Welcome to the Machine (aka: High on Tennis)

world-famous tennis player SnoopyMy kids and I decided to join a club.

It’s nothing fancy – just a local tennis and swim club, where we can spend time exercising as a family. My 14 year-old daughter is thrilled about the workout equipment and yoga classes. My 11 year-old can’t wait to use the pool. And my 16 year-old finally gets to take tennis lessons, which he’s been requesting for ages.

This weekend, however, the kids went off to visit their dad, and I headed to the club alone, racquet in hand. There was a drop-in tennis group, and tonight would be my first time joining them.

tennis loveFirst of all, I am not a newb to the tennis world. I have been an avid fan of the sport since the Williams sisters first made a splash and opened up my eyes to a sport that quickly became one of my favorite addictions (after soccer, of course). Do I play tennis? Occasionally, is what I always answer. Of course for me, occasionally meant dusting off my racket once a year or so and playing a clumsy match against other unskilled opponents. A couple of years ago, I discovered a local Meetup group and have ventured out a number of times for drop-in matches at local parks. It can be a lot of fun.

However, tonight’s tennis group was all about technique. After a few of my shots went wild, one of the more experienced players explained the difference between approaching the ball with my racket open or closed. Then another player, who turned out to be a tennis instructor, pointed out that I stopped short on every hit.

“Trust your follow-through,” he said. “It should be kind of like a golf swing.” I looked at him blankly. I had never played golf. “Or like a baseball swing.” He demonstrated a two-handed backhand, not stopping short as I had, but swinging the racket all the way through. Aha! A lightbulb flicked on in my head. I had played softball for a few years as a kid. I understood how to swing something all the way through to hit a ball. I just didn’t know I could do that in tennis, too.

Then the instructor introduced me to the Best Thing Ever. AKA, the ball machine. I had never used a ball machine to practice tennis before. For the first few minutes, I swung awkwardly, forgetting all the technique tips. The ball flew wild, to the left and the right.

tennis snoopy angry

But here’s the great thing – no one else was on the court to see me fail. I could try again and again, and try different things, and there was no criticism. I got to be my own coach.

“Okay now,” I told myself, switching into auto-coach mode. “Two handed-grip. Approach with a closed racket. Trust your follow-through.” The Machine spit out another ball. And THWACK! My backhand sent the ball sailing over the net for a perfect shot. The Machine pitched me another, and THWACK! Another incredible shot.

And suddenly, I had found it. The sweet spot. That place inside me where flames ignite, and passion takes over. It was Machine and me versus our grand opponent, the Court. My mission: backhand the heck out of each ball and land them inside the lines. And I did, again and again.

THWACK! Take that, Venus and Serena! THWACK! Take that Sharapova! THWACK! Take that, Azarenka and Clijsters! THWACK! THWACK! THWACK!

tennis balls

I was in the zone. I’m pretty sure that someone else was waiting to use the ball machine, but my new-and-improved backhand and I were locked in a relentless battle. I hit the ball over and over. When I failed, my mental coach yelled at me to make the correction and get it right. When I hit a successful shot, I cheered silently. The Machine and I kept going until the club was closing and the staff begged me to quit. Okay, I’m totally kidding. When the mosquitoes came out, and the court lights flickered on, I finally decided it was time to give the Machine a break. I drifted home, high on tennis elation.

The next morning, I woke up and groaned. I could barely move. I felt like I had thwacked myself all over with my racquet. I could have rested until the soreness went away, but I had another, more intense tennis group lesson scheduled that morning. So I did what any sane person would do – popped a couple of Advil, grabbed my pretty pink racquet, and headed back to the club for another hit of one of my favorite drugs.

 

Pink Cleats and Salt (aka: Still a Soccer Mom)

I am still a soccer mom.

I know; that’s kind of a weird thing to say when none of your three kids even play soccer anymore. My oldest, who played soccer since preschool, quit after not making the high school team. My daughter, the former competitive gymnast, tried soccer for one year, then decided she was more into track and cross-country. The youngest kid detests sports of any kind. Go figure.

But I am still a soccer mom. I am as passionate as ever about the sport, and will happily spend an entire weekend shouting at the television, rooting for my favorite teams from around the world and here in the USA (while doing homework, of course). And though my kids no longer play the sport, I am currently on two indoor soccer teams and one outdoor team.

Yes, outdoor soccer. That’s my newest adventure, running around in the wet, muddy grass on a field that seems as large as three football fields by the end of the game. Here’s a picture of my favorite ball and my pretty pink cleats, which are now muddy and not-so-pretty:

Tiare Soccer Ball and Pink Shoes 2015 (2)

Am I any good at it? Well, if you judge the skill of a forward by her ability to score goals, then I’m not very good yet. And maybe I’ll never be quite as good as the other women I play with, many of whom have been playing outdoor soccer for years and have far more skill. But it’s fun. Mostly.

Here’s the part that’s not fun: all the running. I am just not that into running. I love to run fast, but only for like, ten seconds. After that, I’m ready for a nap. That’s why I’m not a midfielder (unless I have to be).

Here’s the other part that’s not fun: the salt.

Yes, you read that right. Apparently, whenever I play outdoor soccer, I sweat salt. Great salty beads that drip into my eyes and sting like soap. Salty sweat that crusts on my skin and clothes when it dries, so I look like I rolled in chalk after each game.

Yeah, I know it’s just salt, but IT’S SO GRODY!! Ew!

Apparently, salty sweat is a perfectly natural, healthy thing. It tends to happen to athletes who eat a low-sodium diet, which I guess I do (unless I’m eating my favorite food, popcorn). So I just have to wipe the salt from my brow, drink a lot of Gatorade, and suck it up until I can get home and hop in the shower (not a bath, unless I want to turn the tub into a mini-ocean).

More on this salty sweat thing: http://www.training-conditioning.com/2007/08/09/salt_in_their_sweat/index.php

Yesterday, I did something really crazy. I played in a women’s soccer tournament. That meant three games in one day. That also meant two small bottles of water, two large bottles of Gatorade, and a very, very long shower afterward. And then what did this soccer fanatic do? No, sadly, I missed the USA vs. Mexico soccer match (which we lost, thanks to Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez). Instead, I baked sugar cookies with my kids, then snuggled with them on the couch, watching Pitch Perfect 2. Because I’m a soccer mom. And the Mom part always comes first.

C Pumpkin Sugar Cookies

Life on Two Wheels (aka: Why You Should Ride a Bike)

What if I were to tell you that I know a way that you can easily save on perhaps $100 per month is gasoline? And then, what if I were to tell you that I know a simple way to burn off up to 3000 calories per month? How about a very effective way to contribute to a greener, healthier environment? Okay, now how about all three things at the same time? No, I am not kidding. Here is the secret: Ride a Bicycle.

That’s it. Plain and simple. Oh, don’t roll your eyes. There are so many benefits to bicycle riding, not only as a form of exercise, but as a major form of local transportation. So what is keeping you from driving less and biking more? Hmm, let’s see:

1. A Bike is Too Expensive

Well, for some people, this may be true. Some families can not afford to purchase a bicycle, or a car. But for many families and individuals, buying a bicycle may be more affordable than you think. There is no need to look to pricey bike shops. Stores such as Toys R Us and Target sell a wide variety of stylish, high-quality, and affordable road bikes for less than $200. For example, the gorgeous silver Schwinn bike that I bought at Target eight years ago for around $150 still functions perfectly today. And yesterday, to reward my 8th grade graduate, I purchased a very sturdy and cool-looking men’s road bike on clearance at Toys R Us for less than $60. Yes, seriously. (Shh…don’t tell my teen. He thinks I paid a lot more money for it). The point is, unless you are just a total snob who will never buy a bicycle unless it is some top-of-the-line $700 bike from a fancy bike shop, many middle-class people can afford to buy a bicycle. And the cost of savings on gasoline alone will make the purchase worthwhile very quickly.

Graduation Bike Present

2. I Am Too Lazy to Ride a Bike

Well, at least you are honest about it. We live in a lazy (and obese) society. But before you shrug off bike riding as something for people with lots of energy, consider this: A study published in the journal Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics found that bike riding improved energy levels by 20 percent and decreased fatigue by 65 percent. Go figure – expending a little energy to ride your bike to the store actually rewards you with more energy. Not to mention that fact that leisurely bike riding ( <10mph) can burn around 300 calories per hour. And the fact that biking is easier on the joints than other forms of exercise, like running or even walking. So get off the couch, lazybones!

