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Solitary road trips have way of inspiring me to think about things in a way I don’t otherwise. Maybe it’s the monotony of them, the hypnotic hum of the wheels on the roadway or the persistent white noise of the engine. I like to think it’s the isolation of it. If you allow yourself the opportunity, traveling has the way of culling out interruptions. It provides a sort of freedom in the emptiness. Sure, there’s lots of things I can do. I can stare out the windows and watch the world slowly glide by. I can read a book. I can watch a movie. I can play a game. I can work. — And while I enjoy all of these things at various points on a road trip the thing I do most often is to put on headphones and simply listen to music. Sometimes I’ll read or work, too, but more often than not I just listen and allow myself the chance to let my mind wander where it wants.

This past weekend I took the four-hour bus ride from Chicago to visit my grandfather in Peoria. Four hours there, and four hours back. It was a good chunk of time to just be alone with myself and think about nothing in particular. But after a while that unstructured thinking began to take form. A combination of hearing a particular song connected with recalling something my friend, Smokes, had recently said propelled me to start thinking about musical influences. Why do I listen to the music I listen to? Why do I like it? But more curiously, how did I come to find it? The questions crystallized in my mind around a central theme: which albums were most influential upon me?

I always do this, I always spend too much time on the prelude. I think some lengthy explanation is necessary to lead up to a rather basic question. I should work on that. So, please pardon my rambling. I’ll get to the list. Here are the criteria I used for inclusion:

  • Album as a complete work, not just a particular song
  • Direct inspiration for listening to other music
  • Marks a significant milestone in my life
  • Released while I have been alive
  • Purchased with my own money within a year of public release
  • Not necessarily my favorite, the most popular or the most successful album from a particular artist

Here they are in chronological order:

In Through The Out Door, Led Zeppelin (August, 1979). By the time I discovered Led Zeppelin in the fall of 1981, John Bonham had died and the band had broken up. At the time, this was their last album. (Coda wouldn’t be released until 18 months later.) Joan turned me on to them. Early in the school year we became friends. At recess, we would walk around the soccer field and talk. Often about Zork and Led Zeppelin. She made a cassette tape of In Through The Out Door for me to listen to. It opened my eyes to what was possible with rock music– a radical departure from the Eagles and the Beatles and the Beach Boys my dad often played in the house. Later, I bought my own copy of this record because of her and over time I collected much of Zep’s published discography. That, in turn, allowed Queen, Lenny Kravitz, and the Ramones to all enter my collection.

Twelve years later, when I met Whirl for the first time, one of our first conversations was about music. Led Zeppelin was (and still is) one of her favorite bands. If I were ever to write a screenplay of that first meeting in Portland, I’d set it to “Fool In the Rain”.

Violent Femmes, Violent Femmes (March, 1983). Another early record purchased while I was in middle school. While I can’t be sure, I like to think I bought it in the spring the year after the Scorpions came to Pueblo to play the Colorado State Fair. On one of our various trips to Denver, I happened upon KBCO and discovered my new favorite radio station. The first time I heard “Blister in the Sun” was on KBCO. I was hooked. A three-piece band that embodied folk and punk and bitterness and frustration. I think of this album as a rite of passage. I got into it and a whole world of music opened up. For me, it added the Talking Heads, They Might Be Giants, the Psychedelic Furs, the Pixies, Camper Van Beethoven, the Velvet Underground and many many more. Bands I never heard on the local radio but are now intimately connected to growing up.

Hounds of Love, Kate Bush (September, 1985). “It’s in the trees! It’s coming!” There’s something magical and intoxicating to me in Kate Bush‘s eclectic blend of styles. At this point I had some steady income from the paper route. I could afford to buy more music. I helped Kate topple Madonna‘s stranglehold at the top of the charts with my purchase of Hounds of Love. It includes classical themes, progressive measure and that startlingly beautiful voice. This album inspired me to chase down nearly every female singer I could find, the more exotic and theatrical the better. And I still do. Artists in my catalog that I directly attribute to discovering Kate Bush: Suzanne Vega, the Eurythmics, 10000 Maniacs, Stevie Nicks, the Indigo Girls, Sarah McLachlan, Liz Phair, La Roux, Adele, Paramore, Sia, Poe, and Sleigh Bells.

Louder Than Bombs, Smiths (March, 1987). “And if you have five seconds to spare // Then I’ll tell you the story of my life: // Sixteen, clumsy and shy. // That’s the story of my life.” During high school I tried on personalities with about the same frequency of trying on new shirts. It seems like every day was a new attempt to reinvent myself. To be a new person. To try and determine who I was, what I wanted. Morrissey‘s lyric and Johnny Marr‘s guitar combined on this compilation at exactly that moment in my life. And they nailed it for me. I identified with the confusion and the mundanity and the caustic sense of humor. From my interest in the Smiths— and becoming a regular customer at Wax Trax in Denver– I discovered Echo & the Bunnymen, the Jesus and Mary Chain, the Church, the Sundays, the Stone Roses, The The and eventually (by way of my time working at WNDY) Elvis Costello, the BoDeans and Billy Bragg. Today it’s the Killers, Phoenix and Foster the People.

Substance 1987, New Order (August, 1987). My high school musical collection was filled with new wave artists. I attribute Substance with being the strongest single influence on that transformation. Radio was dominated by Whitney Houston, Lionel Richie, Robert Palmer and Madonna. I had Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, Alphaville, the Pet Shop Boys and Ultravox. And the album that coalesced all of that together, that best represented that influence upon my musical taste was Substance. The echoes of this influence are still there, as I find myself listening to the Strokes, Fischerspooner, Interpol, Neon Indian and Washed Out. I also think a line can be drawn through from New Order through to electronica and house to Fatboy Slim, Daft Punk, the Chemical Brothers and the Crystal Method all of which enjoy frequent rotation today.

A Momentary Lapse of Reason, Pink Floyd (September, 1987). My first Pink Floyd memory is not of this album. Bear with me; it’s a good story. Fourth grade. Shortly before Christmas Break. Music class out in a temporary classroom trailer on the playground. Teacher had asked us to bring in music for the rest of the class to experience. Someone brought in their older brother’s brand new copy of The Wall and put on “The Happiest Days of Our Lives”. It starts innocently enough with some drums and a little guitar riff. Add the a bass and some quick lyrics. And then it all goes horribly wrong, straight through a short description of dire domestic abuse into the anthem, “We don’t need no education! // We don’t need no thought control!” We never had music appreciation day again.

It would be several years before I truly fell in love with progressive rock. It happened with A Momentary Lapse of Reason. Fast forward several years from The Wall. Roger Waters has left the band. David Gilmour has taken over and produced this album. My best friend Beau and I are sitting around the kitchen room table after school arguing whether or not it was a true Floyd album without Waters’ involvement. We decide to go buy it and find out. Beau’s tastes in music were often a step ahead of mine. He owned several Floyd albums and was trying to get me interested in the band. This is the album that did it. Three tracks in, and I was hooked. I’ve been grateful ever since. I filled out my Pink Floyd collection, added Yes and Boston and Genesis. Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Bowie. Later there would be Coheed and Cambria, the Verve and XTC. Pink Floyd remains one of my favorite bands to this day.

The Lion and the Cobra, Sinéad O’Connor (November, 1987). From the moment I first watched the video for “Troy” on MTV’s 120 Minutes late at night, I knew I had to have the album. At first opportunity, I drove over to Independent Records on 4th Street and picked it up on cassette. For the next 18 months it rarely left the glove box of the car. This is one of my all-time favorite albums. I’ve seen O’Connor twice in concert, both times at Red Rocks. I’ve heard her (and everyone else) talk about this album, about O’Connor’s life– I’ve watched her blow up on television and in print. I don’t care. I love this album. It’s beautiful and fascinating and powerful. I replaced it on cassette at least twice from stretching it out, and once more when the CD became too scratched to play without skipping all the time. She’s a ghost that continues to haunt me– and I’m thankful for it. Through her I discovered Tracy Chapman, Alanis Morissette, Melissa Etheridge and the Sundays. Liz Phair and Bob Marley. She provided a radically different look at Irish music for me– ushering in album after album from the Pogues, the Cranberries, Van Morrison and the Chieftains.

