The Casual Blog

Tag: swimming

A swimming milestone, Courage-ous soccer, deconstruction in our neighborhood, gun idealists, and nuke idealists

Looking south over Capital Boulevard at downtown Raleigh.  Our building is the big one one on the upper right.

I had the last of my eight swim lessons last week, and my teacher Eric seemed pleased with my progress.  My primary objective was learning the butterfly stroke, which I did, though Eric said it looked like I still had to think about it, which was true enough.  He said the cure for that was practice.  On freestyle, we talked about gliding and breathing, and for backstroke, we focused on keeping the head and chest up.  He liked my breaststroke!  These last weeks working on better swimming have been energizing, and I look forward to many more good laps.  

On Sunday afternoon, we got out to see our N.C. Courage play the Chicago Red Stars in the semi-finals of the National Women’s Soccer League.  These ladies can play!  The Courage had more attacks, but Chicago played almost flawless defense, and the game was scoreless through 89 minutes.  In the 90th minute, a hard, low shot from the Courage’s Denise O’Sullivan  found the net.  The crowd went wild!  The Courage, in their first season here, will be playing in the championship game in Orlando against the Portland Thorns.   

 In our neighborhood there’s a tremendous amount of construction going on, and also deconstruction.  Just a couple of blocks to the north and east, several buildings have been taken down in the last couple of weeks, including Finch’s Restaurant and my favorite photo gear and advice spot, Peace Camera (whose business is now located at Quail Corners Shopping Center).  The destroyed buildings had no particular architectural distinction, and it’s sort of exciting to see things changing and look forward to new developments, though at the moment it’s a wasteland.   I took these pictures on Saturday morning with the Tiller Quadcopter.     

The horrifying mass shooting in Las Vegas happened in front of the Luxor, where I stayed last year.  The national press mostly focused on the killer’s motivation, which remains unknown.  I read a couple of interesting pieces on the more important question of why a lot of Americans are passionate about guns and oppose all gun regulation.  Kurt Andersen’s piece in Slate is brilliant.  Andersen acknowledges that shooting guns can be a perfectly fine recreation, but also shows the powerful fantasies and fears that drive gun activists to extreme positions.  Somehow a significant number of people came to believe that they need a lot of powerful guns because they’re likely to be needed to fight the government that wants to take their guns.  

I also thought David Brooks’s latest NY Times  column on guns was thought-provoking.  Brooks views love of guns not so much as a product of fear or fantasy as of identity politics.  People who oppose gun regulation are demonstrating solidarity with a matrix of “conservative” issues, such as opposing abortion and immigration.  He suggests we need to end the culture wars if we want to address the gun issue.  That’s a tall order.  In the meantime, if we hear something that sounds like bullets, let’s be prepared to hit the deck.

Speaking of perils, I’d like to congratulate this year’s winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and the Nobel Committee for recognizing them:  the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN).   Don’t feel bad if you missed the announcement of this prestigious prize, which the NY Times buried on page A10.  The risk of nuclear accidents and nuclear conflicts is so enormous that it’s almost impossible to think about, and so we generally don’t.  The situation is dire, but it isn’t hopeless.  Indeed,  ratification of the new UN treaty banning nuclear weapons is in process in at least 53 nations.  Kudos to the ICAN for continuing to sound the alarm.  

Getting some lessons

On Saturday morning I had another swimming lesson with Eric and worked more on my butterfly stroke.  It’s a very different way of moving through the water, and not easy to get your head around.  It surely does get the heart rate up.  I can now do intervals of 50 meters without being disqualified or dying, which I consider an accomplishment.

While figuring out the butterfly, I’ve been working with Eric on refining my freestyle, breast stroke, and back stroke, which are all by comparison quite relaxing.  It recently came into focus that swimming has always been for me a struggle  — at bottom, a thing to do to keep from drowning.  And now, finally, through the struggle to be a butterflyer,  I’m finding it can actually be fun.  

I’m sure I couldn’t have gotten even this far without a skilled teacher helping me.  I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating:  if you want to learn a complex skill,  find a good teacher.  There’s no substitute for having a guide in difficult unknown terrain.  You may get to where you’re going without a teacher — now and again people do — but you’d have to be more-than-ordinarily lucky.   

For this reason, I’ve continued getting lessons on the golf swing from Jessica at GolfTec, and had another this weekend.  We talked about hips, shoulders, and wrists.  Jessica knows a lot about the swing, and she also has helpful technology tools — sensors, computers, and video. I’m seeing improvement, both in my measurements and in how the ball flies, and I understand a lot more about how a good golf swing works.  But it’s hard to change ingrained habits.  When you fix one problem, you may create another.  I’m starting to understand that although there is improvement, there is never perfection.

I was hoping to also have a piano lesson this weekend, but Olga said she was too busy.  With a new baby, a full teaching load, and concert commitments, that’s understandable, but I was disappointed.  Among other things, I’ve been working on Chopin’s famous Nocturne in B flat minor, Op. 9, No. 1, and I’m eager to get her take on it.  Recently I had a minor epiphany that there would never be a point when her response to my playing would be:  that’s perfect, and there’s no way it could be improved.  In the great classical tradition there are always new possibilities and new things to be explored.  

A family visit, defending against motivated reasoning, Mozart’s Figaro, and swimming

Sally’s flowers, with snow falling on Sunday morning

The weather in Raleigh was sunny and mild this week, and the trees started to leaf in.  I was looking forward to some outdoor activities for the weekend, but the temperature dropped into the thirties on Saturday, and on Sunday there was light snow.  

Jocelyn came down from New York to visit us this weekend, along with her friend Kyle.  Gabe and our granddog, Mowgli, also stopped by.  We had some of Sally’s good cooking and some lively conversation.  Among other topics, we considered what’s happening to journalism, including fake news, imaginary fake news, and partisan attacks on media, and how it is possible to be both highly intelligent and deeply deluded.

Jocelyn, ready for dinner

I told them about a podcast by Julia Galef called Rationally Speaking  in which Galef talks with intellectuals about their ideas.  She likes a good argument, and keeps things popping along.  I find her openness to new ideas and curiosity to be really cheering and inspiring.  

Kyle, ready for dinner

This week I came upon a talk Galef did last year at a Tedx conference titled Why You Think You’re Right, Even When You’re Wrong, in which she gives a good way of thinking about  motivated reasoning and how to do less of it.  She analogizes different thought habits to two types of army soldiers:  regular fighters and scouts. 

She summed up the idea here:

Our judgment is strongly influenced, unconsciously, by which side we want to win. And this is ubiquitous. This shapes how we think about our health, our relationships, how we decide how to vote, what we consider fair or ethical. What’s most scary to me about motivated reasoning or soldier mindset, is how unconscious it is. We can think we’re being objective and fair-minded and still wind up ruining the life of an innocent man. …

So  . . . what I call “scout mindset” [is] the drive not to make one idea win or another lose, but just to see what’s really there as honestly and accurately as you can, even if it’s not pretty or convenient or pleasant. This mindset is what I’m personally passionate about. And I’ve spent the last few years examining and trying to figure out what causes scout mindset. Why are some people, sometimes at least, able to cut through their own prejudices and biases and motivations and just try to see the facts and the evidence as objectively as they can?

And the answer is emotional. So, just as soldier mindset is rooted in emotions like defensiveness or tribalism, scout mindset is, too. It’s just rooted in different emotions.For example, scouts are curious. They’re more likely to say they feel pleasure when they learn new information or an itch to solve a puzzle. They’re more likely to feel intrigued when they encounter something that contradicts their expectations. Scouts also have different values. They’re more likely to say they think it’s virtuous to test your own beliefs,and they’re less likely to say that someone who changes his mind seems weak. And above all, scouts are grounded, which means their self-worth as a person isn’t tied to how right or wrong they are about any particular topic. So they can believe that capital punishment works. If studies come out showing that it doesn’t, they can say, “Huh. Looks like I might be wrong. Doesn’t mean I’m bad or stupid.”

Galef comes at some of these same issues from a different direction in a short (5:41) YouTube talk titled How to Want to Change Your Mind.  Here again, she proposes looking at reasoning as having an emotional component that needs to be addressed in the interest of better thinking.  We tend to get defensive and closed off when we feel threatened, and Galef has some helpful tips for counteracting that tendency.  For example, she suggests picturing your opinion as separate from your self.  She also notes that it’s possible to get comfortable and even pleased to discover your belief is mistaken — because you’ve just gotten wiser!

Gabe with beer

The Marriage of Figaro

Last week we saw and heard The Marriage of Figaro by W.A. Mozart and G. de Ponti in a performance by the N.C. Opera.  It was sublime.  The music all by itself is brilliant, well worth listening to even without benefit of story.  The story is essentially a comedy of love, but a unique and strange one — startlingly dark and cynical by moments, but also poignant by moments.

The leads all sang beautifully, and just as important, created believably human characters with their acting.  Jennifer Cherrest as Susanna brought wry saucy humor along with her tonal strength and range.  She had good chemistry with Figaro, her betrothed, the very fine Tyler Simpson.  Other standouts included D’Ana Lombard as Countess Almaviva, who had a lovely voice and musicality.  Cherubino (Jennifer Panara) was wonderfully comic.

