All posts by danaleeling

About danaleeling

A father of three and a professor teaching statistics, ethnobotany, and physical science on the island of Pohnpei. A runner and joggler in the evening. Occasionally found next to large stones at sunset enjoying Piper methysticum.

Meditation

Sky with clouds
Running time is often a time to think, to contemplate, to reflect, and to plan. Over the years I noticed that the runs which were the most relaxing, and post-run were often the most mentally productive, were runs where I had to focus so intently on my running and juggling that no other thought could be entertained in my mind. Runs where variable, gusting winds would shift my tennis balls in midflight as traffic slid past me. I had to focus only on the immediate instant. These runs were peculiarly relaxing, and afterwards I was filled with new ideas and solutions. Exactly when I hadn’t been thinking about them – when my mind had slipped into a state without random thoughts of anything else other than the immediate instant.

At some point I stumbled on the The Oatmeal and his citing the terrible and wonderful reasons he runs long distances: in order to the seek a void. The Oatmeal cited Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.  Murakami would note, “I just run. I run in a void. Or maybe I should put it the other way: I run in order to acquire a void. But as you might expect, an occasional thought will slip into this void. People’s minds can’t be a complete blank. Human beings’ emotions are not strong or consistent enough to sustain a vacuum. What I mean is, the kinds of thoughts and ideas that invade my emotions as I run remain subordinate to that void. Lacking content, they are just random thoughts that gather around that central void.”

As I read What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, articles in Runner’s World were extolling the benefits of meditation for runners. The taming of the monkey mind, the complementing the physical body benefits of running, and make one a better runner. Meditation, along with yoga, were often recommended to runners in the pages of Runner’s World. And underneath meditation seemed to be a seeking of a void by being present only in the immediate instant.

This summer my summer reading rather intentionally included Sakyong Mipham’s Running with the Mind of Meditation: Lessons for Training Body and Mind.  His description of the simplicity of mindfulness meditation – breath focused meditation, seemed to simple and, at the same time, something I could do. No mantras, no special chimes, incense candles, or other requirements.

Meditation is not exactly a mainstream behavior in my neighborhood. As ABC news correspondent Dan Harris has noted, back when I started running, running was unusual. Today running is no longer considered unusual, but meditation is still seen as something different. Harris explains that as science including new research using new technologies confirms the benefits of meditation, one day a family doctor is likely to recommend improving your diet, exercising, and meditation. There are a plethora of videos to help a first time mindfulness meditator get started – talking one through the basics. And as Mipham notes in his book, just as in running, start at an easy pace for shorter distances until you are accustomed to running. Start with brief daily sessions, let your body and mind adjust to meditating. And, at least in my house, do keep a sense of humor and avoid taking yourself too seriously.

I did not become a runner overnight. I became a runner gradually as days of running added up to months, months to years, and years to decades. At some point I went from being a 1970s exercise jogger to a runner. I deeply understand that regular meditation practice over the coming days, months, and years are the path to benefit. And that I might not see the benefits for some time. Running has taught me patience. I opted for starting with shorter duration meditation to start, which keeps manageable working meditation into my daily life. And, just as I am in running, I find I am an evening meditator. Although I am new to the discipline, I already look forward to my evening meditation much as I look forward to a chance to run. For now that is a good start.

Summer weddings of the youth

My annual social media timeline has seasons. Winter is the season of passings and sad farewells. Spring brings new life and bundles of joy to love. And summer is the season of newly minted nuptial unions. Each June and July my timeline is filled with images of happy young beautiful newlyweds starting the journey of a lifetime. Images of hope and optimism, youthful radiance and health, the strength of the young.

Perhaps I have lived too long in a nation facing epidemic levels of non-communicable diseases often linked to obesity that results from dietary and physical fitness choices or non-choices made during a lifetime. In my age group too many couples are saying their last goodbyes to each other.

In what seems like a short time ago when viewed from where I am at 57 years old, she looked at her future husband and said I do to a youthfully healthy if not outright muscular young man. When she looked at you and said I do, there was an implicit obligation to her to maintain, to the extent the exigencies of time and aging permit, that physique she saw when she said I do.

