Some Jobs are Better than Others

Every now and again I remember a horrible job I’m happy to have left. It’s far rarer that I reflect upon a job I’m happy to have turned down. Let’s do so now.

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The picture above was taken from a parking lot on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. I was there to basically have a tour of the site, finish up the paperwork, and meet the programming team I was to lead. Some of the contract terms didn’t line up as promised, so I backed out. As news about Hanford has trickled out over the past year or so I’ve found myself very happy it fell through. This is particularly true reading this article about plutonium contamination drifting over the region.

“…site was ringed by 8-foot-tall piles of radioactive debris with little to prevent dust from blowing off.”

-D

Jazz Hands, Buttons & Irony

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A chilly, damp, late winter morning, and already the doves are creating their mindless racket atop the neighbor’s house. The fake owls do absolutely nothing to convince the doves of their ferocity, so they’re nesting next to it. Doves in chorus sound a great deal like chickens volubly remarking upon the laying of an egg, so you know there’s all sorts of raucous nonsense going on. Whoever likened the cooing of doves to something pure and mild clearly never lived anywhere near them. Typical.

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Inasmuch as the time change has thrown us completely – when will someone take seriously the idea to do away with such indignities!! – it is, at least, a sign that this winter of diseases is crawling to a close. If you’ve been one of those who have ridden the coughing carousel, unable to dismount, you have our empathy. Fortunately, after the January/February illness phase, we’ve been healthier, if exhausted. Not so much from dreich, gray skies and the eternal fogbank in which our house sits, but because of … enforced levity. Who knew smiling could be so tiresome? Oh, yes – our comedy show is coming up this weekend, and in this household, we are heartily sick of a.) lines concluding with “fa-la-la-la,” b.) Gilbert and Sullivan, c.) songs ending with “jazz hands” d.) songs containing tubas, e.) kazoos. And did we mention fa-la-las?!

On one hand, we frequently remind ourselves that our director’s insistence that we MEMORIZE such gems is staving off the encroachments of Alzheimer’s. On the other hand, should one keep singing songs with fa-la-las, dementia is practically assured…

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All snark aside, T has had her six month meeting with her doctor regarding her autoimmune, and after numerous blood tests and kidney tests, appears to be as well as medical science can make her just now. Though the grinding grey exhaustion continues, and the medication only ameliorates some of the symptoms, because it is so toxic, we’ve decided to keep it as minimal of a dose as possible. This means that the excessive collagen buildups, which produce thick harpy fingernail/claws continues – but the autoimmune continues to attack the nailbeds, soooo… the nails fall off. Neat, huh? The breakdown of skin also affects hair follicles, so while hair grows quickly, it also fills the brush and dusts the shoulders in a continual silent fall.

…one never imagines oneself as particularly vain until one is female and facing massive hair loss. And then, one discovers, oh, suddenly, painfully, that one is VERY VAIN INDEED.

Life is just full of opportunities to learn one’s limits, is it not? Wouldn’t it have been fun to learn about this limit, oh, never?! But, alas.

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One of T’s more random hobbies has been to take interesting old buttons and, adding them to various clips or jump beads or other findings, make some sort of hair jewelry or brooch or whatnot. It’s something mentally freeing to do whilst listening to podcasts, and has been a convenient means of creating small, handmade gifts for small people… and herself. Knowing T’s predilection for hair jewelry, for her birthday this year, her parents presented her with, among other things, a lovely set of bejeweled combs from Macy’s… the day after she’d hacked five inches from her hair and given up on doing more than wearing a headband.

O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi,” came to mind, both awful and amusing at the same time. T. quietly rewrapped the combs and returned them, not having the heart to mention it to her parents.

Hair comes, and hair goes, and seasons, ever-changing. Fa-la-la-la.

Knowing When NOT to Work Hard

Last night I dreamed that I was called upon to give a lecture and I was unprepared. Apparently, though, I have some lectures that I give often enough that I’m able to pull one up on the fly, and my dreaming mind knows that I can always give the standard one I give to junior developers at some point: Be Intelligently Lazy.

Twenty-three years ago, I was working a full-time job doing data entry for a payroll processing company. This involved opening mailed-in timecards, “coding” them (sorting them into piles, basically), and entering their data into a Peoplesoft payroll system, with data entry done on Windows 3.1. After a couple months of doing this, I realized that I was typing the same thing over and over (each district manager had a markup rate, a name, a zip code, a phone number … and the fields probably went right in that order, actually), and it was incredibly boring and stupid, particularly when there was Windows Macro Recorder.

I set about assigning the 12 function keys to my 12 area managers’ information, typing in the information and tabbing through the entry fields as quickly as I could. When I was done and I’d written down which manager was on which key, I could type in the person’s name and their hours worked and then press F5, say, to key in the rest and press “submit” to send the timecard into the database.

My manager noticed this (well, I was probably excited and told her about it) and asked me to do the same thing for the other entry clerks in the group. A few days after completing that, the database administrator came to visit us, to ask what on earth we were doing, because the data used to trickle in all day long and now only came in before lunch (yes: I had cut the data entry time from 8 hours down to 3, for the entire group). When my manager told him what I had done, that was the end of my days as a data entry clerk: I was assigned to work in IT, working on macros in Excel or something.

So, yes: I became a programmer because I was intelligently lazy. That is part of what makes a good programmer: knowing when something can be automated. To be a truly effective programmer, though, takes a whole lot more experience in figuring out automation and figuring out when to automate and – more importantly – when not to automate. This is actually the real point of the lecture.

Your average junior to mid-level programmer will spend a ton of time automating things which could be done via brute-force. This is the classic trap of spending more time building automation than it would have taken to do it by hand. Building the skills to be able to estimate this takes a whole career, honestly. Knowing that you need to do this, though, is something that you can give to one another: simply print out the comic below and show people how to read it.

For example, I read this chart and know that every time I visit someone with multiple monitors, I need to tell them how to use the Window+Shift+Arrow shortcut. Why? Because your average person with multiple monitors will generally spend about 5 seconds 1) restoring an application window, 2) dragging it over to the other monitor, 3) maximizing the window … and they’ll do that at least 5 times per day. When you read those values into the comic above (5/day on the top axis, 5 seconds on the left axis) you get 12 hours spent in that activity over 5 years. In other words: every person I teach this trick will save 12 hours of labor over 5 years. That starts to be some real savings for the whole company, it takes me nearly no time at all, and it makes people really happy to learn as well!

This can also be useful for deciding whether to do projects, and help in deciding the importance of those projects (for example, if one person in your organization spends a day a month doing something that could be automated, that’s 8 weeks of savings over 5 years if you can automate it). That’s a whole other discussion, though it’s the same skill: so, maybe learn that skill, because making those kinds of decisions are important in moving into decision-making roles.

The other thing I tell junior developers in this talk is usually to get over the idea that there’s a perfect tool for things; the perfect tool is the one that gets the job done, and it may be that it’s clunky and kludgy but that doesn’t matter. I give the example here of how I use Excel to load data (I use Excel formulas to build SQL strings), or how I use Excel formulas to write C# code (I wrote some VBA code behind Excel & wrote some SQL code to feed data into Excel, which I’ve used to generate literally hundreds of thousands of lines of repetitive C# code), or how I use Excel formulas to write repetitive HTML (like, oh, a bunch of emails with different names & hyperlinks to their downloads). Even more importantly is the example of figuring out when to brute-force something (“Only 200 photos to crop? We’ll just use a photo editor rather than programming it. 40,000 photos to crop? Let’s write some Python and use CV2 to find the faces for us, so we can crop automatically.”)

There are plenty of examples to give, and plenty of tools that I use on a regular basis… but it basically comes down to using the same old set of tools because I know how to use them and because I’m efficient in using them. Yes, it would likely be faster for me to learn how to use RegEx … that is, if I knew RegEx way better than I do, I could be even more efficient than I am in Excel … but we come back to that chart and decide that it wouldn’t save me more than it would cost me. Likewise, if it’s only a few things & they can be hammered out using something simple, just spend the 20 minutes doing that rather than wasting more than that on building a tool for it.

Applying this kind of thinking to your own coding practice and knowledge acquisition is when you reach mastery: when you can look at a tool or language, determine how long it would take to master, determine how much time it would save you in the tasks you regularly perform, and decide whether or not to invest in learning it. That calculation is something which truly proficient programmers make on an intuitive basis, and which contributes to them sticking to the same things that have worked previously. If you’re conscious and intentional about it, though, it will lead you to some better decisions than, “oh, this is showing up on Hacker News, I should learn it!” That’s not to say that you shouldn’t learn new things (I’m dabbling in Python and convolutional neural networks these days), but that you should be aware that there’s a trade-off and it’s perfectly logical to decide not to learn the cool new tool / language.

So. That’s my usual talk on how to be intelligently lazy.

-D

Critical Thinking

I happened across a great passage about critical thinking and thought I’d share. It’s in a Christopher Anvil short, about aliens bearing gifts.

“I seldom watch television. I get my news from the papers, where I can take it in at my own pace, and pick out the bones, instead of swallowing it all whole. No, I don’t trust the Shaloux. What’s their motive? Why do they offer us this ‘life-serum’? What do they get out of it?”

“Open-mind! Everybody’s supposed to have an ‘open mind’. Humbug! Open it far enough, and who knows what will come in? The whole thing’s a trap. Leave the door open, to prove you trust everyone. Then the thieves can strip the house and put a knife in you while you sleep.”

Cautiously, he began to read the paper, conscious of the article’s bias, opening his mind just a little slit at a time to bash the unwelcome ideas over the head as they entered: Washington — Miliram Diastat, the benevolent (How the devil do they know he’s benevolent?) plenipotentiary (Hogwash. He may be just a messenger boy.) of the Shaloux Interstellar (They could come from Mars, for all we know.) Federation, met with the President today, and in solemn rapport (What’s “rapport” really mean? Maybe it’s hypnotism.) concluded the mind-exchange (Or brainwashing) which is a precondition for entry into (defeat by) the Federation. Mr. Diastat (Why call him “Mr.”? The damned things are neuter.) assured reporters afterward that all had gone well (For the Shalouxs, that is.) in the mind-exchange (brain-washing). He said (It said), raising his (its) hands (extremities of upper tentacles) to heaven (over its head–that is, over the end of the thing with teeth in it.), that our peoples will be joined as one (eaten up) with (by) theirs, in a final ceremony next year. At that time, travel throughout the vast extent (They claim it’s vast.) of the Federation will be free to all (Economically impossible.), and Earth’s excess-population problem will be solved (Everybody will be killed.), while at the same time (never) personal immortality will have been granted by universal (Humbug. There must be some people with sense enough to keep out.) inoculation with the serum (slow poison).

This passage seems to me to really exemplify the kind of thinking which should be applied to most things, to be honest.

-D

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A Mostly Pictorial Panko Lemon Garlic Tofu Recipe

Okay, so some people just HATE tofu. T, who grew up with it from childhood, LOATHED it until at some point in her twenties when… she got over it. It’s … just like any other ingredient, in that it’s a Thing to which you add Other Things and then it has flavor. Of course, meat allegedly has its own flavors even without additions, but that’s the blood, and we’re ignoring that. Meat (sans sangre) is flavorless, just as tofu is flavorless. As an ingredient, tofu is fine, and, even better, is lacking weird stringy bits and wobbly things you don’t want to identify. It’s a perfectly reasonable food, you just have to season it.

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This recipe is adapted from Doesn’t Taste Like Chicken‘s.

We realized that, like most people, we’d fallen into a meal rut, with winter casseroles and heavy, savory things like beans. Our attempt at something piquant and unique was this dish, which is both crunchy and tangy. It turned out surprisingly well, it was (mostly) easy and quick to prepare, and a good use of odds and ends for side dishes and whatnot. And, if you love someone vegan or vegetarian? It’s well worth preparing during this ridiculous Hallmark holiday… celebrating the tang of lemon as an antidote to the saccharine of the holiday. *cough* Or something.

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The marinade calls for two lemons, zest and juice; three cloves of garlic, agave, water, salt, and pepper. T left out the agave, and added a tablespoon of tapenade leftover from something, far more garlic than called for, and then she microwaved the lemons, which made them delightfully juicy. (And messy.) (She also did a frankly terrible job of zesting the lemons, because though frozen lemons preserve their great skin, after defrosting, the lemons are too juicy to work with, and the skin on Meyers especially is too thin and delicate, so, a word to the wise: zest the frozen lemons before defrosting, or better yet, before you freeze them…) It’s said that the tofu can marinate for up to three days in this blend, but we find that if we remove the water its packed in, tofu doesn’t need more than a half hour to marinate. We laid out our tofu chunks on a cookie sheet, stacked the sheets, and weighed them down with a cast-iron skillet. After an hour, we poured off all the water, unstacked the pans, and poured on our marinade. After about twenty minutes, we put the tofu in a series of zip-top bags, all of which proceeded to leak. (ANNOYING.)

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We’d forgotten how much of a chore the multi-step dredging food in flour and panko can be… since we’d not made anything which required these steps in about a year and a half, the last time we made faux crab cakes (squeeze-dried shredded zucchini, panko, Old Bay – tasty). Fortunately, after all the plate-of-flour-and-seasonings, plate-of-wet-binding, messy-sticky-hands thing, we discovered that this tofu dish works nicely baked – and there’s less a chance that your chef will get bored and forget she has something on the stove. Ahem.

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It’s easy to leave dish as vegan, as is, or, if you’re feeling particularly beleaguered that you’re ACTUALLY EATING TOFU and it’s NOT EVEN IN AN ASIAN DISH, you can use an egg whipped with water to make the recipe safely animal-product-y. The flour dredging is a place to layer in the flavors, to give your tofu the taste you prefer. We entirely forgot the nutritional yeast in the breading, but added pretty much everything else, including random herbs not called for, old packets of Parmesan from pizzerias, a sprinkle of Old Bay, even more garlic (because since when is three cloves enough????), and ground cayenne (because: we add it to EVERYTHING). Each time we ran short of the dredging blend, we remade it differently, and T didn’t follow any measurements at all. (It’s a wonder anything she makes ever turns out.) We did a test run of this dish after making something else, just in case, but it’s good enough to serve as a main dish with a couple of sides. The lemon shines through, and the exterior crunch is a nice contrast to the soft tofu insides. (It’s not as soft as it would have been, as firm tofu gets even MORE firm when you’ve a.) frozen it and b.) pressed out all of the water. If you dislike tofu for texture reasons, you might try that.) The recipe inventor finishes this with parsley and sliced lemons, but tonight, we’re going to make a buttery lemon sauce, which will really bring out that lovely tang. Pair this with steamed veg like green beans or asparagus, a lemon-infused rice, or lemon pasta, or savory roasted sprouts.

This was a surprisingly delicious meal, and perfect for the suddenly chilly evening. Here’s to home cooking, and the attractive nuisance that is a bored person in a kitchen.

Signs

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Years ago, when we lived in Santa Rosa, late January-February was when we cut back the rosemary to stumps, in preparation for it to begin to grow again in April and May. We usually cut the rose back then, too. It’s funny how we try and use one calendar anchor to apply to everywhere. Saturday was a balmy 70°F/21°C, while Sunday was a nippy 55°F/12°C. It’s hard to know when to prune anything anymore. With the weather all over the place, our internal calendars are a total mess.

Still, there are signs of the season – from the itching of our ears to the earlier rising of the sun. We watch the trees change like stop-motion photographs, each morning as we step out for our brief, brisk walk through the waking neighborhood. As the sun is normally barely an idea yet during our walks, we don’t often see the shift in full color, but we got a late start for our weekend walk, and enjoyed seeing the nests, buds, and blooms in full color.

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It’s been an all over the place sort of weekend. Inasmuch as the weather appears unsure what time of year this is, we’re fairly confident that it’s Spring from the amount of dust that’s drifted in, and the way our houseplants have overgrown their pots. One of the nicer things about our little house is its big, deep tub in the master bath, and the the deep garden windows in the kitchen. Both of these things, however, are absolutely an annoyance to clean. The window, especially, into which we put new screens just last summer, is a single pane, and the window is made of unfinished marble. It tends to let in dust, immigrating spiders, and it collects water stains like a pro. After removing all the plant clutter, we washed all of the windows and tried to put a shine on the marble. T. is grateful to D for taking on the body origami which made this tidying up possible.

There are always some chores which seem to be reserved for “spring” cleaning. (Question: why do there seems to be no specified clean-outs for the other seasons? Perhaps in spring, there is the assumption that one has to clean out all the things it wasn’t possible to clean out or dispose of during winter – and so come Spring, detritus was burned, graves were dug, linens washed and houses were turned out, and those weren’t such issues during summer or autumn, maybe? Possibly? Sounds legit, no?) While we normally are annoyed with windows which are speckled and spotty when the sun shines, the heavy fog hasn’t allowed for much to look at before this past week, so we’ve let that chore slide. We caught up this weekend. Additionally, though we generally sharpen knives as needed, we discovered that in the last while, they all seem to have gone dull, so that was another chore for the morning. As always, when one begins thinking of specific things one ought to do, the list multiplies…! The bird bath! The hummingbird feeder! And on and on and on…

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Few people have a specific time of year to re-pot plants, but with the way our Saintpaulia (the scientific name of what some people call “African” violets, though they’re more specifically Tanzanian violets, as they don’t grow all over Africa, but people are generally lazy or else don’t know Africa isn’t one country) has responded to being in the little garden window, it’s already been necessary once in the seven months since we’ve moved closer to the Bay. T is always gratified with how well her little violets grow, because she once thought they were the most finicky, easy to kill plant she’d ever had — and as they succumbed, D kept getting them for her (!!!). She realized why about two years ago during a rare trip to D’s parent’s house in Southern Cal, watching D’s mother prune her two dozen or so Saintpaulia plants. Now, we say “prune” but what we mean is “take a chef’s knife and violently cleave a plant in half while making desultory small talk.”

Chit-chat-chit-chat-chit-cha–SLAM!

It was some next-level, mafiosi-style intimidation, if that’s what his mother intended. As the cleaver came down T took a GIANT step back and asked weakly, “Um, what are you doing?” (“Um,” because, even after twenty-plus years of marriage, neither T nor D know have found comfortable names to call their inlaws. In the rare conversation, “Um” so far has worked.) “Oh, this is how you cut them back,” D’s mother said blithely. “You can start a whole new plant from a single leaf, just like this!”

Well, okay, then!

At our house, T prefers to hand D a TINY knife, because she’s still sure she’s going to kill the plants every time she has to divide them, but so far, so good… and so far, the mafiosi hasn’t dropped by, so that’s a plus as well.

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Sunday afternoon, we attended a community sing, sponsored by our chamber group, which was dedicated to love songs. It occurred to us that we hadn’t really done anything like this since we’d returned from Glasgow, where groups getting together for a “sing-song and a cuppa” is much more common. While there was no tea this time, there were quite a number of people out and about, in the historical tiny town-within-a-town of Niles. As this had been advertised throughout the community, we expected a lot of at least choir folk, but were amused to see one of D’s bosses there, as well.

The program was held in the historic Niles church, historic, because there has apparently been an operating church in that location since 1889, before Niles was incorporated as part of Fremont in 1956. For all its historical nature, the church is quite modern inside, a small, tidy space with soaring ceilings, which lent itself well to the music of the grand piano mid-stage.

The program was a combination of goofy and endearing, as the songs ranged from all the verses of “You Are My Sunshine” (none of which, regrettably, was the verse we learned at summer camp about the pig) to Neil Diamond’s “I’m A Believer” (or, as most people said, “No, that’s a Monkees song!” Yeah, yeah, but Neil wrote it), then to a melancholy Queen song which few people knew (and which no one could sing, because, it was pitched for tenors who never pitch things for the average person). In the single hour we we sang rounds, then two, and four-part rounds; ooold oldies from generations back (“Kisses Sweeter Than Wine) and even older ooold “olde” English folk songs (“I Gave My Love A Cherry”). We then ended with a newly composed, four part song from the Justice Choir Songbook called We Choose Love, written by a Colorado composer and musician who was inspired last summer by peaceful civic protests in her area. As the chamber will be performing in a May concert titled “And Justice for All,” we fully expect that song will be seen again.


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After such a fun community-oriented afternoon, the wind came up and blew the temperature into the low forties, and we gladly bundled into a hot bath and into bed. We hope all of your planning this weekend – and your cleaning and organizing – lead to a fruitful and well-prepared you this week – or at least some semblance thereof of an organized, better you. Ciao!

Beyond ‘Bright-Side’

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Sometimes, you’re just not ready for the holidays when everyone else is… if you hated Christmas last year, this might be for you.


A friend a few weeks ago was talking about how hard it had been for her to recover from the death of her father. She’d thrown herself into finishing graduate school and getting a good job, ignoring the loss of any real meaningfulness to these activities. “I was working as hard as I could to ‘make it,’ but it wasn’t making sense to me,” she said. “This ‘brightside’ culture we live in wouldn’t allow me to admit that I’d hit a downward spiral when my father died, and I’d never recovered.”

I’d never heard of the phrase, “bright-side culture,” but my friend was using it to describe not only American culture, but the faith community in which she grew up. Predicated on the idea that Christians are a joyful people, ‘bright-side culture’ exists to keep us on the sunny side. If you are not particularly sunny, worse, if you are actively unhappy, or in any way deviating from that joyful #blessed life, you are saying somehow that God is at fault, or not enough for you… and for Christians, that’s anathema. No one wants to admit that something within might be broken.

We might assume that only within Christian religious circles do people have this overwhelming pressure of happiness, but it’s rising all around us. Google hired a “Chief Happiness Officer.” Yep, seriously – and Google’s not the only one. Yale University’s ‘Psychology and the Good Life’ saw 1200 students enrolling this past autumn, because it’s billed as a twice weekly course on “how to be happy.” Gallup polls suggest that this is true not just of undergrads – but of most Americans. Though we have more than we’ve ever had before, the buoyant, ebullient, stereotypical American optimism is failing. We are – as a culture – not happy.

It’s a strange time in American history.

It might a good time in American history to stop avoiding our truths, however.

We were really thoughtful this past holiday, reading write-ups of area churches doing Blue Christmas services. Especially when there’s so much enforced cheer to go around during the holidays, which plunges so many into unanticipated depression, Blue Christmas services essentially provide a place to weep and be unapologetically morose without the pressure of being greeted with “Happy Holidays!” or the gaudy brightness of bows and colored lights. A choir-mate this year lost her husband after our second concert, and we thought of her on Christmas day, wretchedly trying to make the season bright for her children. Sometimes, it’s pointless to pretend. We need to identify and affirm that we are, at times, deeply unhappy.

The original Christmas story remembers darkness – the magi were watching dark skies for portents when they saw the natal star. “The people that walked in darkness” are the same people who eventually see “a great light,” but not everyone walks at the same pace. The light comes to everyone different times.

This doesn’t mean it isn’t there, however.

We have often found the light after the worst of times – when we really think, “Okay, this is some CRAP, and we’re done.” Sometimes we find that light simply by watching the skies, and waiting; breathing through the distress. Other times, we find that light by doing something for others which reignites our own flame. The writer Omid Safi suggests doing a good turn for someone, stating, “Even more, there is something about a righteous deed that is virtuous in itself: It is faith in the loveliness of a simple act of kindness — apart from whether it will be reciprocated, whether we will live long enough to see its fruits. Acts of beauty are redemptive in and of themselves. So let us, friends, keep planting.” (If you need a little brightening, read his whole brief essay on planting and the hope it genders on the days we’re sure the world won’t be around long enough for us to see a seed grow.)

As we’re dragging ourselves along – some newly ill, others rebounding through variation 430,959,806 of whatever this cough-fever-chills thing is; some slogging through work, others on the endless interview rotation, and fearing they’ll never find a job, remember that hope is not mere optimism. Optimism is based on …optics, how we see the world. In the words of Desmond Tutu, “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.” Hope is a refusal to surrender, so keep walking, keep planting, and keep going.

Happy Monday.

Tastes Like Moral Superiority

Toldja not to drink that “raw” water.

You Are What You… Ah, Californians. We are known for our obsessive obeisance to our bodies. The derisive label of ‘fruits and nuts’ expanded to ‘crunchy granola’ as we became known for vegetarianism, macrobiotics, yoga, gluten-free everything, veganism… and alkaline, “live” and raw water, which appears to be the latest (completely made-up for marketing to the giardia unwary) thing. Our state has become synonymous with free range, grass-fed, organic everything, and the gospel of California Wellville dovetails beautifully with the pinched ideals of traditional American Puritanism, that of perfection, rigidity, guilt, and blame: if you’re sick, it’s really your own failings. You should have done better; you could have saved yourself. After all, I TOLD YOU HOW. Don’t you know, you are what you eat???

If you feel this is gross exaggeration, just talk to anyone who has had cancer, or has a child who struggles with attention deficits or hyperactivity or, worse, falls anywhere along the autism spectrum. Each of them will have a story of some earnest and well-meaning soul who suggested alfalfa pills, acupuncture, or Atkins, chided them for not adhering to a plant-based diet, or insisted that it was all of the dyes / carbs / caffeine/ vaccinations which was to blame. Those folk generally leave the people they mean to help feeling defensive, defeated, battered, and dismayed. Truth is, we all just want to feel better, to help each other feel better. Too often, though, we attach a moral price tag to our health choices, and we embrace our beliefs like they are a true religion.

Myokinetic soft tissue massage, Dr. Louie

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth… We’re less susceptible to the lure of the quick cure, as we do make a huge effort to read up on research and keep current with medical stuff, as we’re required to do by the doctor we’ve seen for the last five years. Since December, we’ve been seeing a myo-kinesthesiologist twice a month, and going through some (fairly brutal) body corrective exercises, stretches, and adjustments to help T deal with the diminished mobility due to her autoimmune disorder, and with issues surrounding D’s degenerated disc – two things which are annoying, but just a feature of our lives. In consequence, some months ago had a conversation with an acquaintance on topics of health wherein she insisted that diabetes could be cured with exercise and a vegan diet, and that we could be pharmaceutical-free if we’d only change our diet. When D pushed back, she reminded him that his body was a temple, that he was what he ate, and that, in essence, if he failed to follow her prescribed way of living, subsequent illness was his own fault. It’s always awkward when someone asking how you’re doing is a pit trap lined with sharpened sticks, isn’t it? Predictably (as those who know him will agree) the next day D said, “Let’s visit a cannabis dispensary!” This suggestion was also, equally predictably, followed by a “WHAT!?” and a very long wrangling discussion indeed.

Take It With A Pinch Of… Despite both of us having the knowledge that a prescription opiate drug user is morally no better than a cannabinoid user, and that both drugs have legal medical uses (though only one is quite as open to fatal abuse and overdose), the idea of cannabis was still hard for T. to get her head around. The moral price tag placed on drug use in this society is real, especially for those of us raised in conservative faiths, or in those faiths which observe dietary strictures. (It’s double-jeopardy for Mormons, Jews, Muslims, Seventh-day Adventists, and some Orthodox Christians.) Then, there remains the historic stigma surrounding people of color and cannabis use, to the extent that when T mentioned D’s desire to an acquaintance, their first response was to ask if she’d next be knitting Rastafarian caps… not moving to Haight Street with the hippies or attending the Coachella festival, both places typically known for their majority white cannabis users, but knitting Rastafarians caps, referencing black Jamaicans who use cannabis as part of a poorly regarded sociopolitical/religious movement. It wasn’t any wonder that once the decision was made, T. still elected to stay in the car.

For those now alarmed about our ethics, it may be important to note that first, the human body actually has an endocannabinoid system, through which it produces its own cannabinoids (which is responsible for chocolate euphoria, natch), and, second, that cannabis derived cannabidiol (CBD) is similar to the THC found in marijuana, except it’s non-psychoactive, and does not produce a euphoric high, containing, as it does, insufficient THC to do so. (Though cannabis is highly cultivated and hybridized, of the three main types, only one has that euphoric ingredient; the other is used to make industrial-use hemp rope and contains the pain-relieving CBD, while the third simply makes a mediocre ground cover, apparently.) Animal studies of cannabinoid topicals show reduced pain in animals with inflammation or neuropathic pain. Topical creams containing CBD have been proven effective pain-relievers in humans, too (though the joint 2017 study by The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine doesn’t have as much information on how and why and for how long as one might want). Finally, history reveals that the criminalization of cannabis use, and the sweeping generalizations about its effects on certain populations were purposeful — a targeted, deliberate second step extending the incarceral state of African Americans begun with the Atlantic slave trade… all this to say, some of our reflexive prejudices surrounding cannabis use have been highly manipulated, but for now, we’ll put our sociologist’s hats aside and get on with the story.

It’s a Piece of Cake…Despite the current legality of cannabis for medical and recreational use, and despite the hundreds of apparently legal products on the market for the last several years, it was clear that many of the people sidling up to the nondescript metal door just past the corner of Apple Street still also viewed their visit as a wildly transgressive act. T observed with wry amusement that there were quite a few car-sitters with her, with several other people standing across the street and surveying the other customers, or waiting outside for a friend to arrive before going in. Some scuttled in, guiltily, while the bros swaggered and wink-nudged one another like ninnies. The range of humanity from 21 – 80+ was vast, though the majority was older middle and college-aged. Affluently dressed, or in tracksuits, there was a steady stream of business. Inside, the set-up was like an old fashioned pharmacy, with a long, high counter from behind which the workers stood to help customers individually. Items pointed to and described were brought from behind the counter, while customers lingered to ask anxious questions (How much should I take? What will happen?); some eyeing the guards (who were checking ID at the door and loitering with intent, every five feet) nervously.

Tacos 1

As we pulled away with our purchase (a topical cream), T. read the ingredients, which proudly claimed to be “all natural.” (Yes, well.) With the exception of CBD, the ingredients could have been found in any high-end massage cream – sweet almond oil, plant and nut extracts, emu oil(!), menthol, Vitamin E, aloe, Shea butter, arnica, and essential oils were hardly surprising. The label listed the preparation as good for back pain, and so, after showering in preparation for bed, we applied the cream to a limited area on D’s back, and on T’s neck, with the expectation that we would wait an hour to try another spot, or see if we needed to reapply.

In A Nutshell… CBD works by increasing the body’s natural endocannabinoids, decreasing its inflammatory response, and desensitizing its pain receptors. We didn’t know what to expect, having read very mixed reviews for the myriad creams on the market (we used the Sacramento lab affiliated, and more expensive Carter’s Aromatherapy Cream). For D’s back, the pain relief was jaw-droppingly near-instantaneous. Because T had massaged it in, he hadn’t been sure (when you’re putting pressure on a painful area, it’s hard to notice when it quits hurting) of this, so he simply dabbed, then smoothed the cream into T’s neck. Within minutes, the pain there was also simply erased. We experimented on other areas, and found that for use in smaller joints (fingers, wrists) the topical cream was very responsive. For larger joints (hips) there was minimal pain interruption (we didn’t have knee pain, so depending on joint size and issue, that may vary). CBD only penetrates to work within the first centimeter of skin – if the inflicted area is close to surface, all well and good, but if it’s surrounded by bone or many ligaments, an Advil might better do the trick.

The faintest indication of pain returned almost five hours later in D’s back, and roughly about the same time for T’s neck, though both experienced a much more reduced intensity of pain, an effect which lasted over twelve hours before the pain ramped up to resume to its normal pitch.


So now for the first time since being born here, T feels very Californian, having used her first cannabis-derived, wholistic, all-natural, yadda, yadda, yadda. We entered into this… excursion, mainly as an exercise in opposition (not gonna lie, some of us are still defiant adolescents at heart sometimes), but were made hopeful for the applications of science to use these compounds to alleviate die-ease – not just in terms of neuromuscular pain, but there are applications for cystic acne and widespread eczema (apparently CBD is an antioxidant), chemotherapy-related nausea and digestive issues, as well as anxiety disorders, too. As our particular issues continue to be a part of our lives, we’re grateful for treatment that doesn’t unduly disrupt the body more than necessary. For now, “You are what you eat” is true enough that it can be extended to a necessary caution toward what we take, too. Right now, we’d rather throw in our hand with CBD than heavier painkillers, and avoid joining the statistics of those succumbing to opiate addiction.

Here’s to doing all we can, in the land of crunchy granola folk, to continue to be well.

European Travel

Way back in 1999 (before good photography) we visited friends who moved to The Netherlands for work, so we have fond memories of that, our first overseas trip (N & K have since moved back to California, visited us when we were in Scotland, and have then moved on to Portland, where we visited them a few years back). Being new at the whole international travel thing, we (ridiculously) also scheduled an additional visit with a friend in Germany … all this, in the course of a single week. That meant that we really didn’t get to see much (although N did indeed try to show us all of the things). While we know we enjoyed ourselves, some of that trip is… really, a blur.

Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Well, 18 years and a whole lot of travel later, we’re thinking that it is past time to revisit The Netherlands and actually take some time with it, rather than trying to cram it all into 4 days plus jetlag. We had planned to return to Scotland (of course), but our timing isn’t great, as most of our closest Scottish friends are going to be out of the country! There are also OTHER PLACES to see in Europe, and fortuitously, we have friends who, a year ago, moved to Southern Holland after a brief stint in Iceland, so it’ll be fun to see how they’re settling in. Our hope now is that, maybe if we ask nicely, we can entice a few other friends of ours in Europe to meet us “in the middle” as it were (we’re looking at you, Pille). Of those we’ve asked so far, several indicated willingness! So, now to find a place to rent for a few weeks in and around Amsterdam. Hurray!

Hayford Mills 343 Hayford Mills 337

So, while it may not be as comfy as having friends over for a Spring/Easter feast in a flat of our own, we are looking forward to hanging out with faraway friends, and a whole new neighborhood. It’ll still be something to celebrate.

-D & T