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Archive for the ‘Lifestyle’ Category

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a confirmed couch potato. Not that I am proud of that fact–I just seem to have a stubbornly sluggish physiology. I like the idea of exercise; it’s the ooze of sweat and the burn of lactic acid that turn me off. Add to that the fact that I am not good at sport—or movement, for that matter—and the reason for my inactivity should be apparent. With my obvious lack of basic coordination, I make orcs look graceful.

At my high school graduation, one of my happiest realisations was that I would NEVER again have to endure PE and its associated shames. What a joyous day that was! I was too tuckered out to burn my joggers, though, and leaping for joy was way too strenuous.

Now, many years (many, many years) later,  in my couch potato-ly wisdom, I focus on doing the things I’m good at. Like reading.

In my extensive reading I have discovered—to my consternation—that exercise actually has some desirable side-effects. Apparently, one of the benefits of exercise is a mood lift. I am highly sceptical about that one, because it is way beyond my powers of imagination to see how sweat and pain can improve your mood. However, diehard runners and cyclists I know assure me it is true! Go figure.

Scientists point to brain chemicals to explain this phenomenon. Exercise causes the pituitary gland to trigger the release of powerful chemicals called endorphins, the body’s natural pain killer. Their release results in a rush of pleasure, commonly known as a “runner’s high.” I also discovered in my reading that this endorphin release happens only AFTER thirty (that’s 3-0) minutes of strenuous exercise, which probably explains why I’ve never experienced it.

Regular exercise, according to one source, is so good for mood enhancement that some researchers are claiming it is as useful as anti-depressant medication in the treatment of depression in laboratory conditions. Many doctors prescribe both—medication and exercise together. Neuro-researchers are studying the little understood side effect of exercise called neurogenesis and its positive effects on the depressed brain. Amazingly, aerobic exercise actually triggers the growth of new nerve cells called neurons and enhances their connectivity. (So, begging your pardon for my gross oversimplification: Exercise makes important parts of your brain grow denser and function better!)

Here’s the real kicker: the effects of exercise are shown to improve learning and memory in laboratory conditions. We’re talking rats—in little Lycra gym suits and itty-bitty sweat bands. Compared to the couch-potato rats, the gym-junky rats learn better, perform better, and have denser brain tissue. And they’re not cranky or morose either—at least not until they lose their enhanced brains and active lifestyle to the scalpel! Scientists are not suggesting that working out will create geniuses (so put down that barbell, Einstein!) Unfortunately, the accelerated learning plateaus in the exercising lab rats.

The benefits of exercise are not limited to adults. Children’s learning can be enhanced as fine and gross motor skills are developed through play and physical activity. Kids who are fit generally experience better health and higher self-esteem than their unfit peers. Social skills and team work are picked up on the playing field and the playground. At a time in history when teenagers are more sedentary than ever before, the moodiness of today’s teens is legendary. It doesn’t take a scientist to see a crucial link between their lack of activity and adolescent irritability.

Even a confirmed couch potato like me has to concede that the benefits of exercise, sharper memory and better mood , are well worth the sweat. You might not be able to exercise your way to brilliance, but you can definitely exercise yourself happy!

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Tell me your motivation for participating in an exchange program. I am hoping to write a novel for young adults about the exchange experience, and while I know what motivated me, I’d like to find out others’ reasons for taking the plunge and heading overseas.

Here is a poll to get you started. If you have further thoughts, I’d appreciate comments.

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Ode to Syd

A special type of love exists in this world that is restorative.  If only the stuff could be bottled, then many people would be cured of what ails them: loneliness, a broken heart, disappointment, or bitterness.  It’s quite amazing that the solution to all of these ailments is love. This kind of love finds you, like an insistent  raindrop that plops square in the middle of your forehead.  Not your shoulder or your hand, where you might not notice it, but on your face, right between the eyes.  This kind of love found my parents, in their later years, when people tend to be set in their ways and not really looking for love.

 This love came in the form of a dog from the animal shelter.  He was a German Shorthaired Pointer, a breed my parents knew and appreciated.  Sid, as the shelter people had dubbed him, was thin and wary.  It was apparent his previous existence had been hard, signs of both neglect and cruelty demonstrated by his poor physical state and slinking gate.  He clearly was not young, but no one could say how old he was.

 When my parents saw Sid, they knew he was the dog for them.  Even the name beckoned: Sidney, which they changed to Sydney in honour of the family’s Aussie links, connected with them.  Syd’s life of neglect was over.  He entered my parent’s lives and was exposed to humans who were loving and decent.  The shift to regular food and exercise under my parents’ care soon brought Syd around, physically and emotionally.  His coat, once dull, became shiny; his ribs and hips disappeared behind healthy flesh.  Even his wary nature  dissipated as he relearned that humans can be kind and reliable. Syd’s former existence as a neglected pet was more than redeemed by my parents’ affection.  

He was steadfast, old Syd.  He could set a clock to his stomach and bowels.  At a quarter to five in the evening, Syd would start “talking,” a low warbling moan, to make sure everyone was aware of the hour.  At five, when my parents started preparing their cocktails, Syd would “dance,” prancing around with excitement that dinner was coming.  The antics were amusing not only because of their consistency and animation, but also because for every other hour of the day, Syd was  such a dignified and subdued creature, respectably moving through his day like a kind, old gentleman at a ritzy club, alternating between sociability and naps.  Food quite literally turned him on, and he ate with gusto.  His appreciation made you feel like a champion, like you were doing something honourable when you set out his dish.

 I’m grateful to Syd for enriching my parents’ lives.  One thing is sure: Syd will be sorely missed.

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It’s been said that if fish were scientists, the last thing they would discover is water. Similarly, if a fish was asked if his nose was wet, would he even know what wet meant? One’s own culture often inhibits understanding of the most obvious elements of culture.

I am an American Ex-pat, living in Australia. There are many things about my homeland that I could not appreciate until I’d lived overseas long enough to dissociate culturally. On a recent trip home within the first hour of re-entry I was instantly reacquainted with the high stress levels of my country of birth.

I have a theory that whoever created the movie Blade Runner must have spent a lot of time at LAX. The airport’s constant drone of multilingual announcements and warnings over the P.A. system, the jostling parade of jet-lagged foreign nationals, and the unspoken hypervigilance all harken to the movie’s futuristic vision of Los Angeles. For a movie made over 20 years ago, it portrayed an amazingly accurate likeness of LA, at least of its airport.

Banners on the walls proclaimed “Welcome to The United States of America,” but there was something incongruent and foreboding in the Customs processing hall. Most likely it was the ominous bank of automated defibrillators mounted on the walls. “The Department of Homeland Security welcomes you to America! Let us stamp your passport, scare you to death, and reboot your heart. It’s all part of the service!”

Above the customs officials’ booths was a huge signboard that flashed not useful customs information but rather banal advertisements of its ability to display moving casino-like messages and images—”Look, we can display hearts, diamonds, spades and clubs!” It was conspicuous and unnerving and downright odd. What did it mean? Should I be worried? Is this really America, leader of the free world, or a set on Smile, You’re On Candid Camera?

Outside on the sidewalk, there was a similar combination of unsettling surrealism and palpable urgency. On our way to terminal one, we walked past six law enforcement officers who were standing around a sedate but cheerful handcuffed man. Needing to cross the five lanes of traffic, we waited until the crossing light eventually signaled clearance. Then it immediately started to countdown, allowing fifteen seconds to complete the traverse. I felt bullied by that signal and its nagging bleeps: “Hurry up–or else,” it menaced.

Less than an hour on home soil, and my stress levels were threatening to escalate. My question is do these insidious pressures play on all citizens? I imagine most Americans are unconscious of these stressors, like fish who are unaware of their watery environment. As an ex-pat who has come home, I can observe that America the land of the free, but the home of the harassed.

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For the most part modern, western cultures do not do ritual well.  Of course we have positive and consistent formats of marking births, marriages and deaths, but what do we do for the more nebulous transitions, like the one from childhood to adulthood or from career to retirement?  We certainly don’t celebrate menarche or menopause.

 

Various religions have their own rites of passage.  Jews have a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, after which the young person is permitted to read from the Torah in synagogue.  Buddhists in Myanmar have a Poy Sang Long, when boys commit to a stint as a Buddhist monk. Some Christian denominations hold infant baptism, first communion, and confirmation.  All of these ceremonies are familiar markers of childhood milestones.

 

Some cultures’ rites of passage appear bizarre to western sensibilities.  Scarification is one such example.  Some Aborigines and Papua New Guineans endure the painful process of having their skin cut and scarred at the end of adolescence to signify their transition into adulthood. Young Massai males are circumcised in a mass ceremony, and then sent into the wilderness to survive for two years.  Hindu widows for centuries were pressured to immolate themselves on their husband’s funeral pyre, in a now outlawed practice called sati.  To our western way of thinking, these practices are ordeals that smack of abuse and violation.  So what is positive about rites of passage?

 

A rite of passage marks the transition from one social status to another.  Generally rites of passage contain three elements: separation, liminality or transition, and reincorporation. A wedding, for example, marks the change from single to married, and it includes separation (the giving of the bride), transition (the service where the couple undergoes spiritual and/or legal unification) and the reincorporation (the announcement to the community of man and wife and a celebration with them.)  

 

Each stage of the rite of passage has an important function.  Separation signals closure of one phase of life, not only to the initiate, but also to his or her family and the community. Liminality enhances the ambiguity of the change, often providing a challenge to the young person’s inner resources.  In this “space between,” the young person discovers or proves he or she is ready for and worthy of a new status.  Reincorporation reinforces the change, helping to establish it firmly in the person’s identity.  People now interact with him or her with new expectations and respect. 

 

Even in those practices which westerners might deem unsavoury or cruel, the initiates generally go through the process with positive outcomes.  One of the most significant results for the young person is a sense of belonging and connectedness to their community.  Another is a sense of affirmation of their gender identity. Young Native Americans who undergo a rite of passage confirm their allegiance to their people and derive satisfaction and meaning from the rituals. These communities benefit in a myriad of ways from young men and women who feel included and validated at such a vital transition in their lives.

 

In most modern, western societies, adolescents generally do not benefit from a rite of passage to mark their transition into adulthood.  They miss out on a clear crossing over, during which they can shed childish ways and adopt mature responsibility.  Validation of their identity, competence, and sexuality is not extended, but rather merely assumed.  The default rites of passage, such as schoolies, obtaining a driving license, or registering to vote, lack the affirming tone of a rite. Turning 18 means the young person gains a new freedom of choice—to consume alcohol or to get tattooed, but the responsibility to manage that freedom is not addressed.  No wonder there are so many confused, disenfranchised young people in modern western society.

 

Churches, schools, and young people’s organisations can address this failure in modern, western society.  Our young people will benefit and our communities will too.

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Swap meets are in the realm of secret men’s business. Therefore, as a woman, my understanding of the goings on at a swap meet is a little hazy. I assume that it is a countrified version of Top Gear (TV show), where raucous revvings of V-8’s and curious transactions take place between petrol-heads. It would seem they congregate in a dusty paddock or lonely showground somewhere for the sole purpose of trading random bits of metal. Apparently, these swaps occur under the blazing sun and in the company of a host of whining flies, as bonnets are proudly lifted and engines are enviously inspected, much like a canine tail-sniffing exchange. I’m not entirely sure if cash and credit cards are used, or if nuts, bolts, and spark plugs are the currency. In all honesty, I’m happy to leave the automotive swap meet where it belongs—in the realm of male mysteries.

Take the Swap Meet concept, allow a creative, classy woman to toy with it, and, hey presto!, you have something wonderfully girlie and innovative. My friend Natalie overhauled the lads’ swap meet last year and came up with a ladies’ event that was fun and very practical. Rather than hubcaps and mufflers, we swapped clothing and accessories. Six women participated, each bringing a few articles of clothing that were clean, pressed, and in good condition.

The dusty paddock was abandoned in favour of Natalie’s gorgeous art deco home, which is nestled in beautiful treed mountains. Naturally, rather than swatting flies and surveying engine blocks, we girls had convivial conversation over tea and home-baked treats and then swarmed to where the real action was to happen, the makeshift boutique downstairs. All of our proffered treasures were laid out to consider, leading to flurry of disrobing, trying on, posing and swapping. Most items were previous best-loved items that had fallen out of favour or no longer fit. The collection included everyday and formal wear, shoes, belts, costume jewellery, and even a few items of home wares.

The group of six women was by no means homogeneous. There were a range of dress sizes, 8-12; the shortest woman measured about 5’5, the tallest about 5’11. Ages also differed, from early twenties to early forties. Despite all of this variety, every woman found a few items that she loved and that fit. Of the six participants, I was easily the most different in size (the tall one) and frankly I wasn’t expecting to find anything. I was so surprised that my meagre offerings fit these gorgeous, tiny, young women, whose bodies were not yet…altered…by child birth, breastfeeding and age. I was also pleasantly surprised to find that some of their items fit my statuesque frame. I arrived at the swap meet with a few nice tops I was tired of and departed with huge haul of booty, that included a pleated skirt (a current favourite in my work wardrobe), a dressy Chinese chipao top, an interesting necklace made of stone beads, and even an Asian tea set to add to my collection. A few items that didn’t work for any of the ladies—two sundresses and a cardigan—were kindly offered to my teenaged daughters.

Interestingly, everyone described a lovely, guilty feeling of leaving with more and better goodies than they had brought. Everyone was chuffed and most in the following week at work sported a “new” outfit featuring a swapped item or two. Husbands, normally silent about women’s activities, were also reportedly highly supportive (and even envious) of this free wardrobe pep-up.

Natalie’s version of the Swap Meet was very successful, so much so we discussed the possibility of repeating it biannually. The humble swap meet has gone girlie and is now firmly established in the realm of secret women’s business.

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I want to know why houses in Australia are not more commonly fitted with bidets. In my estimation every home should have at least one. Bidets are not only handy, they are rather swanky. They provide a cosmopolitan flair to your home, and refreshment to your bits.

I first encountered the wonder of the bidet while living in Italy as an exchange student. Most homes in Europe are equipped with a bidet in every bathroom. To the uninitiated they appear to be a benevolent mutation between a toilet and a hand basin. I admit, at first, I wasn’t completely sure about its function—and I certainly wasn’t going to ask, lest I seem a hillbilly—or worse, lest someone demonstrate. Having come from America where bidets are as rare as they are in Australia, I had to figure this out on my own. (Question one: which way does one face whilst using the bidet?)

My host family fussed about my excessive bathing habits, particularly the fact that I showered and shampooed my hair daily. I tried to explain that that was the way we did it in America. Besides, squeaky clean hair was a necessity for those outrageous American hairstyles of the 80’s. With language skills still minimal, I tried to indicate with flailing hand gestures and squeamish expression that unwashed hair looks gross. The Signora promptly solved that problem: I had simply to retrain my hair follicles and the means to be employed was a two-week cessation of all daily lathering of the locks. The shower was banned.

It was during these two weeks that it all became clear as to the usefulness of the bidet. If one is not to do the deluxe wash-n-wax in the shower, one settles for the spit-shine in the bidet. Thanks to the numerous (4) bidets around the house, I could amply take care of the nether regions. The hairstyle was another matter.

My head could have been mistaken for an example of the Biblical tradition of anointing with oil. However, rather than holy, the hair was an abomination. I endured The Signora’s follicular retraining program mostly because one did not cross The Signora. She missed the greasy results of her dictated shampoo fast, having absconded to Rome for a bit of shopping. When she came back and saw the horror-head, she looked sheepish. Maybe one week without washing would have been enough. I found some comfort in knowing that at least my lower half was squeaky clean.

Why bidets are not used in Australia (except in homes built by Italian builders), I cannot understand. With all the talk of reducing domestic water consumption, I cannot believe that the bidet has not been touted as a miracle water saving device. The long shower or hot soak in the bath would become obsolete if homeowners could freshen up their bottoms whenever they needed in a bidet of their own. Imagine the megalitres of water that could be saved by the humble bidet! It’s time to start designing bidets into bathrooms, especially in master ensuites. Perhaps for the blokes, bidets seem posh, but for ladies, a bidet is basic.
Vive le bidet!

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