Perhaps some men have an expectation that their wife should look good for them. I hold rather the expectation that I should do what I can to look good for her. Perhaps I have less hair on my head than when my wife agreed to journey with me, and perhaps I never really had boyish good looks to lose, but I need not arrive in my fifties looking like I might be pregnant with twins.

When you pledge I do to her, pledge also to yourself to work to retain, for her, the physically fit and healthy physique you have on that special day that she said I do to you.

Dana in sauna

Exercise and physical fitness are not things to put off until some doctor recommends them to you in your forties. Exercise and an active lifestyle should begin from your youth. I began running in 1978. I do not run far nor everyday. As I head into my own fall season of life, my running has helped me arrive at 57 without a veranda over the tool shed, healthy blood pressure and blood sugar levels, and legs with a couple muscles in them.

The Shape of Altra

I was a foot fall behind the runner in front of me. Narrow trail. No room to shift left or right. My stride was too long. 2003. High above Honolulu.  A trail run with the Honolulu Runners. A runner directly behind me. I had to change my stride and gait to not clip the heels in front of me. Shift my balance. And still clear the roots underfoot. Suddenly something clicked and I was running differently. Smoother, shorter stride with enough lift to clear roots. I was now landing in his foot prints. The stride felt strange and yet smooth. I would play with the stride over the next few days while I was there, and in the years afterward I would still think of this as the Honolulu gait.

I became interested in gaits and stride length, picking up and reading Danny Dreyer’s Chi Running. I continued to follow research on stride and gait as the barefoot and minimal running trend gained steam. I also noted the other direction taken by Hoka One One. Sure, the Tarahumara can run barefoot, but the injuries accumulating among first time minimalist shoe users suggested that not everyone is built for barefoot running. Still, I grokked the logic in going flat. This summer I drank the flavored fruit punch and bought a pair of Altra Provision 3.0 shoes. Zero drop. I opted for the Altra Provision 3.0 as this shoe seemed closest to the ASICS GT 2000 series I had been wearing since the 1990s. Stability shoes with moderate cushioning.

Altra running form recommendations: Image from the Altra web site
Altra running form recommendations: Image from the Altra web site

The shoes came with a transition guide that explained proper form – which appears to be strongly similar to the form I encountered in Chi running. The Altra claims to enable better form, and with only a short amount of time in them, I concur. The stride, gait, and cadence changes I have been playing with over the past decade and a half are enabled by the Altra shoes.

Altra zero drop: Image from Altra web site
Altra zero drop: Image from Altra web site

The zero drop seems to encourage a flatter landing further forward, as the foot arcs down the heel clears the ground rather than catching the ground as in a shoe with rise. The foot lands flatter, and the extra stretch on the calf does seem to provide more spring back on lifting the foot.

Altra toe box Image from the Altra web site
Altra toe box: Image from the Altra web site

The wide toe box is also different, and yields a sensation of stability on toe off. Wet pavement and uneven sand on wet pavement can be slippery here in the tropics, some shoes tend to slide on the surfaces here. I did not have that sensation with the Altra shoes. Perhaps the shorter, snub nose on the shoes also helps get my foot off the ground a little faster as I lift my foot. The physics eludes my comprehension, but I do seem to be able to move faster in these shoes even when I am not trying to do so.

The Altra shoes are exciting, and my pace was faster than I expected to in a routine run yesterday, overestimating my time of arrival at locations, causing me to have to shift around cars that I met too soon along the road.

I do not know me

When I happened upon what advertisers think I am interested in, I realized that I clearly do not know myself.

I had no idea I was a big griller (our grill is a piece of wire fencing on an old automobile hub) into road trips (going somewhere on a small island is hardly a road trip) with my family (more often solo) in our Dodge Journey (never seen one of whatever this is) with a secret penchant for Liz Claiborne beauty and fragrance products (so secret that I too was blissfully unaware of that side of my personality).

If you tweet, then you can see what advertisers think you want to see too. Most curiously the list misses the areas in which I have recently spent actual money: running shoes, smartphones, ChromeBase, and various Kindle books in mathematics, running, and statistics. Either the advertisers do not know me or I do not know me.

