Nature pyramid!

Via The Art of Manliness I found this great graphic of a nature pyramid (à la the food pyramid) at the Nature Kids Institute. It’s aimed at kids, but really the prescription for adults should be exactly the same.

It’s tougher in the winter, of course—when the grass is snow-covered and the paths are icy, they simply aren’t so runable or walkable. But that’s okay. It’s still worth getting outside.

It’s also tougher in Illinois to find wilderness than in most other places I’ve lived. There was real wilderness in Michigan and Indiana and Florida (although when I lived in Florida I did a pretty poor job of spending time in it), and of course vast amounts of real wilderness in Utah and California. Still, there are places in Champaign county where I can at least get out of sight and out of earshot of roads, even if it isn’t really free of human influence.

Anyway, these quantities seem like good initial target minimums for time in nature. Maybe not optimal, but adequate, and probably a lot better than most people manage.

Past mid-winter

Some time in October every year I quit being able to get enough sun to make my own vitamin D. Eventually it gets too chilly to go out with enough skin exposed, and even if it stays warm late into the fall, eventually the implacable reality of the earth’s axial tilt means there simply aren’t enough minutes of the day when the appropriate frequencies of UV light shine down where I live.

As a practical matter, this period runs about six months. By early March there’s probably enough UV available, but it’s usually early April before the stars align such that we can take full advantage. We need days when it gets warm fairly early, because the UV is only available for a few hours right around solar noon. (Warmth at 3:00 PM is great, but doesn’t help with the UV until later in the year when the sun is even higher.) We need to get at least two or three of those days each week. (Just two days would probably be enough, if one never had schedule conflicts that kept one out of the sun around solar noon.)

My experience has been this all works out to mean that I need to rely on supplements for my vitamin D needs for right around 180 days per year. With that in mind, I’ve taken to buying two 90-pill bottles of vitamin D each fall.

When I notice—as I say, usually sometime in October—that it has been several days since I managed to get enough sun, I start taking the pills.

Just a few days ago, I finished my first bottle and opened my second.

That means I’ve made it halfway through! Another 85 or 87 days and I’ll be done with the pills and able to make my own vitamin D!

The last few years I was taking 1000 IU pills. This year I upped it to 2000 IU each day. (Not quite as big a change it sounds—I used to eat a lot of children’s breakfast cereals, often supplemented with vitamin D, but since I went low-carb I’m eating a lot less of those.)

It’s still a somewhat higher dose, which I think may be helping. So far this year I’ve only had a couple of days when I found myself glum for no good reason, a bit better than average, I think.

Steven always warns me against imagining that spring starts before April. But soon—less than 90 days now—I’ll once again be able to make my own vitamin D.

Fighting seasonal depression with woollies

I do a lot of things to stave off winter depression. I walk. I spend time in nature. I spend time walking in nature. I move in other ways—taiji, lifting, stretching, running, parkour. I use my HappyLight™. I take vitamin D. But probably most important is finding things to take delight in.

Jackie doesn’t suffer with the dark days of winter the way I do, which is probably a matter of brain chemistry, but perhaps another factor is that she is very good at taking delight in winter as an opportunity to wear her woollies.

I’m trying to do the same.

It helps that I have new winter clothes, and old winter clothes that fit again. The photo on this page shows me walking in nature, wearing a purple sweater my mom knit for me years ago.

Besides my old sweaters and my new sweaters, I have a smashing wool vest that Jackie gave me, some wool pants that I bought as field pants (but that are perhaps too nice to wear in the field), and a vast collection of scarves that Jackie wove and knit for me. And that’s just the woollies. I also have a nice collection of moleskin and flannel garments perfect for winter, various fleecy things, and a range of jackets and coats to cover all possible temperatures from “slightly brisk” to “well north of the arctic circle.”

This year, I’ll try to take delight in my seasonally appropriate garments, especially the woollies, and see if that won’t carry me through to spring.

Back to the novel

I’m back to work on my novel, and my brother gets some of the credit, for pointing out something that I had not considered.

