27 January, 2015

Lifting myself

I lift myself up a lot. I lift myself from my chair and bed onto my feet several times a day, of course, but I do a lot more than that. I lift myself from the ground using my hands, or only my feet. I lift myself up to a bar using nothing but my hands. I even lift most of myself using only my back muscles.

For 30 minutes a day, I lift myself in the most difficult way I can. When it gets easy, I intentionally make it harder. I lift myself using just one foot. Or I lean more of my weight onto my hands. I'm only just getting to where I can lift my whole mass up to a pull-up bar, but someday I'll need to make that harder. And when the day comes, I have several strategies, ready-made.

The thing is, the more and harder ways I find to lift myself, the better my body becomes at doing it - and the better I become at being me. I think I've probably already written a piece somewhere about how exercise makes me better at being a social creature, so I don't have to write that now. Today, I just want to write about making my body better at doing body stuff. Over the last three years, I've been amazed at watching what I've made better and worse by pushing myself physically.

I'm all-in on doing this until the day I die. It may be the most consistently exciting 30 minutes of my day. I mean that. I always resisted exercise, but I love doing this.

First, let me talk about the things I've made worse. I'm pushing this thing, but there are concerns.
  • Repetitive Stress Tendon Injuries
    I started doing this at age 47, and was pleasantly surprised how much I could do and how quickly I became able to do more. I read all the warnings about letting the tendons develop, and I understood them. I still didn't let my tendons develop, and I repeatedly injured them. I'm continually re-realizing how very weak my tendons had become, and how much more slowly I need to progress through levels of difficulty. Not less than 6 weeks after a mild tendon injury can I begin testing that tendon again. If I stop immediately upon noticing an issue developing, I can get back into the game after a 2 weeks rest, but I keep trying to pretend nothing's wrong. In my youth I played through injuries. With each new injury I learn again I must always let tendons heal, and I'm actually getting better about it.
  • Adrenal Fatigue
    This one is no joke. Almost a year ago I began to notice I was tiring sooner while working. I kept pushing, and even pushing harder. I especially applied this thinking to my 30 minutes of lifting. I imagined I was growing weaker, and only work would reverse that trend. Wrong. My body was slowly shutting down and trying its best to warn me, but I interpreted its messages incorrectly. By May of 2014, any hard work would drain me completely, to the point I could hardly think straight or even stay awake. In June I took a little swim out into the ocean and very suddenly was so drained I wasn't sure I'd make it back. 8 months later, I'm pretty sure I'm beginning to make a recovery. Pushing myself when my body was crying for rest was a bad, bad mistake. After this year, I might even avoid making it again. Time will tell.
Spending months recovering from troubling adrenal exhaustion while simultaneously nursing strained tendons is a small price to pay for the benefits I feel from training my body to do all it can do. I'm genuinely not sure whether I'll make those two mistakes again, or how often, but it's worth the risk. I'm still all-in on this stuff.

Everything in my world weighs about half what it did three years ago. I used to have to rest after carrying my 70 pound tennis ball machine to the courts. Today, I set it up and go. I used to have to plan a day before to make sure I had energy for setting things up at church. No more. I bring the groceries in with the same number of loads, but now I don't wish I hadn't carried so much. I can weed the yard now, without regretting it for days afterward.

More importantly, to me, I'm smarter and less afraid about almost everything. I've hit my limits several times every week, so I know what I cannot do and what I can. I used to say, "Sure!" when presented with an opportunity to do something beyond my limits. I did it easily last time. (Yeah, twenty years ago.) I would go out, and sure enough do it just like twenty years ago, but then I'd be sore for weeks. Now, when presented with the same opportunity, I know for a fact whether I can do it and whether I'll suffer for my decision. That knowledge makes my yes's and my no's confident. I value that.

Here's a high level record of what I'm doing these days
  • I work on balance almost every day
    Two years ago I learned I really couldn't stand long on one foot, no matter how hard I tried. The progress comes glacially, but it comes. Over the course of a month I see almost no difference, but somehow over two years it's made a real difference. I can now stand on one foot with my eyes closed or walk a slackline. Since falls are the leading cause of both fatal and non-fatal injury in the aged, I can't ever imagine stopping this effort.
  • I work on strength about 3/4 of all days
    The benefits are wide-reaching. I work pushing, pulling, standing, forward, and backward strength, and am learning to skip sessions when I need to.
  • I work my aerobic capacity 2-3 days a week
    I sprint in 6 foot wide figure eights, followed by pushups, then half squats, all in succession and as quickly as I can. The net effect is to drive my heart rate and breathing up somewhere near (but not to) my max.
  • I work flexibility a little bit each day
    I'm not really getting any more flexible, but moving to the limits of my mobility keeps those limits as comfortable as possible.
  • I never jog
    Everything I do is sprint-like. Nothing in my life requires me to keep my heart rate at 70% for hours, so why train myself to be able to do so? People jog, treadmill, stair step to build an ability I never personally use, so I don't copy them.
The experts to whom I choose to listen say I'm doing it right, but this is the 21st century. There are experts out there everywhere saying jogging, boot camps, power yoga, bicycling, weight lifting, martial arts, rock climbing, gym membership, massage, swimming, rowing, crawling, or any other thing is the perfect thing. What I'm training matches up well with what I do. It's just the usual stuff I do every day, taken to a useful and fun extreme.

Paul tells me bodily exercise profits little, by which he means it only helps one part of me and only for these brief 70 years. I can accept that. But I'd just as soon these last 20 years I have here be useful. I'll keep doing what I'm doing.

17 January, 2015

Food matters

I now weigh 30-40 pounds more than when I left the Army. And I live in America. It's impossible that I should not know this is an issue. For years I've said I would never diet, but in all those years my weight was never an issue. My words were empty. Well, now the rubber hits the road, and I have to decide what to do. And now I'm a few decades better informed. The science has advanced.

Nothing's going to change.

I have friends who battle anorexia, friends who've given up trying to eat better, friends who never realized there was anything to learn about food. Frankly, though, there are several ways eating well is part of living better, so I'm going to try to capture a few thoughts about it in a post. From the perspective of living better, where living better means trying to make the relationships in my life more alive, here's why I care.
  • Dying of an eating-related disease wouldn't make my relationships any more alive
  • Making myself weak and sick to look stunningly thin wouldn't make my relationships more alive
  • Being weak and overweight wouldn't make my relationships more alive, either
  • Refusing to eat what everyone else at dinner is eating, without a real reason, strains relationships
  • Being strong empowers me to do all the other things I need to do in those relationships
It matters to me to eat relationally.

Here's my diet. I've kept this up for twenty years, and I've enjoyed it.
  • Every meal I eat is pleasurable to me
  • If mankind's been eating a food for the last 6000 years, I'll eat it every time no matter what the FDA says
    • Salt, milk, wheat, butter, eggs, beef - I'm in
    • High carb and low carb have both been part of mankind's diet, and I eat both
  • If mankind invented it in the Industrial Age, I'll avoid it when I can
    • White anything (sugar, bread, rice, caffeine) provides energy, but none of the fiber, enzymes, and vitamins needed to repair the normal damage of life
    • !!! Any sugar substitute !!!
      • I'd eat a meal of white sugar with a spoon before I'd drink a diet soda
    • Except dessert. I think humans were made to enjoy dessert, and several times a week I enjoy me some industrial age dessert.
  • I try to get as much real food into me as I can
    • I don't go for the whole raw thing, but I eat a little raw food
    • Real food, not stripped, shaped, flavored, and repackaged, contains all that stuff I mentioned above.
    • That's the stuff that enables our bodies (when mixed with adequate sleep) to self-heal so many of the leading causes of untimely death
    • Seriously. Given only empty nutrition, our bodies lack the resources they need to heal
  • I try to eat/drink something fermented three times a day
    • The intestinal biome is critically important and enables us to digest milk, wheat, and other good stuff
    • Kombucha, kefir, buttermilk, sauerkraut
  • I take supplements
    • They're of debatable value, but when I quit taking each I suffer symptoms
    • I buy the expensive, food-based supplements - very few grocery vitamins do anything
  • I never count calories

Diet is critical, but in America it's about body shape - thinness - and thinness is about diet. When people talk about food, they're talking about calories. Low fat and low carb are both all about body fat. That's a deception. Diet should be about life, and life is many-dimensional.

You need to know heavy dieting combined with heavy exercise, the formula recommended by all and followed to extremes by some, is a leading cause of hypothyroidism - which is a leading cause of weight gain. Yes, you read that right. Weight loss is a leading cause of weight gain and heavy exercise is a leading cause of low energy.

I'm suffering with hypothyroidism (in my case, not due to dieting but to poor stress management.) I'm advised to eat less and take thyroid meds, but I'm resisting that advice. So far I'm six months into my resistance, and I'm happy with my progress. My plan does not include intentionally reducing my caloric intake. Time will tell which set of experts is right, but I'm currently going with the ones who say some thyroid deficiencies can be addressed with diet, proper exercise, and rest.

I'm never going to have the ripped beach physique, but that doesn't mean food doesn't matter to me. I just care about it differently than most of the books I read. I care about eating food rich in nutrition, and even at my current weight I'm enjoying good food and good strength. I have the energy to spend time and energy with friends, and worrying about the food that might be served doesn't interfere with our plans (except for that tree-nut allergy in our family.)

I live better when I enjoy food and to profit from it.

09 January, 2015

Snippets of Doom

I recently read a Facebook status by a major Christian personality stating he'd never missed a day of scripture reading. He went on to assert - insist - we should all take up that standard. He clearly stated it was wrong to skip a day of reading. I'm not living right unless I'm reading scripture daily. Such "snippets of doom" have ruled my life for a long, long time.

I am trying to "live better," so I have to engage with this man's assertion. Will reading scripture daily be part of my plan? What about Fasting? Diet? Exercise? Literature? Prayer? Savings? Insurance? Tithing? Charity? Tidiness? Checklists? Passion? ... Sleep?

Every one of those items has been declared mandatory if we want to "live right." (Except exercise. Paul said exercise is of little profit, so many Christians wipe that one clean off the table.) I want to "live better," so I'd better stop living wrong.

In fact, if I'd only quit living wrong, I'd be living better automatically ... without ever living at all!

Instead, let me share this quote from a tennis training podcast I heard the other day. "There's no right or wrong. There are only consequences."


Let's agree there are things at the ugly end of the spectrum that really are wrong and things at the lovely end of the spectrum that really are right, but focus for a blog minute on the stuff between those extremes. Should I improve upon my idea of "living better," and replace it with "living right?"

To my misguided ear, trying to live right sounds like the better strategy:
+ Living right conjures images of selecting an unimpeachably correct target then striving to reach it.
- Living better smells like taking a vague step somewhere in a general direction and hoping it ends well.
+ Living right copies the best method of navigating to a far-away city. Pinpoint the goal on the map and follow the instructions for getting there.
- Living better reeks of the process I use to enjoy a walk in the woods. Stumble across a promising path and wander where it leads.

Actually, that hippy-dippy "living better" stuff scares me to death. I instinctively want to know God's standard and the best way to achieve it. Full stop. The idea of proceeding without an ideal sounds like a recipe for becoming lost, and not in any good way. I genuinely fear hearing the Lord tell me, "Take from him the talent he has, and give it to the man who has ten." Living better sounds like the express lane to eternal vagrancy

Still, I'm committed to vagrancy these days and I think I like it.

Looking back across the years, living right didn't make me the righteous man of my dreams. Living as if I were holier than I was paralyzed me. I was afraid to live at all. A man who does nothing does none of it wrong, but he doesn't live.

I think I'm a fundamentalist-ish outlier in this whole area. I believe a good number of people are pretty comfortable with the first part of my quote, "There is no right or wrong." It's popular these days to quit doing everything the preachers call mandatory. So, I'm probably not alone if I do not commit to read the Bible every day. Still, if I resist my fundamentalist nature and quit trying to live right, I still stagnate if I don't aggressively choose to live better.

Daily scripture reading is neither right nor wrong, but we choose our consequences when we decide how we'll use our Bibles. There are questions only God and His children can answer, and it's work to chase them them through scripture, commentary, conversation, and blog. Searching for treasure enriches those who find it. No one makes wealth doing nothing.

For some strange reason, this balance excites me. I like hearing I'm free from doom, and I like even more hearing there's a reason to sweat out the work of living better. Life isn't good to those who believe every snippet of doom. Neither is life good to those who neglect the work needed to live better. Finding the road between those two ditches is the trick.

07 January, 2015

Do You Want to Live Better: Sleep

Living better requires sleep.

Seriously. If you intend to make your relationships come alive, there may be no single better way to shoot yourself in the foot than regularly to short change your brain on sleep. I've done this all my life, and it's never worked well for me. In seeking solid information on the subject, I found this amazing article:
We don't always want sleep, but we need sleep

God told us something like this a long, long time ago, but science is getting closer to understanding why it's true. I find that helpful.

Every bodily function produces waste, but the brain's wastes are handled uniquely. The brain has to shut down to clear them, and the process takes a long time. It appears the brain clears these poisonous waste products by shrinking our neurons as we sleep, thereby making space to flush a whole slough of damaging waste proteins away.

When we wake up our neurons re-expand, and the waste products begin accumulating again.

I imagine the brain-flush to be somewhat like tooth brushing. It's a critical habit, but missing any individual session isn't risky. Plaque is only a problem, for most people, when it's allowed to take root. The beta amyloid that causes brain plaques doesn't seem to be a problem if we sleep long enough, regularly enough to keep major deposits from forming.

A sleepless night isn't going to kill anyone, but a discipline of late nights and early mornings supported by coffee damages us in real ways. Science is currently connecting beta amyloid accumulations with Alzheimer's, but I find my experience with irritability, impatience, depression, and willpower deficits after accumulating sleep debt plenty convincing. John Wayne, Steve Jobs, Thomas Edison, and a thousand other red-blooded Americans unite and call me a wimp. With them I must agree. I don't want to be a wimp, but I really am.

God and life both call us to endure times of great hardship, and I'm happy to pull my weight when I must, but I can't call keep it up. If I miss too much beauty rest, I'm truly ugly to be around. I'm daily called to play a part in tending the lives of a few people to whom God has joined me, and I best live up to that calling when I'm reasonably well-rested.

Americans are tough.

Proud Americans take no handouts. We make it by maximizing our productivity, maximizing the number of productive days in every week and the number of hours in every day. My insomnia's always been a flag-waver's blessing, and I'm at home as an American, living the American way. God's way is Sabbath, but Sabbath is difficult. I'm American, from my debit card clear down to the bottom of my 401k, so Sabbath is frankly terrifying. Believing God will meet my needs, while I simply rest, gives me all the warm fuzzies of a bungee jump into deep fog.

