Tag Archives: health

Mr. & Mrs. Fink

June 1, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The evolution of CLOSENESS was quite literally a matter of the heart—not in a cheesy, romantic musing type of way, but the actual blood-pumping, life-sustaining muscular organ. Husband-wife duo Orenda Fink (Azure Ray) and Todd Fink (The Faint) are the masterminds behind the electro-dream-pop project. The couple say they always wanted to merge musical styles, but they could never quite find the time. Todd was touring in support of The Faint’s last album, Doom Abuse, and Orenda was involved in her solo work. As fate would have it, a frightening medical emergency involving Orenda’s heart temporarily brought everything to a screeching halt. In November 2015, she went under the knife to repair a birth defect that was
originally misdiagnosed.

“I had it my whole life, but never knew how dangerous it was,” Orenda admits. “They couldn’t believe I was still alive [laughs]. With my condition, I had a bunch of extra electrical pathways on my heart that were not supposed to be there. They had to get rid of them.”

“We realized there was no better time to do this,” Todd adds. “If we were going to do it, we had to do it now. After her surgery, everything became more urgent.”

Todd and Orenda have been a unit for more than 15 years, and it just so happens both are incredibly talented musicians in their own right. It was because of this shared love and compassion for one another that Orenda finally took her arrhythmia seriously. 

“I’ve had episodes my whole life,” she says. “A couple of weeks before I was diagnosed, my heart went into an abnormal rhythm. Normally, it would kick back in, but this time it just stayed. I was just so used to it that I was traveling, smoking cigarettes, hanging out with friends—but Todd was like, ‘Um, you need to go to the doctor immediately [laughs].’”

Orenda flew back to Omaha and went straight to the doctor. Two-and-a-half weeks later, the Georgia native was having heart surgery, which was the first time she’d ever had any kind of surgical procedure. What was supposed to be a three-hour event turned into 12 hours, but thankfully she pulled through. 

“Your heart is such an immediate thing—it has to be going,” she says with a hint of sarcasm. “It made us kind of realize how precious and fragile life is, I guess.” 

Back at home, she sunk into a depression, which can be common for heart patients. 

“When you are faced with your own mortality so intensely, you get depressed,” she says. 

Still recuperating in sweatpants and socks, CLOSENESS took its initial steps and Orenda quickly found solace in making music with her husband. 

“We started the band almost immediately,” she says. “It was cathartic. Something about that experience [surgery] made me realize now there were no more excuses not to do it.” 

On March 10, CLOSENESS unveiled its debut EP, Personality Therapy, and had its album release party later that night at Omaha’s beloved hole-in-the wall O’Leaver’s, where Todd and Orenda played to a packed house. Naturally, the Omaha music community came out in droves to support one of their own. Shortly after, the duo hit the road for Austin’s annual South by Southwest (SXSW) music festival and continued their road trip to New York City, something they’ve wanted to do for years. 

“We’re looking to tour as much as possible,” Todd explains. “It’s part of why we wanted to do a band with just the two of us—to be able to make kind of, like, a vacation out of it, where it’s just the two of us together, and we’re able to drive around in our car. It’s not like working. We don’t have to be away from each other to do what we’re doing. I am really looking forward to that aspect.” 

While traveling with other people has its merits, it also has its challenges. Oftentimes, the vastly different personalities can throw a wrench in the process, but for the Finks, it makes more sense. 

“We’ve been together for so long that our tastes have melded,” she says. “From what we like to do to where we like to eat—we just know each other. That’s one of the hardest parts about being on the road with other people—always having to compromise. This seems like a dream scenario.” 

Being a quintessential “rock-star couple,” however, didn’t always come easy. In the beginning, like all relationships, there were some hiccups, but it was nothing they couldn’t work through. 

“He got in trouble in the beginning years,” she jokes. “Not like cheating or anything, but figuring out what a married man can do—like he couldn’t go skinny-dipping with girls on tour anymore [laughs].”

“I thought the ocean was huge [laughs],” he replies. “You don’t get a manual when you get married. You don’t know exactly where the line is.” 

One big lesson they learned, however, is to not get caught up in the minutiae of everyday life. 

“Pick your battles,” Orenda says. “You have to keep the greatest good of the relationship as the highest priority. Everyone slips on that in any relationship. If you’re in a really intense working relationship together, you’re going to have friction. It’s figuring out how to deal with that friction. You want the outcome to be forgiveness and loving each other. If you slip up, remember that’s the ultimate goal.” 

“Winning an argument really isn’t worth anything,” Todd adds. “The goal isn’t to win. It’s to get back to a place of love.”

facebook.com/closenessmusic

This article was printed in the May/June 2017 edition of Encounter.

Nettles, and Ivy, and Ticks—Oh My!

April 28, 2017 by

Christine Jacobsen likes to see parents taking their kids outside. “There’s more of a risk to keeping them inside,” she says, citing obesity and other problems. Jacobsen, the education specialist for the Papio-Missouri River Natural Resource District, often heads summer camp programs and outdoor field trips for students. Jacobsen says she took her own children outside frequently “from the get-go.” When her children were infants, her husband and she would take them on hikes in carriers. Her children now appreciate the outdoors. Jacobsen says that the more parents can get their kids outdoors and learning about their natural world, the better.

