Ethan Gets a Hair Cut

We generally keep Ethan’s hair clipped short: he’s a working dog, not an ornamental poodle, after all.

But we’ve been busy over the last month, and let his hair get a little on the long side, to the point where it was looking like he might have difficulty seeing through the shag soon.

So we made an appointment at Petsmart for this morning and dropped him off looking like this:

Ethan Gets a Hair Cut

When we picked him up four hours later, he look like this:

Ethan Gets a Hair Cut

It’s hard to believe that’s the same dog.

It will grow back soon.

Alec Baldwin and My Sugarless Life

Two years ago next week I found myself trying to get to sleep in a Halifax hotel and so, as I often do, I listened to a podcast, the episode of Alec Baldwin’s Here’s the Thing where he interviewed Dr. Robert Lustig about the evils of sugar.

Toward the end of that interview Baldwin asked Lustig what public policy changes he recommended to lower sugar consumption; Lustig responded, in part (emphasis mine):

I would think very strongly about limiting access of sugar beverages to infants and children, like zero. There is no reason for it. And there’s something your listeners need to understand: there is not one biochemical reaction in your body, not one, that requires dietary fructose, not one that requires sugar. Dietary sugar is completely irrelevant to life. People say oh, you need sugar to live. Garbage.

(Here’s the audio of the clip).

For some reason, on that sleepless cold Halifax night in a strange hotel that simple statement hit me over the head like a hammer.

It seems silly to say, but it had never occurred to me that we don’t actually need sugar.

Sure, I knew that it was a good idea, for a host of reasons, to not have “too much” sugar – what kid who grew up in the carob-infused 1970s didn’t know that – but the notion that there wasn’t actually a need to have any sugar at all was something I’d never considered.

Over the years I’d had friends who would tell me “oh, I cut out sugar,” and I always heard that in the same spirit one might hear “oh, I cut out breathing”: it seemed like a foolhardy, impossible task.

But there, then, that night I decided to give it a try.

Partly as a personal challenge (it did indeed seem like a foolhardy, impossible task).

Partly as a way of figuring out how much sugar I actually was consuming.

And partly because, if Dr. Lustig was to be believed, I had a decent chance of improving my health if I did.

And so, when we got home to the Island a few days later, I just stopped.

It wasn’t a full-on puritanical “no sugar will ever touch these lips” kind of cold turkey, but it was as close as I could practically come while still allowing for the occasional piece of birthday cake.

And what did I find? I was eating a lot of sugar.

For example, a couple of times a week I’d have lunch at Tai Chi Gardens, a tea house around the corner from my office. In the summertime I’d always order a lemon iced tea with my lunch, reasoning that it was “handmade” by people I knew and therefore must be much better for me than if, say, I’d had a Coca-Cola at Subway.

But then I watched how much sugar goes into a lemon iced tea and I realized that sugar is sugar is sugar, and I started to order my lemon iced tea without sugar.

Among other things, I also stopped eating: ice cream, chocolate bars, dessert after lunch and supper, sugar in my coffee, sweets at bake sales, a cookie here or there, a handful of chocolate chips when they presented themselves; essentially I stopped eating all the “discretionary” sugar I’d been eating before, without obsessing about the hidden sugars in many prepared foods.

The effect was immediate and dramatic: I began to crave bread like never before. And when I say “crave” I mean “involuntarily bake bread at 10 o’clock at night because I really, really need to eat some bread.”

That lasted about a week.

And then… I lost my taste for sugar. Indeed the occasional lapse – a Mars bar at the movies, a piece of birthday cake at a family party – would not only no longer make me feel “better” as it used to but, in fact, would have the reverse effect, making me feel nervous and uncomfortable. It was a tremendous and convenient disincentive to sugar-eating.

And now two years have passed.

There’s no doubt that I confronted the amount of sugar in my diet, and came away surprised at how much I’d been consuming.

Health-wise, I have only a vague largely anecdotal feeling that my health has improved. Certainly I’ve lost some weight – about 20 pounds over two years. And I feel like my immune system is considerably improved (those winter colds that last days for others seem to pass through me in a few hours). But I’ve no idea whether I can chalk any of that up to sugar or not.

I still eat sugar, of course: it’s hard not to when it’s found in all manner of things including in salt (yes, one of the ingredients on our box of salt is “sugar,” albeit trace amounts). And I have a banana muffin most mornings for breakfast which I know contains more sugar than I can probably imagine (breakfast is a challenge for a non-egg-eating mostly-vegetarian). But I’d hazard a guess that I’ve been able to cut out about 95% the low-hanging obvious sugar in my diet.

Otherwise, I’ve been able to make some observations from this new vantage point.

The “sugar industrial complex” is everywhere and no more so than on television; by happy coincidence we cut off our cable television a few months before I cut off sugar, and with it I lost most exposure to Dairy Queen Peanut Buster Parfait commercials, Mr. Big chocolate bar commercials, Coca-Cola commercials, and the like. I’m certain that made early days easier.

There may be no nutritional need for dietary sugar, but that doesn’t mean there’s not a cultural need for it: there are holes in our day to day western life that we fill, generally, with sugary things. Coffee breaks. The time after supper. Birthday parties. Christmas parties. Hallowe’en. It’s not that these times are practically difficult to deal with – I’m not jonesing for sugar – but I do notice the holes nonetheless, and, in a strange way, I mourn the loss of my participation in them. The display case at my coffee shop is filled with intriguing-looking scratch-made desserts, and bypassing them and just ordering coffee leaves me feeling the same way that former smokers have described feeling when they go to bars after the quit… they miss having something to do with their hands, something to fill the time with. It’s weird.

It’s not powerful – more like background radiation – but it’s weird nonetheless.

All other things aside, perhaps the greatest lesson I take from this experiment-turned-lifestyle is that, when in the right frame of mind, I am capable of making substantial lifestyle changes. That’s a good thing to know, and makes we wonder what other things I could accomplish if I found the rationale and put my mind to it.

Life Lessons from Bembo

In the spring of 2005 we spent a month in the small village of Aniane in the south of France. The trip was the first test of my “I can work from anywhere” hypothesis, and the results of the experiment showed that this was just barely true: the house we rented was free of Internet, leaving me to scavenge for wifi in the surrounding towns, and the ergonomics of the attic I set aside to be my office were such that rope and pillows were required to strap me into a comfortable work position.

But, work logistics aside, it was one of the greatest trips we’ve taken as a family: Aniane was a tiny, perfect village with two boulangeries, a mid-week market and awe-inspiring stone architecture, surrounded by enough distractions to keep us pleasantly occupied for the month with fun family activities. Sometimes it was enough just to wander about the village, taking it all in.

Sunny in Aniane

The nearest major city, 30 minutes drive away, was Montpellier, and we would often go into the city to shop, or to wander, or to ride its city-centre carousel. A few minutes walk from the carousel was a park called L’Esplanade, and one of the features of L’Esplanade was that it offered pony rides for children.

Which is how we met Bembo.

Bembo was one of the stable of ponies, and was the one selected for Oliver to go on walkabout around the park. We paid our fee – a Euro, if I recall correctly – and were surprised to find that our marching orders were to simply set off, under Bembo’s guidance, through the park. In stumbly French I managed to determine that Bembo knew the way; there was nothing to worry about.

And Bembo did know the way: he dutifully, calmly, loped on his standard route, around and about and through, never diverging from his intended course. If we’d fashioned ourselves as pony thieves it never would have worked out, as Bembo’s determination to stay the course was unbreakable: he wouldn’t divert no matter how hard we might have pulled.

Everything went sideways, however, when we came to a section of the brick path that workers had just started to dig up: what was Bembo to do?

He couldn’t go forward, he couldn’t go backward, he wouldn’t go around.

So he stood there. Waiting.

It took all our strength and persuasive energies to convince Bembo that it was okay to divert 6 inches to the right to make his way around the disturbed section of the path, but we eventually managed it.

Once beyond, Bembo merrily continued on his way back to home base, where Oliver slipped off, and Bembo went back into the rotation.

My mind has returned to that afternoon with Bembo often in the years since: how many times must have Bembo walked that path for it to become so implanted in him that no other path was possible? How many times after Oliver’s ride did he continue to do so? What become of him? Could he still be there, 9 years later, still walking the same path?

Oliver and I are reading the excellent Lucy Knisley book An Age of License, a “comics travel memoir” about her 2011 trip to Europe. The introductory page looks like this:

Licy Knusley, An Age of License, Introduction

She writes:

“Sometimes travel can show us how our life is… Or can give us a glimpse of how it can be. Being untethered, I could float away, lifted to a great height where everything is new, and I could look back on my life with new perspective and go, ‘Oh!’”

Our ride through L’Esplanade with Bembo afforded me some of that new perspective: we can worry ourselves into repetitive ruts in life, ruts worn so deep that we hardly even know that they are there, as they come to simply resemble everyday regular life, “the way things are.”

And on occasion we come to a break in the path, a pile of bricks set there by others, and we’re confronted, suddenly, with the need to find a way around.

We can use that opportunity to squeeze around the pile of bricks and continue on the path, or we can use the opportunity to realize that perhaps we have the ability to set off down a different path and avoid the bricks altogether.

Spreading Printcraft

Back in July, in Enschede, Oliver and I gave a walk-through of Printcraft, the intriguing “make 3D models in Minecraft, then print them on a 3D printer” experiment, to a group at the Make Stuff that Matters unconference.

In the room that summer afternoon were Frank and Floris, father and son.

I am happy to report, via Ton, that Frank and Floris took the ball and ran, holding Meet2Minecraft this weekend in Utrecht and taking our little talk to the next level, with 40 kids gathering to craft in Minecraft and print in the real world.

I love it when ideas spread!

Minecraft / Printcraft

Stephen Fearing in Sackville

The first time I saw Stephen Fearing perform live was in the Market Hall in Peterborough, Ontario in the late 1980s as part of Mike Barker’s excellent Folk Under the Clock series (still going on all these years later!). I was transfixed by his songwriting, his wit, and his skills on the guitar. I saw him live again at the Winnipeg Folk Festival in 1989 – his first of many appearances there, and I’ve been a fan ever since.

But obviously not a very devoted or active fan, as 25 years have passed since 1989 and that’s a pretty long gap to not see someone you purport to be a fan of play live.

I resolved to rectify that when I noticed that he was scheduled to play The Trailside this past Friday, but fate intervened, as I was scheduled to be in Truro on Home & School business that night. What to do?

Fortunately, I realized that I would be driving right by Sackville, New Brunswick the next night, and he had a gig scheduled there that would fit into my schedule perfectly.

So I left Truro around 5:30 p.m. on Saturday night, drove through the stunning fall colours of the Cobequid Pass, and arrived in Sackville around 7:00 p.m.  After a quick Tofu Pulled Pork sandwich at Pickles (much better than it sounds like it will be), I arrived at the venue, George’s Roadhouse Kitchen in plenty of time to pick up a $20 ticket.

The venue is a odd one: right across from the VIA Rail station in Sackville, it’s closed most of the time, opening only for special events like this. It has a very “Jolly Hangman in the 1980s” feel to it – rough-hewn, a definite air of mold, a pleasant workaday bartender, an amiable doorman. Like the Trailside, but without the food, three times bigger, and more “people have probably gotten into fights here.” In other words, a pretty good venue for one of Canada’s preeminent singer-songwriters.

Fearing came on stage at 8:00 a.m. and played two sets, finishing up with an encore. We were all back out into the cool fall night by 11:00 p.m.

He did not disappoint: he played a selection of songs old and new. He has aged well, and his fingers are as nimble as ever, and his honey-golden voice as sweet. I’m so glad I took the detour at Aulac and spent 3 hours in his glow.

Stephen Fearing in Sackville