Saturday, April 23, 2011

Tales of Two Doctors Visits (with a third thrown in for good luck)

In October, I had a health screening that my employer provides/demands. It indicated that my cholesterol was high: not a huge surprise, since it was high before I started taking medication about 4 years ago and I hadn't been taking medication for the past two years.

As chronicled here, I dawdled a bit, but in January I went to see our doctor. We discussed matters, and to my surprise he was in no hurry to get me on drugs. We agreed to try diet and exercise and see if we couldn't bring the numbers in line that way. I was already in he midst of this resolution, with regards to eating meat that, theoretically, should be good for my numbers, and I was getting back on track with working out.

I kept my resolution fairly well over the first few months and I was working out with some regularity. Some years ago, I became familiar with the P90X workout when a high school friend of mine used it to lose over 100 pounds, down to 9% bodyfat and a ripped, muscular physique. I'd looked into the program and liked most of what I saw... except the pricetag. So I didn't buy it, but I took some ideas from the workouts and incorporated them into what I was doing, off and on. In early March, though, a friend had the DVDs and let me borrow them. I did the first week of workouts and decided that it was worth paying for, so I did and decided to commit to the whole program.

Then I got what I thought was a cold and stopped working out to recover. In retrospect, it was allergies, but it was early April 'til I got started on the workouts and the diet program.

Interlude: Monday, we took our daughter to the doctor and I got blood drawn. As a side note to my own story, at her 15-month appointment, as at every other routine baby checkup, they asked us about certain milestones. We were going through just fine, as always, because our daughter's so exceptional and always hits her marks, when we got to a stumper: "Does she stack blocks?" Ummm... have we ever seen her stack blocks? We have blocks, but she usually goes for other toys. "Not really."

Naturally, the first thing we did when we got home was bust out the blocks. Yes, she can stack blocks. We almost called the doctor's office so they could add it to her charts.
I went back to the doctor's on Thursday to go over the blood work. The P90X program has been going well--in the first two weeks, I lost about 7 pounds and was feeling great, and the results are starting to be visible, but after all, it's only two weeks. My expectation for the doctor's visit was that there'd be little or no change and I'd plead for more time. Now, for reference, in October my total cholesterol was 242, my LDL was 160 (it should be below 130) and my HDL was 42 (it should be above 40). Now, six months later, my total was 171, my LDL was down to 106, and my HDL was up to 55. Everything was in the healthy range!

Although my results on P90X have been good so far, it's hard to give it too much credit for 2 weeks out of the last 6 months. Since starting the program, I've more or less put aside my New Year's resolution in favor of more conveniently following the recommended diet, but I have to think that the meat I was eating (and, for that matter, the meat I wasn't eating) made a big difference in the numbers. But in any case, I think the takeaway is that I need to maintain a healthy lifestyle, which comes down to the food and the exercise. I've made some good gains, but I'm not where I want to be yet and it won't take long for even the gains I've made to vanish. I've got almost 70 days left on the P90X program and a lifetime to go after that.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Well, that could have gone worse

This was quite a weekend for us. Lauren was away all weekend, flying to D.C. with students competing in the History Bowl. Gone all weekend. Since I was involved in the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life that night, we sent our daughter home with her nanny. After four hours of Relay for Life on Friday night, I spent Saturday morning running errands that would have been inconvenient with a crying baby in the back of the car.

When I picked her up, I found out that she hadn't had the best night. No, not at all. Here's the thing: we've never been "cry it out" parents. In fact, at 15 months old, she still sleeps in the same bed with us, which allows her to nurse during the night, usually with little inconvenience to either Lauren or me. Well, I gather she didn't sleep well--she got to sleep well enough but then woke up repeatedly during the night calling for her mama, wanting to nurse. Heck, she was so desperate that she even called for her dada once. Not a good night.

So when I put her to bed last night, I got her to bed in about a half hour, which is fairly normal. Soon thereafter, I went to bed too, figuring that if she was going to wake up crabby in the middle of the night, then I'd better get all the sleep I could before that happened. She was asleep by 9:15 and I joined her by 9:45.

