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Archive for November, 2010

Wow. That’s about all I can say at this point. It’s been an amazing week full of family and fun and lots of opportunities to practice right action and be mindful about what I’m doing. Wow. I’ve just returned from a great week in San Diego with my family. We spent Thanksgiving there and had an amazing time. We went to Legoland, Los Angeles where I met Stan Lee, Disneyland, the USS Midway, the Gas lamp District, the San Diego Zoo, the Air & Space Museum, the Old Globe theater to see How The Grinch Stole Christmas and hung out with family enjoying one another’s company. It really was a whirlwind of a week.

Now, I’m home in the crisp winter air of Maine where you can see your breath and the frost has finally found a home on the ground. My ears haven’t handled the return flight too well and I’m dealing with quite a bit of pain from them and I think I’ve gotten bronchitis and I’ve lost my voice but I’m too happy to care. Suffering happens, I’m not going to make myself any better by moaning and being depressed about my state. That’s the clarity that I’ve gotten on this trip.

One of my main concerns before I left was being able to eat well while I was gone. Except for the days I spent traveling, things were very easy for me. California makes it very easy to be a vegetarian. Everywhere we went to eat there was something vegetarian on the menu. The best thing was, it wasn’t something that sucked either. In California, having a good selection of vegetarian entrées is a necessity for most restaurants. I had the best vegetarian burger I’ve ever eaten at a place that really was more of a “how many things can we do with a cow?” kind of establishment. Even Thanksgiving dinner had some really good vegetarian options. My aunt made a curried lentil dish special for me and another family member who is also a vegetarian. She gave us the recipe while we were eating it and at the moment we both had a fork full ready to go into our mouths revealed that she uses two cans of chicken broth when making it! We both kind of looked at each other, shrugged, and popped it into our mouths. My aunt is not a vegetarian and made a mistake that many non-vegetarian cooks do by using something derived from meat and still thinking the dish was vegetarian because it didn’t have any visible chunks of flesh in it. Since neither of us is militant about it we embraced the thought behind it and enjoyed it anyway. We both had seconds on it and loved every bite.

I was also able to exercise a lot while I was there. The hotel’s exercise center was just down the hall from our room and I was able to use the elliptical machine and the treadmill on three different mornings. The other days we spent a long time walking around. I used a pedometer on my phone to track how much walking we did at the zoo and by the end of the day we had clocked in over three miles of walking around. I don’t even want to think about how much walking we did at Disneyland yesterday. It had to be more than the zoo by at least a mile.

I have a number of things that I will be writing about over the next few days but don’t have the clarity of mind to do it now. Any day where you see both the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans is a long day and I’m feeling it. Tomorrow morning we pick up my cats from the cat-sitter and we check on our hamster who is nearing the end of her life (that’s another blog entry altogether). I have pictures to clean up and publish and I’ll be writing a lot both here on the blog and on another project I’m working on. Spending the week away from home has renewed my enthusiasm for a writing project that I’ve been working on for almost a year but haven’t touched in the past few months since I was too busy doing other things. There’s nothing like a change of pace and perspective to really help you get your priorities in line. Now, I’m going to go get reacquainted with my zafu and then it’s time for bed.

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Leaving On A Jet Plane

Tomorrow, I jet off to California to spend Thanksgiving with my family. We’ve been looking forward to this trip for a long time and my son is going nuts over the chance to go to Lego Land. I’ll try to update the blog from time to time so that I can track how I’m doing going through the biggest day of gluttony in the USA. On a personal note, I really need this vacation time. Work has been pretty stressful for me as I wind down a couple of projects and start up a new big one. I know that I’m too preoccupied with work when I wake up at 3:00 A.M. thinking about how to design screens to make data entry as efficient as possible. I hope to spend the next week just focusing on family and fun and do it all mindfully. It’ll be nice to exercise in a new location too. The pictures I’ve seen of our hotel’s gym look pretty nice. I’m sure I’ll find plenty of things to keep me busy each morning. Stay tuned for pictures starting (probably) on Friday.

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Healthy is Contagious

I try to write as openly and honestly as I can on this blog about my struggles with food and becoming healthy. The fact is I have had some serious food addiction issues in my life. It’s been a struggle to overcome them and it will continue to be a struggle for the rest of my life. This blog is one way I help myself overcome these addictions. Because of this blog, I’ve had an opportunity to get to know many other people also struggling to become healthy. Some of them post comments, some of them have started their own blogs, and some of them know me personally. Regardless of how I communicate with them, we all work toward the same goal: becoming healthy. It makes me happy when I hear from others that they are losing weight or learning to live mindfully. We learn from each other and we help each other grow.

I must admit there is one person I know that has gone through some challenging struggles with food issues. For health reasons, she’s had to learn to live with a restricted diet. Food has a stong emotional connection for her and there are issues around that as well. She knows that she needs to become healthier but has a hard time finding the best ways to do that. She hasn’t let that stop her though. She’s doing thing the right way and finding the small, measurable steps she can take to make the big changes she wants to make. For the past week, she set a goal to just go without soda. This was quite a task for her because it’s one of the few things she can drink that contains caffeine. She hates coffee and tea just don’t have enough caffeine to help her overcome some of the fatigue that she deals with on a daily basis. For me, giving up soda was an easy thing to do (mostly) but for her, it is a very big deal. She wasn’t able to go completely cold turkey from the soda but for the past week she’s had Coke on only 2 occasions. When you consider that it used to be 2 or more per day, that is a HUGE improvement. I am very proud of her for making this move and finding the strength and commitment to follow through with it.

Choosing to be healthy is so much more than just a mental attitude. It’s not like deciding if you’d rather have the chicken or fish for dinner. Choices of different magnitudes come with different challenges commensurate with their difficulty. When you’re talking about changing the way that you live your life and what you put into your body, it is a tremendous change. You become like an infant again, trying to learn how to walk and talk and survive in the world all over again. Food is such an integral part of our personality and is so tightly wound up with our emotions that changing how we relate to it can be similar to choosing to die. As someone who struggled with depression and considered death as an option to my addiction with food, I don’t use the phrase “choosing to die” lightly. I really do think that it takes that kind of resolve to make this kind of decision. So, making it a week with only consuming what you would normally have in a day is a significant change. Part of this person’s choice to change has been driven by a desire to be healthy but part of it is also because of seeing the changes I’ve made. It makes me feel really good to know that I have had an influence on her decision to get healthier and that I’ve been inspirational to someone else. I am very proud of her and her accomplishment. With this one small step completed, the next one can be taken. Then the next and the next and before you know it, you have made some real changes that are having a positive impact. Then, she’ll be able to inspire others and they too will be able to find a way to become healthy.  So remember, if you have a case of healthy, don’t try to keep it to yourself. Spread that healthy all over the place. The thing with catching a case of healthy is that you don’t know who you may pass it on to. Healthy: it’s the silent healer – catch it!

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I heard a story on NPR the other night about a recipe called “Pumpkins Stuffed with Everything Good”. It caught my interest for a few minutes but I didn’t think much about it since it really did have a bit of that smarmy NPR edge to it that makes food and recipes out to be something they’re not. I’m not slamming NPR at all considering that it’s pretty much the only thing I listen to in the car if I’m not listening to music, it’s just that their food reporting always leaves a bad taste in my mouth. This morning, someone on Facebook linked to the story and I saw the picture that went along with it and was amazed at how beautiful the food looked. That’s when I decided I was going to give it a try. Tonight. On short notice. Yeah, I’m that kind of crazy. Besides, we were having a friend over for dinner and I wanted to make something unique and special: this certainly fit the bill.

I just happened to have some beautiful pumpkins that we had gotten last month as a local farm that we support. They were the perfect size for individual servings. On my way home from work I stopped by Trader Joe’s and picked up what I needed to make this a great dish. I also picked up a few different cheeses and other foods to snack on while our guest was with us. There’s nothing like a fresh cheese plate to say “welcome to my home”. I had a delicious Stilton, a unique goat’s milk Gouda and a triple cream Brie that was rich and creamy to the extreme. But, enough about cheese! Let’s get on to the main course.

My goal was to make something vegetarian, healthy and gluten free. This meant I was going to have to go off book for this recipe and fly blind. I was totally comfortable with that since it just makes the experience that much more fun for me. Yeah, I’m that kind of crazy.

With those goals in mind, I cooked up some brown basmatti rice and some French green lentils for the main body of the stuffing. While they cooked, I enlisted my son to help me remove the seeds and the guts from inside each pumpkin. I saved the seeds for later and then prepared the rest of the filling. I cut up some Gruyère cheese into half-inch cubes and cut up some fresh eggplant into bite sized pieces (this is the third time I’ve had eggplant this week; that’s three times more than I have ever had it before: who knew?). These were followed by some chopped chives, fresh thyme and some roughly minced garlic. Last, I gave an onion a quick cut and sauted it until it began to carmalize. Once everything was prepared, I mixed it together well and then stuffed my pumpkins to the point of bursting. Once they were as full as I could get them, I took some almond milk and added freshly grated nutmeg to it. The milk/nutmeg mixture got poured into the pumpkin and filled up what little space there was with more yummy goodness. The pumpkins went onto a parchment paper lined baking sheet and into a 350 degree oven for 90 minutes. After the 90 minutes, I pulled the tops off to allow some of the liquid to cook off and let the top get crusty and delicious. The pumpkins stayed in the oven for another 30 minutes while they finished turning into something even more magnificent than a coach that will take you to the ball.

While the pumpkins were cooking, I prepared a second meal for my wife and kids and got the cheese plate ready and prepped some IQF shrimp and got a small buffet going on a table in the kitchen so that our guest would be able to sit and eat some appetizers with my wife and kids while I was able to participate in the discussion from behind the stove. It worked out great. Everything came out at the same time and the pumpkins were perfect. The finished product is below.

Stuffed Pumpkins - fresh from the oven

This is what it looks like when the top comes off

Isn't that cheesy and good? Yes, yes it is.

I can’t begin to describe how wonderful these tasted. The pumpkin was tender and the flavor of it had soaked into the filling. The brown rice and green lentils held up wonderfully and made for a great way to get complete protein from the meal. The cheese had melted throughout the filling and every bite you took was gooey and yummy and warm. The eggplant was tender and had a great flavor to it and the texture was different enough from the other items that it added a great counterpoint to the other ingredients. This was one of the most unique things I’ve ever made and I think it’s a dish that we’ll remember for a long time to come. The great thing about it is that you can stuff it with pretty much anything you want and it will come out well.

I was only able to eat about half of my pumpkin so I have a really good lunch to look forward to tomorrow. Right now, even though it’s been a few hours since I ate, I’m still stuffed. This dish was quite filling and really did make quite an impression sitting on the table. If you’re looking for something to make this Thanksgiving that will be different but still capture the feeling of the season well, you can’t go wrong with something like this. I wish that I still had more pumpkins left as I’d be making this again in a few weeks.

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No, I’m not revealing the secret to how you can lose 5 pounds in one week and get the guy/girl of your dreams. If I knew that secret, I’d charge for it instead of throwing it out here on this blog.* Actually, I’m thinking about the struggle to lose weight while your life is moving at high speed. I’ve been under quite a bit of stress at work lately as I’ve been trying to wrap up three projects at once. It seems like as soon as I’m ready to finish one of them, something causes me to have to come back to it and continue to make changes. This is normal for my line of work but it can be one of the more annoying things that programmers have to deal with.

Between that and my schedule at home ramping up, things can feel a little out of control at times. When that happens, things start to feel stressful and your body has a tendency to really let you know that it’s not happy with what you’re doing to it. Times like this are bad even under the best of circumstances but when you’re trying to live mindfully and lose weight, it is a very stressful time indeed. I’m finding that as I feel stressed, the temptation to “eat on the run” goes up. When I think I can’t afford the time to get up from my desk to go eat a healthy lunch I’m really on thin ice. Convenience foods have an appeal in times like these than they may not have otherwise. After all, they’re meant to be made and consumed quickly right? Huray for a dehydrated, frozen, microwaveable salt block that is fully cooked in only 2 minutes and gone in 2 more. That leaves an entire minute to suck back a cold sugary beverage in your 5 minute lunch hour. Doesn’t that sound great? Not to me either. So, why is it that this becomes tempting to us? At what point does this become a good idea? I’m still not sure but so far I’ve done a pretty good job of not falling for the trap of convenience.

I think that a lot of it has to do with stress. When we don’t manage our stress, our stress manages us. In case you’re wondering, stress is kind of like a 12-year-old boy with Aspergers holding a magnifying glass standing in front of an anthill. In this analogy, you’re the ant. Stress never has our best interest in mind. It’s only concerned with keeping your body moving at a hyperactive level. In order to do that, it wants sugar and endorphins and carbohydrates in order to create as much energy in as short a period of time as possible. Guess what a good source of these things are? That’s right, convenience foods! These things are packed full of stuff that gives us a short-term boost and gets our body moving. Unfortunately, they’re also designed and packaged in a way to maximize consumption on our part. We end up wanting to eat more and more and we get trapped in a vicious cycle that can cause us to quickly lose control of our weight. It’s not a pretty picture and it’s one of the biggest ways that people who are trying to become healthy fail. Stress is just too big to fight sometimes and unless we’re prepared to face it, we can easily get stomped by it.

I’m sure that my diet hasn’t been as good as it could be right now but I’m still making choices and decisions that are healthy. This is because I’ve worked very hard at identifying how my body reacts to stress and I have made plans ahead of time of how to deal with it. So, how do I deal with the stress and still manage to eat healthy and if not lose weight, at least maintain my weight where it is? I’ve come up with a few tricks that work for me. Your results may vary and not everything works for everyone. However, feel free to give any of these a try if you want.

  1. Don’t forget to laugh. Laughter is helpful for your body. Never be so stressed out that you can’t take a few minutes to find something to laugh at. One place I turn to for some funny stuff is fark.com. It’s a “news” site that is always good for a few laughs. Another thing is to make some time to watch a funny movie or spend time with friends and share a laugh with them.
  2. Don’t forget to breathe. An awareness of your breath is a great way to make sure that you are paying attention to your body. It is so easy to lose focus when you’re stressed and once you lose your focus, it is easy to make poor choices. I have a mindfulness bell program that I have installed on my iPod and I have it set to ding every 30 minutes. When I hear it go off, I take just a few seconds to stop what I’m doing and focus on my breath. It keeps me in touch with my body and helps me to calm down.
  3. Don’t forget to keep things in perspective. Stress will always screw with your perspective on things. The fact is that almost everything that demands our attention and keeps us moving at a crazy rate isn’t as important as we think it is in the heat of the moment. There are times when we face life or death issues but they are quite rare in our wealthy western world. Even where I am, working in a hospital, I don’t feel the pressure of life and death hanging in the balance of what I do on a regular basis.
  4. Don’t forget what makes you happy. When we lose the proper perspective on things because of stress, we often lose sight of the things that give us joy or that make us happy. There are so many good things in our lives and we need to remember them. It’s taken me three days to write this post because I’ve been so busy. However, yesterday I was busy spending time with my kids going to the bookstore and a movie and a slot car race track and introducing them to the joys of Chicago style deep dish pizza and taking them for lunch and ice cream at Friendly’s that I just didn’t have time to worry about the things that are keeping me frantic in life. I made it a point to be with my kids and I played with them all day. It did wonders for my stress levels.

In addition to some of these things, I also have hobbies that I enjoy that help me to fight off stress. I love to cook and I love to write. I also have been having fun playing with my new Droid 2 phone and learning how to make it do some really cool stuff. I go to the Zen center every week and spend time with my Sangha and in meditation. Sure, stress can push us around, but we can push back. Hopefully as things calm down again, I can return to writing more frequently than I have the past week. Other than the stress, it’s been a great week and I’ve got a lot to share if I can ever find the time to do it.

* Actually, I do know it and will be happy to send you my new book about it if you send me three easy payments of $19.95

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Sunday night we had quite a wicked storm blow through. It was a classic New England nor’easter and the rain and wind were amazing to see. Around 11:00, my wife and I heard an enormous cracking sound followed by a crash. We did our best to see what had happened but it was too dark to tell. With the aid of a powerful flashlight, we finally saw what made the noise: one of our beautiful trees had come crashing down in the storm. This tree was probably 50 feet high and thankfully fell away from the house. If it had fallen towards us, our bedroom would have been destroyed and we could easily have been hurt.

At this point, the best course of action was to get the kids downstairs and out of harms way. While we were doing this, I heard another crack and crash that seemed even more ominous than the first. I looked outside just in time to see a big blur in the window. The trees I could barely make out were shaking in a way that was far worse than if it had been caused by the wind alone. I knew we’d lost another tree and I feared it was The Oak. The Oak is an enormous and magnificent tree that stands proudly in our side yard. It’s the one the kids have a rope swing in and that gives shelter and safety to countless birds and squirrels. If The Oak couldn’t stand up to the wind, we were going to have to move to the basement for safety. This was the first time I felt scared of the strength of the storm.

Knowing what I do about what these storms can do to our power, I made it a point to unplug our electronic equipment. That’s how I realized that my worst fears were unjustified. The Oak stood strong, its branches and trunk moving in the wind. That was the good news. The bad news I quickly realized was the top of the tree that sits outside my bedroom window was gone. I could barely make it out lying in the yard. Once again, I was thankful that nothing hit the house when it came down.

