Saturday, March 31, 2012

Earth Hour

What is Earth Hour?

If you don’t know what Earth Hour is, then you’ve missed it for this year.  It ended a little bit ago.  But read on, so you’ll know what to do next year.

If you already know what Earth Hour is, read on anyway, because I’ll share my favorite tidbits, show a highlights reel of the website, take on some Earth Hour haters, and show you my own Earth Hour video, taken less than an hour ago.

So:  what is it?  Earth Hour is an annual event that lasts one hour—or, rather, one hour per time zone.  At 8:30 p.m. local time, you turn off all your lights.  It’s as simple as that.  If everybody participated, the world would go pretty dark (other than streetlights and such, of course).  The idea is to raise awareness about energy conservation.  Here’s a photo from last year:

As you can see, it’s not a hugely dramatic effect.  Frankly, I find the above photo a bit sad—imagine how much darker that skyline could stand to get.  Even though I live in the Berkeley area, which I think of as the Prius Belt, almost nobody I’ve asked about Earth Hour has even heard of it.  My participation this year felt a bit Quixotic.  But if enough people tilted at enough windmills, some nice momentum could build.  So here I am, doing my part to spread the word.

The Earth Hour website

You can get all kinds of details, of course, at the official website.  They have all the usual links to history, happenings, and such, along with a “fun stuff” section for kids.  (If your kids aren’t too jaded by games like Grand Theft Auto – Innocent Bystander Senseless Execution Edition, perhaps they’ll get a kick out of the Virtual Lightswitch, Virtual Lantern, Lights Out Game, and Pocoyo’s Recycling Game.) 

The first thing you’re likely to see, though, is a little video of Miranda Kerr, the Earth Hour ambassador, promoting the “I Will If You Will” challenge:

“I Will If You Will” is a charming way for people to engage with Earth Hour.  People put up videos of themselves describing what little stunt they’ll do if enough people reciprocate with Earth-friendly behaviors.  Ms. Kerr, for example, offered to “challenge the whole KORA Organics team to offset their carbon emissions for all flights for 2012 if 500 people agree to do the same.”  But any Joe can propose any kind of deal, and some of them are delightfully wacky.  Click here to check them out. 

Here’s a highlight:

The quota is met by people pledging, with a mouse-click, right there on the site.  Another participant promised, “I will play the piano live on the web for 8 hours nonstop if 5,000 people start recycling.”  Two firemen standing before a skyscraper declared, “We’ll climb this entire building, 96 stories, wearing all our gear” (“or shirtless!” the other threw in), “if 5,000 people take public transit for 1 week.”

The following pledge looks a bit problematic:

I hope the guy who made that promise understands that universities have an admissions process. 

Another pledge that gave me pause was from a woman who declared, “If 10,000 people commit to recycling, I’ll propose to my boyfriend.”  I sure hope she consulted with him first so he’s not caught off-guard.  And what if 10,000 people don’t accept her offer?  Is she then free to propose anyway, or is the marriage off? 

My favorite was a guy promising, “If 5,000 sign up for Earth Hour, I’ll cut my hair like this guy” [here he held up the photo you see below], “all beautiful and shiny like the day he was born, except for the sides and the back.”  (This challenge is titled “I’ll shave my head ‘male pattern baldness’ style.”)

Even though this year’s Earth Hour is over, you should check out the event’s YouTube site, because lots of participants will have uploaded their Earth Hour videos to it.

The haters

I didn’t have to look very hard to find people who are opposed to Earth Hour.  In thirty seconds on Google (I consider Wikipedia cheating), I found two articles arguing against it.  I will now dismember both arguments, just for sport.

I’ll start with the weaker of the two essays.  It’s by a fellow named Keith Lockitch, writing in the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights.  Dr. Lockitch writes, “This blindness to the vital importance of energy is precisely what Earth Hour exploits,” and that “what we really need is greater awareness of just how indispensable carbon-based energy is to human life (including, of course, to our ability to cope with any changes in the climate).” 

Um, excuse me, but doesnt an appreciation for the benefit of carbon fuels mean conserving them so they dont run out?  And who isn’t aware of the benefits of electricity?  How should society address this supposed lack of awareness?  Should we have a Carbon Energy Hour once a year?  I can imagine the slogans.  “Reading at night?  Try a lamp!”  “Wet hair?  Dry it fast, with electricity!”  The “I Will If You Will” challenges would be extra fun.  “If 1,000 people let their car engines run all night, I’ll run my blender continuously on ‘frappé’ until all the oil in the motor burns up and it seizes, and then I’ll go buy another one!”

And exactly how are we supposed to use carbon-based energy to cope with climate change?  Put all the carbon emissions in a rocket and fire it into space?  Dr. Lockitch’s position is idiotic, and the fact of his Ph.D. should be an embarrassment to the institution of higher education.

