Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Gyro What?

What in the world are these people doing? Are they out of their minds? Is this some weird form of torture? Or a new form of exercise for the criminally insane?

Nope. This is Gyrotonic. And believe it or not, it rocks.

My world of exercise was shrinking fast. A chronic lower back problem forced me to give up Pilates. All those moves with legs overhead and a slow, vertebra by vertebra descent were more painful than multiple shots of Novacaine at the hands of a sadistic dentist. Then a bum knee hampered my developing yoga practice, turning Warrior poses into Wimp poses. What was I, a believer in regular exercise, to do?

The answer came in the form of three people perched on what looked like contemporary torture racks - though none of the apparent students evidenced any pain. Instead, they were grasping handles and somehow moving their upper bodies in wide circular configurations that resembled stirring a huge pot of soup. Or mixing a witch's brew. I was intrigued.

The system of stretching and toning rotational exercises - most of which are done on the contraption called the "tower" (see photo above left) - is called Gyrotonic. Often described as a yoga/dance//Pilates hybrid, Gyrotonic was developed by a former gymnast, dancer, and swimmer who, after injuring an Achilles tendon, devised a system of yoga and then designed the "tower" to provide mild resistance that complements the moves. I had to try it!

It's been a while since I've felt like a klutz. And though my private instructor moved slowly through the basics of Gyrotonic - the repetitive cycles of circling movement and rhythmic breathing, arching my back and curling my spine, narrowing my hips - I felt like a bench warmer thrust into a varsity game. The work demanded my full attention and challenged everything I thought I had down pat: coordination; rhythm; strength, and endurance.

Yet there was something about Gyrotonic that felt familiar. So, I stayed with it. Slowly, I began to get the hang of it and, with progress, began to understand how yoga and dance had been integrated into the system. All the arching and curling of my spine made it stronger. My posture improved. I was less inclined to initiate movement from tense and hunched shoulders and more able to keep the shoulder wings "in my back." My hip flexors gradually opened, allowing me greater range of movement in Gyrotonic and in everyday life.

The "no pain no gain" theory of exercise is happily not part of the Gryrotonic creed. Sure, there are mornings after when I have a sore muscle here or there. But most of the time, even after sessions in which I've done things with my body never thought possible, I'm whole. It's been 9 months since I started doing Gyrotnic, and I haven't had to see the chiropractor once.

Gyrotonic is not for those on a tight budget. A private, one-hour session at Chicago North Shore Gyrotonic in Evanston, IL, where I study is $70. (The 3-session introductory package saves you $50.) There are semi-private and sessions for three available by appointment. And there are classes at varying times during the week. Once you know what you're doing, you can spend an hour on the equipment without instruction for $20. That's what I've started to do.

Like Pilates before it, Gyrotonic is growing by leaps and bounds. A March 5, 2001, Forbes article titled "Do the Twist," stated that there were 218 Gryrotonic studios worldwide, with 126 in the U.S. Today, boasts 1400 studios around the world, with 859 in the good ol' U.S.A. (Check out the web site for a studio near you.)

If I were maybe 30 years younger in search of a new career, I might consider becoming a trained Gyrotonic instructor. For now, I'll have to add that to my "Things I Want To Do in My Next Lifetime List" behind professional dancer and best-selling author.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Dead Serious: Suicide

Almost 30 years ago, my brother stuck a hunting rifle in his mouth and pulled the trigger. He died instantly.

Each of my family members handled their grief differently and, for the most part, alone. Not until I wrote a book called Dead Serious did we begin to share the hurt, anger, aching sadness, and endless unanswered questions. Why, when he seemed to have emerged from a serious depression, did he take his life? With the support of a loving family and friends, how he could have seen death as the right path? How could he have been so selfish? Didn't he know the pain he would leave behind?

We'll never have a chance to ask my brother those questions; we are left with coming to an uneasy truce, each in our own way. There will never be a complete resolution.

