Stingaree at Indented Head

And now for something completely different. Here’s a stingaree!

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Why I love the gym since this often confuses people… (Hypermobility, episode 1)

My love of the gym is weird to many. Here is my explanation (no, it’s not just endorphins)

When I was a kid, it didn’t take me too long to work out that most of the other kids were a bit different from me. It wasn’t the reading or the red hair or the good marks that really set me apart, at least not as far as I was concerned. It was the fact that other kids appeared to be able to do magical, superhero things with their bodies.

My first ever P.E. report (tender age of five) read, “Kate is unco-ordinated.” This meant nothing to me at the time. Looking back, it’s just a concise summary of how I felt.

I felt like, when all the other kids were receiving normal human kid-bodies that leapt and ran like fleet-footed bipedal gazelles and tumbled and swung like unusually tall spider monkeys, I had somehow been given a weird, lumpy, alien flesh-machine. Where others raced and flew, I bounced and flopped. I was out of breath. I was chubby. I couldn’t cross the monkey bars. Nothing seemed to quite work the way it should. There was nothing in particular wrong with me (this is true. I have always been able-bodied and am in no way trying to claim a disability here. This is just the story of how I live in my body). It all just felt wrong.

This didn’t stop me doing some things. I rode my bike (slowly). I swam (badly). I jumped rope (differently from how other people do it, which is relevant to this story – I never actually jumped, I just kind of stepped quickly and kicked my legs back). I liked stretching and doing forward somersaults on the big gym mats. These were my limits, though.

Some of the lack of co-ordination was down to undiagnosed short-sightedness. After I got laser eye surgery a few years back, it turns out that I can (at least sometimes) catch things thrown to me, rather than simply squeaking, ducking and trying to blindly bat them away from my head. That helped.

I felt like I could never quite explain why some things were so hard. I knew I was unfit, but that wasn’t the whole story. Things hurt. Joints hurt. Not in an arthritic way, not in a broken-bone way, and not in a “your muscles are just weak and will get stronger as you go” way.

Several years ago, I was having knee problems. My doctor explained that my patella was, and I quote: “rather like the surface of the moon.” Great. I’d started going to gym and doing high impact exercise, and this is what my freaking body does to me; it breaks its goddamn knees. Nice work, cartilage. Thanks a bunch.

A few years later, in the hope of running without knee pain, I started running barefoot, and discovered that I quite enjoyed it, but ultimately this lead to other problems.

Enter the physio and the podiatrist, and my current epiphany, which explains everything right down to why I never jumped rope the same way the other kids did.

The flailing. The bouncing. The hurting. The lack of control and co-ordination. It all comes down to range of motion. Since my joints are too mobile, I can’t control where they go – or rather, I can, but only if I am doing things very slowly and concentrating rather fiercely. This explains why I can’t run (at present) but why I can, in fact, swim without too much trouble (the water pressure contains the excess motion and it’s easier for me to be in charge of where all my limbs go). Swimming is glorious because it is, for me, almost pure cardio – the muscles work and build but they are not frantically working to keep my hips and ankles and knees where they should be. I’ll concede that it does get a bit trickier with a tank, 10+kgs of dive weights, and a current, and that there’s a reason I went with split fins for scuba diving.

My friend Nadia convinced me to try gym classes and I finally plucked up the courage to walk into a BodyPump class (this is back before the your-knee-is-full-of-craters conversation). If it sounds strange that one needs courage, most of my previous experiences of exercise with other people around tended to result in at least embarrassment on my part, if not downright humiliation.

I was a convert.

People look at me strangely for treating a trip to the gym as a reward for a job well done, and that’s fine. Not everyone likes gym. Weight training is gym training, essentially, and I will always love gym because of weight training (also stretching, but that’s another story).

When I train with weights, I am isolating muscle groups. I am working on one thing at a time. I am planting my feet or seated on a machine and I only have to worry about one set of joints. Usually the exercise is done in such a way that it braces joints anyway, although bench press gives me trouble because of my wrists (they don’t hurt, I’m just constantly rotating them to make sure they don’t tip back too far, because they really want to). Tricep kickbacks. Bicep curls.