In the morning as we assessed the damage we felt both relief and sadness. The second tree to fall was the one we saw each morning as we lay in bed. Now, there was a gap in our view like a missing tooth. This tree broke about halfway up and both of its trunks had snapped. This was our favorite tree and it provided shade and shelter and helped us feel as if we lived in a tree house. Our cats loved to sit in front of our window and watch the birds and squirrels play in it. I used to joke that it was” kitty TV”.  Now, all we have to look at are two broken trunks that will soon come down. It was the saddest part of our day as we realized that we had lost something we loved.

I have written a lot about impermanence here for a number of reason. One, because our desire to cling to things and keep them from changing is a major component in why we suffer. Secondly, it is important to understand how impermanence effects us on a daily basis. The thing that struck me was that while I knew that these trees wouldn’t go on forever, I always assumed that they would outlast me. These were tall trees that had lived a long time and should be around for many years to come. When confronted with their demise, it caught me off guard. These weren’t supposed to go away before me. Trees don’t do that. If only that really were true. Since I’ve been in this house, we’ve lost three trees. Two to the storm the other night and one to a construction crew that felt removing a perfectly innocent little tree and garden on the corner of our yard would somehow help them work on the intersection outside our hose. Personally, I don’t think it served any purpose other than to open up my front yard to more noise and visible cars going by, but what do I know about civil engineering. Nothing is permanent; even mountains wear down and erode. When confronted with the reality of change, we have two choices: we can accept things and move on, or we can fight it and bury our heads in the sand attempt to ignore it. Actually, this is just the illusion of choice since one is an action based on reality and one is just actions spurred on by clinging to a desire that things were not the way they are. These trees are gone. We can plan new ones that someone 50 years from now can enjoy the way we used to enjoy the ones we had. Eventually, those trees will fall too. That’s the way life is. The only constant is change. The only permanent thing is impermanence.

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On the advice of my doctor, I started taking Niacin to bring up my HDL (good) cholesterol. Apparently, when you lose a lot of weight and change your diet your good cholesterol drops just like the bad stuff does. Vitamin B3, or Niacin, is a good way to bring up your good cholesterol. I went to Whole Foods and got some No Flush slow release niacin. The bottle cost a little over $20 but I figured it was worth it. I’ve been taking it now since late September. The bottle finally ran out and I didn’t want to spend that much on a supplement again so I went to the pharmacy and found a slow release niacin for only $8.

The reason you want to get a slow release, or no flush, niacin is that too much of it will cause your capillaries to enlarge and cause a lot more blood to flow very close to the skin and this causes it to become red, inflamed and painful. I knew this was a potential problem so I made it a point to slowly build up my intake over time. I eventually got up to 2000 mg per day so this is what I took when I got home with my new, cheaper, niacin.

This was one of the bigger mistakes of my life. See, there’s a difference between one companies slow release niacin and another’s. This didn’t occur to me until about a half hour after I’d taken the four tablets of the new stuff. I first noticed a difference when my face started to feel a little hot. Then, my lips started to feel swollen. My son told me that my entire face looked red and “a little purple”. That’s when the tingling started. It felt as if my entire face had fallen asleep and was now having to wake up by tingling and burning and swelling. To say it was scary would be an understatement.

Just as I began to really get concerned about this, the burning and tingling spread to my arms. In a panic, I lied down in bed and that’s when my wife helped me to figure out what was happening. I felt better when I realized it was a niacin flush and not something worse. However, I should have known that it can always get worse. As I lay in bed, the tingling, pain and burning quickly spread all over my body. It was absolute torture to go through this. The good thing is that it doesn’t last too long. The bad news is that before the flushing goes away, it starts to itch. At this point, I find myself stuck in the bed with pain, burning, tingling skin while itching like I’ve never itched before. I like to think that I have a semi-decent way with words but I can never express just how bad I felt. I proceeded to go through about three hours of some of the worst pain I’ve ever experienced except for a couple of kidney stones.

Eventually, I ended up falling to sleep for a few hours but it took until early evening to start to feel normal. Even after I woke up I had chills and my lips felt swollen. It was quite unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. Given the choice between physical suffering like this or mental suffering, I’ll take the mental stuff any day of the week. Instead of Sunday, today was Samsaraday!

Except for this little mishap it’s been a pretty good weekend. We’re getting ready for snow to come soon and feeling winter roll in. Change is coming in a lot of ways over the next few weeks. The first change I’m making is going back to the $20 bottle of niacin. It’s worth every penny!

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