Pondering in the Pool

Swimming is where I do a lot of thinking. Now, at first, when you start to swim, what you’re going to be thinking about is swimming. It’s very technique based and focusing on stroke, the feel of the water, your body position in the water, the relationship of kick to stroke and your breathing rhythm are all so overwhelming that when you’re in the pool, this is what you’re thinking about.

This is exactly as it should be. You do need to take time to work on these things, because swimming is very skill-based.

But after a period of time, all of this will become ingrained in muscle memory and you’ll be able to put your body more or less on automatic — except for maybe keeping count of laps and the stroke you’re doing, if that’s your thing.

Then you’re just in the water. It’s not silent, for all that we portray underwater as silent in films. No, there’s bubbles, splashing, and noise. Maybe there will be whistles if you’re in on a swim team practice. I generally am not, so it’s the bubbles and the splashing. But that’s a background noise that tends to fade away.

Then it’s really just you and the water. Unless you’ve invested in some expensive electronics, you’re probably not listening to music or audiobooks. There’s no television like the elliptical users often have in gyms. There’s just you and your thoughts.

It’s a great time to write. No, seriously. This is where I get a lot of my writing done. I can fantasize about characters, or I can think about turns of phrase or subjects I want to discuss. It’s not like meditation, because the point of meditation is to clear the mind. I make no attempt to do that, but find things that are interesting and ponder them.

Recently, I took a survey on how to make gyms welcoming to people who are overweight. You’d think a gym would be a welcoming place for someone who wanted to improve physical fitness, but there is a kind of weird aura around it. If you’re visibly trying to lose weight, yeah, you can get a kind of patronizing cheering section. I say patronizing, because there is this presumption that only if you knew HOW to lose weight, you poor ignorant thing, you’d do it.*

But what if that isn’t a major goal?

That can be stickier.

Me? I don’t need a gym to be welcoming. It’s five thirty in the damn morning. I need a lane to swim in, or a place at the squat rack, and a place to shower and dry my hair afterwards to get to work. Leave me alone to work out and I’m dandy.

Oh yeah, the locker room.

It is a sort of unspoken thing that you have to earn your place to speak up and participate in casual conversation there if you’re not visibly an athlete. For those who don’t care about that kind of thing, it’s awesome, ’cause you get left the devil alone.

For more social creatures, and for people who really do like to belong, that can really hurt.

Thing is, there are times when one DOESN’T belong to the specific group. A lot of the people I see in the locker room in the morning? They’re often triathletes. You know, endurance athletes who log hundreds of miles a years running, biking and swimming? Friends, I ain’t. I’m in there to keep from developing a blood pressure problem, and that’s about the extent of it. You’ll never see me in a spinning class, and I hate running to the depths of my being.

Now, that isn’t to say I don’t belong in the gym. I do. I paid to be there, and if someone had a problem with me working out during “athlete time” they can make a fool of themselves by making a stink if they want to. I genuinely don’t think anyone does have a problem with me being there, and even if they did, I doubt anyone really wants to risk me getting acerbic, anyway.

But let me let you in on something. If you spend all your time telling someone they’re unworthy because they’re fat, that they don’t deserve nice things because they’re fat, and then make them feel like they don’t belong in a workout space because they’re fat, they’re probably NOT going to respond with my sigma-6 level of scrappiness.

So, if you see the fat person in the gym, try something really outrageous.

Treat ‘em like a regular person. Works wonders.



* It’s a subject I’ve studied in some depth, and it’s unlikely as hell that the patronizing person has done anything but read a few badly-reported studies in fitness mags whose main goal is to sell protein powder, for pity’s sake!

Fitness Benchmarks

Do you have fitness benchmarks?  You know, things you want to be able to do physically (that are achievable.  Disabilities exist and are real) that do require a bit of work to maintain.

I thought about this today as I was getting some hot water for my coffee.  The water cooler/heater’s bottle was pretty much empty and needed to be switched out for a full one.

We get our water bottles in five gallon containers, so you’re looking at about forty pounds that needs to be picked up off the floor and manipulated with some reasonable level of delicacy to get the opening on the nozzle correctly and not spill or break anything.

Heavy?  Not particularly.  I can recall when I weighed about that, and my mother and father picked me up at that age with some regularity.

But over the past year, I haven’t been doing much physical, so while I could do it, and did (I think walking by an empty cooler if you are physically capable of switching it out without injuring yourself is kind of inconsiderate) it was definitely getting harder.

