Archive for April, 2011

Warning: this post may be seen as lecturing …

Furniture, furnishings, possibly art or decorative pieces usually provide focal points in living rooms. Not so in our home! Sure we have couches and a coffee table, paintings on the walls, piano, side tables and nic nacs, but in our living room everything is pushed back to the walls to make space for me on the floor and to use the toys and tools that I use to help me stay mobile. House and Garden we are not!

Living On The Floor

In some ways the juxtaposition of piano and Swiss balls is quite charming, and the space cleared in the centre, an invitation to use it … I haven’t used the comfy couch for over a year. Instead, I use the floor to sit, lie, sprawl, wriggle, stretch and exercise as I read, watch TV or use the i-pad. (I’m spread out lying on my stomach as I write this on the i-pad. This position helps stretch my hip flexors and flexes my lumbar spine.)


If everyone used the floor instead of furniture, not only would they save lots of money not buying chairs and couches, but they’d be a lot healthier! Young people think that they’ll never get old and stiff and older people think they’ll never get stiff. Sitting on the floor stretches and strengthens muscle groups that don’t get used when you sit in/on a chair.  Everything you can do in a chair you can do on the floor – read a book, use your I pad, watch TV, or chat to someone – plus you get the benefits of sitting on the floor:

Stretching your adductors:

Sitting on the floor reading while stretching adductors

When you’re on the floor you can read or watch TV while you sit on your heels stretching your quads, then lean back and stretch your hip flexors. You can sit upright with your legs straight out in front of you to stretch your hamstrings. (I can only do this while holding onto some webbing or theraband):

Sitting upright with legs straight out, while watching TV

Not only does sitting on the floor improve flexibility, but sitting on a hard surface puts pressure on muscles that are in contact with the floor, causing them to eventually relax. This is similar to when massage therapists stimulate the golgi tendon organs through deep tissue massage, causing the muscles to relax. Living on the floor is comfortable and good for you!

There is no reason why you should be stiff when you’re old. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!

I began to stretch because if I don’t, tension, tone and spasm increases in my muscles – despite the diversity and quantity of muscle relaxants I consume. The more I stretch, the better I feel, and the better I walk. I have a low boredom threshold so I’ve nagged my physio and personal trainer for equipment and techniques that allow me to multitask while I stretch. No problem in either case – the physio is sympathetic to my needs, and the personal trainer is a proponent of living on the floor. In fact he introduced me to the concept.

I also need to recruit weak muscles and try and redress gross muscle imbalance. I can do some exercises in the gym in a social environment, but some exercises are repetitive and can be done at home. I could put all my equipment in a spare room, but it’s much nicer and more likely to happen if I can do the exercises in a shared living space, another benefit of living on the floor.

I can exercise on the floor while chatting to others

The whole family can play on the wii, but the balance board gives me fantastic feedback – I have no sensation or propriception so I’ve no idea whether I’m leaning to the side … And the walking frame gives me something solid to grab if I start to fall.

Playing on the wii

I can use the Obie foam roller to massage my hamstrings, calves, glutes, lumbar spine and thoracic spine. I can use it to exercise my obliques:

Using the Obie foam roller and non-slip mat while chatting and watching TV

I can use the Swiss balls for active sitting, for activating hamstrings, and for strengthening my left glutes and around my left knee:

Using the small swiss ball

These toys and tools are great for me, but even without them, just getting down and living on the floor has been a great move. As an aside, I’ve noticed that it’s younger people that take most easily to this idea. Little kids will do it naturally but it seems the older we get, and the more affluent we become,the more out of touch with our bodies we become.

Think about this: more than half the world’s population live on the floor. That includes the elderly, who in our society creak and groan as they get up out of a chair.  Yet you don’t have to be stiff when you get old … and you don’t have to have problems with mobility to live on the floor!


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I read an article called “Sylvia’s Story” in the Sunday Star Times April 17, 2011. It was about the thousands of women, war brides, who sailed to New Zealand after World War two to join their husbands who were New Zealand servicemen. It got me thinking that something extraordinary happened in New Zealand in the decades following World War Two. In Europe people were coping with rebuilding cities and lives, coping with the results of atrocities and dealing with trauma on a scale that had never been seen before. But in New Zealand, far away from deprivation and destruction, connected only by servicemen who would not talk about their experiences, news sources that were sketchy, and immigrants who were regarded with suspicion and wariness, life went on much as it had always done. New Zealand at that time was generally isolated and insular and New Zealanders took pride in their self-sufficiency. The number 8 fencing wire mentality was still essential to survival, and women were strong, independent, able and continued the pioneering successes of previous generations of (European) women.

Into this world came not only the European refugees, but also thousands of women, mostly English, who married New Zealand servicemen they had fallen in love thousands of miles away. If they were anything like my mother, they had been spun a story of a land of milk and honey, a paradise where anything was possible. Instead they arrived in a country so primitive and unsophisticated that many, like my mother and Sylvia must have wanted desperately to go home. I don’t believe that my mother ever forgave my father for uplifting her from the vibrant (if damaged) city of London, to the tiny family cottage in Mangaweka where the toilet was an outhouse, then to Wellington where she found, not a city, but a backwater where facilities were primitive and there was not even theatre for distraction.

Like Sylvia, my mother and father were forced to live with family for the first part of their married lives. This angered Sylvia who wanted a state house.  Sylvia’s husband was an airforce officer and from an affluent family. After the war he returned to the company he had previously worked for and was trained for promotion. My father was an army private and his family was large and poor. When he left New Zealand, despite having left school at thirteen, he had achieved a cadetship with the Railways as a draughtsman. When he returned, injured in 1941 in Egypt, he was told he was too old for the cadetship and so worked variously as a labourer building the Tawa line, and as a porter, but never again had an opportunity like the cadetship.

Living with family was the least of my mother’s problems; she never complained to me about it anyway, but recalled with humour incidents like, when living with my dad’s aunt, taking all day  to light the fire under the “copper” to do the washing.

Sylvia, like most war brides, arrived in New Zealand in 1946 on a “bride ship” carrying hundreds of brides, fares paid for  by the New Zealand Government. Sylvia, married to an officer, had superior accommodation. My mother married in New Zealand and arrived in 1943 in a converted freight ship carrying mostly servicemen returning home. Fortunately, my naive mother shared a cabin with a much older, worldly woman who protected her from these predators. One evening they discovered a line of servicemen spaced out along the corridors to provide an early warning system for a serviceman who intended to try his luck. The older woman, knowing they’d be back, barricaded the cabin door.

My mother’s fare was subsidised by the government but was paid in the main by my father who had proposed by letter from his hospital bed in Egypt. She, like Sylvia needed clothing coupons for her wedding dress. Sylvia’s husband, as an officer received plenty of clothing coupons enough for a dress. My mother and her friends and workmates all saved and pitched with coupons for fabric, and she made her dress herself. It was plain but all she could afford. When she arrived in New Zealand, her aunt-in-law saw the dress and immediately offered her own lacy, pretty one instead. Feeling pressured, my mother wore the borrowed dress. Though pretty, it was at least four inches too short, my great aunt being much, much shorter. My mother always hated her wedding photo, and I believe that she thought she had betrayed the generosity of her friends and workmates.

Sylvia, like my mother was terribly homesick, but was able to return to England with her husband for a few years in the early fifties. My parents could not financially afford to visit England. My mother finally visited when she was in her eighties, with my sister and after my father had died. I sometimes wonder if my father was frightened that if my mother returned she might not come back to New Zealand. I suspect that my grandmother and others may have suggested she return to England.

It is the experiences of these war brides, their struggle to come to grips with their adopted home, that led to something extraordinary happening in New Zealand at that time. My mother felt ostracised by New Zealand women who could put their hand to anything but were probably intimidated by her dress and her “posh” accent. Though poor, my mother always found a way to dress with style, a strategy that helped her maintain her self-esteem. I wonder how many other war brides also felt isolated and abandoned. My mother found herself living in a community dominated by people of Irish descent and she felt threatened by the hatred she perceived the Irish have for the English. As a result of  loneliness, dependence on my father and a sense of obligation toward him, my mother became determined that we would have a better life than she did.

She would do everything possible to ensure her children, including her daughters, were educated and independent. She expected that we would do well at school, she expected that we would finish secondary school, and she expected that we would have a tertiary education. There is nothing more powerful than a parent’s expectations to ensure a child succeeds at school.

The one thing that New Zealand offered these war brides (and refugees) was opportunity for their children. They came from countries where class, wealth and gender determined education and opportunity. The women may have felt isolated and ostracised, but their children were, are, New Zealanders assimilated and part of New Zealand culture. These women saw for their children no class structure, equal education available for all, and limitless career opportunities regardless of gender (fodder for debate, but this has been my personal experience). Their sacrifices would benefit their children.

In this way, I believe that these women, these war brides, contributed to  extraordinary changes in New Zealand over the following decades. Women of my age (50s) and older have careers as doctors, lawyers, judges, businesswomen, university professors, politicians … and families. By the 1980s I was a marketing manager and mother. My daughter takes for granted that she may become a senior manager in the organisation she works for, and issues of gender just aren’t on her radar. My sons assume women have the same rights and opportunities they do.

New Zealand already had a history of women’s rights; the war brides, my mother anyway, saw this and made sure a door to opportunity opened wide for their children.

English war bride married in Mangaweka, NZ, 1943

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“RNZ top job another for home team” was the editorial in Sunday Star Times April 17. Broadcasting Minister Coleman has appointed Richard Griffith to chair Radio New Zealand.

Griffith is a) a PR pro and b) a National lackey having been media advisor to a previous National Government. Griffith is the sixth appointment by this government to a Board of seven.

This is a problem for at least three reasons:

RNZ is the closest New Zealand has to Public Service Broadcasting. It should be free from political interference and commercial pressures, so it can educate and inform the public without bias. Its independence is important to democracy. Can RNZ now be seen as unbiassed?

As the editorial points out, National has often complained that RNZ journalists are lefties. Is Griffith expected to get rid of this “perceived bias”?

The editorial reminds us that the government has just loaned $43.3m to Mediaworks (owns TV3). Not only is this yet another bailout of a private company, but way more scary is the possibility that the government is stacking public and private broadcasters to get good press in an election year.

Politically I’m a green national and I’ve supported this government til now. Actually, til Bill English said that NZ should be a low wage economy, meaning we compete with Vietnam and Cambodia for low wages – given that China and India have publically stated they want higher wages for their workers. How much crap does this government think New Zealanders can swallow?

Scrapping RNZ independence is the last straw for me.

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I have finally found a door into a world of social commentary through art.

Most modern and contemporary art leaves me feeling somewhat puzzled, wondering what point the artist was making, if any. I “get” that renaissance art as a visualisation of nature, religion and history; I “get” that Impressionism is a record of what the artist saw, with lots of play on light. What I haven’t been “getting” are any messages for me in modern or contemporary art. That is, until I found “Sex Change In Vitruvian Man” and discovered Australian artist Susan White!

Sex Change Vitruvian Man by Susan White

Da Vinci’s Vitruvian man is based on the Roman architect Vitruvius’ description of the human body as providing the ideal proportions for building a temple. The drawing combines art, science and geometry, as well as demonstrating da Vinci’s interest in proportion. It is one of my favourite pieces of art, yet there has always been a part of me that didn’t quite connect with it.

The original Vitruvian man

Then I found Susan White’s “Sex change in Vitruvian Man”. Not only did I relate to it as a woman, but I could enjoy the subversive messages. Much of Susan White’s works are commentaries on social issues such as human rights, the status of women, and the environment, but she also draws on her own personal experiences. The humour and irony in her work often lies in the detail, and that’s something that gives me real joy. This is why another favourite of mine is “The First Supper”.


The First Supper

She painted it for the Australian bicentennial celebrations (did I mention she is Australian?), and showed it in a religious exhibition. It was apparently quite controversial in Australia. The central character of Jesus is replaced by an Australian Aboriginal woman. Check out the detail then read a transcript of a radio interview with the artist at:

Another favourite of mine is “The Seven Deadly Sins of Modern Times” and its twin “The Seven Deadly Isms”

Seven Deadly Sins of Modern Times by Susan White

Some of her work is whimsical, and I would love to be able to touch some of her sculptures, like “Stretching The Imagination”. Is that Albert Einstein’s face?  He said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge” …

Susan White says that she is inspired by anything that she feels passionately about – human rights, the environment, family, art and music. She also draws on her own personal experiences, from the naturalness of menopause to the personal trauma of having a brain tumour removed. I concede that probably I “get” her art because we share many cultural experiences –  middle aged women of european heritage with similar interests, a love of family, and sense of social justice. I am delighted that I can enjoy her art, her social commentary, her irony and her humour.

I’ve bookmarked her web site so that I can look at something beautiful, clever and witty, or be inspired by her social values whenever I want or need – its quality may be reduced on the internet, but it is accessible social commentary and art …

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“I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom comes responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.”

Nelson Mandela from “Long Walk To Freedom”

This excerpt from Mandela’s autobiography is placed in the spinal unit where everyone, patients and visitors, can read it and be inspired by it. In this place where we might expect to find the greatest tragedies, grief and sadness, we hear laughter, and witness triumph. Here, where many struggle to use weak limbs and rely on others to perform the most personal of cares, we can see strength of character, determination and perseverance, rise above the limits of physical abilities. Those who will rely on others to meet their physical needs, show that they are in charge of their spiritual and emotional selves. Those with the most severe physical impairments will climb hills as high as Mandela’s, and as many.

Few of us will have been called to a cause as great and noble as Mandela’s. Few of us will have to deal with challenges of the severely physically impaired. Our hills may not be as high or as many as theirs, but all of us at some time find ourselves on a journey that challenges us emotionally and physically.

Who doesn’t recognise the fear of failure – at school or university, at work, at home with children. These are often the private moments when we battle with our demons. Meeting deadlines, interpreting the subtleties of  workplace dynamics. Confronting insecurities and inadequacies at work and at home. The parent who cannot cope with endless tantrums of the two year old, eventually finds some peace then discovers that teenage tantrums may be worse.

Then there is the stress of making decisions. Or the stress of balancing so many things competing for our attention, and so little time to resolve them.

Oh, but the joy of overcoming these demons, emerging, not unscathed, but wiser and with some successes.

It’s important for all of us to take time to look back at the hills we have climbed, to take time to look around us and enjoy the moment, to steady ourselves for the next hill, and know that there are more to come. It is at this point, as we take a look at the next hill, that we choose to be helpless or hopeful.

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Yesterday I was injected with botox – quads, hamstrings, and now adductors.

Most people think wrinkles and facial smoothing when Botox is mentioned. In fact, botox was first used medically over thirty years ago to treat eye muscle disorders. It’s also used medically to correct wry neck, and more recently to reduce severe muscle stiffness and spasm associated with stroke, spinal cord injury, multiple sclerosis, and cerebral palsy. It is not expected to p rovide a permanent solution, and regular, on-going injections are usually required.

In my case botox seems to be an effective way of treating the severe spasm and tone that characterize my injury. This spasticity is not easily apparent, particularly when I’m standing, although involuntary flexion and extension happens after I’ve been sitting for a while. For anyone who’s interested there is quite a good account of the complexities of treating muscle spasticity at http://sci.washington.edu/info/forums/reports/spasticity.asp

My left calf has had three or four injections at four monthly intervals and now has no stiffness. The last injection was eight months ago. I stretch the muscles every day, and hopefully the Botox will have initiated a response that is now permanent, providing I keep stretching. The alternative was surgery which I seem to have avoided … Go me!

I hope to continue to confound conventional science, and permanently reduce muscle tone after a few more courses of botox. This won’t happen on it’s own, but the botox will provide a window of opportunity during which I can work with physios and a personal trainer to stretch spastic muscles, and recruit and work any underlying voluntary muscles. These voluntary muscles can be masked by the overwhelming strength of spastic muscles that hide any potential functional movement.

So, although my facial wrinkles remain unbotoxed and broadcast to the world that here is a woman of character (these wrinkles and lines are, after all, the result of much laughter, worry and deep thought) my botoxed limbs may also have much to say about their owner.

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