Pretty Hate Machine, Nine Inch Nails (October, 1989). Vern claimed that every boy goes through a metal phase. Sometimes it lasts a week, sometimes a couple years, and sometimes we never leave it. Mine came late– despite Beau’s attempts to get me to like Iron Maiden. Pretty Hate Machine is an industrial album that appealed to my appreciation of electronica. And with it I began to explore the larger world of industrial music. I’d go on to collect 12″ singles from Front-242 and attend Nitzer Ebb and Skinny Puppy concerts. Later I’d follow this thread to discover Einstürzende Neubauten and Rammstein. But its most influential effects of Pretty Hate Machine came from bonding over it with college friends who had grown up on steady diets of Anthrax, Motörhead and Metallica. It is through this album– and those subsequent conversations– that I experienced what they heard and vice versa. We are (still) the road crew.

Achtung Baby, U2 (November, 1991). U2 has been a part of my musical landscape for nearly thirty years. Sometimes subversive, sometimes bombastic, sometimes compliant. But this is the album that placed an exclamation mark on 1991 for me. From the German in the title to the Trabbi on the cover art, to the edge in the music– this is U2’s last great album and it arrived at a moment or startling transformation for me. The two moments are forever linked. While the album did little to expand my musical interests, it is a constant reminder of my experiences abroad and my own personal growth, isolation and reinvention.

Superunknown, Soundgarden (March, 1994). I grew up in Colorado, far from Seattle. I went to school in rural Indiana, even further away– geographically and culturally. When “Smells Like Teen Spirit” arrived in 1991, propelling grunge into the limelight, I was in Germany listening to weeks-long radio tributes to Freddie Mercury. The result: I missed grunge. It’s taken me years to acknowledge Nirvana as anything more than a one-hit wonder band or the darling of the latest VH1 countdown show. But I made it back. I see it. I love it. But I came at it through Soundgarden. Generation X had its brief moment on the cultural stage before being swept away. Kurt Cobain committed suicide. Singles and Reality Bites saw mainstream success. Superunknown was the closing act. I caught that and allowed it to take me back through the musical catalog: Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, the Stone Temple Pilots. And for those bands that have moved on, I’ve gleefully followed with: Foo Fighters, Audioslave, Them Crooked Vultures, Queens of the Stone Age.

Blackout, Dropkick Murphys (June, 2003). You don’t have to go far to find the marks left by the Dropkick Murphys. Many of the earliest entries on this blog are decorated with DKM lyrics as I struggled back from brain injury. I listened to these guys a lot through that ordeal. Hell, even the album title Blackout is an appropriate description of that time in my life.

Farmboy introduced me to this band from our time working together at Midway. He’d been playing some Mighty Mighty Bosstones and this was the album that followed up. I bought it and was hooked. I love this version of “The Fields of Athenry”. Warrior’s Code followed, and the rest of their catalog. And more than a few concerts. Perhaps due to the circumstances surrounding my introduction, Blackout remains my favorite of their albums.

I see a number of my earlier musical influences coalescing in this album: the Pogues most notably, but also some Billy Bragg with anthems of social consciousness. When I went to see them at the Vic in 2005, they arrived on the stage under the cover of the Chieftains rendition of “The Foggy Dew” that featured Sinéad O’Connor on vocals. Incendiary. DKM directly added a tremendous amount of music to my catalog: from Flogging Molly, the Tossers, the Mahones, the Fratellis and Cage the Elephant to the Black Keys, Jet and the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club.

Broken Boy SoldiersRaconteurs (May, 2006). With the notable exception of “Seven Nation Army” I never really got into the White Stripes. And I don’t remember how I first came across the Raconteurs. Jack White’s musical career was not something I was following. Then again, I don’t remember lots of things from 2005-2006. But I did hear them somewhere, found the album and listened to it start-to-finish at least three times in a row. Whirl, in her infinite patience, didn’t throw the stereo out the window. The inclusion of the Raconteurs into my library led directly to the additions of the Kings of Leon, the Black Keys, Mumford and Sons, the Cold War Kids, Wolfmother, Kasabian, and Radio Moscow. It also caused me to look back at some of the White Stripes stuff I’d collected over the years and check out Dead Weather. I’ve really grown to appreciate Jack White as a result. White’s inclusion in the two music documentaries, Scorsese’s Shine A Light and Davis Gugenheim’s It Might Get Loud made them all that much better.

Finally a few honorable mentions, albums that influenced me, but for particular reasons don’t directly meet the criteria I see out on the list.

“Symphony No. 9 in D minor”, Beethoven (May, 1824). Over the years, Whirl and others have commented on my apparent resistance to classical music. And while it’s true that it is rarely the first choice I make when choosing something to listen to, there are moments when classical is ideal. This is one of the pieces I often go to. I first paid this piece serious attention while working on a senior thesis about Theodor Adorno. Adorno has, in various works, compared the Ninth to a cathedral. That’s a comparison that has stuck with me.

The Beatles, Beatles (November, 1968). My mom and dad are big Beatles fans. Which sort of makes me a big Beatles fan, too. If you’re curious, Dad’s favorite album is Rubber Soul. But for me, it’s the eponymous white album. And while I’ve never purchased this album, it’s been in my collection for as long as I can remember having a collection. I originally taped dad’s copy and then continued to convert it as changes in music technology came about: tape to CD to MP3. This album opened my eyes to the idea of music as experimentation and exploration.

Zen Arcade, Hüsker Dü (July, 1984). My belated gateway punk album. But it wasn’t until I got to college that I heard it. And by that time the band didn’t exist anymore. But the American musical landscape was forever altered by Bob Mould and Grant Hart. When I moved to Chicago I learned that WXRT, Chicago’s Finest Rock, was still in love with them. For good reason. Hüsker Dü brought me Paul Westerberg, Sugar, Sonic Youth, Green Day, the Breeders, the Lemonheads and the Replacements.

Blood Sugar Sex Magik, Red Hot Chili Peppers (October, 1991). Like what happened with grunge, I missed the Peppers when they first broke. We played this album often at WNDY, but it would be ten years before I would sit down and really listen to it. When I did, RHCP became a regular addition to my sound-scape. Listening to them always makes me happy, and that sort of magic can’t be underestimated. The fact that they continue to produce funky albums is gravy.

Last week the New York Times ran an article entitled “A Call for a Low-Carb Diet That Embraces Fat” discussing the results of a new study by the National Institutes of Health about the health and weight-loss benefits of a low-carb diet. I’ve struggled with weight for most of my adult life. It took the trauma of my brain injury to even begin to convince me that my health was something worth protecting. Since that time, I’ve made a number of progressive steps toward improving my health. I organized my attempts upon a simple four-word mantra: “Eat less; move more.”

Many of those early steps are documented in this blog. I wrote about my attempts to manage stress, enter into a regular exercise routine and the various adventures in returning to swimming. I felt I was doing everything right, but had few sustainable results to show for it. The weight would come off for a while and then go right back on. As the years progressed, progress slowed. I felt trapped in a sort of rearguard action fighting just to maintain the status quo.

This spring, I started reading more items about diet. Over the years I’ve tried various attempts at calorie reduction and the success rate was pretty low– as I already mentioned. It worked for maintaining weight– I got quite good at not putting on additional weight. I just had a lot of trouble losing what I’d accumulated over the years through lethargy and indifference.

It was time to go on offense. I decided to radically change my diet, and started eating low-carb in mid-June. I’ve never tried a structured diet plan before. This is a first. I did a bit of reading to help me understand how this might work, and decided that it was worth giving a try. I didn’t really change the quantities I was eating or exercising. Instead I focused on the quality of what I was eating. Specifically, reduce the amount of carbohydrates in my diet and maintain a slight caloric deficit. It’s been twelve weeks since I started; I’ve lost twenty-five pounds. And the notches in my belt seem to suggest the bulk of the loss has been fat. I’m very pleased. I really think there’s something to this.

When the Times published their story, I shared a bit of my success using the prescribed method. Friends asked about my approach and suggested I write it down. Here goes. Here’s my general approach:

  • Daily Carbohydrate Intake: 50-100 grams
  • Daily Calorie Intake: 1800-2300 calories
  • Regular Exercise: 5 days/week

I found there is a lot of conflicting advice about low-carb diets– and diets in general. Rather than read all of that, I looked for some recurring themes and forged my own path as a compromise of various opinions. I’m privileged by the fact that I don’t have any dietary restrictions: I don’t have food allergies; I don’t have trouble with pork or dairy or peanuts or eggs. I can eat what I want.

I found the normal recommended daily allowance of carbohydrates for my age, weight, height and activity level is between 300-400 grams/day, depending on the source. I have set my target to be between 50-100 grams per day. I shoot for 50 grams/day and don’t get anxious if I go over. And I try very hard to remain under 100. I feel comfortable when I’m within that range. I get there by making four fundamental changes to my diet:

  1. Eliminate sugar: Sugar is carbs. Pure and simple. One gram of sugar is one gram of carbs. One cup of sugar is 200g of carbs. Going low-carb means it’s time to say goodbye to sugar. I found lots and lots and lots and lots of talk about how to accomplish this one. From the draconian “live without sweets, fatty!” to a multitude of sugar alternatives each with its defenders and detractors. I found so many conflicting opinions. Which ones are good for you, which ones are bad for you. Natural is better. Natural doesn’t reduce carbs. This one’s no good for baking. I read so many discussions about this I became overwhelmed. Eventually just decided on Splenda (sucralose). It’s been available in the US for over 15 years. You can bake with it– its heat stable to 450 degrees. It’s ubiquitous. I can find it anywhere. And it tastes good. Cook’s Illustrated found the desserts baked with Splenda were without “the artificial flavors that just about every other sugar substitute brings with it”. I’ve used it in a large number of recipes and it’s worked quite well as a straight substitute. The only drawback I’ve encountered with Splenda as a replacement for sugar is that it does not caramelize the way table sugar does. But that’s true of any sugar replacement. I can live with that.
  2. Cut back on bread: Bread accounted for a huge amount of my carb intake. One regular slice of bread– white or whole wheat– has about 12g of carbs. Two pieces of toast with breakfast alone equals half my daily carb budget. I found it very easy to remove bread.
  3. Cut back on pasta: Pasta accounted for another huge amount of my carb intake. One cup of spaghetti is 43g. This was a bit more challenging for me to accomplish, as I do love all forms of pasta. But I persevered. Eliminating pasta did lead to discovering the spaghetti squash which is kinda delicious and interesting to cook with. So there’s that.
  4. Replace/reduce wheat flour: Wheat flour is in so many recipes. It’s also a huge contributor to total carb intake. One cup of all-purpose flour is 95g of carbs. So, it’s useful to have some sort of method to cut back on that. Two “replacements” I’m experimenting with are almond flour and flaxseed meal. Neither one of these behaves exactly like traditional wheat flour, but we’ve found them to be useful (if somewhat imperfect) substitutes in a number of cases.

So why does low-carb work? My layman’s understanding of the process is that a low-carb diet deprives the body of it’s most preferred energy source, glucose. The body easily metabolizes carbohydrates into glucose. Glucose is stored in the blood, liver and muscles to provide quick easy energy for doing work– a process called glycolysis. Moreover, excess glucose is eventually converted and stored as fat. A lower carbohydrate intake translates to less glucose readily available. The body has to look for alternative sources of energy. A traditional calorie reduction diet works on the same principle, but with more of a scorched-earth mentality. Rather than selectively restricting the most preferred energy source, it restricts everything. Instead of taking in 2000 calories a day, maybe you take in 1200 and achieve some weight loss as a result. What a low-carb diet does is restrict the most preferred energy source– and the source that is going to be most readily stored as fat if it isn’t used under the idea that not all calories are created equally. Low-carb dieting forces the body to adapt. And being the adaptable system that it is, the body finds other sources, shifting metabolism into ketosis, the metabolic state where most of the body’s energy supply comes from ketone bodies in the blood created by metabolizing stored fat. That’s really the linchpin to the diet, right there: eating in such a way that your body starts to cannibalize the fat it has stored.

I avoid these seven foods, in order of importance:

  • Sugar: This includes soft drinks, fruit juices, agave, candy, ice cream and lots more
  • Gluten Grains: Wheat, oats, barley and rye. Including breads and pasta
  • Trans Fats: Hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils
  • High Omega-6 Seed and Vegetable Oils: Corn, canola, cottonseed, soybean, sunflower, grapeseed and safflower oils
  • Artificial Sweeteners: Aspartame, Saccharin, Sucralose, Cyclamates and Acesulfame Potassium, if for no other reason than they act as appetite simulators causing you to unnecessarily eat more
  • Diet and Low-Fat Products: Many dairy products, cereals, crackers: these low-fat varieties often contain higher amounts of carbs than the full-fat varieties due to filler ingredients used to replace the fat
  • Highly Processed Foods

I base my diet on these foods:

  • Meat: Beef, turkey, lamb, pork, chicken
  • Fish: Salmon, halibut, tilapia, walleye, bass, trout
  • Eggs: Omega-3 enriched or pastured eggs are best
  • Vegetables: Spinach, tomato, broccoli, cauliflower, cucumber, cabbage, brussels sprouts, carrots
  • Fruits: Apples, raspberries, blackberries, cranberries, peaches, pears, blueberries, strawberries, cantaloupes
  • Nuts and Seeds: Almonds, walnuts, sunflower seeds, peanuts, sesame seeds
  • High-Fat Dairy: Cheese, butter, heavy cream, yogurt
  • Fats and Oils: Olive oil, butter, coconut oil, butter, lard, and cod liver oil
  • Tubers: Sweet potatoes, yams, potato, taro
  • Legumes: Lentils, black beans, pinto beans, chickpeas
  • Non-gluten grains: Quinoa, wild rice, brown rice, barley

This isn’t an exclusive list. I don’t mean to say I eat these things, and these things only. These are examples of the wide varieties of foods I have in my diet. I pay attention to how many carbs are in each serving and just try and keep the total in that 50-100 g/day range. And there really is a huge variety.

A note about net carbs: There’s a lot of discussion about what counts as a carb. Some foods the carbohydrate load is tied up in indigestible fiber so you don’t really metabolize the carbs. People argue that you should take the grams of carbs and subtract the grams of fiber to get the net carb intake, and use that value to manage your diet. I haven’t tried to figure that all out in detail, and tend to just work with the raw numbers. I’ve read other discussions about what’s really important to measure is not the carbs themselves but the glycemic index– a measure of the blood sugar the food converts into when metabolized. And still more discussion about not just the amount of blood sugar, but the rate at which it enters the blood stream. All of these minutia are important in one way or another, but I just found it too overwhelming to worry about. So I focused on the simple things with a rough guideline and wide margin for error.

A note about artificial sweeteners: Lots of people argue against artificial sweeteners altogether. They can wreck a diet plan even though on the surface they appear to be great. No carb load, make food taste good. But the negative effects I’ve witnessed tend to be more psychological. Sweets stimulate appetite. They make you think you’re hungry. So you eat more. When I cut way down on pop a couple years ago it helped a lot, because I didn’t feel the desire to snack quite so strongly or frequently.

A note about low fat foods: the argument against low fat food is that food marketed as low fat often has the fat replaced with higher-carb fillers. So, the idea is: just eat the full-fat variety in the first place and avoid the bait-and-switch.

A helpful cookbook: When Whirl learned I was giving this a try she found this cookbook, The Complete Low-Carb Cookbook by George Stella. We have prepared a number of these recipes and been quite impressed with them. So that’s helped.

