June 26, 2011

Transformation (Or, André Gets the Last Laugh)

Category: Life — Cranky @

Recently I gave up aspartame. It’s not because I think it causes cancer. It’s one of the most thoroughly tested products in history, and there’s no evidence that it’s harmful in any way. I’ve just really started to think about what I put into my body. Now instead of Diet Coke I keep a pitcher of water lightly flavored with the fresh juice of one lemon handy.

This outlook is new. My whole life has been stuffed with terrible eating habits. Whether it was pure junk food or junk food masquerading as real food (I’m looking at you, KFC), I ate bad food. There were months where my fridge was empty because I was eating out or bringing home fast food. If there was food in my fridge it was a small selection that was quick to prepare and not particularly great for me.

Even when I was in the best shape of my life, I got there eating poorly. To achieve my best weight I basically spend an entire year hungry. A nutritionist would have fainted at seeing how little I was eating. It worked, but it wasn’t healthy, physically or mentally.

Early this year I realized I was growing weary of this cycle of destructive eating, and I resolved to find a way to step out of this pattern. It couldn’t be a diet – a diet is a temporary patch. It had to be a fundamental change in how I approach food.

So I decided to learn how to cook.

In the city of Edmonton we’re lucky to have one of the great culinary schools in North America, the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology. Last month a team of six students won 10 medals at the Hong Kong International Culinary Classic. Even better, they offer a set of continuing education courses, the “Kitchen Skills” program. It was 60 hours of instruction across 15 evenings, covering basic knife skills, soups, stocks, sauces, as well as meat, vegetable, and seafood preparation. They’re primer courses, and while these courses are not very deep, they opened my eyes to what cooking is all about.

Over the past five months my meals have transformed. I haven’t brought fast food home in quite a while, and each night I look forward to making dinner. Tonight it was baked salmon in sesame oil, and steamed broccoli and asparagus with a honey mustard vinaigrette. I packed my lunch for tomorrow, too. I’m having spinach leaves chiffonade with shredded carrot, Swiss cheese cubes, radishes, cucumber, sweet bell pepper chunks, and shredded chicken breast with a classic vinaigrette.

Slowly I’ve gravitated towards what is often called the “Mediterranian diet”. Red meat once a week, poultry once or twice, fish often, plenty of fruits and vegetables, some eggs, cheese and yogurt on occasion, and unrefined grains. The principle fat used in cooking is olive oil. I’ve also dusted off my elliptical trainer.

This change in food is only part of a larger change in my world view. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about what I buy. On June 20 a report was released by the International Programme on the State of the Ocean, and it confirmed what I’ve been realizing for a long time – the oceans are in terrible shape. When it comes to commercial fishing, shrimp trawlers are an absolute nightmare. They destroy vast ecosystems, leaving behind a devastated sea floor, not to mention the fact that each pound of shrimp also kills between 4 and 10 pounds of “by-catch” – other marine life that is simply dumped back into the sea, dead or dying.

My conscience finally got the better of me, so I found a local seafood distributor that specializes in “sustainable seafood”. If I want shrimp, it’s going to have to be B.C. spot prawns, which are sustainably caught in traps with little or no by-catch, and no trawling. They’re also three times the price of other brands. All the seafood I buy is checked against the SeaChoice sustainability list.

Closer to home, the local farmer’s market is my grocery store of choice. This Saturday I bought asparagus, carrots, strawberries, baby potatoes, and onions. In another month the selection will improve as other vegetables come into season. I’m pleased to buy local produce. The idea of buying a tomato from South America is sitting less well with me these days.

The other good thing about the farmer’s market is that lots of pretty girls go there – the “granola chicks”, as a poker buddy called them.

All of these things, from my changing diet to my attempts to reduce the cost of my life on the planet, come from a desire for balance. I’m a happy guy, enjoying his life, but parts of that life have been chaotic forever, and smoothing out those perturbations feels good. I sleep a little easier, I have less regret, and I’m starting to lose weight again.

In a heated debate on Christmas Eve back in 2005 I once goaded André, a steadfast environmentalist and my cousin’s husband, into being so worked up that he called everyone at the table – and me specifically – ignorant.

It took me 7 years, but I’m man enough to say, “André, I agree with you. I’ve come around.”

Cranky V2.0

June 20, 2011

I Have No Idea What To Do

Category: Economy — Cranky @

There’s kind of a schizophrenic attitude going around the United States right now. The Republican party is beating the drum on drastic cuts in spending, and across the nation people are nodding their heads. “Yes! Cut spending now, lest the debt grow out of control! And let’s focus on job creation. Cut spending, create jobs!”

The problem is that drastic cuts in spending by the government means an immediate rise in unemployment. As in, right away. The government will shed workers as it shuts down programs. Businesses that provided services and supplies to those programs will shed additional ones. Subsidiary businesses like restaurants near those businesses will shed workers. Trickle-down economics might not work, but trickle-down unemployment absolutely does.

Withdrawing trillions in spending will hurt the citizens of the United States. The debt is already out of control, too. Even if the Republicans get all of the cuts they’re demanding, it’s still not enough. Not even close. Behind closed doors, I’m sure they all know it. The question is no longer, “How do we bring our debt back into stability?” It has become, “How long can we stave off complete collapse?”

In the litany of mistakes being made because they’re stuck in denial, some stand out significantly. Education should be funded until money stops being money, otherwise they are trading their future away in order to delay the collapse for a very tiny period of time. The same goes for research funding. They should be focused almost exclusively on tearing down government by rooting out mandate overlaps, unnecessary layers, and duplicated services. Only then should they start large-scale cuts to entire services, like Planned Parenthood.

Also, the idea that construction workers can draw unemployment benefits when there is infrastructure work to be done mystifies me. If you have to pay him, put him to work, whether it’s filling potholes or fixing bridges. Get something for that money. That’s the thing people forget about some of that spending – sometimes it’s not just an expense. If the government creates a make-work project to build a needed bridge, at the end of it all they have debt… but they also have a bridge. So cut unnecessary government before you cut the bridge.

So while the U.S. continues to hemorrhage money, and the policy-makers fight over the debt ceiling (which only matters in the short term), I’m now wondering, is it finally in sight?

In December of 2007 I wrote, “I thought that a recession was coming. Now I think it’s much, much worse… I don’t see the crash decades away. I don’t even put it years out. I think the crash will begin in earnest in 2008.” Not a bad short-term prediction for a guy who is clearly not an economist.

In May of 2008 I wrote, “This is it, folks. The massive reset has begun. In a few years things will improve, but the artificially inflated lifestyle of the American will never return.” Well, I botched that prediction. It’s been three years. It’s taking far longer than I expected for this to all play out, and the global scale of it all was a complete surprise to me.

My problem is I have absolutely no idea what to do about any of it. I can’t advise anybody. What if I’m wrong, and the government pulls the U.S. out of its tailspin? Just because I don’t see an out doesn’t mean there isn’t one. What if things are simply not as bad as I’m assuming? I could be looking at reality through my own jaded little glasses, seeing an economic apocalypse where there is none.

Bah. It’s all so damned complicated. That’s the problem.


June 14, 2011

Stuff… It's Everywhere!

Category: Life — Cranky @

My condo has been getting smaller and smaller. My storage units were jammed, my countertops cluttered… it was starting to look like an episode of “Hoarders”. I could pretty it up for company, but in the end I simply had too much stuff.

This past weekend saw the Great Purge of 2011.

I went through each and every item I own, and asked myself, “Do I really need this?” A lot of the time the answer was “no”. For instance I had 5 CD storage cases with no future. I had sheets of fabric whose intended purpose had not come about. I had binders of guitar transcriptions that I’ll never read again. I had training books for software development in languages that has long ago faded away. I have a deep fryer… when did I get a deep fryer? I doubt it’s ever been used.

I threw away the boxes of all the software I have, and filed the contents in a cabinet. I had dozens of cables whose raison d’être has long since vanished. Composite and s-video cables… PC keyboard cables… dozens of USB cables…

In the end I was shocked to have 6 full garbage bags and one box to get rid of. Some went to donation, some went in the trash. And I feel ever so much better. I’ve reclaimed some counter space, the value of which cannot be overstated. It’s just so nice to know that when my place is clean, it’s really clean, rather than being cluttered and disorganized just beneath the surface.

I like having less stuff. Maybe one day I’ll want no stuff at all.