Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Festivus Yes!

Yesterday I mounted a bare metal pole in our backyard. And then I realized - I have fulfilled one of the obligations of Festivus! The other celebratory task are to air my grievances (done incessantly in this blog in any case) and perform feats of strength. The feats of strength will be detailed in my next blog entry as soon as I figure out how to post images. Sneak Preview: It involves opossums.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Know Your Body

I've been getting back into running shape the last year now that my seemingly quarterly running injuries have stopped. For some background info, I ran the half-mile and mile in college and my body remembers how fast it used to run. This body memory is great when you are in shape and you can fine-tune your pace to such a degree that you can run a 200 meter repeat in 28 seconds, then 27.5, then 27. I am still amazed not only how fast I once ran, but how I could exquisitely calibrate my stride and pace to within a half second over 200 meters. It boggles me. But anyway, the memory of the training runs (not the 200 meter repeats, but the 6-8 mile runs) is still within my legs 20 years later. When I went out for a run for like the last 10 years, invariably I would run at the pace that I ran at when I was young, thin and in shape. But, unfortunately, I was old, 20-40 pounds heavier, and out of shape.

What did this get me? Never really getting in shape because I would get injured every 4 months or so. But last year I went to the Seattle Running Company and got a stride analysis done. Scott Jurek (who has won many Western States 100 mile races) put me on a treadmill, put pressure sensitive inserts into my shoes and videotaped me from above, the side and the front. It turns out that not only was my running memory making me go faster than I should, I was also incredibly overstriding (by about 25%!). The overstriding made each footstrike hit the ground with much more force than a normal stride. Scott said that my footstrike pressure was amongst the highest he's ever seen. Obviously this was why I was getting injured so often. By trying to run fast and with a very long stride my tendons/muscles were obviously saying "STOP, STOP! OR WE'LL BREAK!", which they often did.

The long stride was also a result of my track days. The half mile and mile is midway between the sprint and long-distance running - the natural stride for that pace is a long and loping stride and landing on the midfoot. But it isn't the right pace for distances longer than that. When you look at marathoners, their stride is almost a shuffle - the feet barely skimming the pavement in short albeit very quick steps.

So what did I do? Under Scott's advice, I concentrated on making short steps and going faster not by lengthening my stride, but by increasing turnover. It worked! I've been running the past year without getting injured! Ya-hoo! I've also made sure that I don't run two days in a row and bike on the other days.

But I've hit a plateau. I want to run faster in my 5K races and quick training runs, but there is a catch-22. If I run too much faster, my joints and legs really feel it. So what can I change? Well, my body weight! By losing twenty pounds (from 175 to 155) my joints and muscles should really be more resilient - and besides, by physics I will be able to run faster just by losing that weight. And here's the problem. When I went on a weight-loss program a few years ago I scrupulously counted my calories, weight-trained and cross-trained (well, until I got hurt :-). The weird thing was according to the calories I was eating and the calories I was expending - I should have been losing tons of weight, even more than the 188 pounds to 170 that I got. At the time I thought it was just faulty calorie counting on my part. But later I found better calorie counters and started weighing my food and not eating out so that I could really figure out how much I was eating - and I was rarely above 2000 calories for a day. For a normal male, eating 2000 calories a day would mean losing a few pounds a month. For me, it was either staying the same or increasing! Hmmm, seems like there is something odd with my body, I thought.

Then a few months ago I found about a metabolism analyzer that works by comparing the oxygen breathed in and the C02 breathed out while you are at rest and breathing into the apparatus. The BodyGem is manufactured by Healthetech and it measures your resting metabolic rate - how many calories your body would consume if you sat and watched TV all day. Many health clubs administer it as well as HealthSouth. I booked an appointment at HealthSouth and took the test. The problem with the test is that it takes a really firm seal of the device over your mouth and nose to get accuracy - the first two ten minute tests failed. So we switched to another device (a mask rather than the tube and nose plugs I used before). This one worked and the technician couldn't believe the result - it said that I needed 1440 calories a day. She had been doing this enough that she can usually peg by age, sex, and body type what the ballpark would be - for me she would have guessed 2200 calories a day. I told her that was why I was coming in - either my calorie counting has to really, really improve OR my metabolism is weird.

I took the test again and got exactly the same number, 1440 calories a day. This time the technician believed me, especially when I told her my experience - but I told her before taking the test and I'm sure she thought "Yeah, whatever, that's what they all say, we'll see..." Oddly, I felt a huge relief - I was doing everything right, it was just that I don't need as many calories as most men (like say 2/3 as many).

With this information now I am really losing weight, from 172 in mid October to 163 now (with a big Thanksgiving weekend that was not counted at all and I ate a lot). I should hit 155 by February. If I don't exercise, my calories for a day to lose weight are 1350 - and that is really tough to do. So I find that I am exercising a lot more just so I can eat more - which works out great, because I'm expending calories and getting fit and while I'm exercising, that is also time I'm not getting hungry and eating. I basically eat anything I want, no Atkins foolishness for me, I just make sure that I count it. In fact this week I did something that I thought of this summer but wasn't in shape to do it. I biked to work on Monday as usual, but brought a change of clothes and lunch for today (I don't work on Tuesdays). On Monday night I ran home from downtown Seattle to Ballard (about 7 miles). Then this morning I ran in and will bike home. All told that is about 1100 calories expended for the day!

So what's the point in this post? It's in the title - Know Your Body and don't be afraid to get informed advice from people who know! If I hadn't seen the stride specialist or had my metabolism measured, I would be a lot more out of shape, fatter and slower than I am now and will be in the future.

America Suddenly Safer!

Wow, all it took was electing George Bush and the Homeland Security Dept. has stopped issuing weekly warnings like it did for the two months before Nov. 2. Those guys in the White House must be quashing terrorism like nobody's business.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Support Our Troops

Let us examine the imperative "Support Our Troops". First of all let us examine the medium of the discourse. Invariably it is never in one-on-one situations, i.e. person A to person B. If somebody said "Support Our Troops" to me, I would say "Wasn't I?" or "How?" and then that would be the end of the conversation, because all they could say back is "Support Our Troops!" perhaps with a little bit more added emphasis, which ends up being a tautology. Instead of interpersonal discourse, the usual means of communication of this message is via bumper stickers, weird magnetic ribbons (!), buttons etc., where it functions as a signifier of the person's views rather than an exhortation to modify behavior.

A likely interpretation of the person's views who has a signifier device with "Support Our Troops" is that in fact they are in favor of the war in Iraq - which is an entirely different situation. A person could be in favor of supporting our troops (the question of how I will get to in a minute) and not be in favor of the war in Iraq. A person conceivably could be against supporting our troops and in favor of the war in Iraq. (This person is demonstrably our President who has cut Veterans Administration funding, has cut hazard pay, has extended stays of duty etc. all these are facts in favor of the notion that he does not support our troops in many meaningful ways - beyond the fact that he sent them into a hellhole of his own making.) However, it seems inefficient to say one thing to mean another - but of course, that happens all the time - for instance, "Support State's Rights" historically has meant, "Deny Civil Rights". What happens when a message that results in the same end has a more benign apparent meaning, then it can be more easily adopted because it functions at a remove from the base issue. I believe that this is happening with "Support Our Troops" - it functionally means "I Want War in Iraq And You Should Too", but for some reason this may be in bad taste plastered on the back of your white with gold trim Escalade.

The other function that displaying "Support Our Troops" serves is as a tribal signifier. People have always perceived a desire to belong to a group. They also like to belong to a group when there is a perceived enemy. Is there an enemy in this case, an enemy that the "Support our Troops?" group wishes to oppose? Is it the Iraqi insurgents that the soldiers are now fighting? If so, and I'm no media or propaganda expert, but I think that popping a magnetic yellow ribbon sticker on your minivan isn't likely to convince your basic Iraqi insurgent. Especially if they read "Our" as in "My Fellow Iraqi Insurgents". And here is where the key word, in this situation lies - in the word "Our". Ostensibly it means "America's" as in "Support America's Troops" and it certainly could and should be read that way. But I think it has another meaning - a political meaning that can be interpreted as "These troops are representing those of us presently in Power who chose to fight this war. If you are against this war, you are against 'Our' troops - with 'Our' now meaning the armed representatives of the Neo-Conservative regime." Read this way, "Our" does not mean the collective whole of every citizen of the United States, but rather those who have seized power in the United States and those who agree with those in Power. And it doesn't take a whole lot of imagination that this semantical game can be meant as a subtle clue that in moving the message from the geographically distant "Support the War in Iraq" to the locally significant "Support Our Troops" the war is being brought home to those and against those who opposed the war. In other words, "Support Our Troops" or they will be used against you.

Now that I've taken a look at the subtle and not so subtle messages that are signified by "Support Our Troops", let's take a look at it literally. I am being told to "Support Our Troops". Well then, how will I "Support My Troops"? Off the top of my head I will try to list the kinds of support possible: Spiritual, Financial, Parental, Life Support, Fan Support and the "I'll take your whining and pathetic calls even if its three in the morning and I've got a big day tomorrow" Support.

