Cultureguru's Weblog

Of food, technology, movies, music, and travel—or whatever else strikes my fancy


Leave a comment

Walk strong!

I’m not a gym person. I do the ballroom dance classes; I’ll go out for walks, hikes, or snowshoeing. But apart from that, it’s at-home fitness for me. I got free weights, I’ve got machines, and I have yoga mats and straps. And I have a big-ass TV, because for motivation in using the fitness equipment, I find exercise videos helpful.

But back in the fall I decided I needed something new. I hadn’t stopped exercising, but was certainly gravitating toward the shorter, 20-minute workouts more often. And finding it fairly easy to make an excuses to skip a day, or days.

inwell_syf-6_image_coverThe videos still in fairly high rotation tended be by Jessica Smith. And I was sometimes supplementing those with free offerings from her YouTube channel, a quite extensive collection of routines she films in her living room, organized by time, style, and activity. But I was intrigued by her Walk Strong! series of videos, even though I had to pay for those.

The physical DVDs seem to be available exclusively from Amazon US for $58.88. but for $5 less ($53.88) you can get instant access to online versions of them. They just run in a browser on PC, tablet, or phone, so all you need is your user name and password (and a means to play or cast them to your TV, preferably).

It also comes with a PDF of a welcome guide that emphasizes this is a program about a health, not a promise to make you skinny (despite the video series’ “6 week total transformation” tagline), and a six-week calendar suggesting an order in which to get through all videos a number of times.

I found this approach really worked for me. Getting 10 new videos at once in itself alleviated boredom. And although you had your typical fun cardio, interval cardio, upper body strength, lower body strength, and so on, there were also a couple with a very original focus:

  • Brain Fitness Fun: Moves requiring coordination and sequencing, that you therefore have to think about. Augmented with on-screen text giving you facts about brain health.
  • Prehab Routine: One that works every joint in your body, from your neck (I always discover mine is remarkably stiff) to your hips (including some Kegel exercises—“We can’t really demonstrate these”) to your toes (mine are not terribly agile).

But if the rest are less wholly original, I still like the style. Jessica’s persona is very much the warm, encouraging coach, not the stern drill sergeant. And though each workout has a particular focus on cardio, strength, or flexibility, it’s not an exclusive. The strength workouts includes sequences where you’re moving fast enough to raise your heart rate. The aerobics will include some resistance. So the whole program feels very well-rounded.

YouTube promo for the program gives a good sense of what it’s like

Each workout is 30 minutes, which is manageable for fitting in to most days. And they all include a countdown clock, which is the greatest thing! Jessica is joined in each workout by two others: Beth (55) who does the advanced moves, and her mom Debbie (59) who does the beginner moves. The women look great, but like real women.

The equipment required is fairly basic:

  • Yoga mat (unless you have very plushy carpet to work on)
  • Sturdy high-backed chair
  • Hand weights (I use 5 lbs and 8 or 10 lbs—might get to 12)
  • Towel (or yoga strap in one case)

These are the other programs:

  • Cardio Party! Steady-state aerobics with focus on fun
  • Total Body Training—Total-body strength training
  • Barefoot Fusion Sculpt—Cardio and strength to build balance, endurance, and flexibility
  • 360 Abs—Cardio core training
  • Dynamic Stretch—Stretch out muscles and build flexibility
  • Upper Body Strength—Upper body strength training
  • Interval Mix—High-intensity interval training
  • Lower Body Strength—L0wer body strength training

I have gone through the whole 42-day sequence, in somewhat more than 42 days (some days I do other types of exercise, some days don’t leave time for exercise). I don’t know that I’ve “transformed”, whatever that means, but I am meeting the goal of working out more often and it has boosted my strength, as I think that’s the area I’d been getting more lax on.

My plan now is to start over again, but to sometimes sub in other workouts I have of a similar genre for that day. I therefore hope to keep the boredom at bay a while longer. (Of course, Jessica also has other fitness programs available…)


4 Comments

Croatian vacation: Wherein Jean and Cathy learn to relax (sort of)

Why did we go to Croatia, of all places?

  • Jean had heard good things about it.
  • He’d found a small-ship cruise that fit into one of the few periods this spring where we could fit in a 10-day vacation.

And that’s about it, really. Jean did all the booking of this trip: the cruise, the flights (not that easy to arrange), the hotel in Dubrovnik, where we stayed a before and after getting on the ship. I bought a couple Croatia travel guides and flipped through them, but overall, this was one of the trips I’d prepped for the least.

Reading the cruise itinerary, we both had similar thoughts: Wow, that sounds really relaxing.

We weren’t entirely sure this was a good thing. Normally we keep pretty busy on vacation, packing in museums and hikes up mountains and the constant hunt for the best restaurant within budget.

But generally, the cruise schedule was as follows::

  • Breakfast somewhere between 7-9, during which, the boat departs.
  • Travel on the boat til the next stop. Sometimes we had a stop around 11:00, then another in the afternoon. Sometimes it was just the one afternoon stop.
  • Lunch on boat around 1:00.
  • Visit the new place we’d arrived at starting around 2:00 or 3:00. Sometimes we had a city tour. We would have supper in the town in in island, and sleep on the boat. (It never traveled overnight.)

You might notice that’s a lot of time just “being on the boat” each day. We frankly had some concerns we’d get bored.

Fortunately, after a short adjustment period, we managed to get into the rhythm of being leisurely. Ultimately, I found this one of the most relaxing, stress-free vacations I’ve ever been on. A few factors, some of which were just luck, helped contribute to that.

The weather couldn’t have been better

Except for one brief thunderstorm on our last day, we encountered no rain. It was just a mix of partly sunny and fully sunny, every day. The highs were comfortable: maybe a max of 26? And the lows were comfortable—throw on a sweater and you’re all good.

That, of course, made visiting each town very pleasant.

Korkula sunset

Korkula: Didn’t suck to be here

The boat also had lovely sundeck.

MS Splendid sun deck

If I hadn’t been so diligent with the sunscreen, I would have come home with a nice tan.

 Croatia is very safe

The rate of theft in Croatia is very low. One tour guide mentioned that people don’t bother to lock their doors. We saw no homeless people, no beggars. That all really reduced the usual paranoia one has, while traveling, about keeping wallets and purses safe.

Dubrovnik market

Me not worrying about getting my purse stolen

The Dalmatian towns are beautiful

New day, new charming location. It’s hard not to feel good when surrounded by sea and sand (well, pebbles really, but…), lovely ancient buildings, mountains, greenery, boats…

Pomena harbour

Pretty Pomena harbour

Hvar cathedral

Cathedral in Hvar

We did a lot of walking

Not while on the boat, obviously, but we did have the daily stops. Jean has a little GPS gizmo he uses with his camera that allows you to geo-tag where each photo is taken. It also happens to tell you how much you’ve traveled each day. Early on Jean started remarking on how much we’d actually walked that day (15 K in Dubrovnik!), and then it became a game to try attain at least 10 K every day.

As an added challenge, we also tried to gain some elevation daily by availing ourselves of whatever viewpoints were on offer.

Hvar viewpoint

Looking down at Hvar

You might be thinking, that doesn’t sound that relaxing, but walking is really good for you. It helped us sleep well. And it was leisurely walking—we often had no particular goal or destination or deadline. We just wanted to see and get immersed in the place we were in. (For at least 10 K.)

Our rooms were well-designed

Both at our hotel and, to our surprise, on the boat, we had rooms with comfortable beds, good lighting, adequate storage, lots of plugins (for our many e-devices), and enough mirrors. Though not that large, the space was used very well. It’s surprising how often that isn’t the case.

Hotel Lapad

Hotel Lapad, our home away from home. Didn’t suck to be here, either.

