Disneyland!

I don’t normally suggest a soundtrack for posts, but for this one I recommend that you listen to Da Vinci’s Notebook singing “Kingdom in the Sky.” Open that link in another tab and let it play while you read.

For almost ten years now I’ve been writing about personal finance and frugality for the website Wise Bread. A few months ago, the founders emailed the senior writers to say that to celebrate their 10-year anniversary they were inviting all of us who started in the first year, together with our families, to Disneyland.

What a great gift! Jackie and I flew out last week, spent two nights in the Disneyland hotel, and spent two days in the theme parks.

Even better than the theme parks was the chance to meet the admins, some of the other writers, and the Wise Bread staff! These are people I’ve been working with for 10 years, but had never met except through their posts and email messages.

Nice swag bags were delivered to our room—snacks, Disney name tags and lanyard wallets, big Disney insulated cups, and heavy-weight hoodies with both the Disney and Wise Bread logos. Mine also had a Mophie powerpack! (There’s a local-to-my-hometown connection between Mophie and Kalamazoo which this an especially welcome gift, totally aside from the fact that my old Motorola powerpack had given up the ghost just before this trip, which meant that I really needed one.)

We also got a pair of 2-day hopper passes for visiting the theme parks!

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Some of the gifts from the Wise Bread admins

The evening we got there was the staff/editor/writer dinner at the Catal restaurant in downtown Disney. Jackie and I ended up sitting down at the end of the table with the editors Janet and Lars and their spouses, and enjoyed much fascinating conversation all through dinner. (Also a nice—if rather young—pinot noir that Lars somehow managed to end up paying for despite everyone else’s best efforts.)

Around the middle of the evening, Lynn (one of the founders) called me to join her closer to the middle of the table so she could make a little speech thanking all us writers for joining Wise Bread and sticking with it all these years, and giving us each a “gift appropriate for a writer” which turned out to be the Mont Blanc pen in the photo above. What a generous and appropriate gift!

(A photo of that moment was posted to instagram—I tweeted it—but it seems to have vanished. My tweet no longer even has the link to where the photo used to be. What’s up with that? If it resurfaces, I’ll post it here.)

The next morning was breakfast at Goofy’s Kitchen—a breakfast buffet with Disney characters posing for photos and parading through the dining rooms. We sat at the same table as Will, who had some very kind things to say about me to Jackie.

Jackie in Goofy's Kitchen, with Minnie.
Jackie in Goofy’s Kitchen, with Minnie.

We spent the rest of the morning at the Disneyland theme park (having done the California Adventure theme park the previous afternoon).

Me with the Cheshire Cat in Disneyland.
Me in my Wise Bread/Disney hoodie with the Cheshire Cat in Disneyland. Photo by Jackie Brewer.

After various rides and attractions and lunch (and a good bit of walking—important to Jackie and me), we decided that we were about theme-parked out, and decided to spend the warm part of the afternoon walking in the gardens outside the hotel and sitting by the pool. Jackie wrote some postcards.

We took a bunch of pictures, some of which are good enough to share. I gathered those in a Flickr album I called #wisebread10thdisney after the hashtag the admins wanted us to use for our Instagram posts. (Or you can go to that hashtag at Instagram and see everybody else’s photos along with those of mine that ended up on Instagram.)

However, I got one particularly good shot of Jackie and me that I wanted to share:

Selfie with Jackie and bamboo.
Selfie with Jackie and bamboo

How much fun were Jackie and I having at Disneyland? This much fun.

Thanks to the admins at Wise Bread! Hey, shall we do our 20th anniversary celebration at EPCOT?

Volunteer Snow Removal Program?

So this is great and all, but how lame is it that we need a volunteer program to clear sidewalks? Isn’t this something that the land owners should have been doing right along?

C-U Safe Routes to School Project is launching a volunteer snow removal program with the support of MTD and the Urbana School District. When snow remains on sidewalks and builds up to block sidewalks, ramps, and intersections, the daily journeys of students and other community members become more dangerous as they must move into the street to find a clear path. This includes our riders.

Source: Volunteer Snow Removal Program | The Inside Lane

This is my stop if I take the bus to the Urbana Library.

The Federal Reserve and the “gig” economy

The “gig” economy: all the sorts of work arrangements where you’re not a permanent employee and can’t expect that work one day implies that you’ll have work the next day—freelancing, contracting, temp work, casual labor, and most recently, software-mediated contract work like Uber driver.

These sorts of work have been growing as a fraction of all work. In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in the last ten years contingent workers have gone from being 10% of the workforce to being 16%. In fact,

all of the net growth in aggregate employment in the decade leading up to 2015 can be accounted for by contingent work arrangements, which means there has been no net employment growth in traditional work arrangements.

Source: FRB: Brainard, The “Gig” Economy: Implications of the Growth of Contingent Work

This matters to everyone with an interest in the U.S. economy, but it matters particularly to the Federal Reserve, which is charged by Congress to:

promote effectively the goals of maximum employment, stable prices and moderate long-term interest rates.

Source: The Federal Reserve’s Dual Mandate

So this raises the question: Does strong growth in the number of freelancers, on-call temps, and Uber drivers mean that we’re getting closer to maximum employment? Or, that we’re getting further away?

Perkins Road Natural Area stewardship work day

Jackie and I spent a few hours at the Urbana Park District’s Perkins Road Site, some land just behind the Urbana Dog Park that used to belong to the Sanitary District and was used for sludge ponds. The area is being restored as wet prairie.

Jackie and I joined a crew of about a dozen people cutting invasive bush honeysuckle and burning it.

I went to one or two stewardship workdays with my dad in Kalamazoo at preserves belonging to the Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy, but (probably just because of the details of what needed doing at those sites those days) didn’t come away with enough of a sense of accomplishment to prompt me to find similar opportunities here.

Since Jackie got involved with the Master Naturalists she’s been doing a lot of these, and I’ve joined her on several. We cut bush honeysuckle at Meadowbrook Park, and on another day gathered prairie seeds there. We pulled winter creeper at Weaver Park. And yesterday we were back to clearing bush honeysuckle—with the bonus that, because this site makes it difficult to haul things out, this time we got to burn it as well.

There’s an atavistic satisfaction that comes from playing with fire. Highly recommended. Don’t burn yourself.

The future

Like most of my friends, I’m distressed and depressed about the prospects for our country.

I’m not going to back away from the fight. I hope and expect we will use the tools and tactics that the Republicans so ably demonstrated to block as much evil as possible. I also hope we’ll be much more strategic than they were. They seemed more interested in making the Obama presidency a failure than in advancing their own agenda. The Democrats may prove more capable at making some progress—letting the Republicans “succeed,” when they’re doing something we’d also like to do.

Having said that, I must say that distress and depression are not a good look on me. Nor are anger and bitterness. And those are the things I find when I watch the news, listen to the radio, read articles on politics, and increasingly when I read my Twitter and Facebook feeds.

So, while not backing away from the fight, I do hope to back away from the outrage. That’s going to mean changing the way I interact with both news media and social media.

I’m going to follow fewer links—so often they go to articles calculated to produce outrage, and I don’t need more outrage. It’s a fine line, because there has been and will be much that is deserving of outrage. Yet: I do not worry that I will suffer from outrage deficiency.

My hope from this is that I will gain many things: time, attention, equilibrium, equanimity. These things will be used: For movement, for family, for study, and for my work—writing (both fiction and non-) and joining Jackie in her volunteering at local natural areas.

Yesterday Jackie and I walked at Forest Glen. The leaves are mostly down, covering the ground so thickly that some places it’s hard to find the trail. But with the leaves down, you can see much further into the forest:

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Theory and Practice of Neurogenesis

Even though I’m finding my self-care regimen for seasonal depression pretty adequate these days, I’m always interested in more tools. One thing that caught my attention recently was an interview with Brant Cortright in which he talked about his book The Neurogenesis Diet and Lifestyle.

