Thursday, November 17, 2011

My traditional words of wisdom

What do July 4th fireworks, Opening Day for the Cincinnati Reds, and my grandma's date pudding have in common? All three are strongly associated with tradition. The tradition holds that we celebrate the birth of our nation with colorful explosions in the sky on the night of the fourth, unless it's raining too badly. The tradition used to be that the first Major League Baseball game of the season would be held in Cincinnati. And it is highly traditional for my grandma's special mixture of dates, brown sugar, and around three ka-jillion calories to be served each Thanksgiving.

We have traditions to cover pretty much every annual event. I think the reasons they become traditions is because we are too lazy to change them. Or else we just don't want to fight about it. In fact, I think if enough research would be done, I could find that the word tradition is rooted from some Greek word meaning "we can't change this or people will burn down the city." Nothing is as protected as something we call a tradition. If it's just something that comes up every year, we can change it however you like. But smack of label reading 'tradition' on it, and it will never be allowed to change. Think of that time as a kid when you made a funny face and your mother told you to stop making that face or else your face would get stuck just like that. That's what has happened with some of our traditions. They just stuck like that.

Traditions are cherished because so many people fear change. I'm not sure why that is. Maybe change requires so much effort. Maybe it makes us unsure of our place in the world. Nah. Change forces us to do something different. People are creatures of habit. For some reason, many people enjoy the consistency (some might call it a rut) of having a set pattern to life. I've never been one of those people. While I like familiarity, I enjoy the challenge of doing something different. But others try to keep such a little amount of change that they make the Amish look hip and modern. That's fine for them, but just don't try to require me to live by the same code.

Don't get me wrong. I understand the value of tradition. We are approaching a time of year when tradition almost rules our lives. My reference to Grandma's date pudding, for example. It is on the table every Thanksgiving and Christmas. Only a couple of people actually eat it these days. I can't do it. It is so sweet and rich that my teeth begin to rot and fall out while the fork is on the way to my mouth. But somehow it is comforting to see that glass bowl of dark brown sugary stuff topped with Cool Whip sitting there beside the gravy. It's almost like Grandma is still with us for the family celebrations. And that's the value of tradition -- to remember the people and events that helped shape who we are today. But some traditions are just empty reminders instead of living history.

Maybe the best thing we can do with tradition is to actually figure out why each is important or trivial. Or better still, create new traditions that actually have meaning, at least for the time being. Have you ever purposefully started a tradition? I have. And I have known others who have done the same. One family began the tradition of working each Thanksgiving at a soup kitchen to feed those in need rather than gorge themselves on turkey and stuffing. Another family now takes the money they would normally spend on presents for one another and uses it to give to the needy at Christmas. The tradition I began gives us a chance to concentrate on the meaning of the holiday rather than the means we celebrate it by these days. That ties into the value once again of remembering that which has shaped us. Not that a few dozen plates of pumpkin pie, mashed potatoes and gravy, and date pudding wouldn't change my shape for the worse, mind you! But when one of those traditions comes up in the next six weeks or so, maybe you can cherish the comfort of reliving some of the traditions which have made you who you are. Or just maybe, you can ignore it in favor of something more meaningful that will make you even better.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

A great discovery -- count on it!

As I was sorting through the list of possible topics to write about -- Veterans Day, 11/11/11, elections, Joe Paterno, and other newsworthy and noteworthy items -- I found the news item I've been hoping for my whole life. Are you ready? A university professor of nutrition at Kansas State University has lost 27 pounds in two months by eating... junk food! Yes, my snack-loving friends, you read that right. This professor of nutrition (mentioning that again for emphasis) lost 27 pounds in two months with a diet that included every three hours eating a Twinkie or a Little Debbie snack cake or a small bag of Doritos. Are you with me on this? A little junk food doesn't hurt.

Professor Mark Haub won't be pushing his 'convenience store diet' in a book or appearing on daytime television talk shows anytime soon. But his premise actually is simple. If you want to lose weight, consume less calories than you burn. It doesn't have to be fresh asparagus or specially-harvested, flavor-optional seaweed. The nutritional information that restaurants are being pressured to provide really are irrelevant if your goal is weight loss. It's all about the calories.

If there are two subjects that I have a lot of knowledge about, they are diets and junk food. I've had weight issues since elementary school, my weight going up and down depending upon my lifestyle and habits. And I've had jobs where much of my time is spent on the road, so I've learned the finer points of dining on Zingers and Rolos. But I have always contended that chocolate was not a poison causing instant mounds of fat to appear at the first taste. It's the total amount.

I checked on the aforementioned Hostess Twinkie. In one filled sponge cake treat, there are 27 grams of carbohydrates, 4.5 grams of fat (2.5 grams of those are saturated fat), 20 mg of cholesterol, 220 mg of sodium, and 1 gram of protein. But if Prof. Haub's idea is accurate, all that is irrelevant to weight loss. What you need to know is that in one Twinkie there are 150 calories. You should be able to figure out that there are 300 calories in two Twinkies. That is key because those stinkin' things are usually sold in packs of two. Let me remind you that a medium-sized apple is about 95 calories, a banana has about 105, and a can of Dole pineapple chunks packed in juice contains about 315 calories.

But if you protest, thinking something is wrong here and that junk food will make us less healthy, the good professor points out that after his 'diet' his good cholesterol had gone up 20 percent, his bad cholesterol had gone down 20 percent and his triglycerides were reduced 39 percent. In other words, he was actually healthier after the two-month junk food binge! Well, it was not all junk food. About one-third of his diet was normal food, including some green vegetables and a protein shake each day. Still Professor Haub isn't recommending other people try this experiment. In fact, he is not really sure what to make of the results. It's not often a 41-year-old man with a trash can full of empty Little Debbie cake wrappers can drop his body fat index from 33 to 25 percent. But he appears to be sticking by his guns that dieting is simply a matter of eating fewer calories than you use. Who'da thunk it?

If you can see large amounts of turkey and dressing, mashed potatoes and gravy, green bean casserole, and pumpkin pie in your future, but you don't want to get pudgy heading into Christmas candy season, remember the key is cutting down the number of calories you take in. Stop before you hit the 15th helping of that so-called 'good-for-me food.' And don't fear the Twinkie.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Milestones ahead

I've always been fascinated with milestones. Perhaps it is the geographer in me, wanting to know how far it is to the next landmark. Milestones date back to Great Roman Empire at least. The Romans, probably wanting to brag about the size of their empire, set out to measure the distance from one end to another, and many shorter distances in between.
Where I grew up along U.S. 30 in Indiana, there was a green sign we always passed which indicated the mileage to the next two decent-sized cities down the road. As a sports fan, my first instinct was that someone had posted football scores along the side of the road (New Haven 10, Fort Wayne 14), but my parents filled me in on what they were for. Since that time, I've studied milestones. When I lived in Cumberland, Maryland (the beginning of the Cumberland Road which later became the National Road), I got to see the first milestone which dated back 150 years. It was the first in a long series of markers which helped early American travelers figure out how far it was to the nearest Stuckey's.
I'm thinking about milestones because my household is coming up to a number of them. My daughter turned 10 years old earlier this week. It's a milestone that really doesn't seem to be that special on the surface. Nothing really changes at 10, although at 10 it seems that everything changes daily! So her age is now double digits, even though she truly believes she is somewhere in her mid-twenties.
My oldest boy turns 20 next month. Now 20 is one of those ages that should be a milestone, but really isn't. Absolutely nothing changes except a 20-year-old is no longer a teenager. Because he is away at college, I've had a hard time considering him a teenager the past year and a half anyway. His big landmark is next year, but unless he plans on taking up a drinking habit, not much will change there either.
My middle child will turn 18 this spring. Now that's a landmark! Well, maybe not so much the birthday itself, but it seems that a lot of things start to change right around the time of the 18th birthday. High school turns to college. Childhood turns to adulthood. If only I could get the car insurance rates to change from "Have you thought about borrowing the money?" to something actually affordable!
And as for me, next month I will officially hit middle age. My 50th birthday is coming up. Um, 50 is halfway, right? So in honor of hitting middle age, I would like to have a mid-life crisis. This would be a welcome substitute for all my other assorted crises. The thing is that so-called experts claim that a mid-life crisis is a reaction to depression over uncontrollable changing circumstances in a person's life. I'm not in the market for depression or uncontrollable things. However, I have always wanted a flashy red sports car.
Years ago, I knew a man who hit close to 50 and went out and bought a shiny red two-seater sports car. He even got the little sloped cap too. You know the kind. It's guaranteed to make a sane person look like he's living on Fantasy Island. But he really enjoyed the car and seemed to avoid all the other pitfalls of a mid-life crisis.
Me, I can't afford a sports car. I'm not going to drown my life with alcohol because I really don't like it well enough to pay all that money for it. Can't afford a Harley. And an affair with my secretary is out of the questions for many reasons, the least of which is that I don't have a secretary! So I guess I'm going to have to hit this milestone head-on with some vitamins in one hand and some Geritol in the other.
With milestones along the road, you know how far you have to go. With life's milestones, you only get a reminder of where you've been. Whatever the second half of my life turns out to be, I know that I have made it down the first 50 years of roadway. I may have four bald tires and one bald head, but I'm fueled up and ready for the trip! But I'd rather avoid anymore milestones for a few years!