Tree identification workshop (and fitness)

Shagbark Hickory tree at Allerton Park
Shagbark Hickory at Allerton Park

Jackie and I attended a tree identification workshop at Allerton Park yesterday.

Both my parents are naturalists, and my brother took some botany classes as part getting his PhD in science education, so they all know all the trees we’re likely to see in any of the places where we’ve ever lived. They routinely identify the trees for me when we’re walking. If I’d had any sense, I’d have learned all that stuff myself long ago.

Sadly, I have a lazy brain—the sort that figures that if other people will identify the trees for me, there’s no need for me to learn how to do it myself. So, I had to subject myself to this workshop to try and catch up.

It was a very well done workshop. We spent about half an hour going over basic terminology of tree characteristics—alternate versus opposite, simple versus compound, pinnate versus palmate, petioles versus petiolules—then we spent about three hours hiking through Allerton Park on the south side of the Sangamon River, before breaking for lunch. After lunch we spent another three hours hiking on the north side of the river, looking at the trees found over there.

We learned to identify maybe 30 species, with enough repetition of the more common species that we might actually be able to remember them.

It was good.

With all the time and effort I’ve been putting into fitness of late, I’ve been feeling just a little smug—I’m in so much better shape than I was nine or ten years ago. But this outing showed me that any such smugness is unjustified—everybody in our group of 20 or so, including some people older than Jackie and me, held up just fine to the rigors of five or six hours on our feet in the woods, some of it hiking off-trail. Jackie and I held up just fine too, but I was pretty tired at the end. (And managed to jam my ankle at some point, which wasn’t a problem during the event, but got sore in the night.)

It was a good reminder that endurance is a very complicated thing. Being in shape to walk briskly for 10 or 15 miles is not the same as being in shape to alternate walking and standing for the same number of hours. Adding effort in a mental dimension—trying to learn the trees, keeping an eye out for things like poison ivy, nettle, and tripping hazards—also makes things more taxing, something that’s easy to forget.

Now we need to get back to Allerton reasonably soon—before we forget everything—and see how many of those trees we can still identify.

Adjusting my morning routine, maybe

The natural movement people I follow continue to broaden my perspective on what constitutes natural movement. Fairly recently, in her podcast, Katy Bowman pointed out that dilating and contracting the pupil of your eye is a natural movement.

Most people spend most of their time at just a few lighting levels—dark (however dark they keep the room they sleep in, which often isn’t very dark), medium (ordinary indoor light levels), and bright (ordinary outdoor light levels). Katy suggests that there may be some benefit in experiencing the whole range of light levels, from in-the-woods-at-night dark to full-sun-at-midday light—and most especially everywhere in between.

It’s an idea that appeals to me, and I’m inclined to copy her and go outdoors while it’s still dark, and take a walk during the time from just before dawn until just after sunrise.

Taking such an early morning walk would be a change to my daily routine, and whenever I think about adjusting my daily routine I like to compare it to that of Charles Darwin. He was so productive for such a long time, I figure his is a touchstone for a successful daily routine. So I went and checked and was very pleased to see that Darwin’s daily routine included a pre-breakfast walk of about 45 minutes.

I’d previously copied some elements from Darwin’s routine, but I hadn’t taken that one. I’ve been spending that time at the computer checking email, Facebook, and my RSS feeds, and chatting on-line with my brother. Those are all things that are probably worth doing, but maybe they don’t need to be the very first things I do in the morning.

I’ve been thinking about doing this for a while, but spring has been cold and damp and not really conducive to early morning walks.

This morning I took a test walk, strolling around Winfield Village and in the Lake Park Prairie Restoration in the half hour before sunrise. It was very pleasant.

sunrise from prairie

Summer work

I was making some notes, trying to organize my thinking about how I wanted to spend the summer. My first draft looked something like this:

  1. Finish my novel
  2. Work on my parkour strength/skills
  3. Do some running
  4. Go for some long walks
  5. Get in some bike rides
  6. Practice taiji in the park

It’s not a bad list, but as soon as I started playing around with it, I noticed that there’s a lack of parallelism. Specifically, the first item was a goal, while the other items were activities.

So I changed it, turning the first item into “Work on my novel.”

I think that’s better. I think having a goal to “finish” my novel has been an obstacle to actually doing so.