She occasionally needed some reassuring pats in the night, and then a little before 5, she woke up crying. Here it comes, I thought. Seven hours is pretty good--I can live with that. I got her some water, though, and got her back to sleep. I woke up before 8 and she still slept almost another hour. I'm guessing that our nanny got all the unrealistic expectations out of her.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Book Review: Empire by Orson Scott Card

Here on the 150th anniversary of the start of the American Civil War, it seems perfectly appropriate to post this review of Orson Scott Card's Empire, a novel that imagines a new civil war in a fictionalized modern America.

The premise is simple enough: as the rhetoric between America's right and left has grown more heated, the country has become more divided and ripe for a civil war. The dividing lines here are not so simple as red state / blue state, but instead leans toward an urban / rural divide.

WARNING: SPOILER ALERT: The action follows Major Reuben "Rube" Malek and Captain Bartholemew "Cole" Coleman, a pair of former special ops soldiers, the latter of whom has just recently been assigned to work with the former. Before they've really gotten to know one another, they discover terrorists using plans that Malek created as part of an assignment to draw up possible scenarios for assassinating the President. They almost thwart the plot, but both the President and Vice President, along with several members of the Cabinet, are killed. Of course, the problem isn't just terrorists: how did they have the exact plans that Malek drew up?

Early action revolves around the two trying to clear his name and find out who really passed these plans on to terrorists. Very quickly, however, civil war erupts as group with high tech military toys seizes control of New York City in a bid to oust what they see as an illegitimate government in Washington or secede from its influence.

I will avoid giving away much more. As a thriller, it was fine. That's not a genre I tend to read--we picked this up on the basis of Card's name, because we needed an audio book for our recent trip to Ohio. If it had been an ink-and-paper book, I imagine it would have been a page-turner--certainly, it kept our interest all the way through.

In his afterward, Card makes an impassioned plea for Americans to reject the divisive, hateful, and closed-minded rhetoric of both sides, and it's a thought-provoking little afterward. From what I've read Card is fiscally liberal, socially conservative, and at least since 9/11 has been fairly hawkish--that's an oversimplification, because Card's views refuse to be sorted by anything like party lines. And that's perfectly understandable--neither the Republicans nor the Democrats as political parties have a truly coherent worldview with ethics and politics that follow from them.

All that said, in the novel itself Card seems much harder on "the Left" than "the Right." I'd like to say that this is simply a function of his characters, that the characters represent themselves and not Card himself, but I've read enough of his essays to recognize when he's using his characters as a mouthpiece for his own ideas, and that seems often what's going on here. That's his prerogative, of course, but when some of that commentary seems like oversimplification, exaggeration, or over-generalization, then it goes back to the author and there's just something about it that rubs me the wrong way. Maybe, as Card might well say, this is simply a function of my own biases. I can't say for sure that it isn't, and that did bring me back around several times to question both my own positions on some of the issues that came up as well as my view of the novel.

The plot itself is... fine. It's a bit unbelievable at times, but better than a lot of films (for what that's worth), and it moves along nicely while also being very willing to surprise (nay, shock, at least at one point). Kudos to Card for that.

There was another idea that was a powerful driver of the story: early in the novel, we see a fictional Princeton historian and professor who argues that if America "fell" at this point in history, its achievements would be ephemeral, at least by the standards of Rome which, when it fell, shaped the culture of Europe and the near east for centuries afterward. The reason, he says, is that America is still in its republican stage, not having passed to being an empire. Although he claims not to be advocating this, he claims that only as an empire could America achieve anything of lasting cultural significance. As the novel's title suggests, this comparison to Rome runs deep through the book and was one of its more interesting aspects.

In the end, this wasn't great literature, it probably won't survive the fall of America, but it was an enjoyable and sometimes thought-provoking read.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Happy Birthday to Me!

My birthday celebration kicked off around 2:30 this morning. Anyway, I'm pretty sure inconsolable crying is how a 15-month-old says "happy birthday." Then I said happy birthday to myself by getting up around 5:15 to do yoga. I know that might not sound that great to some of you, but for me it was a pretty good way to kick off the day.

