Saturday, September 27, 2008

Run, Fat Girl, Run!

As many of you know, I've been embarking on a journey since last December to SLOWLY improve my running ability. This has been an interesting and daunting task; and I've been blessed with many companions who've been my supporters, fellow runners and cheerleaders along the way.

As I was panting my way around the GSU track last week, getting constantly lapped by tiny college girls in even tinier running shorts, I had a thought. If I ever get "finished" writing about all my other pet topics, maybe someday I would write about what it's like for a plus-sized woman to strap on the running shoes and go pavement-to-pavement with all the skinny-minnies on the running trail.

Well, one little blog entry will have to suffice for now.

Even though I consider myself an active person, and I've had spurts of what some (mostly blood relatives of mine) would call "athleticism" off and on throughout my life.... running was never a training regimen I could wrap my head around. It was too hard, too boring, too painful to consider. Once in a while I would attempt it, getting discouraged after a few days of huffing and puffing and painful shin splints.

To excuse myself from running, I'd latch on to anything I heard 'on the street' about women and running. It's bad for your knees. It's hard on your kidneys. You can dislocate your uterus?!?!?!? [No kidding, this lady at a park told me that once as she watched me attempting to run some intervals].

So I'd opt for other stuff like yoga, swimming, brisk walking, and the occasional battle with an elliptical machine at the gym. These are all healthy and beneficial activities, of course, but I still felt jealous when I'd hear runners talk about the peacefulness and the endorphin high of their morning run.

Well, this time around I've been running more or less 2-3 times a week since January, and here's a little of what I have learned so far:

- To avoid injury, it turns out you have to stretch for much longer at 32 than you did at 23.
- You really do have to be kind to your knees: work slowly, run on a springy surface, and pay attention to your body. It's also good to build your leg muscles in other ways whenever possible.
- A really good pair of running shoes is critical to preserve your knees and feet. A super-reinforced, steel-girder type sports bra is also your friend. (Those of us with D cups or larger know just how painful it can be to have 'the girls' jumping all over the place.)
- A running buddy helps A LOT, especially in the beginning. If there's not one handy, an audiobook or upbeat music is helpful.
- Don't compare yourself to everyone around you. You are trying to become the best YOU, not the best THEM....
- But, sometimes you can't help comparing yourself to those skinny, tanned little things in tiny shorts and sports bras... In this case, I strongly recommend visualizing them tripping over a rock and falling face first into the pavement/gravel. It's surprisingly invigorating.
- It's totally okay to have an off day or even an off week... don't get down on yourself, just get back out there when you can.
- Intervals are a good way to build up running stamina. You can find a fabulous "Couch to 5K" regimen here. My personal strategy, however, is a little simpler: Run until you feel like throwing up or passing out, then walk until you feel like running again.
- Some days you just have to walk. That's okay. It's better than not doing anything!

When I originally started on this journey, I thought I would be able to run a whole 5K in just a couple of months. I also imagined that all my hard work would result in unparalleled weight loss. It hasn't turned out that way for me... I am still running about 2 miles of the 3 each time, and I've only lost about 5 pounds. But I'm okay with that, because I've stuck to it, and I improve with every race I run. And somehow it's not really about my weight anymore...

I've come to that elusive point where I actually look forward (most days) to my runs. It is a time of peace in a crazy life, a chance to regroup for an hour or so, away from all the demands on my time... for at least as long as it takes me to get around the loop trail. For that short period, there are no computers, no books, no phone calls... no insistent voice in my head telling me I need to be doing something else with my time. It's kind of a sanctuary -- just me, the river, a gravel trail, and the beautiful world around me.

Now I think I understand what all those annoying runners were saying before... that the joy of the run has nothing to do with how fast or how far, or even the results you might see (or not) in the mirror. It's about finding peace in a hectic life, and honoring myself with three or four hours a week by lacing up my shoes and saying, "I'm worth it."

Friday, September 12, 2008

More Internet Musings

Two blogs ago, I made casual mention of the idea that the Internet has become a communal extension of my brain. I also toyed with the idea that maybe parts of my brain are beginning to atrophy -- or perhaps to be reallocated to another purpose because of disuse. All thanks to the convenience of the knowledge bank that Google puts at my fingertips.

In response, my friend Ross - who is a bona fide member of the technorati and way smarter than I - sent me a link to this fascinating 2003 article, in which author William Gibson expresses some of these same ideas (in a far more interesting way than I did, of course). You can read it yourself, but something I found really cool about it was that someone called Vannevar Bush envisioned something very like the Internet (in structure and purpose), way back in 1945.

For me, this reaffirms a couple of things that have been percolating on the outer edges of my intuition...

One, that the Internet and other modern technologies are in many ways an extension of the way we naturally think and act. Hyperlinks on web pages function much the same way that the human mind functions when processing thoughts and emotions: creating idea-related pathways that spider out in a multitude of directions, rather than a linear path that we simply scroll from top to bottom. Part of my job as a therapist is to try to follow that path, and figure out which "pages" are important, and which are just pass-throughs and distractions on the way to the important stuff.

Secondly, reading about Mr. Bush and his early, limited conceptions of an Internet-like machine, I can't help but wonder who will envision the next major human advance. Maybe it will be one of Bill Gates' or Steve Jobbs' followers, going to work each day on a vast technology campus. Or a part of the military machine, in an eternal race for dominance. Or maybe it will be a science-fiction writer, avid game player, or amateur poet. Someone whose creative energy surpasses the boundaries and limitations of the conceivable, and begins to explore instead the possible.

It seems that Vannevar Bush was a little of all of these things, in his way. It's hard to know if his primitive conceptualization of the Internet was born of professional practicality, free-ranging fantasy, or a little of both. In either case, I like this idea, because it at least hints at the possibility that any of us might create the seed of the the next revolutionary idea -- regardless of the capacity in which we are currently serving mankind.

It may mean that those random daydreams and seemingly silly thoughts we all have sometimes might actually be a window - not just to ourselves but to the future. I don't know about you, but the possibility of future greatness gives me a sort of permission to give in to those thoughts once in a while. Maybe I'll take a few extra moments to stare out the window next time before hurrying back to work.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

It's Pat on the Back Day!

And this time I don't mean self-flagellation!

I have to be honest, it's been a rough few weeks for me motivation-wise. My energy has been spread in a lot of directions lately, both personally and professionally, and some days it has been all I can do just to keep up. I felt I was struggling just to make it through each day without being overwhelmed by my to-do list, and yet actual progress on any of my goals seemed elusive and far off. It's that old hamster on the wheel feeling....

This isn't unfamiliar territory for me. I'm totally the type of person who loves getting into 1,000 things at once; and I have the attention span of a fruit fly. I love throwing myself into something, especially when it's new and novel, and being passionately committed to it.... until things start to stall out. It gets boring or hard or doesn't pay off quickly enough and I become full of self-doubt and frustration.

In the past, those feelings would've sent me scurrying on to the next venture or distracting myself with something more immediately gratifying (and, believe me, it's still tempting)! But I've been trying to turn over a new leaf in this arena, at least partially; and while I'm trying not to lose my energy for life's variety (I certainly still have that going on), I am also working hard at sticking to things longer, even when they begin to feel a little like drudgery.

For someone like me, this is no easy task. But I've been working hard at it in the past couple of years. So during the last weeks' struggles, I tried to channel my frustrations into productivity; and it has really paid off in a couple of different ways.

First, even though I am not even close to being a runner, I've been pushing myself to stick with my running and walking routine, even when it got boring, my fitness buddies weren't available for support, and I have been TOTALLY frustrated that my hard work isn't showing big results on the scales (yet). But this Saturday I finished a 5K almost 4 minutes faster than my time a couple of months ago. Sure, it was mostly downhill, so I had a lot of help from gravity; but I ran way more than I ever have before, and I was proud of myself nonetheless! My sore muscles this weekend have been a badge of honor.

I also finished a big work project this weekend (my new e-book, woo-hoo!). It was the first such undertaking I've ever actually completed by myself, for myself -- with no editor or boss imposing artificial structure for me. I worked on it with just about every spare hour I've had in the last several weeks, and it has been really challenging. I wrote during many times when normally I would've been watching TV, hiking, shopping, hanging out with friends, sleeping in, or just relaxing.

And even though I made sure to keep doing those things sometimes to stay balanced, there were several moments where it felt like an uphill battle just to force myself to the computer and sit down to write. Self-doubt is also a major player in the writing process for me -- on the one hand, it pushes me to look closely at how I can improve each sentence; but on the other it can overwhelm me with feelings of utter incompetence. Who do I think I am, anyway, writing a book? What makes me think I can do this? Sometimes I just wanted to abandon ship... let someone smarter or braver write the book, I'm going to watch "Psych!"

But this morning the struggle paid off - at least for my own personal edification. I got to send an e-mail out to my networks, telling everyone that the book is done and ready for sale online. I got so many supportive and congratulatory responses from friends and family, that I felt all warm, fuzzy and proud. And whether anyone actually buys the book or not, I get to enjoy the satisfaction that I actually finished it!

So now I'm trying to relax and allow myself to enjoy this tiny moment of personal achievement, before moving on to the next challenge. The momentum is carrying me forward, but I'm trying to stop and celebrate (the way I always tell my clients they should celebrate) even these small milestones for what they are......

Now, what can I get into next??

Monday, September 1, 2008

The Internet is Taking Over My Brain

Ever wonder what you would do without the internet?

I know people ask this rhetorically, and conversationally, all the time... but lately I've been observing my own ever-increasing reliance on the world wide web as a source of information and connection... and the psychology nerd in me is wondering, "What impact is this having on my brain?"

Not so much the mindlessness of what I'm doing online (although, there are certainly moments when I'm lost in guilty pleasures that are probably no better than vegging out to the television)... but the way my mind seems to get less and less of a particular kind of exercise the more I rely on my online resources.

These days, I'm forever going to my computer when I need any kind of question answered: How do I get from my house to the party in East Cobb? What's traffic like on 285? What's the name of that actor I keep seeing? Who would win a competition between Josh Duhamel and Post-It Notes? Which song do I keep murmuring the partial lyrics to in the shower? (That one turned out to be "Like a Rolling Stone" by Bob Dylan). What are the mating habits of the duck-billed platypus?

There was a time when, to figure out the answers to these questions and others, I would have to track down a book (using a card catalog, no less - remember those?). Or, I'd have to ask my friends until I found someone who knew the answer. Or worse still, I'd have to be satisfied with not knowing, or just waiting for days and hoping it came to me.

But these days, gratification is instant and thorough. Before I have even finished formulating the question in my head, I'm at my computer, and in seconds I'm directed to the top ten people who are most likely to be able to answer my question, or more accurately - who answered my question months ago in some online rant or fan tribute or fit of utter boredom. I can do this at 2 a.m. or 10 p.m. or anytime in between. It's amazingly efficient, and one of the many blessings of our modern world.

But I wonder what's happening as our brains evolve (which, of course, they are). What's happening to those cranial "muscles" that I was previously using to track down or mull over factual questions and answers? As the little neurons and synapses do their speedy little firings, there's some stopping point in my brain ("The Internet Cortex?") where unanswered questions stop streaking around my brain, and are instead directed to the computer.

It's almost like the internet has become an extension of my brain (which isn't too far off, actually, since search engines and hyperlinks were all originally designed to mimic the functioning of the human brain). In some very fundamental ways, all those research skills I learned from third grade to high school are now being outsourced. And that means that my internal ability to retain information, or the critical paths for getting to information, must be decreasing.

Of course it is. Our brains pare away skills and information we don't need as we stop using them... why take up valuable brain space and attention with things you don't need to have top of mind? Why hold on to something when the digital collective is holding it for you? I've noticed that my ability to recall and retain information has shrunk over the last few years - partly because I'm creeping ever-closer to middle age, and partly because there's no need for me to retain much of the information I'm confronted with each day. I can always Google it later if I need it, right?

I don't know if there's any validity to my theory that parts of our brain are becoming atrophied because of our new easy access to information (or perhaps, being reallocated for another, far more interesting use down the line). And if there is, I don't know whether it's good, bad or just interesting -- at least to me. What I do know is that, for me, the process of going from "I'm not sure about that," to "I'll check the internet," has been reduced to a matter of nanoseconds.

I literally have no idea how I would function right now without this tremendous, spidery, instantaneous resource at my fingertips. And, for the moment, I'm hard-pressed to say whether I think I'm better off intellectually or not. Regardless, it's a phenomenon that will not be slowing any time in the near future. It will be fascinating to see how our mental faculties, educational systems, and intellectual cultures respond over time.

For now, I'll have to be satisfied with trying to stay somewhere near the middle of the technological curve -- which gets harder every year -- and content with the idea that while I may be losing my skill for answers, I can still ask some pretty good questions.