Last summer, I was feeling especially good. I was feeling fit, both mentally and physically, and enjoying life. I noticed that, the more time I spent outdoors, the better I felt. I had a lot of guesses about what might have been going on. Maybe I was feeling better because I was getting:

  • Extra movement (I was mostly outdoors either to walk or to run)
  • Extra time spent in the prairie and the woods (walks in nature are known to improve mood)
  • Extra fresh air
  • Extra alone time (I ran by myself)
  • Extra together time with Jackie (we did many long walks together)
  • Extra light (full sun at noon on a clear day is over 100,000 lux)
  • Extra vitamin D (a pale guy like me can make 10,000 IU in just 20 or 40 minutes)
  • The placebo effect (just doing something can often make you feel better)

I was inclined to credit the extra vitamin D (which probably helps mood). I have gone so far as to get my doctor to order a vitamin D test along with the other blood tests for my annual physical. (We’ll see how my vitamin D levels held up over the long dark winter. If the results are interesting, I’ll post them.)

I was describing all this to my brother, who said, “I think you were feeling great during high summer because you had made plans and you were executing on them. You made a plan to walk the rail trail and did that, and then made a plan to go to France (for the Esperanto conference) and did that too.”

That sounded very reasonable.

Steven, of course, had his own idea about what I might next plan and then execute (“I think you should make a plan to write an essay for the Belartaj Konkursoj”), but I knew that the most important thing to work on is my novel.

So, I’m back to work on it. Starting with a plan.

In its broadest outline, my plan is simple.

I had stalled out because I’d realized that I’d gotten the end of my novel wrong. So, I’ll fix that.

I’ll spend a couple of hours brainstorming the ideal ending of a novel along the lines of the one I’ve written, and then I’ll write the ending to that novel.

Then I can back up and rewrite the beginning so that it leads the ending I’ve come up with.

I’ve known this would be what I’d have to do for a long time. It seemed daunting six months ago, because I’d just rewritten the first part, and the idea of doing it again seemed excruciating. But now, I think I can face it.

I’m more than a little excited about writing the ending from scratch. I’ve got lots of stuff to work with—heroes I like, menacing characters for them to deal with, danger, complexity.

And, if I don’t remember all the details about exactly who was menacing in which way or why, that’s entirely okay. I’ll figure out just what sort of menacing most suites the ending I come up with. Then I can go back and diddle around with the menacing in the middle and at the beginning to make it match.

It’s got all the excitement of starting work on a new novel, with just a quarter of the work!

Walking to Rivendell

I like to have something around which to organize my walking. Training for our big Kalamazoo to South Haven hike worked great, but having completed that I was looking for something new.

Via Nerd Fitness’s How to walk to Mordor page, I found this little page on Walking to Rivendell, and I think that just might be what I was looking for.

Way back in 2003, some clever people got the idea to go through The Fellowship of the Ring (and a handy Atlas of Middle Earth) and note down all the legs of Frodo’s journey from Hobbiton to Rivendell. Then, as they did their own daily walking, they tracked their progress, noting each milestone as they passed it. (Five miles along; crossed the Great Road from the Brandywine Bridge and entered Tookland.)

Jackie doesn’t seem to have the same strange urge I do to organize walks around some arbitrary or fantasy goal, but she has embraced the idea with some enthusiasm, and decided that we should begin at the beginning and follow the path of Bilbo’s journey to Rivendell. It begins with a hurried dash from Bag End to The Green Dragon in Bywater, then down the Great East Road to a camp site a couple of miles past the three farthing stone, for a total of 11 miles.

We won’t match Bilbo’s journey day by day, but we thought we’d at least start with an 11-mile walk to get into the spirit of the thing.

So yesterday we did.

To make the mileage come out right (and to avoid a boring bit of the walk that we do all the time), we took the bus to campus and started our walk there.

From the Research Park (just across the street from my old office) we walked through campus and on to the Urbana Library (where we returned a library book and checked out another), then went across the street to Lincoln Square Village where we had lunch in their little food court. We went back to the library where we split a brownie for desert and lingered over coffee. Then we headed west across the north end of campus, paused briefly in the Engineering Quad so I could play just a bit of Ingress, and proceeded to the water amenities at 2nd street.

We’d had lunch early, so it was at just about this point that the vitamin D window opened. It was preternaturally warm and sunny, so I took off my jacket and put it in my pack and we spent a half hour or so comprehensively walking the paths through both halves of the water amenities (with my arms exposed to the deadly ultraviolet light of the sun) before heading on to downtown Champaign. We walked through West Side Park, near our 2014 summer place, and then turned south and walked past our 2014–2015 winter palace.

Not far south of there, we passed a house where the grassy verge between the sidewalk and the road was filled with these tiny ceramic houses:

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Not exactly Rivendell’s last homely house, but I felt they were adequately in the spirit of elven houses anyway.

From there we proceeded to Hessel Park, and thence along familiar paths to home.

I neglected to run Endomondo, but Google Fit claims I walked 11.1 miles.

It was a great walk! Jackie had a sore shoulder and didn’t want to carry a pack, so I carried not only the library book, but also the first aid kit, our lunches, and water for two.

Jackie with our water bottles
Jackie with our water bottles

Speaking of water, last year Jackie bought one of these Camelbak water bottles, and was very pleased with it. I was happy enough using bicycle-style water bottles. But—by sheerest happenstance—the kindly admins at Wise Bread gave me (as a thank-you gift for being one of their writers) the exact same water bottle as Jackie’s—except that mine has the Wise Bread logo.

These bottles are a little bigger than the ones I carried last year. That together with the library book made my pack a little heavier—enough to be noticeable, but not too much for a walk to Rivendell.

I wore my minimalist boots, which seemed like a nice compromise between my regular hiking boots and going barefoot like a hobbit. In the summer I plan to get back to barefoot walking in a big way (although it may be a while before I’m taking my long walks barefoot).

The vitamin D window has closed

Me in the Snow
Me in the snow. Photo by Jackie Brewer.

Seven or eight years ago, I became aware of research that suggested that vitamin D deficiencies were a possible cause of seasonal depression. As I have long suffered (albeit mildly) from SAD, I figured it was worth trying a vitamin D supplement, and it did seem to help.

I worry just a bit about taking a supplement, because there are dangers with excessive doses of vitamin D. (A random site on the web suggests that doses over about 10,000 IU per day are dangerous, if continued for a period of months.)

So, I prefer to get my vitamin D via sunlight. A pale-skinned person like me can make upwards of 10,000 IU of vitamin D in just a few minutes of mid-day summer sun—but there’s no danger of getting an overdose: your skin keeps making it as long as you’re in the sun, but once saturated with an optimal amount, it starts un-making it as fast as it makes it.

But it’s the UVB light in the sun that makes the vitamin D, and at my latitude (I live at almost exactly 40° north), little or no UVB gets through the atmosphere during the winter. Specifically, the vitamin D window closed this year on November 20th. It’ll open again on January 20th—although of course it’ll be too cold to expose much skin to the sun for a month or two after that.

This past summer, I spent more time in the sun than in years past, and found that it made me feel especially good—like the opposite of seasonal depression. I imagine it’s the extra vitamin D, although I don’t see any way to tweeze evidence for that hypothesis out from the many other possible reasons. Perhaps it was just more bright light (as opposed to the UVB in particular)—surely the sun is the world’s best light box. Perhaps it was just being more active (I tend to get my sun walking or running, not sitting or lying in the sun). Perhaps it was the endocannabinoids produced during the longer runs in particular. Perhaps it was more time in nature (I spend a lot of my outdoor time walking or running in our local prairie and woods), which is known to be good for the mood. Perhaps it was the extra “together time” Jackie and I got on our very long walks. Perhaps it was the solitude of walks and runs by myself, providing space for meditation.

Whatever it was, I miss it in the winter, and I fixate on a vitamin D deficiency as a possible culprit. Maybe I’ll up my supplement dose. Of course, I won’t do just that. I’ll use my Happy Light™. I’ll go for long walks in the cold and snow. I’ll get out in the prairie and the woods. I’ll try to cover all the possibilities. But I’ll keep taking my vitamin D.