The former is somewhat puzzling. Twitter’s own list of my interests aligns better with my perception of my own interests.

With some quibbles over Reality TV and Romance, and the absences of my running and juggling life, Twitter knows me well. So why do the advertisers misread where my money is likely to go next?

If you also Twitter, you can see Twitter’s read on you as well.  Of course this depends on whether you let Twitter study you. Turns out Twitter studies you by default, so unless you turned off the Personalization and Data Settings, Twitter is collecting all sorts of information about you as a Twitter user. I let Twitter run wild with my data. I treat all social media as a public presence with zero privacy. If one wants privacy then one can never use a computer, cell phone, telephone, or any other communication capable technology. Including snail mail. No tech. Period. And one should probably not live on a small island.

Now you’ll have to excuse me as I need to go load up my new luxury Nissan SUV (I have a 25 year old Toyota Exiv sedan that was purchased used) with my Fisher-Price toys (I played with those fifty years ago) and Converse sneakers (I would never buy an athletic shoe I cannot run in) for a trip to the spa (as soon as I find one on Pohnpei) where I am a well known high spender (I have a dollar in my pocket that has to last until Friday).  Oh, and, yes, I will be dropping by the mall on the way home to pick up more Liz Claiborne products and jewelry. Just as soon as I find the mall on this island.

September 1963

35 mm slides

My son was exploring in a family basement and came across the cabinets of 35 mm photographic slides therein.

35 mm slide cases
35 mm slide cases

35 mm slide projectors are only available as used items these days. There really is no practical way to preserve these thousands of family slides and carry the images forward into the future. These are not paintings of yore that hung on a wall, these are creations of technology that lived and died by the sword of technology.

Among the slides are slivers of my own past.

September 1963
September 1963

My sister and I, photographed in September 1963, processed in October 1963, just a month before the nation would lose John F. Kennedy.  The hands holding the photo – the son of the boy in the picture.

I think about images and photographs mostly in the frame of family history – how to pass down the family photos. I have no idea how long Google or FaceBook will be around. CompuServe came and went in its time, as did GeoCities. Each time I moved photos to the next available platform.

And even on Google and FaceBook there is the issue of access into the future. I can “friend” my currently living children, but how to pass along permissions to descendants in perpetuity? Short of setting everything to public sharing? Perhaps future descendants will not care to see images of the ancestors.

As for the slides, they are most likely to continue to remain in the darkness of their cases for the foreseeable future.

Water

Volunteer rule number one was not to drink water from unknown sources.

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A woman I did not know and I could not ask offered me a glass of water. That was the custom. The road being hot and dusty, visitors would be first offered a glass of water before they were to speak.

Cultural rule number zero was only evil spirits would refuse to accept water.

I had taken a tro-tro to a junction and then hiked up an unused road in the hills above Nkurakan. I was headed to a small village nestled up in the hills that I had not been to, well off any beaten track. Stephen had said he had a cousin teaching at the elementary school up there.

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I had made my way to the village and was easily recognized as an outsider, although unusual for foreign visitor I was traveling in my local cloth, not in western clothes.

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The children only stared at me – for the first time in a year in country the children were not singing the “Obruni koko, maakye…” song. I made a mental note to teach the children the song that some foreigners seemed to find annoying. Armed only with a name, I asked the children where I would find the cousin.

Led to a home by the children, I sat and faced the water test. Custom was water before speaking. Had I come for good or evil? I took the water and drank. I always did. After the antibiotic resistant shigella dysentery had knocked me down to 118 pounds my first week in country, I took a rather careless attitude to what I consumed and drank. Local rule zero always bests foreigner rule one.

Although I was not evil, who was I and why was I there? In my best stumbled and broken Akuapem accented Twi I explained I was Kwaku Donkor, son of Clara Donkor, traveling on the recommendation of cousin Stephen from Nkurakan. Smiles and warm hand shakes broke out all around. My identity was defined by to whom I am related and connected. I was family.

Family is always welcome, and always welcome back. Family does not need a pre-arranged invitation to visit. Dinner was fufu and I was given a bedroom to sleep in, undoubtedly displacing other members of the family for the night. I was in no position to refuse the hospitality.