Many parents fear what dangers may lurk outside. Jacobsen says, “Here in Nebraska, especially in eastern Nebraska, there’s really not a lot to be worried about,” noting that any venomous snakes, such as rattlesnakes, are restricted to western Nebraska. However, one should learn to identify and avoid minor perils such as nettles, poison ivy, ticks, and mosquitoes.

Nettles

Jacobsen advises that nettles are a common plant hazard. She describes nettles as a woodland underbrush, about 2-3 feet tall, with green “sawtooth leaves.” She says they are invasive and often establish in disturbed places such as areas that have been mowed or tilled over. “They move in and take over an area,” she says. The bottoms of the leaves contain irritating hairs that cause redness and itching, she says. Jacobsen’s nettles remedy in a pinch: “put mud on it.” She also advises wearing long pants when in the woods.

Poison Ivy

Like nettles, poison ivy irritates the skin. Look for “mitten shaped” “leaves of three,” says Jacobsen. She also says poison ivy is typically seen in the woodlands, where it grows as a short, understory plant and as vines. “It’s the first vine to turn red in the fall,” says Jacobsen.

Reactions to poison ivy can include blisters, inflammation, and swelling. Jacobsen says the oil in the leaves is the cause of these reactions, and that the oil can be transmitted. Jacobsen’s remedy: washing the site to lift the oil. She advises seeking medical advice for severe reactions.

Ticks

Ticks are another nuisance. Jacobsen says that although the incidence of tick-spread lyme disease (typically by deer ticks) is low in Nebraska, hikers should be mindful of ticks. These arachnids are tear-drop shaped and have small heads. Dog ticks are generally larger and light brown with an “hourglass shape” on the back. “Deer ticks,” she says, “are like pepper—they’re tiny.” Use insect spray as a precaution. She acknowledges that many parents don’t want to put DEET on their children, but Jacobsen recommends it, noting that after being outdoors children should take a shower to wash it off and to look for ticks that may have attached.

Mosquitoes

Nobody likes mosquitoes, but they can be avoided. Jacobson advises using DEET to avoid them as well. She says mosquitoes are most active at dusk and dawn.Mosquito bites can be irritating. “Don’t scratch,” she says, noting that breaking them open can introduce infections. Jacobsen recommends cold packs and calamine lotion for bad bites.

Even with these minor hazards lurking outdoors, it is worthwhile to let children explore nature. They will form happy memories of hiking in the woods, playing in the mud, or catching their first fish, and develop an appreciation for active living.

This article was printed in the Summer 2017 edition of Family Guide.

On Bread

April 10, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Illustration by Matt Wieczorek

It was the story I didn’t want to write—that one about what I call “my malady,” my three episodes of severely restricted eating. The first bout struck when I was 15, when, in response to difficult family circumstances, I limited myself to fewer than 600 calories per day. I calculated and tallied the calories for everything I ate; I chewed and spit out forbidden foods; I stripped down and weighed myself many times a day; I exercised too vigorously and for too long; I awakened in a panic from vivid dreams in which I was devouring doughnuts or pizza; I isolated myself from my friends and no longer ate meals with my family because of the all-consuming nature of my regimen. I lost weight so quickly and recklessly that I stopped menstruating and could barely get out of bed in the morning because of the anemia. But I felt safe and empowered because, through my self-restriction, I’d taken control of my frustrating life and unruly flesh.

Over a decade before Karen Carpenter’s death from anorexia nervosa, the event that awakened many Americans to the dangers of eating disorders, I had never heard of the condition. Apparently, neither had the pediatrician who examined me when I was my thinnest and most unhealthy. He simply told my mother that I needed to eat more, which eventually, I did. When I was 25 and left my family, friends, and hometown for a demanding job in a big faraway city where I knew no one, my malady returned in a less dangerous though more tenacious form. In spite of intensive psychotherapy, this bout of my malady didn’t start abating until three years after it started with the birth of my son.

Most perplexing to me was that when I was deep into middle age, a professor at a state university, the author of five award-winning books, the mother of an adult son and daughter, a homeowner, a church member, and a supporter of various worthy causes, my malady returned. Then, my weight dropped to a number on the scale that I hadn’t seen since middle school, as I whittled down my list of permissible foods until it fit on my thumbnail. Because of age-related changes in my bodymind, the departure of my grown children, and the loss of other significant people in my life, I was heartbroken and anxious. Just as when I was 15 and 25, I tightly restricted what and how much I ate as a way of keeping myself safe from what threatened me. But I couldn’t see what I was doing, much less link it to the two other times when eating too little had been so easy and gratifying. In fact, I didn’t know that I was sick again until my 20-year-old daughter told me that if I didn’t eat more, I was going to die. My blindness to my situation still astonishes and baffles me.

I didn’t want to write the story of an illness that many judge to be a character flaw, a moral failing, nothing but a silly, overzealous diet, or a childish attempt to get attention. I didn’t want to write a story in which I had to admit that I had a condition that usually strikes teenagers and young women. I didn’t want to write a story that would require me to re-enter, through memory and imagination, the dark periods of my life when eating less than my body needed seemed like a logical, fitting response to adversity. I didn’t want to write a story that was an illness narrative and, so, presents a version of the self that isn’t sound or fully functioning.

And yet, I felt compelled to write this story. In “On Keeping a Notebook,” Joan Didion advises us “to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.” If we don’t, they might “turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget.” What I had forgotten was the woman in me who sometimes found self-starvation and the taking up of as little space as possible so alluring.

