The People I Know Now

The people I know now live in rural America. They aren’t who you think they are.

The people I know now think it self-evident that everyone’s water should be clean. It is obvious to them that everyone who needs medical attention should have access to it. They accept that mental balance and self esteem can be hard to come by, and those who will say the truth out loud are precious. They fight against the big foreign company stealing water at a bottling plant, and against the small fracking company that dumped chemicals on a road near their well. They have old cars, or none at all. They call the bus and wait. They are often between jobs, and always needing a higher-paying one. They seek dignity as they learn to live in the world after an addiction or time in prison. If they can, they grow their own food, and eat healthier than most in America. They don’t write a check for $50 or $100 easily, if at all. They don’t shop on-line as a hobby, and their clothes might be worn. The internet coverage out here is slow or non-existent. Few have big screen televisions and they still play their music off CD’s. I haven’t seen many new iPhones out here. 

The people I know now inspire me as they matter-of-factly go about daily challenges that cause me to whine about life’s unfairness. I think about the inner resilience my privilege has earned for me (or not). I compare them to the corporate ghosts I knew in my past life: executives living on chemical-cesspool golf courses, drinking their way through long trips away from home; sales people making piles of money but filled with self loathing; leaders wanting to win, more than wanting to do right. Everyone striving for bigger cars and more stuff. No one willing, or able, to name a principle they believed in, much less take a stand for it.

The people I know now read, draw, cook, sculpt, think, listen for the owls and the coyotes at night, and talk quietly among friends. They protest, march, and speak up. They take care of their land, their animals, and one another as the earth slips slowly from solstice to equinox.

I came to this rural life a cynic. The people I know now  are slowly turning me optimistic. 

Intention

Packing

I have been wanting to write about intention. By this I mean a life by design, not accident; a life in which you actively choose where to put your attention, your money, your time.  Annie Dillard notes:

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.”

For me, working meant built-in purpose, a schedule, a routine. My days were interesting and full and fun. I rarely had to choose – I could spend indiscriminately, I could multi-task, and I believed I was doing it all. I was the embodiment of “more.”

Annie Dillard also wrote:

“There is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by. A life of good days lived in the senses is not enough. The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less; time is ample and its passage sweet. Who would call a day spent reading a good day? But a life spent reading — that is a good life.”

It is that life of the spirit I grapple with now that I do not have a built in schedule. Without work to distract me, I can see clearly the culture’s drive to commoditize the human spirit. I stand apart and observe how we deftly we are pulled into the life of sensation – though our increasingly intelligent devices, targeted advertising, food and medical options presented through traditional venues.  “More” and “faster” are the dictates of this drive.

I also observe more people now who are choosing to live an intentional life. They are opting to live less expensively, to do without or to live in a rural environment, so that they can be free from work earlier in their lives. I’m not sure if these folks have always been there and I didn’t know them, or if this is becoming a movement. In any event, as I get further from the noise and drama of working life, I see more options than ever before. Options for good days and a good life.

 

A Diagnosis is Just a Label for Your Symptoms

April

I really enjoy watching the You Tube contributions of Dr. Sarah King, PT, DPT, who is a Parkinson’s physical therapist (and owner of Invigorate Physical Therapy and Wellness). She wrote a letter called Things I Wish I Could Have Told You the Day You Were Diagnosed with Parkinson’s – the letter is here; the video here. I recommend it for everyone – it could have been written for anyone recently diagnosed with “aging.”

To believe we are not broken, that a future is still ours to create, and that we can get where we want to go with small changes applied with urgency is important for everyone.

 

Retirement for Real

Here are nine things that I see differently from this perch called retirement, now I have been here a while:

  1. Building a New Life. Think about retirement as the chance to build a new life from scratch, and this goes doubly if you are moving to a new part of the country. This is an opportunity to be yourself fully, so think about not just the stuff you want to start doing, but also what you want to stop doing. You will still have constraints, of course, but how you maneuver around them is part of who you are.
  2. Giving. What you give to others in retirement is a mindset and attitude as much as knowledge and time. Help others be better.
  3. Money. Unless you have really saved “enough” money, you are going to need a budget. Get that spreadsheet ready. Also, there is nothing like a 30 minutes, once per week, discussing with your spouse what you spent and why.
  4. Organizing. Retirement requires just as much, if not more, administration and project management time as your working life required.
  5. Living Space. If you move to a new area because you believe it to be cheaper, give it a year or so before that cheap kicks in. There is always a period of settling into a new home and new community that requires resources.
  6. Time. Take responsibility for yourself and the time you have. Don’t drive your spouse crazy.
  7. Parents. Your parents and your spouse’s parents are going to need attention. You basically have four parents now (more if you have a multiple marriage situation), and you are going to have to help attend to all of them at one point or another.
  8. Health. Your health belongs to you – not your doctor, your spouse, your friends, or your trainer.  If you aren’t in the habit of moving around most of the time, of eating mindfully, recognizing when you are stressed, then your health is already declining.
  9. The Future. You cannot know what is to come. Don’t believe every thought that pops into your mind.

Retirement Mindset

Storm over Lake Michigan

My mindset around the idea of retirement has evolved over the past two years. I share this thought with you because it took me some time to learn it, and these words might provide a shortcut to you.

Retirement is a blank canvas on which we build our new life, and our legacy. It’s a fresh chance to lean into the habits, interests, and activities that are most true to ourselves, listening to the ideas and hopes that give us juice, within the circumstances that naturally constrain us.

I have alot of experience with life at this age. I have some sense of how I like to spend my time. The last few years of my working life felt like a pinnacle; it may have just been the culmination of a career trying on likes and dislikes and finally knowing what I like best. Now I am retired, I have time to build my best self from scratch. This is the person whom others meet today – not the decisive executive (also bossy), or organized administrator (also rigid), or thoughtful team leader (also sometimes thoughtless) that I was in my career days.

If I do it right, my best attributes – built over years in those roles – shine through and mix with what I’m learning now into an authentic and true self. This is what I bring to this thing we call retirement.

Climbing Mt Whitney

Some years ago, I read a magazine article that said you could summit Mount Whitney, the tallest peak in the contiguous 48 states, without any climbing equipment, that it was one of those rare mountains on which you could essentially “walk” to the top. It sounded easy. An uphill stroll.

At the time, I had done some backpacking in Big Sur and Yosemite and I thought this would be a good next challenge. A couple of my friends said they would join me on this endeavor. At 22 total miles, in and back, with total elevation change of 6,100 feet, we thought we would just go slow and make three days out of it. We secured the necessary permits and in early September, my friends David and Bobbi joined me, driving first to Lone Pine, California, where we stayed at a motel for the first night, then through the Inyo National Forest to the portal, where the trail begins at 8,374 feet above sea level.

In retrospect, we had a lot of gear. Big 50 pound backpacks, with a tent, a stove, sleeping bags and cushions, freeze dried meals, and probably too many clothes. A camera. Lots of peanut M&M’s that I had read were good at high altitudes. It was all light and modern compared to what John Muir climbed with, but compared to today, another 35 years along the technology trail, it may have been pitiful.

The Whitney Trail begins in a high Alpine forest, beautiful, serene, with streams and boulders. A felled log was the bridge to cross the first stream we came to. There was about a three foot drop to the stream bed, and maybe six inches of water flowing through the stream. For some reason, I could not bring myself to venture out onto the log with my pack. Both Bobbie and I were suddenly afraid of falling off that log and into the water. David had to carry his pack across, and then return for each of our packs, and then for each of us. We walked across under our own leg power, but it took coaxing. There were at least six of these kind of stream crossings before the trail took us above the tree line, and I don’t remember David ever complaining about the time-consuming method we used to cross every one of them.

We continued to climb, crossing above the tree line, now following the cairn trail markers. We arrived at the base camp area later then planned but still managed to set up our tent, boil some water, and make some food before it was completely dark. All afternoon, the wind was picking up. I will never forget that wind. That night it blew so hard I was afraid to go out to pee because without my weight, the tent might blow off the mountain with my two friends in it. Between the relentless noise of the gale, and my imagination about the ferocious wild animals assembling outside, I don’t think I slept for a full hour.

Day two dawned clear and cold, and we assembled the smaller packs we would carry just to the summit and back. Relentless is too mild a word for the slope upward that morning. The cairns that marked the trail through our route’s infamous 97 switchbacks were difficult to see, and sometimes we would find ourselves 30 feet off the trail, climbing an imaginary path from which we would need to back track.

Sometimes the path would narrow as it snaked alongside the mountain, becoming just a walkway, a path maybe two feet wide with a 1,000 foot drop. That was kind of scary. It was absolutely terrifying, and also kind of impressive, when the trail was just a bridge with maybe a 1,000 foot drop down one side and 500 down the other. We inched forward over these, all the while conscious that we would have to revisit them again on the way down.

At some point, another climber on his way down told us that last year’s ice hadn’t melted near the last, steepest part of the climb and that we should “be careful.” I’ll tell you, that focused our minds.

Nearing the summit, we spent more time on our hands and feet, doing more of a big rock scramble than a hike as I had envisioned, or that promised stroll. Finally, however, we scrambled over the last stone and snow and ice and emerged onto the mountain top. It was surprisingly large up there, and flat. A big plaque said the elevation was 14,505 and we took some photos. A careful descent and we were back at basecamp and our tent and packs we had left there. That night, the wind was quiet, the wild things had dispersed, and I slept much better.

On day three, we got an early start down the mountain, and ran into several climbers coming up the trail, carrying just a small day pack, and maybe a hiking stick. When we talked briefly, it turns out that many people climb the mountain in just one day, all the way up and back. That was a revelation.

Bobbi and I crossed the log bridges we had to be coaxed over on day one in just three or four big confident strides. The contrast with the rest of the climb made these crossings seem so easy. The forested part of the trail seemed doubly lush and beautiful.

Back at the trailhead, we got into the car and headed home, feeling victorious and really proud of ourselves. We didn’t have social media then, so we just sat with our accomplishment, savoring it, turning it over amongst the three of us.

About 25 miles from the trailhead, we saw an A&W drive in restaurant. Perfect for three hungry, dirty, climbers; we wouldn’t even have to get out of the car. We pulled in and ordered and when the waitress returned to the car with our food, we burst out with the news that we had just climbed Mt. Whitney! “Uh huh,” she said, snapping her gum, “what’s that?”

In my mind’s eye I still search her face for signs of irony. Did she really not know?

In subsequent years, I traveled extensively and learned to love everything about hotels – warm rooms with comfortable beds, lobby bars and fancy restaurants. I had forgotten about this adventure and its exertion, weather, and altitude. It was a good adventure and one I wanted to record here as a testament to my now long-gone youth.

The Big Four

The four areas of health on which I have been focusing – sleep, nutrition, movement and stress control – are the fundamentals, the bedrock, of my health. I focus on no, or very low, cost interventions that anyone can implement. I was going to list my top recommendations to optimize each of these when I realized they are all elements of one main thing – health! They aren’t separate and alone. Each of them feeds the success of the others, and its impossible to say that what you eat does not impact your sleep, or vice versa.

Having said that, here’s what is working for me right now:

Eating a ketogenic diet and fasting intermittently each day (limiting eating to the hours between 11 am or noon and 6 pm)

Moving for a minimum of one hour each day, including some HIIT and some balancing.

Keeping a gratitude journal daily.

Thinking happy thoughts  😉

And … getting 8 hours of sleep every night, enhanced by:

1. A very dark room. No lights but moonlight.
2. Cooling the room, the bed, and my body.
3. Getting away from blue light well before bed time and reducing EMFs as much as possible. Basically, the mobile device must be put in another room, in airplane mode, in the earlier evening.
4. Generating my own melatonin by walking outside in the mornings.
5. Reducing nasal stuffiness by reducing histamine-rich foods, particularly red wine, dark chocolate, and aged cheeses. (I know, could I have listed three foods I love more?)
6. Getting enough vitamin D (with K2) and enough magnesium.
7. Drinking sleepy time tea before bed.
8. Getting to bed by 10 pm so I have at least three hours of sleep before the witching hour of 1 am.

 

The chain of my health

Shiney black and white chain

A visual depiction of your health might be this: a clean, neat chain of DNA pulled taut, a chain that is tugged on and pulled at by all kinds of outside factors during your long life. The chain gets dirty, and stretched thin in places, and that is aging. If however, the chain breaks, you have yourself a disease that can be acute (like a cancer) or chronic (autoimmune, or neurodegenerative) disease. A disease that our allopathic doctors continue to treat with the same tools that may have enabled the disease in the first place.

What broke my chain of health? Was it an intervention like the thyroid my doctors recommended be removed via radioactive isotope? Or a long-term treatment, like the statins I took for years? Was it something more systemic like all the food I have eaten that’s been raised with glyphosate, or meat raised on factory farms with antibiotics and growth hormones? Was it the inflammation caused by too much manufactured “food” and not enough of the fresh nutritious stuff, or by the sugar that was a true addiction for me for most of my life? I have drunk a lot of good wine, used a lot of commercial skin and beauty products, flown a lot of miles exposed to high altitude radiation. I have let stress run my life. I have gone whole years without serious exercise. Any of these stressors could have been the tug that broke my health chain.

My goal in this thing we call retirement is two-fold: first, to learn everything I can about whole health and apply these lessons to myself so that I don’t break my chain of health in another spot, and second, to sound the alarm to those who can hear the bell.

Results of my four-day fast

Empty plate with knife and fork against blue background

I know, I know, I went on a five day fast!

At 80% done, day four, with 96 hours complete, I decided to end the fast. Not due to hunger, but because my energy was so low and the overall achy-ness was extremely uncomfortable. My notes from that last day :

  • PD medicines are taking a long time to kick in or not working at all. The few times I did feel them fully kick in, they did not last as long as when I am not fasting.
  • I am extremely low energy and winded doing normal activities
  • My body feels achy – back, joints, legs.  In particular, my hamstrings and gluten are very sore.
  • I don’t feel any hunger, but I am suddenly fascinated by photos or ideas of food
  • The cold I have had since Sat (before the fast started) is better but not gone. I’d say this cold has run a normal course, given my history.
  • The first two nights of the fast I slept better than the second two nights.
  • I never really felt the cognitive clarity or energy that people talk about

I ended the fast mid-day on a Thursday, and continued to feel weak until Saturday morning when I felt incredible.

In retrospect, I am happy with the fasting results, and would do a short fast again. One thing I would do differently at each end of the fast:

  • Starting when I have a cold and unable to sleep is not optimal. I’d start after a couple of days of solid kenogenic eating.
  • Due to out of town guests, we ate out on Saturday morning and evening, and again on Sunday mid-day. Ending with restaurant meals in the first 48 hours is also not great. I’d want to end next time with a few days of solid kenogenic foods.

Why Fast?

Brain Tree

This week, I will be going on a short 5-day water fast. Here’s why:

We evolved as a species in an environment where food was not available all of the time, refrigerated and waiting for us to graze upon. It is said while we were evolving as hunter-gathers, we spent about 95% of our time searching for food. (The other 5% was spent reproducing.) Basically, we are not built to be shoveling food into our bodies from the time we wake up until the time we go to sleep, and our disease rate increases reflect this.

Because of the enormously long time (100,000 generations) we spent as hunter-gathers, we have within us physiological and behavioral responses that are activated when we must go without food. As modern humans we can tap into these evolutionary responses by fasting occasionally and giving our bodies a reminder of an earlier time that only our cells remember. This lecture by Mark Mattson is about his team’s research into the link between modern health and these evolutionary responses.

They have shown that intermittent energy restriction (IER) along with vigorous exercise, can increase numbers and strength of synapses and can enhance brain function and mood. IER is fasting – for a block of days, for a period of 24 hours several times each week, or by limiting our intake times to fewer hours daily. The two activities – IER and exercise – increase the neuron activation state and energy demand, which results in:

  • Production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) – I want more of this because it encourages the growth, regeneration and creation of new neurons and synapses
  • Mitochondrial replication – I want more of these because they produce energy and keep me young
  • Enhanced autophagy – I want this because it is the removal of oxidatively damaged proteins. (Just as an aside, the 2016 Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded to Yoshinori Ohsumi for work in this field, and his Nobel lecture is available online.)
  • Reduced inflammation – I want this reduced because inflammation   is wearing on my mitochondria and another “yank on the genetic chain”
  • Peripheral changes in energy metabolism that occur during fasting (and exercise) may also contribute to a healthy brain.

Fasting has been called the single most profound metabolic intervention for modern health.

I am about to find out!