I Know You Are But What Am I

“I took one of those tests you guys who like to work with other people are so crazy about,” I said to my wife yesterday. I was actually trying to think of the term Myers-Briggs, although I didn’t take a Myers-Briggs test. Not even a test; a questionnaire. So, no.

I think I may have actually done the Myers-Briggs thing years ago. I didn’t have much use for it then and I don’t now. Actually, I pretty much scoff at the whole notion of psychometrics and personality types.

I scoff from ignorance, of course. I have vague familiarity with personality assessments and pathologies, but I really haven’t ever been interested. I’m sure there’s good science or at least a track record behind some of this, along with some questionable stuff. Again, I haven’t the slightest interest, or at least most of the time.

The test I took, though (or allowed to test me, I guess), was the meat of an article I finally got around to reading yesterday. It’s long and a little wonky, but I can summarize and save you the click: It tells the story of how a couple of graduate students in the UK, back in the infancy of social media, sent their friends and colleagues a Facebook test. They were just curious about this new medium and how it might or might not provide some insight into the personalities of Facebook users based on their likes.

As will happen, their little test went viral and they suddenly had over a million people willingly providing a huge trove of data. This is also not surprising; every day, I see a dozen or so Facebook quizzes, some of which may just be for fun but most of which, I suspect, are data mining. There was a time when I’d scream about this, over and over again, years ago. Nobody really likes that guy, though. And people are going to be people.

Anyway, the story purports to show how this innocent experiment led to abuse and possibly the success of Brexit and Donald Trump. I didn’t buy that, or at least I didn’t see it as startling. This is our world, and the days of mass advertising aimed at the lowest common denominator are gone forever. We’re all targets now, and the more times we hit “Like” the bigger that bull’s eye gets. People are going to take advantage of data; they always will, they always have. It’s just that there’s so much more now.

I want to read it again, because there’s something there I want to explore more and think about, although I’m not exactly sure what. The article provided a link to the original doctoral students’ test, which asked for minimal permissions and didn’t bother me in the least, so it took a look at my Facebook activity and tried its best to figure me out.

The only thing it looked at, actually, was my Page likes (i.e., which specific Facebook pages I liked), and I have 45 of those. That’s nowhere near enough, but it tried and didn’t miss too broadly. It pegged me as having fairly androgynous taste but probably male. It suggested that I’d probably studied journalism (yes, no, sort of) and probably was very interested in the subject. It had me as artistic and creative and politically liberal and heterosexual and reasonably intelligent, all of this coming from, as far as I could tell, about six Facebook page likes.

It also suggested that I was ambivalent or uninterested in organized religion, probably atheist or agnostic or possibly Muslim or a Jedi. Seriously.

Here’s the link to the original test, if you’re so inclined. It might be eye-opening or, if you’re as reluctant as I am to leave much of a social media footprint as far as this sort of thing, it might be just fun but not particularly useful. At least it’s much safer than figuring out which Disney character or color you are.

Also? I’m probably not a lesbian, according to this. Good to know.

There ya go.
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Brave New World

A little computer talk, for just a sec.

Before my son built me this new toy, I was coddling my old laptop. I had a fan constantly on, sucking hot air out. I kept the hard drive as clean as I could and my eye on any number of meters.

And at some point, I got tired of the CPU and memory drag that my go-to browsers always, always evolved toward, and couldn’t help noticing that the default browser in Windows 10, Microsoft Edge, was lean and mean. Lightning fast. Kind of clunky and with bugs that I’ve accepted will never go away; it has issues with certain URLs, for example.

But it’s like getting a boost in my broadband, so I’ve stuck with it. OK. Enough about the dumb browser.

Except that I get a default headline page when I open a new tab, something I haven’t changed, and while I rarely look at it, I can’t help it sometimes. This is something Microsoft has generated, too, so I have no idea if the stories I see are also popping up wherever you find news.