The other anti-Earth-Day view I encountered is from Maggie Koerth-Baker, writing in the Huffington Post.  She is far more levelheaded and articulate than Dr. Lockitch, but I must still take issue with her assertions: 
“This event perpetuates myths about environmentalism and gives people the wrong idea about what it will actually take to solve our energy problems....  In fact, in places where lots of people participate, there might even be a small, temporary uptick in emissions. When fossil fuel power plants are forced to rapidly increase or decrease the amount of electricity they produce, they also produce more emissions....  Some people see Earth Hour … and come away thinking that all they have to do is shut off some lights sometimes, and everything will be fixed....  The solutions to our energy problems don’t start with individuals shutting the lights off at home.  They start with public policy—the only force that can actually change how the infrastructure and shared systems work.”
I agree that public policy is really important, but I also highly doubt that many Earth Hour participants would so totally miss the point of the event.  The website makes it very clear that Earth Hour is simply a way to raise awareness about energy conservation and foster a public dialog.  (Ms. Koerth-Baker is a beneficiary of this dialog; she gets a nice hook to hang her policy observations on.)  Government energy policy will never change until the public demonstrates that it cares, and Earth Hour is an easy way to make a visible show of support.  What is Ms. Koerth-Baker’s alternative to Earth Hour:  to organize a worldwide Energy Infrastructure Policy Hour, where once a year everybody stops what they’re doing, heads to a government office, and spends an hour engaging meaningfully with the political machinery that regulates energy use?

Meanwhile, Ms. Koerthbaker’s article contradicts itself.  On the one hand, she asserts that individuals shutting off lights at home doesn’t materially impact energy use, but on the other hand she says Earth Hour might cause an uptick in emissions as the lights come back on.  Well, which is it?  Given how few people participate in Earth Hour, while all that electricity-drawing infrastructure continues to run, how could this event affect the power grid?  And if it did, wouldn’t that suggest that individual behavior really does have an impact?  Ms. Koerthbaker has some valid points, but she strikes me as one of those over-critical scolds who manage to teeter between idealism and cynicism.

My household’s Earth Hour

To me, one of the most important opportunities for Earth Hour is to get kids thinking about energy use.  Earth Hour ties in nicely with my constant harangues to my own kids about turning off the light when you leave a room.  It should help them recognize that lots of people care about conservation—that this concern isn’t just another strange idiosyncrasy of their father’s.

So I took some effort to make this event meaningful and fun for my daughters.  We discussed what climate change is, and why “global warming” is a problematic term for it.  I described how grizzly bears are venturing ever further north and are now mating with polar bears.  We talked about the actual meaning of Earth Hour, just in case my kids had thought the event would fix everything all by itself.  (They hadn’t.)  They actually got pretty excited and were looking forward to having all the lights out.

To officially mark the beginning of Earth Hour we made this video, with my older daughter working the camera:

As you can see, I didn’t want anybody to have a lapse and flick on a light during the hour, so I left nothing to chance and cut power to the entire house.  Once the hour began, we agreed not to use any portable electronic devices, since recharging batteries later would simply shift, not eliminate, our Earth Hour electricity use.  I did use one flashlight, but it’s powered by a magnet sliding through a copper coil as you flip it back and forth.  I was sorely tempted to use an MP3 player, because  at dinner at a neighborhood restaurant they’d been playing Foreigner's insanely catchy “Waiting For a Girl Like You” and I badly needed a song graft.  But I managed to hold out. 

The kids will long remember Earth Hour, I think.  They were stoked to make the movie, and enjoyed the candlelight.  (In a grudging nod to the Ayn Rand set, I pointed out to my daughters that going without electricity wouldn't be so fun if it lasted a month.)  I read to my younger daughter from The Mysterious Benedict Society, and then it was the kids bedtime.  I looked around the neighborhood:  plenty of lights still on.  Earth Hour is still a small movement.  At 9:30, I flipped the power back on and reset some clocks.

After Earth Hour was over, I was inspired to my check out my utility company’s website to see what kind of statistics they can provide.  To my surprise, they do provide the ability to track usage by day (though of course today’s usage won’t be posted until tomorrow).

Were it not for Earth Day, I probably would not have remembered my energy company’s Smart Metering announcement and would not have discovered how precisely I can monitor my electricity (and gas) usage.  And without a public interest in such analytics, the power company likely wouldn’t provide them.  See?  This is exactly the kind of awareness that events like Earth Hour can produce.

So, are you in for next year? 
dana albert blog

Sunday, March 18, 2012

From the Archives - Asilomar Resort


Before I begin, don’t forget that Saturday, March 31 is Earth Hour.  At 8:30 p.m. local time, shut off all your lights and electronics.  An hour later, when everything is back on, look to these pages for a full (well, my full) report.