Dealing with the dark

I’m prone to a particular bit of black humor this time of year. Usually a little earlier—maybe at the beginning of November—I’ll mention how early the sunsets are, how late the sunrises are, and point out that things are just going to get worse for six more weeks, and that it’ll be twelve weeks before things are this good again.

I joked similarly to my brother a day or two ago, and he pointed out that, although my joke is true in October or November, in December it’s wrong: by this point in the year things almost don’t get any worse. And he’s right. After all, the word solstice comes from the Latin for standstill.

Today there’s going to be nine and a half hours of daylight, and on the solstice there’s going to be nine and a third hours of daylight. Big whoop. I can deal with that.

Rounded to the nearest minute, we have already reached our earliest sunset of the year. That is, today the sun will set at 4:27. It will continue to set at 4:27 until December 13th, when it will set at 4:28.

(The sunrises continue to get later for a bit. It’s not until December 29th that we get a sunrise at 7:15, and not until January 4th that we get a sunrise at 7:14.)

I didn’t use to take much comfort in this. Knowing that things didn’t get much worse from here on out didn’t help when I was already depressed. But these days I tolerate the dark pretty well, and that means that I can take comfort from knowing that things are already about as bad as they’re going to get. Yes, it will still be mostly indoor exercise weather until March, but that’s okay—I have strategies for indoor exercise.

I’m not sure exactly what to credit for the improvement. I suspect that not working a regular job is the biggest factor, but taking vitamin D supplements seems to have helped as well. And, of course, getting enough exercise is both a cause and an effect.

 

Less SAD

Sunset SilhouetteThis used to be a pretty bad time of year. Already the days have gotten dark. Already dawn comes too late to get me up on time to go work at a regular job. Worse, the solstice is still six weeks away. That means it’s going to be twelve more weeks before things are even this good again.

It used to be that I’d start obsessing about the coming dark days only a few weeks after the summer solstice. July was usually fine, but sometime in August I’d start thinking that summer was winding down. I’d dread the prospect of getting up in the dark—something my brain chemistry thinks is profoundly unnatural. Shortly after that I’d be not merely getting up in the dark, I’d be heading off to work in the dark—and then coming home in the dark as well, since the sun would set before 5:00 PM until late January.

By now, despite a brief respite with the end of daylight savings time, I’d no longer be merely dreading seasonal depression, I’d be actually suffering from it.

The last three years have been much better. Not only am I suffering less during the depths of winter, I’m also much better off through late summer and early fall, because I’m not spending that time dreading the winter.

A lot of it, I think, comes from not having to work a regular job. Not only can I sleep until dawn (which is when I tend to get up even during the summer weeks when it means getting up before 4:30), I have more flexibility to take advantage of what hours of sunlight there are. Perhaps equally important, my depressive thoughts used to center on work: Because I was depressed, I’d have trouble getting things done. Because I was not getting things done, I’d worry about keeping my job. And then, in a classic spiral, worry over keeping my job would make me more depressed.

So, not having to work a regular job is win on both fronts, and is the main thing I credit with my improvement these past three years.

I did do one other thing that may have helped: I started taking vitamin D. I take 1000 IU daily from October to March, figuring that I get enough sunlight to make my own during the other months of the year. (It doesn’t take much.)

(I also now understand people who use tanning booths, many of whom have told me that they don’t do it because they want to have a tan, but because they “feel better” when do. I have no doubt that many are treating themselves for a vitamin D deficiency.)

Back when this was more of a problem, I experimented some with full-spectrum lighting, which some people find helpful. It never seemed to help me. One thing that I never tried—because the apparatus tended to be expensive—was a dawn simulator. I might have been really helped by a timed light that started out dim and then brightened over the course of thirty minutes to something akin to early morning sun streaming through the window.

I should say that my seasonal depression was never severe. I never felt I needed to seek medical treatment, for example. I handled it informally with the ordinary, obvious stuff—trying to get enough exercise, trying to get enough sleep, trying to minimize stress, adding some more fun stuff to my day when I was feeling out of sorts.

That was enough to keep things under control during the dark days of winter. But it wasn’t enough to keep me from spending late summer and early fall worrying about the dark days of winter.