Archives for category: Health

(Timothy Clary/AFP Photo)

In January I started swimming regularly for the first time in about twenty years. When I wrote about it at the time I said that I wasn’t swimming for competition; I said that I was just doing it for myself. And I think I meant that. Now it’s ten months later and I’ve been steadily adding more and more to my workouts and swimming has pretty much taken over from my other exercise routine. I started off swimming 1000 yards three days a week. As I got more comfortable, I added a fourth day and then a fifth. Then I started edging up the distance. I was swimming faster and requiring less time to rest. I started keeping a log of my distance totals and every once in a while I would time myself. You know, just to see how I was doing. Nothing serious.

Of course there was absolutely nothing vaguely competitive about any of this. Racing never crossed my mind– not even when I caught myself secretly trying to pass the guy in the lane next to me. I found Swimplan and punched in some of the statistics I’d gathered over those first few months to establish a profile. I have really appreciated Swimplan and have recommended it to several of the other regulars I’ve met at the pool. That first workout added fifty percent more to my regular workout, and it’s kept steadily increasing ever since. Up until last week, I was averaging a total of 10000 yards per week. I’ve fallen into a comfortable routine — five days on, two days off — swimming Friday through Tuesday. On the three weekdays I swim over my lunch break; The pool is just two blocks away. On the weekends, I try to swim first thing in the morning.

Then a couple of things happened in rapid succession that altered my thinking. In one week at the pool I had three people ask me if I swam competitively: two mentioning the US Masters Swimming program, and the third talking to me about triathlons. At the time, this seemed like coincidence, but now I can say with some confidence that it probably wasn’t entirely coincidence. The Chicago Triathlon, the Wisconsin Ironman and the Chicago Marathon were all scheduled to run within about a month of the comments, marking the culmination of the summer triathlon season.

A goal is not always meant to be reached. It often serves simply as something to aim for. — Bruce Lee

I had a new goal. I’d accomplished most of what I’d sought out to do. I was comfortable in the water again. I was getting stronger and continuing to lose weight. I was feeling better about myself. The objective data was there for anyone to analyse: times were quicker, distances longer. It was time to step it up again.

So last weekend I signed up for Masters swimming. I joined a team and last night I attended my first official workout. The Chicago Blue Dolphins practice out of the UIC facility about a mile and a half from home on the southeastern corner of the campus. It has two gorgeous pools in the building. The large pool is a huge pool: eight lane 50-meter by ten lane 25-yard pool and a large diving well offset on the deep end. The small pool is a more typical six lane 25-yard pool. The workouts are challenging, effectively doubling the longer workouts I’ve been doing on my own through Swimplan. New drills, new techniques and coaches there to help make adjustments and provide encouragement.

From what I can tell, the competitive swim meet season starts in January, so I’ve got a bit of time left to practice before then. Regardless, it’s a powerful motivation and one I’m really excited about undertaking.

A team of neurosurgeons out of Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf have completed a comprehensive study on traumatic brain injury in the Asterix comics. I know this because they wrote a paper about it and had it published. The title of their paper is “Traumatic brain injuries in illustrated literature: experience from a series of over 700 head injuries in the Asterix comic books”. The publisher is the European journal of neurosurgery, Acta Neurochirurgica, the official journal of the European Association of Neurosurgical Societies (EANS). They publish papers on clinical neurosurgery: including diagnostic techniques, operative surgery, postoperative treatment and results.

And on at least one occasion they publish galgenhumor.

I have not read Asterix in twenty years or so. I remember them as being very funny. I first encountered the comic while living in Germany. I mostly read English and German translations. But there was a time when I tried my hand at reading the native French edition of the book as a way of supplementing my French coursework at the Tübinger Volkshochschule. That was funny, too.

(For different reasons. No, je ne veux pas besprechen.)

Now I want to get my hands on this paper. If it is anything like the abstract, I’m sure I’m going to find it hilarious.

Background: The goal of the present study was to analyze the epidemiology and specific risk factors of traumatic brain injury (TBI) in the Asterix illustrated comic books. Among the illustrated literature, TBI is a predominating injury pattern.

Methods: A retrospective analysis of TBI in all 34 Asterix comic books was performed by examining the initial neurological status and signs of TBI. Clinical data were correlated to information regarding the trauma mechanism, the sociocultural background of victims and offenders, and the circumstances of the traumata, to identify specific risk factors.

Results: Seven hundred and four TBIs were identified. The majority of persons involved were adult and male. The major cause of trauma was assault (98.8%). Traumata were classified to be severe in over 50% (GCS 3–8). Different neurological deficits and signs of basal skull fractures were identified. Although over half of head-injury victims had a severe initial impairment of consciousness, no case of death or permanent neurological deficit was found. The largest group of head-injured characters was constituted by Romans (63.9%), while Gauls caused nearly 90% of the TBIs. A helmet had been worn by 70.5% of victims but had been lost in the vast majority of cases (87.7%). In 83% of cases, TBIs were caused under the influence of a doping agent called “the magic potion”.

Conclusions: Although over half of patients had an initially severe impairment of consciousness after TBI, no permanent deficit could be found. Roman nationality, hypoglossal paresis, lost helmet, and ingestion of the magic potion were significantly correlated with severe initial impairment of consciousness (p ≤ 0.05).


Thanks to my degenerate friends, I came into a little bit of cash at our poker game last week. Friday I spent my poker winnings on a pair of hockey skates and then proceeded to immediately head over to Millennium Park and try them out on the outdoor rink. Returning to the ice is (as I’m sure you have surmised) phase three of my time machine project.

I skated regularly as a kid. My hometown has a nice, full-sized ice rink. As an added bonus, the rink was only lightly used. Everyone else wanted to play baseball, I think. The rink had a lot of good things going for it. It was close to my dad’s office. It was open year-round — which made it particularly appealing on those scorching days of summer in the desert. And it was across the street from the best comic book shop in town.

I skated there a lot growing up. I desperately wanted to play hockey there but lost on appeal in the court of parental oversight. We had a number of popular roller-rinks in town as well, but I always preferred the ice rink. It was great.

So here I am, twenty years older and not a day wiser, strapping on some new skates and heading out onto the ice once more. Of course I invited my friends to join me. Many were convinced this had to be one of the worst ideas I have ever come up with. Tempting horrible physical and psychological trauma this close to the anniversary of that Brain Mishap. That’s saying something, because I’ve had some really bad ideas over the years. T. was more supportive:

You win the prize for picking the cutest group activity chosen by a grown ass man.

At least I think she meant that supportively. You don’t think she was being cynical, do you?

So anyway, some scheduling complications meant that we scheduled two trips to the ice rink this past weekend. The brief one Friday night at Millennium Park. T., Hurricane, and niqui joined Whirl on the sidelines while Hurricane and I skated for a while. We did a longer skate Saturday afternoon. Whirl has never ice skated.

So Saturday when we regrouped. Farmboy, Princess, niqui, Whirl and I met over at the smaller outdoor rink at Daley Bicentennial Plaza on the north side of Grant Park and skated for a couple hours. Whirl and Princess both skated for the first time ever. Nobody got hurt. Both newcomers did really well and said they had a lot of fun and would like to do it again. It was a great time outside on the ice.

Farmboy put on a strong pitch to get my skills up and consider joining him in a pick-up amateur hockey league and I have to say the proposal has a lot of appeal.

All time travel stories have to contend with the issue of paradox. Farmboy’s proposal and its implementation inside my time machine raises that issue in a very personal way: What would happen if I were to travel back and time and defy the ruling of the court of parental oversight?

Tomorrow I fire up the second phase of my time machine project. Tomorrow I’m attending my first class at the Goethe Institut. I signed up for an eleven-week course in intermediate German after completing the Einstufungstest. This is something I’ve wanted to do for years as I slowly stood by and allowed my language skills atrophy with lack of use. This January marks the twentieth anniversary of the beginning of my year abroad in Germany. Personally, socially, academically — that year was one of the most enriching times in my life I have ever experienced. And now looking back on it I feel that I have squandered some of what I worked so hard to develop while there. I’m setting out to recapture it before it is gone entirely.

So with that mindset firmly fixed in place I stepped into the offices of the school — just a few blocks from where I live — and turned in the written portion of my exam. I underwent the subsequent oral examination. The speaking component was much less formal, much more conversational than the written. Despite that informality I felt self-conscious, almost embarrassed for myself. I knew that I knew how to do this, and yet I didn’t. I floundered. I stammered. I reached for words that at one time I knew were ready at hand only to have them slip traitorously from my grasp.

I’ll get them back.

They might have escaped me this once, but I will get them back. I’m determined. I’m excited. Walking home from the institute down Randolph and Wabash I felt a version of the same rush I remember when walking across the Kurfürstendamm in Berlin to get back to the small apartment I shared with my fellow students from Geneva. I’ve taken to thinking this is a sign that my time machine is working.

When I got home I collected my trusty Duden, and my Langenscheidts Kurzgrammatik. The next day I headed over to Beck’s Book Store to pick up my textbooks for the course. It’s been fifteen years since I’ve done anything like this.

Tomorrow: jetzt geht’s los!

I’m building a time machine. It’s not an actual machine. It’s not some device that will bend space and time or carry me to another period in history. No the machine I’m building is mostly in my mind. And when I come right out and think about it, it’s not a machine at all. It’s a mission — an assignment I’ve given myself to re-energize interests and activities from earlier in my life. I got to thinking about all the things that my friends were doing for themselves in the spirit of a principle AK first mentioned to me a couple years ago when we were working together: “personal enrichment”. He told me about how he liked to take on particular projects for himself not to necessarily do something for any particular overt benefit. He took up craft brewing. He learned how to ride a motorcycle. No fame, no fortune, no name in lights. Nothing like that. But just to do something that would expand his life. Give him a new skill, a new experience. Personal enrichment.

I thought it was a great principle. I like the sense of initiative. I like how it serves to break routines and avoid getting stuck in ruts — bad habits.

And more recently I’ve noticed a number of things that my friends have been doing that I might also categorize as “personal enrichment”. They’re hobbies, really, but they’re hobbies followed up with passion and importance that provide a sense of well-being. T. told me this week that she is setting a goal for herself to read every Hugo Award winning novel. Hurricane, Steamboat, niqui, Farmboy and Princess are all going (or going back) to school to pursue a college degree. Bitsy is starting to aggressively train for RAGBRAI this summer. niqui is training for a triathlon this spring. Princess wants to learn how to knit.

So I decided to pursue my own little “personal enrichment” activities. And what I’ve chosen to do is to return to activities I used to enjoy twenty years ago or so. In the interim, for one reason or another I had abandoned them. My return to photography was the first of these activities. It’s a sentimental return to a version of myself from twenty years ago, but seen through the eyes of someone twice that age. Time travel in my head.

In November, 2007 I started working out regularly and dropped a significant amount of weight. Last month I returned to the swimming pool for regular exercise. I added swimming as part of my “eat less, move more” diet plan. I like this plan for its simplicity. I eat what I want; I just eat less. And I make sure and move a little bit each day. I walk to and from work. I was going to the gym three times a week– now five. Today marks six weeks of adding swimming to the mix of workouts. Swimming again feels very good but I have to say this was way easier when I was 18. Last week I hit the one mile milestone I’d been working towards. I’m feeling comfortable in the water again. Now I’m trying to see what I can do to start building up a bit of speed. I was surprised how quickly it came back to me. I’m not looking to be competitive. I’m not doing this to be part of a race. I’m just doing it to feel better about myself, to provide a bit of relaxation and tranquility. I mentioned to Whirl that I was particularly appreciating the sense of isolation that the pool provided. Since returning to the gym I’ve been doing most of my workouts during my lunch. It provides a good break from sitting at my desk, gets me out of the office and reinvigorates me for the afternoons. I use the time to listen to music or podcasts and just take myself out of whatever stressors are surrounding me in the workplace.

