Sickness is a teacher

Last weekend, I was laid out by what I presume to be the Flu. I came home Friday and curled into a blanket burrito and went to sleep until Sunday afternoon. I have never been so sick. While phasing in and out of delirium I had some time to reflect. Here’s what I came up with:

1. We are weaker than we realize. Human frailty is real. When everything works, we don’t think about it. But as soon as it doesn’t, you realize how important health is. I tend to bulldoze my way through my daily life and forget how much I rely on my body. It’s hard to do anything when you can’t even sit up. Will is nothing without the Body.

2. The body and its adaptive life systems are strong. The entire time I was sick I marveled at my body’s response to fight the illness: fevers to raise the core temperature and drive out invaders, diminished appetite (why take in when your tissues are busy purging), and increased excretion from every quarter to clean house. I knew that if I could stay hydrated my immune system would rally and do its job while I slept and stayed out of the way. We still know so little about how our own bodies function.

3. Sleep is repair time. Normally most of us can get by with 6 hours of sleep or less a night. But, we should be sleeping better. It is not time wasted. While we admire the mechanistic efficiency of our computers, we should not attempt to emulate this mechanistic way of life by depriving ourselves of sleep and rest. When we sleep our bodies go through various repair and optimization routines for managing hormones, neurotransmitters, memory, digestion, tissue repair, etc. Good sleep is optimal rather than wasteful.

4. Death can be a relief.

“A death that ends the incurable ills of life is a blessing.” – Publius Syrus.

When you get really sick you can understand how death might be a relief if there were no end to the illness. Knowing that you are going to get better makes it easier to deal with. Sickness is so totally at odds with life that it is difficult to live with it.

5. Sickness tells you what to eat. Whenever I woke up and tried to eat or drink something, I only wanted a few simple things: watered down orange juice, ice water, and as I got better, simple foods like hearty cereal, fruit, or eggs. No fatty foods, no spicy foods, no large portions of anything. That sounds like a good way to do it all the time.

6. We are functions, not beings. The human body is a collection of processes rather than a thing. Human life is best perceived in time and movement. The idea of living itself contains this concept of movement. To live is to move. If you look at human behavior from a completely alien point of view, we are self-replicating, environmental processors. We consume other organisms rather than raw materials. We break down what we consume and use it to propel ourselves forward through time and against the natural entropy of the universe. Life as an organizing principle of the Universe?

Memories of Christmas Past

Christmas is a good time to remember fond memories of the past. On the drive home tonight, I was thinking about this one Christmas when I was about ten or eleven. After dinner one night, right before Christmas, my brother and I were finishing up the dishes and my Dad told us to take the garbage out to the garage. He specifically told us both to go, which was strange, but we did not give it much thought. We bundled everything up and took it out and put it in the trash cans.

When we came back in, mom and dad were waiting for us with bright looks of breathless expectation. My brother and I looked at each other wondering what the hell was going on and after a moment my dad groused at us to go back out to the garage and look around to make sure we didn’t “miss nothing”. When we did, we found two brand new BMX bicycles lined up and waiting for us. One was blue and one was black, but they were otherwise identical. As brothers do, we quickly decided who got what. I ended up with the black bike and Scott got the blue one. The fact that we had missed something so out of place and unexpected explained my father’s consternation. But this was quickly forgotten as we ran around screaming and laughing and inspecting our new ticket to boyhood freedom. Even though it was well after dark and cold, my dad rolled up the garage door and we took off riding our new bikes up and down the street where our parents could watch us ride and share in our excitement. My brother and I must have put a thousand miles on those bikes and had an equal number of adventures together, roaming around our little piece of the world.

I’m glad to say that we have had many happy Christmases before and since then, but that is the one that came to mind this evening some twenty years later. I hope that when I have kids that I can make their Christmas memories as half as good as my own.

Halloween is for lovers (of candy)

Halloween is a holiday like no other. It’s a good entry into the holiday season: light on the symbolism, heavy on the community involvement. Now that I can afford as much candy as I want I’m no longer under the thrall of candy. But when you’re a kid, few things are as compelling as candy. Where does it come from? Why does it taste so good? Why can’t we eat it for dinner?

When I was a kid Halloween was my favorite holiday. It combined many of my interests: free stuff, candy, and grossing people out or being silly. When I was about 11 or 12, I was into “special effects”. I had several different latex masks and an assortment of fake moustaches and books on the subject I had picked up at various places including the Clown Factory in San Antonio. For some reason, San Antonio had a lot of options when it came to Halloween costumes and magic stuff. There was Elbe’s on Broadway with the wooden nickels, and a few other places I am forgetting.

great pumpkin

For Halloween I would often make my rounds and then come home, change into another costume, and go out to the same houses for more candy. It was a once a year situation, so you had to make the most of it.

More tales from Liberty Hill, Texas

Hollis Baker, my good friend who tells a story better than anyone I know, has spun another good yarn over at his blog. He needs to compile these stories into a book. It would be a best seller. Do yourself a favor and read his latest, “Way up Morgan Creek“. It’s a beautiful story that captures the Hill Country in the way it deserves.

Update: I was clicking around Hollis’ website and found a couple links to a good interview he did. He had some good things to say on working and being successful:

When I ask Hollis what he’d tell the room full of young people if he had a chance to give them one special kernel of wisdom, he reacts instantly, relating it to his experience in the sign business:

“I’d tell them a story about the sign shop. I’d tell them that in the early days when we were painting signs, we might have a sign on the side of the wall that was, you know, 8 by 16 feet and it was covered with letters and you had to stand on the ladder and dip the brush in the paint and smear it on there. And the propensity of the painters, when they would want to say something to the other guy – they’d stop, turn around (turning his body in the chair) and tell the guy some cockamamie story. Well, it was important that I keep the guys on the task. So, I’d say, ‘Hey guys, talk all you want to, but face the sign while you’re doing it.’ And that became the catch-phrase in the shop. “Face the sign.” And that’s what I’m telling these kids. That whatever their task is – face it. Do it (pointing his finger). Do it to the best of your ability. Be honest with it, but always face the sign. And if you’ll do it, one of these days you can retire and sit on the front porch and watch the grass grow (laughing). That’s what I’d tell ‘em.”

More dietary experimentation

I am convinced that our obesity problems are caused primarily by one aspect of the typical American lifestyle: the widespread use of prepared meals (fast food, dining out, frozen dinners, sodas, and snacks) for daily eating. While we may be less active than in generations past, the real difference is that Americans rely more on prepared food for the bulk of their diet than ever before in the past. The lower the income, the lower the quality of the food, the greater the degree of obesity. As food preparation has been outsourced effectively to industry, consumers have compelling alternatives to the time-consuming work of cooking and cleaning. Naturally, they take the path of least resistance on a day to day basis. Over time this results in extra calories being stored as fat, which never get used simply because we keep eating the same calorie-rich foods in larger amounts.

With that in mind, over the next few weeks I will experiment with a couple ideas:

  1. No sugar, soda, dairy. Beverages will be confined to black coffee, water, and maybe the occasional beer. Juices and sodas either have too much sugar or carcinogenic chemicals.
  2. More cooking at home. Although, it is surprisingly difficult to prepare meals without dairy or tons of easily digestible carbohydrates.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

The Real Fleury Blog

My friend Phillip recently recommended the blog of Marc and Nathalie Fleury. Marc is the former CEO of JBoss, which was acquired by Redhat. Both Fleury’s are entertaining bloggers with a matched sharp sense of humor. Maybe it’s a French thing. Many of Marc’s entries are delightfully over the top like Fake Steve Jobs, but with the added bonus that it’s the real Marc Fleury. For example:

From Remember, I don’t give a shit:

And, while you’re at it, please address me as Doctor Fleury, and no, that’s not my DJ name. I didn’t suffer through ten years of differential equations to be talking on a first name basis with some random honky.

From Life After Marc Fleury:

And then I wonder, maybe Cameron is on to something. Could it be that all the ballsy visionaries are in one place and all the pontificating windbags are in another? Is it possible that Cameron is very happy at Oracle, just as it is apparent that Shaun is happier at Red Hat and I am only happy when I call the shots?

Good stuff.

Embrace your inner caveman

I have always been interested in wildlife, especially birds. It’s easy to see why they are so fascinating. Birds are one of the only animals you are likely to see if you live in the city. They don’t need to hide or skulk around in the shadows like earth-bound creatures. They are indifferent to us because at any time they can take to the air. Birds may come down to visit, but they belong to a world of flight and mobility we can only dream of.

Recently, my interest has increased. I have been reading more and more about birds; observing them more closely than ever before, amazed at the variety of the different species around me and the complexity of their lives and history. My whole perspective has changed. Where before I just saw a bird, I now see individual species, sexes, plumage, behaviors, and lifestyles. Miniature dramas of life: battles for territory and mates, the pursuit of prey, the care of young, and the defenses against predators.


The more I watch, the more I wonder at the economy and handicraft of Nature. Every bird is perfectly adapted to its lifestyle. The shape of the beak shows you what it eats. The shape of the feet and the wings shows you where and how it eats. Some beaks are made for crushing seeds and others for snatching flying insects out of the air. Some feet are designed for perching while others are perfect for swimming.

Sunday I went out to Lake Lewisville where they have a small environmental learning center (Lake Lewisville Environmental Learning Area) and park near the dam with hiking trails into the surrounding countryside. I took a pair of binoculars with the hopes of spotting a few birds.

It was a nice little area. As soon as I passed the gatehouse, I spotted 4-5 wild turkeys just off the road. I drove down to the end of the road near the damn outflow where a couple of people were fishing for large bass that hang out waiting to gobble up the dazed fish coming through the flood gates. One guy had a couple good-sized striped bass (4-5 lbs) on his stringer. His family was waiting in the minivan as he fished, so I gathered he was catching lunch. On the opposite bank of the Trinity River, a flock of white Great Egrets were roosting in the trees along the water’s edge. A good place to live if you eat what you can snatch out of the water, as they do.

I drove back up the road and parked at the head of Cottonwood and Cicada Trails. I only spotted a couple birds that day, but they were pretty nice. I saw two members of the tyrant flycatcher family, the Western Kingbird and the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher which are common in the fields around Dallas. Both are fun to watch and easy to spot as they love sitting on power lines or barbed-wire fences where they wait for flying bugs to wander within reach. When they spot something they launch off their perch and somersault in the air, grab the bug, and land back down on the wire. Tyrant flycatchers derive their name from the tendency to fiercely defend their nests against predators. You will often see them dive bombing hawks and crows that get too close.

Although I heard bird song from within the surrounding trees, the only other bird I got close enough to see was a beautiful Indigo bunting singing from the bare branches at the crest of a tall tree.

It was good to spend time in nature, even for a little while, and it was amazing that such a place could be less than two miles from a major interstate and just a few minutes from my house. If you enjoy wildlife and the outdoors, bird watching is an inexpensive hobby you might enjoy.

The highlight of my hike was walking through a tunnel of trees and looking over my shoulder to see three small butterflies hitchhiking on the back of my shirt. They clapped and unclapped their wings, lapping at the sweaty cotton for precious salt with their curled, hollow tongues. For a moment I felt like St. Francis of Assisi.

Old family photos

My father emailed some family photos my aunt scanned in. Family photos can be so cryptic. Look below at the expression on my grandmother’s face. She didn’t normally look so sour. It makes you wonder about the circumstances. I like these photos where they were dressed up and standing in the yard. There are many similar with family arranged in front of the house or the family car. I miss them both very much. They were such unique individuals.

Continue reading →

Weight Loss Tips That Work

gluttony.jpgI have never had problems with my weight. In my mind I will always be that skinny kid of 12 years old. Like a lot of guys, I never worried about how much or what I ate. Food was just this thing my body demanded. Likewise, I gave little attention to my physical shell, simply because it took care of itself. Youth bestows an effortless beauty and vigor, which most people appreciate only in retrospect. As Schopenhauer wrote, “Youth without beauty always has attraction; beauty without youth has none.”

As I approached my mid-twenties, my metabolism slowed down and my eating habits caught up with me. I woke up one day about a year ago and realized that I was overweight. I had tried to ignore the problem, but it was there in photos and in my ever expanding waistband. At my heaviest I weighed about 210 pounds. While this is not considered obese in a man over six feet tall, it was the heaviest I had ever been and it did not look good on me. I decided that I needed to do something because ignoring the problem wasn’t working. I tried several approaches but focused mainly on reducing input (calories consumed) and increasing output (energy expended). Eventually, I worked down to my current weight of just over 185 pounds for a difference of roughly 25 pounds. I’m working toward a goal weight of 170 pounds.

It was easy to lose the weight. The problem is deceptively simple. Weight gain is the result of consuming more than your body can expend. Our bodies are amazingly efficient and adaptive systems. If extra food is available, your body will store it as fat rather than waste it. This is how it should be. Add the relative physical ease of modern life with the high availability of nutritious food and you understand why obesity is such a problem. Fatty food is a quick phone call away.

During the course of my weight loss experience, I did not have to diet and everything was painless. As with most things, it just took some attention and time and is easier than most would have you believe. I will share what worked for me in case it can help you. I hope it does.

Measure it, Track it

I don’t advocate calorie counting because this is more work than anyone can be expected to do for the rest of their life, which is exactly how long you will need to maintain your ideal weight. However, until you measure something you cannot manage it.

I measure two things, the moving average of my daily weight (taken first thing in the morning) and everything I eat. I do not even know how to calculate a moving average. I just use the Google Fifteen Widget for the iGoogle homepage. It tracks and calculates everything for me and outputs a nice graph to show my progress. If the moving average trends down, I know I’m losing weight. If the trend moves up, I know I’m gaining weight. Some people will tell you that it is demotivating to weigh daily, however this helped me tremendously as I was able to adjust on the fly. As long as you recognize that your daily weight may fluctuate wildly and that the moving average is the key measurement, you will be fine.

I do not write down what I eat or keep a diet journal, but every time I sit down to eat I pause and consider what I’ve eaten that day. All I need to remember is what I’ve eaten that day. If I’ve had a couple slices of pizza or something similarly unhealthy, I will decide to eat a smaller portion or something with fewer calories.

Change the Way You Eat, Not What You Eat

Diets are stupid, conceptually. The idea is to motivate people by making them eat food they don’t like and banning foods they do like? This will not work. As Abraham Lincoln said, “A house divided will not stand.” When you’re on a diet, you are at war with your sensual side. Your body doesn’t understand why it can’t have what it wants, it just wants it and knows when it’s not getting it. For example, I will never be a person who loves salad. That’s just not something I like. The solution is to trick your body into going along with the weight loss plan. There are a couple ways to do this.

Keep Eating Crappy Food, Just Eat Less of It

Many people will tell you fast food is bad for you. I imagine it’s no less healthy and probably more healthy than what you get at some of the places people like to eat. There’s no way Olive Garden, Chili’s, or Red Lobster is more healthy than McDonald’s. Most of the food in these places is larded up with fat and salt so you’re tempted to order Appletini’s or multiple glasses of overpriced ‘house’ wine because you’re artificially thirsty from all the added salt. Likewise, a tub of salad slathered in ranch dressing is NOT healthy. In general, any food you buy prepared sucks.

If you want a cheeseburger, knock yourself out. Just forgo the French fries and large carbonated beverage. You’ll spend less and eat less crap. Make compromises. Split a dinner portion and take half home for later. Always drink water with your meals. Never buy appetizers or eat all the chips and salsa on the table. At a fast food restaurant, the right portion size is available on the 99 cent menu. Get one small, cheap hamburger or whatever and call it a day. As someone once said, “The best exercise you can do is pushing yourself away from the table.’

Eat at Home, Eat Earlier

When’s the last time you made yourself an appetizer before dinner? When’s the last time you ate chips and salsa or a dessert with your meal at home? Seldom to never.

When you eat at home, you’re almost guaranteed to eat better and less, especially if you have a large family or live with a bunch of freeloading roommates who make you fight for that last taco.

In general, I like to eat around 6:30 or 7 at night. By the time I finish dinner, I know I’ll have 2-3 hours before I go to bed and then 8 or more hours on top of that until I eat again. This gives me over ten hours to burn the energy I just ate. Also, try to eat a modest dinner as it is the last meal of the day. Another easy-to-remember platitude: “Eat like a king for breakfast, a prince for supper, and a pauper for dinner.”

Get a Gym Membership and Have Fun With It

I used to be against gym memberships because I’m a cheapskate. I had all sorts of reasons: it’s expensive, there’s a workout room in my apartment complex or at my office, I hate membership contracts, etc. The fact is, it is worth it to have a gym membership and it doesn’t have to suck. I work out at Lifetime Fitness where they at least don’t have contracts. It’s not bad at all.

The decision to get a gym membership was made easier when I admitted a few things to myself. Number one, I need to invest in my health and that investment (spending money every month) motivates me to get value out of it. Number two, free workout facilities suck. There is never enough equipment and I don’t want to work out with people I’ll see around the office or at the apartment complex.

I try to have fun when I go work out. When I first started going, I went every day, which was impossible to keep up. But, I did it for a reason. I wanted to create the habit of going until it was just part of my life. Now I keep a bag in my car and go every other day, at least three times a week. When I first started I would do 30-60 minutes on the elliptical or bike in addition to weights, then I discovered that this is not fun. Cardio is extremely boring and enjoyed by only the most dull or masochistic of people. I’m convinced that people stop working out because it’s not fun, even with an iPod.

How do you have fun at the gym? Instead of grinding out the cardio, I warm up by shooting hoops then I just lift weights until I’ve done my set for the day. If I’m taking my time, I’ll sit in the hot tub or wet sauna for 10-15 minutes when I’m done. If I go work out on my normally alternating days, I’ll do 30 minutes of cardio since I need to let my muscles repair from lifting weights. When you lift weight, make sure it is not too easy and not so difficult that you can’t do a set. To improve your muscles, you should lift to the point that the targeted muscles are exhausted. I’m convinced that lifting weights does more to burn fat than anything else. Unless you’re trying out for a marathon, why would you want to do cardio every time you work out?

Television by Appointment Only

It’s been a while since I’ve had cable, but Jody has it at her house and I’ve been amazed at how easy it is to get sucked in for hours at a time (I like Dirty Jobs, Man vs. Wild, and Cops). There is something going on in our brains when it comes to movement on a screen because television has the ability to maintain your attention like nothing else. In the past I have advocated against television, however since falling in love with Entourage on HBO, I am now advocating that you simply plan what you watch. Instead of plopping down and zoning out for several hours, look at what’s on and plan what you would like to see that week. Keep your total viewing to 2-3 hours a week. I think you will be pleasantly surprised by the general improvement in your life. I read more, work more, go to sleep earlier, and get more done when I’m not tied to the TV.

Closing Thoughts

Being overweight does not make you a bad person or unlikable. It’s just a problem of physical laws: too much input and not enough output. Personalizing a physical problem will not help you address it. Some of being overweight is genetic and part of who you are. If your parents are on the round side, you are likely to be on the round side. However, a distinction should be made between being thick muscled and being flabby. If you are barrel-chested or thick-shouldered, you will never be waif thin and that’s okay. However, if you’re muscled normally and covered with flab, this is a situation you can do something about. As important as it is to shed extra pounds, it’s equally important to shed negativity and try to help yourself. You can afford to be a little vain, as long as it helps you.

I’m curious what other experiences people have had. What has worked for you? What have you had trouble with?

My wallet is a tumor

Ever since I’ve carried a wallet, I’ve ended up stuffing receipts and other crap into it until gradually it doubles in size and hurts to sit on. Eventually I’ll go through and purge, removing all the business cards, scraps of paper, empty Walmart gift cards, and frequent smoothie buyer cards with irregularly-shaped holes punched into them until the wallet is restored to its original, more comfortable size. No more. I’ve replaced my wallet with one of those black binder clips found in any office in America. I just shove all my debit cards and ID into it and squeeze the binder clip onto the stack and go. It’s like a money clip, but better and free and possibly completely washable in case I forget to empty my pockets. Hat tip to my boss, who I stole the idea from.