Good wifi

What can I say. 🙂 The boat had a wifi room whose signal was much better than we were expecting. (Our hotel’s wifi signal was also excellent.) And, I bought a Croatian SIM card for my phone that granted me 3 GB of data for $10! That could serve as a wifi hotspot.

We had our usual absurd number of devices—tablets, phones, ereaders, laptop—so if boredom ever did threaten, it was pretty easy to entertain ourselves.

It wasn’t all Facebook and Twitter, though. Jean also did a lot of his photo processing and posting while enroute (which is good, as he hasn’t had much time since he got back), and I got a lot of reading done (not all on devices; I did bring some dead tree editions as well) and kept up with the travel diary.

Nice people

Tourism is very important to this area, and we generally found we got great service. For example, when we mentioned an early checkout at our hotel, they offered us a bag breakfast (no charge). A lot of the waiters were very friendly and enthusiastic about the restaurant’s food offerings. And yes, the food was quite good! And it was almost always patio dining.

Jean eating salmon tacos

Jean enjoying his salmon tacos

Our cruise director was a little lacklustre, but otherwise the ship staff were good. Our shipmates (only 27 of us onboard) were an international bunch—Australia, New Zealand, Scotland, UK, Norway, Belgium, Switzerland… We were the only North Americans. Obviously you hit it off more with some than others, but generally it was a good group—though Jean correctly pointed out that we weren’t the best at mingling. (The wifi might have contributed to that…)

Swim stop off the MS Splendid

Swim stop off the MS Splendid. Jean is in the water. I am not.


1 Comment

Things we did in Toronto when not at a rock concert

Queen + Adam Lambert capped off our Toronto weekend, but before that, we….

1. Learned about sake

The Distillery District was our first destination (after checking into the hotel), where I happily shopped while Jean felt uncomfortable due to the crowds. (For a people person, he can be surprisingly squeamish about people.)

But we both enjoyed the one-hour sake tasting and tour we signed up for, at Ontario Spring Water Sake.

We had much to learn. I wasn’t even sure I remembered that it was made from rice, let alone what the other three ingredients were—one of which is Ontario water, though not from Toronto! And bacteria also plays an important role in the production, and since bacterial mix is always changing, so no two sake batches are ever quite the same.

We learned about the types of sake, notably pasteurized and unpasteurized, and “first press”, and about sake etiquette and its place in Japanese life. We were even treated to a beat boxing session at the end, as our guide does that on the side. He was very good!

We got to taste five samples, all notably different from one another for all being sake by the same company. Jean and I agree on our two favorites and bought a bottle of each.

2. Walked. A lot!

We were car-less in Toronto. We took the bus in, which itself involved a walk from our chosen parking lot to the Kitchener bus station. But except for some rain Sunday morning, it was nice weekend, so we just walked wherever we wanted to go rather than take transit. Jean figures we got in about 30 K in two days.

Roy Thompson Hall

Roy Thompson Hall (I think)

Buildings in Toronto

Things will be great when you’re downtown

Mall interior, Toronto

The malls are quiet at night

3. Visited the AGO

We spent a few hours there. We didn’t see the feature exhibit, on Francis Bacon and Henry Moore, but did see “Fan the Flames: Queer Positions in Photography.” That was installed, I assume, in coordination with the recent World Pride. It was an interesting collection, with combinations of video, collage collections, commercial photography, and work by artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe.

We also saw most of the “Art as Therapy”, where they gathered various pieces of the permanent collection under themes such as love, money, and politics. That made for some interesting juxtapositions as well.

4. Ate out

We had no bad meals in Toronto, but none were particularly spectacular, either. We decided to try Blowfish Sushi and Sake Bar based on a list that rated it the best sushi restaurant in downtown Toronto. While it was good, we didn’t agree that it was better than Ki, the supposed second-best one. But they did have some creativity in combinations and presentations.

Sushi platter

The truffle oil on these was nice. The garlic chip looked cool, but didn’t cohere as a taste. Better on its own…

Foamy sushi dish

Foamy!

Though we went here after the sake tasting, it was actually no help in picking one from the menu. (Not like they had any from Ontario Spring Water Sake company.) Fortunately the waitress was able to guide us toward one we enjoyed.

Breakfast, though very fine, is just breakfast, and was mainly notable for our managing to get a table just before the lineup for a table started, a feat we had also achieved on Saturday at Balzac’s coffee shop in The Distillery District.

Lunch was at Bangkok Garden, which was featuring a $15 three-course Summerlicious menu. It was very tasty, and a good deal, but mainly about the company, as we met up with my sister and brother-in-law there.

Dinner was another Summerlicious event, at Toula’s on Harbourfront, selected largely for being near the Air Canada Centre. It is a very cool room, though, on the 23rd floor, with windows all around.

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

It’s an Italian place, and we liked the food. Jean had lobster ravioli as his main; I had gnocchi in tomato sauce. The service was also quite friendly and professional. But the room itself was the highlight.

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug


Leave a comment

On sitting less

So back in June were another spat of articles, like this one at CNN.com, saying that sitting for many hours a day was bad for you. Even if you exercise.

It is somewhat amazing how non-helpful these articles are.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommends mixing noncomputer-related tasks into the workday…

The article says. As if that was actually possible in every job.

Like mine, for instance. What’s a break from my computer work? Well, meetings. The vast majority of which are, in fact, sit-down and not stand-up meetings. Also, I do like to sometimes be retro and work with pen and paper instead of monitor and keyboard. But you can’t write on paper while walking around, either. It pretty much also requires sitting at a desk.

Basically, if I’m not working at a computer, attending a meeting, or writing on paper, I’m not doing my job.

So 2 or 3 years ago now, I implemented the only solution I could see other than changing careers: I bought equipment to raise both my monitors and my keyboard off my desk, so I can work at the computer, standing up.

It was completely weird at first, but I’m used to it now, as is everyone I work with—none of whom have followed my lead, mind you. I did get a lot of queries about in the first few months. But my company won’t pay for it unless you have a doctor’s note that you need it, and I’m not sure doctors write those based on CNN articles stating that sitting 6+ hours a day reduces your life span by 20%.

And it wasn’t cheap. I needed three pieces of equipment, all of which I acquired from http://www.ergocanada.com: An LCD arm to hold two monitors (yes, I get two 21″ monitors at work), an arm extender to make the monitors high enough, and another arm to raise the keyboard tray. All together, that cost around $750—more than people typically want to spend on equipment for their work desks.

(Also, though, I think a lot of people really enjoy sitting down.)

So, I was no trendsetter.

But once I had invested in sufficient pairs of comfy (yet cute) shoes to avoid foot pain, I did find some health benefits that I didn’t have to wait decades for: reduced hip pain, reduced lower back pain, and a slight loosening of my clothes, which might be due to the fact that you burn more calories standing than sitting.

Woman at stand-up desk

Completely impractical shoes for working at a stand-up desk. Also, I think her monitor is too low.

In fact, I liked it enough that I decided to go for the same with the home computer. Well, not exactly the same. I wasn’t about to spend another $750. But my husband found this Visidec dual-monitor arm for more like $120. Like my one at work, this monitor arm was also too short on its own, but he was handy enough to just mount it in a solid piece of wood sitting on my desk, raising the monitors to standing height.

For the keyboard and mouse? Raised via a cardboard box, with a board on it that allows the mouse to slide easily. Hey, it’s home. Doesn’t have to look “professional”.

Another advantage my fancy work monitor arm has—besides looking good—is that it is extremely easy to lower and raise (as is the keyboard tray). So I can, in fact, still sit down to work at the computer, which I do for a bit each day. (I aim for 6.5 hours standing of the 8-hour work day.)

The home Visidec is possible to lower and raise, but not nearly as easily. It takes two people. So instead I intend to just leave that one in the standing position. I have replaced my desk chair with a bar stool, so I can sit on that should I weary of standing.

So, guess I’m OK now, til they come out with the unhelpful articles about the health hazards of standing for too long each day…


2 Comments

Once in a Blue Moon

Jean and I have been taking ballroom dance lessons for quite a few years. But beyond class and practice sessions, it’s not a skill we get to use that often.

Ballroom dance couple

One of our signature moves. (Or not.)

Our instructors periodically organize dances that we attend, and there is a local Rainbow Rhythm ballroom dance group that puts on monthly events. We’ve been to a couple of those. At these evenings, everyone knows how to ballroom dance—albeit at different skill levels—so everyone dances in twos, in dance hold, and we all move around the floor in the same direction. The main challenge is that the floor tends to be more crowded than we’re used to in dance class.

Then sometimes we get invited to weddings, anniversaries, or work functions at which there is a DJ and dance floor. At these, of course, most people have no dance training and don’t follow any rules. They just move to the music, on their own, with one other person, or with a group of other people. Of course, that’s fun, and we do a some of that also, but we will also try to find a corner to actually dance steps together. Latin dances and jive, usually done in one spot, are usually manageable. But trying to waltz, fox trot, or quick step around the room is generally impossible.

Other people in our class expend a great deal more effort than we do trying to find places to dance. One spot they return to regularly is the Blue Moon, in the small nearby town of Petersburg. They especially like it when Dianne & the Cavaliers are playing there.

I’d been reluctant to go because their music has been described as Country Western, which—gotta say—is not my favorite! But when the whole rest of the class agreed to go last Saturday, we figured we should give it a try.

And damn, it was fun.

Country western it was, but good. Johnny Cash tunes, a whole medley of great 50s rock (starting with “Rock Around the Clock”), waltzes (mostly Viennese) like the Waltz of Texas, slow foxes, quick steps—just all with a twang. Talented band.

Now, it wasn’t always clear which dance to do. And looking around the floor didn’t necessarily help much. Although everyone was in dance hold, they weren’t necessarily doing the dances we learn in class. And they certainly weren’t respecting the line of dance. So even when we figured out the rhythm and what dance that implied (occasionally after trying out several), we still had to adapt. Rumbas (normally a stationary dance) that had to move around the room. Waltzes that had to weave in lines instead of circulate. And we kept getting stuck in the middle (“stuck in the middle with you,” Jean sang to me, at one point).

But figuring all that out was also rather fun. And the evening was great exercise, because they don’t play too many slow songs!

Disco dance pose

Not what the crowd at the Blue Moon looked like

Jean marveled at the novelty of a room full of people all dancing as couples, doing steps, yet those not being “strictly ballroom”. And that it was a probably a generational thing—as we were leaving, he pointed out that we definitely appeared to be the youngest people there.

That hadn’t particularly noticed that til then is perhaps proof that dancing keeps you young. (Or, that I’m just not that observant. Could go either way.)

 


4 Comments

RIP Collage Video

I’m so old that my first exercise video was not even audio-visual: It was sound-only. An LP.

And it was ridiculous. Of course, the instructor (you may have heard of her—Jane Fonda?) tried to clearly explain what moves to do, but that just didn’t always work. What some of the moves were meant to be remain a mystery to me to this day. (But no, I don’t still have the album…)

So the advent of exercise classes on VHS home tapes were a clear improvement. Not all the moves were easy to do, but at least you could always tell what they were.

Exercise video coversAnd as is true in general, the exercise DVDs were an improvement over those. No more rewinding and fast-forwarding. More content could be put on each disk. Easier to pick and choose to do partial or combination workouts.

I love working out to videos. Nothing’s more convenient, you never have to worry about the weather, and unless you’re buying a crazy number of them, it’s way cheaper than a gym memberships. You get something of the illusion of working out with someone else, and even that illusion is more motivating than working out on your own. And the variety available—aerobics, strength, flexibility, or a combination of all. Short, long, or in between. Dancey or athletic. Easy-going, intermediate, or tough.

Whatever your mood today: There’s a home workout for that.

And so it really pains me to see Collage Video go out of business. They sold nothing but fitness videos (along with a few fitness accessories). And they did it better than anyone else.

They broke down each video by all the factors that home fitness die-hards care about: instructor, length, level, workout type, body part focus. They included video samples so you could assess whether a new instructor or style seemed appealing. They had fantastic forums and review comments. They rated the videos themselves, highlighting some as favorites.

But ultimately, they could not battle the price pressure from the likes of Amazon, nor the general decline in the DVD format.

So when I decided I could use some more workouts with a lower-body focus, I did what I always do: I picked up the latest Collage Video catalog and picked out about five that I thought would do.

Only now I cannot order them from the Collage Video website.

Amazon? It had exactly one of them in stock. OK, so I probably didn’t need all five, but I wanted at least one more. I went a-huntin’, and finally located a site that offered one of them as a download. I can burn that to DVD or play it from the computer (which is connected to my TV), so that’s fine. Only, I needed this rubber band thingie for that workout. Collage would have sent it to me with the DVD. With the download… Not so much. So more research for that, resulting in a trip to Walmart to purchase that.

Walmart!

I’m not sure this is progress. I know streaming is the thing now, but the best option there seems to be Gaiam TV, at $10 (US) a month. Not a crazy price, but then, I don’t think I was spending $120+ yearly on exercise videos before…


Leave a comment

Not cursing the snow

The day we were to drive to Bondi Village near Algonquin Park happened to be the day of the biggest snowfall of the year (so far!). Even though buses, schools, universities, highways and even malls! (by the end of the day) were cancelled and closed, Jean never seemed deterred from going. Even after shoveling twice. And discovering the car had a bit a low tire. (We just added air.) Even so. Off we went.

The bonus of so much closing and cancelling was that the roads were unusually free of cars. And, you know, it was just snow—not freezing rain, not whiteout conditions (at least on the roads we took). It was a somewhat longer journey than usual, of course. We took a leisurely lunch, but otherwise just focused on making our way there. And it all went fine. The tire even held. And still is. (Very slow leak, I guess.)

This was a Canoe Club trip, and we were supposed to be joining 20 other people. We arrived to find 2. A couple more made their way shortly after us, three more later that evening, than two more overnight. The rest all bailed for various reasons, one being weather, of course! So we were 11: the smallest number in years for this winter club trek, I’m told.

Those who did make it, though, were rewarded the next day with the best possible weather:

Winter scene in Algonquin Park

We took advantage to do some snowshoeing in Algonquin Park. We chose the Track and Tower trail, which offers a nice variety of vistas, including waterways.

Frozen rapids

We were five, and Jean talked us into including the 4 km (or so) extension that brought us up to a lovely viewpoint.

Foxicle at the Lookout

Mascot Foxicle modeling the view

The whole thing was about 10 km, and as the day heated up (to -5) while we were still dressed for the morning’s -15, it made for a tiring walk back. One of us was to0 tired to chew!

The traditional pot luck dinner was rejuvenating, though. Despite the diminished numbers, we somehow still had a good balance of sides, mains, and desserts. We made a slow cooker minestrone that turned out really well.

Slow cooker minestrone

Not sure it looks so great here, but the soup was a hit

In fact, Jean was rejuvenated enough that he went snowshoeing again at night! He was determined to try to take pictures of the stars, and convinced some others to join him on a “midnight” walk (though it was really more like 8:30 pm). He and I mutually agreed that it would be best that I not join him. And that way we both had a good evening.

Starlit night

It was a moonless night; they had to make their way largely by feel

Sunday was another nice day. We had only the morning for activities, so we stayed on the Bondi property for snowshoeing. We had a nice time, but didn’t see any notable wildlife. Some of the others did, though.

 

Deer

Photo by Andrea Chappell

Sunday lunch featured the potluck leftovers, just as good the second time out, then we cleaned up and shipped out for a smooth drive home.