blog · blogging · fitness · ICYMI

Top Ten Posts in July 2021, #ICYMI

  1. Cate on On “cancelling” Canada Day

2. At 53 1/2 Cate was still menstruating and her post about it is always on our top ten list.

3. Catherine asks What’s wrong with “Rearranging your Post-Pandemic ‘Friendscape’

4. Styling your hair while fat advice from Catherine

5. Serena speaks up: “It’s never been easy…but I think of the next girl” Tracy’s older post

6. Catherine also hopes that The Biggest Loser won’t be renewed for another season.

7. When a Long Hike Becomes an Ultra Hike: How Fear and Strength Make Friends, writes Mina

8. Crotch shots, upskirts, sports reporting, and the objectification of female athletes’ bodies, Sam’s older post

9. All people vary in size? Really? Shocking!, Sam’s newer post

10. Structural racism in sport: the 2021 edition, writes Martha

The word “JULY” in white on a black background. Photo by Glen Carrie on Unsplash.
fitness · swimming

Swim buoys: good for safety and fun

Friday was a beautiful summer day in Boston– sunny, mid-70s F/24C– so my friend Norah and did what one must on a day like today– we went swimming.

Walden Pond (yes, that Walden Pond) is 11 miles from my house, and is a swimmer’s paradise. The pond is big, deep, clean, and has all sorts of half-hidden shoreline coves where you can set down your towel and snacks and head into the water.

We did just that, but with one added item: our brand-new swim buoys. They are now required for anyone who swims outside of the roped-off guarded swim areas at the pond. There was a big kerfuffle over open-water swimming at Walden this summer, and the current rule is the third iteration after the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation abruptly banned all open-water swimming there.

I don’t mind at all using a swim buoy. They’re not expensive, you can put car keys and a phone inside them (they’re part dry bag and part floatation device!), and they make swimmers super-visible to kayakers, fishing folks and anyone on shore.

Here’s Norah, setting hers up:

Norah, sealing up her swim buoy (an early birthday present from me).
Norah, sealing up her swim buoy (an early birthday present from me).

Once I got mine all set up, I got directions on which way the water was.

Catherine, with swim buoy, pointing to confirm the location of the pond.

All that remained was to go on in, as the water was fine.

Catherine, wading in with buoy, ready for some safe swimming bliss.

Turns out, lots of people who are casual but very comfortable open-water swimmers also purchased swim buoys. So, I had colorful company out in deep water before Norah joined me.

Is there anything lovelier than this? Blue sky, puffy clouds, clean fresh water, and day-glow swim buoy following you around while you swim? I’m on the right, btw.

Honestly, I don’t mind it at all, and it makes very good sense for those of us who swim in open water.

So readers, what about you? Do you use a swim buoy? Are they required where you live and swim? Have you been in the water yet this summer? Do you want to meet me there next Friday? Let me know.


Athletes are Humans Too (and the beautiful/terrible things that happen when they remind us)

If you would have asked me three weeks ago whether I thought my post would be about the Olympics in any way I would have laughed at you. I can’t stand the Olympics in principle. From the bankrupting of Montreal, to the painting of lawns green in Beijing, to the murdering of Sochi dogs, to the removal of impoverished communities in Rio, the Olympics to me is mostly a legacy of arrogance, colonial mindset, wasting of public money for little social gain and general decadence while the planet burns. I had planned instead to write a post about how, while I’ve had to give up on my upper body strength work this year because of a shoulder injury, my attention to yin yoga meant my flexibility was off the charts. Kim had graciously remarked “that is just as useful in the apocalypse”. There is a cute little blog in that right?

But no, I can’t write about that, because I’m transfixed by the Olympics and what is going on there with these amazing young women in multiple sports. I am not particularly transfixed by their performances, although many are admirable. What I am transfixed by is their authenticity and their outright refusal to play the game that has been set before them by the rules that usually would eat away their little souls like lye on roadkill. I am flabbergasted at what they are saying out loud about how they feel about their performances, their lives and their mental health. Suddenly, the painful reality of the sacrifice and demand of sport, along with its stunning achievement is just laid out in the sun, exposing all the wet, rotten moldy realities and it is about time.

Let’s start with the home town gal, Naomi Osaka. She is the next gen superstar on the tennis circuit. She had pulled out of Wimbledon, frankly declaring that the pressure to not just perform on the court but perform to the media had overwhelmed her. She wanted to get her head on straight for the games. She lit the Olympic Cauldron, of course she did, representing everything the organizers wanted us to think the games were about, brilliant performance, diversity, the future. She was eliminated in the third round and let people know why.”I feel like my attitude wasn’t that great because I don’t really know how to cope with that pressure so that’s the best that I could have done in this situation.” She was honest, she is struggling to cope with this ridiculous situation she is in. There was a lot of support and a lot of garbage said about her, sexist racist garbage. We will come back to this.

Then there is Simone Biles, gymnastics superstar who has achieved things that are so spectacular, the system can’t cope with or understand the value of them. She has been dominant, envelope pushing and full of life . But in the profound weirdness that is this pandemic driven games, she lost it, literally. Her spatial awareness, so key to her capacity to execute these mind blowing moves, seems to have abandoned her. Instead of risking severe injury, she knew her own mind and body well enough to pull out. But that’s not all! She did something else that stunned the world, she told the truth about it. “The mental was not there”. She talked about “the twisties“, something that high performance gymnasts all recognize but has never been identified on this kind of stage. She spoke about the work it takes to stay in a sport she loves, even though she was betrayed by the disgraced team doctor, as so many other young women were in the US gymnastics program and of course other places in sport where hungry, young elite performers meet opportunistic predators in power. There was lots of support for her choice from her team mates and the public. And then again, waves of racist, sexist garbage.

And right here, is the conundrum I have about the Olympics. When I listen to these young women speak to the media, talking about their truths, their hopes, the fun they have had, the garbage they have endured, their depression, anxiety, perfectionism and the one perfect moment where they knew they gave everything they had, I want to cry. I love them and I am so honoured to be let in on the drama that is their achievement, medal or no medal. When I hear the honesty that is getting uttered into the public sphere about the mental health of the mental game, I’m floored. I think it really means something that these women have access to the language and can speak their truth about their experience, all of it.

But then, this honestly and authenticity enters the grinder of the hyped up commercialized nationalistic, racist, sexist pile of garbage as represented by the IOC and Twitter and I need to walk away. Most of the people competing at the Olympics are kids and young adults. They arrive in this realm, the so called “world stage”, just wanting to do their best and have some fun. This Olympics, staged as it is entirely inappropriately during a health crisis, is all of the work and none of the fun. No crowds to cheer, no other people to meet, no touring of the host country, no nothing. Do your event and get out. Try not to catch or pass COVID along while you are at it. Oh, and if you find this all a bit much, what with COVID, racial injustice, insurrections, fires, floods, bombs and the erasure of democracy in any number of your home countries, well, boo hoo too bad suck it up and dance for us. Like, I hate it.

I wish the Olympics was really the thing it purports to be, a place for the world to come together in friendship, respect and fairness. People of all the nations doing their best and having fun. Sometimes, in spite of itself, that does happen and in those moments, I tear up in the car, listening to the jubilance of a skate boarder and the elation of a rowing team. The chorus of support for Biles and Osaka swells and I will lend my voice to that. They made the best choices for themselves and drew lines where lines needed to be drawn. When the world pushed them too far and things fell apart, they tried to hold on to knowing it’s not all on them. That is a world I can feel better about, at least in this little corner, plague, flood and fire notwithstanding.

A picture of the Olympic flag on fire with fire in the background, how I usually feel about the games
fitness · pseudoscience

Will drinking lettuce water help me sleep better? An FAQ

Q: What? Where did this alleged link between lettuce water and insomnia come from?

A: Honestly, I was googling various treatments for insomnia, got distracted, and before I knew it, I landed here. Skeptical but curious, I pressed on.

Q: What, exactly, is lettuce water?

A: No one really knows (or cares), but it seems to involve pouring very hot water over lettuce (unclear which varieties are the preferred ones), and then (waiting a suitable time for cooling) drinking the water. Wilted lettuce consumption is optional.

