Pandemic diary 8: Exercising with bunnies

My goal for last week was to set up a home gym. And here it is – filmed and edited. With puns and buns and fancy titles and strange weights. Plus new moves including: Disinfectant Lifts, Shelf Isolation and Jumping Over Clem Bun Who Won't Get Out of The Way.

Truth is, I've been sitting at a computer pretty much since 1987 and I'm suffering for it now. Three years ago I started trying to get a bit fitter before hitting the big 5-0. Until March 2020 my usual regime involved tai chi, walking netball, swimming, over-50s circuits and art walks (see Walkspace.uk). But then the gym/pool closed two weeks ago and I'm already feeling stiff. Work has been crazy with coronavirus comms work so this was my first attempt to get back into it.

Out of interest during these stressful times, I took my blood pressure. It was borderline high a few years ago and my pulse up to 81 bpm. But since taking up exercise it has come down. Yesterday it was 117/79 with a pulse rate of 67 – despite all this pandemic worry. Which goes to show it is never too late to start a gentle exercise regime.

Lockdown life continues.

Today I am thankful for A Dog Named Stella who loves jumping into piles of leaves. Sometimes (a lot) I wish I were a dog.


Hire/commission me: fiona [at] fionacullinan.com


The hill I couldn't climb

The-hill-I-couldnt-climb

Every January 2nd, we go away somewhere with big skies for a few days – to have a think and read books and walk and look at sunsets and reconnect and make plans for the year ahead. It's a great way to start the year and offers a crisp restart after Christmas has gone stale, and the long weeks of winter still stretch ahead.

Mid-Wales is my first choice for this, Snowdonia being one of the few UK places where mountains meet the sea – and on the west coast, you can get a perfect sunset if the weather goes your way.

Another place I recommend is a National Trust property sitting on the northern slopes of Cadair Idris, Wales' second highest mountain. At 800ft above sea level, Cregennan Lakes offers a double whammy of great views – the Cadair Idris ridge and over the Mawddach Estuary to Barmouth.

On the northern side of these two fishing lakes is an abrupt hill called Pared y Cefn Hir, a child summit of Cadair Idris with a peak at 1257ft. It's the pointy peak on the left in the photo above.

From across the lake, on still days, it creates a neat triangular reflection in the lake.

But looks are deceiving – walk 90 degrees to the side, and suddenly it presents quite a different lumpier, bumpier, longer three-headed profile that can't be seen as you ascend.

It's just a hill though, and a couple of family groups seemed to be trotting up and down it. There was also a well marked path, an invitation.

I headed up as Pete headed down and around. It was aerobic. And there were slide-marked mud patches all along the wide path. Still, my boots were sturdy and it felt good to have the heart pumping on all four cylinders.

At the top of the first bluff, I looked down and took a photo of Pete, a tiny waving speck down in the spent heather and golden grasses. Zoom in and see if you can spot him.

He also took one of me, a waving silhouette far above.

The-hill-I-couldnt-climb

Behind me there was a deep near-vertical gully, which a couple were attempting to climb by wedging themselves in the gap. A dog walker in the car park told me to avoid this, and walk around and up: "It's a bit of a scramble but not too bad."

The wind starting blowing as I rounded the bluff and came out of its lee. That was also the point where the soil ran out and the path disappeared into the rocks. I stepped onto each stone carefully, well aware of the drop of a couple of hundred feet just a slip away.

Of course, once you start thinking like that, the confidence you need to goat-hop up the rocks disappears and the inner no voice goes into overdrive:

"You're on your own, what if you fall here, or even just twist your ankle? Is there any phone reception to call for help or does the mountain block the signal? Is the path just over that rock or have you lost the way and getting deeper into the shit with every step?"

I clung to the slope with both hands trying to reach for some inner mountain mojo and looking for a way forward.

The inner voice starts to get the upper hand.

"Most accidents happen on the way down, you know. And to older people like you. You'll be tired. You'll stumble or slip on loose gravel. Your knees will give way, the way they do, and over you'll go. You won't be able to see the path from above and you'll have to take a more dangerous route."