One thing at a goddamn time, and it actually works and I can actually feel it. It feels right. It feels how I imagine most other people’s bodies feel most of the time. It doesn’t bounce and flop and hurt.

I can control my range of motion when I do weight training.

When I do other things that move too fast – aerobics classes, for example – I have to keep too many things in line at once. The hips will shift or the knees or the ankles or the wrists – something will go. While I am trying to keep those where they are supposed to be, that will overload the supporting muscles, so meanwhile the other muscles will try to compensate and get overloaded themselves, and it becomes a vortex of hypermobile disaster. I can do combat classes and step classes and so on, but I do them in a slow, low impact style because otherwise I’ll probably do my ankle.

The feeling of being in charge of how my body is moving has been so foreign to me, so unachievable, that doing a set of weights feels like I’m triumphantly flipping off the universe. I’m not amazing at weights. My technique is not perfect. All the same, when I do a clean-and-press, I might as well be dancing Swan Lake for how good I feel.

Learning how to run barefoot was like that, but multipled by hundreds, thousands, because I could never ever ever run before that. Running barefoot gave me more control over how my feet landed. Running in shoes makes me feel like I have weights glued to the end of my ankles. Remember how my ankles are hypermobile, and it’s hard enough to control where they go? Adding stiff, unbending weights to them multiplies the problem.

But running barefoot, unfortunately, means that, even though I am finally in charge of my feet to a marvellous and empowering degree, I am less in charge of my legs (at least, the right leg, which is the really stupid one). Not being in charge of my legs means I end up overloading my feet anyway (but at least not my knees. For once) (note: when I was starting out very slowly and working up to 5k barefoot, my legs actually survived the experience very well – but I did have to concentrate fiercely to keep my right leg landing straight on. Recently I started running again after a break and overdid it and now I have zero power to keep my leg straight).

At the moment the compromise is to have a very light, flexible shoe with orthotics in it. In combination with my physio strengthening exercises, it’s actually working quite well – the other day I completely forgot to change to my light shoes for the treadmill work and managed a good run without even noticing (very slight shin pain, so I’ve taken a few days off from running and will get back to it tomorrow).

In recent times I’ve investigated hypermobility more closely. It very much appears that I may have Ehlers-Danlo Syndrome / Hyper mobility type (or hypermobility syndrome, or joint hypermobility – names and classifications vary). I have the stretchy skin, the myopia (at least prior to the laser eye surgery), the sensitisation, the painful gut involvement, the (juvenile) asthma, the poor proprioception (exacerbated in the presence of progesterone. Yay?).

I also score 7/9 on the Beighton test – the only thing I can’t do is bend my thumbs back onto my arms, and apparently if you score 4 or more that fulfills a major criteria. The minor criteria include dislocations and subluxations (hell yes), myopia (yes), stretchy skin (yes, although I only worked this out recently when I realised that not everyone can pinch the skin on the back of their hand that way) and a bunch of other things.

In terms of classic hypermobility, it all does explain why I can’t do shoulder presses (my ligaments hurt) and even when I do the shoulders never get stronger, why I developed RSI from pipetting (Gilson pipettes – heavy spring action; I’m fine with Eppendorf and more lightweight and ergonomic pipettes) when no-one else seems to do so, and why stretching feels so amazing at the time and later on starts to hurt in a suspicious and sneaky way. It explains why I fell over at least once every day in primary school, why I could never cross the monkey bars, why it took me two years to learn to ride my bike without training wheels, why I can’t do cartwheels but I can put my hands flat on the ground without bending my legs, why I walk funny

I’ll be writing more on this as I am currently fascinated and it falls into my category of biomedical obsessions (with an intriguing genetic slant). The down side is that, since it is genetic, there’s no cure or treatment (so I’m stuck with the occasional agonising gut cramps that make me pass out but hey, codeine still works). The up side is that, if I know what’s going on, I have a much better chance of avoiding injury. I’ve already worked out some alternative weight training that will build muscles without overextending around the joint (i.e., no more shoulder presses or tricep presses. Assisted chin-ups and tricep pull-overs or kickbacks are much better).

