A simple 3-step program for bearing the unbearable

It’s been an interesting summer. It’s good to be safe and well. And that’s all I want to say about it right now. On to more interesting things.

Those of us who have to bear the unbearable eventually learn that there’s no trick to it, no shortcuts, no secret wisdom. I’m sorry to say it, but there isn’t. It’s very simple — not easy, but simple.

There are just three things we have to do:

1. Keep breathing.
2. Put one foot in front of the other.
3. Keep going through the motions until we adapt to the New Normal.

That seems a bit telegraphic. Let me expand on these a little:

  1. Keep breathing.

    If we don’t do that, we’ve got nothing. Literally. Keep breathing. In fact, the better we breathe, the better we cope. (There’s a ton of science on this, if you care about that.) For those who need reminding how, try this:

    1. Ease your lower back, if you can. Gently drop your shoulders, which are probably up near your ears.
       
    2. Breathe in through your nose, if you can; if you can’t, stick your tongue out loosely between your open jaws and breathe through your mouth. (This opens the back of your throat — and releases clenched teeth.) Imagine the breath going down in front of your spine and into the bowl of your pelvis. This helps draw it in deeper, which is key to calming and strengthening your system.
       
    3. Breathe out naturally, or by gently exhaling through pursed lips — like blowing out a little candle. The pursed-lips one is great for tense moments and higher pain.

    Breathing well disrupts the “anxious/fight/flight” loop in the nervous system. It’s amazing. So simple, can’t beat the price, and no bad side-effects!

  2. Put one foot in front of the other.
     
    This means doing the work of survival:

    1. Do what it takes to get fresh air, water, food, clothing, and shelter, plus a phone and internet access. (In this isolated and far-flung age, phone and internet are essential elements of survival.) The safer and more effective, the better, but we can’t always be choosy.
       
    2. Keep our bills paid, if we can. If we can’t, find out how to get assistance with them. (This is one task where we need the phone and internet.)
       
    3. Put the minimum effective effort into maintaining our relationships. (More phone and internet.) We need to know who won’t fade away at the first real sign of trouble. We can’t expect much, though — a sad fact of life. Just stay in touch and see what happens.

      One way or another, we do find out who our real friends are.

  3. Keep going through the motions until we adapt to the New Normal.

    What that involves varies for each of us; you’ll know it when you see it starting to happen. Things you’ll probably notice include:

    • The work of survival shifts from “minimum survival” to meeting slightly higher expectations.
       
    • New relationships have begun to form, and old bonds to re-form, around the new realities.
       
    • The inevitable grief over what we’ve lost (abilities, opportunities, friends, and so on) begins to separate from the general mash of misery.

That’s actually a good sign.

When grief becomes distinct, it makes room for other things — relief, moments of joy, feelings of love, appreciation for what we now have.

If we keep breathing well, we can notice those other things better, and get closer to that quality of “radical acceptance” (which can work with or without hope) that makes even hellacious lives so much richer.

When in doubt, breathe. Then just go through the steps.

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Managing with one foot

CRPS tends to demineralize the bones, creating a sort of Swiss-cheese-looking osteoporosis. I’ve held that at bay so far, and I believe it relates to jumping on the vitamin D bandwagon long before I saw it in the news — I followed a tip from a friend without CRPS, who found that it kept her teeth from chipping. Well, I know why teeth chip — demineralization. So I started on the D3 at the first sign of soft teeth, years ago.

The other main thing to hold back osteoporosis is weight-bearing exercise.

I am absolutely certain that the old nursing/physiotherapy trope, “Use it or lose it,” is nearly always true.

Mind you, there are no guarantees.

Another trope: absolutist statements are always flawed.

Preferring to stack the oddds in my favor, I’ve stayed active and weightbearing despite considerable slumps, occasional backslides, and the occasional wish to throw myself off a bridge rather than mobilize.

So here I am with a broken foot, bone pain for the very first time since I got CRPS, and camping in our trailer as a diversion and a coping measure for being in between homes right now. (And that’s another looooong story.)

The second week post-fracture was interesting, as I figured out how to stay mobile. In this third week, I’ve learned that I should probably spend more time sitting down with my leg up.

Lay-people keep asking where my cast is. Casting slows healing. I have CRPS, which means my healing is already slowed considerably. Do I really need to slow it further? Hard to see an upside to that.

The point of casting is immobilization, and there are other, safer, saner ways to do that. Jamming a hard surface against a soft and variably swelling one doesn’t strike me as the best way to stabilize a small but essential bone. There’s nothing quite as rational as just leaving the darn thing COMPLETELY ALONE. Especially when even the touch of the sheet is unbearable … because, oh yeah, I’ve got CRPS.

The single biggest cause of nonhealing bones is overuse. Even I, type A-ish as I might sometimes be, can’t think of anything stupider and more wooly-headed than putting any weight or stress on a broken foot. Those are small bones with the most fundamental job in the whole skeleton. When they go wrong, it’s not good!

At first, I didn’t even put a sock on it — just a light lady’s scarf at times (a gift from a healer friend), gently wrapped around to keep the breeze off — or, as I thought of it, the burning blast from hell.
mismatched_sox
Recently, I graduated to a loose, bright red fleece sleeve with the end stapled shut (breeze…) Now that the swelling is down enough, I can wear the “walking” (no, that’s not a sensible suggestion) shoe…
Red fleece sleeve slid over foot and lower leg. Walking shoe on.
… to minimize the effects of the occasional little bumps and jostles the foot gets as I dart around on my stunning little knee-walker.
scooterfreesme
I can’t use the knee-walker in the trailer, too close to the car, on rough terrain, or when the bruising on my shin gets too bad. So the moves I developed in my first week are getting more refined.

Major problem… Despite an eating pattern averaging 1,450 kcal a day of steamed greens, lean protein, and highest-quality fats, I weigh 200 pounds (90 kg.) So,

  • every time I lever myself up from the floor on one foot .. that’s 200 pounds going through one knee bent double, on a frame designed for less than 150.
  • Every time I hop, even in my scoop-bottomed sneakers, that’s 200# — plus velocity — landing on that leg each time.
  • I do my best to control my velocity and distribute the load through the whole spring-structure of the leg, but … 200 pounds. I thought my Achilles tendon was going to pop off my heel yesterday.
  • Every time I brace myself with my hands on a rail or counter as I swing or scoot along, that’s 3 digits of poundage on my CRPS’d carpal tunnels.
  • And then there’s getting in or out of the trailer I’m living in, with its two and a half foot rise… makes me feel faint to think of it.

It’s kind of unreal that my body has held it together for so long. But hey, like I’ve said, a lot of us find that we are capable of far more than the science might think.

The t’ai chi is invaluable. It’s all about the curves. Everything, in the end, is embodied in the swooping lines of the taiji symbol.
Yin_yang-sm
I can get a lot more leverage than should be humanly possible out of a curving or looping wave of my hand — a Roll-sideways rather than Roll-back, for my fellow t’ai chi-kans.

I propel myself from the ground up onto my foot by sending energy down from my back in a spiral into the floor, and letting that “imaginary” spring push me up. Go Dragon!

I settle onto the toilet while keeping one foot aloft by using a really cool sort of 3-D scissor-swoop with my two arms — Part Wild Horse’s Mane, but with less tilting and more curve.

The pain is, well, beyond words, so let’s pass on. The level of dependency is, for me, even worse. The hardest part of all, though, was giving up chocolate. It interferes with calcium absorption. I did say about not slowing healing, right?
choco-giving-it-up
I’m grateful beyond words for the t’ai chi moves. They save me, in a very physical, literal sense.