Reassuring now.

"Just turn around and go back to safety. The view at the top is the same only higher. Do it another day when there is someone with you. There's no shame in turning back. It's not a failure because it's not a competition. Better not to push a bad situation."

And so I turn around and retrace my steps back to the first of the three headers. I feel both relieved and disappointed in myself. My Welsh hillbagging challenge is over, curtailed either by wise decision-making over my abilities or by a lack of gumption to forge ahead anyway, it's hard to tell. Age is possibly a factor either way – although these limits are also a function of living in the city and a comfort zone.

The photo now feels slightly tainted. I captioned it 'The hill I couldn't climb'.

To anyone else, it shows a solo hill-climber on an adventure. To me, it is the moment just before defeat. Where I know I have reached my end point and can't continue on. It transports me vividly back to ancient forgotten defeats in the way that funerals resurface past griefs.

But what else is there to do after funerals and walking failures except carry on? There are other hills to climb. And if not, Snowdon has a train.

Oh and I made a kick-ass plan for 2020.

It's always good to end on a positive note.


Hire/commission me: fiona [at] fionacullinan.com


Splits challenge FAIL

Spoiler alert: I didn't pull off doing the splits after 12 months of trying. It was no big surprise as I didn't make the required effort to get any more flexible. Plus I was pretty much starting from cold each time – I probably should have filmed it after a stretchy yoga or tone class, not a tai chi one.

Ah well. Another goal bites the dust.

I did learn some things though.

One is that technique is everything. For the first few months you can see my hips are twisted to one side. For the August attempt, a yoga teacher suggested I keep my hips in line to avoid injury, and suddenly it looked a lot more stable. Then she said to add the blocks to stop slipping – and that gave me time to wriggle a bit further towards the floor.

Possibly the biggest discovery, though, has come from watching the video compilation. I wonder if you can spot it?

Answer…

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For 10 out of 12 times I led with my left leg. Then in September, and on the finale, suddenly I led with the right – and it looks to be a bit lower. Maybe the muscle tension is different somehow that way around. Weird!

So, yeah, my 2019 goal was a fail overall but it looks as if I may have done it with my worst leg forward. That's my excuse anyway.

Next challenge? Maybe a full press-up, which I've never managed, and/or a Brummie gambol (forward roll), which I used to find quite easy – or at least I did 40 years ago.

The random, chaotic list of middle-age, what-you-do-when-you-don't-have-kids microadventure/challenges continues.


Hire/commission me: fiona [at] fionacullinan.com


Independent toes pt 2

Having set the goal of achieving independent toes – good for ageing, balance, gait, etc – I finally got around to videoing the challenge 11 months on.

Well, at least they all move on command.

When I started practising, a very weird thing happened. I'd be willing one of those awkward middle toes to move but there was zilch response. Which is why you roll the foot over something to wake the nerves up first.

Want a go? More on how to improve your toe mobility here…

 

GILF Island: the Colchester Chronicles

In early September I took part in GILF Island, a weekend-long live art workshop about female gender and ageing, invisibility and desire/desirability, run by two Live Art Development Agency artists called Vortessa. Riffing off the TV show, Love Island, we were there to challenge the idea that desire and sex is the preserve of the young.

The workshop blurb put it this way:

As women who age we are marginalised, our sexual currency is removed and we are left to mourn our younger desirable bodies. GILF (Grandmother I'd Like to F*ck) Island is a safe haven to explore and join us on a process opening up an important dialogue about the socio-cultural blocking that arises when negotiating the territory of the ageing body, accepting that we are still sexual creatures, with desire and passion. 

We brought our role models, our theme music, costumes and treasures as provocations. We lounged on giant inflatable pink flamingoes underneath plastic palm trees and discussed the things that were important to us. We looked at daily rituals we can’t do without. Mine was so ingrained and invisible that it took me the whole first day to work out that my most common ritual, other than teeth-brushing, is to write.

Not just write but photograph, video, or otherwise record and report as the tools allow. I've always processed the world through writing – from diaries to a career in journalism to social media.

How could I use this writing habit to address GILF Island themes? I wanted to somehow address the common feeling women over 50 have of becoming invisible in society.

A quick aside on invisibility in middle age

In the post-punk generation I'm not sure 50+ women will be as forgotten or invisible as they have been in the past. But it is there in TV choices such as Love Island, the age-related cloak of invisibility that older women may endure in a number of ways.

You may no longer be seen as (re)productive by society or feel needed or useful once the kids have grown up. Tied in with this is the experience of losing our sexual currency; of being passed over for younger, more attractive prospects; of male and media gaze valuing youth and perfection over wisdom and experience. Older women may be overlooked for work promotions or rejected for jobs on the first pass, even though age discrimination is not legal. And now there is digital invisibility… of data bias when women are not included in data sets or considered in design processes. Or, in my own case, having my passport photo rejected because the machine couldn’t find the outline of my head thanks to ageing white hair set against the white background of a supermarket photo booth.

Writing as a ritual, gender as a target

But back to writing… I realised that if I died tomorrow, there would be a lifetime of diaries to prove my existence. I write therefore I am. From writing, comes existence and visibility, perhaps even immortality.

What is written and recorded becomes a tangible document. The writer also becomes visible through authorship.

These were the thoughts running through my head as I panicked about what I would actually perform the next day. Let's face it, performance, public speaking or anything where you stick your neck out is both stressful and a risk. Particularly for women who receive ridiculous levels of vitriol, death and rape threats, just for standing up in the public eye.

It's fair to say I was nervous.

**

The performance

After scouting locations around Colchester, all the participants performed their rites and rituals to a schedule throughout the day so that we could all view each other's work in progress. The variety was amazing, from marking space to dancing en masse, casting spells and performing poetry from trees, climbing into and out of a council bin, falling in aged balletic slow motion down a set of steps…

At 11.45am, I set up on the high street, outside Colchester Castle, to perform both the act of writing and also to write.

Writing is not usually a visible or performative act. It is done alone and to no fanfare. In parallel with the workshop theme, I had to think how to make it be seen.

So in a nod to Colchester being Britain’s oldest recorded town by the Romans, I turned my GILF Island lei into a crown and taped my notepaper together to form a scroll that would flow down the steps and into the street.

surveillance by scroll in Colchester

It was not really me but a character that stepped into the spotlight: an ancient Roman scribe making herself and others visible through the act of recording them. Passers-by, watchers and interactors were all entered on the register. I looked at them directly and wrote them into existence. Surveillance by scroll. In turn I was videoed and photographed by the photographer.

I think it looked elegant and potentially thought provoking, and in line with Vortessa’s suggestion of ‘radical softness’ and quiet provocation – you don't have to follow the "tired sexiest tropes of the ageing of the Femme Fatal" or become a "jokey, slapstick, seaside postcard, pantomime thing or a porny caricature".

The work also tied in with my data privacy interests. The Romans had SPQR as their banner, we have GDPR. Could data collection by scroll be a subversive act?!

Not having done live art before, my two biggest fears were that people either wouldn’t notice the performance or would interrupt it by asking me questions. They did notice. They usually looked away immediately if there was eye contact, such is the power-dynamic when you set up as a performer. You become a potential threat – a far cry from invisibility.

And no one interrupted. If they had, I decided I would write the interaction on the scroll as a true chronicle of events. I asked someone I admired on the course what to do…. and she said: "You could just talk to them and tell them what it's about."

When you're nervous the obvious is never obvious.

**

What happened next?

My Colchester Chronicles are now sitting at home, a 15-minute time log of people passing by at a place and moment in time. 'I see you' means that they were mostly female and mostly older.

It feels as if I could develop this idea further. I like the idea of playing with invisibility and surveillance and power-dynamics. Ageing is something we are all doing but for middle-aged women it is often a frontline experience in a society that doesn't value them.

Coming from a post-punk generation, my view is that how we deal with this issue is already changing. Modern middle-agers are getting more confident in valuing and expressing themselves, and the fact that GILF Island was even a thing is noteworthy in finding new ways to age confidently.

My own role model for ageing is Ray, a fellow student I met when I was 19 and he was 36. We sat in the back row of journalism school and I nicknamed him Dad while he called me Callow Yoof. He will be turning 70 soon and has had open heart surgery but he is still blatting about on his motorbike and riding horses through the Dutch sand dunes.

I also know a lot of fiery older women. One of the fallouts from doing GILF Island, is that one of them decided to tell me that it was a ‘load of rubbish’ and I should ‘get a life’. (Sometimes other women can be our own worst enemies.) Detractors can be hard to deal with, especially because the female of the species puts herself down enough as it is.

But to be visible is to be exposed. To be vulnerable is open up a dialogue. To put yourself out there is to put aside the shame that usually holds you back and makes you say "I can't". To put your head above the parapet is to act and get real about the things you care about.

So art happened. I made my debut as a live artist. It made me break out of my usual quiet writing life and ‘appear’ as if from nowhere. It was an act of activism and feminism. It was elegant. It provoked an angry reaction. And it has created a network of interesting older female artists for potential collaboration in future.

Thank you to Ade and Derek for hosting me, for scroll provision and for walks in the Tollesbury marshes. And thanks to everyone else who has said positive things and supported me in giving this a go, especially Pete, who has talked me down from anxiety and fear several times in the lead up.

Onwards!


Hire/commission me: fiona [at] fionacullinan.com


Learning 24-form Tai Chi

It's taken a whole year but I have finally learned all 24 postures of the tai chi 24-form. This feels like a major achievement, after several false starts. Theoretically, I can now also practise at home. Theroretically.

The class

The weekly class lasts an hour and there are about 30 minutes of getting in the right frame of mind before we start practising 'The Form'.  The structure of teacher Yang's class is as follows:

  • self-massage, patting and stretching
  • basic stances and balances
  • qi gong exercises with breathing
  • make a new friend in the class and practise a qi gong movement together
  • practise The Form
  • break down a single movement and repeat over and over
  • do the form again with new knowledge
  • final stretches
  • floor relaxation and deep breathing.

The devil is in the detail

Attending every session is key to learning the precise nature of each posture: where the weight sits, are the feet turned in or out, are the hips in line, do you follow your movement with your eyes or look straight ahead, is the fist flat or turned upright, is the foot flat or raised, what is the height of the hand in relation to the body, is the step at an angle or directly ahead/behind…

Missing a class would be like skipping a book chapter. You can pick it up but there is a LOT of minutiae to take on board. Tai chi is a very mental practice as well as a physical one. And this is why I see people (often young students) start and not continue. It is slow and it is slow to learn. You need patience but the reward is that you can take this whole-body exercise with you throughout your life.

Calm mind paradox

If nothing else, tai chi calms the mind. For an hour, stress and anxiety dips or disappears.

The trouble is, a calm mind is needed to practise tai chi well and also to slow the movements right down.

Since I'm a fast person this is a big challenge (I have issues with yoga, too). I think and talk quickly, and can be easily distracted. So, while I'm very happy to have come full circle on my year of learning, I'm still not quite ready to leave the dojo.

I know this because whenever I try tai chi at home my monkey mind is just too busy and involved. I may have finally learnt The Form and can run through it in five minutes, but I still have to think about what move comes next and where my weight should be for balance and how many 'repulse monkeys' there are in the sequence and… well, you get the picture. It's not meditative – yet.

Other barriers

For the 24-form of tai chi (and maybe others – there are other longer forms), you need enough space to practice, such as a garden or park. Unless you have a massive house, of course. The movements involve a fair amount of travelling – I'd guess around 10 metres forwards and back – especially when you start to stretch lower in the postures.

Other barriers are more personal. I think: 'what if the neighbours are looking'? To be fair, I don't care too much what they think, but being watched inhibits how relaxed I am.

Oh and sometimes the rabbits get in the way.

But outdoors tai chi is the best!

How I got started

I started learning tai chi on a free activity session in Cotteridge park (still running) three years ago. I had started a part-sabbatical partly because there was nothing more the physio could do for my chronic neck/shoulder issues so I knew I had to change my work-life balance and help myself.

It was quite peaceful and grounding to be moving outside, as if in sync with nature, swaying like a tree in the breeze or breathing deeply while watching birds circle far overhead.

But it has taken dedicated memorising and attendance to get to the end of a 24-move short form practice.

Initially I went to a local class, which was more of a hilarious social club for retired people. But I really started learning properly at the University of Birmingham's Sport and Fitness centre with a very good teacher who goes over each new posture repeatedly, including the correct breathing, and how it fits into tai chi as a martial art.

Yang really is an excellent teacher and elegant practitioner. As well as learning some of the Chinese names of each move (white crane spreads wings, repulse monkey, grasp the tiger's tail), Yang instilled precise hand positions by adding suggestions that we make a fist as if holding an ice cream, or offering a cake with palm facing up, or sticking a thumb in the pie for a downward thumb position. Food is a popular aide-memoire.

If you want to get an idea of what tai chi 24 form looks like, this 'lady of the pink pyjamas' (as she is known in our class) is a recommended watch.

Tai chi might seem an easy or even elderly option to those who do super-bendy yoga or athletic body pump, but it's one of the hardest things I've done and one of the few exercise regimes that is mental, emotional, whole-body physical and spiritual. The only other one I can think of is bodyboarding/surfing, and living in Birmingham UK tends to put that one out of regular reach.

So, tai chi it is.

Splits challenge

I should do something big this year, I said. What would be unachievable and a bit ridiculous but maybe fun? I asked. I wrote a list of goals for 2019. And the splits challenge was born.

I've never been able to do the splits. I got to BAGA Award 4 (remember them?) in gymnastics at school. Doing the splits was in Award 1. How hard can it be though?

Very! Especially when you're 50ish.

This is a challenge in progress, so I have until December to get there, but the reality is I haven't done a scrap of effort towards achieving this goal so it's unlikely. You never know though.  I'm pretty happy that I can do this much.

[Video of the ridiculousness to come in January 2020. Update: AND HERE IT IS – a full video compliation of 12 months of splits attempts!]

splits challenge

Independent toes

Independent toes goalI discovered the importance of having independent toes (the ability to flex individual toes on command) after reading Dynamic Ageing by Katy Bowman. Katy is a biomechanist and movement teacher and her book is co-written with four women over the age of 75 – although really it's aimed at anyone sedentary.

Mobilising the feet improves both balance and basic movement. After all, no one wants to end up with the old person shuffle and yet it happens to the best of us: that hunched over, stare at your feet, short step, pavement scuffing walk.

It is the fear of falling that often leads to older people to adopt this type of restricted, unnatural movement. Ironically, it also makes it more likely they will lose balance, says Katy. Regaining command over one's toes is a real confidence builder because it improves strength, mobility and biomechanics.

But … have you ever tried to flex individual toes on command? It is no easy feat (sorry).

Follow the instructions and the dream of independent toes could be yours, promised Katy. The exercises included rolling your feet over a cylinder (I used an empty pepper pot) to wake up the nerve endings so that your brain and toes can actually start talking again. Another involved a 'handshake' with your toes, interlocking fingers between each one to encourage their future separation. It's amazing that something so small could change your whole life one day.

I did the exercises for a few weeks as part of my 2019 goals list. Having been prescribed orthotics several years ago, I'm basically interested in anything that will keep me walking and mobile. For years I worked in a sedentary screen-based job for 40 hours a week so I've got a lot of reversing to do.

It was both amusing and disturbing to stand upright, look at my toes and try to raise each one off the floor – the big toes understood and lifted up. Certain other naughty toes totally refused to move a millimetre let along an inch.

In the end I got the second  and fifth toes also lifting slightly. The third toe moved but never without the second one. And the fourth one now twitches slightly so at least it is a stubborn mule that is listening.

It's now September and I've pretty much given up I have to admit. But I haven't lost the movement I gained and I have done a lot of walking this year so it's all good.

Update: Independent toes pt 2 – the video!

And I still like shaking hands/feet with my fingers/toes. Try it! It is strangely pleasant. Just me?

toe handshake
How do you do?