Rediscovering quadrupedal movement

I don’t know when I quit crawling. Probably around first grade. I’m not sure why, either. Because it was something babies did, and I was grown up, I expect.

I don’t remember my parents trying to get me to quit crawling, but I’ve seen other parents try to convince their children to stay off the ground, in the interests of either propriety or cleanliness.

At any rate, most people who crawled all the time before they were five years old have so completely lost the habit it doesn’t even occur to them as a possible way to get under or through something.

When I trained with the local parkour group, the first thing the group practiced was quadrupedal movement—crawling on hands and feet.

After that practice session, I added quadrupedal movement to my own practice, and the first time I went out to do it, Jackie decided to come with me.

(It happened like this: I told Jackie I was going to go play in the woods. “What are you going to do?” she asked. “Crawl and roll on the ground,” I said. “Can I come?”)

We did some rolling, both just rolling sideways and shoulder rolls. We also did some crawling, both prone (bear crawl) and supine (crab crawl).

The actual amount of time spent crawling was pretty small—I doubt if it added up to as much as 5 minutes—but it turned out to be a surprisingly successful bit of practice, because just in the week since then, it has usefully informed the way we dealt with obstacles repeatedly.

The first time was last week at Fox Ridge State Park. At one point the trail was blocked by some fallen trees. There was more than one trunk, making the geometry a bit complex for climbing over. There was enough space underneath the bottom trunk that it would almost have been possible to just do a “step under” move, except we were wearing packs, meaning that we needed another eight or ten inches of clearance.

If I hadn’t just practiced crawling, I don’t think it would have occurred to me that the easiest way to get under the trunks was to crawl on my hands and feet. We’d probably have done something complex, like both take our packs off, have me step under the barrier, handed both packs through (or over), and then have Jackie follow under the barrier.

With the recent reminder that crawling is simple and effective, that’s what we did. I tried to step under, found that there wasn’t clearance for my pack, so crouched down further, put my hands on the ground, and crawled on through. Took about five seconds. Got my hands a little dirty. Worked great.

Yesterday we hiked the backpacking trail at Forest Glen, which presented a problem for which supine crawling made an excellent solution.

steep pathIt’s hard to capture the steepness of this bit of trail in a photo. Not only was the trail steep, it was also wet, and the mud was slippery.

Jackie went down first, and quickly found that the combination of steep and slippery made it too dangerous to attempt to go down bipedally. She dropped down and did an inverted foot-hand crawl (aka supine crawl or crab crawl). It made for a quick, efficient, safe way down the steep bit in the path.

I followed behind, just the same way.

Rediscover quadrupedal movement. Besides being a way to get under or through something, it’s also very stable—perfect for dealing with loose, rugged, steep, uneven, or slippery ground.

Some human movement books

I mentioned a while back that it looked like Christopher McDougall’s new book had been written just for me. Now that I’ve read it, I can say it was just what I was hoping for.

Natural Born Heroes: How a Daring Band of Misfits Mastered the Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance by Christopher McDougall.

It’s a book written in three layers. First, it’s the true story of a group of resistance fighters on Crete who kidnapped a Nazi general and undertook to smuggle him off the island into the hands of the British. Second, it uses that story to explore the ancient Greek ideal of heroism, and to talk about how the ancient Greeks had figured out how to make people into heroes. Third, it talks about the author’s own efforts to develop those same traits—strength, skill, compassion—in himself, and to use those capabilities in his travels across Crete in the footsteps of the resistance fighters.

It appealed to me for a lot of reasons, not least of which is that McDougall has followed much the same path I have—running, barefoot running, parkour, then natural movement.

It’s a meaty book. There’s the adventurous war story, there’s the history of the Greek traditions of fitness and martial prowess (and their martial art, pankration), and there’s the personal anecdotes. But even the anecdotes are more than just “I tried these things and they seemed to work.” McDougall does his research, talks to experts, provides his references, and then tries stuff out and reports on his successes and failures.

The stuff on blending endurance exercise with a low-carb diet was fascinating—and new to me, even though the primary work dates from back in the 1980s. Other stuff, such as the work being done on the importance of fascia for strength, power, and speed is genuinely new.

Highly recommended.

