23 January 2015

And Then The Pain Disappeared

Twenty years ago, I injured my iliotibial band while training for a half marathon. I went for physical therapy but it didn't take and for years, I couldn't run more than about two and a half miles without pain. I gave up running and I gave up triathlons (because running), but I took solace in the fact that I could still hike and swim.

Three or four years ago it occurred to me that maybe they'd come up with some new ideas about treating ITB problems. So I googled and found out that, indeed, the stretch and massage protocol in use in the 1990s didn't help a lot of people, and they were recommending strengthening instead. So I joined the gym and after a few months on the weight machines found I could run three miles, three and a half... four.... 

And then, in a fit of optimism or insanity, I signed up for a marathon.

During my eight-mile run yesterday, my ITB started to feel stiff. And then the outside of my knee started to ache. This is a bad sign: it gets so painful I can barely walk, to say nothing of running.

But then I remembered what my yoga teacher said a few weeks ago: if you have stiffness in your body, a frozen shoulder, you can use your mind to let go.

I was kind of pissed at the time; I've been working on recovering from a shoulder injury since a car accident three years ago, and he was saying all I had to do was think about it relaxing? But I was also intrigued.

But during the run, I recalled what he'd said, and since I was three miles from home, it was getting colder and darker, and the only other option was to walk home across the fields, I decided to try. I put all my mental energy into relaxing the hip.

I was also channeling the physical therapist who worked on my shoulder last year. He'd say, "loose, loose" while he was drilling into a pressure point with his knuckles and causing me exquisite pain. (And when I say "exquisite," I mean "excruciating," but for some reason the medical profession likes the other term.)

And I felt both of my hip joints relax, and more motion come into them as I ran, and both my feet straightened -- I've always been pigeon-toed -- and the pain in my knee disappeared. I spent the rest of the run telling myself to stay loose. I stopped to walk a couple of times, but mostly I just kept trotting along, trying to feel like water flowing home.

I still can't really believe it. But I got home from the run and walked up a flight of stairs without pain, and I'm still pain-free today (though a little stiff). And hopeful. Incredibly hopeful.

19 January 2015

Oh My God You Guys, I Signed Up For A Marathon

I ran New York in 1991, half a lifetime ago, and I've been saying for years that I'd run another when I was 50. That used to be a really distant target.

Fifty came and went. But the stars seem to be aligned right this year. After years of exercise only to get back to some kind of base fitness after each illness, I've managed to get a little farther. The injuries that have plagued me for years are leaving me alone. Maybe it's because I'm on sabbatical, and I don't have the commute from hell, and when I need to rest... I can rest.

I was going to sign up for a half marathon first, but the race I had in mind filled up. I found another ... and there's both a half and a full marathon on the same day. And runners can change their registration from one race to the other. So I went hell-for-leather and signed myself up for the marathon.

I may have to switch to the half. I may not make it to the starting line at all. I signed up to make sure I have a spot in case I'm able to get there. And I'm going to give it a try.

I'm signed up for the Milton Keynes marathon on May 4, and I'm fundraising for Sustrans, the rough equivalent in the UK of New York's Transportation Alternative. Sustrans advocates for sustainable transit -- bike lanes and good public transportation network.  If you're interesting in supporting Sustrans and my run, click here for the marathon web site.

May the Fourth be with me?

08 January 2015

On Not Seeing the Mona Lisa, or the Water Lilies

I suppose it's reasonable that I, a generalist, not a scholar of Renaissance art, should be granted no special access to the Mona Lisa, no particular ability to view the painting, much as -- for reasons I recognize as good, and having to do with preservation -- non-specialists might be able to look at two facing pages of, say, a Gutenberg Bible under glass, but not to sit down in an easy chair paging through it at leisure.

But right out there in a museum, ostensibly in public, I was unprepared for how deeply it was impossible to see the Mona Lisa. It is surrounded by a barrier keeping viewers perhaps fifteen feet away, and covered with glass. What I saw, then, was a ghostly face and the reflection of an exit sign over a door at the back of the gallery, punctuated by flashes from the scores of people in the room taking selfies and snaps of each other.

It got me thinking about reproduction. Digital techniques today allow the surface to be mapped, a model of the texture created, and the image itself photographically rendered onto such a textured model. I'd have gotten more out of looking at a good reproduction of the painting than I did looking at glass and reflected light. I got a better look at the painting someone was selling along the river, with Mona Lisa's face on a cat, than I did at the original.

Monet's Water Lilies are hard to see for another reason: their scale. I had the great, vast privilege to see them on display in the purpose-built gallery in L'Orangerie, mounted on slightly curved walls in an oval-shaped room.

I looked from the front, but the room is barely large enough to see the whole painting. The edges fade into peripheral vision and the details of the paint, layers over layers making a textured surface, fade into the distance.  Looking from the side, I could focus on the near end of the painting, or the far end, but never both at the same time. Up close, I could examine the texture, the detailed use of color, but only for a tiny fraction of the paintings at one time.

And only retreating once more to a distance could I see the shadow of light on the surface of water, or the shape of a tree in the foreground.

The vastness of the paintings, for me, foregrounds the landscape, makes it a kind of actor in the interaction between viewer and image.  I felt myself reduced in scale, in scope, in agency, as a human viewer. What one sees is not landscape, it is one human's interpretation of landscape, but it gives that landscape something that gives pause. Water and light overshadow human scale, force a recognition that the human place in the world is limited.

06 January 2015

Winter Biking: Gear List

A friend writes that she hangs up her bike in the fall because she doesn't have the warm clothing to bike in the winter. She's thinking it might be nice to ride, but says she doesn't know where to start in terms of buying the gear.

So, if you'd like to lengthen your riding season, here's a suggested list. You might already own things that you can use for biking; a lot of my gear does double- or triple-duty for hiking, biking, and jogging. Some items are very bike-specific.

First off, safety. Winter is wetter and darker than summer, and drivers are less attuned to seeing cyclists.
  • Traction. Make sure your tires still have good tread and make sure they're pumped up appropriately so you don't slip on roads that will stay wet longer after rain or frozen precipitation. If you want to ride on snow or ice, consider studded tires. If you've never ridden in wet conditions, start slow and brake early: wet brake pads take longer to work.
  • Visibility. Motorists notice motion, so make sure you have good pedal reflectors, and wear reflectors on your ankles. Get a brightly colored vest with reflective stripes, in a size big enough to wear over all kinds of warm layers. Add reflective tape to the front, sides, and back of your helmet. (You have a helmet, right??) Get blinky red lights and put them all over your back: on the bike, on your helmet, on a backpack if you're wearing one. Use a white light for the front of your bike.
  • Vision. If you're going to be riding on roads or paths that aren't lit at night, get a really good light for the front of your bike. This is a place to spend money to get a very bright light with an internal, rechargeable battery. (AA batteries drain fast in cold weather, and drained batteries produce poor light).
Secondly, comfort. Winter is also colder than summer, and wind sucks the warmth right out of your body. The tricky part is keeping the extremities warm without overheating.
  • Hands. Lobster claw gloves divide your four fingers into two, providing better warmth than standard gloves and better grip on handlebars and brake levers than mittens. If in doubt about size, opt for slightly larger; the air inside will warm up and help insulate. Whatever you wear, make sure the palms and fingertips are covered with material that grips, not just plain fleece or wool, which will leave your hands sliding all over the place. If it's *really* cold, a pair of breathable-waterproof mittens large enough to fit over your gloves/mitts is helpful. Or you can do like New York City delivery guys, and tape plastic bags around the ends of your handlebars.
  • Eyes. Need to be protected, night and day. Biking gear manufacturers make glasses with interchangeable lenses that you can swap out with clear ones for night riding. If you wear glasses anyway, you might want to consider a pair with transitional lenses that go dark in bright sun.
  • Ears. Depending on temperature, a thin headband or a thin hat to go under your helmet. A gore-text helmet cover (and again with all the reflective stripes) will also keep your head warmer as well as dryer.
  • Feet. Hiking boots or knee-high boots with thick wool socks will work, as long as they're not too bulky and as long as it's not too cold. Another option is neoprene shoe covers, which will also protect street shoes from salt and damp if you're commuting to work.
  • Legs. You want both warmth and protection from precipitation or road spray, and the amount and the layers will depend on temperature and your own body. Lined hiking pants are a good starting point. Look for a pair that provides warmth, protects from wind, and resists water. Depending on conditions, you could add long underwear (non-cotton!) and/or rain pants.
  • Upper body. Here, you want layers as well as the ability to zip easily at the neck as you warm up, or turn into or out of the wind. Avoid cotton like the plague. Start with a light wicking bottom layer, add layers of fleece or wool, top with tightly woven wool or a breathable waterproof.
  • Face. You can get a fancy neoprene mask, or a cheap light-weight balaclava, or tie a bandanna over your mouth and nose, or pull up a scarf. Whatever you do, your glasses will fog up. Once you've been riding for 10 or 15 minutes, you'll probably generate enough body heat to keep your face warm, unless it's well below freezing.
Again, if you're already walking or jogging outdoors (or, who knows, cross-country skiing or canoeing) in cold weather, you may have some gear you can repurpose for winter biking. I've acquired most of the stuff I use for winter biking over several years. I see fastest wear on gloves, but other that (and bike seat and tires), I very seldom need to replace anything because of wear.

But chances are you'll need to buy at least a couple of items. If you're on a budget, the first place to spend is on a good headlight; you can get away with a dirt-cheap vest or pinney and inexpensive tail-lights. Money also helps buy warm gloves.

I've deliberately left off the names of shops or manufacturers from the above list. But I will say that everything I've ever bought from Pearl Izumi has been great quality and very long-lasting. Schwalbe makes great tires, including studded ones; having used their punctureless tires, I'll never go back. If you're wondering where to shop, US readers could try Eastern Mountain Sports, Campmor, Sierra Trading Post, Bike Nashbar; I don't have enough experience with shopping elsewhere to make recommendations.

Questions? Anything I've forgotten? Let me know. And happy riding.

16 December 2014

Fear of Side Effects / Call Me Superwoman

Theorists of disability have very rightly criticized the "medical model" suggesting individuals should be rehabilitated, normalized, fixed, in favor of a social model calling for modifications to the built environment that avoid putting, as Leviticus forbids, a stumbling block before the blind, or, for instance, stairs when a ramp or a sidewalk-level entrance would allow more equal access.

My experience of disability, however, involves interactions with the world that are hindered by exacerbations of chronic illness, typically asthma attacks triggered by upper-respiratory infections that for most of the people who catch them are at worst an annoyance, as well as by life-threatening allergies to things that other people aren't in the least bit bothered by. Or that they love, like mushrooms and cats.

Building streets with curb cuts and buildings with ramps as a matter of course is an obvious act of inclusion. Eliminating smoking in public areas to help everyone avoid upper airway disease is a no-brainer. But object when Edinburgh University gives a cat a library card or a cafe owner opens the premises to cats, and you might get death threats.

Actually, I'm not interested in challenging anyone's right to consort with cats, though if a friend has a cat, I can't visit, ever, and The Mate hasn't eaten mushrooms at home in years. I am trying to make the point that the idea that disability is a socially constructed phenomenon, rather than an individual problem subject to remediation, is problematic in my experience.

Chronic illness seems to depend upon a medical model. The wheelchair icon and the understanding of disability as constructed by exclusionary social practices both suggest that disability in individuals is stable. But chronic illness seems to be characterized by flux, whether progressive decline or alternating periods of illness and remission. Medical help, usually in the form of pharmaceuticals, can delay decline and treat attacks and exacerbations. Sometimes medicine is needed to keep a person alive long enough to recover and return to remission.

If there were a pill that made my allergy to cats go away? I'd take it in a minute.

Actually, there is such a pill: prednisone.

The problem with prednisone, as with many other medications people take for epilepsy, asthma, depression, crohn's disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and multiple sclerosis, to name just a few, is side effects.

Maybe a medication is extremely effective in treating a symptom, and the side effects are so minor, that it's not worth worrying about.

Maybe a medication works like that for most of the people who take it, but for a small minority, it turns out to have life-threatening effects.

Maybe it wasn't anticipated during trials that a lot of real-life people taking the drug under investigation would also be taking another medication at the same time, and the interaction between those two medications would turn out to be potentially lethal.

Maybe the test population didn't include any women, because women's hormonal cycles were long thought to screw up the results, and the drug turns out to be more effective in women. Or less effective.

Drug development and testing is done by people in lab coats, with careful measurements of doses, conditions, and outcomes. It sounds like science, it smells like science, it must be science. But real live people turn out to be so different in their responses to medications, including reduction of symptoms as well as side effects, that treating individuals turns out to be more art than science.

With some medications the line between effectiveness and toxicity is narrow. Or non-existent. If I took enough prednisone to eliminate my cat allergy I'd probably have a few great years. Manic years, since prednisone also is known to affect moods; it makes some people depressed and suicidal, but it makes me fly high as a kite. Kind of fun, and I tend to get a lot of work done, but not necessarily what I want when my body needs rest to recover from the infection that triggered the attack.