You wanna know if swimming puts on muscle? One month into getting back into swimming and it was enough easier to startle me.

Which brings me to the point.

What are your fitness benchmarks?  What are your indications that you might need to be a bit more focused on getting enough exercise?  I’m not talking about the scale here, or how your pants fit.  Those are fine goals if that’s what you’re into, but they’re a bit on the cosmetic side.  I’m talking the functional and physical benchmarks.   These are pretty individual.

For me, being able to manipulate forty pounds up through four feet of space with ease is definitely one.  Another is perceived exertion going up the hill to my house.  Can I lift a full suitcase easily from the floor of a train to the luggage rack without Red Cap assistance?  Is two miles a pleasant walk or something that makes me want a nap?  If I fall below any of those pretty modest abilities, I feel like I need to do something about it.

What are yours?

Training, Athletes and Working Out

Because we all know that the body needs to move some period of time to be healthy (30 minutes a day seems to be the sweet spot for a range of health issues), many of us will find some physical thing to do.

Some of us walk, others choose running, or getting into a sport, or dance or many other things. When we haven’t been active enough, we go to the gym.

It’s the gyms I want to focus on.

This was brought to mind one morning last week. As we were checking in to the gym to do our thing, the person behind the check in desk commented to me, “I know you’re a swimmer. I wanted to give you a heads up that the hot tub is only 70 degrees this morning.”

The phrasing hit me. Not, “I know you swim” but “you are a swimmer.”

There’s a difference, though it might be subtle. I got to thinking about it, and questioning whether or not I could consider myself an athlete. Do I follow a training model when I work out? Yes, when I swim laps, I really use swim workouts mixing up strokes, drilling on technique and all of that. I’m not on a Master’s team or anything, so I don’t have a coach, which means my progress is probably laughable. But since my goal is to be active for 30-40 minutes on weekday mornings rather than competing in anything, I really don’t care but so much. I eventually decided that since I don’t compete or anything I’m not really what you could call an athlete.

Since I don’t care but so much about the competition side of things, why would I bother with the training model? My body doesn’t care. All my body needs is 30 minutes of movement that gets my heart rate up and doesn’t injure me. I’m not unusual in this. Plenty of people who aren’t athletes use a training model in their workouts. So why?

Mostly, I think, it is because in terms of getting in enough movement, it’s all we know. Our gym classes are taught by athletes. Athletes follow training programs. Many of us were involved in sports as children. When we try to get motivation to become active, we might read articles online or hire someone to help guide us. The people that write these articles and are by profession personal trainers? They’re usually athletes.

The problem inherent in this is a cross-purpose of goals. There is an enormous difference in what is required to move half an hour a day to get the heart rate up a bit for a while and what is required or athletic progress

It’s fine to use the athletic model if it keeps you motivated and interested. It’s fine to use it if it works.

But what if that model is discouraging? What if you’re not making enough progress to keep yourself interested? At a certain point, you do hit a physical limit, or a limit to how hard you want to work out and how much time you want to put into this. Elite competitive athletes spend enormous amounts of time and energy, making some lifestyle decisions that have a high emotional cost to go along with it. If that’s what you want to do with your life, it’s a fine choice. But to say it is the better or more moral choice is absurd. You can make a project out of your body, but it’s not the only project you can choose in this life, and it is up to you what you choose.

So, if your choice is just everyday maintenance to keep the body as healthy as you can manage (and isn’t THAT a range in itself!), the athlete model might actually interfere. Why? Unless you’re an athlete, there’s a good chance training like one isn’t going to be worth it to you on any real level.

But, in spite of the message we get from fitness writers, this is not a binary choice between being an athlete and never moving your body. It isn’t necessarily even a choice between using the training model or not when working out.

The choice is making sure your real goal is firmly in mind? Is your real goal to be able to run a 5K under a certain time, or is it to be consistent in getting up every day and moving? Is your real goal being able to lift a certain amount of weight, or is it to make sure you lift heavy things regularly to get or stay strong?

Sure, sure, have goals to motivate you, but don’t let those goals get so out of hand they prevent you from showing up out of discouragement.

Turquoise Horse

“Miss one day of practice, I notice; miss two, the critics notice; miss three, the audience notices”

This has been credited to a lot of different musicians over the years –Liszt among them. I first heard of the expression from my husband, who trained for many years as a classical pianist. While I studied piano for about four years, I never really did practice well, or with sufficient dedication to make more than minimal progress.

Thing is, it doesn’t just apply to musicians. Consistent practice is important to almost any skill or endeavor – be it an athletic skill or an art. One of the arts that really does require pretty consistent practice or it becomes swiftly noticeable you’re not doing it is writing.

I spent about a year from the summer of 2013 to the summer of 2014 not writing much. This was so unusual for me as to be out of character. I write all the time. I was a regular Harriet the Spy as a youngster, I learned a lot of the computer skills I now have as a way to get essays out there before CMS tools and blogging software became a thing, and I’ve always processed my thoughts and feelings in text in some format.

That year I’ve spent not writing on a consistent basis has dulled my skills beyond belief. While I’m physically weak from not exercising my body, my writing is weak from not doing regular workouts in that field as well.

Because the only way to get better is to practice, I turned back to 750Words. The premise behind 750 Words is very much like the whole idea of Morning Pages from The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. The way to make writing flow easily is simply to write. You must have quota and do it consistently every day. For me, typing 750 words every morning is better than doing it longhand. I don’t like to write longhand and since so much of my work requires typing anyway, I prefer to use that medium to do my morning pages.

Why the Turquoise Horse? The 750Words has several sorts of incentives and badges one can earn to encourage one not only to write, but to write consistently. If you sign up for a challenge and write every day for a calendar month, you earn your Turquoise Horse. I did it for August and was just notified this morning that I got mine

The badges are all whimsical and add a bit of fun to encouraging people to practice their writing. Just do it. Just write it. Don’t care about quality or form. Don’t worry about eloquence or humor. Rant where you must, talk about how tedious it is if you have to, but get those750 words out.

That’s an important step. Never underestimate flow when practicing one’s art.

What about improving? That’s also an important step. Any author will tell you that until you have that first draft, you have no business in the world thinking about editing. Editing comes next. Yes, you should edit. Yes, getting critiques is incredibly important.

But until you have that first draft, you’ve got nothing to work on.

If you’re a writer or want to improve your writing, I do recommend a practice like 750 words. It helps

Swimming v. Running

I was looking up some stuff about relative swimming v. running equivalents. Basically, however much distance you swim in a given time is multiplied by four to give a running/walking time.

I don’t entirely believe it. You see, while my swimming rate isn’t particularly impressive, I do swim about 1000 yards in half an hour. That’s okay for a fitness swimmer who doesn’t give a rip about competition and is just two weeks back in the water after a three year hiatus. Okay, fine.

That would translate into me walking 2.28 miles in half an hour. My best pace, when walking regularly, would be more like 1.53 miles in that amount of time. No, I’m neither fast nor in great shape.

Now, I do have pain issues when I walk that I just don’t have when I swim. Now, I don’t get out of breath when walking, but my hip starts feeling like sandpaper, or my feet cramp up or any of a number of things. Walking just hurts. That stuff doesn’t go away even after months of working out, and no matter what shape I am in. I also walk on a mildly hilly terrain, and I swim in a pool, not open water. That might be enough to account for the difference, but I doubt it. We’re talking a difference of .75 miles in half an hour. That’s a pretty big pace difference from where I am looking.

So, am I really working out that much harder in the water? It doesn’t really feel like it, though I do wind up getting an endorphin high from swimming that I just don’t from anything dryland At least, nothing that’s going to be requiring a specific pace for 30 minutes. ;)

I am trying to account for the difference and the only things I can figure are:

1. Your swimming heart rate is lower, so perceived exertion might be lower. It’s possible I simply DO work harder in the water because it’s just not uncomfortable.

2. I have a very high body fat percentage. That means I float extremely well. I exert NO effort at all to float. All exertion is propulsion, only. I’m not working harder. The workout is actually easier.

3. At a certain point, all swimming success is down to technique, and mine is just there.

4. The 4x dryland distance for equivalent pace is hooey. Forget about it and just work out every day because that’s the part that matters and not the minutiae.

I should probably take four and run (or swim) with it. I like swimming, it feels good and it makes me happy to do it, so who cares about the numbers, because hey, I work out for an hour, get red in the face and get my heart rate up for a half hour every day, so who cares about anything else.