The yoga was part of a 90-day workout and diet program that I'm currently 4 days into. I turned 34 today, and why shouldn't this be the year that I get more fit than I've ever been before? For good measure (actually, for entirely different reasons), I worked out again at the end of the day. Why not?

For the most part, it was a pretty normal day. Over the past few days, some cards have trickled in, and Lauren baked a cake yesterday, complete with trick candles that won't stay out. The cake was marvelously amazing (maple with maple butter cream icing!), though I limited myself to just a little bit. Today was mostly another day at the office, though, passing largely unacknowledged as anything other than an ordinary day.

Except, that is, in the so-called "virtual" world. On Facebook, over 80 people wished me a happy birthday, some as simply as that and some with a shared memory or a bit of wit thrown in. Then there were e-mails as well--it's a virtual big deal. Facebook does the work of reminding everyone you know that it's your birthday, and some fraction of them take that bit of time necessary to say a few words. It's easier than a birthday card, but shows the same thing, that someone is thinking of you, is wishing you well, on this day commemorating your arrival on the scene. It's nice. I'd like to make some time to respond individually to everyone who wished me a happy birthday, but we'll have to wait and see how that plan goes. It was just so wonderful to see all those years of my life converging--friends from before I started school, elementary school, high school, college, grad school, my first teaching job, my second teaching job, my current teaching job, people I've met on-line, and people whose relationship with me defies these easy categories, and of course family, some of whom can remember when I was born and some of whom have only more recently become family: all those years of shared experience with all those people swirled around a single day. It's a kind of magic.

After work invitation was issued for dinner out and so we shared a meal with some friends of ours. It was nice--the food was excellent and yet fit into my diet (except the sliver of cake, which was not only excellent but had to be shoe-horned a bit into the plan!), and we had a nice time out. On the spur of the moment, our one friend took the crayon that one of her children had received for drawing, and sketched me. She was disappointed in the end result, but it looks roughly 1,000,000 times more like me than anything I could draw even looks like an actual person. Anyway, what was neat about it was just that she did it, and to hear her running commentary as she noticed this or that feature of my head or face. There's just something interesting about being noticed with that kind of scrutiny. All things considered--the conditions, the media, short time in which she worked--the sketch is amazing, and I would challenge anyone to do better with one lousy crayon.

One of those many messages I received wished me "love, happiness, and good health," which would be a great achievement, no? As I think about it, I'm not entirely sure whether those are things that I need to have, to accept, to give, or if the key is some combination of those verbs. I rather suspect that's the way of it, especially the acceptance and the giving. If I can manage that, 34 should be a very good year indeed. Thank you to all the people who have brought me love and happiness today!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Green Farmhouse Chairs and Being Thirteen

I heard Billy Collins talking on the radio today about his view that poetry needs a certain amount of accessibility to draw the reader in and a certain amount of mystery or difficulty to keep us there and draw us deeper (I'm paraphrasing here). Just before April's National Poetry month started, I found myself totally taken in by a poem with these qualities, Donald Hall's poem "Green Farmhouse Chairs." It was a poem that took several reads for me to really appreciate, and I know that I still haven't gotten it entirely. Still, it's a beautiful poem. The poem's speaker is in his 90s, and stylistically the poem mimics the wandering mind, making connections over a lifetime. At the same time, of course, it's carefully constructed and circles back in interesting ways. One of the parts that caught me up in the poem was this section:
Idolatrous of this white farmhouse
since I was ten, in my ninth decade
I daydream that it burns to the ground

3. so that nobody will empty it.
My children comfort me with their care,
bringing five grandchildren to visit,
but none will settle in the country.
There's a part of me that wishes I was one of those grandchildren, that I did want to settle there, in the country. I mean, I do want to settle in the country, but as much as I'm looking forward to us building our own house, there's a part of me that wishes I had some old family enclave to inherit--not just because it's cheaper but because of the sense of place, the fragments of family history in the house: Hall refers to a number of these explicitly, the tokens that have come down of family members over generations.