Swimming again

Earlier in the week, I added back some lap swimming to my exercise regime.  I’d gotten out of the habit when the Pullen Park pool closed for repairs and then quit having morning hours.  The gym I joined earlier this year has a small lap pool, but I found it hard to get motivated to head toward the water in the early hours, when it’s cold and dark.  But once back in,  I quickly remembered what I like about swimming.  The water feels good on your skin.  There’s a rhythm to it, and quietness.

Our granddog, Mowgli

Coping with pollen, trying Pilates, and news on how to eat to reduce cancer risks

Spring is definitely here, greener and greener and blossoms everywhere. Also here is a cloud of heavy yellow pine pollen settling on cars, including mine. The pollen surprises me every year. Last year it arrived the day after I got Clara detailed, and the pollen turned the beautiful dark blue car yellow. This year, I resolved to get the big spring car cleaning done well in advance of pine pollination, and got the full treatment from Dave of A to Z Auto Detailing. She looked great, until the pollen arrived, two days later. Pine trees, stop trying to impregnate Clara!

It was a homey week — no travel — and I got up early each day and had a work out done by 7:00 or 7:30. On Monday, I did intervals on the elliptical machine on the roof and then some weights and stretching. Tuesday I did forty minutes on the elliptical machine first, then went across the street to early bird yoga at Blue Lotus. Wednesday I went to Pullen Park pool and swam intervals and then stretched. A lifeguard complimented my stretch routine (though not, I noted, my swimming).

Friday I went to O2 gym at Seaboard Station for an hour-long RPM spinning class. Spinning means riding an exercise bike to loud music at the intensity the teacher directs, and it is much more demanding than it sounds. The teacher Friday was a substitute who was six months pregnant. At the start, I felt fairly confident that I could keep up with her, but in fact she kicked my butt. I predict her baby will be a champion.

Backing up, Thursday I had my third Pilates lesson at Evolve with Julee. What is Pilates? My friend Chuck and others had recommended it, but I found it hard to get a clear description. But I felt ready to try some new type of exercising. It’s good to shake things up from time to time. Meredith, my wonderful massage therapist, turned out to be a big Pilates fan, and she recommended Julee, whom she regarded as highly gifted.

Pilates is named for its inventor, a German named Joseph Pilates, who came up with his system early in the twentieth century. It involves various contraptions that he invented. It entails a particular way of breathing, of focusing on the core area, and of contracting various muscles. Yes, it could be yet another nutty exercise fad, but there seems to be more to it. I say this based on (1) my very limited experience trying it and (2) observing that Pilates students are exceptionally fit looking.

It seems to involve a sophisticated understanding of human biology, and as an experience it nicely balances the physical and the mental. As Julee has introduced me to the various exercises, I’ve found myself focusing hard on just one thing: the movements. I’m just starting to get my bearings on the system, but so far it seems stimulating in a healthy, fun way.

In other health news, there was an interesting news story this week on the health effects of aspirin. Two significant new British studies found that a daily dose of aspirin was associated with large reductions in cancer. One study found a 46% reduction in colon, lung, and prostate cancer, and both found large reductions in other common cancers. That’s huge!

I’d taken a baby aspirin for some time to reduce the risk of a heart attack, but quit after a recent study indicated that for healthy patients the heart benefits may not outweigh the risks. I was sufficiently impressed by the new studies to dig out my aspirin bottle and start taking the little pill again.

Also noteworthy is a NY Times report of a new study that eating red meat is associated with death from heart disease and cancer, with the risk increasing with increased consumption of meat. The study involved 121,342 men and women and data from 1980 to 2006. Each increase of meat consumption by three ounces increased the risk of death from cancer by 10 percent and death from cardiovascular disease by 16 percent. It sounds like, if the norm is six ounces of meat a day, eating no meat would reduce your cancer risk by 20 percent and cardiovascular disease by 32 percent. That’s also huge!

For some reason, the Times did not put this on the front page, or even as the lead item in the health section, but rather buried it deep in general news section. A new drug that dramatically reduced cancer and heart disease would surely have been treated as a major news event. I’d think this new study would be something most people would want to think about.

Of course, people generally don’t like hearing that their ingrained habits are unhealthy, and tune out news that causes dissonance, so I will leave the subject for now. On a more cheerful note, I will just mention that I greatly enjoyed listening to some Haydn symphonies on my iPod touch while exercising and doing other activities this week. I had sort of forgotten how wonderful they are. I was listening to numbers 100, 101, 103, and 104. Here’s the second movement of number 100. My recording, which I prefer, is by Christopher Hogwood directing the Academy of Ancient Music (on period instruments).

Good sports

Last Friday I reached my latest swimming objective: 1500 meters of freestyle without a break. This was for me, a considerable achievement, which not so long ago I found almost impossible to imagine. I’ve been doing a 1500-meter workout for some months, but with 30 second breaks at various intervals. A few weeks back, I decided to work towards doing the distance non-stop. I began gradually reducing the breaks, from 10, to 5, to 3, to 2, and finally to 1. Then, finally, none.

