BOOK REVIEW: On Looking by Alexandra Horowitz

On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert EyesOn Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes by Alexandra Horowitz
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This is a field guide to getting the most out of walks in the city; though it’s presented through a series of essays. City-centeredness is the book’s niche. There are tons of books that teach one how to get more out of the subtle signs and signals seen in nature, but we tend to miss the nature (and a good deal of the culture) in our city walks because we view them in a utilitarian fashion and because there is so much shouting for our attention that it’s easy to miss nature’s subtle cues.

The book consists of 12 chapters—each of which is organized around a city walk. Eleven of these walks are with experts who offer the author (and her readers) greater insight into some dimension of the city walk experience that is often lost to the limits of our attention. When I use the word “expert,” I use it broadly. The reader may find some of these individuals more worthy of the title “expert” than others—e.g. two among them are the author’s 19 month old son and her dog—but they all offer a unique insight. [You may recognize the author’s name from a popular book she wrote on dog behavior, and that’s a particular area of interest for her.] Others are the kind of experts that might testify in court or be asked to give a consultation at a corporation. Along the way, Horowitz inserts more general information on the psychology and science of human attention–and its limits—as is relevant to the larger discussion.

The twelve chapters are organized into three parts. The first part deals with the inanimate dimension of the city. Its four chapters deal with the things that children notice owing to either their height or their unjadedness, the natural materials of the city (rocks and biomass), fonts and signage, and the under-appreciated ordinary.

The second part explores the animate part of the city, including insects, animals, and humans. The reader will learn that–despite the fact that they may only see the occasional bird or squirrel—the city is teeming with non-human fauna. The two chapters that deal with humans take quite different perspectives. One is with the Director of the Project on Public Spaces, an expert on how cities are organized (by planning, organically, and by default) and the effect that this has on people and their movement through cities. The last chapter in this part is by a doctor whose expertise is making diagnoses in the style of Sherlock Holmes by means of close observation of the minutiae of a person’s appearance and posture.

The final part is about the sensory experience of a city walk. The first chapter in this section details a walk with a blind woman who is attuned to moving about the city using her other senses. There’s a chapter with an expert on sound, and the walk she takes with her dog—whose experience is largely informed by its olfactory sense. The last chapter is a short summation of what the author has learned and begun to apply in her own solo walks.

The book has few graphics, e.g. depictions of relevant art. There are source citations arranged by chapter in end-note form.

I found this book to be intriguing and beneficial. I think we could all benefit from city walkers who were more tuned in to what was going on around them. (Sadly, the trend seems to be going the other way.) I’d recommend this book for anyone who likes to take a walk, and nature lovers may find it unexpectedly fascinating.

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DAILY PHOTO: Sign of Our Times

Taken in Great Himalaya National Park in July of 2015

Taken in Great Himalayan National Park in July of 2015

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Back in my day, we had the “Scenic Overlook.” Now when you’re trekking they have the “Mobile Phone Access Point.” Thoreau would cry.

DAILY PHOTO: The Snowy Side of the Mountain

Taken June 10, 2015 in Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP).

Taken June 10, 2015 in Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP)

The beauty of mountains is that they show so many faces in such little space. We were on a sunny mountainside topped with tufts of dry grass. Then we crossed over a saddle-point on a ridgeline, and this was the new view.

DAILY PHOTO: Himalayan Sunset

Taken on June 10, 2015 in the Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP) in Himachal Pradesh

Taken on June 10, 2015 in the Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP) in Himachal Pradesh

I’m back from my wanderings in Himachal Pradesh with a boatload of pics and experiences. The highlight of the trip was the Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP.) I’ve attached some sunset pics taken at a cliff near our campsite at Dhel. I’d highly recommend GHNP… unless you’re one of those asshats who strews his garbage randomly or who likes to carve his name or initials in anything and everything–living or stone. (In which case, kindly please stay home in your trailer and watch you satellite TV. You wouldn’t like it at all.)

 

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BOOK REVIEW: The New Rules of Posture by Mary Bond

The New Rules of Posture: How to Sit, Stand, and Move in the Modern WorldThe New Rules of Posture: How to Sit, Stand, and Move in the Modern World by Mary Bond

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

This book’s author, Mary Bond, was a UCLA-trained dancer who became an Ida Rolf-trained Rolfer. If that sentence makes no sense, you’re probably unaware Dr. Ida Rolf and her self-named system. Rolfing was popular decades ago, but fell out of favor—possibly owing to its reputation for being agonizing. (However, I did recently read an article suggesting renewed interest in this practice.) Rolf’s system is generically called Structural Integration, and it’s intended to better align the body with respect to the force of gravity. The heart of the practice (though not addressed in this book) is a massage-like system that focuses on fascia (connective tissue) rather than musculature (as massage generally does.)

[This paragraph is background, but isn’t about the book per se. Feel free to skip it if you are familiar with structural integration or don’t care.] It should be noted that Rolfing is controversial. I’m not sure what to make of this controversy. On the one hand, the system hasn’t been helped by zealous advocates and practitioners. In any such system, zealots often suggest their beloved system is a panacea for all that ails one. Furthermore, the more hippie-esque practitioners try to reconcile / unify Structural Integration with ancient systems like Ayurveda or Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM.) This neither helps to validate those ancient systems nor improves the case of Rolfing as a methodology rooted in science. On the other hand, not even yoga has been free of haters. There is a sector of humanity that is openly hostile to the notion that the only way for many people to feel better is for them to do the work of improving their bodies (e.g. posture, range of motion, strength, etc.) (i.e. If your problem is rooted in your shoulders not being over your hips or you have an imbalance in your core between your ab and back muscles, there is no pill nor surgery to cure you—you’ve got work to do. And—it should be noted–both of my examples can cause a person to feel like crap in a number of different ways.) Another element of controversy is that Structural Integration places special emphasis on fascia (connective tissue.) While it’s not clear from scientific evidence that fascia deserve special attention, I’m also not sure that Rolfers don’t have a point when they note that everyone else completely ignores this tissue.

Having written all that, The New Rules of Posture isn’t a book about Rolfing as massage-like practice. Instead, as its subtitle (how to sit, stand, and move in the modern world) suggests, this is a book about how one can improve one’s posture, breathing, and movement (i.e. most notably walking). It’s arranged as a workbook, and it contains over 90 exercises and observations for the reader to perform. The author calls these exercises “explorations” and “practices”; the latter are more extensive and are more likely to require revisiting.

The ten chapters are arranged into four parts: awareness, stability, orientation, and motion. Each part has two or three chapters. The author divides the body into six zones (pelvic floor, breathing muscles, abdomen/core, hands, feet, and head)—the first three of which are associated with stability and the latter three with orienting the body. The six middle chapters (parts 2 and 3) are each tied to one of these zones. The book uses vignettes and side-bars in an attempt to make the material more palatable to readers who aren’t deeply interested in the topic.

The author gives attention to a wide variety of modern-day activities that can have an adverse impact on bodily alignment such as driving, computer time, and rushing about. I suspect this book will offer something useful to almost anyone.

The book’s graphics are line drawings—some are anatomical drawings and others demonstrate postural problems or exercises. The drawings are clear, well drawn, and useful. In addition to the usual front and back matter, there’s a brief bibliography and a resources appendix.

I’d recommend this book for yoga teachers and those interested in the body generally and movement and postural improvement specifically. If you’re having problems that you think may be linked to postural problems, this isn’t a bad place to start thinking about how one might improve one’s situation. It’s very readable and clear.

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Paleo-Stressing: Acute v. Chronic Stress

"What happened to the good ole days when I ate you people--not lived in your cages?"

“What happened to the good ole days when I ate you people–not lived in your cages?”

Paleolithic dieting is all the rage these days. I’m no expert on the paleo-diet, but–as I understand it–this refers to the practice of eating the foods consumed by our pre-agrarian ancestors. The idea is that if one consumes the foods that our species is evolutionarily-optimized to eating, one will be healthier.  Whether one believes in the merits of the paleo-diet or not on the whole, it’s hard to argue that one wouldn’t be better off eating less highly-processed and highly-refined foods and more things that look like food at a glance.

 

Our diet isn’t all that has changed since the days of our pre-agrarian ancestors. Modernity has brought with it an entirely new way of experiencing stress. Eliminating or reducing stress is a common topic of discussion, but not all stress is created equal. There’s a necessary form of stress, a stress that makes one better, stronger, faster, and smarter. We don’t want to willy-nilly eliminate stress; we want to reduce the wrong type of stress.

 

Our ancestors—like animals–experienced brief periods of intense stress (e.g. saber-tooth tiger attacks), followed by longer periods in which they were free of deadlines, carpools, and after-school activities. Now, no one likes to have a saber-tooth tiger stalking them. It’s unpleasant. Modern humanity has gone to great lengths to eliminate those short bursts of terror, but not without cost. (If you don’t believe me read Robert Sapolsky’s Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.)

 

Whether or not you believe that eliminating acute instances of terrifying stress is bad for mankind, it’s hard to argue that modernity’s leveling process didn’t eliminate stress, but instead resulted in a chronic stress on a smaller scale. People today have impossibly long daily to-do lists, and they have to accept trade-offs between work, family, and personal development.

 

It’s true that you don’t get eaten by a giant cat when you drop the ball, but life is so packed diverse events that one may feel like one is dropping some ball constantly. If your boss thinks you’re a model employee, then your kids are probably going to need therapy. If you have a contented home life, your boss may have his or her eyes open for someone who can give the firm consistently 70+ hour work weeks. If you feel you’re doing alright on both the work and family front, your body and / or mind is probably a train wreck.

 

Chronic [mini] stress may feel better than acute [catastrophic] stress, but it takes its tolls in various ways. First, with our sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight reaction) constantly engaged our body’s power to heal itself is reduced. When the parasympathetic nervous system is engaged, the body devotes resources to long-term goals like getting healthier, but in stress mode activities not relevant to immediate survival shut down. This is a great system if you have periodic life and death stress, but is not so good if you’re under constant stress.

 

Second, chronic stress reduces sleep, and sleep is essential to one’s mental and physical well-being. There are a wide variety of symptoms associated with sleep deprivation such as forgetfulness, decreased concentration, decreased alertness, reduced reasoning ability, diminished problem-solving capacity, and depression—all of which can diminish our physical health through accidents, ailments, suicide attempts, and lack of energy for exercise.

 

Third, chronic stress can make one fat, with all the health issues that result. Some people use food as a coping mechanism. Other people eat too fast or choose their food poorly because of time constraints or because they are not mindful of eating as their monkey minds churn at a mile a minute. Then there is the more convoluted and complex issue of cortisol–a hormone released under stress that is linked to weight gain in at least some cases. Even if you don’t have a problem on the calorie intake side, the stressed individual may not do so well on the calorie burning side—either because of a lack of time to exercise or a lack of energy.

 

Modern humans are uniquely suited to chronic stress because we are the only species that achieves the same physiological stress response by remembering and obsessing about a stressful event as experiencing it. Abandoning the modern approach to living isn’t an option most are willing to entertain; but there are ways to combat chronic stress.

 

Move – Meditate – Mindfully Breath: The bad news is you’ve got to shoehorn these activities into your schedule daily (or at least several times a week.) The good news is that they don’t need to take up a lot of your day. There are a number of systems that address all three components in one handy package such as Qi Gong, Yoga, and some martial arts. I don’t think it matters so much which one chooses as how one goes about one’s practice.

 

Movement strengthens and strategically stresses the body, but it also increases one’s bodily awareness so that one becomes aware of how stress is manifesting itself in one’s body. Meditation teaches one how to live in the present moment, and it trains one to recognize the seeds of negative thought and emotion earlier so that one can counter-act them. Obviously, breathing is essential to life, but learning to be aware of one’s breathing patterns and to “manually override” the breath patterns associated with harmful emotional states is a beneficial skill.

 

Massage / Bodywork: Whether self-administered or other-administered (the latter allowing greater distressing–particularly if the masseuse is skilled) massage is an activity, like movement, that can help one become aware of where one is physically holding one’s stress. These physical manifestations of stress can exacerbate the whole experience of stress. One should take time periodically to have bodywork done. A day rarely goes by in which I don’t work on my own neck, shoulders, head, or face, and I occasionally get professional Thai Yoga Bodywork done.

