Swine Flu, now officially known as H1N1

I’ve been following the swine flu scare quite closely, having long been interested in infectious diseases that have spread widely, causing the great pandemics of history.  One of the reasons I went back to grad school recently to study biology was because of my concern over the devastation wrought by HIV-AIDS.  I wanted to know…

Kudos to Hillary (and to Bill)

Hillary and Bill Clinton gave great speeches at the DNC — rousing, intelligent, persuasive, and most of all, generous.  They were both more gracious to the Obama campaign than I could have been….but fortunately I’m not in the business of politics.  Usually, I’m not particularly interested in politics or politicians, almost all of whom I…

Hmmm…I think I’ll be writing in Hillary’s name

Joe Biden?  Ok, he’s a nice guy, and experienced, but… Biden the plagiarist?  Biden, whose own attempts to win the nomination have been greeted with yawns from the voters in the past?  Biden, the Clarence Thomas enabler from the Anita Hill hearings?  Way to go, Barack — is this seriously going to get you the…

Turning 60 — They say it’s your birthday, we’re gonna have a good time!

Oops, today is the big one. My 40th birthday was all about celebration (a trip to Bermuda). My 50th was fun, too, if a little more downbeat because 50 sounded a bit daunting. Now, as time seems to move faster (is there a law of relativity that applies?) with every decade, I have hit the…

Trouble in Turkey?

As a lover of the country of Turkey, I’ve been following the recent tug of war between the secular forces and the elected parliamentary leaders of the AKP (Ak Partesi), which includes members who are observant Muslims. Both Prime Minister Erdogan and President Gul are AKP members, although Gul’s prospective presidency nearly caused a military…

Obama the Noob — A Gamer’s Parody

Overheard in Guild Wars: (an online MMO) General Chat: Obama the Healer: Monk looking for group for mission. Team chat: Hillary the Warrior: Cool, there’s a healer LFG. Add him. We need a healer for this dungeon. Team chat: CampaignMan: He looks like a noob. No elite armor. Prolly never done the mission before. General…

The Diet That Works (for me)

Like many women of a certain age (i.e., menopausal), I have experienced the insidious outward creep of my waistline. It’s been awhile since I was last able to fit into my “skinny jeans,” as the girls from Sex and the City named those pants you can’t bear to throw away. But, to my own honest amazement, the day when I can pull ’em out and slip ’em on is coming. Since the beginning of August, 2007, I have lost close to 30 pounds, and it hasn’t even been particularly difficult.

I’ve known for some time that I should make the commitment to lose weight, but I haven’t had much success with diets in the past. I used to be a thin person. Unlike many young women, I spent my youth and my 20s blissfully ignorant of the anguish so many other girls experienced as they tried to fit their healthy, naturally rounded figures to the norm of increasing slenderness that has created the anorexic “I wanna look like a starving model” cult of today.

Tall, thin women like my young self didn’t have to diet. Or even (horrors!) exercise. We could eat and eat — pizza, chocolate, ice cream — you name it, and never gain an ounce. We weren’t accustomed to dieting. We didn’t know how.

I did, however, acquire a health foods bug during my 20s, after reading Adelle Davis’s Let’s Eat Right To Get Fit. Unfortunately, Ms. Davis died of the cancer that was supposed to be prevented by her consumption of a healthful diet, so I didn’t stick to her more extreme recommendations. But I never forgot some of her rational, sensible advice: eat a balanced diet with a rich variety of foods, and make sure to optimize nutrition.

In my 30s, after giving birth and living the sedentary life of a writer, remaining thin began to be a struggle rather than a birthright. My naturally skeptical mindset has kept me from drinking the Kool-Aid when this or that bestselling diet fad has swept the nation. I watched my friends try various new diets, lose significant amounts of weight, and gradually regain it. My own attempts to diet, which usually meant eliminating all my favorite foods, were unsuccessful. I could lose 5 pounds, and sometimes even 10, but after a few weeks of depriving myself of foods I enjoyed, I’d go off the diet, make excuses, fortify my willpower, try again, tumble off the wagon once more, get depressed, and a dig into a pint of walnut fudge ice cream to make myself feel better. Or a brownie. Dark chocolate truffles, anyone?

The one time I lost a significant amount of weight was with the aid of one of those extreme diets — you know the type — you drink this liquid protein powder stuff several times a day and don’t eat any solid food. At least, that’s what you’re supposed to do. I’m not good at following the rules, so I insisted to the folks I was paying for this “treatment” that I should be allowed one solid meal a day. To this I added, in violation of the rules, a nice salad of fresh greens. Unlike most of the suckers in this program, I only had about 20 pounds to lose, which actually happened pretty fast (too fast). The poundage gone, I started eating real food again, et voila, you guessed it, I slowly gained back all the weight.

The sad thing about this was that even though I knew I had set myself up for re-gaining the weight (by choosing an eating plan that could not possibly be maintained, and wouldn’t be healthful even if it could be maintained), I still felt like a failure. I had been delighted with the 20 pound loss. I’d bought new clothes! Part of the diet plan had included daily vigorous exercise, which was great, but when the diet ended, I slacked off on that, too. What a loser! I deserved to get fat. Bring on the taco chips.

To make matters worse, a couple of years ago I got a scary result on a stress test. This put me in the hospital for an angiogram. Heart disease runs in my family, and I was still leading a sedentary lifestyle, which is a well-established risk factor. Blood pressure and cholesterol were ok, possibly because, despite the dark chocolate and the chips and salsa, my eating habits were healthier than most folks’. I don’t particularly like red meat, so I rarely eat it. I’ve been drinking non-fat milk and consuming other non-fat dairy products since they started appearing on supermarket shelves. I gave up cheese — even on pizza — many years ago. I avoid processed foods, and anything containing high fructose corn syrup, trans fats, and high sugar or sodium. I love fresh fruits and vegetables and eat them often. I love bread, but only the dark, crunchy, whole wheat and rye berry type. I eat beans many times a week; in fact, legumes and soy products have been my primary protein source for years. Heart disease? Ok, maybe it’s in my genes, but I haven’t helped it along.

Fortunately, the angiogram revealed only a small amount of coronary artery narrowing — about the amount that would be expected, the docs told me, in someone my age. Still, it was a warning. I don’t think anybody is certain how fast this sort of thing worsens.

So…this should have resulted in major lifestyle changes, right? Well, sad to say, it didn’t. Instead I think I went into denial mode, which included continuing to comfort myself with brownies (organic), chips (low sodium), dark chocolate, peanut butter (sugar-free, no salt added), and too much of that delicious whole wheat bread. As for exercise? No way! It was running on that treadmill that had made my heart go all jumpy and put me into the hospital. Forget THAT.

I began wearing increasingly baggy clothes. And I didn’t go out much. What if I ran into somebody I knew? My alter egos — characters in novels and stories — could all be nice and slim, no problem. And I had other alter egos in the form of computer game characters in Guild Wars and LOTRO — not only were they slender, attractive and sexy, but they could run all over Middle-earth without ever breaking a sweat or gasping for breath.

Meditation — Stress Relief and Spiritual Wonder

Every time I start meditating again, I wonder why I ever stopped. Over the years, meditation has proved to be the best strategy I’ve ever found for reducing stress and anxiety. Not only is it very relaxing, but meditation seems to ramp up my creativity as well. I have had some truly visionary experiences while meditating, and, in that quiet inward-looking state I feel much more in tune with myself, with the world around me, and with the essential nature of things.

There is no right or wrong way to meditate. In fact, I’ve long suspected that meditation is a natural state that we practice unconsciously as children, but tend to forget as we grow older. I used to watch my daughter when she was a toddler, and her usual way of relaxing herself was to sit down quietly with her blanket, stick two fingers into her mouth, and suck. She would continue in that dreamy state for 10 or 20 minutes before coming out of it, energized.

But all too often we have to rediscover and teach ourselves the wisdom that we knew as children. I have tried various methods of meditation — all are efficacious. Here’s a simple meditation that always feels wonderful to me. It is both calming and revelatory.

You begin by putting yourself into a relaxed state: sitting still and quiet, breathing slowly from the belly, exhaling for a little longer than you inhale. Let your thoughts drift, and don’t follow any particular line of thought. After a few minutes, when you feel relaxed, you are ready for the four segments of the meditation:

1. Aspire toward the Light.

Inhale slowly, reaching up mentally (or physically stretching up your arms) over your head, toward the source of all light.

2. Receive the Light.

Exhale gently, while lowering your arms and cupping your hands in a receptive state. Feel the light pouring into you.

3. Incorporate the Light.

Inhale with your arms crossed gently over your chest, imagining the light filling your chest and moving up into your head, down throughout your torso and legs, and out through your arms to the very tips of your fingers.

4. Radiate the Light.

Exhale as you spread your arms, palms outwards, envisioning the light flowing through you and out to touch and nurture everyone and everything in the world.

When you have completed the meditative chant, begin again and continue for your usual time period (15-20 minutes is what I usually do), breathing slowly and evenly as you Aspire, Receive, Incorporate, and Radiate the Light.

Depending on your own personal spirituality, you can imbue these meditative actions with whatever imagery best suits you. Here’s what works for me:

1. Aspire toward the Light — Mentally I reach upwards toward the Light/Love that flows through everything. That light is always there, but most of the time I am not consciously aware of it. To Aspire toward the Light (or toward God) is to open myself up and know the Light — see it, feel it, experience it. To aspire is to yearn or desire, and my state of mind is prayerful. Although the Light is always present, I have to direct my attention to it.

2. Receive the Light. This is often quite an ecstatic feeling. Again, it can be argued that we are always receiving the light, but it often feels to me as if I am separated from it, and must re-attune myself to it before I can truly appreciate the splendor and power of divine Light/Love moving through me. I am not, in my ordinary everyday life, a particularly spiritual person, nor do I currently practice any form of organized religion, although I am reasonably knowledgeable about several of the world’s great religions, and have been observant in the past. Meditation puts me back in touch with my spirituality, and makes me aware of certain aspects of reality that do not figure into my day-to-day life.