First Quarter/Right to Access

A double-entry.  Part one, the blog at the one-quarter mark.  Part two, Norway’s “right to access” law and swimming.

Fifty two weeks, divided by two, equals twenty six, the same number as miles in a marathon.  In that case, we’re just past the 10k mark, a good place to reflect on things.

I’m enjoying blogging and have a fairly lengthy list of topics I look forward to writing about over the next 10k.  And thanks to referrals from regulars I suspect, the number of readers continues to tick upwards.  Life is simpler in Norway, so I’ve had more time than normal to commit to the weekly post; as a result, as you may have noticed, they’ve increased in length.  They’ll probably shrink later in the year when I’m more pressed for time.

A lot of widely read bloggers suggest churning out lots of relatively short, imperfectly edited entries.  In contrast, I typically complete a post 4-6 days ahead of time and then spend 5-15 minutes a day editing it before posting it Sunday night or Monday morning.  Also, as you’ll notice, I don’t list the blogs I most enjoy, some of them written by friends who have recommended my blog to their readers.  I could add them, but I don’t know, it’s an eclectic list and I guess I wonder if just because I like a particular blog, you would too. 

A small proportion of readers choose to post comments, which I understand.  Unsurprisingly I suppose, younger readers account for a disproportionate share of the comments.  Apart from the occasional comments, I have no way of knowing what’s most important to me, the degree to which posts stimulate individual reader’s thinking and spark conversations.

Seems to me there are two distinct ways musicians, actors, writers, or other types of artists—build an audience.  The first is to ignore conventional wisdom, pursue your muse wherever it takes you, develop a truly distinctive sound, voice, perspective, or look, and hope people respond.  A second approach is to continually tweak one’s sound, voice, perspective, or look based upon whatever the artist perceives the majority of people want to hear, read, and see.  In the most extreme form, market analysis or focus group-based art.

In our consumerist society, the first approach is the path less taken.  (Imagine Frost market testing different stanzas within his classic poem!)  The first approach brings Dylan to mind.  When he picked up an electric guitar for the first time, and many of his most faithful followers were livid, he ignored them.  Granted, he already had some commercial success, but ironically, his decision to experiment and pursue his music wherever it took him moved more and more people and his audience continued to grow as he evolved. 

My preference is to split the difference.  I’d like to improve the blog, so I’d appreciate it if you’d shoot me an email or post a comment about which subcategories you are most enjoying reading/thinking about?  Also, what do you think about post length, too short, just right, too long?  Dig the new font?  Thanks in advance for any other feedback you might provide as well.  If you don’t have my email, consider posting a comment at the end of this entry. Also, I could definitely use some business/technical assistance if anyone wants to volunteer their expertise.  For all intents and purposes, I’m clueless on both accounts.  I could use guidance on a host of things including: the best way to copyright my work, website-design improvements or enhancements, and suggestions for building the readership.

Part two.  A few weeks ago I realized one of my deepest held dreams, but before I reveal it, I have to get something of my chest.

Norway has a unique “right of access” law that is explained on the State of Environment Norway website as follows:

[Everyone in Norway has a right of access to and passage through uncultivated land in the countryside, regardless of who owns it. This is of course of fundamental importance for traditional types of outdoor activities. It gives everyone the right to walk in the mountains and forests, go skiing in winter, and cycle, toboggan and ride on paths and tracks.

The right of access to uncultivated land is set out in the Outdoor Recreation Act, and is based on respect for the environment, landowners and other users. The right of free access and passage applies to uncultivated land, but also to cultivated land when it is frozen and snow-covered. It also includes farmyards, plots around houses and cabins, and industrial areas. The right of access does not apply if you are using a motor vehicle.

On uncultivated land, you may go anywhere you like on foot or on skis and picnic wherever you want. You may also put up a tent for the night - or sleep under the stars - but you must keep at least 150 m away from the nearest house or cabin. If you want to stay for more than two nights in the same place, you must ask the landowner's permission, except in the mountains or very remote areas.

The right of access also involves responsibilities. You must show consideration and care, so that you do not cause any damage or inconvenience to the landowner or other users. You must also respect the countryside: make sure you take everything with you, including your rubbish, and never leave an unsightly campsite behind you.]

