Archive for April, 2013

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This post is dedicated to the refuah shlema of Eliezer Avraham Tzvi ben Pessa and aliyat nishmat  Chaya Malca bas Rivka a’h

Last year in North Conway, New Hampshire, I attended  the best lecture I’ve ever heard in my lifetime.  It was presented by two extraordinary middle-aged women, Nancy Sporberg and Pat Piper,  who could have been your sister, your mother, your friend.   It was entitled, “It’s Not About the Hike.”  All of us in the audience laughed and cried with the speakers, and all of us left transformed, filled with joy and hope and love.  Here is an excerpt from their website:

We are two 50-plus-year-old women who started walking the sidewalks of Keene and ended up climbing the 100 Highest mountains in New England. We thought we were just going out for a hike when we climbed our first mountain. We were wrong. We were beginning the journey of a lifetime.

We have reached the summits of over 244 mountains since 2006, hiking through all four seasons. We have walked more than 1,600 miles and gained over 487,000 feet in elevation. But it’s not about the numbers. It’s about who we are becoming as we hike. We are discovering the strong courageous determined joyful women inside. Hiking has shown us the way to our hearts and our healing and given us a glimpse of who we really are.

We are ordinary women on an extraordinary journey.

Although their presentation is about their personal journey, climbing mountains and overcoming personal obstacles, it has a universal message.

We all have our own mountains to climb. If we can do this, you can do this too. Our hope is that our journey might inspire others to climb their own mountain, bringing more blessings into the world.

But . . . practically speaking, I asked them, really, how did they do it?  These women were not super jocks, and when they began they were not in the best of shape.

“We simply put one foot in front of the other, and kept going, one step at a time.”

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Told Ya So!

A friend who reads my blog just sent me this article from the NYTimes:

WELL; Brain Fatigue Goes Green

By GRETCHEN REYNOLDS
Published: April 2, 2013

Scientists have known for some time that the human brain’s ability to stay calm and focused is limited and can be overwhelmed by the constant noise and hectic, jangling demands of city living, sometimes resulting in a condition informally known as brain fatigue.

With brain fatigue, you are easily distracted, forgetful and mentally flighty — or, in other words, me.

But an innovative new study from Scotland suggests that you can ease brain fatigue simply by strolling through a leafy park.

The idea that visiting green spaces like parks or tree-filled plazas lessens stress and improves concentration is not new. Researchers have long theorized that green spaces are calming, requiring less of our so-called directed mental attention than busy, urban streets do. Instead, natural settings invoke “soft fascination,” a beguiling term for quiet contemplation, during which directed attention is barely called upon and the brain can reset those overstretched resources and reduce mental fatigue.

But this theory, while agreeable, has been difficult to put to the test. Previous studies have found that people who live near trees and parks have lower levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, in their saliva than those who live primarily amid concrete, and that children with attention deficits tend to concentrate and perform better on cognitive tests after walking through parks or arboretums. More directly, scientists have brought volunteers into a lab, attached electrodes to their heads and shown them photographs of natural or urban scenes, and found that the brain wave readouts show that the volunteers are more calm and meditative when they view the natural scenes.

But it had not been possible to study the brains of people while they were actually outside, moving through the city and the parks. Or it wasn’t, until the recent development of a lightweight, portable version of the electroencephalogram, a technology that studies brain wave patterns.

For the new study, published this month in The British Journal of Sports Medicine, researchers at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh and the University of Edinburgh attached these new, portable EEGs to the scalps of 12 healthy young adults. The electrodes, hidden unobtrusively beneath an ordinary looking fabric cap, sent brain wave readings wirelessly to a laptop carried in a backpack by each volunteer.

The researchers, who had been studying the cognitive impacts of green spaces for some time, then sent each volunteer out on a short walk of about a mile and half that wound through three different sections of Edinburgh.

The first half mile or so took walkers through an older, historic shopping district, with fine, old buildings and plenty of pedestrians on the sidewalk, but only light vehicle traffic.

The walkers then moved onto a path that led through a park-like setting for another half mile.

Finally, they ended their walk strolling through a busy, commercial district, with heavy automobile traffic and concrete buildings.

The walkers had been told to move at their own speed, not to rush or dawdle. Most finished the walk in about 25 minutes.

Throughout that time, the portable EEGs on their heads continued to feed information about brain wave patterns to the laptops they carried.

Afterward, the researchers compared the read-outs, looking for wave patterns that they felt were related to measures of frustration, directed attention (which they called “engagement”), mental arousal and meditativeness or calm.

What they found confirmed the idea that green spaces lessen brain fatigue.

When the volunteers made their way through the urbanized, busy areas, particularly the heavily trafficked commercial district at the end of their walk, their brain wave patterns consistently showed that they were more aroused and frustrated than when they walked through the parkland, where brain-wave readings became more meditative.

While traveling through the park, the walkers were mentally quieter.

