Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Bottom Line? Stand Up!

"Everywhere is within walking distance if you have the time."
Steven Wright
"I have a two-story house and a bad memory, so I’m up and down those stairs all the time. That’s my exercise."
Betty White

Something is always the new something. A while back, someone—obviously a marketing type—declared that my age, 60, was the new 40. I would celebrate this news if I could at all remember what it was like to be 40. Presumably this new lease gives me permission to go skydiving or mogul skiing if I want.
Now some health care professionals, always looking to put a new wrapping on an old package, have told us that sitting is the new smoking. Sitting around watching TV, or worse, slouched all day at a desk in the office, is tantamount to hoovering in a pack of Camels. According to a couple of observant bloggers from The Mayo Clinic, we 21st century folks move around about 90% less than our cave-dwelling ancestors did. And this is not even counting the fact that our ancestors never had to wander about the cave looking for the PVR remote.
The dangers of second-hand sitting
The biggest horror for some is that all this prolonged perching on our posteriors might even contribute to their growing bigger and flabbier. This coincides perfectly with something I uncharitably used to say to a sedentary friend of mine who was chronically discontented about her Reubenesque shape: “Think your ass is too fat? Try getting off it.”
There is also the lesser known danger of second-hand sitting. A quick Google search will reveal news stories of people who (intentionally or accidentally) crushed or suffocated someone by sitting on them.
Whatever the original motivation for comparing sitting with smoking (aside from the obvious fact that both involve butts), designers and marketers have risen to the challenge. I recently visited an office complex where the workstations can be raised or lowered, like a car on a hoist, so that you can write your reports standing up. There was even an area where you could hold a conference call while jogging along on a treadmill. Forget whistling while you work; try doing a quick 5K. I can’t imagine what the thump-thump-thump of pounding running shoes sounds like at the other end of the line. Not to mention the heavy breathing.
She couldn't just go for a nice walk in the fresh air?
All this design accommodation for sedentary workers speaks to a sadder problem. Imagine the money that could be saved on these contraptions if more of us just thought to get up from our desks and walk around every 30 minutes or so. There doesn’t have to be a destination; just a stroll around the floor will get the muscles moving. Or climb a flight of stairs. There are people where I work who religiously attend step classes every lunch hour and then ride the elevator one floor to the cafeteria.
It’s not our office furniture we need to change; it’s our attitudes. Sitting is not the new smoking; our ingrained, Pavlovian habits are. I fear a culture - corporate or personal - in which staring at a computer at your desk all day without  a break is in any way good for you or the company. 
Walk to the subway. Mornings on the TTC, when I am not cycling to work, I can’t help noticing the hordes of people who pile, push, and clamber their way onto our overcrowded bus, and then ride it exactly two stops to the subway, grimly packed like vertical sardines for the whole 45 seconds of the ride. Has it never occurred to them that there is a convenient sidewalk that will also take them to the subway with a good deal less tsuris?
I happen to like getting places under my own power. I would rather walk than ride, would rather bicycle than drive. But even if I didn’t, I like to think that my mind would make the connection between activity and health; or at the very least between activity and muscle tone. Surely it doesn’t take an Ironman triathlete or and ultramarathoner to realize this.
Most of us were blessed with two strong legs, which feature some of the biggest muscles in our bodies, and exercising those big muscles can help us stay fit and lose weight faster. This is why marathoners are usually fitter than chess players.

Over the years, the World Health Organization has repeatedly listed physical inactivity among the leading preventable causes of death in developed countries; as our population ages, this will translate into extra expense to deal with a problem that should never exist. It takes no equipment, training, Pilates classes, or Lululemon wardrobe to go for a walk or to climb stairs.

All you have to do is stand up.

Ground Control to Major Tom. Get a Life.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Desert Songs

“This is the place of my song-dream, the place the music played to me,” whispered the Rat, as if in a trance.
Kenneth Grahame
The Wind in the Willows (The Piper at the Gates of Dawn)

My wife Karen was able to join me this time
They say there are dunes in the desert that sing. The Eureka Dunes, tucked away in a hard-to-reach corner in the northwest of Death Valley National Park are reputed to make sounds sometimes, like distant bass organ pipes, or the low-pitched drone of an otherworldly chorus. No one really knows why this happens, but the songs the sands sing here are well documented. I’ve never seen the Eureka Dunes, but I know they are there, and someday I will hear them.
We were in Death Valley once again for the annual Corps Camp, operated by Chris and Laurie Kostman at Adventure Corps for cyclists who seek stimulating challenges in unique surroundings.

As a onetime opera singer, I wanted this year to do some of my own vocalizing in Death Valley (not in public mind you; these days the sound of my voice reminds me of how a critic once described Tom Waits’s: as if soaked in a vat of bourbon, hung in a smokehouse for several months and then taken outside and run over by a car).

Spinning along the highway by myself each day I sang opera, folk songs, and even some Leonard Cohen, with nothing but the sand, the sagebrush, and the occasional coyote for an audience. As it happened I might have sounded quite good—at least what I could hear of me as the wind blew my voice back into my ears.

A major artistic highlight was our visit to the Amargosa Opera House at Death Valley Junction, after cycling a breezy 30 miles and several thousand feet up from Furnace Creek. (Yes, there is an Opera House in Death Valley Junction, lovingly created by Marta Becket in an old borax mining company recreation hall). Our friend and cycling sorceress Pam was having her birthday, so cyclist/soprano Jill and I serenaded her with a few operatic snippets, plus Happy Birthday, on the Opera House steps (the management was wise enough not to let us onto the actual stage). It was an experience to treasure. If Kodak were still in business, this would have been one of their moments.

Karen, after a challenging climb
But the real music last week came from our gears clicking and our wheels spinning in perfect concert with the air and the desert and the mountains. It was a terrific week of cycling. The weather was perfect; the pernicious winds we have battled on previous visits made only fleeting appearances, then blew themselves off to bully other cyclists in other places. Each morning we set out on our bikes, riding out through the gates of the Furnace Creek Ranch, onto California Highway 190 into the dawn and towards a new destination. Legendary destinations with romantic names: Hell's Gate, Stovepipe Wells, Zabriskie Point.

The air was crackling dry and the sun was ever-present. Lips and ears sunburned. Legs grew weary. Sometimes the road surface was rough and pebbly enough to cause our bike saddles to vibrate for hours and behave like some device the CIA might use for interrogation. None of this mattered. What mattered was that we were moving across a strange and beautiful part of the planet propelled by our own power. I would not have traded any of it.

I rode farther and climbed higher than I did last year, although I still didn’t approach the heights reached by my friends Tim and Pam, who somehow persevered up 15% grades to reach spectacular Dante’s View, 5,600 feet above the valley. As I do every year, I vowed to train harder next time so that I don’t feel like I’m sliding backwards downhill on all the steep mountain climbs.

This was my fourth trip to Death Valley, and each time I have come home a bit stronger and wiser than when I arrived. Valued volunteer and Furnace Creek 508 veteran Steve Barnes said to me that the Valley possesses an energy that comes out of the ground and invigorates everyone who visits there. I believe this. Somehow you are made whole again like a song whose words are finally fitted into the tune.

They say there are dunes in the desert that sing. Someday I will hear them.

Through the Gates of Dawn towards another adventure