Thursday, January 28, 2010

Music for moving forward

A small percentage of people are interested in moving their lives forward. A smaller group are actually taking steps towards making that happen.

Maslowe himself estimated that the number of those people might be as small is two percent!

Singer/songwriter Kasey Anderson is probably one of those people. Back in his hometown of Portland, Oregon, after spending eight years in Bellingham, Washington, Anderson's new record chronicles the process of change. According to Anderson, Nowhere Nights is "equal parts charge, benediction, apology and indictment,” chronicling his artistic coming of age.

From his website's bio section, Anderson lays out in song the circumstances behind, and the reasons for, his own personal renewal.

"For almost a decade I lived in this insulated little community,” Anderson says of Bellingham, Washington, where he spent eight years before moving back to his hometown of Portland, Oregon in 2007. “I woke up one morning and just knew it was time. I was numb all over. I was just a perpetual fuckup, y’know? Burning everything around me and then wondering why I smelled like smoke. I had to get out.”

I love that last line, especially since I know all about "smelling like smoke."

The face in the mirror

It's important to periodically take a personal inventory and assess what's working, and what's not. If this rare event does take place, I'm guessing that it tends to occur at the beginning of a new year. From this process, new resolutions are made, and occasionally, real change does ensue for a few.

I just completed W. Somerset Maugham's book, The Summing Up, which was his autobiographical accounting of his life, including Maugham's thoughts on writing, literature, philosophy, and religion. Maugham, on the other hand, insisted that it wasn't an autobiography.

The book was much better than I thought it would be. One of a stack of books that my son left in his room upon returning to his MFA pursuits after a visit during the holidays, I perused the worn, dog-eared cover and set out reading through the 189 page book (at least the Signet Classic version).

Like Maugham, I've been reminiscing about my life. While he was 64 and set out to leave a more extensive account than I'm planning, the book and my 48th birthday have given me the push to perform an extensive accounting of the positives and not so positive aspects of my own life.

Additionally, I'm in the process of updating my online presence and soon will have a new website up that I hope will finally pull together my somewhat scattered digital profile and disparate blogging activity. That undertaking has forced me to reevaluate my brand, revisit my bio, and reconsider what services on the writing/publishing side are worth marketing, and the ones that best leverage my skills and strengths. All of this has been very positive for me. It's helped me see how far I've come over the past eight years, providing me with important perspective that all of us should have. Unfortunately, I think most people are unreflective in general and remain content (or maybe, not so content) to get pulled along by the current.

Interestingly, when I first began this journey to reinvent myself back in 2001, I never envisioned I'd be in the place where I'm at today. I could never picture myself motivating other people to move forward in their own lives, by offering nothing more than my own example. Rather than mere rhetoric and talk, my own pathway and progression is a clear example and demonstration of walking the talk. Instead of offering, "do what I say," I prefer to put forth an idea based in experience and reality. More of, "here is something that I think will work because I've seen the success demonstrated in my own life."

As we travel along life's thoroughfare, we learn of new areas that we need to take a fresh look at. In my own life, despite experiencing success with my writing, my career, and embracing a more optimistic outlook, I recognized an area that I had neglected.

We're so much more than spirit and soul--we also have a physical body. I had neglected to care for my own body, and its fitness needs for over a decade. My weight had been trending upward for years, and like many men approaching middle age, I knew I looked like crap, but had believed the lie that being overweight was part of aging.

I'm happy to report that it's possible to reverse many negative aspects of aging by focusing on one area and targeting it for improvement.

While I'm certainly not a medical professional, and nothing that I offer should be construed as medical advice, I would encourage readers to do some reflection and self-assessment from time to time. Committing to self-improvement is a worthwhile goal.

Even better, I think one of the reasons that we have the societal problems and challenges that we do is less about politicians and policymakers, and more about our own inability, or unwillingness to take an honest look at our own lives and embrace positive change. It's far easier to blame others for our problems.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Food, now beer

What’s going on with Portland, Maine? Nationally recognized magazines continue lining up to sing their praises about the amazing culinary diversity Portland possesses, and now the latest aria now cites Portland for its craft beer.

Maine's closest thing to a city first gets written up late in the summer in renowned food mag, Bon App├ętit, knighting Portland as “Foodiest Small Town in America.” So what if city folk consider a place with 60,000 people a small town? Size is relative, I guess.

Then in September, NY Times food writer, Julia Moskin, spent a week eating her way around town. Her article was effusive about the cornucopia of innovatively great restaurants in what I'd call Maine's only city—most of them new and decidedly offbeat.