How progressive and enlightened right?  Well not if people exercise their “right to access” while you’re TRYING to get in a good swim workout like I just was at the Ankerskogen 50 meter pool.  The fish among my readers know well what it’s like to begin entering into a nice lap-swimming grove only to find Clueless Swimmer heading straight at them.  Why?  Because CS is the only person who starts in the deep end without bothering to ask if they can “split the lane.”  Instead, they’re intent on splitting your head.  Meanwhile, who knows what Clueless Lifeguard is thinking.  This might happen a couple of times a year.  In Norway, multiple those odds by say, 100%, and you begin to approach the likelihood of swimmers exercising their right of access in your lane.  A few weeks ago when I swam at Ankerskogen, it was nearly empty, but that didn’t stop a mom and child from choosing my lane to play in.  You have to be kidding me, there’s an entire OLYMPIC-SIZED pool for you two to practice your somersaults.  I wrote it off as an anomaly, but that was naïve. 

Today was classic.  Norway is the land of the slow breaststroker (insert joke), which I can deal with.  Slow Breaststroker got in MY lane, but I was able to swim around her fairly easily.  That is until SB’s Man Friend joined her and they proceeded to do slow-mo breaststroke side-by-side 5-10 meters in front of me as I was about to begin an interval!  Did they expect me to swim under them?  What did I ever do to them?  I switched lanes and shortly afterwards noticed that the Tandom Breastrokers tired about two-thirds of the way into the lap and decided to recover on the lane lines with their legs straight out in effect shutting down the entire lane.

Just appreciate the cross-cultural differences my arse, that is just wrong.  The only good news in the TB’s universal breach of lap swimming etiquette is that they did the same thing to another lap swimmer a little later.  Until then, I thought they somehow intuited that I was a US citizen, and were taking out their anger over the Iraq War and American imperialism and hegemony more generally on me.

A little later, poof out of nowhere, a few kids appeared right in front of me in MY lane.  I pulled up as if swimming into something in open water only to see the proud parents beaming from the deck.  “Way to exercise your ‘right to access’ kids!” 

Let’s revisit the wording of the law shall we: On uncultivated land, you may go anywhere you like on foot or on skis and picnic wherever you want.  Nowhere does it say, in a public pool, you may do slo-mo tandom breaststroke whenever and wherever you feel like it.  Nor does it say you may play in the one damn lap lane that someone’s working out in.

Okay, I feel better.  Can you tell I’ve entered a new phase of cultural adaptation, one where I’m less likely to romanticize cultural differences and I’m more cognizant of contradictions, imperfections, and complexities?

But fortunately, the news is not entirely downbeat on the swimming front.  As mentioned, one of my long held dreams was surprisingly fulfilled recently . . . if only temporarily.  I’ve always thought it would be way cool to have access to a lap pool that I could swim in whenever I’d like.  No time restrictions, no Biannual Pool Guy swimming next to me every third fifty, no Clueless Swimmer heading straight for me, no Tandem Breaststrokers blocking my path, no lifeguards to tell me I can’t run on the deck or see how far I can spit water in the shower.  Turns out, Hedmark College University, my current base, has a pool that’s occasionally used by students.  Recently, I received an invite to swim with a couple of faculty on Tuesday at 7:45a.m.  They were great, both about 60 years old.  One said, “We are two boys, and we swim, oh about 500-600 meters and then sit in the sauna.”  I was invited to join the boys in the sauna, but opted to swim a bit more than 500-600 meters.  We three boys had the pool and fitness center to ourselves.  And I’m happy to report neither of them breaststroked into my lane.  It’s a decent, five-lane wide pool, but quite short at 16.67 meters.  Lord knows I need work on my flip turns, plus, the price is right.

As I dressed after that first swim, I started to connect the dots.  I have a key card to the building and locker room.  So don’t tell anyone, but I’ve started going solo.  Not as good a workout as normal since everything is broken up with all the pushing off.  I can tell I “recover” a bit with every one to two second push off.  But beggars can’t be choosers, and in my opinion, solitude and swimming are the perfect way to start the day.  When do I want to swim next?  The mind whirls. 

Solitude

The quality or state of being alone or remote from society. 

The fam is on vacation visiting friends in Sweden.  I opted for solitude.  I’m somewhat enigmatic in that I enjoy interacting with my students, my family, and my friends, but simultaneously have a deep-seated, profound need to spend time alone.

My need for solitude has been tough at times for L to accept.  I appreciate that twenty years in, she’s getting it.  “Do you want to go to Sweden with us?  It would be more fun with you.”  “I don’t think so.”  “Okay.”  

So I alternate between being social and a loner, which may not be as paradoxical as it first appears.  I think of those tendencies as competing drives like the ebb and flow of the tides.  Without ebbing, or withdrawing from social environments, I wouldn’t have any sense of self or any insights into much of anything, and without any sense of self or insight, I don’t think I’d have much to contribute to social settings once re-engaged.  Being alone enables me to recharge my “human-interaction” battery.  Social interaction takes energy that can be invigorating, but sometimes for me, there’s a net loss of energy.

I opted for solitude because the last seven weeks have been intensely social.  The fam and I have gone from living four semi-disparate lives in a large home to living closely overlapping lives in an apartment.  And the next two months promise even more intense family time.  So this is a five day-long intermission from which all of us will benefit.

I know what I’m about to admit will cost me, but c’est la vie.  I like watching Booknotes on CSPAN.  In particular, I like listening to authors talk about their writing process.  A few years ago I was watching a Booknote interview with a writer who also taught writing at some university.  The interviewer asked the author, “What’s the single most important lesson you try to convey to your students?”  His answer was unexpected, but brilliant.  “Writing and solitude are inseparable.  Being a writer is a solitary existence.”  He went on to share his opinion that most of his students weren’t nearly comfortable enough with solitude to excel as writers.

Most writing instructors focus on the technical aspects of the process.  Solid fundamentals are important, but this author conceived of writing as a craft that is impossible to hone independent of self-understanding and insight.  Once again, this makes me think about personal technology.  I suspect people are growing less and less comfortable with solitude.  This may be particularly true of the youngest and most wired among us.  For example, like all 12 year olds probably, my youngest daughter bounces from friend to activity to friend to activity and back again.  Often, when no friends are available and there’s no activity to participate in, she goes into “What now?” mode.  

If my hunch is accurate that many young people are relatively uncomfortable with solitude, I wonder if it’s a result of adult-initiated over-scheduling.  If young people go from school, to sport1, to music, to sport2, to youth group or community service, and back again, when do they get comfortable spending quiet time by themselves?  And if they’re uncomfortable spending quiet time by themselves, how do they become introspective?  And if they don’t become introspective, how do they develop a distinct sense of self?  And without developing a distinct sense of self, how do they avoid mindlessly following the lead of their peers and the popular culture?

And guarding against over-scheduling is only part of the challenge.   Remember how idealistically I described my vision for our “Northern Retreat” in an earlier entry, in essence, the four of us spending inordinate amounts of time connecting on a deeper level.  In part, that’s been true, but note to self: wireless internet has radically changed things in the last five years.  Picture this.  On one laptop, one half of the family is in one room watching “America’s Next Top Model” on-line.  On another laptop, another member is watching an NCAA college basketball tournament game.  The third laptop doesn’t have a wireless card so the fourth family member is, gasp, reading a book. 

Simply put, there are differing degrees of solitude, some forms more enriching than others.  Meaningful solitude involves more than being alone.  Are you as alone if you’re by yourself listening to your iPod, watching “America’s Next Top Model” on-line, instant messaging, or all three at the same time?  Sometimes, when the stars align and I get an hour or two at home by myself, I don’t take full advantage because I watch a sports event for awhile and squander the remaining time on-line. 

However, a break of this length means I can take advantage of dinner and cross-country skiing invitations, watch some bball on-line, trim my email inbox, and still have plenty of time left over for being quiet, reflecting on things, writing, resting, and recharging.

And with each passing day, I’m looking more forward to my family’s return.

Creating an Active Lifestyle

After reading my fitness story, a sedentary friend wrote (well not really, but it’s a nice literary device), “Okay Ron, I liked your story, but what should I take from it?  I’ve failed at repeated attempts to create an active lifestyle.  For a change, don’t be an egghead academic, just spell out the implications of your story as simply and specifically as possible.”

Here’s my best shot. 

1.  Stop using time constraints as a rationale for a sedentary lifestyle.  Until you start creating positive momentum through a modest routine, be honest with yourself and say, “Being fit isn’t important enough to me yet.”  My sedentary friend might say, “You were a grad student without children.  I work longer hours and have more family responsibilities.  Don’t have the time.”  This line of reasoning perplexes me.  Has everyone else except me completely mastered time management?  Below I suggest exercising one to four hours a week for the first several months.  Are people really so time-efficient that they can’t squeeze out one to four hours a week? 

2.  Focus on improving the quality of your life more generally and let weight loss be a natural by product of developing an active lifestyle.  My initial goal wasn’t to lose weight, get ripped (obviously), or win races, it was to become more disciplined in the hope that it would carry over into my life as a doctoral student researching and writing a lengthy dissertation.  So instead of starting with the normal question, “How much weight should I lose?” forget the scale and think about the other areas of your life (diet, personal finance, family commitment, spiritual devotion, etc.) that might improve if you develop greater self-discipline through a consistent fitness routine.  Positive spill over.

3. Set manageable goals and be patient.  Don’t expect to get fit in a few weeks or months.  When I was sedentary and soft, I wasn’t as overweight as most Resolutions and I was young, so you may want to adjust downwards from my modest starting point, 20 minutes, 4-5 days a week.  First month, one to one and a half hours a week of walking, swimming, rowing, cycling, or light jogging.  Month two, two hours a week.  Month three, three hours a week.  Month four, four hours a week.  Sometimes when I travel and find myself in a hotel fitness center, I marvel at Treadmill Guy doing his annual workout.  He’s recognizable by his spare tire, ALL OUT pace, streams of sweat, and precarious position near the back edge of the treadmill.  I resist telling TG what I’m thinking, “The Olympic Team has already been selected.  Slow down for pete’s sake, so that when you’re done there are positive associations with the activity and you don’t dread your next workout.  It took years of sitting still and eating poorly to get that out of shape, so it’s going to take just as long to become fit.”

4.  For the first year, do all activities at low intensity.  Many triathletes use a training pace frame of reference based upon “perceived rate of exertion”: easy, steady, mod-hard, and hard.  Do all activities during the first few months at an easy pace meaning it’s easy to maintain a conversation.  Feeling frisky after a few months, accelerate a bit to “steady,” which means you can still maintain a conversation or sing “Serpentine Fire” outloud with Earth, Wind, and Fire on your iPod (actually, stay away from “The Elements” because they’ll transport you to mod-hardville faster than you can sing “When I see you’re face like the mornin’ sun you spark me to shine.”).  Save the mod-hard and hard stuff for years two and beyond.  More Norah Jones and less Nelly. 

5.  Avoid comparing yourself to more experienced walkers, runners, swimmers, or cyclists.  I’m competitive, but as I was getting going, I channeled my competitive energy into a training log where I recorded distances and times.  Instead of asking myself, can I keep up with that stud down the street, I wondered whether I could go a bit further than last month, or whether I could run a regular route 15 seconds faster than normal.  When I competed, it was against myself, and truth be told, I continue to do that.  This is where Treadmill Guy’s friend, Biannual Pool Guy, get’s tripped up.  Sometimes when I’m in the middle of a 500 or 1,000 free in the pool, BPG will wait for me and time his push off as I’m completing my flip turn.  He does his best to hang for two laps, rests for a few minutes, then repeats.  I get a kick out of this, but BPG would be much better off working up to a continuous 500 free at his own “just getting into swimming” pace.  One’s ego can conspire against slow, steady, and evolutionary progress.  Also related to pacing, conventional wisdom is to find training partners, preferably people a bit stronger and faster.  That’s definitely helpful for competitive athletes, but I don’t think it applies to someone starting to piece together an active lifestyle.  My advice, start out alone or find someone whose fitness is just as much a work in progress.

6.  Pay attention to and celebrate subtle signs of progress (I didn’t breathe quite as hard on that hill, I wasn’t quite as tired at the end, I had a bit more energy at work today, etc.) in order to create positive momentum.  Once a weekly rhythm is established, positive momentum will kick in.  For example, once I got into a weekly exercise groove, I gradually started to eat more healthily.  My thought process was, “Tomorrow’s run will be less difficult and more enjoyable if I eat x instead of y or 1/2x instead of x.”  Gradually I began to develop a base level of fitness to where I could run 3-4 miles without becoming winded or do a 1,500-1,800 meter swim workout with ease.  As I burned more calories and switched to a lower-fat diet, I lost weight; as a result, my shortish workouts at an easy/steady pace became even easier.  Positive momentum.

7.  Keep your “I should probably be working out right now” wasted time to a bare minimum by exercising first thing in the morning and/or commit to meeting a workout partner at an appointed time.  Also helpful, organize your workout clothes/equipment and the next day’s breakfast/work clothes/lunch the evening before to expedite getting to work and gradually move up your bedtime about the same number of minutes as your intended workout.  Other excellent solutions to the time dilemma, if at all feasible, do some of your commuting or errands on foot or bicycle.  Related suggestion, if you hook up with a training partner, be the type of training partner you want to have.  His conservative politics and predictable routes aside, my ace running partner, MC, also known as PC, is the gold standard of training partners because he’s as consistent and prompt as a German train.  We run three or four days a week at 6:15a.m. in all conditions and if either person is 90 seconds late, we know it’s due to a rare communication breakdown.

8.  Use exercise to develop a deeper, more intimate feel and appreciation for the natural world.  A couple of women who live on our street are committed walkers.  I bet they walk an hour a day every day, but I don’t understand why they loop our neighborhood over and over and over.  They don’t have small children at home so my guess is it’s just a habit.  There is a park with nice wooded trails easily within reach, but to each is own.  I guess it’s better than exercising mostly indoors.  My suggestion is to break out and find a wooded trail to walk or run on, pedal into nature, or find open water to swim or row on when the mercury rises.  As a result of doing those things, I feel a deeper connection to my corner of the world.   

9.  After a few months of consistent exercise, consider signing up for an event, such as a 5k walk or run, or 30 mile bicycle ride, as an added incentive to train.  If you do sign up for an event, reread number five first.  Some people get caught up in comparisons and commit to especially difficult events like a marathon or Ironman distance triathlon that are way beyond their level of fitness.  Sometimes the event is so difficult it’s mostly a negative experience and has a detrimental effect on their medium to long-term effort to build a consistent fitness routine.  One and done-ers.  Do some 5ks before your first 10k, some 10ks before your first half marathon, a 100 kilometer or metric bicycle century before your first 100 miler, some sprint triathlons before your first Olympic, and several Olympics before your first half Ironman.   

10.  After you develop a lifetime commitment to fitness, remember the sedentary chapters in your life and encourage others who are striving to get fit regardless of their starting point.  A few years ago, after returning from a dinner-hour swim workout at the Y, I said to L, “Water aerobics is a joke.”  “What are you talking about?” she asked.  “Every person in the water aerobics class tonight was seriously overweight.”  In hindsight, that was one of the more ignorant and arrogant things I could have said.  I didn’t know what any of the participants weighed a few months or a year earlier.  Maybe they were just starting to make the lifestyle changes that would lead to improved health.  They weren’t sitting at home on the couch eating and watching television; they were working out in sync with what I’ve written here.  They deserved respect and encouragement not disdain.   I forgot that I had been sedentary once.  Besides, as my running, cycling, and swimming training partners like to remind me, there’s always someone more fit.  A great Swahili phrase comes to mind, harambee, which translates, “Let’s all get together and push.”

School Ski Day/Stipend Stretching

The plan this week was to dig into my fitness story a bit, but the word of the week is “spontaneity” so I’ve decided to Brett Favre (improvise) and reflect on a few recent events in Norway.  I just lost my Norwegian readers. 

I’m not as spontaneous as I could be, and probably should be, but within the first ten minutes of waking up Wednesday, I completely switched gears.  I lectured in Lillehammer on Monday and in Rena on Tuesday so I had planned on working at home on a high school curriculum unit I’m writing about Venezuela.  Seconds after waking, L asked if I wanted to go skiing with J, her, and J’s school.  School ski day, cool.  Much to my surprise, and hers, I said yes. 

I’m glad I Brett Favred because it was one of my favorite days so far.  Some kids went downhill skiing, but we went cross-country skiing with about a third of the students.  What I’ll remember from the day for a long time is not just the natural beauty, but also the cultural differences.  We skied 4.7 kilometers up to a cabin where we snacked and warmed up before reversing course.  And it was COLD, -5C, but even colder with the wind-chill.  It was so cold I had to ski away from L to get some feeling back in my fingers.  Wife. . . fingers. . .  wife. . . fingers. . . fingers!  J is a natural though and she covered nearly all of my moves. 

Compared to the type of physical activity elementary teachers might organize in the US, this was way more challenging.  In the US, some standardized test obsessed districts are shortening or eliminating recess and some “avoid all potential lawsuit” districts are even banning life-threatening activities like tag or flag-football. 

I was also struck by the trust that undergirded the whole thing.  We were the only parents that accompanied the students and the teachers pretty much left the students to their own devices.  Sometimes J and I caught up to a seven or eight year-old pipsqueak kicking and gliding for all he or she was worth with no one else within 200 meters of him or her.  All alone on a trail that wasn’t marked that well in the elements getting it done.  Most likely, elementary school teachers in the States would scale down this type of physical activity out of concern that some parents might flip if their child got too cold, too isolated, or too physically drained.

Some of the children were relatively new arrivals from Somali and other warm environs.  A couple of them struggled to keep pace so a teacher directed them to a warming hut where they hunkered down until we returned.  No big deal.

Rough transition.  I just watched a humorous BBC news segment about a text messaging crisis in London.  Recently, apparently, thousands of Britons have injured themselves by walking into street poles and other immovable objects while texting.  As a result, I kid you not, in parts of London, city officials are wrapping streetlights and related poles in what looks like white wrestling mats.  Alright, you’re wondering what kind of leap was that, from cross-country skiing in Norway to text messaging on London streets?  They let this guy teach writing?  In light of the pipsqueak skiers’ resilience, I wonder whether Americans (and Britons maybe) have become too preoccupied with eliminating every potential risk.  By attempting to eliminate every possible risk are we shortchanging our children’s development?  Discuss.

Another rough transition.  Topic two, stipend stretching.  Usually, professional travel is straightforward.  Travel within the university’s guidelines, save and submit receipts, get reimbursed.  A Fulbright grant is different in that they estimate what it should cost you to travel to your site and live there.  They don’t pay for dependents’ travel, but do kick in a bit more in living expenses for a spouse and children.  When you arrive they wire the lump sum to your US account and say “Good luck.”  No receipts, no reimbursement.  This arrangement plays to my strengths because I can reign in spending with the best of them.

We’ve explained to A and J that our plan is the same as L’s 25 years ago when she received a lump sum scholarship to spend a semester studying in Sweden.  She decided to live as simply as possible in order to travel elsewhere afterwards.  We’re traveling to Germany, Italy, and Switzerland in May, and I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the Euro is laying in wait for us.  We figure if we’re frugal now, we’ll begin our European travels with a bit of a cushion, which should help with more high prices.

We went out for pizza last weekend, a rare, and therefore exciting event.  As we debated whether to order a 30cm or 40cm pizza, I couldn’t help but notice the couple next to us had piled their trash onto their pizza pan alongside three exquisite, untouched pieces of pizza.  With increasing conviction, I repeatedly warned the fam that I was about to rescue those pieces from their tragic fate.  In the end, I resisted which inspired A to resist my repeated dares when the same couple only ate half of their cheesecake. 

Apparently wiseacre dumpster diving sketches make an impact because a few nights later J suddenly informed us, “In school, they handout a piece of fruit every day, I could bring an extra one home.”  Stunned, L, A, and I simultaneously grimaced and wondered what had we done?  I drew on fifteen years of parenting experience to think of the perfect response.  “I don’t think one fruit a day is going to put much of a dent in our European expenses, but if you beat up a few kids each day and take their fruit, then it definitely might.”

We have two major expenses: rent and food.  Rent is a fixed expense.  Our food strategy is to buy what we need not necessarily what we want and minimize waste.  Those are not onerous tasks.  We’re probably eating even more healthily than normal, tons of fresh fruit and veggies, little meat, and very little alcohol.  Truth be told, the “we” and “we’re” in the last few sentences mostly refer to L and me.  A and J spend the bulk of their allowance on chocolate. 

Most nights are low-key.  We read, watch television, and hang out together more than at home.  We venture out a couple of nights a week.  The double x chromosomes went to a great violin concert this week and we are working our way through two “12 clip” swimming pool passes.

The tough thing about stipend stretching is acknowledging that I might want to cut back more than the other members of the team.  Leftover pizza joking aside, I’m being careful not to impose my level of asceticism on others.  I just hope by the time A and J have to see a therapist to work through this experience, they’re old enough to pay for it themselves.

I’m enjoying focusing exclusively on needs.  I don’t plan on buying a single non-food, non-essential item while I’m here.  That’s liberating.  There are a few cool outdoor stores in town, but I haven’t even been inside any of them yet.  Not only do I want to stretch the stipend, I don’t want to transport one more ounce of stuff home. 

Stepping off the consumerist treadmill has helped me better understand how time consuming “pre-consuming” activities are, desiring something, researching it, comparison shopping, ruminating over it, finding the best price, rethinking the purchase, and on and on.  Then add into that mix the time spent traveling to and from stores and the energy needed to store and maintain everything purchased.  Amazing how much time I’ve saved by opting out of shopping. 

The most positive consequence of cutting back to the bare minimum is being reminded that the most meaningful experiences—getting to know Norwegians, leisurely meals and quite evenings with the fam, writing, cross country skiing, are mostly nonmaterial.

Finally, a pearl from one of J’s classmates who I got to know while waiting for the ski busses.  As she got on the bus after downhill skiing all day, I asked, “How was your day?”  “Good,” she said, “but I broke my leg, just a little.”

Fitness Story

Two months into the blog, time for a pop quiz to see if you’ve been paying attention.  What’s an important area of wellness I haven’t touched upon yet?  I’m sure there are several good answers, but the one I’m looking for is personal fitness.  I’ll trust you to grade your own quiz after answering a second question still to come. 

Kind of ironic I haven’t touched on fitness yet because it has become foundational for me, not simply in turns of physical well being, or as a narcissistic end in itself, but as a means to being a better person.

Where to begin?  I guess by reiterating the last, all-important point, fitness has become foundational as a means to being a better person.

I’m a regular at a YMCA (fitness center) in Olympia, WA.  Every January, “Y” friends and I brace ourselves for the sudden uptick in traffic.  The “Resolutions” are fairly easy to pick out.  They’re hammering on the cardio machines, in the pool, and on the spin bikes for all of five to ten minutes.  Once again, by mid-February at the latest, it’s easy to find a primo parking spot and have a swim lane and locker room bench all to yourself.

Instead of poking fun at the Resolutions for the predictability of their routine, I feel for them and the majority of North Americans who are out-of-shape and not as healthy as they might be. I know they aren’t enjoying the quality of life they might.

Why is an active lifestyle so elusive? 

Instead of sharing a “Men’s Health” or “Shape” magazine-style “Eight Steps to Improved Fitness in the New Year” I want to share my fitness story, not because I’m so together (I’ve been putting off today’s run for hours), but because it might inspire alternative ways of thinking about fitness and might help a few people adopt more active lifestyles. 

My story might make more sense if I first describe two ways I think about change and growth more generally.  “Critical incident” inspired change and growth is where someone experiences something specific and dramatic and is suddenly changed from that point forward.  For example, a National Public Radio story I heard a few years ago summarized the life story of music mastermind Quincy Jones, who grew up in Seattle.  Late one night, when he was 11, he broke into a YMCA with a couple of his friends.  Once inside, his friends ran around looking for trouble.  Meanwhile, he peeled off and stumbled into a half-dark music room and sat down at a piano for the first time in his life.  In the quiet, he began to play, and was so mesmerized his entire life course was altered. 

A lot of older triathletes attribute their start in the sport to a particularly compelling Hawaii Triathlon television broadcast where a female leader self destructed in the last 100 meters of the race.  She fell, got up, fell, got up, and eventually crawled to the finish.  A fair number of viewers were so transfixed by her example they simultaneously committed to training for the race at that exact moment (Hey, I want to self destruct too!). 

Sometimes the death of a significant other is a critical incident that induces fundamental change and growth; sometimes a travel experience in another part of the world; sometimes a religious text; sometimes a particularly moving film, or concert; or the inspiring example of another person transforming their life. 

I like the unpredictable and emotional aspects of critical incidents, but I find even more value in “slow, steady, and evolutionary” change and growth.  Of course the two types can be complimentary.  The sedentary television viewer fired up by the infamous Hawaii Triathlon finish has to swim, cycle, and run on a weekly, monthly, and yearly basis through tough conditions, injury, and flagging motivation. 

People who try to induce critical incidents (January 1st is more of an arbitrary line in the sand than a critical incident) for continuing inspiration are recognizable by their starts and stops and repeated change in activities (and overflowing garages) that characterize their lives.  In contrast, people who commit to slow, steady, and evolutionary change and growth tend to think in the medium and long-term, are able to delay gratification, and are relatively self-disciplined.

My “physical activity” story in about 600 words.  I grew up playing sports nearly every day after school and spent summers playing outside.  In high school I played two sports, golf and water polo.  Quiz question two: Which was better exercise?  I also cycled in Southern California for four or five years in my mid-20s; however, by age 28-29, I was pretty sedentary.  If five friends wanted to play 3-on-3 basketball I was game, but I never worked out with any regularity and I was 20 pounds heavier than today.

The second chapter of my “physical life” began in mid-1990.  I can’t really point to a sudden or dramatic catalyst, instead it was a subtle, gradual six to nine month process that began while I was teaching at an international school in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.  Addis has idyllic weather and my wife and some teaching friends and I played tennis a few days a week after school on way cool clay courts (hit and slide, slide and volley).  Also, two nights a week I played intense pick-up basketball games with a few colleagues, a few US marines stationed at the embassy, and a few Baptist missionaries holed up in Addis due to civil war.  After those games I’d lay comatose in a hot bathtub until I was a complete prune.  As a result of those weekly activities, I was in semi-decent shape, but still wasn’t nearly motivated enough to workout alone. 

Up to that point I despised running, but for some inexplicable reason I followed the lead of some of my Ethiopian colleagues and began jogging around the soccer pitch a few days a week near the end of the school year.  I continued to dabble with running upon returning to the States.  I might have totaled 10 miles a week.

In the fall of 1990, I enrolled in a PhD program in Curriculum Leadership at the University of Denver.  Again, I made a decision that doesn’t seem dramatic enough to be “critical incident” worthy, but in hindsight, may have been.  I knew that less than one half of doctoral students finish their degree, about 80% finish the coursework without trouble, but only about half of those ever finish their dissertation.  [Extra credit: Which percent then, do successfully finish?]  Intuition told me doggedness and self-discipline would be more important than natural brilliance, good thing too. 

I wondered would I be able to make slow, steady, evolutionary progress on my dissertation when no one cared whether I worked on it, let alone completed it?  I wasn’t sure, but decided that if I couldn’t muster the self-discipline to workout at least 20 minutes a day, 4-5 days a week, I didn’t stand a chance of completing my dissertation and defying the grad school odds.

Then a funny thing happened.  As one day turned to one week and one week to one month, the 20 minutes got a little easier.  I altered running and swimming and didn’t count pick-up basketball as a part of the 20 minutes.  As running 2-2.5 miles or swimming 1,000 meters got easier, I started to almost enjoy the activities.  That fall, as I headed out for modest run after modest run in the leaf-filled streets of our Denver neighborhood or biked to the university’s pool, little did I know I wasn’t just passing my self-discipline litmus test, I was laying the foundation for a lifetime of fitness.

Overtime, I extended the runs and swims and sent a shiver through the pro peloton by returning to cycling.  Over the last five years, I’ve averaged about 1,500 miles of running, 130 miles of swimming, and 3,500 miles of cycling per year.  I spend about 7 hours a week running and swimming in the winter and about 10 hours a week running, swimming, and cycling in the spring, summer, and fall.

There are as many ways to develop an active lifestyle as there are people, but as I reflect on my experience, a couple of things stand out.  I’ll share those observations next week since this has already become fairly lengthy.  Also, one epic cross-country skiing day aside, February was a lousy month workout wise, and I need to start March out right with a run.  It’s a cloudy, cool (3C) Saturday afternoon in Hamar, Norway and 90% of the ice has melted.  As soon as I let my guard down that 10% will probably bite me.

Before heading out (procrastination idea #147, writing), one last physical activity-related note from Norway.  Recently I laid temporary claim to a mountain bike from PLU’s study abroad stable (the students are only here in the fall) and have been commuting daily, in the cold, and over the ice.  It’s not much of a workout because the distance is so short, but it’s great not having to time the busses.  Despite my best efforts, I don’t know if I’ll ever pass for a Norwegian bike commuter.  I refer to their riding style as “ballsy.”  “Ballsy” riding consists of three parts, only two of which I’ve got down: 1) no helmet; 2) in the street as much as possible, switching to the parallel bike trail only as a last resort; and 3) no wussy, cold weather, ear protection.  I’ve nailed one and two, but I keep my sensitive Pacific Northwest ears covered at all times.  And don’t tell my two wheeled homies that I have long underwear on under my pants and liners under my gloves or I won’t have any street cred.

And what value is a visiting lecturer without street cred?