The pain then is part of the goodness now

So sometimes we are confronted with the pain of others and its raw and its hard and it hurts, both them and us. You know, we make choices in our lives and sometimes, I think about those choices and it’s hard to see the path linking them through time… that golden filament weaving through the events and moments of our lives, driven forward fast and inexorably by time’s arrow darting forward ever forward and our decisions behind us and our minds somewhere in between trying to grasp and compute what happened, what’s going on and where the arrow might be going to land.

The train just passed over a bridge that forded a river of black glittering water, like polished obsidian in the night. There was a light from a factory on the riverside, lights making a flickering pattern like gold brocade on black velvet fabric, stretching out like a ribbon across the land, leading away from the train and city and into the darkness of the faraway night full of mystery and dreams and the future and the past.

I noticed an armada of geese or ducks — I couldn’t tell ’cause I was far away looking down at them from the window of the train, like polished black figurines again the altnerating gold and oily black of the water below.

I’ve been thinking of how a friend had a moment where she was weak and succumbed to that pinprick sliver of time and now regrets and doubts and hunches her shoulders when she walks, worrying that carefree days may never again be hers.

Her mind is trapped in the dark lake of memory and reminding and the half-remembered thoughts of that black ribbon tracing back into her past and through a Moebius strip into her future, making her worry and doubt. I was thinking as I look out and feel the cadence and shake of the train that whatever bad she had in the past led her to something really good now and that something to celebrate and be joyful about. I told her that being around folks who care now is a blessing not to be taken lightly and if it took a dark passing to get into the light, then that’s a good thing and focusing on the old grumpy dark of the past only casts shade on a sunlit present.

Her eyes teared up and she said that it was a kind thing to say but I just said that it was the truth, simple and obvious. It was a moment of mutual understanding and it was pretty good.

I wonder though if words and pictures don’t objectify our feelings and the misty tangle of our memories which are complicated but sublime and so reduced when we we fit them to a word or a drawing or even a photo.

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Swimming is beautiful

Last night I went for a nice swim at the Westmount Pool in Hamilton on the mountain. It was lovely to swim again after being away from it for a couple of weeks. I felt renewed.

There is something really special about community pools. The energy of a legion of people doing aquafit or just families having a lovely time playing in the water is soothing and makes me think of how happy people can be when they just splash around and laugh and giggle and do things together.

The warmth of the lights, the din and the water lend a certain feeling of security and belonging, while the fact that it fades into a faraway hum when my head is underwater in a rhythmic cadence of din and then distant hum and din and distant hum is mesmerising and relaxing. I feel my tension muscles relax and my mind open with each stroke, with the movement forward and the repetitive nature of the whole thing.

Length after length, stroke after stroke, breath after breath.

It reminds me that I’m alive and that everything happens in increments, despite it sometimes feeling as though it is all coming at me at once. That with every step, I making progress toward a goal, even if that goal is just to swim another length, back to where I came from.

After the swim, I love the humid air of the pool and the cool down period standing under the shower, feeling my body’s muscles moving in a coordinated way after working together to propel me forward through the water. I get a funny feeling that I know my body better when I stand in the change room, drying off and moving. My actions feel more fluid, more coordinated.

Swimming is beautiful.

Q & A on my first year as a vegetarian

It has been almost a year since I left meat behind and changed my diet. People often ask me about what my experience has been like: Has it been hard? Did it cause you social stigma? What was hardest to give up? Are you protein deficient?

I thought I would compile my answers to some of the top questions I have gotten at dinner parties, social events and on planes, trains and automobiles as people heard that I had become plant-centric and plant-based.

Plant-based eating is the future. Millennials, rich people and highly educated people have known for a while, but we are on the brink of everyone else finding out now.


Why did you do it?

I did it for health reasons. After my father had a stroke, I started to get serious about my own health. His stroke happened on my 42nd birthday and it was a big deal for me – a shock and a reminder that no one is immortal.

I started looking into health causes of strokes and cardio events. All the evidence I could find was that veganism or vegetarianism reduces all cause mortality by a significant margin. This was brought home to me through the work of Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn whose book: Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease is very convincing. I highly recommend it.

Since then I discovered the wok of Dr. Michael Gregor, How Not To Die, which is an engaging read demonstrating the healthful power of vegan/plant-based eating.

Are you going to become vegan?

Right now, I am not on the road to becoming completely vegan.  However, I would say that I eat plant-based meals 60% of the time right now, with my only exceptions being eggs, cheese, and oysters!

Have you seen any health benefits?

Yes. Enormous. I have lost 20 lbs. My blood pressure has plummetted. As well, when I actually have a string of vegan days, my blood pressure gets down to 100/60, down from 130/80 when I was eating meat. As well – particularly on vegan days – my resting heart rate has dropped from ~77 to ~60.

But don’t you lack energy?

No, quite the opposite. My energy level is very high and I never get that sick feeling that I used to after eating meat. In fact, I recently bought a bike and have a goal of doing a triathlon this summer. There are many examples of plant-based and plant-centric athletes, such as Brendan Brazier and Rich Roll.

Ok. So you started for health reasons. How about the animals?

To be honest, I was not very aware of the plight of animals on farms when I started my vegetarian adventure. The fact is that many factory farm animals live lives of torture and suffering.

Watching movies like Cowspiracy and listening to Rich Roll’s excellent podcasts has reinforced this for me and brought home the healing power of plant-based (vegan) living. From duck-down coats, to your cosmetics tested on animals, to the coyote fur brimming your parka’s hood — you are being made a participant in the torture and slaughter of innocent sentient beings.

Once I came to this realisation, I couldn’t unthink it.

I am done with meat and I do my very best to avoid products that use animal parts such as skin, fur, feathers and down. Does that mean I am throwing away my leather couches or jacket? No. That would be absurd and disrespectful to the beings who gave their skin to the creation of that furniture or those clothes. Will I ever buy another leather couch or jacket? No.

So before you think I have become an animal rights fanatic or something let me explain.

Through my own lifestyle change, I have discovered that ending my consumption of products that depend on violence towards animals or their bodies and minds has enhanced my awareness of suffering in people too.

We should strive toward a non-violent, cruelty-free and suffering-free society for all sentient beings. That means animals and people.

How about the environment?

Animal husbandry is a greater source of emissions. The pollution doesn’t end there, either. Whether it is the incredible amounts of animal waste that factory farms generate or the methane those animals emit, the animal husbandry industry is a major contributor to climate change and polluter of our lakes, rivers and soil.

Was it hard to give up meat?

Yes, at first, it was. I longed for a burger at first. But after a while, I guess my microbiome changed and my body and mind stopped craving meat. In fact, I recently went to buy olives at the grocery store and found myself in the middle of deli section where the olives are found. I felt sick. The area looked like an abbatoir or a morgue. It smelled like death. I saw body parts all around me. I was repelled and left as fast as I could.

Do that mean you have become a delicate petal?

No. It means that over the course of the last year my body’s microbiome has changed and things that used to smell good to me now smell really gross.

How about cheese and dairy?

Well, I am not vegan. I enjoy cheese and eggs. I don’t like milk – I never have. I have always preferred soy or almond alternatives.  I love cheese in my pasta and on a caesar salad. I do prefer vegenaise to mayo.

On the one hand I recognize that cheese is full of saturated fat, which is bad for me. On the other hand, I don’t eat it massive quantities.

Also, I think (although many will disagree) that cheese and eggs can be ethically sourced. I have visited the farm that produces the eggs that I buy and the chickens look very happy. They run around the barnyard, eat lots of kale and bugs and worms, and run happily toward the farmer when he approaches. They really love him.

How about fish?

Well, I was a pescetarian for the first half of the year, but then I gave up the fish as well. I did this more for ethical reasons than for health ones – fish farming has a strongly negative environmental effect. Also, I found that my taste for flesh has really diminished and I don’t crave fish flesh. I have to admit that I still love oysters!

How about vitamin b-12 and omega-3?

I have discovered that you can get more than enough of both of these through flax and chia seeds or by supplementing. There is nothing better than overnight oats with lots of chia, hemp and/or ground flaxseed. Fortified almond milk can be a great source of b-12 as well.

How about protein?

Well, I still eat cheese which has protein. As well, I eat a lot of kale, beans and grains, which also have a lot of protein!

Has this been hard, socially?

Ha. No. In fact, I find that there are tons of veggie options at most restaurants. You just sometimes have to get a few appetizers and a salad instead of a main course.

Also, most people I have spoke with tell me that they would like to reduce or eliminate the meat in their diet. The percentage of vegetarians has been growing enormously in the last ten years, particularly among millennials who are the likeliest to be vegetarian of any generation.

I think meat-eating is going to quickly become something that old people, less-educated people and poorer people do, like smoking.

Alex, are you a fanatic now?

No, I am not. I have made a conscientious choice to do something for my health, for the good of animals and to help build a better, cruelty-free world.

Do you judge me for eating meat, Alex?

No, I don’t. You are just making a different life-choice than me.  It’s a choice. We live in a free country. You can do as you please.

It comes down to a simple thing: I don’t want a sentient being to have to die so that I can eat a meal.

Time discipline

One of the comments I often get from people is: “You are the most productive person I know!”

I am grateful for having the stamina to be so productive. However, I am discovering, as I become more mindful and self-aware, that my productivity is not the result of great planning, but of brute force effort and a strong will.

That’s just not an optimal way of being productive because when I examine myself, I find that I am often motivated by:

  • fear
  • guilt
  • duty
  • a desire to please others

The first two are bad. Fear and guilt are just awful motivators.

Of the last two, duty is a good motivator, as is a desire to please others. Wanting to please others, however, is often a case of managing their expectations! I have learned that working with others to understand what it will take to please them

I have learned that working with others to understand what it will take to please them is very important.

I am going to work on ways of managing time discipline. I am going to start by using my calendar more effectively. I have friends who do this well – for example, Mark Stewart, my colleague and good friend at McMaster University, has been a big motivation for me in terms of fitness and health. I recently realised that he is a great at using his calendar for managing time.

I will report back on the Time Discipline Project.

200 day report on my Life Transformation Experiment

I thought that it was time for an update.

200 days ago, on Ash Wednesday, I started what I thought would be a temporary personal mortification… a Lenten sacrifice. I adopted a pescetarian diet and committed to 30 minutes of daily exercise.

My Numbers, Pre-Pescetarian Life Transformation
Blood Pressure: 130/85
Weight: 192lbs
Resting Heart Rate: ~74

Athletics: I could only run 12 minutes at a maximum speed of 8 km/h. I could not make it up the (very) steep hill next to my house on a bicycle without taking a break.

Here is the 200-day punchline (i.e. my numbers now):

On Animal Product Days (cheese/eggs/fish):
Blood Pressure: 110/65
Weight: 167lbs
Resting Heart Rate: ~63

On Vegan Days (only plants):
Blood Pressure: 100/58
Resting Heart Rate: ~59

Athletics: I can now comfortably run 5km at an average rate of 9-10 kph.  I can comfortably swim 2k (breaststroke) in 55 minutes. I go on regular brisk 90 minute hikes in the woods behind my house in Ancaster.

Surprise Benefit: Acid reflux is gone (except sometimes on animal product days)! I had been taking Zantac regularly – I stopped two weeks ago and have only had heartburn on days when I ate cheese, eggs or seafood.

This experiment will now go from being the Pescetarian Life Transformation Experiment to… The Vegetarian Life Transformation Experiment.

Why vegetarian? I am sufficiently convinced that I am healthier and happier on vegan days. However, I am not yet ready to go vegan – I still love cheese and eggs too much. So it will have to be a vegetarian experiment for now.

I will also try experiments with:

  • Meditation
  • Intermittent fasting
  • Different combinations of cardio and resistance exercises
  • Schedule Planning

Why these experiments? I am finding that the key to happiness and balance is discipline. I am going to experiment with different disciplines around the four things mentioned above.

How do I keep all this going? Excel is my friend – I have a great spreadsheet with a lot of these data. For swimming I use a PoolMateHR from Swimovate, which tracks lengths, speed, force, stroke count and heart rate. For nutrition, MyFitnessPal is super useful – it allows me to fairly easily and accurately track nutrition goals so that i make sure I am getting the macro and micro nutrients I need stay healthy.

I have been thinking of getting a sports watch with HR that can track swimming, running, cycling, etc. but I have done a lot of research and still find even the best products (mostly from Garmin) feel like they are still not quite out of beta.

My goal is to find my healthiest, calmest, most productive, creative and compassionate self.

I wish you peace and health.

I will keep you posted.

 

Being inspired and inspiring

I woke up today feeling inspired.

I had a good night’s sleep after having accomplished a few simple things during the previous day that I had been thinking about. The feeling of sunlight on my arms and face was beautiful as well.

I got to thinking about how I could transmit that feeling of being inspired to others. How to be inspiring? I think it has to do with a few things:

  • Openness. Be open to the day and the experiences it brings. Be open to the ideas of others – don’t feel threatened.
  • Positivity. Look to see the upside of everything you encounter. This means putting openness in action. Generally people come to you with an idea because they have been inspired or maybe they are worried about something. Both inspiration and worry are legitimate! A positive outlook recognizes this.
  • Calm. Maintaining calm inspires others because it gives them a feeling of security and peace. Without those two items, it is very difficult to be productive.

I wish you an open, positive and calm day!

Pleasures of public transit

I am taking public transit as a part of my wellness journey.

I am on a trip to Ottawa today, which meant an early morning wake-up at 4am to catch the early train. I took the GO Train at Aldershot Station with the other bleary-eyed riders to Union Station in Toronto. Then VIA Rail from Union to Ottawa.

I meditated for 10 minutes on the train and felt the fatigue from only sleeping 5 hours dimish. I understand that meditating reduces blood cortisol levels, but somehow I feel more awake after meditating, especially when tired. Odd.

In Hamiton, I have been taking public transit as much as possible. I have taken the bus to McMaster since I returned from my research leave. This is for three reasons:

  • Stress reduction. It reduces my stress levels significantly. Even if my bus ride is only 15 minutes, I can still do some light reading or just look out the window. Very peaceful when compared with driving.
  • Earth-friendly. It is environmentally much more sustainable. I have only filled up the gas tank in my SUV once in the last two weeks, instead of twice.
  • Cost savings. My parking spot at McMaster costs about $1200 (not including gas and wear), whereas transit will cost only about $800. I spend about $150 in gas to drive to Ottawa (not including wear), whereas I can get a return ticket for about $120-$150 if I take advantage of the Tuesday deals.