Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Why Matters

Way back in the olden days (2006) Malcolm Gladwell wrote a piece on his blog about racism.  In it, he proposes three criteria to define the severity of (and response to) a racist action or event:  Content, Intention and Conviction.  I agree with his breakdown (although I think Impact should have consideration as well), I can see why some of the commenters found it to be so challenging.  After all, two of the three criteria are all about why someone did something, rather than what they did. 

The Why is important, because so many outcomes of daily decisions and actions are dependent on it.   Do I do a thing because I should or because I want to?  Is it an accident, the result of my strong emotion, or a reflection of what I really think?  Do I do it to impress someone, to learn something, to help someone?  This all affects my approach to a task, my state of mind while working on it, and the satisfaction I take from it. 

This argument could easily lead to horribly saccharine Pollyanna behaviour and the alienation of everyone I know.  But if I don't take it to extremes it has the potential to really impact my happiness, health, work effectiveness and relationships. 

For example:  If I exercise to lose weight, I will not maintain it.  The Why in this case is distant and probably impossible. When I fail to reach or maintain that unrealistic goal I will become discouraged and my motivation will disappear. Why bother if it isn't going to get me what I want? Because I'm exercising to change my body the effect is to pit my mind and body against each other as enemies instead of allies.  This increases my chances of experiencing pain and injury while exercising and puts it into the category of punishment. 

I'm so used to operating like this that any exercise at all comes complete with a full matched set of baggage.  If I even start an exercise routine I feel I have to ramp it all the way up as quickly as possible so that I can get maximum benefit before I lose interest.  I then burn out or injure myself and give up (with all the accompanying stigma of failure).  It's hard for me to just enjoy an exercise without placing all kinds of extra expectations on what I'm doing.  I need a goal to work towards, and if I don't make progress I will give up. 

 The generic "for my health" why doesn't work either.  It's too vague, and not in any way guaranteed.  Yes, cardiovascular fitness is a much better indicator of long-term health and longevity.  But my brain can always reason away the motivation.  I could be at a perfect level of cardiovascular fitness and be hit by a bus, or be diagnosed with any of the dozens of cancers that stream through both sides of my family.  When that happens, won't I have been better off enjoying those moments instead of sweating?

 But for the last two weeks I've been walking 1 to 2 moderately brisk miles a day, every day.  Not for my health, or to lose weight, or even because I enjoy the exhaust fumes from the passing cars (it's too dark in the morning yet to walk anywhere without street lights).  I'm walking for my happiness.  See, last summer I went hiking with my partner in the Smoky Mountains, and once in Hocking Hills, Ohio.  Both times we were prevented from tackling certain trails because I wasn't physically up to it.  The day after a steep four mile hike my entire body would be so stiff I could barely hobble to the bathrooms.  But this year I want to go places and see things.  I want to get to the top of Clingman's Dome without stopping for a breather at every bench.  I want to do the full-day tour of Mammoth Cave.  I want to do the Grandma Gatewood trail at Hocking Hills, complete with little side trips up gullies to look for waterfalls. 

But to do all that I have to be able to comfortably hike 5+ miles in a day and still be able to bend my knees the next morning. 

Yeah, ok so I won't be climbing Everest or running a triathalon.  But then I don't really want to do those things so why train as if I did?  Abrams and Rainbow Falls in one weekend motivates me.  It's possible (5 miles each), tangible, and short-term.  The anticipation of hiking in the mountains brings pleasure to the exercise instead of punishment. Maybe after that I'll build up to something more strenuous.  Then again I may decide that I have time in my life for this level of exercise and no more.  For now, this Why works for me. 

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


Every now and then I come across a fascinating writer and throw off everything else I'm doing for the sake of scrounging every last word available.  The reason for my silence in the last week is that all my brainpower is bent on Malcolm Gladwell, a New Yorker Magazine writer and publisher of several books in the general philosophical area of epistemology.  He's particularly adept at taking those little deceptive heuristics (i.e. "everyone knows" that black people are better at sports, that fat people are to blame, that Ivy League schools are better) and taking them to pieces to show the cognitive bias at work.  He also has a simple, elegant writing style that's easy to read.

I don't always agree with his conclusions, of course.  One article packed with ED or body dysmorphia triggers is his piece on the Pima Indians of Arizona.  On the other hand, if you can overlook a few of the fat myths perpetuated, he falls well above the usual pop media simplification of the issues.  His dissection of the cold reading techniques and evangelical language in fad diet books is fascinating.  He openly accepts the genetic factors of body weight, such as setpoints.  He covers the issue so extensively that if you reach a point where you're tempted to give up in disgust (say, when he says diets can still work), keep reading.  A few short paragraphs later, he throws out something that sounds very FA, like this:
"'A lot of studies look at ten-per-cent weight loss," said Mary Hoskin, who is coördinating the section of the N.I.H. study involving the Pima. "But if you look at long-term weight loss nobody can maintain ten per cent.'"
It sounds as if he's contradicting himself, but considering the reasoned quality of his other writings, I truly believe that he's simply considering every available angle, nook and cranny of the idea for the sake of comprehension.  If he could only go a short step further and look beyond the idea of fat as a disease to cure, it would be perfect.  Then again, in 1998 I don't know if a lot of the same research was available.  The HAES paradigm wasn't even a blip on the radar.  BMI wasn't being questioned as heavily. He didn't have available the recent studies showing that fitness levels (completely independent of fat) were the better determinant of health and life expectancy. 

I wonder what he would do with the information now?

Friday, March 12, 2010

Recipe Box: Balsamic Vinaigrette Dressing

This is my favorite springtime dressing.  The flavor is so sharp that it goes well with the bitterness of spring salad greeds (radicchio, arugula, endive, dandelion and other field greens).   Note that you want balsamic vinegar, not red wine vinegar.  Balsamic is not actually made from wine, but from grape pressings that are reduced to concentrate the flavor, then aged.   This gives it a much stronger and more complex flavor than the lighter wine vinegars. 

A little goes a long way.  These are estimate amounts, since it's usually more about a splash of this and a dash of that.  The flavor is best if you mix it just before serving. This will cover about 4-5 salads and will keep a day or two (at the most) in the fridge.  Once you get a feel for the proportions you can scale it up or down pretty easily. 

1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup olive oil
2 teaspoons prepared yellow mustard
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon sugar
pinch of salt
pinch of pepper

Whisk well with fork before pouring each serving, as the oil and garlic will separate quickly.

Anybody else have a favorite dressing recipe?  I'm craving the greens right now with all this thawing and sprouting going on outside!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Recipe Box: Homemade Pizza

Homemade pizza isn't actually cheaper.  If you're willing to eat at Little Ceasars or other chains you can get a pizza for around $5.  But while sometimes commercial food is cheaper, the homemade version is much, much better.


1 Tablespoon white sugar
1 (.25 ounce) package active dry yeast
1/3 cup warm water (between 90 and 110 degrees Fahrenheit)
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus 1 cup for dusting
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon dried oregano

(note: if you're short on time, you can use a box or two of the Jiffy brand pizza crust mix, and add the garlic powder, onion powder and dried oregano when mixing and before rising.)

Mix the sugar and water in a small bowl.  Add the yeast and let sit about 10 minutes or until it looks creamy.

Mix the 2 cups flour, salt, onion and garlic powders and oregano in a large bowl.  Add yeast mixture and stir until all the flour is absorbed (you may need to add additional water, 1 tablespoon at a time, to get all the flour to absorb).

Dust the clean countertop with flour.  Turn the dough out onto the floured surface and knead for about 1 minute.

Coat a large bowl with olive oil.  Coat the ball of dough with oil and cover with a damp cloth or paper towel.  Let sit in warm, dry place for 30 minutes or until it doubles in size.

(Note: prepare toppings while crust is rising)

Pre-heat the oven to 425 degrees (F)

Roll the dough out thin and lay on a greased cookie sheet (or pizza stone, if you've got one). Bake for 3-4 minutes.  Pull out from oven and add sauce, cheese and toppings.  Bake for an additional 20 minutes or until crust is golden and crusty.

For the pizza pictured, I used:

1/3 cup tomato sauce
2 cups mozzerella cheese
1/4 cup parmesan cheese
1 cup sliced and browned italian sausage
1/3 cup chopped artichokes
1/4 cup grilled red pepper
1/4 cup green olives
1 Tablespoon nonpareil capers

Sure, the toppings were heavier than the crust.  That's the point :-)

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Quote from Anne Lamott

"“But about a month before my friend Pammy died, she said something that may have permanently changed me.

"We had gone shopping for a dress for me to wear that night to a nightclub with the man I was seeing at the time. Pammy was in a wheelchair, wearing her Queen Mum wig, the Easy Rider look in her eyes. I tried on a lavender minidress, which is not my usual style. I tend to wear big, baggy clothes. People used to tell me I dressed like John Goodman. Anyway, the dress fit perfectly, and I came out to model it for her. I stood there feeling very shy and self-conscious and pleased. Then I said, 'Do you think it makes my hips look too big?' and she said to me slowly, 'Annie? I really don’t think you have that kind of time.'"

--Anne Lamott
(as quoted at

Monday, March 8, 2010

Fat Positive News

I only occasionally bother to look at weight-related news anymore; most of it is toxic.  But today I came across two separate articles that rate very few sanity-watchers points! 

The first one is about Kevin Smith being tossed off a plane for being too fat, courtesy of The National out of Abu Dhabi.  The article does a pretty good job of an actual balanced viewpoint, finishing up with some excellent quotes by Bill Fabrey of the Council on Size and Weight Discrimination.

The second is from a local paper at California State University, Chico.  It covers a presentation by two dietitians at the University on HAES, Intuitive Eating, and body-acceptance.  The presentation was part of a "Love Every Body" week sponsored by the university wellness center.  (Warning: Don't read the comments, they don't really contribute anything but miserable ignorance). 

Friday, March 5, 2010

Is it better to know?

As a follow-up to the article I shared on constructive versus destructive worry, I ask the question, "is it better to know?"

I just found out that the creaking in the front end of my car is something that's expensive to fix, but not dangerous to drive on for a while until I can afford it.  The thing is, it's been creaking for a long while, which sets off a nagging worry in the back of my head every time I hear the "rusty bedsprings" effect after a bump.  was my axel going to fall off one of these days?  Was a strut going to come shooting through the engine?  In other words, was I going to have to find a way to pay the huge, upside-down loan that runs almost double the car's value?

So now I know.  It's expensive, but not immediately. 

So the happiness question is....was the intense stress today waiting for the estimate greater or lesser than the tiny moments of stress added up over months of squeaking?  Is the relief of knowing I don't have to put off some much needed repairs on the house worth the stress of figuring out how to scrimp a thousand dollars this summer?  Sure I'd have to do it anyway, but now that it's real, there's a lot more urgency to it. 

I'm a classic procrastinator on this type of stressful decision.  I understand the concept of catching something early making it easier to fix, but there's always something in my head that overrides that common-sense by telling me that if I ignore it long enough, it'll go away.  But is that any kind of way to live?  Is the weight of something on my "to do" pile worth the hassle of doing it?  I'm particularly guilty of this when it comes to medical issues.  I put off routine exams for fear that there'll be some kind of paradigm-destroying bad news as a result.  Sure, the news might be slightly less bad if it's something that can be treated with early detection, but it'll still be worse than not having the news in the first place. 

This is all about fear.  Fear of a doctor's potential fat-hate, fear of a bad diagnosis, fear of death, fear of loss.  At some point that fear of pain and stress takes on a self-fulfilling aspect and becomes painful and stressful on its own.  Even before the bad news.  While added up into a long term view that stress may be greater from procrastination than from disaster, but in any one particular moment, taken as a snapshot of time, it seems less. 

But wait, I thought living in the moment was a good thing? 

As human beings we're capable of something almost magical in the animal kingdom; we can tell the future.  Not always accurately, but we can draw conclusions from past experiences and project those patterns into the future to guess what will happen next.  This results in conscious long term planning and manipulation of our environment.  Unfortunately, in some people, it also results in a tendancy to live entirely in either the past or future.  Like all things (including excess), it is good in moderation.  We are capable, biologically, of amazing flexibility and adaptability to our circumstances.  We can learn to consider the future, remember the past, and live in the present.  We can even learn to do all of these at the same time.  How amazing is that? There's a lesson in there for me. 

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Roadtrip Photos

Tahquamenon Falls

Whitefish Point Lighthouse

Northern shore of Lake Michigan

Those are some highlights, of course!  I don't want to drag feed readers to a halt with all the photos, but if you're curious you can view the full slideshow here.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

You're Never Too Old to Run Away From Home

I always loved Huck Finn :-)

JD and I ran away from home this weekend. We couldn't afford a long trip south to get somewhere warm, which is pretty traditional for spring break.  Instead we went where everyone else was traveling FROM.  Up north.  The UP (upper penninsula).  Across the straights of Mackinaw.  That bit of Michigan that might as well be Canada.   

There's not much in the UP that doesn't involve the outdoors, so winter there is almost empty. Maybe a quarter of the businesses in larger towns stay open for the snowmobilers, ice-fishers, and locals.  But Tahquamenon Falls is still flowing, Lake Superior is still dramatic (and almost as cold as it is in August) and Whitefish Point is still beautiful in the winter. 

We were thwarted a lot.  We both love kitchy roadside attractions (The Mystery Spot!  See live bears!  Michigan Wax Museum!) and most were closed for the season.  We love to take backroads through the state forests instead of highways, but all the state forest roads quickly ended in walls of snow passable only by snowmobiles or skis.  Even the roads to the lower Tahquamenon Falls and Pictured Rocks lakeshore were closed for the season.  Winter hiking is one thing.  A twelve mile trek through two feet of snow to look at a cliff is on another level.  Even a very pretty cliff.  Also, my faith in dive diners was alternately destroyed and restored as we moved.

Then again there were benefits!  The traffic was almost non-existant.  Off-season hotel rates were fantastic and reservations were for other people.  There were no bugs, and the mixed pine/birch forests covered with snow made for a very scenic drive.  It was quiet.  There were no bugs.  There were ice floes under the falls and heaving with the waves along the lakeshores.  There were no bugs.

(For those who don't get the bug reference, the UP is a combination of marshland and clear flowing rivers that results in huge summer populations of mosquitoes and black flies that can carry away small children to where their bloodless bodies will never be found.  Locals call this "Nature" or sometimes "Tourist-Repellant".)

In all we took three days to drive almost a thousand miles and finally calmed my wanderlust for another season.  I'm now in "travel-lag" and can just about stay awake with enough coffee. I don't know if I'd do it again without skis or snowshoes to really get around, but it was worth it just to see.  The place is so different in the winter that if we decide to go again in three months it'll be a whole different destination. 

Pictures will be forthcoming, but probably not until tonight when I can sort through them.