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Monday, April 29, 2013

Fountain of youth II - An insight on longevity

Grandma S, top shape at 94 springs. Quebec, 2012.

The latest National Geographic just arrived and its contents renewed my interest for the fountain of youth!

The title of the article that caught my eye is On Beyond 100. The cover announces "New science could lead to very long lives".

I have been interested by the question of longevity for a long time. (And I sure hope I have a lot of time ahead of me to keep thinking about it!)

What are the factors that lead to a long life? Do we have control over at least some of them? Should we even care? Is the quest for longevity another form of death denial? For sure. Is it a waste of time (this sounds like an oxymoron)? I don't think so.

A couple of baby boomers I've chatted with recently have been telling me that long life or not, your last years will be crappy (so why bother, I feel they want to add). "Life is not an elastic", one of them argued. "If you keep pulling you're only calling for trouble". (I refrained from answering that when you pull too hard on an elastic you're also calling for trouble!)

Trying to achieve the longest life at any cost does not appeal to me more than anybody else. Therapeutic obstinacy is senseless. But I felt that there was more to what my baby boomers were trying to tell me.

First, I was worried that they were using this as an excuse to not adopt a healthy lifestyle. In a similar manner, I've heard smokers say "Why would I quit? Dying of that or something else, what's the difference?"  (Somehow implying that smoking 1) will not make you die earlier 2) will not bring about more suffering than your plain old aging process. I disagree of course.)

It sounded too much like an attempt to reduce cognitive dissonance: I know I should take care of my health, but I don't feel like it/don't have the strength, so I'll convince myself that it's useless instead.

Second, it seemed like in their opinion, a long life isn't worth it, based on the implicit premise that past a certain age, all that can possibly happen to you will be unpleasant (and probably painful). Well after recently reading a super cute and true love story between two nonagenarians who met in a nursing home, I beg to differ!

Deep down inside I disagreed with the baby-boomers' opinion, but I had no empirical evidence to argue my point.

Of course the risk of getting certain diseases increases drastically as you reach a certain age.

But will your last years be crappy no matter what, with no significant variation in intensity and duration from one person to the other, and from one life span to the other?

Well, it seems that the answer is no! (For duration at least.)

Before I share the numbers, let me be clear: no matter how old we are when we get to cross the Styx, it is inevitable: in our later years, because of this wonderful process that we call aging, it is most likely that our health will gradually decline; we will have to slow down in one way or another (or many!) We will have to adapt, and we will increasingly depend on others.

(If that part is what terrifies you, why don't you work on becoming accustomed with your own vulnerability right now?)

How sick we will be and for how long, however, does seem to be partly related with overall life duration.

According to my copy of the National Geographic (May 2013), what research tells us is that "In people with an average lifespan [as opposed to centenarians], diseases of old age strike earlier and last longer." (Which is not to say that if you were sick early you will necessarily die at an average age... those are just tendencies, and you are not a number!)

More specifically: in a person who has an average life span, the "cumulative period of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, dementia or cancer" is on average 19 years (with a life ending around the age of 80). In a centenarian, this "sick period" lasts less than half of that: 9 years.

What that means is that ceteris paribus, you can either have more or less 60 healthy years + 20 years of sickness, or more or less 90 healthy years + 10 years of sickness.

(You could also have episodic periods of poor health, so let's not despair at the first sign of a decline. Without going into details, I'd like to mention that a few years ago, I was referred to a cardiologist, who followed me for a while. Well, look at me now! Super Healthy Woman!)

Now don't take me wrong. I am very aware that our overall impact on our health is limited, notably by genes and other factors difficult to measure and even more difficult to control. I learned that the hard way when my own father passed away at the age of 50, he, a man who did not smoke, did not drink (or so little), exercised regularly, had a healthy weight, saw his doctor, was meticulous about his dental hygiene, nurtured his relationships, cultivated his intellect, had a great sense of humor, name it. For goodness' sake, he meditated twice a day!

His death was a blow to my immense trust in the power of taking care of your health. For a while I became disillusioned in addition to my grief. But I recovered. Science has shown time and again that taking care of yourself does have a positive impact on your health; the benefits of eating your fruit and vegetables, and of exercising, for example, are indisputable. (I believe flossing, managing your stress and seeing your doctor at least yearly are up there too.)

When it comes to objective data, scientific research is king, but in this particular case anecdotal accounts by people who have actually made it to their 100th candle have some value too... even if it was just for the fun of listening to what they have to say! I've been paying particular attention to what centenarians say explains their longevity. Here's what came up:

  1. Don't smoke
  2. Walk a lot (some scientists question the Cretan diet on the base that there is a confounding variable: the Cretans who lived a long, healthy life also walked daily, and a respectable distance by North American standards)
  3. Don't eat too much
  4. Avoid red meat and bad fats and refined sugar (the !Kung people of the Kalahari Desert, from what I read back in college, had virtually no incidence of diabetes, cancer and heart disease when they were first studied... and surprise! they did not eat much junk. Apparently, things have unfortunately changed since then. I gather this is what we call progress.)
  5. Consume lots of fruit and vegetables (my two venerable grandmothers, who are respectively 94 and 95 years old right now, and both healthy, sure have done that a lot. When I think of them I think of grapefruit, prunes, homemade vegetable soup, freshly picked - and organic - tomatoes and cucumbers, etc.)
  6. Don't sweat the small stuff
  7. Have a little bit of chocolate or wine (a LITTLE BIT!) every day
  8. Avoid alcohol (never said there wouldn't be contradictions!)
  9. Avoid sex (darn!)

Of course this is all to take with a grain of salt (well, the last point anyways!)

In any case, this longevity discourse shall not take us away from a more important concern, I named, quality of life. Leading a healthy life (which is not synonymous with a boring life) has so many benefits here and now that I don't see why anyone in their right mind would not want to lean toward it!

In the end, the National Geographic article emphasized the genetic component of longevity. Very well, I say. I will nonetheless keep moving and eating clean. And maybe, after posting this, I will offer myself a little meditation session.


For a different approach on aging and death, see Aubrey de Grey's take on it:



Another author who has talked a lot about longevity is Deepak Chopra. Some like him, some think he's a hoax; I'll let you judge for yourself:


I have talked about aging and death previously. See the following posts:




Sunday, April 28, 2013

Heigh ho, heigh ho, off to camp we go

Taking a hike in Kejimkujik National Park. Nova Scotia, 2012.

One of my favorite (okay, my number one favorite) thing about Girl Guides is the camping experience.

I guess as many French-Canadians I am 50 % woodsman, 50 % lumberjack and 50 % trapper (unfortunately this has done nothing for my arithmetic!)

Add to it the fact that I lie on the low-maintenance end of the feminine continuum... and you get a woman who just loves to leave her comfortable existence on a regular basis to return to the roots of a more rustic way of life. (One friend has actually renamed me Daniel Boone.)

There is something very refreshing about this extreme simplification of life, being in constant and close contact with nature, doing everything with your own hands, and propelling yourself through the use of your muscles only.

Appearances and the latest gadget don't matter anymore. What matters is staying safe and warm and dry, feeding yourself, and enjoying your natural surroundings in good company. Entertainment has to be low key as well, usually by the means of a bonfire and some good songs. Fortunately this is one of the most pleasant ways to spend an evening.

That might explain why working as a camp counselor in the deep Canadian forest made me so profoundly happy back in the days. The other part of it that I found immensely rewarding was to share my innate love of the outdoors and my acquired resourcefulness with youngsters.

Now that I've become too picky to accept being paid about $3 an hour and that I've moved on to a more "grown up" professional occupation, I still find myself occasionally initiating kids to the camping experience... for free!

This is how, last weekend, we took 22 Girl Guides to camp. It was a hit from A to Z.

We learned the basics of safety and survival in the wilderness.

We hiked, found our way using a compass, built shelters.

We cooked everything from scratch, beginning at the bottom of the technology chain with "fire starters" and "buddy burners" we had made out of, respectively: egg cartons + dryer lint + melted crayons and old cans + recycled corrugated cardboard + paraffin.

It all worked a charm.

The only thing we didn't do so well was sleep: the kids chatted until the wee hours, and most leaders tossed and turned the rest of the night. Being designated first aider I was awarded the best sleeping spot as is always the case... but it also meant that if somebody had to be awakened for any emergency - even if said emergency was just a nightmare - it would be me.

(In the end the only "emergency" we had was a splinter, and it happened during the day. I actually slept pretty well!)

We came back home replenished, mental batteries recharged... and of course physically tired... but a good tiredness!

Do you like returning to the roots and distanciating yourself from civilization once in a while? What do you do, and how does it make you feel?

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Tastes better than chips and doughnuts

How could anyone resist a giant ice cream cone? Athens, 2012.

I've been thinking of the sacrifices it entails to lead a healthy life. Walking through grocery store aisles and realizing that half of the "food" they contain is not food in my world. Wondering what it feels like to have all that extra free time from not exercising. (I work out or run about 7 hours a week; once a year or so I take a forced week-long break - this year it was because of a bronchitis - and I'm always amazed at all the free time I suddenly have!)

Leading a healthy life, that revolves around "clean" foods and exercise, is sometimes akin to swimming against the current.

Yet it does not mean a boring, ascetic life. I am a true hedonist at heart, very much driven by pleasure - a problematic trait sometimes as I don't have much "temptation resisting" power, but as Oscar Wilde would say, "The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it".

I'm convinced that you cannot renounce a source of pleasure without replacing it with another one - hopefully a healthier one. Luckily, there are things that taste better than chips, doughnuts and a sedentary lifestyle!

Couch potato, by Gillermo Forchino

Food fun

For the longest time I thought thin people could not possibly be foodies. That was until I met F, a wonderful Eighteenth Century Literature and History professor. This guy was as chubby as a stick figure (not that I have anything against that), yet he genuinely loved food!

In fact, he liked it so much he put together a course entitled Literature and Gastronomy (his other passion was the relationship between literature and medicine - I'm telling you, a fascinating man!)

For my term paper I chose the topic of vegetarianism in literature; my corpus was composed of the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire and Pythagoras among others, and emphasized the Arcadian utopia of pastoralism, Golden Age and the good old times when "we frolicked like sheep all day long and only ate fruit already fallen on the ground". Despite giving me a good - well, excellent - grade for that paper, F did not show much enthusiasm for my austere topic. For him, there were no food taboos... no taboos in general I would say, based on his passion for the writings of le Marquis de Sade!

For our last class of the semester, since we were a small group of a dozen graduate students, F cooked for us rare, tasty recipes of the Eighteenth century. A delight!

With F I discovered that you can love food and be thin... as long as the focus is on quality rather than quantity. In short, you have to be a gourmet. F was the perfect example of such. He enjoyed tidbits of delicacies. I witnessed it several times at the bimonthly wine and cheese gatherings we had at the Department of French Literature.

This long aside leads me to the following conclusion: you can indeed maintain a healthy weight and still enjoy food, as long as it's mostly healthy food and in reasonable quantities. When you think about it, there has to be foods you truly enjoy that are good for you, no? I know I love vegetables of all kinds, including green leafy stuff of all allegiances, plus "less usual" ones like leeks, endives, and Jerusalem artichokes. I also am a fish and seafood lover. I still enjoy cheese, baguette bread and wine (you can take the girl out of France but you can't take France out of the girl!) But in those things I indulge occasionally and in small quantities.

Of course, channeling your pleasure toward non-food aspects of life is another great tool to add to your weight loss kit. Anything that tastes as good (or better) than chips and doughnuts will do the job!

Which brings me to the next point of this post, namely:

Exercise fun

As children we ran, climbed, jumped, skipped, rolled on the ground. We were constantly on the move. For those of us whose physical activity has been subjected to a long hiatus, this love of movement has to be relearned. But hold on there! Even if it's uncomfortable, unpleasant and sometimes plain painful, the love of exercise will come back to those who do enough of it on a regular basis.

And then it becomes a source of pleasure. I, for example, have loads of fun doing this:

And this:

And that:

Ah, and that also:

In the meantime, working out can at least be an extrinsic source of pleasure, i.e. things associated with it will be the reward as opposed to the exercise itself being pleasurable - temporarily anyways.

Some examples of extrinsic reward associated with exercising: feeling stronger and fitter and energized (running upstairs with heavy grocery bags repeatedly? Bring it on!) Once the exercise-induced benefits start accumulating, one realizes how big the payoff actually is. Along the way, what was once a sacrifice becomes a habit, and eventually a true source of pleasure.

