Pumping Irony

Craig Cox, EL’s director of business operations and resident geezer, explores the joys and challenges of aging well.

The Hazards of Hard — and Soft — Labor

After a hard day wrestling beer kegs off his truck, Dad's favorite leisure-time activity was practicing his 12-ounce curls.
After a hard day wrestling beer kegs off his truck, Dad’s favorite leisure-time activity was practicing his 12-ounce curls.

My long-departed father supported a family of seven by delivering beer to taverns and restaurants in St. Paul. I can still picture him sitting at the kitchen table after work on a hot summer day, nursing a Grain Belt and smoking a Marlboro in his sweat-stained shirt. It was a tough job, wrestling those kegs off his truck, and it seemed obvious to me that this was a guy who didn’t need a weekend softball league to feel like he was getting enough exercise.

That was a different era, of course. Every breadwinner on our block made a living doing manual labor of one sort or another. Exercise was something Jack LaLanne did on TV to entertain housewives.

I was recalling those golden years the other day after learning about a Finnish study showing that the sort of work middle-aged guys like my dad and his neighbors did can limit their mobility as they head into their retirement years — unless they balance it with some “leisure-time physical activity” that consists of something more demanding than 12-ounce curls with their favorite pilsner.

While manual labor and recreational exercise may each require muscle activity, explained Taina Rantanen, a professor at the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health and lead researcher for the study, when you’re doing it on the job that activity often is repetitive and can wear your body down, affecting your overall mobility as you age.

The solution: Get a little exercise after work or on the weekend. “A person doing heavy manual work may compensate for its detrimental effects by participating in brisk leisure-time physical activity,” Rantanen said in a statement released by the Institute.

This is not a recommendation my old man would’ve followed. Like I said, it was a different time. And he didn’t make it much past 60 before cancer cut him down, so we’ll never know whether mobility would’ve been an issue in old age. I’m guessing he would’ve found his way to the refrigerator without any help.

I’m fortunate enough to make a living wrestling with words and budgets rather than beer kegs — an occupation that delivers its own health hazards. Sitting for long periods of time every day can kill you, I’ve heard. So, a little leisure-time exercise is probably still a good idea. In fact, it might be even more important for us desk-jockeys than for the guys who deliver our beer.

My Incredible Shrinking Brain

Don Carter rolled a 300 game 13 times. Did anyone like it on Facebook?
Don Carter rolled a 300 game 13 times. Did anyone like it on Facebook?

My old buddy M.E., AKA The King of Nordeast, bowled a 300 game awhile back. This is apparently a pretty big deal among bowlers (Don Carter threw 13 of themyawn), because he called me from a bar later the same evening to report the news and invite me to join him for the celebration. I demurred; it was late, and though I was happy for him, I wasn’t that happy.

Later TKN chided me for not “liking” his accomplishment on Facebook, an internet destination I visit about as often as he bowls a perfect game. “Just because I didn’t like it doesn’t mean I didn’t like it,” I explained.

But does it mean my brain is shrinking and I’m sinking into depression? Could be, according to a couple of new studies I stumbled upon last week. The first, published in the journal Neurology, found that older people who exhibit apathy may have less brain volume than those who care more about stuff. And a shrinking brain might just be an early indicator of brain diseases such as dementia or Alzheimer’s. “Just as signs of memory loss may signal brain changes related to brain disease, apathy may indicate underlying changes,” said Lenore Launer, PhD, of the National Institute on Aging.

So I may need to care more, which for a curmudgeon like me is a tough pill to swallow. It’s a little depressing, actually, but not nearly as depressing as discovering new research from Michigan State University showing that hanging out online is now being touted as a way to lower the incidence of depression among retirees. Falling into the Facebook vortex, the thinking seems to be, will help geezers stay connected to friends and family and fight off the loneliness that contributes to Prozac-level blues.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for older folks staying current with the latest technology. Email and social networks can provide a vital link to the outside world — especially for those who are homebound. (I really do care!) But there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that even moderate physical activity is one of the best ways to boost your spirits. Get outside for a walk, go for a bicycle ride, dig around in your garden, go bowling. Maybe you’ll crank out a 300 game.