If I'm going to live better, though, I must risk rest. With God's blessing, I hope to treat my ongoing insomnia as enemy rather than friend. Ten years ago I was sleeping 5-6 hours per night with very little insomnia. Five years ago I was up to 6+ hours, but as I started getting closer to having enough sleep I started facing insomnia. I've made it to 7+ within the last 5 years, and am working toward 7.5. Evidence is rich I'm not sleeping too much, but I'm rested enough my anxieties lead to insomnia commonly. Here are things I'm trying:
  • Absolute darkness
    Science says darkness is necessary for deep sleep. I hate to be a science denier, but darkness never did much for me. I slept in absolute cavernous darkness for a couple months, and observed how my symptoms and degree of restedness didn't change at all.
  • Turning off screen devices
    For years, I shut off my computer and fell quickly into sound sleep. These days, I find about twenty minutes after I stop the last activity of the night, often when I shut off the computer, the first wave of sleep hits me. Since my biggest problem is accidentally pushing through that sleep wave into my second wind, I'm finding some ease sleeping when I make sure I stay on the computer until bed time.
  • Melatonin
    When I get my second wind, I'm going to be either awake or in an awful, zombified, half-asleep state for a couple hours. As soon as that happens, I take .6-1.2mg of melatonin every 20 minutes until I'm asleep. It works very consistently for me. Happily, on nights when I hit the sack at or before that first wave of sleep, I fall asleep well without the assistance. That assures me the assertions melatonin are not addictive are probably true.
  • Prayer
    Prayer cuts both ways, for me. When anxieties entangle my mind, prayer lets me slowly brush away each strand. I'm not wired to just slice through the whole web with one bold declaration of faith, but I can sort of roll each concern up in front of the Father and leave it with Him. That's a necessity for me. Once, however, the wave of sleep hits I don't quit praying! I start obsessing about prayer itself. I can't just quit. Suddenly, I find I'm well into my second wind, and prayer transforms aggressively from solution into problem.
  • Talking
    Copy and paste the prayer stuff here. Talk can relax me, but at some point I'm surprised to find I've pushed into my second wind and there's no going back.
  • Meditation
    Meditation is a tremendous sleep aid - prior to 7:00 AM. Or practically any other time I should carefully stay awake. As an intentional sleep aid, though, it never has worked for me.
  • Thinking happy thoughts
    I always thought I stunk at thinking happy thoughts. Actually, happy thoughts only work if a sleep wave is rolling in. My problem has been trying to "happy thought" my way back to sleepiness after reaching my second wind. Knowing that, and managing my sleep waves better, I finally discovered a happy thought that works consistently for me (I'm reporting against almost 3 weeks of happy experiment with it.) That's kind of cool. The trick for me is to find a thought sufficiently complex and absorbing, but completely without any goal or solution over which I can obsess.
When I do all this, and still fail to fall asleep, I'm not shocked. I remind myself I'm not truly exhausted, refuse to allow myself to solve any of my problems, and wait quietly until the melatonin kicks in.

Life really is measurably better this way.

05 January, 2015

Living Better

Who has the time, energy, and willpower it takes to live better?

And what business do I have implying people aren't already living the best they possibly can by blogging about it?

I don't know the answer to either of those questions, but the need to live better is filling my mind lately. When something's on my mind, I experiment. Mistakes, victories, setbacks, and questions are avalanching through my life these days, and blogging about it seems like a helpful part of the discovery process.

I hate to sound arrogant by voicing my opinion on what living better means. I'm writing these things because I don't know! Still, I need a hypothesis, so here's where I'm starting.

Living better is doing whatever makes the relationships in my life more alive.

It seems like a tricky thing. To make all those relationships richer I must improve myself, but I'm convinced self-improvement is a dead-end. An awful lot of people tried to teach me how to "be the best 'me' I can be," but they all left me flat. Maybe I can make my point with a quick analogy. If I frequent the gym to have the best body I can have, I'll either love my new body and become a jerk or grow depressed at my lack of progress. (Ask me how I know ... you'll find the answer filed under "Mistakes.") If, however, I hit the gym to improve my ability to serve people, I succeed. I taste the reward of being more helpful, and I don't even mind that I still look like "generic nerd #3."

Forgive me in advance when I sound like I'm proclaiming life's answers. Half my experiments turn out really badly, but I have to try them anyway. Anything I talk about out here is a work in progress. Failure and mistakes are part of the process.

So, The Familyhood Church blog just may warm up again. If I generate any momentum, it will be on the subject of practices that help and hinder my efforts to live better. Writing always helps me sort out my thoughts, so to some degree this is a selfish endeavor. I won't kid you, though. I crave feedback. If mere writing were enough, I'd journal. I'd love to hear your thoughts.