What it comes down to, I suppose, is that I'm nostalgic for something that I never had but of which I can understand the appeal. I have a similar reaction to Stephen Kellogg's song "Thirteen," in which he looks back on the innocence of being 13 years old and, in essence, a naive player. Meeting all these girls over the summer, these girls "French-kissing boys into men," these brief but intense relationships that are destined to be over even before the summer is.

That was never my experience in any way, shape, or form, but when I listen to the song, I find myself getting nostalgic for that experience.

Isn't that a funny thing, though, looking back wistfully on something you never had? As if there isn't enough wist for the life you did have...

Here, for your listening pleasure, is Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers live with "Thirteen":

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Bay Area Trip Report

We had a fantastic time out in the bay area the past week--just the kind of thing we needed for a break.

Lauren went on Craigslist and found a studio apartment that we could rent for the week, and it cost less than a hotel would have. Plus, there's was something nice about being in an apartment, in a neighborhood--it felt like we were honorary Oaklanders. We stayed in the Rockridge neighborhood of Oakland, about a mile from either of two BART stops, but close to a grocer (Safeway) and close to a couple near areas--the College Street area and the Piedmont Street area.

The neighborhood we stayed in and some of the ones we walked through made us both feel nostalgic for our time in Providence, RI, though Providence did not have nearly so many palm trees or late March / early April days in the 70s and 80s. Still, we could easily see ourselves living there and loving it.

We walked quite a lot, especially our first two days there. I figured that each of those days we walked at least 6 miles, though we slowed down a bit after that. Wednesday we went to Berkeley, where a friend's tip found us eating lunch at Chick O Pea's, which was delightful both for its food and for the atmosphere. From there, we made our way across the Berkeley campus, which is quite lovely, and catching a shuttle bus up the hill to their botanic gardens. That proved a nice way to spend the afternoon, albeit largely because we found a park-like area of grass where our own little chickpea fell asleep and took a two-hour nap while Lauren did some drawing and I wrote in my journal. The previous night, when we'd arrived exhausted, we had a very nice Indian dinner at a place on College Street whose name escapes me. Then in Berkeley, I had a brilliant idea: instead of eating dinner in Berkeley, we got frozen yogurt there and went home to eat our leftovers. Yogurt Land provided the necessary yogurt, and wow did we love them for it. They are a self-serve fro-yo joint with--as we recall--10 flavors of fro yo and a ton of toppings, for which they charge a very reasonable price by the ounce (okay--the price for a ton of toppings might not be that reasonable). Lauren and I loved it so much we were about ready to open a yogurt franchise when we got back.

Thursday, we went to the city proper, making a loop from the BART station to the Ferry Building down The Embarcadero to the touristy Pier 39. We might not have stopped there if we hadn't been so worn down by the mile-and-a-half walk in the blazing sun, but we were, so we did. Mildly refreshed, we made our way to the Boudin Bakery where we ate dinner. We enjoyed several forms of sourdough at a shaded table on the street. We were, at this point, within sight of Fisherman's Wharf, but decided to call it a day after buying Lauren some more comfortable shoes and looping back through the city.

Friday, we got together (again, actually, since we had breakfast with him before going to Berkeley) with one of my college buddies, who took us around the city in his car. We saw--and wended our way down--Lombard St, ate at Mel's Drive-In, spent some time around the Golden Gate Bridge, and made our way back to Oakland.

Saturday was a more low-key day. We met up for brunch at Rudy's Can't Fail Cafe with friends we'd made on our honeymoon, then spent some time in the Piedmont area, with particular attention to the Mountainview Cemetery, which was--besides housing lots of dead people--a lovely park. We looked over the shops on Piedmont St. and then got together again with my college buddy to watch the Final Four games and play a couple board games over take-out Chinese from Little Shin-Shin (the Honey-Walnut Prawns were particularly good, as was the Kung Pao beef). We were sad to see our classmate Shaka Smart and his VCU Rams exit the tourney, but life went on.