I was reading a science article in “New Yorker” recently and came across this:  “In 1975, when biologists met at Asilomar, California, to discuss....”  Right away I could picture the Asilomar Conference Center, having vacationed there before.  In fact, I thought, didn’t I write a little essay about that?  I did, a couple decades ago, and here it is.

Asilomar resort – July 30, 1995

We had a vacation.  I’d have been satisfied just sitting motionless on the sofa like a lizard on a rock for two days.  Instead we went all-out and, with the in-laws, went down the coast to a resort called Asilomar, near Carmel. 

I should point out that I did nothing to help plan this weekend,  which is actually my preferred way of vacationing.  If I’d gotten more involved, I would have realized that Asilomar is located in a place I’ve been to at least a dozen times to visit relatives.  The Asilomar resort is about the closest lodging you can get to the ocean without actually owning property in the prestigious 17-Mile Drive community of Pebble Beach.  It’s a mere 150 feet or so from the boardwalk, a wooden sidewalk that meanders through a bunch of sand dunes covered with all kinds of interesting indigenous flowers.  The boardwalk ends at a two-lane road that connects Monterey, Pacific Grove, and Pebble Beach. 

In all my trips to this beach I’d never noticed the resort.  I think this speaks well for the place.  The official name of the resort is “Asilomar Conference Center,” and most of the people there are attending some formal conference.  I guess they get a certain number of chance visitors like ourselves, but that didn’t make me feel any less uneasy that I didn’t have a name tag.  I felt that a couple of people looked at me warily, as though I must have had a name tag, but was choosing not to wear it as some kind of rebellion.

The resort itself is a huge compound of brown shingle lodges that look like apartment buildings.  Each one bears a wooden plaque announcing its name:  “The View Crescent,” “Whitecaps,” “The North Woods,” “Willow” (where we stayed), and “Curlew,” to name a few.  They’re outfitted with magnificently seventies furniture (brown-orange vinyl) and each room has at least one deer painting.

I should emphasize the undeniably pleasurable amenities of the place:  the surf is beautiful, and the air a wonderfully crisp blend of ocean-smell and pine.  There are indeed deer hanging around, and the rock formations on the beach have perfect little tide pools filled with hermit crabs and snails and whatnot.  We even saw a sea otter out among the waves, diving to avoid the waves and drifting on his back eating. 

Beyond that, I felt the place was strange, almost like an enchanted fairy tale.  After driving through a grand arched gate bearing the Asilomar name,  we suddenly had to be careful not to run anybody over.  People wandered around right in the middle of the street, looking at us in surprise as though we were driving on the sidewalk.  An old guy in a tattered, faded “Asilomar” polo shirt (clearly a repeat visitor) seemed to eye me with suspicion.  There was no signage.  After driving around awhile looking for Willow, we felt lost—and in fact, we were.  The roads make about as much sense as those of 17-Mile Drive (i.e., they twist all around like a plate of pasta).

After checking into our room, I felt as though we conspicuously lacked official business on the grounds, and we spent most of the evening at the beach straying too far out into the water and soaking our shoes and the cuffs of our pants.  Then, we went down to the lodge and learned that we had missed dinner.  We alone didn’t know dinner was served only from 6:00 until 7:00.  We showed up at 7:30 and had missed the whole thing, from the fruit cup all the way past the steak, the potatoes, and even the pudding.  After eating at a restaurant in Monterey, we returned to the lodge to sleep, and the next morning we didn’t fail to make it to breakfast on time.

When we arrived at breakfast, I noticed right away that our meal tickets were not the same color as everybody else’s.  Not only that, but we weren’t seated in the large dining area with everybody else, but were taken down a hallway to a much smaller room, where we were seated at a table with a couple of strangers.  Not having any common ground with them, we talked about the fruit, the yogurt (why Nutrasweet?) and other things of no importance.  Lack of participation in any conference was a matter of quiet shame, I felt, for all of the outcasts in the auxiliary dining hall.

Walking the grounds on the way back to the beach, I noticed how friendly and full of joy everybody was.  It was like a weird “Star Trek” episode from the ‘60s.  Grown men rubbed each others’ backs.  Everybody beamed.  Name tags were prominently displayed.  People had a skip in their steps.  I witnessed countless displays of people inquiring into each others’ health, comfort, and happiness.  The only exception to universal bliss was a member of our own party who complained that there had been no shampoo in the shower.  Beyond that, everything was Leave It to Beaver. 

In fact, I couldn’t help but feeling—and perhaps this is merely the projection of a wicked soul on an innocent utopia—that there was some kind of shiny veneer over everybody; that their joie-de-vivre was perhaps slightly forced, that the universal spirit of goodwill was a trompe l’oeil, like the splinter-free fake wood of the card tables.

Why couldn’t people admit that this was simply a decadent weekend getaway?  Why not confess that a weekend at this paradise was a simple exercise in unrestrained hedonism?  Why the moral imperative of using this opportunity to be noble and good and true to some cause?  Returning to our room, I found a little card that management left for us:


To Our Guests:

We came across an ancient prayer, updated it slightly and offer it to you with our heartfelt thanks to you for coming to Asilomar.

                                The Stranger Within Our Gates

Because this conference center is a human institution to serve people, we hope that you will be granted peace and rest while you are under our roof.

May this room and conference center be your “second” home.  May those you love be near you in thought and dreams.  Even though we may not get to know you, we hope that you will be comfortable and happy, as if you were in your own home.

May the business that brought you our way prosper.  May every contact you make and every message you receive add to your joy.  When you leave, may your journey be safe.

We are all travelers.  From “birth till death” we travel between the eternities.  May these days be pleasant for you, profitable for society, helpful for those you meet and a joy to those who know and love you best.

                                Asilomar’s Staff


A prayer, no less!  And yet, it has those few very un-prayer-like phrases:  “may every contact you make...” and  “may the business ... prosper.”  And the bit about making this our “‘second’ home” sounded a lot like an ad (“y’all come back now, ya hear?”) for the resort itself.  (And those quotation marks around “second” ... was that in deference to those who actually do have second, even third, homes?)

But perhaps I wouldn’t have been moved to comment at all if it weren’t for the tourist guide supplied in our room.  In addition to the normal promotional “articles” about local restaurants, it had a section describing the character of each of the nearby communities.  The suggestions of apotheosis continued:

“Even though the years alter the face of Pebble Beach, its charm remains.  It is this essence of place that radiates like a halo to embrace every moment in its magic.”

Can’t you just see the unicorns? the rainbows?  And yet, incongruously, this soft-focus statement appears in an article boldly titled “Pebble Beach:  The Elite Address.”  The natural landscape is commemorated briefly, but the real thrust of the article beings, “In 1915, Samuel Finley Brown Morse, manager of Pacific Improvement Company, forced a grand rethinking of the coastline acreage.”  What follows is the moving tale of how this unimportant community became the host of the prestigious Pebble Beach golf course.  Names of pro golfers are dropped like ticker tape.  The merits of the golfing in Pebble Beach are expounded at length.  Wealth and prestige are championed.  I wish I had some more juicy quotes, but I wasn’t allowed to remove the book from the room.

As I leafed through the fashion (i.e., advertising) section of the book, I came upon material that could (and should) make any tourism board blush.  Decadence, and the “magic” that expensive gifts can bring, are celebrated shamelessly throughout the fashion section.  One photo is of a good looking couple posing on a golf cart, both attired lavishly, the woman’s hat graced by a bunch of fake grapes.  The couple’s eyes twinkle.  The caption, in large italic letters and surrounded by quotes, reads, “He wants you to learn to play golf.  You’re not so sure, but you’d do anything to make him happy....”  That’s the spirit.  We wouldn’t want the magnificent expense of a world-class golf course to deter the complete novice....

The next page has a woman dressed in a lavish sequined evening gown.  The caption reads, “He said to wear something elegant....”  The woman reader automatically completes the sentence:  “... but I haven’t got a thing to wear!”  After all, who packs such a sequined gown for a weekend getaway?  Suddenly I found myself thinking warm thoughts about the humble sweats and warm-up suits warn by the Asilomar guests. 

The next page shows the elegant woman reclining on a bench overlooking a scenic vista, staring out into the distance while her man caresses her lovingly; the caption reads, “You’ve never been so happy together....”  I was beginning to get ill.  Then I turned to a picture of a tastefully dressed man gazing thoughtfully at his wife, she clad only in a fluffy white bathrobe, with the caption, “It’s been a wonderful getaway, and tonight you’re really going to spoil him....”

It dawned on me that perhaps there are really only a couple of possible ways that tourist bureaus are likely to represent such a choice vacation spot.  They can celebrate the wealth and prestige itself, reminding the tourists how élite they are, like the fashion section of the guidebook did.  Or, they can encourage visitors to appreciate the wonderful local amenities, but only while reminding them that the physical trappings are incidental and secondary to  the resort’s rich tradition and spirit of community.  Given the alternatives, I guess I appreciate the effort made by the Asilomar folks, even their message didn’t ring entirely true.  I wish the region could just exist, without anybody trying to convey to me its “essence of place.”
 dana albert blog

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Physical Therapy


My brother told me a story of a trip to the public pool.  The staff was moving lane lines around to prepare the pool for the next program.  They’d asked everybody to get out, but one guy was lost in his own world and didn’t hear them—he just kept swimming.  Finally they pulled in the lane lines next to him anyway, and one of them clipped his hand.  He raised a huge stink and was yelling at everybody for hurting his hand and they just ignored him.  Finally my brother said to the guy, “Why don’t you go blog about it.”

I think that’s a good cautionary tale for any blogger.  In my opinion, the point of a blog shouldn’t be to complain in public to whoever will listen.  Feeling sorry for yourself in such a forum is even worse.  I promise to keep these ideas in mind as I write about my recent history with physical therapy.  I’ve done a lot of PT after breaking my femur fifteen weeks ago.  If you’ve done PT yourself you may relate; if not, you’ll get a glimpse into this gloomy realm.  I’ll also offer up some thoughts on where life philosophy meets physical therapy.


My first exercise, technically, was just getting out of bed to go to the bathroom.  At the hospital they encouraged me to be up and about as much as possible, but “possible” was a slippery concept.  Just being vertical would make me dizzy, and by the time I’d dragged myself and my walker the twenty or so steps to the bathroom, I felt like I was about to pass out.  A couple weeks after my surgery, I learned that it wasn’t worth it to stand to pee:  that much exertion significantly increased my pain for the next several hours.  A “field trip” down the stairs to entertain guests became possible by the second week or so, but the trip down and back would be my big effort for the day.

My more formal physical therapy began more than a month after my injury.  Why so long?  Well, the first two weeks I couldn’t really leave the house—I was in too much pain and became exhausted too easily.  (I’d lost about 30% of my blood during the operation and was only gradually recovering from severe anemia.)  After that, my leg was still in so much pain it seemed cruel to even move or touch it.  If legs could talk, it would have said, “Just leave me the hell alone!” 

I was also scared.  A friend had described a post-surgery machine that forced his leg to bend; not only was this excruciating, but he could hear scar tissue being torn up inside his leg.  Letting somebody inflict pain on my already hurting leg was a terrifying prospect.  (Pain is much easier to handle when you’re inflicting it on yourself; check out this post for more on that topic.)

By the time I made it to the PT center I could get around on crutches pretty well, but couldn’t bend my leg enough to sit in a chair.  (I’d worked hard to get my knee to bend at all.  I would sit at the edge of the bed, supporting the bad leg with the good, gradually lowering them until the pain became too great.)  My first therapist-prescribed exercise was perhaps the simplest of all of them, but also the worst.  I was to sit on the bed, legs stretched out straight in front of me, and flex my thigh muscles.  Both legs were atrophied from spending so much time in bed—I’d lost fifteen pounds after my accident—but at least my left leg could still flex and become taut.  The right leg wouldn’t do anything.  It was like a prosthesis or something.  The physical therapist swore she could see a little flicker in the muscle, but I couldn’t.  She might as well have been asking me to wiggle my ears.

Not until my wife took me to the pool did I convince myself I didn’t have major nerve damage sufficient to paralyze my leg.  In the pool, I could actually lift the leg.  This proved that the brain and the leg were still talking.  Before that, I really worried that they weren’t.


Is it possible to write about the tedium of PT without being tedious?  I’ll try.  More exercises were added to my regimen.  One was to massage what was left of my muscle, pushing it toward the kneecap from either side (above and below).  I was also instructed to sit in bed, loop the belt from bathrobe around my ankle, and use the belt to draw my foot toward me, so as to make my knee bend more.  This was impossible at first because I couldn’t even bend my leg enough to put my foot flat on the bed.  So I looped the belt under the knee and pulled up.  Excruciating.  I took to lying on my back in bed with my straight up, foot propped against the wall, to let gravity help pull the foot downward.  I’d bend the leg as much as I could, then hold this for thirty seconds.  Ten sets of this, twice a day, along with the other stuff.  Painful, demoralizing, and boring.

Normally I’d satisfy the boredom problem by listening to music.  But for the first month or so, I didn’t dare listen to the music I like, for fear of forming unpleasant associations.  (Think of the main character in Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange,” who is tortured while hearing Beethoven, and afterward can no longer hear Beethoven without freaking out.)  So instead I tried to listen to a Top 40 station.  This just added insult to injury—I could become sick of a song before I’d even finished hearing it for the first time.  So I tuned in to a classic rock station, only to discover that it played Steve Miller’s “The Joker” so regularly I seemed to hear it every time I did my exercises.  At first I was amused, what with “pompatus of love” and so forth.  But then it got really old.  I started to think maybe Steve Miller had died.  What else could explain all this airplay?  Eventually I got really sick of that song; I doubt I’ll ever find it tolerable again.

Life philosophy meets PT

I saw this caption on cute doggy calendar at physical therapy office:  “If you love life, it will love you back.” I see two problems with this little aphorism.  First, it’s demonstrably untrue.  After all, I was in the process of loving life when I suffered this crippling accident.  Second,  this notion is almost exactly backwards.  It’s easy to love life when it does seem to love you.  I’m more inspired by people who stubbornly love life even when it doesn’t.  I think often of something a close friend once said to me:  “I ought to be really depressed right now but I won’t take the bait.” 

What is the more stirring cinematic moment for you:  Leonardo DeCaprio’s character in “Titanic” standing at the prow of the ship yelling, “I’m the King of the World!” or the Black Knight in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” who’s lost both arms and legs in a battle but yells at his departing opponent, “Come back here and take what’s coming to you!   I’ll bite your legs off!”?  To be plucky and sanguine when life seems hateful is far more inspirational to me than kidding myself that life is fair.

So it is with physical therapy.  In the absence of any sign that I’m getting anywhere, I have to hold out hope, and go through the motions as if I had some guarantee of success.  “Success,” of course, is a humble prospect here to begin with:  all it means is eventually—after what ... four  months, six months, a year?—getting back to the place I started, if I’m lucky.  (More immediate goals are even more humble:  only recently did I achieve the dream of being able to step into a pair of jeans normally, without holding on to something for balance.)

How do you manage to love life when you’re basically under house arrest and can’t do the things you normally enjoy?  Years ago, I made a list of the top 20 things I do for fun, so I dug up that list and discovered I can still do ten of those fun things.  Not so bad.  Plus, I’ve added to the list:  now, when I do my PT, I sometimes have one of my daughters read to me, or we do a Mad Lib.  (Here’s a highlight from today’s Mad Lib:  “So now you know how illegal politicians learned to murder like cats and dogs—from their ignorant pets!”)

The bike

Using my bike on the indoor trainer has been a useful form of physical therapy.  A little over a month after my surgery I was able to climb on my bike (using a shower stool) and put my feet on the pedals.  I couldn’t pedal a whole revolution, of course, as my knee wouldn’t bend enough.  But through much effort I could get incrementally closer.  At first I could only get the right crank to go from 3 o’clock to about 8 o’clock.  I’d back-pedal to about 3 and hold it for 30 seconds, rest, and then forward-pedal to about 8, hold it for 30 seconds, and repeat, for about 10 minutes total.  Each day I would try to get the pedal a little higher up.  It hurt like a mother but at least I was in familiar territory.

At the PT gym, I managed a full revolution one day.  This was on a stationary bike with the saddle jacked way up.  Encouraged, I raised my bike saddle at home, and within a day or two was getting so close to a whole revolution that one day I ordered my left (i.e, good) leg to turn all the way around, dragging the right leg through it.  Agony, but exhilaration.  The next day, I bit the bullet and turned ten whole revolutions in a row.  By the end I was in tears, whether from pain or relief I can’t say.  Once that feat was accomplished, the return to regular pedaling (and normal saddle height) was a matter of refinement.  The basic ability had returned.

Life philosophy meets PT – revisited

 “That which does not kill you will make you stronger.”  This bit of pop-philosophy, the darling of college freshmen, strikes me as completely false.  The more accurate statement, in my opinion, is “That which does not make you stronger will kill you.”  Think of all the ways people gradually kill themselves:  booze, cigarettes, overeating, sloth ... these activities don’t feel like they’ll kill you, while you’re doing them, but they gradually are.  They’re sure not making you stronger.

Of course, I’m being disingenuous here, and doing a disservice to Nietzsche.  His point is probably more along the lines that enduring suffering, and living through a painful ordeal, strengthens your character.  But I still take issue with this.  True, the willingness to suffer is a gateway to mental and emotional fortitude, but the suffering itself can be good or bad.  If, for example, you’re stupid about training or PT, and simply ignore all pain (whether it’s the kind that indicates intense effort or the kind that indicates you’re causing damage), you’ll end up hurting yourself—getting tendonitis or worse—and then you’re sidelined and most certainly not getting stronger, either physically or psychologically.
With physical therapy, a systematic approach—under the careful guidance of a physical therapist who knows what he or she is doing—is key to getting better.  Suffering alone will not heal you.  Often you must do what doesn’t come naturally, and retrain your body to behave itself.  Needless to say, doing what doesn’t come naturally can get you into so much trouble if you blindly flail away.  Structured, targeted suffering, of a more careful nature than the “that which does not kill you” variety, is needed.

(Re)learning to walk

Over the months my mobility has improved.  I’ve gone from the walker (depressing and geriatric) to crutches (less depressing, more suggestive of a sporty injury) to one crutch (Tiny Tim) to a cane (geriatric all over again).  Cane shopping was a drag.  I looked at the canes at Walgreens and was shocked at how ugly they were.  Most were fake wood and one was the color of streaky feces.  All of the canes were too short.  So I made the rounds of the cane shops:  Canes R Us, the World Cane Emporium, and that boutique-y place up in Kensington, Ye Olde Cane Shoppe. 

No, there aren’t really any cane shops, but my physical therapist referred me to a crazy medical supply place that looked like the home of a crazy hoarder.  Stacks of stuff from floor to ceiling, with narrow walkways carved out.  A salesman there, who looked and sounded like Philip Seymour Hoffman, advised another, “The long canes are in the back.  We hide them so the short people won’t buy them.”  I’d wanted an aluminum and foam rubber cane that looked like a loaner from a hospital, because a nice wooden cane would make my physical infirmity seem permanent.  But all they could offer was a wooden cane, cut to size.

The musculature in my leg got so fouled up by the surgery that my brain stem seems to have given up on the whole limb.  I guess this makes sense.  For most of human history we didn’t have the medical technology to fix a broken femur, so the brain developed tactics for getting by without a working leg.  I worked up a host of unconscious compensations. 

At first, I would practically lock my right knee when I walked, and swing the right leg around to the side, in an arc, instead of swinging it straight forward, because that way the knee wouldn’t have to bend to keep my toe from hitting the ground.  Moreover, my instinct was to put weight on the bad leg very tentatively and for as short a period of time as possible, so the left leg would shoot forward instead of my gait being balanced.  I would swing my right arm to help swing the leg forward, rather than using the leg’s muscles.  Watching myself in the mirror at the PT gym, I realized I walked like a drunken mummy zombie.

The absurd thing is, these habits have persisted after the leg developed much of the strength and flexibility needed for a normal gait.  My brain just doesn’t trust the leg.  So I’m in the peculiar position of overriding what comes naturally and applying conscious thought to walking.  Normally, thinking while walking makes you more, not less, awkward (try it!) but this is the best I can do for now.  There’s still a lot more strength-building and flexibility-gaining left to go.

A final note

My mom has praised me for my determination and doggedness in doing all my exercises.  She kind of has to praise me—it’s her job.  It’s what moms are for.  But in case she actually means it, and in case you yourself had thought anything of the kind, I assure you that anybody in this situation would be just as diligent.  When your body is broken, you want it back, and you’ll do anything to get there.  Training for sport is totally different:  you can always think of worse things than not being perfectly fit for your next big race or group ride.  But there’s not much worse, for a relatively young, fit person, than limping his way through the rest of his life.

dana albert blog

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Fiction - The Lice Letters

NOTE:  This post is rated PG-13 for an instance of mild strong language.


What follows is a work of fiction.  The normal disclaimers apply.  Even the language used, though it bears a strong resemblance to American English, is made-up and used fictitiously.  The single reference to an actual person is purely jocular.

The Lice Letters

Midvale Elementary School
3312 Bean St
Anytown, USA
February 27, 2012

Dear Parent,

Yesterday, a student in your child’s classroom was discovered with a case of Pediculosis Capitis (head lice).

Pause for a moment and let that sink in.  I, too, feel it like a hard ball in the pit of my stomach.  This is a serious matter.  But rest assured, it was not your child who was discovered to have this condition.  If it was, you would be well aware by now.  The child in question was sent home immediately and I’m sorry to say his mother was not able to pick him up.  She was at work and sent her boyfriend, Steve, in her place.  This did not make it any easier on the child, I hasten to add.  Steve—who is on the “approved guardian” list in the office—was able to come right away because he is unemployed and probably spends his days playing violent video games.  I would like to take this opportunity to downplay the altercation some of you may have heard transpired when Steve came to the school.  It was merely a loud exchange of words:  our custodian innocently pointed out to Steve that his (Steve’s) P.T. Cruiser shares the chassis and engine of the Dodge Neon (which happens to be true), and Steve did not take it well.  No assault actually transpired and nobody was taken into custody.

Though your child was not discovered to have head lice, he or she yet may.  Lice spreads quickly at schools because of the jostling and other physical contact that persist among children.  You should prepare yourself for the possibility that your child will be next.  If this does happen, rest assured that head lice does not mean your child is “unclean,” “filthy,” or an “unwanted immigrant.”  Every year a few million Americans—born American—come down with head lice.  Many of these people are quite clean in their habits.  In fact, some studies show that blown-dry and/or chemically treated hair makes a less hospitable environment for lice.  As such, the school is relaxing its prohibition of brightly colored hair among students (though I still have trouble not snickering when I see a grade-school kid wearing a t-shirt featuring a rock band whose members are old enough to be his or her grandparent).  On a related note, if you have a daughter this might be a good time to turn her on to the music and style of Sinéad O’Connor.

