Archive for the “Random Musings” Category

The programming project that’s been dominating my time and my life should wrap up this weekend.  In fact, this is the do-or-die weekend.  I’m supposed to run my big-fix program before Monday.  Everyone from the president of IT on down is waiting for results, so if I fail, I’m failing on a big stage.

It’s a bit stressful, but I also tend to thrive under this kind of pressure.  Years ago, an agent who signed me in Los Angeles told me he liked to work with standup comedians and retired athletes, and that the two share some personality traits.  As someone nearly devoid of natural athletic ability, my reaction was something like, “Uh … huh?  What are you talking about?”

“Think about it,” he said.  “You both have to perform in a high-pressure situation in front of a live audience.  Doesn’t matter if you’re tired, doesn’t matter what kind of mood you’re in, doesn’t matter how good you were last time out.  When it’s game time, you have to get out there and do the job.  There’s no re-shoot and no second take.  It’s the personality type who wants the ball when it matters.”

So yeah, I kind of wanted the ball when this one came around.  Hope I don’t fumble.

Anyway, I expect life to return to normal on Monday, which means I won’t be an absent blogger anymore.

In the meantime, I thought I’d share the view from our kitchen window this morning:

Deer come down from the hills now and then and and nose around the tree line, but usually the dogs bark and scare them away.  The dogs happened to be snoozing in the sun room when I took these pictures.  We counted eight deer in all.  It was a pleasing, relaxing sight to take in before heading upstairs to put my program through some final tests before running it.

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Man, it’s cold out there.  Tonight is supposed to be the deepest of the deep freeze, so we’ll see if the power stays on.  The wood-burning stove is already cranked up just in case.  I also decided to post tonight in case the -5 temperature snaps a power line and takes us off the grid for a few days.

Some weeks ago, Chareva ordered a new flock of 25 chicks.  I believe the purpose (since we’re certainly not running short on eggs) was to have more variety in the color of the eggs.  Also, she wanted to make more work for herself, since caring for two flocks of chickens, two hogs, two dogs, two children, one cat and one husband isn’t enough.

These were mail-order chicks that have to be shipped soon after they’re born.  Apparently they’re fine in a shipping box for two or three days, but only within a specific timeframe.  Chareva received an email notifying her that the chicks were shipped on Monday, which means they were making the trip from Iowa to Minnesota to here during one of the coldest spells of the year.  She and the girls prepared themselves emotionally to receive a box of dead, frozen chicks.

The chicks arrived today and, amazingly, only one of them had died during shipment.  Tough little critters, I guess.  The hatchery usually sends extra chicks anyway, so we ended up with 29 live ones … a mix of Araucana/Ameraucanas and Cuckoo Marans, plus one of some other breed we can’t identify yet. They’re happily congregating in their temporary home under a heat lamp. So we’ll be constructing another hoop house or two in a few weeks.

The first two winters after we moved to Tennessee, there were substantial snowfalls.  After spending their toddler years in Southern California, the girls were thrilled to finally go sledding.  The “hill” was a wimpy little thing in a neighbor’s yard, maybe a five-foot drop and 15 feet of total sledding.  So when we bought the farm with the big ol’ side hill, I thought to myself, “You think sledding down that little mound was fun?  Wait until you go down this bad boy.”

Three winters came and went with barely a dusting of snow each year.  Best the girls could do was sled down our driveway a few times in the morning before the afternoon soon melted the snow.  I actually slept through one snowfall last year.  By the time I was awake, it was already gone.  I only knew we’d had snow because Chareva told me.

Not this time. The mix of ice, sleet and snow that hit our area this week won’t be melting until at least Saturday, if then.  So the girls finally put the big hill to use – along with the driveway for old times’ sake.  They insist that what they’re doing out there is called “snow surfing.”  I created a video for them to remember the occasion.

The bailouts near the tree line are intentional.  (The others aren’t — they’re falls.) You can’t see it in the video, but the big hill ends at a sudden drop-off into the creek – not something you want to hit going full-speed on a sled.

Chicks and surfing … just what every guy dreams of during a deep freeze.

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I didn’t post yesterday because I had my every-five-year colonoscopy, which means undergoing general anesthesia, which means feeling a bit dopey and tired for the rest of the day.  I elected to spend the evening relaxing and watching some Netflix series I’ve been meaning to check out.

