Category Archives: Life in Madison

From my personal side of life – living in Madison, WI with my wife Ena Urbach and our dog Lola.

What’s the rush America

My long lost then found friend, Jenn Taylor, just moved back to the United States. She asked the question, “what’s the rush? I am just curious beyond words as to what brought this culture to this rapid speed and the underlying sense that we are always in a hurry. Such a rush. Always a rush.” Here is my long(er) answer to her question. I think the American rush is due to four different phenomena acting together.

First: Many Americans seem to have lost the ability to focus on one task at a time. Multi-tasking is the way to do everything. If you are watching a movie, you should also be texting or talking on the phone (at home or in theaters). If you are driving, you should be eating or talking on the phone. What ever you are doing, you should be doing something else.

Second: Many Americans view driving as not an act in and of itself. It is something stuck between two meaningful things. Get ready for work. Be at work. Driving just needs to be gotten out of the way. It shouldn’t occupy time. The act of driving to work isn’t something to appreciated as part of your day. It is like swallowing medicine. It should be done as quickly as possible and not thought about.

Third: Many Americans lack critical thinking skills. I was riding with Joe down to Paoli. We were coming up to a stop sign. At the stop sign there was a line of cars stopped waiting to turn onto a busy road. Joe and I slowed and moved side by side to chat as we coasted up to the stopped cars. An old man in a Toyota RAV 4 blared his horn at us, punched the gas and blew around us at the left, then swerved hard to get in the lane and slammed on his brakes to stop behind the stopped cars at the stop sign. What did he gain? Absolutely nothing. Joe and I coasted up behind him and just laughed at him.

Where is the critical thinking in these moments? What do I gain by my actions? What is the overall effect? Is it really worth it? Many drivers change lanes constantly even though studies have shown that you gain nothing.

I was in the grocery store and there was a woman pushing her daughter in one of the carts that have the fake car on front. The daughter was mimicking Mom, pounding on the horn in the cart and saying, “We don’t have time to stop. I’m in a hurry. Not today.” What did the Mom gain by always rushing her daughter away from things? What was she teaching her daughter? What would the real outcome be if she did slow and stop for her daughter some times?

I’m sure these questions never crossed her mind.

Finally: Americans seem to have lost the sense of civility and the idea of the public. Our Alderperson argued against light-rail on the fact that it wouldn’t stop in front of her house. (You may be for or against, that’s not the point). The idea that there are things to do for the good of the whole rather than personal gain seems to be gone from many Americans ideology. “If it doesn’t help me, I’m not paying for it” seems to be the new American mantra.

I think all these things come together into a storm of rushing, self-absorbed, multitasking Americans racing from spot to stop without stopping to think about what they are doing or why.

Quantifying Me

 

from Flickr: Yester Prints photostream

from Flickr: Yester Prints photostream

There is a meme that has popped up or, at least, it has suddenly popped into my world – the Quantifiable Self.   The basis of the Quantifiable Self is that you measure things about yourself and then use that data to improve upon yourself.   We all do this to some extent.  We weigh ourselves daily or time how long we run and over what distance.    Some count calories or count steps. 

Some push this to great detail to track influences on complex diseases like migraines.   Alexandra Carmichael tracks 40 things about herself daily. There is (of course) a site dedicated to the Quantifiable Self.   

I already track a great deal about myself but I don’t measure the out-comes, the effects if you will, of all that I track.  The Quantifiable Self people are looking for the little butterfly wing beats that cause the tornados in their lives. To do this, I would need to resolve three issues.

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12 Seasons

 

Flickr: Jorge-11's photostream.  The Prague Orloj

Flickr: Jorge-11's photostream. The Prague Orloj

Scott Fullerton once worked as a choker-setter in Northern California.  He pointed out to me that we really have 12 seasons and that 4 seasons don’t really capture the nuances of the slow changes in nature.   Since I’ve been bike commuting I have come to recognize those 12 different seasons.

 

Winter starts with Dark and Bleary Winter.  This micro-season, if I may coin that term, starts about mid-December and it runs to mid-January.  The Sun sets at 4PM and rises about 9AM it seems.   Once it does rise, it scoots along the Southern horizon so low that Noon sunshine ducks under the eaves and in our front bay window, scuttles across our living room and settles on the floor half-way across our dinning room.  The Sun, during the brief period it is up, has as much warmth as a nightlight.  We all start running low on vitamin D and cheer.

Dark and Bleary Winter is followed by Bright and Chilly Winter.  This is the season we are in now.  Bright and Chilly Winter runs from mid-January to mid-February approximately.  The Sun is higher and actually caries some warmth.  Daylight is returning.  Today, we will have 10 hours of daylight.  There is light in the western sky at 5PM when you leave work.   We still get thrust into the deep freeze by the “Polar Express” – cold winds that come down from the Arctic Circle, unfazed by the expanses of Canada, to land in our back yards.    But there is Sun and deep cold is more tolerable when the Sun is more courageous.

B&C Winter is followed by Sloppy Winter.  Sloppy Winter is full of melting snow that refreezes and heavy wet snow that falls and gets instantly packed into ice.   There are brief periods of brown and gray followed glop then cold once more.   Sloppy Winter is the Winter of our discontent.  It is the Winter when you start thinking, surely Winter will go away soon only to have another 6 inches or 16 inches of snow fall and the temperatures plummet again.  

Sloppy Winter lingers until mid-March when it gives way to Brown and Muddy Spring.  You can see the plants are starting to wake in Brown and Muddy Spring.  You see the fine light-green haze of buds that are just waiting for the nights to warm a bit more and Sun to gain a bit more courage.  

There is one day, early in Brown and Muddy Spring, when you are out and you smell the warm rich smell of damp earth.  The ground has thawed and a warm wind is coming from the Southwest up from the Gulf of Mexico.  You smell damp earth and you realize that winter seasons have passed and you also realize how much you have missed the air smelling like some warm and liquid.

The very earliest of plants start poking their tendrils out.  The early Spring Crocus decide to make their move along with Snowdrops and a few of the most courageous tulips.  The song birds start to return.  This is a time of migration – warblers and sparrows start flying through bring bright songs to the hedgerows.  

It is also time of migration for the last of the snow and mud.  Snow begins its retreat leaving a muddy tide behind.  All of the sand and grit and car parts that have been bound up through all the Winter seasons are left behind on streets and parking lots and lawns in miniature glacial moraines.  Dog toys, not seen since December, reappear in a sodden and forlorn heap.  Brown and Muddy Spring is the first promise that the Winter seasons have actually gone.  There is one more snow storm, wet and heavy, that will bend over daffodils and flatten the crocus but it will melt in a day or two.  The Sun has now girded its loins and it is ready to face another year.

Then comes Kablooie Spring about mid-April and through mid-May.   All that pent up energy that has been stored up in frozen soil suddenly explodes out through every branch and twig, bulb and root.  Lilacs, Forsythia, Magnolia, you-name-it, it is now game-on for the Spring blooming plants.  Mid-April to Mid-May the air is sweet with spring flowers.  The birds are singing their heart’s devotion to each other.  The spring peepers and letting the world know they survived the Winter and water is fine.  

This is Spring.  When one thinks of Spring they think of Kabloooie Spring.  The bunnies are out and frisky.  You see your neighbors our in their yards and you stop to chat and recount the events of the various winter seasons.  When you are in the midst of Sloppy Winter and you think, “Enough of this muck!  I can’t wait for it to be Spring”, you are really wishing for Kablooie Spring.

But we are in Bright and Chilly Winter now.  B&C Winter brings days when we never get above zero degrees (F) but they are tolerable and even enjoyable because the Sun is high and shining.  It also brings days like yesterday.  

Yesterday was sunny and a warm 40F.  Yesterday was a day that you think about opening windows or sitting outside on the porch in the glider and reading.  Yesterday was day that can make you think that Kablooie Spring is just around the corner.  But, it is wise to remember that there are two more seasons before we get to celebrate the arrival of Kablooie Spring.

The Pattern of Change

 

Stepping

Stepping

 

 

I just watched a Merlin Mann’s presentation from MacWorld – “Toward Patterns for Creativity”  This is not his best talk but it is interesting and amusing in that Merlin Mann way.  You can tell that he is in the “there is something good here but I haven’t quite got my head around it yet” state.  This is a state that I stumble through often in my work.  I learn about a new technique or start to see a new pattern and I can tell that there will be a richness eventually but I haven’t quite grasped the fullness of the idea.  All of this is beside the point.

The point that struck me from his talk was towards the end.  It came near this slide:

 

From Merlin Mann's talk on Patterns in Creativity

From Merlin Mann's talk on Patterns in Creativity

 

Merlin made a comment that if you want to get better at your creative endeavor, “you have to work at it and that means less time on Twitter or playing X-Box”.    This is a way of restating the cliche that defines craziness as doing the same over and expecting different results.   If you want to change something in your life, then you need to change what you are doing now.

This is something that I should make more explicit in my life.  I have several personal goals that I’m working.  To achieve them, I need to realign my activities and energies.  Doing what I’ve always done won’t cause the change that I want to occur.

Painting:  

Over Christmas / New Years break I set up my watercolors again.  I’ve really enjoyed painting and creating art again.  I want to improve my skills and my creative vision and push to find my own style.  I cannot do that if I continue with painting the way I have for the past decade which is to occasionally set up and paint a picture or two then put everything away for a year.  I need to set some goals then stop doing something else to make time and space and energy for painting.  

My goal is pretty straightforward – create at least one painting a month this year.   Not very difficult in these Winter months.  This will be much more difficult come Summer and hours when I want to spend my time my road-bike cycling around Southwest Wisconsin and on trips or to take Lola swimming.

The realignment:  less mindless TV in the evening during the week getting my sketches done,  more quality time at the easel on Saturday  or Sunday morning.  

Interesting outcome:  less TV means less desire to buy a new 52″ LCD TV and more listening to music while I draw and paint.  I’m saving money and rediscovering my CD collection and new music.

Weight Loss:

When I lived in California, I gained a lot of weight.  I have gradually lost about 25 pounds of that weight.  I’ve manage to, so far, not regain the weight I lost last Summer when I was cycling.  Okay, this is mostly true.  I dropped 10 pounds last Summer and I’ve gained back 2 or 3 so far this Winter.  I’m fine with that trade:  loose 10 over the Summer gain back 3 over the Winter.  At that rate, I’ll be at my target weight in 18 months.

My goal is to get to 175 which would put me at a good body fat percentage.  

The realignment:  Personal Training twice a week.  Weight lifting at home once a week.  And, lot’s of time on my bike when the weather changes.    This means less time working on the yard or house, playing with Lola and watching mindless TV.  This will be in direct conflict with Painting.  I’m not sure how I will reconcile the conflict with Painting.  I feel badly about less time playing with Lola.

The realignment also includes changes in what I eat.  I love breads and cookies.  I adore cookies.  I also enjoy cooking a wide variety of foods.   I am explicitly changing to a more vegetarian diet.  I’m not becoming a vegetarian – I enjoy being an omnivore.  I’m eating fruits and vegetables that are local when possible from our incredible Farmers Market.  I’m following Mark Bittman’s advice and reducing the size of my meat servings and their frequency in my diet.  I have greatly reduce the refined carbohydrates in my diet.

This brings up another interesting conflict.  Eating carbs is good for working out.  Not eating carbs is good for weight loss.  Eating fiber and protein and fat is good for feeling full and staying satiated though-out the day.  Eating fiber, protein and fat before a workout can make you want to puke.  Trust me on that one.

Interesting Outcome:  increased strength, endurance and flexibility make me feel more vigorous.  I sleep soundly at night and I have more energy during the day to work on my other goals.  I find that sitting and watching mindless TV makes me twitchy so I want to do something rather than just watch something.

Cycling:

Last Spring I bought a real road-bike.  This is first real road-bike I’ve owned since I rode the canyons of the Wasatch range in college.  I own and ride my commuter bike a lot but a road bike is a different animal altogether.  I loved my Summer of cycling in 2008.   This year I want to continue with my cycling and take it up a notch.  Last Fall, we rode the Door County Century – a 100 mile ride.  This Fall, I would like to ride a double metric century – a 200Km ride or a 124 mile ride.   I would also like to move my average moving speed up at least 1 MPH. 

The realignment:  I spent a lot of time in the saddle last Summer.  Towards the end of the season, I was riding 12 to 14 hours a week.  I don’t think I can get more time on my bike so I will have to train more intentionally.  There is risk in taking on a more serious attitude towards training.  You can loose the fun of riding.  I had great fun exploring the hills and valleys that surround Madison by bike.  I have to tread cautiously here.  I have turned cycling into a evaluation of numbers and made great rides bad because I wasn’t hitting speed goals.  So I caution myself to not turn the joy of biking into serious work that full of disappointments of milestones not met.

Interesting Outcome:  Improving my fitness and technique would increase my average speed.  Longer rides would take less time.  I would, in effect, free up time to do other things like play with Lola or paint or work in the yard.

Being explicit in the changes in my routing is what Merlin made me think about.  Truly focusing on “that is what I used to do.  This is what I should do now if I want to reach my goal” will be my challenge.

Jim’s Turkey Brine Recipe

I’ve had several requests for my turkey brine and herb paste recipes. In a just-in-time fashion, I’ve posted them below. I use an organic, range raised heritage turkey for my Thanksgiving turkey. I also use this brine for pork chops and turkey breasts that I cook on the grill.

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Riding East with Cranes

from Flickr: KeithCarver

from Flickr: KeithCarver

I was riding on a late Summer evening in September and this is a meditation upon a few minutes in that ride.

If you are not familiar with the hills and valleys of Southwestern Wisconsin, let me describe them.  These are old mountains, the Driftless, worn down over the aeons by rain and snow. These lands have the soft folds and rolling landscape of a glacial moraine.  They are soft and round.  They are not miles broad like the Williamette Valley in Oregon nor are they ringed with rocky peaks like the Snake River Valley in Idaho.  They are gentle valleys with corn, soybean and dairy cows in their soft bellies.  Their tops are fringed with mixed hardwood forests: sugar maple, paper birch, ash with evergreen pines and firs mixed in to form dense canopies above a thicket of lower story growth of ferns, berries, wild rose and wildflowers.

The farmlands are broken with prairie and marshlands, hedges and woodlands.  Prairie grasses grow as a tall as your shoulders in places.  Prairie flowers; asters, milkweed, sunflowers; sway with dense heads of yellow or purple blooms, snowy white masses, delicate pink miniatures or blooms the size of your head.  The prairie plants have deep roots below ground that nourish their rich and dense lives above.  The marshes are fringed with willow, dogwoods and cattails.  Lilly pads float on their surface and irises sink their roots in the muddy shores.  Tri-Color Blackbirds cling to the tops of the reeds and grasses and call out for their mates.

You must imagine these hills with woods on their tops and shoulders and corn, soy, cows, meadows and marshes flowing down their valley floors.  Picture them clearly in your mind.  Row upon row of rectilinear corn where the land is flat or arcing along the lines of the geography where the land rises up the slopes.  Small, upright soy beans turning yellow in late Summer. Alfalfa forming a dense green field between tall yellowing corn stalks.  Milk cows, mostly, chewing and lazing in grassy fields.  A farm house and its corn crib, barn and silo gather under a stand of trees every once in a while.

Form these images in your head. They are the backdrop for these few minutes that I’m about to describe.