To write the story of my malady, I had to educate myself about eating disorders and disordered eating. Eating disorders—anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge-eating disorder—are clinically defined and diagnosed, according to criteria set forth by the American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Less well-known to most people is “disordered eating,” which Lauren Reba-Harrelson and the co-authors of a 2009 study define as “unhealthy or maladaptive eating behaviors, such as restricting, binging, purging, or use of other compensatory behaviors, without meeting criteria for an eating disorder.” “Other compensatory behaviors” include the use of laxatives, diuretics, stimulants, or excessive exercise to counteract the calories one has consumed.

I went into my research believing that eating disorders and disordered eating are caused primarily by unhealthy family dynamics and the message from the fashion, entertainment, beauty, and diet industries that nothing you are and nothing you’ve achieved matter as much as being thin. Now I know that those are but the easiest explanations and that they trivialize a complex problem. Aimee Liu, the author of Gaining: The Truth About Life After Eating Disorders, compares an eating disorder to a gun: “Genes shape the gun, environment loads it, and stress pulls the trigger.” This felt true to me, so I went to work researching the genetic, environmental, and psychological aspects of eating disorders. From the studies I read by geneticists and neuroscientists, I learned that those with eating disorders and disordered eating can’t trust their brains to tell them the truth about when and when not to eat.

Several studies, for instance, have investigated variations on the gene for serotonin among the eating-disordered, since when people with anorexia severely restrict their caloric intake, their abnormally high levels of serotonin drop, and they report feeling calmer and less anxious; when those with bulimia increase their caloric intake, their low serotonin levels rise, and they report feeling happier. Another study found that those with bulimia and anorexia have an altered response in the insula, a part of the brain involved in appetite regulation, when given tastes of sugar, which means that they don’t accurately perceive signals about their hunger or satiety. Yet another study suggests that increased activity in the dorsal striatum leads to “maladaptive food choices” among restrictors, meaning that they actually prefer the plain rice cake over the Asian pear and smoked gouda panini.

From my reading in psychology, I learned that certain family structures and personality types were more likely to “load the gun” than others. Hilde Bruch, a psychoanalyst and pioneering researcher on eating disorders, studied the connection between disturbed interactions between a child and a domineering or detached mother and the development of anorexia, while psychiatrist Salvador Minuchin studied how “psychosomatic families,” especially those that are “enmeshed,” contribute to the genesis of eating disorders. For a 2004 study, Walter H. Kaye, the director of the Eating Disorders Center for Treatment and Research at the University of California-San Diego, administered standardized tests for anxiety, perfectionism, obsessionality, and eating disorders among individuals with anorexia, bulimia, and both disorders, as well as a control group. He found that 66 percent of the members of the three eating-disordered groups had “one or more lifetime anxiety disorders,” 41 percent had obsessive-compulsive disorder, and 20 percent had a social phobia. The majority of the eating-disordered study participants reported that the onset of their anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or social phobia had occurred during childhood, before the symptoms of their eating disorder manifested. Even those who had recovered from an eating disorder and were symptom-free “still tended to be anxious, perfectionistic and harm-avoidant.”

I explored various cultural factors that “load the gun.” Feminist theorists, such as Susie Orbach, Naomi Wolfe, and Susan Bordo, see anorexia as rebellion against or an over-conformity with Western notions of feminine beauty and power. Historians and medievalists weighed the similarities and differences between contemporary anorexia and the prolonged fasting of religious women in Europe in the late Middle Ages who sought worldly power and a deeper union with God through their austerities. Accounts by and about hunger strikers, whether the imprisoned members of the Irish Republican Army, the American suffragette movement, or those being held at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, present their fasts as the ultimate political statement and protest.

Clearly, eating disorders and disordered eating are due to a messy tangle of genetic and biochemical factors, family dynamics, individual psychology, and a wide range of cultural influences. Also clear to me is that my story isn’t unique. Experts say that about 10 percent of those with eating disorders are older women. But, says Dr. Cynthia Bulik, the director of the Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders at the University of North Carolina, the percentage is surely higher since most older women with eating disorders disguise or misread their symptoms as being due to a health condition or changes associated with aging, and so they aren’t included in the number of reported cases. In a 2012 study, Danielle Gagne and her research team found that women over 50 are engaged in unhealthy eating behaviors and thinking to the same extent that adolescents are. Most experts that I’ve read see a link between loss, grief, and depression as triggering the onset or return of an eating disorder in women who are middle-aged or older.

The loss and grief triggered by an empty nest, the death or relocation of several others who mattered to me, and an awareness of my own aging caused me to start restricting my diet again in 2011. But of all the factors that loaded the gun, two presented the most daunting challenges to my recovery. The values of hyper-consumerism was one. In “Hunger,” the Canadian writer and human rights activist Maggie Helwig says that it’s no accident that the widespread appearance of eating disorders in the 1960s and the epidemic of the 1970s coincided with the unprecedented growth of the consumer society, which places supreme value on one’s ability to buy goods and services. Helwig, who almost died from anorexia when she was young, observes that by the end of the 1960s, our material consumption had become “very nearly uncontrollable,” resulting in “what is possibly the most emotionally depleted society in history, where the only ‘satisfactions’ seem to be the imaginary ones, the material buy-offs.” Anorexia, then, is the “nightmare of consumerism” played out in the female body. “It is these women,” writes Helwig, “who live through every implication of our consumption and our hunger and our guilt and ambiguity and our awful need for something real to fill us … We have too much; and it is poison.” By not eating, the anorexic tells us that she’d rather be skeletally thin than ingest something that isn’t real or substantial. By not eating, the anorexic causes a cessation in ovulation and menstruation, rendering herself literally unproductive. By not eating, the anorexic refuses to be consumed by the act of consumption. Such self-denial in a culture of plenty is an audacious, radically countercultural act and statement. I extend Helwig’s metaphor to include binge-eating disorder (rapid, uncontrolled consumption with no “compensatory behaviors”) and bulimia (a refusal to complete the act of consumption by hurling out what one has just taken in) as responses to unrestrained consumerism.