Of course once in a while the pleasure we get from being fit is of a vain and superficial nature, like when you look in the mirror and think "Jeez, am I hot or what!" I don't see anything wrong with it, really. We are all entitled pride! To feel empowered and - and sexy, let's not be afraid of words - is a present one should not refuse himself/herself.

A few days ago, at the gym, there was this amazing looking woman. She was so ripped I almost straight up asked her what her body fat percentage was (I'm guessing 12 %). I really wanted to pay her a compliment, but I didn't quite know how to word it.

"I've been looking at your but* and gawd, is it ever firm."

Not quite.

"How many olives do you think I could fit in the creases of your six-pack?"

Not better.

Everything I came up with sounded like a cheesy pick-up line. I decided to not say a word. I still discretely admired her muscles.

I mean, I'm quite happy with my training results, but she was something else!

Later on, as I was stretching, I noticed this guy whom I'd never seen before (I would have remembered those blue eyes, for sure!)

(Ya, it's no national secret, I have a little bit of a weakness for blue eyes.)

So, anyways, I noticed that this guy (fifty-ish, reasonably fit) was regularly peeking at me. I kept my poker face and I continued stretching. But after a few minutes he walked up to me and said:

- I've been looking at you...

- (to myself: Ya I noticed!)

- ... and you look very fit. And strong. It's very nice. You work out a lot?

- I do...

- (He looks at my Bluenose t-shirt): Are you also a runner?

- Yes, I am.

- Wow! Awesome! I could have guessed actually, by looking at you... Anyways, you look great!

- Thank you!

He walked away and I finished stretching, aware that my head was inflating like a hot air balloon. I tried to hide it as much as I could, but as soon as I entered the locker room, and saw no one in there, I let my guard down and started grinning from ear to ear!

It definitely felt better than any chips or doughnuts.

And you know what the funny thing is? At no moment during this little dialogue did I think of him as inappropriate or unpleasant. I just took it all in, the compliments. I think we always should!

One last "gym tale" for the road

Proof that going to the gym can be fun. I was bench pressing (actually, I was doing an alternative of traditional bench pressing: you attach a kettlebell with an wide elastic to each end of the bar - for shoulder stability!)

While I was doing this, during one of my rests, I noticed this woman who was lifting an olympic bar not too far from me. She seemed to be in her late sixties, and I couldn't help but notice what a fit figure she had. I thought "If I can look like that when I get there!!!" She also had a perfect haircut, some perfect makeup (not too much), and a perfect, distinguished smile in between her grimacing weightlifter expressions. Everything about her screamed sophisticated.

When she was done she put the bar down, and as she walked by me she blurted out (with a coarse voice):

"I'm too old for this sh*t."

I almost choked on my water!

As I looked at her, bewildered, I still managed to get out a response: "No, you're not! You're an inspiration!"

She smiled.

Morale of the story: in the gym you can be whoever you want to be!

Recent update

And now to finish, a recent update on my numbers: my weight is down to 129 pounds and body fat is down to 16.5%. I'm telling you, the day this frigging number gets below 16, I'm putting balloons and confetti on this page!!!

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Guitar galore!

Homemade guitar! 2013.

In 2011 I wrote a post dedicated to some of my favorite violin music:


Since then I've been wanting to do the same for at least two other wonderful instruments, piano and guitar.

Circumstances recently led me towards guitar, and more precisely acoustic guitar. I started taking notice of songs featuring it while listening to my "Cool Down" playlist at the gym (when I stretch after a workout). I realized how many wonderful ones there are. It also brought back nostalgic memories of summer camp, when someone would invariably grab a guitar and have us all sing around the campfire. Does it get any better than that? I doubt it.

Today I will share a chosen sample of acoustic guitar tunes. (I might have sneaked in a few containing mandolin, ukulele, guitjo and maybe some not-so-acoustic guitar, but it's my blog, I do what I want!)

Of course this list is far from exhaustive.

The order is alphabetic by song title, so as to not favor any song over another.

I thought of commenting on each of the songs, but instead, I will let them talk for themselves. Enjoy!

(Oh, and I would love to know if you have a favorite! Personally I love them all to bits! I honestly think each and every one of them deserves a few minutes of your time, and that you deserve their magic!)

Monday, April 22, 2013

I went to the woods

Kejimkujik National Park - Nova Scotia, 2012.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. (Henry David Thoreau)

I've been reading this wonderful, inspiring book, Walden or Life in the Woods, so full of great quotes such as the following:

"Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluous coarse labours of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them."

"I am sure that there is greater anxiety, commonly, to have fashionable, or at least clean and unpatched clothes, than to have a sound conscience."

"In the long run men hit only what they aim at."

"As is you could kill time without injuring eternity". (This is the one that gave me a literary orgasm!)

The book contains dozens of such considerations, but mostly it is an apology of living closer to nature, as this description of spring attests:

"They were pleasant spring days, in which the winter of man's discontent was thawing as well as the earth, and the life that had lain torpid began to stretch itself."

Spring, indeed, is finally here, and with it everything in me is thawing and stretching under the warm sun rays, literally and metaphorically.
After I finished translating the description of this new, experimental drug that will potentially save your life (if the side effects don't kill you first), and noticing that it looked nice enough outside, I decided to pay myself a little treat and went for a walk in the woods with puppy. 

This is Earth Day, after all. We all know (kind of) what to do to protect our planet, but I think the best way to feel it in our guts is to become one with nature on a regular basis. Which is why I think everyone should spend more time outdoors!

When you immerse yourself in nature you realize what just a few weeks can do. This morning, after a winter of silence and snow, the forest was full of smells (my favorite being the fir and the pine trees), and full of sounds. In just half an hour I heard robins, blue jays, doves, chickadees, a thrush, a woodpecker, a loon, a pheasant... and a bunch of other birds I could not identify. It was a full-blown party in there! (An orgy-type of party by the sight of it. Lots of fun to be had by the little feathery fellows! Ah, spring...)

Ducks at the lake - Nova Scotia, 2012.

I was paying so much attention to the wonderful sounds and smells, and I was so busy watching for the puddles and protruding roots, I did not notice we were being observed. Puppy suddenly stopped in her tracks and started pointing (I love it when she does that!) and when I lifted my gaze, I saw 3 deer almost within reaching distance! Good thing it wasn't 3 coyotes, bobcats or black bears (which are all endemic around here).

A little bit further we stumbled upon the bridge and shelter the kids have built with fallen trees and moss. Seeing them build themselves a natural life in the great outdoors has been one of my greatest joys lately. It reminds me of my old childhood, for sure. From early on I had a fascination for all things pertaining to survival in the wild. It might have had something to do with the fact that my dad, an ex-Boy Scout, and my mom, an ex canoe-camping enthusiast, regularly shared with us their  knowledge and passion in the matters. (When I was born it happened so fast my dad, who was just back from a camping trip, did not have time to change or shower, so the first smell I ever experienced was that of campfire smoke - I still love it to this day!)

My love of "survival in the wilderness" also has to do with one of the first "big books" I read, at age 8 precisely: Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe. The edition I had was adorned with fascinating pictures that left a mark in my imagination:

What Robinson salvaged from the boat

Different types of fires

All kinds of knots

The houses. LOVE the tree house!!!

After discovering that book I became an avid reader of all books involving shipwrecks and castaways and tree houses. I would also play "desert island" and "drifting raft" games. I loved the idea of starting from scratch and trying to survive with little while dealing with the - sometimes hostile - natural elements.

As a Girl Guide, I later learned to pack the right stuff the right way (e.g. water resistant bedroll), how to start a fire (one of my passions!) how to build a shelter warm enough for Canadian winters (by the same token we also learned 1st aid for frostbite, how to carry someone with fractured limbs back to civilization for treatment, etc.)

This coming weekend, my fellow Girl Guide leaders and I will take 25 little girls to camp. We'll show them how to build and start a campfire, and how to cook their meals on it. We'll show them how to orient themselves using a compass. But mostly we will all learn to live as one with nature, respectful of its wonders big and small.

To finish up beautifully, here's a little video that I took during one of my nature walks in the neighborhood. You can see the bridge and the shelter the kids built! Listen carefully and you might also hear the birds! (At the end of the video you will discover who's crying to be freed!)

By the way, there is a meteor shower going on... tonight might be a great night to watch it. Enjoy!

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Saturday magic

Snail in the rain. A, 2010.

Oldest daughter R and I are sitting at the kitchen table on a windy, rainy Saturday morning. We're the early risers and like to enjoy some quiet time together before the rest of the house stirs.

R has put on some soothing music, perfect on such a morning. Listening to it while looking at the mess outside and sipping on my coffee, I find myself close to bliss (I have to admit bliss comes easily to me. According to Indian spirituality I am probably on the verge of attaining the highest state of consciousness!)

We comment on the nice music. We comment on the stormy weather (even the dog doesn't want to go outside today). We eat slowly, savoring the oatmeal I have prepared with a bunch of raisins, a pinch of cinnamon and a few drops of maple syrup. Yum.

Looking at me with her most serious look on her face, R says: "Mom, what do you say we go for a walk on the beach today?  Like right now? And let's bring the dog. Without her leash. Let's not put on any jacket or shoes either. What do you think? Cool idea huh?"

She winks at me.

She then picks a painting her sister has made of 2 polar bears under a sky filled with Northern Lights. "Oh, and look mom, if we meet one of those polar bears, we could play with them, right? Like pet them and have them fetch sticks for us?"

"Yes why not? After all everyone knows polar bears are a sweet, affectionate species!"

We smile at each other.

Lately I've realized how much of my deadpan humor I've passed on to my offspring. They're almost as silly as I am. From the time they could talk they started cracking jokes. It's a work in progress and I am confident that one day the student will surpass the teacher.

There is hardly a serious moment in my days. I never knew the shy, rigid thinking J would become such a clown. But humor and sarcasm are such a good tool to keep negative feelings at bay... and such a fun way to connect with others.

(With the exception of those who always take you at the first level, assuming your silliest comments are actually serious, and concluding that you're plain stupid. What a pain in the bu**, to have to explain to them it was actually a joke! Luckily my family members and closest friends know better.)

R says "Mom, can we talk about something?"

She's been wanting to have more of those mother-daughter conversations lately.

"Yes, of course, what would you like to talk about?"

As I'm waiting for her answer I put my nose in my cup of coffee, blow, and look up with my glasses covered with fog. "Hey, R, look!"

(Told you I couldn't remain serious for more than a minute.)

R smiles patiently. It's not always easy to have a goofy mom.

We move on to a serious (really) conversation on the (unhealthy) quest for perfection,  and touch upon an array feminist-y topics like "brains are more important than looks", "how to embrace self-respect in those times of hyper-sexualization", and the like. I find that all issues can be raised as long as you remain age-appropriate, and R always amazes me with the maturity of her comments.

I look at R with loving eyes:

- Do you know that of all the 9 year old girls I know you're one of the most extraordinary? Actually, you're THE most extraordinary. Aren't I lucky that of all the little girls in the world I got you, who are so special?

- How many 9 year old girls do you know, mom?
(Sheesh! She already operates from a scientific mind like her dad and grand-dad! There's no fooling this girl!)

- Well, I've met a lot in my life. Especially when I was a 9 year old myself...
... but really, I have to say you've become an amazing young lady. When you were a baby sometimes I looked at you and wondered if you would become a terrible monster or a wonderful girl. On any day it seemed like it could go either way (she was quite a handful as a baby). But see? I have my answer now. You've become the wonderful girl.

- Just like in the Ugly Duckling story.

- Yes. Except in your case it was the Evil Duckling (she was very much of a handful!)

We laugh and hug each other.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Writing on a high

Ah, that feeling!

Writing on a runner's high, that is.

The crocuses are blooming. The birds are chirping. The skies are a pale cerulean blue. I ran my run in a t-shirt!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! For the first time in 2013!

Thank goodness, 'cause I needed good conditions this morning. This was the last "hill day" of my half-marathon training plan (will be replaced by "speed work" as of next week), and it involved running up 10 bad ass hills.

Total distance of the run: only about 8 km.

Length of each hill: about 300 m / close to 1000 feet.

Steepness of the hills: very steep.

Internal dialogue:

Hill 1: Let's start slowly, I'm just warming up

Hill 2: Still warming up. Funny, I didn't remember this hill was that steep.

Hill 3: Getting there. Do I really have to run 10 of those? Sh**.

Hill 4: OK, J, stop thinking and just go. You know you can do this. Breathe.

Hill 5: Actually starting to feel good about this. Halfway point! Yeah! Not that hard after all.

Hill 6: Bring on the hills! I think I could run 20 of those little bastards!

Hill 7: Hmmm... beginning to feel fatigued. Maybe 10 hills will be just perfect after all.

Hill 8: Goodness, legs, could you be any heavier than that? Come on!

Hill 9: That's it, I'm dying. Someone call the paramedics.

Hill 10: Last one. Gonna kill it. Take that, bitc*! Look at me, I still have stamina!

Recovery run to the house: Feeling on top of the world! Rrrroooooaaaaarrrrr!

Post-workout snack, stretch and shower: Aaaaaaahhhhhh... this is so good...

This running high put me in the mood to share my training successes. After all, I'm only 4 weeks away from being done with personal training, and also 4 weeks away from running my first half-marathon. Here are some numbers.

Starting weight: 148
Goal weight: 128
Current weight: 130

Starting body fat: 22 %
Goal body fat: 15 %
Current body fat: 16.9 %

Size of jeans: tiny. But I am not fooled: they have made the sizes bigger. I'm about as big as I was in my teens and there's no way I would have fitted in a zero back then. (Of course they have also made everything stretch, which certainly helps squeezing into small sizes.)

Resting heart rate: 55

Other measurable gains (from both running and weight training at the gym): Shoulders and quads looking pretty darn good. Six-pack in the making (a shadow of it visible under certain specific lighting conditions). A nice, firm, high, rounded butt (had none before I started). Hey, who said a gal was not allowed to brag once in a while?!?

Regular push-ups (on toes): around 40
Push-ups with a clap: 3 x 15
Body weight pull ups: 3 x 8
Holding a plank: pretty much forever

Feeling empowered, energetic, strong, sexy, confident in a bikini: 100 %

As of now I can run 18 km comfortably, at a reasonable pace, without being too bothered by my piriformis/IT band issues. The Bluenose is a tough, hilly course, so I'm not setting any specific time goal for this first half. I just want to finish it strong, with my knees still in one piece.

Yes, this all requires hard and consistent work, but it's so worth it. Put on your sneakers and go!

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Why do you write OR should a blog be useful?

I recently read a post by a fellow blogger, in which she defended her right to write just for the fun of it, and to hell with those who don't like what she writes.

I also recently heard a friend (who writes for a radio show) say he feels useless sitting there, trying to come up with jokes, after an event such as the Boston Marathon explosions.

Finally, I've been reflecting on the reactions I get about my blog, that are mostly of two types:

1) "You write so well!"

(This is an awesome compliment since English is not my first language; I only started to speak it toward the end of high school. I often think I would write much better in French, but I have my reasons for not doing it.) (Click here for more on those reasons.)

2) "You motivate me to put physical activity back in my life."

(I think that makes me even happier than the "nice writing" comment! If I only achieve this with the blog it will totally have been worth it. Go, people, exercise!)

Reflecting on those comments has led me to ask myself the following question:

What is the role of a blog?

More specifically: should a blog offer something substantial to its readers, or is it enough for it to benefit its writer? After all, blogs being self-published, they don't need to be popular in order to survive. Do blogs, in the manner of poetry, exist solely for themselves (see Baudelaire: "La poésie n'a d'autre but qu'elle-même"), or should they aim to be useful? If so, to what extent?

If the benefits have to extend to the readers, do those benefits have to exceed plain entertainment? Should the blog inform? Educate? Or at least inspire? Should it aim at making a change? Should it take a stand? Should blogs embrace literary commitment?

By “committed” literature is meant that form of writing which is done not for its own sake but so as to pursue a political, social, religious or ideological goal. Committed literature does not generally formulate concrete demands. Using the resources of language, it wants to draw attention to problems and social injustices and seek solutions. (http://www.goethe.de/kue/lit/slt/en9859113.htm)

Some would argue that a blog need not serve any purpose other than self-entertainment, auto-therapy, or a mixture of both. In fact, blogs could very well be the means by which one can publish without having to worry about anybody else's reaction, like some modern, online version of a journal made public, if you will. Of course most bloggers have this secret (or not-so-secret) wish that they will be read and that they will get reactions, but some do admit to writing for mere pleasure, because they feel like it, or because they feel better as a result of it. And "let he who loves me follow me", as Philippe VI de Valois would say. ("Qui m'aime me suive!") 

La liberté guidant le peuple, by Eugène Delacroix

Deriving from that, he who does not love me can simply leave the blog.

By writing a blog, after all, you get to express everything that comes to mind without exhausting others. People can chose to read it or not. Those who are not interested simply disappear in the blogosphere never to come back, and no one is annoyed or upset in the process. Those who do stay and come back out of common interests and a similar outlook on life can become wonderful interlocutors (here I wink at my "blog pals" - wink back if you recognize yourself!) ;-)

For many, blogging might be just that: an outlet, a place to express, following your mood, an endless introspective monologue or any kind of superficial soliloquy... in all impunity. After all, according to the French writer Jules Renard, writing is nothing else than "a way to talk without being interrupted" ("Écrire, c'est une façon de parler sans être interrompu"). Sometimes, that feels good indeed. The blog becomes the repository of your thoughts, from the deepest to the most insignificant. When you sign out of your blog you know it will be there, waiting for you until your next visit.

In some cases, blogging does have a stated objective, albeit a rather egocentric one (but what blog is not egocentric, I ask!): to be read, to receive feedback, accountability, support. People in a weight loss process, for example, might want to use a blog to that end. In the process, however, bloggers might find themselves arousing unexpected reactions and gathering more readers than they had imagined. What started as a personal reflection becomes an inspiration for others. What started as a simple list tools becomes a source of information. The blog then becomes much more than an accumulation of navel-gazing musings.

This process, albeit not always deliberate, brings us closer to Michel Tournier's views on writing. According to him, the writer's function is to ignite, by his writing, reflexion and even protest. Tournier goes all the way to say that writers should write in a standing position, metaphorically and in reality. To that end, one can use an old-fashioned, tall desk.

A lady writing at her desk, by Vilhelm Hammershoi

What does writing stem from?

But before all those reflexions and analyses on the role of blogging, one has to acknowledge that writing, just like any other behavior, arises from a need. Why do people start blogging (or writing) in the first place?

Don't call the psychiatric hot line just yet, but at this point I think I need to tell you that the first reason I write...

... is because I hear voices in my head.

Not really.

Well, I kinda do.

Let me explain.

I constantly find myself "receiving" ideas, sometimes whole sentences, from a mysterious place that for now we will assume simply is my grey matter. (I have not yet reached the point where I think it's "the divine" trying to communicate me some sacred revelation!) Whether I'm waiting in line at the grocery store, pumping iron at the gym or watching a movie, these incessant "voices" constantly suggests post lines. Sometimes (often) it comes in full sentences. The blog dictates itself in my mind at all times of the day and night. I don't do anything in particular to make it happen. It seems like the more I read, and the more I write, the more wants to be written. What am I supposed to do?

(This inspiration seems to reach its peak whenever I read a good book. Walden or Life in the Woods, by Henry David Thoreau, is such a book. I started gluing sticky notes in it, thinking I would come back to it and transcribe my favorite quotes, accompanied by my comments, in this blog, but within a few pages only I realized I was stopping to catch my breath at every other sentence. I even repeated one out loud a few times, entranced, so much that D eventually looked at me knowingly and said "You're having one of those literary orgasms, aren't you?")

Those bouts of inspiration following each other at a relentless pace, I find myself scribbling notes on pieces of paper, on napkins or, when out of those, on the back of my hand. It's exhausting, really. Sooner or later, I have to pour it all onto the page, somewhere! And after years of misplacing pieces of paper, notebooks and even Word documents, I came to the conclusion that a blog would be the best place to "put all my stuff".

Some people cannot stop applying paint to the canvas. I cannot stop putting words on the page. And a blog page is the only "safe place" I've found to do it. Plus, it comes with the unparalleled advantage of an immediate publication. How convenient!

This inspiration does not come without its downsides: the balance I strive for in life prevents me from writing as much as I would like to, and sometimes (often), that pains me. There's never enough time to write.

In brief, for me, writing primarily stems from a compulsion. In fact, a lot of prolific writers say that if they didn't write, they would fall to pieces. 

I say do what you need and can do; if you need to write and if you can write, by all means write! (I can also sing and swim, but for some reason writing is more compelling.)

Maybe one reason why writing is so compelling is because it serves an explicit therapeutic purpose (singing, swimming - and running, in comparison, are implicitly therapeutic). I hope you will forgive me if I indulge in the most narcissistic behavior of quoting myself, but as I recently said on another fellow blogger's post, in life we are our own satellite... gravitating around our true self, first at a certain distance, then getting closer and closer until we finally find the right place to "land" on ourselves. I find that writing, even if circular at times, helps me move toward that "enlightenment".

For as long as I can remember I have always written. At least half of the lucidity I have attained to this day comes from that writing. Yes, there has been a lot of circling around the truth, but slowly, surely, I have found answers. By writing on this blog specifically I have also found "my voice". We all have something to say, and we all have our own unique way of delivering it. By writing over and over again, you discover your "inner artist" as much as your "inner personality". The kind of writing you ought to do, and the kind of writer you are, emerges and takes shape.

For more on the therapeutic and artistic virtues of writing, I recommend you read Julia Cameron's The Right to Write. She gives plenty of insight on how to make writing a habit, and on how to make sure you replenish the well of ideas regularly. I read her while doing my Master's in French Literature and Creative Writing. It undoubtedly boosted my confidence. For more inspiration on the writing act, I also recommend Stephen King's On Writing.

Writing for posterity

At this point I think we ought to mention that blogging is not solely a compulsive writer's indulgence. One of my main motivations when I write this blog is to transmit my interests, passions, and the little bit of knowledge and wisdom I have acquired to my two daughters, who are too young at this time to fully understand most of it. My hope is that one day, they will read this blog and find in it a least a little bit of useful insights.

I've been following a few blogs and you know what I've noticed? I've noticed that no matter what the contents and container (or message and presentation) are, whether it's highly informative, useful and varied or highly repetitive and superficial and narcissistic, the true test is the readership. If what you write and the way you write it touches others, they will react to it, and your blog will flourish. 

But if you find yourself being the only one appreciating your own blog, don't despair. Remember the good this blog is doing to you. Isn't that sufficient in itself? And remember that if you want to be read, it does not suffice to write well; you have to make yourself visible! Tell your friends and family about your blog (unless you use it to vent about them!) Post comments on other blogs. Eventually you will get some response.

Other than making yourself visible, one last advice you could follow is the following old adage: before you say (or write) something, ask yourself the following questions: "Is it true? Is it kind? Is it useful?" I sure hope what I write has a little bit of the three... at least some of the time.

Have fun writing!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Thinking of Boston

Woke up...

... went for a run...

... had this song on my mind the whole time:

That's all.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Fountain of Youth

Fountain of Youth, by Eduard Veith

(Note: this post has been eclipsed by my most recent - and quite serious - one; therefore I am reposting it today for the benefit of your beautiful - and youthful! - eyes, reader. Enjoy!)

The Fountain of Youth

Are you constantly mistaken for your daughter's sibling?

Do people faint when you tell them how old you are?

Are you tired of being carded in clubs when that should have ended a good 20 years ago?

Do potential partners of a similar age turn you down because they "don't date minors" (even though you're closer to being a senior?)

Or do you simply feel much younger than you are?

Today is the day you're becoming famous! (well, sort of)

Here's what you have to do:

1. Tell us what you think is the reason for your youthful looks/inner feelings. You wear SPF 128 sunscreen? You eat kale for breakfast every morning? You run 15 kilometers every evening? You dance and sing at lunch time? You have torrid sex every night? You drink rose water? Or you simply have great genes?

2. (optional but cool - please consider it!) Submit a clear picture of you, NOT photo shopped, by email at the following address (double check the spelling to be sure I get it):
m l e u x j
g m a i l
c o m

3. (if you submitted said picture) Write something along the lines of: "I allow you to publish this attached picture of me on your blog. You can use my name OR I would like you to only use my initial. You can write my age OR I would like you to have people guess my age. My age when this photo was taken is _____.

As soon as I have enough input I will publish it! Don't keep this a secret; all of us deserve eternal youth!

Thanks everyone!

Fountain of Youth, by Lucas Cranach

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Keep an eye on your boys, so the girls can be carefree

This post is going to be more serious, because the situation is. There will be no picture on this post either, because I don't see how I could post any in good taste.

During my latest run with running partners K and L, the conversation turned to the recent suicide of 17-year old Rehtaeh Parsons, who had been raped by four boys 2 years ago. We all know that Canada (and the pretty province of Nova Scotia) are not immune to such horrible events, yet we couldn't help but wonder what in the world goes through the minds of men for them to commit such crimes... often without a trace of guilt (those guys took pictures and posted them on social media, for goodness's sake!) For your information those 4 boys have remained unpunished to this day. Baffling to say the least, especially when you know there are PICTURES out there.

I am not here to give you a detailed account of the events - it's everywhere on the net for you to read about if you wish so - but I want to share some points of view I have encountered relating to this situation. What it comes down to, as you're about to see, is the attribution of responsibility. Who is to blame when a rape happens? 

Right from the start let's make this clear: alcohol is not the culprit. Even very drunk most people wouldn't harm a fly.

By the same token, I would like to ask "Who should worry about rape?" As a friend of mine who has 3 boys said with much wisdom, it's not enough for parents of girls to do everything they can so their daughter will not end up being a rape victim. Parents of boys should do everything they can so their son will not end up being a rapist!

Ah, but your son is not one of those sickos, right? Let me just guess that those 4 guys who raped Rehtaeh, just like a good proportion of rapists, appeared normal to most of their acquaintances. Let me add that they almost certainly used to be a cute, adorable little boy, cherished by his proud parents. 

What happened between then and now is what we should worry about. Much more so than we should worry about what girls wear and how much alcohol they ingest at parties. Girls are NEVER responsible for being raped. Period.

On that matter, let me quote an article by Stuart L. Hills, Rape and the Masculine Mystique: "No one, of course, ever inquires whether a robbed service station operator asked for it or observes that nice guys get mugged too."

This is NOT to say that each and every boy is a rapist in the making, oh no. But let's not put our head in the sand and pretend that those things only happen in faraway locations where everyone but the kitchen table is deeply deranged.

At this point in my post I would like to give a voice to a certain number of commenters who have done a great job of putting the dots on the Is and the bars on the Ts regarding this situation. I am providing you with an excerpt for each, but I also included the link if you wish to read an article in its entirety: simply click on the bold title to reach the rest of the article.

It sounds like Rehtaeh’s parents were doing everything they could to help their daughter. What about the parents of the other children? What did the parents of these boys do when they were told what their children had ‘allegedly’ done? There was photographic evidence for god sake! Did these boys go to counseling? What did their parents say or do to let their children know that what they did was wrong? Did Mom and Dad stick their heads in the sand and say, “Not my boy. I know, I know. You have a picture of him doing this awful thing but it must have been her fault. My boy wouldn’t do that.” And what about the parents of the kids who tormented Rehtaeh on Facebook and through text messages? Did they take away their children’s computers? Their phones? Were these children counseled on how their actions made another human being feel?

Never take a drink from anyone or let your drink out of your sight. Don’t show too much cleavage. Be aware of your surroundings at all times. Never go to a boy’s room alone. If it comes to it, go for the eyes, the nose, the balls. Always stay with a group of girls…safety in numbers. You can’t trust him, even if he seems nice. These are all the rules I was taught growing up. Parents, teachers, media, all told me I had to be careful not to get raped. Because I was a girl. And the responsibility was on me. I’m so fu**ing sick of it. I don’t have daughters that have to be taught these rules. I have sons. Three sons. And instead, I will teach them what seems like a pretty basic concept that should be taught to all sons: DON’T RAPE PEOPLE!

When women get harassed on the street, or at a bar, or on their walk home from work, do you know what we think? We wonder, am I going to get out of this safely? Am I going to walk away from this? Where are my keys if I need to stab someone in the eye? Are there people on the street? Will they hear me? Which way will I run? Solar Plexus, Instep, Nose, Groin. I’m exaggerating, but only so slightly. Does it disturb you that we think like this? That we have to think like this? Do you want to know the saddest part? When I started this essay describing my Friday night, I almost included descriptions of what my roommate and I were wearing. I almost mentioned that we were casually dressed, that our clothes weren't revealing, that neither of us was drunk. I almost fell into the trap of proving to you how undeserving we were of harassment and I'm embarrassed to admit that to you now. That's how easy it is to go into victim mode, how easy it is to absorb the lesson that you are somehow responsible for unwanted attention, for harassment, even for assault. No one is deserving of your behavior. Ask your female friends, if you have any, if they’ve ever walked home late at night with a key pushed through their knuckles, just in case, if they’ve ever crossed the street to avoid a stranger, just in case, if they’ve ever taken the long way home because of the weird guy on the corner, just in case. Ask them if they’ve ever made up a boyfriend to get a guy to leave them alone, if they’ve ever gotten off a train car and moved to the next because you just never know, if they’ve ever shelled out for a cab because men like you were at the bus stop. Do you really want to be that guy?

A few years ago, as I was about to leave a party, I found one of my friends passed out on the couch. Of all the people who were still there the vast majority were men, many of which I did not know very well but all of which seemed to be "good guys" - I had conversed with most of them and they all knew each other. Despite this "good feeling", my guts told me that I shouldn't leave my friend there; I managed to lift her up and to take her with me - she doesn't remember any of it by the way. I wonder how those guys would feel if I told them why I brought my friend home with me that night, why I did not simply leave her there to sleep it off (she seemed comfy enough on that couch). Leaving without her was simply not an option. Why does it have to be that way? 

To finish up, I would really like to share a video with you but I can't seem to find a proper link, so here's how you get to it: On Facebook, find Wipe Out Suicide. Click on their Videos. Click on the one which shows a girl passed out on a couch (should be among the top ones): How to Treat a Girl (or Anyone). Watch. I promise it will be 30 seconds of your time very well used. (Their other videos are great too.)

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Two minuses make a plus

Math, ah! math, the quintessential unpopular school subject if there is one!

For some reason, people love to hate math.

I will not try to dissociate myself from this tendency. From early on math had as much appeal to me as steamed Brussels sprouts (i.e., not much!)

Luckily (or unluckily), my attitude towards both of those calamities slowly changed as I was exposed to A LOT of them. In both cases, this "torture" usually happened at the family table.

You see, I had an enthusiastic Brussels sprouts lover for a mom... and a no-less enthusiastic mathematician for a dad. We were thus served a lot of each for dinner. Literally! My dad always found ways to infuse math concepts in food-related situations!

Eating those bitter green balls (no pun intended!) and solving math problems remained a battle for most of my childhood and teenage years, but as I entered adulthood, and especially as I became a mom, I realized how much progress had been done (or how brainwashed I actually was).

First, I now enjoy (and serve my family) the dreaded green stuff. Second, I now surprise myself giving my kids the same "math is everywhere and let's have fun with it" treatment my dad gave me.

Some examples of what my dad would do:

When he served us food using a spoon (e.g. mashed potatoes, green peas, fruit salad), he would pour a small spoon full on the plate, then say "Okay, this was $5 worth of [whatever food it was]. How much of it do you want? $10? $15? Or maybe you're not that hungry. $7.50? $6.66666? Good thing he did not ask us to calculate volume rebates!

When he served us something that was round (e.g. pizza, pie), he would ask us to tell him how big a portion we wanted by either providing him with a fraction ("I would like an eight of the pie") or degrees ("I would like 30 degrees of that cake") If we made a mistake and ended up with a piece smaller than we expected we had to live with it. 

My dad saw numbers everywhere and I wonder if he did not think and dream in numbers, too. To distinguish between us and the cats he used the terms "biped" and "quadruped". At random moments he would also ask us questions such as "If there are 12 cows in one field and 6 horses in the second, how many legs and ears does that make, total?"

Other common conversation topics were the dreaded faucet problems and the non-less headache inducing train problems.

Example of a faucet problem (from http://www.purplemath.com):

When the tub faucet is on full, it can fill the tub to overflowing in 20 minutes (we'll ignore the existence of the overflow drain). The drain can empty the tub in 15 minutes. Your four-year-old has managed to turn the faucet on full, and the drain was closed. Just as the tub starts to overflow, you run in and discover the mess. You grab the faucet handle, and it comes off in your hand, leaving the water running at full power. You yank the drain open, and run for towels to clean up the overflow. How long will it take for the tub to empty, with the faucet still on but the drain now open?

Examples of train problems (from http://math.about.com):

Question 1: 

A train left Chicago and traveled towards Dallas. Five hours later another train left for Dallas traveling at 40 miles per hour with a goal of catching up with the first train bound for Dallas. The second train finally caught up with the first train after traveling for three hours. How fast was the train that left first going?
Question 2:
One train left the station and traveled toward its destination at a speed of 65 miles per hour. Later, another train left the station traveling in the opposite direction of the first train; it was going at a speed of 75 miles per hour. After the first train had traveled for 14 hours it was 1960 miles apart from the second train. How long did the second train travel?

I honestly thought I would never turn into a math whiz like my dad, and for the most part I haven't. But...
When I buy something oftentimes I calculate the price minus the rebate plus the tax and tell the cashier the exact amount it's going to cost before they tell me.
When my kids were preschoolers I would make patterns out of Legos and ask them to put the piece that should come next.
When we played hopscotch, instead of the traditional one I would draw it out of various shapes, and the kids had to name them as they went across: "octogon, oval, rhombus..."
The other day I was having breakfast with R, my 9 year old, when I noticed that the 4 tea lights on the table were arranged in a 2X2 square shape. I quickly went to get some more so I could arrange it in a 3X3 square, then a 4X4, and we spent the next half hour discussing square numbers and square roots.
It reminded me that the first time I showed my daughters how to play checkers, I also explained to them how you can count the squares on a chessboard by multiplying the number of squares (rows X columns) instead of counting them all one by one (my kids were probably 3 and 5 at the time).
A few weeks ago, our school had its annual "Math Night". We don't attend all of the school's special activities, but this is one I am adamant we do not miss. We got to play all kinds of fun games including one where you separate Smarties by colors, then count them, then make a graph out of it. The older kids were encouraged to calculate the mean, median and mode through this exercise. (My youngest mostly wanted to eat the Smarties, but I still managed to get a little bit of math out of the experience.)
At one point during the aforementioned Math Night I somehow ended up at the Grade 5 table with my Grade 1 daughter, A. Not ones to be easily defeated, we enthusiastically started working with the contractor, drawing different angles and comparing them. I explained the concept of right angle and asked A to find some in her surroundings (she pointed to the corners of the sheet of paper, of the table, of the door). I showed her that when she stands up she makes a right angle with the floor. To illustrate smaller angles I used a Pacman analogy. A loved that Pacman can open his mouth so big that it closes back on itself, making poor Pacman disappear completely! (360 degree angle).

Other examples of math in everyday life include the question I asked the kids yesterday as we were getting ready for the puppy training class: "It's 4:42 now and we have to leave in about 30 minutes. What time will it be then?"
Of course, the main reason why the kitchen is the perfect place to do math is because of the recipes, as my mom (who seems to think math is sexy - or at least that mathematicians are; that's why she married one!) loves to say: the best way to teach children math is cooking and baking! Whenever we bake homemade muffins, the girls help me measure the ingredients; for extra challenge (and extra muffins obviously), I usually have them double the quantities.

Finally, one of my favorite Sesame Street character is Count Von Count, and I certainly exposed the kids to a lot of him before they went to school!

Isn't he awesome?

But I truly realized how permeated I was with my dad's legacy when I recently said to my trainer "It's kind of boring to just count my burpees. Let's say prime numbers in ascending order instead, one for each burpee". She looked at me like I had just landed from a distant galaxy.

The most important math lesson I have learned from my dad, however, would be that "two minuses make a plus". Once, coming back from his weekly hockey game, that's the concept he used to explain how the two weakest players on his team had managed to score an incredible goal together.

I have kept this in mind and adopted it as part of my life philosophy. Therefore I try to look for the positive even when what's most obvious is an accumulation of negatives.

To finish beautifully, there is the ultimate meeting of math and words: a Fibonacci sonnet. Try it!

For more on the Fibonacci Sequence:


For more on parental legacy, be sure to read my previous post: