13 Jan

Board Games: Diving Deep into the Hobby

Castles of Burgundy, by Stefan Feld. A great little game that uses some dice, but the luck can be mitigated with some worker tiles.

Castles of Burgundy, by Stefan Feld. A great little game that uses some dice, but the luck can be mitigated by the use of worker tiles.

 

Before my wife and I were even dating, I used to hang out rather frequently with her and her friends at their house. The house even had a name: the Basileia House. It was a small community of single women who were connected with the local Nazarene church and were actively engaged in various works of mercy. One of the weekly things that they did there was they invited friends and members of the church over on Thursday evenings for “rice and beans night”: there was a light meal of rice, beans, tortillas, and other Mexican food toppings.

Settlers of Catan: where it all began for me, like many others.

Settlers of Catan: where it all began for me, like many others.

 

Often, while I was hanging out with my friends, there would be a game of Settlers of Catan (1995) going on in the next room. I never ended up playing it back then, and never understood what all the fuss was about until a few years later in England when my (now) wife Tiana got me a copy of Settlers of Catan for Christmas in 2009. Around the same time, I had also played Bang! (2002) with some friends in San Diego and then picked up a copy of Carcassonne (2000)—and I was hooked.

Lewis & Clark: The Expedition. I played this with my niece Katie.

Lewis & Clark: The Expedition. I played this with my niece Katie. She won!

 

While in England, I continued to acquire a few of some well-regarded titles through research on YouTube and especially BoardGameGeek, hands down the best resource for people interested in the hobby. I was also introduced to a lot of excellent games by attending my Friendly Local Game Store (FLSG) called Mondo Comico in the city centre of Nottingham. There were weekly gaming nights on Tuesdays and a monthly all-day set of gaming where people could bring out longer games. We played games in larger groups and smaller groups, and it was just brilliant fun. David, the store owner, is a very friendly and welcoming host, and is always up for a game. I have fond memories of him teaching me and my friend Steve the Game of Thrones board game (2003), as well as plenty of great larger group games like Saboteur (2004) and Shadow Hunters (2005). These larger groups games reminded me of playing “Mafia” in college, but with a few more game mechanics. These days, The Resistance (2009) Coup (2012), and One Night Ultimate Werewolf (2014) are currently the most popular style of these games where there are hidden roles and usually a “traitor” mechanic (although I have yet to play any of those, even thought I’ve heard some really good things).

Tzolk'in: The Mayan Calendar. I painted the gears above one week in an effort to make the presentation of the game a bit more spiffy. One of the brushes I used was actually labled "insane detail."

Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar. I painted the gears above one week in an effort to make the presentation of the game a bit more spiffy. One of the brushes I used was actually labled “insane detail.”

 

For various reasons I have gravitated toward a certain type of game called European-style (“Euro-style”) or “German-style” games. They often come with a bit of a learning curve in order to nail down the varying degrees of complexity (although they really aren’t that hard to pick up after a few rounds of play). More specifically, I tend to enjoy the worker-placement style of games.

Of the hallmarks of more modern Euro-style board games, the following tends to be the case: “eurogames tend to be accessible games that privilege the role of mechanics over theme in gameplay. They typically facilitate indirect rather than direct conflict, de-emphasize the role of chance, offer predictable playing times, and are usually of a high standard in terms of component quality and presentation” (Stewart Woods, Eurogames: The Design, Culture, and Play of Modern European Board Games, p. 79). Typically as well, there tends to be no player elimination (Woods mentions this earlier with the rise of the “modern board game genre” in general). The above is not to say that Euro-games are theme-less; this is far from the case. The designation is used generally to distinguish these types of games from what is known as “Ameri-trash” or “thematic” games. Below is a picture of Kemet (2012) which somewhat falls within this genre, although, as will often be the case, it is actually an Ameri-trash-Euro hybrid.

Kemet. A mix of "Ameritrash"/"thematic" style with European-style mechanics.

Kemet. A mix of “Ameritrash”/”thematic” style with European-style mechanics. It has some beautifully-produced miniatures in the game. Check out that guy riding the scorpion! :)

 

I’ve still never played Caylus (2005), the grand-daddy of worker-placement style games, but I’m sure that will be rectified soon enough. Santa was generous this year and so I recently received Russian Railroads (2013, pictured below) and Lewis & Clark: The Expedition (2014, pictured above earlier in the post). Both of these games have an aspect of worker-placement where you place workers on spaces to activate certain actions that you can do on your turn, these spaces usually being limited.

Russian Railroads. A Christmas gift from my parents. A brilliant worker-placement style game where you'll probably get between 200-300 points at the end of the game!

Russian Railroads. A Christmas gift from my parents. A brilliant worker-placement style game where you’ll probably get between 200-300 points at the end of the game!

 

For better or for worse, my lovely bride is for the most part, a non-gamer. She’ll play Settlers and some lighter-fair games with me like Morels (2012), but I did get her to play Castles of Burgundy (2011) with me not too long ago—an absolute miracle, and I think she won (she hates Munchkin, ha ha!). In addition to the fact that the original title betrays a delicious pun in German—Die Burgen von Burgund—the game was also an occasion for accidentally allowing our bunny to run around and chew through our Internet cable that evening. Oops!

Tiana and I playing Morels. She won rather decisively, of course!

Tiana and I playing Morels. She won rather decisively, of course!

 

Thankfully, in light of the fact that Tiana doesn’t like to play most of the games we own, one day she told me, “Here, go make some new friends!” while pointing me to a website/app called Meetup. She found that there is a Sacramento Boardgamers meetup group where my fellow geeks gather multiple times throughout the week at various venues (FLGS’s, restaurants). I go every other week or so to one of these gatherings, and it is been a lot of fun getting to meet new fellow gamers and play lots of wonderful games.

In addition to the aforementioned BoardGameGeek website, I also rather religiously stay abreast of industry news, reviews, commentary, and analysis by listening to a handful of board game podcasts. Here are some of my favorites:

  • Ludology. Hosted by Geoff Englestein and Ryan Sturm (although Sturm is leaving around March 2015, sadly), this show analyzes the theory of board games, looking at various board game mechanics and some game theory. There are also interviews with board game designers and other veterans of the industry. I’ve listened to every single episode and I just love this show.
  • How To Play. Although this one is no longer being produced, Ryan Sturm has a good handful of how-to instructional episodes where he walks you through the “hook,” the “meat,” and the “hampster” of how to play some of the best board games from the last couple decades. He also has a special “lettered” series within this same podcast where he takes a closer look at how to teach games or how to explore winning strategies from some of his favorite games (especially, e.g., Age of Steam [2002] and Caylus).
  • The Long View. Hosted by Geof Gambill where he take a more in-depth look at games that have been around for a while. One of the questions he always asks is, “Why does this game continue to have such great staying power?” Just a fantastic, longer-form listen.
  • The Dice Tower. Hosted by Tom Vassel and Eric Summerer. By far the most popular of the gaming podcasts, and in fact, they have a whole network of board game podcasts that fall within their reach; all of the above (and below) podcasts are a part of this network. Tom and Eric primarily cover reviewing new board games, industry news, and board game convention coverage. Eric’s voice is legendary.
  • On Board Games. This is a new one that I’ve been listening to recently as well. Good reviews and convention coverage. Their reviews fall into a three-tiered stoplight system: Green (good, solid, and fun), Yellow (okay, has some issues), and Red (the game is broken).

There are other great board game podcasts that are worth a listen in the Dice Tower Network, but the above are about all I have time for while I am doing my part-time website work throughout the week.

If you ever visit us and are interested in playing any of the games in my collection, I definitely won’t argue with you :)

I think the funniest thing about going off to game nights is when Tiana teases me about setting up my stack of games and walking up to people in a Napoleon Dynamite voice to ask, “Hey, uh, you wanna play me?”

She can’t stop laughing at me. I love her.

CO2, by Vital Lacerda. This is a picture from a game night a couple of months ago at Great Escape Games in Sacramento. I lost pretty badly, despite this currently being my favorite board game.

CO2, by Vital Lacerda. This is a picture from a couple of months ago at a Meetup night at Great Escape Games in Sacramento. I lost pretty badly, despite this currently being my favorite board game.