As far as portion size, I haven’t really changed any of that. So whatever a portion was before the diet, I eat the same after the diet. If a serving portion was one chicken breast before going on the diet, then it’s one chicken breast afterwards. No change. Portion control has been a problem for me– I just like to eat. So I keep eating. And then I eat too much. I’d set out with the best intentions, but inevitably end up breaking my own rules about how much. The low-carb approach helps to curtail that. I no longer just go into the kitchen and grab a bag of tortilla chips, for example. (A cup of crushed tortilla chips is 46g of carbs. That’s my day’s allotment right there!) I’ve read that switching the metabolism over to ketosis can act as a appetite suppressant. I have not noticed a significant change in feeling hungry. I get hungry around the same times of the day as I did before, but I also feel satiated more quickly at mealtime. I find myself less prone to snack, as well. That may be partly an effect of the diet– the appetite suppressant quality I’ve seen mentioned. It may be partly procedural– I know that I’ll have to account for the carb intake for that snack and am reluctant to do so unnecessarily. It’s working and I want to stay on track.

I should talk a bit about meals. I haven’t eaten a lot for breakfast in a really long time (25+ years). Although with this diet, I have been eating a bit more for breakfast than I did in the past. I often fix eggs– omelettes, scrambled eggs. Sometimes some bacon or sausage. Since August I’ve been getting boxes of fresh Michigan blueberries at the farmer’s market down the street, and I’ll mix a half cup of those (9g) with a serving of Greek yogurt (8g) and a spoonful of Splenda. That’ll be a tasty breakfast and right on target for the daily carb budget.

Lunch— when I don’t spend my lunch hour at the pool– is often a salad (4-16g) or leftovers from dinner the night before.

Dinners have been a huge variety of things, each well within the 15-25g of carbs remaining in the day’s budget. Some examples: Asian turkey and lamb meatballs with sesame and spice broccoli, creamy chicken and sweet potato curry, sausage-stuffed spaghetti squash, white fish en papliotte with roasted brussels sprouts, or bratwurst with sweet potato cakes. There are a lot of low-carb recipes out there and we have not found it particularly onerous to adapt some of our other favorites. Sometimes all that is necessary is to just decide not to serve the bread alongside.

A quick aside about on chickpeas (garbanzo beans): Chickpeas are one of my favorite foods. At first look, they don’t appear to have a place in a low-carb diet (one cup of chickpeas has 161 grams of carbs). I include them because they are a great example that not even all carbs are created equally. Chickpeas are an excellent example of a food source containing slowly-digested carbohydrate and resistant starch. Essentially, this means that they contain starch (carbohydrates) that is converted to glucose only slowly, and starch that is not digested in the small intestine at all. This goes to the discussion about net carbs, glycemic index and glycemic load I was talking about earlier.

Drinks: No diet discussion would be complete without talking about drinks. It’s pretty easy to blow up a low-carb diet just on drinks.

I love coffee. While plain black coffee is perfect for a low-carb diet, the milk, sugar and syrups that are often added can be disastrous. For example a Starbucks grande latte has about 18-23g of carbs in it, depending on what kind of milk you include. Milk tends to have some of carbs in it (12 g/cup), and that value doesn’t vary much between whole, 2%, or skim. Perhaps counter-intuitively, cream has about half the amount of carbs that milk has by volume. Compare one cup 2% milk (11.7g) with one cup heavy cream (6.6g) and consider using cream instead of milk in your coffee.

Beer is another favorite drink. Beer is not particularly carb-friendly. A typical bottle of beer is between 10-13g. Check for a thorough index of the nutritional information for your favorite brew.

Soda pop is another potential land mine. Regular pop is sweetened with sugar. A regular can of pop has 35g of carbs– all sugar. Diet pop eliminates the carbs with sugar substitutes, so that’s a good thing. Be mindful about sugar substitutes as a potential appetite stimulant. The standby drinks are, unsurprisingly, water and tea (and black coffee). I’ve been a huge fan of carbonated mineral water for decades. It satisfies the craving for carbonation like pop does, and avoids the whole sugar and sugar substitute issue entirely.

And finally a few words about exercise. In 2007, I started exercising regularly for the first time in over ten years. I started out simply, going to the gym three times a week for cardio workouts. That expanded to four and five times a week. In late 2011 I rediscovered my love of swimming. Since then I’ve converted my exercise routine almost entirely to swimming five times a week for about 40 minutes each day and with one longer workout of an hour or more, once a week. I swim 2000 yards on the short days and between 2600-3000 yards on the long days. I use it as a break during an otherwise sedentary workday. It’s a way to disconnect, work out aggressions or frustrations. It gives me an uninterruptible block of time to think through plans or problems. It’s part of my daily routine and I feel it sorely when I miss it. I attribute much of the success of my diet to having this complementary exercise regimen already in place. Eat less; move more.

I’ve gone on for a while now and do want to come back to my original point. I like the low-carb approach because– despite all that I’ve said– this wasn’t such a difficult switch for me to make. In the Times article Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, is quoted as saying, “It shows that in a free-living setting, cutting your carbs helps you lose weight without focusing on calories. And that’s really important because someone can change what they eat more easily than trying to cut down on their calories.”

That’s the crux of it, right there. It’s not a no carb diet; it’s not a starvation diet. It’s about paying attention– just a little bit– to the type of foods you’re consuming. I know arguing from a position supported by a sample size of one is a dangerous thing to do. I don’t want this to be interpreted as an argument. Friends and family asked for some details of what I have been doing and I’ve simply taken some time to write down my personal approach and train of thought. I’m publishing it for two reasons, to help me remember what I did and why and because I hope my story helps others facing similar challenges.

House on the Rock 1

Occasionally you experience something that defies explanation, an experience so surreal, so otherworldly, that you walk away from it with a single vaguely formed question repeating in your mind. What the hell? Alex Jordan’s House on the Rock is such an experience. I’ve thought about visiting ever since my friend, Temper, described it to me in 1996. I read Neil Gaiman‘s novel, American Gods, in 2002 and Gaiman uses the House on the Rock as a setting for one of the many memorable scenes in that story — if you haven’t read American Gods, stop reading this drivel and correct your oversight. I’m serious. It’s that good. Go on. I’ll wait.

Okay, you’ve finished the book. Good. See, I told you. Now do you understand why I wanted to go visit? What I can’t explain is why it took me eighteen years to finally act on my desire. It’s not that far away– 200 miles northwest of Chicago. This past Labor Day weekend, we finally went to celebrate Whirl’s birthday. Princess, Farmboy, Whirl and I planned a long weekend in Madison with a tour of the house as the main event.

I’ll write more about our tour of the house a little later. The trip’s undercard deserves some attention, too.

On the way out of town we stopped in Antioch, Illinois. This is Farmboy’s hometown. His mom still lives in the house where he grew up. As we passed through town, Farmboy guided us through his childhood: his high school, his first job, the shaky island out in the middle of the lake that served as a bar. Whirl sublimely summarized the visit: “Look! We’re watching Farmboy’s origin story!”

We drove much of the trip on two-lane highways through the cornfields of northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin, eventually stopping for lunch in Delavan, Wisconsin. Lunch was nothing spectacular, and sadly it was only after we’d moved on that curiosity caused me to look for information about the town. That’s when I learned about the circuses. At its height between 1847 and 1894, Delavan served as the winter home to 26 circus companies. P.T. Barnum‘s “Greatest Show on Earth” was founded in Delavan in 1874. There’s a life-size sculpture of a giraffe downtown, an elephant buried in the middle of the lake, and a graveyard with circus-themed markers.

Wisconsin Capitol 2Saturday afternoon we spent at Capitol Square and the Taste of Madison. And after some various negotiations ended up walking down Williamson Street to the Weary Traveler Freehouse for dinner. At this point, the name certainly fit us and the dinner was delicious.