Which is not to say that they weren’t paying attention, said Jenny Roe, a lecturer at Heriot-Watt’s School of the Built Environment, who oversaw the study. “Natural environments still engage” the brain, she said, but the attention demanded “is effortless. It’s called involuntary attention in psychology. It holds our attention while at the same time allowing scope for reflection,” and providing a palliative to the nonstop attentional demands of typical, city streets.

Of course, her study was small, more of a pilot study of the nifty new, portable EEG technology than a definitive examination of the cognitive effects of seeing green.

But even so, she said, the findings were consistent and strong and, from the viewpoint of those of us over-engaged in attention-hogging urban lives, valuable. The study suggests that, right about now, you should consider “taking a break from work,” Dr. Roe said, and “going for a walk in a green space or just sitting, or even viewing green spaces from your office window.” This is not unproductive lollygagging, Dr. Roe helpfully assured us. “It is likely to have a restorative effect and help with attention fatigue and stress recovery.”

 

I do love being surrounded by nature.  But I wonder, would a person who’s lived within the confines of Boro Park in Brooklyn his entire life really feel equally at peace in the woods? I’d like to monitor their cortisol levels after a week in Maine.  Rather than going down as suggested in the article, I’m thinking their cortisol levels would be grossly elevated – they wouldn’t know what to do with themselves!  (“Trees? Fohr vus? What’s so great eppes about trees? Ach! Narishkeit!”)

Bears

Last week I drove about an hour away to a community center in Jackson, New Hampshire to attend a lecture given by a bear specialist for the State of New Hampshire and the White Mountains from the US Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services.

Despite a week of warm temperatures, the bears in our woods are still hibernating, according to USDA’s Nancy Conneau, although bears have already been sighted about 2 hours south of us.  Weather-wise, we have only another week or two before we have to bring in our bird feeders.  You see, bears have one thing – – and only one thing – – on their mind:  FOOD.  They are in an endless struggle to fill their stomachs in the Spring to recover the 30% body fat loss from the winter; and in the late summer and fall, they must increase their body fat by 40% to account for growth, development, and to tide them over during the coming winter’s hibernation (and if they are female, the biennial birthing/nursing process).

A very easy meal for bears is to visit the bird feeder, which contains all sorts of yummy seeds full of protein and fat.  Which is a problem, because bears have a phenomenal memory.  And once they find a bird feeder (or dumpster, or greasy bbq grill, or dog food) in a specific location, they will visit that location daily, hopeful that the homeowner will think that the bear was scared when he ran away from the loud noise caused by the homeowner banging on pots to keep the bear away.  Hah!  The bear was running from the noise, but he is simply waiting until the noise goes away and then, ever persistent, he will visit again and again because he cares more about food than noise.  Their sense of smell is amazing – Ms. Conneau claimed that a black bear can smell a sunflower seed from half a mile away!

Bird feeders are such a problem – – Ms. Conneau referred to them as “bear feeders” – – that several local towns have had to adopt ordinances outlawing homeowners’ use of bird feeders from April 1 – Dec. 1.  People have respected the ordinances . . . and the bears have moved on . . . to chickens!  With the increase in interest in raising chickens (in my area, several houses have hand-inked cardboard “Fresh Eggs $2.00/dozen” signs),  bears in their never-ending quest for food have been hitting chicken coops.  They go after the chicken feed – – and the chickens.  Last summer, it seemed wherever I went (post office, library, Town office), the dead chicken count was the hot topic on everyone’s lips, and the culprit was  not the usual fox or coyote – – it was bears.

Ms. Conneau’s recommendation:  store birdseed in galvanized cans, preferably in a locked garage or storage shed, and surround the coop with an electrified fence.  While I don’t raise chickens, I do have several beehives on my property, and we do have a solar-powered electrified fence that has kept the bears at bay . . . so far.

“I had to shoot three bears at three different locations last year,” says my Bee Man, who owns and tends to the hives on my property.  “Once they get into the honey, not even an electric fence will stop them.  They are very determined, and the quest for filling their stomachs overrides any discomfort, whether from the sting of a bee or an electric fence.”

One problem is that bears are, well, so darn cute.  It’s fun to watch bears, especially when they appear so reliably at places like a dumpster.  What people don’t realize is that by feeding a bear, they are essentially condemning it to death.  As bears become habituated to a dumpster, or a neighborhood, they gradually lose their fear of people.  And in their never-ending search for food, they become increasingly daring.

The lady in the seat next to me raised her hand.  “Last year, I had a bear encounter,” she began.

It was a hot summer day so all the windows in the house were open.  She was in the backyard, mowing the lawn.  She decided to take a break, and went into the front door for a cold drink.  She saw mud on the stairs and thought, “Oh, Kyle (her teenage son) must’ve come home early.  He never wipes his feet!”  She followed the muddy trail up the carpeted stairs, all the while yelling, “Kyle!  Darn you, I told you to wipe your feet!” and when she got to the top, she came literally nose to nose with – – a bear!  Slowly and quietly she backed down the stairs, went outside, and called 911 from her cellphone.

“They sent Fish & Game, and they spent 45 minutes getting him out of the house (through the window).”  But all was not well.  Within 15 minutes the bear came back out of the woods, and tried to re-enter the house.  “Fish & Game had to shoot it right in my yard,” she said.  “I’m just glad they didn’t have to kill it inside my house.”