Which does circle around to the fact I find applying high end athletic training techniques to everyday fitness is generally a load of hooey. If you’re competing in races, you’ve gone from everyday fitness to athlete, even if you’re the slowest of amateurs. That’s different from someone whose hobby is not being an athlete, but still lives in a body and needs to keep fit.

Video Chat

When I was a kid in the 1970s, video chat was mostly science fiction. Some high end companies were starting to play with the idea of video conferencing, but it was expensive to set up, and not too reliable. There were some exhibits using it in Futureworld in Disneyworld, then later in EPCOT center. But it was still this really advanced thing.

Flash forward to today. Now, I’ve had video chat capability for about a decade, but I don’t use it much. Goodness knows why, but I don’t. Mostly, I use it to talk to my son as the cheap version of chatting, because videochat over Skype doesn’t use phone minutes, and we both have devices that do it.

I think it’s kind of weird as all get out that we have this total science fiction technology that all the science fiction books and movies said we’d be using on a regular basis. And yet, for the most part, I kinda don’t.

Do you use it? And if so, and you’re an Asimov fan, do you ever get kind of a Naked Sun vibe from doing so?

Playing Games

I didn’t go on a swim the other morning. I had a device problem and was up until around 11. Not going to get up at 5 in the morning and work out, then work all day on six hours of sleep if I can help it. I’m protective of my sleep.

I really did intend to give working out a miss that day. After all, one day more or less really isn’t a big deal.

But I got to thinking.

I’m party of a party fighting a boss monster on Habit RPG. Habit RPG turns the habits you want to build and tasks you want to perform into a role playing game. You have a character that earns points from completed tasks and habits that you program in. In certain categories, non-performance will cause you to take hit points, rather like rolling low in combat in a role-playing game.

Yes, the monster is goofy as all get out, but you know what? I knew if I did not perform the daily things I’d set myself to do, such as exercise, not only would I take a hit, the whole party facing the monster would.

Is it childish that I’m using this game as motivation to get things done?

I don’t really think so.

I used to. Even used to feel embarrassed with myself that I didn’t just want to do what I was supposed to and had to make a damn game out of everything. I got over it when I realized that a consistently clean house doesn’t trip my reward circuits like a dramatically messy house becoming clean. I will do what trips my reward circuits as easily as a rat in a maze, and the paradigm of feeling good at dramatic change sets up a cycle of requiring a stage where the house is messy. From a purely logical point of view, I certainly don’t want that. But a house that’s consistently clean because I’m earning points in a game does give the reward jolt. I don’t do stuff that doesn’t trip the reward circuits. (No-one does, by the way, but how they’re activated can vary from individual to individual.)

I like Habit RPG because it engages on several levels. It put you in a group of people who choose to be productive (peer pressure can be used for good!), it gives quick and immediate rewards for good behavior and it’s silly.

Don’t discount the quick and immediate rewards. It may take weeks or months to get in shape, but getting those points for avoiding junk food or working out are rewards that happen right away. This system makes it easy to get some artificial immediate jolt to the reward part of the brain while working on goals that might have long-term or abstract rewards.

If you were ever into RPGs, I gotta recommend Habit RPG as a system to check out.

The One You'll Do

After about a three year hiatus, I’ve gotten back into the pool.  Now, for a while after I left a gym job that got me a membership as one of the perks, I turned to walking as my primary exercise.

This isn’t going to be some rant about the superiority of any particular exercise.   In reality, there’s no such thing, no matter how much the steroid monkeys throw poorly understood research articles at each other.

Unless you are a professional or world-class competitive athlete, the answer for the perfect exercise is really is simple.  It’s the one you can do that you’ll choose to do on some pretty regular basis.

That’s it.

Sure, sure you might make a hobby out of your chosen activity.  To keep up interest, you might measure progress or learn about the activity.  It’s no coincidence that the physical activities I have loved best are extremely skill and form based.  But that sort of thing doesn’t matter as much as you think.  At a certain age, you’re only going to progress so far, and you’re only going to choose to devote a specific amount of time to being active (and by the way, half an hour a day and you’re good.  That hour a day stuff is about weight loss without diet change, not cardiovascular fitness).

The person who goes for a half hour walk every day, doesn’t measure distance or make a hobby out of performance, but Just Does It over a long period of time is actually in a better exercise position than the person who goes hammer and tongs at working out every few months for a few weeks, but then gets sick of it.