There are simple precautions you can take against your child getting head lice.  If you have more than one child, make sure they don’t wear hats.  Even if they promise not to trade them around, they always do.  (Yes, one of our students is allowed to wear a hat at school.  That’s because, for medical reasons, he has a bald spot that the other kids would tease him about.)  Also, please  don’t allow your child to attend slumber parties, where pillows can be shared.  Though these precautions may help, the sad truth is that head lice is mainly a result of parents not loving their children enough.  (No, of course that’s not true, but since so many mothers would believe this anyway, I might as well say it.)

Please inspect your child’s head regularly.  Lice are hard to see, especially by fathers who a) don’t actually care very much, and b) tend to be so old, from what I’ve seen at this school, that they’re bound to be farsighted.  Look for “dandruff” that turns out to be alarmingly mobile, and the cobweb-like networks of eggs (nits) that collect at the base of the hair shaft like glue.  One other symptom would be a child who is falling behind in school.  This is because his or her brain is literally being sucked out by these little parasites (though it could also merely mean he or she watches a lot of TV).  Remember that it is far better to discover head lice at home than for our staff to discover it!  If you do discover lice, please keep your child home until the lice are completely eradicated.  You may fib and tell us your child is “sick,” and as necessary we will help perpetuate your cover story.

Every year there seems to be a lice outbreak at this school and we are determined to put an end to it.  To that end, we have decided to cancel this year’s Spring Fling, commonly known as “hot dog / crazy hat day,” if the lice are not controlled by early May.  You don’t have to be an epidemiologist to understand our rationale, given the opportunities for contagion presented by hundreds of kids wearing makeshift hats.  And while I’m on the subject:  assuming that the Spring Fling does take place, please tell your child not to ask if the hot dogs are grass-fed.  They aren’t, okay?  We don’t have the budget for grass-fed so every single frank represents dozens of cows from several continents and all the other atrocities Upton Sinclair wrote about.  (No, we won’t consider turkey franks, because they taste like ass.)  If you don’t like this, ask yourself what member of our generation didn’t grow up snacking on lead paint chips.  Get over yourself.  [Gloria—give this the usual tone-down but don’t take out the grass-fed thing, it’s important.]

Thank you in advance for you assistance in this important matter.


C. Roger Nelson


Midvale Elementary School
3312 Bean St
Anytown, USA
February 27, 2012

Dear Parent,

I am writing to apologize for the highly inappropriate letter that was sent home with your child earlier this week.  I have a highly unusual writing style—really more of a “venting” mechanism than anything—and rely heavily on my secretary to edit my letters for length and content.  The letter about head lice should have been edited down significantly, with certain details omitted, particularly the instance of crude language.  This letter “slipped through the cracks” in that my secretary never had the opportunity to edit it.  Somehow, the initial draft was sent out before she even saw it.

Of course much of my letter was inappropriate even for a rough draft and it is a huge embarrassment to me that my private snideness has become public.  All I can say in my defense is that it is hard to maintain the proper attitude when my scalp has the tickly sensation, almost certainly psychosomatic, of being infested with parasites.

The management of Midvale Elementary School, the District, and the Superintendent of Schools are working with the PTA to determine the appropriate disciplinary measures for my misconduct.  I hope that I shall be allowed to continue as your Principal.

Once again, please accept my humblest apologies for the letter.


C. Roger Nelson


Midvale Elementary School
3312 Bean St
Anytown, USA
February 27, 2012

Mr. David Ferguson
Superintendent of Schools
1123 Toll House Road
Anytown, USA

Dear Mr. Ferguson,

Yesterday I discovered that what had originally appeared to be an administrative error in the matter of the head lice letter was actually an act of perfidy on the part of my secretary, Gloria Johnston.  She actually did receive the rough draft, and though she had initially edited it per our normal arrangement, she subsequently propagated the initial draft.  What tipped me off was the little accent over the “e” in “Sinead.”  I do not even know how to type that special character.  That was one of her initial edits to the revised version, and the sole change that survived in the final version.

The fully edited version of my letter—the one that should have gone out—was found on Ms. Johnston’s computer.  When confronted she confessed to her treachery.  Her employment has been terminated.  We are trying to keep this affair as quiet as possible and have cited “budget cuts” as the reason for her dismissal.  In the event that members of your staff desire the “inside scoop” on this matter, I encourage you to suggest that Ms. Johnston was discovered to be a carrier of head lice and a long-time contributor to the frequent outbreaks.

I understand that my situation is, as yet, unresolved and will decorously accept whatever decision you hand down.


C. Roger Nelson

dana albert blog