I will also be visiting the local clinical pilates business and seeing if they can help me. Watch this space.

[This was originally posted on my private blog a few months ago, and the last few paragraphs were added in response to some reading I’ve been doing over the last few days. I feel as though I may have opened a biomechanical can of worms, here. – KN]

Rescue Dog Filtering and Dog Breed Know-How

At the moment, Husband and I are in the market for a rescue dog. It’s a lifetime commitment (for the dog, at least) so we are pretty specific as to what we want. I’m ruminating on this subject a lot lately and after a few discussions with other dog owners have come to the conclusion that most people just do not know enough about various dog breeds before they adopt or buy (not that a known breed is essential, but there are traits that it is important to be aware of, and while the noble bitsa can be fantastic, I’m less inclined to get one myself). In order to get into some of this, we’ll start with how I’ve narrowed it down.

Here’s the list that makes it tricky. The potential dog must:

1) get along with Amos (our excitable two-year-old Rottweiler).

2) get along with, or at least not eat, the cats.

3) be okay with children as we plan to reproduce at some point (also, we like our friends to bring kids around to play with the dog. Doesn’t have to be their kids. They could just pick some up off the street. That would work).

4) be okay with being a bit of a couch-potato dog. We are happy to walk our dogs and play with them, and we try to be dedicated with training them, but Husband and I are both often sedentary during the day due to the nature of our work. We both work from home a few days a week, and in that time we let Amos in to sit with us, but the lad does get bored (under these circumstances, the treat ball is a freaking godsend). This is actually one of many reasons we want to get another dog. We’re on 2/3 of a forested acre, so it’s really not the end of the world.

5) not have a very high prey drive. We have native wildlife around here, and between echidnas, wombats and the odd wallaby, it might all be a bit too tempting for, say, a greyhound.

6) not be an escape artist. We have four foot post-and-wire fences (a combination of chicken mesh, dingo mesh and concrete reinforcing mesh – there will be no getting through it, but digging out is not impossible, and climbing – or simply leaping – for a kelpie-like sort of dog is a possibility).

In terms of personal preference, I like to add that dog must:

7) be a large breed dog (I like big dogs and I cannot lie. I’m just a big dog person)

8) be a female dog (firstly, a female is more likely to get along with Amos, but secondly, I just want a girl dog).

9) be a young dog, preferably past the toilet-training age as we want a dog that we can leave at home. I get a bit uncomfortable at the idea of leaving a six-month-old puppy at home alone for extended periods – there is just too much trouble they can get into. On the other hand, I don’t think I could handle the heartbreak of adopting a dog that is going to die in four years or less, as much as old dogs need homes and love too.

So what does this mean?

Well, first of all, our search rules out male dogs. Most of the dogs available for adoption are male; it’s a significant trend. I am not sure why this is, but could theorise that dominance and marking behaviours (not always resolved by desexing) could play a role, or possibly because people preferentially choose male dogs to start with and when they realise they have bitten off more than they can chew, the boy dogs get surrendered. It’s worth being aware that female dogs can also have issues with the hierarchy, although marking is less of a problem.

Secondly, there are some breed exclusions. For fans of particular breeds, rest assured that I really have nothing against these dogs – they can all be lovely! – but they’re not suitable for us.

No greyhounds. This is a bit sad because they tend to be very sweet and relaxed dogs for the most part, and so many retired racers need homes and patient love and care. Unfortunately: high prey drive + cats = violence and tragedy. You can also never let them off lead when you’re out and about – they hit their top speed on their third stride and you aren’t getting that dog back until it’s good and ready to head home.

No cattle dogs. The particular Australian fondness for working breeds means that rescue centres are choc-full of various mixes of blue heelers, kelpies, Australian cattle dogs, koolies and related breeds. Our neighbours have a kelpie and he is an absolute sweetheart (he has adopted us a secondary pack when his beloved people aren’t home). It is, however, impossible to keep him in. He is basically a cat. As far as Lenny is concerned, four-foot fence is for leaping (hence the frequent visits to our place). Also, these are highly intelligent breeds: they like to explore, they need to run, they easily escape and they get bored easily. While Rottweilers like Amos are also highly intelligent, they are less prone to explore and escape. Our neighbours take their dog running when they go mountain bike riding, so he gets plenty of exercise and stimulation; we couldn’t provide that outlet for a dog, so it’s not an option. Also, high prey drive. As a side note here, if you’re the sort of person who wants to get a cattle dog, and you live in the city or the suburbs, be aware that dog is going to need lots of room to run, lots of walking and a hell of a lot of stimulation.

No huskies or Alaskan malamutes. This was very upsetting for Husband, who really loves these breeds, but a four-foot fence is about as much of an obstacle to these fellows as it would be to the kelpies, and for similar reasons. These dogs are also bred to be amazingly independent, which is a virtue in their original line of work, but which leads to constant dominance struggles. If my whole life revolved around my dog, I might find that stimulating, but I do occasionally like to do things that don’t involve arguing with a canine over who, exactly, is the boss. These guys are fantastic, but have specific needs (also, generally not good with cats, as in really, really not good).

No terriers. This means no bull terriers and particularly no staffordshire terriers. Staffys have become very popular in recent years and I don’t think that most people who take them on really understand what they are getting into; at least, that’s my conclusion from the extraordinary number of staffys and staffy mixes on the rescue pages. Here’s a tip: staffys are high maintenance dogs. They are lovely, don’t get me wrong. They are affectionate, loyal, highly intelligent, energetic and fun. There’s a lot to love about them. They are also needy as hell (all dogs can be needy; they’re not cats, after all; however, there are still degrees) and, again, they get bored easily. Don’t get a staffy if you’re leaving them at home alone for an extended period. As always, hard and fast rules are a mistake, and some will be fine, but when bored, they tend to become destructo-dogs, and they can get quite neurotic. Our rottie does need to be part of the family, it’s true, but we can leave him at home alone for a day and be confident that we won’t be coming back to a disaster. Also, terriers tend to have that high prey drive.

Let me tell you: once you rule out staffys, terriers, greyhounds and male dogs, the rescue pages start to get a little thin. In fact, it thins out as soon as you rule out staffys (see previous paragraph).

What does it leave?

Well, in terms of large breeds on the rescue pages, it leaves Rottweilers and rottie mixes (not many – they get snapped up quick), German Shepherds and GSD mixes (again, they get snapped up quick), mastiff mixes, Great Dane mixes, Rhodesian Ridgeback and ridgie mixes, the occasional Labrador or lab mix, and the odd wolfhound or deer/staghound.

I love rotties, ridgies and mastiffs, and am quite fond of the Danes and the German Shepherds. The only problem I have with Great Danes is their potentially shortened lifespan, and the problem I have with German Shepherds is based on the show-breeding culture – ever notice how GSDs tend to have back legs much shorter than their front legs? That’s not healthy, but it’s a “desirable conformation”, apparently. No problems with temperament or intelligence in either breed.

We are still searching for our desired rescue/rehome dog, but here’s the thing: clearly I know enough about dog breeds to be aware of some of the pitfalls in temperament and health. What I don’t know I will research extensively.

It’s become apparent to me that not everyone does this – and that’s not a judgment on them, because apparently not everyone is aware that this is something they should do. I grew up with rotties, so I knew that if you take in a purebred puppy, it’s ideal to check out the elbow and hip scores of the parents, as well as eye examinations (they have a tendency to ectropia). Obviously, this is not something you can do for a rescue, but generally joint problems will have manifested already by that stage, so you can be aware of them.

