Death and the over-achiever

March 13, 2019 § 4 Comments

I read this story a couple of times about Kelly Catlin’s suicide. It was a disturbing story on many levels and one worth thinking about.

Kelly was an over-achiever. She graduated with a degree in math and Chinese, enrolled in Stanford’s graduate school, and won a silver medal at the Rio Olympics … all by the age of 22.

She was a classical violinist, a heavy-metal aficionado, a skilled gamer, and a community volunteer.

At 23 she was also dead.

Poring over the news story for clues, they were all there, in her own words and the words of her family:

Talented at literally everything she did. She just felt like she couldn’t say no to everything that was asked of her …

Disciplined, strong, and endlessly hard working … There wasn’t anything Kelly couldn’t do …

She was strong and cold, austere and terrifying.

Kelly always had a nihilistic and occasionally morbid sense of humor.

It ain’t all it’s cracked up to be

Of course Kelly herself had a tall order explaining how one person could do so much and be so superlative at all of it. In a statement that sounds like it was crafted straight out of a PR department, she described her reasons for pursuing such an amazing array of interests at such a high level thus: “Through a synthesis of these interests, I aim for a well-balanced life and the opportunity to touch people’s lives.”

Yet candor about the obvious impossibility of being the best at everything you attempt came out in this VeloNews interview: “But the truth is that most of the time, I don’t make everything work. It’s like juggling with knives, but I really am dropping a lot of them. It’s just that most of them hit the floor and not me.” Most.

In a sentence that looks prophetic, like all post-hoc attempts to piece together self-inflicted death, she adds, “You cannot plan for the unplannable, and — to go back to the juggling analogy — sometimes those knives will hit you.”

A factor in Kelly’s suicide may well have been that in addition to an impossible lifestyle in which everything teetered on a knife’s edge, she suffered a horrific concussion several months before her death. Whether she received psychiatric counseling for its after-effects is unknown, but her family talked about how after the concussion she seemed to be suffering in a variety of ways that affected her mental state.

No one to talk to

What is clear, at least from the news reports, is that Kelly had no one in whom she could confide. The closest she came to talking about the unbearable pressure of her life was in an interview with a stranger in a bike magazine.

It’s easy to chalk up her death to the extraordinary stress of an extraordinary life, but people kill themselves all the time under much less over-achieving conditions than these. What suicide has in common is that the victim feels unable to talk to the people closest to her, a kind of estrangement from intimacy that becomes its own self-perpetuating wall of eternal isolation. Where did that come from?

I think John-Paul Sartre wrote a play about being locked in the cage. No Exit.

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Good-bye, map

February 24, 2019 § 1 Comment

A few years ago I bought two maps, one was a detailed street atlas of Vienna, and the other was a big, fold-out map of Lower Austria. The street atlas I have used every visit. The fold-out map? Never.

But still, I have always brought it with me.

I think the museum would be happy

Since visiting the mini-storage museum exhibit a couple of days ago, I have had one of the displays on continuous loop. It’s the one where the guy without a home says that “Ownership is an outdated concept,” and follows it up with something like “What matters is use, not ownership.”

This was the iron law I laid down in 2012 when we downsized. If a thing had not been used in the past six months, it was thrown away, wherever “away” is.

But this idea that possession is an outdated concept is pretty interesting, especially since we live amidst such a surfeit of things. Do you need to own anything? And if you do, once you pair it with the concept of actual use, how tiny is that universe of possessions going to ultimately be?

The mark of a wonderful museum exhibit is that it leaves you with unfermented ideas bouncing around in your head for days, soaking up juices in the boiling, roiling kneading-trough of thought.

Light travelin’

In my own mind, the lightness of my travels is legendary. Ten days in Europe with one tiny backpack. And I don’t even smell bad yet, much.

But one of my travel companions is that map of Lower Austria, and when I think about leaving it here in the flat for someone who might actually use it, it makes me happysad. Happy because I’ll be going home with one less thing, wherever home is. Sad because while I was here I acquired a book, and back home I have about fifty or maybe sixty unread books, and this will make 51. Or 61.