When the phone call came in last week that my husband's first cousin, as close as a sister, had attempted suicide, I was thrown back into my own pool of sadness and "what ifs." Thankfully, the overdose of prescription pills she swallowed didn't kill her, and she is now recovering. She is filled with remorse and so very, very sorry.

When the time is right, I'll be able to ask her the questions I could never ask my brother and get answers - answers that may be confusing, at times nonsensical, but answers nonetheless. I'll be able to get a glimpse of what it feels like when depression and pain turn to utter hopelessness. I'll be able to ask why concern for her son and the rest of her family didn't trump her decision to end it all. I'll be able to know what it's like to return from the precipice and confront your living hell once again. Did she think she'd really die? Or was this the proverbial cry for help? And, most importantly, what can be done so she can begin to heal?

I recently bought a new frame to hold the photo of my brother that sits on my desk. The old frame, made of cardboard, had miraculously survived since better, happier days when he was just a seventeen-year-old kid about to go off to college. And I was his big sis, his good buddy, and a loving guide.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

A Mother's Loss of Memory

My mother, 91, is losing it. For a time, we thought all she needed was a hearing aid to bring her back into the mix. We didn't realize that the root cause of her growing silence was not poor hearing but her increasing inability to follow and stay with the conversation.

We didn't think it would happen this way. My mother had the memory of an elephant. She could tell you the menu at the Parisian restaurant 20 years before, detail the family tree going back multiple generations, finish the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle just like that. My mother carried hundreds of addresses and phone numbers around in her head, easily accessing them whenever necessary. She managed four children and a husband and, after we had all gone, she chaired or co-chaired everything from music festivals to Peace Now.

My mother's memory never failed her; she could pull any piece of past history like a good magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat.

Then everything changed. Slowly, at first. It was still possible to pin her mental haze on a bad night's sleep or a nasty cold. She'd have a good day or days, and we'd all breathe a sigh of relief, fooling ourselves.

But there's no fooling anybody now. My mother can't remember what she did earlier in the day, let alone the day before. She has renounced her role as the family cook, turned over the keys to the car, relinquished her responsibilities as the organizer. For the first time in her life, she is no longer in control. And in a strange way, I think she is relieved.

No more plans to make, meetings to chair, appointments to keep, family members' and friends' lives to monitor. She is sweeter, more relaxed. After almost 90 years of being in charge, she can let others rule the roost.

When I asked her if her memory loss bothered her, she blithely said, "I'm just happy to be alive."

We should all be so content.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

The Winter Blues

(photo by Jane Leder)

As of last evening, we'd had exactly 11 minutes of sunshine in the month of February. Eleven precious minutes! That's just about enough time to rifle through my purse, dig out my sunglasses, clean off the lipstick smudges, and walk out the door. By then, the clouds that had so mercifully parted converge in a devious plot to once again eclipse the sun.

Ever since my mid-thirties, I've suffered a mild case of Seasonal Affective Depression, or SAD. Come about November, my energy level drops, I usually gain weight, I get tired more easily, and, in general, I'm not my usual bubbly, optimistic, charming self.

I'm not alone: some 10 million Americans - 70 to 80 percent of them women - suffer from SAD. An even larger number sing the "winter blues." Scientists aren't exactly sure what causes SAD, but they have some good guesses. One theory holds that our biological clocks, regulators of mood, sleep, and hormones, slow down because there is less sunlight. Another theory is that the brain chemicals that transmit information between nerves may be altered. Some of those "happy" chemicals like serotonin aren't as readily available, and those of us who are affected can get pretty cranky.

Back in the day, I tried light therapy to combat the symptoms of SAD. I sat in front of a big light box that boasted white fluorescent light tubes covered with a plastic screen to block out ultraviolet rays. The thing worked for a time but, ultimately, the only effective treatment was a trip to Florida.

