Friday, November 23, 2007

Vantage Point

Approaching Lake Lefroy, Yoho National Park, B.C., Canada.

August 2007. Photo by Darren DeRidder.

Monday, November 19, 2007

A Change'll Do You Good

They say change is as good as a vacation, or at least a change will (sometimes) do you good. I found this to be true when I quit my job last summer, bought a sailboat, and signed up with a new high-tech startup. It's been a gas. It's not just a change of surroundings or a change of workplace or hobby or house that can do you good, though. How about a change of habit? Or how about a change of mind? A change a heart? I think the pure and simple luxury we have as human beings of being able to change our minds is one of the most precious gifts we have. A change of job, or a change of residence... what is that compared to a whole new outlook, a new way of seeing things, new understanding? A change of mind can open new possibilities. It can free us from old ideas that have held is in bondage by our desperate desire to prove that we were right, and give sweet relief in being able to say, "I was wrong" or, "I forgive you."

But we're somehow conditioned to think that changing our minds is a bad thing. Of course, waffling back and forth on issues isn't a good bet - "a double-minded man is unstable in all his ways" and all that - but, by golly, what a load of fun it can be, just to change your mind about something.

When we're little kids, and don't know anything, we sort of drink in the world in wide, wild-eyed wonder until our world-view gets cemented in place somewhere (if we're lucky) in our late twenties or thirties. After that, what are you going to do to find that lost sense of wonder you felt as a kid? Your brain is pretty much full, you've thought about most of the stuff you want to think about, and you've settled your curiosity down with some sort of mental model that makes (more or less) sense of everything.

I suppose having kids of your own opens up a new world, and you can begin to experience and learn new things through them. Some vicariously, some just by observing, a lot just by loving the tarnation out of them. Then they grow up.

But enough about that for now, I want to talk about my friend Marvin, who would not eat chicken unless it was a free range chicken. "What the heck is a free range chicken!" I said. "Well," Marv explained, "they're allowed to run around free and peck at seeds and stuff. They aren't forced to live their entire lives in a tiny cage."

"They like it in a cage," I replied. "Free range, ha! Gobble gobble!" And I made fun of Marvin over free range chickens after that.

Believe it or not, there are some people who think the food that you eat can be happy. Or angry. Or scared... ooh! What's our first reaction to that going to be? Oh come on, don't be silly. Food can't be happy or sad or whatever. I mean, we're humans. We're capable of reason and emotion, not like animals. Emotion is just something in your mind, its because we have a soul, not like... chickens. Cluck, cluck! And anyway, it's dead.

Now, kids have no problem with the idea of food being happy or sad. They have, after all, the Happy Meal, complete with bouncy burgers and cheery french fries. They talk to their food. They sometimes wear it. Frequently throw it. And if the food is sad, they'll let you know it.

What is emotion anyway? According to Dr. Candace Pert, formerly Chief of the Section on Brain Biochemistry of the Clinical Neuroscience Branch of the NIMH, emotion is actually an electro-chemical response. It sweeps through the body from head to toe -- literally from our heads, since the neuro-chemicals (called peptides) are regulated in the hypothalamus. These protein chains create the myriad of emotions we're capable of experiencing. And, these neuro-chemical agents "register" by locking into the cells of our body at particular receptor sites. Cells are sensitive to peptides, and when they replicate, Dr. Pert claims, the new cells tend to have more of the receptors that match the peptides to which the original cell has been exposed. The body actually grows accustomed to particular emotional states, not just because we're in habit of being grumpy or happy, but because the cells of our body become addicted to particular peptide chains. Interesting stuff.

This always happens to me.

I was just in the kitchen making my own Happy Meal (organic brown rice, red pepper and brie omelet with organic free range eggs), put the lid on to let it finish on low heat and then peeked in on the computer. While being hypnotically entertained by Oshiri Kajiri Mushi (apparently the latest and greatest craze to hit Japan in 2007) and the mind-bending Mobius Transformations Revealed, I began to notice a stange, organic burnt smell... my omelet! Crap. My $7.99/dozen free range organic bug infested eggs! My Happy Meal turned into Oscar the Grouch! There he is, glaring out of the garbage can.