Heroic effort might be more interesting while you’re doing it, but I challenge anyone who does than (*looks sternly in the mirror*) to measure how that holds up against consistency.

Aunt Noël’s Chicken-n-Dumplins

We just spent the week at the beach. As we often do the first night, we had rotisserie chicken, and various summer produce. (God, fresh corn and tomatoes just taste better when they’re grown in Virginia, they really do).

So, we had chicken carcasses left over. Now, Mom brings a crock pot, and neither of us likes to waste good material for stock, so I suggested a chicken soup or maybe chicken-n-dumplins.

I knew my husband and kids liked it, and was pretty sure that that adults would, but I was dubious my nephews were going to be all that into it. Well, one of them talked all week about it, so I promised my brother that I’d send him the recipe. He’s also an excellent cook, so this is not going to be the dumbed down version, but more suitable to a cook trained by Boo. (Our mother’s childhood nickname and grandmother name)

Aunt Noël’s Chicken-n-Dumplins

(this is more or less how I made it last week. Really, this is one of those dishes where you use up what you have on hand)

In the morning, pop the carcass in the crock pot, and cover with COLD water. Put it on low and do your day.

When you’re getting ready to get dinner on the table, sauté about a cup and a half of mirepoix, and a clove or two of garlic in a bit of olive oil. Add to large soup pot and drain stock into it. Add a bit of rosemary. Let simmer.

When the carcass has cooled enough to handle, pick out the meat, toss the bones. Add the meat to the soup with some salt and pepper.

Prepare dumplins according to the directions on the Bisquick box (look we were at the beach. We didn’t bring flour, shortening and all the rest! I have another recipe for dumplins when the kitchen is properly stocked), and roll into balls of about an inch in diameter. Drop in boiling stew, cover, reduce heat and let simmer for about 20 minutes. Serve and accept the ecstatic compliments of the kids.

Dumplins when the kitchen is properly stocked

(I would have doubled this recipe for the 11 or so of us, by the way)

  • 1 c. flour
  • ¼ c. shortening
  • 1/3 c. milk
  • ½ tsp baking powder
  • Dash salt

Mix dry ingredients, cut in shortening until it resembles coarse crumbs. Mix in milk. Prepare as above.

History Buff

When I was in tenth grade, I damned near flunked a World History class. Might sound strange to someone who has anything more than a nodding acquaintance with me, as I’m a pretty serious history buff. But yes, I did get a D for the year in World History in the tenth grade.

The teacher told my mother that she thought I had problems reading, and that was why I was doing so poorly. Mom laughed at her, and I don’t think the teacher ever did figure out that the reason I was doing poorly was that I didn’t want to do what I considered busywork, not because I did not know the material. (I ignored the teacher in class and just read the textbook, which was interesting)

Towards the end of the year, when we were to sign up for classes, I noticed that there was an Advanced Placement American History class available. You had to apply, you had to have an interview, and you had to provide a writing sample.

I applied, pretty sure I wasn’t going to get it, as my World History teacher was going to tell the committee that I was an unmotivated moron. But, hey. I really am a history buff, and I wanted to try and see if I could get into the class anyway.

I don’t remember all of the questions on the application, but I do remember being asked to estimate how many books I’d read in the last three months (~100. I read a lot fewer books a week than I did then) and to list some of titles. I forget all of the titles I put down, but Shogun and Gone with the Wind were on the list alongside I,Robot, Dune, and a fictional biography of Anne Bonny called Sea Star. I did not list the Johanna Lindsay romances. I felt like they wouldn’t help. Though looking back, I suppose it would have been blisteringly obvious that anyone reading over a book a day probably isn’t only reading Great Literature.

The writing sample? No, I didn’t write an essay. I felt like I should have, but there was this ghost story I’d read about the Tower of London and the ghost of headless queen. I decided to write the only historical fiction I’ve ever written to date and did this short story of Anne Boleyn’s last night in the Tower.

Now, Tudor history was something that was not taught in Stafford County history classes at the time. We went straight from Columbus to Sir Walter Raleigh. So, this was clearly something I’d learned about on my own, and was interested enough in to use as a writing subject to try to get into the class.

Yes, I did get in. I think it was less on the reading claims (which I suspect were not entirely believed) and more on that short story. As much as I’d cringe at my sixteen year old self’s writing, ya know, I wish I still had a copy of that story!

Not Aspiring. Writing