roberts wesleyan, thanksgiving, Uncategorized

On not being an ungrateful pig: Thanksgiving in a world of excess.

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Chapel.

Wally, my former pastor, is now the chaplain at my university and recently he asked me to briefly share about thankfulness. “Just a few things. 3-4 minutes. And, I wouldn’t be disappointed if what you shared was a little humorous.” Wally is the king of “a little humorous.” In fact, he’s “a lot humorous.” Imagine having Jerry Seinfeld as your pastor – that’s Wally. So I took him at his word, but he didn’t tell me anything about the nature of the service so I, stupidly, figured that I was a pre-chapel joke of some sort.

Then I got to chapel and realized that it was a sober worship liturgy with meditations and songs and readings and it was all very pious… and I was the final “meditation.” A responsible and mature person would have abandoned his weak attempt at humor and improvised a mushy “I’m thankful for my family” kind of thing, but I’m not responsible or mature.

So with a few minor edits I said something like this:

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Thank you, Wally.

What am I thankful for? I’m thankful for this opportunity. I’m thankful that I’m thankful. In fact, I’m thankful that I’m thankful that I’m thankful, which makes me meta-meta-thankful, which is pretty dog-gone thankful.

But besides that, I have 6 other things, for which I am thankful:

1). I’m thankful for essential oils – like lavender and eucalyptus… and dog’s breath and 10w-30. I’m also thankful that essential doesn’t actually mean essential, thank God – because I’ve never used essential oils and I’m not dead. Still, there are times when I’d really like to cram some ginko seed pods in an infuser and just de-stress.

2. I’m thankful that I don’t have a foot fungus, like Wally.

3. I’m thankful that, as a man, I don’t HAVE to shave my legs. And, 3a) I’m thankful that in Ithaca, NY, nobody has to shave their legs. [A nearby town. A famously left-leaning hippy kind of place.]

4. I’m thankful for Thanksgiving, which is my favorite holiday, especially the part where you’re just about to eat and somebody suggests we go around the table and share one thing we’re thankful for and I sit their annoyed, because it takes forever for people to drag out their thanksgiving cliches and there I sit, unthankfully watching my mashed potatoes get cold, watching the cranberry sauce on my plate melt and bleed into my dressing which should just not happen and, worse, watching – visibly watching – the salmonella and other bacteria colonize the turkey.

5. I’m thankful that God doesn’t strike us all dead with a thunderbolt when we go shopping on Black Friday, even though he probably wants to. I mean, you just spent an entire day offering your thanks to God and patting yourself on the back for how content you are, and then, with no sense of irony, you go out and engage in a materialistic and consumeristic debauch in which you engage pitched battle for cheap home electronics and tickle me Elmo dolls (or whatever the latest must-have absurdity is this year).

6. I’m thankful that the day after Black Friday, I can spend a good hour watching amazing youtube videos of women in Target beating each other senseless and old men in Wal-Mart beating each other senseless as they fight over the last stainless steel toaster oven that’s on sale for 40% off. That’s more fun than watching football. I’m also thankful for the people who go out on Black Friday, JUST for the purpose shooting those youtube videos.

I could go on and on… I’m just bubbling with thanks, but let me close with something serious… and I do have a point here, though I haven’t really worked this out yet. If, like me, you’re having trouble giving thanks it could be because you are obnoxiously wealthy and it’s hard to give sincere thanks when you already have everything. And if you think I’m not talking to you – but only to other people here who are rich, you’re wrong. You are rich. Obnoxiously rich. – we all are. No culture on the planet has ever had more than we do. You are going to college – that alone makes you richer than 94% of the world’s population.

Look, I am not one of those Antifa America haters who thinks all of our wealth was created by imperialism and the exploitation of the poor. America is successful because of ambition, thrift, enterprise, and sensible values like a healthy respect for the law. But there is a world out there of such obscene poverty that it makes US saying “Thank you, Jesus” sound gluttonous and mean. How should I feel about spending more money on food for Thanksgiving weekend (my rough estimate is $450) than an average Afghan family makes in an entire year?

Give thanks, but Jesus said he didn’t come for rich people and I hope the fact that you don’t really need anything gnaws at you a little bit. Thanksgiving is a feast day – enjoy! But maybe think about ways you can (intelligently) use your wealth to create thankfulness in other parts of the world. Or strategize such that your thankfulness actually manifests contentment and becomes a hedge against the materialism of the standard American Christmas.

At the very least, ask your “direct sales home party essential oils consultant” if she has a special something to put in the infuser that will, 1). make your house smell like pine nuts and lilacs and, 2) keep the people in your home from smelling like ungrateful pigs.

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I told my students they could bring a cheat sheet to the final exam if they brought something for the food cupboard at my Church.  I think we could do better than this, but it’s a start!

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Advice to Millennials and other Young People: 10 Things I Wish I’d have Figured Out Before I Turned 50

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Fiona is, supposedly, Generation Alpha.  Me? I’m too young to be a Baby Boomer but too old for Generation X.

I don’t think of myself as an old person, but I recently had an age-awareness epiphany when I found out that I’m in one of the “at risk” categories for the flu (I’m 50+). While writing the previous sentence I couldn’t think of the phrase “at risk,” so I had to use “the google,” which is two other signs of being old.  While searching I became even more discouraged because I learned that I’m also at risk for heart attack, sepsis, and dementia (obviously).  Seems I could go at any minute.

Given my fading memory and impending death, I thought if I’m going to share all my vast stores of wisdom with hipster Millennials, I’d better get going.

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1).  Dump out your sock drawer and light the contents on fire.  Then go to Costco and buy two 8-packs of identical black socks (and maybe one 8-pack of identical brown).  At first blush, this seems like a reckless waste of perfectly good socks, but consider the opportunity costs.  By my calculations I have spent 7.2 months of my life standing in front of my sock drawer trying not to swear and trying to find matching pairs. Never again.  (I’m serious.  If you do this you will rise in the morning and call me blessed.)

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Tenor guitar.  Baritone hack.

2). Get good at something worthwhile.  I enjoy music and I’ve always enjoyed playing acoustic instruments, singing, and composing — but I never really disciplined myself to take any of it to the next level (learn more music theory, master an instrument, insist on high level technique).  So I still enjoy all of those things and for years I have been content to play and write music as a kind of personal therapy, but now I can really see the obstacles presented by my averageness. Sigh.

Oh, and remember, “worthwhile.”  Plato said that an art (as opposed to a knack or hobby) seeks the good/ideal and benefits humanity.  I suppose there is some value in decorating your body with cartoons, body building, or binge watching Netflix…  but I’m not thinking that’s really what Plato had in mind.

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brazil nuts

3).  Brazil nuts are actually pretty good.

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2007 BMW z4 and clouds

4). Strategic thrift permits strategic extravagance.    I’ve been thrifty forever, but I’ve only recently begun to appreciate the way strategic thrift frees up opportunity.   Some friends of ours recently bought/financed a brand new Toyota SUV for $30K.  At about the same time we bought (and paid cash) two used cars FOR LESS THAN HALF THEY MONEY they spent!  And nice cars, too —  a VW Touareg SUV (same thing as a Porsche Cayenne) and a BMW Z4 roadster.  Choose your tightwadery and your extravagance, but if you don’t, your roadster, trip to Europe, plan to create a charitable foundation, or your dream of building and flying your own airplane will trickle through your fingers right into the hands of Starbucks, Vera Bradley, or some other petty waste of money.

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This image (it’s a device that cleans the Alaskan oil pipeline) has no relevance to saggy elastic skin, but i thought I’d spare you images like that.  Come to think of it, I think the thing is called a pig, so that’s sorta relevant.

5). Did you know that skin is only so elastic?  You can lose weight, but you can’t lose all that extra skin. I can’t believe nobody ever told me that.

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Arnie and Shirley

6).  Stop analyzing people (especially your parents).  People who want to be analyzed pay therapists to do it.  Are you a therapist?  No?  Then quit analyzing people. Take your parents, for instance: You know how all your friends think your parents are really cool?  That’s because your parents ARE really cool!  Seriously.  They are.  Anyway, I know it’s easier to critique, explain, and objectify than it is to accept and appreciate, but the sooner you get there, the better.  Mom and Dad?  I think you’re the best!  (And if you do go to a therapist and the therapist says everything is your parent’s fault and that makes you feel better…fine, but keep it to yourself.)

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Rorschach test inkblot. Meaningless.

7). Personality tests are a crock.  All of them. Stupid online ones or fancy complicated ones like Enneagram which claims it isn’t a personality test, but, in fact, is. Myer’s/Briggs (MBTI), the biggest current thing in human reductionism, is absolutely wretched.  The test was conceptualized by Katherine Briggs whose academic credentials included; 1) writing self-help articles in magazines like the Ladies’ Home Journal and 2) a certificate in Horticulture from an agricultural “college.”  Her daughter Isabella, who “perfected” the test, also had zero expertise in psychology.  She had a bachelor’s in Political Science.  Isabella wrote a letter to Carl Jung (who wrote the theory that MBTI plagiarizes so badly) to explain what she was doing (“I want to be able to analyze all the kids in the neighborhood!”) and Jung urged her to stop!  Would you like to do more research so you can understand the history and validity of the MBTI?  Almost impossible, since the college that has archived her papers won’t let anybody look at them.  Do you feel like the MBTI is a bit horoscope, a bit phrenology, and a bit fortune telling?  That’s because it is!  I never took much stock in the test (felt like people used it to label, confine, and excuse), but after doing a little homework, I’m a complete Myers/Briggs atheist.  Real scientists reject it and the applications are dangerous. Of course, I probably feel this way because I’m an LMNO… or a BMOC?  I forget.

(If you are a Myers/Briggs or Enneagram (or whatever) believer, I love you AND I dare you to read, The Cult of Personality: How Personality Tests are Leading Us to Miseducate our Children, Mismanage our Companies, and Misunderstand Ourselves, by Annie Murphy Paul.)

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KeenWah? Hay and Stubble? Not sure.

8).  You need to take care of your knees, teeth, and arteries.  I wish I had learned this in my 20s.  Unfortunately, “being active” won’t be enough to make that happen — you’re also going to have to floss and make radical changes to your diet.  Exercise and nutrition aren’t really about living to be 102 (I don’t really want to live to be 102, anyway), they are about making the last 30-40 years high quality years (no drugs, no replacements, no bypasses, no etc.).  Your 50s will be here sooner than you think — the earlier you get started, the better.   (There are 100 different ways to lose weight, but at some point you’re going to realize that the healthiest people on the planet don’t eat animal protein.  Sorry about that.)

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guam national geographic

I recently threw away about 20 years of these.

9.  After you read a magazine, throw it away. This will be really hard for some of you, but really — you’ll never miss your 1905 copy of National Geographic that had that great article about Guam or something.

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I figured I should spare you.

10. Your nipples won’t bleed if, before a long run like a 1/2 marathon, you coat those bad boys with liquid band-aid.

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Well.  There you have it. 10 free tips for lasting happiness.  I have more advice (and way better advice, by the way), but I can’t remember it.  If I think of it… Ooooo!  Here’s one!  This will be like a teaser for the next list: 11). The only way people could care LESS about your political opinion would be if you posted it on social media.  (Did I say that?  Sorry.)

Anyway.  much happiness to you and yours!

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“Where do you get your protein?” Plant-based answers from a real doctor

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(Plants.  In a farmer’s market in Nuremberg, Germany.)

What is your annoying question?  An annoying question may be a perfectly sensible question, it’s just that you get asked it over and over again.  My brother has identical twins.  His annoying question is, “Are they twins?”  (I hear that the annoying question for parents of fraternal twins is, “Are they identical?” EVEN when one is a boy and one is a girl.) Homeschooolers get asked “What about socialization?” and Canadians get asked, “Where is Canada?” or “Isn’t Canada really just North Minnesota?”

But now we are plant-based eaters and the most annoying question we get is, “Where do you get your protein?”  Everyone asks this question. Medical professionals, friends, family, and the guy at the burrito place who notices that we don’t order meat, cheese, or sour cream. It’s surprising how many M.D.s ask that question. My standard answer is usually, “plants,” or “the same place cows do — grass.”

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(A guac/humus wrap with black beans and Verde salsa.  Loads of protein and 10 times better tasting than a baloney sandwich.  We did have to abandon the Wegmans whole wheat wrap when we found out it had canola oil, anchovy oil, sardine oil, and tilapia solids in it. Tilapia solids? Ew.  #foodyoucantfeelgoodabout)

You would never ask an annoying question, but it’s possible that some day you will need to come to the defense of a beleaguered vegan or plant-based eater who is being accosted by a protein obsessed carnivore.

To that end, I did a highly scientific analysis of my protein intake the other day.  I noticed that I’d eaten a fairly typical plant-based menu and so I did some precise measurements and calculations.  Here’s the kind of precision we’re talking about… “I ate a handful of nuts… Hmmmm… that looks like about a 1/4 cup.”  Then I googled how much protein there was in a 1/4 of mixed nuts… and so on.  I’m using the precision standard of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures, which is sometimes referred to as, “Ballpark.”

Breakfast:  None.  I don’t eat breakfast.  I quit about 5 years ago.  It’s an old husband’s tale that breakfast is the most important meal of the day and as much as I love breakfast food, fasting in the morning is just an easy way to axe a bunch of calories.  I do drink a big mug of chai tea with lots of honey, but I don’t think there is any protein in honey or tea.

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Lunch:  African Peanut Stew over whole grain rice with corn on the cob.  These were leftovers.  I also ate some plant-based yogurt (Silk) w/ flax seed.

Snacks: Handful of mixed nuts, some pickle spears, and a bowl of cereal with cashew milk (not all at the same time!).

Dinner:  Pizza.  Well, what my wife and I call pizza, but it’s really nothing like pizza.  It’s a thin multi-grain flatbread with pizza sauce, fresh mushrooms, spinach, and some seasonings. No cheese, of course.  I also had some watermelon and a plant-based ice cream bar (no protein).

It wasn’t really alotta food: Partly because I didn’t eat breakfast, but also because I’m on a diet (that’s a long plant-based story).  Had I eaten 3 meals and eaten as much as I wanted, I would have had way more protein.   I also didn’t drink a protein shake or eat a bunch of extra beans or tofu or whatever to try to jack my numbers.

Without really trying, I ate 78 grams of protein.

People with a diverse set of chromosomes (XY) are supposed to eat, according to the FDA, 57 grams of protein per day.  People with hegemonic chromosomes (XX) only need to eat 46 grams.  78, even with ballpark calculations, is way over the recommendation.

Looks like I’m doing ok.

You’d die without protein, but it’s also really helpful if you’re trying to lose weight.  It fills you up and makes you feel full for a long time.   I used to eat a salad at noon and I’d be looking for a snack by 2:30.  But now I pour 1/2 a cup of chipotle seasoned black beans on my salad and I’m full for hours. Protein also keeps you from losing muscle, so it’s a great dieting nutrient. Protein is the least of your worries if you’re a meat eater.  Your worries include things like obesity and colon cancer.  The standard America diet will keep you well above the daily requirements for protein intake, but it will also keep you well above the daily requirements for fat, sugars, preservatives, and food coloring.

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(This is amazing, vegan, and loaded with protein. But it’s not technically legal for plant-based people because it’s made with added oil.  #foodyoucanalmostfeelgoodabout)

So, where do we get our protein?  Plants.  Most plant-based eaters replace meat with lentils, black beans, pinto beans, and chick peas and, as luck would have it, they are all loaded with protein. Nuts and seeds also score well, but you knew that.  We also eat a bunch of things we rarely (or never) ate before like chia, quinoa, and hemp seeds,  and odd things like nutritional yeast, edamame, tofu, and tempeh.  Those last three are loaded with protein.

So now you know.  Plant-based eaters like us (and cows, elephants, rhinos, and almost all of the dinosaurs) get their protein from, surprisingly enough, plants.  You can stop worrying.

p.s.  When my kids were little they used to ask this annoying question: “But you’re not a real doctor, like Uncle Kendell, right?”  Sigh.

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Worse than Vegan: 10 Observations After a Year of Plant-Based Eating

My wife and I have been eating “plant-based” for about a year now. We don’t eat meat or other animal protein. (No cheese. No Soylent Green.)

Ruth is a MRI/Radiology nurse and she started to notice that sick people are sick, largely, (pun intended) because they are fat (fat is my language, not hers!);  bad knees, bad backs, diabetes, various cancers, heart disease, poor hygiene, poor taste in music, and the like. “Are we fat,” I asked?  She said, “We are on the verge.” Our doctors were starting to look at us condescendingly over the top of their glasses.

I immediately recommended the paleo diet because paleo is what cavemen ate — supposedly allota barbecue. (Cavemen also did allota starving to death, I’m guessing.)  But as it happened, a friend of ours had just lost 85lbs on the “Forks over Knives” plant-based diet.  Ruth watched the documentary and despite my subtle attempts to mock it, she said, “I’m doing this.” I said I’d do it with her for 8 weeks.  (“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Ephesians 5:21).  It’s been over a year.

So here’s what I’ve learned:

#1.  We’re not vegan.  People say, “Oh, you’re vegan!” and I say, “No.  Plant-based is WAY worse than vegan.”  And they say, “What could be worse than vegan?”  And I tell them, “No added oil.  We have to eat our salad dry.”  This also eliminates alotta vegan friendly foods (fake cheese, fake mayo, fake sour cream) because they’re loaded with oil.  A pure plant-based person worried about heart disease won’t even eat nuts.  It’s bleak.

#2   Veganism is a religion, but we aren’t believers.  Most vegans love mosquitoes, hate factory farming of chickens, worry about puppy mills, and if they saw a human baby drowning right next to a fawn, they’d feel conflicted. But respect for animals and worship of animals are different things.  I’m happy to kill animals for food.  It doesn’t bother me that cows are forced to lactate forever so we can eat cheese.  But now people assume, because we don’t eat meat, that we must be PETA wackos. That’s annoying.  We are wackos, but for other reasons.  Plant-based people aren’t necessarily vegan.

#3 I don’t get all the science.  I don’t really care, quite frankly. There does seem to be a pretty strong connection between animal protein and cancers.  Maybe it’s just that plant-based people are thin.  Maybe it’s just that we eat more vegetables (and maybe we could keep eating meat if we did so in moderation).  Or maybe it’s just because tofu has magical cancer fighting, diabetes busting, fat fighting properties that make anybody who eat it magically healthy.  My wife has read all the books and knows all the research — ask her if you really care.  I was skeptical till I found out our local research and teaching hospital (University of Rochester/Strong Hospital) employs plant-based nutritionists and insists that cardiac patients follow the diet.  That’s enough for me.

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(This (German) meal looks healthy, but it’s slathered with butter and loaded with fat. Germans don’t do vegetarian, let alone plant-based.  I suffered through, though.  🙂 )

#4 Americans eat like kings. Which is to say, we eat like pigs. Nobody in the world eats more than we do (nearly 4000 calories a day, by some measures). (DailyMail.com) We eat three huge and rich/fatty meals a day, snack between meals, and have ice cream and/or popcorn almost every night. Meat consumption has exploded in the past 100 years (NPR).  I recently ate dinner with a 75 year old man who said that he wasn’t poor growing up, but his family only had meat once a week.  Today, we eat sausage and bacon for breakfast, cold cuts for lunch, and for dinner, a steak or a chicken breast about the size of a queen sized pillow. Is it any wonder that we are the fattest nation on earth?  Actually — that’s not true.  We are only the 8th fattest.  Only 72% of us are overweight or obese while 79% of the good citizens of the Cook Islands are overweight (1st place! Yea Cook Islands!).  (W.H.O., 2016)

#5  The diet annoys our friends.  They dispute the science or complain that we don’t want to go out to eat as much (we don’t). Maybe there is something in the diet that inherently asserts, “We are eating intelligently and you are eating stupidly.”  We don’t feel that way, but that’s how some seem to read it. But what is more upsetting to people is that, I think, the diet constitutes a refusal of hospitality. People who invite guests to dinner are offering their best — and now we’re saying their best just isn’t good enough.  I get that. The relationship between food and friendship is strong!  Our kids were really mad at us for awhile. The burgers, hot Italian beef, and pork chops suddenly disappeared, (Who wants to mooch a meal of grits and chickpeas?), but we are slowly converting them to plant-based.

#6 Faking traditional meals is disappointing.  You can’t copy meatloaf or chicken cordon blue with plants.  You can make legal dough, legal sauce,  and cover it with traditional legal vegetables, but it just won’t taste like pizza.  It will taste like somebody tried to make pizza and screwed up (because they forgot the cheese).  We make a cream sauce to put on black beans and potatoes, and we love it, but it’s not sour cream.  Plant-based is an acquired taste.

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(legal twice baked broccoli potatoes from the Plant Pure Nation Cookbook, by Kim Campbell)

#7 Your tastes change. Really.  It’s been a year and we enjoy our meals way more than we used to.  I’m sure that’s due, in part, to Ruth’s cooking skills.  But I also think we’re adjusting.  I suppose if you decided to only eat, say, Cambodian food for the rest of you’re life, you’d really come to enjoy the wonder and subtleties of  Cambodian food.   Long before we got started on this diet we were lovers of beans; Puerto Rican rice and beans, black beans and rice, and etc., so that has been really easy (plant-based people eat alotta beans).  We eat differently and we’ve grown to like it and the occasional meat/cheese cheats are typically disappointing.  I suppose one of the things that makes vegans/etc. so annoying is that they, not realizing how much their tastes have changed, inflict their recipes on meat eaters: “Here!  You’ll really love this!  It tastes just like meatloaf!”  Um.  No it doesn’t. (Our plant based tacos are pretty close, though. And our banana/cocoa frozen smoothie w/ almond milk. And our roasted garlic potatoes.  And our…)

Disclaimer: The smell of meat on a charcoal grill still makes me tremble.

#8 We’re eating healthy.  It really amazes me how often the guy criticizing my diet is stuffing his face with chili dogs, french fries and cheese nachos: “WERHER OO OOO ET YR PRTEEN [Where do you get your protein]?” or “You’re going to get rickets and die.” This is so strange — as if there are no nutritional deficiencies in the standard American diet. And even if our diet has a sin of omission (B12 and D don’t come in vegetables), we can always add a little nutritional yeast or drink almond milk to compensate.  But you can’t compensate for the sins of commission in what most Americans eat — processed foods, fatty meats, and Ding Dongs.  If you only eat kale, you’ll die, but imagine someone sitting on a bench eating rat poison and saying to someone eating kale, “You know, kale is not nutritionally complete.”

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(Rise ‘N Roll Bakery,  Key Lime Donut.  Mmmmmmmmm.)

#9 We strategically cheat.  When I was still raging against this diet I read an article that said people most likely to lose and keep weight off, cheat — strategically. When a plate of nachos comes around at a dinner party, the strategic cheater eats 3 and quits.  The non-cheater refuses the nachos, but then breaks down and eats three, and later eats the whole plate and says, “Well, to heck with this diet” and blows up like a balloon.  I intend to eat a Wendy’s frosty once a year. I will eat kringle (a Racine WI pastry) when I visit my folks and Rise N Roll donuts when I visit my sister (Nappanee, IN).  I ate a full blown traditional meal at Thanksgiving, including dark meat and gravy.  One day, Ruth said, “We’re going to the NCFR and getting a Grecian omelette with the home fries (at least it was vegetarian).”  I felt guilty about this till I found out that Dr. Esselstyn, one of the plant based gurus, eats 10 Reese’s Peanut Butter cups each year on New Years Eve.  If I eat a non-legalistic plant-based diet 95% of the year, I’m guessing I will still enjoy a substantial health benefit.

#10 We feel better.  Who knows, maybe it’s too late.  50 years of dietary recklessness may have done me in.  Maybe the diet will get debunked or maybe we’ll just get lazy and slide back into our typical American ways. Sometimes I wonder if it’s better to die earlier but eat lavishly.  But at this point we are a year in and my wife and I are both down 20lbs without dieting, without being hungry, and without counting calories. My wife is off her cholesterol medicine (I haven’t been tested yet).  We have both experienced significant digestive benefits and all of my hair grew back.  OK, that last bit was a lie, but last summer my 53 year old plant-based self ran a half-marathon (and it was a trail marathon on some seriously steep hills).  We don’t want to live forever — we just want to do our part to make sure we remain trim, active, and healthy… till the very end.

Some References:

http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2012/06/26/155720538/the-making-of-meat-eating-america

http://www.forksoverknives.com (for links to all sorts of books, videos, etc.)

How Not to Die, Greger

Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease, Esselstyn

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Believing in Santa Claus (and the Christmas Law of Diminishing Returns)

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My favorite ornament of all time.

It’s Christmas Eve and I believe in believing in Santa Claus.

The world would be a better place if all parents taught their kids to believe in Santa Claus — at least for a while.

My children enjoyed Christmas better and they are better human beings because they really believed (and because we didn’t give them too many gifts.)

I believed in Santa Claus when I was a kid, too.  My parents lied to me and I thought the lie magnificent. On the way back from the Christmas Eve party with the Brewer family I scanned the skies for Rudolph’s nose.  I imagined Santa sneaking into my house.  I gave him cookies and milk and wrote him thank you letters.  It gave me joy. When I opened my (factory second) “Hot Wheels Action City Travel Racetrack Suitcase” on Christmas morning, there was a big rip right on the cover (repaired crudely with black electrical tape).  Mom told me a big fat one: “Um…Santa drove through a huge storm last night and the wind ripped it — he didn’t think you’d mind.” That was one of the coolest lies, ever.

Vintage 1968 Hot Wheels Action City Travel Racetrack Suitcase Mattel Toymakers Toy

(an unripped version)

My wife and I lied to our own kids, too. Soon after my kids went to bed on Christmas Eve I grabbed some old sleigh bells and ran around the yard doing my best “Ho! Ho! Ho!”  The kids bought the whole thing.

Turns out I was a pretty good liar — even during non-Christmas situations and even when I wasn’t trying.  I used to joke with the kids when we were driving through a downpour by shouting, “I command the rain to stop!”  And it did.  And then 2 seconds later I’d say, “…and start again!” and it would.  It did, of course, because we’d just driven under a bridge, but my kids never made the connection. I had no idea that my kids had no idea. When they told me, years later, that they thought that I could control the rain, I felt kinda bad.

But not too bad, because my kids weren’t crushed when they figured it out.  They thought it was pretty funny.  I think it would probably do all the children of the world some good if they thought their fathers had magical powers.

However, when my parents told me Santa wasn’t real, I went on a rampage, killed all the cats in the neighborhood, and joined a Satanic cult (Satan. Santa.  Same letters. Coincidence?).  I stopped believing in God, too.

No. That’s not true. I didn’t stop believing in God and the earth did not crash into the sun.

Nobody told me that Santa wasn’t real — I just figured it out.  I remember that I was in the living room on my hands and knees reading the newspaper and I shouted back to my family (still at the dinner table), “How in the world could Santa fly all the way around the planet in one night?  Stopping at every single home? That would be impossible.”  My older brother very gently said, “FIGURE IT OUT, PAUL!!!!” And there was a long pause and eventually  I said, “Oh.” And I laughed and we all laughed and that was that.  I was, from that point on, in on the joke.

I’m very suspicious of people who don’t teach their kids to believe in Santa (this includes my in-laws).  These are the kinds of people who frown on reading fiction because elves and orcs and hobbits aren’t in the Bible. These same people are NOT bothered by the witches, prostitutes, and baby killers in the Bible… but then, I digress.

The point is simply this — it’s fun to make believe!  It’s just as fun to believe in Santa as it is to sit down in a theater and pretend you’re actually on Tatooine (Star Wars) or attend a play and listen in on the dead citizens of Grover’s Corners (Our Town). We even have a name for it; “suspended disbelief.”  I know someone who can’t enjoy scary movies because she can’t allow herself to suspend disbelief — or, to put it another way, she can’t pretend to believe!  Jason is running around decapitating attractive co-eds in his hockey mask, blood is spurting all over the place, and my wife is smirking, laughing, rolling her eyes, and saying, “Ya. Right.”  Even with really good scary movies (like The Bad Seed) it’s all just a big joke.  I told you that she didn’t grow up believing in Santa Claus, didn’t I?  She has other qualities.  🙂

Yes this is also on my Christmas board but I love Jason hahaha

If you look very carefully you can see Jason’s trademark hockey mask.

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The Bad Seed: The Scariest Movie you’ve probably never seen.

One year, in addition to other things, we got the kids coal for their stockings.  Now as it happened, Sophie only got the coal. The Stewart kids could open their stockings as soon as they woke up, but they had strict instructions to let us sleep.  So everyone opened their fun little stocking stuffers and Sophie just sat there and cried. Eventually, when we finally woke up and discovered the goof, we made up a whopper about Santa spilling Sophie’s stocking in the basement.  Sophie cheered up in a hurry and to this day she loves to tell the story… who wouldn’t!?  It’s a great story!

Believing in Santa Claus teaches wonder, imagination, creativity, and the idea that there are mysteries out there waiting to be uncovered.  By the time the fairy tale is “spoiled,” it doesn’t matter — you have already been given all the the tools you need.  Truth can be told with facts and lectures and stern admonitions from your parents.  But it’s far better to learn the truth in the amusement and excitement of a good story.  Santa Claus is a magnificent start.

So do your kids a favor and teach them to believe in Santa — and don’t buy them too many gifts.

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And that reminds me… The Christmas Law of Diminishing Returns:

One gift is amazing.

Two gifts is twice as amazing.

But three gifts?

It isn’t three times as amazing.  It’s only a little bit more amazing.

And four gifts? Four gifts produces zero additional amazingness. After three gifts they all just blend into each other and each gift becomes less special.

Over-gifting is bad. It produces fatigue. (In adults it produces embarrassment). If you don’t believe me, watch your kids tomorrow.

If you got your kid one cool toy, an outfit, and a good book, that would be plenty.  Maybe some stocking stuffers.

Merry Christmas!

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Why I don’t play the lottery

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The lottery is about to top $1,000,000,000.  That’s a billion dollars.  Winning the lottery always seems to ruin the life of the winner, but nobody has ever won this much money before.  I can see how some irresponsible person might blow through 100 million dollars on Cheez-its and loose living, but a billion?  I think the person who wins a billion dollars will be just fine. I know I would, anyway. That’s more than the net worth of some small countries.  I would spend my winning responsibly and be very generous.  Probably.

But I can’t play the lottery.  My Dad always said that gambling was a sin.  My Dad even said putting a quarter in a pinball machine was a sin. “You’re just throwing your money away.”  He’s right (about gambling, anyway).  The lottery is, as they say, a tax on stupid people.  Or, at least a tax on people with bad math skills.  My mom (who is certainly no gambler!) disagreed.  She used to go visit her sister Imogene in Sacramento and every once in awhile they would drive up to Lake Tahoe and blow $20 in the slots.  She said, “It’s fun.  It’s just like any other entertainment. As long as you’re not addicted or anything….”

I can see my Dad’s point — and my Mom’s point — but economics isn’t why I don’t play the lottery.

When I was a newlywed and started getting actual mail, Ed McMann sent me (personally — just me) invitations to win the Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes.  “You, PAUL B. STEWART, could ALREADY be IN POSSESSION of THE winning NUMBERS….”  I entered, of course (since I was already in possession of the winning numbers and everything) AND because I wasn’t actually gambling (if you don’t count the stamp).  At least that’s how I rationalized it.  No money — no gambling.  Ruth and I were pretty poor — we could have used the money.

But after awhile I quit and it wasn’t because I couldn’t afford the stamps — I quit because I found myself hoping I’d win.  In fact, I dreamed of winning and spend quite a bit of time wondering what my life would be like if I finally had extra money.

And you have, too.  You’ve thought, “Hmmmm… 1 billion dollars which means maybe 1/2 a billion after taxes. So then 10% for church which leaves 450 million, and then I pay off the house which leaves $449,000,900, 102.24, and then I could buy those shoes I saw at DSW and maybe finally a decent set of kitchen knives.” So have I.  I’ve wondered how I would invest it, who I’d help out, and I’ve thought about leaving the little waitress at the NCFR a $10,000 tip.  Ever have that conversation about whether or not you’d quit your job?  Me, too. I’m a college professor, so I’ve fantasized about my employer suddenly becoming interested in me — President Porterfield taking me out to dinner and asking if I wouldn’t mind if they renamed the college after me (and fired a couple of my annoying colleagues).

I guess what I’m saying is, it’s not just a bit of harmless fun to spend your time fantasizing about becoming a gazillionaire, because if you fantasize about being a gazillionaire it seems you’re not being very appreciative for what you do have.  Put more harshly, if you dream of having vastly more wealth than God has already given you, you’re probably flirting with (if not making out with) envy and covetousness.

Of course, there are all those other reasons the lottery is bad (the government is stealing from the poor, lying about pretending to be concerned with education, cultivating gambling addiction, encouraging us all to think that hard work and thrift are old fashioned, etc.), but mostly for me, I don’t play the lottery because to do so would keep me from being thankful.  I mean, most of us have it pretty good, don’t we?  Even when Ruth and I were “poor,” we still had a car, a roof over our heads, pretty good eats, and enough money to go out once in awhile.

I want to be rich.  I do want to win 1.4 billion dollars.  I really do!  And so that’s why i don’t play the lottery.

(None of my colleagues are annoying.  Not enough to get fired, anyway.)

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The Cult of Star Wars: The Force Awakens

I was in the 7th grade when Star Wars debuted, but I didn’t see it till I was in the 8th grade.  I don’t remember how I convinced my father (he was suspicious of the worldly picture shows), but I did.  We drove all the way out to Hawthorn Mall and found a line stretched all the way around the theater.  I fully expected my father to turn around and drive home, but he didn’t.  We got in line and waited.  I couldn’t believe it.

…and then they sold the last tickets to the people in front of us.

Aaaaaaaaarrrrrrggghhhh!

To my amazement, my father said, “Well, I guess we’ll just buy tickets to the next show and wait.” I was stunned.  You don’t know what a miracle that was.

The movie was a miracle, too.  At 14 I WAS the target audience and Lucas completely transported me to that “galaxy, far, far, away.” I know the story is simple and the special effects dated, but Star Wars remains one of my favorite movies of all time.

So I come to the 7th movie, “The Force Awakens,” as a fan.  All the purists mourned when Disney bought the franchise, but I thought, “How could they do any worse than Lucas?” He had completely botched the second trilogy and the only good thing to come out of that series was the title of a bluegrass song by the Great Bear Trio, “Flaming Torso,” named after Hayden Christensen’s stubby, legless, Darth Vader torso, burning away on the planet Mustafar.

The spoiler-less summary of “The Force Awakens” in a nutshell?  Well, the Force awakens!  30 years after Luke blows up the Death Star, the Jedi have disappeared, and another Nazi-esque “First Order” has emerged to dominate the galaxy.  Only the Dark Side of the Force seems to be active.  A rag-tag resistance is trying to destroy the First Order’s “Death Planet” (a Death Star on steroids) and to find the last of the Jedi, the elusive Luke Skywalker, who is hiding out in some uncharted part of the galaxy.

(a couple of bright spots!)

It is clear that J.J. Abrams said, “Let’s go back to what made the franchise great — let’s go back to the original Star Wars.”  And for the most part, I really think he did that. There are fewer digital special effects (which seem too obvious and overdone in the second trilogy) and it was shot on good old fashioned Kodak film.  As with the original series, the new main characters are relative unknowns, so we aren’t distracted by celebrity characters like Jimmy Smits and Samuel L. Jackson.  The unknowns that they do choose are pretty good!  The new franchise heroine, Daisy Ridley as Rey, (who has never been in a movie before) and her counterpart, John Boyega as FN-2187, or Finn, are absolutely believable and solid actors.  These are not Hayden Christensen unknowns — these are Harrison Ford unknowns.  The other quality Abrams resurrects is humor!  The movie is fun!  Oh, there is plenty of darkness along the way, but none of the oppressive darkness and humorlessness of the second trilogy (could anybody have been less funny than Ewan McGregor’s Obi-wan?  Oh, ya.  Hayden Christensen.  He made dead nuns and babies seem like Johnny Carson.).  But you understand my point: this movie isn’t just exciting and scary, it’s exciting, and scary, and fun.  Han and Chewy are back to their delightful bickering and Rey and Finn have some pretty impressive comedic chops.

My critique of this movie may be significantly muddied by the people sitting around us (more about them, later), but the more overt connections to the original movies were, I think, a bit heavy handed.  Each time a character or theme from the original series was introduced, they handled it like one of those “big reveals” on those home makeover shows.  The first one absolutely got me (the reveal of the Millennium Falcon — I might have cheered involuntarily), but after that, they seemed disruptive, snapping me out of my suspended disbelief.  Han Solo and Chewy!  Cheer!  R2D2!  Cheer!  C3P0! (Tepid cheer.)  I’m not sure how they could have done it any better, but it felt staged — like a comedian explaining his jokes.  And then there was the basic story line, which was never very inventive in the first place. We have more evil Darth Vader types, a sinister politician, a big super weapon, and noble resistance fighters.  It’s a good story — I like it, but sometimes it felt like they weren’t even trying to think outside the box.  When the resistance fighters (including Fishhead Admiral Ackbar!  Cheer!) gather around the hologram of the “Death Planet,” they find a weakness, of course, and it’s not alot different than the “exhaust port” weakness they found in the original Death Star.  As Han tells them what they must do (surprise, surprise, hit the new exhaust port) his non-verbals are almost apologetic: “Sorry people — you know what’s coming. No real point in going over this one again — it’s just like the first movie — but I suppose it needs to be said.  We’re hitting that exhaust port thingee or whatever it is…okay?”

(he seemed to have a twinkle in his eye)

Despite these hiccups, I enjoyed the movie.  I went with my adult son and a college buddy and his boys who happened to be passing through town. It was dangerous to invite them (our sons had never met, they might have hated Star Wars, or worse, they might have pretended that they liked it) but we took our chances.  My son was delighted to find out that my buddy’s sons had not only watched all the originals in preparation, but that their only stipulation was that we arrive early enough to watch “all of the previews.” My son said, “I like these guys.”

I was feeling a bit of boyish enthusiasm, too, but enthusiasm seems qualitatively different than what the people around us were feeling. The people around us were feeling… feeling… I don’t know what they were feeling. Hysteria?  Religious frenzy? Group psychosis?

Instead of the typical movie chatter, people yapped from beginning to end.  The couple sitting behind us were particularly obnoxious with a Captain Obvious kind of running commentary: “They are battling each other!”  “She’s using the Force!” “They are getting on the ship! “Oh sh**!  Oh sh**! Oh sh**!”  The people in front of us were holding full discussions and convulsing with excitement.

Let me explain: The Stewarts and Stephens cousins lay claim to having invented the finger scramble.  The finger scramble is a physical expression of excitement or joy that you might experience when opening a big Christmas present, when getting ready to leave on vacation, or upon hearing that Heath Ledger isn’t actually dead (my daughters would finger scramble that one, anyway).  I made a video to demonstrate finger scrambling, but I haven’t figured out how to post videos to wordpress, yet so this will have to do; you put the tips of your fingers together and enthusiastically wiggle them. You can finger scramble with another person too — it’s surprisingly satisfying.

(I think the people at this wedding might have been sitting in front of us.)

The people in front of us were doing entire body scrambles — it wasn’t just nerd behavior, it was practically cultic. There were 15-20 people (adults, chronologically anyway) who apparently knew each other.  In the anticipation of the beginning of the movie, they all linked arms and grabbed and grasped at each other and patted each other and bobbed up and down and whispered and squealed and glanced back and forth as if they were 7th grade girls waiting for an appearance by Justin Bieber.  They didn’t just squeal at the big reveals, either, they squealed when the screen went dark, they squealed when the opening “Star Wars” logo appeared on the screen, they squealed when the opening crawl started rolling… I thought they would never stop squealing.  I shushed them once.  My buddy thought it was all an act, but the four guys right in front of us kept fawning over each other and actually sat on the edge of their seats (not just metaphorically, but literally) for 75% of the movie. The five of us were a little creeped out.

It’s old news to talk about big time college and professional athletics as  religious experience.   All humans are religious and if we don’t worship God, we will find something else to deify.  We are happy to transfer our glory, laud, and honor to something banal, like guys running around with a pigskin while wearing helmets and tights.  But I’d never seen it at a movie theater before.   Had Harrison Ford walked into our theater and said (like Tim Allen did in “Galaxy Quest”), “It’s all real!” the people sitting around us would have shouted, “WE BELIEVE!!!!!”

So I recommend the movie, but wait till the fanatics have had their fill. You’ll have to risk hearing an accidental spoiler or two on your social media feed, but maybe in a week or two all the true believers will be at home playing with their Star Wars action figures and lamenting the long wait until the next sequel.

(Darth Vader 2.0)

 

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