Sunday, we walked to the Temescal Farmer's Market, though what we were really looking for were the two playgrounds, connected by a walking path that runs behind the farmer's market. There was an insanely busy playground for older kids at one end of the path and a less-frequented one for toddlers at the other end. At the former, our tot learned from the other kids how to shovel sand into a bucket and narrowly avoided being infected by a sick kid. At the latter playground, she found the thrill of a slide (with mommy holding her all the way down!). We had mediocre tamales at the farmer's market, then headed to The Crepevine (referred to yesterday) on College. We spent time napping and packing and then had a vegan dinner with the aforementioned honeymoon friends.

And then we woke up at 3 am to get out the door by 4 to catch the 4:30 BART to the airport for our 7 am flight. Fifteen+ hours after walking out the door of our home-away-from-home in Oakland, we got home. As I said in my Facebook status: it's good to get away, but it's great to get home.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Total Crepers

In Oakland, there were a number of creperies around, and eventually we succumbed to temptation and ate at The Crepevine on College St. Our dessert crepes were quite good, and got us thinking about starting our own creperie when we get home, since our town lacks both crepe sources and punnily-named restaurant options. We just have to come up with the right name...

Crepetasic is Lauren's first choice, while I slightly favor Crepetacular.

But we have other options too, such as:

So Full of Crepe
Take A Big Crepe
Holy Crepe

That last would be perfect if we could buy an old church and turn it into our restaurant, a la The Church Brew Works in Pittsburgh.

Crepe on a Cracker has a certain ring to it, put probably takes our menu in a direction we don't want to go. Maybe that could be a special menu item, along with our Dog Crepe petfood line.

You may have the impression that our minds were in the creper through this whole exercise, but I assure you that was not the case. We also considered the dark, Viking-themed Crepe and Pillage, the more upbeat Crepe of Good Hope, and the exotic (and perhaps Eco-friendly) Crepe Verde.

Of course, in this economy, we might need to go the value route and open Barely Crepe-ing By, a budget creperie.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Fifty springs are little room

Somewhere in the world, the cherry trees are blooming right now. I presume. Everywhere in America, it's National Poetry Month, and I had limited time last Monday when I set up blogs to post. I fell in love with this poem in high school when our men's chorus sang a choral setting of this poem:

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

It was in the men's chorus that I really came to love singing, I think, though my college experience deepened that appreciation in very important ways. When I have more time to blog, maybe I'll talk more about that.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Welcome to National Poetry Month 2011

April is National Poetry month. I bring you an excerpt from John Keats' Endymion that, I think, says something about poetry:

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
 That's one of the reasons why poetry endures, though it's not just for its beauty, typically, that a poem endures. Sometimes that's enough, but often it's something deeper that poetry offers--though that, too, is a sort of beauty, is it not?

What do you think of poetry? What are some poems that you find to be "a joy for ever"?

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Spirit of April Fools Days Past

Some years ago now, I was a senior in college and April Fool's day was on a Thursday. A few days prior to this, one of my friends sent out an e-mail to all of our group of friends except for our friend nicknamed Shark. It read something like this:
Fact: April Fool's Day is on Thursday this year. Fact: The school newspaper comes out on Thursday. Fact: Shark always leaves his car unlocked. Does anyone else see the connection between these three facts?
Well, we all did. We grabbed several stacks of newspapers, the rough drafts of our senior projects--any source of paper we could find, really--and crumpled them up to stuff the entire car absolutely full of paper. We gift-wrapped it in toilet-paper and threw a few blown-up, um, balloons, on the antenna. It looked something like this:

Actually, it looked exactly like that. 

Our gratification had to be delayed, however, but it only made it all the sweeter. The next Sunday we enjoyed a beautiful afternoon together playing frisbee golf. We had a course we always played, more or less, but we found ourselves at a point that was a little less defined, so we were making up the next hole. We were on top of the hill that overlooks the parking lot, which is a great launching point for any hole downslope. Shark scanned the area and started chuckling.

"The next hole is that car somebody f***ed with."

Pause as realization sinks in. "My car."

Priceless. And great that so many of us could be there to see his reaction, too.

It was almost as funny a few months later when I visited him over the summer and his car was still filled with all of the paper except what he needed to remove to sit in the driver's seat and drive!