Spiritual Support: By that I guess that this would be like praying. Disregarding the fact that I'm not religious and that my only God is Neil Young and he won't take my calls, most religions frown on intercessory praying of the type "Dear God, I want a pony for Christmas". That just gives God the leeway to do his inscrutable "work in mysterious ways" shtick and that is just too much of a loophole. Proper praying should be more of the "I hope it is in your divine plans that I receive a pony on Christmas. And by the way, you're the best" kind. And, really, what is the point of that? He's already got it in his divine head what he's going to do, I'm just a fly buzzing around taking up his precious time - and if there is a God, I don't want to be known as a stalker.

Financial Support: Here is where it really gets interesting in the paradoxes of conservative thinking and government. It takes a lot of money to wage a war. This money is not raised by bake sales. This money is raised by taxes by the government. Now conservatives hate taxes more than anything in the universe save perhaps Jane Fonda. I solemnly believe that if every conservative was presented with the choice of 1) Lower taxes by 10% OR 2) Forcing Jane Fonda to leave the country and live in the paddy villages of Vietnam then they would choose 2) in a heartbeat. But I digress. Given that Jane Fonda is not hut shopping in Hanoi, then we are faced with a conundrum. Conservatives hate taxes. Conservatives want war. War takes money. War means taxes. But conservatives hate taxes. (And then Landru's head explodes and then the planet is free! Yay, Captain Kirk, Yay!). So anyway. To support our troops financially, that means I should pay my taxes - but it is un-American to pay my taxes. Am I a better American by paying my taxes (and supporting our troops) or a better American by not paying my taxes (like those who support Bush's tax cuts?). Or should I just send money to a random soldier? If so, shouldn't the bumper sticker say "Support PFC Gardner by sending money to this PO Box..."? And how do I know that the Iraq War is not just a get-rich-quick scheme for Private Gardner (or Private Halliburton or Private Bechtel or Private ChevronTexaco?)

Parental Support: I don't have any kids in the Iraq War. And my cats aren't going either. And I'm not adopting any soldiers either. So in this respect, I will not give support (parental) to the troops. Call me un-American. However, I could be talked into accompanying them to R-Rated movies if there are any under 18 troops who need adult supervision. Except they have to buy the popcorn. As General Sherman said, "War isn't a bag of popcorn".

Life Support: I heartily encourage any troop on Life Support to stay on Life Support. Unless they have a "Right to Die" living will. Then I support their getting off Life Support.

Fan Support: As in "I support the Knicks". Actually, I always go for the underdog in everything so they are asking me to betray my principles. But in this case, if the battle in Fallujah was at SafeCo Field, I would wave my "US Army" pennant at the appropriate times, do the Wave during lulls in the action and hope I'm not getting beer when something exciting happens. But I don't see going on any road trips to support the Army team - I think Iraqi insurgents are a bit tougher than English soccer hooligans. So, I will "Support Our Troops" at home games but not on the road.

The "I'll take your whining and pathetic calls even if it's three in the morning and I've got a big day tomorrow because you were my college roommate for one goddamn semester" Support. I pledge to "Support Any Troops Pathetically Whining Even If It's 3AM And I've Got A Big Day Tomorrow Because They Were My College Roommate For One Goddamn Semester". Because, ya know, when you get down to it, weren't we all at one time the pathetically, whining college roommate for one semester who calls people up at 3AM and ask for their support? You know what I'm sayin', it's the least I can do.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Winner by a Nose

The last month I've been participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) - where the task is to write a 50,000 word novel in the month of November. You don't really get anything when you win except for the tremendous sense of relief when you are done. Which is bit like having a telephone booth dropped on you and then saying "Boy, that feels good" when it gets lifted off.

I did this two years ago and floundered for the whole month - I wrote for a week and could not bear writing anymore on what I was writing. But since I had written so many words on it I had to recycle it as an excerpt of the novel that my new novel's main character was writing. It was her first novel so it could be very bad. This second novel wasn't much better, but at least I could finish it.

This time the novel writing was fun. I had an idea from the start and knew how it was going to end - so it was a matter of filling in the stories between the beginning and the end. The prose itself was very, very pedestrian - one would say boring - I think there was one sentence in the whole 50,000 words that I was proud of. But stuff happened, a very simple plot was advanced and four very different characters were written - how I would expect to know anything about a Hawaiian girl in the 1940's, a Hungarian engineer in the 1970's and a Detroit record producer in the 1970's I can't say - but I thought I did. And what I didn't know I just made up.

Like last time, I emerge from this ordeal with a tremendous respect for those people who can write interesting sentences, paragraphs and stories - because I consistently failed at all of these. If I had more time to spend on it, I could craft them a little bit better - but the point with NaNoWriMo is not too worry about the writing and just do it and I'm glad I did.