Friday, September 30, 2011

Swimming Like A Fish

I've been swimming for years and years now--it's one of my favorite sports, although I've never been particularly fast or particularly aggressive at it.

I just love to swim.  Always.  In my next life, I'm coming back as a fish.  I'm pretty sure I was a fish in my former life, but somehow, I accidentally moved up the karmic continuum.

So the way I see it, all I need to do is diss a couple more people, maybe, and I'll be right back where I belong.  (Just have to be careful not to descend to the level of a slug.)

Anyway, I've started reading about and trying to implement "Total Immersion" swimming.  It's interesting, because it operates on some of the same principles (in my opinion) as Pilates: you stabilize your core and then use large muscle groups (hips and lats) to do the bulk of the work.

If you've never tried to change the way you swim, let me just say that it is frickin' exhausting.  I felt like I did "nothing" when I swam last night because I simply focused on my body position in the water, and yet after 45 minutes, I was wiped out, mentally and physically.

It's a pretty challenging process, I must say, but I'm going to stick with it and see what happens.  The basic premises make sense: instead of trying to power your way from one end of the pool to the other, the goal is to become more "slippery" and "fish-like."  So, you angle your body such that you're swimming on your sides (or close to it) rather than simply lying flat on your stomach.

Power is generated in much the same way that it is in boxing, through twisting--or rotating--your hips around a stable axis.  The energy comes from large muscles in your legs and thighs, rather than the small muscles in your shoulders.

Because this is how power is generated in boxing, it makes sense to me.  In boxing, you set your leg as a pivot, and when you swing, you rotate around that pivot, so that the energy of the punch comes from the rotation around the axis, not simply from having strong arm muscles (although it doesn't hurt to have those too).

I like the concepts behind immersion swimming, because the focus is not on powering through a workout and exercising to the point of exhaustion, but maximizing efficiency by minimizing your stroke count (the number of strokes it takes you to get from one end of the pool to another).  You spend more time gliding, less time splashing and pounding.

The goal is to stay quiet in the water, like fish do.  Obviously, this is more difficult for humans, since we aren't built like fish.  So a lot of effort goes into neuroplasticity: training your brain and your nervous system to hold positions that make sense for swimming, but that are a bit counter-intuitive for humans in the water.

In my case, though, I think I have a couple of advantages: the conventional swimming advice I have always been given has never actually worked for me and never really seemed to make much sense.

For instance, I have a weak kick (in the water, that is-- there is no question I can kick royal ass on dry land).

But in the water, you could give me a kickboard, leave me for an hour or so, and when you returned, I would have moved all of about 5 ft. in the water.  If I'm lucky.

It really is a marvel to see: one can only wonder how someone could kick and kick and yet go nowhere.

So upon your return to my swim-practice, I would simply hop out of the pool and bust the kickboard over your head in sheer frustration. 

In response, I had always been told, "Well, you have to kick harder."  Result: I would splash and splash and go... nowhere.  I was told, "You need more flexible ankles."  I can rotate my ankle with the best of them, but still, I go nowhere when I kick.

I gave up (of course), and then I read that the kick isn't really all that important anyway, so I really gave up even thinking about it.

When you think about it, although all the splashing of the strong kickers signals "force" and "power," it also means they're generating resistance, so if the goal is to move through the water, they're basically beating themselves to death--the payoff is by no means equaling the expenditure.

Water is kind on the muscles and joints during a workout because it offers maximum resistance, but this means that it is quite cruel in other ways.  Because it is 1,000 times more dense than air, we have to find a different way of moving through it. 

On the one hand, you can build strength to propel yourself through it: this is the conventional wisdom.  But research has found that elite swimmers actually produce less propulsive force than the rest of us.  So they're doing something different, and that difference is staying streamlined and decreasing drag.

Good swimmers minimize drag by minimizing the amount of body surface in contact with the water and they stay quiet in the water.  The result truly is fish-like--and beautiful to watch.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Crime and Punishment

I really don't know where the past week has gone--or the month for that matter--but I have an inkling it's because school has been keeping me pretty busy, and when it hasn't, the house and the garden have.

