A Suburban State of Mind: Part One

Whither, Suburbia

Let’s face it—most of the United States looks alike, at least with respect to residential zones. A stale and predictable sameness, in which one can tell the state only by the “Welcome To …” signs. Pennsylvania morphs into Ohio, which changes into Indiana, which becomes Illinois, its predictable blandness stretching for hundreds and hundreds of miles. A few regional quirks—adobe in New Mexico, saltbox in New England—but, as a general observation, you’ll find the same brick ramblers and overly roofed mini-mansions in Maryland as in Minnesota. Nowhere is this more noticeable than in America’s suburbs.

Not Dead Yet

For years, the media has been trumpeting the Death of the Suburbs. While suburbia is less attractive to more urban-focused (and mobile) millennials, the demise of the subdivision hasn’t happened yet. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus and he’s still building developments to sell to good little girls and boys. Our current low gas prices aren’t exactly sending suburbia’s denizens to the Big Bad City (and in the case of some cities, like Indianapolis, their morphologies and relatively low population densities are on the far side of what one typically associates with an urban environment). No, the suburb hasn’t died yet.

I Am One of Them

I am a suburbanite. I have a brick ranch house—classic American architecture—in a mature subdivision. I have a front yard (with one silver maple and one saucer magnolia) and a back yard (with two silver maples). I have a fence. I have a two-car garage and, unlike some of my neighbors, I can actually fit two cars in them, assuming I move the snowblower from its current at-the-ready position. I CHOSE to live here. And in many ways, I like it very much. There’s room for my herb garden. My patio holds a grill and a smoker, the former practically required in a development. I have a deck so I can sit outside when the weather permits, drinking my morning decaf or an evening cocktail. I can have people over for dinner without having to worry about parking. I can walk on the sidewalks or bike in the neighborhood streets for a quick burst of exercise. This. Is. Pleasant.

A Death March Toward Conformity

For many people, the word “suburban” connotes a certain blandness and conformity. The houses are designed by builders, not architects. Interiors full of too much stuff, poorly assembled trinkets made in China or perhaps old cans or boxes that “might come in handy someday”. Two-and three-car garages so full of junk that fitting in a bicycle is problematic, let alone a car. Indoors, the same wall décor or family pictures in frames probably purchased at the same Walmarts or Targets. The lives lived are the same as well—the same sports teams (formerly football, now likely soccer) or, increasingly, the same electronics and video games played indoors. Dining at the same Applebee’s or Ruby Tuesdays or Chinese buffets that inhabit strip malls differing in appearance not at all from those three states away.

And Yet I am Not One of Them

Is that characterization correct? After all, I live in suburbia and I am decidedly noncomformist (single, unapologetically childfree, intellectually driven, and agnostic for starters). Many, perhaps most, of my friends (as offbeat as me1) live in suburbs. Am I unwittingly buying into a stereotype, despite intellectual gifts? Or do I just have a knack for finding the outliers? Granted, my own neighborhood is a bit of a university ghetto, with faculty and staff comprising a substantial proportion of my neighbors. The academic milieu is known for attracting “unusual” types (although that, too, may be a bit of a stereotype, as I know plenty of colleagues living white-picket-fence sort of lives2).

In Search of, If Not an Answer, Observations

I think. I like to think. I like to question. I’m curious. And I’ll be looking. And posting about suburbia again in the future. Observing not only my own low-density, single-family-home neighborhood, but others as well. Ciao, until I write again.

1 Life is too short to spend time with intellectual dullards and shallow thinkers.

2The Academic Stereotype—that’s the subject of another post!

On Dry March

Or the Extension of Dry February

Dry February ended a week ago and I decided to extend the “nos” (no alcohol, no sweeteners, no rice, no white flour, potatoes, no Facebook) into March. What had been a personal challenge (i.e. can I do it?) became a veritable creed, especially the “no sweeteners” part. Granted, I feel wonderful physically (and as noted by a fellow gym denizen, apparently look “really healthy”—thank you, Dennis!) But at the end of February, I watched Dr. Robert Lustig’s “Sugar: The Bitter Truth” on YouTube and have become a somewhat reluctant yet enthusiastic convert to a life lived with minimal sugar.

My New Celebrity Crush

Okay, I admit it. I’ve got a small crush on the guy, a renowned and well published pediatric endocrinologist at the University of California, San Francisco. He’s brilliant (an MIT man!), passionate, admits to struggling with his own weight, and most importantly, he’s right about sugar. The video, despite being 90 minutes long, was both compelling and entertaining (and he delivers the biochemistry part in a way that most lay people can comprehend). I read articles and interviews about and with him online. I ordered his book “Fat Chance” and devoured it over the course of three days. BTW, that pun was not intended, but in retrospect, it should have been.

Some of you may have watched the documentary “Fed Up” or the award-winning Canadian documentary “Sugarcoated” and thus find his name familiar. Dr. Lustig has worked with obese, often morbidly so, children and teenagers and knows their struggles. And if you know me, you know of my own struggles—I once weighed 100 pounds more than I do today. Anyway, Lustig’s research squarely points the blame on sugar, especially fructose. Now you might interject and say “hey, that’s found in fruit and aren’t fruits good for you?” You would be correct. But in eating a piece of fruit, you are also getting the fiber, which helps the liver from receiving an onslaught of fructose (where, apparently, is the only place it is metabolized). And in Sugarcoated, the filmmakers show how the sugar industry and their various PR “associations” knew this, but still misled (and continue to mislead) the public about sugar’s addictive qualities and its toxicity.

Sugar Tastes Good!

Yes, Virginia, yes it does. And this is part of the reason why I’m a RELUCTANT convert to the no-crap eating style. I love making sweet treats, even if I don’t partake of them very often (after reading Gary Taubes’ Good Calories, Bad Calories a number of years ago, I cut back on my sugars and refined carbohydrates). I am known for making fabulous homemade ice cream. Crème brulee, rhubarb cake, rich challah—all a delight to make and, of course, a delight to eat. Will I miss this? Certainly, although I will bake again (my, that sounds so inspirational—I Will Bake Again!) When I host a dinner party, I’m not going to throw apples on the table and tell my guests to enjoy their desserts. Naturally, I’ll finish the meal with a decadent sweet. If I’m invited to someone’s home for a meal, I will eat what I am served (not going to be THAT guest!) But I will be making desserts less often (only when I’ll be sharing them with friends). Yes, sugar does taste good. But in the quantities Americans eat the stuff, it’s practically a societal poison. And I don’t want to be poisoned.

The Scariest Thing

For me, the relationship between sugar consumption and Alzheimer’s disease frightens me the most. The too-many-pounds thing bothers me on an aesthetic level, but the thought of literally losing my mind to tangles really makes me wonder whether that sugary Frappuccino is worth it. I never realized that the two were linked (and yes, I believe it is correlation, not causation, but why take the chance?) I thank Dr. Lustig for bringing this to my attention. My grandmother, who did live into her mid-90s, suffered from Type 2 diabetes and dementia at the end (okay, she was very old, but still, should I live that long, I’d want my mental faculties in as much tact as possible).

More to Come

Oh, I have more to write about, more to talk about this. And yesterday I made, of all things, homemade marshmallows, which are almost entirely sugar (4 ingredients—sugar (granulated and powdered), corn syrup (a sugar), gelatin, and water). I did it for the challenge, but honestly, I won’t eat them (I did eat one and they just taste like marshmallows). But still—I have a long way to go.

In the meantime, I’ll be sticking to Dry March. And continuing to improve my health. Expect another likeminded blog post or two sometime soon.

On Spring

Day 3 of Meteorological Spring

Meteorological spring begins March 1, with the season encompassing the months of March, April, and May. Winter—both meteorological and astronomical—has been on vacation here in the Midwest. We’ve had scant numbers of cold days, the really bitter ones that have you imagining your furnace as a cash register, racking up dollars for your local gas company. I think there’s only been a single day with a below-zero (°F) reading. On the other hand, we’ve had a string of May-like days with highs in the 50s and 60s. My silver maples are starting to leaf out. Daffodils and crocuses have been blooming for days now. And the forsythias are beginning to bloom. Spring has come early here in Indiana.

And Yet I am Ready for Spring

Mind you, I do enjoy all seasons, including winter. To me, it’s the cooking season, when I break out the enameled cast iron to turn out soups and stews. ‘Tis the season for braised lamb shanks or beans simmered for a couple of hours. It’s when I look forward to using the oven to bake a loaf of bread, both the residual heat and the marvelous smell infusing my kitchen. I sit down with tea and cookbooks, envisioning dinner parties with delightful and delicious menus. But this year, I’m really ready for spring, despite having had so little of winter.

Typically, I’ll be tired of cloudiness and snow and cold by now. But, while there’s been plenty of clouds, for the past couple of weeks we’ve actually seen plentiful sunshine here. And snow has been a rarity, with my snowblower only turned on to see if it worked. What has happened to me has been my embrace of cycling. And with that, I’m ready to bike outdoors regularly again. I did a 30+ miler the other week, largely on the Cardinal Greenway. Then a week of 60s, followed by storms and a day of snow showers, shifting my cycling workout indoors (28.5 miles on the recumbent at the gym—not too shabby, but not outside).

But Not Ready for Daylight Savings Time

I do not like long summer days. There, I’ve said it. While I appreciate—nay, LOVE—sunlight in the early mornings, by 7:30 or 8:00, I want it to be dark outdoors. Ideally, it would be light by 5:30-ish and dark by 7:30 (and for those of you who love long days, you’ll note that’s still a 14-hour day). Darkness is magical and sinister and oddly comforting. While I love to see the sun come up in the morning, I’m also glad to see it set in the evening. So, I will be welcoming spring but merely tolerating (begrudgingly) its little sister Daylight Savings Time.

On New Fitness Goals

Running is Gone—Now What?

As I noted in an earlier post, I was never athletic, so the fact that I not only RAN, but ran LONG DISTANCES still brings a thrill to my heart. I was perhaps the least fit person in my entire graduating class, perhaps my entire school. Yet I had, in my 40s, run a half-marathon. And then another one. And another one after that. Eventually, there were 14 of them, 15 if you include the one I ran on the track at the gym.

Enter Cycling

My now ex-boyfriend was not a runner. Rather, he cycled. Indeed, he worked on my bike (an old Trek 850 XC mountain bike) when we first got together, although it would be many months before we would actually ride together. Last February, I suffered a stress fracture, no doubt exacerbated by an “oh, it’ll go away, so I’ll run on it” kind of attitude. After my stress fracture healed, I took a real spin on my bike, something other than errands. I completed six miles. Six whole miles! At once! I don’t think I did that since I bought the bike back when I lived in Iowa City.*.Wow!

We started riding together in the summer—first 10 miles, then 12, then 15, then 20. I was hooked. Not exactly a fast cyclist (then again, I was never a fast runner), but a cyclist in it for distance and endurance. I loved the feeling of accomplishment I got whenever my mileage topped the previous ride. It was (almost) the same feeling I got whenever I finished my long runs, looking at the total mileage on my trusty Garmin GPS watch. Cycling is the new running.

So, Where Am I Going With This?

Well, the short answer is 50 miles from where I start! Actually, much like my first half-marathon, I now have an athletic or fitness goal to aim for. And to train for. A half-century ride (fyi, that’s a 50-mile bike ride). I’ve already completed a metric half-century (50 km). Now I’m aiming for half based on miles.

I find that, for me, having a fitness goal, one with a defined outcome, works for me. I know what it is, where it is, and what I need to do to get there. I may use this blog to keep semi-public tabs on myself as a form of motivation (along with the Excel spreadsheet I’m using to keep track of my training). But I feel inspired and driven now that I’ve identified this objective. And I KNOW I’ll meet it (I even have a deadline—August 31, 2017).

Insomnia as Therapist

 

2:17 AM and I am not just awake, but alert. Completely, totally, alert. Crossword puzzles for 45 minutes, reading a book for another hour, maybe a 15-20 minute foray into the living room for meditation if the house is warm enough. If this were just one night in a run of otherwise solid nocturnal sleeping, I could tolerate this better. But this is one of many–early waking and not falling back to sleep. I’ve been prone to these episodes for decades, at least since graduate school. And until this morning, I’d dismissed them as negatives, thieves depriving me of that vaunted sleep that, even in the best of circumstances, isn’t quite as long as I’d like it to be.

Morning Pages As Lexapro

Julia Cameron, creativity guru and author of the classic getting-unstuck text The Artist’s Way, has developed a method to clear the detritus from one’s head call “Morning Pages”. This is three pages of writing—stream of (un)consciousness, extemporaneous, thought-purging, unedited—done in longhand (never typed!) and completed first thing in the morning. Cameron claims this sweeps the junk out of one’s brain so that the real writing (or creating) can begin. I’d heard of this as a creativity tool and about 10 days ago, decided to give it a try. To complete the three pages takes me approximately half-an-hour. I’m writing, not thinking, just writing what comes into my head. Sometimes it’s “good morning, morning pages”, sometimes it more consequential. Sometimes it’s “I have to pee” in the middle of page two. The key is that it is for one’s own eyes (not shared) and it’s not “artistry”.  It really is a preparation for the day, so that creativity has room to come in unimpeded.

In the time that I started these, I’ve gone from being in a relationship (long-distance) to being single again. So admittedly, I have a Lot. On. My. Mind. This would be trying enough with a solid night’s sleep, but I’m working through this on sleep deficit (a LOT of sleep deficit!) So, while I’m tired when I get out of bed, my core is anxious and nervous, precluding any additional sleep. The morning pages, though, have been a godsend for this agnostic.

I’m nervous, restless, apprehensive when I start the them. Yet sometime into page two, I clearly feel my chest relaxing and I start feeling hopeful (reflected in the writing). I write the nerves, the thoughts, the concerns, the shame, the guilt, the anger, the embarrassment, literally (and yes, I know what literally means) experiencing the anxiety leaving my body.

Revelations 1:1

So, Insomnia. You always made me angry, keeping me from sleep. I thought of you as, at best, a cruel trickster. A nasty motherfucker. A hated visitor.

Until this morning. As I was writing today’s morning pages, I was suddenly struck by the thought that you, Insomnia, are more of an angel. You wake me up in the middle of the night to wear down my defenses when I arise for the day. Even if I do eventually fall back asleep for an hour or two, I’m still exhausted upon waking. And Insomnia, I see what you’re doing. You’re weakening me so that I must, MUST deal with my troubles. I must face them. I’m too tired to fight my heightened emotions. I can’t hide from the anger or relief or shame or tears. And thus I deal with them. Insomnia, you make me confront my fears and my tears so that I can get THROUGH sooner and EMERGE stronger sooner. In short, Insomnia, you prod me out the door to face the elements, much like a good therapist.

Thanks.

Dry February–Three Weeks In

I’ve completed three weeks of Dry February and physically, I feel fabulous. I feel strong and fit and YOUNG. I have no cravings for sweets (my big indulgence is nuts these days). The 30-mile bike ride I completed did NOT leave me exhausted–I’m sure I could’ve added another couple of miles. And afterward, I wasn’t ravenous. Yes, I ate afterward to replenish my glycogen (the über-whole grain German bread, the kind with the visible kernels, spread with peanut butter and topped with sliced bananas). But usually I’d have something hyper-sweet and I’d have trouble with sugar all day (yes, I’d famously overeat and overeat).  Even the inflammation in my foot has lessened. I may continue this into March!

AN ELEGY FOR RUNNING

The Last Run

The last time I went on a serious run was January 5, 2016. I ran 7.09 miles, interspersed with a few walk breaks. It must’ve been outdoors, because I got the mileage down to the hundredths, only possible with my trusty Garmin running watch. With the exception of a quarter-mile here and there, I have not run since.

Awakening the Athlete Within

I had never been athletic as a child or teen, something typically precluded when you are overweight or, by the time I graduated high school, morbidly obese. Weight loss followed, a significant one of over 100 lbs., which I largely kept off save for a couple of episodes (the start of graduate school and the year before my tenure review). By “largely” keeping it off, I mean within 20 pounds—not bad for starting at 254 lbs.

In my sort-of-young adulthood, walking became exercise for me. I’d dieted the weight off, but I never incorporated exercise and some of the weight crept back a bit. Walking was a joy—fitness plus “me” time (though I don’t know if “me” time had been invented yet). This was good.

Some time during graduate school, I started powerwalking the neighborhoods and hills of Newark, Delaware (yes, I was a Fighting Blue Hen), also adopting the now-excoriated low fat diet. I dropped weight and became, for the first time in my life, gorgeous (I’d been cute before, but for a couple of years, I daresay I was marginally stunning). Curvaceous, long red hair (thank you, L’Oreal!), combined with a pretty face (yeah, I heard that one when I was obese). For someone who once had an English teacher tell her to “get off your considerable rear”, this newfound conventional attractiveness was like candy (Three Musketeers, because I was following low-fat). I was even stopped on the street once, with a young man telling me that I was the most gorgeous woman he’d ever seen (and then he drove off). I felt feminine as well as feminist. Heaven!

Armed (and legged) with a new-born body, I decided it was time to ramp things up in the exercise department. I was going to RUN. Starting small (a block here and there), I eventually built up to running my very first 5K, the 28th Annual Turkey Trot in November of 2001. I ran slowly (I have always run slowly), but I was hooked.

Fast forward about nine months—while finishing my dissertation, I moved to Iowa City to teach for a year on contract at the University of Iowa. By October, I’d run my second 5K. And in the spring of 2003, my third. And in July of 2003, my fourth. Then a move to take a job at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.

Welcome to Indiana

Muncie is very, very flat. While that sounds like an advantage to a runner, Iowa City was full of small hills and I’d become quite proficient running UP the hills (I’d even overtake other runners during a race). I missed the topography, but kept up with my running.

On May 1, 2004, I ran in the Burris 75th Anniversary 5k (Burris was 75, not the race). It was cold and miserable, with a steady rain. I slogged through and somehow wound up winning my age group. I got a trophy!

Let me put that victory in a little perspective. The weather kept the turnout low (and many people who’d signed up failed to show up). I finished behind a 66-year old man. The person who was third in my age group WALKED. To me it mattered little. Formerly morbidly obese and completely unathletic Petra now had an athletic trophy to put on her shelf.

So, I continued running and one day that summer, I ran five miles. Five whole miles! I’d never done that in a single session before! Emboldened by my rising confidence, I went to the website of the Indianapolis Mini-Marathon and registered for the 2005 race. As soon as I entered my credit card number on the website and clicked Send, I said to myself “my god what have I done”.  This was a 13.1 mile race and I’d only run 5 miles. Once. Well, I knew I had time to train and that’s just what I did.

For those of you unfamiliar with this race, the Mini (as it’s endearingly called locally) is the nation’s largest half-marathon, with 35,000 participants. It’s a spectacle—TV coverage, residents cheering on the runners, bands and other entertainers. To me, it seemed magical.

The First One

About a week or so before the race, my hip started hurting me. This worried me, but I decided to run what I could and walk what I couldn’t. I got to Indy at about 6:15 in the morning and miraculously found a parking space about a block or two from the start. I was chilly and nervous, but those nerves were ones of excitement mixed with a little fear. Being a back-of-the-pack runner, my cohort started about 20-25 minutes after the elite runners (read: Kenyans).  But start we (and I) did.

Within the first mile of the race, I found a twenty-dollar bill (surely a good omen!) and as I continued to run, my hip stopped hurting. I ran and ran and ran, eventually crossing the finish line. Perhaps one of the proudest moments in my life was when a race volunteer placed a finisher’s medal on my neck after completing the race. I felt prouder than when I received my Ph.D.

Since Then

Since that first Mini, I ran ten more (for eleven total), the Fort 4 Fitness half in Fort Wayne, the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon, the Urban Bourbon in Louisville, Kentucky, and even an unofficial one on the elevated track at Ball Gym on the BSU camous (158 laps, in case you’re interested).

Back to January 2016—my foot started bothering me again (this was a couple of weeks after my last run—winters were more typically spent on the rowing machine at home). After the foot wasn’t healing, I made an appointment with my podiatrist. He diagnosed a stress fracture and I had to refrain from running or any other exercise putting extra pressure on that foot (I was cleared for walking, albeit in one of those ugly shoes). He pointed out that because I have a bunion, my foot was unstable and further fractures were likely. Indeed, I’d already had several bone bruises in the same spot.

After my fracture healed, I walked more and tried some very minor running breaks in between walking. By the summer, I was cycling, a fitness activity more conducive to working out sans injury. While I thought my running days were over, I harbored a secret hope that one day I would run another half-marathon. However, that was not to be.

Last week, I saw my podiatrist again, because I’d been having some discomfort in a different part of the same previously injured foot. Then I asked about bunion surgery. My mother had it done decades earlier and she remembered it being fairly benign. However, the good doctor showed me the xrays and noted that any surgery performed on my foot would be complicated—cutting a wedge and lengthening a metatarsal, cutting another wedge in a different metatarsal, and putting a plate in my ankle to give me an arch. And then he recommended against surgery unless my foot problems were severely impacting the quality of my life. I knew then I’d never do any serious running again.

Epilogue

I miss running. Cycling is fun, indeed I’ve improved and today I even went on a 30-mile ride, despite not having trained outdoors for some time (it IS winter, although we had a remarkably warm—66°F—day). But while I’m excited to mark my progression into higher mileage, I don’t get the exact same satisfaction cycling as I do running. So goodbye running. I loved you.

The First Real Dry February Temptations–Avoided!

Well, so far this had been going swimmingly–I had a better handle on my diet, I wasn’t craving anything verboten, and my skin even looked better! Alas, at dinner on Saturday night (at a bar/pub/grill type of place), I was sorely tempted to add a beer to my order of a vegetarian Cobb salad. I didn’t, but I really did want to have that beer. How odd, since I’m not really a beer drinker, preferring cocktails and highballs to all things ale. And today I’m feeling a bit anxious and a glass of sparkling wine would be just the ticket. But again, I said “no”.

I DID treat myself to some exotics today–a Hawaiian papaya and a Chinese white pear. Honestly, I’d never even heard of a white pear. But they exist and I am now the proud owner. I haven’t eaten it yet, because I do need to admire it for a few days first!

Dry February–The First Big Test

The first few days of my Dry February went by relatively easily, given that I don’t drink that much and I generally eat healthy during the week. On the weekends, I give myself leeway to indulge.

Yesterday, my boyfriend and I went to Indianapolis for a few errands, namely for me to start looking at bicycles, since I’m getting more serious about the sport. Given that my current bike is a mountain bike and I do my rides largely on paved trails, roads, and bike lanes AND given that my mileage increased last year, I decided to get a road bike. Mike is a cyclist and this is something we do together, him on his fancy carbon fiber Fuji road bike, me on my almost-20-year-old Trek 850 mountain bike. But I’d be a more efficient rider (and faster, so I wouldn’t slow him down) on a road bike. So, off we went to Performance Bicycle and Bicycle Garage Indy to check out some bikes. Unfortunately, it was too cold to test-ride them, so I’ll have to do that some other weekend. But I started to get a feel for the different kinds of frames and the price$.

We decided to eat at Athens on 86th, a Greek restaurant on, you guessed it, 86th St. And this is when I realized that I might have to look at a limited number of options on the menu. No gyros or souvlakis (or any other sandwiches) because of the white flour pitas. Nothing with breading. Nothing with rice mixed in. No moussaka or pastitsio  (white pasta, white potatoes, bechamel made from white flour). And it was cold, so I really wasn’t in the mood for a salad. BUT, I DID find something I could order–Gigantes, kind of like Greek lima beans baked in a spiced tomato sauce. This was unbelievably good! And hot! And allowable under my Dry February rules!

Because I don’t go out to eat that often (maybe once a week), I hadn’t considered the restaurant aspect. However, I am delighted to report that I did not break my rules, nor did I create a new exception. Yay, me!

Day 2–Dry February

Well, I’m well into Day 2 of Dry February (and about 36 hours into my Facebook Fast). No alcohol, no sugar or sugary sweeteners, no white stuff. Except for one of my exceptions–caffeinated energy gel. Yes, it was Endurance Day at the gym, so I powerwalked for 90 minutes (at least a good 5 miles) after warming up with 15 minutes on a rower (first time on one of those in months). Finished with 15 minutes of slow walking to cool down. Did NOT indulge in my usual sugary treat afterwards. BUT I did have a skinny Starbucks mocha this afternoon, after which I decided to add sugar substitutes to the list of banned foods. Frankly, they aren’t any better for me!

And I DID refrain from eating muesli for breakfast/brunch, because there are sweetened cranberries in the mix. I am really going to be that much of a stickler!