Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Incredible Retirement Three

Finally, the little jobs that hung over from the "official" last day at work are all done, and except for volunteering on Thursdays, Shawn is no longer to be found at the museum. Her successor has been discovered and hired, appears well qualified and confident, and the life of the world goes on, while the life of what started as a fully contemplative community, almost forty years ago, and operated as such for a decade before it was interrupted, returns to normal. For both economic and social reasons that interruption would seem to have been necessary, and we're all enormously proud of what my wife accomplished, but nothing equals the contemplative life, especially when the crew is up to full strength, and with the world insisting on becoming a more and more dangerous place to live in, it needs all the full time prayer persons it can get. It is not simply a coincidence that I found in my morning perusal of my journals for these dates of the month a note from John Paul's trip to India in the 80's. The Pope said "The world needs men of prayer more than it needs men of work."
* * *
And going by God's recent behaviour in my head, this must be so.
As I've said before, I ordinarily cycle the upper three of John of the Cross' four major texts, with occasional side trips to the Ascent, or other contemplative writers. (A nice little week, recently, with Teresa's Mansions.) But for the past three or four weeks, the concentration has had to be on certain parts of the Dark Night, with especially one paragraph in Book One, and two chapters in Book Two.
The purpose, it seems, is to acquire a full command of the language that deals with the fundamental and irreconcilable differences between meditation and contemplation, not only in general, but as they have occurred in my own life. As our fundamental personal nature never changes, and as mine is that of the quintessential rugby player habitually getting the wind up over the next game, I sniff the wind about what this might mean, suspecting that God is up to something a little different. Not completely different, but a little different. Part of me would like to put a complete end to outside activity, part of me has begun to wonder if there is not a possibility of returning to a bit of the good old days, when Nelson was in the first stages of building its reputation as an usually cultural minor metropolis.
I use the plural of "stages" advisedly. There was the nine years before the seventh mansion took over, and then there were nine years afterward. And then there were the almost thirty years of relating exclusively to the Vatican.
* * *
On Friday I had a long chat with a sound engineer, visiting with a relative. We talked technology, and the satisfaction of the teamwork involved in making good records, and then we drifted into the spiritual life, with the Almighty deciding to make the discussion more than academic. From how this lad brought back the memories of the Mrs Buckley's Tea Chest days, I wondered to what degree he might be a sign of the new times. But there is, of course, the parable of the sower, and there is also the image of Abram, very much alive in one of this morning's readings, and how he never saw the nation God promised him. But this morning after mass I ran into another veteran of the media, older, and with one hell of a track record. If a third turns up, the musical Olympics might come sooner than I expected. All that gold could be just a sign of even bigger Canadian successes. I am honour bound to remember that so often in the past a very nice period of contemplative solitude was followed by an outburst of profoundly useful art of one kind or another.
Meanwhile, a third of us leaves for Calgary tonight, to be with a girlhood friend dying of cancer. Providence is always interesting. Shawn is finished work just in time. It is the story of our lives, the story of those who get out of bed in order to live God's will one day at a time.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Art of Breathing

I'm just home from booting it up the Silica Street hill, two-and-half blocks of an incline that challenges any kind of biker and also serves as the lung efficiency test for the household, especially when it's done with a backpack full of groceries. It was back in the spring of 2000 that this slope began to make me wonder if my wind was falling off, which set me up beautifully to give Dr. John Douillard's ayurvedic researches a very attentive and grateful ear. (I must be writing for Americans. They're always more impressed by that Dr. thing. Or perhaps it's just that I really do want people to listen up. We owe it to the health system.)
Anyway, by the time I'm into the last block I notice that my breathing is very easy, and it's not because I'm dawdling. In fact, having begun the day with a very leisurely 300 cals on the Concept 2000, and just finished a three mile walk with my not-quite actually retired yet other half, split by a coffee on Baker Street before she headed for the museum, I've definitely got that "I'm in the ZONE" mood that JD has studied so thoroughly, and I feel as if I could go on for hours. I'm increasingly confident that I finally have the handle on my own personal best fitness methodology, thanks to the Seahorse - mind and body and spirit have finally become a true trinity, seamlessly harmonious - and now the fat will really take a hike.
And then I notice that my lips are sealed. Not even a hint of having to open them now and again to catch up on the air. Three steps in, three steps out. Then I try two steps in and three out, and that too is comfortable for most of the last part of the block. I've written earlier, months ago, about how I finally realized that by insisting on sticking rigidly to the shut mouth I was creating tension problems in my chest, so I've changed my routine, focusing on making sure I exhale for the full count. The real priority is not actually nose or mouth. The real priority is time for the oxygen to be fully processed in the alveoli at the bottom of the lungs. But the more the nose is involved, the more accurate the read on what the system is really doing, with a lot less chance for being fooled by temporary euphoria or the often false information we get from being fairly well warmed up.
The nose pings when the oxygen supply is actually inadequate - or at least mine does, basically the right nostril - and this simple little indicator warns us not to go too fast too soon. This always means at least ten minutes of relaxed and easy warm up, something we should have learned by watching all those professional baseball players out of the field before the game, except that I don't have much confidence that they were taught anything about the rights and wrongs of breathing.
Part of today's breathing discovery might have had something to do with the fact that because this morning's was my fifth straight rowing session - with an extra 200 c's thrown in yesterday afternoon - I was for once in the perfect mood for taking my first 100 at a 450 cals per hour pace, a rate I stopped thinking about after the first couple of weeks on the erg, and I never really got up to 550 until the third century. And then only because I was crowding MT's slot, and thus, oh gaffe of gaffes, delaying breakfast.
But even at 450, I tell myself, I'm melting more lard than I would get from the same amount of time walking, by up to 50 percent. I can walk at four-and-half miles per hour, but not nearly as easily as I can row for the same result on the scales.
But I was going to speak about the best rhythm for breathing. I've never actually studied the manufacturer's advice, but MT told me they recommend exhaling on the pull, inhaling on the release. Thus out, in, out,in, etc.
This may be necessary at the end of a race, perhaps. But it is not sound advice for genuine conditioning, according to Ayurveda, Dr. Douillard and my own experience. Getting the lungs to work comfortably and honestly at full potential has to be a priority of any fitness process. I like to inhale on the pull, because the chest is naturally open, exhale on the release, then virtually rest from deliberate breathing on the second set of pull and release. This makes for a four-stroke engine as it were, with only one stroke committed to taking in oxygen.
This is probably easier to say than do at the beginning, but I'm convinced it's pretty much the way the biology works the best.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Athlete in Lent

For a few days there, I had to wonder if the recent ability to be more constant with the fiction had put paid to the Ranger. The fiction goes pretty steadily, for a contemplative - on Saturday I came with nice fat installments for both streams - and I must say that I've never found the process easier. Famous last words, of course, but there are also a number of reasons for thinking that the writing room is in the best order it's ever been. After all, "Contemplatives" has already been written once, so the immense pressure of raw invention in a completely new genre is over; and, a further contentment for my easily scrupulous soul, I have realized that the difference between a redaction and a rewrite means that I can cheerfully ignore the chapter sequences whenever this is appropriate. And NWTA will possibly set a record as the novel that required the least invention whatsoever.
But now back to the gym.
When I first began to run, inspired so profoundly by the film "Chariots of Fire", back in 1982, my motivation were disgust for my own sloth after watching David Puttnam's actors pounding along that English beach, and sensing that I needed to build up my own body's strength, after popping a hernia carrying a cast iron heater down three flights of stairs. The heater was part of the set furniture for my last play, Agatha Christie's "Mousetrap". There was no question whatever of exercise for the purpose of weight control. In fact I was underweight, as the hospital scales so cruelly showed. Who could be overweight, having walked an average of fifty miles a week for a decade?
But the domestic schedule began to change, through a variety of causes that much diminished the opportunity for keeping my shoe repairman in business, and the middle-aged spread began to creep into view. That which I assumed would never happen to me, did, and I began to learn how much easier it was to put weight on than to take it off, once all that walking was no longer reasonably available.
On the other hand, I've never been obsessed with the idea staying slim. I don't have any professional obligations that require this, like an actress who plays romantic leads, or a male model, and I'm sensitive to health theories that suggest, or even insist, that a little too much fat is healthier than too little. Nor do I object to those with ampler figures. There is a kind of beauty in the variety of shapes, as Nature obviously teaches, and then there is the science of the doshas, as taught by Ayurveda, that details mental and emotional qualities that intertwine irremovably with the original created design of a particular body shape. Thus the debate over what is ideal, or even normal, in the area of body weight, is not a simple one.
So my attitude toward my own extra lard - and there are debates about how much of that is actually disproportionate - is as much a matter of philosophical, scientific, interest as it is personal and subjective. As a writer, what am I supposed to think about it? What am I supposed to do about it?
These questions emerged in my professional considerations once the running began, and continued, with greater or lesser efficiency, through a lot of experimentation and study, but never with any complete answers, until I seriously launched into the rowing programme. I got a very good list of answers, some of these permanent solvers of certain physical problems, but never a definitive solution to the weight problem.
For me, a definitive solution meant a method that made the exercise virtually something I barely had to think about, something that did not, could not, interfere with my preferential option for mental activity, believing as I do that the body was made to serve the soul and not the other way around.
"All physical movement passes through the heart."
Because in my first years as a Catholic I read Thomas as constantly and naturally as children - at least of my generation - read the funny papers, I read these words of his and took them for granted, so obvious that only the stupidest of human beings would contradict them. After all, the heart's physiological job is to pump blood throughout the body, it is the body that moves, so the heart knows about the movement. But I don't know if I would have understood them as applying to the question of exercise until I had gone through all the research I commenced upon when I took up running, to any degree at all, and especially not at any thoroughly comprehensive level until my starting up a gym schedule and then immediately lucking into John Douillard's "Body, Mind, and Sport".
As it's been John of the Cross that has been my daily bread for decades now, I don't roar through Thomas as I used to, and I don't know how it was that I was inspired to pick him up and find that passage about the heart. Was it two years ago? Three? Certainly before I took up rowing regularly, but after I'd learned how ayurvedic breathing and other wise old Indian doctrines on the para-sympathetic nervous system could make wise men out of air-headed jocks.
John of the Cross, for all that his first book implies the exercise known to alpinists, in its title, says nothing directly to athletes of any description, except the immensely pertinent advice to those under the mystical influence that if God is not pleased with your team attitude He'll find ways to bench you so abruptly, and forcibly, as to make Vince Lombardi look and sound like a palliative care giver.
According to the ayurvedic logic of the doshas, I happen to have a lot of pitta in me, so I have the attitude problems of the ambitious. I don't automatically think in terms of less is more, and once I'm warmed up I automatically think of getting as much out of the moment as I can.
Thus, with the rower, as I grew stronger week after week, always with that Boston row-off record in mind, I naturally racked off the fast intervals as quickly as I felt the inspiration. Up to the point, this was excellent, and totally natural. We have the right to be as strong as we naturally can be. But what is to be understood as natural? And is the old "mind over matter", or "no gain without pain" an element of natural thinking, or madness?
I certainly was having a good time, and with lots of excellent reading, between all those lovely intervals. But I also had to admit that I sometimes made myself too tired to write or study the keyboard for some time afterward, and I wasn't getting the spiritual feel for the longer rowing sessions necessary for real progress with the midriff. The blast-offs were giving me, on average 200 calorie days, and at the best, only four days a week. Not much pudge put down since Xmas. Some, but not what I'd expected.
And then came the thoughts of Lent that show up at this time of the liturgical year.
I mean, what the hell, Lento means "slow" anyway, so plainly it makes good spiritual sense to drop back to maximum comfort and the extra room for sober thought. The brain is connected to the heart as well as the body is, so let's see what happens.
Honestly, I must admit to being surprised. All those intervals, as much as I enjoyed them, were actually interfering with the real wisdom of the process, and I seem to be learning something about the positive psychological effects of concentrating on endurance. If the body/mind combo knows it can't quit for half-an-hour, it will find ways to make that stretch pleasurable, therefore endurable.
So, four straight days now of 300's, and I can't even think of needing a day off.
At this rate, I'll not only be down some real ounces by Easter, I'll perhaps be light enough by the Ascension to perform in an aeronautic fashion myself.
And stay tuned, because if you think this is an anti-Western sermon, wait until next time when we address the issue of breathing properly while riding an erg. It's not what the maker's literature tells you.