Category Archives: born to run

Looking for The Beauty Part

This is the hardest post I’ve ever had to write for this blog. Last week’s power “outrage” had a couple of Beauty Parts. First, both daughters were in town, and [although it could have gone either way] we found the shared misery of our Second World [if not 3rd] existence bonded us together, rather than pulling us apart. Second, it gave me an alibi for postponing the disclosure of our sad news about Lili, whose DNA test for Degenerative Myelopathy came back positive.

If you’re not familiar with the disease [and we weren’t], a simplistic way of thinking about it is that it’s Multiple Sclerosis for dogs, with some important differences. Unlike human MS, whose etiology is still mysterious [maybe there’s a genetic component, maybe it’s stress-related, maybe it’s triggered by a virus…just follow the stories surrounding Jack Osbourne’s disclosure of his diagnosis], the dog version is 100% genetic. Both parent dogs have to be carriers of the gene, for it to be expressed in the offspring. Our pain & suffering-fueled angry thoughts have been [predictably] directed at Lili’s AKC-registered breeders, who “should have known better,” even though the genetic test for the disease was developed after Lili was born in 2004. Nowadays, though, any breeder who doesn’t test for DM is as unscrupulous as those who don’t test for hip dysplasia.

Those who have read my “About a Bird” post will know that my mother got MS when she was 35 [and I was 10], so I had 25 years’ experience of watching how the progressive numbness of an individual’s [back] legs makes walking tricky, then difficult, and ultimately impossible. Lili is still at the “tricky” stage. She tends to “wipe out” on hardwood floors [especially when in hot pursuit of a cat], but still gallops on grass. The daily walk through the Smithsonian woods is both worrying and inspirational. On some mornings it takes 3 attempts for her to leap into the back of either of our 2 Jeeps; and the other day she landed in a disorganized heap on the grass verge as she jumped out of the car at the school. But [here’s one of the Beauty Parts] she has a “fan club” of laborers working on school renovations this summer; and when they expressed dismay at her fall, she pulled herself together and trotted off smartly towards the woods. So far, she seems to experience no humiliation when she loses her footing [unlike my late mother, and most of the MS patients I have known]. “She just gets on with it,” as the Brits say. That’s the Beauty Part.

The “I am your Pack Leader” power subtext has changed subtly on the cross-country trail. I let her set the pace, sometimes marching in place while she collects herself for the assault on the next steep hill. She often delights me by then going so fast that I have to double-time to keep up with her. Every day that she “makes it through” the woods and back to the car is a beautiful gift. I realize that I have to make contingency plans for the day that she can’t.

What is absolutely clear, at this point, is that [however tricky it is for her numb back paws to negotiate hidden roots & fallen branches, steep inclines & muddy patches] she is having the time of her life.

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Filed under born to run, leading a pack, power subtext

Caged Beasts


Even if you don’t live in the DC area, you are no doubt aware that we here are waay past “Winter Wonderland,” and into “Wonder When It Will Ever End?” Let me count the ways this heinous weather pattern has gotten up all our noses. Intrusion: we are all under house arrest today, no matter how many hours we have already spent shoveling our driveways. Fear: as the howling winds threaten to blow our tall, spindly trees onto our house [and maybe even our heads]. As I write, we have so far been spared loss of power; but thousands have not, and are already enduring the pain & suffering of no heat, no light and [here in the countryside] no water. But, as usual, it is humiliation that seems to have turned the area’s no-ruder-than-most drivers into what-are-they-thinking-damn-the-torpedoes-full-speed-ahead suicidal/homicidal maniacs. As today’s [soggy] Washington Post Op-Ed article put it, “The snow has fallen, and the flakes are on the road.”

Unlike folks in, say, Michigan, who have grasped through years of trial & error [and no-fault collisions], the humbling fact that 4-wheel drive vehicles are not laws-of-physics-defying Batmobiles which can overcome anything Mother Nature can dish out, these Mid-Atlantic road warriors…have not. Yesterday, for a change, it wasn’t even actively snowing; and I witnessed 3 harrowing collisions, not to mention many flip-overs, all involving SUVs. They “didn’t spend all that money on an all-weather’ vehicle, to wuss around at half-speed just cuz of a little snow!” It’s loss of face they can’t abide, not loss of traction.

Meanwhile, this Winter of Our Discontent has taken its toll on Lili, who is used to her daily one-hour constitutional, featuring brisk trotting and exuberant running. Chris & I found one plowed section of road on the school grounds [about 100 meters long] over the weekend, and ran her to-and-fro between us like a yo-yo, commanding her, “A so ko” [over there] and “Oy i [d]e” [come to me], until [like the old mare, Dusk] she slowed to a walk. No such cleared road exists in our county today, however, so it’s plow through the 4-ft-deep snow in our yard, or pout on the porch, for our caged beast.

