve graduated somewhere around 1300 physicians from our fellowship. We have people who are practicing in all states, and in many other countries. We’re training medical residents. We have 56 residency programs throughout the country that have opted for our curriculum training medical students. We’re constantly expanding, so I think we’re doing really well.”

Graduates of the program will be on the frontlines of dispensing health care that may involve patients making simple changes in diet or adopting specific exercise routines, taking natural supplements, or utilizing other non-invasive options that are far less expensive (and often safer) than what Western medicine offers.

“We are trying to develop a clinical model. We have a clinic in Phoenix, and we’re hoping to open one in Tucson,” Weil says. “We want to see if we can develop an integrative primary care model that will be sustainable, profitable and replicable. That’s something we’re actively working on.

“For our Phoenix clinic, from the research we’ve done, there’s an incredibly high patient satisfaction. The doctor spends a significant amount of time on an initial visit, much more than you’d have during a conventional medical interaction. And then you have access to other services, to other kinds of practitioners, group visits, health coaches, information about nutrition and so forth. And the model that we’ve used in Phoenix is a hybrid model that’s covered by insurance, but then on top of that people pay a membership fee for these additional services. So far that’s been working. We are beginning to be approached by employers who are interested in participating.”

And there is some very significant research taking place in labs worldwide that could further turn modern medicine on its ear. “I think one of the most exciting things on the horizon is research on the microbiome. It’s all the microorganisms that live in you and on you, but most of the attention has been focused on organisms in the gut. It’s such an amazing dimension of biology that we didn’t pay any attention to, and it looks as if it affects everything. It really influences all your interactions with your environment. I think many common problems are traceable to disturbances in the microbiome. A lot of the conditions that we see today — allergies, autoimmunity, gluten sensitivity, ADHD, maybe autism — a whole range of things may be linked to that. I think we’re just at the beginning of understanding it.”

And at the dawn of moving beyond the one-size-fits-all paradigm of health care treatments, “I think we will be able to provide individualized treatments based on people’s genetic makeup. Targeted therapies for cancer, for example, we’re pretty close to. Stem cell stuff also is incredibly promising, and we’re fairly close to being able to regenerate insulin-producing cells in the pancreas for type-1 diabetics. Probably things like spinal cord regeneration in the near future. That’s very exciting stuff on the horizon.”

And even at this late-in-life stage for them both, the horizon is where you’ll find Andrew Weil and Kevin Leman. Keep reading their books, attending their seminars, watching their TV interviews and you’ll witness them making new trails that begin right here in the Old Pueblo, and reach as far as their minds can take them.
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