My husband and I just got back from eight days in Paris. The daughter of good friends married a Frenchman, and six of us went over for eight days to celebrate. It's the second time we've been to France, and it's been fun to brush up on high-school French, and to plan the trip, despite the unpropitious exchange rate. To economize, we stayed in a gritty suburb east of Paris called Noisy Le Grande for most of the week, and then moved to the beautiful medieval town of Pierrefonds northeast of Paris for the last two days, where the all-night wedding reception was held.
For the week up to the wedding, we took the metro into Paris each morning and walked around the 6th, 7th, and 8th neighborhoods, looking up in awe most of the time at the extraordinary architecture. Here are a few views from our walks:
St. Eustice Cathedral
Front door to private residence in the Seventh arrondisement (on Left Bank of Seine.) You can see why your eye is drawn continually upward (a little like swooning).
Public planting on Champs Elysee
One day we drove with friends to Versailles, but because it was school vacation, the lines into the Palace were too long. We turned away from the bumper-to-bumper traffic waiting to get into the parking lot, and drove out to a road on the periphery, where we discovered that we were passing by the gardens. The gates were open, and there were ample parking spots, so we walked in and enjoyed a beautiful afternoon exploring the garden. Some people were disappointed there weren't any flowers, but the geometry of the garden - wide green paths between columns of yellow-leaved Lyndon trees pruned to look like long trains of boxcars, with a misty far horizon like this one below at the end of the rectangular pool - was irresistible, pulling you forward to find out what's at the end. One path ended in a sheep-meadow, another a field of horses, another in a pond with a sculpture of Neptune overlooking his realm, and another in red-tiled rooves of distant chateaux.
Here is the medieval castle of Pierrefonds, the little village northeast of Paris where we stayed for the last two days of the trip. Built in 1393, the castle was bought by Napoleon early in the 19th century and refurbished by architect Viollet-le-Duc. The village had grown up around it, and the castle overshadows the village in a hovering, protective stance. It is full of defensive sculpture: gargoyles to scare away enemies, lizards that do double-duty as downspouts to empty water from the rooves and also to make you feel cold, wary, and edgy.
Pierrefonds B&B: Here's where we stayed the last two days, and where the wedding reception was held. It was a reward after the gritty town of Noisy Le Grande for the first five days of the trip. Rooms were big and beautiful, and there were trails through beautiful forests to a village of wonderful cafes and markets. In my dreams of the perfect retirement, this is a village I'd like to live for a year or so while I become more fluent in French.
My husband and I just got back from our two week annual sailing vacation. We went to our favorite Penobscot Bay, visiting Belfast, Islesboro, Southwest Harbor, Somesville, Stonington, Brooksville, and North Haven Island's Pulpit Harbor where we sat out Hurricane Danny. In all these places we got off and hiked up beautiful trails to points overlooking the bay. I love to look at gardens on these walks, because vegetation always looks better by the water. Must be the salt air.
We were careful to keep up our exercise because my husband is heading into a hip-replacement in November, and the best way to prepare for those is to get as thin and strong as you can. So W.'s going to the gym, too.
We dieted during the cruise, because we always come off of these sailing vacations at least five pounds heavier. W. always defends what I see as a lack of exercise when aboard, by pointing out that your body is always compensating for the boat's rocking back and forth. This maintaining equilibrium, he says, is exercise.
Well, it's not vigorous enough to keep us from gaining weight, so this time we made some rules. No drinking before 6pm, no sugar (except for the "natural" sugars in rum), and no bread. I thus invented the breadless sandwich, because sandwiches are clutchable up on deck while you're easing out lines or winching them in. Anything you eat with a fork is in the way on deck.
Place two romaine lettuce leaves on a plate with long edges aligned about an inch apart. Place two slices of lunchmeat (ham, turkey, roast-beef) atop the lettuce, and spread with mustard, pesto, or thin coat of mayonnaise, to taste. Top with two slices of provolone or havarti cheese. If you're not under sail, you can top these with a thin-sliced tomato. Fold the two lettuce leaves in half lengthwise over the filling, breaking their spines. Pick up the sandwich, hold tight, and bite. Ummm; crunchy, tasty, and all that protein will hold you till dinner.
And guess what? We came off the boat each one and a half pounds lighter!
I never used to be a good listener because I was too busy seeing people as audience, trying to capture and hold their attention with humor or stories. I think I learned this early, from my mother, who liked to collect stories about people who were "characters," and entertain her friends with funny imitations of them. I grew up assuming that getting together with people meant entertaining them.
Now, here in late middle-age, I 've finally learned that most people appreciate listeners more than entertainers, and I've gradually come to talk less and listen more. And find it much more interesting!
In the process, I've noticed different degrees of listening. There are some people who don't seem to listen at all, who are just ON, performing all the time. Remembering back to when I was that way, I recall being nervous, insecure, feeling pressured, as if I had to earn points by amusing everyone. So I now feel sorry for the entertainers and I've noticed something curious as I listen to them: I often recognize my own words from earlier conversations coming back at me, like an echo-chamber. (I'm chagrined to say that I can't resist telling them, "Yeah, I told you that.") This is disconcerting, because it suggests that these people don't remember our times together. And that makes sense, because if you don't listen most of the time, you won't remember who said what.
The other day I was walking with an acquaintance, and I realized that she was listening to just enough of my sentence for something that related to her, and then she'd jump in, interrupting. I'd be saying something like "I'm going to put a garden in our back field today," but at "garden" she'd be off and running with an elaborate story of woodchucks and slugs decimating her hostas.
The above two degrees: hardly listening at all, and listening just till the mention of a common interest, are people that I've learned to minimize contact with. People at the other end of the scale, the listeners, I try to cultivate.
And thus I learned a lot from my friend T., who died recently. As has happened so much since middle-age, when I began losing relatives and friends to chronic illness, heart attack, or old age, I didn't know how much T. had influenced me until she was gone. After death, in a person's wake, you can finally - with the ending of their story - see their real character. And so T.'s perennial self-doubt, her tendency to see herself as less than she was, had always seemed like a weakness to me when she was alive. But after she died, I realized that it was this self-doubt that made T. one of the best listeners I've ever known. She listened with full attention, patience, and compassion, because she truly believed that whomever was talking was more important than she was. She thus always put others before her, and at her memorial service the cars of friends kept coming and coming, filling up the big mowed meadow behind their barn, and spilling out to the driveway and road. What I had seen as a weakness, was actually a strength, an asset that attracted people to her.
I'm not as good a listener as T. was, but at least I do it enough now to know that it's the only path to doing it better. And being a better friend as a result.
I've at last happened on a way to coordinate my limbs while swimming. It doesn't seem to add to my speed (I'm still getting passed quickly by all swimmers in neighboring lanes), but there's a rhythm to it that makes me feel I'm on the right track. Here's how it happened.
I'd reported awhile back that I was tilting forward when I did the crawl, with head underwater and feet above water on the kick. I asked one of the life guards if she had any tips on how to level out. She watched me for a couple of laps and said that I wasn't keeping my legs straight as I kicked, that I was bending my knees, which brought my feet above water to make a splash-kick (which isn't as fast or efficient as kicking underwater).
Since then, I've been trying to keep my knees locked as I swim, only bending the leg to do a scissor-motion at the hip-joint. That's made me newly aware of my legs, their power to propel me through the water.
Meanwhile, a friend told me about his personal trainer's method of making clients push themselves to failure in order to stimulate the growth of muscle. He has people do three sets of lifts, either with free-weights or on machines: the first set (of 15 or so reps.) is to warm up and this can be with less weight than you know you can lift, the second to lift your normal weight, and the third with a bit more weight than you've ever lifted, and you lift until you can't lift anymore. So if you're lifting sets of 15 repetitions, and you have to stop at 9, this is good. You've achieved the goal of stimulating your muscles to grow more to correct the deficit. My friend says he can really see and feel the difference, and he's built up muscle relatively quickly.
So, because I wasn't doing anything to build muscle (I'd given up lifting weights for swimming - which just builds aerobic capacity and tones muscles), I figured maybe I could stimulate some muscle growth as well if I sprinted every other lap or so. I tried it, could only make it half a lap - with two long, slow laps in between.
But these sprints yielded rewards. I discovered that if I gave a strong, stiff-kneed kick as I stretched my arm out as far as it would go, I could take a bigger stroke. It felt like I was taking a bigger bite of the pool with each stroke, and gave a sense that legs and arms were working together. I found that my limbs fell into rhythm with my exhalations, and I had a new sense of my body tilting slightly in the direction of each arm as it stretched to slap the water, adding a cylindrical sense of buoyancy.
I've been surprised that this new motion hasn't reduced my total workout time. But that's okay; it feels efficient and when I do a kick turn at the end of each sprint, there's a refreshing effervescence on my face as I swim back through the bubbly wake.
Another pleasant sensation I've discovered this summer is on our weekend visits to the local dog park. I used to think the great draw of these outtings was watching the dogs cavort through the woods and fields, but now I'm increasingly fond of the slow walk and idle chat with the pack of humans. It's oddly comforting to move through nature with a group of people, and it occurs to me that this might have something to do with genetic memory embedded in us from the times when humans migrated in tribes. Our dog-park has trails through woods where we can walk ten abreast, and sometimes we'll meet a group of cross-country runners approaching. We'll stand aside and watch them go by, and they look surprisingly natural in the setting, bunched up together for easy communication. In fact, when one of them or us peels off from the group on our own, it looks odd and inappropriate.
Maine gardens peak early, especially this year when we've had so much rain the last two weeks that our lilac, the Korean Miss Kim (to right of door) has just raised her sagging branches enough for this picture. We've had a welcome day of sun. Right under Miss Kim is a Nelly Moser clematis, also low-lying after the rains, and clematis President is on opposite side of the trellis-arch. And in foreground is the foliage garden, leavened with a Russell lupine in front, a volunteer.
Below, here's a closer look at our surprise candelabra, doubly amazing because lupine thrive in ditches alongside roadways in Maine, but have always died in my garden. So I thought they didn't like rich soil. But here comes this one out of nowhere, blooming to bust in the most prominent place in the garden.
Clematis Nelly Moser is down-playing her beauty by staying near the granite steps rather than twining up the trellis. The rain has kept her down as well. (It's the wettest June on record in our state).
The clematis President is an unearthly blue, so pure it seems to sing. It's twined up a bit higher on the trellis, but my dream of having them meet overhead hasn't come to pass. Should I take the trellis down and replace with two lower ones, or should I replace the clematis with a higher-climber, like the Trumpet Vine?
Recently my husband was diagnosed with Adult Onset Diabetes. He has a genetic proclivity in his family, but I suspect that his being overweight is what pushed him over the top. About five years ago, his doctor had warned that he was pre-diabetic, and could either take drugs to ward it off, or lose weight. Win chose to go on a diet, lost 57 pounds, and was no longer at risk. We were very proud of ourselves, and vowed to keep up our habit of portion-control at meals and fast-walking for four miles each morning.
But Win then got arthritis in a hip, and it became too painful for him to keep up the fast-walks each morning. He gradually started putting on weight, and I did too as our exercise regime and diet eroded.
We recently found swimming as an aerobic exercise to match our former walks, and this plus a lifestyle change around food has us headed once more in the right direction. This is the first time we've been faced with having to change our eating habits for the rest of our lives, so we've been careful to call it a lifestyle change rather than the more transient "diet." And this seems to make all the difference.
Since March 1st, over 3 and a half months, Win's lost 20 pounds, and I've lost 12 and 1/2. This isn't as fast a drop as the more restrictive "diet" would be, but the more restrictive regime would have us feeling deprived and scheming to reward ourselves for every few lost pounds. It would have us yearning for off-limit foods, looking for situations when having a treat doesn't count. I know, I've been there. I've taken the ferry to a local island to buy a $5.00 Ben & Jerry's turtle sundae, which I then have to walk off while I'm waiting for the return ferry. This was just one of my time-consuming schemes to make the empty calories not seem to count in my years of dieting. And those years make up most of my adult life.
The diets never work. I'll get to my goal weight, then heave a subconscious sigh of relief and gradually drift back to my old ways of unlimited sugar, salt, fat, alcohol, and caffeine. All having me quickly back up to my usual 20 pounds over goal-weight, with no lasting change.
But thinking of food changes as permanent takes all this yoyoing between deprivation and reward out of the equation. It's amazing what your mind can't do when you simply say, "It's for a lifetime; otherwise, we'll be hobbling around on a bunch of medications, or worse." Without a focus on food, scheming or yearning for restricted foods or constantly feeling deprived, your mind moves on to other things. Such as the silky feel of the water when you're swimming laps; the comforting tingle of a hot shower when your laps are done for the day; the warm drive home to a good book with the heady scent of lilacs wafting in the window. It's amazing what other senses the mind throws up as reward when the focus is off food.
So that's what I've learned about diets; they fixate your mind on food and dwarf other sensual rewards. And you don't realize how they do this until you can get your mind off food for days at a time. My husband and I don't plan meals any more. We come home from work and forage in the refrigerator for fresh fruits and vegetables for dinner. When this is all we keep, we don't have to make menus to make sure we avoid fats, sugar, etc. We've tried to keep the focus positive, on fresh fruits and vegetables, chicken and fish, that we're eating instead of the red meats, butter, and breadstuffs that we're avoiding. So we're shopping more at farmstands for things in season, like fresh strawberries and salad greens. Sometimes we just come home and have a dinner of fresh string beans with a pat of butter and a cup of yogurt or some scrambled eggs for protein.
It's taken me till 65 to learn this. Sure, I've read it all before. But I've never HAD to try it, never been threatened by a major health crossroads like this one. And as long as we keep our focus on the long-haul - the rest of our lives - the pounds melting off seem incidental. They are not a trigger for reward: "Oh, now I can haev some Ben & Jerry's." They are just part of a lifetime practice, par for the course. And I want to keep it that way.
Nancy Jensen's debut collection "Window" compels you to stay with the author from start to finish. This is a unique hybrid book of five short stories and five essays. I picked up the book intending to read only one piece (I started with the essays) at a sitting, and was chagrined to find I'd read the whole book in an afternoon and the next morning. (Chagrined because I felt like a kid who snuck her family's entire quart of ice-cream!) I'd tried to get up and do other things, but found myself ruminating on the pieces as I gardened or vacuumed, wondering how the author tied so many disparate points together into satisfying and intriguing resolutions. Jensen seems at home with conflict, and is not afraid to face struggles within herself that compel the reader to take similar stock. Conflicts define and lay bare the souls of Jensen's characters, like the History professor who's ashamed of his Appalachian roots, so advises students to look forward, not back. The student protagonist recognizes him as a fool, because in denying his personal history, the professor gives the lie to his own chosen field.
Such charletons are laid bare in this book, like the art professor who's an armchair liberal, yet traffics in the vast power differential between himself and his student lovers and third-world servants. Yet in the midst of these highly flawed characters, the author never lets herself off, is hardest on herself when examining her own biases and evasions. This is an intriguing search and the author makes some stunning discoveries. I highly recommend this unique and compelling collection.
During all the years I taught Creative Writing, there were always students who questioned my advice to write from their own experience because, they said, their lives were too boring to write about. I'd tell them that a good writer can make anything - even pocket-lint - interesting. Well, here goes. I'm going to practice what I preached by telling you about bathing-cap fabric and bathing-suit elastic. But first, some background (ahhh, a reprieve!).
My husband and I were at the dog-park a few weeks ago, and as we walked with the human pack following the dog-pack, we found ourselves drifting into gender groups. A man had been talking about changing his doorknob and not being able to find the right screws, so we women fell back as the men gravitated to him, giving him advice. We commented on the chains of events these projects inevitably spawn to eat up your weekend. I told them about how my husband's preference for motors in any yardwork we do, can be a super time-waster - how we'll be picking up brush and walking it to the brush pile, and Win will say, "Wait, I'll get the tractor and trailer to haul it," and by the time he drives into town to fill the fuel can to gas up the tractor and/or buy new spark-plugs and/or oil the trailer-hitch, I've already finished the brush-hauling by hand. The other women added examples that got us on the subject of the latest gadgets, how husbands like experimenting with them while we just want to get the job done as simply as possible. I mentioned how I wouldn't even try out the bathing-suit drying machine in the locker rooms of the YMCA where my husband and I now swim. Win had marvelled at it and told me to try it, but I told the women that I didn't want to create another new habit that stretched our long carbon footprint even more by using a ton of heat. I said I was fine wrapping my wet bathing suit in a towel and taking it home to hang on the clothesline. One of the women corrected me, saying the machine used no heat, only centrifugal force. "It just squeezes the water out of the suit," she said. "I love that machine," and then she went on to tell me that as a single mom with four kids, she wasn't going to let anyone make her feel guilty about using time-saving devices like clothes driers, hair driers, etc., even if they were energy hogs. I apologized and said I was just talking about us, Win and me, and hadn't meant to preach, and we proceeded amiably from there.
But learning that the bathing-suit squeezer didn't use heat intrigued me, so I tried it out. And got quickly addicted. It added to the luxurious ritual of reward for a vigorous workout to put my suit into the chest-high metal box, straining my biceps further to push my palm down hard on the lid of the centerfuge and squeeze water out onto the floor in a satisfying, splashy spill. Then wonderful to walk out of the Y with everything dry and light, to get in the car and drape the nearly-dry suit over the passenger seat, my towel over the seat-back, and drive home luxuriating in the cozy, sun-heated interior.
Another pleasure of this new regime is getting tips from other swimmers, including blog commenters. One of them mentioned in an e-mail that she wears a bathing cap to keep water out of her ears. So I went shopping for a bathing cap, and Wow! have things changed in the 50 or so years since I've worn one. Unlike the old rubber ones with a strap under your chin, the new ones are all strapless, and only one of the four kinds is waterproof. The others have to be sprayed with waterproofing if you want to keep water out. And the only waterproof one - the latex model - tells you on the directions that you must "wet hair before putting on." So none of them keep your hair dry, which seemed to be the sole point of the ones I grew up with.
When I asked the clerks in the sports store which kind they'd recommend to best keep water out of the ears, they just shrugged. So I picked the cheapest one, the latex at $2.99. The others: silicone, lycra, and spandex models were all $9.99. But when I took the el-cheapo one up to the counter, the cashier warned me about "latex allergies." I asked if that was something I could catch myself, or does it spread through the water to other swimmers? She said she didn't know, but that some pools ban latex caps.
So I went and put it back and said I'd have to go to my pool to get their recommendation, that I'd had no idea that bathing caps were so complex. It's lucky I did, because at the Y, they sold bathing caps and earplugs, and knew what they were doing. The swimming director told me that the only way to keep water out of your ears is to put in earplugs, then wear a bathing cap to hold them in place. So I bought a lycra cap and wax earplugs, all cheaper than at the sports store.
Two things have happened since I got the cap; 1. my bathing suit came out of the centrifuge with all these little white bits of lint in splotch-like shapes on the chest and back of my suit. I thought it was from the white-painted logo on the cap, which I'd thrown into the machine with my suit. And 2. I carry my head down in the water with my feet coming above the surface to kick, like I'm tilted toward my head as I swim. I went and asked a life-guard about both these conditions, and she said my bathing suit elastic has rotted because the centrifuge machine is very hard on suits, that she always wraps hers in a towel and takes it home to line-dry; and that now with a cap, I'm no longer carrying my head high to keep the hair out of my face. She'll help me with the latter, but now I guess I've got an excuse to look for new bathing suits.
Can anyone tell me how to shop for ones that have long-lived elastic? I'll go back to wringing out my wet suit by hand (even more work for the biceps), and never use the centrifuge again, but I'd like to start out with something that will give me a couple of years of wear (given suit prices). Is this a realistic goal? And - is anyone still reading?
My husband has arthritis in his hip, so we've had to cut way down on our early morning fast-walking, which was our primary form of aerobic exercise. We've replaced this with swimming at the local YMCA, doing an hour's laps three days a week. So far, probably because it's still new, it's been wonderful, filling me with a well-earned tired feeling throughout my body afterwards, as if I've given every muscle a good workout.
At first, I had the usual self-consciousness at changing in a locker room, walking into the very public pool area under glaring lights in a bathing suit, wearing mantis-like googles, etc. And then, as I swam, I was ashamed of how slow I was, how everyone - even the kids who were just learning to swim with kick-boards - was passing me. But this soon gave way to the demands of the moment, as I discovered that if I didn't concentrate on what number lap I was on as I was swimming, thinking it like a mantra at every few strokes, I'd forget how many I'd done and have no measure of progress to keep me going. Practice at anything, at least for me, is supported by a sense of progress, and I know so little about swimming, that all I had at the start was the goal of trying to extend the number of laps each time I swam. My husband and I started at 10, and we're now up to 31. We write them down (with pride!) on our calendar each evening.
And now I'm happy to say I'm no longer self-conscious. There's too much else to think about, namely technique. Not wanting to shell out money for lessons, I'm trying to pick up tips watching the fast swimmers all around me; I know one of the obvious things they're doing to boost their speed is somersault-turns at the walls. That's low on my list of priorities, because it'll require me to spend extra time beyond my allotted workout hour to practice flipping at the wall into a tight, quick underwater sumersault. For now, I'm trying to pick up small techniques that I can incorporate immediately into the laps.
One of these is to change my breathing habits from turning my head to catch a breath every time I raise my right arm to do a crawl-stroke, to not taking a breath till the third stroke. It's gratifying to find that I'm quickly gaining lung-capacity this way. When I started, I could only do two sets of three-stroke breaths, then I'd return to my old habit of gasping air every righthanded stroke. But now I can go a whole lap on three-stroke breathing. The next challenge will be to learn how to alternate sides I take breaths on. My old habit is to turn my head only to the right to breathe.
And I've learned to angle my hands downward as they enter the water, fingers first. So that the entire time they're in the water, they're pushing water backwards. Before, I was bringing my hand down flat onto the water and making wasted effort to push it down without getting any propulsion out of it. Angling my hands has shaved 10 minutes off the time it takes me to do 31 laps.
Once I get these new techniques cemented into habits, I'll use this extra 10 minutes to increase the number of laps I do. But till then - and it takes slow, steady practice to break old habits - I'll take my reward in the many luxurious sensations of swimming: the silky feel of the water, the extra rythmic power when you keep your legs underwater to kick, the cozy warmth of an oversize towel after the post-swim shower, the slickness of body-lotion rubbed into tired legs and forearms, and finally, the refreshing feel of clean, dry clothes. This workout has so much going for it, an ironic vein of gold in my husband's arthritis.