From Endurance to Strength… in Perimenopause… with Plants… with Positive Groundlessness

In the last few weeks I’ve been making big changes to my nutrition and fitness routine, which call for some careful reflection. The whole thing started when a colleague–a badass athlete in her own right–lent me her copy of Stacy Sims’ new. book Next Level, the first (as far as I know) book about perimenopausal and menopausal athlete. Just a few days later, I attended an open water swim camp in Hawaii, where my wonderful and knowledgeable coach, Celeste St. Pierre, recommended the same book, and impressed upon me the vital importance of Lifting Heavy Shit.

Up to this point, my athletic endeavors were almost squarely in the endurance world. I swam long (and slow) in open waters, transitioning then to multisport to protect myself from injury. In the heyday of my marathon swimming days, I did no cross training whatsoever – only swimming. Later, I added on calisthenics, in the form of fusion classes (which I took and taught) and antigravity fitness (using silky hammocks.) I’m not quite sure whether I was fully aware of the importance of doing all these things at the same time, and I’m also pretty sure I wasn’t told to increase the resistance and challenge or to eat more. Generally speaking, and relatedly, my weight has been almost entirely the product of my diet: when I eat more and poorly, I gain weight; when, with great control and care, I eat less and well, I lose weight. Going in the former direction is easier than the latter.

For many important biological reasons that Sims explains in a lucid, straightforward way in her book, the wellbeing and athletic priority during perimenopause and beyond should be building lean muscle and bone. For many of us, this means changing our body composition, which is not an easy thing to do and not one that can be accomplished merely with dietary changes. The building block for muscle is protein, which has to be consumed in adequate amounts, and the muscles must be used in a progressively challenging fashion for them to grow stronger.

I read the book cover to cover and then, through the recommendation of another wonderful athletic colleague, was introduced to lifter Casey Johnston and her excellent couch-to-barbell program. Two weeks ago, for the first time, I mounted plates on my barbell, and am quite fascinating with this transformation, though I still have many questions and uncertainties. Here is some of what has been happening:

  1. I am lifting three times a week – twice at the school gym with my colleague, once or twice at home. This has required a certain change to my routine. I lift on Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday; I now swim on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. I also kept up my pilates on Saturday and my boot camp (which includes lifting) on Sunday. On lifting days I also do a short plyometric set (quick, HIIT-type jumping). Monday is somewhat of a lighter day, though I do ride the cargo e-bike, as I do every weekday, to drop my son off at school. That means shorter but more intense workouts, which is what Sims recommends. It does feel weird, as someone used to endurance workouts, that there’s none of the prolonged suffering that we marathoning people tend to glorify. Hilariously, I am finding the mantra “I can take anything for twenty seconds” useful for both HIIT and lifting.
  2. I am already experiencing improvement in my strength. Last week I flew to Atlanta for a conference (ASC was very good this year, and I’ve already posted about some of what I learned–on court fees and on extradition) with a big, heavy backpack containing everything I needed for four days. When I got to my airplane seat, I lifted my bag into the overhead compartment–and was immediately struck by a big difference. Reader, it was child’s play. Not that it wasn’t heavy; I was stronger, noticeably so, and it was very gratifying. Same story with groceries. My partner was astonished yesterday when I came back from the co-op with a gigantic box of produce, oat milk cartons, and the like, and carried it myself as if it was nothing despite its weird shape. All of this is very good news and provides ample motivation to keep going.
  3. The progress arc at the beginning is very satisfying. Every time I lift I think to myself, there’s no way in hell I’ll be able to lift five pounds more in two days. And then the next workout arrives, and to my astonishment, I can! I’m sure this fast progress will slow down as I progress, but for now, this linear improvement (2.5-lb increments for upper body, 5-lb increments for lower body) is providing a huge motivation boost. This is a good thing. Throughout my life, I’ve often see-sawed between two good sensations: growth (picking up a sport or a skill I know nothing about and getting through the uncomfortable months/years that it takes to become “good enough” to enjoy it) and relishing skill (making small improvements in a sport I’m already quite proficient at.) Sometimes it feels like I need to stay in my comfort zone (as with, say, swimming or flute.) Sometimes I pick up something new (such as tai chi or the handpan.) Now is a time for the latter, and I feel excitement building for when I get “good enough” to know what I’m doing.
  4. I’ve also introduced some changes to my swimming. At the open water swim camp, Celeste taught us to activate our muscles through dryland practice before getting into the water. I’m finding this highly effective, and I’ve made one more adjustment–my sets are shorter and sprintier now. I cover fewer yards overall, but the intensity of the practice has increased, which is exhilarating. I’m also hitting some surprising times with my 50s and 100s – times I hadn’t seen in the pool since I was training for Tampa Bay in 2012. At 48, this is gratifying and makes me feel like I’m doing the right thing.
  5. I’m still not 100% sure what I’m doing, nutrition-wise, despite having gotten excellent advice. Sims’ book, the coaching figures in my life, and my awesome new acquaintance, vegan fitness coach Karina Inkster, have all emphasized two principles: I have to eat a lot more than I’ve been eating, and I have to prioritize protein. These things go hand in hand, because it is a pretty impossible job to double one’s protein intake (especially on a vegan diet) and keep the caloric situation low. Sims discusses the common problem of low energy availability, or LEA, and stresses how crucial it is to fuel properly before, during, and after workouts. We vegans love to scoff at ignorant meat eaters who ask us “where do you get your protein?” and, indeed, one can get a lot of protein on a plant-based diet, but it does require more planning, as the things one should eat (good, plant based food with fiber and phytonutrients) don’t tend to come in easy protein-rich packages. On Karina’s website, one can find lots of excellent resources for protein and other nutrition strategies for vegan athletes. She even has a handy vegan protein calculator, which instructed me to eat twice as much protein as I had been eating. This means I’m chasing protein throughout the day (tofu scramble; adding vegan protein powder to green smoothies; adding hemp, flax, and chia to my morning oatmeal) and all the other calories sort of work themselves out.
  6. I’m also not sure what’s happening with my body size-wise. Despite eating almost twice what I ate during the Big Weight Loss and Health Restoring Project, and despite putting on about 12 lbs or so, my size doesn’t feel significantly different. My measurements are almost the same. The scale is unhelpful, as its body composition readings are inconsistent and bizarre. Parts of me feel more muscular, other parts softer, and, in general, I feel more like a work in progress than like the chiseled ancient Greek statue my mind imprinted on as the picture of health and strength. I can’t argue with the functional improvement, but there is definitely a part of me that is terrified of regaining all the weight I lost through so much effort–if only because I have wonderful clothes and would like to continue wearing them. This is a really interesting and juicy place to explore in meditation–attachment to body, attachment to clothes, the possibility that I purchased my current wardrobe as a protective talisman against weight gain, lots of new things to learn about myself and my relationship to my body.
  7. Spiritually, the whole thing is weird, fun, and a bit discombobulating. One of my favorite teachers, Pema Chödrön, speaks of “positive groundlessness“: coming to a sense of tentative, floating peace with the idea that nothing is permanent and there is really nothing to hold on to:

The idea of letting go of fear and becoming comfortable with groundlessness has been a recurring theme for me in the last few weeks, pretty much since I participated in the Smithfield Trial and experienced the elation of its aftermath. Recently, Wayne Hsiung and I recorded our third podcast together, in which I espoused a theory about the judge’s closed fist where it came to affirmative defenses and evidence in the trial. I’m increasingly convinced that what drives these aggressive judicial court-management maneuvers is the fear that the trial will evolve and bloat into some landmark political moment beyond the judge’s ability to handle. Fear of uncertainty, of having nothing to hold on to, no buffer or protection, drives a lot of behavior, including very bad behavior. This includes my own fear: during the trial, as Wayne and I discuss in the podcast, I was sure that taking a mistrial was the right choice for him, but he decided to take the chance and see what the jury would decide. Happily, he was proven right. It was a moment that taught me that Wayne has more guts than me, and that I need to develop my relationship with positive groundlessness.

In his book Becoming a Man, one of my favorite authors, Paul Monette, wrote: “When you finally come out, there’s a pain that stops, and you know it will never hurt like that again, no matter how much you lose or how bad you die.” I think this is true for virtually anything worth being brave about: animal rights, helping incarcerated people, fighting against an unjust regime, resisting orthodoxies (from the right and from the left), and changing something as solid and fundamental as one’s relationship with one’s body. Let’s just say this lifting journey is a wonderful opportunity to explore my own bravery in picking up something new, and it’s a spiritual journey as well.

Thinking Like a Community

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the disappointing, but not unexpected, outcome of Happy the Elephant’s case. Taken with similar attempts to imbue animals with legal personhood, this can induce a lot of despair: fringe legal philosophies have not produced the change we’re hoping for.

But perhaps there is another way to go, which learns from contemplative and deep ecological perspectives. At 5:30am on election day I rode my bike to the polls and was treated to a magnificent dawn chorus of San Francisco’s diverse and colorful bird population. A thought flew through my mind: The birds don’t know and don’t care that there is an election today. Much of what we will vote on (transit, construction, garbage collection) will directly affect their lives, but they are not involved in this process–they live adjacent to it, oblivious of what it may bring in its wings. Who will speak for their interests at this election? 

I’m obviously not the first person to introduce contemplative practices into ecology and animal rights. In their 1988 book Thinking Like a Mountain: Toward a Council of All Beings, John Seed, Joanna Macy, Pat Flemming and Arne Naess propose a blueprint for human decisionmaking that takes all perspectives in mind. Through transformative, contemplative practices, a Council of All Beings invites humans to deeply adopt and articulate the perspectives of nonhuman entities in decisionmaking. I participated in one such Council as part of a facilitator training; I spoke for a mushroom and some of my fellow participants spoke for parrots, rocks, and blades of grass. It was a profound immersion in the interests, if they can be called that, of nonhuman entities.

This transcendent notion of perspective taking has migrated from deep ecological theory to the legal realm, with some expressing optimism for its potential for transformation. In his article We Are the River, my colleague and friend David Takacs offers some examples: The New Zealand Parliament has recently granted the Whanganui River and the Te Urewera mountain ecosystem rights as legal persons, with a Māori governing board to speak for the nonhuman entities, based upon traditional cultural precepts. Similarly, governments in Australia, Colombia, Ecuador, Bangladesh, India, Uganda, and the U.S. have also declared that rivers and other living systems have legal rights. While these initiatives stem from  disparate historical, philosophical, and legal backgrounds, and pursue disparate goals, they all seek to enshrine in the law the fundamental symbiosis between human and nonhuman ecological health, and to empower suitable stewards who will nurture that symbiosis. As Takacs explains, newly vested spokespersons for nature–often indigenous populations, who savvily position themselves as more authentically empowered to speak for natural entities–can, and sometimes do, turn novel legal theories into real legal work that protects human and nonhuman communities. 

So, perhaps the solution to our failure to effect real change through animal personhood is to eschew performative (often prosecutorial and anthropomorphized) rhetoric on behalf of animals and give some careful thought, through discerning political considerations and contemplative experiences, to two important questions: what are the genuine interests of nonhuman animals and who should be vested with the authority to represent these interests? As I explained here and here, and as Justin Marceau explains so well here, deep engagement with the true interests of nonhuman animals does not and should not include a reliance on incarceration. The answer, perhaps, is that criminal courtrooms are not the right places for deep, thoughtful perspective-taking. This is not to say that meditative retreats or multiparty government meetings would be completely free of anthropomorphism: any humans speaking for nonhuman entities necessarily translate very different lives to their own into human terms and might, manipulatively or carelessly, twist or convert these into their own interest. This is why it is essential to identify speakers for animals who are truly curious, knowledgeable, and sincere. 

When we understand on a deep level what animals want (they are more similar to us than we might think, as Larry Carbone explains in his treatise on laboratory animals), the solutions are up to us. Bruce Friedrich of the Good Food Institute often explains that the true solution to the horrors of factory farming lie at least partly in the hands of the market: we must create substitutes to animal products that taste the same or better, and cost the same or are cheaper. Would factory farmed animals provide us with this solution? Naturally not. This is an entirely human solution, derived from an entirely human conceptual world, for the genuine problem nonhuman animals face–the horrific reality of exploitation and torture that is the CAPO industry. What Friedrich’s solution shows us is that, when we set out to comprehend the unmediated experience of our fellow living beings, with as little imposition of our own agendas on it as possible, we can then fashion human solutions to these problems. I resolved to participate in (human) elections and vote on measures that humans introduced, and on human candidates, while “thinking like a mountain” at the ballot box.

But we can find even more uses for thinking like a community, such as in physical and mental health matters. Recently, I read and enjoyed Will Bulsiewicz’s Fiber Fueled and listened to this podcast with him, in which he explained that we should think of our eating habits as eating not just for ourselves, but for a whole community including trillions of microbes. What I eat is for them as much as it is for me, or for whatever “me” is (not that easy to parse, with so many microbes in the mix, right?) So, when you crave a mountain of nutrition-empty things, consider that there’s an emotional aspect of “you” who wants them, while there are many aspects of “you” – the physical, biological, mental “you”, that needs other things. Think of the cliché of pregnant women “eating for two:” we’re all eating for trillions.

There’s also a psychological aspect to this: I’m enjoying Richard Schwartz’s No Bad Parts, an excellent introduction to family systems theory in psychology, which is all about the notion that we contain multitudes. It is useful to give a voice to neglected parts of the self, even if one believes there’s some “core self” (a better fit for western psychology than for Buddhist psychology.)

Next time you’re involved in decisionmaking, for yourself or for others, try thinking like a community and see how it feels.

Lifeguarding Debut

This week I started working at my new side hustle: I’m volunteering as a lifeguard at my local pool to acquire the requisite experience hours for a salaried lifeguard job with the city. I’m happy to report that I’m finding it just as exhilarating and rewarding as I expected.

Every job has discontents, and professional jobs are cushier than many other occupations, which makes whining about academia trite and tiresome. Still, the last few years have eroded much of what I enjoyed about my academic work environment, and finding myself in a new professional context was refreshing. I like the fact that people are measured and judged in a more straightforward, honest way on a job that involves a fitness/alertness component. I like the fact that the job is completely stripped of markers of prestige (I work alongside people of all ages, occupations, and walks of life.) But mostly, I’m immensely enjoying the service aspect of the job.

Lifeguarding offers a sublime combination of calm and focus. I sit by the water, which has always been my favorite place, and find a precious balance between the stillness of being of quiet service to people and the alertness to things that might happen before they happen. Empathy and perspective-taking are relevant to the job in surprising ways – most of the time one can prevent all kinds of calamities and crises not through heroic water rescues and CPR, but through anticipating what might happen, putting oneself in the place of a swimmer or exerciser, and preempting the problem by addressing their needs. The job offers varied avenues for service: lowering some of our senior swimmers to the water in a special chair, offering a toy to a kid, politely but efficiently moving people along lanes so that they are swimming with people at their speed, offering an aspiring triathlete a couple of pointers about their stroke. I’m really having a terrific time.