Cultureguru's Weblog

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


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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…)


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A most terrible year?

The year-end reviews certainly are gloomy this year. A sort of consensus that it’s hard to find anything good to say about 2016.

And for residents of some countries, that was certainly true. Poor Haiti had yet another earthquake. Syria! A daily dose of tragedy, made all the worse because our countries were involved in trying to stop it. And the Venezuelans—suffering under an incompetent President, their economic situation already bad and getting worse daily.

But as a global aggregate, the fact is that a lot of things are improving. (These charts don’t all include 2015—and can’t include 2016 yet, as it’s not done!—but the trends shown did not reverse themselves last year.)

Extreme poverty is down, and real incomes are up.

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This one is for Canada specficially

People are healthier.

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Life expectancy is also up, globally

Education rates are much higher.

literate-and-illiterate-world-populationHomicide (and other crime rates) are down, even in gun-happy US.

homicide-rates-in-the-united-states-1950-2010-and-canada-1961-2009-pinker-2011-jpg

I think the source of all this gloom is the US election and its highly unfortunate result. Had Hillary Clinton won the Electoral College, Brexit would seem a weird mess the Brits got themselves into rather than part of an alarming global trend. We could celebrate the signing of the Paris Climate Agreement and some actual action on the front (carbon pricing in Canada! Mon dieux!) instead of feeling it’s all a bit for naught now. The loss of beloved celebrities, some at alarmingly young ages (had not realized just how contemporaneous George Michael and I were), would be just a sad thing that eventually happens to us all, and not a pile-on when we don’t want more bad news (on Christmas Day? Really?).

However… while the mood is understandable, it’s still troubling. Because it’s pessimism, and a nostalgic belief that things were better before, and a denial of the inconvenient fact that things are actually pretty good right now—that the President-Elect ran on and got himself elected with.

It’s not a good place to settle in, mentally. It leads to hopelessness, and inactino. This one bad event didn’t make all of 2016 terrible. (And not to bring down the room, but won’t it be worse once he’s actually in office?)

But in 2016, the US had a great President.

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The 2016 Olympics were fun and kind of inspiring.

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The number of women of colour elected to the US Senate in 2016 has quadrupled.

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After a serious health scare last year, Roger Daltrey came back with a Who 2016 tour.

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In 2016 the Canadian federal government and its gender-balanced cabinet made significant progress on trade with Europe, climate change, safe injection sites, assisted dying legislation, pipeline approvals (and rejections), and improvements to the Election Act.

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The Hamilton Mixtape, released December 2016, was awesome.

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And Saturday Night Live (and other satirical programs) provided some catharsis.

“I’m not giving up. And neither should you.”


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Experiencing pop culture in a time of grief

When someone you love dies, blogging about pop culture, news, travel, and food drops off the priority list.

Doesn’t mean that these trivialities drop our of your life, though. Just that your relationship to them changes, at least for a time.

Music

You know, if you break my heart I’ll go
But I’ll be back again
‘Cause I told you once before good-bye
And I came back again

Music is an emotional mindfield, isn’t it? I don’t think The Beatles “I’ll Be Back” would make anyone’s list of saddest songs ever, but on a day of bad news, I couldn’t handle it. I frantically searched through my playlists for safer havens. I finally settled on “High Energy”, a gathering of uptempo rock and dance numbers, generally with pleasingly dumb lyrics. I stayed locked on that for about a week and a half, ‘til it finally seemed just too incongruous. (Then I switched to Classical.)

Adam Lambert’s excellent album Trespassing was just the sort of uptempo music I needed for a time

Food

I was interested to discover that I still got hungry, still wanted to cook, was still able to eat. Because certain forms of stress and worry make that difficult for me. But not this one, this situation with a known but sad outcome. While  I didn’t eat more, or drink more—I didn’t find comfort in that—I still enjoyed the routine of preparing and eating meals.

I certainly became a distracted cook, though. Leaving the milk out on the counter, putting the vinegar in the wrong pantry, forgetting to start the timer. Like the energy of pushing the sadness away enough to follow a recipe was not leaving enough mental space to remember anything that wasn’t written down.

Things are now improving on that front.

Movies and TV

While actually going out to a movie seemed like too much effort, watching stuff on TV was an appealing distraction. Since I don’t watch much medical stuff anyway, there wasn’t much I felt I had to avoid. Howard’s mother died on Big Bang Theory (as the actress had in real life), but it was handled with a light touch and didn’t set me off. In picking HBO movies, I decided to skip Tom Cruise’s Edge of Tomorrow for now, given its premise of the lead character dying over and over. I instead watched and quite appreciated the comedic In a World, one of the more overtly feminist movies I’ve seen in a long time. Recommended.

In a World trailer

News

The human interest stories—little boys lost in the snow, Oliver Sack’s terminal cancer diagnosis—were best avoided for a while, but I still found the theatre of politics a surprisingly useful distraction. Especially in Twitter form (about the length of my attention span, at times). I couldn’t truly dig up my own personal outrage at some of what was going on, but I could still appreciate and retweet other people’s. #StopC51 and all that.

Books

Cover of Being MortalSo just a few days before all this my book club had selected Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal as our next book. It’s about getting older and end of life care, and how the medical profession has been dealing with it, and how it should.

Of course, there were days I wasn’t up to reading much of anything at all, but when I did feel up to it, I did read this, I seriously doubt I would have selected this particular book if left to my own druthers, but I feel it was in some ways helpful. It’s an excellent book, anyway, and much of it was more abstract and factual, which appealed to my logical side. Stories did become more personal and touching later in the book, but that was later in this whole saga for me too and—I don’t think it made anything worse. It certainly presented a number of scenarios I’m so glad my loved one never went through.


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Blood donor

I first tried to donate blood many years ago, while in university. I succumbed to peer pressure and joined my friends on a campus blood drive. On checkin, I was asked how I was feeling.

Fine, I said, except for this stupid cold.

Dismissed! You can’t donate blood when you have a cold.

The second time, I was still in university, and this time not ill. I had, however, been particularly successful in battling my freshmen 15. In fact, I was so successful, I kept on dieting and exercising until I lost another 15, then another, then…

“How much do weigh?” I was asked on checkin.

“99 pounds!” I said proudly.

Dismissed! Too skinny to donate, apparently.

I’ve since, of course, long ago attained and stuck at at a much more sensible (higher) weight, but I made no further attempts to donate. I blamed blood tests, as I never found those much fun. They always seem to have trouble finding a vein; sometimes they’ve even had to make two attempts before succeeding. The needle feels uncomfortable in the vein the whole time it’s there [with pardon to needle-averse readers; but then, they would skip this one anyway, right?].

But I did volunteer for the Ontario Health Study, and as part of that, they asked me to give a blood sample. A few blood samples, really. And those tests were a breeze! Likely I just had a particularly talented nurse, but it did get me thinking maybe I should, finally, try that whole blood donation thing again.

donor2I made an appointment online, and last week went for lifetime attempt 3 at donating blood.

It’s a bit a time-consuming process, though would have been faster if I’d known what I was doing. As I had made an appointment and it was a medical-ly kind of setting, I sat around waiting to be hailed by name until I realized it was more of a lineup situation, except with chairs. So a couple people arriving after me got in ahead. Then as a first-time donor, I had a bit more of a registration process to get in the system.

The first part of the fun is the finger-prick test to check my hemoglobin levels. Those turned out to be fine. Not dismissed!

I then had to fill in half of a questionnaire, largely focused on my general health, travel destinations, and current medications. Then do some more waiting to see another person, in a private room, to go over those questions and fill out the rest of the questionnaire—the more “delicate” questions about the sex life and the intravenous drug habits. She also took my blood pressure. Which turned out to be fine.

On the sex and drugs stuff, I noticed she was pretty much filling in the No boxes before I actually managed to get the denials out. What took longest was determining if the previous day’s migraine pill was an issue (it was not) and making a special note of the aspirin I had taken that day (not a disqualifier, but does require different blood treatment).

And, I got orange juice.

donor2As a final step, you’re left alone in the room with a barcoded Yes or No sticker to affix to the form. This is to cover those cases where you don’t want to admit verbally that you shouldn’t be donating blood, but for some damn reason still want to go through with the procedure.

[One thing they never asked? How much I weighed. Is that no longer a thing, or is it just that I’m obviously no longer under 100 pounds?]

Then you actually lie back and donate blood. I think at least 45 minutes had already passed by then. Maybe more.

They did have a bit of trouble finding a vein (though did get it on the first attempt). And, the needle didn’t feel great in there. And it’s a bit ookey to see blood coming out of your arm into a tube.

But it wasn’t that bad. Jean, who’d kindly offered to drive me there, joined me at this point, as he had more than exhausted the possibilities of the small mall the clinic was in, by this point. The actual donating didn’t take that long. Afterward, you sit there about five minutes, then you get bandaged, then you go sit at another table for another 10 minutes or so and enjoy cookies and more orange juice. And that’s it.

The arm was a bit sore that night, but it didn’t last too long. I didn’t notice any particular lightheadedness or fatigue afterward.

Would I do it again? Well, I have 56 days to think about that…


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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…


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I made kale chips

Google tells me that kale became “suddenly hip” in 2012, but by end 2013, we were “so over it”. My timeline was a bit different. I never ate kale as a child or teenager, that I recall. I believe I first encountered it when I started getting food baskets from organic farmers; maybe 15 years ago? Then I had to figure out what to do with it.

Raw kale is quite disgusting, but I found that once it cooked and lathed in butter and balsamic vinegar, with maybe some raisins and pine nuts, it’s actually pretty good. And it is this nutritional powerhouse, all vitamins and flavanoids and omega-3s.

Today, as the subject line suggests, I decided to try preparing it a new way: As kale chips.

Kale chips

Those were remarkably good! Jean and I were both surprised. They get all crispy, and a bit salty, and the baking mellows out the bitterness… (Of course, this wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Nothing is everyone’s cup of tea, not even cups of tea. But we definitely liked it.)

Plus, it’s super easy to make. You cut up the kale leaves (don’t use the stems), toss them with about 2 Tbsp of olive oil, spread them on a baking sheet, then sprinkle with sea or kosher salt. Bake at 400 F for about 14 minutes. My guide was my Gwyneth Paltrow recipe book, but there are similar recipes online.


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Movie review: Dallas Buyer’s Club

**** Dallas Buyers Club (November 2013) – Theatre

Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner. A promiscuous, homophobic Texas cowboy is stunned by an HIV diagnosis during the mid-1980s, when that is most definitely a death sentence. He finds unlikely alliances among gay men as he fights for treatment options to prolong his life.

She says: Much less sad a film than I was expecting, given that it is about young men who are dying of an awful disease. But this movie focuses on their fight for life, and while not everyone survives (hardly a spoiler), the movie doesn’t wallow in those moments. It never goes for cheap sentiment.

The gaunt Matthew McConaughey is almost unrecognizable but very good in the lead role of Ron Woodroff, who is not always sympathetic, yet you can’t help rooting for him, even before the prejudice he encounters due to his diagnosis gradually causes him to evolve into a somewhat better man. Jared Leto, as his transsexual partner Rayon in the “buyers club”, is also very good, and I wish the movie had spent more time on his rather fascinating character.

The “buyers club” is formed when the medical establishment has nothing to offer these men. They look for alternative and experimental drugs and therapies, try them on themselves first to test efficacy, then sell them with no guarantees to people who have no other hope. The response of various officials—medical, legal, regulatory—to the club forms the crux of this film. Really interesting.

And often funnier than you’d think from that description!

He says: Wow! I liked that movie! About time. (Although it was disturbing just how good-looking a “woman” that Rayon was…)

Characters from Dallas Buyers Club