So I'll try to kill two birds with one stone tonight (the violent imagery is quite appropriate, as you'll soon see), and talk about one of my favorite novels that I have the good fortune to be teaching this fall and spring.

Spoiler alert: I won't give it all away, but I'm going to talk about what happens in Part I of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, which is essentially the major event of the novel.

Whenever people ask me what my favorite books are, I never like to say, because it often depends on what I'm reading at the time.  But I will say that Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment is one of my favorites to read and to teach.

In fact, there are times when I can't believe I'm lucky enough to get to spend hours talking and thinking about it and get paid to do so.

I think Part I of the novel is an amazing and interesting expression of what happens when an idea becomes linked to action.  The protagonist, Raskolnikov, has been spending far too much time alone and far too much time thinking; consequently, he has also spent far too little time talking to other people and far too little time earning a living.

This may sound trite, but in the context of Dostoevsky's novel, it's not.  Solitary thought, while powerful, is sterile and, in its most extreme manifestations, downright dangerous.  We need to connect to others and we need to experience the humbling encounters that are a regular result of our interactions with the world at large.

As a result of his moody blues, Raskolnikov has become fixated on the idea that some people are inherently better than others.  Life isn't fair, though, so often the better people suffer at the hands of the worse.  The rich aren't always very nice or very good and in particular, they often don't do what they should with their money.

Raskolnikov becomes convinced that, if social revolution is to occur, one of these better individuals must be brave enough--and strong enough--to cross the threshold of human morality.  In Russian, the word "crime" of the novel's title is actually "Преступление"--more accurately translated, it means "transgression" or a "crossing over."  ("Пре-" is a prefix meaning "across" or "over" and "ступление" means "a stepping.")

Put simply, Raskolnikov recognizes that "great" men don't worry about other people's feelings--or lives, for that matter.  They don't hold themselves bound by the codes of moral and ethical conduct that circumscribe the everyday lives of the rest of us.  A great military leader can't lie awake nights feeling guilty and upset about the life of every single solider lost in battle that day--the focus must be on the "bigger" picture.

So if Raskolnikov feels and believes that he is such a man, why shouldn't he act accordingly?  He knows that a local pawnbroker, a greasy and reasonably unsavory woman who beats and abuses her mentally handicapped sister, has a pretty sizable store of ready cash.  The pawnbroker, in Raskolnikov's estimation, contributes nothing to the world: in the words of Dennis the Menace, "she's mean, she's ugly, she doesn't share!"

So why not kill her, take the money, and do some good with it?  This is the idea that Raskolnikov has been spending all of his time brooding over, and this is his mindset when we meet him at the outset of Dostoevsky's novel: should he do it?  can he do it?  will he do it?

He spends a great deal of time wondering whether he should do it, whether he is in fact the kind of man who can do such a thing.  In Dostoevsky's estimation, the implication is clearly, "if you have to ask..."--but of course, Raskolnikov doesn't realize this.  He wants to think he is the kind of person who is brave enough to cross a threshold in the name of social justice.  

He wants to be a great man.  So he gets an axe and goes to the pawnshop.
He pulled the axe out, swung it up with both hands, hardly conscious of what he was doing, and almost mechanically, without putting any force behind it, let the butt-end fall on her head...
The old woman was, as usual, bare-headed.  Her thin fair hair, just turning grey, and thick with grease, was plaited into a rat's tail and fastened into a knot above her nape with a fragment of horn comb.  Because she was so short, the axe struck her full on the crown of the head.  She cried out, but very feebly, and sank in a heap to the floor, still with enough strength left to raise both hands to her head... Then he struck her again and yet again, with all his strength, always with the blunt side of the axe, and always on the crown of the head. (pg. 66)
In a stroke of pure imaginative brilliance, Dostoevsky repeatedly emphasizes the rather odd fact that Raskolnikov kills the pawnbroker using the blunt end of the axe-head: in essence, he bludgeons her to death.  From behind. 

When her mentally handicapped sister walks in on the murder-scene, however, Raskolnikov instinctively does the unimaginable: he kills her as well, this time using the sharp blade of the axe, "splitting [her head] open from the top of the forehead almost to the crown of the head, and felling her instantly" (68).

