Monday, November 29, 2010

You Can Have Your Willpower, I’m Baking More Cookies

Isn’t it interesting how sometimes seemingly disparate parts of our lives intersect one another, like a Venn diagram? Things that we probably would have never connected come together and offer clarity where before there had been only obfuscation. This has happened for me recently with the surprisingly overlapping topics of a children’s story, my failed efforts in the past to lose weight through dieting, and my recent experience with the Feldenkrais method. At the center of all that is the misguided notion of willpower.

I'll begin with the children’s story.
When our kids were little, we used to read the Frog and Toad books by Arnold Lobel. The stories are always about the friendship between the title characters, as they confront very ordinary problems together, things that we all deal with every day, and so gently encourage us to be more forgiving of our (and others’) shortcomings.

One of my favorite Frog and Toad stories is the one called “Cookies.” In it, Toad bakes cookies and brings them to Frog’s house to share with him, and soon they find themselves eating and eating the cookies, seemingly unable to stop. “We need will power,” says Frog.

“What is will power?” asks Toad.

“Will power is trying hard not to do something that you really want to do,” says Frog.

So they try to stop themselves from eating all the cookies by putting them in a box, tying string around the box, and putting it up on a high shelf; but each time, they realize that they can still get at the cookies to eat them if they want to. So, finally, Frog takes the cookies outside and feeds them all to the birds. Toad laments that all the cookies are gone, but Frog assures him, “Yes, but we have lots and lots of will power.”

“You may keep it all, Frog,” says Toad. “I am going home now to bake a cake.”

I always thought that story offered a pretty good explanation for why dieting doesn’t work! Who can sustain that constant effort? I know I never could. I have lost many pounds by using willpower to restrict my calorie intake, but eventually I got tired of the effort and slid back into old habits, and always ended up gaining back more than I lost. I quit dieting a long time ago, and eventually quit gaining weight. In fact, my current weight is about 30 pounds less than it was two years ago, despite my refusal to restrict my calories through dieting.

I thought about that story recently when the topic of willpower came up at a Feldenkrais lesson. My Feldenkrais explorations have expanded beyond my knee to developing an awareness of how I carry tension in my back and shoulders and neck. And whereas I pretty quickly got the hang of relaxing my back whenever I notice that I’m arching it, and so have largely eliminated the low-back pain that used to plague me, I was having trouble doing the same with my shoulders.

“When I notice I’m arching my back, I can relax it into a better posture,” I explained to Nick Strauss-Klein, my teacher. “But I find I have to push my shoulders down.” He responded with a knowing nod, like he encounters this sort of thing all the time. The rest of that lesson focused on my neck and shoulders, and one of the things he did was ask me if I could let my neck be long, rather than direct my attention to my shoulders.

That helped a lot, and although the hunched-shoulder posture is still a very persistent demon of mine, I at least have a more successful strategy for addressing it. When I reported this back to Nick, he said something that made me think of the Frog and Toad story—in essence (I didn't write down his exact words, of course):

“Moshe Feldenkrais said that whenever we try to make changes through effort and willpower, it’s much harder to sustain.”

Frog and Toad went to a lot of effort to try to not do something, and I think that’s a pretty good definition of willpower. They couldn’t sustain it, and neither could I. But just as the two friends couldn’t force themselves to be satisfied with the cookies they had already eaten, I can’t force my shoulders to relax.

A dieting mindset is one that focuses our attention on what and how much we should not be eating: Cookies and other sweets are taboo, as are high-fat foods like whole milk and butter. I always found that it encouraged me to obsess over those kinds of foods, which made me want them more—you know, the lure of the forbidden—and to feel bad about eating them, and weary from the internal battle over trying hard not to do something I wanted to do, or thought I wanted to do. So, just like Frog and Toad, I kept eating more, seeking the pleasure that the cookies are supposed to provide, and faulting myself for lacking the willpower to resist eating them. I got all of the calories and none of the pleasure.

When I quit dieting, I stopped focusing my attention on what I thought I shouldn’t eat. And when I quit choosing low-fat versions of foods that are naturally high in fat (like dairy products), I also stopped feeling the urge to eat more and more in pursuit of the elusive pleasure that whole foods naturally provide. Even though I’m not dieting these days, and I’m including high-fat foods as a regular part of what I eat, I’m consuming fewer calories while at the same time feeling more satisfied.

And that’s almost enough to make me relax my shoulders. Almost.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Ancestor Hunger

Sometimes something I'm doing triggers thoughts of relatives long gone, and I find myself missing them. It's not so much a memory as a longing to share this experience with them, because there's something we have in common in that moment, an affinity for a particular activity.

When I discover a new coffee shop, I think of my Grandma Clausen and how much she would have enjoyed it. How she would have looked around and smiled and said, "Isn't this nice." She would have appreciated the proliferation of coffee shops, which really started after her death (in 1991). She would have understood them as places of conviviality, and I think she would have liked them all, and the way that they reflect their various communities. I often wish I could take her around to all the coffee shops I like and share them with her.

It's when I'm doing something inventive that my dad enters my head. Especially when it's something  creative and a little bit quirky, something that seems in the moment brilliantly useful, but probably only to me. Yesterday, I was clearing my desk because I needed to spread out the proofreading I was doing (due this morning), and there were a few business cards I didn't know what to do with, and pretty soon I was cutting and folding and creating a little mini portfolio to hold business cards. I even fished some cardstock scraps out of my recycling bag and cut them and glued them on as covers. And as I was making this little scrappy portfolio, I was thinking what a good idea this is and how I should make some for my Etsy page (only out of more attractive paper). All this, while I should have been proofreading!

And this morning when I was looking at the little portfolio, I thought, Dad would have liked this, and I could imagine myself sitting at the table with him, figuring stuff like this out together. And I actually felt sad and missed my dad in that moment.

I know, they are still with me in these ways that I have just described. There's a piece of each of them in me, I know that. But it's in those moments when I feel their presence that I miss them.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Rediscovering the Joy of Reading Aloud

About a week ago, Craig and I drove to Albion, Michigan, to visit our daughter, Nora, who's attending college there. It's about a ten-hour drive in the best of conditions, easily 11 or more depending on the whims of Chicago traffic.

When we drove Nora out in August, we brought along an audio book (one of the Artemis Fowls), but we didn't have one this time, so I brought instead a thick novel—Driftless, by David Rhodes—that I had bought from the publisher, Milkweed, at the Twin Cities Book Festival in October. I selected that one largely because it is set in southwestern Wisconsin (in the driftless region), and since we would be driving through Wisconsin for a good portion of our trip, it seemed apropos. I had also read the foreword and liked how the author strung his words together.

So I read aloud as Craig drove, for as long as my voice and the fading daylight made it possible, with several long breaks to rest my voice as we listened to one of our music CDs. By the time we returned to Minneapolis, I had made it through about half the book. After we got home, Craig took up the role of reader, and over several evenings this past week, followed the book through to its conclusion.

It's a terrific story (many stories and one story, skillfully interwoven) and I hope to get Craig to write a review of the book for the Minneapolis Observer blog soon, but right now I just wanted to tell you about the experience of sharing a book by reading it aloud to each other. It's so entirely different than reading silently, separately. For one thing, it drew our attention to the rhythm and sound of the words, and with a writer as skilled as Rhodes, that's especially delicious. Playing the role alternately of listener and of reader further enhanced this aspect.

Second, it led to an ongoing discussion about the book, and a very different sort of discussion than one you might have with a book club or even with your partner when each of you reads a book separately. It's very immediate, and we were always at exactly the same place in the story, so neither had to worry about giving something away that might spoil the other's experience of the book; and these pauses to discuss the book informed our inferences when we continued. And we've continued to talk about the book over the last couple of days since we finished it.

When our kids were little, we used to read aloud to them, of course, as all parents do. And I remember some discussion with other parents about the joys of reading aloud and how you never grow too old to enjoy being read to. And during that time, as well as before we had children, we used to read to each other once in a while—usually essays or poetry, though, not so much whole novels.

But somewhere along the way of raising children and the ordinary demands of life, we stopped doing that. And I don't think it would have occurred to me to resume the practice if I hadn't been looking for something to pass the hours on that long drive to Michigan and back. But now that we've shared a book in this way, we both agree we want to do it again soon.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Walking the Dog

I've been taking Feldenkrais lessons since spring, but it looks like I haven't yet written about it on this blog. It has made a big difference in my life, and it's high time I said something about it. For one thing, it has allowed me to resume my daily walks with our dog, Brigit, a routine I had given up sometime last winter, when I realized it was making my bad right knee worse, and frequently had me limping painfully by the end of the walk. The dog is especially happy that we have resumed these walks, since nobody really picked up the slack when I left off.

Feldenkrais is described by its practitioners, who call themselves teachers, as "somatic education." I first learned about the method about a year ago from an article in the magazine my husband edits, but wasn't able to find a local practitioner until last spring, when a Google search lead me to Nick Strauss-Klein.

My knee problems stem from an injury more than 30 years ago and subsequent surgery to remove a torn medial meniscus. About ten years after I (and tons of others) had the surgery, orthopedists said, "What were we thinking?," and stopped routinely removing torn menisci.

Lacking this rather crucial body part, my knee has kind of collapsed on the side where the meniscus should have been, resulting in bow-leggedness and osteoarthritis, with a few bone chips in the mix. The bone chips may have resulted from my misguided attempts to take up jogging, likely causing excessive grinding where the bones meet. I didn't realize how bad it was getting until my husband watched me one time and told me that my knee actually wobbled a bit from side to side with each step. I quit jogging after that, and cut way down on walking, fearing that I was doing damage to myself with every step.

Last spring I finally sought out an orthopedist for the first time since the surgery, hoping for a referral to a physical therapist and maybe some recommendations for ways that I could be more active—like some sort of knee brace that would prevent the wobble so that I could try jogging again, or at least walk more.

He took an X-ray and observed me walking and offered the insightful diagnosis, "That is one messed-up knee." He then asked me a few questions that hinted at a certain incredulity that I could walk at all, that I wasn't in a great deal of pain all the time. I'll admit that I took a certain pride in this line of questioning, because I thought it suggested that I must be pretty tough.

He said I had two options, then changed it to three, which encouraged me for only a moment: knee replacement surgery (no surprise there), doing nothing, or getting an expensive brace that would hold my leg more or less rigid, to straighten out the leg and correct the bow-leggedness, at least while I was wearing the thing. It sounded like the equivalent of putting my leg in a full cast, albeit a removable one; a device that would hardly facilitate my desire to be more active.

So, remembering the article about Feldenkrais, and my failed attempt to find a local practitioner the previous fall, I decided to do another search, and this time found Mr. Strauss-Klein, who, together with his wife and two sons, had just moved into the Twin Cities area. I started seeing him in April, and have gone for "lessons" several times a month since.

What I've been learning, to put it simply, is what that old folk/gospel song "Dry Bones" tells us: The knee bone's connected to the ankle bone, and the hip bone, and all those other bones right on up to the rib, neck and shoulder bones. Over thirty years of coping with chronic pain and instability, I'd become very rigid, and that rigidity meant that my knee was taking the bulk of the impact of every step, rather than allowing it to reverberate upwards and throughout my body. During one lesson, Nick explained that our ribs act as shock absorbers—except mine. They were acting more like cinder blocks.

So the lessons involve roughly two things: helping me become aware (but without judgment) of the habits I've developed that are aggravating my problems, and helping me find different ways of moving that are easier, gentler on my knee, and more graceful. Sometimes, the different ways of moving involve intentional actions on my part—learning to let my arms swing more freely and my pelvis rotate naturally. Sometimes it involves him gently poking me in the ribs, for example, or pulling or pushing on my arm or leg, in an attempt to, as he puts it, ask my brain a question, or offer it a suggestion. Unlike massage therapy, a Feldenkrais teacher doesn't try to complete the process through external manipulation. Rather, he leaves you a little bit hanging, allowing your brain to chew on it a bit and find the best solution. This results in a more sustainable change, even if it's sometimes a bit disorienting. If you've ever left a great massage session only to have your muscles become tight again the next day, you'll appreciate the difference.

Yesterday when I was out walking Brigit, it suddenly hit me that I wasn't limping. A slight limp had become such an integral part of my walk, that this was quite a realization. Even near the end of our walks, which are typically about a mile and half long, I'm not limping. If I start to experience knee pain, and I sometimes do, I ask myself, "What can I do differently?" and then try shortening my stride, or slowing down, or turning my right foot slightly out (I used to turn it inward), or even swinging my hips a little more, and one or several such changes solves the problem. Whereas a year ago I would have thought I had blown it and walked too far, and felt very discouraged and defeated, now I have options.

I won't be taking up jogging any time soon (or probably ever), but I'm enjoying getting out on these beautiful autumn days and exploring on foot the parks and woodlands so near my house, and I can tell that Brigit enjoys it too. And I feel very optimistic that it's only going to get better, and that I'll be a happy and grateful perambulator for many years to come.