Cortright has a bunch of interesting things to say, one of which I already knew: that depression is not a disorder of serotonin deficiency. According to him—and this I did not know—the way SSRIs work is by promoting neurogenesis. In the interview he said that depression turns out to be caused by a lack of neurogenesis, as are several other disorders (e.g. Alzheimer’s).

I checked the local libraries for copies of his book without success, but in my searches I happened upon this article: Successful brain aging: plasticity, environmental enrichment, and lifestyle by Francisco Mora, which seems to cover pretty much the same ground.

People are looking very hard at drugs besides SSRIs to promote brain plasticity, but the whole idea sounds problematic to me, so I’m interested in the various non-drug interventions suggested by Cortright and Mora. Fortunately, it seems that neurogenesis is easy to increase, by doing the obvious things we already know about:

  • Environmental enrichment
  • Calorie restriction
  • Aerobic exercise
  • Adequate levels of certain nutrients (omega-3s, vitamin E).

I think of my artist dates in particular as environmental enrichment, but of course time spent in nature counts as well. The parkour I do probably counts double, because there’s learning how to execute the moves, but there’s also learning to see the environment as a place where those moves are useful.

My weight loss practices have been substantially motivated by the science around calorie restriction as a way to improve health generally, with additional neurogenesis just one factor.

My experience over the previous 30 years convinced me that approaching calorie restriction in a numerical, analytical fashion—tracking what I ate, estimating the calorie content, aiming for some target X% below maintenance—would be unsuccessful. Instead, I came at it from the other direction: If I’m losing weight, I must be restricting my calories.

The caloric deficit implied by my weight loss over the past five years is just about 100 calories per day. Maintenance for me is probably around 1800 calories per day, so I’ve averaged about 5.5% below. It would probably be more accurate to say that I’ve averaged about 10% below maintenance for about half that time, as I’ve generally lost weight during the summers while maintaining a stable weight through the winters. Either number is well shy of the “20% to 40%” reduction that’s been shown to decrease the rate of aging of the brain, but I rather suspect that the benefit exists even at these lower levels—with the added bonus of being sustainable over a much longer period of time. (I mean, how long can you maintain a 40% deficit below maintenance before you simply waste away?)

According to Mora, aerobic exercise seems to increase neurogenesis by the same chemical pathways as calorie restriction. According to Cortright, it has to be aerobic activity of substantial duration—some twenty minutes or more. In particular, the sort of HIIT workouts so beloved of the paleo/primal folks don’t seem to produce the same effect. That’s fine with me: Humans are much too well-adapted for endurance running for me to buy into the idea that primitive humans didn’t do marathon-distance runs when they needed to. Besides, I enjoy long runs.

Of course, neurogenesis is reduced by the obvious things:

  • Neurotoxins (mercury, lead, pesticides, etc.)
  • Traumatic brain injuries (concussions, etc.)
  • High blood glucose levels
  • Stress.

My parents made a considerable effort to keep me and my brother free of neurotoxins, and I have managed to avoid concussions so far. I’m sure I subjected myself to excessive blood glucose levels for years, but I think I’ve got that under control now. I also subjected myself to excessive levels of stress for years, due to the vicious circle of my seasonal depression making me unproductive, my lack of productivity making me stress about losing my job, and the stress no doubt worsening my depression. I’ve got that under control now as well.

Really then, this whole neurogenesis thing doesn’t so much give me new strategies for staving off depression, as provide a conceptual framework for organizing the strategies I’m already using.

Even just that seems worthwhile.

(The image at the top is of these great doors at the Environmental Education Center at Kennekuk County Park. The branching trees reminded me of neurons, a little.)

Fighting seasonal depression with woollies

I do a lot of things to stave off winter depression. I walk. I spend time in nature. I spend time walking in nature. I move in other ways—taiji, lifting, stretching, running, parkour. I use my HappyLight™. I take vitamin D. But probably most important is finding things to take delight in.

Jackie doesn’t suffer with the dark days of winter the way I do, which is probably a matter of brain chemistry, but perhaps another factor is that she is very good at taking delight in winter as an opportunity to wear her woollies.