And it’s kind of odd that I’ve been thinking that way at all, because I’ve always enjoyed the actual writing part of writing. I’ve never been one of those “author” types of writers—the ones who don’t want to write, but only to have written. I’ve always liked all the phases of writing. I like starting something new, when I have a clean slate and haven’t made any mistakes yet. I like the phase of cranking away on something, putting the words down. I like the phase of revising, getting my raw words closer to the story I’d envisioned. They’re all good. So why have I found it so hard to work on my novel these past many months?

Perhaps I have tricked myself into replaying my perpetual struggle with the things I merely wanted to get done, as opposed to the things I actually wanted to do. It’s a problem I had all through school, and then all through my career. The things I needed to get done were always the hardest.

Since I quit working a regular job, I discovered that I am way more productive when I do the things I want to do and put off the things I just want to get done. This makes some things problematic—the taxes come to mind—but overall it’s been an effective strategy.

I have other thoughts about trying to be more productive this summer—this actually started out to be another “daily routine” post—but I’ll save those thoughts for another time.

For the rest of this morning, I’ll just see if I can quit worrying about finishing my novel, and instead spend some time working on it. And maybe squeeze in a run, along with some strength training.

Fencing, taiji, parkour, oh my!

I don’t know how long I’ve wanted to learn to fence. At least as far back as 7th grade when I read Glory Road, and probably before then. Back in the 1960s and 1970s in Kalamazoo, I was unable to come up with a way to learn, but nowadays in Champaign it’s possible—because there’s The Point Fencing Club.

The minimalist option would be to take the $100 three-day adult fencing workshop in mid-June. The dates are slightly awkward, as that’s very likely exactly when my dad might come to visit, but otherwise it would be just the thing.

Alternatively, I could go ahead and join for the summer for $150 (plus another $100 or so to buy my own foil, plastron, jacket, glove, and mask). Upside of that: I’d have my own foil! Downside: it’s a lot of money. Plus, if I enjoyed it, I’d end up wanting to keep doing it, which would cost something like $750 a year.

I’ve considered doing this each summer for years now and have never done it due to the cost and scheduling issues. This year it seems like a real possibility.

Another thing I’ve been meaning to do each summer for a while now is study taiji with The Center for Taiji Studies.

Founded by my teacher’s teacher, they’re a strong local group that takes a somewhat more martial perspective on taiji than my teacher, which very much appeals to me.

Like with fencing, the main obstacles have long been scheduling and cost. Taking weekly classes for the summer looks to come to $234, so almost exactly the same as it would cost to spend the summer fencing.

There’s slightly less downside. Since I already have a taiji practice in place for fall, winter, and spring, there will be less of an inclination to spend another several hundred dollars a year to continue practicing with them year-round.

A third thing that I meant to do last summer and will almost certainly do this summer is join the local campus parkour club for their practice sessions over the summer.

That has the enormous upside of being free. The downside is that they are just group practice sessions, and not formal classes.

I went one time last summer, and actually got a lot of instruction. I expect that if I showed up, practiced with the other folks there, and asked people to show me the stuff I didn’t know, I could continue to get instruction. Of course, that’s not the same as having a skilled instructor put together a curriculum designed to teach the basic skills in a sensible order.

As I say, these are all things I’ve been wanting to do for as long as I knew they were things. I’m still working out the details, but this summer I’ll start working on the backlog.

Using https

Now that Let’s Encrypt is up and running, and now that Dreamhost has integrated it into their tool set, I have finally gotten security turned on for my website.

Just visit philipbrewer.net using https instead of http and you can browse the site secure in the knowledge that the pages will be encrypted in transit. As if that mattered for a public website. But still—might be useful, and costs nothing except a whole bunch of cycles on your computer and my hosting service’s computers.

I had actually turned on encryption some time ago for the admin pages, so that I could securely administer the site even when my access to the internet wasn’t secure (over public WiFi, for example). But I hadn’t pulled the trigger to route general traffic over https because the certificate I used was self-signed, which meant that I could trust it, because I knew which certificate I’d installed, but the general public couldn’t tell the difference between my site and a fake site set up by a some perfidious fraudster. The new Let’s Encrypt certificate is signed by a well-known issuer, so any modern browser will show the handsome green padlock.

clipUpdate your bookmarks appropriately!

Winter parkour prep—a look back

A few months ago, I wrote about my plan to do some strength training to prepare myself for parkour training this summer. As I’m now working on my plan for the summer, I thought I ought to evaluate how my winter’s training had gone.