Here’s a video with some unsupported claims about sedative and pain-relieving properties of lettuce water:

Video with entirely unsupported and implausible claims about lettuce water and insomnia.

Q: Okay, but I want original sources, please.

A: Fine. Here’s Shapla Hoque on TikTok with her how-to post about making and drinking lettuce water to cure insomnia.

No caption needed– Shapla tells all, shows all, and then gets sleepy, on camera.

Q: I’m intrigued, but need a bit more convincing. Have there been any studies done on lettuce water and insomnia?

A: Why yes, there have. ON MICE. The little rodents were already sedated with pentobarbital (a well-established send-you-to-sleep-right-now drug), then were given a variety of extracts from romaine lettuce. They managed to stay asleep. The scientists declared victory, saying “Romaine lettuce is an interesting and valuable source of sleep potentiating material and contains antioxidant phenolics that protect from the oxidant stress caused by sleep disturbance.”

Q: Hmmm. I’m not really a science person, but does that study show anything about the somnolent effects of lettuce water on mammals?

A. No. And, I might add, the amount of lettuce you’d have to consume to get enough lactucin and lactucopricin (the compounds under investigation) would end up taking all night, thus defeating the purpose.

Q: So why did you bring this up in the first place, getting my hopes up and then dashing them, leaving me wide awake with just my salad bowl for company?

A: Fighting health-related misinformation is important, no matter what, no matter when, no matter how. 2021 has been a banner year for health misinformation, so whatever we can do (even if it’s just to keep you all from storming the salad bar, then rushing home to don your jammies and hope for a miracle) we’re going to keep doing.

Q: One more question, while you’re here. Should I get one of the COVID vaccines if I haven’t already?

A. Yes. Check with your health care provider, but basically, yeah.


Things to Celebrate at the Olympics

I have spent a lot of time being angry about misogynistic decisions in the lead-up to the Olympics. I’m not done, but I need to enjoy some of the good news.

Woman in a red and white unitard flying above the parallel bars. Photo by Ashley Landis
  1. The German women’s gymnastics team and their unitards, chosen to push back against the sexualization of women gymnasts.
  2. The Norwegian women’s handball team’s fine for wearing shorts instead of skimpy bikini bottoms will be paid by the Norwegian Handball Federation. The European Handball Federation, which imposed the fine, has acknowledged the media blowback and will be donating the fine amount to a foundation that promotes equality for women and girls in sport. Pink offered to pay the fine and her involvement significantly increased attention to the issue. I anticipate this rule will change, eventually.
  3. Oksana Chusovitina, the 46 year old Uzbek eight-time Olympic gymnast (gold in Barcelona and silver in Beijing, plus eleven world championship medals), retired after she narrowly failed to reach the finals. She was cheered by fellow competitors who rushed to embrace her and acknowledge her impact for breaking stereotypes about the sport.
  4. The Canadian women’s softball team, which won its first medal (bronze). Softball has not been part of the Olympics since 2008, and four of the women were on that team and have continued playing for the past 13 years. That is dedication!
  5. Maude Charron, who trained as an acrobat and then competed in crossfit before taking up weightlifting and competing in her first competition in 2015. Her gold medal in weightlifting is a high-profile demonstration that you can take up different sports, learn new things later in life, and be successful.
  6. Meaghan Benfeito and Caeli McKay, the synchronized divers who barely missed the podium despite McKay’s badly injured foot. Benfeito carried McKay out of the press conference after their last dive. This picture speaks volumes about team spirit to me.
Young woman carrying another woman piggyback, surrounded by three other people. Photo by Devin Heroux

Of the almost 11,000 Olympic athletes in Tokyo almost 49% are women, according to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), marking the first “gender-balanced” games in its history. At the Paralympics, at least 40.5% of athletes will be women. New competitions have been added, both mixed gender and specifically for women. There are also new sports, with a requirement that there be equal representation. Women’s sports are being given better timeslots and media coverage. And the head of broadcasting has committed to “sport appeal, not sex appeal”, by avoiding close-ups on on parts of the body.

But there is still a lot to do:

  • better funding for female athletes from recreational through elite levels;
  • better marketing of women’s sports;
  • an end to sexist uniform/pregnancy/maternity policies;
  • uniform policies that are culturally insensitive and disproportionately affect women (hijabs, modest uniforms, swim caps); and
  • changes at the IOC itself. That organization has never had anywhere near equal female representation on its board or among its committee members, there has never been a female head, and some of the men on the IOC have undermined its promises of commitment to equality.

Now I’m getting grumpy again, so I am going to close by celebrating the widespread condemnation of the nasty sexist things leading up to the Olympics and remembering that comedy can be a tool for change, starting with The Kloons, and their YouTube video “If Men Had to Wear Women’s Beach Volleyball Uniforms”. You can watch it here:

fitness · Olympics

What strength looks like

Hey– anyone interested in experiencing a full range of emotions in five minutes? Watch this 5-minute video of the Olympic women’s 55kg category weight-lifting competition.

SPOILER: Hidilyn Diaz wins the Philippines’ first Olympic gold medal. But even though you know how it ends, it’s so worth it to witness the process.

UPDATE: Since readers outside the US can’t view this (oops!), I found some other videos here and here and here. The first one is low-fidelity of people watching her on TV and screaming in delight when Diaz wins. The others are Philippines and Chinese news.

What do I see from watching women who are the best in the world at doing what they do, doing that thing:

  • What strength looks like
  • What concentration looks like
  • What decision-making looks like
  • What relief looks like
  • What joy looks like

Watching these wonderful women, I held my breath, barely blinking, and cried with relief and joy and gratitude at their efforts.

Okay, I admit it: the Olympics brings out the sappiness in me. So sue me. But I dare you not to get a little misty-eyed while watching these women.

Hey– anyone out there having a special Olympics moment they want to share? I’ve got extra kleenexes and am ready to use them; lemme know.

fitness · health · strength training

YouTube Rabbitholes and Squatting Advice

Usually I set up a playlist of YouTube videos to watch while I zip back and forth on the rowing machine but one day last week I forgot and just clicked a single video.

The resulting rabbithole of videos brought me to this useful video about deep squats.

I haven’t given much thought to squats because I’m pretty good at them. I usually only overthink exercises that I struggle with (Ha!) and I wouldn’t have searched for a video on squatting.

So, except for YouTube’s algorithm I wouldn’t have seen this video and then I would have missed out on some intriguing advice.

Taro Iwamoto has solid incremental progressions for getting into a deep squat which are useful but the real gem for me here was his advice about when to use squats.

He says not to think about squats as an exercise but to think about how to make them part of your daily routine. In particular, he suggests reading or watching TV or eating a meal while squatting, starting with short periods and increasing when you’re ready.

I have often thought about my fitness in a functional sort of way, considering how my efforts could help make my daily activities easier. But I don’t think I have connected my exercises and my activities the way he is suggesting.

I’ve already started squatting for a few minutes while reading (and I’ve written part of this post while squatting on my yoga mat) and I am intrigued by the idea of incorporating more stretching/strength training type movements into other parts of my day.

I’m not thinking of this in a multitasking sort of fashion and I’m not trying to ‘sneak in’ some extra exercise.

It’s more like exploring what ELSE I could be doing instead of sitting or standing in one spot for routine tasks.

I think it will be interesting for both my body and for my busy brain.

Image description:  a GIF  from the animated series ‘Pinky and the Brain’ in which The Brain, a large-headed, white cartoon mouse with pink eyes and ears is asking Pinky, a skinny white mouse with blue eyes and pink ears, one of his regular questions “Pinky, are you pondering what I’m pondering?”
Image description: a GIF from the animated series ‘Pinky and the Brain’ in which The Brain, a large-headed, white cartoon mouse with pink eyes and ears is asking Pinky, a skinny white mouse with blue eyes and pink ears, one of his trademark questions “Pinky, are you pondering what I’m pondering?”

So, if you drop by my place and I’m reading a novel while in downward dog or I am washing dishes while standing on one foot, you’ll know what’s up…or down, I guess. 😉

What aspects of your exercise routine could you incorporate into the rest of your daily life?