The larger light boxes are not portable and force the user to sit in one place for up to 30 minutes. I got even moodier, having lost my mobility. So when my uncle sent me a photo of a new device that, for all practical purposes, looked like a mini-miner's helmet with one of those super duper special lights, I gave the light box to my son and started wearing the helmet. I loved that I could do just about anything while wearing it except take a shower or drive a car but, in the end, it didn't make much difference in how I felt.

For a few winters, I just up and left - first to Florida, then to California. But my husband felt abandoned and, with pressure to stay home, my travels to warmer climes came to an abrupt end. Then one fall afternoon - with the days noticeably shorter and my fears of yet another winter more and more real - I decided to try an anti-depressant through the winter months. As I recall, that winter was uncharacteristically sunny, so I never knew whether it was the medication or the sunshine that softened the blow. Whatever it was, it worked. Not willing to trust Mother Nature (with good reason after the 11 minutes of sun this month), I rely on the medication.

If you're one of the millions who, like me, wishes that winter lasted about 4 weeks - Global Warming may ultimately grant us that wish - there are some steps you can take to survive the season's short, often dark days:
  • Spend time outside every day, even if it's cold and cloudy. It is brighter outdoors than inside, and the light and fresh air can boost your mood.
  • Exercise and wake up all those "happy" brain chemicals.
  • Consider a light box (you should consult with a physician first) or change the light bulbs in your home to full spectrum lights that simulate natural light.
  • Take out photos of your garden and begin to plan changes for the spring.
  • Save your money and take a trip to sunnier climes.
  • If things get really bad, think about moving. Given the low interest rates and disaster in the real estate market, this is a good time to make a great deal.

Light Bulbs

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The Luxury of Choice

As one pundit put it last night, "This year Democrats have the luxury of choice."

Remember the cast of presidential hopefuls just four years ago: Kerry, Sharpton, Kucinich, Edwards, Dean, Clark, Lieberman, Gephardt, Braun, and Graham? A black man, a woman, a Jew (an orthodox, no less), and a supposed kook who'd seen flying saucers - none of them had a chance. And when the presumptive front runner started "screaming" after his big win in Iowa, he was toast.

And then there were five. Democrats weighed the pros and cons of each, desperate to nominate someone who could defeat Bush and end the debacle fashioned by Cheney, Rove, Rumsfeld, and the other neo-conservatives who took us to war in Iraq, left Afghanistan to fend for itself, gave tax breaks to the rich, supported big corporations, conceived the failing "No Child Left Behind," and took the country from a surplus to an alarmingly high budget shortfall. (And that's just the half of it!)

I remember trying to sing the praises of someone - anyone who might end this reign of terror. A military guy with no political experience? A nice guy with perfect hair? Two longtime U.S. senators with sound records but little charisma and even less national name recognition?

By default, John Kerry was the last man standing. And we Dems did our best to get over his lack of star power, his pandering ploys, his tendency to be ambushed by special interest groups that painted him as less than a war hero and as a flip flopper extraordinaire.

We can argue Ohio and the final tally until we're blue in the face. But the guy lost and we were left to suffer the fools at the top. Oh, there was great hope midway through when the Dems took control of Congress. But with a razor-thin majority in the Senate, the strides have been minimal.

But today is a new day! We've got Hillary and Obama. Like many people I know, I struggled to make a choice. Information (as in Hillary)? Or imagination (as in Obama)? The tried and experienced? Or the fresh and energetic?

Last night, my demographic - white, "older" women - went for Hillary. I voted for Obama. But with the delegate count almost even and millions of voters yet to vote, it's too close to call. And that's just fine with me. If the man with a father from Kenya and a mother from Kansas doesn't make the final cut, then the woman from Illinois, the maligned First Lady, will move to center stage.

I look forward to having a good cry come next January when either the first African American or the first woman takes the oath as president of the United States.

We do enjoy the luxury of choice.

Friday, February 1, 2008