The things, services, and diversions that money can buy can’t fill a hungry heart or lessen the pain one feels from a lack of meaning or purpose. Ironically, or perhaps fittingly, what we’re truly hungry for can’t be bought. And what I was craving when my malady returned for the third time were a renewed sense of purpose and deep nourishing relationships to “replace” those that I’d lost.

This was easier said than done. The rise of consumerist culture has been accompanied by a decline in the number of close relationships among Americans of all ages. Instead of visiting and confiding in each other, we spend more and more of our time working and, in our leisure time, gazing at screens. Consequently, finding others with the time and desire for new friendships was challenging and at times, disheartening. But with prayer and persistence, I eventually found people who share my values and who enjoy my company as much as I enjoy theirs.

The other factor that made recovery during the third bout of my malady so challenging was that in my early 50s, I had become acutely aware of the effects of ageism. Because the master narrative our culture imparts about aging is that late midlife and beyond is a time of inexorable decline, marked by deterioration, powerlessness, dependency, irrelevance, and obsolescence, it is the fear of aging and even more, of ageism, that is the inciting force that triggers disordered eating in some women. I didn’t want to think about aging—my aging—and I certainly didn’t want to write about it. Yet, address it I must. In a 2011 study, a team of Australian researchers found that a group of women ages 30 to 60 with disordered eating who participated in just eight weeks of cognitive behavioral therapy focused on “midlife themes” were still doing better in terms of “body image, disordered eating, and risk factors” at the follow-up six months later than a control group that had not had the opportunity to explore these themes in a therapeutic setting. To counter the effects of ageism in my life, I now collect resistance narratives from women, role models, really, who live their later years with passion and purpose and on their own terms—Jane Goodall, Maria Lassnig, Gloria Steinem, Helen Mirren, Isabel Allende, and others, both famous and not.

Although I was reluctant to write this story, I did find pleasure in crafting Bread. And the act of writing was filled with many moments of self-revelation and one grand epiphany: that there are aspects of my malady that are within my control (how I respond to ageist, hyper-consumerist, and patriarchal values) and some that are not (genetics and brain chemistry: my hard-wiring). Now, I know what I can fight and what I must gracefully accept.

When people asked me what I was working on as I was writing Bread, I reluctantly told them about the story that I didn’t want to write. I found that most were not only interested, but they wanted to tell me their stories about being in the grip of something beyond their control that lead them to eat too much or too little, about feeling shamed or misunderstood because of this, about the familial tensions or social costs or the ill physical effects that resulted from their unhealthy relationship with food and self. Some told triumphant stories about the residential treatment, the counseling, the spiritual practice, the religious conversion, or the supportive loved ones that saved them. But some were in the thick of it. Many were grateful to be given a name—disordered eating—for what they were experiencing and to know that this could afflict anyone of any age and circumstance.

Many were grateful to learn that the reasons they were stuffing or starving were more complex and nuanced than their having played with Barbie dolls as children or having conflicted relationships with their mothers.

The deep story I’ve heard in each of these testimonies concerns the tellers’ hunger for wholeness and fullness. Now, I encourage those who tell me their stories to ask themselves a difficult question—What am I truly hungry for? —and then answer it with courage and honesty. I’m hungry for companionship. I’m hungry for solitude. I’m hungry for reconciliation. I’m hungry for meaningful work. I’m hungry for less busyness or the opportunity to paint or dance or fight for social justice. Then, I urge them to bring that source of nourishment and sustenance into their lives. Some women thanked me for writing Bread before they’d even read it.

When I consider how frankly confessional my story is and how controversial some will find my interpretations of the research, I squirm and second-guess myself. But then I remember that I am safer from relapse because I understand what I can and can’t control and because I’m far less likely to forget, as Didion says, “the things [I] thought [I] could never forget.” And, too, I feel full knowing that people are finding self-knowledge, nourishment, hope, and strength in the story that I didn’t want to tell.

Lisa Knopp, Ph.D., is a professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s English Department. Her recent book, Bread: A Memoir of Hunger, was published by the University of Missouri Press in 2016. Visit lisaknopp.com for more information.

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of 60 Plus.

Colonoscopy Cocktail

February 24, 2017 by

Gary Kropf, 62, spent the entire evening reading Wine Spectator magazine cover to cover.

On the toilet.

“It was a busy day,” Kropf recalls. A powder laxative mixed in 64 ounces of Gatorade helped clear his gastrointestinal tract for inspection.

He doesn’t regret a single minute. It wasn’t a fun day, but it was easier to drink the dreaded “colonoscopy cocktail” than die.