Book Reviews · fitness · Rowing

A Pearl in the Storm, #CurrentlyReading

In a Pearl in the Storm: How I Found My Heart in the Middle of the Ocean Tori Murden McClure tells the story of rowing across the Atlantic ocean, solo, with no motor and no sail.

I loved her story and I recently found out that she’s the neighbour of a feminist philosopher who reads the blog. I’m going to interview her email and post here so if you have any questions for this remarkable woman, pls send them my way.

There’s a lot to love about the book. I’ve been reading it pretty much non-stop. I love the way she weaves in her life story with her harrowing journey in a very small boat amid some intense weather and big waves. Early chapters also tell the story of McClure’s earlier adventures. She was also the first woman to ski to the South Pole.

Also of note, especially for the academics out there. You might relate to McClure’s discussion of her decision to swap her life boat for books to take on the journey. I also loved the food recommendations she received. If you’re starting in good health, it’s okay to eat like a teenager for 3 months. The peanut M and Ms came on the trip.

I found Tori Murden McClure’s story of growing up defending her disabled brother from abuse at school more harrowing than the tale of rowing across the Atlantic. Parts of that story needed a content warning in a way the rowing adventure did not. The assualt story in Chapter 6 was especially difficult to read.

In a different way it was also hard to read the author’s account of the conflict between her early athleticism and being a girl. I suspect many blog readers will relate.

The book is also soon to be a musical!

See ‘ROW’: A Musical Odyssey Of One Woman’s Solo Boat Trip Across The Atlantic.

Tori Murden McClure, A Pearl in the Storm

You might also enjoy watching the TED talk A song for my hero, the woman who rowed into a hurricane: “Singer-songwriter Dawn Landes tells the story of Tori Murden McClure, who dreamed of rowing across the Atlantic in a small boat — but whose dream was almost capsized by waves the size of a seven-story building. Through video, story and song, Landes imagines the mindset of a woman alone in the midst of the vast ocean. “

fitness · holiday fitness · holidays

Five things Catherine is doing differently this summer

2021 has been a very unusual year, and brought us a very unusual summer. Vaccination for many of us has made possible more close encounters with those we love, like, and hardly know. But it’s certainly not business as usual– that’s for sure.

However, looking back to mid-May, and looking forward to the end of August, I can’t say I’m feeling disappointed with how this summer has unfolded and will proceed. Here are a few ways I’m spending my summer that are a departure from my usual gadding about– conferencing, visiting family and trying to arrange a far-away vacation.

No air travel: all my visiting and vacationing and exploring is happening by car this summer. I’m super lucky that I was able to finally give my 13-year-old manual transmission Toyota Matrix to my niece Gracie and buy a 2021 automatic Honda Civic Hatchback. Two bikes plus gear will still fit in the back with the seats down, but the interior is much more comfortable and gadgety. I love it.

A new car means I’ve happily undertaken the long drive (1000 miles/1600 km) to South Carolina to visit family, and I’ve stayed longer with them. Driving also means I take more breaks, generally in the form of walking in some green area en route, and also using hotel pools (now that they’ve reopened– yay vaccination!). And yes, driving means I can take my bike plus whatever other gear I want with me. I love love love not having to pack light or worry about carryon restrictions. Finally, driving has meant carpooling with friends and family, too– we’re all more slowed down and a teensy bit more flexible about schedules. Huzzah to that!

More walking with friends and family and their dogs: even after getting vaccinated (did I say yay vaccination? Yay again!), almost everyone I know is still in the habit of passing time together on foot, tooling around the neighborhood, to a local place for something to eat or drink, doing errands, or just to enjoy the warm weather. It’s been such fun walking with friends and family, as well as friends’ and family dogs. Yes, I’m talking about you, Baxter! And you, Dixie! And Kita! And Wylie! And Mopsy! And other canines not mentioned here. The thing is, I’ve got the time. Imagine that.

Upping my swimming game: this is a project still in process, but I’ve gone swimming much more this year than in decades. Fresh water, ocean, warm water, cold water– I’m dipping in when I can. Friends are a huge help, as I tag along behind them, taking advantage of their slipstream of purpose and intention. Yes, I’m talking about you, Norah! And others, too. Again, it feels to me like it takes more time and effort to go to a lake or beach to swim, but oh, the benefits and the joys! I’ve got plans to swim in two different states (Massachusetts and New Hampshire) next week.