While I was waiting for Natural Born Heroes to come out, I was casting around for something to tide me over—something to fill the space of wanting to read about natural movement—and happened upon a book by Mariel Hemingway from a couple of years ago.

Running with Nature: Stepping Into the Life You Were Meant to Live by Mariel Hemingway and Bobby Williams.

This is not a meaty book. Comparing it to McDougall’s book, it’s as if someone left out both of the first two layers, and wrote a book that was just the personal anecdotes. Some of the “information” in it is just wrong and some of the rest is pretty dubious, but I found it easy to read past the nonsense, because much of the rest of the book made so much sense.

Mariel Hemingway—a pretty girl (now about my age) from a family of celebrities—grew up without a good model for how to live a happy life. Prone to depression, and viscerally aware of the malady’s dangers (a frighteningly high fraction of her relatives either committed suicide or ended up in mental institutions), she had to invent her own self-care regimen.

The regimen she came up with has much in common with my own (and this probably has a lot to do with why I like it). It’s pretty obvious stuff: exercise as play, ample rest, healthy food, plenty of sunlight and fresh air—with some very specific notions that I haven’t implemented yet, but that are probably great ideas, such as making your sleeping area really dark.

I recommend it, but I’m glad I checked it out of the library rather than buying a copy.

After finishing the McDougall book, I was again bereft of a compelling book on human movement. Into that empty space came a book by Jonathan Gottschall.

The Professor in the Cage: Why Men Fight and Why We Like to Watch by Jonathan Gottschall.

Gottschall was an adjunct professor of English who came to realized that his career had peaked. All he could expect was years of teaching English Composition to kids who didn’t want to learn until he eventually annoyed a critical mass of administrators who would then quit renewing his contract, leaving him unemployed. At about the point where this realization became something that he could no longer ignore, he noticed that the vacant former hardware store visible from his cubicle had reopened as a mixed martial arts gym.

Looking out the window, he gets the idea that he’ll start working out at the gym, and then gets the idea that he could fight an MMA-style cage match and write a book about it: The Professor in the Cage!

I happened upon this book in an author interview with the Art of Manliness. It sounded like it might be an informative exploration of the intersection of human movement arts generally with the fraction that are martial arts, as well as being a fun story about taking on a challenge.

Part of the reason that it’s fun is that the author is quite open about the genre that he’s writing in. It’s a stunt book, a type of book which has a certain structure—the author gets in over his head, and writes self-deprecatingly of his struggles. He doesn’t try to disguise the fact that he’s doing that: He knows it, and he knows that you know it.

But it’s also very interesting when the author isn’t getting beat up, because it’s not just personal anecdotes; it’s also a scholarly exploration of ritual violence. He talks a lot about why men engage it in, why women mostly do not, how dueling cultures came to develop, and why they die out. Those aspects of the book are well-researched, with extensive notes, and strike a pretty good balance between the evolutionary and sociobiological basis of the difference between male and female choices and the sociological and anthropological ones.

He also looks at the question that the modern “cage match” fights were supposed to answer: which martial art is the best? (Answer: It turns out that wrestling/grappling styles beat punching/kicking/boxing styles. A grappling-focused style of ju-jitsu totally dominated the MMA cage match fights, until all the fighters learned enough wrestling to hold their own.)

It was especially interesting to read after having read the McDougall book. Both look at the Greek tradition of fitness and both talk about pankration, the ancient Greek martial art, which turns out (unsurprisingly, because it’s both a striking and a grappling art) to look a whole lot like modern mixed martial arts.

I recommend it. Very interesting.

Now I am again between books about human movement, and am having to make do with fiction.

Eating at the dining table

For various reasons, having to do with trivialities like the layout of our old apartment, Jackie and I had gotten into the habit of dining in the living room, often in front of the TV.

At each of the places we’ve lived since then, the layout was more conducive to dining at the table. Our summer place had a kitchen table in the kitchen, and we took nearly all of our meals there. In our winter palace, we put our dining table in the area of the living room that was obviously intended to be the dining area—closest to the kitchen, with a lamp over the spot for the table—and continued to eat at the table (even though much of the space was occupied by boxes).

tie-dye-tableclothHere at Winfield Village, we have very nearly a full-fledged dining room, complete with a sliding glass door to the patio.

Although we’ve pressed a good bit of it into service as a pantry, there’s plenty of room for our little dining table, and we’ve continued to eat at the table.

Our old tablecloths had held up pretty well because they got little use, but now that we were using them all the time, Jackie wanted some new ones. She made one from a lovely piece of batik cloth that I’d brought home from a business trip to Singapore, which I declared probably the best tablecloth in the western hemisphere—until Jackie took some heavy muslin (that we’d previously used as a dropcloth to protect furniture against the depredations of the cat at our sublet), cut it to size, and dyed it some lovely spring colors.

After years of lazy, uncouth behavior, we are feeling very civilized.

Human movement capabilities

I’ve started thinking of my fitness practice more as movement practice. This post is about that shift in my thinking, and if that’s not going to be interesting to you, you’ll probably want to just skip this one.

I have always wanted to be fit, for what I think are mostly ordinary reasons: to be healthy, to look good, to be capable of doing the things that need to be done. For most of my life, my fitness practice fell short of what I thought it ought to be, again for mostly ordinary reasons: I was busy, the weather was bad, I found exercise boring or unpleasant.

I would get my aerobic exercise running and cycling in the summer, and walking year round. When the weather cooperated with a mild spring, I could get in pretty good shape by mid-summer. A couple of years, I even preserved some level of running capability over the winter; one of those years, I ran the Lake Mingo Trail Race, which at 7.1 miles was usually beyond my capability in mid-June when it takes place. But, given the realities of working a regular job (with hours when I needed to be sitting at a computer, rather than out for a run), winter (when I just about don’t cycle or run) and injuries (as my brother likes to say “Running is great exercise, between injuries”), my fitness practice never made me fit for the long term, just fit for a while.

This changed a few years ago, for a couple of reasons.

The less important reason was that my employer closed the site down, and I decided I could get by without a regular job. It means our financial circumstances are a bit straitened, but my hours are my own.

More important, I started practicing taiji.

Taiji gave me balance and control, but much more important, it taught me mindfulness—to be present in my body during my exercise. (I was prompted to write this post at this time because I’ve been reading a blog by Johnathan Mead called Move Heroically, that nicely hits the sweet spot in my evolving interest in fitness. The latest post in particular is on exactly this topic: Embodiment is a Performance Enhancing Drug.)

I like to think of my exercise as building capabilities. I go for long walks because I want to be able to go for long walks. I run because I want to be able to run.

That’s an oversimplification in at least two ways.

For one thing, honesty requires me to admit that I engage in endurance exercise because I like it (perhaps because of the endocannabinoids it generates). A long run at a brisk pace makes me feel good.

More important it’s an oversimplification because specificity of training means that my exercise practice was only building a very narrow slice of the capabilities I imagined. Yes, if I go for a long run every week or two, I do create and maintain the capability to run a long way, but that capability is only barely transferable to other activities. When Jackie and I wanted to go on a century ride, we spent many weeks building up our stamina for long rides. Given how long it’s been since my last long ride, I would not want to stake my life on my capability to bicycle 100 miles without a good bit of training. Maybe fewer weeks because we’re fitter now, but I’d still want weeks of training before attempting another century ride.

It was this realization, in conjunction with my taiji practice teaching me to move more mindfully, that brought me initially to parkour, and more recently to natural movement generally.

Running wasn’t just for fun (although it was fun), and it wasn’t just to be more healthy (although I expect I am). I was explicitly building the capability to run if I needed too. I used that capability sometimes—to catch a bus, to get to an appointment on time—and I imagined that I could use it under other circumstances as well: running away from some danger, running toward someone who needed my help.

But I came to realize that, because of exercise specificity, my capability was a very narrow one indeed. I could run, but I could only barely jump or climb. If I came to a place where I needed to step down I was fine, as long as the drop was only a step or two. But if I needed to jump down by, let’s say, three steps, things got much more problematic. I could climb up a steep path, but am quite daunted if I need to climb up a tree, or cliff, or a wall, or a rope.

That was what brought me to parkour.

Even before I made much progress in the skills of parkour, however, I happened upon natural movement. It shares the roots of parkour, but is less about the specific skills of parkour (vaults and such), and more about basic human movement. Yes, walking and running. Also climbing and jumping and crawling. Balancing. Throwing and catching. Lifting and carrying. Swimming and diving.