What his doctor discovered after Kropf had the procedure were two polyps, or growths in the intestine, which could develop into cancer. Kropf didn’t panic since he went through a procedure to remove polyps five years before. This time, however, one polyp flattened out and couldn’t be removed. His biopsy tests came back as slightly abnormal. Kropf sought a specialist.

“Gary, I’ve seen a lot of these. I bet it will turn into cancer,” colon and rectal surgeon Sean Langenfeld informed him.

Kropf understood the impact of those words more than most. His first wife died of uterine cancer. He had seen firsthand how fast cancer could take a life.

Unfortunately, Langenfeld was correct. Tests came back positive for cancer.

“I’m not a betting man. I don’t like the odds,” Kropf says.

In fact, according to the American Cancer Society, colon cancer is the third leading cause of cancer death in men and women. However, almost 59 percent of those 50 and older—the recommended age for testing—do not get tested.

Most, Langenfeld believes, do not get the colonoscopy procedure because it is embarrassing.

Geraldine Russmann, 80, had a laparoscopic colon resection after discovering cancer last year. Russmann, also a breast cancer survivor, has trouble talking people into having a colonoscopy because they think cancer won’t ever happen to them.

“It’s a day out of your life that will save your life,”
she says.

Preventive screening seems to be key to a longer life since many times there are no symptoms, as was the case with both Kropf and Russmann.

Excluding family and personal history, a colonoscopy is recommended every 10 years to identify polyps and cancers in patients before they have symptoms or the cancer spreads.

Kropf is remarried, and he is urging his second wife to get checked (she can’t stomach the idea of going through the pre-bowel prep experience).

But Langenfeld says the chalky cocktail is now “less miserable and tastes better.” The day of the procedure, the patient is sedated. The surgeon uses a colonscope with a tiny camera at the tip to see a visual of the colon and removes any polyps if necessary. It typically takes about 30 minutes.

“It can change your life to not wearing a bag or getting really sick,” Kropf adds.

Kropf had much anxiety in those dark days, but felt confident in Langenfeld’s abilities. Langenfeld, a five-year University of Nebraska Medicine veteran, has seen many of these cases. He knows if a polyp gets out of hand, a person can die. He has seen these red or pink masses become so huge they “block the road.” The biggest was the size of a football, while others were like softballs.

As of December, Kropf’s blood work came back favorable.

How did he celebrate?

“I had a nice glass of wine,” Kropf says.

Visit cancer.org for more infomation.

Micrographs show what colon cancer looks like under a microscope.

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of 60 Plus.

The Secret of the Shimmy

January 5, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Inhale. exhale.

The slow Middle Eastern music increases in tempo.

The ladies’ hips sway side to side in rapid repeat. All three wear black spandex pants and V-neck T-shirts. Scarves, loosely wrapped around their waists, accentuate their movements. Bells jingle in time with the rhythm of the beat.

“Don’t give away the secret,” Carol Wright warns as her hips pop. “If they want to know the secret to the shimmy, tell them to come and see Della.”

The other two women laugh as their torsos undulate. Wright closes her eyes in a losing-herself-to-the-music moment, hands on her rolling and rippling hips.

“Is this too fast?” instructor Della Bynum asks from the side of the room. She has been watching this improvisation for a while, a half-smile on her face, relishing the freedom and artistry of the belly dance.

“We will have to find out,” Wright says.

“This is where you just have fun exploring,” Bynum explains.

Anna Lewis, 22, struggles for a moment, “Which way should I go?” 

Lewis has been shaking her hips for about a year now. At 6 years old, she watched her mother and Della’s group perform for her Girl Scout troop. 

“My mom is re-inspired whenever she comes to visit and will always make sure she comes back to Della’s class,” Lewis says.

Bynum steps in to help Lewis and demonstrates a front and back roll to add to the dance. The women continue as a solid unit.

It isn’t the shimmy that is the secret, but it is this connection of women coming together to celebrate themselves and each other. Feeling that connection is one of the main reasons why Bynum stays in dance. Bynum, 67, believes belly dancing creates a bond regardless of age, ethnicity, or size.

bellydancingShe should know. She’s been dancing since she was 8 years old and aging hasn’t stopped her. It is a vivacious, beautiful, and uplifting experience.

“It makes you aware of your senses—how you see, hear,” Bynum believes.

Bynum began with traditional ballet, then shifted to modern dance. She moved from Baltimore at 19 to begin school at Creighton University. A business degree wasn’t important to Bynum. 

“Dance classes were my love,” she says. “But unless you are teaching dance, you are not assured a position to support yourself.”

She continued taking dance classes and studied ethnic forms of popular dances of the 1970s, including African, Polynesian, and belly dancing. In addition, she performed modern dance with the UNO Moving Company. In 1980, Bynum started teaching her first classes at the YWCA and continued to do so for the next 25 years. 

When Bynum retired seven years ago from her day job as a timekeeper for the Omaha Fire Department, she needed…well…something more.

“You need to move more as you age, not less. If you don’t move, you aren’t able to move as well,” Bynum believes.

“You should open up a studio,” a long-time friend and fellow dance instructor told her.

“Hmm…that’s what people do when they are young,” Bynum replied.

With some help from her friend, Bynum did the unthinkable by opening her first studio. After three years, Bynum realized the ceiling was too low for the wavy and slinky arm movements of belly dance. After searching, she discovered a spot in the Center Mall on 42nd Street. After that, it was just a matter of finding economical ways to create a studio.

