“I can tell the difference already,” he said. “You’re back up to a seven.”
I’m six weeks into my post-surgery recovery plan, long enough to notice some changes. He’s been out of town just long enough to see that things have changed since he left.
These aren’t physical changes in *me* - it’s everything else. The ripple effect.
I spent four days rearranging our apartment, including the contents of all our closets and cabinets. The place is gleaming from stem to stern. It’s the sort of thing I like to do as a surprise, or at least the sort of thing I like to do when I’m feeling energetic and upbeat.
On the opposite end, one of the first ways I can tell that I’m coming down with something is when I somehow don’t feel like I have enough energy to make the bed. It takes 45 seconds. I’m usually done before I’m even awake enough to realize I’ve done it. If this is disrupted for some reason, it’s a telltale sign that something is off.
I rate my mood and energy level on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 on the low end and 10 on the “someone I like is planning a wedding” end.
After I took up distance running, I started to realize that it had worked some impressive changes in me. Not in my physique per se, but in my general attitude toward life.
“It’s like my baseline mood when I was chronically ill was a 5, or a 4 when I had a migraine. Then when I got better, it was more like a 7. When I’m running it’s like... a 9!”
It’s true. When I’m running twenty or thirty miles a week, I feel like I’m getting ready to go to a parade or something. Everything seems simple or easy and I’m brimming over with fun ideas. I used to say I had so much energy, I felt like I could kick down a fence. Sometimes I would be running, and around the 45-minute mark I would just jog along with my arms over my head in victory. Sometimes I would burst into song.
Then I blew it. I overtrained and borked my ankle.
I had to quit running because I was in so much pain. I would wake up in the middle of the night because it would feel like someone was kicking me in the ankle with a cowboy boot. I had to wear a brace. I had two MRIs and I spent six months in physical therapy. I spent a truly stupid amount of time with my foot in a bucket full of ice cubes.
I was mad at myself and mad at my ankle and mad at asphalt and mad that we had to move away from the regional park where I used to train. I used to see other runners pass by and I felt like a dog on a leash, watching other dogs chase a frisbee.
I changed sports and started getting quite fit doing martial arts. There were physical changes, yes, a different type than the changes that happened when I took up running. It seems that if you dedicate yourself to any one type of training, you can tap into a certain variety of super powers.
Running gave me mood powers and endless energy.
Martial arts permanently removed my needle phobia and the white-knuckled anxiety I used to feel on airplanes. It helped me eliminate my stage fright. Martial arts gave me an extra dimension of executive presence. I finally learned to really use command tone, and my dog suddenly started paying a lot more attention when I spoke. I learned to make a convincing war face, a crazy expression than can quickly cause people to back up a step with little more than a widening of my eyes. My arms and shoulders bulked up. I found that I could suddenly intimidate big dudes twice my size. For superpowers, these are pretty excellent!
I missed the mood effects that I got from running, though.
Then I went through a rough patch. I had minor surgery that resulted in an incision right in the middle of my torso. I couldn’t twist, bend, sit up straight, or even move my arms much. After a month of doing hot compresses every two hours, I had to start a routine of changing bandages. This was all very tiresome, but it did provide a massive surge of motivation to start working out again as soon as I legitimately could.
I got back on the elliptical. We had to sell ours when we downsized, but there is one in our dinky apartment gym. Nobody is ever down there and I get the whole room to myself. I call it the “news machine.”
An hour a night.
The first few nights were rough. Not only had I not been working out, I had barely gotten off the couch in two months. I was out of breath and I wanted to quit after twenty minutes.
I know how to distract myself, though. I had a long news queue to work through. I focused on how much I wanted to “catch up on reading.” I only let myself do this type of reading during my workout. It felt like a reward. After the first week, it was more like playing a game than exercise.
I started getting a taste of the old post-workout glow. If I work out long enough at a high enough level of intensity, I can get an endorphin rush that lasts for two hours or more. It feels awesome, wipes out soreness and fatigue, and helps me sleep better.
I didn’t really notice the change as it happened, but over the next several weeks, my baseline mood and energy level started to improve too.
A couple of months ago, I was at a real low point. I couldn’t do much of anything, three courses of antibiotics made me sick and headachy, and my incision hurt. I would definitely have agreed that my mood hovered around a five most of the time.
Now I’m heading back in the direction where I like to be. I’m starting to feel like the person I think of as the “real me” - upbeat and cheerful. I’m ready to head into Phase Two, where I start running outdoors and enjoying the scenery, hunting for the payoff that keeps all distance runners inspired and motivated. A few months from now, I could be feeling like a nine every day again.
I had to take my husband to the emergency room on Friday night. This is the year that I turn 45 and he turns 52, so it’s unsurprising, right? Two middle-aged people in the ER?
What may be more surprising is that, as usual, we were in there for a sports injury.
Friday night is sparring at our martial arts school. Muay Thai. We also have an MMA team. The rest of the time slots are for organized classes, and sparring is the one time that students have license to fight “for reals.” My husband took a boxing glove to the surface of his eye, probably the thumb but maybe part of the strap. It happens.
That’s dangerous! I’m thinking it so I know that everyone else is.
It’s his body to ruin, though. Bodily autonomy means we accept one another’s right to get tattoos, donate blood, have cosmetic dentistry, and, yeah, sign the waiver to get punched in the eye if we want.
The guy who “did it” is my husband’s good friend. He doesn’t know yet that his errant blow put my hubby in the hospital. We probably won’t tell him because he would be horrified. He’s a middle-aged dad and he certainly didn’t do it on purpose.
The injury was a corneal abrasion. It will likely heal so completely that a couple of weeks from now there will be no evidence that anything ever happened. The copays for the ER visit and the antibiotic eye drops were under $100. No harm no foul.
We accept these types of outcomes as acceptable risks for our hobbies.
What’s strange to me is that most people would shy away from such a dangerous sport, and yet the likelihood of being in the emergency room on a Friday night is far higher for other, more ordinary, types of activities.
I would have assumed: bar fights, car accidents, maybe an overdose or alcohol poisoning?
It hadn’t occurred to me how full the room would be simply due to flu season. There was also a large notice on the door in red ink, giving special instructions to anyone who might have MEASLES.
Oh great. One of us gets punched in the eye wrong and now we’re both at risk of exposure to freaking measles because a bunch of our neighbors can’t comprehend the concept of herd immunity. Get your shots, people!
It seems obvious to both of us that infectious disease epidemics, or pandemics, are far more dangerous and deadly than a punch in the eye. It’s just that we’ve all seen a lot of action films but, in our generation, we haven’t yet seen many of our relatives, neighbors, and coworkers DIE from measles, whooping cough, mumps, influenza, etc. Not yet anyway.
The other thing it’s hard not to notice is that we are likely the only people in the ER who got there due to a sports injury.
In our culture right now, it’s almost impossible to say anything true and useful about my observations without risking an affront to someone’s sensibilities. Instead I’ll try to skirt around it.
At our age, nobody would be surprised, at all, if either my husband or I had to go to the emergency room due to a heart attack, stroke, or other coronary type event. I know that’s true because we hear about this kind of thing all the time in our social group, among our colleagues and neighbors. After age forty nobody is surprised by anything.
When we go to the doctor, they ask us what medications we’re on. I can still pass for somewhere in my thirties, so I can say ‘none’ without pushback. When my husband says ‘none,’ they always assume he didn’t understand the question. “NO, what PRESCRIPTIONS are you on??” “NONE!” Medical professionals can’t believe that my husband, in his early fifties, doesn’t take anything. At his age he’s supposed to be on statins and a raft of other stuff, at least five separate prescriptions on average.
With his heart rate, blood pressure, and cholesterol level, it doesn’t compute. They think there’s no way that a guy of his age group can have those results without medication.
I can also say that nobody is asking the right questions. I’ve been plant-based for nearly thirty years, since I was a teenager, and my hubby has been 98% plant-based for the past decade or so. It literally never comes up. Nobody is testing us, or enrolling us in any studies, or even asking, “So, what do you eat?” There are absolutely no data being generated about our lifestyle for the rest of the world to ponder.
We’ll just keep waiting. If he’s still practicing Muay Thai in his seventies, like our friend B, maybe then they’ll ask. If I’m still out trail running in my sixties, maybe then they’ll ask, but I sincerely doubt it because all kinds of people run ultras at well above that age.
The data come from the people with the worst outcomes. Data come from “patients,” not from healthy people. Not from men who can kick a target six feet off the ground in their fifties. Not from women who can crank out fifty full push-ups in their forties.
Why? Because people hate hearing about it!
I think this is because we aren’t able to connect emotionally with the image of Old Me. We can’t truly imagine ourselves being elderly. It’s also very, very difficult to extrapolate from our minor daily behaviors to any kind of decade-long trend line. We hate nothing more than the idea that what we do today can add up to trouble at a later point. It’s preachy! Stop talking about it!
When we think of bodily autonomy, and the concept that it’s “my body to ruin,” what we mean is “hey, everyone buzz off and leave me alone” as far as body image, habits, food intake, sleep schedule, how dirty my coffee mug looks, or anything else, anything else at all. I DO WHAT I WANT DO WHAT I WANT. It’s much harder to think of in terms of, “I have the full and total right to wreck myself doing burpees in the mud, sparring, and going on wilderness expeditions.”
We think exertion is more dangerous than what everyone else is doing. Though personally I’d rather go blind from martial arts than from diabetes.
One thing I did notice in the emergency room was that almost everyone had a buddy. A spouse, kids, grandkids - everyone had someone to call and ask for help. Everyone had at least one person who was willing to sit with them in the middle of the night on a Friday. Probably what is really dangerous is to become isolated, to refuse to connect or engage, to avoid ever asking for help.
It’s worth thinking about. What do we think is truly dangerous, and how do we structure our lives to include or avoid certain things because of our perceptions?
I still haven’t done anything so far this January! I’m proud of this because sometimes it’s a difficult commitment to keep. It’s more important to me to work my goals ten months of the year than it is to try to maintain some kind of “””perfect””” “””streak””” starting on Day One. Because January is a basically impossible time of year to do anything, other than maybe sleep more or spend less money.
The one thing I have done is to reframe one habit by thinking of it as something else entirely. That’s where the News Machine comes in.
I have a terrible habit - actually many of them - and I also have a good habit, or at least one that I can invoke from time to time. This is part of my secret of habit change and personal transformation, the discovery that a good habit can be harnessed to flip over a bad one.
It’s called “anchoring.”
Peanut butter and... jelly.
Socks and... shoes.
Floss and... brush your teeth.
Trampolines and... ice cream cones. (Ooh, messy).
There is a reverse of this, as there is of most things, and that is when two bad habits are anchored together, or when a good habit triggers a bad one. If a pattern like this is recognized, then it’s time to brainstorm and figure out how to separate the two things. Like, every time I walk into the craft store I spend $40, or, every time I get a coffee I also get an ooey gooey pastry.
Usually the “bad” habit is the thing that we feel is an intrinsic part of our very personality. I quite literally AM an ooey gooey pastry! On the molecular level! I don’t ever want to be the kind of person who is not that!
This is why I usually refer to them as cute habits. Not “bad.” We weren’t born bad, we were born interesting!
Okay, so, confession: my cute habit is that I’d rather be reading than doing basically anything else. And the bad version of that habit is that the more I read, the more I bookmark, and the longer my “to read” list gets. The reason this is bad is that it interferes with my enjoyment. I start to think of my favorite thing as a must-do. Rather than having 100% fun, I start to feel like I “need” to get “caught up.”
Do you ever feel that way?
Crafty people often start to feel like they “need” to “finish” projects, like they’re “behind” on scrapbooking or “finishing” a quilt. What is supposed to be nothing at all other than a relaxing hobby somehow transmogrifies into a guilt machine. I promised! I owe! It’s late! Those emotions come from anchoring the hobby to something else, like giving gifts, showing affection to friends and family, trying to save money, or earning approval. The pressure also comes from shopping for materials, where the more focus there is on the hobby, the more accumulation of materials, and the more space they take up in the home. We think the only ways to relieve those practical and social pressures are to craft faster, rather than to stop buying supplies and stop trying to create 100% handmade gifts. Get back to making it about relaxation!
That’s turning into an entire separate piece, but I’m not going to claim that I’ll ever write it because I’m trying to reframe my personal concept of procrastination.
Why do I feel like I’m procrastinating on personal projects? Why do I sometimes feel this way even when there’s no deadline, nobody is asking for anything from me, and literally nobody cares but me?
Is this true for you, for anything in your life?
As with a lot of things, it’s easier to just go with it than it is to try to change the emotion. I recognize that I feel “behind” on my reading, and I figure out what I can do with that feeling that will lead directly to a positive action.
In my case, I use it to work out on the elliptical.
There! I said it!
I lied, I cheated! I’ve actually been crushing it this month down in the workout room!
I just didn’t want to admit it while talking about New Year’s Resolutions, because it makes other people feel bad. Like my weird little goals have anything to do with anyone but me...
I’ve found that I seem to read faster when I’m on the elliptical for some reason. It makes the time pass quickly.
I’ve tried other types of habits to keep me working out. I tried running on the treadmill, and it makes me feel like my brain is slowly dying. (Current gym does not have a treadmill). I tried the exercise bike but it makes me sore and I don’t think it gives me any results. I tried watching TV shows on the elliptical, but it makes me feel like every minute is really 18 minutes. The thing I’ve settled on is that I can read through news articles.
I can’t emphasize this enough. If you think in terms of “supposed to” and “because” and “everyone else” and “not doing it right” and “fail,” you’re stopping yourself before you start. Try thinking in terms of “works for me” and “not sure why, but” and “for some reason.” You like what you like and you’re allowed to like it.
This is why I’m not thinking about my workout as a workout. I’m thinking about it as the News Machine. When I change clothes, I’m thinking about how many articles I’m going to read, and *that* is my personal burn rate. My metric is that I started out with nearly 400 articles in my news queue, and now I’m down to 120. Yay!
After that, there’s my *other* news queue, and then my “read at leisure” email folder, and then my open tabs...
According to my phone, I’m burning 18% more calories per workout after only two weeks. That comes from the feeling that I call “getting the lead out.” Like I threw off some lead weights. If my starting goal had been to “burn calories” or “move faster” I’m sure I would have been discouraged and I would already be feeling like I aimed too high.
Instead, I’m really just excited about finally feeling that elusive satisfaction of being “all caught up.” I can see it, a month or two from now. If I can keep reading this fast, if I can keep getting a spot on the News Machine...
I’ll probably just keep adding more stuff and making my list longer. Because who would I be without a to-do list or a never-ending stack of things to read?
This is the first time I have posted decade-level goals and resolutions on my blog, so I put extra work into it. Over the past few years, I’ve realized that the projects that I find the most engrossing and challenging are multi-year projects. The day I started each of these, I had no idea that I’d still be grinding away three years later. One of the benefits of midlife is that we have the patience, attention span, experience, and (frankly) the resources to attain long-term goals. Might as well harness that, right?
Over the past month, I’ve asked my elders how they felt at the start of each decade, particularly how they felt about technological innovations and major cultural changes. SO INTERESTING! My parents were barely old enough to be aware of current events in 1960, but they certainly noticed the Moon landing at the end of that decade. Talking about decade-level achievements with people who are satisfied in their careers and proud of their kids and grandkids can be really inspiring. That’s my hope, that when we are in our sixties and older my hubby and I will look back and feel like we’ve participated in life, in our culture, in our family legacy. We want to feel like we’ve enjoyed, learned, and experienced as much as we can.
That’s what all this goal-setting is about.
I already have so many regrets: that I never interviewed my grandparents about their lives when they were still here to ask. That I missed so much of the childhoods of my niece and nephews. That I missed graduations and weddings when I felt too poor to make the trip. What I regret most is not showing up, not connecting, not engaging and not reaching out. I could have called, I could have written, but I put it off and put it off without realizing how quickly time was passing.
At the same time, I’ve never wanted an ordinary life. If the only thing I ever did was to make the calls, come to the parties, and send the letters, well, heck. That’s a fine life but not big enough for me. I want to see the world and make at least one project that is bigger than me, something that outlasts my tenure on this blasted rock we call Earth.
In ten years I’ll be 55. If I’m ever going to do anything at all then I’d better get going.
What I’m posting here are yearly goals and resolutions, and also ten-year goals. Some of these were really tricky because I’ve never thought of them in that context before. It definitely puts some perspective on habits when you think, Will I still be annoying myself in just this same way ten years from now? (*facepalm*)
Personal: This category is what I think most people would refer to as their “resolution.” For me it’s my major area of focus. In past years it’s been running, public speaking, or martial arts. I try to choose something where I feel intense resistance and instinctive dislike. That’s where the greatest transformation is possible!
In 2020 this is going to be body transformation. Right now I feel like an angry puddle of goo. I had a very rough 2019 and there is no way I can tolerate the idea of being the same or worse ten years from now. I’m forty-four and my body belongs to me, not to society’s female-vessel regulations. I’m going to lose weight, I’m going to talk about it at great length on a regular basis, I’m going to do it my way, I’m going to get covered in mud and punch things, and that’s just how it’s going to be. I can’t force myself to pretend to pander to “body positivity” “I’m just fluffy” clouds and rainbows, riding in on a panda and licking an ice cream cone. I gotta wake up in this crusty old carcass every day and I intend to fully inhabit it like a warrior queen with the flaming sword of truth.
Career: My career goal for 2020 is to learn how to do webinars. I am not a digital native and I have to push hard to understand technology that is new to me. Eventually, whatever I learn becomes something that I do on a daily basis, without thinking about it, like syncing Bluetooth or downloading new apps, but that first onboarding process is something that I always find deeply confusing and frustrating.
For 2030, I want to be a published author, of course!
Physical: My physical goal for 2020 is to get my weight back to 125. I was able to maintain this for about five years, until I made the benighted decision to “put on ten pounds of muscle” and started eating like an NFL linebacker. (For reference, I am 5’4” and small-framed).
While I was training for my marathon lo these many moons ago, I became enchanted with the idea of the ultramarathon. I started telling everyone my goal was “50 for 50,” a fifty-mile ultramarathon for my fiftieth birthday. Suddenly that goal is only five years off and I either need to abandon it or start training. I hate abdicating, this is my one and only lifetime (or if not, it’s a moot point), and I want to see Silver Fox Future Self crossing that finish line.
Home: We’ve decided to start formally saving for a house, really a far-fetched, Moonshot sort of a goal where we live, but we like it here. That’s the 2030 goal.
For 2020, I’m working on automating more household chores as part of my book project.
Couples: Our couples goal is to build an app together. Fortunately the software coding part (the hard work) is my husband’s bailiwick; he’s learning Python and this project is as good as any.
Over the next decade, we have a shared goal to do more camping, hiking, backpacking, and bicycling adventures together. We only really see each other on weekends anymore and we like the idea of planning expeditions and picnics when the weather is fine.
Stop goal: My “stop goal” for 2020 is to stop procrastinating about text messages and voicemail. Honestly there are few things I despise more than listening to voicemail, but letting them sit there with blinking notifications isn’t helping. Text messages can be a serious problem for anyone who needs to focus and do long stretches of deep work - you broke my concentration to send a meme to a group thread?? But again, it seems that society has moved to this rather than email. My plan is to blast through the day’s detritus during my workout.
My ten-year goal is to stop procrastinating in general. I’m one of the 20% who fights this constantly. I think the solution is to reframe anything that feels aversive and try to think of better messages to send myself. Like instead of “I’d rather be scrubbing a toilet than doing this” I can think, “This will probably take less time than scrubbing a toilet.”
Lifestyle upgrades: Our ten-year lifestyle upgrade goal is to have a garden again.
For 2020, it’s a bummer to think about but my big lifestyle upgrade will probably be to have gum surgery. Over the past year I have had increasing reason to take my dentist’s advice seriously and I really want Future Me to think I had good judgment. Young people take note: you never think of your teeth as a part of your lifestyle until your first root canal.
Do the Obvious: The most obvious thing to do in my life right now is to plan around constant travel. At least during the active career portion of our shared life, my hubby and I have had to be constantly poised to pack a suitcase. He sometimes calls me to say that he’s flying out that very night; I’ve even had to head out to his building and bring him his passport. This is exciting and fascinating for us, but it also requires mental agility.
This will most likely still be true in 2030, so there ya go. No normal weeks.
Ultralearning: This is the first time I’m setting up an ultralearning project. I have total confidence in my ability to become absorbed in an educational mission; really the problem is more that I don’t know when to quit! In past years I feel like I’ve neglected the perpetual-student part of myself, and particularly my special gift of language acquisition. A quarter-century ago my Japanese teacher pulled me aside and said I had talent and that I should go forward in languages. I nodded (like, duh, totally), waited several years to go to college, dithered around in Greek and Latin, and then became a suburban housewife. That part of me only awakens when we see an action film with supervillain subtitles, and I can pick out the occasional word in Russian, German, or Japanese. SO, uh... *drumroll* in 2020, I’m going to do an ultralearning project and study Dutch.
DUTCH! Why the heck not. *tada*
For 2030 I plan to learn to write screenplays.
Quest: In my terminology, a quest is a grand adventure that I don’t necessarily know how to do. Part of the quest is figuring out the guidelines. My quest for 2020-2025 is to train for that “50 for 50” ultramarathon. This means I need to start running again. I also need to figure out how to add mileage without borking my ankle like last time, or causing myself any other overuse injuries.
My decade quest is to visit Antarctica.
Wish: My wish for 2020 is to get a publishing deal. Our wish for the next decade is to become millionaires!
Personal: Body transformation
Career: Learn how to do webinars
Physical: Weight at 125 lbs.
Home: Automation project
Couples: Build an app together
Stop goal: Stop procrastinating on text messages and voicemail
Lifestyle upgrades: Probably gum surgery
Do the Obvious: Plan around constant travel
Ultralearning: Dutch language
Quest: 50 for 50 ultramarathon! (2025)
Wish: Publishing deal!
2030 - Ten-Year Goals and Resolutions
Personal: Silver Fox project
Career: Published author
Physical: 50 for 50 ultramarathon!
Home: Buy a house to live in
Couples: Camping, hiking, backpacking, and bicycling together
Stop goal: Stop procrastinating in general
Lifestyle upgrades: A garden
Do the Obvious: Plan around constant travel
Ultralearning: Write screenplays
Quest: Visit Antarctica
Sitting around with sutures in my midsection has given me a lot of time to think. All sorts of things have been on my mind, but they always circle back to my current situation and how bored and restless I feel. I’ve also been contemplating how completely and totally this stupid medical issue has managed to derail my workout goals.
I think it’s the fitness stuff, more than anything else, that makes people quit making New Year’s Resolutions.
Naturally the cruddy winter weather and holiday feeding frenzy have most of us at our most well-padded at the changing of the year. We completely forget what it feels like when the weather is fine and our schedules aren’t triple-booked. Skip winter and only count the other three seasons.
(It’s the opposite for those of us in hot climates, when winter is actually the best time for outdoor workouts and summer is the one we need to skip).
I had this great idea that I was going to win 2019 by spending the last two months in the gym, finishing the year on a high note. I was going to start running again! I was going to train for a race in March!
Literally two days later, I woke up with a weird hard spot, spent a month on antibiotics, gained 7 pounds in 5 days, had surgery, and then spent nearly two weeks changing bandages and trying not to move. Now I’m waiting for the nurse to call me back because this special butterfly bandage fell off, and it was supposed to last ten days.
No running. No yoga. No bending or twisting. Actually no sweating.
I feel exactly like a display butterfly with a pin through its thorax.
I was talking to a friend who has (totally unwarranted) body image issues. I told her, Whatever you feel that you look like, at least you don’t look like a surgical incision with sutures poking out.
Anything and everything is better looking than an open wound.
Enforced gratitude is universally annoying, but hey. Why is it that we insist on taking what we have for granted? We always have to seek out whatever it is that bothers us, and harp on it, no matter what else is going well in our lives.
Waaa, waaa, I hate going to the gym, everyone snivels. All the time. Well at least you can go if you want to. At least you’re allowed.
Go for me, will ya? Someone? Use my energetic voucher, it’s just floating around out there.
I’m climbing the walls over here, figuratively, because I can’t actually climb anything in the near future. The thing I would most like to do is to sprint up a staircase, like in the Metro station. But I can’t even get down and do a plank.
Not that I “can’t” do a plank - I can probably still hold plank position for a full minute - just that this wound in my midriff is still trying to heal.
It’s been a rough year for me. While we finally moved and I’m starting to recover, a year of chronic sleep disruption and deprivation was really affecting my health. I was exhausted all the time, having migraines and night terrors again, and coming down with a cold once or twice a month. I put on weight and that only seemed to make it worse.
Some people claim that they feel their best, happiest, and most powerful when they’re bigger. Good for them. Must be nice. Enjoy in good health.
For me, weight gain is always a symptom that something is wrong. I think it has to do with my thyroid. The more I gain, the more I feel chilly, tired, sad, and prone to headaches. The first sign is when I’m so tired that I don’t bother to make the bed.
As I turn it around again, which so far I have always managed to do, I start to feel more alert, cheerful, and busy. It’s like a spell wearing off.
This is why I’m on a plan to get my weight back down even though I still have to try to move as little as possible. It just isn’t helping. For whatever reason I magically enlarged while on antibiotics, it’s not making my life any easier.
The most obvious reaction to a situation like mine would be, “I couldn’t help it, what do you expect me to do about it?” Shut up and leave me alone, right?
I see it differently. I see it as an alien interloper trying to claim my poor middle-aged carcass as some kind of host. I’ve seen too many Alien movies to think that’s any kind of good idea. Get the heck out of my body! Begone!
“Me” is my spirit, the part of me that thinks and speaks. Whatever my body is doing at the moment is changeable. My physical vessel looks a bit different from year to year, similar to the way I might change my wardrobe and hair style. I don’t identify with *looking* a certain way, I identify with *feeling* a certain way. I prefer the upbeat energy level to the mopey, tired level.
I’ve taken off 5 of the 7 attack pounds already. Nod to the restoration of my normal balance, now that the antibiotics are out of my system. Also, I have been diligent in staying on track with what I eat, ignoring the typical background noise of cookie, candies, and other holiday treats.
I saw a cookie and I didn’t put it in my mouth. Santa Claus fainted and the reindeer crash-landed in a tree. The North Pole tipped over and rusted out. It was me, I did it.
It just so happens that I should be good to go just in time for New Year’s Eve. Nothing more than a coincidence. Every day is just as good as any other for reclaiming your body and your physical power base. I see it as a sign, though. The first day that I can, I’m lacing up my shoes and getting my beat back. Just because I had a do-nothing year of exhaustion, does not have to make it permanent. When I look back thirty years from now, it will just have been a fitness speedbump.
Spending time with a group of people that includes a 40-year spread of ages is so revealing. We were talking about where we were in 2010 and where we see ourselves in 2030. One person said, “Ten years ago, I was fourteen?”
Thank goodness, I thought, I’ll never have to go through my teens or twenties again. My skin alone!
On the other hand, the most senior member of the group was a bit discomfited by the topic. That happens when you perceive yourself to be closer to the end of your life than the beginning, and at sixty-plus that’s statistically true.
(Although such a long way to a 114th birthday, which is possible though still newsworthy).
Younger people tend to be very focused on how they look and whether other people think they are good-looking. Probably because they’ve spent their entire lives being photographed. Middle-aged and elderly people tend to be more accepting, or at least philosophical, about their appearance. It can be relaxing. Older people always think you look young and refreshed.
My experience with becoming middle-aged has been great. My body has been and looked a lot of ways over the years, enough that I know change is not just possible but inevitable.
The trick is that we can conduct body transformation willfully. We can choose to transform our bodies in so many ways.
For some reason, our culture seems to revolve around this suspicion that OTHER PEOPLE ARE STARING and that everyone is J U D G I N G.
OMG who cares
Ride mass transit long enough and you will soon feel like one of the best-looking people of world history. Visit a hospice, or just a nursing home. Just be glad at your relative healthfulness for once.
The trick is to turn inward. Direct your attention away from the external and ask yourself what you think of yourself on the inside. How does it feel to be you, to stand up and walk around as you?
If it looks culturally beautiful but feels physically terrible, then forget about it.
Look at all the paintings of medieval women with high round foreheads, no eyebrows, and big swaying pregnant-looking bellies. That’s what they found attractive. Shave your hairline up to the top of the head, hawt! Then put on a tall pointy hat.
Our century of stiletto heels is one day going to look just as ridiculous. Why did all those people limp around bow-legged, grimacing in pain? Why did they carry their shoes and walk barefoot down the sidewalk on festive occasions? What did they wear for warm outer layers? You can’t convince me they just stood in line shivering in the rain. The archaeological record must simply be missing some key garments.
This is how I feel about whatever supposed social pressure about how my body is supposed to look: Get back to me after you’ve read my monograph.
I read “body acceptance” and “body positivity” now all the time, and what I understand it to mean is “be big enough.” I don’t feel that it literally means “be proud, strong, and muddy.” I truly don’t feel that it means “thin and small is okay too.” I haven’t felt that it includes me or other women like me.
That’s okay, though, because I don’t honestly care that much!
I don’t care because I’ve felt my own body transformations over the years. I have lived a body that is different from one year to the next, sometimes by accident, sometimes through intense bouts of purpose. There is no way I’m going to trade my strong body for a weaker version just because it’s trendy.
Twenty years ago, I wore a clothing size that was six to eight sizes bigger than I wear today. Weirdly, my body weight is only about ten pounds lower. That’s because I dropped about forty pounds of body fat and built about thirty pounds of muscle.
It sounds hard to believe. I should probably dig up some old photos and spreadsheets for documentation. Again, though, it’s my body to live in and inhabit, and my body is not an object for society to critique. It’s my home.
In my early twenties, I was ill. I went to a lot of doctors who did not have a lot of answers. I felt tired and ill all the time. I fainted at the grocery store a couple times. I saw black spots when I walked up a flight of stairs. For a young woman, I felt like an old woman, one who clutched railings.
Now I’m in my forties, old enough to be the mother of my younger self. I feel like I could pick up Younger Me and carry her up the stairs. Maybe not a fireman’s carry but certainly a piggyback.
Younger Me would have been angry and hurt to feel so judged by Today Me. Get up, get up, I want to tell her. Don’t quit! There is still time for you!
I look how I look, she thought, just like I do today. At the time, though, she believed in a fixed body. That how we look is a million percent genetic. That the head of anyone who thinks differently should simply explode, because nothing is stronger than my internal rebellion or determination of my identity, of what counts as me.
It turns out that that same resistant feeling was exactly what I needed to propel me up a lot of hills, along thousands of miles, through hundreds of burpees and all the rest. My rage at anyone who dared tell me about my body or criticize my personal autonomy, that was the fire that consumed Young Me. Stubborn, I found myself a warrior of sorts.
When I was young, I felt just as judged as any other young woman. As an adult, I find it hilarious to walk around covered in mud, or carrying my kali stick. Men, even very very large men, get very squirmy and nervous when they find out I do martial arts. “Just don’t attack me and you’ll be fine,” I say, which usually makes it worse.
Posture is what makes the change. A vertical posture says a lot. A comfortable stance says more. I reside in a strong body and I can use it to do some pretty surprising things. Ten years ago, none of that was true, because I hadn’t yet seized ownership of my identity as a midlife athlete. Today, I feel that I will be stronger at sixty than I was at thirty. I know it will be true because I know how to make decisions and I know how it is done.
When we move to a new place, one of the very first things we do is to start in on a new ambit. Your ambit is the area where you walk around your neighborhood, also known as your stomping grounds. Everyone has one, or at least everyone who leaves the house, but for most people it stops somewhere around the driveway or the mailbox.
We chose an apartment that is technically within walking distance of our old place, two miles or about forty minutes. We had passed the place many times, on foot, on the bus, even on bikes. A big chunk of the new neighborhood was already in our old ambit, and that helped us feel at home. We weren’t necessarily looking to feel ‘at home,’ though, being more in the mood for something fresh and new.
On Sunday we set off.
We were still unpacking, but we had enough done that we both felt we could afford to take a break. There’s a certain point in moving in to a new place when it no longer feels obvious exactly where everything should go, when the remaining boxes are full of trickier items. The law of diminishing returns sets in. People start wandering around, looking into one box and then another, no decisions being made, and the work grinds to a halt.
A lot of people never get past that point! They just leave the boxes packed, sometimes for years or through several additional moves.
This is when it can be so incredibly helpful to take a break, get away from it all for a couple of hours, and walk back into the room with fresh eyes.
That’s what we did. We had no internet and it was too late in the day to go to the tea house. A local library branch happens to be open for a few hours on Sunday afternoons. There’s a closer branch, but this one is within the two-mile range we are willing to walk. We’d set out on a little adventure and go exploring.
There happens to be a very nice walking trail in our part of the world, and most of the route can include this trail. In a car we wouldn’t have thought to go that way. On foot it was obvious. At least, it was obvious because we scoped it out on a map first, and as neighborhood walkers, we look for the green blotches that indicate parks. About a quarter mile of our route wound through neighborhood houses.
This is a nice part of creating a new ambit, too. You can start to get a feel for your neighborhood, seeing familiar faces, meeting dogs and babies, checking out gardens. Your very presence helps the neighborhood become safer. Foot traffic deters crime. That’s the sad irony of people feeling like they aren’t safe to walk where they live. Go out and bring your phone, bring your friend, bring the people who live next door. That’s what my family used to do. Invite someone to walk with you and make an ambit.
The area we explored on our way to the walking trail? Was much nicer than our own block!
One of the hazards of making a new ambit is that it can spark some house envy. It’s a good place, though, to start talking about home improvements and savings accounts and repair projects. Something about seeing someone else’s nice yard is so much more inspiring than sitting indoors on your own sofa.
We walked along. “This feels like vacation,” said my husband, who had been unpacking a box only half an hour before.
THIS FEELS LIKE VACATION!
We walk everywhere on vacation, because for us that’s the whole point. You can see so much more of a place on foot. You can meet people, you can overhear their accents and check out the local streetwear trends.
I think there’s also something about the rhythm of walking that just feels right for a human. A dog too, probably. For our dog, walking is a religion. His little ears bounce with every step. It always surprises us how many people have dogs and don’t take them around, because having a dog is such a compelling reason to explore your ambit.
We walked along. We got to our walking trail. It was green and beautiful in the summer light. We got into a conversation about Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird based on my recent reading of Furious Hours.
Suddenly, we were there. That was two miles, really? Are you sure??
Let me tell you, that walk was almost entirely uphill, but we didn’t even feel it.
The library itself is much nicer than the one in our old neighborhood. That library is large, new, pretty, well-lit, and reasonably well-stocked. Unfortunately, there’s a used bookstore in the lobby that runs on donations. Its musty smell is so strong that I literally hold my breath several paces before walking in the door and don’t breathe again until I’m almost to the YA section. You can smell the funky old donated books outside on two sides of the building. This is a bummer because there are few things better than a public library to expand one’s ambit.
This new library, though! I could see this becoming a thing with us.
We found two chairs side by side. WiFi, hooray!
I got a few things done, such as changing our address. It didn’t even feel like work.
Then we decided to check out the outdoor seating in the back and I accidentally set off the alarm on the emergency exit, but it was okay. I didn’t even have to go to jail.
On the way home, we went a different way, which is always a good idea when you’re working on a new ambit. Sometimes the other route is nicer. We found a place with non-dairy ice cream and got ourselves some. We sat in a tiny grassy park and ate strawberry ice cream and a dog came over and licked my husband’s face.
Then we went home refreshed and got back to work, grubbing around unpacking and breaking down boxes.
That entire day, we spent two hours exploring and twelve hours working. Guess which part of the day we actually remember?
Boxes are everywhere and my neck is all gimped up. We’ve been packing for almost a week, quota five boxes a day, and I’m feeling it. All I can do right now is fantasize about doing yoga in our new living room.
There isn’t a huge difference between a 612-square-foot studio and a 650-square-foot one-bedroom apartment. It’s just enough, though, that there might be enough room to do a workout in the living room when there wasn’t before.
I’ve tried P90X. I’ve tried yoga. I’ve tried burpees. I’ve tried hula hooping.
The only thing I can effectively do in my studio apartment, even when I move furniture out of the way, is to jog in place.
I often do. At the end of the day, if I haven’t quite done enough to impress my activity tracker, I jog in place until the green loop is closed. I would go outside but then I’d have to put my shoes back on.
I’d go to our apartment gym, but there lies madness. I love working out late at night, see, and once I started using the elliptical at 10:00 pm I’d be out there every night. This doesn’t work when you have upstairs neighbors who get up between 4:30 and 5:30 every morning.
The first law of the workout is to understand your constraints. Know your first sixty-five layers of obstacles, reasons, complaints, and excuses so you can plan something that is actually possible in your routine life, every day.
I’ve got grievances that have affected my workouts.
I also have a history of thyroid problems, and when I quit working out for an extended period, I descend rapidly into a netherworld of chronic pain, fatigue, migraines and tension headaches, low mood, and general crabbiness. I can feel it happening. I can feel the difference between the lower range of thyroid function and the middle range.
It’s like quicksand. The more tired I get, the less I want to do, and the more I sit around, the farther I fall.
My life is easier when I work out at least a little every day.
That’s why I wear the fitness tracker, it’s why I walk everywhere, it’s why I always take the stairs even when I’m carrying a suitcase, and it’s why I’m so invested in whether I can do a floor workout in my living room.
This is part of the connection between clutter and physical health.
My people do not like the feel of a reasonably arranged room. They will continue to pile up boxes and bags to prevent having extra space or blank walls. Alas, the effort involved to carry in shopping bags and pile them around is not enough to keep one’s energy levels up.
Living in a tiny, crowded room means sitting still most of the time.
Thus the nest. My people usually have a nest that is easily identified from across the room. There will be a spot, for instance in front of the computer keyboard, that will be surrounded by small important items like a tea cup or the TV remote. Other popular areas are the bed, a spot on the couch, a favorite chair, or the driver’s seat of the car. While there are seated workouts that can be found to accommodate physical therapy situations, my people aren’t doing them.
It’s not a problem, of course not. It’s not a problem when 40% of Americans have zero workout. It’s not a problem for extended phone stroking, gaming, binge-watching, or other seated activities.
It only starts to become a problem when it’s time to pack and move, or in an emergency situation when sitting still is no longer an option.
Eh, but that’s not gonna happen, right? *wink*
Here I am, packing our stuff, working on Box 28 and maybe ten to go. I’ve walked home balancing stacks of folded cardboard on my head, causing a man in a convertible to pull over and ask if I needed a ride. (Nice). I’ve folded and taped, lifted and hauled and stacked. Not currently being a weightlifter, I am feeling this unfamiliar effort in my neck and shoulder. That’s a place where I carry a lot of tension because my real workout, my true default mode, is hunched over a keyboard.
That’s my reason for walking so much, walking when there are tons of other outdoor workouts available to me.
Walking causes thousands of micro-movements when I swing my arms. I would never do that much physical therapy in any other situation. Walking, though, is fun. It’s something I can ignore, too. I walk to do my errands because we sold our car over two years ago. I walk when it would take twenty minutes longer to wait for the bus. I walk to go to the movies, the library, the grocery store. I walk a minimum of four miles a day, usually six, sometimes eight to ten.
When I’m not doing as much walking, like when I’m home packing boxes, I start to feel it right away. I feel it in the middle-aged places.
Habit research shows that people tend to have the easiest time switching habits after a major change like a move or a new job. I know this is true because I’ve moved so many times in my adult life. My husband and I are both planning around this blip in our schedule, thinking about what we want to be different.
One difference in our new place is that we’ll be on the fifth floor instead of the ground floor. We have the option to take the stairs when we walk our dog and do the laundry. Our building is also on the same block as our martial arts gym.
Mainly, though, we won’t have upstairs neighbors anymore. I’m trying to remember what it was like when I could sleep as much as I wanted, back when we were newlyweds, back when I started running for the first time. I’m trying to hold a vision of something I want.
I’m trying to imagine what I will do differently when I have room to move.
I never thought I could “afford” to travel. Then I thought I was “too old.” In my mind, only people in their early twenties got to go anywhere. This is completely weird, because I started flying alone at the age of seven and in some ways I grew up at the airport. Scarcity mindset is powerful.
CAN’T AFFORD end of story!
The biggest problem with scarcity mindset is that we are so locked down, we don’t even bother to find out exactly how much something costs.
I went through this earlier this year. I had been wanting a new desktop computer, and I sat on my wallet forever and ever, a couple years past the point when my old laptop was even usable anymore. Finally I felt like I had “enough” saved up. I went down in trepidation, very nervous about spending “that kind of money.” (Same kind of flat green American dollars I spend on anything else?)
It turned out to cost less than half of what I had estimated, even after accessories and tax.
Travel can very much be that way. If you save $25 a week for a year, you can basically buy a round-trip airline ticket to anywhere in the world.
(Not, like, Antarctica or Area 51 or inside Fort Knox, but you know what I mean).
Sometimes it doesn’t make sense to travel right at this very minute, for various reasons. For instance, if a friend is coming to town and we haven’t seen him in several years, we’d probably rather stay home and visit with him than go somewhere else. Maybe someone is finishing school, or it’s monsoon season, or we’re waiting for the cherry blossoms. There are all sorts of reasons why it might be better to wait a bit before going on that dream trip.
In the meantime, you can start planning and preparing, for real, right this minute, as soon as you finish reading this.
There are two things that it is very smart to do if you want to travel, and they don’t cost anything.
The first is learning to ride various kinds of public transit. You don’t actually have to pay to get on the bus or the tram or the water taxi or the funicular or whatever to do this, if you’re geographically isolated or you believe you are too broke for bus fare. You can look at maps and timetables and watch instructional videos. There are zero good reasons to skip this part, if you’re serious about your trip. It’s part of fine-tuning your vision and clarifying what you want.
The second thing that is very smart to do is to walk a lot, especially uphill and especially up long flights of stairs.
Not everyone can walk, true. If there are mobility issues then it’s even more valuable to practice ahead of time. Just how are you going to get around?
One of the saddest things I ever saw was a woman struggling to keep up with her friends at a historic site in Spain. We were coming down the (uneven, primitive) stone steps after looking at some incredible cave paintings. The woman was recovering from knee surgery. Her party wanted to know how many more steps there were and what the terrain was like. The sad but true answer was that there was no way she would enjoy the tour, and maybe a 5% chance she could actually do it, given the nature of the site. She was going to wind up sitting outside in the rain and cold for an hour, all because nobody thought to do the research. A quarter mile of slippery stone steps up a steep hill! What were they thinking, putting her in that position?
Maybe they could have waited a year, and done a different trip during her recovery?
It’s not about limitations, it’s about making life as interesting as possible within the constraints that we have at this moment.
There is a third thing that we can do to prepare for a dream trip, and that is to study the local language. It is SO helpful, especially when reading signs. On that same trip to see the cave paintings, we would have missed out except that we were willing to go along with a Spanish-language tour. We probably got 50-80% of the information, enough to feel like we understood what we were looking at.
The thing about travel is that it is extremely specific, moment to moment. That’s what makes it interesting. You’re standing on one specific square foot of the world at one specific moment in time. At that moment, either the restaurant or attraction that you wanted to visit is open for business, or it is not. Either you have the correct currency or form of payment, or you do not. Either you have read the map correctly, or you have not. Does this make sense?
You’re not “in England,” you’re in the Underground station in a hot and stuffy hallway, trying to figure out which of two tunnels to enter. You’re not “in Iceland,” you’re standing in front of a gravel parking lot, realizing that the museum you wanted to visit is not only closed but completely demolished. Travel means RESEARCH and lots of it, every day, every time you transition between one activity or location and another.
Part of what makes travel cool is that it magically transmogrifies you into “a traveler.” What does that is the process of figuring out how things work. That develops a mindset that is distinctly flexible and robust. You learn how to deal with confusion and disappointment and unexpected problems, such as getting stopped in security because one of your plane tickets matches your maiden name and the other matches your new married name. You learn perspective about what kinds of problems are worth getting upset about and which are just part of the game.
Eventually you learn to anticipate most situations ahead of time and just avoid those types of problems entirely. Like the overpacking problem and the “late to the airport” problem and the “quarrel over which restaurants to go to” problem.
Travel is just you in a different place for a while. That means you can solve for many of your travel problems in advance, while you are still the at-home you. Then when it’s time to leave, your trip will be a dream come true.
The numbers are in and we are maniacs. My husband and I walked over 83 miles and climbed the equivalent of 167 flights of stairs on vacation. In 11 days. What does this mean?
What it means is that we’ve figured out our idea of fun, and it includes a lot of walking. If we want to see the world for a week or two at a time, then we have to stay in the game the rest of the year.
There are two types of trips that we tend to go on. One is the urban type, like staying on the Las Vegas Strip or walking from Waterloo to Kensington Palace. The other is the wilderness expedition. It doesn’t seem at all obvious, but both kinds of travel add up to a lot of miles on foot, a surprising amount of elevation gain, and often, a backpack weighing anywhere from ten to fifty pounds.
There isn’t much that is interesting to see, in our opinion, from the inside of a car, the inside of a hotel room, or a lounge chair.
Traveling revolves around value. Frankly it can be very annoying and expensive to go anywhere, and every time I go through airport security I swear off it, “and this time I mean it.” That’s why it’s important to make sure that you’re doing as much of your favorite stuff as possible, and spending as little time and money on anything else as you can manage.
For us, we don’t see the point of doing certain things on a trip. Those include, but are not limited to:
Watching movies that we can see at home
Going to a shopping mall
Looking at souvenirs, none of which are locally made
Eating at American chain restaurants
Carrying around more than maybe 16 ounces of extra luggage
Trying on and rejecting various outfits
We also aren’t really fans of dance clubs and we don’t drink.
What we really like to do is to SEE EVERYTHING. Parks, museums, architecture tours, public art, archaeological sites, all cover a lot of ground. Many of them are impossible to see without going up and down a lot of stairs. Our second-biggest day of stair-climbing was done in just six hours in Edinburgh.
We weren’t like this when we first got together. We both drank a lot of cola and we hadn’t yet been camping together. That was also before we lost 100 pounds between us.
Walking everywhere used to be really hard on my hubby because he had a childhood foot injury that caused nerve damage. After about two miles of walking he would be done. He’d be walking with a limp and really struggling. I had an easier time walking, but I still had chronic pain issues and my fitness level (and pain threshold) was very low. We would just be too tired.
I never would have thought, after being together for thirteen years and aging a wee little bit, that we would be covering so much more ground now than we could when we were both still in our thirties.
Walking a lot toughens your feet. That part is obvious. What isn’t so obvious is that getting fitter can reverse what felt like permanent and total damage in other parts of the body.
My dislocated hip and dislocated rib, fixed.
His herniated disks, no longer a problem.
Knee pain, back pain, shoulder pain, fibromyalgia, geez we really are middle-aged... All the problems we used to be able to list off are fading into history.
All of this has been encouraging to us, partly because of course it’s better not to be in cruising pain from the moment you start the day. It’s also encouraging because the more we travel and the more active we are, the more ability we seem to be buying ourselves.
I won’t lie, there were a couple of points during the trip when my feet were so sore that I wanted to ask for a piggyback ride. Daddy carry me. My boots weren’t really designed for twelve miles on concrete. It got easier day by day, though, and the other thing that happened was that the waistband on my pants loosened up.
The human body was designed for walking. When we say “hunter-gatherer” what we’re really saying is “walks all day every day.” I think of my pioneer ancestors walking thirty miles a day next to their covered wagons, some of them probably barefoot and certainly not wearing modern athletic shoes. Before 1950 or thereabouts, most people both urban and rural probably put in ten-mile days routinely and never thought twice about it.
We meet a lot of people on the road, and some of them are considerably older than we are. I think we both saw someone who caught our attention on this trip. Mine was an American woman of about sixty, who was in much better shape than I am and looked like she could easily do a handspring into the pool. I couldn’t take my eyes off her shoulders. I knew I wanted to be as fit as she is when I reach her age. My husband’s was a Scottish grandfather playing soccer on the village green. His calves were indistinguishable from a young man’s even though he had to be over seventy. He was executing footwork that his grade-schooler grandkids couldn’t do, probably because he had been kicking a football every day for, oh, at least sixty-five years. Will we do the same?
We’d like to visit every country in the world, and at the rate we’re going, we would have to start doing about twenty a year if we want to catch up. We’ve talked about how sad it would be if we finally had the money and leisure but lacked the strength or the energy. We still have time today to keep walking and keep climbing stairs, huffing side by side as we plan our next trip.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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