And while it seems OK as far as getting top stories in front of my eyes, it’s also a fabulous example of the lurid click bait we see everywhere else. Stories from the Washington Post are paired with the You won’t BELIEVE what happened next! crap we all see on Facebook, and sponsored stories are barely identified as such.

One that pops up constantly never fails to get my head shaking. If you own a computer, you have to play this game!

I’m thinking a human being didn’t come close to writing that headline. If you own a computer? Does Discount Tire run ads that begin, If you own a car?

Not that this is, um, news. But it serves as a reminder to me, as if I needed one, that the modern world is mostly run by algorithms.

***

In other news, I dropped my phone. I always drop my phone.

There are other examples of my carelessness or clumsiness. They aren’t striking, or excessive. I tend to burn myself in the kitchen about once a month, just for one. But I’m pretty cavalier about a device that is almost always the most valuable thing I carry, and I’m guessing that’s less inattention than my phone’s case.

My son gave it to me, not long after I got this latest iteration of iPhone. That sleek, lightweight, gleaming phone was admired only briefly before I locked that sucker up tight. This is a case made for slick fingers. I could toss this $700 phone across the room and feel pretty confident.

So it was sitting pretty casually in my pocket yesterday when I got out of the car, and then gravity got involved and it landed face down on the asphalt of a parking lot. The screen partially shattered, as will happen.

Except it wasn’t the screen. It was a piece of glass in front of the screen, which is why I suspect I get so reckless.

And we have another example of our world, and what it takes to stay as safe as possible. An industrial-strength phone case. Dual authentication whenever possible. Passwords that run around 20 characters or so and are generated by a password manager, unknown and unremembered by me. Awareness that the problem isn’t fake news but gullible people, clapping like crazy so that Tinkerbell will live.

Clapping does nothing, you know. She’s always going to pull through.

But people clap, and people think the picture will change if you press “Like,” and people voted for the loud orange man because he’d get rid of that awful Obamacare but let them keep their Affordable Care Act insurance.

And I guess enough of them think, hey, I own a computer. I have to play this game! Go ahead. We’re all playing the game these days, one way or another.

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On Data and Databases, Maillard Reaction Version

I write nonfiction. I read almost nothing but nonfiction. Does this make sense?

Of course it does, but it still surprises people. People still give me fiction to read. I manage to read it, but there’s not a lot of enthusiasm.

There’s a weird vibe out there, something I was ignorant of until we moved into this era of sharing. Actually more than one weird vibe. A lot of women around my age really are into drinking wine, and not in a sommelier or snobby way. For example.

But the readers are the ones who knock me back a bit. Some of these people describe behavior regarding books and reading that looks pretty much like garden-variety compulsion, and they revel in it. Hard to argue with that sort of passion, although the assumption that it’s a guilt-free habit is the weird part. I love vegetables! I want more vegetables! I want a whole room of vegetables so I can take a week and eat all of those vegetables without leaving the room, and then I want another week and another room! I think I’ve made my point. Too much of a good thing is too much of something.

Although I’m sort of amusing myself by speculating on lives based on Facebook posts. This should not be mistaken for science.

I’ve been reading the above book lately, although it’s not that easy. My wife ordered it for me, having heard of it and thinking it might be of interest. Science and cooking? Call me Alton Brown and set me up. I can get into this.

Lately I’ve been reading about steaks. For some reason, I started having some minor digestive issues with beef years ago. Nothing serious; kind of a stomach ache sort of thing, and I drifted more toward other meat. I’ll still eat a burger or a steak occasionally and I don’t notice any discomfort, so maybe I grew out of it. Or maybe I just got tired of beef.

But my wife is another story. She does enjoy a good steak, and any time is a good time. Since I’m not usually going to join her, this is something I’ll pick up at the store for those late nights when she gets home hungry, but I leave it to her to cook. It’s a steak; stick it under a broiler.

Last night, though, having read a few pages of this book regarding pan-frying steaks, particularly the kind of steak my wife eats (smaller, strips or rib-eyes), I decided to go for it. It always seemed a little messy for me, but again: Not a big beef eater.

