Autumn 2013

Autumn 2013

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Life, the Universe and Everything

Hello, everybody, and welcome to the Apple Basket!
Summer has arrived: we have had two official summer days – i.e. temperatures above 25° C – filled with glorious sunshine, birdsong from early morning till late at night, and the scent of blossoms everywhere.

When I started this blog almost a year ago, one of the topics I wanted to write on was running – and then I got into one injury after another: achilles tendonitis, peroneal tendonitis, a hip bursitis, and had to lay off running for quite a while. And then I chickened out from starting up again while it was so cold in the winter and spring; even though I know full well that running in the cold is far less chilling than simply going out in the cold.
But now, I am back!
Well, back as in: I have been out today, doing Day 1 of Week 1 of the beginner program in Claire Kowalchik’s Complete Book of Running for Women. This program takes you out for 30 minutes four times a week on a run-walk schedule that gradually builds up more running time and less walking time. So, for Week 1 it is R2, W4, repeat till end of round. Week 2, as I remember it, is R3, W3, repeat.
And so on, until you get to R30 in Week 10 – provided you don’t get into to trouble along the way, of course: it may be necessary to stay in a certain week or even go back, if you miss too many runs or develop any pain. It is far better to repeat weeks in the schedule than to stick to it just for the sake of sticking to it.
The thing is, your initially laboured breathing quickly picks up, and your muscles adapt readily to the added requirements – but tendons are notoriously sloooow to build up strength, and to heal after injuries; so it is essential to not go forward too fast. It is so tempting – trust me, I know this from experience – to barrel on and build up distance and time, once you get over the huffing and puffing of the first few runs; particularly if you are encountering other runners all over the place or reading about long distance running or thinking of signing up for a 5k (ask me how I know). And then you tend to ignore a soreness, because ‘no pain, no gain’, right? Wrong. Do not ignore pain – muscles get sore, of course, when they are forced into doing more than they are used to, but that goes away again – but be wary of lingering soreness, pain that shows up during or after a run, swelling and suchlike.
And do your strength training; in fact, do that before you even start running. A strong core and strong tendons go a long way towards preventing injuries that will keep you from running for weeks.

So, how did this first run go? Well, during the first 2 minutes I looked at my watch quite a few times to see when I was allowed to slow down and catch my breath, and I felt like a complete noob. The second 2-minute run was already easier: by this time I was warmed up, and life was good. During the run/walk and immediately after it, I was happy and ready to take on the world; of course, by the time I had stretched and showered and was ready for coffee and breakfast, tiredness had set in, and a part of me doubted the whole venture. I knew, though, that this fatigue would lift: I wasn’t ready at that point to go running again, but that doesn’t mean I won’t be come Tuesday.
And on the whole, I feel more like me when I run regularly, so this is all good.

The Knitting

The ever eloquent Franklin Habit had an essay this week – discussed, of course, on Ravelry – about the perceived dichotomy between knitting and crochet; his point was, not surprisingly, that the hostility sometimes encountered is silly and futile. The title of the essay is Play Nice, which rather says it all.
It seems to me that this divide is a new phenomenon and maybe more American than European; at least in Denmark, it used to be that knitting & crocheting went together. If you did one, which most people did, you did the other as well.
Both of my grandmothers did needlework (obviously); when I was a child, though, I only ever saw my maternal grandmother knit – and my mother knits, but doesn’t crochet – while my paternal grandmother crocheted. Only years after she died, my father mentioned that she used to knit, too, but had had to give it up after breaking her wrist in a car crash. So, for me, there was a kind of divide; and I, in my youthful folly, preferred to associate myself and my crafting with the civilised, educated suburbanity presented by my maternal grandparents – and thus knitting – rather than the uneducated, chain-smoking rusticality on the paternal side. 
Besides, in the 80’s, crocheting was generally regarded as something left over from the 70’s – not least the infamous granny squares in dubious colour schemes. Knitting, for some reason, better managed to climb out of that hole and take on the bright colours and batwings that we shudder to recall. Not that I would ever knit anything like that ... hmm, moving on.

When you are young, you have eons ahead of you in which to do or not do anything you please; then you hit forty and have to seriously consider the question of what, if you are lucky enough to reach eighty, you would be sorry to have left undone or untried.
Because now is the time to start doing those things.
One thing on my vague mental list is crochet; on a day-to-day basis, I have no sense of urgency about learning crochet, but this memento mori exercise reminds me that I would consider not having given it a proper go a waste.
After all, there is nothing to lose: if I find I enjoy it – great, I will have a new skill set and enhanced opportunities. If I don’t enjoy it – no problem, yarn can be unravelled and reused, and time spent learning something new goes toward delaying decay and dementia.

But first, I need to pare down my list – and pile – of wips. I know, I have been whining for weeks about having too many ongoing projects, and it’s all my own fault; after all, it’s not like the knitting fairies cast on new things in the night and leave them for me to finish.

Wingspan in bamboo-cotton leftovers
I did finish the Comfort Of A Friend shawl last Sunday, and the Wingspan on Monday, which ought to have helped. But then I had left the bag of goodies from the Saltum wool festival within eyesight and reach, so I cast on the jumper for Victor. And while listening to the latest CraftLit episode, I caved and cast on the Jane shawl. 

Jane's Ubiquitous Shawl
Still seven wips: the three pairs of socks are still there, as well as the coffee cozies, though I have now done the first one.

During this week, I have been finishing up the Hitchhiker for my mum – remember that one? I started it back in October as a Christmas present, in my own logwood-dyed yarn; and then my mum came around and asked for a wine red Haruni (or something similar), so I tried dyeing a wine red that turned out more heathery purple, and made her a Cassandra. In the meantime, she saw my Hitchhiker and admired it; so I decided to give her the blue one for her birthday. Anyway, I got slightly bored with it: all garter, in a solid colour, with only the beads to liven it up. It still has a hugely practical shape, and my mum always likes blue, but still ... so I ended up, on Friday evening, ordering wine red yarn to make a Bitterroot as well.
Hitchhiker with beads
Did I mention her birthday party is on 1st June?
The yarn will be here in a few days’ time – tomorrow is a holiday, so they won’t be sending it until Tuesday at the earliest – and in the meantime, I will get as much finished as I can, because 8 or 9 days to do the Bitterroot is not too much.

The Books
If ever you need to read a book about gender equality, I recommend that you choose Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett, the third book in the Discworld series. This revolves around the eighth son of an eighth son, who turns out to be a daughter, but not before a dying wizard has conferred his staff and so his powers to her. The problem is that the Unseen University does not admit girls to be trained for wizards: women become witches, if they have any magic – but this girl, Esk, has a lot of wizard-style magic and it needs to be reined in. Granny Weatherwax (a witch) accompanies the girl to the capital, Ankh-Morpork, and general craziness ensues. And, as always, lots of observations about people and their quirks. And absolutely brilliant wordplay; one example: when they arrive in Ankh-Morpork, Granny finds them lodgings in the thieves’ quarter, because she has heard that good fences make good neighbours.

I finished Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks; this is called ‘a novel of love and war’, but the war story is far better than the romance. The parts of the novel set in World War I work really well, while the first part, as I have mentioned before, is too long; and the parts set in 1978, while supposedly providing a context for the war story, are rather dull.
The book thus breaks apart into a gripping tale of danger, death, and defeatism experienced by the young men sent into the horrifying madness and slaughter of the battlefields and trenches – and the pedestrian ramblings of the women on the fringes of this war story.
The protagonist of 1978, Elizabeth, is, we are not surprised to discover, the granddaughter of Stephen who went to France, had the affair in 1910 (first part of the book), and later fought in the war. I guess we are meant to follow her search for the truth and the meaning of her own life with, if not bated breath, then at least interest.
Well. Based on this book, I wouldn’t pick up another one by Faulks – except that my sister tells me that A Week in December is good. So I plan to maybe read that one in, say, seven months’ time.

I came across C.S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet, a 1938 story of a journey to Mars – or Malacandra, as its real name is in variants of the Solar language; only our planet is out of the loop, so to speak, having been excluded because of the presence of an evil divine entity of some sort. Hence the ‘silent’ planet. The protagonist, Ransom, is a linguist (or philologist, as he terms himself) and apparently modelled upon Lewis himself and his friend Tolkien; he is kidnapped by an old schoolmate working with a ruthless scientist and taken aboard a space vessel to Mars.
Mars has for a very long time held a fascination of its own: Curiosity roams, looking for signs of water and life; speculations and experiments abound as to the feasibility of colonisation by humans.
In the Doctor Who storyline, hostile Martian ice warriors attempt to conquer other planets and are generally opposed to humans; in Lewis’ universe, however, the three species of Martians are friendly and civilised each in their own way, and humans tend to be in the wrong. Particularly the scientist behind the space travel – that takes about a month, by the way – behaves like the typical white European encountering ‘savages’, refusing to learn their language, and to understand that they are intelligent; he even presents one of them with a string of glass beads as a compensation for taking their ‘sun blood’, i.e. gold. Faced with Oyarsa (an angel, perhaps), he fails to understand what is said to him; much like Uncle Andrew in The Magician’s Nephew, who cannot understand the words of Aslan.

According to The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, the journey to Mars takes about six months, and the first expeditions take place in 1999 to 2003 (in a new edition of this work, originally from the 1950’s, the dates have been pushed 30 years). Mars itself is not ideal for humans, though: the atmosphere is thin, and the initial expeditions meet ignominious ends.
In this universe, Mars has an ancient civilisation that opposes colonisation but eventually dies out, anyway: the Martians are exposed to human chickenpox and are almost completely wiped out. A neat tie-in to Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel: an indigenous population is killed by a disease to which the invaders have long since developed resistance, like the peoples of South and Mesoamerica who fell in droves to smallpox and measles.

On an entirely different note (or maybe not: after all, the question is always about what it means to be, if not human, then a decent being), I listened to The Antidote by Oliver Burkeman, narrated by the author himself. The subtitle of this book is Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking; it is a foray into the strange world of self help literature and motivational seminars, with a critical eye on the trendy methods of becoming happy, productive, social, &c. Burkeman also seeks out modern-day Stoics, Buddhists and a silent retreat in his quest for the negative path to happiness; ‘negative’ as opposed to the cult of positive psychology, and ‘negative’ as in: there is no one path, no bullet-point list of items to check, thereby ensuring everlasting bliss.

It will suffice to mention a couple of items from the popular lists and the problems they entail: visualising and goal-setting.

There is evidence that visualising achieving your goals does not, in fact, make you perform any better, despite what the life coaches tell us.
Consider the studies that ask a group of people to visualise eating Smarties and then places actual Smarties in front of them: these studies show clearly that persons having visualised eating the Smarties ate fewer real Smarties than the ones who had been asked to think about something else beforehand. The brain tricks itself into believing that the body has already done what it only visualised doing; and so, when the opportunity arises to actually do it, the body resists taking that particular action ‘again’. Effective, if you want to lose weight.
Visualising is desirable, it seems, when you want to not do something, in this case, not eat (as many) Smarties. But if your aim is positive, if you want to perform a certain task, then maybe visualisation is not a good idea. Imagining scrubbing the floors will only cause you dismay when you see that they are still dirty; basking in the virtual glory of the Booker Prize will not make that first page any less blank.
When you visualise reaching your goal, you trick your brain into believing that you are already there – and then you have to go back to square one to actually start doing all the work that will take you there. Which will make it much harder, because in a sense you have to start over.
Negative visualisation may be the key, what the Stoics called ‘premeditation of evils’, in other words, imagining everything that could possibly go wrong with your scheme. Everything that could realistically go wrong, that is: it is not helpful to imagine a meteor falling on your newly laid vegetable bed, but considering how to prevent slugs and moles from eating your produce is a lot more useful than refusing to think about such horrid things in an effort to stay positive and upbeat.
You can daydream all you like about that gorgeous knitted frock coat – but you still have to cast on and knit every single stitch of the bloody thing. And what’s more, visualising the stunning beauty of it will not make it perfect: only a highly critical eye on colour, measurements, shape, details and mistakes will ensure success. And a willingness to frog and re-knit when (not if) necessary.

Another, related exercise or requirement from the life coaches is goal setting. You will never achieve anything, they tell us, if you do not set definite, time-specific goals. Make lists, plot in dates, and Get Things Done.
But what if you sort of halfway change your mind along the way? What if you discover that what you thought you wanted isn’t right for you after all? Is it allowed to not reach your goals, or does that count as failure? Can you drop a plan halfway through and make a new one, or is that wavering?
I have found several times, when compelled to do this kind of exercise, that I can set the goals and the deadlines for myself – and then I try to shirk the duties implied. Because that is exactly what happens: things that I usually like doing and will quite happily do for hours on end, when the mood takes me, transform into chores, homework in the most soporific sense of the word, when they are plotted into a set of Goals. The whole undertaking seems artificial and contrived, and I lose the sense of what I want and where I am heading.
Not setting goals does not, of course, mean that you should necessarily amble aimlessly through life, ignoring opportunities and squandering your assets, both material and mental; but let your goals be loose and flexible, be always willing to re-evaluate and adjust to specific circumstances, whether internal or external.

Setting up clear goals for yourself and visualising achieving them thus may be not only a waste of time and effort, but can prove to be counter-productive and possibly even harmful to your productivity as well as your happiness.

Burkeman uses as an example of goal orientation that turned out to be extremely harmful the Mount Everest disaster in 1996, in which eight people died; one of several books on the subject is Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air (that was sitting on my shelf, so I read it). Of course, when you are on Mount Everest, everything is extreme; so insisting on reaching your goal, in this case the top of the mountain, can kill you. Some of the people who died were mountain climbers who had previously been close to the top and turned around because of bad weather or the lateness in the day, and this time refused to be denied, forgetting or ignoring that when you are on the summit, you are only halfway there: you need to get back down from what is called the Death Zone (above 25,000 feet) before nightfall, and before you run out of supplementary oxygen and get into serious trouble.
Far from all goals are that hazardous, obviously; this is an extreme example. But the point is valid: fixating on reaching a specific goal at all costs can end up costing you too much.

So, be flexible, rational, wise and caring – and don’t forget to love your nearest & dearest.

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