The solution is to go home and get rid of all the unread books. Most of them have been on the coffee table for 2-3 years. It physically hurts to think of donating away an unread book that I actually plan to read, kind of like tossing a pair of arm warmers that I know I may need for that one day when, after ten cold days in a row and no time to do laundry, I actually need that one pair.

Which leads to another problem, the problem of bicycle clothing and bicycle things.

I have one drawer with all my arm warmers, leg warmers, and similar items. Few of them would ever survive the six-month rule.

And then of course the rhino in the room, my tool bag. Of all the people who don’t use tools, I am he, with ten thumbs and blind.

Oh, and there is the closet shelf with the nine unread Japanese books in the series Sangoku-Shi. And the t-shirt drawer and the extra safety razor.

And the …

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It’s not a Viennese flat without a grand piano.

Shut up and give me twenty

February 5, 2019 § 9 Comments

Sciencey people tell us that all we have to do in order to live to be a thousand is to engage in 20 minutes of moderate exercise three times a week. Nonetheless, it is very hard to go for a bike ride when you have less than a 2-3 hour window of ride time.

Why?

First of all we’re not really convinced that short rides are worth doing. We even have a phrase, “junk miles,” to describe bike time that isn’t “any good.” This is ridiculous from a health vantage point. Five or ten junk miles are scientifically-esque proven to help you reach 1,000, much more so than a hundred miles of couch intervals watching the teevee.

But the biggest reason not to do short jaunts is that when you are a cyclist, as opposed to a normal person who simply rides a bike, getting ready for the ride takes a lot of time. In order to put on your kit, find the matching arm warmer, air up your tires, make sure you have your computer, clip on your lights, put on your shoes and clatter out the door it takes at least fifteen minutes.

If your water bottle is empty, or you have to set Strava on your phone, or you forgot your driver license, or you need some food, basically, anything, then it takes twenty minutes. If you have to ride in weather, it’s half an hour.

There is something psychological that won’t let you spend thirty minutes getting ready for a twenty-minute ride. It seems completely useless, especially when it takes another fifteen minutes back home to undress and stow things away.

I didn’t have time for a long ride today but I had time for twenty minutes. I kitted up and went out, and then because I was already on my bike, sneaked in another twenty. That gave me forty minutes of exercise. I worked up a sweat, climbed some hills, and although it didn’t feel like a “real ride,” in fact it was.

Couple more rides like that and I will be right up there with Methuselah, or maybe even Tim Gillibrand.

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Canterbury bicycling

January 30, 2019 § 15 Comments

When I was thirty-five I was reading the Canterbury Tales and decided to memorize one of them. I chose The Miller’s Tale because it is funny and bawdy. It’s also pretty long, almost 700 lines of Middle English, though it’s not the longest one. That curse goes to The Parson’s tale, which is well over 3,000 lines.

At the time I was living in Japan and didn’t have anyone to ride with on weekdays, so I would clip out a dozen lines or so, paste them to my stem, and memorize as I rode. I don’t remember how long it took to memorize the whole thing, but it was several months.

In order to memorize a new couplet I’d start at the beginning and work my way to the new lines, which meant that the earlier lines were pounded in much deeper than the later ones. It became a kind of obsession, as I’d be lounging around the kotatsu after work mumbling Middle English and occasionally whipping out a snippet of paper, staring at it, and then starting over with, “Whilom ther was dwellynge at Oxenford … “

My family thought I was crazy and no one ever asked me what I was doing.

Then one day we took a car trip with some friends to Kamakura and I told them that I would recite a poem if they wanted to hear it. No one really spoke English, and they figured I meant a few lines of something that I’d learned and wanted to show off. They were partly right.

I realized after beginning that this was going to take forever. Seven hundred lines and about five thousand words doesn’t end any time soon. It must have been maddening to listen to me drone on and on. I finished and no one said anything. They probably thought I had been randomly talking gibberish, and the thing was never brought up again. Having memorized The Miller’s Tale, I promptly forgot about it.

Computers and memory

It’s been my experience that computers, and especially social media, have a deleterious effect on my memory. There is ample research that shows, for example, how reliance on smartphone GPS permanently degrades the brain’s innate wayfinding capability. For myself, regularly using #socmed made it incredibly hard to concentrate on anything. This sucked, because prior to my #socmed career I had pretty solid powers of concentration. Memorizing The Miller’s Tale is an example.

A couple of years ago I got off the #socmed crazy train and went back to doing what I have always done: Reading books and focusing on things one at a time. It didn’t take long before my concentration returned, minus the degradation that comes from being a few years older. Combining that with the rote memorization required for learning Chinese, I started to think that there really is something valid to this criticism of social media, i.e. that it completely degrades our ability to focus and concentrate.

Chaucer and Wheatgrass

I was riding with a friend last weekend and we were chatting about Chaucer. “I used to know The Miller’s Tale by heart,” I said.

Friend gave me a deeply skeptical look. “Oh, really?”

“Sure,” I said. “I even still remember a little bit of it.”

“Let’s hear it,” she said.

I spit out the first two lines and ground to a halt. “Something like that …” I mumbled with embarrassment. It wasn’t mentioned again.

But this really aggravated me. I had learned it, every single word. And although I’d forgotten it, it didn’t really feel “forgotten.” It was more like being buried at the bottom of a deep hole.

So yesterday, before going to the airport, I printed out the first fifty lines of The Miller’s Tale off the Internet and tried to memorize them. It was so amazing as the words popped back into my head. By the time I got to LAX I was able to perfectly recite the entirety of the first fifty lines, and with little to no effort. I compared that to the brutal drudgery it had been pounding the words into my head almost twenty years ago. It really was as if the words were still in my brain, they just needed a bit of concentration to dig them back up. How many other things are buried in our minds, things that we’ve simply overlain with the mindless minutiae of the endless, second-by-second #fakenews cycle?

Then I thought about the true feats of human memory, for example the Odyssey and the Iliad, which were simply recited in their entirety by the ancient poets and performers. Equally astounding was the ability of native Americans to memorize the entire topography of thousands of square miles, navigating without use of stars or directions, but rather simply by remembering where everything was.

Fifty lines of Chaucer seems pretty much a joke in comparison. But the next time you see me out riding, don’t be surprised if I’m mumbling at something taped to my stem.

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Death comes to the archbishop

January 28, 2019 § 12 Comments

One common refrain I hear from old cyclists is how cycling “keeps them young” and “they’ve never felt better” and “they’re fitter than people half their age.”

Of course this is pure flibberflabber. Nothing keeps you young. The trajectory of life, with zero exceptions, is that you get older until you die. And it is equally flummadiddle to say you’ve never felt better, unless you were never a child, in which case you are still an infant.

Finally, it is true that you are fitter than SOME people half your age. You are also fitter than dead people. This doesn’t mean you have obtained some amazing level of anything. It simply means that other people out there have obtained even less. And whatever it means, it doesn’t mean that because you are fitter than some 20-year-old slob, that you are 20 years old.

Sciencey stuff about aging

There are actually a series of changes that all human go through as they age which affect performance in cycling. One of the biggest factors is the actual loss of muscle fiber, known by the dreadful-sounding term of “sarcopenia.” All humans lose significant amounts of muscle fiber as they age, but something about age 50 causes a pronounced decrease that continues until death.

This loss of muscle fiber cannot be reversed and is the same rate of atrophy for trained athletes and for complete couch potatoes. “But wait!!!” you screech. “I’ve seen that Internet ad of that dude in his 60’s who is massive and buff like a rhino! He ain’t losin’ no damn muscle mass!”

Unfortunately, Billy, he is. Muscles are composed of something called motor units. A motor unit is made up of a motor neuron and the skeletal muscle fibers innervated by that motorneuron’s axonal terminals. Groups of motor units work together to coordinate the contractions of a single muscle; all of the motor units within a muscle are considered a motor pool. This is different from the motor pool that the military uses to shuttle people here and there on base.

These motor units become denervated over time. This is a sciencey way of saying that the nerve part of the motor unit dies. And once the nerve dies, the muscle fiber dies with it.

“So how come Internet Rhino Dude is so massssive?” you wonder.

Well, it is possible to train the remaining muscle fibers so that they are hypertrophic, which means Buff AF. But the number of muscle fibers hasn’t increased one whit, kind of like if you lose one leg and really train the other, it may make the remaining leg strong but it doesn’t give you two legs.

What this means for Strava

Without clogging the page with too many words, basically it means that after 30 you are going to start sucking. “Thirty???” you screech. “THIRTY?????”

Ya, thirty. And by the doddering, fumbling, mumbling, demented old age of forty you can count on solid losses of 1% muscle mass per year.


Regardless of the age at which peak performance is attained, most elite athletes begin to show some decline in performance by their early thirties (Figures 5 & 6). Despite the onset of irretrievable declines, some very ‘late maturers’ and some exceptionally gifted athletes may still out-perform younger men at an elite level of performance at up to forty years of age while already showing declines from their own peak levels (Figure 6). 

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3928819/

It’s not all bad news, however; some of the news is downright horrible. For example, the muscular atrophy that occurs, irreversibly, from aging, is powerfully correlated with a condition known as death. In fact, muscular atrophy as measured by things such as testing one’s grip strength is an incredibly powerful predictor of, yep, death. At the risk of contradicting bastions of scientific learning such as LifeExtension.com, it’s the loss of muscular strength, not the absence of #fakesupplements and #quackbullshit that are going to send you to an early grave.

Lest everything appear to be gloom and doom, and honestly, what could possibly look rosy after learning that your future Stravver trajectory is inexorably downward, there is a glimmer of hope out there.

The glimmer is exercise. All that riding you do will never make you young again, or even younger, but it will make the quality of your remaining years exponentially better than those glued to the La-Z-Boy.


Taken together, a combined exercise program consisting of both resistance-type and endurance-type exercise may best help to ameliorate the loss in skeletal muscle mass and function, prevent muscle aging comorbidities, and improve physical performance and quality of life.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5772850/

In other words … KEEP RIDING!

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Work to death

January 16, 2019 § 14 Comments

I sometimes go to mediations. These are events where the plaintiff and his lawyers get in a room, and defendant and his attorneys get in another room, and a paid mediator shuttles back and forth trying to get the parties to agree on a settlement number. The plaintiff starts off demanding $25 billion, and the defense begins with an offer of one cent. So it takes all day as each party grudgingly, theatrically, histrionically, and with much gnashing of teeth and rending of rectums eventually gets to an agreed-upon sum.

Much testosterone is slathered on the floor, fake blood is spilled, supratrochlear veins are bulged to the max, and at the end both sides do a victory dance that includes much grumbling and grunts about how what they really wanted to do was “take this one to trial.”

Mediations are considered a great way to save the costs of going to trial, and more importantly, the risk of losing at trial, and often they result in complicated, contentious matters getting settled, but what they mostly do is convince me that the average lawyer is on a fast track to an early grave.

The lawyers in the mediations look horrible. All of them. I spend zero time fraternizing with lawyers unless they ride, and these day-long mediations reinforce how ill the profession is, even more ill than the society at large if such a thing were possible, and it is.

For starters, they are almost without exception overweight. They are so overweight that when one of them is merely chubby he or she looks svelte compared to the others. The men wear huge living room drapes that try to create a slimming effect on their sagging guts, and the women strap themselves into bras, girdles, under-hawsers, and under-winches that try to force the fat into shapes and locations other than where and what they are. Naturally, the cyclist at the mediation, by comparison, looks like the stick of a popsicle that has been licked for an hour by a three-year-old.

Next is the food. The mediation rooms are stocked with junk food. I actually love mediations because I get to eat junk food. Junk food is great! For about two minutes, that is. After that it leaves you with the feeling that you just licked up someone else’s spittle. The lawyers plow into those junk food baskets with extraordinary gusto. But the killer is the lunch. It’s a giant grease buffet with about twelve tinfoil baskets of grease in which little food items float, or lay dead, salad leaves with their backbones stripped from the six-hour grease bath, meat that is ten parts grease to one part pig, tortilla chips that are so wet with grease you can style your hair afterwards by running your fingers a couple of passes across your scalp.

Of course I love grease. The more the better. But in real life I don’t eat much of it because after the first gallon or so it doesn’t taste that great. Lawyers? Grease is, after a fat insurance policy, a lawyer’s best friend. They jostle in the buffet line like bison trying to get a tongue wet at the watering hole.

And no one moves all day. You just sit in a soft chair, get up every three hours to take a leak or go groan at your constipation, suck down some more bad coffee, run your tongue around the edge of the buffet tinfoil while no one’s looking, then plop back down in the chair until the mediator dashes in with an excited look.

“They’re up to a nickel!” she will say excitedly, but it’s been a hard day for her too, and her makeup is starting to clump up, her coif is sagging despite the quart of Redi-Mix Hair Stander-Upper she sprayed on before her two-hour commute in horrible LA traffic, and her freshly pressed pant suit is now starting to look like it got pressed by a steamroller on a construction site.

The plaintiffs burst a few more blood vessels at this outrageous lowball offer, utter oaths with the vehemence of a man who was just told that the only woman in world uglier than his mother was his wife, and heart rates surge to infinity … and beyond. These ups and downs in blood pressure can’t be good for you, especially when combined with the sitting and the grease infusions and the constipation.

After eight or nine hours of this play-acting-in-earnest, where in fact real money is on the table and there are real consequences to either succeeding or failing at the mediation, everyone throws their shit into huge file cases filled with paperwork that no one bothered to read, and they are either elated at having gotten a deal or are grimly ready to go home and put on the face harness to hopefully prevent grinding down whatever’s left of molars 1-12.

Then they sit on the freeway for two more fun hours, and wrap up the day seated at home in front of a bottle, watch whatever ball-stick-foot game they recorded on the tee-vee, eat the frozen food from TJ’s, and stagger off to bed.

Makes the cycling life look pretty danged sweet.

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What in the hell is right with you?

January 10, 2019 § 14 Comments

My life insurance ran out the other day. I did my best to get killed accidentally before I turned 55 but it just didn’t work. It was a sweet policy, too. I paid $132 a month and if I had died then my wife would have gotten $2M.

You can bet I never told her that.

So I went online and started searching for some new life insurance. I found a somewhat deal, which is what you’d expect hunting for life insurance at 55 instead of at 38, $250 a month for the same benefit, $2M. So I applied for it.

Turns out I had to get a physical exam. They sent a lady out with a bag full of equipment and a bunch of forms. She ran through the diseases but I didn’t have any of them. “Ever commit suicide?” she asked me with a straight face.

“Not lately,” I answered.

It is amazing how many things can go wrong, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, as it were, and she asked me about all of them. Then she came to the medical treatment part. “This is gonna take a while,” she said.

“How come?”

“We have to go through every doctor or healthcare provider you’ve seen in the last five years.”

“All of them?”

“All of them,” she said with finality.

Yasuko popped her head in. “You aren’t going to find anything. He is very healthy. Healthy like a dog. He is the healthiest person I have ever seen.”

The lady was skeptical. “Really?”

“Oh,yes. We have a saying in Japanese, ‘Dummies never catch cold.'”

I told the lady about my three medical visits. The ER and ortho when I had my bicycle-falling-off-incident and broke my nutsack, and a trip to the skin doc to have a lesion looked at. She wrote it all down. “What else?”

“That’s it,” I said.

“That’s it? For the last five years?”

“No,” I said. “That’s it for the last 30.”

But I had been wondering, as she asked me about cancer and strokes and high blood pressure and suicide and alcohol and drugs and tobacco and all that etcetera, wondering why she never asked about anything good? You know like, “Do you exercise? Do you eat whole grains? How often do you floss? Do you go to church? Do you have a pet? Do you sleep seven hours? Do you nap? Do you have sex often? Do you drink moderate amounts of alcohol and coffee? Do you hang out with your grandkids?”

All of these things correlate with longevity, and you’d think that someone about to write a life insurance policy would want to know about factors that might affect how long you live … or maybe they wouldn’t, when it comes to factors that extend life, because the life insurer is only betting that you won’t die before the average life expectancy. They don’t care if you live beyond it, they only care if you don’t live long enough and they have to pay the death benefit.

Still, the whole thing reflects a health “care” system that focuses on what’s broken and wrong rather than what is healthy and right. Kind of puts the emphasis on the wrong thing, if you ask me.

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