I don’t consider myself a cancer candidate, but since my dad had colon cancer, I get the peek-inside procedure done every five years.  No use being stupid about it.

The peek inside showed no cancer or warning signs of cancer, by the way.  That might be a disappointment to the vegan evangelists who occasionally show up in comments to warn me that red meat causes cancer.  They’ve seen some studies, by gosh, and they just know my meaty diet is going to kill me at a young age.

I once pointed out to a vegan troll who was making that argument that Linda McCartney died of cancer after more than 20 years of being a vegetarian.  He replied that she didn’t become a vegetarian until she was in her 30s, so the damage had already been done.  So I replied that I’m in my 50s, which means according to his theory, the damage has already been done.  So there’s really no point in me giving up meat at this point.  May as well enjoy my diet and my life until the cancer set in motion decades ago by eating meat finally flares up and kills me.

That actually shut up him, which was a bit of surprise.

Now I’m off to enjoy a skirt steak for dinner.

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We’re only two weeks into the New Year, which means millions of people are on a diet, hoping to fulfill a resolution to lose weight. Last week I wrote about how U.S. News ranked the popular diets. The low-fat, low-sat, low-flavor DASH diet was ranked #1, the Slim-Fast diet was ranked #13, and the paleo diet was ranked last. I finished that post with this comment:

So here’s what we’ve got with the U.S. News diet rankings: the same group of idiots who’ve been pushing low-fat, low-salt, low-meat diets for decades were asked to rank diets and – surprise! – they chose the low-fat, low-salt, low-meat diets as the best …

And that’s why the same people will be making the same weight-loss resolution next year. And the year after that. And the year after that.

Now and then some internet cowboy will pop up in a forum and make the (ahem) profound observation that all the popular weight-loss diets work equally well if people stick to the diet. Uh-huh. That’s roughly as enlightening as saying all alcoholism-treatment programs work equally well as long as the alcoholic doesn’t drink. Or that knee surgery is equally successful under no anesthesia, vodka anesthesia or general anesthesia, as long as the patient remains perfectly still for the procedure. That may be true, but I’m pretty sure the type of anesthesia influences the patient’s tendency to run screaming from the room.

You can lose weight drinking Slim-Fast shakes instead of eating, but you’ll probably be miserable the whole time. If your diet puts you at war with your own body, your body is going to eventually win. I wrote about that phenomenon early last year in a series I called Character vs. Chemistry.

Later in the year, I read a thoroughly enjoyable book about the psychology of happiness titled The Happiness Hypothesis. The author, a psychologist named Jonathan Haidt, presents an explanation of human behavior that I like so much, I’m borrowing it (with attribution) for the book I’m writing for kids.

As Haidt explains it, your body and your unconscious mind are like an elephant. Your conscious mind – the part of you that thinks and makes plans and vows – is like a rider on top of the elephant. We like to think the rider is in control. But he isn’t, at least not if he tries to guide the elephant somewhere the elephant doesn’t want to go – like, say, into a fire. Here are some selections from that chapter that I edited down:

The image that I came up with for myself, as I marveled at my weakness, was that I was a rider on the back of an elephant. I’m holding the reins in my hands, and by pulling one way or the other I can tell the elephant to turn, to stop, or to go. I can direct things, but only when the elephant doesn’t have desires of his own. When the elephant really wants to do something, I’m no match for him.

It will help to go back in time and look at why we have these two processes, why we have a small rider and a large elephant. When the first clumps of neurons were forming the first brains more than 600 million years ago, these clumps must have conferred some advantage on the organisms that had them, because brains have proliferated ever since. Brains are adaptive because they integrate information from various parts of the animal’s body to respond quickly and automatically to threats and opportunities in the environment. The automatic system was shaped by natural selection to trigger quick and reliable action, and it includes parts of the brain that make us feel pleasure and pain and that trigger survival-related motivations.

Language, reasoning, and conscious planning arrived in the most recent eye-blink of evolution. They are like new software, Rider version 1.0. Automatic processes, on the other hand, have been through thousands of product cycles and are nearly perfect. When language evolved, the human brain was not reengineered to hand over the reins of power to the rider (conscious verbal thinking). The rider can see farther into the future, and the rider can learn valuable information by talking to other riders or by reading maps. But the rider cannot order the elephant around against its will.