He looks at her directly as he does so, and the image of the "simple, brow-beaten, and utterly terrified" Lizaveta that Dostoevsky offers us is nothing if not memorable: because she doesn't know any better, the pawnbroker's sister
did not even put up her arms to protect her face, natural and almost inevitable as the gesture would have been at this moment when the axe was brandished immediately above it.  She only raised her free left hand a little and slowly stretched it out towards him as though she were trying to push him away... (pg. 68).
Her death is the unintended consequence of Raskolnikov's (allegedly) "great" idea.  And in a cruel irony characteristic of Dostoevsky (and of life), Lizaveta is also pregnant.

So the decision to remove one "guilty" life from the world results in the death of two innocents.

This is one of Dostoevsky's great fascinations: life's collateral damage.  We can be good and kind and honest or we can be lowdown and dirty and mean, but in his worldview, we are all subject to the same drives and impulses.  Sometimes those drives can lead us to murder. 

But they can also lead us to unfathomable acts of generosity, and, in Dostoevsky's conception, since we can never rule out the latter, we must be careful how we police and punish the former.

We must be careful when it comes to what we think we know--about ourselves, and about others.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Catching Up...

Well, as you've probably guessed, the semester has begun.  So, less time to write.

It's a fact: the more you write, the more you write.

So I'm feeling a little out of practice right now, but I'll give it a go and try to catch up on the things I've been thinking and doing.

One thing I've realized since Ezra died is how angry I was about his illness last fall, winter and spring.  I think I did my best to be pleasant and keep a stiff upper lip, but inside, I was quite angry at the world and extremely stressed out.

And stunned.  And devastated.  I feel like I went through nine months of the past year in a state of angry disbelief.  In existential knots, maybe.  At times, I lashed out when I should have simply walked away.

I look at those moments now and wonder why I didn't just shrug, roll my eyes, and walk away, like I typically do.  If that's how people are going to be, well... that's their problem.

There are more nice people in the world than unpleasant people, I've found, so the unpleasant ones aren't ever worth the effort of their unpleasantness, really.

I think Ezra's mom and I have switched roles since then.  Now that he has died, she has begun to experience a lot of anger about what happened to him.

I know this because I scrubbed and refinished the deck on my house last spring, and she just did hers.  We have also both felt the need to suddenly dig up portions of our respective yards and flower-beds.

We have both aerated our lawns this year.  By hand.

You might not want to hire us as a team of landscapers right now, though.  My guess is, she will decimate everything in sight, and I will do the same for a brief period of time, but eventually, I will begin to weep quietly, make tea, and wax philosophical.

I take bike rides, and oddly enough, it began to bother me on a recent ride that I could ride my bike and Ezra couldn't anymore.

That just doesn't seem right.  He was ten.

Anyway, I rode out to Pojac Point today, which was nice, except for the brief period on one of the main roads when a Dunkin' Donuts tractor trailer seemed to feel I was in the way somehow.

Although being blasted into eternity by a truck full of coffee and baked goods would be a fitting end for me (I think the only thing more appropriate for a sedentary English professor would be to bleed out from a paper cut), I'm grateful he showed the proper restraint and let me go on my merry way.

I drive a lot myself, and I have noticed a couple of odd things over the past two weeks.  At one of the rest stops on the Garden State Parkway, there is a terrible blind spot as you walk out of the ladies room and into the food court.

I know this because I have collided with people twice, in precisely that spot, when exiting the ladies room.  I have to learn to navigate that corner differently.

I am also slightly amused by the fact that, when you get off the NJ Turnpike, there are signs alerting you to the fact that you are "leaving the NJ Turnpike" and you should now obey local speed limits.

I can't help but think that something must have spawned these signs.  Have New Jerseyans actually been unaware that they were no longer on the Turnpike and continued to do 80 mph on local roads?  Was this an excuse that local law enforcement heard regularly? ("Oh... I thought I was on the Turnpike...").

The Turnpike is such a entity unto itself, it seems hard to believe that you could actually not realize you're no longer on it.  It looks like nothing else in all of New Jersey.

I've been reading, of course.  I just finished Nancy Mairs' Waist-High in the World, her memoir about her life with MS and her experiences as a disabled woman (or, as she prefers to insist, "a cripple").  I'm still working on John Hockenberry's memoir as well--I got sidetracked and it slowed down a bit for me, but I'm determined to finish.

I'm very psyched because I have a copy of Leonardo da Vinci's Notebooks, complete with color photos.  Very cool.  I also have a biography of da Vinci's life, Charles Nicholl's Leonardo da Vinci: Flights of the Mind, that I'm going to work my way through.

My grant application was finished and submitted.  I have been entirely too good-natured and reliable at work, it seems, because I have been elected to be in charge of things.  No good can come of that.

And I'm teaching.  Always teaching.  And learning, always learning.

Life is good, in spite of itself sometimes, but always, life is good.

"In rivers, the water that you touch is the last of what has passed and the first of that which comes; so with present time." --Leonardo da Vinci

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Harvest Addiction

Well, it seems like only yesterday when I was waxing rhapsodic about how wonderful it would be to have a house full of fruits and vegetables I had grown myself.

And now, I have a house full of fruits and vegetables.  Between my own garden and my CSA, I've been inundated.

And yes, it's wonderful.  But it's keeping me terribly busy, because I have to freeze or can or otherwise accommodate everything that will spoil if I don't. 

I know of no way to eat 7 cantaloupes in a matter of days (and there are 2 more still out on the vine in my yard).

Who knew 10 (largely neglected) tomato plants would produce not dozens, but hundreds of tomatoes over the course of a single month?  I sure didn't.

At this point, I have about 6 quarts of sauce and 6 quarts of crushed tomatoes.  I switched to just making the crushed, because it was easier, and I needed a break.  Here's what I've been facing every week for the past month: 

One might wonder, though, why I went and bought nectarines (shown in the foreground) to make chutney, knowing I would also have to spend a couple of hours making sauce.

I can offer no reasonable explanation for my behavior.  The pusher at the farm stand mentioned that the nectarines were "really good," so I bought 15 of them.  That's all I remember.

I ended up face-down on my bed at midnight, after a six-hour canning-bender.  And when I woke up in the morning, I immediately began looking for my next fruit-fix.

I like to think that the peck of peaches I used to make a double batch of peach butter is somewhat self-explanatory.  And if you tried my ginger-lemon marmalade, you would never question my judgment again, on any subject. 

So I bought a storage freezer.  It had to happen.  Thank God the previous owners of my home had already installed floor-to-ceiling shelves in the basement.

I think I've crossed a line somewhere, and I'm afraid there's no going back.  While it's true that I have plenty of produce from my own garden, I have to admit that no one is actually forcing me to drive to North Scituate to go berry-picking all morning.

But this is what I came back with:

I think I may go again on Monday.

Oh, who am I kidding?  "I think I may go..."-- I'm going.  Unless it's raining really hard. 

(Please don't let it rain really hard.)

As I stood at the farmer's store-counter, wide-eyed and trembling like a crackhead watching a bubbling spoonful, I nervously asked when they'll have the cider ready for sale. 

All I could think was, "I have an awesome recipe for apple butter, but I can't use the store-bought cider, I just can't.  I need the good stuff.  I have to have the good stuff." 

At one point, I realized I was talking much too fast.  About apples.

Meanwhile, I've been haunting the aisles of every grocery store I can find, wondering why in God's name I can't find cranberries year-round.  How can I make cranberry mustard, if I can't find cranberries when I need them?

Not the dried kind--I need the fresh.

That's when I realized, I may have a problem of some kind.

My friends, however, assure me I'm fine.  As they pop open the lid on a jar of peach butter or glance at the raspberry jam and ask, "Is that ready yet?", they repeatedly insist that I don't have a problem, that my behavior seems perfectly normal.

But last night, I dreamt I was blanching eggplant.

If that's not the sign of a problem, I don't know what is.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Idle Musings on Politics

It's Labor Day, so I thought I'd labor to inform myself a bit more today about the various presidential candidates out there.  Since I already know quite a bit about the Democratic candidate for President in 2012 (been seeing him daily for quite a while now), I figured I'd better have a look-see at the Republican side as well, and then try to find out about everything else out there.

My inclinations are admittedly somewhat liberal, although I like to think that I try to temper those propensities with some good old-fashioned common sense.   

I'm actually an independent, and always have been.  So basically, I'm one of those sought-after people that everyone in all available parties is always allegedly trying to win over.

I think they're all going to have to try a bit harder.

I'm not playing hard-to-get.  Lately, I just find myself frequently thinking, "What the...?" every time I delve into the political arena.

I have friends who are Republicans, friends who are Democrats, friends who are Green, friends who are Socialists, friends who are Independent, and friends who are Libertarian.

We all get along just fine.  And they all offer interesting checks and balances on my own (often muddled) ideas and (occasionally ill-defined) opinions.  They give me a wealth of different perspectives on any single event.

I like that.

They don't spend time trying to "pray away" other people's homosexuality, or holding large-scale prayer meetings in general, although they do sometimes go to the church or the synagogue or the mosque.

They don't advocate jihad, under any circumstances. 

They are sometimes pro-choice, but not always, and even when they are anti-abortion, they acknowledge that there might be a medical necessity for it in certain instances.

They don't necessarily own guns, but when they do, they don't worry that the government is going to come seize their weaponry.  When I drop by unannounced, they don't greet me (or anyone else, for that matter) with the business-end of a rifle.

They aren't stockpiling flame-throwers in anticipation of The End of Days.

They pay taxes.  They don't own their own airplanes.  They don't mind security at the airport.

They have a reasonably cogent grasp of history and if they don't know something, they either admit it openly and shrug it off, or they look it up.  They don't just make things up to support their opinions. 

They don't mind immigration.  They like civil rights.  They don't seem to think we're being overrun by "illegals," and they realize that, in fact, you can't tell a legal citizen from an "illegal" just by looking at the person.

They have concerns about the economy, about overspending in government, about corruption, about foreign policy, about the stimulus (or the failure of the stimulus), about Wall Street, about banking reform.

On the Democratic side, Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize.  But we are now involved in more wars than we were when he took office.  He hasn't kept promises made about the environment and the economy, and he hasn't addressed issues of corporate accountability.

The deficit is beyond staggering.

I didn't like Bush, but I don't want to hear about him anymore.  If you take a job on the assumption that your predecessor was incompetent, you can't simply try to keep your job by insisting  that your predecessor was incompetent.

Wall Street is nowhere near anything like reform; Main Street still suffers. 

It is true that Obama has faced enormous obstacles; so have other Presidents.  That's why it's a tough job.  Obama bears the additional weight of being the first African-American President, though, and this isn't a small thing.  I don't think white Americans can possibly understand and recognize its significance, no matter how hard we try. 

Meanwhile, if I were a card-carrying Republican, I think I'd be contemplating the Japanese ritual of seppuku right about now.

You have an elderly ob-gyn who votes "no" on everything and who seems to think we should all just fend for ourselves, like everyone always used to do, because that's what the Constitution says.

You have yet another reasonably pretty Republican woman who looks, to my mind, a lot like the last reasonably pretty Republican woman who ran, but without the glasses.  She also brews a stronger cup of Tea.

You have a guy who publicly prays for The United States of America but who, on the issue of the incandescent light bulb, advocated nullification.  (He'd also like the state of Texas to secede, but only sometimes.)

You have a guy who was gone for over a decade, but now he's back.

You have the  former governor of Massachusetts.  Again.

I think leaders who want to appeal to a broad base of support need to inform themselves about the "other" histories and experiences that lie embedded within "the" American history and experience that we have all learned and paid attention to for so long.

We're a nation of multiple histories and many experiences.  We have to find a way to unify ourselves because of our diversities, not in spite of them.  I think we do that quite a bit in our own day-to-day lives.  I don't understand why we can't do it on a larger scale.

I think we need political leaders who can navigate contemporary settings and crises with a sense of the importance of context and nuance, and who can remain grounded in the moment-- not people who resort to arguments about history and precedent in order to emphasize the fact that they're "right."

I'm not sure any of the candidates out there right now have been able to do that to my liking.

So when it comes to my vote for 2012, right now, I'm still looking and listening and musing on the possibilities for the future.