Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Season of Disbelievin'

Our oldest daughter, at just-under-3, is still at the age where she's a believer in just about anything. Santa? Check. Minga Madinga, her Elf on the Shelf? Absolutely. The inherent awesomeness of her parents? Most of the time. Well, sometimes. If we're not denying her a toy, making her use the potty, turning off the TV/computer/iPod, trying to get her to eat, or generally engaging her when she's cranky (which, at almost-3, seems to be much of the time).

But anyway: belief. She's got it in spades. She sort of had some idea about Santa Claus last year, as being something more than just the terrifying overlord of the mall, sitting on his throne with minions taking pictures. This year, she pretty well gets it: Santa's the guy bringing toys (also, less positively, the guy who's going to take away her pacifiers and give them to younger children).

The thing I've realized as I watch her watching Christmas movies is how many of them deal actively with the subject of belief and--noticeably--disbelief. From animated Disney movies to live-action features, there's often a character saying "Santa Claus isn't real" or "There's no such thing as elves," or whatever. And, of course, like doubting Thomas, the characters on the screen get incredibly tangible proof to back up the reality of the pro-magical-Christmas crowd's claims.

I have to wonder, though: what about the kids (which is to say, pretty much all of them) who don't get to meet a talking dog who's Santa's best friend, or see a magical elf, or receive a visit from Santa himself? In other words, what I'm asking is: what's my daughter seeing in these movies? Do the disbelievers' assertions make any dent, in what is otherwise completely unchallenged belief?

Turning 90 degrees from there, I wonder if there's a sense in which Santa Claus is actually great preparation for atheism? Think about it. Most of us growing up with Santa Claus have first-hand experience with believing in a mythical being, which other people tell us is real, and then face the inevitable moment of disillusionment. We all get practice at what it's like to become an atheist, as we become an atheist with regard to Santa Claus. And the Tooth Fairy. And the Easter Bunny.

I suppose, as with any good whopper, we can always find ways to believe if we want to. "Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus..." As long as you can be as equivocal about the meaning of "is" as Bill Clinton was, then yes, there "is" a Santa Claus.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Book Review (part 1): The 4-Hour Chef

I picked up a copy of Tim Ferriss's new book, The 4-Hour Chef in hardback. And the Kindle edition too, since my wife indicated she'd be more likely to read it if she didn't have to lug around the huge (670 oversized pages) tome, and I wouldn't mind being able to read it on my computer or iPod either. In a way, it seems wrong to think about reviewing a cookbook before spending some time in the kitchen with at least a whole lot of the recipes. Or even reading most of the book. I've done neither, but I wanted to start commenting on it now instead of waiting for later.

So. If you're not familiar with Ferriss's previous work, I'll offer some background. His first book was The 4-Hour Workweek. This work had a lot of valuable parts to it, even if you don't follow the basic plan to spend way more than 4 hours per week putting together a business that can have large portions outsourced and/or automated such that you only need to put in about 4 hours per week of actual work while the business brings in big bucks. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but my point is that you could get a lot out of the book even if you don't even try to go that route (I haven't). His second book was The 4-Hour Body, which he described as the journal of a mad scientist, as he basically did his best to figure out through contact with experts on the cutting edge and through self-experimentation the most efficient ways to optimize performance in all sorts of ways. One of the central elements in the book was "losing fat," which revolved around his "Slow Carb Diet" and a handful of over-the-counter supplements, but there were also sections on building muscle, getting stronger, running faster and farther, enjoying better sex, enjoying better and/or less sleep... and hitting a baseball and swimming and... anyway, there was quite a bit to that book as well.

Which brings us to The 4-Hour Chef. There is, no doubt about it, more to this book than learning how to cook. As the subtitle puts it, this is "The simple path to cooking like a pro, learning anything, and living the good life." It's too bad Tim Ferriss never aims very high, isn't it?

Ferriss has described the book as being first and foremost about optimizing learning, with cooking just being the primary example at the heart of the book. There are five sections, plus appendices, and the first--"Meta"--is all about learning. He talks here about strength training, swimming, judo, languages, Japanese characters, shooting a basketball, making a fire, chess, tango, the World Memory Championships, and a whole bunch of other things, but always his real topic is learning, as he explains and breaks down his method--which is at once the method he used to put together this book, the method the reader can, theoretically, apply to anything, and an important part of the methodology that he will use in the book to teach the skills of a chef.

And this is an important distinction: although the book has quite a few recipes in it, it's not so much a cookbook the way that The Joy of Cooking or any of the many recipe websites on the web are cookbooks (i.e. collections of recipes). Ferriss most wants his reader to understand techniques. The techniques are taught through recipes, but each of these recipes also includes variations (to the point of being whole other recipes) and more indirect suggestions for applications of the technique, which themselves invite some experimentation ("Could I do this with X instead? Let's find out!")--of which Ferriss would certainly approve. The point isn't to learn some recipes that you'll cook over and over, though chances are you will; the point is to learn techniques that will allow you to improvise your own "recipes" as needed.

Because this is already getting rather long, I'm going to break it up over the next day or two. For now I'll just say that I'm quite enjoying this book, both for the cooking that it has me doing and for the sheer enjoyment of reading what Ferriss has to write about. There's a very real danger here that Ferriss is going in so many different directions that readers won't be able to follow him. Some people will almost certainly get frustrated and say "Can't you just tell me what I need to know about cooking??" Ferriss does speak to those people, and encourage people to skip ahead as needed. For my part, I'm fascinating by just about everything he has to say, both because he makes all the various topics interesting, and because he reveals so much of himself, and he's a pretty interesting character as well. Both his content and his tone are engaging, so that I find myself very much reading ahead of where I can possibly get in the kitchen, because I want to see what he's going to tell me next.

Sunday, December 16, 2012


"Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you." -- Matthew 7:7

"Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that my Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it." -- John 14:13-14

"And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive it, if you have faith." -- Matthew 21:22

Quite a lot of prayers are like this, probably because we're creatures of needs and wants. And as often as not, we don't know the difference.

The Bible, of course, endorses this sort of thing, though in real life, the results seem to be mixed at best. We pray for a loved one to pull through and sometimes, seemingly miraculously, they do. Troublingly, given the above passages, they often don't. Perhaps equally troubling in its own way  stands the fact that believers of other religions--and of no religion--experience "miraculous" cures at about an equal rate, albeit under a different headline. 

These are probably the prayers that are said most earnestly, but, well, good luck if you're asking for something in prayer. You'll need it. Given the evidence, I don't have a lot of faith in these prayers--if there's a God, it's not the sort of God who answers prayers like some kind of genii granting wishes.

"Lord, grant me serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." -- Reinhold Niebuhr
I have noticed on several occasions that our school's Director of Spiritual Life (and Protestant minister) frequently prays in terms of virtues, or of mindfulness. A prayer that a group or individual might have some quality strengthened really amounts to emphasizing the characteristics that we think are important. If I pray for myself that I might have courage to do something that I want to do, or that I might have peace in my heart when other people annoy me, or whatever it is, I'm also reminding myself of what it is that I want myself to be, what I see as my highest self. If God exists, then perhaps He will help out, but even in the absence of God, this kind of prayer actually works pretty well. By reminding us of who and what we want to be, we are more likely to put into practice our values.

“Oh, I think that children pray so, to find a lost doll or that Father will bring home a good haul of fish, or that no one will discover a forgotten chore. Children think they know what is best for themselves, and do not fear to ask the divine for it. But I have been a man for many years, and I would be ashamed if I did not know better by now.”
                 […] “So. How does a man pray then?”
                 […] “Don’t you know? How do you pray, then?”
                 “I don’t.” And then I rethought, and laughed aloud. “Unless I’m terrified. Then I suppose I pray as a child does. ‘Get me out of this, and I’ll never be so stupid again. Just let me live.’”
He laughed with me. “Well, it looks as if, so far, your prayers have been granted. And have you kept your promise to the divine?”
I shook my head, smiling ruefully. “I’m afraid not. I just find a new direction to be foolish in.”
“Exactly. So do we all. Hence, I’ve learned I am not wise enough to ask the divine for anything.”
“So. How do you pray then, if you are not asking for something?”
“Ah. Well, prayer for me is more listening than asking.”
—Robin Hobb, Fool’s Fate
This, too, makes a fair bit of sense to me, whether there is a God or there isn't.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

You don't know beans

Henry David Thoreau, on the grounds that he didn't know beans, planted, tended, harvested, and ate a whole lot of them while he was living near Walden pond. While I may not have grown them (yet), I do feel that I've known them pretty well from the kitchen side of things.

I suspect that anyone who's been cooking for an appreciable amount of time understands that there are "Recipes As Written" and then there are "Recipes as Lived." There's what the book says and there's what we do. This is so true of the way that I cook beans that even my biggest mistakes are now basically part of the process. So I offer to you my own step-by-step directions--how I make beans. The Platonic form of this recipe comes from Nourishing Traditions.

1. Soak beans in water overnight, 12-24 hours. Usually closer to 12, or 8, because of when I remember to start soaking them. Agonize over whether to use tap water or filtered water, but always choose tap water because it's a pain in the butt to filter that much water.

2. Drain the water (see, aren't you glad you didn't filter all that water just to dump it later?). Rinse the beans several times, still with tap water, because it's still a pain to do otherwise. When the water is more or less clear, go ahead and go to the trouble of getting enough filtered water together to cover the beans. Turn the burner on to high and keep adding water as it slowly makes its way through the filter.

3. Because water takes so damned long to boil, put a lid on your pot. Because water takes so damned long to boil, wander away and do something productive with your time.

4. Forget about the beans completely until you can hear the sound of water boiling over. By the time you get to the beans, there will be nasty bean water all over your stove. Unless you want to have a disgusting mess later when it dries, you should clean up the mess now. But then, you should also be skimming off the foam, so figure out your priorities.