When we arrived back at the hotel that evening, we formulated a plan for Sunday. We agreed upon a departure time that would get us to the House on the Rock shortly after opening. Farmboy estimated five to six hours to tour the house, leaving us with sufficient time to make the drive to New Glarus to visit the brewery and maybe see some of the Wilhelm Tell Festival. While we didn’t make it to the festival, we did enjoy some delicious beer at the brewery. When I walked out onto the courtyard I was immediately struck with a sense of familiarity. It wasn’t the same and I don’t mean to compare one to the other, but there was enough similar– the trip, the architecture, the sunshine, the beer– that as I stepped into the New Glarus beer garden, memories of my spontaneous visit to Kloster Andechs flooded back to me. Similarly to how the Benedictines of Andechs limit their distribution, the brewers at New Glarus do not distribute outside the state of Wisconsin. I’m sure you’ll be unsurprised to learn we loaded up with sufficient supplies before departing.

I’ll cease with the preludes and incidental attractions and get on with the main event: the House on the Rock. The House on the Rock is a complex of architecturally unique rooms, galleries, streetscapes, and gardens originally designed by Alex Jordan. It opened as an attraction in 1960. Jordon continued to develop and expand the attraction for nearly thirty years. In 1988, one year before his death, Jordan sold the House to Art and Karen Donaldson. Since that time, the Donaldson family has maintained and further developed it, adding new collections and exhibits.

For a number of reasons, Alex Jordan and his house invite comparison to Frank Lloyd Wright and his Taliesin estate just down the road. One creation myth for the House on the Rock describes Jordan as a student dismissed from the Taliesin school and the house as architectural parody of Wright’s distinctive style. The myth is just that, a myth. It never happened. But it’s a good story. Maybe that’s what’s important.

House on the Rock 3

While the House on the Rock does seem to refer to Wright’s Prairie School aesthetic of horizontal lines, environmental integration, and craftsmanship, the majority is a maze of tacky rooms and macabre galleries. Highlights include the World’s largest indoor carousel (You knew that already from reading the novel, I know. Just checking.). There are rooms full of musical instruments that play automatically, a 200 foot model of a whale fighting a squid, a reconstruction of a 20th century main street, Japanese gardens, antique doll collections, airplanes, clocks, accordions and elaborate firearms. Instead of Wright’s restraint, the house is a monument to disorganization and mania. When we emerged mid-afternoon, I described my experience as a hellride from Roger Zelazny‘s Amber chronicles. It wasn’t until I cracked open my paperback copy of American Gods upon my return home that I noticed Gaiman’s dedication. It reads: “For absent friends – Kathy Acker and Roger Zelazny and all points in between.”

The house felt like a visit inside of dreamscape. Collections are dusty, erratically lit, haphazardly organized, and often without label. Shadow has no need for curators. Some items are real antiques, but many more are elaborate replicas or fantasies created from whole cloth by Jordan and his successors. It is impossible to tell what is real from what is ephemeral. And yet I can’t help but wonder if that was the point all along. I do not want to call it a museum; I didn’t learn anything. Instead I experienced everything: fear, awe, psychosis, disassociation, wonder.

Kerbal Space Program : Docking Manuever

You know that phrase you sometimes hear your coach roll out, when you’re attempting something challenging? Maybe making a three-point jump-shot or turning a 6-4-3 double play? “This ain’t rocket science!” Your face reddens. You redouble your efforts and try again. And again. There’s a reason why it stings. You know what you’re trying to do is not so difficult. Lots of people have done it before you. But rocket science! Rocket science is hard. Really hard. So hard that we use it as the stick by which we measure all other difficult challenges.

Spaceflight has fascinated me for a long time. That’s not really surprising. You grow up in the space age, and such fascinations are bound to happen to a few of us. That fascination has extended into a lot of different interests and hobbies.

My most recent engagement with spaceflight came on the heels of NASA’s announcement of liquid water on Saturn’s moon Enceladus. I started playing Kerbal Space Program. KSP is a sandbox game currently in development. As a player, you control a nascent space program operated by Kerbals (rhymes with gerbils), a race of small green humanoids, who have constructed a fully functional spaceport, Kerbal Space Center. KSC bears a striking resemblance to Kennedy Space Center back here on Earth. At KSP, you build rockets and spaceplanes. You stage them on the pad and hit ignition. Once you’re in flight, you execute the proper maneuvers to establish your desired orbits. KSP uses a very sophisticated physics engine to model all of this: thrust, drag, aerodynamic forces, material strengths are all accurately represented. Planets have different atmospheres that affect the efficiency of wings and parachutes. The physics engine is accurate enough that real-world spaceflight techniques are viable methods to get around. For example, you use Hohmann transfer orbits to transit the Mun and aerobraking to return to Kerbin. Gravity-assist slingshots, geosynchronous orbits, and orbital docking maneuvers are all possible.

It’s fascinating and extremely empowering to have the entire solar system at your fingertips. It is also extremely humbling. When I began playing, I roughly modeled my attempts after the historical progression. Could I get a rocket off the ground? Could I establish a stable orbit? Could I establish a polar orbit? Could I start in one orbit and move to another? I tried these things– and failed more than a few times– while being fully aware that I was reproducing experiments with more than half a century of real world spaceflight experience to support me. The technological advancements in computing in that same time interval are also immense. But that doesn’t make things any easier.

Even with the deck stacked so far in my favor, the most basic tasks were challenging. I’m emphasizing this to reinforce just how difficult spaceflight is. And how rewarding it can be when it succeeds. Kerbal Space Program makes these points with crystal clarity. It’s an extremely challenging, and thus extremely rewarding sandbox to play in and it has completely captured my imagination.

There was a time in world history when rocket scientists were heroes, and I wonder sometimes if the lustre of their accomplishments has been lost. Do we now think of GPS satellites and pictures of Titan as somehow ordinary– pedestrian. My enthusiasm about a manned mission to Mars is, in part, an attempt to enkindle human imagination toward a seemingly impossible goal and then achieve it.

Felix Baumgartner, Red Bull StratosWhen I started writing this post, I started making a list of space-related points of my childhood. My sister’s birthday is the second anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. In grade school, I had a Space:1999 metal lunch box. I designed and built my own LEGO models of the Apollo Command Module and Lunar Lander. My friend Jim and I flew Estes rockets, and even took a trip to Penrose to the company headquarters for specific kits. In 1980, I watched Carl Sagan on Cosmos on PBS; I read the book the next summer, and still own it. I still have a copy of the Feb 10, 1986 Time magazine the cover of which is the dramatic photograph of the Challenger shuttle explosion.

Time Cover, February 10, 1986

February 10, 1986

In the last couple years, Mooch and I have played several sessions of High Frontier, a spaceflight boardgame by Phil Eklund. When Eklund is not working as a game designer, he works as an aerospace engineer and rocket scientist. Smokes and I watched live as Felix Baumgartner broke the sound barrier in freefall during the Red Bull Stratos project. And just today, Randall Munroe commented in his webcomic xkcd on his dramatic increase in understanding orbital mechanics through playing KSP despite the fact that he worked at NASA for several years.

So now I’m looking to the heavens. I’m queueing up “An der schönen blauen Donau” by Johann Strauss, strapping my Kerbals into their command module and lighting the fuse. Come with me.

This winter has been colder than the last several winters. That fact has engendered an odious amount of discontent among area residents– and visitors. I’ve attempted to counter this tiresome culture of remonstrations and gnashed teeth by repeating a quote from Norwegian polar explorer, Roald Amundsen.

Det finnes ikke dårlig vær, bare dårlige klær. // There is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.

Admundsen led the first Antarctic expedition to reach the South Pole. They achieved their goal in December, 1911. Not satisfied, he repeated the task at the top of the world in 1926 and reached the North Pole. Roald knows cold. But I fear he may be a bit esoteric for contemporary audiences. And besides, everyone knows that explorers are crazy.

So let me transcribe this conversation among a group of Canadians I happened to overhear. We were all drinking coffee at The Roasted Bean at the Mirage. They were waiting for the first morning session of HDAW. For point of reference, it was -5 in Chicago on the same day and the entire city was shut down. It was 65 and sunny in Las Vegas, but that’s beside the point.

My wife called this morning to tell me it’s -42 in Winnipeg.
What are your kids doing?
Oh yeah? The kids have school then?
Yeah, my son was at hockey practice at 7 o’clock this morning.
Oh yeah?
Yeah. He had a game last night at 8 and was back at practice this morning at 7. He’s got another two-hour practice tonight at 8:30.

Minus-42 and it’s just another day. Schools open. Two-a-day hockey practice and travel plans for a weekend tournament in balmy Minnesota. So, seriously, Chicago. Put on your hat and shut your yap.

Dodger Stadium 2

So it’s been nine years. For nine years, I’ve been thinking and writing and whining about cracking my head open. That can’t be good, right? To be fixated on something for that length of time. Nine years. No matter how unfortunate. No matter how traumatic. No matter how life-altering, nine years is a long time. But that’s what is has been. Short recap: nine years ago, Whirl goes out of town to visit her cousin dying of brain cancer and I step out in front of a guy on a bicycle racing a red light. I get knocked on my ass and land in a coma for ten days. Whirl and my family get calls from the Chicago Police and race across the country. I spend the next several months in hospitals, therapy and other dark rooms putting my life back together. I was lucky. By all accounts I should be dead. But I’m not.

The first year back on my feet, my friends and I took a trip to Las Vegas in part to celebrate. We’ve repeated that anniversary trip a number of times since then. The last two years met some some logistical and financial complications and we didn’t go. But this year we succeeded in our return. We put together a two-city tour: first to Los Angeles to take in the NHL Stadium Series game between the Ducks and the Kings at Dodger Stadium and then on to Las Vegas.

It was a small group, this year, four of us: Whirl, Farmboy, Princess and me. While in California, we stayed with Tom and Lisa in Palmdale. So that increased the number to six for the first leg of the tour. Plus Molly. I would be remiss if I failed to mention Tom and Lisa’s delightful pet cocker spaniel. Don’t be fooled by my practiced disposition of indifference, I loved this dog. She was so sweet and friendly and made me happy just to be in the same room with her. Wonderful, wonderful dog.

Defensive Zone Faceoff

In Los Angeles, we attended the most surreal hockey game I’ve ever seen. I can wrap my head around hockey outdoors. I can even wrap my head around hockey in a baseball stadium given that the calendar says January 25th. It’s the fans in shorts playing sandlot volleyball and the thermometer that reads 75°F that take the story into the land of the slightly bizarre. Other than not wanting to see the league-leading Ducks gain another two points in the Western Conference, I did not have a particularly strong loyalty to either team playing. I came to the game because I like to watch hockey, the timing worked out with the the rest of the trip and Tom and Lisa are LA Kings fans. So that made me a marginal Kings fan for the day. (Just to get the painful part over with quickly, the Kings were shut out 3-0 by the Ducks and the game never really went their way from the beginning.)

The USC band marched out. The crowd heavily weighted in support of the Kings booed– the Kings fan standing next to us clarified that this was a UCLA crowd. Legendary Dodgers announcer Vin Scully introduced the teams. And this time the crowd roared louder. And then there was the strut. Wayne Gretzky emerged from the cloud of smoke stridently pacing his way to the ice for the ceremonial puck drop. Gretzky’s relationship with the NHL has been strained recently, mostly to do with the financial troubles surrounding the Phoenix Coyotes. A settlement was reached in December and Gretzky’s appearance at the game in Los Angeles was seen by many as the the symbol that the ship had been set to right. Did Gretzky ever own that walk!


To underline the strangeness of the evening with eyeliner and whiteface, KISS played two short sets. This is after you take in the skateboards and yoga circles and inline skate park. KISS opened with the curious choice “Lick It Up” and included the three songs I expected them to play: “Dr. Love”, “Rock and Roll All Nite”, and “Shout It Out Loud”. Whirl was particularly amused by the fact that the band was shuttled onto the field with golf carts– stark contrast, indeed, to The Great One.

The hockey game itself had a little bit of everything but not a lot of anything. There was a short-lived fight (two punches and a fall), an Anze Kopitar penalty shot (missed) and a shutout (for the Ducks). But that was quite alright with me. I enjoyed the spectacle of the whole thing. I brought my camera and took some photographs, but after the first period I just put it away and soaked in the entire experience. That’s what I try to do on these anniversary trips– to turn off thinking about things and just enjoy where I am and who I’m with. So I did.

The exit from Dodgers Stadium provided another bit of amusement we carried with us through the remainder of the trip. The mood of the crowd was much more mellow than any other sports audience I’ve been a part of. It would be easy to chalk this up to Southern California sun-soaked stereotypes, and maybe I should just do that rather than try and analyze it too deeply. But two things happened in short succession as we were making our way out of the parking lot. For setup, the parking lot did not have much in the way of traffic control. People drove pretty much wherever they wanted in whatever order they wanted to get to one of the various exit points out of Chavez Ravine.

And at one point as we were about to turn onto one of the main arterial streets away from the stadium, a guy appeared in front of us, oblivious to the fact that he had stopped all traffic from exiting. We sat for a few moments before tapping the horn. No movement. So Farmboy laid on the horn longer to secure his attention. The fan slowly turned and blinked. Farmboy suggested the fan move out of the way. Fan responded in a mystified, lyrical tenor, “But I’m on the phone …?”

Farmboy accepted the fan’s right to talk on the phone, but pointed out many other places out of the way of traffic, where the conversation could continue that would not impede traffic.

“But I’m talking to my friend …?” came the fan’s bewildered rejoinder. The car erupted with laughter. The catch-phrase earned its place in our vocabulary.

But I’m on the phone. I’m talking to my friend.

Moments later, as we attempted to circumnavigate Phone-a-Friend, a van full of Anaheim Ducks fans cut us off from the right. Girls were hanging out the side window, one in particular must have thought herself quite clever with this taunt.

“Hee-e-eey, Kiiiiiings fa-aans! I saw a-aall the goa-a-aals!”

I don’t think I stopped laughing for five minutes. We might have been halfway back to Palmdale before I finally was able to collect my composure. This was a very far cry from the abuse I’m used to seeing Packers fans take at Soldier Field or Red Wings fans suffer at the United Center. Cardinals fans get more shit at Wrigley Field. It was hilarious. Sweet, peaceful, hilarious.

One final anecdote from Los Angeles: Farmboy’s iPhone navigation app was normally quite good at delivering directions. I mean, Siri wasn’t quite at the Scarlett Johansson level of engagement, but she did fine. Except for one street. She could pronounce all the Spanish street names in and around Los Angeles. She had no problem with expressways and bypasses. She pronounced French names like “Versailles” appropriately. But Valberg Street threw her and I have no idea why. She had to spell out. Really fast. Every time: Turn left at VEE AY ELL BEE EE ARR GEE street. What’s up with that?

The next day we said goodbye to our wonderful hosts, Tom and Lisa, and headed northeast across the desert to Las Vegas. Along the way, Whirl kept us entertained and informed with trivia surrounding Zzyzx Road. At breakfast, Farmboy explained that any of life’s problems can be overcome through the careful use of one or more of these three simple skills he learned in wrestling:

  • Takedown
  • Stall
  • Escape

Before we dropped off the rental car at McCarren Airport we had lunch at In-N-Out Burger on Tropicana Avenue. Tom had given us some suggestions to try from the not-so-secret In-N-Out Burger menu, and while we waited for our food, we considered what had become of Maggie. Maggie had left her calling card on the picnic bench outside the In-N-Out and appeared to be in some distress. The photograph showed her missing both shirt and shoes– and pants! Hard luck all over, I suppose. Over the next several days in Las Vegas we speculated on Maggie’s story. Was she living across the street at Golden Palm Casino Resort? Was the limousine parked outside In-N-Out waiting on her arrival or that of her friends? Every day, usually over breakfast, the four of us expanded upon the scope of our conjecture about a day in Maggie’s life, taking clues from the people, places and exchanges we witnessed during our visit.

How To Dismantle a PhotobombThis year we stayed at the Mirage. We’ve been to the Mirage several times on previous trips: to play poker and pai gow, to have dinner, to see LOVE. And most notoriously I cajoled several friends into joining me to see the erupting volcano. Let’s just say my associates were not impressed and they remind me of that fact in a myriad of friendly ways and at any opportunity.

This year the highlights tended to revolve around food. We took advantage of the wide variety of restaurants in Las Vegas. We revisited Hash House A Go Go for a delicious breakfast on Monday. Tuesday night we traveled to the MGM Grand and had dinner at Emeril’s New Orleans Fish House before attending the evening performance of Cirque du Soleil’s .

I should pause here and say something about Tuesday night. I’m struggling with how to describe it, exactly. I can’t condemn it as a bad evening. It wasn’t. I had a great time. But it was troubling for me. Tuesday night seemed off-center in a couple of ways and writing this now from the perspective of looking back at the whole trip highlights the differences. It was a good meal, but not the best. That came later. It was a good show, but flawed by very difficult circumstances. I’ll start there and work back to dinner.

I’ve wanted to see Kà since 2007. I’ve attended three other Cirque shows on previous trips and a combination of poor planning and bad luck have kept me from seeing Kà. My interest in Kà piqued when I saw an episode of “Really Big Things” that featured the mechanics of the 360 degree rotating stage. The stage is as much an element of the show as the actors and there are 86 of those. The stage does not have a permanent floor; it has several moving platforms that appear to float. Action takes place on the shifting positions of the stage, sometimes horizontal, sometimes at an angle, sometimes vertical. The Los Angeles Times, when describing the show, said it “may well be the most lavish production in the history of Western theater [and] is surely the most technologically advanced.”

So I was really looking forward to seeing it this year. What I was not prepared for was the repercussions of the tragedy that struck the production last summer, when Sarah Guyard-Guillot fell to her death during a performance. It was the first– and only– death from an accident onstage in Cirque’s 30-year history. As a result of the death, the production has struggled with how to handle the show’s final battle scene. It’s not a scene that can be cut wholesale from the show; it is the climax. Guyard-Guillot played the show’s female protagonist. She figured prominently in that final scene. The compromise approach taken by Cirque was to present the final scene not with live actors, but with a projection of an earlier recording of the battle onto the vertical surface of the stage. That stylistic change was jarring to say the least. Other alternative approaches the troupe has tried included rewriting the scene from a battle to a wedding, to re-blocking it from a vertical orientation to a more traditional horizontal one, and training an entirely new troupe of actors. As a result, Kà is very much in a state of flux.

I think the original reason for the trip colors my reaction. For me, the annual retreat is a celebration that I am still around. That I’ve overcome something bizarre and unexpected and managed to hang on– even thrive in the aftermath. When things don’t work out that way, I feel it. With the run-up to the Olympics, I’ve noticed a number of stories resurface that have parallels to my own– all except for the ending– Michael Schumacher, Chelone Miller, Sarah Burke to name only a very few.

And now this has taken a rather darker tone than I had intended. Let me see if I can rescue it, because the message I want to leave about the trip is quite positive. I felt loved. I felt relaxed. I felt unburdened by worry and despair. I laughed a lot.

Youth Revisited

Before dinner, we’d spent the entirety of Tuesday afternoon at the Las Vegas Pinball Hall of Fame Pinball Museum reliving our youth. We carried around buckets of quarters and played dozens of pinball machines. The museum houses hundreds of machines from the 1950s to the 1990s. And the vast majority of them work. They’re playable. For a quarter. Some of the newer ones cost fifty cents. But still, twenty dollars goes a very long way here. Princess, Farmboy and I spent quite a bit of time looking at old Williams machines, scouring the painted credits for names of Midway Games coworkers who had started in pinball. We found a lot! In fact, a huge percentage of the machines were manufactured by various Chicago companies. Here’s a short list of the major manufacturers represented at the museum:

  • Bally
  • Chicago Coin
  • Chicago Dynamic
  • D. Gottlieb & Co.
  • Midway
  • Stern
  • Williams

Not all of the games at the museum were pinball. There were a few stand-up video game arcade consoles and other arcade oddities. By far the most interesting game we played was Chicago Coin’s Las Vegas Shuffle: a combination of shuffleboard, bowling, skeeball and tic-tac-toe played with a mirror. It was made in 1973 by Chicago Dynamic Industries in (you guessed it) Chicago, Illinois.

We did some gambling, of course. I tried my hand at craps a number of times. I discovered that part of the remodeled Margaritaville restaurant in the Tropicana has been expanded into a gambling parlor, complete with dealers in flower print shirts and a fulltime soundtrack provided by Jimmy Buffett & friends. They also offered $5 craps and blackjack all the time. Farmboy finally found a slot machine that he liked, Goldfish, by our friends at WMS. We also played pai gow poker and spent an inordinate amount of time jumping from one big multi-cabinet machine we couldn’t figure out to another. The highlight of that late night romp through the Venetian being the discovery of IGT’s “Batman: The Dark Knight“.

2007 Bodega Arteca 'Atteca Armas'The highlight of the entire trip was Wednesday night. We had been talking about ideas for what to do on the night of January 29th, the actual anniversary date of the injury. Farmboy had stated he wanted to get a steak at some point during the trip and Tom Colicchio had just opened his second steak house at the Mirage in late 2013, Heritage Steak. We could not have asked for a better experience. The meal was the evening. By that I mean that dinner lasted deliciously from 7 until well past 10 in the evening. Everything was exquisite. The atmosphere was intimate. Farzad, our waiter, was fantastic. He genuinely appeared to enjoy hanging out with us as much as we did with him. We talked to Kate, the sommelier, more than once and gave here a muddled confusion of requests for wine. (I don’t know much about wine, but I can tell you that I was rather confused about what Whirl and Princess were requesting.) Kate persevered and came through with some excellent bottles for us. Speaking of Whirl, she’s been anxious to try beef for some time. So she decided to give it a try this night. She ordered a fillet and about wept. The meal was just so much fun. At the conclusion of the meal, Kate joined us for a glass of port and the chef, Anthony Zappola, came out to speak with us for a few minutes.

I know we’re not high rollers. I know we’re not, in the big scheme of things, particularly noteworthy, but everyone at Heritage Steak made us feel comfortable, welcome, special. I’ll never forget it.

Inbox Zero

Email can certainly be a bear. I get a lot of it both at work and at home. And with the proliferation of mobile computing, it has become increasingly difficult to just walk away from it. My email walks with me. The danger is that email will become yet another interrupt-based technology. Frankly I don’t work all that effectively when confronted by overwhelming or unctuous interruptions.

Inbox Zero is a methodology for effectively dealing with the deluge of email we receive every day. Merlin Mann made a presentation on it at a Google Tech Talk in 2007 and has written several articles on the topic. The idea is simple. Instead of just checking email, you process them. Processing does not mean responding– in fact that’s often the least appropriate action to take. Instead you apply one of the following actions:

  • delete
  • delegate
  • respond
  • defer
  • do

I don’t particularly subscribe to Mann’s entire Inbox Zero methodology, but I am rather draconian with how I handle incoming messages, and some of my techniques dovetail nicely with his approach. When I read my mail in a UNIX shell, I rigorously apply procmail. Over time I have developed more and more complex mail filters, eventually branching out to include SpamAssassin and other features. Mail filters continue to be my first– and often strongest– line of defense when dealing with email overload. I have them– lots of them– everywhere I read email.

I filter. I file. I delete. I delegate. — And for the most part, my inbox is pretty small, but very rarely zero. When I do manage to get it to zero, I allow a bit of celebration. It goes something like this.

