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Carolinian Redux

I wrote about the Carolinian train last week, and a reader told me the name of the town with the tracks down the center of the street. Another reader checked in a few days later, with that information and some other observations.

 If I'd read it sooner, I'd have been happy to do so, since I grew up in Richmond and have used that stretch of track more times than I care to count. Each time I pass through Ashland, I look for the good ole boy in his pickup who will choose this day to race the train to the crossing, and lose.

Incidentally, you had to wait for freight trains on the single-track line from time to time because south of Washington D.C. Amtrak doesn't own the track or right of way; the rail-freight company CSX Corp. does. CSX owns what used to be called the Chessie system and before that was called the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway and some other rail companies nobody remembers the name of. Oh, wait, Google remembers: Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and Western Maryland Railways. So when an Amtrak train needs to use the same set of tracks as a CSX train, Amtrak loses. Since, as you note, there are only a couple of Amtrak trains a day, you'd think they could schedule them to avoid that kind of contention, but there you go. Or rather, don't go.

That's why it took you seven hours to get from Duke to Washington, a distance of about 240 miles, when it only takes about three-and-a-half hours to get from Washington to New York, a distance of more than 340 miles. The reason Amtrak has to share space on a single-line freight track can be traced to -- actually, it can be thrown squarely in the lap of -- Republicans in Congress who think Amtrak should be squeezed dry of cash and improvements. A lot of those Republicans are elected to Congress from Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, all of which would benefit greatly from an expanded and modernized rail system. The capacity of Republican voters to elect representatives who then screw them over will never fail to amaze me.

Incidentally, the next-to-last sentence in the first paragraph of your section on the Carolinian ends ``... making it somewhat useful in that regard.'' Context makes me suspect you meant to say ``useless.''  [he was right and I fixed the error] Not unlike a Republican representative from Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia.

Luck and skill, Dan Grobstein File

A friend reminded me this week: "I'd rather be lucky, than good." You can only be so good, but you can be very, very lucky!

Dan Grobstein File

Just Duke It 2

Had my BP taken first thing, 120/82. Had my resting metabolic rate tested--unlike last time, this time it turns out the estimate was right. Still, despite the fact that the test is a pain, it is a good thing to know. Late breakfast, followed by 25 on the elliptical. The weekend review was uneventful.

You have a choice, to eat or wait.

A binge is three from this list: uncomfortably full, eating much when not hungry, eating rapidly, alone, with guilt afterwards. The cycle is either
 bored / eat / bored and guilty
 overeat / guilty / diet / overeat

INTRODUCE A PAUSE between the impulse and the action. Why am I doing this? What do I think the food will do for me? Break the cycle of unplanned eating. A goal upon return: my exercise has been creeping later and later. Get it back to 6:30 or 7 a.m.

All your blood goes to the fight/flight part of the brain, and you literally can't think clearly. How stressed are we today? I said 2 on a scale of 10.

Stress reduces energy, increases appetite, reduces exercise motivation. We need stress, up to a point. Too little and we are droning. Too much and we break down. Know where that point is. Challenger your negative self-talk.

Tasks are Important: urgent and not urgent, and Not Important: urgent and no urgent. Remember, someone else's urgent is not your urgent.

Breath out as if you are blowing out candles on a birthday cake. This can reduce stress. Also, progressive muscle relaxation and visualizing a happy place.

Kind of leisurely after the frenetic first week. Had a private session with a therapist that went well, followed by chair aerobics. Boy, for something you do sitting down, that is a LOT of exercise. As already noted last week, I've never done aerobics before but I can see why people swear by it. Now that's burning calories!

Went to a yoga/pilates fusion class. It is hard for me to report on it. I have done some yoga before, so I recognized some of the positions: lean left, lean right, forward and back with your arms over your head. Also, let your shoulders drop, hold your arms out straight and see how far down they can go without hurting. Each time you curl back up and then drop down again they go a little further down.  And of course there were the familiar  dim lights and soft music. There was the gentle curling and uncurling of  the spine--complicated in my case by a bruise on my sacrum  I incurred in a recent fall. There were only two moves I couldn't do because of pain. We did some of the floor moves using a flexible ring (put it between your ankles and hold it there, hold it like a steering wheel). There was a move my trainer calls "cat vomit" which is hands and feed on the floor, curl your back, tuck in your abdomen, exhale and tilt your pelvis. The difference here was we held it for about a two count, whereas my trainer asks me to hold it for an eight count.Lots of stretches.

Today's big class was Manage your Emotions, that is, understand them and learn to accept them. The technical term, apparently, is regulation.

Basic emotions are fear, anger, sadness, love, disgust, surprise and shame. We are allowed to add our own: I'd add joy. Don't just say to yourself "I feel good" or "I feel bad," but try to get more specific. No emotion is bad, they are just pleasant and unpleasant.

The story of the tiger (also told by Amma) is that a man kept two tigers, a pleasant one and an unpleasant one. "Which one wins when they fight," the owner was asked. "The one I feed." I think the moral of that story is obvious.
Why manage our emotions? Because they get in the way of achieving our goals. We must change the way we think of our emotions, and try to honor them. When we eat with a pleasant emotion, we are trying to make it better. When we eat with an unpleasant one we are trying to make it go away. Can we enhance pleasant emotions with something besides food?

We are more vulnerable to negative emotions if we are tired, hungry, sedentary or hopped up on caffeine or sugar. Techniques for management include shifting focus, seeing the silver lining (cognitive reappraisal). This is difficult and requires practice. What can I learn from this emotion. If this emotion were a person, what would it be telling me? Observe, describe and respect your emotions.

Change your words. "I planned to go to the gym but I don't want to" is different from "I planned to go to the gym and I don't want to." In the former case, you won't go, in the latter case you'll go even though you don't want to.

Focus on positive experiences, memories and activities.

My blood pressure has been so good, I decided not to have it checked every day. I am on 25% of my usual blood pressure medication. My morning class as aqua aerobics, an hour standing in chest-deep water in the pool, waving my arms and legs in a manner scientifically designed to speed up my heart rate and tire me out.

The Duke Integrative Medicine facility  is a few miles away from the Diet and Fitness Center. It is on a leafy, self-contained campus. It is a stunning building, described in an award citation as a  “beautiful project….powerful and effective… a masterfully executed project where plan, finishes, materials and philosophy seem to find common ground…an introspective healing environment.” All of which sounds rather like the description of World Headquarters I memorized when I did PR for Bank of America in 1977 ("It's irregular setbacks are reminiscent of the craggy peaks of the Sierra Nevada"). But unlike the bank, in this case it is really true. If you didn't know  that semi-medical activities took place here, you'd never guess from looking at it. It began as a place that taught Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction to the public, as well as training trainers.

My class cost $15. It was entitled "Experiencing Mindfulness," but was, in fact, simply a group guided meditation, coupled with some sharing and relevant discussion afterwards.

"Do you have a group you sit with regularly at home," I was asked by Jeanne, the leader. Well, no. Which led me to one of my two questions, why meditate in a group? Other than the facilitator guiding us into a meditative state, there is no obvious interaction. Reasons offered were that we shared energy, were all opening our hearts, had a common intent, and could go more deeply when guided than when practicing on our own. Interestingly enough, this echoed an explanation I read recently about why people pray in groups, and how it may be more effective (if you  believe prayer is effective at all).

The group meditation I do most often is at Amma's ashram in San Ramon. It is generally short, about 10 minutes, with a fair amount of guidance. This session was more like what Rae and I experienced last summer in Ashland, a brief induction and a longer silence. At DIM, it was 20 minutes. We talked about how it had gone, the instructor answered a few questions, then she asked us to do compassion practice. First, she said, compassion for people you like is easy. Try to be more compassionate to people you dislike. So, first direct your compassion to someone you really like, then direct the same compassion to yourself. It was an interesting exercise, and reminded me of Jesus' imprecation to love thy neighbor as thyself. As Amma says, all religions are branches of the same tree.

On the subject of compassion for yourself and for others, Jeanne quoted a Rumi poem:
We are the mirror as well as the face in it.
We are tasting the taste this minute
of eternity. We are pain
and what cures pain, both.

We are the sweet cold water
and the jar that pours.

In the afternoon it was "chair aerobics." My first attempt was on a ball; I switched to a chair for my second, switched back to a ball today. On the one hand, you are making constant micro adjustments when you're on a ball. On the other hand, that's just more exercise.

Class was Eating Health In A Super-Sized World. We went over calorie values in chain restaurants. Which has more calories, do you suppose, a large shake or a big mac. No fair peaking! I will answer at the end of this entry.

Review nutrition facts before you go. Get a salad or a non-creamy soup (SODIUM ALERT!) Ask them to use less oil and salt in preparation if possible. Pizza? Less cheese, lean meats, lots of veggies, thin crust.

A Chipotle 12-inch tortilla has 290 calories and hundreds of milligrams of sodium, as does most bread. A McDonald's breakfast burrito is a mere 300 calories, but there are 830 mg of sodium! Cut out the cheese and you save 230 mg right there.

A large shake has more calories than a Big Mac!


Overslept, which may actually be good, since sleep helps with weight loss. I turned off the sounds on my phone so my calendar reminders would not wake me up, not thinking about the fact that it also meant my alarm would not wake me up. Fortunately, an iPhone buzzes like hell if it is on vibrate and it's been 10 minutes and you still haven't turned the alarm off. 

Today is a very light day; three meals, one class, two 45-minute exercise sessions. Seems to me they may lighten up the schedule at week's end to help is integrate all we learned early in the week. It reminds me of the old saying about MIT: Getting an MIT education is like trying to get a drink of water out of a fire hose.

Two classes today:
Building Support
Support takes many forms. Some we like, some we don't. Social support is the single most important predictor of longer life, more important than weight or smoking.

In re food police: it is OK to hire a policeman as long as you can fire him. You can ASK someone to be the food police, but don't let someone appoint themselves.  Be assertive; identify your needs, communicate them.

There is actual research that self-compassion helps. If you have self-compassion, you don't take in or absorb the negative things others say. Being overweight does not make you a bad person. In one study, donuts were put out. One group was asked to taste test them. The other group was asked, along with the statement, "Don't feel bad if you eat too many. People often do." The second group ate fewer donuts. Two resources: on self-compassion  by Dr. Kristin Neff, and will power by Kelly McGonigal.

The lamb burgers were lovely, but as my wife is a vegetarian, I doubt I'll ever make them. Here, however are the cooking tips:
* you can precut potatoes and they won't discolor if you keep them covered with water. No lemon juice needed.
* In a convection oven, you can set the temperature 25 degrees lower
* Wrap fresh herbs in a wet paper towel for storage.
* Dried herbs are 3 times more powerful than fresh.
* Save carefully-washed melon skins and mint stems. Boil them to make a fruit stock which you can add to smoothies.
* Was herbs AFTER cutting them. Place them in a paper towel, wet the towel, squeeze out the water, cover with a dry towel, squeeze.
* