Monday, January 28, 2013

Listening to the Body aka “I've Fallen, and I CAN Get Up!"

On January 7th, in one of those moments that can alter the life of a 76-year-old, I fell on my way to a faculty meeting at school before start of the new term.  Rested and relaxed after the holidays, enjoying a sunny day and a quick commute, I missed the last step going down the stairs from the train.  As I crumpled to the landing, my right knee bent under my full weight much more tightly than it should and my nose pressed to meet it.  Surrender was the only option. “Give,” I pleaded through tan corduroy stretching over the joint, and I heard a tiny pop near the surface of it.  Not good.  My entire focus zoned into that knee, into the hip I found myself sitting on, into my lower back and the hand I’d used to break the fall.  But before I could assess the damage, a man was hoisting me by the armpit.  “Wait!”  I put him off, then stood cautiously and assured him I could manage. 

And manage I did, hobbled the two blocks to school and propped my leg on a chair during the round table discussion. I hardly heard a word that was spoken for the “chatter” that was going on in every cell of my body.  I think that’s part of what shock is, an overload of the information system and the exhaustion that comes from trying to sort it all out.  I found an ice pack in the teachers’ fridge to apply during an hour or so of training for the new campus website.  I was busy the whole time replaying and analyzing the fall in my mind, in slo-mo, like a sports mishap on TV.  There had been no impact and no torque or twist to the joint; it was just the deepest plié I’d done in 30 years.  There was practically no swelling and no discoloration.  Pain came only when I moved.  

Nevertheless, by mid-afternoon, I was a wreck.  Standing completely still, it felt like I had no knee to hold me up, nothing at all.  When I walked, commanding my leg to stiffen like a splint, it really hurt.  My husband came to get me, brought a cane, and got me home where I spent the evening Resting, Icing, Compressing and Elevating.  I lay there imagining my supportive colleagues wheeling me from class to class in a chair, or on a gurney.  (A certain sense of drama is a useful quality in a teacher.)  Surgery for a torn ligament, even a knee replacement did not seem out of the realm of possibility.

But I slept okay that first night without Ibuprofen.  The next morning, I was surprised there was still only minor swelling and no general discomfort, but the joint still felt like a bowl of Jell-O.  Cut to the diagnosis which I hastened to get from an X-ray within 48 hours:  a stable, hairline fracture of the patella that would likely heal completely on its own within 4 to 6 weeks – unless I did something really stupid. 

At the time of this writing, about half way through the miraculous healing process of which all our bodies are fully capable, I am teaching, walking normally indoors and out, taking stairs slowly, and pondering the odds – my odds – according to recent statistics selected from a government website:

·        One out of three adults age 65 and older falls each year.
·        Among older adults (those 65 or older), falls are the leading cause of injury death.
·        Rates of fall-related fractures among older women are more than twice those for men.
·        People age 75 and older who fall are four to five times more likely than those age 65 to 74 to be admitted to a long-term care facility for a year or longer.

Not me!  That’s not the life change I’m looking for, not yet. 

I’m back at the gym today for a gentle spin on the stationary bike and some easy stretching.  I welcome the gift of acupuncture sessions from a friend even though I’m needle-phobic.  And I will listen, listen, listen to every single little signal my body sends to tell me what it wants and needs, where it does and does not want to go.  And therein lies the secret of my knee healing like a youngster’s.

A long history of dance training prepared me well for this.  I learned the truth of “use it or lose it” before it became a cliché and I honor the need faithfully.  I do 3 or maybe 4 twenty-minute sets on a bike at the gym each week, and with very low resistance.  I do other lower body work to keep the leg muscles tuned, but I hardly break a sweat.  If I skip my workout (for reasons of illness or a holiday) I start to “lose it” in about two weeks, meaning that I feel unbalanced, less energetic, prone to kinks in my neck and fatigue in my back from sitting.  Digestion is affected, too.

But I am astonished by how little “using it” is necessary to maintain ownership of my body.  It seems I have completely underestimated the edge my modest, regular attendance to exercise has given me.  Along with the ever so slightly broken bone, an MRI revealed that my right knee has developed considerable arthritis.