In some cases, nuisance bears are trapped, sent by truck and released by the Canadian border.  But it’s not really a great solution, because many of the bears return within days, covering great distances.  Females’ territory usually covers 5 – 10 miles (1 – 2 miles when cubs are young); males’ territory covers 10 miles but can cover up to 20 miles.  Although we think of them as lumbering creatures, they can run up to 35 mph.

Ms. Conneau suggested that if you really want to keep your windows open during hot summer months, to lay ammonia-soaked rags on the window sills.  Ensure you don’t have trash lying around, even if it means more trips to the dump (no, there is no trash pickup in rural communities), and meanwhile dousing the cans with ammonia as well.   (I should add that when we built our house, I was mindful of bears, and I did not put any large windows on the ground floor by design.  I am also extremely strict with my grandchildren about not leaving any food outside when they come to visit.)

The good news is that, while black bears in New Hampshire and the White Mountains are certainly dangerous animals that are capable of killing humans, the last time someone was killed by a black bear in New Hampshire was in 1784.  (Grizzly and polar bears are much more threatening and dangerous to people, but they do not exist in the Eastern U.S.)  There are approximately 5,000 bears in New Hampshire, with most in the White Mountains.  And Maine has the largest black bear population in the continental United States:   25,000 to  30,000!  (About 3,000 – 4,000 bears are killed every year in Maine during bear hunting season.  I know of five bears killed in my woods during hunting season in 2012).

Bear cubs are born in January or February in dens during hibernation.  Usually one or two cubs are born to a bear (the female is known as a “sow”), but last year there were four sows in New Hampshire that had five cubs each!  The cubs stay very close to the mother (usually in a tree while the mother forages) for the first 3 – 4 months; they move a little farther from the mother as they mature.  Cubs remain with their mother for 18 months, reentering the den with her their second winter, but the coming Spring they are on their own and must find their own territory.  They will find a mate in their second Fall and so the cycle continues.

One doesn’t want to get between a bear and her cubs.  Ms. Conneau recommended that hikers (and their pet dogs) should wear a noisemaker such as a bell to alert bears to their presence.  Black bears usually retreat before people are aware of them.

So other than the cuteness factor, what good are bears?   Bears affect the ecosystem in a number of positive ways.  But put simply, according to the Fish & Game website, “the most important function is the knowledge that if you live in an area that can support a healthy bear population, that area is also healthy enough to support you.”

*see my archived post about a bear encounter at https://midlifeinmaine.wordpress.com/2010/10/27/bde-mr-bear/

Tai Chi Graduation Day

Today was a momentous day in my Tai Chi class.  Six months ago several of us joined a class for beginners.  There are 108 different “moves” done in a particular sequence, and we learned a few of the moves each week and repeated them endlessly, practicing stance and technique twice a week.  (Surprisingly, the class was never boring!)  Besides the newcomers, about 30 “regulars” who have been doing Tai Chi with this group for many years also participate.  The price is right: it’s free, although once a year we are asked for a $20 “donation,” and once a week people are asked to drop any unwanted food staples into a cardboard box; it’s given to the local food bank.

Today we finished learning the last of the 108 Tai Chi moves and after class, everyone was invited for pizza at a local diner (obviously not kosher) for a graduation celebration.  (I ordered hot water in a disposable cup – – I had even brought my own teabag!)  Besides receiving our diplomas, each graduate  was asked to speak about what they had gained from the class.  The instructor was hoping for some life-changing stories about people who improved their mobility or balance, but the truth is, Tai Chi takes years to master (just because you know the moves doesn’t mean you have finesse), and because it’s a slow-moving, deliberate exercise, the benefits are initially subtle at best.  So when it was my turn to speak, this is what I said:

I originally joined the Tai Chi class because I was diagnosed with osteoporosis, and I wanted to optimize my balance to prevent falls.  But what I really gained from the class was a totally unexpected surprise.

A few years ago, I was a caretaker for my elderly mother and mother-in-law.  It was a very stressful time for me, and filled me with heartache.  When it was all over, I felt like I had aged 10 years, both mentally and physically.  But the worst thing was my attitude:  I dreaded old age to such a degree, that the very notion of aging was depressing and terrifying and I could not imagine how I could ever face it.

The great thing about this class is seeing so many older people living vibrant, active lives.  I’m sure you all have your share of aches and pains, and some of you have serious health problems.  But to see you arrive at class week after week, volunteering your time and expertise to help newcomers, driving long distances in rain, sleet and snow to be part of this experience, is a wondrous thing.  Many of you are in your eighties and nineties, yet I can only envy your vitality!  You are never without a smile or a kind word or positive attitude; you are so full of grace.  You have taught me that getting older doesn’t have to be a curse or something horrific.  None of you are victims of your age, you are celebrants.  I just want to thank everyone here for being such a positive influence, because you really have helped change my life and outlook for the better.

You can check out my Tai Chi class website at http://www.taichiinmaine.com