Bynum teaches four days a week and her crew puts on performances for The Durham Museum, Omaha Performing Arts, Renaissance fairs, and other organizations. The women sew their own costumes for a variety of different styles including tribal, folkloric, and Oriental belly dancing. 

A six-year attendee, Michelle Widhalm, 50, says Bynum is holistic in her approach. It is emotional and spiritualistic.

Bynum’s mantra: breathe. 

“When I tell people I belly dance, it is interesting to see their reaction. Eyebrows raise,” Widhalm says. “Western culture sexualized the dance. For me, it is about the female connection.”

Widhalm was surprised the older generation seemed more open to the idea, commenting only on how it must be a good form of exercise. In fact, a 2003 study in the New England Journal of Medicine reported social dancing lowered the risk of dementia in the elderly by 76 percent—more than reading. It also reduces stress, releases serotonin, and improves overall physical health.

Bynum’s parents passed away in their 50s, which has motivated her to keep exercising. If someone likes it, he/she will keep active. Belly dancing is multi-generational. 

“It’s more of an ageless environment,” Bynum says.

Her oldest client started when she was 80 and quit at 90 due to arthritis.

When Shakira entered the scene in the 2000s, shaking those hips that don’t lie, the belly dancing industry boomed.

So what about those ripped abs?

“I had those when I was young,” Bynum says tapping her black-stockinged feet on the floor to the beat of the music. “But it isn’t about that for me anymore.”

Bynum steps in the front of the class in black leggings with a bright orange scarf tied to her waist, a dark blue shirt, and a whole lot of confidence.

Bynum works with the three women on choreographed moves based on an old saying she modified. 

Walk forward, beauty before us.

Walk backward, beauty behind us.

It continues with the side, upward, and downward until the climax.

Beauty within us.

Wright squeals at the end in time with the music, arms raised, and all of them laugh together. 

Oh, and the secret to that shimmy?

Bending the knees, breathing, and relaxing.

Visit delladancing.com for more information.

The Compass in the Landscape

October 16, 2016 by and
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

With growing levels of philanthropic donations sloshing around Omaha, it’s important to keep in mind that underserved segments of the community remain. Sometimes these segments of the community are out of sight. Sometimes their needs are unknown, hidden to those who would otherwise
offer assistance.

Folks in charge of the Omaha Community Foundation are paying mind to the hidden needs of the metro area. In fact, Sara Boyd, CEO of the Omaha Community Foundation, unveiled a new initiative to confront the problem this fall.

“The Landscape Project is a data-driven reflection of the Omaha-Council Bluffs area,” says Boyd. “It is an online resource to integrate data in our community about how we are faring on certain issues with community priorities and lived experiences to help us gain greater insight into how we’re doing.”

The Landscape Project relies on existing data—along with direct engagement with specific segments of the population—to gauge where gaps remain in community support.

“The goal of the project is to create shared learning and understanding, for all of us, to see how we’re doing on some of these priorities,” Boyd says. “Then to potentially have a process or structure in place that allows for greater participation and prioritization on these issues; and then, from there to coordinate or align our efforts.”

While the Landscape Project is like a compass for philanthropy, Omaha Gives is the foundation’s vehicle for driving charitable donations to organizations around the metro. In 2016, the fourth annual Omaha Gives campaign amassed almost $9 million—a new record for the 24-hour funding drive—and generated more than $1 million in new donations from first-time participants. “That, for us, is very meaningful,” says Boyd. “It was not just a celebration of giving, but also to say, ‘can we grow the pie of giving in our community in some way?’”

“The Landscape Project is a data-driven reflection of the Omaha-Council Bluffs area.”

-Sara Boyd

Boyd says the foundation began developing the Landscape Project concept roughly five years ago while reviewing studies about local urban problems. Several of those studies were one-time only, others were outdated. So, the Omaha Community Foundation partnered with United Way and Iowa West Foundation to do a community assessment.

Moving forward with the Landscape Project, identification of local housing problems illustrates one way the new online resource could help inform philanthropy and public policy alike: “Throughout the country we know there is disparity in home ownership along many levels. One of those disparities is along different communities and different races. Blacks own their own homes at significantly lower rates in our community than they do elsewhere in the country.”

landscape-foundation1Home ownership, she says, is an indicator of wealth-building and asset accumulation. Boyd hopes data from the Landscape Project will help policymakers and nonprofits to cross-reference the experiences of other communities (nationwide) that have battled similar problems, analyze how the problems were alleviated, and bring relevant solutions to Omaha.

The Landscape Project will begin with six areas of focus: health, neighborhoods, safety, transportation, education, and workforce. “Really, the long-term goal is to strengthen our ability to solve problems as a community and move the needle on important issues,” Boyd says.

Visit thelandscapeomaha.org for more information.

Is Testosterone Replacement

September 3, 2015 by

This article appears in Sept./Oct. 2015 60-Plus.

Todd Weber was typically a fairly active man. A senior radiation protection technician for Omaha Public Power District (OPPD) by day, he often spent his weekends racing stock cars with his teenage son or building cart racing accessories in his garage. Racing stock cars was a life-long hobby and something Weber loved to share with his son.

But about a year ago, that all began to change. Weber’s energy started to dwindle and his interest in cart racing waned with it.

“I had no energy or drive,” recalls Weber. “I just wasn’t enjoying life anymore. I knew something was seriously wrong when my son asked me to work on his car with him and I said no.”