Swimming removes even those potential distractions. It’s just me and the water. I think about breathing. I count laps. The rest is empty.

My Stroke of Insight, Jill Bolte TaylorIn February 2008, Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor gave a fascinating talk for TED about her experience with having a stroke. She called this life-changing event her stroke of insight. In the talk she explains the asymmetry of the brain in in vivid detail. She published a book about the same experiences, My Stroke of Insight. I’ve already written about my interest in Dr. Taylor — the Singing Scientist. I want to add that I have had the opportunity to read her book and to delve more deeply into her thoughts and opinions on brain trauma.

My interest in the brain — perception, cognition, language, reason, emotion — these things continue to consume me. I find references, allusions and reminders to my own experiences in the most unlikely places. It is comforting to me to see parallels in the experiences of others. It is enlightening to me to find new insights, and new approaches to what otherwise might be simple terror.

Taylor is a fascinating woman with a powerful story to tell.

Smokes found this 2008 TED Talk by Jill Bolte Taylor and pointed it out to me. I was hooked immediately. In her talk Taylor takes us through the dramatic self-analysis of a massive stroke she suffered in 1996 and shares insights about the nature of perception, personality and creativity. What makes this talk interesting to a general audience is that Taylor is a neuroanatomist — a brain scientist. The stroke provided her with an opportunity that few people come across — and perhaps even fewer would desire. Taylor has made the most of the opportunity, rejoining:

“How many brain scientists have been able to study the brain from the inside out? I’ve gotten as much out of this experience of losing my left mind as I have in my entire academic career.”

What make this talk interesting to me as a specific audience are the similarities between her experiences with her stroke and my experiences with my own brain trauma. Four years ago nearly to the day I underwent a second brain surgery to clear a large blood clot and relieve fluid pressure on my left frontal lobe. It was an illuminating event for me that sparked my own slow return to something resembling normal. It also awakened a latent interest into brain function. This blog’s first major purpose was to chronicle my experience and recovery and from time to time I have gone back and re-read some of those rough initial posts from 2005 and sought out new insights into what transpired. I don’t mean to equate my trauma as identical to Taylor’s, but to draw a loose line of similarity between these life-changing events and underline the complexity of brain function and neuroscience with a personal perspective.

The chance for Taylor present her talk at TED is huge. I highly recommend the 2007 documentary The Future We Will Create for a look inside this annual conference and its mission to illuminate “ideas worth spreading”. The documentary is available as DVD and live streaming through Netflix.

She concludes her talk with a challenge to the preconceptions of personality and creativity. She challenges the audience to choose to live inside the creative power of our minds:

Which do you choose? And when? I believe that the more time we spend choosing to run the deep inner-peace circuitry of our right hemispheres the more peace we will project into the world and the more peaceful our world will be. And I thought that was an idea worth spreading.

Mass Start 3Whirl and I got up early this morning to see the start of the Chicago Marathon. And when I say early, I mean early. The sun was not yet up when we headed up to Millennium Park. I had hoped to shoot the start of the race from the BP Bridge. I am a fan of the bridge and its architect, Frank Gehry. This morning I was not a fan of When I arrived an inconvenient sign notified me that only credentialed media photographers would be granted access. I briefly considered trying to flash my Chicago Tribune badge. While having drinks with Genaro Molina and Myung J. Chun, photographers from the Los Angeles Times, at this year’s political conventions, Genaro informed me that often the company ID badge is all the credential he has needed to gain access to shoot. So I thought about it. And then thought better of it– slinking off to shoot from the Randolph Street bridge with the rest of the great unwashed.

While waiting for the race, we caught a rare glimpse of two of the peregrine falcons Whirl monitors for the Field Museum. They were circling above us, maybe forty of fifty stories up between the Aon Tower and the Prudential Building.

As the warm morning light came over the trees, thirty-five thousand people took off in a mass for the start of this year’s marathon. I was not there to cheer on anyone in particular. No one I know personally was running this year; I just wanted to be a part of the start of it. To get a few pictures and enjoy one of the last great weekends outside before autumn turns to a cold winter.

Superheroes (and a Villain)The race route traveled through twenty-nine Chicago neighborhoods. I took a number of pictures along the start on Columbus before moving to the LaSalle Street bridge. There I took a few more pictures and asked Whirl if she wanted to hop the el down to Chinatown to catch up to the leaders. But by this point she was getting hungry so we settled for a quiet breakfast at the South Water Kitchen before making our way home.

I’m not sure I’ll ever garner enough courage to try a marathon. I am fairly certain I have the endurance for it, if I put my mind to it. I’m less confident about surviving the pounding my feet and legs would take. — And I’d need to drop the rest of this weight I’ve been steadily taking off over the past year. Nonetheless, the difference between walking twenty-six miles and running them is pretty big. Still, it was impressive to see this many people test themselves against a true test of strength and willpower. For those of you who did run: I applaud you.

Well done!

I have begun down a path to dismantle one of my most interesting labs:

Almost four years ago I put phaedo together. I designed the server to accomplish a number of different tasks. Initially I wanted a server that would function as a fileserver for our home and a mailserver for Internet email. My ISP supports customers running servers on their end of consumer-grade DSL. I used the server as an experimental platform. I worked on projects involving CMS systems, SQL server, DHCP, perl, advanced sendmail and milter configurations and a number of other scenarios over the course of its life.

So in early January 2005 I got phaedo up and running and successfully installed at home. I was proud of my accomplishments. I had set up a blog under the CMS system and was searching for topics to write about. Two weeks later I found the subject that would consume me for over a year: my brain injury. The first posts I made on the system were me chronicling my injury and subsequent recovery. What I have not talked about is the curious development that the systems I was using to publish my thoughts– blog, email, chat server– were brand new constructions. I quite literally had completed the design and installation just a week or so before I went into a ten-day coma.

So phaedo’s second laboratory function came around as part of my recovery process. I had to relearn what I had designed. I had to dismantle parts and put them back together to reteach myself critical system administration tasks. This was painful and slow and filled with anxiety and distress. I desperately wanted to succeed. And brain trauma is a very effective way to complicate those sorts of broad plans– or any plans, for that matter.

Over three years later and the same server continues to putter along reliably in our loft. I have made improvements over the years and some minor changes, but at its core it is essentially the same system as the one I started to build in the week between Christmas 2004 and New Years 2005.

Technology has advanced, my work has changed. — Part of the original design was to set up a space that could function as a testbed for systems that I was working on in the office. But more important than either of those, my life has changed. I’ve come to the conclusion that I do not want to be a full-time system administrator both at work and at home. I have other hobbies that I enjoy now. I want those hobbies to provide a relief from distress, not add to it.

All of this is my overly candid way of saying that this website will be changing. This will be the last post I make on phaedo. Stephanie and I plan to continue the weblog. Stephanie has already moved her falcon journal to its new home. I invite you, one of the countless legion of faithful readers, to our new homes:

The Erinyes Weblog
Peregrine Falcon Journal

War Protest 2An excited mob of bicyclists took over the intersection of East Monroe Drive and South Michigan Avenue while I was on my way home from work. At first I thought this stream of noisy cyclists was Critical Mass out for their last Friday of the month, traffic-stopping escapades. And it might have been part of that originally. But this much smaller group of cyclists, hundreds rather than thousands, let me know they were an impromptu moving protest against the War in Iraq and the Bush administration. I hastily yanked the camera out and took a couple of quick pictures. Shortly after I did that the heavens opened up and drowned the Loop in heavy rain.

I don’ t think the two events– the protest ride and the thunderstorm– were connected. I write this will full knowledge that my relationship with bicycles has undergone a radical change since the brain injury. I used to view the bicycle as an excellent means of transportation. Light, fast and flexible– bicycles are not nearly as clumsy or loud as automobiles. No pollution, good exercise. Bicycles have a lot going for them. It’s just that they’ve tried to kill me. Twice. I was glad to escape this encounter without ending up back in a coma.

Even with the downpour I made it home with a minimum of sogginess. Safely. On foot.