Friday, December 12, 2014

The 10 Best Albums of 2014

I love the years that this list is hard to do. Fun fact: I have been looking forward to this since late summer when it occurred to me there was always something new I was getting into on my frequent plane trips and bus rides. Every month, there was some great new sound.

The craziest part: even with so much great stuff, my pick for the year's top album wasn't even close.

Onward...

Friday, December 5, 2014

Sounds of the Season 2014

Friends, you can imagine how the year has been going since this is the first post in six whole months. But this, and the forthcoming albums of the year post, are things you can count on here. Neither rain nor sleet, nor lack of hours in the day shall delay these music-oriented posts.

Anyhow, I'm kind of surprised how this year's mix came together. Confession: I usually start nosing around the Interwebs for songs around Labor Day. I don't think I had any ideas by Nov. 1 this year. Also, this is the eighth year I've been putting this together. I'm not saying the well is dry... but I'm not NOT saying it either. The way I see it, if I get next year's in some kind of shape, I can celebrate 10 years with a "best of the holiday mixes mix" and call it a great decade.

If this is your first year reading about this, back in 2007, I thought it would be fun to put together a mix of rock and humor Christmas songs. When the "great to listen to at work" radio station in your town switches to all-Christmas-all-the-time around Sep. 15, they rarely play No Doubt's "Oi to the World," or everyone's favorite rendition of "O Holy Night" by Eric Cartman. If ever. So I made a mix happen and it was good.

In doing the research, I found there were a lot of great alt-rock holiday songs out there. Hanukkah started to get its due. Then, I realized rap and hip-hop were badly underrepresented on my mixes. I'd say the reigning high water mark remains the 2011 effort, but all of them have been a nice departure from the same old stuff.

So, if you're looking for a fresher set of tunes to set the holiday mood, check the blog archives on the left and, for sure, see the list below.


Friday, June 13, 2014

Trying to Be the Better Fan

About a year ago, I found myself being introduced to a member of the Sounders' arch-rival Portland Timbers (the rivalry has its own Wikipedia page if you need to be brought up to speed). The introduction was a chance meeting. I ran into an acquaintance who is affiliated with the Sounders and he just happened to be hanging out with this member of the Timbers.

The friend introduced him, jokingly, as "the enemy." Instead of taking the bait, though, I answered back more simply: "no one's on the field right now."

Granted, I'd like to think I have enough class that I wouldn't make some snide remark to a fellow human being simply because of the logo on his professional uniform. That said, in today's world of anonymous or quasi-anonymous commentary on various online channels, I cannot say that everyone has the same restraint.

A brief look through Twitter at any moment will show buckets of vitriol and that's not even getting into the cesspool that is most internet comment boards. It extends offline, too. Now and then, there's a story about someone's car being keyed because it had a logo sticker of a disliked team. Fans of the Dodgers and Giants seem hell bent on killing each other. Fights among fans are woefully common in NFL stadiums.

Some of this, too, is spurred on by our national sports media. Growing up a Yankees fan, I always wanted to beat Boston, but I don't think it was until 2000 or so when beating Boston seemed critical to the self-esteem of many New Yorkers I lived around. Around that time, ESPN started making sure every last piece of minutiae of the rivalry was given intense coverage.

It's funny, with sports... it's a mass activity that is tremendously personal. There have been studies that show that when "your team" wins, it validates "you." The energy you put in to cheering and the time you spend following the team are all worth it. Lately, though, it seems like it's no longer enough for your team to win, as much as leave a trail of scorched earth through your rivals and all attached to them. When a team wins, many of its fans look to further bury fans of a losing team, rather than simply celebrating. When a team loses, its fans often turn the anger toward the very team they cheer for... often instead of tipping the cap to the victors.

The hard truth of being a sports fan: the team will lose. In some cases, more often than not. When it comes to championships, the hard truth is that, from a simple math/probabilities standpoint, your team will likely not win it. But outrage often wins the day instead of acceptance of the odds.

In truth, that's a natural reaction to things we take very personally. I, though, was finding that it was getting in my way of enjoying the games I love.

Even 10 years ago when I lived in New York, I made a decision that I was done attending Yankees-Red Sox games. Honestly, they weren't any fun. A stadium full of Yankees fans was rooting at least as hard for Boston to lose as for the Yankees to win.

A quick aside: few years ago, I started playing craps. It's a much simpler game than it looks like and, in most American casinos, it carries the best odds in the house. The entry-level bet - a Pass Line bet - is a very simple 50-50 bet: when you make a Pass Line bet, you are betting the person with the dice will win their turn. Everyone makes a Pass Line bet... except the one guy who makes the "Don't Pass" bet. That guy? He's betting on the roller to lose. In doing so, he's also betting against everyone with a Pass Line bet in a sense. And, sure, he has the same odds to win as the Pass Line bettors. But given the choice between two equally-likely outcomes, would you pick the one that makes everyone happy or the one that doesn't? Do you root for something or against?

Why on Earth would Yankees fans - this team has won 27 World Series... nearly 1/4 of all World Series ever played - put energy into anything but rooting for their team? It made no sense. I found myself giving the side eye to people in New York wearing Red Sox apparel... because why now? I remember reading stores of New Yorkers and Bostonians who said they "could never marry" a fan of their rival team. How awful to fall in love and have to endure cheering for opposite teams! You might even have to be happy for your spouse instead of wallowing in your own despair!

College sports are the worst. I have seen otherwise normal people turn into some of the most hateful people in the world over college athletics. The things UNC fans say about Duke... these are supposed to be polite southern people, no? UNC is, by the way, the New York Yankees of college basketball, but the moment their team falters, it's rage. When Duke beats UNC in basketball, I have seen people say things that I cannot imagine them saying in any other circumstances.

It's silly.

About the time I met the member of the Timbers, I realized that the only thing I could do was try to be the better fan. I've dialed back the way I approach rivalry games. I desperately want the Sounders to beat the Timbers for regional bragging rights... but I desperately want the Sounders to win every game. The Timbers could be from Thunder Bay... I still want three points.

When the Timbers lose (or have a hilarious draw like they did the other night), I may chuckle... but I'm keeping it to myself. Their results aren't a reason for me to go harass some people who, once they take their jerseys/hats/scarves/team-apparel-of-choice off, I might actually find to be interesting people.

I'm not much of an NBA fan anymore. I have my reasons, mainly dealing with invented drama in a league that I feel has no parity, but it doesn't mean I need to go tell NBA fans why what they're watching is bad. I can let them watch - and enjoy - their game.

Because it is just a game. It's something we pay attention (and money) to for escape from our daily routines/lives. It's fun to yell and cheer. But when the final whistle blows, we all go back to our families, jobs and lives. We're not the jerseys we wear. We're people.

So, I'm making the resolution: be the better fan. So far, it's having its rewards.

Monday, May 5, 2014

The case of the noisy washing machine drain pump

Oh, it was a troubling noise.

All I needed was to do laundry before a week-long trip. Our laundry machines are upstairs. I was downstairs and watching TV and then, a noise. What was it? It was not how the laundry normally sounded. That said, the cycle finished and, since I'm male, I figured it was all fine.

Next load of laundry goes in and, sure enough, once again, sounds like I have a freight train rumbling around upstairs.

We have one of those front loaders, so you can actually watch as stuff goes down inside the washer. If I was a five year old, I'm sure I'd watch the laundry all the time because MACHINE WITH WATER, but these days, I need my laundry to kindly do itself, preferably quietly, and incident-free.

Anyhow, I sat down and watched to see where exactly the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railroad was taking over my wash. And... you know what? That was where this story goes from household emergency to "we got this."

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Achievement Unlocked

Last year, I started running more. I ran in a few 5k races. I kept up going to the gym (as I have for nearly the past 10 years) and I even refocused my weightlifting on my upper body since I walk on my toes and, as a result, have leg muscles that do not need to get any larger.

As my 35th birthday approached, I was still cognizant that I felt a bit older than I ever had before. My face was rounder. I'm not sure I have a body type that will ever have a flat stomach, but, let's just say that, when I looked at pics from last summer, I wasn't heading in the direction that might help me get there.

At first, I blamed it on "getting older" and moving to the Pacific Northwest. My friends, family and coworkers know I have never felt more at home in a place than I do here, and, to be honest, I have immersed myself in all the things that make the PNW great... including our tremendous supply of local craft beer. We're lousy with it. You come to a bar here and, if you are from back east, you won't recognize any of the taps. The weekly trip to the grocery store always involved a stop in the beer aisle as there was always something new to try.

Suffice it to say, 3-to-4 craft beers each night is probably not a recipe for staying as fit as possible. So in late summer last year, I cut way back on drinking, specifically beer.

Still, when I went in for my first physical in five years and they weighed me, it was even more sobering: 218 pounds. This was with my clothes on, but... not a flattering number, even if you subtract three.

I wouldn't call it a "wake-up call" or anything quite so dramatic. No one was saying "YOU WILL DIE SOON" or anything like that. It was just out there. My doctor was amazing, too. He told me everything he could tell was fantastic... "except one thing. Can you guess?"

Yes. Yes I could. And, to his credit, I didn't need a lecture.

A week later it was Christmas and I had a new FitBit Flex on my wrist. More than that, I started using the FitBit app to count calories. I set up a food/weight plan in the app.

I have been diligent about this for three months now, weighing myself only weekly at roughly the same time so I don't micro-manage. Today, when I hit the scale... 200.5 pounds. Half a pound from my initial goal of 200.

What's been empowering is that I haven't cut out any foods. I haven't stopped drinking. I eat sweets like a champ. I don't go to bed hungry. It's been, dare I say, a sustainable way down the scale?

The first thing this FitBit did was make me aware of just how much I was eating. The literature given to me after my December physical summed up weight loss for me in one line: "Eat less food." No Atkins, no "get rid of gluten," no "try juices..." just "eat less food." And how true that advice was.

We have snacks around the office and it was a frequent thing to go grab a handful of whatever. Some crackers here, some candy there... hundreds of calories that I figured "hey, I use the gym every day." Those were easy to cut. Lunch, too, was something to take better control of. It wasn't that I was eating unhealthy things (really, to the contrary, I eat very healthy things). But too much of healthy things is still too much. I probably went from having a 1,000- to 1,200-calorie lunch to more like 600-800. Think about it... if I was having 300 calories worth of snacks and up to 400 extra calories on top of that with lunch, that's 700 calories. More than I eat at breakfast. And I eat a great breakfast!

Now multiply that by five days a week. Now add in extra drinks at night. Holy crap.

Counting calories exposed all of that for me. At first, it was easy to think "oh, but will I really get enough food?" A week passed. My energy level was high. My stamina and strength were good. Apparently, I was getting plenty to eat.

The gym also got reemphasized. I always worked out hard, but I added a bit more cardio to the mix. I'm taking my time with weights now instead of rushing through them. And, most importantly, though it makes packing ever more complicated when I travel, I am making sure I hit the gym on trips.

That was the other wild card and another spot where the FitBit was eye opening. If you're not familiar, the FitBit is a pedometer on steroids. Essentially, it counts steps, but it adds in other things to take it all a bit further. I have a daily goal of 10,000 steps and the FitBit vibrates when I hit my daily 10,000 -- it feels like a video game when a new achievement is unlocked or a new level is attained. The step counting, though, isn't just for fun. Say I was on one of my many travel days for work. I'd walk through the airport, board the plane, sometimes hustle to make a connection, walk to the rental car center and, whew! I got some exercise!

Wrong.

The FitBit exposed just how little activity that really was. Usually not enough to even make a fifth of my daily step goal. Last year, on a travel day like that, I'd shrug and go eat a big dinner since "I moved around a lot today." Not anymore. When I flew back east two weeks ago for a meeting, the night I flew in, I took a 30-minute walk outside my hotel at midnight (to be fair, 9 p.m. Pacific Time) instead. It's a new world.

Aside from making sure the gym or some kind of activity is a key part of my travel schedule, my weight loss so far has not asked me to do anything that hasn't already been part of my routine. The biggest change: "Eat less food." And holding myself accountable to it. Having the discipline to not say "Oh, I'll make it up tomorrow."

I've still got half a pound to go on my initial goal. I don't think talking about this now is a jinx, either. I have no reason to think I'm not going to be just under my goal come next Sunday morning. From there?

Well, my BMI is still in the "overweight" category. Granted, BMI is something of an oversimplification, but it has some generous ranges. To get into the "Normal" area of BMI instead of "Overweight," the calculators say I need to weigh 183 lbs. I haven't weighed 183 since... high school?

The thing is, the BMI calculators note that some people run a bit high. Back to my legs... seriously, my calves struggle to fit into anything but boot-cut jeans. My quads are big. If you are in a plane crash with me in some remote Arctic area, you will see my legs and hope I die so you can feast upon my legs to survive (I'm sure they're delicious). What I'm saying is, I think my legs are going to hold me back from the technical "healthy" BMI. I'm going to aim for 188, especially because if I fluctuate from there to 192 or so and back, I think that'll feel pretty good. I think I can be there by end of summer.

That will mean a shopping trip. My pants are too big already. My belt can't get any tighter to hold them up. I don't think there will be dramatic before-and-after pictures, but I can tell you I feel better already.

Example: I ski. If you're a skier, you know it's all about turns and, when you turn, you put your body weight onto your bindings and, I imagine, a significant amount of force is exerted, probably more than your body weight on every turn.

Last December, right before I started this, my feet were dying after every hour of skiing. Last month, I could have skied all day and my feet wouldn't have known the difference. And that was just with 10-12 pounds off mt starting weight. This is huge. Last summer, hiking, one of my most beloved summer activities, was more of a chore. I cannot wait to hit the trails this year to see how I do.

If there's one thing I'm concerned about, it's staying diligent to maintain my weight once I hit my final goal. It would be easy to slack, but, I feel like if I can build the right habits, they'll be as tough to break as the old unhealthy ones.

All this to say, I'm not sharing this to brag. I'm not saying you need to go buy a FitBit now. I'm simply saying that I was a person who went to the gym all the time, did active things outdoors and generally ate healthy food and I was, technically, on the edge of obesity. I just happened to find the right tools and activities for me to change things and hold myself accountable. And, if this is something you are worried about (Gallup said last fall that 51% of Americans want to lose weight), that you should feel empowered to do the same.

What's really empowering, though, is that there has been no gimmick to my weight loss. I didn't cut anything but calories. I feel like that's why this will be sustainable.