Vacationing regionally with friends: In years past, I would try to do a longer-distance vacation, sometimes combined with a conference. This year I had planned to go to Utah with a friend and her family to visit Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks. But as time grew nearer, I found that I just wasn’t feeling it. I wasn’t psyched about getting on a plane, going to what are apparently super-crowded parks during record heat in the west while COVID cases are on the rise. Hard to argue with that, right?

Instead, I’ve gone to Cape Elizabeth, Maine for a long weekend with friends, am heading to Brattleboro Vermont to see a friend, visiting friends in their new apartment in NYC, and going on a meditation retreat with friends in Rhinebeck, NY. All of these trips are short, an easy drive away, and involve fun times with good friends I didn’t get to see in person during the past year. Yay for being with those we love again!

Rethinking time: I’m not even sure what I mean here. But it’s true that since March 2020, I’ve had time to think about what’s important to me. Like many of you, that means friends, family, projects, pets, creativity, helping others, movement, and home. Cultivating and maintaining connections to those things takes time. And it turns out, we’ve got time. Who knew? More on this as it becomes clearer, but for now, I’m so enjoying just spending and passing the time of the summer, doing basic and satisfying activities.

  • Will I get on a plane again? Yes.
  • Will I take a far-away vacation again? Yes.
  • Will I go to an in-person conference again? Yes.
  • Will I forget these lessons I’ve learned about the importance of spending time, lots of time, on what I care about? I hope not. This is why I’m writing it down here and now.

What about you, dear readers? What are you doing differently this summer? How are the pace and scope of your activities different? Or are they? I’d love to hear what you’re up to.


Marathon Swimming

I did it! I had set a goal for myself of doing a 10k, or marathon swim, this summer. I fell somewhat behind on adding distance each week, but I was doing decent weekly totals. I had experimented with drinks and snacks, and had a good idea of what I would need. My best swim buddy had told me a few years ago that if I could swim 5 or 6 k, I could do 10, and knew I had that solid base of conditioning. Then I got scared.

Why? This was my own personal goal with no expectations of speed or fundraising or any other external pressures. Except that I was afraid I would fail in front of the friends who have been so supportive about doing this. Last week, I told one friend that I might just go and do it at my local pond when no-one was paying attention. So this week, that is exactly what I did.

On Thursday I rode my bike to the pond, and coated as much of my back and shoulders as I could reach with diaper rash cream. It looks ridiculous but it is better for the environment than sunscreen. Then I laid out four bottles of various liquids (tea, a juice, honey and water mixture, and plain water) plus a packaged of golf ball-sized energy bites and a banana on the rocks at the edge of the beach, convinced myself to stop hyperventilating and started to swim.

I went around and around in circles 29 times before the pond closed at 2 pm. I stopped about every 2 loops for a drink, and every kilometre or two for an energy ball. I ate my banana after loop 14, which was my estimated half-way point. It took 5 hours and 23 minutes, but I swam 10.5 km. Most was freestyle, but I did switch to breaststroke from time to time to rest my shoulders and back.

I felt great! I could have gone further, had there been more time. 12 km felt completely within my abilities. My strokes were still regular, smooth, and strong. I was sore, but not in great pain.

So what’s next? I may try another 10 in the river, with friends, now that I don’t have the fear of failure. I may just do shorter swims and shift my focus to a cycling goal.

Or I may go back to my Alice Dearing and FINA watch. The Olympics have started. The women’s marathon swim is scheduled for August 3rd. Will FINA allow Dearing to wear the Soul Cap after banning it because “there is no demand”? What will she use instead? I have been checking for updates daily, but there is still no word on this.

FINA has reportedly apologized for the exclusion and invited Soul Cap to reapply for approval in September. Too late #FINA. Dearing and other athletes with voluminous hair that grows up should be able to use a #Soulcap now, rather than caps designed for Caucasian hair. If you really were concerned about inclusion, you would use the opportunity of the Olympics to encourage Black swimmers, by allowing a cap designed for their needs.

Diane Harper lives and swims in Ottawa.