The next day I was invited to give an impromptu science lesson at the elementary school, and I did so.

In country I did not travel much. Other volunteers traveled to distant places. I made short trips usually staying with relatives or friends, and did not usually go where there were no relatives or friends. I would simply show up and find myself welcomed. In turn I welcomed those who visited me. I always tried to keep a healthy supply of coffee for visitors and guests.

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I still keep coffee on hand to welcome family and friends – none of whom need an invitation to visit. I have tried to also raise my children to share in this understanding, although the assessments are still pending on whether or not I will have succeeded.

Addiction

Running is certainly my addiction. And running apparently has a positive role to play in preventing relapse among recovering substance abuse addicts. Running replaces some of the “feel-good” brain chemicals that are lost during substance abuse withdrawal and recovery.

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John Ratey, M.D., has been preaching the lace-‘em-up cure for years. The associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School in Boston says that even a little bit of running can make a big difference. “What happens immediately when you begin to run is you get a boost in dopamine, noradrenaline, and serotonin, just as if you were taking a little bit of Prozac and a little bit of Ritalin,” he says.The Runner’s High, Runner’s World.

I know the good feeling of running, and I concur with the author that not running has an effect that while technically not withdrawal, does not make me feel good. I too share his sense of being “sluggish, unfocused, sometimes irritable.” Hardly anything life shattering, but long time runners know that there is a withdrawal.

Yet a recent article in Huffington Post suggests that addiction is socially mediated. The initial cause and possible maintenance of addiction is a result of social isolation, loneliness, and a sense of being disconnected from people. Oddly enough, I run to disconnect. I am one of the 49% of runners who prefer to run alone. Running time is “me time.”

Using running, however, as an approach to reduce relapse rates among substance abuse addicts appears to require a social component. Social isolation delays the positive impact on the healing of the brain by running, according to a 2011 study.  This reinforces the idea that addiction is intimately connected to social support and social connectivity.

As for whether a recovering runner is swapping one addiction for another, I would echo the words of Caleb Daniloff in the Runner’s High article:

I can understand why people think I’ve merely traded one addiction for another. But ultimately I find this thought too narrow. Unlike boozing, running has never filled me with shame or regret, not once turned me into a monster. I have never stolen, lied, or cheated for running. I don’t need more miles to get the same effect. The trade that, literally, took place was sobriety for addiction, a dark central rhythm recast in light.

Add to that the impact on cardio-vascular health, potential impact on obesity, preventative effects in terms of high blood pressure, diabetes, and perhaps heart disease.  This is an addiction with a difference. A very positive difference.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Goodbye to the cable TV era

I looked around the house the other night. Each and every zombie was staring at a glowing obelisk clutched tightly in their hand. I pointed at the cable TV. “Does that thing even work?” Without looking up, each zombie shrugged their shoulders.

I turned on the television to check the only channel I still check on the cable – ChannelNewsAsia. I was disappointed to find that Russia Today had replaced ChannelNewsAsia. I flipped off the set. “Works, but nothing on that I want to see.” No zombie even looked up.

For twenty years my personal money manager has paid the cable bill bimonthly, fifty dollars. That’s part of the budget cycle that keeps the family operational paycheck to paycheck. And for twenty years the good folks at ICTV have obliged my money manager.

Now ICTV is in receivership, apparently bankrupt, and operating under court appointed management. The interim management must have decided to clean up the books. A team came by the house the very next day and threatened my money manager to pay up for January or get disconnected. I could have predicted the result. Threatening my money manager is not only bad customer relations (perhaps the ICTV team could benefit from the college’s HTM training, there are ways to handle these things) but also will not yield the desired long term result (customer retention and future cash flow). My money manager told the team to go ahead and disconnect the cable.

My money manager called me to tell me what had happened. I paused, thought for a moment, and then realized that was money better spent in other ways. I was the last cable denizen in the house, the rest are netizens. And even I had shifted primarily to online sources of news and information. With the loss of CNA, there was nothing left worth the money.

I later went down and paid off January at the office, but told the clerk to leave us disconnected. Cable had become irrelevant. Like VCR tapes, and now DVDs, a new tech era has supplanted an older technology. Anyone remember BetaMax? NetFlix is killing DVDs and cable programming. Internet video on demand is crowding out cable.

Little wonder cable television is in receivership – I wonder how many other customers have shifted resources to bandwidth and dropped their cable subscription.

I gather FSMTC wants to buy the assets, which makes sense. Not necessarily for distributing cable television. Those cable lines provide a high speed Internet pipe into every home. ADSL on the uplink side, cable coax on the downlink. That has potential future value.

Student success

The call came in at midnight. Medical emergencies often seem to be middle of the night events in life. She’d been transported from the residence hall to the emergency room. Chest pain. Difficulty breathing. Abdominal pain. Lower back pain. Severe pain. Both sides. I knew this was a fourth trip in as many days. Tests were coming back negative or inconclusive. While her condition deteriorated. As if a child of mine were in distress, I was headed out the door.

This time the hospital admitted her and, with one particular test providing a cause, put her on the appropriate medical treatment.

Word was passed along to her instructors that she had been hospitalized and was undergoing treatment. Two faculty members asked about her condition, asked to be kept informed as to how they could help. One of the two asked also whether the student was taking visitors – the faculty member wanted to stop by. Their immediate reaction was for the care and safety of the student. Beyond concern for her immediate condition, they also expressed a desire to help her succeed in their courses when she returns.

The third faculty member said only, “She missed a quiz and test already, she is likely to fail my course.” The faculty member did not ask about her as a person, expressed no concern over the distress the young woman was in. Just stated that she was headed for failure in their class. Cold. That was the only word that came to mind. Cold. No words of comfort. No assurance that the faculty member stood by ready to help the young woman once she had recovered. No commitment to her success as a student. Heck, no sign that the faculty member considered her a human being suffering from pain. No empathy at all.

I suggested as much, that right now her family and those of us who know her are a tad more concerned that she get well and recover than whether or not she took some particular quiz.

A commitment to student success can be an empty slogan. A trite over used cliche. Or one can ignore the chaff that now attends the term student success and, as teachers have done for millennia, show a supportive approach to the individual student as a person. Each student is a bundle of hopes and dreams, some parents’ loved and adored child, someone who, when they are in distress far from home, could use some empathy and care from those entrusted with their education.

I once had the privilege of attending a talk given by Paulo Freire, who was a Brazilian educator and philosopher. Prior to hearing him talk I had tackled some of his writings, but I found difficulty understanding the philosophical underpinnings of his writing. At the talk Paulo was asked, “In a word, what is education?” Paulo paused and then said, “Love. Education is love.” That I could understand.

 

Of learning and loss

Forces driving the financing of education, especially higher education, increasingly want to see that the education delivered prepares the student for the world of the workplace. Measures such as the number of graduates who succeed in obtaining employment in their field of study are used to gauge the success of a program. How often has someone said, “Education is the key to success” with the implicit meaning that the value of an education is what one does with that education beyond graduation.

Loss

 

In a higher education system increasingly driven by the value of education as a path to employment, what is the value of that education to one who will never become employed? One who is tragically lost to us. Rousseau in Emile first introduced me to the idea that an education should be of value to a child even if that child does not reach adulthood. And value for children is in having fun, enjoying life. An education should be fun. Enjoyable. An experience that is sufficiently wonderful that even if the child were to know that they will not live out the fullness of the years, the child would want to be in school. In elementary school. In high school. In college.

An education should be of value to a child in the here and now, an enriching and exciting experience, an adventure filled with wondrous wonders. Perhaps everyday will not be exciting, but net the experience should be positive.

Higher education at present is especially enamored of student learning outcomes and measuring learning. Learning is measured, assessed, analyzed, reported, and used to attempt to improve learning the next term. Few instructors rate whether their class is fun, exciting, interesting, something that the student would recommend to other students.

This is not a call to instructors to become entertainers, but rather a call to make the subject matter the instructor loves as interesting and exciting for the students as the subject is to themselves. And if an instructor does not love the subject they are teaching, then that instructor should not teach that subject, perhaps consider leaving education altogether.

An education should have value for the child, the student, in the here and now, in the present.