“Inbox Zero”
Music by: Foreigner
Lyrics by: DJ Bingo

Sittin’ on the datacenter floor, with his head hung low
Couldn’t close a ticket, and it was time to go
Heard the roar at the bar, he could picture the scene
Put his head to the desk, then like a distant scream
He heard “You’ve got mail”, just blew him away
He saw blood in his eyes, and the very next day

Bought a beat up laptop, from the Craigslist store
Didn’t know how to work it, but he knew for sure
That one laptop, felt good in his hands, didn’t take long, to understand
Just one laptop, slumped way down low
Gotta close the tickets, only one way to go
So he started typin’, he ain’t never gonna stop
Gotta keep on typin’, someday gonna make it to the top

And be at inbox zero, got stars in his eyes, he’s at inbox zero
He took one laptop, inbox zero, stars in his eyes
Inbox zero, (stars in his eyes) He’ll come alive tonight

In a cube without a name, in a ticket downpour
Thought he passed his own shadow, by the breakroom door
Like a trip through the past, to that day in the cage
And that one laptop, made his whole life change
Now he needs to keep on typin’, he just can’t stop
Gotta keep on typin’, that boy has got to stay on top

And be at inbox zero, got stars in his eyes
He’s at inbox zero, got stars in his eyes
Yeah, inbox zero, stars in his eyes
With that one laptop, (stars in his eyes)
He’ll come alive, come alive tonight.

Yeah, he’s gotta keep on typin’, just can’t stop
Gotta keep on typin’, that boy has got to stay on top

And be at inbox zero, got stars in his eyes
He’s at inbox zero, got stars in his eyes
(Just one laptop) inbox zero, (aah aah aaah) got stars in his eyes
He’s just at inbox zero, aah aah aaah
Juke box (stars) hero, (stars, stars) inbox zero, (stars, stars)
He’s got stars in his eyes, stars in his eyes

The Dervish House, Ian McDonaldThe setting is seven days in Istanbul just a few years from now. Turkey has finally joined the European Union. This is my latest read from Ian MacDonald, The Dervish House.

The story begins with a death– a suicide bomber on a crowded tram. But the attack has no victims other than the bomber. The ramifications of that attack will stretch out across the whole city. And we observe it through the points of view of half a dozen characters whose lives connect in one way or another with an old dervish house in run-down and unfashionable quarter of the city.

Necdet: Necdet is on the tram. He sees the bomber’s beatific expression as she triggers the device. And shortly thereafter, he starts seeing djinns and saints until he finds himself turning, against his will, into an Islamic holy man.

Can: Can is a nine year-old boy with a curious medical condition that confines him into a muffled apartment without sound or shock. Stimuli can kill him. So he explores greater Istanbul through an amazing transforming robot that can take on the form of bird, rat, snake or monkey at will. He witnesses the bombing through the robot’s eyes. He also spots another robot spying on the aftermath of the bombing.

Georgios: Can shares his discoveries with Georgios, an old Greek academic. Georgios spends his days with other old Greeks in the coffee house across from the dervish house, until he is unexpectedly invited to join a strange think tank being set up by his old academic rival.

Leyla: Leyla, who also lives in the dervish house, is caught up in the traffic chaos following the bombing. This causes her to miss a job interview. And as a result she takes a sketchy job drumming up venture capital for a sketchy nanoware start-up company run by a relative. This quest brings her in contact with one of the biggest financial institutions in Istanbul.

Ayse: Ayse owns a specialist antique shop near the dervish house. She accepts a strange commision to find a Mellified Man– someone who was reputedly mummified in honey. At first convinced this is a fool’s errand, she eventually finds herself drawn into the secret history of Istanbul.

Adnan: Adnan, Ayse’s boyfriend, is a trader in the commodities market at that selfsame financial institution that Leyla approaches. But Adnan has bigger plans, with three colleagues he is planning a massive fraud involving black-market Iranian gas.

This is postcyberpunk literature at its best. McDonald delivers his story mostly just assuming the technology that supports the landscape– and then weaves a complex character- and culture-driven story within that assumption. Characters don’t just live within the science fiction, but also within the history, cultures and traditions of the setting.

X Saves The World, Jeff GordinierJeff Gordinier wrote a feature for Details magazine in March, 2006 titled “Has Generation X Already Peaked?” His editor had called him with the idea that the magazine should weigh in on Generation X. What happened to them? What had they accomplished? This was even a question, because of the precarious position Generation X holds sandwiched between the world-swallowing leviathan of the Baby Boomers and their offspring, the Millennials. You may know them as Generation Y if you’re sympathetic to GenX, or my favorite descriptor, the Echo Boomers. By 2006 all of the short-lived lustre of GenX’s media closeup had warn off. We held the limelight for maybe three years? 1993-1996. Maybe? From the end of the first Iraq War to the moment the world discovered the Internet. Whatever.

For the next two years, Gordinier expanded his article into a book, X Saves The World. As he explains when promoting its publication he originally intended for the book to have the more melancholic tone suggested in the title question of his Details article. Yes. The answer is yes. We’re done. We’re over. We’ve been snuffed out. And besides that, we’re not even supposed to be here, today. Gordiner writes:

Because we’re said to be the defiant demographic, dedicated to shredding whatever raiment the marketing apparatus tries to drape us in; because we’d prefer not to be categorized at all, thank you very much; because, like one of those unmarked speakeasies on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, we’re not even supposed to acknowledge that we exist– coming right out and calling yourself Xer has always seemed a bit too, I don’t know, Andrew McCarthy. Too obvious.

But as he worked on the book and interviewed people, his position changed. The fatalistic impression faded and he was able to more than just a catalog of contributions Generation X has given to society, but a cultural mindset– a generational personality. A way of doing things that is hopeful without preening.

Gordiner argues Generation X developed an in-betweener, middle-child sensibility: detached, skeptical, quiet, questioning. This is in strong contrast to the polished mythology of the Boomers who preceded us. His neat and ironically-articulated example:

I am Steve Jobs, soothsayer for humanity.

Boomers are all about the collective, and so are the Millennials. We did this. We changed the world. We saved you. You’re welcome. To Generation X, that just rings false. It’s a varnished mythology of so much shamelessness and unnecessary self-promotion.

And the giant generation behind us, what about them? Gordiner is equally critical. Here’s a summary.

The Millennials speak with none of the doubt and skepticism that have marked — and hampered — Generation X. They just love stuff. They love celebrities. They love technology. They love name brands. They love everything. […] So what if they can’t manage to read anything longer than an instant message? — That’s okay! If anything, it’s an advantage. Because literacy leads to self-reflection and critical thinking, and self-reflection and critical thinking open the door to doubt and skepticism and stuff like that just gets in the way.

So continue your Boomer parade. Let the band play on. Millennials, post your selfies to Instagram. Try the rose-colored filter. Use the hashtag #timeofmylife.

We’ll just be over here, keeping the lights on.

8:07:26 AM

The official race review for Big Shoulders 2013 was titled “Splitting the Uprights”. This reference to the first week of Bears football really was about the perfect conditions on Ohio Street Beach. The National Weather Service had issued rip tide warnings for the Thursday and Friday leading up to the Saturday swim. On Saturday, amazingly, the winds died. The sun came out. The water temperature came in at a wonderful 72°F. The morning air temperature started in the low 70s and ended in the 80s. The water was glass– calmer than I have ever seen it. Much calmer than last year. And then this morning, the day after the race, the National Weather Service issued a fresh set of rip tide warnings. Friday: Scylla. Sunday: Charybdis.

Call me “Odysseus”. This year I came to the race as a veteran. I’ll admit to some degree of anxiety, but this year I told myself I’d done it before. This year was not just about completing, but about competing. Improving on last year. Hitting my goal time. Improving my position in the placing. It was also my only competitive event this year. I didn’t swim the State meet in Glenview. Or any other meet for that matter. This was it for me. And I wanted to do well.

I learned a lot from last year. I anticipated the chaos of the start and the importance of swimming straight– particularly on that first leg out to the breakwater. My sighting was better. I was able to draft for some stretches. My pace felt comfortable. Training and practice paid off.

Here are the numbers.

This personal best was 8m40s faster than last year. I moved up 91 places overall, 14 places in my age group. I pushed it on the last leg heading back to the beach, and I came out of the water looking like this.

9:32:30 AM

Again, I want to thank Whirl and my mom coming out early in the morning to cheer me on and take photographs. And another thank you to all my friends and family who gave their support over the year. I’m planning on doing it again next year.

Thank you!