I’m trying to do the same.

It helps that I have new winter clothes, and old winter clothes that fit again. The photo on this page shows me walking in nature, wearing a purple sweater my mom knit for me years ago.

Besides my old sweaters and my new sweaters, I have a smashing wool vest that Jackie gave me, some wool pants that I bought as field pants (but that are perhaps too nice to wear in the field), and a vast collection of scarves that Jackie wove and knit for me. And that’s just the woollies. I also have a nice collection of moleskin and flannel garments perfect for winter, various fleecy things, and a range of jackets and coats to cover all possible temperatures from “slightly brisk” to “well north of the arctic circle.”

This year, I’ll try to take delight in my seasonally appropriate garments, especially the woollies, and see if that won’t carry me through to spring.

Being scary

I generally don’t think of myself as a scary person, but there are a few times when people have reacted in a way that made me think I frightened them. Here are three that made enough of an impression on me that I remember years later.

Out of fries

When I was about 15 or 16, my mom took me to a restaurant near my high school. We gave our order, but just a minute later the waitress—a girl perhaps two or three years older than me—returned to say that they were out of french fries.

Using my overly dramatic voice of mock outrage, I said, “Out of french fries!?!?”

And the waitress cringed.

I did my best to console her—I assured her that a burger with no fries would be fine—but I felt terrible. It was the first time in my life that I comprehended that I’d frightened someone.

Car door locks

In college I worked at the computer center, and one year I spent a Christmas break helping to bring up a new version of the operating system. In those days, the college just had one computer, which did both administrative stuff (like printing checks and addressing letters to alums) and stuff for students and faculty. The new OS was not yet trusted to handle the administrative tasks, so I was starting work after the administrative users of the computer finished up at 5:00 PM, and then heading home late at night, often after midnight.

It was a long walk to where I was staying, so I took the shortest route I could. One stretch had me cutting at an angle through a parking lot, reaching the next street in the middle of a block.

One day I stepped out of that parking lot, onto the sidewalk—and found myself right at the door of a car with a African-American woman and a couple of young children inside. The woman, seeing me come out of nowhere (not down the street from ahead or behind) right up to her car, hurried to lock her car doors as quickly as possible.

I have always been a little ashamed that, for just a moment, I thought, “But I’m white!” as if that should have made a difference.

Leather jacket and motorcycle helmet

One of my coworkers helped teach a motorcycle safety course and convinced me to take it. I bought a helmet (required to take the course), a leather jacket, got my motorcycle endorsement, and in about 1990 or 1991 I bought a motorcycle and started riding it to work.

One day I ran a mid-day errand at the mall, and decided to stop at fast-food restaurant for lunch. That particular restaurant had railings set up to encourage people to form a single line, and I took my place at the end of the line.

The next time the person at the front departed, the people in the line moved forward a bit too aggressively. Finding themselves bunched together, the people at the front of the line moved back, forcing the people behind them to move back as well.

The person in front of me took a step back without looking, and bumped into me, hitting the motorcycle helmet I was carrying in my hand. Having bumped me, he turned to look at me—and lurched away again from the terrifying visage of a guy in leather jacket with a motorcycle helmet, bumping into the guy ahead of him, producing a whole second cycle of to-ing and fro-ing for the whole line.

Even with the helmet and jacket, I did not think of myself as a scary biker dude, but the guy ahead of me in line sure did. (The image on this post has me wearing that same leather jacket. I got rid of the helmet long ago, so for the photo I’m wearing my most biker-dude bandana, printed with a topographical map of the Appalachian Trail.)

Being dangerous

There are several factors that go into making someone dangerous. In particular, there’s the difference between having a capability to do harm versus having an inclination to do harm.

Absent actual knowledge, other people have to rely on markers for each of these things. A raised voice, a sudden appearance in an unexpected place, the dress and accoutrements of a certain category of people all can serve as such markers.

It is a commonplace of action fiction that those who are themselves dangerous can spot the difference between someone who is actually dangerous versus those who merely pretend. I don’t think a fictional action hero would have been fooled for a minute in any of those incidents.

I’ve begun to notice, though, that there’s some truth to the idea that you can tell the difference between those who are dangerous because they have skills versus those who are dangerous merely because they are volatile. Thanks to my taiji practice (especially teaching taiji) I’m beginning to notice a few of the things that go into the calculation—being balanced, being centered, being ready to move.

It’s actually kind of unhandy—noticing such things has made it harder for me to put my attention elsewhere—making it harder to play Ingress, for example.

I don’t think of myself as scary, and I certainly wouldn’t want to project an aura of menace all the time. But being able to project menace is an ability that probably has its uses in real life as well as in fiction.

I very much recognize the position of privilege I’m speaking from here. More than a few people have died recently, because someone with a gun thought they were menacing—even when they were running away, or standing with their hands up, or lying down on the ground with their hands up.

Collecting prairie seeds

As part of becoming a master naturalist, Jackie has been going on volunteer work days at local natural areas. A couple of times I’ve gone along as well, most recently on Saturday to Meadowbrook Park where we gathered prairie seeds.

Jackie is trying to learn to identify all the plants during all the seasons, so she made a point of gathering some of each of the prairie species that the organizers wanted.

I figured I’d just try and be productive, so I focused on a plant I knew I’d be able to identify, and just gathered baptisia aka wild indigo aka false indigo. Over the course of 90 minutes or so I manged to fill a big paper grocery bag about three-quarters full of seed pods. Apparently the crop is better this year than last year, when weevils consumed nearly every seed. (Although I did see a lot of weevils—kind of disturbing because their size and shape makes it easy to mistake them for ticks.)

It was pretty easy. I spotted a baptisia from the sidewalk and gathered its seeds (leaving about half behind, so that there will be some seeds to disperse naturally). Then I looked around, spotted another plant a few yards away, and moved to that one. They’re not very dense in the prairie, but I don’t think I ever harvested a plant without being able to spot at least one more to move to, and then another visible from that one.

The baptisia flowering stalks seemed to be a favorite of some medium-sized black wasp. I skipped those stalks. They are also a favorite of a large green and brown praying mantis, which blends in surprisingly well for such a large insect. I saw three of them, barely noticing two before I started harvesting, and not noticing the third until it scrambled off the stalk.

Such a handsome face

(That’s the same kind of mantis, although not taken in the prairie.)

These seeds are going to be used right in Meadowbrook Park. Over the winter, the mowed area in the southwest corner of the park will be turned into more prairie.

The workday shifts are nominally 2 hours, but they don’t work us very hard. Especially when we’re all off working in different locations, they start to try to get us rounded up again after just 90 minutes or so. (I think especially when it’s hot they keep the shifts short.)

This particular work day was in celebration of National Public Lands Day, and while the workers refreshed ourselves with water, lemonade, and snacks back at the starting point, one of the organizers read an excerpt from a proclamation by Barack Obama in recognition of the day.

Then they gave anyone who wanted one a certificate recognizing our participation, and let us go.

Humans evolved to see high-viz yellow

For years I was sure that blaze orange would be the most visible color—so sure that I bought all my shirts for bicycling in some approximation of that color. I simply couldn’t imagine that a greenish-yellow color would be more visible, especially against green backgrounds like corn and soybean fields.

Then one day while out riding in one of my orange shirts, I was passed by a pair of cyclists, one wearing just about the same color of blaze orange as I was, and the other wearing high-viz yellow.

They were riding quite a bit faster than I was, so over the course of the next few minutes they dwindled down to two small dots far ahead of me. And then they dwindled into one small dot: the high-viz yellow one. And that high-viz yellow shirt remained visible for a really long time after the orange-shirted guy riding right next to him had vanished in the distance.

After I thought about it, it made sense. Humans evolved as forest-edge creatures. Of course high-viz yellow stands out, even against a hundred different shades of leafy green. Picking critical detail out of dappled shade—where basically everything is a shade of yellow-green—is exactly what the human eye evolved to do.

All my new safety gear is high-viz yellow.