3. I Don’t Have the Equipment or Mechanical Skills

What equipment? All you really need is a helmet. Oh, and a bike pump. At some point, it will help to have a couple of other basic tools, like an allen wrench, some lube, and one of those plastic thingies for changing out inner tubes. As far as mechanical skills, keeping a bike maintained is easy-peasy. And no, I am not a mechanically-inclined person. The idea of doing repairs more complex than a change of batteries often sets off mini panic attacks. If I were a Sim, I’m pretty sure I would only have 3 out of 10 mechanical points. But even I can manage to replace the inner tube of a bike tire. And unless you don’t have any hands, so can you. (Although I’m not sure you should ride a bike if you don’t have hands). You do not need special sneakers or spandex biker shorts to ride a bicycle. Whichever clothes you normally wear are fine (although if you are a women who enjoys wearing short skirts, you may want to wear pants beneath your skirt. You can always take them off when you reach your destination).

4. What About My Small Children? What About Cargo?

It is now easier than ever to turn bike riding into reliable family transportation. There are many options available, from ride-on infant carriers to child tandem-bike attachments for older kids who still don’t have the hang of riding independently. When my children were very small, I spent around $100 to buy a two-seat child trailer like the one below. When my youngest son was around 1, and his sister 4 years old, I used to strap them into the trailer, and we happily cycled together to the park, the library, and the grocery store. It was safe, durable, and very convenient to use. Sure, more expensive models exist, but don’t let price deter you from involving your young children in your regular bike rides.

As for cargo, the child trailer is also a great solution for larger loads. But for normal, small trips to the grocery store, school, etc., I find that it helps to wear a backpack to carry a bag or two. You can also mount an inexpensive metal cargo rack or basket to the front or rear of your bike for additional cargo needs. 2-Child Bike Trailer

Are you convinced yet? I hope so. Biking is such a time-tested, practical way to travel around your community. It is great for your health, great for the environment, and great for your wallet, too. What more do you need to convince you that biking is a positive lifestyle choice, not only for you, but for your entire family? Go — dust off that old bike in the back of your garage and start cycling!

The Power of 3 (aka: Finding Balance for a Healthy Life)

I think that the number 3 is the key to a balanced life. I know, I know, it is an odd number, which makes it seem counterintuitive. However, I have found that my life is most fulfilling when I strike a balance of nurturing the three parts that make up my whole person: Mind, Body, and Spirit. Each part is equally essential for a balanced, healthy life. Here are some examples of ways to nurture your entire self:

Mind Body Spirit

MIND

  • Read Literature – This is different from merely reading for pleasure. Read the classics, the Great Books, the time-tested literature that will expand your mind and stretch your imagination. Don’t have time to read? Listen to an audiobook during your daily commute.
  • Learn a Foreign Language
  • Puzzles and Word Games – Crossword puzzles, Sudoku, jigsaw puzzles, or my personal favorite, Scrabble.
  • Learn about another culture – This world is such a huge and interesting place. Pick a country and learn all that you can about its history, its culture, and its people.
  • Take a college course – College classes are not only to advance one’s career. There are many online courses available, including free courses for anyone who is interested.  YogaBalance1

BODY

  • Commit to an exercise routine three days of each week (There’s that number 3 again).  — Stick to it.
  • Learn a new sport or physical activity. — Not a runner? Try yoga, or swimming, or an adult drop-in soccer or volleyball league.
  • Eat less meat. – You don’t have to become a vegan or vegetarian to enjoy meatless meals. There are huge health benefits to cutting out meat even on an occasional basis. Try making a goal of eating a meatless lunch or dinner three days per week. This doesn’t mean you have to eat like a rabbit. Explore the internet or your local library for healthy and delicious meal ideas.
  • Move your body as much as possible. – Avoid shortcuts. Park in the back of the parking lot and walk. Skip the elevator and take the stairs. Walk in place while watching television. Just keep moving.
  • Sex – (No advice here, but some would say that regular sex nurtures the body, mind, AND spirit) Nourishing relationships feeds the spirit

SPIRIT

  • Keep a journal – More than just a record of your daily activities, a journal is a way to express your personal thoughts and ideas as you travel down the path of life. Or you can do as I do – write a blog. Just be cautious — remember that the rest of the world can read your journal, too.
  • Read what makes you happy – This is a different type of reading. Whether you enjoy reading children’s novels, humor books, or just plain smut, read what makes you smile. A little book candy every now and then is good for the spirit.
  • Give back to your community – Get involved in a community service project, plant flowers along the roadways, pick up litter in the local park, or visit with the elderly in a neighborhood care home. You may be surprised at how altruism nurtures your own spirit while improving the lives of other people.
  • Become an encourager. Smile at strangers and wish them a good day. Give your neighbors a basket of homemade muffins. Write thank you notes and send get well cards to people. Make friendly comments to other people or Facebook or Twitter or Pinterest, or whichever online social community you prefer.
  • Surround yourself with beauty – Display beautiful artwork in your home or office. Take time to look at other people’s beautiful photography on Flickr. Go for hikes out in nature. Listen to beautiful music that feeds your spirit.
  • Find religion – Dedicate yourself to the belief system that brings you the greatest sense of peace and belonging to something greater than yourself.
  • Develop friendships – Get together regularly to talk, laugh, and enjoy life with other people. That way, you not only nurture your own spirit, but you will also nurture the spirits of other people in your life.

Balance and Happiness in Life

I am most certainly not an expert in achieving a balanced life. In truth, I often fail in several of these ideas – especially the ones which involve other people. But just because something is difficult to do, it does not mean it is not worth trying. Perhaps striving for balance is like climbing a mountain. In order to climb, you must have a sturdy anchor, a rope, and the strength or your own body. When you put these three together, you can keep climbing; keep advancing inch by inch toward the summit.

Girl on Fire (aka Allergic to Exercise)

Run interrupted It happened again this morning. Like I do so often, I pulled on my sneakers and went for a run. It started out beautifully – cool, sunny weather, an empty park, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers blasting through my earbuds. But less than ten minutes later, it all went wrong.

First, a flush of warmth spread throughout my midsection. Within seconds, this turned into a hot flush, and my skin began to itch. As I continued to jog around the park, the sensation intensified, until I was overwhelmed with discomfort. It felt as though my body was on fire, yet excruciatingly itchy at the same time. (Cue Music: Girl on Fire – Alicia Keys).

Girl on fire

By the time I made it back to my car, I was in tears, covered with hives, feeling as though I was being attacked by a swarm of flaming mosquitoes. I sank into the driver’s seat and sat there, unmoving, for several minutes, until the symptoms gradually subsided and I could relax.

I know what you are wondering. What the heck happened during that run? Obviously, that was not normal. Well, it is something that began when I was in my early twenties. When the weird symptoms first began, I described them to my doctor. “Huh,” he said. “That’s weird.”

Gee. Thanks, doc.

Over time, I sought the opinions of three more physicians, including a dermatologist. One doctor even sent me to the hospital for a treadmill test in order to induce the reaction. No one had any idea how to diagnose me. No one had any recommendations for treatment, other than Benadryl and avoidance of exercise. Since Benadryl made me feel like I was swimming in syrup throughout the day, I began to avoid exercise. This was so hard to do! I was so athletic. I have always loved to play sports, ride my bike, and dance around my living room. Suddenly, I was forced to do nothing more than occasional slow walks around the block. Medical Mystery

And then, thanks to the amazing powers of Google, I began to come across accounts of other people suffering from similar symptoms. And behold! Suddenly my weird condition had a name: Cholinergic Urticaria. An allergic reaction to exercise. Seriously. Apparently, whenever my body core begins to heat up, I suffer a hypersensitive response that does not stop until I stop moving. For some people, this response can even lead to anaphylactic shock. Luckily, I have never experienced that reaction. And luckily, I finally found a doctor who was familiar with the problem and directed me toward THE wonder drug for people with cholinergic urticaria: Zyrtec. Hooray for Zyrtec! God bless the makers of Zyrtec!

No one knows for sure what causes cholinergic urticaria. Doctors and medical researchers have various theories – genetics, environment, food allergies, auto-immune reactions. No one knows exactly how to treat it, either, since not everyone responds well to antihistamines or steroids. “Avoid activities that may lead to a reaction,” the medical community recommends. In other words, avoid sports, avoid hot showers, avoid sex, and avoid exercise of any kind, especially in cold weather. Ha! Thankfully, I do respond well to antihistamines, and so long as I take my wonder pill every day, I do not have to limit my exercise. I can run, play soccer, and ride my bike as much as I want. But if I slip up and do not take my pill (like today), then the consequences are severe.

Many sufferers of cholinergic urticaria are told to avoid exercise

Many sufferers of cholinergic urticaria are told to avoid exercise

Well, now that I once again have Zyrtec coursing through my veins, battling histamines like a well-trained army, I can now move once again. Perhaps I will go and finish that run, or turn up the Red Hot Chili Peppers and dance around my living room.

Additional Reading on Cholinergic Urticaria:

http://www.cigna.com/individualandfamilies/health-and-well-being/hw/medical-topics/urticaria-cholinergic-nord249.html

http://www.aafp.org/afp/2001/1015/p1367.html

http://www.cholinergicurticaria.net/

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20086478

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6169753

http://running.about.com/od/illnessesandrunning/ss/embarrassing_6.htm