5. Lower the heat to as low as it will go while still simmering. Come back periodically for the next several hours to fiddle with it, as you realize that the burner is too low to keep it simmering or so high that it's basically a rapid boil.

6. While you're fiddling with the heat, you may also want to make sure that there's enough water in with the beans, unless you would prefer to have the beans turn into a scorched mess at the bottom of your pan, which is not only one of the worst things you will ever try to clean up in your kitchen, but also renders all that time you spent on steps 1-5 completely useless. But hey, if that's how you roll, go for it.

7. Beans are done when you say they're done. That might be 4 hours later, that might be 8 hours later. You're the cook here, you decide. Bean appetit!

Friday, December 14, 2012

Batter Bowls

I wish I had blogged earlier in the day, because now the tragedy in Newtown, CT weighs down all my thoughts. I started an entry in response to the tragedy, but I don't think I really want to say anything. My heart goes out to all the people touched by the shootings.

I'll try instead to write about something far less significant: licking the batter bowl. My mother tends to doubt her own skills in the kitchen; for my part, I figure she did better than could be expected, given that I was an awfully picky eater--we mostly ate homemade meals, and that's something. But no one can dispute her mastery when it comes to desserts. As proof, I have the yearly school pictures depicting my continual chubbiness right up until my growth spurt between freshman and sophomore years of high school. She had a huge variety of desserts: cookies, bars, cakes, just a few pies, and other things that just fell under the broader category of "dessert."

Growing up with all these desserts being made, we always seemed to have a mixer bowl around with some kind of sweet, fatty goodness clinging to its sides and beaters. An only child, my experience growing up with these bowls gave me a cavalier attitude toward salmonella and a sense that it was both my divine right and my solemn duty to lick the batter bowl clean. In some ways, this last feeling is a corollary to the classic parenting lines about starving children in Africa and the importance of not wasting food. I mean, I was pretty sure that no children anywhere were crying over the canned green beans or Brussels sprouts that might be discarded at our table, but the bits of chocolate chip cookie dough still on the sides of the pan? I might have cried to see that wasted, never mind the starving children.

Now, as an adult who would like to eat a healthy diet, I struggle with these deeply ingrained habits any time I make desserts. Well, okay, any time I make anything. Seriously: I'm even tempted to lick the spoon when I've mixed buttermilk and whole wheat flour and nothing else in preparation for pancakes the next morning. My rational mind knows that it tastes absolutely terrible, but when I see it there on the spoon, some part of my mind doubts that anything clinging to a spoon could taste anything other than divine. Also, except when I already know the outcome, like this, my reaction can only rarely be described as "struggle." I have the white flag of surrender out before the first chip has been fired. In fact, as likely as not, I'll be "licking the batter bowl" before I've even finished making the cookies or whatever I'm making. I may have the uncooked approximation of a dozen cookies eaten before I finish baking the rest--it's not just for efficiency that I typically triple the recipe. And all this doesn't even account for the ones hot out of the oven that get eaten "for testing purposes."

But there's a part of me, at least retrospectively, that regrets it, and occasionally I like to throw that part of myself a bone (which is about all that part of me can chew on without regret). So I do have to castigate myself a bit for my poor--if highly conditioned--choices with regards to batters of all sorts.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

How do you know I'm not a robot?

I started wearing glasses in junior high, though my eyes were never that bad. My problem initially was that one eye was a little far-sighted and the other was a little near-sighted. So in one sense, it all averaged out, and in the other sense I got headaches when I read, because my eyes couldn't agree to disagree. And since I would have read 24/7 if able at that age, headaches were a problem.

My eyesight being what it was, when I started driving and had to take the vision test for my license, I decided to give it a try without my glasses. Things were pretty fuzzy, and I felt like I was guessing at a certain point. "E? F? T? It's not an O, I'm pretty sure of that!" In any case, I "passed" the eye exam and didn't have any restrictions listed on my license. In fact, ever since, when renewing my driver's license or moving to a new state, I have always "passed" the eye exam by approximating the basic shapes of letters I couldn't really read.

Here in Holidailies, I have encountered a similar phenomenon, as I discover new blogs. Several of the blogs that I've visited require some kind of test to "Prove you're not a robot." Apparently, robots are unable to guess at which letters are implied by vague scribbles, whereas I have honed this skill to an art form. Sometimes I type in my guess and I'm sure my comment will be rejected, but I haven't missed one all December, so either I'm pretty good at intuiting what's wanted based on little or no evidence, or being willing to make a guess is all the proof these blogs need that I am not, in fact, a robot. I guess we've found the new Turing test.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Slow Carb Ethiopian food

I mentioned earlier in the month that my wife decided to take on a new diet regimen, spitting in the face of all the temptations of the season. She’s trying out the “Slow Carb” diet popularized by Tim Ferriss in The Four-Hour Body. I can’t exactly say that I’ve been following that diet for the past year+, but it has informed my eating in some pretty significant ways (I just wasn’t religious about it). She resisted it for a year plus, because she felt like she couldn’t say no to all those other carbs. But as she read more about the diet itself in Ferriss’s latest book, The Four-Hour Chef, she decided she wanted to give it a try. And just as with Weight Watchers in the past, that puts me back in the role of personal chef. This time, though, it’s a little easier since I’m basically following the same diet (who am I kidding—I end up following pretty much the same diet anyway).

