Sidewalk shoveling

As is typical for these parts, we had our biggest snowfall of the year on March first. I don’t know what the official snowfall total will be, but just eyeballing the snow right here, I’d have to say it was about 10 inches.

If the metric is clearing snow and ice off the sidewalk, Champaign-Urbana may be the least neighborly place in the world—I’ve never seen so many sidewalks left impassible as I see in virtually any neighborhood in Champaign or Urbana, the only exceptions being campus and right downtown. But local ordinance requires apartment complexes to clear their sidewalks, and Country Fair Apartments did so, promptly and thoroughly.

Here in Winfield Village the complex clears the sidewalks as well, including right up to the door for the apartment buildings—but not for townhouses. Townhouse dwellers are supposed to clear their own walk, just from the door to the main sidewalk.

My sidewalk, shoveled
My sidewalk

My sidewalk is perhaps ten paces long and a typical width for a private walk—a bit narrower than a public sidewalk. Unless there’s a lot of snow, I can shovel it clear and put down some salt in less than ten minutes.

After 20 years in which I had no sidewalk to shovel, I have to say that so far I am enjoying my tiny bit of shoveling immensely. It makes me feel connected to my neighborhood. It also adds a whole second layer of righteously smug self-satisfaction when I become annoyed at the people who can’t be bothered to clear their sidewalks. And there’s not much I enjoy more than getting a good smug on.

Sore foot

I’ve had a slightly sore foot for a while now.

It hasn’t been a big deal. It doesn’t hurt when I run. It doesn’t hurt when I walk (except sometimes when I walk really fast). It doesn’t hurt when I stand, or when I’m just sitting.

Mostly it hurts when I use my foot as a brace to turn or twist, such as when I brace the side of my foot against the mattress to turn over in bed. Sometimes it hurts when I’m standing on my other foot, and touch just the toe of the sore one down to catch my balance.

It sometimes hurts for the first few minutes right after I get up in the morning, kind of like plantar fasciitis, but a different part of my foot: the medial edge, just posterior to the ball of the foot.

Even then, it doesn’t hurt much.

However, it has been persistently hurting occasionally, just a little, for a long time now. Months.

I had been doing basic, conservative care. I was wearing supportive shoes, avoiding things that hurt it as best I could, and figuring it would eventually get better. But it hasn’t.

So, a couple days ago, I decided to step it up a notch: I decided to treat it with a placebo. (The effectiveness of placebos is well-established. They’re effective even when people know that the treatment is a placebo.)

My initial plan had been to add in some sort of cream or ointment. I thought of something like Aspercreme, but it doesn’t hurt enough to justify the use of even a mild analgesic, so I thought I’d get something like Bengay or IcyHot: just some sort of counter-irritant that would make it clear that I was “doing something” to treat my foot. Then I saw Walter Jon Williams’s recent post on Tiger Balm, and knew that I’d found the right stuff.

Jackie discovered Tiger Balm several decades ago, during her travels in Asia, and it has long been a staple item in our medicine cabinet, but we’d let ourselves run out in the run-up to our several moves, so we didn’t have any. Fortunately, the closest store to our townhouse is a CVS, and they had two varieties of Tiger Balm in stock. They seemed almost identical (a one-percentage point difference in menthol), but the one they were marketing as their “ultra strength” “sports rub” was $1 cheaper, so we got that one.

I’ve been using it for two days now, and I’m imaging that my foot is feeling better.

Perhaps because I’m finally doing something about my foot, I also remembered something else. For years now I’ve been wearing a pair of slip-on Birkinstocks as slippers. I started wearing them when I first got plantar fasciitis, and found that it was crucial to never go barefoot on our hardwood floors. Along with other supportive footwear, they solved the problem.

Usually I only wore them indoors, but very occasionally I’d wear them outdoors for very short trips—if I was only going as far as the mailbox, for instance. One or two summers ago, I tried to wear them for a walk around the block, and found that they really hurt the joint at the base of my big toe. I couldn’t make it even as far as around the block—I had to turn back and hobble home.

They never hurt my foot when I just wore them around the house, which I continued to do.

But now that I was thinking about it, it occurred to me that maybe they were hurting my foot, just not enough to notice unless I did something out of the ordinary.

Since the plantar fasciitis hasn’t bothered me since I started doing taiji, I decided to retire the slip-on Birkinstocks.

I’m also adding some calf-stretching, as well as some calf and shin strengthening activities.

I suspect some combination of those activities will do the trick. But just in case, I’m also rubbing some Tiger Balm two or three times a day into the side of that foot, from ball back almost to the heel.

I’ll keep you posted.

Oh, and by the way—the main reason I haven’t been posting much here is that I’ve been posting most of my exercise-related stuff on my Esperanto language blog, mostly as a way to improve my grasp of the exercise-related vocabulary (which is surprisingly poorly developed in Esperanto). I have a sense that most of my friends and relations have heard about all they want to about my exercise and fitness. And what better way to make sure almost nobody is bothered by my yammering on about it than to do so in a language almost nobody speaks?

Feeling good

Most years, as the winter gloominess lifts, there comes a day when I think, “Hey! Things are just fine! I feel good!” Although I worry just a little that I’m being premature here—in Central Illinois it’s entirely possible to have a whole winter’s worth of snow and cold weather in the first month or two of spring—for me this year, that day was yesterday.

In fact, today I’m just a bit manic—enough that I think Jackie was finding me something of a pest, although she bore up well. (It’s worth mentioning here that my manic—as manic as I ever get—is really quite calm. Let me put it this way: an average person on a day with an ordinary mix of good and bad news probably goes through swings of emotion that cover my entire annual range.)

Jackie and I have been re-watching the TV series “Chuck,” and last night we got to the episode where Chuck and Sarah have finally gotten together—the episode that ends with Chuck suggesting that he’s found the song to be Sarah’s favorite, a song by Nina Simone. I don’t have a recording of her version, but I some years ago grabbed a recording posted by fellow occasional Wise Bread writer Nora Dunn performing “Feeling Good,” which is still there at Nora’s site, and which I commend to your attention.


Zero unread RSS feeds (plus novel update)

Over a period of some months I’ve been working to clean up the set of feeds I try to follow. Today I got the unread count down to zero, perhaps for the first time since I started using a feed reader. Certainly for the first time in years.

I did it two ways. First, I did it the legit way, by unsubscribing from feeds that I didn’t actually read. Second, in just a few cases, I did it the cheating way, by just selecting a feed and clicking “mark as read.”

The first permanently reduces the burden of stuff I imagine that I ought to do.

The second just briefly hides the fact that there are some feeds I imagine I want to follow, but that I don’t actually keep up with. Still, I figure this is a test of sorts. Some of those feeds were pretty quiet. Maybe, if they’re not mixed in with all the stuff I’m not keeping up with, they’ll be easy to follow. And, if they’re not, I can always unsubscribe later.

This flurry of feed-pruning activity brought to you by procrastinating on the novel.

I’m in the midst of some tough slogging as I push through the final third. Even after my previous pass through this bit, it is still written a lot like a short story. The scenes are highly compressed, with lots of bits merely referred to. As I reach those scenes, it takes me a while to uncompress them—to see the two or three or four scenes represented by the existing text, and then to compose those scenes, placing them in the right sequence in the story.

I’m actually really enjoying that work, once I get into it, but each new scene is hard to start on—largely because I’m quite proud of the old, compressed versions. The uncompression work feels like taking a finely crafted miniature that I spent days painting, cutting it up into pieces, sticking each piece in the middle of a big canvas, and then trying to paint a new picture that incorporates that bit of the miniature. (It would probably be better to just do the necessary new scene “inspired” by the old scene, and I’ve done some of that, but that turns out to have problems as well.)

In any event, progress continues. It’s just hard.