 

06 Jan

Returning to the Gym, again

Jawbone

 

Once again, Tiana and I have joined a gym. The last time I had a gym membership was at a 24-hour Fitness in San Diego—yes, the very same one that hilariously features an escalator ascending to the front door. We’ve been back in the States for about a year and a half now, and, speaking for myself, my waistband has definitely been increasing in size.

A few months prior, with the help of an Amazon gift certificate, I purchased a Jawbone UP24 to help monitor my daily “step activity.” It’s motivated me somewhat to get out and take walks (and the occasional jog), but there are definitely days where I come ludicrously close to doing just about nothing. (The above image is a screenshot from a day where we went to the gym and I walked/jogged on the treadmill for a couple miles.)

I honestly can’t remember the name of the gym, but it’s pretty nice. There are two locations within a few miles from us, and there’s more than enough for me to do in there—that’s for sure.

The gym downtown on K Street is a brand-new, multi-level location that has quite a bit of amenities, including multiple weight rooms, a cycle room, plenty of weight machines, stretching rooms, and—get this—two “cinema rooms” where you can watch movies while running on a treadmill. I thought Jim Gaffigan’s jokes about watching brownies being made on the Food Network while waiting in line for a treadmill to be hilarious enough; but on our first visit to this new gym, we had the option of speed walking while watching a fighting movie called Warrior or… Coyote Ugly. I don’t know which movie is the lesser of two stupids. I’m being harsh, I know, but it was at least one passable way to pass the time while getting some steps in.

03 Jan

Christmas 2014: Oakley, Sacramento, Merced

On this tenth day of Christmas, I thought it might be fun to share some pictures from our various Christmas gatherings around Northern California. We had a beautiful time in Oakley, Sacramento, and Merced, our respective homes where our parents live. It was a nice time to see family, relax, and take a break from work.

On Christmas Eve, we first stopped off in Oakley where Tiana’s Mom and Ron live. In attendance: Tiana’s brother Stevie and his wife Shan, Tiana’s sister Shalina and her daughter Katie, along along with Jason (Ron’s son). Not pictured, but they added plenty of excitement to the gathering: Gus the American Boxer, and Rosa the chihuahua, Stevie & Shan’s dogs.

(Below in each gallery, if you hover over each picture, it will pop up a brief caption underneath each. You may also click on a picture it will enlarge it to see the full size and you can click over to the next picture in the gallery.)

Then we traveled to Sacramento (with Stevie, Shan, Shalina, & Katie in tow) to spend Christmas day with Tiana’s Dad and Denise’s family. I didn’t take as many pictures here, but the Christmas cheer was no less in effect. We exchanged presents, ate a ton of delicious food, participated in a white elephant gift exchange (I received a white sock and an ornament), and even played games of Love Letter and Elevenses with Katie, Kevin Jr., and Shannon.

The next day on the 26th (Boxing Day), Tiana drove to my hometown of Merced to spend the day with my parents and my sister Jenna and her husband Kenny. Of course, Dexter the right-handed dog (hah, Latin jokes) joined them. My cousin Amy and her Mom (my Aunt Carol) also spent time with us. Amongst many kind gifts, my Aunt gifted me a bunch of flower seeds that I am excited to get started soon in our small greenhouse out back!

We were in Merced from the 26th to Sunday the 28th. Visiting Merced is always a welcome, extra relaxing time for me as my parents’ house is surrounded by an acre of lawn and blanketed in the crisp quiet of the neighborhood out in the countryside.

We’ve still been unpacking all of our stuff and trying to re-organize our house since we’ve returned in between daily chores and briefly returning to work (well, Tiana had to work yesterday on Friday). There are a host of exciting new (and silly and funny) books to read; calendars to hang up; mugs to drink out of; pictures to hang; boxes of childhood memories to go through; a puzzle to assemble; boardgames to play with fellow nerds; and even a home brew kit to get started. Our family has been far too generous with us; we are blessed. That reminds me: we hung up some stockings and forgot to see what is inside!

02 Jan

January 2015: Life in California & a Blog Reboot

As usual, it has been far too long since I’ve posted an update last. It’s been—what?—just a hair over three years since I’ve posted an update? I won’t regale you, my friends, with the tedium of catching up on every little detail since I last made a post in December of 2011, but here are some highlights since I’ve last checked in:

  • I’ve successfully submitted and defended my PhD in Theology, and graduated on July 9th, 2013 from the University of Nottingham.
  • In August 2013, we moved back to California, residing for now in Sacramento.
  • I’ve been working part-time doing website work.
  • Tiana has been working full-time at the head office of Catholic Charities of California.
  • We are renting a cute house in the “Alhambra Triangle” / East Sacramento / Oak Park / whatever area.
  • We bought a 2010 silver Prius. I am getting fatter.
  • But we’ve just joined a gym so that we can work on ourselves.
  • We’ve adopted a bunny and named her Piper.
  • Andi our tortoiseshell cat is cute as ever, but she just caught her first bout of the fleas.

In the meantime, I have continued to look for and apply for academic jobs while also keeping up with some editing and writing duties to keep my soul afloat. Also, boardgames have helped with that.

I’ve updated the theme apparatus of this blog a bit, keeping it simple. I’ll provide brief and occasionally frequent updates this year, to maintain some semblance of constancy in reflection on our lives as well. I think the practice is a good one.

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Graduation day. She makes every picture beautiful.

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Some beard growth in tow for the 2014 AAR/SBL conference.

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Piper Reinhardt-Lee, the bunny.

We had just moved into our new rental on January 1st, 2014, exactly one year ago today.

With the help of our family, we had just moved into our new rental on January 1st, 2014, exactly one year ago today.

 

23 Dec

Christmas Week

This is kind of a random puzzle that we did last night, but we like it a lot. In fact, Tiana remarked, “It’s too bad we didn’t do a cuter puzzle for Christmas!” It’s been a while since Tiana and I have just slowed down for a quiet evening of not watching a show or going out. A friend gave us a bunch of Christmas music and so we’ve incorporated that into a big mix MP3 CD to just let play for hours and hours.

This week, a lot of our friends and colleagues are going elsewhere for Christmas (some are scattering out across England, others have flown home to the States), but as for us, we are sticking around in Nottingham. Tiana actually works on Christmas day this year. For the past three Christmases while we’ve been abroad, she’d had the day off, but this time around, it was (basically) her turn to volunteer to work on the day. It’s only a 10am-2pm shift, which isn’t bad at all, and what’s more, I will be volunteering and going with her to work for those four hours, so it should be good fun. Christmas can often be a very lonely day for those whom she works with, so hopefully there will be enough people there to help them feel like they have some extra friends, at least for a few hours.

Tonight, Tiana and I are joining our friends David & Lauren Mosely to go hear the Southwell Minster Choir for a Christmas Eve service. We went a couple years ago, and it was absolutely gorgeous. The acoustics combined with amazing talent make for a beautiful evening. Tonight isn’t Christmas Eve (obviously), but apparently the Christmas Eve choir services have become so popular that they now have two of them, the second happening the night of the 23rd. So we’ve booked a restaurant afterwards to enjoy our night in Southwell.

Here is a two-part piece on the life and music of the Southwell Minster Choir:

A Happy Advent and a Merry Christmas to all! We miss you guys.

18 Dec

To Stay or to Go

Hyacinth and Muscari (called blue grape hyacinth in the States) bulbs

Above is a picture of some dirt in our back garden that I tilled whereupon I set out the placement of some hyacinth and muscari bulbs. It was a really cold day today, so I had to work really quick before my fingers became too frozen. Ideally, it’s a bit late in the season to be planting bulbs, but it seems like it will be okay (I hope).

On the opposite side of the garden is another area that a friend (Rob) helped me till where we then planted about 80+ tulips. I think we planed that area a solid two months ago, so I am less worried about that. And, underneath a damson tree we planed scads of crocus. The last time I planed so many bulbs, I think I was twelve years old!

At the moment, we are strongly considering moving to a new flat or cheap house to rent. We have had some never-ending, incredibly frustrating experiences with one of our neighbours over the past couple years, and this last year, thing have come to a head. At one point right before our visit to the States, we had to call the non-emergency police on our neighbours, for a metal hammer was thrown at me (or in my direction at the very least, and it is very difficult to tell what is going on in the minds of such small kids). At any rate, while there are many more details to retell, suffice it to say that we are looking for another place to live. Despite our best efforts, there’s really not many other options. (We have actually attempted knocking on our neighbour’s door a couple months back to ask the mother to instruct her children to pick up the loads of candy, toys, trash, etc., that they had thrown over, but not only was she not responsive, but Tiana basically heard the mother basically yell at her to ‘go away’ [more or less].)

For me in my last 9+ months of writing before my final deadline to submit my PhD, moving is less than ideal. In fact, books on ‘how to write your PhD’ actually strongly inform the reader not to move during the writing time due to the time and stress involved in such an undertaking. But, if we do move, we are hoping to hire our friends (with Pizza!) to make the moving day quick and fun so that distractions to my study and writing are kept at a minimum. I’ve known other PhD students who have pulled off such moves in the final years, and they seemed to have gotten along just fine.

We’ve only just begun to search online for places to stay. Some flats are opening up, but considering it’s mid-December, we can’t see ourselves moving until January anyway. In general, we don’t want to move, because we do like our place so much–with our decent rent, our big garden, and cozy house–so the thought of moving occurs half-begrudgingly.

On the other hand, our letting agency has become less and less responsive to our letters sent to them over the last year to fix certain things, and our place is dreadfully cold in the wintertime. None of our windows (save one) are double-paned, and so Tiana has had to sew thick curtain covers to help with heat transfer issues. Also, our bathroom, no matter how many times we clean it, keeps reverting back to its Lovecraftian abyss of unspeakable black mould horrors every couple of weeks. We don’t really know what to do yet except for continue to look online for new places.

I’ve planted nearly two hundred bulbs (with help) over the past couple months in our back yard, but these are the kinds of domestic practices that one does under the assumptions that–one stays around. That is, come Spring we could very well not be living here to enjoy the blooms of our bulbs and watch our cat Andi frollick around chasing butterflies.

But, assuming some decent (even cheaper) place comes up, we will likely move. We continue to live here where we are, however. We even happened upon a £1.99 artificial tree at a charity shop in Beeston that looks amazing, and are content to decorate it with the ornaments we’ve collected throughout the years from our travels.

In the meantime, keep us in your thoughts and prayers in this transitional year for us. We will most likely be moving to a new place, and then by September I have to submit my PhD thesis and then we may be moving (or staying) once more. We miss our friends from the States dearly, but were so thankful to be blessed with seeing them all in California these past weeks!

Happy Advent and Merry Christmas!

 

Our budget--but exceptionally awesome!--Christmas tree ornamented with our travels and our time together. The star on top comes from the Nürnberg Christmas market!

01 Oct

Changing Winds

Reading spot.

I took this picture a few days ago. The sun has been shining bright and steady over the last week or so as the University of Nottingham fills up with eager undergraduates. I have been spending part of my time in the department, but also a portion of my time reading and working in our back garden (not to mention my favourite coffee shop).

One nice addition to the new sunny weather was the lack of normal unpredictable winds that often blow through the East Midlands. However, a couple days ago the gusts briefly came through and blew the umbrella away and it broke. So, here’s a brief pictorial reminder of my little shady spot.

 

 

13 Sep

Moving to a new academic space

Thus far I haven’t really shared much information or pictures on this blog regarding my academic activities–mainly because I have been busy just trying to read and think through my project, but also because I thought I may just leave that to my other, personal blog. But for now I think I’ll share some pictures of the new Humanities building that our department has just moved into.

Our Department of Theology and Religious Studies used to inhabit its very own building called the Highfield House on the main University Park campus. But now we’ve moved into a much larger, shared building along with a bunch of the other humanities departments. So, we mainly share the floor with the Philosophy department, but the other floors contain Art History, Archaeology, and Classics. Here’s some pictures of the outside and inside of the building, as well as what our nearby view looks like.

Main entrance to the new Humanities building. Flagship shot.

Close-up of main entrance.

What the main entrance looks like from the inside.

The main lobby, looking up to the 2nd and 3rd floors (or, if you're from the UK, the 1st and 2nd floors). There's lots of glass and natural light, which is a plus.

Another shot of the lobby looking up from the other direction. You can see the tables and couches for the open spaces to gather, have tea, etc.

Approaching the walkway and field opposite the Humanities building. They've put in a nice new path for walking to the main part of campus where the library and everything else is.

View of the field across from the new Humanities building. I love this view.

 

This means we also have new postgraduate study space. We’re mixed in with other postgrads, so my colleagues are in another aisle, and there’s a couple of philosophy students in my row.

 

This is my row. I'm the 3rd from the left.

My study space. Have fun cranning your neck to read the titles of the books if you're ever so curious!

09 Aug

Continuing to Alter Course

Boiling beets and eggs

I commented not too long ago on my Facebook profile that I had lost 50 lbs since moving to England. In one sense, it’s been just adapting to the English way of life that I’ve set out for myself, and in another, it also has consisted of a lot of hard work. When we moved to Nottingham, I weighed about 250 pounds. Over the last two and a half years, I’ve lost about 20 pounds by just walking more, but at this point I hadn’t changed my eating habits much as far as portion size (although the constant injections of veggie burritos have been absent for a while, and those were huge). In the last 6 months, however, I have shed another 30 pounds thanks to inspiration from Tiana and her sister Shalina.

We’ve gone on this ’17-day diet’ thing, although we never bought the book, but have been following, more or less the regimen and the recipes that the books suggestions. In general we’ve found it to be quite different from most other things we’ve seen: it’s not gimmicky, doesn’t reduce to things like ‘only’ eating peanut butter or ‘only’ abstaining from carbs. It has a ton of ideas and isn’t interested (as far as I can tell) in also combining with a line of products (like Weight Watchers), but is really orientated toward inspiring one to just be healthy in a big-pictured way. (But like I said, I haven’t read the book and so have only gotten the inspiration and general planning mediated to us so this is not meant to be a judgement upon the book or diet.)

The biggest problem with diets, though, is that they are diets: we fool ourselves into thinking if we have the ‘diet’ version of the exact same things we already enjoy, then it’s okay. Like Coke? How about Diet Coke — or the stylish Coke Zero! Like a certain dish that tends to be overloaded with carbs? How about buying this Weight-watchers version, so that now we can be ‘guilt-free’ and have a ‘clean conscience’ about eating. Usually, however, these clean consciences remain haunted by the fact that our bodies are still pretty lazy and that really, we’ve gone from picking one thing off the shelf in the grocery store for that other thing three products over. We’ve fooled ourselves into thinking that we can still enjoy what we want by making the minimum of real changes to our lives, as if it all boils down to consumer choice, as if it would kill us to be seen without that orange mocha frappaccino. I’ve even seen a ridiculous device (‘As Seen on TV’!) that you have to buy that you put on your plate that measures out the various portions of food — again, as if buying this one device will fool us into thinking that this was all that was needed to alter course.

The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek has often commented upon this phenomenon, referring to the act of drinking caffeine-free diet Coke as drinking “the Nothingness itself, the pure semblance of a property that is in effect merely an envelope of a void” (The Fragile Absolute, p. 20). In other words, what we’re already consuming is a kind of pure enjoyment that doesn’t actually taste very good to begin with (yet we’re addicted to it), but we seem to actively fool ourselves by putting a ribbon on the proverbial pile of dung, by wrapping up this junky thing in “caffeine-free, diet” labels. Not to mention the fact that as Americans we tend to think that our Grandparents fought in World War II “for our freedoms” which include the freedom to consume and choose whatever we want, damnit! (Of course, the real reason for fighting in WWII–to defeat the Nazi’s and stop Japan from bombing us–seems to be lost, not to mention the fact that our Grandparents would rightly pour our bottles of diet Coke down the drain because they’re disgusting.) We get so caught up in thinking that the ultimate thing about existence is choice, let alone a kind of perverted consumer choice, that we feel entitled to all of our bad mistakes, as if making these stupid mistakes is a part of what it means to be American, or whatever.