If you’re not familiar with Slow Carb, the basic idea is this: every meal = protein (c. 30g) + vegetable(s) + legumes (beans, lentils—these are the slow-digesting carbs). No grains, no fruits, no dairy (except, as it happens, cottage cheese). So actually, the dairy was always a problem for my wife too. Oh, and the beans: not a big bean fan. So, you know, pretty much the whole premise of the diet.

That said, it’s “so far, so good,” right now, on what might be called a modified Slow Carb diet. At this point, it’s close, and she’s getting results, so we won’t nitpick too much. We’ve had a couple things that have helped her get through.

First, she’s not a big fan of beans, and she hasn’t liked the way that I have prepared and eaten lentils for myself. This Red Lentil Soup that a friend made was good enough to eat on its own. And then she also remembered liking some kind of Ethiopian lentils, like we had on our first date. Like, 7 years ago.  Luckily for me, the first recipe I tried, for Mesir Wat, was to her liking. One nice thing about it was that it didn’t call for any spices that I didn’t have, nor for putting together a labor-intensive blend of spices, as some other Ethiopian recipes did. The only caveat I would add to the recipe was that lentils do not reach “the consistency of a thick paste” after 30-40 minutes of simmering. However, when they get close, an immersion blender can get them right where you want them.

What really made the dish work, though, was the Paleo Flatbread recipe I found. It’s not exactly like a bread, but it made a nice vessel for the Mesir Wat: the basic idea is just mixing pureed steamed cauliflower with egg yolks and parsley, then mixing that into egg whites that have been beaten until they formed stiff peaks. I found that a little more cauliflower than the recipe called for was no bad thing. Also, instead of wasting a ton of coconut oil on greasing your pan (have you checked the price of coconut oil lately??), line your pan with parchment and either grease that or use spray oil. The flatbread came right off with this treatment.

This flatbread includes both a protein and a vegetable, although probably not quite enough of either one. The first night we had it, I had the good fortune to find some reduced-price Yellowfin Tuna at the grocer, and I seared that with some salt, pepper, and red pepper and then served it with soy sauce as an appetizer. Yum. Making the lentils the focus of the meal, though, helps to make it a really filling meal.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Back pain

When I thought last night about the things I needed to do today, "Go to the health clinic" was not one of the items I had in mind, though I added it as early as 7 am, by which time I had "thrown out my back" during my morning workout. I've never had occasion to use that phrase before and couldn't have really told you what it means. Now, I can at least say that I'm pretty sure means I want to throw my back away and replace it with a new one.

The weird thing is that I've always had a pretty healthy back. My friend Rory and I got free scans at a county fair where a chiropractor wanted to draw us further in after the free back rubs. Rory's scan looked like he had some kind of severe deformity, while mine was totally clean. My wife routinely wakes up in the morning with shooting pains in her back, not me. Maybe those were contagious?

At the very least, I am far more sympathetic to her troubles than I was before. I hate this. It's only bad when I sit down or breathe too hard or drink more than, say, two ounces. Oh, and if I lie down? Let's just say that after the first attempt, I don't lie down. Mostly, it's just an inconvenience. Every once in a while though, particularly while I'm in the car, my entire life goes on hold for a few seconds of agony.

I'm sure some of you are out there thinking "Well, it's a Monday--what did you expect?" And it's true, no one forced me to get out of bed, where I might have been safer, this morning. I did it to myself. At least I got to see the doctor by 2:00 or so, and he said "What, the Aleve didn't do anything for you? How about some tablets that are over twice as strong? And did I mention muscle relaxants?"

So there we are. I hope all of you are doing as well or better!

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Building Imaginations

Another Holidailies blogger revealed her secretive love of Legos. It got me thinking about my own love affair with all sorts of building toys, that's being rekindled by my oldest daughter reaching the age where she's playing with such toys.

Surprisingly enough, I never had that many Legos. Lots of kids did when I was growing up, but I just had a few. I think my mom had a streak of contrariness that made her want to seek out toys that weren't quite as popular but were, just maybe, better than the ones everyone else was buying (no offense to all the Lego fans out there!). One kid I knew actually had an erector set, but I never got into that. The two construction toys that really engaged my imagination were Bristle Blocks and Construx.

Bristle Blocks, if you're not familiar with them, look like this:

As you can see, they come in different shapes and sizes, but they can lock together in multiple directions through the bristles that extend from all sides. Most of them were "flat," and I don't think all of the shapes existed that you can see in this photo: I think we had relatively flat ones and a few that were actual blocks. One of the big positives of bristle blocks was their versatility. I mean, I know people can do amazing things with Legos, but they always felt like bricks to me as a kid, like the only things I could make out of them were walls. And weird blocky robots. Bristle blocks just felt like they could do more. Also, they hurt in a whole different way when you stepped on them.

Construx, though, were probably my favorites.

This gives you a pretty good idea of what they are. Yeah, I know I just said that Legos seemed like all you could make were buildings and now I'm singing the praises of a toy that's basically a bunch of industrial building girders and panels to fit between them. But really, there were a ton of things you could do with them. Like:

space ships and planes, or

this Voltron-like robot thing. Just a couple point out. See the connection between the "hands" and arms? Those were plastic strips that were the length of the diagonal of two medium girders. And the panels on the shoulder piece--those fit in such a way that they could flip up as entry hatches. It's hard to see them, but I think the hips of the robot are pieces that fit on the medium square of girders as a round swivel piece. In the ship, you can also see that there's both a dedicated plane/spaceship cockpit of the Construx people that came with most sets and also some sort of tubes and hemi-spheres that made great satellite dishes as well as capping the tubes (and glowing in the dark!). Also: see the little blue cubes that have attachment points for the girders? They also had black ones that were hinges and orange ones that were a little bit bigger and allowed the piece attached to them to spin. A later set included connection points that had some kind of funky angle--not the most useful, but it added some versatility, particularly for getting things like X-Wing Fighter style double wings.

My point in all of this is just that as a kid I loved all these building toys, and as a parent I'm pretty enthusiastic about them too. They help challenge and build the imagination. To be perfectly honest, these toys still appeal to me today. I enjoy sitting down with my daughter and "helping" her build a tower out of blocks. Yes: doing it for her is helping by providing a model of what a totally awesome tower looks like.

So what were/are some of your favorite toys?

Friday, December 7, 2012

My Boys

I work at what is, from the faculty perspective, the least boarding-school-like boarding school. It's a great school, but at traditional boarding schools, most of the faculty live on campus and a majority of them actually live in apartments attached to the dorms. Here, most of us go home at the end of the day--mostly to a home that's not on campus, or even in walking distance.

Now, as an adult, there is something really nice about this arrangement. I remember as a young boarding school teacher at another school, going back and talking to the public school teachers who taught me, and telling them about where I worked. I think they were appalled by how much time I spent around my students. And in a way, I get that. When you live in a dorm, you have kids knocking on your door at all hours--sometimes because they have a serious illness or need to talk about some serious stuff, and sometimes because they want to know if you have change for a five-dollar-bill or--and this too is an actual request--because they want to know if another faculty member is home. So, yeah, it's nice not to have that.

On the other hand, when you live so close to your students, there are a lot of cool things that happen. You get to see all the cool things they're doing, you get to see them more or less grow before your eyes, and you form close--yet professional--relationships with some really neat adolescents.

At my current school, that's harder to develop, because we don't live here. I spend a lot of time in the barrack (yeah, it's a military school), and even for me, it's tough to form those types of experiences. I'm in my office in the barrack basically 8 hours every day during the school day, plus on duty for 4 hours one evening a week, making sure they spend 2 of those hours studying. And every once in a while, I have duty on a Friday night, which is often my favorite duty. Other than making sure they aren't burning down the building or violating major rules, it's basically a chance to hang out.

Some Fridays when I'm on duty, I'm basically by myself--the kids are doing their thing, I'm doing my thing, and unless I initiate a conversation (which I often do) I won't see a kid until I check them in for the night. But sometimes--like tonight--things go differently. Two of my boys came in and we talked about various and sundry topics, then ended up playing a board game (Ascension). Then three students played another game with me (not sure what it's called--not my game). And then I dropped out of the game... and now I've got seven kids in my office having a blast playing a game. I love it.

It's great to see the boys hanging out in a relaxed way, laughing and enjoying each others' company. These aren't seven kids who normally hang out with each other--or with me--but here they are. Fantastic. I love seeing guys who often don't show much leadership taking a leadership role. It's nice to get to know them a little better in this informal context. But it's also great to see them interacting face to face like this, in an era when kids so easily isolate themselves in their own rooms playing computer games, or playing video games together, where they spend most of their time staring at the screen, even when they're talking to each other. Excellent. Any time I can combine my guys and board games, it's a win.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Happy Feast of Saint Nicholas

In some past years I've written and re-written the story of my singular experience celebrating the Feast of St. Nicholas (eve) back in college. It's an experience that stuck with me, and Lauren and I have agreed that we would like to put on something similar for our kids and some friends and their kids. It just hasn't happened yet.

This year for St. Nicholas' Day, I thought I'd share a picture that came across my Facebook feed:

It also included the explanation that "St. Nicholas --yes, jolly ol' St. Nicholas!-- once ended a debate by punching the heretic Arius in the face. True story. (And too funny not to share!)

Or, as I would have captioned it, "You'd better watch out, you'd better not cry, you'd better not diverge from Church orthodoxy, I'm tellin' you why..."

Of course, back then, punching someone in the face to end a theological argument was called "reasoning with him." However, that usage became obsolete almost 1000 years later when the Inquisition redefined Church usage of the phrase.