Just don’t expect me to like it on Facebook.

Bicycling and Bistros

Is this exercise? Navigating Uptown traffic on the way to another culinary detour.
Is this exercise? Navigating Uptown traffic on the way to another culinary detour.

My Lovely Wife and I are what you might call “recreational bicyclists.” No spandex shorts or shoes that attach themselves to the pedals (?!?), no colorful shirts with the cute little pocket in the back. You won’t find us on a Saturday morning pedaling feverishly in the midst of a peloton whooshing along a country road at 20 MPH halfway into a casual 50-mile jaunt.

But that’s not to say we aren’t serious cyclists. I’ve commuted to work on my bike for the better part of the last 35 years. We’ve both pedaled through Minnesota winters and MLW once bicycled from our Minneapolis home all the way out to suburban Roseville to wish her mom a happy Mother’s Day. There’s nothing we like better than pedaling from Point A to Point B. Or, as we demonstrated last Friday, from Point A to Point G.

We don’t really do this for the workout (though it’s great exercise for MLW and her gimpy right knee); we tend to need an added incentive to saddle up. It’s just human nature. People often need extra encouragement to make healthy choices. It’s something our dysfunctional medical system knows only too well (more on this later).

Anyway, I took the day off on Friday ostensibly to ride with MLW over to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA), about 5 miles distant, to wander through the new Matisse exhibition. By the end of the day, we’d logged more than 14 miles. That may sound impressive until you learn that it took us about nine hours to make the trip.

First, the de rigeur coffeeshop stop about 3 miles into the trip for a cup of espresso. I could produce studies showing the salutary effects of caffeine on athletic performance, though my latté had more to do with washing down the chocolate chip cookie. Then, up and over the Martin Olav Sabo bicycle bridge (lovely view of the Minneapolis skyline), which spit us out onto the Midtown Greenway. A half-hour or so later, we pulled up to the MIA, where we lunched at the mezzanine restaurant before making our way through the Matisse show.

I don’t know if Henri was a bicyclist, but he was French, so I assume that he would’ve approved of our post-museum itinerary: a glass of wine on the sun-soaked patio at the venerable Black Forest Inn, a futile search for a couple of books by the late Peter Matthiessen at an Uptown bookshop, a light mid-afternoon snack at Lucia’s Wine Bar, followed by a calorie-crunching, car-dodging dash through the East Calhoun neighborhood, landing at a bistro called The Blackbird just as dusk was descending.

I’m guessing we’d covered about 10 miles by this time without working up a sweat, so it’s hard to count it as exercise, but we definitely worked up an appetite between stops. And now, with darkness setting in, we headed east to our favorite neighborhood bistro for a little dessert and to toast our little adventure: nine hours, 14 miles, six culinary detours.

It’s those detours that tend to persuade us to get off our duffs and get on the road these days. Just that little extra incentive. Our Medical-Industrial Complex understands that too, which is why I wasn’t surprised to hear recently that researchers at Rutgers University, concerned that guys my age aren’t taking their cholesterol-lowering statins as religiously as they should, are now touting these drugs for their ability to improve our sexual performance.

I’m not going to go into all the reasons why statins may not be the best way to lower your risk of a heart attack or boost your boudoir behavior (you can read about that here). I’ll just say that everybody gets to choose their preferred pathway to good health and the incentives that help them on their journey. For myself, nothing beats a day of bistro-hopping on my old Schwinn.

In Praise of the Sore Loser

U.S. Grant and Robert E. Lee: A good loser makes nobody happy.
U.S. Grant and Robert E. Lee: A good loser makes nobody happy.

I was eating my breakfast and reading the paper on Saturday morning, when I received the following text message: “How’s your ego this morning.”

It was from my tennis buddy, The Baseline Machine, who was clearly feeling her oats in advance of our 11:30 match. I sought to dampen her enthusiasm. “What ego?” I replied.

“Might want to work on finding it before the match,” she texted. “It’ll be hard for me to crush it if it isn’t there.”

How do you deal with life’s basic challenges? When it comes from someone like TBM, I can’t help myself. I channel my best G.W. Bush: “Bring it on,” I texted.

“Now you’re talking.”

I would argue that life is better when you challenge the odds, when you push yourself to achieve goals beyond what might seem reasonable to a rational person. You might not succeed. In fact, you probably won’t succeed. But the very fact that you stated your intention to beat the odds will impress the victors.

I met TBM at the appointed hour and promptly lost the first four games of the set. I think I might have won one point. She was on her game. I was a 62-year-old tennis bum wandering around the court without a purpose.  Inside of a half hour she’d taken the first set 6–1.

I don’t want to make too much of a tennis match, but the whole thing made me recall General Robert E. Lee at the Confederate surrender at Appomattox in 1865. As General U.S. Grant, the victor, noted:

“What General Lee’s feelings were I do not know. As he was a man of much dignity, with an impassible face, it was impossible to say whether he felt inwardly glad that the end had finally come, or felt sad over the result, and was too manly to show it. Whatever his feelings, they were entirely concealed from my observation; but my own feelings, which had been quite jubilant on the receipt of his letter, were sad and depressed. I felt like anything rather than rejoicing over the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered much for a cause.”

I had the sense that I had disappointed TBM with my woeful play. She had won, but there was no rejoicing. I was losing gracefully — no excuses — but what fun is that?

She took the first game of the second set, as well, but then I rallied, winning three straight. I may be a gracious loser, but when the score turns in my favor I like to rub it in. (Does that make me a bad person?) My trash talk, once vindicated by superior play, escalates to a point that could be called annoying. TBM, however, never seems to mind. It just nudges her to ramp up her game. Which she did, breaking my serve to win game five before our time on the court expired.

Losing gracefully is probably the right thing to do in most cases. I don’t know. I suppose it has something to do with how much you’ve invested in the outcome. That first set on Saturday felt like Lee surrendering to Grant — noble but unsatisfying for all involved. The second set was something else again: two adversaries trading their best shots.

Afterward, as we were gathering up our gear, I mentioned to TBM that she might want to work on her cardio a little, that I probably wore her out with my superior endurance. I know a good personal trainer. . . . She whacked me a good one on the arm.

I love a sore loser.

The Downside of Daylight Savings Time

The older I get the more obsessed I’ve become with getting enough sleep. It’s really the single most important thing I can do to maintain my good health. Too few hours in the sack and I find myself very quickly running on empty — and susceptible to a slew of physical and emotional issues. (I’m not alone in this view, as this piece in EL explains.)

This becomes something of a challenge every spring, when we are all expected to “save” some daylight by turning our clocks ahead one hour. (The social and political history of this maneuver is quite fascinating.) It throws me off my rhythm for a several days, but for some folks it can be downright fatal.

A recent University of Colorado meta-study reported a 25-percent jump in the number of heart attacks on the Monday after we all “spring forward” compared to other Mondays during the year.

We all know that Mondays can be hard on our system: Stress levels can rise as we head back to work after a lazy weekend. Apparently, losing that hour of sleep just raises the odds that your old ticker is going to protest. “These events were much more frequent the Monday after the spring time change and then tapered off over the other days of the week,” lead researcher Amneet Sandhu, MD, said in a statement released by the university. “It may mean that people who are already vulnerable to heart disease may be at greater risk right after sudden time changes.”

It would not be helpful here to completely recount the bizarre history of geographical time alignment in the U.S. (you can read all about it here), though I will say that for a brief period in 1965, it was an hour later in St. Paul than it was in Minneapolis. I did the math: If I left my house in Minneapolis at 8:30 for the 10-minute bike ride across the river to my office in St. Paul, I’d arrive at 9:40. Not a good way to start the day, in my view. Of course, leaving the office at 5, I could coast down the big hill and be home by 4:10. A great way to end the day.

So it is, as they say, a two-edged sword. And, in fact, Sandhu and his colleagues found that there was a 21-percent drop in heart attacks on the autumn Tuesday after we turned our clocks back an hour. Which only validates my view that the more you sleep the better you’ll feel.

My Gut Instincts

Big news on the colonoscopy front always gets my attention, and a couple of headlines last week got me thinking again about my decision to avoid this particular rite of passage.

On Thursday, researchers from the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah released a report showing that a “clean” colonoscopy result does not always mean you’re going to be free of cancer in the next few years. And then on Friday, our local newspaper of record lauded a new alternative to colonoscopy that Mayo Clinic doctors suggest is as effective as the current screening — and much less, shall we say, invasive.

As I’ve noted in several columns over the years, I’m among the minority of geezers who harbor serious doubts about the efficacy of all disease-screening procedures, especially colonoscopies. This, despite the fact that both of my parents died of cancer that sprouted from their colons. Call me crazy, but in the dozen years since I first heard a friend or sibling or doctor plead with me to have my own colon checked out, evidence of the procedure’s shortcomings — and even dangers — continues to mount. And this week’s headlines only reinforce my view.

Once you hit 50, conventional medical wisdom demands that you have a colonoscopy every 10 years as a way to prevent a cancerous eruption in your gut. But, as the Huntsman study notes, in 6 percent of cases where patients came away from the procedure with a clean bill of health, colorectal cancer was diagnosed three to five years later. “Not only did we find that colonoscopy isn’t perfect, we discovered a number of factors associated with these ‘missed’ cancers,” lead study author N. Jewel Samadder, MD, MSc, told the journal Gastroenterology. “They tended to appear in patients over the age of 65, patients with a family history of colorectal cancer, and patients in whom polyps were previously found.”

So, even if I gave into the pleadings of my doctor and let some gut specialist explore my intestines with a camera and whatever it is they use to trim any perceived dangers there, it may have no effect on my relative propensity to someday be laid low by the big C.

The folks at Mayo have a better idea: Just send them some of your poop and they’ll tell you — within a certain margin of error, of course — whether you should be rushed into the hospital for surgery. Their clinical trial showed the test was 92 percent accurate, according the results published in the venerable New England Journal of Medicine.

The test kit, called Cologuard, is about to be trotted out before a U.S. Food and Drug Administration committee, where I assume the folks from Mayo will divulge that the clinical trial that showed the reliability of the test was financed by the company that invented Cologuard. I’m sure they will also point out that the test resulted in false positives in 10 percent of the cases studied. To this point, Thomas Imperiale, MD, lead author of the study, told the Star Tribune that false positives would simply send stressed-out patients to get a colonoscopy they would’ve gotten anyway if the new, more convenient, test was unavailable.

You can evaluate that line of reasoning for yourself, but I’m not finding it very persuasive. I tend to return to studies referenced by Nortin Hadler, MD in his book Rethinking Aging (University of North Carolina Press, 2011), which report a couple of sobering factoids: (1) Major complications occur in as many as two patients out of every 1,000 who submit to colonoscopies, and (2) out of 170,000 people in a randomized UK study, only 500 who submitted to colonoscopy were treated as a result of the screening. So, about .03 percent of patients may have been helped by the procedure, while as many as .02 percent of patients may have experienced major complications. Just doesn’t seem like decent odds to me.

Neither Hadler nor myself would suggest that you shouldn’t go and get a colonoscopy if you think you’re at high risk for the disease. Everyone gets to make their own decisions in these situations. For myself, last week’s headlines did nothing to change my mind.

Drugged and Dangerous

"How do I know I can trust you, Zocor?"
“How do I know I can trust you, Zocor?”

I visited my local clinic the other day as part of my biannual clean-ears-hearing-improvement campaign. And, as is always the case when I visit my doctor, he’s a little surprised when I tell him that I’m not using any drugs. I’m not talking recreational pharmaceuticals here (though he might be surprised by that, too); I’m referring to their perfectly legal counterparts that come courtesy of Big Pharma.

It’s fair to say that I am something of an outlier among folks my age. About 75 percent of my contemporaries suffer from multiple chronic health conditions, diseases that most doctors believe can only be controlled by various medications whose names always remind me of Star Trek villains (“Zocor, go round up Plavix, Lipitor, and Crestor and prepare to beam over to the Enterprise”). I don’t know whether I’m suffering from any of these maladies because I only go to the doctor to get my ears cleaned. And I feel pretty good most of the time. But if I did begin to display some of the symptoms that signal a serious illness, a new study from Oregon State University makes a pretty persuasive argument against taking the Big Pharma route.

The study, published in the journal PLOS One, reported that more than one in five older Americans are being treated with combinations of drugs that actually make them sicker. Beta blockers deployed to treat coronary heart disease, for instance, can cause airway resistance in patients who also suffer from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Similar issues arise in patients with hypertension and diabetes, hypertension and osteoarthritis, depression and hypertension, and other chronic illness combos. To make matters worse, most doctors are aware of the problem, but do little to alleviate it. Researchers found that physicians changed these risky prescriptions in only 16 percent of the cases studied.

“Drugs tend to focus on one disease at a time, and most physicians treat patients the same way,” David Lee, an assistant professor at OSU’s College of Pharmacy, said in a statement released by the university. “As a result, right now we’re probably treating too many conditions with too many medications. There may be times it’s best to just focus on the most serious health problem, rather than use a drug to treat a different condition that could make the more serious health problem even worse.”

Multiple medications, of course, are also known to cause serious side effects, including delirium, fatigue, anorexia, and dizziness, among others. I have enough trouble keeping my delirium under control as it is.

What’s troubling about all this is that if the doctors don’t even know how to handle these issues, how can we expect their patients to figure it out? Once you get hit with a diagnosis and sent over to the pharmacy, most folks are leaning pretty heavily on their doctor to steer them in the right direction. If all that M.D. has to offer is another bottle of pills when those other bottles of pills aren’t doing the job, you could be in trouble.

So, next time you’re checking in with your doc and he wants to write you a prescription for something that sounds vaguely like the name of a Klingon officer from a far distant galaxy, take a tip from Captain Kirk: Put your shields up.

Loneliness and Longevity

Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park: A nice place to be lonely.
Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park: A nice place to be lonely.

On my 25th birthday, way back in August of 1976, I boarded a train in Minneapolis headed for Glacier National Park in far western Montana. My only companions were a borrowed backpack, a new sleeping bag and tent, a hastily assembled portable pantry, and The Complete Walker, Colin Fletcher’s ideological guide to hiking, loaned to me by a reluctant girlfriend who backed out on the trip a few days prior.

It wasn’t a bad time to go tromping about the wilderness on my own. I was newly divorced, splendidly introspective, and eager to test my resolve amongst the grizzlies and glaciers in one of the most pristine destinations in the lower 48. I still have the journal I kept during the trip, a 10-day chronicle of raw emotions, physical ailments (bad knees, cold coming on), and daily trials (broken backpack, 3 a.m. tent relocation by park ranger). But there’s surprisingly little in there about loneliness.

Here I was, a thousand miles or more away from home, trekking across the Continental Divide all by myself, and it seldom occurred to me that I was missing human companionship. Now, that might’ve been due to the nature of the trip: Hiking from West Glacier to East Glacier in a specified period of time creates a certain deadline-driven imperative that didn’t leave much room for sentiment. A round-trip train ticket only works if you arrive in time to board the train. But this was something like a rite of passage to me, as well, and as such I think I was too caught up in the experience to spend much time thinking about who I was leaving behind.