Because we can see only one little corner of the mind’s vast operation, we are surprised when urges, wishes, and temptations emerge, seemingly from nowhere. We make pronouncements, vows, and resolutions, and then are surprised by our own powerlessness to carry them out.

Love it. That last sentence described me pretty much every January through April before I found a diet that doesn’t leave me feeling deprived. I’d resolve to lose weight, adopt some variation of a calorie-restricted, low-fat diet, and lose a few pounds … then give up after stalling, or finding myself unable to take the gnawing hunger anymore, or both. And then, of course, I blamed myself for being weak-willed.

I wasn’t weak-willed. I was human. I had put myself into a battle with my own body chemistry, and chemistry won. Or to use Haidt’s wonderful analogy, I was trying to drag the elephant to a place the elephant refused to go – because the elephant believed he was in danger. To repeat a quote from Haidt:

The automatic system was shaped by natural selection to trigger quick and reliable action, and it includes parts of the brain that make us feel pleasure and pain and that trigger survival-related motivations … When language evolved, the human brain was not reengineered to hand over the reins of power to the rider (conscious verbal thinking).

The automatic system – the elephant – is far older than the conscious mind and was shaped by the need to survive. If evolution has hard-wired one survival instinct into every living creature on earth, it’s got to be this: don’t starve. Starvation means death. In our conscious minds, we may believe going hungry for weeks on end is a fine idea if we’ll look good in a swimsuit by summer. But the elephant disagrees. And as Haidt puts it, the rider cannot order the elephant around against its will. So the elephant decides to run away and escape the danger.

Haidt doesn’t claim that the elephant makes it impossible to change our behaviors or reach new goals. (After all, the title is The Happiness Hypothesis, not The Hopeless Hypothesis.) His point is that the rider has to learn to work with the elephant, not simply try to order the elephant around. Then the rider and the elephant are both happy.

For people trying to lose weight, working with the elephant means adopting a diet the elephant doesn’t consider a threat. If you simply starve yourself, you’re dragging the elephant somewhere he doesn’t want to go. If you deprive yourself of what your body knows it needs – fat, protein, salt, vitamins, micronutrients, and yes, perhaps even some “safe starch” depending on your metabolism – the elephant will run away. If you drink a sugary shake that jacks up your blood sugar, then leaves with you low blood sugar after the insulin spike, the elephant isn’t going to be happy. Low blood sugar is one of those triggers for a survival-motivated behavior – the behavior in this case being run out and eat something, now!

So to quote again from my post about how U.S. News ranked the diets:

On one plate, you’ve got a slice of grass-fed beef, some eggplant and green vegetables drizzled in olive oil, and perhaps a small sweet potato. On the other plate — wait, make that in the other glass – you’ve got a brew of FAT FREE MILK, WATER, SUGAR, COCOA (PROCESSED WITH ALKALI), CANOLA OIL, MILK PROTEIN CONCENTRATE, FRUCTOSE, GUM ARABIC, CELLULOSE GEL, MONO AND DIGLYCERIDES, HYDROGENATED SOYBEAN OIL, HIGH FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP, POTASSIUM PHOSPHATE, MALTODEXTRIN, SOY LECITHIN, CELLULOSE GUM, CARRAGEENAN, NATURAL AND ARTIFICIAL FLAVOR, SODIUM BICARBONATE, SUCRALOSE AND ACESULFAME POTASSIUM (NONNUTRITIVE SWEETENERS), SODIUM CITRATE, CITRIC ACID.

Paleo vs. Slim-Fast … or as the U.S. News panel of (ahem) experts would label them, the worst diet vs. one of the better diets.

Hmmm, I wonder which of those meals would satisfy the elephant and which would leave it feeling deprived and threatened?

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The end of a typical year for me is a sprint … finishing up work projects, shopping for gifts, preparing to leave town for the holidays, etc.  It’s a high-energy month.

The end of this year has been more of a limp.  My dad died two weeks ago and was cremated soon after, but his memorial service isn’t until Sunday.  My mom was understandably drained at the end of that experience and didn’t want to deal with the arrangements for awhile.  The Older Brother had to undergo knee surgery for a torn meniscus (same procedure I had two years ago) the next day and was out of commission for a spell.  So two weeks after the fact, there’s no real sense of closure.  Maybe Sunday will fix that.

(By the way, my dad told me years ago that when he died, he wanted us to dump his ashes in the water hazard on the 17th hole of the Lincoln Greens golf course — that way he could spend eternity with all this golf balls.  I doubt my mom was able to honor that request.)

I took a few days off from work after my dad died, then worked from home for a few days, then went back to the office.  Two days after that, I got socked with a head cold/sinus infection/ear infection or whatever the @#$% it is.  Haven’t had anything like this one in years.  The megadoses of vitamins C and D didn’t work their usual knockout magic.  Maybe I was overdue, maybe it was bad luck, or maybe emotional stress weakened my immune system just enough.

I still have the infection, and it’s been seriously zapping my energy.  I sleep 10 or so hours per night, then need a nap in the late afternoon.  Back in the day, I would have gone to a doctor, who would have prescribed an antibiotic, just in case the infection was bacterial instead of viral.  Now that I’ve learned quite a bit about the importance of the gut microbiome, I’m choosing to just wait it out.  I don’t want to decimate my gut flora unless absolutely necessary, which means I’ll only take an antibiotic when I’ve got a dangerous bacterial infection.

I’ve tried sit down and write a post or work on the book a few times, but my brain refuses to cooperate – probably because it doesn’t like residing in a head jammed full of gooey stuff.  So I’ve been going to work and then coming home and vegetating in front of the TV – after a nap, if need be.  I managed to get to the gym once for a workout, then came home and slept for two hours.

So like I said, I’m limping towards New Year’s this year.  We’ll attend the memorial service on Sunday (driving to Illinois and back all in one day, since we have dogs, hogs and chickens who need tending), then Chareva’s relatives start arriving on Monday for the holiday.  I apologize for the long absence, but I don’t expect to take up active blogging again until after New Year’s.

So to the Christians out there, Merry Christmas.  To the Jews, Happy Hanukah.  To followers of the Master of Sinanju, Merry Feast of the Pig.  And to everyone, Happy New Year.

See you in 2015.

p.s. – Thanks to all of you who posted kind comments about my dad.

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My dad passed away early this morning after a years-long fade from Alzheimer’s.  We knew this was coming, but I’m nonetheless not exactly in a blogging mood.  There will be a memorial service in Illinois at some point, but arrangements haven’t been made yet.

I posted the following letter/essay on my other blog some years ago.  Since that blog is currently dormant, I’m posting it again here while I take some time off.  I don’t plan to deal with comments other than to click the Approve button, so I’ll thank you all ahead of time for your kind thoughts and good wishes. 

Dear Dad:

It’s impossible to explain a father’s influence on his son in something as measly as a letter.  I could write volumes and still have more to say.  So let me just talk about your shoes.

Although more than forty years have passed since I was a little boy, I still remember waiting for you to walk through the front door at night after work.  You were HUGE.  You wore dark suits and serious business shoes, usually black or brown wingtips, polished to a high shine.  You always struck me as being in a bit of a hurry, and when you strode across our wooden floors, those shoes went BOOM-BOOM-BOOM.

I wanted to grow up as soon as I could and wear shoes like yours.  Sometimes I would pull a pair of wingtips out of your closet and remove the wooden stretchers – which took some effort for a skinny kid like me – and slip those big shoes over my feet.  I’d try walking in them, stepping carefully to avoid tripping.  I wasn’t big enough to make them BOOM, but I liked the way they looked.

I knew the wingtips were your working shoes.  I didn’t really understand what kind of work you did, but I knew working was how you took care of us.  I knew the dark suits and the booming shoes and the daily trips to your office were the reason we lived in a nice house, and also the reason we didn’t look like the shabbily-dressed kids we saw when Mom took us along for her charity work.

Now and then you took Jerry and me to the office on a Saturday when you needed to catch up on some paperwork.  We enjoyed those office trips, partly because of the old-fashioned soda dispenser, the kind with rows of metal rails that held the bottles upright by the necks. For a dime – you always seemed to have dimes in your pocket – we could slide a bottle along those rails and out the side to release it. The lid was heavy and you had to hold it up for us.  But that was easy for you because you were HUGE.

I liked the way your office smelled … like paper and ink.  I liked the starkness of the fluorescent lights.  I liked looking at the photo on your wall of someone handing you a plaque and shaking your hand.  I knew that whatever you did, you were good at it, good enough that people wanted to shake your hand.  When I sat and did math exercises at my desk in school, I pretended I was in my own office, doing important work that would make someone want to shake my hand.

I don’t know exactly when I decided I didn’t want to grow up and be just like you. Certainly by the time I enrolled in college, I knew I’d never be happy wearing dark suits and working in an office.  I rejected your advice about majoring in accounting.  I explained, somewhat hesitantly, that accounting might appeal to you, but I’d be bored out of my mind.

That’s when I began to realize you didn’t want me to grow up and be just like you, either.  When I chose pre-med for my major, you said that’s great, go for it, I’ll support you.  When I switched to psychology, you said that’s great, go for it, I’ll support you.  When I switched again to journalism as a junior, you said that’s great, go for it, I’ll support you.

I’d like to say you were simply doing what any father would do, but I already knew that wasn’t true.  I had a girlfriend whose father disowned her when she switched her major from business to art; without any support from him, she graduated swimming in student-loan debt.  In high school I had a classmate who’d been told from birth he was going to be a doctor like his father, period, end of discussion.  He flunked organic chemistry in college and committed suicide.

When I had some humorous essays published after college, your golfing buddies told me how much they enjoyed reading them.  I was proud to be published, but more proud to know you’d been bragging about me to your friends.  When I announced I was going to quit my magazine job and go freelance, you said that’s great, go for it, I’ll support you – after all, you had quit a comfortable corporate job to run your own business and understood the drive to be independent.

And so, in a fit of optimism, I struck out on my own … and fell flat on my face.  That’s when I found out what “support” truly means.

It was embarrassing to spend part of my adult life living off loans from you, loans I knew you would never let me repay.  It’s still embarrassing when I think about it.  But I believe things happen for a reason; and even if they don’t, we can find our own reasons in them.

Unlike Mom, you were never comfortable being affectionate. Until you became a grandpa, it took a couple of tall drinks to pry the words “I love you” from your lips.  I knew you loved me, but I didn’t fully understand that you love me, period, no matter what, just like Mom.

I kept expecting one of those loans to come with a lecture attached, firm instructions to wise up, let go of my childish dreams, go get a real job as a sales rep.  But that never happened.   When you said anything at all, it was along the lines of, “Don’t worry.  Do something you love, and be the best at it. Things will get better.”  Those years, painful as they were, finally made it clear to me that you didn’t just support me.  You supported me.

I’m happy with my life, Dad.  It’s been a thrill to play in a band, act in plays, publish humor in magazines, travel the country as a standup comedian, and produce a film.  But without you behind me, encouraging me to pursue my dreams, I wouldn’t have done half of those things.  At some point, I would’ve given up.

I once asked another comedian what his parents thought of his act.  He said they’d never seen him perform.  They didn’t think standup comedy was a respectable career, and they weren’t going to encourage him by showing up.  He asked if you and Mom had seen my act.  I just said yes — I didn’t think it would be polite to say, “Yes, many times, and they bring their friends.”

You didn’t choose my path, and I didn’t follow in your footsteps.  But when I look back, I realize I’ve worn your shoes many times.

When I left a secure job to pursue my own goals, I was wearing your shoes. When I wrote clearly and powerfully, I was wearing your shoes.  When I made people laugh out loud with a witty observation, I was wearing your shoes.  When I worked and re-worked a programming project to get it exactly right, believing that “good enough” isn’t good enough, I was wearing your shoes.  Every time I returned money to someone who accidentally overpaid me, or gave to a charity, or helped someone in distress without expecting anything in return, I was wearing your shoes.

These past few years have not been kind to you, Dad.  Cancer, Alzheimer’s and age have diminished your body and your mind.  Your quick steps have slowed to a shuffle.  I’ve had to hold your arm and help you navigate the single step from the garage into the house so you don’t trip over it.  On some days, you don’t recognize Mom and have to ask who she is.  I know the next time I visit, you may not know who I am.

But I know who I am.  I’m your son.  And in my mind, you’ll always be huge … and you’ll always BOOM when you walk.

I love you, Dad.  Thanks for the shoes.

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