As I go to click the “publish” button on this post, my unread feed count stands at zero.

Making a note here: Huge Success

What a wonderful party! (“I’m making a note here: Huge success. It’s hard to overstate my satisfaction.”)

That’s Wellington on the right and Alexander the Grape on the left.

Thanks to all the folks who braved the elephants to attend! (Here’s a picture of a couple of the elephants that people had to brave.)

Jackie and I had never thrown a party together (if you don’t count our wedding reception, which was really thrown by Jackie’s mom on our behalf). Our apartment at Country Fair was too small and too cluttered for us to want to show it off. I did have a similar sort of open house party at my house in Philo when I bought it, before I met Jackie, and it was a pretty good party, but not as good as this one (because I didn’t really know anyone to invite except coworkers).

We had a great turn out. There were a bunch of taiji folks, both from the class that I attend and the class I teach, and there were a bunch of former coworkers, and a bunch of Jackie’s spinning and weaving guild members, as well representatives of the local speculative fiction writing and Esperantist communities. We had a lot of spouses and kids as well, so it was a very interesting group.

Everybody commented on how open and light our new place is, and how well it suits us. (It seems that anybody who’s lived in Champaign-Urbana for more than a few years knows somebody who lived in Winfield Village. I was initially surprised by this, but it’s so universally true, I’ve almost come to expect it.)

There was a great deal of interest in Jackie’s loom (something that you don’t see in just every house) and her spinning wheel and the yarn and woven items displayed all over the house. We don’t have much of our art hung yet, but the few pieces we have up all drew favorable comments.

I didn’t get to talk to anybody as much as I’d have liked, and barely managed to talk at all with a few people. I think future parties will be a bit smaller, so there’s more time to spend with each guest. (Sorry if I neglected you! Send me some email! Let’s do lunch!)

Pre-party preparations were a big deal of course, involving as they did unpacking all our worldly possessions and finding places for everything. Happily, post-party cleanup was almost trivial. (Because we just served snacks and deserts and not a real meal, and because we didn’t invite any undergrads.) We were mostly done cleaning up before the first Superbowl ad.

Now we have way too many deserts left over. Too much wine as well, but the wine will keep until we’re ready.

Comfort activity (and a novel update)

A few years after we got married, Jackie and I planned a Key West vacation for February. I figured early-to-mid February would be perfect—we’d get to escape a week of winter weather, and when we got back in mid-to-late February it would be almost March and it would be safe to start looking forward to spring.

Probably most important—to my mind, more important than the vacation itself—was the anticipation of the vacation. My plan was that we’d spend all January looking forward to the vacation. We’d be kept busy with preparations and packing, we’d be researching things we might do in Key West and making plans. Looking forward to our vacation was supposed to make January zip by more quickly.

Unfortunately, that was the year the airline pilots threatened to go on strike, with the planned strike date the day before our flight to Key West. So, instead of spending all January looking forward to my vacation, I spent all January wondering if I’d spend my vacation in the airport, waiting on labor negotiations.

In the event the pilots did go on strike, but Bill Clinton ordered them back to work for a month, so we got to Key West and had our vacation as planned. It was a fine week in Key West, but a real dud of an anticipatory month of January. The experience strongly reinforced my view that the anticipation is worth as much as the vacation itself.

I mention all that because I’ve found our party preparations similarly diverting. We picked the date a couple of months back. (I’d proposed a New Year’s Eve party, a date Jackie rejected as too soon for us to be ready. She counter-proposed Groundhog’s Day, and then we settled on Groundhog’s Day Eve because it was a Sunday and we wanted to do an afternoon party.)

So we’ve had most of two months to anticipate our party. We would have been busy anyway—still unpacking from having moved, family visiting early in the new year, both on top of all our usual activities. With party preparations as well, we’ve been busy every minute.

All of which I figure is worth mentioning, because this was probably the best January I’ve had in about as long as I can remember.

I used to suffer from seasonal depression pretty routinely. It’s been better of late (probably helped by using my HappyLight™, by taking vitamin D, and by not working a regular job), but it’s never gone away. I still suffer from anxiety starting in early fall just from knowing that the days are going to get short. But this year has been great—and I think being busy with the activities of party preparation have been a big part of it.

Clearly it’s worth planning something for early February that I can spend January anticipating. I don’t know if it should be a party every year though. Perhaps a vacation that didn’t come with a month of worry about airline pilot’s strikes would be even better. (With the bonus of getting us someplace warm for a week.)

I did want to mention that progress on the novel proceeds apace. Despite being busy, I’ve managed to work on the novel very nearly every single day since the solstice.

As of just a few days ago, I’d made my way through the middle third—and I’m pretty pleased with it. As I feared, the final third is in rougher shape than I’d like. I’d gone through it once already, reworking it from a short story into the final third of a novel, but now that I’m here, I can see that there’s a lot left to do.

There’s also a good bit of new writing that needs to happen. The short story wrapped up with an explanation of why things were going to be okay. It didn’t quite work as a short story, which is part of what made me want to expand it to a novel. But as I pressed through the first two-thirds, I realized that what needs to happen is that events predicted in that explanation need to actually happen in full-blown scenes. And those scenes haven’t been written yet.

That’s okay, though. I’ve really enjoyed the bits here and there during the rewrite when I came upon a scene where, in the first draft, I’d said, “Since they’d remembered to do X . . .” and went back to write the scene where they did X. Now I’m looking forward to writing two or three or four scenes of additional climax and dénouement.

It’ll be great.

No Admittance Except on Party Business

I considered putting a note to that effect on the door, but I was afraid there would be people who wouldn’t get the joke. (The downside of having such a diverse group of friends—no matter how pervasive something is in our culture, Jackie and I will know a few people for whom it is utterly outside their experience.)

Party preparations are nearly complete.

I got the study tidy! (Those of you who have seen it in the past month would be astounded.) I need to do a photo shoot of my writing space, now that it is so wonderfully open and inviting, but I have not yet had the time to get good pictures.

This morning I made candy and baked cookies for the party. (The candy is what I call Platonic Candy, because it is candy reduced to its platonic essence: sugar, fat, a little flavoring. The cookies are Ginger Sparkles.)

This afternoon, while I’m at Esperanto, Jackie will prepare her contributions to the party comestibles.

In the evening we’ll do our final cleaning up.

Sunday we’ll be able to laze about lazily all morning, until people start showing up for the party.

Yesterday’s weather report was kind of alarming, predicting that several inches of snow were possible. Today’s forecast is better, with less snow expected. Hopefully the weather won’t keep too many people home from our party.

An app someone should write

Here’s an idea for an app that someone should write. I call it MeetAt. The code should be pretty straightforward—you could easily enough build it on the guts of any location-aware app.

The user interface is simple. You see a short of list of common contacts (but probably also access to the whole contact list). You pick one or more contacts to whom you’ll send a message in the form of “Hey, let’s meet at [location]!”

Next you see a short list of common locations—home, work, the coffee shop, the library . . . Ideally the list would piggyback on some already existing list of locations that you care about, but in any case it would be configurable.

That’s all pretty obvious, but here’s the (slightly) clever bit: At the top of the list would be a button for “somewhere in between,” and when you clicked it you’d get a list of locations that are in between where you are and where your contact is. (This is assuming that you’ve previously approved sharing location information with one another via this app.)

The easiest implementation of that would be simply to draw a line, find the midpoint, and then do a Google location look-up which will present you with a list of named places near that location. (Or, if you want to be Google-free, something based on Open Street Map or something else.

You could, however, enhance that in a lot of ways. For example, your device could detect if one of you is on foot or on a bicycle or in a car, and could suggest locations that could be reached in about the same amount of time by both parties, given relative travel speeds. If one of you is on a bus, it could identify which upcoming bus stop would be the closest walk for the person on foot.

The app would also generate an expected meeting time, based on whatever travel modes it was expecting people to use.

The result would be a message sent that says, “Let’s met at [location] in [n] minutes,” to which the other person could reply “Okay” with a single click. With a few more clicks, the other person could propose an alternative location or time.

Personally, I’d use an app like that all the time.

Best doormat ever!

We wanted to get a doormat in advance of our Groundhog’s Day Eve party.

Because we had left it so late, I had already resigned myself to getting a merely ordinary doormat. We had good intentions of getting a good doormat later, but I knew we’d almost certainly end up using the ordinary doormat for years. It would be “good enough” and there’s always too much important stuff to do to get to less urgent tasks.

Since we weren’t even going to try to get an excellent doormat, we went to Tuesday Morning, a shop in our old neighborhood that sells mostly surplus and discontinued stuff.

We get our cocktail napkins there, because they have odd, random, cocktail napkins for cheap. Most of the cocktail napkin designs are generic birds or flowers, but we can almost always find one or two packages with something funny or interesting.

We figured they’d have odd, random doormats, and that maybe we’d be able to find one that was funny or interesting.

The first few doormats were generic birds and flowers, but then, near the bottom, was an octopus doormat!

Octopus DoormatIs it not awesome? Is it not the best doormat you’ve ever seen? I mean, yes, a doormat featuring a hedgehog and a sloth might have been even better, and one featuring a groundhog would have been more topical for our party. But honestly, even including one of those, I can’t imagine a better doormat than the one we found.

I should also mention: the party invites have gone out. If you didn’t get one, it was purely an oversight on my part. Let me know (my email address is on my contact page), and I’ll get you the details of the party.

Bad meditator

I’m a bad meditator. While writing this piece, I was briefly tempted to claim to be the world’s worst meditator, but I’m sure that’s not actually true. At least, it’s not true if you include the people who don’t meditate at all—they’re worse than me. Even among the people who have a regular meditation practice there are certainly people who are worse at it than I am. Well, almost certainly. But probably not very many. I’m really a very bad meditator.

For one thing, I haven’t taken my meditation practice seriously. For a long time, I just went through the motions, not even really trying to meditate. In my taiji class, the teacher included a period for meditation, so I “meditated.”

Even just going through the motions of meditating, I quickly found some physical benefits to standing meditation, but the more subtle benefits—the insights into my mind that meditation is supposed to provide—eluded me. This was not a surprise; I did not expect much benefit from a practice that was as slipshod as my own.

(As an aside, I should mention that there are also physical benefits to sitting meditation. They were not as obvious to me, mostly because of my own foolishness in viewing standing meditation as a successor to sitting meditation, rather than a complementary practice. This kept me from giving my sitting even the rather feeble effort I gave my standing. Even so, I eventually perceived the physical benefits of sitting meditation as well.)

Only after three or four years did I begin to find the other benefits of a meditation practice. In particular, I felt like I began to acquire insights into the mechanisms of attention. (At around that same time, I read an article about Steve Jobs that talked about his meditation practice, saying that, “Sitting zazen offered Jobs a practical technique for upgrading the motherboard in his head.”)

One thing that made a difference for me was attending a free meditation workshop by Mary Wolters, a local yoga instructor. Her guided meditation sessions were excellent—sitting rather than standing, 30 minutes rather than the usually 10 minutes or less that we did in taiji class, and (probably most important) separated from the effort of (both learning and doing) taiji—I found that I actually was meditating.

Having begun to perceive the benefits of meditation, I find myself wanting to do it more, but have not yet found a way to add it to my daily routine, except as part of my taiji practice, which is good, but not enough. (And I hesitate to spend more class time on meditation, on the theory that the class should take advantage of there being a taiji instructor present to focus on the movements, whereas we could all meditate successfully on our own.)

Still, even if I haven’t added time to my meditation practice beyond what I do in taiji, I have at least added meditation to my meditation practice. It’s a start.