His wife encouraged him to go to a doctor. The first doctor put him on an antidepressant. But Weber saw no change in his energy or mood. Then Weber saw something on the Internet about low testosterone levels. His symptoms matched up.  He made an appointment with Chad LaGrange, M.D., urologist at Nebraska Medicine, who tested his testosterone level.

“My level was so low that he said my wife had more testosterone than me,” says Weber.

Weber received a hormone pellet injection, and within a few weeks, his energy had returned, he had a renewed interest in life, and was able to cut out the afternoon nap that had begun to be a part of his daily routine.

“Testosterone production begins to decline in men each year as they reach age 40 and beyond,” explains LaGrange. “About 15 percent of men will experience a drop in levels that is clinically significant, particularly those who are obese and/or have other chronic illnesses.”

Testosterone is the main male hormone that maintains muscle mass and strength, fat distribution, bone mass, sperm productions, sex drive, and potency. Very low testosterone levels can place men at higher risk for osteoporosis, obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

This decline in hormones can result in symptoms such as low motivation, decreased stamina and energy, depression, hot flashes, loss of muscle mass, and mood swings.

Testosterone replacement therapy can be very effective at reducing these risks and improving symptoms. However, testosterone therapy is not without its side effects, and therefore, men should be carefully screened by licensed physicians to determine if they are a candidate for therapy, says LaGrange. In some cases, a drop in testosterone may be related to cancer, brain-related diseases, diabetes, obesity, and other hormonal abnormalities.

“If not diagnosed and treated properly, testosterone injections may cause blood clots, stroke, heart attack, and liver toxicity,” says LaGrange. “While there has been some debate over the safety of testosterone replacement therapy, most physicians agree that it is safe when provided for the appropriate reasons and monitored carefully.”

Additionally, men with treated or untreated prostate cancer should not use testosterone therapy unless they have spoken with their urologist about the risks and benefits.

Dr. LaGrange also cautions men to beware of over-the-counter testosterone boosters, which are not regulated and could cause harmful side effects.

“I feel like a new man,” says Weber. “It’s so good to feel better again.”

Health1

Sugar Low

February 18, 2015 by

Holly Martens struggle may sound all too common. After the birth of her children she experienced a variety of symptoms. She had low energy; she experienced moodiness and mood swings, felt generally crabby and could not lose weight around her mid-section. Martens knew her struggle was not unique, but also knew she had to do something about it.

“With both pregnancies, I gained so much weight and really had trouble with my mid-section. I finally figured out what to do about it and was so happy I made the decision to be healthier overall,” Martens says.

Martens, with the help of Vice Cross Fit gym, went on what she calls a sugar detox. Once she was educated about sugar and added sugars, she was shocked at how much of it she had been consuming.

“They really taught me how much sugar I was eating and what all that sugar was doing to be body. The sugar in our diet really has a bad affect on our bodies.”

Martens was in for even more of a shock. After 21 days, she was amazed at how different she felt. “I felt awesome. I was not so tired. I didn’t get headaches anymore. My skin cleared up and my stomach was much flatter.”

What was even more refreshing was that Martens never felt deprived. She says she truly felt she could maintain healthy or “clean” eating.

“I ate so much food, especially meat. I never did feel deprived. The cravings were not there,” Martens says.

It was that lack of deprivation that Martens felt was the key to her success. After the 21 day sugar detox, Martens continued to maintain sugar-free eating during the week and would indulge a little on weekends.

Shannon Muhs, a dietician with Hy-Vee, was able to shed some light on how our bodies react when we have too much sugar in our diet.

“When we eat more sugar, our bodies experience a brief high, followed by a sort of crash, which is why we feel more sluggish. Our bodies will also produce excess insulin, which will cause the body to want to eat more and eventually our bodies run out of places to store that excess sugar and it starts to store itself as fat,” Muhs says.

As Martens experienced, once sugar is eliminated it doesn’t take long for our bodies to recover. “Within a couple of days, you should have more sustained energy and a more balanced energy load. You should not experience as many highs and lows and should be craving less sweets,” she says.

Martens plans on maintaining her healthier lifestyle and even convinced her husband to join her on her journey, who after limiting sugar lost close to 40 pounds.

“We both feel so much better. It’s really amazing. I was never really big on diets, but this is something I don’t feel is necessarily a diet. It’s a lifestyle and I am very passionate about it.”

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Head Shots

January 13, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Megan Scott turned downfield to get into a better position.

Smack!

A soccer ball nailed her in the back of the head. Megan blacked out for 30 seconds, finally mustering the effort to get to her feet. But then she fell back down into the grass. “I want to play,” Megan said to the referee crouched next to her. “You can’t,” he informed her.

Her club team, Omaha Futbol Club 9798, won 5-1 in the state finals. Megan doesn’t remember much of that game.

Headaches. Confusion. Fatigue. Megan felt all of these for the next month and a half. For two weeks, she attended school for only half the day.

Megan had sustained a severe concussion; a major brain injury suffered in a sport many parents may still believe is immune to the damaging violence of the gladiator games like football and hockey.

According to a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) study two years ago, football players have the highest rate of concussions among high school athletes, with 11.2 concussions reported per 10,000 athletes. However, many other sports account for the 3.8 million sports-related concussions per year as reported by the American Academy of Pediatrics. The NAS saw soccer, for example, as the most dangerous for head injuries among girls, with 6.7 concussed cases per 10,000 athletes. Lacrosse, meanwhile, has 6.9 concussions per 10,000, while basketball has also seen an increase over the years.