So, this is where I’ve come to. I’m very pleased with my walking, and adequately pleased with my running. My climbing skills need considerable broadening. Thanks to taiji, my static balance is okay, but I’m still a beginner when it comes to more dynamic balance. My throwing and catching were never great, and have declined enormously due to a lack of practice since I was a boy. My lifting and carrying skills are deficient, due to too many years lifting weights primarily with machines. If you dropped me in water over my head I could avoid drowning for a while, but unless shallow water or rescue were reasonably close, I would be hard pressed to reach it.

There is a great deal I want to learn (and re-learn) this summer, and I have started in small ways.

weir-behind-winfield-villageThis weir crosses a ditch that runs behind Winfield Village. It’s concrete, a good 12 inches wide, but curved on top, making it a pretty good imitation of a log put across a river to serve as a bridge. I’ve been including it as part of my running route, initially with some difficulty (needing to use the concrete blocks as additional stepping stones), but now crossing on just the weir, and beginning to pick up the pace.

I’m being very careful—Jackie would be quite peeved with me if I injured myself right before our Kal-Haven Trail walk—so I’m not doing much with jumps or vaults yet. But my concept of fitness has broadened greatly, and I’m no longer satisfied with merely a strong heart and strong muscles. I want the full range of human movement capabilities.

Achievement unlocked: Marathon distance

Over the past three years, Jackie and I have done a lot of walks where the distance came in at around 20 miles, but we’d never actually reached 26.2. Yesterday we did.

In many ways, this was just another training walk for our planned Kal-Haven trail walk—which is why we hadn’t hit this distance before: We’re much more concerned with not hurting ourselves before the big walk than we are with hitting any arbitrary distance in advance.

Still, I’m glad to have finally walked 26.2 miles, because now I don’t have to feel like an imposter when I wear my rain jacket:

me-in-marathon-rain-jacket
Me in my marathon rain jacket. Photo by Jackie Brewer.

I got this jacket long ago—at least 15 years ago, maybe longer. I remember finding a gore tex rain jacket in the Sierra Trading Post catalog at about an 80% discount. I think it was so cheap mostly because it doesn’t have a hood, which is a deficiency for a rain jacket, but the large marathon graphic on the back may also have put off some people who were not marathoners.

I snapped one up immediately. Only after I had secured mine did I share the catalog with a friend at work who I thought would also be pleased with a cheap gore tex jacket. (He bought one too. For years we were occasional twinsies on warm rainy days.)

All these years it has been my main rain jacket, and all that time I’ve been just a little uncomfortable wearing a jacket so prominently marked as being for marathoners. Now, finally, I can quit worrying about it.

We were walking rather than running, so we were on the road a long time—almost ten and a half hours. (The people who win marathons run them in a little over 2 hours; middle-of-the-pack runners tend to finish in 3–4 hours.)

It was a great walk, although we were feeling pretty tired the last few miles. We went up to our old neighborhood and walked around our old apartment complex. (It looks a bit more empty than when we were there.) We walked up the Greenbelt Bikeway, then headed east to our summer place. (It looks exactly the same as it did when we lived there last year.) Then we walked through the water amenities at Second Street, and onward to Busey Woods. Then down Race Street to Orchard Downs and across through the arboretum and the research park. We went north to Florida to cross the railroad tracks, then headed south along the Boulware Trail and on into Savoy. We went west just a bit to take the path along Prospect down to Curtis and thence to home, taking a slightly long route through Winfield Village (with a tiny diversion into our prairie) to be sure we hit the target mileage.

In the end we went 26.4 miles. Here’s the Endomondo data:

The Presidential Fitness Test

Vox has an article, A brief history of the bizarre and sadistic Presidential Fitness Test, which I find that I have surprising strong feelings about.

As the headline suggests and the article explains, the whole program was wrong-headed and badly implemented. My complaint, though, is not that the whole thing was designed as if for inevitably humiliating me in front of my peers (although it did that). My complaint is that I could actually have done great on the test, if only PhysEd class had taught what we were going to be tested on.

I don’t remember the details—I last took the test in 1970, give or take a year—but I do remember that I was able to do 1 pullup, and almost able to do a second.