But then the side effects would almost certainly take over: weight gain, suppressed immunity, diabetes, hypertension, osteoporosis, psychosis, dementia.

Last week, I did a six-mile run and I lifted some weights, as well as other exercise. Monday morning, I woke up so sick I got winded brushing my teeth. I am the stumbling block, or in any rate my lungs are; there's no social reorganization that will change the fact that I need to breathe, or I'll be dead.

Even Harry Potter needed the occasional hit of oxygen during that underwater scene.

So I take just enough prednisone to control the symptoms. I watch as my cholesterol and A1C levels creep up, despite a vegan diet and lots of exercise. I need the medicine; I fear the side effects. As for the mania? I finished a book chapter, outlined another, and wrote two blog posts today.

Call me superwoman.

15 December 2014

What I Can't Live Without: Clean Water

What can you not live without?  A cousin asked me that excellent question after I wrote my last post about minimalism in the kitchen.

I'm on sabbatical at the moment, living in a furnished apartment in the UK, with a tiny kitchen containing far fewer pots and pans and gadgets and appliances than my kitchen, or rather storage locker, in New York.

And even my New York kitchen is fairly small by white upper-middle-class American suburban standards.

I've been mulling over that question for the last several days, because I've also spent a fair amount of time cooking in even more minimal conditions on camping trips.

What I can't live without includes a knife, a cutting board, a pot. But it also turns out to include fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and some variety of gluten-free flour. Home-made jam and applesauce and thai curries and Indian utthapams and bhajis and vegan soups and stews. Enormous salads. Bowls of cooked greens.

And lettuce and other greens, as I discovered during the lower Manhattan blackout after Hurricane Sandy, require large quantities of running water for cleaning. You can scrub root vegetables in a small amount of water, then rinse with another small amount. Most fruit can do with just a quick rinse, and legumes don't require too much more than cooking water.

But greens -- kale, collards, chard, spinach, bok choy, and lettuce -- I wouldn't want to have to live without those, not for the long term.

We take clean running water casually, so terribly casually, for granted, in North America and Western Europe.  Even as we buy vast quantities of bottled water, we forget that in large parts of the world -- and even in parts of the US -- the water isn't safe to drink or take a shower in.

I am very glad not to have to live without clean running water.

10 December 2014

Fighting for Minimalism

I've lived in apartments in New York City for the past 25 years, and that means keeping possessions to a relative minimum unless I want to pay for storage for stuff that I then won't be able to use ... because, well, it's across town in storage.

Today, I ran across the Haters Guide to the Williams Sonoma Catalogue, which includes this gem:
The Williams-Sonoma catalog will not rest until you need a separate pot for every single goddamn thing you make.
For a while, I owned a crock pot that I'd found in my building's recycling area, with a note promising, "it works!" Since I'm either home all day or out for fifteen hours, I never left the thing unattended, and eventually I came to the conclusion that I could cook more efficiently in -- gasp -- a normal pot on the stove.

By that time I'd moved, twice, paying movers to schlep that crock pot down five flights, up four, back down the same four, and up three. In the last move, I finally after nearly 25 years in New York City moved to an elevator building, but still.

In the end, the crock pot ended up at the Salvation Army. Maybe now some other poor soul is using it based on the promise of better meals than you can make with a normal pot on a normal stove.

But the thing about Black Friday and Cyber Monday and our consumer-driven society in general is that, with the exception of kids moving out on their own, people pretty much already own all the pots they need. And so Williams Sonoma, and for that matter Walmart, need to persuade you that you need MORE pots in your kitchen.

If they can find a way to sell you DISPOSABLE kitchenware, for instance single-use roasting pans or pie pans, then they've hit the jackpot.

It takes WORK to avoid advertising. I regularly make phone calls to get people to stop sending catalogues, but one on-line purchase can mean another whole pile of them. I've installed ad-blocker on my PC, but I still see advertising on my iPad. And internet advertising is a special horror:it takes extra discipline not to click through to the next web site, and the next.

Everyone wants me, or rather my limited amount of disposable income. Another pot, a better cleaning product, another sweater, a new pair of socks, a better health plan. I'm constantly fighting the capitalist barrage of advertising trying to persuade me that I need another item.

And budget considerations aside, it's an environmental issue. How do you fight the good fight?