Dr. Tarvez Tucker, a neurologist at the Oregon Health and Science University, says concussions add up over a lifetime and can lead to dementia as an adult. She also mentions people’s brains are not fully developed until later in life, especially those of males. “An injury that occurs while the brain is not developed can be more serious,” Tucker adds.

Jacque Tevis, Millard West High School’s girls’ soccer coach, says she does not remember a time when she has gone a year without someone on her team having a concussion.  Tucker says most concussions are not even ball related, but rather head-to- head injuries.

Nick Brasel can relate. After sprinting for a fly ball during baseball practice with his youth baseball team, he hit his own teammate head on.

“Where am I?” Nick asked his father when he woke up in a car heading to the hospital.

Nick’s next memories are sporadic. He recalled being rolled into the hospital on a stretcher and receiving multiple tests, including a CAT scan. He has no memory of the incident.

He was left with a bloody baseball hat, swollen cheek and eye, and a severe concussion.

Like Megan, Nick fell behind in school and was able to go only half days for the next week and a half.

“I had trouble paying attention and kept falling asleep,” Nick says.

Across Nebraska, Including in Omaha Public Schools, districts have begun adopting new concussion-related policies. Millard Public Schools, for example, has a new concussion policy this year in compliance with the Nebraska Concussion Awareness Act, which allows students time to make up missed work since cognitive functions can cause an increase of symptoms.

Most doctors, including Tucker, believe students should have flexible schedules until fully recovered. Tucker says it is the responsibility of parents and coaches to get athletes “the heck off the field” when a concussion happens.

Megan’s father, Tim, knows there is always a concern or risk, but says it is tough to take away something his daughter loves. If Megan has a third concussion, Tim may encourage her to stop playing.

Tevis, though, says that, many times, she can’t see her players from across the field. She also has difficulties with athletes not informing her when a blow to the head happens.

“Hopefully, these young athletes will start to recognize, as we learn more about how serious even a ‘mild’ concussion can be, that they have to be honest with us because literally their lives could be at
risk,” Tevis says.

Tucker notes that getting kids to self-report symptoms of a head injury can be difficult. There exists a “suck it up and swallow your injury” attitude that infuriates her, she says. She worries students will be prone to second impact syndrome (SIS), which can result when a concussion injury is not fully healed and an athlete is hit in the head again soon after. The brain can swell acutely, and from there, everything can spiral downward with severe consequences. Even death.

But, as any parent knows, it’s tough to tell a son or daughter they need to give up the sports they love.

“I don’t think I could manage life without sports,” Nick Brasel says. “It’s a big part of my life.”

Nutrition

December 4, 2014 by

Good nutrition is vital to the proper growth and development of children. The reality of childhood obesity is visible in our day-to-day lives; however, parents need to understand the dangers and warning signs associated with an unhealthy diet before it gets to the point of obesity. Among other complications, an unbalanced, unhealthy diet in children has a direct effect on how the body functions, from constipation to acne to depression.

Obesity & High Blood Pressure

In 2006, Nebraska had an adult obesity rate of 24.4% according to a report by Trust for America’s Health. Children often learn from adults by example, so as the adult obesity rate increases, so does childhood obesity. Childhood obesity is defined as a child or adolescent having an excess of 25% body fat. This can be determined by a skin fold test or a Body Mass Index (BMI) test.

High blood pressure is a very real and scary side effect of obesity. It is a crucial diagnosis in children because it can lead to other serious complications such as kidney disease, heart abnormalities or problems with the nervous or endocrine system. If the high blood pressure continues without medical help, the constant pressure on the blood vessels can damage vital organs, and possibly
lead to heart failure or stroke.

Constipation

Constipation is another common problem associated with poor nutrition. An improper amount of junk food such as chips, sweets, fried foods, and non-diet soft drinks may be problematic. Too much dairy (milk, yogurt, cheeses, and ice cream) in your child’s diet may also affect bowel movement. All foods, even junk foods, are fine in moderation. Boys Town Pediatrics recommends that parents follow the MyPlate guidelines (formerly known as the Food Pyramid) to help keep a balance of nutritious foods in their child’s diet.

Acne

There are many common myths and misconceptions regarding the cause of acne. Among such causation myths are poor hygiene and an unhealthy diet. However, neither hygiene nor diet actually causes acne. It is rather an unfortunate consequence of overactive sebaceous (oil) glands. Yet, once glands become active acne lesions, it is possible for certain foods often associated with a poor diet to increase the oil supplies and worsen the severity and prevalence of such lesions. Including healthy and vitamin-rich foods into your child’s diet, especially those with Vitamins A and E, and drinking plenty of water, can lead to healthier-looking skin.

Depression

We are all familiar with the saying, “You are what you eat.” If your child’s diet is consistently unhealthy, he or she will likely see a change in weight, and will physically feel the negative impact of the unhealthy foods. Inadequate nutrition often leads to a lack of physical drive, which in turn lessens a child’s stamina to play and participate in sports or other extracurricular activities, and may also decrease his or her ability to stay focused and concentrate on cognitive tasks such as homework. This can lead to irritability, mood swings, behavior problems, low self-esteem, and even depression. If you think your child is suffering from depression, contact your child’s physician.

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