This was a good-looking New York strip, about 12 ounces. Following instructions, I unwrapped the steak and seasoned it generously, then left it on a plate in the refrigerator for about an hour (secret #1: Salt your meat if you have time to let it sit for at least 40 minutes; otherwise do it just before it goes in the pan. Between that and 40 minutes is not a good place).

I heated the pan and used a thin layer of canola oil (secret #2: The meat will actually bond with the metal used to cook it, and the oil also provides a smoother layer so that it cooks evenly), nice and hot. I seared the steak, 30 seconds on each side (searing doesn’t seal in the juices, but it does provide that nice crunch and flavor, the Maillard reaction), then turned down the heat and started flipping.

(Secret #3: Steaks of this size, less than 1-1/2 inches thick, are best cooked as quickly as possible. The quickest way? Flip those suckers every 30 seconds. A shorter time actually takes longer to cook, since the steak spends more time in the air being flipped. You don’t have to do this; it just makes it fast. I cooked that steak in about 5 minutes.)

I might have overshot a bit; I was aiming for 130 degrees F. internal temperature, which is medium rare and about perfect, but I was using a meat thermometer and that’s hard to do with a one-inch thick piece of steak. Should have just trusted the feel. At any rate, I got a bite and it was everything you could reasonably ask for in a steak cooked by a non-professional. Science. Go figure.

***

The other night, when we were showing Groundhog Day at church and I was setting it up, I mentioned to the group that I could answer specific questions about the film after we finished; I was a human IMDB for this movie, I said.

Someone suggested that I explain what IMDB meant (Internet Movie Database), but a few days later, with some of the same people, we had a conversation about who had the IMDB app on their phone and who didn’t.

It’s a useful reference tool, particularly since I suspect there’s an area of the brain devoted to storing titles of movies and books, and names of actors and actresses (and characters). This area is obviously the first to become less accessible, starting around the age of 45 or so. The IMDB app is like bifocals, then.

Here’s the utility in having a smart phone, one that wrestles with the downsides. It’s Memory Part D, supplemental insurance for failing recall. My phone will chime in a couple of hours to remind me to take a vitamin. Tomorrow it’ll nudge me to leave a tip for the paperboy, and so on. I’m just grateful, really.

And in this season, when I’m trying to minimize the distractions of this world, which mostly involve screens of some sort, it turns out that technology is actually a nice thing to have around.

I’m talking about my Fitbit again.

But, really. As unnecessary as it always seemed to me, and maybe annoying to boot, it turned out that I love this thing. Exercise has been erratic for the past year and a half, stopped because I wasn’t eating enough to compensate for the calories I’d lose and then increased, but inconsistently.

In the past week, then, Fitbit tells me I’ve covered 28 miles. Some of those are based on step counts, some on deliberate exercise tracking, but the latter is what’s mostly changed. A guy who two years ago was routinely walking/hiking 30+ miles per week, I’d dropped down to less than 10. We’re heading up again, and I can tell the difference already. Better mood, better sleep. Some weight loss, but minor and easily fixed. I seem to switch between weeks of light eating and those when I indulge more. I’m currently down a couple of pounds from the beginning of the year, nothing to worry about.

But I’m this guy now, I guess. Or for the time being. A guy who spent probably 30 years constantly fussing about his weight, accomplishing nothing but gain, then changed his routine completely and lost a bunch, now has to keep an eye on the scale for exactly the opposite reason. This reversal fascinates me to a degree that usually means it has to be incredibly boring to everyone else.

Ergo, finis. Yay Fitbit. Yay Lent. Yay exercise. Yay science and cooking and good steak, you betcha. All good here at the moment.

 

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Lenten Looking

I happen to believe that my peanut butter cookies are the best peanut butter cookies in the history of peanut butter cookie making. This has not been confirmed.

At the least, they’re pretty good. And I had four for breakfast. So it’s a fairly recent opinion.

Let’s wander into some fantasy world in which I’m a carpenter, or at least enjoy woodworking. Let’s go further and say I make a table. A nice end table, something.

I’m not going to brag on this table, even if it’s really nice. Not cool to brag. I’d probably point out a few mistakes, accept compliments, change the subject. Behave like a normal human being.

Back to reality. I’m not bragging when I say these peanut butter cookies are good. First, they are. Second, they’re cookies. Third, as with all of my attempts at baking and cooking, I really don’t understand what part I played, if much at all, in the end result. A lot of times it’s just using really good ingredients and having some patience. I’m not sure much skill is involved.

The secret to these cookies, by the way, is peanuts. No jars of Jiffy are ever harmed when I bake these cookies.

Bread is the same way. I dunno. People like it. I’ve been doing this for years now. It’s like taking out the trash or cleaning the stovetop. Routine, mildly boring, needs to be done, not particularly stressful. The oven does most of the work.

***

Pride is not something I need help with, in other words. I’m proud of some stuff, but not excessively so.

Yesterday I led an aftertalk, sort of an adult education class we hold after church services most Sundays. It being the first Sunday of Lent, and having just heard the Genesis story of the fruit and the tree, and the Matthew story of the 40 days of temptation in the desert, the subject matter just sat there, waiting. What tempts us, what distracts us, and what specifically about the modern world?

This was also super easy; people made long lists, with the usual suspects. It’s been a modern problem for a long time, which is to say…I’m not quite sure how to parse that. It’s a problem endemic to modern life, maybe. Distractions. Too many, too often, too ubiquitous.

I think we all got it, too. Lent isn’t about giving up chocolate, unless chocolate is somehow preventing you from engaging in more productive or useful activities, which is just an absurd thing to suggest. C’mon.

Lent, then, at least for us and at least for yesterday’s purposes, is about figuring out what’s keeping us from being better, and then figuring out how to work on that. We made a start. I’ve made a start.

The cookies had nothing to do with it, by the way. It was just Cookie Sunday.

And make that five. Really good.

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Samson’s Lent

I forgot how to smile like a normal person. I get crap about this a lot, but it’s just a habit, developed back in the years when I neglected to see a dentist and drank gallons of tea and smoked. Lots of stained teeth, so keep that mouth shut. One of my upper front ones still tends to get darker than the rest, and I could have used an orthodontist at some point along the line, but this is all water under the bridge (got one of those, too). I just forgot. I should work on that.

Yesterday I was sort of idly figuring out how to put together this video showing Bixie that grandpa is still grandpa, even beardless. When I upgraded my computer, I somehow misplaced my web cam, so I set up my Nikon on a tripod behind the monitor to see if that would work. And, as it turned out, while I was recording myself for about 30 seconds to see if I was in focus, I smiled. Took some effort but I did, just to see what it looks like.

 

So there you go. As I told JK this morning, this wasn’t a casual thing. I was used to having a beard. I figured I’d probably just always have one. No one seemed to think getting rid of it was a good idea. There was no imperative. And I’m pushing 60 and there’s no one clamoring for a change in my appearance, because all changes are likely to be unpleasant from here on out. Better to cover up what you can.

It was just Lent, and my strong desire to reevaluate and pivot off this season, which I normally only nominally observe. Figure out what I’m doing, where I’m heading, what I want from the rest of this life and how I can achieve that. Shaving was symbolic but then. This is really what we’re talking about, anyway.

And yet, it’s helpful. That guy there isn’t dead yet, and doesn’t look like he’s dancing around the grave. That’s important to remember, or it is for me. I’ve got friends who are now happily retired, and some looking forward to that. And some who struggle, who face eviction because they’re over 60 and no one wants to give them a job and you try affording an apartment in Seattle on Social Security.

Here we are, then. Heading into Lent, not knowing what I’m going to do but feeling as though I really should do something. I started small. We shall see.

And I can always grow it back. Look, it’s easy.

 

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With Friends Like These

I posted a little side-by-side, before-and-after picture to Instagram of the debearding. With some interesting comments.

I will note that I’ve always thought Instagram was the perfect social media platform; really, we’d all be a lot better off if we stuck to communicating with relatives and distant friends with snapshots, maybe a quippy caption.

People use it in interesting ways, too. Aside from the business ventures and the porn, I mean. People show their artwork, their kids’ artwork, remodeled kitchens, beautiful vacation shots; it’s a pretty pleasant experience, checking in, and I don’t feel compelled to do it more than a few times a week, for a minute or so.

And I post, occasionally, usually when I catch something interesting or amusing. Not that often. And rarely, almost never, will someone comment.

But this time, there were three. One agreeing with another, and then a third that offered the opinion that, sans beard, I resembled actor Hugh Laurie. This apparently is the second person who thinks this. I have no idea. I think finding doppelgangers is fun; I just can’t see myself in that way. Just my face. But I’ll take Hugh Laurie, why not? Fun actor, good sense of humor, same bald spot…

It was the first comment, the one that another agreed with, that stopped me. “Thank God,” it said, which, I mean, whatever. This person didn’t care for the white beard on me, I get it. But it continued. “Now go eat a sandwich.”

Ah. See, a year ago I took that drive with my mom from Phoenix to Austin, and I ended up with an extra day in Arizona because Mom had to see a doctor about her blood pressure being a little elevated. So I sent out messages to friends in the area, rented a car, and spent the day driving around and visiting. It was a great day, in fact, beginning with lunch with a former teacher and ending with dinner with a high school friend and his son. It felt like a solid way to fill an unexpectedly empty day.

And in the middle of those two events, I had coffee with this person, someone I hadn’t seen in decades. Another great visit, but I get it now. I was the shrinking dude back then, unable to eat much and dropping a pound a week when I should have been heading in the opposite direction.

I’m much better now, but my friend couldn’t tell that from just those two head shots. Thus the sandwich suggestion.

I almost never eat sandwiches anymore, by the way. I had a Subway club a few weeks ago, hungry and away from home, but I gave up sandwiches at some point. It seemed dumb to wrap bread around food that didn’t need the help.

It struck me, though, how much I depend on this sort of thing from my friends. How much we all do, or should, if we’re fortunate. Of the seven people I saw on that trip, four commented that I looked great, this coffee person made just a joke about me being a rail, and two didn’t have anything to say.

The seventh person, my daughter, just kept an eye on me. She understood how Bix’s diabetes has affected most of us who know him, how we look at sugar in a different way, and Lord knows I’m better off not carrying an extra hundred pounds.

Even my wife was fine with it, and I should point out that she sees me every day. She sees me naked. She sees me eat. She thought I was fine, if slender.

So I appreciate my friends who thought something was wrong, and said something. It was a tricky thing; dipping a little below 160 pounds is not exactly a warning sign; there are plenty of charts that show that as an ideal weight for someone my size. But people are different, and the whole point wasn’t the number, just the fact that it kept going down and I wasn’t trying to make that happen. That’s when friends come in.

There were several, then, including a couple of guys I have coffee with every few weeks. They were more than a little concerned. Good on them. I was in some serious denial.

All good now. My exercise has increased lately, but I’m trying to keep up with the intake. Seems like I bounce from week to week, but I’ve stayed about the same for a long time now, since September at least.

So here’s to Sid, and Larry, and Marilynn, and my dear friend Pat, who said nothing but later on told me how worried she’d been, her son having gone through some disordered eating earlier in his life along the same lines. I just love Pat.

And here’s to friends, just on general principles.

***

One of my friends is Gordon Atkinson, a long relationship that has been mostly virtual but we’ve had a few person-to-person visits. His latest book, “Foy: On the Road to Lost,” has just been published by Material Media. I have more to say about this, and about some of the concepts, but here’s the newspaper column published this week. Everything Gordon writes is worth your time to read; this one is no different, if, um, different. But, yeah. More later.

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The Search For Meaning, Or Maybe A Chin

I picked up my wife around 5 last night, hoping for less traffic than the night before and pleasantly surprised; 55 minutes total, right at rush hour. We got to church by 6 to prepare for a 7pm Ash Wednesday service.

It was like pretty much anything along these lines. You get what you bring to it. It was a pretty wonderful night, then.

My affection for this community has only grown over the past few years, even as the congregation has contracted a little. We remain stragglers in an increasingly secular society, gathered around the fire, telling ancient stories, some of them obviously lies, and finding what truth and guidance we can. It feels pretty cool.

***

It’s been four years since I grew back my beard, preparing to begin filming Winning Dad in the summer. If you’re not a guy, and you’ve never had a beard for any amount of time, here’s the thing: You wonder. I mean, it’s your face. You see it most days, staring back from a mirror. You get curious as to what you look like under all that hair. Which, in my case, is mostly white.

So Lent seemed the season for shorning, somehow. The biggest drawback to this has always been my grandson, who knows only a bearded grandpa. I remember when my daughter was his age and I shaved my beard, and the way she reacted when I walked through the door after work. I was a little concerned. I live a long way from this little boy.

So I taped my cell phone to the bathroom mirror and recorded the whole process. I can probably edit it into a minute of speeded-up video to show him that grandpa is still grandpa.

The pictures below, then, are just screen captures from the video. Not hostage footage.

Not moody, just trying to figure out where to start.
And here we are. Gotta get those glasses fixed.
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Knowing Things

A bazillion years ago, my friend Dave and I had a game. He’d just moved to Seattle, three years after we had, and he was living in a sublet apartment down the block from us while commuting down to south Seattle for work. His wife was finishing up her job in Arizona, so for a while I was his only companion, and for the first few weeks I’d quiz him as soon as we left a building.

“Which direction are we facing?”

“How do you get downtown from here?

And so on. It was really about the only thing I could share from my own experience of moving from Arizona to western Washington. You gotta stay oriented, or it can mess with you.

I joke all the time about having no sense of direction, but it’s just a joke. First, whatever we’re talking about, it’s not a “sense” in the, sorry, sense that it’s inherent in most people. I don’t think it’s inherent, or it is at this stage of our evolution. I could be wrong. But I’m right on at least a conscious level. We don’t gaze toward the north and know it’s north. We might. The ability just doesn’t come with the original equipment.

So forget the jokes, although Lord knows I don’t know which direction I’m facing a lot of the time. But that’s because I’m just not thinking about it. Even at this age, I could train myself easily to know, in general, where I’m heading. Knowing where I’ve been would help, by the way.

This is mindfulness, which is unfortunate. First, it’s a word that looks like it was assembled by committee. I’m surprised it hasn’t been modified a few more times by now. Mindfulness-esque. Paramindfulness. It’s a mess.

It’s also a popular term, tossed around by those who would make us better. It makes me want to walk away when I hear the word.

But if you can tolerate the faddish nature of it, and strip away the Buddhist associations, although those are actually pretty good associations to have, you just have something our parents, grandparents, and teachers taught us: Pay attention. Be aware. Know where you are.

Now add in some of the stuff that feels woo-woo. How are you feeling? What’s up with that? Is it feeding you anything good? If not, figure out how to fix it. It’s not a big step; a little practice and it becomes second nature. You don’t have to wear special costumes or anything.

I was trained in some of this, but in a lifesaving class. So to speak. It was important, I was told, if I were pissed about something or bummed about something, to figure out what that something was and fix it, fast. People who don’t, who bottle that crap up and keep their mouths shut and wish it away, can end up unhappy. Alcoholics can end up drunk. Or worse. You know.

I don’t practice mindfulness, or meditation, or anything remotely resembling a spiritual or contemplative state. I get there sometimes, mostly through turning off the screens in my home and staring at the walls. I get some pretty good ideas that way.

So this is going to be my Lent. Try harder. Be nicer. Be more aware.

And know that what I do today affects tomorrow, and some things are better off doing now than waiting.

And that I don’t want to spend my days waiting for them to end, as I’ve been doing for months now, for whatever reason. I want to wait for them to start. Welcome to my Lent. I’m facing south at the moment. I’ll keep you posted.

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Captain Of My Soul

I’m a little surprised, just checking around the nets, that there’s not more remarking from people in my neck of the woods about yesterday. There were some pictures of snow.

And there was snow, sort of unexpected, including thunder snow. Some outlying areas got pretty decent coverage; our lawn was covered but not the roads. Just not that cold.

But starting in the morning with some sort of accident involving flammable material, I have to think that Feb. 27, 2017 will be one for the traffic books. If someone keeps those.

Yesterday I became a footnote. My wife was rehearsing an opera (she’s been directing a small company for a few years now, one in which she sang for many more years) in Shoreline, about 15 minutes south of me on the freeway. And I dropped her there and went back to retrieve her in just about that amount of time.

From there, though, we had to drive to Renton, some 26 miles southeast. In normal daytime traffic, about a 35-minute trip. In rush hour, of course, longer. Yesterday, about 95 minutes. It took a full hour to cover the last 7 miles. It was not nice. Lots of accidents, etc. Ice and snow, wet roads, and so on. Not a surprising story, but a big one.

***

What was nice, though, was that it was my wife’s birthday, and even given her usual busy day (it’s almost always busy on her birthday) I figured out how to spend some of it with her, even if part of that was in the car. She was going to church to prep for Ash Wednesday, and with my help we got through it pretty fast. Then we headed out for Mexican food, spontaneously joined by five friends, and managed to get something that looked suspiciously like a birthday out of the whole experience.

And the drive home was a breeze.

***

I watched Captain Fantastic the other day, noticing it on Amazon Prime and being curious. Viggo Mortensen got an Oscar nod for his performance, which I have no comment on having not seen the competition.

It doesn’t seem to have done very well critically or at the box office, even with Viggo. I’m not sure what to think about that. There’ve been any number of snarky mash-up comparisons, as if it were just a combination of Into the Wild and The Swiss Family Robinson.

What it was, to me anyway, was a libertarian fantasy, a Noam Chomsky-quoting father rearing five children in the wilderness, living in an old bus and off the land. It’s a remarkable sight, and concept, a rejection of a consumer-based society controlled by the rich and powerful.

The rest of the story is problematic, maybe, in ways that I won’t spoil, but I think I liked it. And Viggo was great.

For some reason, too, it seemed like a perfect film to watch as Lent approaches. As I’ve said, most of the time I haven’t been particularly observant of Lent as a period of reflection and perhaps shedding some distraction, but this year is different. I’m not likely to wander out into the woods and slit a deer’s throat with a hunting knife. Probably definitely not.

But the ascetic, frugal, simplified life of this fictional family was inspiring in a way I haven’t quite figured out. So I have a few weeks to do that, and see what I feel like at the end.

Today is Fat Tuesday, though. Tomorrow is soon enough.

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Picking Your Chains

In June 2011, back when trauma was getting lively in this household and comfort food was exactly that, I broke down and got an iPhone. They’d always looked like pretty cool gadgets; I’d just resisted because I never saw the need.

I’m not sure “need” is the right word here. “Utility” is more like it, although that describes a lot of things I don’t have or want. I just reached a tipping point of sorts.

It was a bizarre time, at any rate. My wife, six months out from brain surgery, had a heart attack, and on the work-up for that they found breast cancer. At the same time, work drastically slowed up for about three months, plenty of time for me to find some old habits to practice. Mostly watching a lot of TV and eating a lot of junk.

Four years after losing about 90 pounds, it was the closest I ever came to climbing that ladder again. I gained about 25 pounds over those three months, zoom zoom. And then, before anyone really noticed and certainly no one commented, I dropped them. Within a month I was back in fairly normal range, and by the end of summer I as actually a little lighter than I had been for the past couple of years.

What helped me, besides a new steady gig that helped fill those empty hours and kept me from filling my stomach with ice cream, was the phone. And particularly an app, MyFitnessPal, which is now pretty popular but I just grabbed on a whim because it was free and I thought it would come in handy to keep track of what I was eating and exercise.

I never stopped, either. It may be a redundant app now, but for the time being I still use it the same way. Just punch in what I ate, finding nutritional information online or sometimes just approximating a calorie count. I figured it would all work out and it did, and over the years the app has added features that make it easier to do this.

The point is, I’ve used this particular app without a break for nearly five years, although it tells me that I’ve logged in for 700-plus straight days. I obviously missed a day along the line, catching up the next day, although it still sort of annoys me. I never broke that chain. I’d like some credit.

***

“Don’t break the chain” is a concept that Jerry Seinfeld talked about in an interview, and which has gotten a lot of attention over the past few years in the life-hacking community. His method, which involved making sure he wrote material every day, was to use a large calendar, putting a big red “X” on every day he wrote. And his goal became not to break that chain. Nothing too complicated, or original, but there’s a nice intuitive bounce here. Visual reminders are helpful. Repetition, discipline, and incremental progress are solid ways to achieve goals. Works for me.

I brought this idea up in a discussion the other day, and people seemed intrigued. Maybe I’ve been living with it too long. Feels like a no-brainer. Pay attention. Write it down. Repeat.

For what it’s worth, I eventually added RunTracker, which is a nice app that tracks my walks via GPS, gauging elevation and estimating calorie burns. It’ll also track walks in the background, which I use for short trips to the store, a mile and a half round trip or so.

And now I have a Fitbit. I have more data than I imagined five years ago. I have lots of data. I am Data King.

Yeah. It’s mostly just fun, some inspiration. Now that I’ve hooked up those first two apps to my Fitbit, heart rate is now dropped into the equation, and that’s really the stat in the long run that tells the tale.

Again, as with a smart phone, I was a late adopter. Both my brother and sister-and-law were wearing the same Fitbit as mine when I saw them in January. Still trying to figure it out.

Once an hour, it’s been nudging me to move, walk for a few minutes, and again the chain comes into play. It shows me nine hours, from 9am to 5pm, and checks off each hour that I moved approximately 250 steps. I’ve gotten to walking laps around the house. Gets me off my butt.

And it motivates me in other ways. It gave me a fitness score ranging from 48 to 52, just numbers but apparently excellent for my age. Now, two months later exactly, I’m up to 49-53. My resting heart rate, which started in the mid to high 50s, went up into the 60s for a week or so, and now sits at 51 this morning, has a lot to do with it.

The world record holder in the marathon has a score of 81, by the way. So that’s not a goal. Hitting 60 might be possible. Gives me something to shoot for.

None of this makes a huge difference in my life, other than to focus my increasingly jumpy brain on something concrete, with a little personal best sort of goal to keep me going. I’m not expecting an increase in longevity, although it’s possible I can delay wearing those chains I forged in my earlier life, the bad habits, the drinking, the smoking, the compulsive eating. They will show up eventually, and there’s no breaking them. I can only hope to mediate the natural progression, maybe keep some decent exercise tolerance for as long as I can.

And the numbers help, in a small way. Yesterday I ate about 1600 calories and burned around 2400, according to Fitbit, resulting in a weight loss of 0.3 pound. Which showed up on my scale this morning. Today I may eat 2400 calories and burn 1600. We are in a stable situation, then, unusual for me and surprisingly helped by this light little thing that always stays on my wrist.

My current pulse rate is 56. I weight 168-1/2 pounds. Hang between there and 171 or so and I can wear anything I own, which is all I’m asking here. That, and a few more years to see if I can figure out what to do with my life. Besides walking and writing.

And now I owe myself 250 steps. Piece of cake, really. Not literally. You get it.

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