So far, I must say, she has maintained her “good sense, good judgment and self-control,” better than most of the snow-bound humans around here have. [I figure, it’s because she is dealing with less humiliation, innit?]

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Filed under born to run, gets right up my nose, limbic system, stress and cortisol

Move It or Lose It


How’s this for a high-concept article title? Not mine. This one, hot off the press from the Proceedings of The National Institute of Sciences: “Running enhances spatial pattern separation in mice.” A research team headed by David J. Creer in Baltimore & Timothy J. Bussey @ Cambridge University studied adult mice [3 months old] and “very aged” mice [22 months old]; and determined that adults with nifty, blue plastic, saucer-shaped exercise wheels in their cages [which they ran on, for up to 12 miles a day] enjoyed “synaptic plasticity and hippocampal neuro-genesis,” and could do a touch-screen task [to “find Waldo,” as it were] much better than their “sedentary” comrades.

Sadly, exercise for the aged mice did not significantly improve their task performance, mainly because they couldn’t quite grasp what the cockamamie task was, in the foist place! Still, a little run on the wheel, what could it hoit? [Why I’m giving the alta cocka mice Brooklyn accents is anybody’s guess, since they were actually living in “Bal’m’re”–don’t feign incomprehension, those of you who have watched every episode of The Wire–hanging out at the National Institute on Aging.]

So, let’s extrapolate the findings [the way the BBC news release did] to humans. It may be that, not only is vigorous exercise good for “tying down cognitive Kangaroos” [so that they can sit still and focus long enough to learn stuff]; it may actually encourage the growth of new brain cells in the hippocampus [thereby benefiting both Kangaroos & Clydesdales].

Gives a whole new meaning to the term Scholar/Athlete, no?

Now, here’s what I propose for a follow-up study. Let’s re-test those 3-month-old smarty-pants rodent/athletes when they are 22-month-oldsters; and see if they retain their brainey-ness. How very cool it would be, if they did.

I wonder what the human equivalent of 12 mice-miles a day is…

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Filed under born to run, limbic system, murky research

The Lessons of Dusk


By now, regular readers of this blog will know that almost every phrase I write has [at least] two meanings. In my own time, I’ll get around to Dusk, the Dimming of the Day [known to modern tweeners as Twilight]; but I’ll begin with Dusk the QuarterHorse. Although I had been on and around horses since the age of 7, they had always been the Property and Responsibility of Others, whose ultimate decision it was whether to call the vet [or, alternatively, to reckon that a wound or a gimpy leg was just “summat & nowt”]. I may have been the one to cleanse the wound or soak the hoof; but I was not in loco parentis [the horse’s “mother”]. What a heavy burden that vet-or-not decision is, when you are responsible for a large, beloved, expensive animal’s welfare!

You collect equine health tips from all sorts: the stable lads, trainers, more seasoned owners, books, that old telly show All Creatures Great & Small. And soon you develop a rubric: a rough guide, to avoid the pitfalls of Fiddling While Roame Burns, on the one hand, and Crying Wolf, on the other. After “To Call or Not to Call the Vet?” comes the dilemma, “Stall Rest, or Walk It Off?” You see where I’m going with this? The corollary of “Adopt your body as a rescue pet,” is “Treat your body as well as you would treat my old mare, Dusk.” Unless a horse has had a catastrophic injury [like Barbaro], often [not always], exercise is a big part of the solution.

Obviously, their exercise may need to be modified from the classic beast-of-burden routine. The horse may need to be lunged [on a real or “pretend” lungeline], or ridden at a more sedate pace, or even taken for a swim. As anyone who followed the sad story of Barbaro knows, stall rest makes most horses stir crazy. They mope and stiffen up and get swollen ankles and develop “stable vices” [such as gnawing the wood or metal of their “cage”]. To anthropomorphize, they appear to get angry at their enforced idleness & confinement. Baby, they were born to run! And so were we humans.

Now, for the other lesson of tenebrosity. As noted in previous posts, most diurnal creatures get more fearful with the fading light, when they cannot see [potentially threatening] things as clearly. In the UK in the 60s, instead of school cancellations for snow, we had “fog days.” After some trial & error, we developed a rubric: “If we can’t see the blue door of the house across the road in our rural village, it’s a foggy day in London Town, as well. Ergo, no school.” Think Sherlock Holmes mysteries and Jack the Ripper flicks [not to mention the many iterations of the Jekyll & Hyde story]. “Cue the fog machine!”

So, have you seen this week’s news photos of Los Angeles’ smoke-shrouded skyline? Our kid’s college is a few miles south of the San Gabriel mountain fires; and the Dean sends us daily e-mail updates [no doubt, meant to allay parental fear, but having the opposite effect, in this household]. I bet he’s rethinking how swell it is, to be in loco parentis. The first safety measure the school took was to proscribe all outdoor athletic and recreational activities. Everyone at Claremont is on Stall Rest, until the smoke clears. [Highly inconvenient.]

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Filed under black and white thinking, born to run

"Tie Me Kangaroo Down"


This Rolf Harris song was a big hit in the UK in 1960, as well as my personal anthem [since by then I had figured out that I was a cognitive ‘Roo, who needed to “rein myself in” during school hours]. Can’t resist quoting the timely [and prescient] first verse: “Watch me wallabies feed, mate…they’re a dangerous breed, mate.” Those Tasmanian poppy farmers [well, their parents] had been warned.

This is Dusk, a 16hh QuarterHorse [8″ shorter than Owen]: failed race horse [didn’t like being loaded into the starting gate], successful “A” Circuit Hunter/Jumper [though how they ever got her into a horse-trailer to haul her to all those shows is anybody’s guess], and set in her ways, by the time we owned her. If you’re interested in her pedigree, her sire was “Mr. Clabberdoo” and her dam was…a number. [I mean, literally–no name, just a number.] So claustrophobic was “Miss Clabberdoo” [our barn name for her, when she was being stubborn], that she often refused to come in from turn-out [in a boring, dirt–not gorgeous grass–paddock], to her lovely, warm [in winter] or cool [in summer] stall to eat her delicious food…until dusk. Stable lads galore would humiliate themselves by saying, “Oh, you guys just don’t know how to wrangle a QuarterHorse. I’ll get her in, in no time,” only to spend a fruitless hour coaxing, then chasing, then cursing this otherwise “nice” horse [a term of art that means talented]. Think of the intrusion [total waste of time and Therbligs] her silliness caused everyone at the barn. I finally figured out how to outfox her, based on the common practice of lungeing a feisty horse [having it run in circles, in alternate directions, bucking at will, on a long leash-type thingy called a lungeline] to dissipate all that pent-up recalcitrance. I would walk to the center of Dusk’s paddock and mime the actions of having her on a lungeline, schmizing her into cantering clockwise in a big circle, then counter-clockwise, until she would get tired, walk over to me, nuzzle my neck, and allow me to clip on a short leadline and walk her inside. [This could take up to 15 minutes, but it always worked.]

So, that is how you tie your Kangaroo down, mate. At a physical level, most cognitive ‘Roos are restless creatures, who need to exhaust themselves with a spot of aerobic activity, before they can “buckle down” to the task assigned by The Man. Sometimes [not always] fear and loathing of confined spaces has to do with the loss of liberty to “go walkabout.” If the legs can’t go, at least the mind is free to wander. In my culture, this is called being “away wit’ da Fairies.” It is not (or wasn’t, when I were a lass) pathologized–bemoaned, yes; rebuked, even–but mostly regarded as an inconvenient foible, to be outgrown or outfoxed. In England I was lucky enough to live in a stone-cold house [no central heating], so that a hot, strong cup of tea was a welcome part of breakfast. Then my first class of the day was Physical Training, where we scampered around a cinder track [usually in the fog] until exhausted. What a perfect way for a Kangaroo to get ready to “buckle down” and get schooled. To this day, I begin [almost] every morning with a 50-minute aerobic workout, followed by a strong cup of tea. To quote my younger daughter, it helps me to “linger at the gates” (of the Fairies’ realm), without actually slipping away.

So, are you Clydesdales getting any of this? Like Dusk, cognitive ‘Roos resist time and space constraints. But they can learn to become their own “wranglers,” by putting themselves on a virtual lungeline and getting all the bucking [of the system] out of their system [also known as “doing the Wolf-work” of figuring out what’s likely to get up their nose about acting like a biddable beast of burden], before reining themselves in for long enough to get a productive day’s work done. Robert Frost had a series of exchanges with Carl Sandberg, who wanted Frost to give up the constraints of rhyme and meter, and join their contemporaries in writing verse libre. Frost remarked, famously, that it would be “like playing tennis without a net.” Less famously, he added, “True freedom is moving easily in your harness.”

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Filed under born to run, ethology, gets right up my nose, non-linear thinking, therbligs, understanding shenanigans