Friday, January 31, 2014

Lessons From Today's Outdoors Success Story

The other day I was asking for reader's examples of exercise success stories. Today provided one for me to describe. It is especially worth writing about because it was a hike, and it takes some effort and finesse to make hiking fun. 

1) Homo Sapiens is a tribal animal. Hike with others. Solitude and nature sometimes get connected in preachy sentimentalisms, but this just isn't accurate. In fact, solitude sucks for us, as it does for a dog -- and for the same reason. Don't detract from the social interaction by focusing on only one person, or by going exactly at the perfect pace for you, as if other people don't matter.

2) Emphasize intensity, not duration. Intensity stimulates you to do your best; it is inherently interesting and dramatic. (And, brother, hiking could use a little drama.) Lotsa miles and hours are merely things to be endured.

3) Lean against the big disadvantages of hiking: heat and still air. Look for coolish conditions. Don't start too late in the day. Look to enjoy fresh breezes; your skin is an under-rated sensory organ. 

4) Scenery does help, but don't make a fetish out of it. It is easy for a blogger to imply that they had a good time primarily because of the scenery. You should demand your money back from that blogger.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Relaxation After Exercise

Even with its deficiencies -- such as abuse by politically-motivated hacks -- we should still be grateful for Wickipedia. Without dictionaries and encyclopedias, we are at the mercy of long-winded books, which results in endless procrastination; and our curiosity dies on the vine.

For years I have fallen into deep, blissful relaxation after exercise, particularly bicycling. Conscious relaxation -- not true sleep. Let northern-European Protestant and American-Puritan culture be damned: a siesta of some type is healthy and natural after the mid-day meal! It attains perfection after a morning of aerobic exercise.

And it happened again today. Ahh, how I miss these sessions with my little poodle. I finally got around to reading up on 'Relaxation' in Wikipedia. The prose did not impress me, but there was this photograph of doggie yoga by a Maltese:

So many people think that dogs smell bad; but I'm here to tell you that a small shedless dog, which has been washed with doggie shampoo, smells delicious resting on your shoulder during these blissful, conscious siestas. (This photo is redolent of the doggie yoga scene in the movie, "Good Boy.")

If Meditation and Yoga weren't tainted with the cultural fads of the 1960s and early 1970s, I might have made an effort to learn something about them. Instead I have settled for rolling my eyes over them.

But does it make sense to make a homework project out of reading about relaxation? When I think back over all these post-exercise somnolences, while I fantasized or listened to dreamy music like one of John Barry's movie scores, it would be a desecration to see them reduced to a formula or a cut-and-dried science. It is so much better to feel like you have personally discovered some magnificent secret -- and who cares if millions have discovered it before you!

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Can You Pass-on Your Exercise Success Story?

I don't mind admitting that other people have helped to give me good ideas, where exercise is concerned. Over the course of a lifetime, it has happened four-to-six times, and it would help me out if it happened again. Specifically, I need some help with hiking. There are people who blog about hiking, and they do a good job of it; but it doesn't seem to help me visualize the sport as interesting.

Isn't it odd how people never get around to discussing the philosophy of exercise? By 'philosophy' I mean the basic questions. What are you trying to accomplish? Why does one sport work better than another, and why does this vary with the person? What is the biggest drawback to the sport, and how do you overcome it? 

And most of all: How do you turn this kind of exercise into something that you actually want to do, instead of something that you are forcing yourself to do? This has been the secret to most of my success with exercise. I've emphasized hedonism, rather than disciplinarianism. It's not that determination and self-discipline have no role to play, but it is prudent not to ask too much from them. They are necessary, but not sufficient, for success.

The trick then, after adopting a realistic and humble attitude toward the self-discipline you are likely to hold to, is to look for other tools. It is these "other tools" that should be consciously dwelled on, while self-discipline stays in the background, lest you provoke yourself into rebelling against it.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

A Movie Recommendation

You may freely admit to giving recommendations of various types to other people, over the course of your life, without feeling too foolish about it. But why does it hardly ever work, whether the recommendations are for movies, books, or blind dates?

That's what pops to mind after watching a movie from the local library, "Eat, Drink, Man, Woman", directed by Ang Lee, who later directed "Sense and Sensibility" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."  "Eat, Drink, Man, Woman" is what put his career on the map, I suppose.

But the movie isn't too well known or popular. There are reasons. The only audio choice on the DVD is spoken-Chinese with English subtitles. There is a lot of dialogue, so you have to read the subtitles fast.

From time to time I read movie reviews on Amazon/IMDB. Usually they aren't too helpful, and because there are so many of them, I usually give up. Sigh, that's an old problem in the information biz. Some blabber-mouths tell you too much, and ruin the ending for the prospective audience. Others rehash the plot in detail. (Why?)

It's easier to see what is wrong than to come up with a clear idea of what is right. Perhaps the most useful thing a review can do is to match the mood of a viewer with the movie, because only then will the viewer be receptive. 

There are people who tire of Hollywood movies: their cliches and predictability. Such people want a breath of fresh air. Maybe they are the kind of person who would be an excellent world-traveler, if the budget allowed it. But they might not want to watch a depressing, pseudo-intellectual movie made in Europe, and funded by the Ministry of Culture. For such people, "Eat, Drink, Man, Woman" might be just the ticket.

The second best contribution that a review can make is to be convincing! Here, I'm afraid I've trapped the readers. Since I get (undeserved) credit for being anti-woman, a movie has to be something special if it gets me to recommend what is essentially a Taiwanese chick-flick. So the recommendation should count for something.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

part 3, An Unidentified Sail on the Horizon

For all the times that she has done it, you'd think that I would have a photograph of my dog wriggling in the desert sand, belly-side-up, and acting happy to the point of silliness. It always pleases the human spectators.

Her behavior reminds me of how I feel from time to time when reading Patrick O'Brian's "Master and Commander." Ships-of-war, when not fighting their own kind, were virtually pirates with a license: they would attack rich merchant ships, and hopefully get them to surrender before doing too much damage to all those valuable goodies. Then they would bring her in to port to be sold off, with the "pirates" getting a bonus proportional to the wealth of the captured ship.

A cyclist experiences the same thing when he espies another cyclist up ahead who looks vulnerable. Of course, sometimes, the cyclist is on the receiving end of that kind of treatment. What a chase it can become, regardless of which side you are on! It is fascinating to see the neon-green-yellow cycling jackets behind you, in your mirror; an unidentifiable sail on the horizon. As they move forward, to 'take you a prize', they transmogrify into identifiable people. You can read their aggressive body language, most of all the snapping heels. They seem like sharks or piranhas, about to snap you up.

The ships practiced deception on each other until the last moment. Typically they flew false flags; or posed as merchant ships by handling their sails in a lubberly (un-navy-like) manner; or kept uniforms off the deck; or sailed in a way that made the enemy think that they were partially damaged. There were only two exceptions: they never used deception for sending out false distress signals, and they'd always run up their true colors just before beginning the attack.
Yesterday I got playful on the bicycle ride by riding with a gang of pirates who were "reeling in" a lone rider, a "breakaway" in bicycle-speak. I was feeling frisky, so I went forward to the loner,  just to see the group attacking from the rear. I gave some thought to forming an alliance with the loner, to hold off the capture for another mile or two. Oh, what a naughty game; what an arrogant scoundrel I was being!
Sometimes simple sentences in "Master and Commander" put me into the wriggling-dog-on-her-back mode. It can be a phrase as common and frequent as, "...beating up into the freshening breeze." How that reminds me of turning directions on a cool morning in the Yuma lettuce fields!

Or a routine sentence such as, "The Boadicea gave a gentle heave against the sea and the water began to whisper along her side."

As the last example, let's look at a whole paragraph:
"As she rose the full force of the wind laid her over, and the studdingsail-boom strained forward, bending far out of the true. All the masts and yards showed this curving strain: they all groaned and spoke; but none like the twisting studdingsail-booms.

For a glass and more the watch on deck had been waiting for the order to lay aloft and reduce sail... yet still the order did not come. [Captain Aubrey] wanted every last mile out of this splendid day's run; and in any case the frigate's tearing pace, the shrill song of her rigging, her noble running lift and plunge filled him with delight, a vivid ecstasy that he imagined to be private but that shone upon his face, although his behaviour was composed, reserved and indeed somewhat severe -- his orders cracked out sharp and quick as he sailed her hard, completely identified with the ship. He was on the quarterdeck, yet at the same time he was in the straining studdingsail-boom, gauging the breaking point exactly."
The 'breaking point', indeed. That's familiar-waters to a road cyclist.

Friday, January 10, 2014

part 2, An Unidentified Sail on the Horizon

This blog doesn't just assign old-fashioned homework. In addition to the essay by William James, mentioned last time, today's assignment is to watch the Coen Brothers' movie, "Barton Fink." The role of "the life of the mind" in its memorable climax fits in well today.

Long-suffering readers know that I encourage 'living' a book rather than just reading it, in order to turn a stultifying process into a more vivifying one. You must pretend, even if only temporarily, to have some sympathy with this approach if the rest of this post is to mean anything to you.

The first time I read Patrick O'Brian's "Master and Commander" novels, several years ago, I was in Yuma, bicycling with the superb road-cycling club here. Back then I saw no connection between sailing the high seas in a British man-of-war, during the Napoleonic era, and the sport of cycling. This time around I have seen a connection, and it has vivified both reading and cycling.

One day I was riding alone, but in the mirror I could just barely see the neon-colored windbreaker of another cyclist. How they fill up with air, inside! But who was it? They were too far back to tell. Were they trying to 'take me a prize', in "Master and Commander" lingo? One minute they would go over a small convexity -- you wouldn't call it a hill -- and thus come back into view; and then they'd quickly disappear into a subtle concavity. These undulations of road over sandy desert, mirages from the Yuma sun, and the poor optical quality of the mirror, kept the suspense going for a couple minutes. More than that, everyday I now find another analogy between cycling the windy lettuce fields of Yuma and reading "Master and Commander."

By now, the reader can guess, I was fluttering my eyelashes over the experience, in part because of what it shared with other outdoor experiences. There is nothing more lethally glamorous than a barely identifiable animal scudding along on a distant ridgeline.

Sweat and metaphors -- imaginative effort during strenuous physical activity -- that is the ultimate outdoor lifestyle. What prevents it? Do we feel silly taking our "play" seriously? After all, that is what children used to do, back in the days before television and video games. It is what dogs still do at the bark park. But we responsible, middle-class adults are so tied up with our busyness and conventionality that we can't take play seriously.

We still share something with that conventional old crone back at Starbucks, last post. Maybe my inability to become totally independent of what she represents is the reason why she irked me.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

An Unidentified Sail on the Horizon

Today's homework is none other than an essay (about 30 pages long) that any fan of William James would include on his greatest hits album: "A Certain Blindness in Human Beings," contained in a larger book on Gutenberg.

Me and the boys were at Starbucks again, halfway through a bicycle ride. As usual the blarney spilled over the curb and flowed out to the shopping mall parking lot.

Then an older woman -- interrupting yet another shopping trip for yet another trinket, no doubt -- walked up to our table, and began to ask some questions. She appeared quizzical. Her reception was not unfriendly by our group. She seemed to think that a kaffee-klatsch of bald/grey/white heads in bicycle garb was so silly that only politeness kept her from laughing out loud. Perhaps it we presented ourselves well, her good nature would have granted us the status of licensed lunatics. I wasn't even going to try to please her. Instead, I seethed at the old crone's presumptuousness in even having an opinion on a group as admirable as ours.

Snowbird country is filled with people resembling her. You know the stereotype. How could she possibly appreciate what this group of older cyclists was capable of? Of course, I was just as blind to anything interesting, significant, or non-routine in her, because I had already reduced her to a demographic stereotype.

And in her defense, how could she know what road-cycling meant to me? Recall that I am rereading Patrick O'Brian's "Master and Commander" series of novels. It is doubtful that any of the cyclists at the table would have appreciated how pleasant it is to imagine cycling through the windy and flat lettuce fields of Yuma, AZ, while under the influence of these nautical novels. I hope to explain in the next episode. 

Frequently I decide to make a blog-post out of explaining some odd little experience or observation. 'Where there is smoke, there is fire,' is a useful old adage. Getting upset with the old crone when nobody else did, seemed like one of those minor things that could reveal something more important. We shall see.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Do New Year's Resolutions Make Sense for Geezers?

Because of the holidays and being between semesters, I haven't been assigning homework on a regular basis. I'm sure the reader will be relieved to get back in the swim of things. Very well then, today's assignment is the chapter on "Moral Perfection" in Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography.

Should we make more, or less, effort at New Year's Resolutions as we get older? A cynic might say that an oldster should have outgrown such nonsense by now. A wit might say that if such resolutions did any good, the oldster would have reached moral perfection long ago, and thus the question doesn't even come up.

I hope you were lucky enough to have known a grandfather that you looked up to as a wise old man. Mine once told me that a young man never thinks about the consequences of his actions. That's not such a brilliant or original thought, but I 'remember it as if it were yesterday,' as old men are prone to saying.

He was right: we really do get better at anticipating consequences of our actions as we get more experience in life, probably because we have had to suffer more of those consequences. It is both satisfying and pleasing to see yourself getting better at something -- something difficult -- over time. If nothing else, it is a great consolation prize that offsets the shock of looking in a mirror.

In addition to better recognition of dire consequences, your self-control is actually improving. Long overdue! You are not going to run the 100-yard-dash faster this year than five years ago, nor are you going to turn heads while strolling down the beach in a bikini, so why not put childish nonsense behind you and concentrate on what you are getting better at? 

For instance, I have always been dissatisfied whenever my blog degenerated into a travel blog. Perhaps you like travel blogs -- well, be patient, you will outgrow them. There are too many of them, they all follow two or three formulas, and they offer almost nothing of intellectual and cultural value.

But if you start off in travel-blog-mode, and plan to change the focus as your writing and thinking improve, it is still easy to backslide when most of comments and readership seem to follow travel issues.

And there are better ways to build a readership -- such as assigning homework, and meting out punishment to readers caught cheating. (yea, sure.)

That is the value of New Year's Resolutions to me. It is a specific time to grit my teeth about escaping this intellectual ghetto, once and for all.