Holidailies and NaNoWriMo

I can't recall precisely how many years I've been doing Holidailies, but this must be at least my 6th year. When I first started, Holidailies was basically just "another month of blogging," because I was already managing daily blogging just fine on my own, thank you. Over the years it's become something more like "my one good month of blogging out of the year." Which is kind of sad, but it's also better than just letting the blog shrivel up and die (I think). There's something about this sort of challenge, this sort of community, that helps me to stick with it.

A few years ago now, I seem to remember someone in the blogosphere trying to rebrand November--which you may or may not know is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in some corners of the writing world--as a month to blog daily (NaBloWriMo?). I'm pretty sure I blogged my way through that November, but it also served to put NaNoWriMo on my mental map.

Last year, I went so far as to register an account at the website, which was exactly as far as I went with it. This year, however, I went ahead and did it. I started writing a novel on November 1.

Just prior to that, I went to a kick-off meeting up in South Bend with a group of fellow "NaNoWriMos": for many of them, it was the first of a number of Sunday evening meetings as well as "write-ins" on Saturday mornings and periodically throughout each week. I live too far from South Bend to make that happen, but since that first meeting was on October 28, which was the Unitarian Church's Halloween party, I was able to go to the meeting while Lauren took the kids to the party. To be honest, it surprised me how helpful that meeting was. I basically took away three things. First, a veteran of NaNoWriMo advised us to treat this not even as a rough draft, but as Draft 0; the point was: there's no pressure to get this "right," to write the perfect novel that you're going to send to a publisher on December 1: the point is to get writing, to put words on a page, and just get started. I already understood that, but it was a timely reminder. Second, just being around so many people who wanted to write, and talking to them about books and about why they wanted to write and about our story ideas, that energized me to get writing. Third, and I feel like a jerk saying it, but a certain competitiveness and, let's say, sense of my own self-worth (yeah, that sounds better than "dickishness") left me thinking: if this group of socially awkward people with all sorts of weird ideas (which is to say "writers") can do this, I can do this.

"This," I should add, is not, in fact, to actually write a novel. And I don't just mean that in the sense of finishing a novel by editing, rewriting, etc. I mean that the actual goal was to write 50,000 words, a number which could be a novel, if you're writing YA fiction or Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books. I averaged somewhere over 1667 words per day, which got me past the 50,000 word mark, but if I had to guess, I would say that I'm about halfway done.

I say that, you should understand, with no clear idea of the plot ahead--just a vague sense of where they are in some imagined story arc. Which means that if I did another month at the same pace, I could very well have a draft of a novel done before the end of the year.

Except that I haven't written a word since November 30. C'mon people, it's Holidailies time. Move on.

As I was saying with Holidailies, the strength of these sorts of group writing endeavors is the sense of community, the sense of commitment, and perhaps also the sense of "I can do anything for a month!" The weakness is that we have a tendency to fall off the wagon once it's over. A month is about enough time to establish a new habit, but it's easy to find ourselves moving on to another habit. That said, just writing about writing that 50k last month has me wanting to dive back into the book and finish telling that story. I've invested in these characters, and they're never going to get any resolution unless I give it to them (at least, I don't imagine anyone will find this on my computer after I'm dead and decide "you know, I think I'll finish this novel."). So yeah, I should get on that.

I should add that NaNoWriMo and my virtual friends who were also doing it were not my only motivations. I've wanted to write a novel (okay, novels) since maybe 4th grade, but I've always found other things to do instead. So what got me over the hump? A couple books I read over the summer pushed me in that direction. One was Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding, both because it's a pretty amazing book and because it gave me some thoughts about where I wanted a novel idea (not the one I wrote) to go (I thought it was a baseball story, like Harbach's; turns out it's not). The other was John Green's The Fault in Our Stars. It, too, is excellent. But the inspiration it gave me was less direct than that--it was more about the fact that John was a classmate of mine in college and I'm totally envious of the writing career he's in the midst of. And there's really no answer to that but to start writing. You can't publish a book you haven't written, and you probably can't write a decent book until you've written some terrible ones (that whole 10,000 hours to mastery idea), so I decided I just needed to get started. Also I should publicly thank a blogging friend who encouraged me directly to get writing. And my wife, who made some significant accommodations to help me find the time to write 50k last month.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

'Tis the season!

If you saw the movie Contagion, I can only assume that you drew the same moral from the story that I did: if there's a super-virus, we're all totally f***ed, because the world we live in is a dirty, nasty, germ-infected slum. Virtually half the footage in that movie was zooming in to the microscopic to show us something that looked like single-celled serial killers. Okay, more like multi-cellular mass murderers. Fine, I'm not a medical expert: the point is that they're really small and look disgusting, so they're probably just moments away from causing you a horrible, horrible death.

In fact, the lesson to be taken away from the movie was less about how screwed we are if the super-virus hits than about how disgusting our everyday world is on the microscopic level. So we're probably f***ed anyway, no super-virus necessary.

The calendar would tell me, even if direct observation failed to, that germs, viruses, and bacteria have launched one of their annual offensives. At the boarding school where I work, the key times are right after breaks and when the weather changes, which often seem to coincide. Such as now, when the kids had a week for Thanksgiving break. A week that they spent trading germs with everyone back home, so that they could bring a wide assortment of nasty invisible critters back to campus for the mother of all sickness swap meets. "What, you haven't seen this strain of flu yet? But it's so popular back home in Seattle. Let me give you some!" "Why yes, my immune system is totally unfamiliar with the latest bronchitis craze in Mexico--thank you!" Sick kids are the norm; healthy kids are outliers, who presumably don't leave their rooms (note to self: check attendance).

In a book recently (Tim Ferriss's The 4-Hour Chef, if you must know), he tells a story of  a CEO interviewing a guy for a job (I couldn't find it to quote verbatim, so you'll have to trust my half-assed memory). He asks the guy "When you go to the bathroom, do you wash your hands before or after?" The guy says "after" and the CEO tells him that, no, he's got it wrong. That's an illogical approach. I'll admit it, I had to have my wife explain this one to me, which is only fair since she has one more year of medical school on her resume than I do. When you wash your hands afterward, you're basically doing everyone else a favor: from this point on, I will not spread germs. But when you wash afterward, well, at that point you've already transferred the germs that were all over your hands before you got there onto your naughty bits--and since germs love warm, dark, moist places, you've basically just turned your holiest of Holies into a sanctuary for germs to breed. Nice job.

So when you add this bit of knowledge to what we've learned in Contagion, the solution seems pretty clear: you must wash your hands before, during, and after using the restroom. And, for that matter, any time you are doing anything with your hands. For instance, I am currently washing my hands as I type on my laptop. It only makes sense: it has so much contact with my hands in a day that it's bound to be a vector for disease. There might be some causal influence there on the need I've had to switch laptops three times since I started writing this blog entry. But really, this is one of those cases where I don't think of it so much as a bug as it's a design feature: the more often saturating my keyboard with soap and water causes me to change computers, the more often I am setting aside a disgusting haven for the nasties in favor of a clean, temporarily germ-free keyboard.

The above, of course, is hyperbole. Not the parts about how disgusting the invisible world is and how it's likely to kill you (even if, in the short term, we're just speaking metaphorically). Those are just scientific facts. I meant my reaction, which is actually more like wash my hands whenever I remember, which is pretty much never. It's not that I don't want to live a long and, more to the point, healthy life. It's just that I'm a parent and I work at a boarding school, so what's the point? I live around the two most disgusting and illness-prone demographics. There's not enough soap and hand sanitizer in the whole state of Indiana to keep me safe, and not just because Indiana is a backward place with a severe soap and sanitizer deficiency. I'm screwed by circumstances, so I might as well just go with the [nasal] flow. If I'm "lucky" I might even get some time off work from the deal. Never mind that a vacation spent curled up in the fetal position, alternately blowing my nose, puking my guts out, sitting on the toilet, and weeping softly to myself so that I don't wake up one of the equally sick but more-drugged-up children does stretch the definition of vacation.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Healthy Decisions in the Land of Decadent Holidays

Often, people use New Year's as a springboard for new diet and fitness routines. Often, these attempts fail, but then sometimes people are very successful in these attempts. Certainly, there are a lot of products and programs on the market, such as P90X which gave me a good four months a couple years ago (starting in April, though, not January). Like P90X, several of these programs aim at 3 months, which seems to be a sort of sweet spot: long enough to have some significant results if successful, short enough to keep the end in sight, and more than enough time to establish habits, both in diet and exercise.

I had a thought back at the beginning of October: wouldn't it be great to start 3 months before New Year's instead of the same old "new start" thing? In a certain sense, it's absolutely, positively crazy. Change experts will tell you that it's important to get as many factors in your environment working with you: for instance, turning bad examples and enablers into helpful friends, coaches, and cheerleaders. For instance, if your spouse is the one who says "hey, let's order a pizza, eat a gallon of ice cream, and watch a movie tonight" when you're trying to drop 20 lbs, it's a huge help if you can get him or her on your side, not only not encouraging you to fail at your goals but actively working to help you stick to your diet and go exercise. If you can set up your physical environment in ways that help, too, you'll be way ahead: getting the junk food out of the house, or getting rid of the candy bowl on your desk at work, or changing your routine so that you don't walk by the staff room where that "nice" co-worker always puts out doughnuts.

Like I said, that's the good advice that the experts give you, and starting a weight-loss or health-improvement program on the months leading up to January 1 basically amounts to kindly asking the world to crush your ambitions. As the weather gets cooler, people tend to be more averse to going outside and exercising or, for that matter, leaving the nice warm bed early in the morning and going to the gym. The biggest dream killers, though, are the holidays. We might get through most of October unscathed, but then Halloween hits you with both barrels. If you have kids, you're almost doomed to be surrounded by candy, but even if you aren't, there are probably a bunch of well-meaning people at work bringing it in--heck, that might even be you! And Halloween, of course, is just a warm up for the Thanksgiving-Christmas season. Did you know that half of all American ovens are running at least 8 hours a day in November and December, baking cookies, cakes, pies, or bars? Okay, that's probably not true, but if you look around you, and you're trying to keep a healthy diet this time of year, it probably feels true.

And the thing is, it does feel like such a nice thing to do. I've done it, as recently as last week. I baked a double recipe of Mom's Cornflake Cookies to give first to one group of kids and then to another (with an "appropriate" number removed for our own enjoyment). I'm not taking any moral high ground here in my pointing out and implicitly condemning the empty-calorie-enablers.

"But John," I hear you saying, "Aren't you being too harsh on the nice people who give out candy like billionaires giving to Super-PACs and bake sugary, fatty desserts to give out like it will help us avoid the fiscal cliff?" At least, I think that's what you're saying: it's hard to hear you over the sounds of the crispy cookies I'm eating by the dozen. Who brought these in today, anyway?


Sorry, just woke up from a sugar coma. What was I saying? Oh yeah, I was talking about my bright idea to start a diet and fitness regimen on the months leading up to New Year's. It is, obviously, a hare-brained scheme, as only a rabbit, which naturally subsists on lawn clippings, could think it's a good idea. But here's the thing about it: what if you could make it work? If you could turn three months or two months or one month of the year that would normally be subtracting years from your life into 1-3 months of better health, that would be a huge net gain. In January, pure guilt, absent any intentional changes to your lifestyle, will probably cause you to lose a few pounds, if only from failing to eat in the face of depression. Your three months of Resolution-fueled goodness will only be slightly better than what you would have gotten anyway, you see?

Anyway, while it may be too late to have three good months before New Year's, you could always start here at the beginning of December. My wife is, and I'm awfully proud of her for swimming against the cultural current and trying to make changes now rather than just saying "I'll start next month..." You'd better believe I'm going to do everything I can to help her stay on track and meet her goals. And you know what? I'll support you too--if you need me to come to your place of employment and eat all the cookies, just give me the address and I'll be there. I've got your back (even if there is more of it to get than there was a month ago).

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Giving and having, getting and doing

Christmas is for kids. At the very least, I think there's nothing more magical than a kid's Christmas. Last year, when our older daughter was on the verge of two, was the first Christmas that she was old enough to really be excited about, and it was the most exciting Christmas I can remember (of course, my memory is crap). That may also have something to do with being up until 2-oh-my-god o'clock putting together the kitchen we bought for her.

But when we think about Christmas being for kids, it's important to realize that "Christmas" is essentially what we make of it. For the Christians in the audience, there's a good chance that means keeping Jesus and the Nativity at the center of Christmas. Regardless of whether you celebrate a sacred or secular Christmas, though, I think it's important to be intentional about what you want Christmas to be, especially for those of us who are parents, who basically define Christmas within our own household (in, of course, the larger cultural context).

What we make of Christmas likely will influence what our children make of Christmas for themselves and their children. We not only create the Christmas experiences that they will look back on and say "Remember that one Christmas when..." or "Remember how on Christmas we would always..." but I also believe that how we approach Christmas (and every other day, but I'm talking about Christmas now) will have a profound influence on who our children become and what they come to value.

For instance, most of us at least pay lip service to the idea that we don't want Christmas to be all about toys and expensive things and consumerism. As with most lessons, our actions speak at least as loudly as our words do. No matter what we say that's critical of the materialism of Christmas, if we ourselves spend wildly trying to find "the perfect" gift or to buy more and more expensive gifts to make this Christmas the best Christmas ever... well, I trust you see where I'm going here.

With this in mind, I wanted to share something that came recently in a magazine called Family Fun, which my mother subscribed us to (thanks Mom!). Kristin Bock of Oshkosh Wisconsin offered the Idea of the Month in the most recent issue, and it boils down to this: each Christmas, each of their children receives "just three presents: a book, a toy or other coveted item, and an experience." So they emphasize the importance of books, they give one conventional gift, and then they emphasize the importance of experiences over stuff. As the mother describes it:

We weren't sure how that last one would be received, so on Christmas morning Norman and I held out bresth as each child opened a thin package with a folder and a note inside. The folder included descriptions of three "experience packages," and the note instructed the recipient to choose one.

For example, Isaac's options were a day trip to a cave (and some spending money for the gift shop), a trip to a local aviation museum, complete with an airplane ride, and an outdoor photography lesson as well as a photo editing session in the studio. Our son couldn't contain his enthusiasm. After much thought, he asked if he could pick two and have one count as his birthday gift in February!
A couple other points:
  • each child gets his or her own experience, and the experiences are tailored to that child's particular interests
  • they keep costs down by using family and friends to serve as tour guides, hosts, or teachers (they don't mention it, but this also adds a deeper relational element to the experience)
  • for expensive trips, only one parent goes along
As she summarizes it, "Our family is really learning the value of doing rather than having." The Christmas experience, in other words, helps to reinforce the values that the parents want to teach. I wouldn't be surprised if this change, in fact, reinforced the values for the parents themselves, as well.