The second time around was much better. I decided not to leave the kitchen until the whole mission was accomplished, a much better strategy. Anyway, the point of it is, I'm not making fun of my friend Marvin anymore. It's nothing much, but I changed my mind, and instead, I'm sitting here eating free-range eggs, from happy little chickens.

Marv long since moved away anyhow.

Now I'm going to have to run, because I just baked a blueberry pie. I like blueberry pie, and don't think I'll change my mind about that! I even remembered to set the oven timer, and it's beeping just like a big ol' happy organic free range hen.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Routine Variation

Somewhere, a long time ago, I remember reading that an established regular routine is common among people who live very long lives. I also remember an article that talked about altering your regular routine, and how it can inspire new ideas, creativity and a youthful mind.

On Tuesday nights from Fall, through Winter, and through Spring, I would go to the Bells Corners Academy of Music to take piano lessons and play with the Tuesday night jazz ensemble. Parking my car in the lot shared with the Nepean Creative Arts Centre, I'd walk out back behind the building and cross a small wooded lawn to the back lot of a Tim Horton's drive-through. There were hardly ever any walk in customers, and although I never got to know the staff by name, they got used to seeing me pop in on Tuesdays, around 6pm. With my double-double in hand I'd scoot back to BCAM, crossing the pavement, over the lawn on a hint of a footpath, and if I was lucky and the door was slightly ajar, into the back of the large class-room where I had my lessons.

My teacher, Yves, was also a coffee drinker. If I passed by the office on my way to Timmy's, he'd often drop a buck seventy-five in my hand and ask me to pick up one for him. "Medium regular". Same very time.

In the winter, I'd still cross the back lot and pick my way over to Tim's. The light would be fading by the time I got there, but after December, the days got longer. The wooded lawn was covered with snow, and I often saw the footsteps of someone who'd gone there before me. I was pretty sure that would be Yves. Sometimes, when the snow was especially deep, the footsteps would find another way around the wooded lawn. There was the back of a strip-mall to one side, and a narrow, paved border that followed along the wall, which was made of white-painted concrete blocks. For some reason, it never had much snow on it, apparently because it faced the afternoon sun, which warmed the dark, sheltered asphalt. After a little way, the footsteps would appear again, crossing the grassy meridian at a narrower place, steps like post-holes.

I don't know why, but I smiled as I thought of Yves post-holing his way across the snow. Scuttling into the Timmy's drive-through. I pictured him in the windowless office of the Bells Corners Music Academy, poring over music sheets, schedules, and lesson plans, and nursing a medium regular with all the relish of someone who's given up smoking and found a new habit in a hot cuppa joe. It made the cold dash to Timmy's a bit less unpleasant. In fact, I came to look forward to it.

The Bell's Corners Academy of Music was also home to the Nepean chapter of the Sweet Adelaines ladies' chorus on Tuesday nights, who met in the large auditorium adjacent to our classroom. An unfriendlier more self-absorbed gaggle of middle-aged women you would be hard-pressed to find. Religiously dressed in red, and bustling about in the hallways with their big puffy coats, bags full of what-not, and music binders with pokey corners, they formed a veritable gauntlet of "Mrs. Santa-Clauses", as the fellows in the jazz band dubbed them. The jazz band were all men, and we were definitely the minority. We would arrive just as the Sweet Adelaine's were reaching full pre-chorus bustle. Each of us would arrive in the class-room after threading our way down the hallway like a pachinko ball, with a look on our faces somewhere between fear, relief, and hilarity. Its not that the Mrs. Santa-Clauses were hostile, its just as if they have been behaviorally conditioned to completely and totally ignore the presence of a man. Or anybody not dressed in red and wielding a poky binder, for that matter. I doubt that passing through the hallway, dodging one frizzy white-topped red bumper-car after another, we men ever caused more than one or two synapses to fire in the gray depths of their song-addled minds. Same fellows, same jokes, week after week... oh we had endless fun.

Last weekend, I decided, more or less on a whim, to substitute what has become my regular Saturday morning routine of breakfast in the Glebe, with a quiet walk along the river to Old Ottawa South. I'd look for another breakfast spot. I'd go for a coffee afterwards in a different coffee shop. I'd purposely stay away from my regular spots.

What a beautiful day; the walk in the crisp fall air was refreshing. I came across a beautiful and cozy little bistro perched over the sidewalk in the heart of Old Ottawa South with food that was several notches above anything I've had before - the kind of quality you can only find in meals that have been prepared almost lovingly - and only in small, low-traffic well-kept secrets of a joint. Stopped in at the Glebe Meat Market to see if they had any grass-fed organic beef and instead walked out with a frozen bake-at-home strawberry rhubarb pie. Had a coffee in a newly renovated 2nd Cup, a place that brought back lots of memories from visits over the years but which I hadn't been to for ages. On the way home, I dropped in at, of all places, the public library, where I got a card in about 2 minutes flat and went home with a DVD of Keith Jarrett called "The Art of Improvisation". I'd seen it before, but I watched it again anyhow. Ate fresh baked strawberry pie. Felt like I had lifted the lid off a bottomless box of curiosities.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007


I used to jokingly tell people I'm a meatitarian. My attitude has generally been, I like meat. I don't care where it comes from. I don't care how it is raised. Kill it, cook it, eat it.

This book, Diet For A New America, is changing that, however. John Robbins (the heir to the Baskin-Robbins empire who walked away from it all to promote healthy food choices) uncovers study after study in this book that amounts to a mass of scientific research on the effects of diet on our health and on our planet. Robbins also does a good job of making clear how the scientific community has long been battled by the Meat and Dairy Industries, who patently ignore, contradict and criticize the prevalent medical evidence to promote their own sales through misleading advertising, 'educational' campaigns and outright deception.

This book is remarkably impacting. Accoring to Google Books, since its publication in 1987 American consumption of beef has fallen by 19%. Arthritis, MS, diabetes, asthma, cancer and hypertension are but a few of the conditions on which the impact of diet is documented by extensive research.

Here is a distilled version of some of the facts from the well-documented book. Please read it.
  • Number of people worldwide who will die as a result of malnutrition this year: 20 million
  • Number of people who could be adequately fed using land freed if Americans reduced their intake of meat by 10%: 100 million
  • Percentage of corn grown in the U.S. eaten by people: 20
  • Percentage of corn grown in the U.S. eaten by livestock: 80
  • Percentage of oats grown in the U.S. eaten by livestock: 95
  • Percentage of protein wasted by cycling grain through livestock: 90
  • How frequently a child dies as a result of malnutrition: every 2.3 seconds
  • Pounds of potatoes that can be grown on an acre: 40,000
  • Pounds of beef produced on an acre: 250
  • Percentage of U.S. farmland devoted to beef production: 56
  • Pounds of grain and soybeans needed to produce a pound of edible flesh from feedlot beef: 16
  • Cause of global warming: greenhouse effect
  • Primary cause of greenhouse effect: carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels
  • Percentage of greenhouse gases from livestock: 18%
  • Fossil fuels needed to produce meat-centered diet vs. a meat-free diet: 3 times more
  • Percentage of U.S. topsoil lost to date: 75
  • Percentage of U.S. topsoil loss directly related to livestock raising: 85
  • Number of acres of U.S. forest cleared for cropland to produce meat-centered diet: 260 million
  • Amount of meat imported to U.S. annually from Central and South America: 300,000,000 pounds
  • Percentage of Central American children under the age of five who are undernourished: 75
  • Area of tropical rainforest consumed in every quarter-pound of rainforest beef: 55 square feet
  • Current rate of species extinction due to destruction of tropical rainforests for meat grazing and other uses: 1,000 per year
  • Increased risk of breast cancer for women who eat meat daily compared to less than once a week: 3.8 times
  • For women who eat eggs daily compared to once a week: 2.8 times
  • For women who eat butter and cheese 2-4 times a week: 3.25 times
  • Increased risk of fatal ovarian cancer for women who eat eggs 3 or more times a week vs. less than once a week: 3 times
  • Increased risk of fatal prostate cancer for men who consume meat, cheese, eggs and milk daily vs. sparingly or not at all: 3.6 times.
  • Number of U.S. medical schools: 125
  • Number requiring a course in nutrition: 30
  • Nutrition training received by average U.S. physician during four years in medical school: 2.5 hours
  • Most common cause of death in the U.S.: heart attack
  • How frequently a heart attack kills in the U.S.: every 45 seconds
  • Average U.S. man's risk of death from heart attack: 50 percent
  • Risk of average U.S. man who eats no meat: 15 percent
  • Risk of average U.S. man who eats no meat, dairy or eggs: 4 percent
  • Amount you reduce risk of heart attack if you reduce consumption of meat, dairy and eggs by 10 percent: 9 percent
  • Amount you reduce risk of heart attack if you reduce consumption by 50 percent: 45 percent
  • Amount you reduce risk if you eliminate meat, dairy and eggs from your diet: 90 percent
  • Average cholesterol level of people eating meat-centered-diet: 210 mg/dl
  • Chance of dying from heart disease if you are male and your blood cholesterol level is 210 mg/dl: greater than 50 percent
  • User of more than half of all water used for all purposes in the U.S.: livestock production
  • Amount of water used in production of the average cow: sufficient to float a destroyer
  • Gallons of water needed to produce a pound of wheat: 25
  • Gallons of water needed to produce a pound of California beef: 5,000
  • Years the world's known oil reserves would last if every human ate a meat-centered diet: 13
  • Years they would last if human beings no longer ate meat: 260
  • Calories of fossil fuel expended to get 1 calorie of protein from beef: 78
  • To get 1 calorie of protein from soybeans: 2
  • Percentage of all raw materials (base products of farming, forestry and mining, including fossil fuels) consumed by U.S. that is devoted to the production of livestock: 33
  • Percentage of all raw materials consumed by the U.S. needed to produce a complete vegetarian diet: 2
  • Percentage of U.S. antibiotics fed to livestock: 70
  • Percentage of staphylococci infections resistant to penicillin in 1960: 13
  • Percentage resistant in 1988: 91
  • Response of European Economic Community to routine feeding of antibiotics to livestock: ban
  • Response of U.S. meat and pharmaceutical industries to routine feeding of antibiotics to livestock: full and complete support
  • Common belief: U.S. Department of Agriculture protects our health through meat inspection
  • Reality: fewer than 1 out of every 250,000 slaughtered animals is tested for toxic chemical residues
  • Percentage of U.S. mother's milk containing significant levels of DDT: 99
  • Percentage of U.S. vegetarian mother's milk containing significant levels of DDT: 8
  • Contamination of breast milk, due to chlorinated hydrocarbon pesticides in animal products, found in meat-eating mothers vs. non-meat eating mothers: 35 times higher
  • Amount of Dieldrin ingested by the average breast-fed American infant: 9 times the permissible level
  • Number of animals killed for meat per hour in the U.S.: 660,000
  • Occupation with highest turnover rate in U.S.: slaughterhouse worker
  • Occupation with highest rate of on-the-job-injury in U.S.: slaughterhouse worker
  • Athlete to win Ironman Triathlon more than twice: Dave Scott (6 time winner)
  • Food choice of Dave Scott: Vegetarian

Productivity and Note-taking

I told a friend of mine that I wasn't really happy with the amount of time that gets taken up by Slack and "communication and sched...