When you pick a puppy, it is crucial to know about the breed and know what to look for, but there are also some general rules. The first eight weeks of life have a huge effect on a pup’s temperament and socialisation – have the pups been handled? Have they had a chance to explore their environment? Have they socialised with other dogs? Have they socialised with kids? Does the pup seem too shy or anxious? Does the pup seem in any way neurotic? Make absolutely certain that you can at least meet the mother, if not the father. Is she a calm and mellow dog? Is she friendly? Does she seem happy and healthy?

It is so easy to get swept away by an adorable puppy and then be trapped later on by health and behavioural problems – and by that stage they are your beloved pet and there is generally nothing you wouldn’t do to help them (including enormous amounts of stress and gigantic vet bills). It’s not that you have the power to prevent these things, but they are things you should avoid having to deal with if you can.

To be fair, I nearly didn’t pick Amos (the “snuggliest” puppy), because he seemed a little anxious. Just a little. It turned out that they’d all had their claws clipped that day and the breeder had clipped his a bit too short which for a puppy is very upsetting. All the same, he was still sociable, still friendly, still climbed all over me. It was the latter behaviour that melted me a bit.

There’s a lot I don’t know about adopting a grown dog, but a lot of their personality is formed, so that takes out some of the guesswork. There are trial periods, in case it doesn’t work out, and we can introduce Amos to them before we make any decisions. There are upsides to this aspect of things.

We’ll see how it goes.

P.S. At this point, these perceptions and opinions of various breeds are based on research and personal observation, but I would love to hear any stories that would conflict with my perceptions! A “breed” does not mean all dogs have identical behaviour – they are merely discernable tendencies, and every dog is just that little bit different (one reason why we end up adoring them so much).

Obligatory shuffling of feet

Bad blogger. BAD NAUGHTY EVIL BLOGGER.

So there was November, with NaNoWriMo. Then there was December, with thesis corrections and final submission. These things are done (although I’m still working on the NaNo story with vague plans of actually finishing it and then doing a rewrite).

And here I am, back to the blogging, chock full of Being Opinionated and Hopefully Being Informed Kind Of On Some Things Anyway. I have stories to tell, theories to espouse, and notions to share. On it goes.

Reflections on Doctor Me

No-one should be pressured into having a child, and no-one should be pressured into doing a PhD.

There are limits to the comparison, of course; I have it on good authority that one never stops being a parent, whereas in the majority of cases, one does stop being a PhD student (or grad student, or candidate, whatever the term is in your particular region). In both cases, however, it’s a huge decision.

When someone says, “You should do a PhD!”, it behooves you to translate the recommendation. This can be done in a couple of ways.

Firstly, and this point can’t be overstated, it means: “You should work really, really hard – 60 hours a week, often go in on weekends, get enormously stressed, experience a vastly increased risk ratio for mental illness – for at least three years (more likely five or six), for almost no money, and with no guarantee of secure employment at the end of it. It may negatively affect your friendships, your relationships and your self-esteem. In fact, there’s a good possibility you will be burnt out on research forever, and end up skipping career paths entirely.”

But secondly, it also means: “You should ask the big questions that you are passionate about, and contribute to human knowledge, further your experience in research and do what you love – and you’ll be paid a (basic) living stipend to be able to do this. At no point during an academic career will you have even close to the freedom you have now regarding your project.”

I feel both ways about my PhD. I would never recommend that someone do a PhD, but I would also never try to talk them out of it – much in the same way I would approach someone wondering whether or not to have a kid.

On the negative side, yes, I became phenomenally unhealthy in a few ways while doing a PhD. I did have negative experiences, systematic contamination issues in my lab, bullying, crying, frustration, exhaustion, sense of failure and worthlessness, and an overwhelming realisation towards the end that in terms of earning potential my future was decidedly iffy (particularly after the results of the most recent Australian federal election). I felt that it would never end – that after handing in a draft in a reasonable period the examination and editing process just went on. And on. And on. My thirtieth birthday came and went, and I was still at university (although it’s best to regard a PhD as a job. It pays less and the hours suck, but thinking of it as “school” just does not work).

On the positive side…

I had a wonderful time. I asked big questions. When I dared to ask slightly more enormous questions than expected, I had the backing of my supervisors. When I said to Tim, “If we’re going to work this out, we need to go to western Australia,” he just nodded calmly and signed up for a field trip that took over two weeks and crossed the Nullarbor – the first of five field trips of varying scope around the coastlines of the continent.

I got to see parts of the country I would never have visited otherwise. I’ve been diving in Bremer Bay, Western Australia; in Recherche Bay, at the southernmost point of Tasmania; in Venus Bay on the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia. I’ve seen the dramatic environmental shift from the damp scrub of the Yorke Peninsula to the red sand, dry scrub and mangroves of the Eyre. I’ve watched the marine ecosystem turn over as I travelled west, watching the dominant fauna of one region slowly give way to another, and the same phenomenon as I travelled north.

I got to be inspired by the world I had chosen to study, being up close and personal with my study animals.

(I also learned the fine art of washing and drying dive gear at a caravan park.)

Due to some kindly folk handing out travel awards, I got to go to overseas conferences and meet colleagues in my field from all over the world, sharing in some inspiring research and discussions of same.

When it came to lab work, I had the benefit of a supportive bunch of colleagues (except for that bullying one) who became good friends. I had the support of my other supervisor, Belinda, who had no hesitation in calling a spade a spade or, more importantly, calling a steaming pile of bullshit exactly that, which got me through some terribly depressing periods. It helps to have a supervisor that you can cry in front of without getting embarrassed (it was generally understood that Belinda’s office was a safe place to have PhD tears).

When I told Belinda that there was a contamination problem in the lab, she didn’t reject my complaint; she asked me for solutions. I provided the solutions, and the next day she’d ordered a freezer for the new PCR area I had proposed. She had my back, and she trusted me.

I had the advantage that many PhD candidates don’t: I had two very supportive supervisors. They were always communicative, always available (except when overseas), and always willing to back me when I went out on a limb. When doubt was cast upon my ability to complete the project (that eighteen months of lab troubleshooting…), they both went to the wall and stated that they had the utmost faith in me to get the job done. I hope that I have rewarded that faith. They always read drafts in good time and always pulled me away from the ledge of fanciful distraction to keep me focused on my main question (it’s easy to get distracted by side projects).

I had a network of supportive friends, and I had (still have) a stable relationship (transitioned to marriage about halfway through the PhD) with someone who supported me in my efforts, including my total inability to bring in any money, my occasionally very late lab hours, weeks of absence on fieldwork, extraordinary stress-headedness, and my occasional need for high-level technical support (I married a software developer, there are bonuses). Being in a long-term relationship with a PhD student is not easy.

And with all these marvellous people and an excellent project, I still had a rough time. I think perhaps everyone does. I don’t regret it, and I’m still passionate about research, but I have watched colleagues burn out or simply get discouraged by the whole situation.

After six years (some of it part-time, while working), I have this to say:

If you want to do this – be sure. Be very, very sure (also, when approaching a supervisor to work with, ask their students what they are like to work with – they will give you the straight line. Avoid any supervisor who invokes the response, “Well, I never see him/her” or “Oh, sure, we have a meeting every day, just to make sure everything is going okay”. Absence and micro-managing: these are bad things. Also check that their projects actually have a tendency to get completed – lab heads hung up on questions that go nowhere are also to be avoided, because if their past five students hit the wall on this question, there’s likely to be a deeply systematic problem. You do not want that pain).

About my own project, I have this to say:

It’s over.

I had wonderful adventures.

I learned a great deal.

But it’s over.

And you can call me Doctor now.*

 ——

*technically I think you’re supposed to wait until after my graduation ceremony, but what are they going to do? Arrest you? Are there Academic Police waiting in the wings, demanding me to wear the Funny Hat of Enforced Humility?**

**Actually, let me know if that happens.