On Saturday morning I did an hour and a half of Vinyasa yoga in an open level class at Blue Lotus with Yvonne. That’s a lot of yoga! I tried very hard not to look at my watch, but once I was well drenched with sweat, I checked to see if we were almost done — and we were only half way through. I still can’t figure out at all why this strange system works, but it does: I felt absolutely wonderful at the end.

That evening Sally and I went out to Zebulon to see the Carolina Mudcats play the Mobile Baybears. It was a warm but not sweltering night, and we had great seats — a few yards beyond first base on the first row, close to the visitor’s bull pen. From this close in view, we could see how fast they run, how hard they throw, and generally how amazing they are. This is AA-level baseball, where the players are serious contenders for the big leagues. The pitchers were throwing fastballs in the mid-90s, and I don’t think I saw any errors. There is something really pleasing about seeing a real life high-quality baseball game on an August evening. The competitive drama is involving, but the whole experience is also relaxing. It’s good to have a beer and slice of pizza, listen to the buzz of the crowd, the organ, the announcer, the crack of the bat. It was a good, close game, which Mobile won 2-1.

When I stop to think about it, it amazes me how much I’ve changed with regard to physical activity and sports in recent years. As a kid, I played the usual sports, and used to imagine that I would play well one day, but in competition I never managed a level much higher than average or worse. And gradually, I came to think of myself as a non-athlete and sports-phobe. Particularly during adolescence, it was annoying to see the social advantages (in particular, success with girls) that accrued to the gifted athletes. I looked forward to adulthood as a time in which sports and athletics would be no longer relevant, and my lack of any particular athletic giftedness would cease to be a liability.

In retrospect, I can see this was partly a problem of lack of time. Part of the problem with athletic skills and kids is the same as with academic skills, which is that kids learn at different rates. This is kind of obvious, but schools are not set up to address accommodate different rates of learning. Instead, a class is given a set time in which everyone must master a set of skills, and those who are slower are shamed and punished. And those slower kids eventually figure out how to avoid the painful activity, perhaps by dropping out. While I was generally one of the quicker kids at mastering schoolwork skills, I was not so in sports. Because of my July birthday, I was always one of the youngest in the class, which was part of the problem. But of course, I had no idea of that issue at the time. I just knew that my relative lack of success in sports was somewhat painful. Like other slow learners, I eventually opted out.

Fortunately, over the years, I’ve found that the level of mastery needed for enjoyment of many activities activity is not impossibly high and with no tight time deadlines I’ve reached that level in some things I really enjoy. This has been the trajectory with swimming, skiing and golf, and I’m starting to see the outlines of that level of accomplishment for yoga. Slow and steady wins the race.

Dropping some weight and hitting some golf balls

I came back from the long weekend in St. Croix five pounds heavier than when I left.  It’s difficult to account for the sudden gain, since I was reasonably careful about not over eating and held the veggie line against temptation.  Perhaps our very pleasant seaside daiquiris, pina coladas, and pain killers had something to do with it.  In any case, I managed to shed all the extra weight this week with some vigorous early morning workouts, and as of this morning was at my fighting weight of 160.

Earlier this week the NY Times published a piece by Gretchen Reynolds on the positive effects of exercise on the brain.  http://tiny.cc/deokh  Studies with rats show the exercising rats with much superior brain functioning (“little rat geniuses”), and the apparent interaction of BMP and Noggin leading to increased production of neurons.  I can believe it.   When I first began regular exercise in my college years, I viewed it as primarily benefitting the cardiovascular system, but especially in recent times, I find that I feel duller if I can’t find time for a workout.

We’ve had a record-setting heat wave this week.  This Saturday morning, I was hoping to get an outdoor swim at Lifetime Fitness, but unfortunately the outdoor lanes were all taken when I got there at 6:40.  I made do with the indoor pool for 60 laps, then 15 minutes of yoga in the sauna, then 5 minutes in the steam room (whew!).  Then I headed over to Lake Jordan to drive my sports car on some backwoods roads.

I ended up at the end of a gravel road off US 64 at a down-on-its-luck golf range with a old barn on one side.  There was no one there when I showed up, but a guy emerged from a small adjacent house and got me a bucket of golf balls.  He couldn’t take a credit card, and couldn’t break a $20, but he agreed to let me have a $9 bucket for all the smaller bills I had ($7).  Then he drove off, and left me alone to practice.   The grass was very long, and so I was effectively working on shots from the rough.  A good thing to practice, though not so fun.  I got sweaty and tired, and was happy to get to the bottom of the bucket and see the last ball fly away.