“How can that be?” I exclaimed defensively to the PA on the phone.  “It’s completely asymptomatic.  I haven’t had a moment’s trouble with that knee until I fell.” 

She had no good answer, and I really want to know why the “arth” part of my condition shows in an MRI while the “itis” part is non-existent.  I wonder if the “arth” part of arthritis, a thickening of the bone, just comes with age.  Maybe avoiding the painful, inflammatory part is more of a choice many of us already make and many more of us could make, without drugs.  It’s abundantly logical that keeping the sinew strong will undercut the pull of gravity and reduce abrasion of bone on bone.  To make a stronger case for the long term benefits of “using it,” why aren’t there studies of the incidence of asymptomatic arthritis and the lifestyle choices of older people who have this but function perfectly well and do get up from the occasional embarrassing spill?

I think young people, middle-aged people, and older people are put off by unrealistic images and daunting regimens from doing the simple, little things that make a difference.  My acupuncturer (as I have dubbed her) makes a house call, slips in a needle and agrees: 
“There’s got to be some ground between ‘couch potato’ and ‘six packs galore’.” 

I’m not watching her, and I welcome the distraction, because I really don’t like the idea of needles.  I ’m showing up for this because even with all I know about the body I live in, there are many wondrous and mysterious things to learn.  A wake-up call, like the fall I took, is a chance to open up new possibilities.

On the table, a towel over my eyes, I report an extraordinary sensation, a slight fluttering of the diaphragm.  I associate this with a reaction I sometimes have listening to certain singers, or a live chorus.  I feel tremendous energy, but it is diffuse, directed to no purpose.  I am very relaxed.  It seems as if every cell in me is communicating with every other.  The next day, my knee feels much stronger and I succeed at three movements I have not attempted since the injury. What‘s the connection? I do not know.  I don’t have to.

I just have to pay attention.  I only need to trust the subtle cues that tell me it’s okay to rise up on my tiptoes again, that the twinge I feel in my knee as I carry the groceries home is a necessary stretch and not a harbinger of more trouble.  I must heed the larger message that – having survived a potential calamity rather well – every moment of the day from now on is going to feel a little more like a gift. 

Lynn Donovan McCann is the Author of "The Anti-Diet: Learning to be in the moment with food"

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Into the Grammar Fray: “Healthy vs. Healthful”

Type this into a search engine and see what you get. I’m delighted there’s still an argument about how to use these adjectives when referring to food. The words that come out of my mouth are as important to me as the foods that go into it. In fact, I’d rank the need to preserve good grammar and promote healthful eating right up there with saving the planet from global warming.

First, the grammar issue. A website called englishplus reminds us that “In formal English, things are healthful (i.e., good for one's health). People or other creatures are healthy (i.e., in a state of good health).” Thus, “broccoli is healthful” means that it’s good for you, and “broccoli is healthy” means that it’s still bright green, perky and undamaged by a long trip in a refrigerator container from Mexico.

Simple guidelines like this evoke my 8th grade English teacher, Georgiana Gilbert whom I channel daily as a teacher of basic writing skills at a small college in Queens, New York. “Use who for people, and use that for things,” Miss Gilbert would prescribe crisply as she wielded her red pencil back in 1951. When I quote her today, my students have no trouble understanding the rule when I ask them which pronoun they would choose to objectify their mother. “My mother who works in a hospital,” beats “my mother that works in a hospital,” hands down.

But, ah, my foes, and oh, my friends – Miss Gilbert’s lovely candle is guttering in the meltdown of language as it is being spoken, written, tweeted, abbreviated and horribly abused today. Listen up, folks. You’ll hear everyone including me use that for people and breaking other rules with embarrassing frequency.

The author of the grammarist website explains why we’re throwing in the towel on good grammar. “We can’t fault writers for using healthy in place of healthful,” she writes. “This practice has been standard for so long that it’s probably irreversible, and we would be crazy to call it incorrect.”