Tongue-in-cheek paragraph to make a point: Did you choose to be born? Doubt it. You didn’t make the choice to be born, so in being born, you’re an enemy of freedom! Do you choose to go to sleep every night, or does your body take over ultimately over-riding your own choice to stay up? Your body is an enemy of freedom! Do you choose to urinate and defecate every day (or so, sometimes us enemies of freedom get constipated!), or is this an involuntary choice that you must ultimately succumb to, that you must ultimately do even though it interrupts your precious movies, your decisions about whether to buy this fragrance of perfume, or this cool tech gadget? You allow your American choice to be overcome by even your body? You. Commie. Scum. (Don’t let me get started on hiccups…)*

There’s multiple problems with all this nonsense. The first main one is that it denies the body and its needs and so in its ridiculous spirit of consumer choice it ultimately denies the body. There is much more that can be said about this, but the thing I really wanted to talk about in this post has more to do with the fleeting, temporary aspect of ‘diets’. A diet is instantly a non-commitment to do anything, really. Sure, you might lose a few pounds at the beginning, but the the main reason diets never ‘stick’, never remain is because we tell ourselves we’re “only on a diet,” as opposed to–and this is the point that I’m getting to–this is what I do now. Diets fail because they aren’t habits but are ways of conscience-cleansing. What really needs to take place is the constant forming of new habits over time. Call it a new lifestyle, or whatever, a new form of life, but everything has to change.

When I was vegan from 2001-2004 or so, I knew from the beginning that it would only be possible if there was no alternative in my head. The only real option was to do this 24/7. I hope this doesn’t come off the wrong way, but I always grew tired and annoyed at everybody who said to me, “Oh, I could never do that.” “It’s too hard to give up cheese.” “I could never give up food X.” This is all utterly rubbish because, of course you can; you just don’t want to. People confuse their desires with necessity. (Note: I’m not a vegan anymore, so don’t read this as an apology for that, but about something more general.) I always found it easy to be a vegan, usually, and always thought the constant comments I got to be really odd. If this is just what I do now, then why the constant barrage of “oh, I could never do that.” I certainly did it, so why couldn’t they? I was never a vegan evangelist, but the reason I stuck with it for three to four years was because this was my lifestyle. Do runners run every day? Do gymnasts train? Don’t authors write and carpenters build stuff? If one is something, then there aren’t really many other options to not being that thing. It’s pretty difficult for me to be a cat. I’ve tried to be surly all day, but I’m just not that good at catching mice and moths for the 4 total hours I’m not sleeping.

In many ways I’m trying to create a mental space here, but it’s not a fake one, it’s something that bears fruit, I think. One has to stay with things, tarry with what it difficult (Plato says, “All that is beautiful is difficult,” [‘chalepa ta kala’, Greater Hippias 304e], or, think of the Indigo Girls’ “The Wood Song”). Tiana and I have, for example, taken to eating large salads nearly every day for lunch. This actually takes a lot of preparation, because we like our salads friggin’ tasty. We think beetroot (what America calls “beets,” hah!) are simply magic. So we buy beetroot from the market and then boil it in the evening so that we can cut it up and put it in our salads. We’ll boil eggs, or prepare turkey mince or fake turkey/chicken strips from our local Holland & Barretts. Then in the evenings or early mornings we’ll chop up cucumbers, spring onions, carrots, tomatoes, bell peppers, and some nice green lettuce and/or baby spinach. We usually put in olive oil & balsamic vinaigrette for our dressing, but we’ll also use other lighter dressings. It’s kind of a lot of food in one sense, but it’s just tons of veggies (with a smidge of protein) and it’s delicious.

It does continue to be hard, though. We do sneak treats at times. There is a reason we’ve plateau’d at our current weights for a few months, but I have a feeling that at least plateau-ing takes work. I have been fluctuating between 200 and 204-5 pounds for a little while now. I don’t really know what my “ideal” weight is, and I don’t obsess over it, but I do think I still look a bit flabby, and if nothing else, I could use a bit more tone. One thing I haven’t done is more focused exercises. I do quite a bit of walking, to and from campus (mile each way), and to and from the Beeston high road; however, I think the next step is to do sit-ups and pushups and build some tone. I don’t think going to the gym is going to be a good use of my time (or the lack of money we have). There’s definitely some fine tuning that needs to be done.

And the thing is, in the end, limits actually are a part of what ‘freedom’ is–working within constraints. Freedom ultimately isn’t the freedom to choose from an infinite amount of choices, but what one does within certain limitations. We think ‘limitations’ are bad things, but as human, we’re already limited, but also, it’s the nature of creativity. Did Bach and Jimmy Hendrix moan over the fact that they could ‘only’ work within 12 semitones? As an example, I used to play around with electronic music a bit, but my problem was that I would sit for hours just playing with the infinite varieties of sounds that my soft-synths could make. But one time I actually gave myself some parameters: stick with one main instrument, make a melody, and then when you’re done, add any bells you want. When I did this, I had a half-way coherent little song. The same thing applies to actually eating healthy: we are told that we are limiting our choices, but the reality is that the creativity is now really beginning for the first time. There’s so much one can do with so few ingredients. (Just think of the myriad varieties of beer that use only four ingredients!) It’s all about how one combines them and what purpose they’re serving in the dish.

In one sense, meals are the ‘easy’ thing. What’s really hard, though, is snacking. One of the primary changes I’ve made since January was to replace most of my snack foods with just having some fruit. Initially it was clementine oranges, now it’s pears. Wonderfully tasty. And the thing is, even if you ‘indulge’ and have, say, three oranges, think about it: you just had three oranges. How is that even a bad thing? I mean, assuming your tongue is not bleeding from all the acid, you’ve had something amazing. No need to think about how much ‘Vitamin C’ (although it probably doesn’t hurt) because, as Michael Pollan reminds us in a very pithy manner, we should actually just “eat food.” Supplements can be helpful, and for some people they definitely come in handy, but it’s not a way to live by itself. Instead of taking a bunch of pills to get what you need, why not eat the actual foods that contain those things?

This has been long enough, but I’ve had some of these thoughts for a while now, and this is also a bit of an ‘open letter’ response to Shalina who asked me and Tiana how we’ve been doing with eating. Tiana has already responded personally over Skype, but I thought I’d flesh my own response out a bit more to work out my own thoughts a bit. For now, we’re maintaining, and it’s still a lot of work, and it takes planning, but if you have a friend or partner to do this with, it definitely helps. The important thing to remember is that so much of what we are bombarded with in the way of advertisements and even down the aisles of our own grocery stores are in fact false choices. Does this product only taste good? Then it could be dumb. And unhealthy, etc. This is the ‘Nothingness’ that Žižek refers to above.  The real choices are made creatively, look at the larger picture, and are choices that are continually made as an entire form of life–they are not merely ‘diets’. This is what we do now. That’s not meant to be pithy, but thus far, for the things that matter, it seems to me indicative of a form of life that bears fruit.

Links and a Note:

  • *Note: This is a ridiculous paragraph, but to be serious for a bit, obviously choice is important and crucial. Freedom in its most basic sense is what Christianity has bequeathed to us rather in the form not of pure ‘choice’ but of gift. We do not choose to be born, but it is a gift to be born and so it is something that, in order for it properly to be a gift, needs to be received. We receive this gift not by making any-damn-choice-we-want, but by attempting, prayerfully, to make the right choices, the most beautiful choices, and the most good ones.
  • Orange Mocha Frappaccino scene from Zoolander staring Brint, Meekus, and Rufus. Meekus, of course, is played by Alexander Skarsgård who is now well-known for his role as Eric Northman in the HBO series True Blood.
  • Meal Measure, “Manage Your Weight, One Portion at a Time.” (As Seen on TV!) This product is so stupid!
  • Slavoj Žižek, The Fragile Absolute: Or Why Is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For? (London: Verso, 2000), chapter 3 entitled “Coke as objet petit a.” The first part of this chapter is reproduced in this lecture online: “The Superego and the Act: A Lecture by Slavoj Žižek.”
  • “The Wood Song,” by the Indigo Girls. Lyrics here.
  • Holland & Barrett stores
  • A short, simple, previous post I made about walking
  • My sister-in-law Shalina’s inspirational and helpful blog about her own journey: Sincerely Shalina
06 Aug

Blackberry Harvest

Cup of tea and blackberry harvest

Had a very lovely day of doing language work and reading yesterday, mostly outside. The weather was gorgeous, and our blackberry bush in the back of our garden was filled with berries. I probably could have picked another couple of bowls worth.

The mug there was given to us from our friend Aaron Riches. He got the mug from the monks at Mount Saint Bernard Abbey.