Almost 40 years later, I still don’t think much about the value of social interaction (my favorite Saturday night activity is canceling planned social obligations), but a new study from the University of Chicago suggests that I probably should pay more attention to this part of my life as I get older, because loneliness can slice years off of your lifespan.

According to research by John Cacioppo, professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, extreme loneliness can increase an older person’s chances of premature death by 14 percent — twice the impact that obesity, for examply, has on one’s longevity.

Feeling isolated from others can disrupt sleep, elevate blood pressure and the stress hormone cortisol, suppress your immune system, and lead to depression. And among geezers who leave the social climate of the workforce and retire to sunnier, albeit foreign, shores, this can be a real problem. “Retiring to Florida to live in a warmer climate among strangers isn’t necessarily a good idea if it means you are disconnected from the people who mean the most to you,” Cacioppo said in a statement released by the university.

As I reported last month from one of those foreign ports, my “social portfolio” at this point in my life is pretty strong. But friends can have a tendency to fall away and activities that bring disparate groups of people together for various forms of camaraderie inevitably dissipate as we age — how many of my basketball buddies will still be showing up on Monday nights when they hit their 70s? So I know I can’t give into my natural instincts and withdraw from people and activities as I get older.

In fact, just this afternoon, I was telling my tennis buddy, The Baseline Machine, that my basketball-playing days may be numbered and that we need to start thinking about getting together more frequently this spring. I might even invest in a new racket and take lessons as a nod to the reality that tennis may be a better long-term sport — and reason to keep in touch with TBM — than basketball.

She said she’d try to fit me into her busy schedule, which I took to mean she was a little worried about my sudden dedication to improving my game. But if I know TBM, she’ll rise to the challenge and, on the tennis court at least, I’ll never be lonely.

No Noise Is Good Noise

I spent an enjoyable 90 minutes on Sunday listening to a program of orchestral music by the Greater Twin Cities Youth Symphony (featuring some excellent cello work by the daughter of my pal, The King of Nordeast). They played something from Dvorak and then the full Fifth Symphony of Dimitri Shostakovich. It was quite moving — and very loud — which is probably not good for me.

I’ve been suffering from some hearing loss for the past several years, the product of a common condition called tinnitus. According to some sources, about 20 percent of Americans suffer from this illness, which is typically described as a “ringing in the ears” and is probably the result of subjecting the ears to noises that are too loud for them to handle.

Practically speaking, hearing loss at my age is mostly an annoyance to other people — especially My Lovely Wife — who are regularly subjected to requests to repeat their words so as to convey their true meaning to a guy who may or may not be listening. Which, of course, conveys a certain advantage to a clueless guy who’s trying to figure out what is being communicated. But it can be a real problem when you’re trying to figure out what your boss is saying about some issue that you really ought to be tracking.

The University of Leicester has recently released a study showing that tinnitus is most likely the result of exposure to some loud noises, but I’m not particularly interested in what might be the source of this trouble. If it’s serious noise, I suppose I could trace it to a 1976 concert at the St. Paul Civic Center with Leon Russell and Carlos Santana, or any of several subsequent musical events that employed really large speakers (including a 1987 Tom Waits concert at the Orpheum in downtown Minneapolis, during which MLW, heavy with child, retreated to the lobby, claiming that it would harm the baby). That’s all in the past. Nothing I can do about that now.

Well, that’s not entirely true. Later this week, I’ll show up at my local clinic, where some underpaid nurse will clean my ears out with some mysterious saline solution, and for the next several weeks MLW will not have to tell me when the stove-top timer has signaled that my tea is brewed and I’ll actually hear what my boss wishes I would be worrying about.

Or at least I hope so. It’s a weird thing to realize that you may be dealing with a real disability — that’s what hearing loss is, after all — because you desperately want to assume that you’re normal. You’ve always been normal. At least in this way.  It’s not like you’ve got cancer. But it can drag you down in a similar, albeit less morbid, way.

So you go to the doctor. You hope for some alleviation. And maybe you avoid Shostakovich. And big orchestras. You think about being quiet.

A Workout Worth Its Weight in Snow

Winter in the North Country this year has been pretty brutal: heaps of snow, bone-chilling cold and the kind of icy terrain that generates nightmares involving broken hips for geezers like myself. That’s the downside. The upside, for those of us who refuse to hide from the Polar Vortex, is that we encounter occasional meteorological challenges that sometimes morph into awesome workouts.

Clearing your sidewalk, driveway, and steps of a half-foot of heavy snow, for example, will definitely ramp up your heart rate and strengthen your back, shoulders, upper arms, and core. But if you really want to push yourself to the limits, there’s nothing like roof-raking — yes, that’s scraping the snow off the roof of your house.

Minnesotans know this and appreciate it. That’s why so few roofs are raked. But sometimes circumstances demand it. On Friday, for instance, My Lovely Wife noticed that water was dripping from the wall above one of our bedroom windows. There are a couple of ways you can respond to this:

• Get a bucket and collect the water and wait for the ice dam on the edge of the roof and all the snow piled up behind it to melt (which will happen sometime in April).

• Grab a ladder and your roof rake and climb up to the edge of the roof and drag all the snow off the roof, thus removing the offending liquid.

I may be overgeneralizing here, but I think I’m not alone when it comes to these sorts of choices. Most guys would want to get up on that ladder and do battle. So after a quick breakfast on Saturday morning I pulled on my jacket, work boots, and gloves and headed out into the 6-degree chill to survey the situation. I hoisted my 25-foot aluminum extension ladder into place, anchoring it securely in the 3 feet of snow on the back patio, and clambered slowly up to the roof. (I should note here, for those of you who want to try this at home, that you should exercise extreme caution when climbing a 25-foot extension ladder leaning against a large chunk of ice on your roof. It could easily slide to one side or the other, leaving you at the mercy of gravity.) There was, indeed, plenty of snow up there — maybe 2 feet deep — and it was seeping into the wall behind the substantial block of ice anchored to the gutters. This was going to be fun.

I repositioned the ladder on the north side of the house, planting it securely into a mound of snow in my neighbor’s yard, and went to the garage to grab my weapon. A roof rake is a remarkable invention — a rectangular piece of plastic about 18 inches long and 4 inches high attached to a 20-foot-long aluminum pole. The idea is that you stand on the ground and lift the rake onto the roof and pull the offending snow down onto the ground. And that’s maybe what most guys would do, but the way I see it, if you’re going to go to the trouble of bundling up against the February cold and dragging your 25-foot extension ladder out of the garage, you really want to get all of the snow off the roof.

So that’s why, two hours later, I was still up there, yanking at the glacial deposits at the peak of the roof, my shoulders and abs aching, calves cramping from standing on the slick rungs of the ladder. I don’t think of myself as a perfectionist, but I’ll admit that there was a pretty lively debate going on inside my sweat-soaked head about whether that small patch of snow just west of the chimney was worth reaching for with my shaky right arm.

I decided enough was enough and inched slowly back down to earth, where a mound of snow about 5 feet deep now held my ladder fast. It was as I was frantically trying to dislodge the ladder that my neighbor appeared on the sidewalk. She’s a retired nurse and a bit of a curmudgeon, but generally well-meaning. She’d been watching me, I guess, for some time. I figured she’d be impressed by the avalanche I’d triggered, but I was mistaken. “Go in the house,” she yelled. “You’re going to have a heart attack!”

I assured her that I was fine, as I yanked weakly at the snowbound ladder. And while I avoided cardiac arrest, I can’t remember a workout that left me feeling this sore. I’m not a “no-pain, no-gain” kind of guy, but I have to say that those aching muscles felt a little better when I noticed this morning that the wall above our bedroom window was dry.