The amount of practice is takes to go from being able to do one and three-quarters pullups to being able to do the six or seven pullups that would have been a passing score is really small. A few weeks of my PhysEd instructor spending a few minutes of class time having us actually do pull-ups would easily have done the trick.

The same for all the other exercises. I might not have beaten the speedy kids at the shuttle-run, but I could have gotten to a passing score. There’s a pretty good chance I was already making the mark on the sit-and-reach (I was a flexible kid), and I was definitely killing it on the situps (I could routinely do 100 situps in those days).

But that’s not what my PhysEd teacher did. Instead, several times a week we’d gather and do 10 or 15 minutes of calisthenics, after which we’d do some fake version of some team sport.

We’d play “baseball,” except instead of actually playing baseball, we’d just send half the kids out to stand in the field, with the six or so who were athletic playing the key positions, while the rest of us just stood in the outfield hoping the ball didn’t come our way. Then we’d all get in line to bat, except since there were a whole bunch of us, we’d mostly just stand in line. Maybe we’d get a chance to swing at three pitches, but we never got any batting practice, nor any instruction, so of course we rarely hit the ball. (We also got no instruction on base running strategy, so we didn’t know what to do when we did hit the ball, and no instruction or practice sprinting, so we wouldn’t have had the ability to run the bases well, even if we knew what to do.)

The “basketball” and “football” that we’d sometimes play were similarly crippled versions of the sports, designed not for us to get fit or develop any movement skills, but rather to make it easy for the PhysEd teacher to monitor a whole class full of people.

After a few months of mostly standing around while “playing” some faked-up version of a “sport,” we’d suddenly find out (at some random time) that we were going to be tested for the President’s Physical Fitness Award.

Class would then stop for several days of even more standing around, while the teacher administered the tests. Some could be done in groups (half of us could do situps, with the other half assigned to hold the ankles and count the reps of a person from the other half). Others, such as the pullups, had to be done one person at a time with everyone else watching the one guy trying (and often failing) to reach the designated mark.

Oh, and we weren’t told what the mark was, so we had no idea if we were passing or failing.

Looking back on it, I wouldn’t really have needed the PhysEd teacher’s help. It would have been possible to find out what the standards were that we were being tested against (although without the internet, it might well have required going to the university library and looking through the depository of official government publications). And it would have been possible to put together my own training regimen. For two or three months before the test I could have practiced the specific events, laying out and running on my own shuttle-run course, doing 1-mile runs, working up from my one measly pullup to being able to do the requisite six or seven.

But it sure would have been easier with a teacher who had us actually practice the activities that we were going to be tested on.

It would also have been a lot more useful for the rest of my life. I’d have come out of elementary school with a basic level of strength and flexibility and endurance, and I’d have learned how to design an exercise routine to meet a goal.

That would have been a lot more useful than what I actually learned in PhysEd, which was mainly the best place to stand to reduce the chance that the ball would come my way while playing a fake version of a sport.

Greencastle Fiber Event and Turkey Run pictures

Jackie used to go to Greencastle, Indiana for the Fiber Event every year. (I think it was under different management back in those days; they called it a fleece fair.) We hadn’t gone the past couple of years, but Jackie wanted to go again this year, so we went.

Although a lot of what Jackie would buy there would sit in her stash for years, it was also a place for great finds—one year I spotted some roving made from a baby camel/merino blend that was on sale cheap because (so the vendor said) it had short fibers that made it hard to spin. But knowing that Jackie has no trouble spinning short fibers, and seeing that it was a beautiful camel-colored roving, I pointed it out and Jackie bought a bunch of it.

This year, Jackie got some yak/merino, and the vendor insisted on giving her a sample of some yak/silk blend as well.

Before coming home, having made it to that part of Indiana, Jackie and I visited Turkey Run State Park.

This time of year is a great time to visit. For one thing, there are wildflowers:

turkey-run-flowers
Bluebells, spring beauties, and may apples (not yet in bloom)

It’s a great place. My family has a long history with it—the first visit I remember was when I probably only 7 or 8 years old, and I’ve been back many times. I’ve stayed in the lodge, stayed in the cabins, and camped in the campground. And always, I’ve hiked the trails.

So, here’s a picture of me on one of the trails:

pb-in-turkey-run
Philip Brewer at Turkey Run State Park (photo by Jackie Brewer)

Here’s a picture of Jackie, taken not too far from there:

jb-in-turkey-run
Jackie Brewer at Turkey Run

More long walks

Jackie and I have continued to work up toward being able to take our planned very long walk in mid-June.

Our previous outing was planned for 15 miles, but we actually did about 17. For yesterday’s outing we came closer to hitting our target distance—planned for 20 miles and came in at 20.61 miles.

It was a pretty good walk. The temperature was a bit cool, but stayed steady for the duration, so we weren’t having to adjust clothing repeatedly.

We walked through Robeson Park and then to our old neighborhood where we had lunch at El Toro. Then we went up the Greenbelt Bikeway and visited our old garden plot near Parkland College. Then we angled our way to downtown Champaign, passing near both our summer place and our winter palace, pausing for coffee at Pekara Bakery. Finally, we walked to the University of Illinois Arboretum (where the cherry trees were just blooming) and then headed home through south campus and the research park.

We held up pretty well, perhaps because the distance was only 3 miles beyond our previous long walk. My plan is that we’ll do 26.2 miles for our next walk, sometime towards the end of April, but we’ll see how things go. We have time in our schedule if we want to take that jump in two steps.

We haven’t been getting in as many of the medium walks as I’d hoped, mostly because of problematic early-spring weather. With the weather shifting to more of a late-spring pattern, I’m hoping that won’t be a problem going forward.

One thing I’d like to do is start including some faster miles in those medium-length walks. We can walk fast enough, but we tend to slow down late in the walk. That’s fine, but if we have very many miles at 20+ minutes per mile, it will make for a very long day on the Kal-Haven trail.

Here’s the details on this walk:

And here are the details for the previous one:

The singular of dice

When I was a boy, the word dice was used in the singular. I had a book of magic tricks that emphasized that “die” was the proper singular, but nobody talked that way, so it sounded totally weird. I never, ever heard anyone use the word—until I came upon Dungeons and Dragons when I was in eighth grade or so.

In the decades since then, the word die has been completely re-normalized. In fact, I had almost forgotten that “dice” used to be universally used as singular as well as plural until coming upon this very funny fashion article about Fran Lebowitz, which is not about dice, but in which she uses the word in the singular, and I was “Oh, yeah. Everybody used to talk like that. People my age who never played Dungeons and Dragons probably still do.”

my dice box
My dice box

 

Fresh squoze orange juice

Last spring, while helping my Dad clear out our old house, we came upon the old family orange juice squeezer. I asked if I could have it, and managed (I think on my next trip) to get it home. (It’s a huge, heavy, steel contraption, from the days when things were made to last.)

Some of my very earliest memories, from before I was four years old, are of my mom using this squeezer to make my dad orange juice. They switched over to frozen concentrated orange juice when I was about that age, and I don’t think the squeezer got much use after that.

We packed up the squeezer when we packed to move, so it was unavailable all last summer. I think we used it once last fall as soon as we got it unpacked, but juice oranges are expensive compared to frozen concentrate, so we just did one bag of oranges and then put it away. This spring, though, I’ve been watching to see if juice oranges ever go on sale, which they don’t seem to do.

So, despairing of oranges on sale, I started just checking the bags themselves, and decided a couple of days ago that they looked particularly good—small, but heavy for their size—and got a bag.

The earlier times we’ve used the squeezer, it suffered from the oranges being too big. I’d figured it was just a matter of fashions in agribusiness—the squeezer is sized for the oranges in general commerce in the 1950s—but perhaps it’s also a seasonal thing. At any rate, the oranges in this bag are exactly the right size—the squeezer gets all the juice out in one go. (The bigger ones I had to squeeze, and then shift and then squeeze again.)

These oranges are also extra juicy. Before I was squeezing three or four oranges to get juice for two people, but just one orange apiece is enough with these oranges!

And, oh fresh juice is good! So much better than frozen concentrated. Better even than the “premium” not-from-concentrate juice you can buy these days in the grocery store.

If this is a seasonal thing, and not just a fluke, I’m going to be very tempted to keep getting fresh oranges all season.

oj squeezer