Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Chairman of the Bored (a.k.a. How I Stumbled Into a Big Decision)

I wish I had a better story for you. I really do....

If you want to challenge yourself with a tale about alcohol that is substantially more gut-wrenching, take Augusten Burroughs' Dry around the block for a spin. Or work your way through what is still the most spectacularly beautiful memoir I have ever had the pleasure of reading -- A Drinking Life by Pete Hamill.

On the other hand, if your attention span is more on the blog-post level (and far be it from me to imply any criticism over that; after all, it may have brought you here, blessyerheart) you could always check out any of a number of Sarah Hepola's pieces on her decision to quit drinking, like this or this. She's my latest blog obsession (smart! funny!) and can regale you with her own version of alcohol-addiction stories -- specifically ones that begin with lines like, "I woke up in a dog's bed in someone else's house." Or if you dig around (come on, I'm not doing all the work for you), you can find more of her work, containing phrases like "impressive boobs of questionable origin." Really, she's totally worth your while....

Anyway... my little spiel is less a tale of ever-increasing addiction and drunkenness than one that reaches its nadir in flat-out ennui -- mixed with a little philosophizing about maturity and the aging process, I suppose, and the re-examination of, oh, everything.

See, once I started making big changes in my lifestyle -- along the lines of food, exercise, sleep, stress management -- pretty much anything became fair game for a "Don't let the door hit you in the ass on your way out...." exit from my life.

And it seems like drinking has become the most significant victim of my inwardly-turned Socratic Method.

It just all seemed stupid one day.


I don't have a long-term horrendous past with booze, but it's not an altogether healthy one either. College and law school had a lot of very liquid weekends. But my heaviest drinking, in terms of sheer volume over the course of a given week (and by week, I mean year), was actually just after law school. It was 1987 into '88. I was in my first job as a lawyer and my two housemates were fresh out of college, also in their first forays into the employment world. We had an enormous amount of post-5-p.m. free time, and no homework.

"Wait a minute. You're buying Esslinger beer? In pint returnable bar bottles? Do you happen to live with...."

I finished the beer-store guy's sentence for him: "Those other two guys that have to be the only other people in town who buy this shit beer? Yeah. What can I say? It's at least as good as crap like Budweiser and, at $4.99 a case, the price is hard to beat. We drink a lot of beer."

"No shit, dude. You guys are awesome. The boss said you are the first people to buy that stuff in a long time and you buy so much that now we have to order more!"

We were done with school, and we were tired of bars. We were not, however, done with or tired of beer. Esslinger was our brand -- a decision based entirely on price, not flavor, believe you me -- and we bought a lot of it. So we invited friends into our house to drink. And they arrived in sizable numbers some nights, choosing on others to leave the triumvirate "alone" amidst a lot of punk rock, Neil Young and Metallica. The songs, and the identities of the people listening to them, would change, but beer was the constant. More than one person aptly referred to our house as Party Central.

Those returnable cases of 16-ounce bottles of Esslinger were like a little payroll savings plan for drunks. And we were nothing if not practical. And drunk. OK, and lazy too. So that finely calibrated blend of sloth and ingenuity meant that, no, we didn't bring back a case of empties every time we purchased a fresh case or two. Instead, we accumulated the returns. In the kitchen. No, not loose... in the cases that they came in -- for godsakes, we were weren't animals; we were human beings. (I'm heavily dating myself with
that reference, I realize).

Eventually, the collection of sturdy boxes full of empty pints was crowding out the kitchen table. So we did the sensible thing: we moved the table. Out of the kitchen into the "dining room" it went (never in that year did any actual "dining" occur in the "dining room," hence the quotation marks), and we put the tablecloth on the boxes. We hardly ever ate at the table in the kitchen anyway. The interior-decorating adjustment worked, uh, fine.

But every man has his limit, and ours apparently was 57 -- cases, that is. When we loaded the empties (that'd be 57 x 24, if you are keeping score) into the Jeep Wrangler and Chevy Blazer that we owned and returned them in their crusty glory to the beer store one weekend (rinsing becomes overrated after a while), we bought a keg with the return deposit money. We blew the collective minds of the beer-store employees with the sheer volume of our delivery (we got our own pallet to stack them on at the store... yes, really; see, 
now you're impressed). It was a hell of a party that followed.

And along we plugged that year,
averaging, per day, a six-pack of pints per man.

After that year, I moved away from those guys. We had fun, but that level of nonstop joy had to end, or we would have been dead.

But I think my brief time in the land called Holy Fuck We Drink a Lot of Beer twisted my view of moderation for quite a while when it came to alcohol. As long as I didn't lapse back into
that level of nonsense, I thought all was fine. And I didn't. And it sort of wasn't.

My late twenties and early thirties were spent as a daily "moderate" drinker. Nowhere near the old revelry, mind you, but I had a couple every day. Every fucking day, no matter what. And sometimes there was a third. And sometimes I got drunk with friends. It was always totally functional, mostly very controlled, but vaguely alcoholic as well -- particularly in retrospect.


My consumption tapered down from there to "rarely more than two, sometimes only one" per day in my early forties to finally (finally!) something somewhat less
reflexive (there's that word again). When I went paleo in 2010, radically changing my food intake, I also began to notice actual changes in mood, attitude, sleep, etc. based upon what I was, or wasn't, putting in my body.

So I would "play" with my food and drink in ways that even my mom would have approved of, varying this or that to see the effect on body comp, etc. Hell, most of this blog is dedicated to exploration of that sort. Me, as my own science experiment.

Sure enough, I realized that there was food, or drink, that I was reflexively consuming, instead of having it because I
really wanted to eat or drink that thing. Case in point: nuts -- Christ, I could eat a vat of them as a snack without giving it much thought. And, in any sort of significant quantity, they mess me up digestively. So I knocked them out of the food rotation. 

And quickly I realized that blood-sugar management, sleep, digestion, acid-reflux, etc. were all a lot better on the days when I didn't drink alcohol.

I started having more of those no-booze days, and then more. And somewhere in the midst of all that science-y goodness, I recalled the words my friend Pete said to me a few years ago when he quit drinking: "I just find that I am far less likely to think about killing myself since I quit booze."

I wasn't ever suicidal, but fuck me if I didn't see a clear difference in my mood without ethanol regularly coursing through my system, even in small amounts. 

Let's be clear: on any given day I could think apocalyptic thoughts about a tube of toothpaste. Alcohol seems to increase the possibility of igniting that sort of doom/gloom cognition by what scientists would call "a metric shit ton." And, really, unless you were my wife, you'd never know it -- and even if you were, you wouldn't really know it (as I said to her recently, "Do you think I share even ten percent of my negative thoughts with you? No. You'd think I was a fucking nut." She thanked me for my considerate nature, and told me she loved me. She's the best. Really).

Anyway, I got to this point recently where the predictable nature of my body's reaction to booze was, um, predictable... and dull as dirt. It just wasn't enhancing my existence in any sense. And I am all about enhanced existence. I noticed that, in addition to coating everything with a "sometimes here, but, no, not always"/barely-perceptible dim haze of gloom, and increasing my already fairly well-tuned ability to see the downside of
anything, there was also some direct physical consequence to consuming alcohol for me. For example, if I drank the night before hitting the gym, my lifting was utter shit the next day. Or my drumming would wander a bit if the Lagavulin distillery had filled my glass the night before. Or, if the hard-cider gods had come to visit, I would get hungrier more often the next day between meals. 

Somewhere around the first weekend in August, after a few too many summer parties in a few too many days, I just stopped drinking out of a combination of sheer boredom and a "bigger" thought as well: that if growing the fuck up had meant ditching a whole host of bad food choices, then there appeared to be one glaringly bad choice that I kept making. Stopping at that moment wasn't intended to be anything as dramatic as "QUITTING DRINKING" at all. I just wanted to take a breather. But a week turned into a month, and now it's been three months, and I have been in numerous social situations since then and, really, it's just no big deal.


You notice a few things when you pull a stunt like this, and those things become even clearer when the stunt turns into a pattern, and then the pattern turns into a habit and then it just becomes "what you do," or, more precisely, "what you don't do anymore."

First of all, no one gives a shit if you're drinking or not. Not that I really care anyway. But if you are in a bar and order a seltzer with lime, only a complete asshole would say anything negative in the first place, and, you know what? Apparently either the complete assholes of the world are steering clear of me, or no one is that big of a tool. Either way, not a soul has uttered a derogatory word.

Secondly, your friends -- even your very clever, super-smart and funny friends -- are not very funny at all when they are drunk, or, in most cases, even when they have just a little buzz on. In fact, they can go from wildly captivating/charming/witty to "Really dude, go bother someone else" in the course of few hundreths of a percentage-point increase in blood-alcohol content. That line is bold, stark and easily-crossed. I just never knew it when I was drinking too. And if this sounds like I am judging you in a superiority sort of way, no. I've been That Guy a zillion times -- too many to judge you for it. But, still, my friend, that thing you're doing that you would never do sober? Yeah, not actually funny.

Thirdly, beer pong is idiotic. I like to think that you already knew this one. I certainly did. But it's possible that you have even played this stupid game (or, really, any drinking game). If you are one of those people, take this from a current non-drinker who still appreciates the inner beauty of ethanol, even while not partaking of it: if you can't figure out a better reason to take a sip of something as delicious as an alcoholic beverage than the fact that a potentially fungally-infected/bacteria-encrusted table-tennis ball (that JUST FELL ON THE FUCKING FLOOR, FOR GODSAKES) has (or has not) landed in a red plastic cup with that beautiful, delicious alcoholic beverage inside of it, you need to get a life, immediately. And yes, your participation in this episode of Stupid Alcohol Games has completely made me question why that beautiful person you appear to be headed home with would even talk to you, let alone slap nasties with you at the conclusion of the evening. (Joe Jackson, if you are listening, and need a career boost, there's a new verse of "Is She Really Going Out With Him?" screaming to be written).

Fourth, body fat disappears when you quit drinking. I sort of realized this anyway, but drying out should be the cover story on How to Not Be Fat Magazine under the title that they always use: "Try this one weight-loss trick!"

Fifth, gym performance goes through the roof. No explanation needed, right?

Sixth, if you happen to be a negative bastard, your negativity may take a turn to the positive when you stop drinking. And, unless you are Louis C.K. and making a lot of money off your downer persona, that has to be a net plus in your life, right? That tube of toothpaste? Currently brimming over with unremitting joy, I tell you.

Finally, that whole "feel like I am finally growing up" thing? It's pretty cool. There's a taking-charge-of-things-and-getting-shit-done aspect of this episode of my life that has the most basic, primal (Henry)Rollins-esque appeal to it that I find it hard to describe adequately the sheer amount of fun I am having as a result. I am more productive in every way. I sleep better, feel better and just am better. Moreover, I am not bold enough to say that I will never (ever!) drink alcohol again. I don't eat donuts, ever(!), but if I were in the Donut Capital of the World (what is that? Kankakee?) I might just eat a fucking donut. So, maybe if I am ever in Edinburgh I'll still have a dram of Lagavulin, or a pint of Guinness in Dublin. Or if I ever get back to Oktoberfest I'll have one of those megabeers that made Munich famous, or, yeah, a glass of Italian red when in Italy might still happen (and if it seems like I just said that Europeans appear to be a bunch of drunks, um....). But drinking alcohol in fucking New Jersey? To quote Iggy, that's "just another dirty bore." Or, as my very favorite just-doesn't-make-sense-over-here British expression goes, "I couldn't be arsed." The ride of life has taken a very sweet turn.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

"I don't know just where I'm going. But I'm going to try for the kingdom if I can." Lou Reed's gone.

Lou Reed died today. 71 years old, which, really, isn't very old.

As I said on Facebook and Twitter, I wasn't a huge fan of *everything* the man ever did, but those Velvets albums, and large chunks of his solo career at least through the New York record, were so goddamn influential on so many people that you'd be hard-pressed to pick more than a few people who "mattered" more to the history of rock and roll than Lou Reed.

There were plenty of genius moments in Lou's career, and it'd be easy to post any of a large number of Velvets tunes here. But this one was always my favorite... specifically *this* over-the-top, full-of-backup-singers version, from the not-always-but-mostly-brilliant Take No Prisoners live album. (If it doesn't play for you, click here to go through to the You Tube link. It'll work there.)

And somehow, I think Lou would find it funny if his epitaph were the closing lines: "Sorry it took a while. Thank you."

I don't think you'll be easily replaced, sir. Thank *you*.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Half-assing paleo... Could it kill you?

If you have been hanging around here for a while, you may recall that, about 18 months ago or so, I did a post about "half-assing" paleo -- and the conclusion was that, yeah, you can do that, if it is all part of a planned steady march toward ultimately dialing it all in and doing it right. In other words, you can start slowly and work your way up to awesome. But, what about a whole different kind of "half-assing" paleo? Let me describe someone and you see if you know that person.

He (or she, but I will pick on a guy today) did a paleo challenge, and liked the results -- a lot. He found that 30 days of grain-free, dairy-free, legume-free, beer-free living with an emphasis on lots of animal proteins, vegetables of many types and colors, and good fats, and, really, he never felt better.

But then a few months removed from the challenge, things aren't going so well for our man. He is still eating a lot of animal protein. "Dude, bacon is delicious. So are eggs. And steak? Oh hells, yes!" But veggies? He loves his sweet potatoes, but the rest of the veggie world hasn't been making an appearance on his plate nearly as often, certainly not at every meal like it did during the challenge. And fat? He digs his bulletproof coffee, but there's a whole 'nother world of gross vegetable oils that our boy is horsing down on a regular basis. See, unlike that month of paleo perfection, now he is eating out a lot. He goes to the bar post-work, or post-softball-game, and eats french fries or sweet-potato fries*** cooked at high temps in vegetable oils, and he drinks beer with his buddies. Because... beer, dude! And fries! And then there are the burgers. Nothing wrong with burgers, but those lettuce wraps he was ordering during the challenge? Yeah... not so much now that the challenge is over. "Plus, dude, they have these *amazing* pretzel buns for burgers at the bar...." Oh, and cheese and ice cream are delicious too. And he digs cookies, and chips sometimes too. in fact, all dessert is pretty awesome. After all, he works hard and "deserves" it.

Our man is (at best) half-assing paleo, and it's not as part of any "plan." He has just morphed from someone who was "eating paleo" to a guy whose dietary choices amount to "meat and eggs plus crap."

Do you know that guy?

I am not a medical professional, and I certainly have made it clear pretty often around here that I don't care what you do. You are an adult and can make your own choices, but our man in the example seems to me like he is headed for a heart attack, or some heavy atherosclerosis that could lead to all sorts of things.

Like a heart attack. Or a stroke.

Here's why....

There is a wonderful new book out by Jimmy Moore, who enlisted a boatload of medical professionals to help him. It's called Cholesterol Clarity, and, along with The Paleo Coach and The Paleo Solution, is required reading if you want to do this paleo thing right.

See, a whole lot of us experience an interesting series of effects from full-on (i.e., non-half-assed) paleo living. First, we feel fantastic with low-inflammatory living. Second, proper blood-sugar management means that for the first time in our lives, we aren't hungry every three hours We control our food instead of food controlling us. Third, our LDL goes up and our standard-issue non-paleo doc has a cow about it.

Jimmy Moore's book, and a load of other paleo resources -- like Chris Kresser and Chris Masterjohn among others -- will lead you to a simple conclusion: "LDL" as run as part of a standard lipid panel is a nearly meaningless number. I don't want to go too far down the rabbit hole of science here. Kresser and Masterjohn are the authorities in that regard, but let's descend briefly, but carefully....

"LDL" as expressed on your standard blood panel is what is called "LDL-C" by the smart guys. The smart guys also don't care much about it. Instead, in recent years, if you get NMR blood testing done --  which *can* be ordered by any doc (but rarely is) but *will* be ordered by a paleo doc on this list or this one -- you will see what D. Boon called in another context "a mile of numbers and a ton of stats" that your regular doc will never see.

Those "extra" stats measure things like LDL particle size,  LDL particle number ("LDL-P" and "Apo-B") and, most importantly, inflammation of the whole-body variety ("C-reactive protein," among others) and, more particularly, of the myocardial-stress type ("NT-proBNP" and "Galectin-3"). The NMR blood panel will also tell you, just like the standard panel, what your HDL and triglyceride numbers are and other juicy items like fasting glucose, Vitamin D levels, etc.

What you will find, from Moore's book, and elsewhere, is that, in general, fairly strict paleo eating decreases all the bad inflammation numbers (that's good) , increases HDL (that's good too), decreases triglycerides to rock-bottom (also good), and makes the great majority of your LDL particles light and fluffy (whoo!). It also sometimes *increases* your LDL-C, and you might also find that your LDL-P (particle number/count) is not in the optimal range. Your standard doc will go bananas over the increased LDL-C, and even a paleo doc will tell you that there *may* be a bit of a concern with non-optimal LDL-P. But those same paleo docs will also tell you that the most serious threats are inflammation, followed by high triglycerides and low HDL. See, if inflammation is low, atherosclerosis does not happen easily. The LDL particles, even if present in higher numbers, float right on by -- unless you are inflamed.

If you are getting the idea that inflammation, not LDL, is the issue, you are right on the money.

And generally speaking, as I noted, if you are pretty strict about your paleo eating, your inflammation, triglyceride and HDL numbers will be spectacular. But what about our man, the half-asser?

Chances are that all the gluten from the wheat and the beer in his life  (you *do* know that almost all beer has gluten, right?), crappy vegetable oils, legumes, etc. are inflaming the hell out of this guy. Chances also are that his HDL has plunged (bad) and his triglycerides have soared (also bad). Combine that inflammation -- whole-body and cardiovascular -- with the often-increased LDL figures that paleo causes, and, suddenlly what look like relatively benign LDL issues unto themselves become pretty freaking scary when coupled with an inflamed system, high triglycerides and low HDL. 

If what this all appears to mean is that half-assing paleo -- or, more specifically, making your food choices amount to "meat and eggs plus crap" -- could be a ticket to *very* poor health, yeah that is exactly what it seems like to me. In fact, I will go so far as to say that if most of what someone retained from his paleo challenge days was high animal-protein consumption, but he has lapsed into downing gluten, legumes, vegetable oils and dairy on a regular basis, that person is on the road to potentially very serious inflammation-related problems. My bet is that almost anyone would be better off on a Mediterranean diet than a half-assed version of paleo that seems to be combining the worst aspects of the Standard American Diet with heavy meat consumption.

Yes, a guy who bills himself as the Paleo Drummer just told you that paleo can lead to problems. Not strict paleo, mind you, or even something close to it. But you you can really mess yourself up by eating a version of paleo that isn't really "paleo" at all. "Meat and eggs plus crap" is a bad formula to reach good health.

Don't be a half-asser when it comes to paleo. It could kill you.

***Sweet potato fries, a.k.a. "the biggest scam ever." Yes, sweet potatoes can be good for you. Sweet potatoes deep fried in boiling hot vegetable oil? No. Those aren't any better for you than regular french fries, a.k.a. The Worst Food In the World.

Over at ModPaleo: a guest post by me!

The nice folks over at ModPaleo, a paleo-food service in both North Carolina and Ohio, asked me if I would like to do a guest post on their blog as part of their Beyond Food series. As you can guess, the series focuses on other things you can do, "beyond [paleo] food," to optimize your life. I weighed in on meditation. Go here to read my spiel.

(A pic of me in the Supai Tunnel, at the Grand Canyon, a short ways down the North Kaibab Trail from the North Rim. What's that have to do with meditation? Not much, but happiness sure does.)

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Live Review: Godspeed You! Black Emperor at Union Transfer in Philadelphia, 10/16/13

The drone starts before you know it.

I realized, while I was talking to a friend of mine, while we were waiting for Montreal "post-rock" collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor to take the stage, that a bass-heavy drone had already begun on the empty stage. And it was getting louder.

You could see -- and hear -- over the next ten minutes or so, people ending their conversations and turning toward the stage. And then the lights went out, band members appeared and the films began.

The only illumination onstage for the nearly the next two hours came from the red glow of amplifiers and the ever-present black-and-white movies that played behind the musicians.

It was arty and totally weird, and fucking amazing.

GYBE works a soft/loud/soft dynamic similar -- in a generic sense -- to other instrumental bands like Mogwai and Russian Circles. But sheer numbers -- there are eight members of GYBE (two drums, two basses, three guitars and a violin) -- and a sense of patience that other bands can't approach, mean that the soft-to-loud build of most of their songs is long, drawn out and ultimately more overwhelming. The listener that hangs in there through the early drone, into the build, and then beyond, is rewarded with a level of attack that is simply pummeling. The best description I could come up with was a melange of 1968 instrumental Pink Floyd with the late-1980's Butthole Surfers with a symphony along for the ride. But I'm not sure that's adequate. And the sheer disruptive chaos of the films behind the band only adds to the power of the performance.

That early quiet drone built over ten minutes or so into a frenzied roar and the word "HOPE" flashed intermittently on the screen, and remained in place only then to cede way to "Mladic." This band's politics can be a bit of a mystery, but its ability to convey the dread and fear caused by the title's namesake is awe-inspiring. When what appears to be the soundtrack to a chaotic Serbian war dance of some sort began (see: about 7:10 of the video below), believe me when I say that there was no one in the room doing anything but staring at the stage, in rapt attention.

Somehow, after that, the band kept it all going at that level through three more extended pieces that were similar in that they all rose and fell, rewarding the patient listener with brutal levels of volume and thunder. But "Gathering Storm," "Moya" and "Behemoth" each distinguished themselves with unique twists on the dynamic theme. And "Behemoth" was a particularly apt closer: nearly 45 minutes of a draining, pounding attack that took a break for a quieter interlude, only to return, even louder, and then drone to a close, with the band members individually leaving the stage and one of the drummers turning down the last guitar to signal the end.

It truly was a stunning spectacle that GYBE put on by simply walking onstage, playing their asses off in near complete disregard of the location, setting etc., and then leaving. It was my first time seeing them, but I don't think I will ever miss them again. This show was like nothing else I have ever seen or heard.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Live Review: Mark Lanegan at Underground Arts in Philadelphia, 10/12/13

Sometimes time passes faster than you realize.

The first time I saw Mark Lanegan onstage was a late 1980s Screaming Trees tour when the band opened for fIREHOSE at a small Philly club, long since defunct, called Revival.

Until last Saturday night, that was also, somehow, the last time.

And really, I have no idea how that happened. That late-'80s show was cool, but, for my money, the Trees never hit their full-on groove until Barrett Martin signed on as drummer for the Sweet Oblivion record. Released in 1992, SO is, as far as I am concerned, the single greatest album to come out of the grunge era. It has competition, for sure, from the likes of Mudhoney, Nirvana and Temple of the Dog, but SO is flat-out perfect. The bottom end of that record undulates like the best Black Sabbath (which would be Volume 4, if we are keeping track), while Gary Lee Conner wah-wahs and wails on lead guitar and Mr. Lanegan finally fully discovers the power of the low-end range of his voice amidst songs that give the band a little space and room to move.

It may be a notion without any actual facts behind it, but it's been my theory -- and I am sticking to it -- that what finally flipped the Trees into awesomeness, from merely being a very good band prior to Sweet Oblivion to the zenith of that record, is that Mark Lanegan got musically out and about, courtesy of his first solo album -- a stunning, brooding piece of melancholy and anger called The Winding Sheet -- which was released in 1990. Very different from the Trees records that preceded it, TWS ditches most of the psychedelia in favor of an indie/Americana hybrid that just plain seethes. The Trees album that immediately followed, 1991's Uncle Anesthesia, hints at incorporating aspects of Lanegan's newfound style, but it is Sweet Oblivion where the whole deal gets fleshed out, fully hybridizing the strongest points of the Trees with the best of Lanegan's solo side, and, yeah, Barrett Fucking Martin on drums. (Yes, that's his middle name). It is a perfect record.

Anyway, I missed the Trees after SO came out, missed 'em again when 1996 brought a solid effort from them called Dust, and then... they broke up. In the meantime, Mark Lanegan released another great solo record, Whiskey for the Holy Ghost in 1994, and then he got really busy. There were numerous solo releases, and also collaborations with Greg Dulli, Isobel Campbell, Queens of the Stone Age and the Soulsavers. Every single one of those records is solid, and a few are pure genius. In fact, I don't think you can find any two better albums from the last ten years from anyone than Bubblegum (2004) and Blues Funeral (2012). Those two, while very different from the Screaming Trees, share one thing with Sweet Oblivion: they showcase all sides of Mark Lanegan -- a deep whiskey-drenched tone on the slower, quieter songs and a range from a whisper to a roar on the more uptempo ones.

But still, somehow, I never saw him live during any of that time.

So, with great anticipation -- for good reason -- I bought tickets for his October 12, 2013 show at Underground Arts in Philadelphia. But I was a little wary too. I had heard that he wasn't touring with a band this time. OK, much of the solo stuff burns so beautifully at a reduced level of attack that *that* was OK, but then there was the new album, a covers record that Lanegan seemed, from interviews, to really enjoy making, but it wasn't grabbing me like the rest of his catalogue. Yeah, I love the John Cale cover, and a couple others are cool, but I feared a covers-heavy set at the expense of a broad career-spanning setlist.

Let's be clear: I'm a dope, and my fears were completely unwarranted.

First of all, about those stupid fears, he only did a few from the new album. Three songs mid-show from it were a solid sampler, and their lessened level of grit, compared to the rest of the set, was a fine demonstration of a wide range of styles. Secondly... no band? It may have been even better this way. Everything buzzed with tension, except when it roared, and yeah, when you bring along a guitar player as accomplished as Jeff Fielder... wow. The dude can play. He was covering for a whole lot of sound on some of the Blues Funeral and Screaming Trees songs, and he did it brilliantly. And where he just needed to back off and smolder a bit, like on the B-side "Mirrored," you could hear the smoke rising from the strings. I was impressed.

And the man himself? Even on a stage bathed solely in red light that makes everything a shadowy affair, when Mark Lanegan speaks -- or, better, when he sings -- he commands your complete attention.  The room was duly enraptured, start to finish.The setlist featured songs ranging all the way back to the Trees' Buzz Factory album, his first solo record, many of the solo albums in between (with wonderful emphasis on Blues Funeral, Bubblegum and Field Songs), a Soulsavers song, and even a stunning take on a B-side. It was truly brilliant.

And it all ended with a trip back first to The Winding Sheet for "Wild Flowers" and then a "Halo of Ashes" from Dust that rose and fell with dynamic tension, astounding guitar-playing and Mark Lanegan vocally letting loose even more than before. He said, "Thanks for your no-bullshit attitude, Philly. I like it here." Right back at you, sir. It was a pleasure.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Full awareness: reaching health/fitness goals without getting in your own way

It seems like an easy concept, but, somewhere amidst all the hoopla of life, it gets a little, I dunno.... murky.

The most important thing to you is ______, so your goal is, no matter what, to be able to do that thing, or, better yet, to optimize the way you do it. And you proceed accordingly.

I think where some folks get lost is in that last part.

Actually, come to think of it, some people never get past the first part either....

I heard skier/CrossFitter/trainer Eva Twardokens on Robb Wolf's podcast a while ago and she said something like this (quotation marks for effect, not accuracy; I am paraphrasing): "The single most important thing to me is surfing. It's what I love to do most. So everything else that I do in training is done with a simple thought in mind: 'If I do this, is it going to help or hinder me at surfing?'"

Seems easy, right? You have a goal, and, every time you come to a fork in the decisional road, you ask yourself a simple question: "Which choice furthers, or at least doesn't hinder, reaching my goal?"

And I'm not really just talking about exercise. But let's start there.... With an example of a goal and then a plan from there. For me, I have two overall goals, and they aren't perfectly compatible. I want to generally be healthy, fit and live long, on one hand, and, on the other, there is no single thing that I do for fun that is more important to me than drumming. I love making music with a band.

So, on the general scale, even though I am a CrossFitter, when I exercise I don't do things that are geared solely towards, say, "training to be a really good CrossFitter" that potentially come at the expense of general health and longevity. Put differently, CrossFit is not a competitive sport for me; it is simply a way to be really freaking fit and healthy for my age. And on the more specific end of things, I don't do things that will mess me up for drumming. So.... a lot of kipping pull-ups? Or, more extremely, doing butterfly pull-ups at all? I don't do them. You can't be a really good competitive CrossFitter without at least a lot of kipping pull-ups, and, more likely, without butterfly pull-ups, but I am more interested in the long-term health of my shoulders. So I subscribe to the Greg Everett theory: "Kipping pull-ups? I like to think of them as kipping labrum tears."

Another example: heavy overhead Olympic lifts. Again, you cannot be a really good CrossFitter without them. But they further destroy my right elbow that drumming has already done a pretty good number on for the past 30-some years. If I want to drum well, my arms cooperate a lot more if I am not spending my free time catching overhead O-lifts with an arm that simply does not lock out. So I O-lift a little. It's fun, but I don't go very heavy, and don't do it very often. I save pushing really hard for deadlifts and squats.

That's easy to understand, right? Know what you really want, and then make choices that complement reaching that goal, rather than tripping yourself up at every turn. It's all about making choices with full awareness of how that choice affects the goal. There's rarely a "right" answer to the question, "Should I do X or Y?" until you set the goal.

And, like I said, goals are sometimes contradictory. *How* contradictory they are will determine whether you can pursue them at the same time. My health/longevity goal is at partial odds with my drumming goal. The condition of my right elbow at, say, age 75, is going to be worse if I keep drumming. But I don't care -- to a degree. So I have, on one hand, continued to play, but, on the other, backed off the continuous high-speed thrashfest that really wrecks me, and just plain effing hurts. It's a choice, and my exercise decisions are made in keeping with that choice as well. I am trying to live long and be happy... with a moderately (but not extremely) wrecked right elbow.

Other goals may be *so* at odds with one another that the choice is more of an either/or one. For instance, take the classic example: dude joins a CrossFit gym, significantly unhappy with body composition. He's fat, metabolically messed up and not very strong, and he wants to change that. Under the theory that all exercise is better than the slothful life he has been leading, he dives in, full-on, into an unlimited membership at the gym, doing long metcon work, taking few rest days, and, yeah, there is some initial progress, but then fat-loss stalls because his exercise has become so unfocused, haphazard and constant that he is actually stressing his body into retaining fat. (If this sounds like you, read The Paleo Coach by Jason Seib. Now.) This guy needs to stop training like he is being chased by a pack of wolves, and settle into a fat-loss-oriented regimen. Why? Because fat loss is his goal!

Or maybe you have started competing at powerlifting and want to be the absolute best powerlifter you can, and, at the same time, you want to be the best CrossFit athlete that you can and compete at CrossFit regionals. Both of those things are probably not going to happen simultaneously. You have lots of options -- doing OK at both, one over the other, whatever; it's your call -- but *both* together at a high level? No, that doesn't work.

And, remember that I said that I wasn't just talking about exercise? Yeah, food, sleep and stress-management all involve choices too. Eating gluten, vegetable oils, all the stuff that isn't paleo? Getting seven-plus hours sleep? Meditating to relieve stress? Understand the choice, make it, and go with it whichever way furthers your goal. Or say, "Screw it! I can't live without ____," but understand exactly how *that* choice will hamper (or fully impede) reaching your goal. Another example... This guy: "I love drinking alcohol regularly" *and* "I want to qualify for the CrossFit Games, or even regionals." He is going to need to shelve one of those, because the behavior (regular drinking) and the goal (qualifying for high-level CF) are contradictory.

So, how do you do better with this stuff?

First you have to have to have a goal. Second, you have to *actually* have a goal -- i.e., something, in the future, that you want to achieve. It can be general -- live long, healthy, happy, stress-free, with full mobility and cognition at age 80 -- or really specific: like making CrossFit regionals, or running the fastest you can in a particular race on a particular day. But it can't just be a haphazard amorphous blob of "whatever, dude" like: "I just want to go really hard with fitness" or "I just want to see what my body is capable of." Those types of non-goal "goals" either don't really mean anything other than "whatever I feel like that day" *or*, taken quite literally, they mean: "pushing myself right to the limit to see what happens."

I think we know what happens.

That isn't to say that you can't have a goal that is damaging to your body. Let's be serious: training for a marathon is, frankly, a fairly effed-up thing to do if your goal is basic health and longevity, but it makes perfect sense if your goal is to see how fast you can run a marathon.

But then.... being a modern person, you are likely going to have multiple goals. You have to organize them so they either: (1) aren't contradictory, or (2) aren't attempted simultaneously. So, yeah, you can run fifteen half marathons this year, but if you are significantly fatter than you want to be and fat-loss/body-comp is your primary goal, half-marathon training is not going to be the optimal way to get there.

Realistically set goals. Your goals. Not someone else's. Know what you want.

But then there's the next step: living your life in a way to reach your goals. Once you have the goal(s) in mind, you can tailor your training, food, sleep and stress management. Or you can say, "The hell with it," and never get there. That's your call.

But whichever road you take, make sure you do it with full awareness of how what you choose to do affects your ability to reach your goals. Because, as far as I am concerned, the sad thing isn't when someone doesn't achieve something in the gym, or in the fat-loss department, because he or she throws in the towel and makes a fully-aware choice to opt for gluten, booze and crappy sleep. That's just an adult running his or her own life. The bummer is when someone wants something really badly -- you know, has a real goal -- but doesn't know *how* to reach it, or is making choices about food, sleep and exercise without realizing the negative affect it is having on ever reaching that goal.

So... don't feel bad for the person who willfully scraps a good-health/fitness goal for beer, popcorn and good times. What bums me out is the woman or man who is working hard toward a goal, but unwittingly is doing all the wrong things to get there. Or the person who thinks he or she has a goal, and it's not really a goal at all, just an idea to "go hard" or "see what happens if I push my exercise limits." Or the person who has valid goals, but those goals conflict so much that pursuing them simultaneously guarantees failure.

In the end, it all revolves around a pretty simple concept: learn. Set some real goals, and then start finding out how to best reach them. We live in a pretty cool time, with web resources galore dedicated to paleo food, smart exercise, even sleep and stress management. And there are scores of smart trainers and others willing to guide you when you can't quite figure it all out. Your ability to tailor your life to get you where you want to go is greater than it ever has been. What are you going to do about it?

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Book review: Well Fed 2 by Melissa Joulwan

Paleo cookbooks and I have a funny relationship. I am a pretty strict paleo eater, and I do most (but not all) of the cooking around here. I *really* like to cook. It's positively *soothing* -- damn-near a Zen experience for me.

But I am fundamentally lazy about it too. Plus, both my wife and I have a rather storied history, pre-paleo and currently, of eating the same basic six or seven meals almost all the time, and being pretty happy with them.

So... "easy" is pretty critical for me when it comes to meal prep. And if I can meld easy and delicious with paleo, honestly, I go with it pretty often, and, as a result, I hardly ever crack most cookbooks open.

Oh, I *own* plenty of them, but there are very few that I actually use on any kind of regular basis.

The glaring exception to the rule: Well Fed by Melissa Joulwan.

Ever since that first volume came out in 2011, I've made delicious grilled chicken thighs with Melissa's Moroccan dipping sauce many more times than you would expect for a guy who routinely says things like: "Chicken is pretty stupid." I've prepared her Czech meatballs with pork (whoa) and then upped the ante and subbed in lamb (double whoa). I've adapted her recipe for Rogan Josh (not actually an action-hero who rivals MacGyver for awesomeness, but a curry dish from Kashmir) to fit my wife's paleo autoimmune protocol, and even done a decently credible crockpot version of it.

And I have been to parties that feature her Bora Bora fireballs more times than I can count.

I think the reason the original Well Fed keeps me coming back, when other cookbooks sit around looking pretty but collecting dust, is that, somehow, it strikes the perfect balance between being interesting -- read: I never would have thought of these recipes -- and yet easy enough that either I can make all of the recipes as-is or bastardize/adapt them to fit my lazy-self needs.

(A digression: you might think, as enthralled as I am with the first Well Fed, that, when I finally got a chance to meet Melissa at a book-signing event, I might have told her how much I love the recipes, how great they are, or how I love to adapt them as needed. Nah. We talked about Social Distortion. She's cool that way too).

So... When I first cracked open my copy of the brand-new Well Fed 2, I did so with a pretty high level of certainty that I was going to dig it immensely. But seriously... Melissa Joulwan outdid herself here.

And I guess I should have expected something like this from an author who struck the aforementioned interesting-but-easy balance so, well, easily, but... somehow -- and I'll be damned if I know how -- she has written a Volume 2 of an awesome cookbook that works perfectly for: (1) the person who already owns Volume 1 of said awesomeness, *and* (2) the person who only wants to ever buy *one* paleo cookbook, ever.