There were four specific areas I wanted to work on:

  • Hanging
  • Wall support/wall dip
  • Squatting
  • Toe flexibility

Although my progress was mixed, I’m reasonably happy with how things have gone.

I’m most pleased with the hanging. I don’t remember for sure how far I had gotten last summer—I think I remember hanging for forty seconds—but I’m sure I beat it this year. (Recent best: one minute fifteen seconds.) In addition, I started adding negative pull-ups to my workout, and can now do four of them. (And do them with pretty good control.) I may be within striking distance of my first pull-up!

I’ve been quite lazy about the wall support and wall dip exercises. In my brain the reason for this is that I don’t have a good wall to practice on, which is crazy, because the window seat is right here about two feet from where I’m sitting, and it’s a perfectly good place to do the exercise. It’s not perfect, though: It’s too low, so I have to bend my knees to get my feet off the ground, and that means that I can’t do the most parkour-like version of the exercise in which my feet can contribute to the effort. Which is no excuse for not doing the upper-body part of the exercise, but that’s brains for you.

I’m not sure I made much headway with the squatting, although I figured out that ankle flexibility is my main limitation. If I prop my heels up a couple of inches, I can squat down, linger there for a while, and stand back up again. Without the heel support, I need some other aid—something to hang onto to keep myself from topping over backward. I’ve been doing a lot of stretching for calf (and hamstring) tightness, and also just spending some time in a squat (with heel support). I’ve also done some bodyweight squats, going as low as I can, and some goblet squats (where the weight allows me to get all the way down without toppling over, and provides some resistance).

I think I did gain some toe flexibility, or perhaps just a better understanding of my limitations. I’m hoping that I improved enough that I’ll be able to do things like quadrupedal motion barefoot without hurting my toes. In any case, I’m pretty sure that even my most minimal shoes will provide adequate protection that I can train while I continue to work on it.

Besides just progress, I thought I’d mention one further insight: For a while in the autumn I’d been just a little restless during the night—I’d wake up and toss and turn, and often end up getting up for a bit before I was able to get back to sleep. I was very surprised to discover that this immediately got better. My theory is that it was due to the stretching I’ve been doing to improve my squatting: My lack of flexibility meant that I’d start getting achy and uncomfortable after a few hours of lying still, and the stretching improved that almost immediately.

As I said up at the top, I’m working on my plan for the summer. I’ll be sharing those thoughts shortly.

Deliberately hilly walk

I think Champaign-Urbana is great. The university gives it cultural and scientific amenities far beyond its size. It’s a cheap place to live, which not only enables my lifestyle, it enables the lifestyle of any number of clever creative people who choose to live where they can make enough from their art to support themselves.

Just about the only thing that CU really lacks is relief—that is, a variation in height from one place to another.

What I mean to say is: it’s really, really flat. Take for example, this image:

Looking toward Yankee Ridge

That’s the hilly direction. I’m looking toward Yankee Ridge, which is about three miles away from where I’m standing. It may not look like much, but that hill in the distance is a big deal when you’re on a bicycle. At least, it is if you’re used to riding in Central Illinois.

Given the terrain, we don’t get enough hiking on hills, unless we make an effort to go to the hills. So, that’s what we did yesterday. We drove to Fox Ridge, a nearby state park which has some hills.

I remember hiking in Fox Ridge last summer, shortly before our big Kal-Haven trail hike, and finding that we were in pretty good shape for dealing with the hills, despite our very limited practice. That was less true this spring. I was a bit tired from my unexpectedly fast run the previous day, and we were both a bit out of shape from a lack of hills over the winter.

Still, we did okay. We saw some spring wildflowers, like these dutchman’s breeches:

img_20160416_101623469_26401844861_oAnd this buttercup:

img_20160416_101630244_26468029235_o

And this solomon’s seal:

img_20160416_110056171_26401892471_oTotal hiking was probably only a little over 3 miles, but the hills made it a very different sort of hike than our much longer hikes closer to home. Plus, we got to spend time in the woods.

So, that’s another bonus of Champaign-Urbana: We’ve got Fox Ridge State Park just 50 miles away.

Accidentally fast run

The weather finally became what I want from weather: gloriously warm and sunny. Friday I celebrated by going for a run.

Conventional wisdom for a while now has been that faster foot-turnover—at a rate of 180 steps per minute—is better. Supposedly it maximizes the amount of energy stored in the elastic properties of your feet and ankles which can then be returned as free energy in the next stride. Slower foot-turnover means you have to work harder twice—first, using muscle strength to absorb the energy of the foot-strike, and then using fresh muscle power to generate the next stride.

To work on that, I’d downloaded a metronome app to my phone, and set it to tick at 180 bpm. I started that up, and started running in sync with the ticking.

I’m sure it’s possible to run at a slow pace with fast foot-turnover, but doing so did not come naturally to me. I sprinted off down the road at quite a bit faster than my usual running pace.

Perhaps, if I’d focused on running slowly at 180-foot-strikes per minute I’d have been okay, but the other thing I was focusing on was making my foot-strikes as gentle as possible. (There’s recent research supporting the obvious: minimizing impact loading of each step reduces running injuries.)

With my attention focused on faster, lighter foot-strikes, I managed to get myself pretty out of breath in just a mile or so. At around 2 miles, I passed a playground that I like to pause at—I practice my balancing by running around the perimeter formed by (I think) 1×6 boards, and then do some inverted rows using a piece of playground equipment. That gave me a chance to catch my breath a little, and I walked for a minute or so after I finished there.

Once I started up running again, I ran a bit more slowly. I’d turned off the metronome, although I was trying to keep the 180 bpm pace in my head. I was doing a bit better at keeping a lower pace, until I came into sight of the traffic light to cross Route 45, and saw that Jackie was also approaching the intersection, about a block ahead of me.

I responded to that by picking up the pace (again), and managed to cross on the same walk signal. Then I quit running, and walked the rest of the way home with her. The run came in a 3.2 miles, at an average pace that is nothing to write home about, except that it includes the time playing on the playground equipment.

Next step: Figure out how to run slowly with fast foot-turnover.

By the way, this is still true:

The image at the top is the view out the study window, where you can see that our neighbor’s flowering tree is in full bloom. Ours is perhaps a day or two behind.

Walking past the UofI’s solar farm

There’s a dearth of good walking routes from Winfield Village to Champaign and Urbana.

From west to east, the choices are Prospect, Lyndhurst/Fox Drive, Neil/Route 45, First Street, and Race Street. The first two are okay if we’re heading to western or central Champaign, but are pretty out-of-the-way if we’re headed to campus or to Urbana. The latter two lack sidewalks and entail long walks along busy roads, which makes them pretty unsatisfactory.

A few weeks ago, I saw a pack of cross-country runners turn up a rather faint double-track on this side of the railroad, which alerted me to the fact that it’s possible to go that way.

img_20160409_132552803_25726287304_oI was doubly interested in going that way, both as a possible alternative route north, and because about one mile north of us there’s a large installation of photovoltaic panels that the University has been calling its “solar farm,” and this bit of double-track leads right to it.

The track runs along the west side of what seems to be research crop fields for the University, although that bit of it may be an easement to provide access to a recently constructed line of pylons for some high-tension power lines.

The solar farm seems to producing quite a bit of electricity on sunny days like today.

Having walked to the solar farm we turned east. Having come that far instead of having to walk a mile along First Street, we only had a quarter of that distance to cover before we reached Windsor and were able to get on a proper sidewalk.

We took a nice tour around the more obscure corners of the research park, including a little diversion past the Fire Service Institute’s training facilities. Then we crossed Route 45 and made our way down to Schnuck’s to pick up a couple of groceries and head on home.

Total walking was 7.7 miles, in my case added to a 3.5-mile morning run.

I had not done much running since settling into the low-carb thing. Together with the walk, it’s a bit of a test of whether I’m seeing any of the endurance benefits I’m hoping to see. (Answer: Maybe. I certainly didn’t get hungry or feel a need to fuel up during the walk. But then, neither did Jackie.)

On finishing the two-week test, and gently adding carbs back in

The two-week test of eating very low carb went pretty well. Except for a day and a half at the beginning, I felt fine right on through, and I did a pretty good job of actually following the diet. I also saw pretty good improvement in the things I’d hoped a low-carb diet might improve.

So now (starting yesterday), I’m trying to add carbs back in—slowly, just one thing at a time, with an eye toward learning how much and which kinds of carbs I can eat without finding myself right back where I was.

I do know a couple of things already. The biggest is that I’m pretty much over sugar.

I always ate huge amounts of sugar as a child, and continued to consume sugar in vast quantities as an adult. It was only in 2003 when I finally cut most soda pop out of my diet, and I still got plenty of sugar—children’s breakfast cereals, sweet pastries and deserts, sugar in my coffee, high fructose corn syrup in my tomato soup, and even small quantities of soda pop as a mixer for my cocktails.

That’s done. I feel a lot better with almost no sugar in things, and things with sugar in them taste too sweet now. I don’t want to give up chocolate, but the chocolates I’ve been eating have only 7 g of sugar per square, and there are darker chocolates with even less that I’ll probably want to switch to. (And I have no problem making one square a serving.)

We’re making plans to donate the remaining unopened packages of children’s breakfast cereals, peanut butter with sugar in it, and so on to the food bank. (I feel a little bad about giving food I consider unhealthy to poor people. On the other hand, I think poor people should be able to eat what they want, rather than what affluent people think would be better for them. In the end, I come down on the side of figuring it’s better to donate this stuff than to trash it.)

Other carbs are more complex. (Genuinely no pun intended.) I really miss breakfast cereal in the morning, and there are plenty that are low in sugar. I miss toast. I miss sandwiches. I miss rice, and chapatis, and potatoes with my meat dishes.

Jackie and I bake our own sourdough bread, and can make it full of whole grains with no added sugar. That’ll be the last thing I delete from my diet, if it turns out I can’t handle even a little milled grain in my diet.

Oh, and I miss beer. But I miss good beer, and have little interest in “low-carb” beer.

In fact, I have little interest in “low-carb” anything. I’ve become a whole-foods kinda guy these past 10 years. I quit eating anything with artificial sweeteners a long time ago, and don’t expect to eat any going forward. So-called “natural” sweeteners are either just another way to eat sugar (various syrups or fruit juices) or else they’re unnatural as far as I’m concerned, even if extracted from a natural source.

The only exceptions I expect to make are for special cases: non-food items like toothpaste, cough drops, etc.

I’ve been very pleased with my success in giving up my cocktails with sugary mixers—I’ve switched to drinking my whiskey neat or on the rocks. That’s had the side effect of tempting me to the more expensive whiskeys in our liquor cabinet, but that’s not been a problem so far. In fact, just the small amounts of soda pop I drank as mixers probably added a few dollars a month to our grocery bill. Saving that money will not completely offset the cost the more expensive whiskeys, but will subsidize it some.

To touch on the things I was specifically hoping a low-carb diet would help:

  • Allergy symptoms: Seemed to help a lot, but hard to be sure because the allergen load is so variable and idiosyncratic. Adding carbs back in seemed like it might be bringing my congestion right back, but hard to be sure for the same reasons. I’ll continue to monitor, but I’m prepared to go back to very low carb, if that’s what it takes to stay off the allergy meds.
  • Blood pressure: It was not immediate, but around the middle of the second week my blood pressure had gotten a good bit lower. I have cut my lisinopril dose in half (informally, by cutting the tablets in half), and will continue monitoring to see if it stays down while I’m adjusting my carbs. If it settles in this range, I’ll talk to my doctor about changing my prescription.
  • Blood sugar: The Savoy Rec Center, where I teach tai chi, has a free health screening once a month where they’ll check your blood pressure, but also your blood sugar! It’s not a fasting number, so not really comparable with the number from my physical, but it came up 111 which I gather is perfectly fine for someone who has eaten and is not yet just about to eat again.
  • Weight: Over the two weeks, I lost 6.8 pounds, taking my weight from 160.2 to 153.4. I’m assuming that about 5 of those pounds were glycogen and associated water, and will not be surprised to see a large fraction of them come back on as I allow myself to consume more carbs. Still, taking those numbers at face value, I’ve reduced my BMI from 24.7 (near the top of the healthy range) down to 23.7 (much closer to the midpoint of the healthy range). Purely for aesthetic reasons I would be pleased to have less of a spare tire, but frankly I’m looking pretty good already.

I have to call this a tentative success. If I can add in just those few carbs I mentioned—occasional instances of cereal and bread at breakfast, a sandwich for lunch, a starch course with dinner, a piece of dark chocolate now and then—I’ll upgrade it to an unqualified success.

Oh, and beer. For complete success, I’ll have to be able to drink a beer now and then.