Good food needs good grog to wash it down with. Along comes another respected publication, The Atlantic, and this time, writer Clay Risen, trumpets Portland’s beer and breweries. Allagash gets mentioned, along with Shipyard, and Peak Organic. Several drinking establishments like usual suspects Gritty’s and Sebago Brewing get a mention. So does Novare Res, which I have yet to try, but plan to do soon.

Portsmouth gets a mention for Smuttynose, a craft brew I really like. Risen notes it as a strategic “pit stop” on that two-hour drive between Portland, and Boston to the south. I concur, as I’ve had some great times involving food and drink in Portsmouth.

Maine’s winters are long, and given today’s blast of rain and wind, fickle and unpredictable, but Portland and other communities up and down the state's landscape offer up a wealth of places to eat and drink away our darkest season.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

A year older

Change and self improvement is mostly a journey of one. While there are significant numbers of people that have chosen to do the necessary work to move forward on their yoyage to wherever--success, self-actualization--regardless of how you unpack the process, there are many others that remain content to stay stuck in their rut. These people wallow in their own pathetic misery, and sure as hell don't want to hear about your weight loss, successes, books you've completed, and goals you are striving for.

That's the double-edged sword that comes when you make positive changes in your own life. If you share it with others, some will want to throw it back in your face, mock your accomplishments, and belittle any attempts not to stay in the same small little place.

January 23 is my birthday. I looked up celebrities that share this symbolic date with me. Most of them are people I know little, or nothing about, and appear to be D-list celebrities at best. I did note that two amazing guitarists--Johnny Winter and Django Reinhardt--as well as Cheap Trick lead singer, Robin Zander were born on this date. I liked learning this, given my interest in music and love of the guitar, an instrument that I occasionally pick up for a season and enjoy noodling around on.

2009 has been a good year, at least its second half. Actually, let me back up. I've been on a journey now for the past seven years. If pressed to characterize where I'm headed, I'd tell you it's to be the best that I can be. Even that doesn't do justice to, or capture my intentions exactly.

I'm somewhat reluctant to expand on that riff right now for several reasons that I prefer not to elaborate on for now. One being that it's early in the morning and I'm not looking to write an extensive post.

I've been pleased with the progress I've made on the fitness front. Losing 52 pounds and getting in shape for the first time in over a decade has been positive for me. By and large, the work I do to make a living is fulfilling and provides me with a meaninful outlet for the skills I've managed to acquire, often by living, and learning from past mistakes. I have a partner that loves me and does her best to understand me in my complexity and allows me the space to breath and grow.

As I move out into the new year, I sense I'm at some kind of crossroads with my writing. I haven't had my usual spark to write that I've had in the past. This may have something to do with having a finite pool of energy and possibly some of that has been siphoned off by my physical pursuits. I think, also, I've been censoring myself. Too often, I find myself thinking about who might be reading what I write, and what would they think of me, particularly if I just unloaded everything, much in the way that I used to, when I started the blog back in 2004, as a place to vent and air my frustrations, which were legion.

I just picked up a book on writing by Nelson Algren, Nonconformity: Writing on Writing. Algren takes aim at timid writing and writers that lose their vitality, in order to conform to society's conventions and mores. The words bite, and seem directed in my way. What is the role of the writer in the world? Are writers still vital, or has any remaining life been bled from the written word by technology's demands for brevity, reducing everything to a cliche, or a 140 character string? I'm not sure Algren's book can answer that, but I hope that it helps in refocusing me and points me in a direction that offers clarity.

My birthday horoscope:

Today's pragmatic Taurus Moon reminds us to use our common sense before embarking on an unrealistic venture. We may feel as if we are at odds with others because the Moon squares the Sun, Venus and Mars, stirring up discord in relationships. Luckily, the dynamic energy can encourage creativity if we aren't overly stubborn. The Moon's easygoing trine to interactive Mercury indicates that communication is the key to resolving the problems of the day.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Panic on the left, paranoia on the right

American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. But behind this I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wind. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind. In using the expression “paranoid style” I am not speaking in a clinical sense, but borrowing a clinical term for other purposes. I have neither the competence nor the desire to classify any figures of the past or present as certifiable lunatics., In fact, the idea of the paranoid style as a force in politics would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied only to men with profoundly disturbed minds. It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.

Of course this term is pejorative, and it is meant to be; the paranoid style has a greater affinity for bad causes than good. But nothing really prevents a sound program or demand from being advocated in the paranoid style. Style has more to do with the way in which ideas are believed than with the truth or falsity of their content. I am interested here in getting at our political psychology through our political rhetoric. The paranoid style is an old and recurrent phenomenon in our public life which has been frequently linked with movements of suspicious discontent.

[from "The Paranoid Style in American Politics"
By Richard Hofstadter
Harper’s Magazine, November 1964, pp. 77-86.]

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Anger and the mediocrity of the ruling class

I’ve begun reading W. Somerset Maugham’s The Summing Up, part autobiography, blended with Maugham’s philosophical observations on life, as well as reflections on religion, morality, and the human condition.

Today, I couldn’t help recalling the passage I read the other night, considering all the hoopla about the special election to our south, in Massachusetts. Written in 1938, Maugham’s observation still rings true, given our usual choice of tweedle dum, or tweedle dee, come election time.

I have known in various countries a good many politicians who have attained high office. I have continued to be puzzled by what seemed to me the mediocrity of their minds. I have found them ill-informed upon the ordinary affairs of life, and I have not often discovered in them either subtlety of intellect or liveliness of imagination.

I keep hearing reports that the voters are “angry.” Angry, angry, angry! What are they so angry about? Maybe these voters need to do some work on themselves and figure out why they’re so pissed, instead of thinking that Scott Brown will be their Mr. Smith.

I’ve given up believing that elections and the politicians that they inflict upon us matter much anymore. I’d much rather focus my energies on the people that matter to me, pursuits that bring me pleasure—like reading and writing—and trying to minimize stress and strife in my own life, which politics inevitably increases. Oh, and stay as far away as I can from angry voters intent on inflicting their ideological anger on me.

Monday, January 18, 2010

This is not a food blog

The world of weight loss is fraught with advice on how to shed excess pounds. Some of it works. Established methods, like Weight Watchers, seems to work for many Americans. My mom is a lifetime member and is as trim at 71 as she has ever been. A close friend of Mary and me just lost 69 pounds utilizing the Weight Watchers program.

For others, all the advice in the world seems to do little, or nothing to move them from the world of weight gain and fretting, to loss and then, the hard part, maintenance. The reasons for this, I think are fairly complex. One person's weight loss success story is another one's recipe for disaster. That's why everyone has to find something that works for them.

Sometimes I think the answer lies less in denying ourselves food than finding a way to enjoy good food, in smaller amounts. Michael Pollan touches on this in his books, most notably, In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto. Notice that "eater's" is in the title.

For both Mary and me, we're less about cutting foods from our diet than eating smaller portions, giving exercise a prominent place in our lives, and enjoying food in a way that we haven't before. Good food is good fun. Locally grown foods, particularly plant-based have found their way into our diets in many new combinations, and methods of preparation.

One of my favorite sandwiches is a Reuben. Not a new food, and certainly not a low calorie one, or low fat by any stretch of the imagination. Corned Beef is a fatty meat. Swiss cheese isn't too bad as cheeses go, and sauerkraut might be one of the healthiest toppings you could add to any sandwich. Russian dressing isn't going to make it onto any top ten lists for diet condiments.

Not only do I like Reubens, I love french fries with it. That means that a meal with a Reuben can be loaded with calories and wouldn't be something that weight conscious folks would keep around, right?

Actually, I enjoy a Reuben fairly regularly. I still like french fries, although Mary and I have tended to make our own oven fries, courtesy of a recipe from one of the Moosewood cookbooks.

This weekend, we added a new twist to our Reuben and fries routine. Mary went to the farmers' market in Brunswick and at my insistence, picked up turnips from our friends at Six River Farm, in Bowdoinham.

As a German, I have an affinity for root veggies--carrots, turnips, rutabaga--all of them are wonderful to me.

Several weeks back, we sliced up some white turnips, drizzled them with olive oil and baked them in the oven. They were a wonderful accompaniment to pork chops. Amazingly sweet, and a lot less calories than traditional potatoes.

Well this week, we used regular turnips (not as sweet as the white turnips, we thought) and sliced them like french fries and did the olive oil and baking routine (with a dash of sea salt).

What an awesome alternative to traditional french fried potatoes, and a new accompaniment to the Reuben sandwich.

I enjoyed a nice Belgian dark ale with my meal.

This might not work for everyone looking to lose weight, or maintain a 52 pound weight drop, but it's working for Mary and me.

