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Six years ago, after way too many Thanksgiving turkeys in one holiday weekend (from mutliple holiday meals with different friends), I decided to try being vegetarian for just the month of December and then January came and went and I was still vegetarian.  Now several years later I’m still happy to be a herbivore (and carbivore, but I’ll get to that).

I’ve learned from experience that I can’t give myself open-ended or extremely long-term lifestyle goals.  I need a foreseeable mile-marker to keep in mind otherwise I will quickly lose interest.

So with that said, I am giving myself two January resolutions – as opposed to 2012 resolutions.

1. Drastically reduce sugar intake

I have gotten lazy about eating well. Mark teases me about being a vegetarian who doesn’t eat many vegetables.  This must change. Not only do I need more veggies, but I also need more grains and legumes for proteins. More about my tracking tool below.

2. Work out at least 4 times a week

Fortunately I have a good start on this one since we got a treadmill at home this past Fall.  Another thing I know about myself – I don’t go to gyms, no matter how convenient or nearby they might be.  Having a treadmill at home has been wonderful! I’ve already gone from being able to run 30 seconds at a time to 3 minutes, plus lots and lots of walking.

The Tools

1. Home Equipment

As I said, the treadmill has been a boon in getting me started.  The only other equipment I’m using so far are dumbbells, an aerobic step to act as a bench for certain exercises, and a yoga mat.

I wanted a treadmill rather than an elliptical or nordic track because I knew I would need to multi-task to get interested in exercising at first.  The treadmill we have, combined with a bathtub shelf and the iPad, is the walking desk I’ve been wanting. When I’m doing a C25K routine, I simply remove the shelf and I have lots of room for the running segments.

2. Websites / Apps

C25K – Couch to 5K

There are C25K websites and C25K apps galore (even for treadmills!). It’s a nine-week program that alternates walking with running, building you up to run a 5K. If you need extra time, you can do each week multiple times until you’re ready for the next one.   I highly recommend using an app – you start up your playlist, then start your C25K app and a voice will tell you when to walk and when to run.  Usually your music will fade a bit for a moment so you can hear the instructions.  I like this Ease Into 5K app because I can choose a pleasant chipper British voice to tell me when to run, when I’m halfway done, and when to cool down.  She makes it sound so easy, of course.

200×2 – Abs and Arms

I got the idea for this from the 100 Push Ups and 200 Sit Ups programs – similar to C25K in that they build you up to a goal over several weeks.  Instead of just focusing on these specific exercises, I’m making a more general Abs and Arms program using the sets and reps of these programs (so I have some sort of target each day), and mixing up the exercises so I get some variety.  I put the numbers together into a weekly plan. This way, I can alternate days of the week between C25K and 200×2 – hopefully working out 6 times a week and easily meeting my resolution goal.

Fitocracy.com 

Fitocracy is still in beta with some beta quirks, but so far I’m loving it.  Basically, you get points for working out – anything from traditional squats and bench presses to dancing, fencing, or drumming. They have quests you can do for even more points, and these are what I find really valuable.  The quests give me ideas (or at least motivation) to try exercises that I would not have done otherwise. The list of possible exercises is fairly long with (hit or miss) descriptions – very helpful for giving me variety in my 200×2 routines.  I think it really helps to be in a group with people you know.  I’m in a small group with Mark, his son, daughter, son-in-law, and brother-in-law.  It’s nice for encouragement and competition.  However, I haven’t found a way to export exercise history or data, or back it up elsewhere.  That worries me a bit, but I am tracking some of my workouts in other places, too.

My Fitness Pal

For food, I’m using My Fitness Pal – a free website and app I heard about thanks to fellow librarians on Twitter.  It has a huge database of ingredients and meals, but the thing that really sold me was the barcode scan search for the iPhone/iPad app.  I scan the code on my soymilk, for example, and immediately have all the information per serving size filled in.  All I have to do then is fill in how many servings I’ve had.  This has been *wonderful* for curbing post-holiday snacking, and also to get a picture of where I’m falling short in my diet.  After the first few days, I can already see that I need way more vitamin A and iron in my foods.

Looking Ahead

Like I said at the beginning, these goals are just for January.  I’m having fun with both Fitocracy and My Fitness Pal now, but I don’t think I could keep it up for a whole year.  At the end of January, I plan on enjoying a dark chocolate sea salt bar from Trader Joe’s while I evaluate how well I’ve done on my goals, and how well these tools have worked for me.  From there, I will decide what the goals or projects for February should be.  Stay tuned.

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It’s that time of year to make lists.  With this list I will cover two memes at once – my Two Thirds Book Challenge update, and my contribution to the #libfavs2011 tag (librarians listing their favorite 11 books read in 2011).  So in no particular order …

(1) The Sparrow and (2) Children of God by Mary Doria Russell

Early in 2011 I read two books recommended by one of our English professors at my university.  I’m surprised I had never heard of them before.  They were (1) The Sparrow and (2) Children of God by Mary Doria Russell.  Basically, the books are about a team of Jesuits (yes, Jesuits) who become the first humans to visit Alpha Centauri after catching snippets of song on a SETI satellite.  Imagine the stories of the Spanish missionaries and treasure hunters who came to the New World in the 1400’s and later, retold as a sci-fi alien contact parable.  These were books that stayed with me for a long, long, long time.  I still think about things from these books and it’s been almost ten months since I read them!  The characters, the cultures, even the details for the logistics of the trip itself are laid out in details.  I will warn you, though, that the second book – Children of God – can be a harrowing book in some parts.  It’s when everything breaks down, just as things inevitably did when our Old World met New World.  Highly recommended.

(3) An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin

I enjoyed reading Steve Martin’s Shopgirl a few years ago, and I want to know more about the art world someday so this little book seemed like a good choice for me.  Overall, it was just okay, but I’m including it on this list because of the way he wove the artwork and the experiences of seeing the artwork into the story.  In the edition I had from the library, there were even color images of the paintings in question sprinkled throughout the book.  But for anyone who thinks ebooks can’t improve on their paper counterparts, this would be an example against that claim.  I would much prefer to have read this as an ebook on the iPad with hi-res images for the paintings that I could make full-screen and really absorb.  The little bitty images in the paper book did not do justice.

(4) Among Others by Jo Walton

I read this book on the heels of other similar stories about awkward kids discovering some unknown ability or world and battling their own monsters, imagined or otherwise.  The other books included Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses and Ransom Riggs’ Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.  I chose Among Others for my list because I think it was the best written and the characters stayed with me far longer.  Most importantly, the protagonist had a deep and abiding love of books that delighted me.  Seeing the way the character thought about books, people, and places felt like stepping into someone else’s life.  This one of the few books written as a diary that actually felt like reading a diary.

(5) The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

I’ve seen wildly different reviews for this book – seems to be a love it or hate it item.  I myself absolutely loved it and can’t wait to own a beautiful hardcover mint condition copy of my own.  I think the “hate it” crowd wanted stronger characters or plot or something, though I didn’t see much lacking in those departments for what it is — a fantasy/magic realism fiction.  I think those same critics are pleased as punch with writers like China Mieville – who I also enjoyed this year, with his book Embassytown.  But here’s the thing that a writer like Morgenstern has, that a writer like Mieville does not:  Style.  Mieville’s prose is clumsy and choppy.  The words trip over themselves, the dialogue is stilted. But his story ideas are fantastically brilliant and original.  Morgenstern, on the other hand, writes beautiful prose with gorgeous descriptions.  She sets a scene and you can practically walk in it.  You can smell the circus food, you can hear the gravel crunching, you can feel that breeze go by.  I only wish her circus had more amazing tents so I could read her descriptions of them.

(6) The Late American Novel, edited by Jeff Martin

Now we get into my Two Thirds Book Challenge books.  Though, of course, I am reading themes not books.  This one comes from my Writing theme and it was an excellent choice.  Dozens of writers of various genres put in their two cents about the future of writing, reading and books.  The reactions are all over the place, the styles vary dramatically, and the different voices are very strong.  Out of all these essays, there were only a couple I found myself skimming through rather than reading carefully and soaking up.  I took many notes and in some places laughed out loud.  Ironically, I read the book in the Kindle app on my iPad.  I would love to get a paper copy and read it again in a year to see how the predictions are faring.  Highly recommended for personal collections and gift giving.

(7) The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

One of the motivations of using themes in my Two Thirds Book Challenge was to broaden my reading palette, but so far I’m still stuck in fiction, which is the theme of my next couple books on this list.  Gaiman was one of those authors that seemed to be too hyped to me, so I avoided his books for a while.  Then a year or so ago I read Good Omens by Gaiman and Terry Pratchett — lots of fun.  After that the Twitter book club 1 Book 140 picked Gaiman’s American Gods and I read along.  Enjoyed that, too.  All sorts of mythology and legends being pulled together and brought into a modern age that doesn’t know what to make of mythology or legends. The Graveyard Book is no exception to that trend — Gaiman takes Kipling’s classic The Jungle Book and changes the setting to a graveyard.  He pulls it off in a wonderful way, and without a tacky ending.  I would love to see more stories with these characters.

(8) The Magicians and (9) The Magician King by Lev Grossman

When Magician King came out, I saw all sorts of interviews and reviews on book blogs discussing the allusions and references to writers like C. S. Lewis, J. K. Rowling, J. R. R. Tolkien, Neal Stephenson, and many others.  Just like my fascination with retold myths, I was intrigued by this series that admitted to so many influences.  It took me a couple times to start The Magicians — Quentin is not the most sympathetic character, after all.  But once I pushed through the first few chapters, the book really took off for me and the second book was even better.  Now I’m contemplating a return to the Narnia books that I haven’t read in … 25 years??  Though seeing them through the jaded, skeptic eyes of Grossman’s characters makes me hesitate, too.

(10) and (11) … ??

I’m not going to pick these yet because I still have ten days in the year left – ten days that include quite a few hours in airports, airplanes, and away from work.  Who knows what I might read next?  Maybe even (gasp) a nonfiction book!

For almost a month now I’ve been very slowly reading Buddhism Without Beliefs by Stephen Batchelor.  The Husband heard about the book on 3 Quarks Daily and I’ve been curious about Taoism and Buddhism for a long while now.  One of the things I’m enjoying about the book is the occasional brief meditation exercise slipped into chapters here and there.  For example, from the “Becoming” chapter:

“Sit still and come back to the breath. Center your attention in the rhythm of sensations that make up the act of breathing. Let the agitated mind settle, then expand your awareness to include the rest of the body. With calm alertness gradually increase the field of awareness until you encompass the totality of your experience in this moment: what you hear, see, smell, taste, and touch, as well as the thoughts and emotions that arise and fade in your mind.”  (p. 69)

Meditation is one of those things, like painting, that I really, really hope I learn to do someday but at this point in my life such activities require a focus and patience that I do not seem to possess.  Not that I’m giving up hope!  In fact, I have tried a couple of Batchelor’s little meditations and actually found them very helpful.

Which brings me to the second book I’m reading right now — An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin.  I won’t go into whether it’s a good book or not, I’ll just say this: I love this book so far.  I love how Martin writes about looking at art, wanting to own art.  I have re-read this one paragraph several times already:

“… paintings are layered… first, ephemera and notations on the back of the canvas. Labels indicate gallery shows, museum shows, footprints in the snow, so to speak. Then pencil scribbles on the stretcher, usually by the artist, usually a title or date. Next the stretcher itself. Pine or something. Wooden triangles in the corners so the picture can be tapped tighter when the canvas becomes loose. Nails in the wood securing the picture to the stretcher. Next, a canvas: linen, muslin, sometimes a panel; then the gesso – a primary coat, always white. A layer of underpaint, usually a pastel color, then, the miracle, where the secrets are: the paint itself, swished around, roughly, gently, layer on layer, thick or thin, not more than a quarter of an inch ever — God can happen in that quarter of an inch — the occasional brush hair left embedded, colors mixed over each other, tones showing through, sometimes the weave of the linen revealing itself. The signature on top of the entire goulash. Then varnish is swabbed over the whole. Finally, the frame, translucent gilt or carved wood. The whole thing is done.” (p. 81)

The same day I read this beautiful passage, the Husband and I went to our local art museum to see a show that just opened – Andrew Langoussis: What Was, Is, and Will Be.  I was stopped in my tracks by paintings as tall as me like this:

Siena Apartment, Andrew Langoussis

And especially this:

Street Noise, Andrew Langoussis(you are hereby encouraged to click through and look at the large size image…)

And as we wandered through the gallery, I realized that taking in images like these was the closest I came to meditation.  Perhaps that’s why the passage from Steve Martin’s book stood out for me so much — it captures something of the viewing process, viewing experience.  And if you look back and compare the quote from Batchelor with the quote from Martin, you might see a sort of parallel in the way each writer walks the reader through a series of layers in awareness.

“This moment was a secret among the Avery, the Scotch, and Lacey, and she saw clearly something that had eluded her in her two years in the art business. In a few minutes of unexpected communion, she understood why people wanted to own these things.” (p. 57, An Object of Beauty)

The last time I specifically remember being enthralled with a painting like this was when Marty Maehr had some pieces up in a little gallery in downtown Urbana.  I love the splash of his colors and shapes.  How could I think about everyday distractions when following lines like these?

Marty Maehr Paintings

Well, I asked my parents to just give me stories this year instead of things.  You think, after a lifetime, that you know your parents pretty well.  But then my Dad sends me a story like this and I realize I still have a lot to learn. My parents continue to surprise me in wonderful ways.  As we all head into the holidays, I just wanted to share this gift from my Dad about appreciating what we have while we have it.

It was a little chilly that day, but we would fly with the doors open, we wanted to help make his wish come true. He wanted to be a helicopter pilot when he grew up, he wanted to experience what we did daily yet we took it for granted. When we strapped Tommy into the helicopter the sun was shining, it was an early fall day in Rapid City, South Dakota. Tommy was only twelve years old, but he looked so mature for someone of his age. Tommy had already lived a lifetime of pain. Yet he had such a good attitude – he smiled even though you could see the pain in his eyes. He had an ashen gray appearance, you see Tommy had leukemia.

As we prepared to take off Tommy’s nose started to bleed, we almost thought we weren’t going to be able to fly him. He was a little weak but with a tissue and a cotton ball, he was good to go. We were on a “Make a Wish” mission. Tommy had requested to fly in a US Air Force helicopter and see his family farm from the air. This was the farm his grandfather had started and passed on to his dad. It would have been Tommy’s some day; at least that was the plan. As we ran the check list and started the engine on our single engine Huey, Tommy’s eyes were filled with excitement, our Flight Engineer kept a close watch on him and we made sure he could talk to us. Tommy wore a standard Air Force Flight Suit and aviators flying helmet that engulfed his head. He had on Nomex flight gloves under the Velcro of the flight suit sleeves.

As we lifted off, a huge grin came to Tommy’s face; the first step of a dream came through. You almost feel weightless as the helicopter is hovering just a few feet above the ground. We were cleared by tower to hover taxi. We performed our last pre-takeoff check list, were cleared for a west departure, pulled collective, pushed forward on the cyclic, a touch of right rotor petal and wop, wop, wop wop, we were on our way. Some people say helicopters don’t fly; they beat the air into submission. We arrived at our cruising altitude of 1000 feet and headed toward Tommy’s farm. We chatted with Tommy, mostly small talk; we offered to answer any questions he might have about flying or the helicopter. Tommy didn’t seem to want to talk much, just absorb the experience like someone slowly enjoying a much desired meal.

As we reached the family farm, there were two houses, a barn, and a fenced area with horses. One of the horses was Tommy’s he used to ride him every day.  As we descended to 300 feet and flew a racetrack pattern around the farm, Tommy’s Grandfather and Grandmother came out and waved and waved. His Grandmother looked like so many you would expect to see, she had on an apron and cotton dress, his grandfather had on his overalls, both were smiling and waving at Tommy. That was the happiest we had seen Tommy the whole flight. His parents had also come out in the yard along with his dog and followed the helicopter by turning this way and that so they could keep eye contact with Tommy. We made several passes as Tommy waved and explained to us some of the important features of the farm, his horse and dog.

It was bitter sweet when we landed and Tommy unstrapped from the helicopter, he was able to realize a dream. He gave us far more than we gave him, it has been over 20 years and I still remember the experience, the patient consideration Tommy demonstrated, the look in his eyes and the optimism as he talked about the future. Two weeks following this flight, Tommy went on to be with the Lord.

— by Faron Thompson, December 2010

Thank you, Dad.

It’s that frantic time of year between Black Friday and Christmas morning, when the overwhelming question coming out of our media boxes seems to be “What are you going to buy?” with the very clear assumption that you must buy SOMEthing.

I have a long-standing love/hate relationship with Christmas.  I prefer to celebrate the Winter Solstice instead and I wish I could ignore the whole gift-obsessed culture of the holiday season all together.  At the same time, I end up getting a new holiday CD every year, I love it when people wear Christmas hats to work, and I think decorating for the season is way super fun.

Over the past few years I’ve been struggling to come up with my own holiday customs and rituals.  This is the first year Mark and I will spend the holidays together as a married couple and now I feel the setting of traditions to be even more important.

Recently I met someone who gave me a wonderful idea.  A retired schoolteacher is meeting with Mark once a week for a writing group.  She’s an incredible, sharp-as-a-tack woman.  The writing she brings each week is short stories — often true stories from her own experiences.  Some of these she hopes to develop into a children’s book, others are simply stories to pass down to her grown kids and their kids.

Think about that.  Stories to pass down.  Real life, this-happened-to-me stories.  Do you know how your parents met?  Do you know how your mom/dad broke a leg at 10 years old?  Do you remember when you first learned the truth about Santa?

We lose so many stories, and yet there is such a wealth of incredible, personal stories out there in our families, among our own friends. How awesome would it be if we exchanged short stories this year in lieu of store-bought gifts?  I would be THRILLED if someone gave me a story.  It’s a beautifully satisfying gift on all kinds of levels — the obsessive collector, the curious busy body, the affectionate relative, or the estranged long-distance friend.

In a way, that’s what people were doing with the old custom of holiday family newsletters.  A friend of mine used to write us all a poem at the end of each year that summed up her adventures for the past 12 months … and it usually rhymed!  I’ve already asked my parents to just give me a story – any story – for Christmas this year.

Sure, writing a story is harder than just picking up something at a store … or is it?  I don’t know about you, but I would much prefer to sit at home, looking out the window, composing a little memory on my computer than go outside in the cold, drive through slushy crazy traffic to a crowded store or mall, and figure out which knick-knack will not be completely useless to the gift recipient.

My only regret is that I didn’t start asking for stories sooner.

About a week ago, Mark  – of “habitually probing generalist” fame – and I tied the knot.  We were married at the courthouse here on our 2-year anniversary and then out at Lake of the Woods we exchanged vows, surrounded by a few friends and family.

The honeymoon, unfortunately, will have to wait a bit.  Four weeks from now, we’ll be in Sioux City, Iowa – our new home.  As soon as our wedding guests left town, our nice & neat little living room turned into a maze of boxes and packing materials.

I am looking forward to a shiny new job in Sioux City – I’ll be a librarian at Briar Cliff University.  In the back of  my mind, I’m also having fantasies about learning new hobbies from the simple (cooking at home!) to the much more complex (sewing! with a machine!).

Between now and then, we will see Mark’s daughter get married and I will go the ALA conference in D.C. with about 18 librarians from 4 different African countries.  The next four weeks will go by so very fast, I’m already feeling the whiplash.

When my parents asked me what I wanted for Christmas, I teasingly answered that I wanted the famous family sugar cookies, knowing full well they didn’t have time or space to take on that laborious process.  Lo and behold, we ended up receiving Christmas Cookie assortments from *four* different friends and none of the cookies were repeats!

This has been an excellent holiday season of seeing friends and sharing with family.  I talked to my parents on the phone this morning and they told me all about my grandpa’s status. Grandpa was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a few years ago.  He doesn’t usually know what day it is, but he’s figured his way out of 4 different assisted living facilities.  Most recently, he figured out that hitting the door’s button a certain number of times triggered the emergency exit release.  On a separate occasion, the staff claimed he must have watched them enter their access codes and memorized the numbers because there was no other way for him to get out of the building.

I maintain my grandpa is brilliant and we just don’t understand where he’s coming from right now.  My favorite example from his Christmas Eve conversations:

My dad:  “You remember we moved, right?”

Grandpa: “Yeah, you moved to Oregon.”

Dad: “No, we moved to Oklahoma.”

Grandpa: “I think you’d be happier in Oregon.”

In a few moments I will attempt to juggle the following spinning plates:

– start preparations for cooking mini pot pies (leave the butter out to soften) while I…

– start importing recent photos, while I…

– get logged into the various websites I need for a work project, while I…

– listen to my “unrated” playlist in iTunes and add ratings.

On your mark… get set… go!

Things I want someone to make for me:

Popabrella

Popabrella

1. a camera umbrella that attaches to the tripod mount but still allows me to attach any tripod, too

CHECK:  someone has already made this!

2. a program that gives me slick graph reports of my iTunes library, kind of like Trends in Google Reader or like this guy’s pie chart or something that combines all these programs together with easy GUI goodness.

Which artists do I have the most music from?  Which artists do I skip the most often? What are my top genres by frequency in playlists? I need to know these things.

Okay, so it’s been – what – over a month? since my last post.  I could open a new tab and find out for certain, but I’m trying something out here … just writing for the sake of writing.

Or it might be more accurate to say I’m writing for the sake of letting anyone out there who only knows me through this blog know that I am indeed still alive.  Just very, very busy.

These two months – September and October – are the Run For Your Life Non-Stop months at my job.  I find this time exhilarating, challenging, breath-taking and exhausting. And my classes this term are dynamic, fun and  well-balanced.  It’s actually a very good term on the whole.

But, as you might have guessed from my last post, I’ve been thinking a lot about personal expression.  This includes a lot of different things for me — everything from individual style to creative outlets to one’s writing voice.  I’ve had some great conversations about this with various people this semester, giving me plenty of food for thought.

From an art student friend, I’m learning about using the influence of the great masters in your craft as a process toward finding your own voice.  I had always been frustrated by all the influences on me, feeling that I would never know what *I* wanted to say, because I have so many other writers buried in my sub-conscious.  But this friend has pointed out to me something rather obvious — that these influences blend together and form a mosaic that becomes a part of your voice.  That those masters had mosaics of their own, going back farther than we can see.

From a kindred spirit with a love of words, I’m rediscovering the subtle power of poetry.   My study of poetry has been  varied but rather lazy up till now.  I’ve always shied around the science of poetry, never really delving into the mechanics too much for fear of tarnishing the enchantment of poems with the nuts and bolts.  But this friend has shown me and reminded me that, linguistically, the careful and deliberate construction of poetry is key to its power.

So with all this in mind, I plan to steal away some time for myself to revisit some familiar and unfamiliar masters, unlock some favorite and foreign poems, and allow this mosaic I’m sitting on to show itself bit by bit.

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