Well, call me crazy. It’s not incorrectness, though, that drives me nuts. It’s lack of respect for simple logic. Here’s an example from a recent article in the “Dining” section of the New York Times. A chef at a high-end restaurant considered adopting a new symbol on menu items to make it “easier for customers if they choose to be healthy.”

Well who wouldn't choose that? Are the customers who choose not to be healthy still chain smoking out on the sidewalk? Choosing food that is healthful makes good sense both personally and grammatically. Options are not people; abstractions cannot choose. And you just can’t pack a life choice for good health into the selection of a luncheon dish.

The author of the grammarunderground website rationalizes that “most people would say that ‘healthy diet’ is more popular and more natural-sounding than ‘healthful diet’,” and calls traditionalists like me “misinformed sticklers.” According to her, “in language, you have to pick your battles.” Mercifully, someone blogged right back: “To follow your usage logic . . . we should just go along with the 'dumbing down' of society!”

Not on my watch. I’m sick of dialogue sprinkled with redundancies like one I recently heard on the 6 O’clock news, “iconic images,” and larded with meaningless hyperbole. (Might we consider retiring the word “devastate” in all its forms?) I refuse to accept the text message on the wall that says grmr rls r 86. Why do I think it’s so important to be precise, to think about the words we use and how they relate to each other?

Here comes the food part. Language, great language, nourishes us greatly. Thoughtless, careless, empty language is our verbal fast food, devoid of nutritional value. It clogs the imagination and generates the emotional equivalent of a sugar high. Weighed down and numbed, we tune out on content and wait for the next tempting morsel of phony drama. This is cause for alarm because language connects us and defines us as human. Learning language in the first years of life informs the way we learn everything else, the pleasure, the curiosity and the diligence we bring to every enterprise. We disrespect and diminish language at our peril.

And how does this relate to the dangers of an overheated of our planet? Of course, there are natural changes in our environment, and surely much of that process is beyond our control. But denial of global warming and/or refusal to deal with whatever we do have the power to reverse, prevent, rescue or protect is just plain dumb. Likewise, dismissing egregious insults to the spoken and written word as inevitable or wave-of-the-future could someday leave us, as the blogger who defends my position concluded, “Emoting sounds and groaning at each other like cave people again.” I would have thought that notion ridiculous until I began to face classrooms of young people who have never acquired the habit of speaking in complete sentences and who find it extremely uncomfortable when they attempt to do so. It’s a slippery slope!

If you want to hear “the King’s English” beautifully written and exquisitely articulated – watch “Downtown Abbey.” Apparently 7.9 million people tuned in to the 2-hour third season debut episode. It can’t be just the fabulous costumes, the intrigue, and the restrained romance. Clearly audiences will sit still for its tightly compressed lessons in history and social class. But why doesn't anybody mention how easy this show is on the ear? All the characters both upstairs and downstairs speak gorgeously and employ a rich vocabulary I wish I could offer my students in a daily pill. No viewer to my knowledge has ever complained, “I don’t understand what they’re saying.” I think people relish whole language the way they take to whole grains and garden greens. I’ll do what I can to stimulate this healthy appetite. (Whoops! Please forgive my exception to the rule in using the term to imply “robust.”)

Monday, January 7, 2013

Original Anti-Diet: In The Moment Eating - 2013

I still love Mark Bittman. He’s always there with the inspiration I need, say, to recover from an indulgent holiday season in which routine went out the window, where unaccustomed richness lured, when the menu was heavily laced with nostalgia.

Bittman’s piece in the New York Times this weekend headlined What to EAT Right Now, starts the New Year with “more than one way to skin a potato.” I rush right out to the farmers’ market at Union Square where creamers, fingerlings, russets, Yukon gold, little gems in purple skins and at least a dozen heirloom varieties I never heard of beg to be mashed, baked, braised or fried. I fill an enormous bag with anything that’s priced $1.50 per pound. Of course, I have to tuck some sweet little carrots and parsnips in the mix. It’s topped off with a hoard of Jerusalem artichokes with skins so light they’ll hardly need a scrub.

It’s so humble, so real – the root vegetable – so in-the-moment. Now is all we have. Enjoy it.