It was a beautiful late Summer/early Fall day. It was still shorts and short sleeve weather but not by much.  Warm Sun on my back, cool early Fall air on my arms and face.

I rode out, first north-west, across the country side that I described above – out to Fish Lake and Mud Lake.  I turned and started running back East along the southern shore of Crystal Lake back towards Lodi.  The sun was low in the West, three fingers off the horizon if you hold your arm out straight. 

Now imagine: The road side is thick with willows, sage, prairie rose that is thick with bright hips, late Summer prairie flowers and all of it buzzing and chirping and humming with insects that are making their last pitch for a mate before the frost comes.  The left side of the road rises up in woods and understory plants.  The first Fall colors are coming on in the wild grape vines that climb the trunks of the old oaks and ash to weave through the canopy in search of Sun. The low dense stands of sumacs, huddled along the edge of the woods, are turning rust and cranberry and burnt umber. I spin along these colors and sounds with the Sun on my back and cool air in my face and on my arms.

The valley runs along my right side with open fields of prairie grass and late flowers.  A river turns and dives, back and forth, through the flat land forming marshes with reeds and willows.  Below, in the valley grass, I hear the call of Ringed Neck Pheasants then the thrumming beat of their wings. I spin with their thrum.

The sun is flashing low up through the valley, glinting on the river and then tumbling up through the prairie plants and into corn and soy.  I’m spinning my way along the road.  A flight of Sandhill Cranes rise up out of the marshes down below with their squawking coo.  First one crane… then three… five… eight… soon twelve cranes are on the wing in the valley beside me.  They rise up eye level and match my speed running East.  They coo and squawk. The Sun, three fingers above the horizon, glints off the marshes and tumbles through the prairie.  The bushes are buzzing and humming and chirping with insects.  I’m spinning my way East in this late Summer afternoon and cranes are the wing to my right and the Sun is on our backs and cool air in our faces.  And I spin and they soar and call.  And we move together for a minute, two, then three before the cranes turn on wing to the South and head out towards the corn and soy.  And the Sun, three fingers off the horizon, glints off wings and water and tumbles through prairie and corn and warms my back as I spin on and away to the East.

I spin and smile at the wings beating South and the river turning and diving and the Sun glinting off the marshes, and humming and buzzing and chirping.

I spin and smile at these few minutes when I was traveling with the cranes through this late Summer/early Fall evening.

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Door County Century Recount

One week after the Door County Century (nearly) and I’m finally getting around to writing about it. In short – it was a great ride, a wonderful cap-stone to the cycling season; but I’m jumping ahead.

The night before, Erik, Monica, LeRoy, Ena, Barbara and I had dinner of a lot of spaghetti and bread sticks and wine. Erik had picked up the latest weather report and it looked a bit sketchy: cool in the morning (54 F) with winds out of the West. We would ride into those winds then have them off of the bay and over our left shoulder for the next 40 miles. Then the winds would turn and come out of the south west (into our faces) and bring rain. It wasn’t supposed to get very warm either (62 F). Cold morning with wind off the bay, cold and raining afternoon with wind in our faces. Bleach.

The prognosticators were wrong and we had a beautiful day. We had gorgeous sun and perfect weather almost all day. But I’m jumping ahead again. We had a few miscues getting to the start but finally hit the road at 7:40AM – about 30 minutes later than we planned.

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We met up with a group of riders (Bradely, Jim, Dean, et al) who were well matched with us. We switched off pulling with them and had a great ride through to the second rest stop. It was great fun pulling a line of 20 or so riders along the bay.
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Barbara, Ena and our dog Lola met us at the second rest stop so we could drop cold weather gear for the rest of the ride. It was great of them to chase us around Door County. They were great sports and that made the ride a lot more fun. Lola knew how many riders were in our group and she would check until she found us all at each stop.
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By the last leg, it was often just the four of us pulling together. The weather was beautiful and the route was very nice. We all finished together as a group.
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It was a great ride on a beautiful day.

Here are all the photos and a link to my Garmin data from the ride if you really want to geek out.

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