Toward a Better Understanding of Our Species: A Reading List

Over the last few years, I have been on a binge reading books about the human species — everything from how we got here to where we might be going. These studies have explored topics such as evolutionary biology, immunology, sociology, psychology, futurology, and perhaps a few other ologies I can’t identify. Mostly, these books have been enlightening, informative, and even entertaining at times. I decided to share some of my favorites here.

Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation by Bill Nye (audio version)

It takes a special talent to translate complicated scientific principles to lay readers like me. One of my favorite scientists who excelled at it was Carl Sagan, so it was no surprise to learn that Bill Nye was a student of Sagan. I have read and listened to many books through the years exploring the topic of evolution, and this is certainly one of the most accessible. The inspiration for this book comes from a debate the author had back in 2014 with Ken Ham, founder of the Young Earth creationists. He spends some time in the first part of the book presenting the major points he and Ham made in the debate, and he refers to the event on several occasions in subsequent chapters. In reality, the debate is just a launching point. Nye’s discussions mostly focus on science, leaving creationism in the dust.

Bringing to the table his skills as an entertainer, a television personality, and a fine writer, Bill Nye presents a fine overview of evolution — not just human evolution, but evolution of life on this planet and even speculation on how life may have evolved and may still be evolving elsewhere in the universe. Hearing him read his own book makes the narrative even more compelling, and his quirky sense of humor keeps it from getting dry or boring. Bill Nye is still making science fun! Highly recommended for readers who like popular science and aren’t looking for too much detail or depth.

The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease by Daniel H. Lieberman

Lieberman takes a different approach to evolution and human origins than what I have seen thus far in most books. Using human evolutionary principles to explain the development of environmentally and socially induced medical problems turns out to be astounding, and for the most part, convincing. The author uses the latest fossil evidence to provide a chronicle of the development of modern humans, tracing our origins back to the earliest hominids and even more archaic common ancestors. Perhaps this discussion gets a bit too deep in the weeds for the ultimate purpose of the book, but I have always been interested in the topic and didn’t mind the extensive review. Readers who are short on time can probably skip the first section on human origins and still benefit from the rest of the book.

Lieberman uses terms like “mismatch” and “de-evolution” to explain how human culture, especially in affluent parts of the world, has facilitated ailments or diseases that are partially if not completely avoidable. As humans moved away from being hunters/gatherers to farmers and eventually industrialists, we developed some rather bad habits of excess and self-indulgence that our bodies have not evolved to handle very well. Instead of addressing the root causes of the problems, we have used our well-developed brains to create methods of treating the symptoms with varying degrees of success.

It seems to me that Lieberman’s observations are indisputable when he writes about unhealthy diets and sedentary lifestyles resulting in illnesses such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. Toward the end of the book he employs more speculation about issues such as overcrowded wisdom teeth, foot problems, and myopia, but even so these chapters are thought-provoking and carefully explored. Lastly, Lieberman is another good writer and joins the league of scientists who can make complex subjects accessible for lay people. Well done.

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst by Robert M. Sapolsky

If there were one word to best describe Sapolsky’s book in my mind, it would have to be “thorough.” Okay, “long” would work too, but that would make me sound like a simpleton. Truthfully, there were times during this book that I felt like one. Sapolsky spends a good portion of his book explaining how the various systems of the human body work in concert to shape our behavior: the brain, hormones, sensory organs, nerves, etc. For the lay reader, the detailed descriptions of the brain’s components alone, with their complicated functions and not-so-familiar names, are challenging enough. Then again, we are warned by the subtitle that this is a book of biology. Sapolsky provides more neuroscience than most of us probably need in order to accept his conclusions about how the body, right down to the molecular level, functions with our environment, circumstances, and experiences to make us behave or misbehave. Honestly, at times it gets a bit laborious.

The author’s amount of documentation is staggering. He addresses a host of other scientists and social scientists whose research in human behavior parallels his own, and I think his treatment of them is respectful and fair, even though he may disagree with their findings. He is also never short on evidence and examples to substantiate his own findings, sometimes to a fault. He has a tendency to repeat historical events to support his claims, such as the World War I Christmas truce of 1914 between British and German soldiers or the My Lai Massacre on March 16, 1968 during the Vietnam War.

Getting to the heart of this book is difficult without resorting to cliché and oversimplification. By the time I finished, I had decided that human behavior is complicated and that there are far too many internal and external factors involved to come up with a unified theory on why we do what we do. Evolution, genes, DNA, secretions, and synapses all play their part, but they are no more essential in our actions than upbringing, peer pressure, education, traditions, and a whole host of outside influences. Our behavior is shaped as much by what happened to our hominid ancestors thousands of years ago as it is by what happened to us an hour before we committed some act of compassion or cruelty. On a grand scale, our behavior as a species is somewhat predictable. On an individual level, not so much.

This is a book worth reading, even though it will occupy many hours of your time. Aside from the science and psychology, it’s entertaining. Sapolsky is quite funny, blending in pop culture references, occasional profanity, and good old clever wit. He has a talent for breaking down intricate scientific principles with common, everyday illustrations to which almost anyone can relate. For those who have a serious interest in this area of study, Behave is worth the time. I predict it will be an important addition to the scholarship for years to come.

Human Errors: A Panorama of Our Glitches, from Pointless Bones to Broken Genes by Nathan H. Lents

It is clear from early on in his book that Lents has a side motive in this study, which is to dispel the myth of intelligent design in biology, specifically human biology. The paraphrased common refrain throughout the book is “if you were an engineer tasked with designing the human body, this is not the most efficient means by which to achieve the goal.” One of the most interesting parts of the book to me is the assortment of problems humans have as a result of not yet fully evolving to upright, bi-pedal locomotion. Many of our joints and bones are subject to easier injury. Our sinuses try to defy gravity by draining upward instead of downward. And then there is the deadliest problem of all — women trying to give birth to infants with big heads through a narrow pelvis.

Although the author focuses on human “errors,” he also mentions when other species do or do not share our evolutionary challenges. Readers are given detailed explanations of issues associated with vision, swallowing and breathing through the same tube, diet, vitamin production, reproduction, immunity, and even cognition and social interaction. He will perhaps lose a few readers toward the end of the book when he explores the prospect of immortality, which delves a bit deeply into the speculative.

As other scientists have observed (like Lieberman above), Lents argues that modern technology and especially modern medical advances have made, and will continue to make, evolutionary adaptations unnecessary, thus altering the “survival of the fittest” model of passing on genes from one generation to the next. I suspect the jury is still out on whether or not that modification will be beneficial to our species in the long run.

Superhuman: Life at the Extremes of Our Capacity by Rowan Hooper

I have read other books about people with extraordinary abilities (memory, strength, musical talent, etc.), but Hooper covers a range of amazing traits and characteristics, some of which are not so mysterious but nevertheless admirable. He includes individuals who have faced incredible injury, disability, and other challenges with remarkable grace and joy. He even explores what it means to be happy. I found the chapter on sleep and dreams the most fascinating of all. It’s an uplifting exploration of humanity and the potential of our species.

Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker

Speaking of sleep, here’s a book that received considerable attention in the media. Perhaps a more accurate title would be Why We Must Sleep. Adding “dreams” in the subtitle is almost a ruse to attract more readers, but we can give Walker a break here – he does include a discussion on dreams, but it is not even close to being the main attraction. Nor should it be. This book explores the necessity of sleep while explaining in detail its different phases and their importance. The author freely admits in the opening pages that he loves sleep, and he has obviously devoted his career to the study of it, not just in humans, but many species.

The overwhelming conclusion is that sleep is not an option nor a luxury. It is absolutely essential to survival. Perhaps most of us could have guessed that, but Walker presents us with an ocean of data to prove it and drive the point home convincingly. There are some fascinating stories in this book about sleep research that most of us have never dreamed of (sorry), and again, not just on humans.

The major takeaway from the book is simple. In order to remain healthy and happy, people need to be consistently getting 7-8 hours of sleep a night (9 hours wouldn’t hurt, but don’t go far beyond that threshold). Walker argues, not always convincingly but most of the time, that sleep deprivation can harm us in almost every way we can fathom — physically, mentally, and emotionally. I expected him at any moment to write, “You know that ingrown toenail that’s been bothering you for the last few weeks?”

Anybody who cares anything at all about general health and how to improve it should read this book. Of course, anyone interested in sleep has to read it. I can’t imagine a more thorough study of the subject for a popular audience. Fair warning: Walker is a scientist and a purist. He is laying out the facts to the best of his knowledge, which is extensive. There is no sensible approach or moderation, no wiggle room. If you want the very best sleep, and by extension the best health, you have to give up everything that hinders sleep, including alcohol, caffeine, jobs that interfere with sleep schedules, late-night activities, etc. And don’t even think about sleeping pills! Therapy is the ONLY answer to sleeping disorders. This level of slumber austerity is going to be rejected by most people, but at least we can be better aware of how important sleep is to our well-being and do our best to get a little, or a lot, more shut eye.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari 

I know this book gets dinged by reviewers for some outrageous claims, unsubstantiated conclusions, and superficial treatment of 100,000 years worth of history. Much of the criticism is warranted. For instance, one of Harari’s recurring suppositions is that humans from the past, although they lived in more hostile environments, were no less “happy” than people in modern civilization. This revelation shouldn’t come as a surprise if we consider that humans can only truly appreciate the living conditions of the present, not the future. Most of us are content with our world as it is because it is all we know.

Still, Harari is a good writer with some thought-provoking theories. He charts the process of how our modern species won the evolutionary competition to become the dominant primate and eventually reshape the global environment. At times he pushes the iconoclastic approach a bit too far in order to ramp up the buzz factor, and thus more readers. Based on the sales, his strategy worked. Academic historians are not going to be pleased, and critical readers of history will probably be disappointed. Popular audiences have enjoyed it immensely, and that’s fine. Most readers will take away a few fascinating nuggets from this ambitious survey of human history.

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari 

Harari waits until the very end of his book to tell readers that the previous 450 pages of forecasting are not really a prophesy, only an exploration of possibilities. Some of the ideas will sound ridiculous, but many of them are certainly plausible. The discussion of a hybrid creature combining human and machine that could possibly surpass homo sapiens to become the dominant species is not so far fetched. Interestingly, Harari spends an unusual amount of time near the beginning of the book writing about religion and its impact on human evolution and modern society, which may explain the title. It’s almost as if this could be two different books. The only place that the book became tiresome for me was the final chapter on data. If I had to classify it, I would describe Homo Deus as speculative nonfiction. I think his previous book, Sapiens, is more important. If we don’t take it too seriously, Homo Deus is a fun and intriguing read.

Mal de Débarquement Syndrome

When my sons were in elementary and middle school, their mother and I took them on a Disney cruise, along with a group of other families we were close to from our church. We set sail from a port on the east coast of Florida, spent several days out in the Caribbean, made a few land calls, then returned to shore and headed back home. I resisted taking any seasickness medication when we boarded, thinking I could get adjusted to being on the ship; however, after 24 hours I caved and wore a patch that most everyone else was using to absorb medication into my system. This was our first cruise, and for me, the last. For about 2-3 weeks following our wonderful vacation at sea, I had a terrible time getting back my “land legs,” a phrase that refers to the ability to adjust one’s sense of balance and motion to walking on land after a sea journey or flight.

It was hard to describe the sensation when I finally went to my family doctor seeking a remedy. My symptoms didn’t match those described by people suffering with vertigo, a horrible sense of spinning that my poor mother suffered with for years before her death, resulting in some pretty serious falls and injuries. I never felt as if I might fall, nor was I dealing with nausea. It was more like a subtle but constant feeling in my head that I was gently rocking forward and backward, up and down, simultaneously – almost matching the feeling I have always had when riding in a speedy elevator. The side effects included a dull headache and difficulty concentrating, especially while staring at a computer monitor for hours at a time, which my job often required. Oddly enough, the sensations abated and even temporarily vanished while I was driving or riding in a car.

My doctor told me the symptoms would likely fade away soon, but he prescribed medicine to combat the dizziness. Under certain conditions, I can get drowsy taking ibuprofen. Give me an antihistamine, decongestant, cough syrup, or muscle relaxer, and I will almost be comatose within the hour. I could not function during the day while taking the medicine my doctor prescribed, and I didn’t have any problem sleeping at night. So, I pushed through until, slowly and gradually, the symptoms finally disappeared. No one on that cruise got a better value than I did – they were at sea for four nights. I was on that damned boat for over three weeks!

As a result of my unpleasant experience, I decided to forgo cruises in the future and stick with other modes of transportation – cars, trains, and planes. In 2009, I was invited to give a presentation on Flannery O’Connor at a conference in Rome, Italy. My wife and I had been married one year and were lucky enough to spend our first anniversary in the Eternal City. (After all, they said “Take her some place nice.”) I expected to deal with jetlag, given the six-hour difference in time zones between our home in Georgia and Italy. However, my jetlag soon morphed into the post-cruise symptoms I remember all too well from the Disney excursion. Not good news.

Since 2009, I have dealt with this issue multiple times after flying, but not on every occasion and not with the same severity. For instance, I had a miserable few days after landing in Salt Lake City in the summer of 2015, but I had little or no problems following our flight to and from Paris in 2016. Late in 2015 I began taking a regimen of Dramamine, beginning three nights before my flight and continuing until three nights after my return home. I combined the medicine with the use of rubber ear plugs designed to reduce pressure changes at high altitudes. This approach seemed to work for a while, but then a few times it didn’t. In a state of increased desperation, I did what all savvy Americans do when faced with a medical challenge. I consulted my close friend and physician, Dr. Google. Through considerable determination and more-than-usual side paths, my Internet searches ultimately led me to a malady that I had never of before.

Most websites and articles I uncovered in 2015 were describing something labeled Disembarkment Syndrome, although it is now most often identified by the French term, Mal de Débarquement Syndrome, translated “illness of disembarkation.” Fortunately, my research led me to an occupational therapist named Gaye Cronin working out of an ear clinic in Atlanta less than two hours from our home in north Georgia. She had considerable experience in vestibular physical therapy and was familiar with cases of Mal de Débarquement Syndrome. She ran me through a battery of tests, checking my eyes, ears, balance, and coordination. In addition to a prescription for meds to take before and after flying, she also gave me a series exercises designed to train my eyes and ears to adjust to the conditions of flying.

I can’t say that Cronin’s solution has eliminated my symptoms every time I fly, but the situation has improved considerably. I am also more aware of what will trigger problems, such as reading or looking at mobile devices or getting up and walking around during flight. My best chance of avoiding the syndrome’s ill effects is to stay as still as possible during flight with my head facing straight. As annoying as this problem is, it hasn’t ever reached the point where I am unwilling to fly, especially considering that I only do so a few times a year. I probably couldn’t accept a job that required me to fly regularly, but my wife and I like to travel domestically and internationally. I am willing to endure the occasional week or two of post-travel discomfort in order to keep traveling.

I am quite fortunate in that my discomfort always abates after one or two weeks. Sadly, there are people whose symptoms stay with them for weeks, months, and even years. As of now, there is no known cure for this malady; however, there is ongoing research and plenty of information available about Mal de Débarquement Syndrome. I am pleased that there is a Foundation that promotes international awareness of and research on the syndrome. I encourage anyone who suffers from this problem to check out their website.

 

Playing With Fire

When I was eleven years old, I got burned. At the time it happened, the injuries seemed horrific, although none of the burns probably exceeded the 2nd degree and covered only a small portion of my body: face, chest, one arm and hand. The incident occurred at my cousin’s house, who lived a few blocks from my house with his maternal grandmother, divorced mother, and a younger brother. My two cousins and another younger neighborhood boy were playing early on a Saturday afternoon in my cousin’s backyard. So many adolescents are mesmerized by fire. Perhaps there is some element born and nurtured deep in our evolutionary past that drives us to create fire, master it, and even flirt with its dangers. Fire is one of the key tools that allowed our genus to survive the Stone Age and to eventually dominate all other animals. My cousins and I were certainly not thinking about paleoanthropology on that particular Saturday, even if “shadows of forgotten ancestors” were influencing our actions.

We decided that afternoon it would be great fun to build a bonfire. Keep in mind this was summer in middle Georgia, where temperatures frequently climb to and above 100 degrees F. In evolutionary terms, we were not exhibiting behavior of a species that is the fittest to survive. We began gathering into a pile an impressive collection of pine straw, leaves, and sticks from around the yard, and for good measure we even threw in a few charcoal briquettes we found in a bag in the crawl space under the house. The heap was probably between two and three feet high.  I don’t remember who had the matches nor who lit one and strategically placed it at the bottom edge of the dry fuel mound we had sculpted. I do remember all four of us standing in a circle watching with giddy anticipation as a thin cloud of blueish-gray smoke began drifting up from the pyre. And then nothing happened. At least, nothing discernible happened. The smoke became thinner until it all but disappeared. There was no cracking or popping sound, no flames dancing toward the sky. We were greatly insulted.

I recalled seeing a can of gasoline next to the lawnmower that was just barely tucked under the backside of the house at the edge of the open crawlspace. I had watched my father pour gasoline on charcoal to start fires for grilling. I was aware of its combustible qualities. We could not stand by patiently and hope that fire would grace us with its presence. We had to summon it with the magic of fossil fuel. I remember the gas can was heavy and thus probably near full. I brought it over to our faux alter, opened the top of the tubular spout, grabbed the handle and lifted the can about chest high in front of me, and then bent straight over to pour gas on the pile.

The combustion was instantaneous and violent, shooting hot flames toward my chest and face. Even a smoldering spark when paired with gasoline can at once be transformed into a raging inferno.  Perhaps the “swooshing” sound of the ignition gave my reflexes a nanosecond of time to tightly shut my eyes, but I could not escape the fumes that had already penetrated my shirt, which immediately burst into flames as a I dropped the gas can. One of the boys had enough presence of mind to grab the can and quickly move it away from the mound, which was now engulfed in flames. We had succeeded with building a fire, but at a considerable cost.  I can still remember turning to run in the opposite direction of the burning pile and hearing the characteristic sound of flames whipping up from my shirt, across the right side of my face, and over my shoulder. And, I distinctly remember hearing my own screams. Then I suddenly stopped, reached down to the bottom of my shirt, and ripped it over my head, throwing it to the ground. I had escaped the fire, but not before it had peeled the skin from my right cheek, the middle of my chest, and several patches on my right arm and hand. My eye lashes and brows and much of my hair were singed.  My right ear managed to catch much of the flame’s wrath and later that evening would swell to almost twice its normal size. I ran over to a water spigot, turned it on, and splashed water on my face, which did not have the soothing effect I had hoped for at all.  It stung like hell.

The entire mishap probably lasted ten seconds, fifteen at the most. The little neighborhood boy left immediately, no doubt horrified. My cousins and I went inside the house where their mother, upon seeing my condition, was visibly frightened and probably concerned that she had somehow failed in keeping me safe while I was visiting their house. Of course, she was not at fault. Children are curious and do dangerous things. Most survive; some sadly do not. I was lucky. My cousin’s mother quickly got on the telephone and called my father, who was at home making lunch for himself. Otherwise, he would have been outside on a Saturday and would not have received the call. My mother, sister, and grandmother were not at home at the time.

My father called our pediatrician, who met us at his office to assess the damage. He decided I could forgo the hospital, and he applied ointment and bandages and sent us home. The women of the house were back home by then, waiting with dread to see how badly scarred the accident had left the youngest child and only boy of our extended family. In fact, I still do have at least one scar from the burns, on the inside of my right arm near the armpit. I suspect the scar was the result of skin that didn’t heal smoothly because the bandage could not be secured well enough in that location. The other scars would eventually fade, although some of them on my arm and hand took years to completely disappear. Other mental scars have perhaps never gone away. I was probably too cautious with my sons out of fear that they might suffer a similar calamity, and that may have made me overprotective at times. I hope my fears didn’t inflict too much hardship on their childhood. I am thankful that my brush with fire never made me fearful of it in general.  In fact, I never stopped being drawn to its light, warmth, sounds, and magical qualities. As an adult, I have never lived in a home without a fireplace or outdoor fire pit.  I respect the potential danger of fire, but I will always like playing with it.

Raccoons Are So Cute . . . and Deadly

What could be more adorable among wild animals than a raccoon?  With that signature black mask that looks like a small child dressed for Halloween and that distinctive striped, bushy tail, these waddling mammals are quite often photographed and recorded on video as they make their way through suburban neighborhoods, and even large cities, looking for an easy meal. Considering how adaptive they have become to residential areas and how broad their diet is, most meals are probably fairly easy indeed.  They are mostly nocturnal, spending the hours after dusk raiding trash cans or prowling around for frogs and crustaceans.  Watching them rub their faces or stand on their hinds legs with their front paws extended forward, observers are lured into thinking that raccoons are practically tame and even friendly.  Plenty of people have made pets of young raccoons, and as long as their diet and other environmental conditions are strictly controlled, they are probably harmless for the most part.  Nevertheless, the raccoon is not a domesticated species — it is wild.  Here lies the problem.

Raccoon at pond
Raccoon at pond

In captivity, raccoons can live up to 20 years; however, in the wild they rarely live more than 3-4 years.  That’s quite a significant spread.  They have very few natural predators, and humans are not as nearly interested in their pelts as was the case several generations ago (alas, Daniel Boone and Fess Parker have been dead for a while).  They are hunted for sport, but not widely.  What accounts for the difference?  Disease and infection are the greatest threat to longevity for raccoons, and because they share environments with humans, they are a greater risk than most people realize.  YouTube is full of videos of raccoons wandering around in backyards, playing in sandboxes, or even swimming in pools.  How cute!  How dangerous!!

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has an entire section of its website devoted to risks associated with close encounters with raccoons.  In addition to rabies, giardia, and leptospirosis, raccoons also spread the Baylisascaris infection from a specific type of roundworm.  The roundworm eggs are sometimes found in the feces of raccoons, and if ingested, they can cause a deadly infection.  Raccoons need water for digestion, and they also feed on amphibians, so they are naturally drawn to water, even swimming pools.  Frogs often gather along the waterline of pools and in the skimmers, which offers a feeding opportunity for raccoons.  They are creatures of habit, so once they start visiting a pool and find food, they will likely return.  Another habit they have is pooping in water, and they will often do so in the shallow walk-out sections of swimming pools.  If the feces is infected, it can introduce roundworm eggs into the water.  And the real kicker is this: chlorine doesn’t kill the eggs or the parasite!

It is simply not a good idea to attract raccoons to where people live, especially by intentionally feeding them.  Young children have a tendency to place their hands and objects in their mouths, which puts them at significant risk if they are playing in areas where raccoons are roaming around freely.  As cute as they are, raccoons are something you want to see on a hike through the forest, not in your backyard.

Free at Last

I made the final visit to my orthopedic surgeon today, who said my x-rays from my broken ankle look fine and that I am good to go.  He actually said I can even try to jog a mile to see how the ankle behaves.  I’m not exactly anxious to start jogging, but the walking is getting better every day.  I still have a bit of tightness, mostly in my lower leg muscles, and the swelling hasn’t completely gone.  At any rate, I don’t have to go back unless I have a real problem.  It was just under two months ago when I broke the ankle, and I am very relieved to be at the end of the initial recovery period of 6-8 weeks.  I shook my doctor’s hand, thanked him, and told him he is the best doctor I have ever had.  In his typical self-deprecating manner he said, “I didn’t do anything!”  I respectfully disagree.  He was wonderful.

It is a little embarrassing how carefully I walk now, especially on grass.  I hope my fear will subside as I get more strength in the left leg and gain more confidence about walking.  I need to be in shape for next spring, when I plan to hike to the top of one of the highest hills near our home.  And, I certainly want to be ready to get back in the Hobie kayak when the weather turns warm again in 2016.  Don’t let anyone tell you that grass isn’t harmful — it will knock you off your feet!

Incapacitated

A month has passed since my last entry, but I have a few good excuses.  My wife and I did some traveling in July, and my workload at the office increased a bit too.   Even so, I would have made an entry by the last week of the month had it not been for a significant event on July 19 that brought me to a brief standstill — a broken ankle.  This is the first time I have ever broken a bone, and I wasn’t prepared for how the pain, though not necessarily acute, would linger for several weeks.  I am fortunate in that it was a single fracture and apparently not bad enough to require surgery (at least not so far), but I have been in a cast for two weeks and have had to get around either on crutches or with this snazzy four-wheel contraption with a bench for my knee that allows me to scoot around pushing off with the good leg.

Those who have read this blog know that mobility is extremely important to me.  I love to travel, I spend lots of time walking and hiking, and my job even requires me to be outdoors on a fairly regular basis.  Furthermore, I am a gardener and love growing and caring for plants in our yard and maintaining the lawn.  In fact, I was spraying deer and rabbit repellent in the front yard when the accident occurred.  I really wish I had a better story for how I crashed to the ground, but wet grass, a steep slope, and the wrong kind of shoes were a deadly combination that sent me crawling back to the front door, where my dear wife helped me in and iced my ankle immediately.  The swelling began very quickly but was not widespread and there was very little bruising.  It could have been much worse.  A trip to the clinic the next evening for X-rays confirmed that I had a fracture.

I’m sure the modern style of cast that I am sporting, the bright-colored fiberglass wrap, is infinitely better than the old plaster casts of years ago.  Still, the weight of the cast is probably as much a source of discomfort as the fracture itself.  My calf tends to swell, along with my ankle, inside the cast if I don’t keep the leg elevated most of the time, a condition that ranges from being uncomfortable to painful.  The depressing part of the whole dilemma is that I have to keep weight off the ankle for up to six weeks.  I will probably transition from the cast to a lace-up boot pretty soon, which will probably be more comfortable, but I will remain very limited in my mobility for several more weeks.  I’m having a hard time adjusting, but knowing that the situation is temporary also invokes a sense of guilt.  How ridiculous for me to complain about this inconvenience when there are so many people who have to make these kinds of adjustments, and a whole lot more, for the rest of their lives.

What will I take away from this event that has disrupted my routines for a few weeks?  Well, for starters, I will give more consideration to the type of shoes I wear, especially while strolling around the yard.  I will probably be more aware of the terrain and surfaces where I walk regardless of what I may be doing at the time.  I want to be more careful without being too fearful.  I certainly hope I will be more sympathetic to people with disabilities who struggle with everyday tasks and movements about which I normally would not give a second thought.  I will be forever grateful to my wife, my youngest son who was home for the summer, and many others who have been so gracious, considerate, patient, and helpful in getting me around and who are assisting me in getting back on both of my feet.  I am thankful for a fantastic orthopedic surgeon, one of the best doctors I have ever met, whose skill, knowledge, and bedside manner have given me a great deal of assurance.  Lastly, I suspect for the rest of my life I will be reminded of how fragile we are and how quickly a freak accident can take us from being fully functional to a piling heap on the ground.

The Call

On Saturday evening, I got the call.  Actually, the call came in the form of three voice mails left on my cell phone because I was at a musical event and had my phone turned completely off.  The calls and messages left were from the nursing home, where my father has spent that last five years of his life.  Most of those years could not really be characterized as “living” in the sense that most of us use the word.  Oddly enough, I just posted a few days ago about my sorrow in watching my dad’s recent, rapid decline.

Getting one voice mail from the nursing home is common; getting three back-to-back in a matter of a few minutes indicated something serious.  I have been expecting this call for quite a long time.  At times I have dreaded it, at others I have longed for it, which has been the case recently.  Had the call been to inform me that, due to either illness or accident, my father had been taken to the hospital, it would certainly have anguished me.  The last thing I wanted, any of us who knew him really wanted, was for him to go through the agony of multiple trips to the hospital for procedures to prolong a life not worth living anymore.

There is a certain finality to the words “Your father passed away this evening.”  At the age of 94, the phrase is not unexpected, and as I have indicated in this case, it has quietly been hoped for by friends and family.  He certainly was ready to go and had been for a few years.  He frequently expressed his astonishment that he was still alive. “I never dreamed I’d live this long,” he said many times when we visited him.  “I don’t know why the Lord is keeping me here.”  Good question.  I don’t know the answer.  I can’t say for certain, but maybe he knows the answer . . . now.

You Can’t Run Away from a Bad Diet

For years my wife has been telling me that, while she knows we need to exercise for our health and well-being, exercise won’t help her shed the pounds she wants to lose (she doesn’t have that much to shed truly).  I have always resisted her on this point, thinking that burning off calories with vigorous exercise has to eventually result in weight loss.  While that still may be true with a sensible diet, the fact remains that exercise without cutting back portions and watching the amount of calories and fat we take in will not result in any serious weight loss.  Such are the findings of a team of British cardiologists in a recent study, which they explain in an editorial in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.  In essence, they are claiming that even though regular exercise reduces the risk of developing a number of health issues such as heart disease, dementia, some cancers, and type 2 diabetes, it doesn’t promote weight loss.

Once again, my wife is smarter than I.  This information that she knew and that I was slightly skeptical about is even more troubling for her than it is for me because she also knows that, as we both age, her metabolism as a woman slows down at a much faster rate than mine does as a man.  This means that I can take in more calories than she, and with everything else being equal, my weight remains stable.  No, it certainly isn’t fair and is another example of how women get the shaft from nature.  I’m not so concerned about how my wife’s body looks (well, yes it does matter, but it isn’t my main concern), but I do want her to be healthy and well as we march toward retirement in the next ten years.  I am convinced that avoiding obesity is essential in achieving that goal, for both of us.  Beyond that extreme though, I hope we can both eat well, exercise regularly, and maintain our fitness as we age so we can enjoy that retirement by traveling around and exploring, relatively free of pain and with as much physical flexibility and stability as possible.