Friday, 28 September 2007

Funny Review Day

One of my home pages is Arts & Letters Daily. where a couple of guys troll magazines and newspapers around the world to find new books, articles of note, essays and opinion pieces. I have always been a sucker for essays. And reviews. The site, itself, is a literary gem; the lead-ins to the links are miniature works of art.

Anyway, I thought I'd pass along one of the links I read recently. It's just the sort of thing that brightens my life, now that Dorothy Parker is no longer with us. Actually, Dorothy Parker has not been with us since I was a child, but I miss her all the same. It was Parker who, in a 1934 review of "The Lake" (uh, before I was born), wrote of Katherine Hepburn that "she delivered a striking performance that ran the gamut of emotions, from A to B." (If you are not American, this is not as funny as if you are American, because "A to B" doesn't rhyme with "A to Zed." )

Today's book item from Arts & Letters Daily is right up there with Miss Parker. It reads thus: In her first assault on Hollywood, Joan Collins slept with so many men she was known as the British Open... more»

Clicking on the link will take you to The Daily Telegraph in the U.K., where you can read the full review.

Following the book review, you might care to head to the Music Review section for their take on Il Divo, "not a boyband."

Well, it amused me.

Monday, 17 September 2007

The Fitness Test

Continuing in the spirit of letting nothing go to waste, here is an article I wrote back in (mumble, mumble) for our jogging club newsletter.

* * * * *

I don't read self-improvement articles any more. After the first flush of enthusiasm, one can never live up to the expectations of the author and why be despised by strangers when you have friends? At any rate, my eye was caught by The Sunday Times ABC Bodyplan, an eight-week program designed to make you slim, fit and energetic.

It was the energetic part I liked. I remember a fellow Burnham Jogger saying that he, too, is always tired. "Either I'm running or I'm tired," said Jeff. Well, I'd reached the point where I was running and tired.

Another thing in its favour, the Bodyplan didn't require you to go on a diet. To me, not dieting is the whole point of jogging. The plan required that you jog (or walk or swim or cycle or keep-fit) and I was already doing that, so, I thought, what a snap this will be. I'll just go on doing what I'm doing, although in a more disciplined fashion, and in eight weeks, I'll have energy. But the real carrot was: The Fitness Test.

So I volunteered, fully expecting, however, to be rejected as too fit for the purposes of the study. After all, I eat sensibly and I've been jogging for nigh on three and a half years. But, who knows? Maybe they needed a control group.

Eventually my acceptance letter and instructions came back along with a brief medical history to complete and a phone number to ring so that I could make an appointment for a preliminary heart and lung check. Nobody said anything about my previous jogging experience. To save the embarrassment of being thrown out of the hospital with all the other volunteers jeering, I thought I'd better ring and make sure they understood. Jackie took my call.

"I already jog," I said, "is that going to be all right"? "That's fine," said Jackie, "just keep it up until you work up to the levels we recommend." I don't think you understand," said I, "I already jog about twice the number of miles per week you finish with." "Oh," she said, "I'll ask the doctor."

"The doctor says it's all right," said Jackie. "When would like your first appointment"?

The first trip to the hospital was brief and allowed me to get a look at my fellow testees. There were a couple of fat people, but most of the participants appeared lean and fit. The ever-informative technicians told me that most people had the same idea as I: this was a means not to get fit, but to get a fitness test. In fact, the response to the program had been so great that the government had provided funds for extra testing equipment, which had allowed the hospital to set up the fitness clinic.

I filled out another short questionnaire ("When you exercise, what gets the most tired: muscles/lungs"? Answer: "Both."), and provided a urine specimen. A doctor examined my heart and lungs and opined that I'd probably make it through the program. I made an appointment to return for my first fitness test and promised not to start the plan until after the test.

On my second visit, I changed into shorts and T-shirt and reported to the technicians. First I was measured (5' 4¾") and weighed (none of your business). Then I had to blow into a tube – hard. In my entire life, I have never managed to blow hard enough into tubes to satisfy the medical personnel, so off to a slightly depressing start.

Next I was measured -- they pinched my upper arm in a metal instrument to measure the fat – and photographed. The photograph resulted in a contour map, a marginally obscene black and white composition that looked as if someone had been finger-painting circles over my naked body. The technician said it was a shame I wasn't fatter. The fatter you are, the more bizarre the result and the more contrast you can hope to see at the end of the program. Provided, of course, that you are not as fat at the end of the program as you were in the beginning.

Then we get down to it: the bicycle. In a curtained cubicle I stripped to the waist and electrodes were attached to most inches of my upper body. Then I put my bra back on so the technicians had a place to tether all the wires. (I wonder what they do when testing the men?) I removed my earrings and a clamp was attached to my earlobe (to measure my pulse I later discovered) and the breathing tube stuck in my mouth again. At length I was given the signal to start pedalling.

Har! I'm from Chicago – flatland. I've spent my life on a bicycle. I pedal. It's pretty easy, but my jaws get tired clamping the breathing tube tightly between my teeth. After a couple of minutes, the resistance on the pedals is increased. Still not bad; after all, I am fit. My jaws ache, though. Resistance increases, again. Have to start to work a little now. More resistance. Take hands off handlebars and hold breathing tube so my jaws don't have to do so much work. More resistance. Starting to sweat. More. Thinking about quitting now, but I'm a Burnham Jogger. "Quit" is not in our vocabulary. Boy, do my jaws ache! More resistance. Huff! Puff! We keep up this sado-masochistic cycling until, finally, I raise my arm: the signal to stop. Been at it a long time, though. I feel fairly pleased with myself.

The technicians unwire me and let me get dressed while they fiddle with the computer. They tell me that, after I've been on the Bodyplan for the full eight weeks, I will return for another assessment. The results from all the volunteers will be collated, and the doctor will give me a report on my condition and progress. Meanwhile, "Want to know how you did"? one asks. What am here for? Of course I do. "You did about average," she says.

Average? What does that mean: average? "Well, she explains, “take 100 people off the street and, for your height, weight and age, you're average." Average? Average!? I've been jogging for three and a half years and I've worked myself all the way up to average? What I have to show for three and a half years of pounding the roads in fair weather and foul (mostly foul; this is England) is a dirty picture? In black and white?

The suicidal depression lifted in two or three days. I've resigned myself to a life of average. But it still hurts. I never really forget. And I'm not likely to as long as my friend, Bob, keeps referring to me as Ms. Average.

* * * * *

Post script: We were on vacation a few years later and Hong Kong had been waiting for me. We took the normal tourist photographs and a special one for Bob.

Thursday, 6 September 2007

The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama

This book made me feel so good. Obama always makes me feel good. He is positive and optimistic without being unrealistic. He can explain the great divide in American politics and how it came to be, and make you understand that it's not just meanness of spirit that has brought us to this pass. He talks about values without making you feel that there are quote marks around the word. He discusses the constitution with love and intelligence as might be expected from a professor of constitutional law. He talks of race and religion without making you feel threatened by either. There are chapters on Family, Politics, The World. He identifies problems without malice and lays out ideas for solving them; ideas that are down to earth, practicable and appeal to the common sense of most Americans.

Vote for who you want, but read this book. You can feel good, too.