While we may find, in impossible situations, that we are a little superhuman, it isn’t good that we have to do these things. It isn’t healthy. In fact, it’s all rather ghastly from the first-person standpoint, however much it seems to inspire outsiders. In short, it sucks. And we suck it up. Then move on.

Swoopingly, if we know how.
I think I’m halfway to Bagua Zhang by now.

But it’s all related.

I wish I were an animator. I have these ideas in mind of a cartoon character who wiggles where I do, and not only could I make the character bounce and thud and stagger and scoot like I do, but I could animate wa-wa-ing waves and oscillating ropes of pain in morphing colors for each move. It’s really rather elegant, as well as side-splittingly funny in a greusome way. At the same time, extremely informative. Extremely.

Hmmm.. I guess I’ll download and learn some suitable animation software. In between the fractures, fallouts, fall-throughs, snafus, and the dribbling detritus of a slightly ridiculous life.

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Autobiographita

I heard from a lovely friend of my youth, who wanted to know what I’ve been doing since Egypt. I tried to tell her. I realized that, embedded in my nutshell autobiography, were a lot of clues about why I blog and why I approach CRPS and its ghastly little friends with this sort of incisive determination seasoned with a laugh, a sort of functional contempt — an attitude of, “not going to let such a nasty little mindless rat-fink take any more of my life than required.” It goes way back. So here’s a little background…

I was born in Ankara, Turkey, though I nearly wasn’t born at all. My mother started bleeding well into her pregnancy. The protocol at the time was to get care from the Army base near Ankara. The Army doctor told her, “The baby’s dead. Come back on Monday and we’ll have it out.” Which, if it were true, would have killed my mother… but she didn’t think the baby was dead.

She asked around and found a Turkish doctor (her Turkish was pretty good) and he said, “The baby’s not dead, but you’re going to bed and will stay there until it’s born.” (She spent her time reading, smoking, and knitting, so I have something to blame for the asthma. I think it was all that knitting. The sweater made its way all the way down three children intact, so it was some very good knitting, but still… )

block image of a toddler's read sweater
A few months later, the wonderful Turkish doctor strolled into my mother’s hospital room, threw open the blinds, and said in Turkish, “A new day, a new baby!”
children-Versailles_petit_appartement_de_la_reine_web
As we left Turkey 3 years later, me toddling along with my little stuffie in one hand and my mother’s hand in the other, my older brother charging ahead of my Dad who was carrying the bags, and my younger brother a babe in arms, my mom was stopped on our way to the gate. It was the nurse from the Army hospital. She said, ever so kindly, “Oh Mrs. Aweigh, I remembered that you’d lost a baby. I’ve thought of you often, and I just wanted to know that you’re all right, now.”

My mother was very touched, but she had a plane to catch. She looked at me, looked at the nurse, looked at me, looked at the nurse, and said, as nicely as she could manage, “I’m fine, thank you,” then caught up with the rest of her family.

We survived 7 years Stateside, and left for Egypt in January of 1976. I consider that to be my humanization, as I never felt at home in New Jersey. That could come off as a cheap shot, but it’s the simple truth. I was all wrong there.

Cairo was a dream come true, only I never could have imagined being somewhere so rich — rich in history, rich in culture, rich in the textures of language, rich in feeling. I had finally come home.

I also discovered healing, taking in whatever sick or injured animals came my way and figuring out how to help them — kittens, pups, birds both wild and tame… I’d have gotten a donkey, if the neighbors would have let me.

Very young white donkey grazing cutely under palm trees.
This little colt is nearly as cute as the one I had my heart set on.

I was a dependent, however, and we weren’t allowed to stay in one place for more than two “tours”, totaling four and a half years. My folks went to Bangladesh, and my older brother and I went to high school in Massachusetts.

I was in rural Western Massachusetts, a slice of heaven on earth, especially if you grew up in a desert.

I wound up starting at a Seven Sisters college there. Left the ivory tower when school was interfering with my education (thus neatly acquiring the black sheepskin from my disreputable older brother, who had meanwhile cleaned up his act and gone to law school.)

I became a registered nurse after surviving a sailing trip from Cape Cod to the US Virgin Islands, taking the deep-water route outside Bermuda. The captain was a drug-addicted control freak and sexually inappropriate — none of which became apparent until we were signed on and nearly underweigh. (Now, I’d run anyway, and let her lawyers try and find me. I was younger then.)

She had been an ivory tower classmate of mine, an older student who had been locked up for most of her youth for being gay. She probably was perfectly sane to start with, but after being thrown off by parents and socialized in a nut house, nobody stands a chance. However, she was in her 30’s and living as an adult, so it was not ok.

Side note: queer people are somehow expected to be better than straight people, but that’s just unfair. People are people. Some straight people are really decent. Some queer people are really awful. And vice versa! Just let everyone be human, okay? Rant over.

Due to the intolerable hostility and tension aboard the boat, the nicest member of the crew developed a stomach ulcer, which hemmorhaged… so I started my first IV on the high seas and we had a day-long wait for the helicopter to air lift her. Why? Because the drug-addicted captain had plotted us as being about 80 miles landward of our actual position.

That bleeding ulcer saved us all!

We got safely to anchor in Tortola a few days later.
Panoramic view of Road Town harbor in the tropics
After a screaming row with the captain at 1 am over something irrelevant and stupid (not danger, not losing the dinghy, not being hit on, not being verbally abused day in and day out, but something totally stupid and irrelevant), I was kicked off the boat in a foreign country, with $5 and a tube of toothpaste in my pocket — which exploded as I lay sleeping on a picnic table at Pusser’s Landing, halving my resources and adding a mess.

My dad was posted to Jamaica at the time. I was allowed back on the boat to get my things and call him and arrange for my extrication. Nothing happened on weekends on the Islands in the late 1980’s, so I wound up being the house-guest of a truly kind and decent Island couple, who took in penniless waifs and strays simply in order to make the world a better place. I’m everlastingly grateful to Marina and Samuel. May all good things come to them.

After that, nursing school was a stroll.

I supported myself by tutoring in the school and splitting and hauling cordwood in the forest. However, between the time I started and the time I graduated, the economy in Massachusetts crashed, so I headed to Washington DC, where my State Department-associated family members and friends roosted.

My first nursing job was on an HIV unit, until it closed when visitors realized that most people there had, my goodness, HIV. (Sigh…) My second job was at DC General Emergency Dept, the only public hospital in one of the roughest cities in the country at the time. I learned a LOT.

I found my way back to rural Massachusetts, once I had the resume to get a good job in a lean market. I had first learned about herbs and energy healing there, and treated my illnesses and injuries with no health insurance from the time I left college through nearly all of my nursing career. (How ironic is it that it was so hard to get health insurance when I was a nurse?) I also took care of a couple of “incurable” things that patients of mine had, and cured them. I became a good empiricist. Home care nurses HAVE to get results, because there’s no backup.

Scientific-method science is very sound when it’s properly applied, but money and access distorts it too easily. Empirical-method science is the only kind that can actually tell you what works in the case of the individual.
While I prefer to understand how things work, I really only care WHETHER they work in a given case. I’m also well aware that, in medicine, at every point in history, we always think we know a lot — but, 10 or 20 or 100 years later, we look like idiots.

My favorite Star Trek clip of all time sums it up well:

A few years later, as the economy softened again and all but the worst jobs dried up, I allowed myself to be drawn to California by a nice face — which ditched me once we arrived. Not so nice.

I worked as a nurse and made my home in Central California until my immune system gave out, for no discernible reason. Shortly after the immune system pooped, my dad died, preventably (CPR would have clearly saved him, but he was in Egypt and swimming alone) and that was the final straw. Well, the penultimate straw…. Afterwards, my lungs shut down and my doctor was out of ideas. I’m pretty sure that acupuncture saved my life, because nothing else worked.
Acupuncture_chart_300px
Once I was well enough to do some career research and put together a portfolio, I was hired to document programming software, starting with an internship on the basis of the raw talent my supervisor saw in my work. I was quickly hired out of the internship. They had an onsite gym, and one of the loveliest running trails through the redwoods was right on my way to work, so I got into outstanding shape …

…And then the repetitive stress injuries hit.

A couple of surgeries later, with odd complications, I developed a horrific central AND peripheral nervous system disorder called Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, or CRPS. It took from 2001 to 2005 to get diagnosed, then fighting until 2012 to get disability dole (SSDI) and get worker’s compensation insurance off my back. (Call it another 3 near-death experiences. They so badly wanted me to just die, it was stunning to see what they’d do to try to effect that, short of hiring a hit man.) This gave me a lot of insight into the approaching-3rd-world status of US health care and its social administration.

The U.S. spends twice as much on care as other "civilized" countries, and turns out the worst outcomes of all. Tell me how an insurance-driven, corporate-owned system is efficient and economical, again? Because that's not what the data show.
The U.S. spends twice as much on care as other “civilized” countries, and turns out the worst outcomes of all. Tell me how an insurance-driven, corporate-owned system is efficient and economical, again? Because that’s not what the data show. This link takes you to the full story.

The nursing background and the information-architecture and explanatory experience have formed my current career, the (currently unpaid, but highly useful) job of explicating CRPS, its mechanisms and management, and how I adapt my world to function, in spite one of the most invisibly crippling diseases known to science.

I’ve been trying to think how to turn the plot arc of this life into a nice, suitable-for-polite-company little anecdote, but I broke my foot in my one non-affected limb last Friday (I am laughing with heartfelt irony as I write this) and am hugely motivated to simplify. For me, simplicity is most congruent with honesty and straightforwardness — less to remember. So I just spat it out.

This might explain a few things, among them my fascination with health and medical science, my very wide view of healing (belief is irrelevant; what matters is if it works for you), and why I have zero to negative patience for the arrogantly overeducated — they’ve nearly killed me a few too many times. Right from the start!

"Visis mu! Visis mu! This is a truly excellent mouse which I am shoving smugly up your spine!"

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First, keep breathing

I say that a lot.

The first thing our bodies do when we get a burst of pain or other shock is, clench. Hard to breathe effectively when clenched and, oddly, it’s hard to do anything else — except let the anxiety-mad sympathetic nervous system run riot.

For normal people, the exercise I’m about to describe is a calming exercise, but for the chronically ill and chronically hurting, it’s more like an elementary coping exercise.

That feeling of being frozen? It’s shock. It’s normal to go there, but don’t dwell in it.

Ways to help yourself through it are largely little physical shifts that send a message back up to your brain that it’s time to process now.

Notice where your shoulders are. Just notice. Notice how your neck feels. No judgment or “I should”s, just notice. Notice how you’re sitting or standing. Notice how your hips are rotated in relation to your posture. Just observe these things.

Now exhale all the way. Not to the point of straining or coughing, just comfortably emptied out. Let your lungs spring open naturally and — this is key — open your teeth as you inhale.

Now, when you breathe out, purse your lips softly, as if puffing out a match. That does two things: keeps your jaw unlocked and nudges a little extra oxygen into your lungs.

When you breathe in, after that first open-mouth inhale, breathe in through your nostrils if you can. If you can’t, put your tongue tip on the roof of your mouth and breathe around your tongue. Either way, it opens the back of your throat slightly so you can…

Imagine the breath sliding down your spine and into the bowl of your pelvis. This helps your body do an end-run around the clenched-torso breathing we get into when we freeze. Just let the good air wash into your spine and slosh into the bowl of your pelvis.

Then let it out through gently pursed lips, and in through opened throat, then down, and back out, and so on.

Do ten cycles. It’ll be a different and better world after. Notice how your shoulders and neck soften, and your hips unwind. Colors are a little brighter. Feelings are closer, but less overwhelming.

You can do this. I have faith in you. You are life warriors and we handle it. It’s our gift to be this strong and still be this alive.

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On treatments and at-home management strategies for CRPS

Quick brain dump here. There have been a lot of questions lately about treatment options. THIS LIST IS NOT EXHAUSTIVE. It’s barely an overview. It’s just a note I worote in answer to someone who asked about prolotherapy, where a sugar or basic solution is injected into a painful area and the harmless irritation causes just the right kind of healing bloodflow for some people. Here is my answer…

Prolotherapy is one of those things that works great when it works at all. It’s definitely individual-dependent. The tissue irritation, so helpful to those who don’t have spastic vessels, can do a number on us. But not everyone.

If your CRPS is more peripherally maintained, then it might help, assuming the irritation does what it’s supposed to and the tissue response doesn’t trigger autonomic dysfunction, with circulatory weirdness and the whole color/swelling/pain circus that comes with it.

If your CRPS is more centrally maintained, which is kind of a hallmark of the ongoing disease, then I don’t see how treating the area with anything, let alone an irritant, would be any good. It does nothing for the central part of the nervous system.

I consider myself lucky that the usual pain meds nearly killed me, and I had to go the diet modification/supplementation route almost right away. Eliminating things that irritate my central nervous system, and supplementing with things that help repair damaged nerves and fragile tissues, was absolutely essential. If I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have lived long enough to do anything else.

At the risk of starting a shooting war here, the MCS (multiple chemical sensitivities) and neuro research hounds I’m close to, indicate that the most common neuro allergens in the diet are gluten (wheat, rye, barley, spelt, triticale, “natural flavorings”; oats have a similar molecule, so YMMV), corn (especially corn fractions like HFCS and “natural flavorings”), fresh dairy (which an incompetent gut like mine breaks down into a molecule a lot like gluten), MSG (often wheat derived), phosphoric acid (found in most dark sodas), and benzene (anything with the syllable “benz” in it — read labels, or better yet, don’t eat things that come in packages, which usually have BHA or BHT added to the packaging.)

Common neuro allergens in the environment include petrochemical products (photo chemicals, printing chemicals, gasoline, many cleaning products) and most chemical scents, most notoriously the line called Axe, which may trigger psychotic breaks in vulnerable people, according to disturbing reports.

A couple of techniques do address central sensitization:

– Calmare, which is a subtle, varied, electric signal that rescrambles the pain impulses and has given many CRPSers outstanding relief.

– Ketamine, which is an anesthetic that sort of reboots the brain. It must be administered by a competent physician well-trained in ketamine administration for CRPS, as it’s still a dangerous drug, but with right matching of patient to protocol, it can work wonders.

– Spinal cord stimulators. These are surgically placed and can be highly problematic, but if they’re the right thing for you, they can give you your life back to a large degree. There are electrodes shoved right into your spine, so if your pain is mediated mostly in the brain, not so good. If it’s still at or below the spinal root, excellent.

As for supplementation, which you don’t need doctors to do … Good, health-food-store supplements are essential. Don’t waste your money on the plastic pills at the pharmacy (check Consumer Reports to find out just how bad they are.) Your body is burning through nutrients desperately fast all the time. It can’t keep up. We need a healthy diet so as not to bring in more problems, but we can’t possibly meet our needs that way any more, with all the pain and the other cellular and metabolic insults of CRPS.

The nerve cells and muscle cells are the biggest suppliers and the biggest consumers of antioxidants. As muscle cells degenerate and nerve cells take a beating, they need more and more but can produce less and less. The math catches up to us after awhile and then it takes time for the supplementation to penetrate enough of the starved tissue around the gut to work its way to our CNS — but, from my experience, it was well worth it! The time was going to pass anyway, and I was better at the end of it.

Neuro-oriented antioxidants include SAMe (a type of methionine, primal antioxidant used inside the mitochondrial cell), N-acetyl cysteine (NAC), and co-q 10.

Vitamins A, D, E, K, and moderate amounts of C are important, especially the D3 — much bone loss and the concomitant pain could likely be avoided if we all had our D levels checked and then supplemented accordingly.
(I’ve been told that C can become pro-oxidative in a sickly environment, so I have to look into that.)
B vitamins are absolutely crucial to neuro and other cellular repair, so a good B complex is important.

Magnesium, whether as lotions, Epsom baths/rubs, or supplements, is essential. It’s simply huge for cutting spasms, which underlie so much of the nagging side of the pain, and supporting basic cellular functions as an electrolyte.

There are supplements that can provide precursors to neurotransmitters, and I find they roughly double the effectiveness of my SSRI and SNRI, keeping me in the low-middle range of doses instead of me getting overdosed to near dying as I once was. Phenylalanine is a precursor for dopamine and norepinephrine, and the d,l form has been found to be genuinely helpful in reducing nerve pain for many. It also helps me stay less confused (dopamine, perhaps.) 5-HTP is widely known as a serotonin precursor, as is tryptophan. Both can help with sleep, too. I do better with 5-HTP.

There are a lot of brands, and there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes business ugliness behind the brands as the whole “natural everything” movement creates the possibility of money. I’ve watched the circus for awhile, and at this point, there are just a few brands I can recommend as still being good, consistent, and generally digestible:

Jarrow (great antioxidants)
NOW (inexpensive and very good; I always get my 5-htp from them)
RAW Vitamin Code (a Garden of Life line of food-based products, excellent; I take only half the recommended dose of the multis, and boy do they help)
Twinlabs (my second choice for multis and neurotransmitter supplements; widely available)
Solgar (pricier than Twinlabs, but much the same; widely available)
My fallback brand is Life Extension, which is still excellent.

I get mine for wholesale at vitacost.com (fast delivery, but don’t carry Jarrow), luckyvitamin.com, or occasionally for a bit more at Amazon if the others are out of what I need.

It’s a hideously complex disease, and in cases like ours where conventional medicine has almost completely failed, we have to take charge of that complexity and redesign our lives in order to have something worth living.

We really do have to change or die, and it is a surprisingly hard choice at times.

Further comments and suggestions on treatments and management would be most welcome.

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Ted’s Talks #2: “Relaxed” in Chinese

Ted Mancuso is famous for his enthusiastic Renaissance mind and the kinds of explanations it leads to. If that kind of thing doesn’t drive you up a tree, it’s enormously rewarding, because it can pay off for years.

It may not be immediately obvious how Chinese calligraphy, the evolution of the yin/yang symbol, James Joyce’s “The Dubliners”, a great general who died 2 thousand years ago, and the spinal root of a nerve, all relate to each other — let alone to the logic of a single move in t’ai chi.
puzzles_Chinese_Burr_305_imgbyMeronim
For him, they do.

Moreover, when he explains it, it makes perfect sense.
puzzles_Chinese_SixPartWoodKnot_Andreas.Roever
Compared to his ferally free discursiveness, my mind is almost tame. It helps me relax into training, because I don’t have to struggle with my own lateral-mindedness and force it into literal-mindedness — I can just say what I think and get instant yes/no/kinda, from a teacher who gets it. As I said to his wife once, “I LOVE that man.”

There’s a lot to think about in t’ai chi chuan, the way it’s taught at Ted’s academy. For that reason — and here I apologize to my fellow ADD-ers — this is a long piece, because I have to circle through a few related ideas to get to the point in a meaningful way.

One thing that’s becoming very clear to me is that, ideally, there is no such thing as an inattentive moment or an inactive body part. Even a part that’s held still, is still alive, still alert, still awake to the world and present in the mind.

Ideally.

Introducing Peng (however you spell it)

The concept of “peng” leads us closer to understanding this. If your native language is a Chinese language or French, your pronunciation is fine or nearly fine. If it’s not, you’re in trouble.

The word is pronounced with a very hard P and an English A that clearly came from the upper crust in the south of England. Its pronunciation is closest to “bong” in English, but, as a resident of a medical-marijuana state, I can’t write “bong” without inviting confusion, and as a longtime pain patient, I can’t write “pang” for much the same reason.

So, hard P, haughty A, and in here I’ll spell it pæng.

Pæng is often explained as a defensive or guarding force, but that’s an oversimplification. Ideally, pæng never leaves, except when displaced by a more specifically directed action.

Pæng makes directed action a lot faster, too, because of the way it creates potential space in any direction, which is then easy for you to fill. Much more efficient than the usual wind-up we usually find ourselves doing before initiating a directed action.
(This Marx Brothers compilation is hypnotic, to the point of being kinda creepy. If you’re triggered by casual violence, skip it.)

Pæng is the force you use to define the space you inhabit. Since you’re always in your own space, it makes sense to maintain pæng. Pæng is the ground state of each limb “at rest” (a relative term.)

Ideally.

This is what we work towards, anyway.

A relevant discussion of expertise

I’ve noticed, for much of my life, how the true experts in any movement (martial arts, dancing, rock climbing, surgery) don’t get in their own way. This is a lot easier said than done.

There’s a reason why true excellence is generally pegged at 10 years of experience. I figure it takes a couple of years to learn what’s supposed to happen, and then it takes most of the rest of the time to unlearn the reflexes that get in the way of achieving that. That’s my theory. Unlearning is that hard.

We lack faith in ourselves, at a subtle level, and it creates the interferences of hesitation, fidgets, and engaging the wrong efforts, then having to disengage them and reassess, then go forward again, in a sort of ongoing, half-unconscious dance towards accomplishing the goal.

Ted says that people come to his classes hoping to come in as they are and go straight on to excellence, and have to come to terms with the need to back up to roughly when they learned to walk/run really well and go on from there.
tai-chi-path

It’s part of his particular genius that he doesn’t try to get each person to unlearn their ways, he simply creates what he calls a shadow posture, and I call a parallel posture (though we mean the same thing), so that class time and practice time are spent in this new and evolving structure that creates the foundation for excellence to be built on. It’s up to you whether you go into that space the rest of the time, but it’s pretty hard to resist, because it’s delightful.

That very delightfulness is unnerving. I’ve had to integrate a lot to be able to accept something so alien to my experience of the last 14… no, actually, 40-odd years. It’s just so foreign, so antipathetic to what I have known for so long. Fortunately, I have ways of dealing with that…

My style of learning something profound goes like this:

  1. I charge in for a bit, throwing myself at it like spaghetti at the wall.
  2. Then, when my body-mind has reached a saturation point of new information and everything inside is sitting up and screaming, “WTH??”, I sit back for awhile to rethink and mull the new ideas involved in these skills.
  3. I feel and learn how they filter down and across and through every applicable aspect of life, and I have to semi-consciously work to let those old assumptions shift, evolve, and change.
  4. Then, when my mind has reached a saturation point of digested information, I can move back into activity, usually with a significant bump up to a new level.

Winter is a good time to digest, and with the waxing days I’m getting impatient and ready to bump up. I’m thorough, and I give full credit to my subconscious processes and the importance of mental digestion. When it comes to my learning style, I’m fairly relaxed…

We’re not relaxed in our tasks until we’re expert. I wonder if we can accelerate towards expertness by learning to relax in our tasks. There’s an empowering thought.

Expert surgeons have far better outcomes, partly because their lack of irrelevant motion means that they leave less trauma behind. Their scalpels don’t make any pointless cuts, their hands don’t jostle any irrelevant flesh, there simply isn’t anything done under the skin that isn’t directed towards the goal. There is not a wasted motion, and not a wasted moment.

They don’t dither; they do, and they do it decisively and cleanly. If something turns out a bit different from what they expect, they go with it — no holding back, no denial, just accept, redirect, and move on. They don’t interfere with themselves, and thus they don’t interfere with the work.

The truly expert surgeon, a few of which I’ve been privileged to see, is a breathing artwork of purposeful action and focused intent.

Martial arts is a bit more accessible to most people, so let me show you a popular and priceless example of an expert martial artist next to a couple of wonderful actors who can’t help getting in their own way. Here is the famous fight scene between Darth Maul and the two heroic Jedi, Qui Gon and a young Obi-Wan Kenobi:
All rights to this film belong to 20th Century Fox, in case someone forgets.

I included the whole fight scene. (You’re welcome, Marie P. and Steven R.) If you’re impatient, skip to the last 2 minutes. You’ll notice that the only reason the bad guy lost was a moment of inattention. He moves with effortless elegance, decisiveness, and power, while the Jedi are fighting their own bodies with every move, hulking their shoulders and flexing like mad. It looks exhausting! It took a lot of Lucasfilm to spin the contest out past the first minute, the imbalance of skill is so great.

Darth Maul is relaxed. It makes him effective. Qui Gon and Obi-Wan are not. They’re braced and clunky, utterly without pæng.

All right, given that this force (as it were) of pæng both protects space and creates space, what the heck is it, exactly?

Very simple. Not easy, but simple.

Pæng is the yielding resistance of a tree branch or a length of spring steel, or, for that matter, of a good dancer’s arms.

You push one part of the branch, and the whole bough may sway, but its balance is undisturbed. You push your good dance partner’s hand, but that doesn’t just move her hand — her whole frame absorbs and responds to your push with a graceful springy motion and she rotates, balanced over her own feet, as far as your push goes (backwards and in high heels, most likely. Be impressed.)

That is the force called pæng.

Let’s return to the tree branch for a moment. It allows us to extend the analogy without special training.

Take a good look at an oak, maple, or a eucalyptus tree. Look at a branch from its tip to the root of the tree. You can always follow a single, sinuous line from tip to root.

eucalyptus tree with lines showing the shape of each branch's support.
It’s the same tree, mirrored across. The lines are drawn in on the right-hand image.

That tree holds the branch up from root to tip, without any muscles at all. It lifts it from underneath its feet, up its trunk, and floats it out into space from there. This is how the force flows. Not muscular at all, but very, very strong. It’s pure physics.

The tree also holds the branch outward with curves that act as support structures (like the curvilinear welts in plastic packaging, to keep the package from being flattened), in order to make the most of the space.

Mmm... I wonder if they're gluten free?
Mmm… I wonder if they’re gluten free?

Bounce a branch lightly. Observe the change in the movement. It bounces more near the point of impact, and as the springiness absorbs the motion, it moves less the closer it gets to the spine. I mean trunk. Did I say spine? I meant trunk. Of the tree. In this case.

This calm-but-alive springiness, this resistance without strain, lifting up from the root through the trunk, opening without pushing, pressing without squeezing, all at the same time, is pæng: the whole branch, from trunk to leaftip, is awake all the time, ready to play with the wind all the time, ready to soak up the raindrops all the time, connected through the trunk or stem to its root all the time. Every touch on the way is received and understood, and responded to naturally. It is always alive with this springy yet relaxed, rooted yet responsive energy.

In humans, pæng can be modulated. This is part of the martial aspect of t’ai chi: intensify pæng to ward off an attack or prepare for one, shift pæng to draw the opponent, release pæng to snap into an attack, but always, always have pæng as your ground state. It gives you a safe, structured space to work from.

Ideally. That’w what we work towards.

Now that we’ve mulled the nature of pæng, we’re a bit closer to understanding what Ted and the t’ai chi chuan classics mean when they use the word “relaxed.” In our extreme-adoring Northern/Western Hemisphere culture, “relaxed” is the opposite of “tensed”, or even “stressed.” A certain floppiness comes to mind, even a resistance to being vertical.
Tense:

   []
   |
   |
   |
   L

Relaxed (Western style):


   8)________|

A “relaxed” body, in this sense, is not ready to move — far from it. It probably wants another drink!

The ancient Chinese traditions cultivate the middle way, not extremes.

As it happens, this is an excellent approach for many people with central nervous system dysfunctions, because our disrupted systems are hardwired to charge wildly between extremes. The more we strengthen our access to the middle ground, the more stable our central nervous systems become, and the better we can get.

Simple. Not easy.

With this in mind, we have to repurpose the word “relaxed” so it’s not a synonym for “floppy”, but a distinctly different term that describes the useful middle ground between “floppy” and “tense.”

   Tense: []    Relaxed: 0     Floppy:
          |            ( | )
          |             }|{
          |             / \
          L            /   \            8)_________|

It’s easy to see, even in these keyboard-figures, which level of energy makes it easiest to move in a useful way, doesn’t it?

How do you want your surgeon to be, heaven forbid you ever need one? How do you want to move when you dance?

Darth Maul seems quite a bit different now, doesn’t he? Actually, he does remind me of a couple of doctors I’ve worked with…

Shortly after I drafted this, Ted saw me struggling through a leg-intensive exercise. He said, with sympathy, “I see why you find these leg exercises so exhausting. Your leg muscles are fighting with each other in every direction.”

I went away and thought it over.
Sketch of brain, with bits falling off and popping out, and a bandaid over the worst
Well, of course they were fighting each other in every direction. This was the setup:

  1. When I was 10, I got the silly idea that I should have an adult arch to my foot, so I began to supinate.
  2. That led to my thigh muscles developing lopsidedly, and since I played varsity soccer in high school and ran in my 20’s, they developed lopsidedly a fair bit.
  3. That led to my kneecaps tracking wrong, and me losing the cartilage under my kneecaps. (I used to think that hurt. Cute!) Ted steered me away from his t’ai chi class in the 1990’s because I was so nervous about my knee pain (really cute!)… so I took his shaolin kung fu class instead.

So, over 15 years later… I’m far too frail for serious kung fu and Ted has become a breathtakingly subtle teacher of t’ai chi; I’ve gone through several rounds of posture training (round 1, round 2, round 3); and, now that the pieces are finally coming together (big clue: if it bears weight, it affects your posture), I’ve been working like mad to rectify my knees.

They still pull to the outside, from the habits laid in by my childhood efforts to lift my arch, and my knees hurt like blazes when they bend. To manage that, I practiced pulling them to the inside, but not directly — kind of rolling my lower thigh muscles inside and upward at the same time… While my habitual muscle pattern pulls outward and up.

Weren’t we just watching Liam Neeson and Ewan Macgregor do something very similar (if a lot more cutely)? Muscles fighting each other in every direction, literally at every turn?
jedifighting
The fighting was simply wrong. …And I don’t mean in the movie.

That’s no way for a body to behave, fighting itself. I don’t want my body to fight itself.

I didn’t see that changing the fighting would work, because there would still be fighting.

Finally, I straightened up. I said to myself, in tones of firm parental authority, “Knee, do it right. I’m not having you fight about it. I’m going to relax — unwind every muscle and make them stand down and wait for orders. You’re going to do it right the first time, because nothing is interfering and nothing is asleep. It is … relaxed.” Pæng.

I lifted my leg and put my foot down. It felt different.

I bent my knee. It was fine, absolutely fine.

I tried the exercise. The thing was completely painless, and floatingly easy.

Buyer beware — it’s a process. For me, the issues are simple, although annoyingly tricky to work with:

  • My levels of tension and awareness, not to mention relaxation and attention (those are 4 completely different concepts, you’ll notice), change so much from day to day.
  • I still have nearly 40 years of walking habits that I’m building an alternative to.
  • I still have to take lip from my knees now and then, which slows me down for recovery, and I have to mentally go down there and tell everyone to stop arguing and let me mend.

It’s a process. However, it’s well begun. It’s all about relaxing, in this special sense of pæng.

Cats are masters of pæng  :)
Cats are masters of pæng 🙂

It’s like this stuff works …
Who knew?
Who knew?

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Ted’s Talks #1: know yourself best

A fellow martial arts teacher/competition judge once barked at Ted Mancuso, “None of your students move like you!”

Ted blinked, barked back “Good!” and walked away, shaking his head.

He refuses to model a move more than the essential minimum, and is no great fan of the mirror, either. However, he will coach the most clueless student with bottomless patience, week after week, as long as they don’t give up.

His model of teaching is based on the (all too rare) assumption that each of us should be the person most aware of, and most in charge of, our own bodies.

… I know, right?

If you follow the logic through, this implies that the correct structure for moving through, say, Fair/Jade Lady Weaves Shuttle (which is an upward block snappily followed by a nose break, which tells you something about those names)… as I was saying, the most effective and correct structure for that move is going to vary from one body to the next. The correct structure for HIS configuration of bones, ligaments, muscles, and chemistry is not going to be the most correct (or even passable) structure for MY configuration, or yours, or anyone else’s.

Ted doesn’t just say that, he bases his whole approach on it, from start to finish. His crogglingly refined sense of how to read that on others is probably another article, or rather book. Gifted pedagogue, yes.

In the long years of wrestling to take back control of my body from CRPS and all its ghastly little friends, I’ve taken PT for months, done intensive massage therapy ditto, and been overdosed on nearly every class of drug used to treat it — except the ones I flatly refused.

This inward/martial training with Ted is the first one that not only requires physical self-awareness, but actually helps me learn that awareness from the inside out, rather than passively requiring me to learn it from the outside in.

Once I gave permission for him to go to town on my structure, it would be tempting to say that he’s become merciless. That would be totally wrong, in both senses. He lives in an ocean consisting of equal proportions of mercy, humor, precision, and a degree of awareness of others that seems uncanny until you reflect that he’s been working on that since I could walk. So, yeah, he’s got that healer’s mercy that means he’ll do what’s right for you even if it sucks right now.

I’m now on the second round of fighting with my low back and hips for control of my spine, and it really sucks right now.

I am tired of trying to unlearn 40-odd years worth of faulty structure from the inside; it hurts, and more pain is tediously wearing.

So I found a massage therapist who suits my needs, and went to line up a series of sessions.

First available time?

3 weeks out.

… I know, right?

I came for a hot tub and chiropractic adjustment (which I believe is within spec for Ted’s style, given the intransigence of bony tissue and the ubiquity of hot water) and sat there letting my knotted thoughts and knotted muscles melt… until I smacked my forehead and started to laugh.

Why is my low spine putting up such a fight? Why has it kept falling back into the same darn reef-knots, despite the PT and massage and Round 1 of this struggle last year and so on?

Right.

It’s obvious, now that I think about it. There are no shortcuts! I have to learn how to identify, unravel, and rebuild those structures from the inside out. That’s the whole point. That’s why I undertook this training. This is exactly how it’s supposed to happen, aches and all.

This is me, having another laugh at my own expense, releasing one last sigh, and figuring out how to do this from the inside.

I love that teacher. I don’t exactly like him a lot right now, but that’s okay.

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The Bean Dip Response, companion to the Spoon Theory

Those of us with crazy-bad illnesses appreciate the stroke of genius from Christine Miserandino, who originated the Spoon Theory to explain what it takes to get through the day.

For the most part, though, we shouldn’t have to explain much. Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone could get that memo?

To that end, here is a great article by family therapist and parent counselor Joanne Ketch on parenting boundaries, using the Bean Dip Response: http://www.joanneketch.com/ParentingChoiceBoundaries.en.html

With her permission and kind support, I’ve revised her article to reflect the realities of the chronically or severely ill. Please feel free to print out/pass on, with credit to her embedded as it is in this text.

Here’s my version…

Health Management Choices – Boundaries

A long time ago, as a developing patient educator, I found many chronic patients uncomfortable and frustrated with unsolicited advice – or inadvertently soliciting advice and then feeling uncomfortable with the discussion that followed.

Eventually, I read this great article on boundaries that eventually become known as “The Bean Dip Response”, “Pass the Bean Dip”, or even used as a verb: “bean dip” someone.

I rewrote the article from the perspective of a chronically ill, alternative-using or drug-disabled patient (one who can’t use common meds for the condition because of uselessness or devastating side-effects) – but the principles are transferrable to any constellation of health management choices.

The Bean Dip Response is best used when you don’t need to defend or don’t wish to engage with a person over a health management choice. If you are discussing issues with a person and you welcome their feedback, the Bean Dip Response is not needed.

I’ve found that chronic patients may confuse boundaries while trying to convince someone of the rightness of their choices. The best thing is to assert your boundary, rather than defend your choice. Your choice needs no defense.

Health management choices should be on a “need to know” basis. Most people don’t “need to know”. Since medical information is highly confidential, it’s NOT incumbent on you to explain yourself to those who don’t need to know. Those who need to know are essentially you, your doctors/providers, and your designated decision-maker for when you can’t make your own decisions.

If anyone else asks, "How are you sleeping?"
Answer: Great! Thanks for asking! Want some bean dip?

"Are you sure you should get picked up every time your legs flare?"
Answer: “Yes! Thank you! Want some bean dip?"

"When do you plan to wean off those meds?"
Answer: "When it's time. Thanks! Want some bean dip?"

"You should use my aunt's hairdresser's physiotherapist's product. It cleared up her [symptom du jour] in two weeks."
Answer: "That's great! I'm happy for her. Want some bean dip?"

Now, with some people you will need to set firm boundaries. The offer of bean dip won’t be sufficient to redirect them [I can’t imagine why not. -ed.] They either don’t respond to gentle redirection or they have emotion tied to the issue and a desire to “go there” more deeply. You may be able to anticipate this – if it’s a pattern of intrusion, for example, which you’ve seen in other circumstances.

In such a case, a stronger “Bean Dip” response may be needed. In these cases, the redirect will need to be backed up with action (like hanging up, leaving the room, or even unfriending them).

Remember, boundaries are not about forcing another person to comply. You cannot “do” that. Boundaries are about what YOU will do or not do. You are the person you own. You don’t own them and they don’t own you.

Practice kind but firm responses: "I know you love me and want to help. I am so glad. My health choices have been researched and made. I won't discuss it again.”

Don’t confuse setting boundaries with trying to convince someone of the rightness of your choices. It’s a common (and understandable) desire to present the same information that led you to your choices. The problem with that in dealing with a person who has boundary issues is that engaging with content invites discussion. (Also, different people’s minds work in different ways, so your train of thought may make no sense at all to them. Wasted effort all around.)

Chronic patients often struggle with this.

The boundary is that no one else has an inherent right to tell you how to take care of yourself.

You set boundaries by doing the above: acknowledging what they said and redirecting.

Where the chronically ill may invite problems is by citing authors, studies and sites to “defend” themselves. Each time you do so, you create more time for discussion and rebuttal and send the message that your decisions are up for debate.

Don’t defend your choices beyond generalities, and then only once or twice. “My doctor is in support of my choices. Want some bean dip?” Or maybe, “Well, this is my decision. Want some bean dip?”

If necessary, look them in the eye and say simply, “I want us to have a good relationship. I want to enjoy my time with you. I’ll take care of me, so that we both can make the most of our time together. Let’s not discuss this anymore. If you bring it up again, I will have to ask you to leave.”

Finally, an important corollary to the “Bean Dip Response” is reciprocity. Once again, the content of your choices should not dictate the interaction.

You may be totally, and correctly, convinced that you should be able to determine your own activity, medication, and supplementation regime; never be left to “cry it out”; and should be allowed to follow your own weaning path, if any.

But, if you post those opinions on Facebook (or communicate them in other ways), you invite (and therefore solicit) feedback and advice. Post accordingly and respond to comments with that in mind. You need to give the “other side” the same respect that you expect to receive.

Credit for original: Joanne Ketch, MA, LPC, LMFTa, LCDC
http://www.joanneketch.com/ParentingChoiceBoundaries.en.html

For those of us who are chronically ill, there are people we DO need to explain ourselves to. However, these are mostly highly educated people with specialist training, and that makes it a short list indeed.

Our loved ones may believe they want to understand, but, as my mother finally admitted, “I don’t think I really do want to understand what you’re going through. I couldn’t stand to know how much pain you’re in and how rotten you feel all the time. It would drive me crazy, knowing that.”

But, hoo boy, does she ever respect my boundaries! That’s worth the world. It makes everything open and clear between us, and our current relationship reflects that.

When someone confesses their limits to me, I take it as a gift. They have told me how to protect our relationship and how to move forward with it. I appreciate that. With that subject opened, we can move on to discuss how, or if, they can connect with me in a way that works for us both. This is priceless information. I’m glad my mother had the courage to open that can of worms, because then it got very manageable very quickly.

For an ever-changing kaleidescope of visual delight, check out my Mom’s photography from all around the world at http://jldtifft.com/

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Winter Recipe #1 – Cyano-berry brain booster, with special maple syrup notes

I view a recipe strictly as a starting point.

To some, recipes are instructions to be followed. That’s probably very wise.

To me, they’re a series of friendly suggestions, and every ingredient (except baking powder) has the unspoken caveat, “adjust, substitute, or mess with, to taste.”

The recipes I post are decidedly Isyan recipes. Even if I haven’t made them yet, I’ve made many similar things over the years, so I know they’re in the right ballpark. If you’d like to use them, please do — and realize that every ingredient here carries the implied caveat, “adjust, substitute, or mess with, to taste.”

With good ingredients, you can’t go too far wrong.
antioxidant_foods
When it comes to canning and preserving, I do what I do, but I suggest you follow the instructions you can read at any credible site on the subject. The USDA guide is here.

Cyano-berry Brain Booster

The point of this is to provide a stonking great dose of those anthocyanins and antioxidants which have consistently demonstrated that they help my memory and thinking. This is not desserty at all. I think it makes a great breakfast.

Ingredients:

  • 2.5-3 oz dried organic schizandra berries.
  • 1 Qt/Liter organic concord grape juice.
  • 1 small finger (~1-1.25 inch [~3cm] long piece) fresh ginger, or equivalent powder, to aid digestibility.
  • 2 Tablesp (rounded palmful) ground clove.
  • 1 Tablesp (scant palmful) ground cinnamon.
  • 3 Pounds/1.4 kg wild Boreal blueberries, wild (farmed) blueberries, organic currants, organic bilberries, or the most nutritionally dense, fresh or frozen dark-blue berry you can get your hands on.
  • 3/4-1 C (6-8 fl. oz., or 180ml-240 ml) non-osmosed maple syrup (see note below.)
  • 1/4 C (60 ml, or slightly overflowing palmful) ground chia seed.

Preparation:

Put the schizandra berries into the grape juice. Write the date on the bottle, along with the date 3 weeks on, and stick it in the fridge for 3 weeks. The rest of this waits until the schizandra berries are thoroughly steeped.

When you’re ready to make it all up within the next half day, then blend the berry/juice brewage until the schizandra seeds no longer sound like grit hitting the blades, but like very fine sand. Give it at least one minute. (I wear ear protection for that part, or leave the room.)

Grate the ginger fine.

Grind the chia seed in a spice or coffee grinder.

Rest if needed, then aim to finish the tasks below in one session.

Making and canning:

Put 6 quart bottles and new lids into a deep, lidded pan. Once they have boiled for the recommended length of time, you can turn off the heat and leave them there, good and hot and covered.

Combine the ingredients you’ve already prepared in a large pan. Add the spices and maple syrup. Mix everything well, so the spices are thoroughly incorporated. Add the maple syrup and blueberries. When it starts to simmer, turn the heat down to keep it simmering and stir the chia in, mixing well. I leave it loosely covered and let it cook for 5-10 min. I want to preserve the anthocyanins and the volatile spices, after all, not boil them to distortion and death.

Set the jars and lids up so it’s easy to transfer stuff from the pan. When you fill the jars, leave headroom — don’t fill into the neck. Try to keep anything off the lips of the jars.

Use your favorite clean absorbent material to wipe any dribbles or slurps off the lip of each jar. Each lip should be absolutely perfectly clean, with nothing to interfere with the seal you’re about to create.

Lid, band, and tighten each jar. Return them to the pan they boil in. Boil according to your canning instructions.

I actually boil them for about 5 minutes — this is just clean fruit, with preservative spices. I’ve had no problems, except for one batch that didn’t get the final boil because the fuel ran out. It got a bit fizzy after awhile, and wound up giving me half a quart of the best sparkling spiced-blueberry wine ever, plus half a quart of inedible spiced-blueberry sludge. Overall, a happy accident 🙂

Equipment notes:

I wash everything well, with hot water and soap, before I even boil it. They always put seizing of some sort on new bottles and pans. I can’t stand the taste, and I can’t say it’s likely to be good for me.

Ingredient notes:

Clove is a shockingly strong antioxidant and it helps reduce nerve pain. Having said that, it also has a very strong flavor. If you’re not extremely fond of it, that’s the first ingredient you’ll want to adjust. However, I love it, and I can eat this stuff day after day.

Schizandra berries are called, in Chinese, “Five-flavor berries.” They incorporate the flavors of sweet, sour, bitter, salty/savory, and the fifth flavor we don’t have a word for in English, but if you mix fresh-dug peat with barley malt and plum paste, you’re probably close. I happen to like them, but I’m notoriously odd — and internationalized. There’s no question that they’re amazingly good for the brain. Try them and see. I prefer them to goji berries by a long way, and a lot of people can choke gojis down.

Maple syrup is not what you might think these days. Traditionally, sap is collected from sugar maples during the first real warm spell in early Spring.
maple_syrup_tap
It’s then simmered down to syrup consistency, and the scent of it can drift for a mile downwind…

Most modern producers use reverse-osmosis filtration to reduce the volume of the maple sap, sucking the minerals and much of the flavor out of it, then boil the remainder just enough to say they did. The filters themselves are considered so toxic that they have to be sent to the landfill; all those wonderful minerals that get caked up on it are considered to be no longer fit for human consumption, and must not be used for anything that might possibly wind up in the food chain, according to a representative from one famous and otherwise delightful sugarhouse.

In the end, with reverse osmosis filtration, you get expensive brown sugar syrup, without the kick or the minerals of maple syrup. It all tastes much the same — like good brown sugar made into syrup. Traditional maple syrup, on the other hand, has “terroir”, just like wine. Its flavor varies from place to place, depending on the soil, water, bedrock, and microclimate. The Shelburne/Heath terroir has a refined floral foretaste that has to be tasted to be believed. Right over the ridge, in Ashland, the syrup has a deep earthy note like really great whisky. How awesome is that, eh?

The natural/organic syrup producers I wrote to are fine with the highly artificial process of reverse osmosis, as it saves fuel, which reduces their carbon footprint. Standard practice in that group seems to be to osmose the sap until it’s about a third or half the volume (“two passes”) and boil it down the rest of the way. They “feel” (this tells me that they didn’t get out the test tubes and check the nutritional changes) that they “retain the best of the flavor and nutrition of the syrup.” They really don’t — I can always tell when it’s been osmosed, and a few years ago I went taste-testing hundreds of miles through prime sugaring regions to be sure. I dropped a lot of money on tiny little sampler bottles just to make sure I was not imagining things.

The real test is this: the maple syrups I got from standard supermarkets, Trader Joe’s, and Costco made me hurt. The maple syrups I get from my producers who boil it all the way down does not make me hurt. So, as far as I’m concerned, reverse osmosis either puts something in that hurts me, or takes something out that stops the hurt — but, in either case, osmotic filtration hurts me, and I’m not going to pay money for that.

I use maple syrup in order to have a nutritious, painless and digestible sweetener, so I want the stuff that still has that nutrition and digestibility. It’s a bit pricier than the osmosed stuff, but a pain-free gallon lasts nearly a year in my tea and occasional grain-free pancakes, so it’s money well spent.

Buyer beware. Call and ask the producer if they use reverse-osmosis filtration, or if they boil the raw sap all the way down. I don’t recommend discussing it, just asking… New Englanders are not easily persuaded. They’re generally realistic and decent, though, so if the producer you call uses reverse osmosis, ask if they know someone who doesn’t. If they know someone, they’ll tell you. They might even get you their number.

I got my last good, fully-boiled-down batch from a friend of a friend: Jerry Smith at Deer Ridge Farm, 4057 Hinesburg Rd, Guilford, Vermont, (802) 254-3540.

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He’s on country time, so be ready to call and remind him to post your package if you don’t see it in a week.

Most of the fully-boiled producers do NOT seem to be part of industry groups (e.g., the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association, where I wasted a lot of time contacting members only to find that all those who bothered to return my messages used reverse osmosis.) They’re just farmers who happen to have sugar maples and some equipment, to keep themselves from getting bored during “mud month.” You have to be there to find them — or have good connections, like me 🙂 If any of you New Englanders or Canadians have other fully-boiled-down producers to recommend, please do — the more, the merrier, and it’s good to have fallbacks in a weather-sensitive and seasonal industry.

Note on posting: Priority Mail Flat Rate boxes are the cheapest way to ship heavy things like quarts or gallons of syrup in the U.S. If you need to use international mail, better figure out your best strategy for that ahead of time, since that isn’t in a rural U.S. farmer’s normal frame of reference. A quart of syrup weighs around 3lbs 2 oz (1.45 kg). A gallon weighs around 12 pounds (5.45 kg). These are not exact, as weight varies slightly from batch to batch. It is, after all, a handmade product.

Carriers who ship outside the U.S. include the United States Postal Service, DHL, Fedex and UPS.

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Prelude to winter canning recipes

Don’t you love the change of season? Especially here in Middle Cali, where there’s a hint o’ green to mark the second of our two seasons — Drought and Mold.

But seriously… I just had my first blueberry-clove shake in awhile, and boy am I glad I remembered about them. I’m actually stringing a thought or two together. Not eloquently, but let’s not be fussy, ok?

It’s worth noting that I’m staying off social media until I’ve finished a couple of very important projects. I’m using my brain time in a highly focused manner.

Why? Because the seasons are changing, the barometer is bouncing around like a honeymooner’s pillow, the solar radiation (between eclipse, sunspot the size of Jupiter, and X-class flares) is doing the hesitation waltz ALL over my nervous system, and my otherwise lovely partner is genuinely addicted to TV so I have that constant, impersonal nag grating against my brain.
Sketch of brain, with bits falling off and popping out, and a bandaid over the worst
If I weren’t so well-equipped with irony and sarcasm, I’d be howling like a princess with a split nail right before her prom date.

So I remembered about my blueberry clove shakes. This reminded me that I need to prepare for the REALLY hard times that winter brings. And that made me think that there are a few principles to keep in mind for my dietary framework:

  • Vegetables. Lots of healthy vegetables.

    I have that covered for emergencies already: vegetable juice with one of those thought-out “super green” organic powders (my choice is Garden of Life’s Perfect Food.)
  • Anthocyanins in ridiculously strong doses. This is key for my brain function. Huge.
  • Something for bad pain.
  • Something for bad pain with a different protein profile, to lower the risk of developing an allergy.
  • Immune support. Winter, right? Virus heaven.

Brains which are under siege need appropriate saturated fats. I know, I know, we’re told they’re bad. Back up a bit and take a look at that, because it doesn’t hold up to closer inquiry. What we don’t need are INappropriate saturated fats, which, admittedly, are most of the ones in the grocery store.

Chocolate, coconut oil, organic palm oil, and pastured butter are appropriate fats. These are well within the kinds of foods we have been eating for thousands of years, if not longer.

One reason why a bite of something fatty is like an instant lift. The saturated fat goes right to the brain’s pleasure centers. The brain knows what it needs, and we’re wired to like it.
glee
It’s up to us to use appropriate forms of fat, which our bodies can reliably use.

When I’m fighting off a virus, I crave raw coconut, coconut oil, coconut butter, or coconut milk with a gnawing passion. I’m old enough to do what my body tells me to. Interestingly, studies are coming to light showing that just the coconut oil has real benefit for fighting off viruses, among other things. Imagine what we’ll find in the rest of the nut, one day.

For pain, I find that half a tablespoon of 100% grass-fed/pastured butter is better than a pain pill. (It cuts the pain dramatically but doesn’t make me goofy at all.) It doesn’t always last for more than a few hours, but there are no side-effects that aren’t healthy: it makes my heart stronger, helps stabilize my immune system, and reduces my tendency to pack on weight. I’ve found this to be consistently true over the years, and, since it doesn’t match our expectations of dairy fat, I checked the science.

For a fairly extensive and science-supported discussion, look here. I’ll provide some highlights.

100% pastured bovine fat, of any kind, is such an effective anti-inflammatory that it can reverse heart and vascular damage. I’m not sure why it helps moderate my weight, but I suspect it has to do with cleaning the metabolic pathways.

Conventionally-raised or grain-finished cattle are sensitive to grain, as a species, so they have ongoing low-level immune responses to their feed (even without the steroids and antibiotics normally used in beef and milk production.)
feedlot-NRCSAZ02094_-_Arizona_(471)(NRCS_Photo_Gallery)
Naturally, the histamine outfall, metabolic garbage, and fats get stored in their flesh, milk, and fat.

That’s how animal bodies work — a lot of stuff gets concentrated in our flesh and stored in our fat, and if what went into us isn’t right, what gets stored in us isn’t right, either. That’s why people pay so much for the grass-fed stuff.

Now you know 🙂

Getting pastured butter is not hard. In Ireland, grass is cheaper than grain, and (unlike New England or Wisconsin) it’s available nearly year-round.

Gorgeous black and white Frisian cows grazing deep green grass with colorful, healthy fields patchworked down to the edge of a body of water.
Breathtaking shot of Irish cows from Richard Webb

Next time you’re at a major supermarket, grab yourself a block of Kerrygold butter and try a slice on some non-inflammatory food, like a dish of steamed veggies.

Go on, try it…

Now you know what’s behind the recipes I’m going to post next.

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