Calorie count:

Reuben sandwich 425 calories 44 grams of fat
Turnip fries 250 calories 20.5 grams of fat
Belgian dark ale 155 calories

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Failed resolutions

New Years Eve and it's hard to believe, another Zodiac's gone around
While you drank yourself high on hoping, and watched the ceiling spin from the ground

Counting down from ten it's time, to make your annual prayer
Secret Santa in the sky, when will I get my share

Then you tell yourself, what you want to hear
Cause you have to believe, this will be my year

[From Semisonic’s “This Will Be My Year,” from the album, Feeling Strangely Fine]

Planet Fitness has been running a special in January where new members can join for $1. This promotion intersects perfectly with the New Year’s resolution mindset that characterizes the crowd making a few feel good changes early in 2010. Most of these will be gone by the wayside come the first of February, casualties of their noble intentions that didn’t count the costs associated, or understand what it takes to be successful.

How do I know this? Because New Year’s resolutions are the crutches that I used to try to prop up my own pathetic attempts to make changes each and every roll over of the calendar, or as Dan Wilson of Semisonic sang, “another Zodiac's gone around.”

I’ve been a regular at Planet Fitness since the first of November. To be honest, I wasn’t looking forward to moving my fitness activities indoors in late October, but the days were shortening, and I knew my cycling was coming to a close for 2009. With resignation, I reluctantly began searching for a gym to continue the level of physical activity I knew I would need to engage in if I wanted to stay fit, and keep my newfound slimness intact.

The word on the street was that the Auburn PF location was a good one, and for the past 10 weeks, I’ve been working out like clockwork, three times each week. Given the demands of life and work, I knew early mornings would be best for me, although I did experiment with some other options, like lunchtimes, and mid-afternoons.

Since the Auburn location opens at 5:00 a.m., Monday through Friday, that’s the time I shoot for as I’ve become locked into showing up each Tuesday and Thursday, and am able to get in an hour of cardio and an hour of weights. Then, Sunday morning, I’m there at 7:00, when they open. I wish they were open earlier, as I’d love to be able to keep with my 5:00 a.m. time slot I have during the work week.

One of the benefits of these early morning workouts is that the group that is able to roll out of the sack at this early hour tends to be a bit older, and is mostly made up with the kinds of gym members that have been working out for a long time. What this means for me is that this crowd has a similar mindset as I do—get in, get busy, and get out. As a result, I’m actually enjoying my early morning chances to huff, puff, sweat, and push some weights around.

This past week has been a bit of a challenge, however. Tuesday morning, when I arrived a bit late, at 5:15, I could see the parking lot was already quite full. Entering the well-lit gym, most of the cardio equipment, particularly the treadmills, was being utilized. I figured that many of these were enticed by the $1 offer to get fit, as I didn’t recognize them as regulars.

My wife, who works out at Coastal Fitness in Westbrook has been complaining all week that she’s had trouble getting on the cardio equipment because of the flood of new members who have shown up. I imagine that if I went in the PM to PF in Auburn, I’d run into the same kind of cattle call.

An early morning appointment in Fairfield prevented me from keeping my customary morning fitness appointment this past Thursday, so I went yesterday morning instead. The gym was virtually deserted when I jumped on the elliptical trainer at 5:10. By 5:30, there were 15-20 people working out. I was pleasantly surprised. I knew that most of the $1 set would be gone by early February, but after one week? So much for sticking with those New Year’s fitness plans.

I found it somewhat comical watching two rather large women who I guessed were two of the 100 new members who have been joining daily in Auburn. Apparently by Friday none but these two were motivated enough to get up early on a bitterly cold morning to sweat off some fat. While these ladies were at the gym, they weren’t doing much to raise their heart rate and burn calories. In fact, when I walked by the wall of exercise equipment near the locker rooms, they were lounging on the back equipment, doing nothing but talking. After working working their gums, they made their way to the arc trainers where they spent about 15 minutes and barely broke a sweat. Then, after another 10 minutes on the treadmill, both were out the door, just as I was readying to hit the weights after my 30 minute cardio warm up.

I’m betting that they felt good about burning their 250 calories each, and probably both treated themselves to a carbo death wheel, aka, a bagel, surely loaded with cream cheese and some high calorie coffee drink with whip cream.

Since I began coming to Planet Fitness, there has been a group of men, some my age, a few older, and one younger gentleman that lift a lot of weights each morning when I’m there Monday-Friday. I can tell by the amount of weight they lift, their demeanor, and their upper bodies that these guys are serious. They have become a fitness comfort blanket of sorts for me.

Interestingly, I haven’t seen them since just after Christmas. I’m thinking that they’ve taken a sabbatical until after the fitness wannabes clear out.

New Year’s resolutions don’t work. Lifestyle changes do, however, which is why I’m down 51 pounds, and have been maintaining my weight loss for the past six weeks. It’s based on a simple formula. Reduce calories, increase calories burned, by increasing my level of activity intensity, and stay consistent with my commitment.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Rural matters

Yesterday, I drove north and spent a portion of the day in Jackman, in northern Somerset County, not far from the Canadian border. This represents the far reaches of the workforce district that I cover with the Local Workforce Investment Board that I work for.

I went at the behest of a community partner who belongs to a group that I also am part of that meets monthly in Skowhegan, after she chided our group that "Skowhegan is not Somerset County." Her point resonated with me, as I realized that in three years in my position, I had never taken the time to visit the Moose River Valley, assess some of their issues on the workforce development side, and meet some of the key members of the community. Shame on me for this.

This behavior is clearly not acceptable for someone that has written regularly about rural Maine, and in fact, my first book detailed how small communities have been affected by a variety of changes since WWII, using the metaphor of baseball to track many of the shifts occurring in small town Maine (and by extension, small town America). Yet, in an official capacity, I had neglected a portion of my region. My colleague's point was an accurate one, as I learned from during my four hour visit.

Spending time in Jackman, and having the opportunity to meet some key leaders in town--school officials, a manager from Moose River Lumber, and other community movers and shakers--as well as being granted a chance to speak to the Jackman Leadership Group, which meets monthly to work on key initiatives in the town--made yesterday a worthwhile visit. There is a positive energy present in the community, one that I wouldn't have known about without visiting. Their school and its principal and superintendent are developing innovative programs, some of them with the potential to act as economic incubators. Moose River's mill is one of the most technologically advanced facilities east of the Mississippi. All of this wasn't surprising, based on my experiences visiting other rural areas of the state.

I plan on unpacking some thoughts I have, mainly about workforce development, over at Working in Maine in the near future. I also plan to touch on some of the struggles affecting rural communities not only in Maine, or nationwide.

Unfortunately, both federal and state policies often work against promoting economic vitality for the almost 60 million Americans living in areas classified as local. Nowhere is this more obvious than with rural schools, which are often the centerpiece of life in this small towns. In Maine, its been the insistence of the current administration to consolidate schools. This plan is misguided at best, in my opinion, as I've stated before.

Understanding the culture of people and place is important. I think one of the primary reasons that some journalists miss the real story, and politicians and state and federal policymakers often get it wrong when it comes to laws and regulations affecting rural America, is that they either don't care, or rarely take the time to really understand that culture. Merely making a campaign stop won't provide the depth of understanding required, and neither do perfunctory visits to pseudo-rural communities.

More to follow on this topic.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

God's people snowed in once again

What is it about snow that's become the 21st century's version of a biblical plague for church people? When it starts to snow, you can be sure that the people of God are incapable of mobilizing and making it to church.

I've touched on this before in greater detail, but it still seems like the greatest of ironies. Don't tell me about how great your God is, how he's blessed you with riches because you've got the power of positive visualization going on, and then, when a few flakes begin falling, the cancellations of chuch services start filling the scroll at the bottom of my nightly newscast, made up almost entirely of Sunday services being called off.

When I was a member of a band of bibical literalists during my fundamentalist wanderings, preacher after preacher railed against us for our lack of belief--usually the context involved some variation on trusting God to take care of us, after we gave our last dime to him, or his church--with a wealth of scriptural examples of God's people trusting him for their safety and deliverance. Apparently, snow has become God's kryptonite, as any weekend snowstorm inevitably means that Sunday services will be the exception, rather than the rule.

I think this illustrates really well how irrelevant that Xianity has become in the 21st century (if it hadn't already shown its ineffectiveness as a system prior to now). If your organization gets grounded from snow, and winter weather, how effective are you really? The reality in all of this for me, is that I rarely, if ever meet anyone that self-identifies as a Xian that inspires me. Mainly, they're either about positive affirmations, or telling me what I can and can't do, and worse, trying to dictate government policy propped up by a set of rules and regulations that were ineffective two centuries ago.

Here's my charge to you; if you want to be taken seriously as a societal force, don't let something like a winter snow storm derail you from what I was taught was a weekly duty--attending Sunday services.

Oh, btw--my friends over at the Shiloh are cancelled due to another winter storm.