 

The Places that Scare You: Force yourself to go someplace (not necessarily literally a “place”) that scares you once in a while. This needn’t be skydiving or hand-gliding—but it could be. It may be a martial arts class in which one has to put on the gloves occasionally and go at it. It may be joining Tostmasters and having to give a speech in front of a crowd. It may be traveling to some backwater where you don’t know the language, but you want to learn. This is a very personal issue. (i.e. A Type-A personality he-man may not find that skydiving is outside his comfort zone. If so, sorry, skydiving doesn’t count, he may need to learn ballroom dancing, or something else that truly takes him outside being comfortable.) KEY POINT: The problem with hiding from all stressors is that it doesn’t result in a stress-free life, what happens is that smaller and smaller stressors loom bigger and bigger in one’s mind. Which brings us to…

 

Perspective:  One must put life’s challenges in perspective. Each person’s problems are important to them, and I don’t want to diminish anyone’s problems, but—come on—you’re not going to be eaten by a freaking saber-tooth tiger.

HAIKU: Notes From an Evening Walk

Bat black skies above
Jinking, rolling, and dipping
Dog-fighting for food

 

The Morning Glory
After dark is monotone
But remains shapely

 

A pack of street dogs
Bursts into barking, relief
Their mark? Lunchbox man,

 

Shadow silliness
Man flails his arms overhead
Walking behind me

BOOK CHAT: Walking by H.D. Thoreau

WalkingWalking by Henry David Thoreau

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

Thoreau paints a portrait of walking in such grandiose terms that one will cease to think of putting one foot in front of the other as one of life’s mundane tasks. He’s not talking about just any walking, however. He’s not talking about the mall walkers who briskly exercise in temples of consumerism. He’s not talking about those who walk through the park with top 40 hits blaring from their iPod ear buds.

Thoreau is talking about those individuals he calls saunterers. To saunter, as to stroll, is to walk in a leisurely and aimless fashion. Thoreau’s walking is that which:
-takes place in nature.
-leaves worldly worries behind.
-is not a trivial time commitment.
-is more an exercise of the mind and spirit than of the body.

To the mall walker, Thoreau would point out the error of a missed opportunity to get away from mankind’s chaos and enjoy nature. As he puts it, “The most alive is the wildest.” and “…all good things are wild and free.” He’s also clear in that walking for exercise misses the point by injecting hurriedness into a time that should be about slowing down.

On those with iPods, cellphones, or other contrivances that distract one from the environs, Thoreau is equally clear, “What business have I in the woods if I am thinking of something outside the woods?”

Thoreau’s essay broadens as it progresses. From a commentary on the virtues of sauntering, the essay turns to the glories of nature, the character of America, and the state of thought in his contemporary society. These may seem like unrelated concepts, but there is a string of logic that connects them.

The connection to nature and the virtue of wildness should be clear. It’s nature that is the optimal backdrop of sauntering. It’s in nature that one can be set free from the troubles of the world of man and obtain a glimpse of god. It’s in nature where creativity breeds with chaos turned down and native brilliance turned up.

Thoreau’s discussion of America is tied to the theme of walking in a couple of ways. The first is as a land made for walkers. For example, he points out that a man could pitch a tent almost anywhere in North America without great risk of becoming a meal. The same couldn’t be said of India or Africa or Siberia, where man isn’t the sole predatory creature. The second is America as a place with room to venture out into uncharted territory. Thoreau points out that we may look to the East for the lessons of our predecessors, but a person should look West for opportunities to grow in one’s own right. Of course, Thoreau’s America was different from today’s America.

The end of the essay broadens out even further. Thoreau comments upon mankind and the state of ideas and thought. He echoes Socrates when he talks about that age-old question of whether it’s better to be ignorant (to know one knows little) or deluded (to think one knows a lot, but be drowning in false knowledge.) A reader may suggest that this is a false dichotomy. Why can’t one know most everything and not have a one’s body of knowledge rife with false knowledge? I can’t say, but all of the evidence suggests that if such a state exists, it’s the domain of God or gods (if such entities exist.)

Thoreau also bemoans what he sees as the decline of thinking man. What does this have to do with walking? I think Thoreau answers in the following quote:
“So it would seem few and fewer thoughts visit each growing man from year to year, for the grove in our minds is laid waste—sold to feed unnecessary fires of ambition, or sent to mill—and there is scarcely a twig left for them to perch on.”

I think that everyone should read this thin book–really an essay and not a full-scale book. The problems Thoreau notes have only gotten worse in our modern age. Far too few take the time to walk, and to acquire the benefits of sauntering.

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