Seven Weeks In

No new books arrived this week, so here is a post about my life under quarantine.

It’s been approximately seven weeks  since Governor Whitmer issued the first of her executive orders to begin the Great Coronavirus Lockdown of 2020. And, it scarcely needs to be said, things are strange.

Two weeks after the lockdown began, my girlfriend sprained her ankle while we were working out. She has been in an air cast for the whole month so far, and due to her limited mobility all of the household chores have fallen in my lap. This wouldn’t be a problem, except I am in the second week of a new project at work which has me working third shift four days a week, 6:00 pm to 6:00 am. This project is projected to run to the end of May, by which time I suspect I will have regressed to being able to communicate only by grunts, gestures, and tactical odors.

I haven’t worked third shift since I was 22, and that nearly killed me. Of course that was assembly line work in a factory, and this is computer work sitting in my home office. But I am 50 now, and sleep, always in somewhat short supply, is suddenly an exceedingly rare commodity.

The Grand Rapids YWCA, where I teach and practice kung fu and tai chi, has been closed down since mid-March. Our senior instructor Rick has put together Zoom classes which are surprisingly well-attended, which is encouraging. I have not been able to attend these classes since (of course!) they take place during my new work hours. I do what I can to practice on my own, and my girlfriend is slowly adding the various exercises to her daily practice as she heals, but so much of class is person-to-person training that I can feel myself growing slower and weaker by the day.

I can feel myself…aging.

Another casualty of the stay-at-home order is our kitten Poe, who is tired of having humans around all the time, and is deeply confused by having at least one mobile and interactive person around 24 hours a day. Usually she has the nights to herself, but now she can come in and knock over plants in my office into the wee hours of the morning. Our preferred method of discipline is a spray bottle, so Poe spends a not insignificant portion of the day being slightly damp.

I expect that when the extended stay-at-home order expires in three weeks Poe will undergo similar confusion and trauma, except in reverse. She is already showing signs of separation anxiety when we close the bedroom door in order to save our toes from random attacks in the middle of the night. Once Z and I head back to remote work our poor Poe Kitten will be bouncing off the walls. So, a lot like now, but will different subtext. And no audience.

Z and I are cooking a lot more, which is wonderful since Z is a virtuoso and she is keeping us very well-fed. I pitch in when and were I can, mostly breakfast and various snacks. Z is using this as an opportunity to practice her recipes and I have been the eager tester and grateful recipient of the results of her work.

Surprisingly, I have more time to read since so many of the events and responsibilities which take me out of the house are currently on hold. And though the influx of new books has slowed to a trickle I am placing regular orders with our remarkable local independent bookstore Books and Mortar, the owners and employees of which are doing a stellar job of keeping West Michigan supplied with reading material in these uncertain times.

So here we are. Two more weeks of lockdown and five more weeks of third-shift insanity. Z is healing and growing stronger by the day as Poe and I slowly go feral.

The world will look much different in June than it did in March.

Exploring the Primal Blueprint

For about eight months now I have been following a diet and lifestyle plan called the Primal Blueprint. It has many dedicated followers and fervent advocates. Actually, rather than “follow” I would say I fly in loose formation with the Blueprint. I have my lapses – being only human, and living around the corner from one of the best bakeries in the city. Still – my health and fitness levels are much improved, and despite the occasional bag of potato chips for dinner, things continue to improve on a gradual and manageable trajectory. I can fit into clothes that last buttoned in my early 30s, if not earlier. My weight hasn’t been this low, I think, since I began building websites for a living.

I have never been one to follow “a diet”. The path that took me to where I am now follows:

Back in 2007 my brother, his future wife and I road-tripped to Louisiana to visit our dad and spend some time wandering around Mardi Gras. We had a splendid old time, ate tremendous amounts of really good food, and got to enjoy New Orleans when it was bearably hot and humid. Every day brought a new delicacy, and it being Mardi Gras time, we went through at least one full King Cake every day. Add to that all the deep-fried southern delicacies, gallons of beer from the Abita Springs brewery less than a mile from Dad’s house, and, well, a lot more of me came back from vacation than started out.

I didn’t really feel like I had gained weight. My clothes were tight, and I had to let out my belts a notch, but I told myself it was just the winter hibernation metabolism doing its thing. I bought a bathroom scale, found out I weighed around 205 pounds. It didn’t seem like such a big deal; as a martial arts instructor I work out a lot; up to fifteen hours a week in class, plus all my personal training. Still, 205 seemed kind of high.

Thinking back through the list of food on the vacation, talking to my girlfriend, I realized I couldn’t name a single vegetable I had eaten, other than those in the buckets of gumbo or chili, or french fries, or onion rings. That made me feel kind of queasy.

I immediately drove to the store and bought a car-load of fresh (-ish; they were from a grocery store) vegetables and fruit, and started packing bowls of chopped up tomatoes and avocado for lunch at work. This represented a big change from my usual habit of ordering a sandwich nearly as big as my head from the amazing kitchen at Founders Brewing Company, which at the time was one floor down from where I worked. In a surprisingly short amount of time, the weight began dropping off. For a while, it seemed like every other day I would weigh myself and I would have lost another pound. By the beginning of May I was approaching 190. That was when the Fulton Street Farmer’s Market opened for the year. Suddenly I had vegetables in abundance.

At about that same time my girlfriend put herself on a restricted diet, which cut out all refined sugar, corn syrup and wheat gluten. Have you ever tried going out to eat, or buying common snack foods, without getting at least one of those three ingredients? Not easy at all. Here is where I had to begin adding new tools to my intellectual toolkit. Namely, cooking. A random bowl of raw vegetables is perfectly acceptable for a lunch for one, but when it comes to full meals with a significant other, it quickly gets old.

Between the internet and my girlfriend’s stash of vegetarian and vegan cookbooks, we built up a reasonable repertoire of yummy recipes. For me, the weight continued to fall. I got down below 190 for the first time in who knows how long. Finally, I stabilized around 185, with one noticeable dip down close to 180 during a serious bout of the flu.

Life was good. Then I got complacent. Then the weight started creeping back, a pound at a time. Work- and life- related stress made things worse. Over the next year and a half I returned to 195, where my weight stabilized, though a hard weekend of pizza and beer could bring it back up close to 200. And here I stayed until roughly February 2011.

As is usual at the turning of the lunar new year, I had made a few goals for myself. Not resolutions in the sense that I wanted to accomplish this and that and the other thing. More like, these few important things in my life, I want to do a little better. Of course my weight was one of those things.

I don’t remember how I discovered Mark’s Daily Apple, but I had been reading it for a few months. He seemed to really know what he was talking about, and backed up everything with scientific research (from actual scientists, no less!), statistics, and anecdotal evidence from himself and others of a similar mind-set. And his website is the hub of a community of happy, healthy, motivated people.

Anyway: Chinese New Year came and went, it was now the Year of the Rabbit. And I read the story of the Unconquerable Dave. Take a minute to read this one. It is really something.

Re-inspired, I cut way back on the grains and legumes, and ramped up the meat and veggies. Again, the weight started coming off; more slowly this time, but also more steadily. 190 came and went, then 185. Then I got laid off, and my weight stabilized at 185. More free time meant more time to prepare good food, but it also means more time to eat. Took me a little while to find the right balance. I got the food figured out, and the weight started to come off again, still slowly and manageably. Unlike in 2007, I this time I noticed my energy level increasing, as well as the quality of my sleep, and my overall sense of strength and well-being. I don’t know exactly what I did differently this time. Possibly less sugar.

So here I am now. My weight is now stable around 175. I have had to replace most of my wardrobe; three bags of large clothes off to Goodwill, and a small stash of 36″-waist pants for the holidays. I have a new job, and I walk or bike one and a half miles to work every day, carrying an 18 pound backpack. The fresh vegetables are becoming scarce, so I will have to start buying supermarket produce again for the first time in six months. I still indulge in the occasional snack food or pizza, but usually only on the weekends, and always in smaller quantities than before.

So: What do I think of the Primal Blueprint? Here is a list.

1. The food side of the PB was surprisingly easy to stick to, up to about 80%. Cutting out starchy root vegetables, legumes, and grains seriously impacts dining out. So I prefer to show moderation, even in moderation. Having said that, knowing that I got such great results even while not being super-strict gives me more respect for the PB.

2. The exercise/lifestyle aspect of PB – move slowly a lot, sprint occasionally, lift heavy things, get lots of sleep – fits in well with the current phase of my life. Martial arts and the PB complement each other nicely. The most difficult part is “get lots of sleep”.

3. The online community is great! Lots of support from the commenters and posters in the forums. Given the lifestyles of many of the PB aficionados, it feels like a distributed tribe.

4. The information on the site is well documented. Sisson is very good at backing up everything he says with references for people who want to do more research on their own.

So I feel comfortable advocating the Primal Blueprint. It worked for me. A few of my friends have tried it out, and have had great results. I haven’t felt this healthy since I was in my late 20s. If any of my half-dozen or so readers have tried this, post a comment! I am interested in hearing your story.


Hubbard Squash 01

What started as this grotesque thing ended up as food enough to feed a large family for a day, or a small one for several days. The best part? A gallon of soup, the recipe for which follows:

6 ½ pounds Hubbard squash, cut into 1-2” cubes
3 medium tomatoes, skinned and chopped
1 large white or yellow onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1” ginger root, peeled and grated
1 tsp dried rosemary
1 tsp dried thyme
1 small hot pepper (optional) finely chopped
salt and pepper to taste
1 tbsp olive oil
1-2 limes
enough stock (vegetable or chicken) to cover all vegetables

Grind the rosemary and thyme in a mortar and pestle.

Pour oil into a large pot, heat, and add onions, garlic and ginger. Saute for a few minutes, until onions begin to turn translucent.

Add tomatoes and saute, constantly stirring, for another couple of minutes.

Begin adding squash, a handful of cubes at a time, stirring all the while, until all of the squash is in the pot.

Add the stock, bring to a boil, and reduce to a simmer. Cook until the squash is tender. This will take about half an hour.

Remove from heat and let the soup cool. Once it can be handled safely, puree everything with a blender. This will probably have to be done in three or four batches.

Return the soup to the pot, and add salt and pepper, and stir in the juice of 1-2 limes, adjusted for taste.

I documented the whole process. You can see the rest of the photos here.

The Fulton Street Farmer’s Market is Open!

Fulton Street Farmer's Market

At long last, the Fulton Street Farmer’s Market is open for the season. After a long bland winter, I now have access to vegetables which are bred for flavor instead of toughness. For the moment the vendors are mostly selling plants and various non-food wares, but as the growing season picks up we will see a shift over to more foodstuffs. This morning the big sellers were asparagus, rhubarb and various meats.


O God It Burns: Freezer Burn

Hot Peppers from this past summer

The above photo is of the remnants of my hot pepper harvest from this past summer. It is somewhat depleted, what with the fact that I use them in practically EVERYTHING that I cook. Including:

Hot sauce - Jalapeño and Cayenne

…Hot Sauce! The dish on the left is Jalapeno, and the one on the right is Cayenne. They both use essentially the same recipe – just different peppers. I made the Jalapeno version a few days ago and have been using it on almost everything. The cayenne (well, kung pao, to be precise) version will have its first trial tomorrow.