Sunday, January 23, 2022


Nearly 20 years ago it was possible to buy ONLY IN MAYNARD bumper stickers, T-shirts and sweatshirts at local stores and at Maynard Fest. The lettering was orange against a black background - Maynard's school colors. Then, for a while, the sole remnant of this endeavor was bumper stickers for sale at Russell's convenience store, next to Town Hall.

The bumper stickers had TM superscripted above the end of ONLY IN MAYNARD, signifying that an application had been filed for a trademark in 2003. This was a Massachusetts-only trademark. It lapsed, but a new Massachusetts trademark was issued in 2017 to a new holder. As of 2020 there are ONLY IN MAYNARD bumper stickers and T-shirts, offered for sale at various venues and events, with profits channeled to non-profit organizations located in Maynard.

In addition, an agreement was reached with the trademark holder that the slogan could be affixed to coffee mugs. The mugs, black exterior, orange interior, the slogan in orange on the outside, are for sale at The Outdoor Store, Art's Speialties, Boston Bean House, Sugar Snap and other locations. All profits are channeled to an effort to beautify the Assabet River Rail Trail with flowering spring bulbs, summer-blooming perennials and flowering shrubs and trees. This “Trail of Flowers” effort, initiated in 2018, has resulted in the planting of thousands of daffodils, plus hundreds of tulips, daylilies, irises and other plants in Maynard and Acton, with plans to extend the plantings to the south section of trail in Hudson and Marlborough. See for program description and photos.

A bit of history: In the original form and subsequent incarnations, the words on ONLY IN MAYNARD products were deliberately printed so that the right side was noticeably higher than the left. Best guess is the wording was askew to convey that negative, rueful pride that only in Maynard could things (town things, school things, people things...) be so humorously incompetent or fouled up.

To counter the prevailing negative impression, a group of civic-minded citizens approached the Beacon-Villager newspaper back in 2005, to see if they could take turns writing a pro-Maynard column featuring the friendly and welcoming nature of this unique small town. The column lasted only a few months. An echo of that positive intent was conveyed in a 2008 article in the Beacon-Villager that read in part "A clever slogan, coined some few years ago, continues to describe our singular uniqueness, our melting pot citizenry and our basic values for the 'good life.' That slogan, ‘Only in Maynard,’ sets up the town as a special place where very special people do distinctive and exceptional things. This is especially true in the art of song and music as developed in our town."

An informal survey of people about town yielded both the negative and positive connotations, and also a third meaning - the concept of specialness. Only in Maynard can you see Santa Claus arriving by helicopter for the Christmas parade. Only in Maynard can you still find a local movie theater. Only in Maynard are the bars close enough together to have a pub crawl that might involve actual crawling (or at least walking) rather than driving.  

So, after all this debate, what does "Only in Maynard" really mean today? Whether it is only in this small town are people so warm, friendly and welcoming, or only here are things so ruefully, headshakingly messed up, or a comment on the unique nature of life in Maynard, my own opinion is that in comparison, ONLY IN ACTON or ONLY IN SUDBURY or ONLY IN STOW would make no sense whatsoever.

UPDATE: As of end of 2022, 550 mugs have been sold at $10 each, Starting 2023, price goes to $15 each, as purchase cost has gone up. Contribution to Trail of Flowers is approaching $2,000.  

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Heart Rate Recovery Predicts... What?

An entire health assessment industry evolved out of one scientific journal article published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine in October 1999. The title was “Heart-Rate Recovery Immediately after Exercise as a Predictor of Mortality.” It was submitted by five people from the renowned Cleveland Clinic Foundation, and since then its publication has been cited by 1,145 science journal articles, meaning that it attracted and continues to attract a lot of attention. What, exactly, did it report, and how was that interpreted within and outside the medical community?

The value for the recovery of heart rate was defined as the decrease in the heart rate from peak exercise to one minute after exercise stopped. Why one minute? Standard exercise tests such as a treadmill test are used to assess cardiovascular health by gradually increase exercise intensity to a level of vigorous exercise, and then drop to a near-resting state, i.e., slow walking. What the researchers did was record for 2,428 middle-aged people how much their heart rate dropped at the end of one minute, and then followed their health for an average of six years. An abnormal value for the recovery of heart rate was arbitrarily defined as a reduction of 12 or fewer beats per minute (bpm) from the heart rate peak; 26 percent had recovery of less than or equal to 12 bpm, but in the follow-up period, these people accounted for 56 percent of the deaths. Incrementally, above a recovery of 15 or more bpm there was no improvement in reducing risk of death for higher values. Lastly, people who were more physically fit were less likely to have an abnormally low bpm recovery.

Smart watches provide many functions, including
heart rate and heart rate recovery at one minute.
These results led to an explosive popularity of the heart rate monitor industry, first as a device strapped around one’s chest, but evolving to wrist devices such as Apple Watch and recently to the Oura Ring. The newer devices send data to your phone, pad or personal computer. The concept behind all this heart rate fascination is a leapt-to conclusion that being more physically fit reduces risk of death (true), and that fitness can be assessed by heart rate recovery (maybe). The real question may be whether – if faced with a low heart rate recovery – to start exercising more, or make sure your will is up to date?

Exercise is associated with increased sympathetic and decreased parasympathetic nervous system activity, two components of the autonomic nervous system. The period of recovery after vigorous exercise is characterized by a combination of sympathetic signals decreasing and parasympathetic reactivation. To other than researchers in exercise physiology, one minute of recovery feels like the time it takes for fast breathing to slow and the sense of acute fatigue to temper. Which feels like a fitness measure that makes sense. HOWEVER, a research article published in 2018 assessed heart rate recovery (HRR) at 10, 20, 30, 40 and 50 seconds in 40,727 middle-aged adults who had no history of cardiovascular disease. Subjects were followed for an average of six years. Only HRR at 10 seconds remained predictive of both all-cause and coronary artery disease mortality. This fast timing suggests that renormalization of the autonomic nervous system signals is a better predictor of heart health than the slower stuff we subjectively feel: the slower breathing and lessening fatigue, associated with recovering from oxygen dept and lactic acid build-up.   

So, back to question of whether exercise can improve heart rate recovery and reduce risk of death. The answer appears to be the former. One study looked at people who had had a heart attack. Exercise training improved HRR, and increases greater than 12 bpm had better cardiac survival. In another, for people in cardiac rehabilitation who started with a HRR averaging less than 12 bpm, 41 percent raised their HRR above 12 and had reduced risk of death compared to those who did not. This still begs the question of what is going on in people who take up exercise but do not have an improvement in heart rate recovery. Is autonomic nervous system senescence irreversible?

The term “heart rate variability” (HRV) comes up in this research arena. The autonomic nervous system, drives heart rate higher in times of physical or emotional stressors and lower when stress is over. A larger range is described as having a high HRV. Neurodegenerative diseases that present as mild cognitive impairment, progressing to dementia, may include damage to the neural networks controlling the autonomic nervous system, and by doing so, lower HRV. High HRV is associated with better cardiovascular health, and interestingly, with sleep health, which is also dependent on the autonomic nervous system. A common denominator here is that exercise improves cardiovascular health and sleep quality, and some evidence that exercise is of benefit to people with mild cognitive impairment or dementia. From all this, it is possible that aging of the autonomic nervous system is a driving force behind diseases of aging.

How much exercise is enough? The consensus is that a large fraction of total health benefits is reached with 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise or 75 minutes per week of vigorous exercise. The exercise should be a mix or aerobic and muscle building. More will make one stronger and faster, but that is a sports performance benefit, not a health benefit.   

Mark says that during his peak bicycling years – more than 3,000 miles per year – he had handlebar devices measuring average and maximum speed, distance traveled and heart rate. In later years he took all that off, to spend more time looking around and less looking down.


Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Writers on Writing - John McPhee

Five years ago, I submitted a column “Writers on Writing” which led with quotes from famous writers and closed with a bit of background on how I came to be a nonfiction writer. Two of the quotes: “We do not write because we want to; we write because we have to.” (Somerset Maugham) and “I'm not a very good writer, but I'm an excellent rewriter.” (James Michener)

And again: When I am asked "Why do you write?" I answer "It's a disease." I have heard the same answer for people in the restaurant or acting industries. These are professions rife with hardship, rejection and failure. The people who persevere are those who cannot imagine doing anything else.

Early on, I was also asked by an editor of this newspaper if my column should have a photo of me. I replied that my preference was “No.” And when asked why, I replied “Because it’s not about me.” That is perhaps half-true. Whether “I” appears in my columns (about once a year), what I choose to write about is directed by my curiosity, my knowledge and my skills. So, history – yes, nature – yes, science – yes, people – not so much. My style is my style: parenthetical asides, alliteration, long sentences and sentence fragments, high school reading level, etc. Thus, I am in my columns even when “I” is not.  

It helps tremendously to have as touchstones writers who have excelled in what John McPhee calls “Creative Nonfiction.” Writing nonfiction, I learned early, is a matter of bricks and mortar. The bricks are the facts and the mortar the story tying the facts together. The craft is in managing the right balance of the two. If you, reader, aspire to creative nonfiction, consider the books “The Nonfictionist's Guide: On Reading and Writing Creative Nonfiction” (2008) and “Writing Creative Nonfiction” (2001).

A dividing line – not an absolute requirement for being a creative nonfictionist – is whether the author is part of the story, meaning how much is “The…” and how much is “I…” Revisiting Annie Dillard, she is a LOT of “I.” Bill Bryson is a lot of “I.” Barry Lopez has some “I” is his writing, as does John McPhee. McPhee colors his work by incorporating his interactions with the people who live and work and play in the places he is writing about.

In contrast, as a biographer, Robert A. Caro, age 86, hews to a minimum of 1,000 words a day without an “I” ever being launched from his typewriter. It helps, I suppose, to choose to write about Lyndon B. Johnson after he was dead, as in no recounting interviews with the subject. Caro did, however, rent a house for three years in Texas Hill Country, where LBJ grew up and entered politics, the better to interview people who had known LBJ when he was young, and get a sense of Texas life. The first LBJ volume was published in 1982. That and the three published since then averaged more than 800 pages. As of late 2021 Caro was hundreds of pages into book five, now writing about President Johnson and the Vietnam War. He still hopes to visit Vietnam as part of his research. Writers who get too deep into researching their topics are said to be “Caro-esque.”

John McPhee (age 79 years)
Why McPhee in particular? Firstly, he is 90 years old and has been writing professionally for 70 years! Initially for Time magazine, then The New Yorker, from which his nonfiction has distilled into 32 books. Secondly, since 1974 he has been the Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University (his alma mater), where every spring he teaches a course named “Creative Nonfiction” to a class limited to 16 students. His essays on teaching writing are gathered in a 2017 book “Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process.”  

One essay: “FRAME OF REFERENCE: To illuminate—or to irritate?” is worth revisiting now and then. In a piece of writing, its frame of reference are the things and people you choose to allude to in order to advance its comprehensibility. Write that someone has the frenetic energy of Tom Cruise doing his own stunts and you have leaned heavily on the readers’ awareness of the movie industry in general and Tom in particular [Cruise will be 60 in July. He does all his own stunts.] That’s fine, for now, but write that someone has the gravitas of Richard Burton and you likely lost readers on two counts: gravitas? Burton?? Only once in all my columns has an editor called me on vocabulary: “yclept.” My response was “Keep it – they can look it up.”

As for paragraph four: “touchstones.” Was context enough, or were you moved to look it up? I was familiar with its use as a metaphor, synonyms criterion, gauge or yardstick, but surprised to learn that the word also applies to an actual precious metals assaying tool.

A bit more on writers writing about writing: Supposedly, Ernest Hemingway said “The first draft of anything is s___.” And mythology has it that Hemingway, challenged to tell a story in six words, came back with "For sale: baby shoes, never worn." True or not, it has spawned an entire industry of six-word stories. One of my favorites: “Alzheimer’s: meeting new people every day.”

Mark mentioned that in addition to 12 years of toiling for the Beacon-Villager, from 1978-80 he had a weekly column for the Azalea City News (Mobile, AL), writing restaurant reviews, recipe columns and health articles.