What that means is that the early "chapters" of Well Fed 2 bear a striking facial resemblance to much of the early parts of the first volume. You can learn all about the basics of paleo, and how and why Melissa went paleo, but there is also a hell of a lot more detail this time around about doing a Whole 30 food challenge, tips on being "a paleo social butterfly," and a particularly great piece on "emotional" eating and why you need to ditch that shizz in favor of eating to address "true hunger."

And no chapter of a cookbook was ever better-titled than "Burgers, Balls and Bangers." It's all about how to turn out 15 different kinds (e.g., Lebanese, Chorizo, Turkey and Cranberry, Thai Green Curry and one called Turkish Doner Kebab that, if there is a misspelling involved, either implicates one of Santa's better-known reindeer or something much, um, more prominent; let's just say that I hope the editor/proofreader got it right) of (your choice) burgers, meatballs or bangers. It's not just clever. It's freaking genius. If you were, say, me, and a devoted fan of all things grassfed ruminant (y'know... beef or lamb), you could spend a very very long time in just this chapter and not exhaust the possibilities.

In the ensuing 150-ish pages *after* she has already given you a gazillion sauce recipes and the many burger/ball/banger options, Ms. Joulwan then launches into recipe after recipe of main courses and veggie sides that range from: (1) so mouthwateringly tantalizing that I currently have a complicated ranking system of how to begin preparing, well, almost all of them, to (2) just a couple that are so wonderfully weird that I may actually make *those* first. A small hint is all you get regarding the latter category: there's an "Elvis" adaptation listed for one of them.

*Now* I have you thinking. Heh. (Buy the book!)

Anyway, I think I am going to start my cooking from the new volume with Plantain Nachos, and then maybe Moo Shu Pork, then Thyme-Braised Short Ribs, and then Beef Stew Proven├žal. Thai Pink Grapefruit Salad sounds insanely delicious, as does Sweet Potato Soup with Bacon. And that list barely scratches the surface of the many recipes of a book that is nearly 100 pages longer than its predecessor, just as gorgeously laid-out, and, well, pretty damn perfect. There is even a special section on adapting all the recipes to an autoimmune protocol. Yes, really.

Hell, these recipes are so well put together that Melissa even gives you special warnings about longer/more-involved prep on the few that require it.

You simply cannot do better than this cookbook, whether you already own the first one or not. Two words: Get it.

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Tuesday, October 8, 2013

200 Yards

I belong to a CrossFit gym, and I love it.

I'm not likely to enter any competitions, and it's not really a vehicle to being a "badass" for me. I just like that it makes me stronger, faster and healthier than most people my age.

But I also like something else about CrossFit: the sense of community. And I don't just mean the fact that I get to hang out with a lot of great people from our gym at pool parties, BBQs and holiday parties. "Community" is all over CrossFit: gyms banding together not just in the spirit of healthy athletic competition, but to do volunteer/charity work as well.

It's inspiring as hell.

I also like the fact that, from what I can tell, CrossFit HQ doesn't micromanage local gyms. Those affiliates are free to plot their own courses of programming, so every gym is, in large measure, a unique membership experience. They are all a little different, and HQ is not watching their every move.

And that freedom extends to a more libertarian ideal too: HQ doesn't step in and tell individual potential gym owners that the CF market is saturated in a particular area. They let the market, and the individual gyms' business models and ethics, sort themselves out.

But yesterday I was reminded of something an old, wise high-school teacher told me a long time ago: "Just because you have the freedom to do something doesn't make it the right thing to do."

I'm not sure what all the potential motivations would be for a new CrossFit owner to open up a CF gym 200 yards from one that has been in business for over three years, but none of the ones that keep coming to my mind have anything to do with the CrossFit vision of community that keeps me coming back to CF.

Instead, all the potential motivations that I can think of have names like greed, avarice, selfishness and whatever the opposite of "community" is.

Because "community" in CrossFit isn't just what goes on inside your gym's walls. It's getting together with the gym across town, or two towns over or maybe two states away, and raising money for Boston Marathon bombing victims, or the families of dead firefighters, or Steve's Club.

It's putting your self-interest in proper, ethical perspective and giving something back.

And honestly, I don't know how the Upstart gym could do that "charity" and "community" stuff with a straight face when, as I understand it, the Upstart never walked that 200 yards to go talk to the Established Gym before the Upstart decided to pull the trigger on the new enterprise. See, maybe there's somehow a justification beyond a verse or two of "Money, That's What I Want" for opening a CrossFit affiliate *that* close to one that's already there. But when the Upstart never even broaches the subject with the Established Gym, any possible such justification (and let's be serious: there aren't many anyway) evaporates, and the entire exercise becomes one of the Upstart taking a figurative dump on the Established Gym's lawn and then trying to crush their business into powder.

Community's a big fucking deal in CrossFit. Or at least I thought it was until I heard about this crap yesterday. Maybe it's all gone to hell, like someone said to me: "Dude, the CF market is saturated. I saw four different people wearing CrossFit shirts yesterday. And I was wearing one too. Didn't start one conversation. Two years ago I would have been best friends with all of them."

But it was never like that around here, until yesterday, and, in some fit of libertarian ideals, I still think the market will ultimately reward the skilled, conscientious, ethical CF gym owner/trainer with business and, get this, a *community* that the Upstart -- who can't walk 200 yards because all he sees are piles of money -- will never be able to touch, and likely never be a part of.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad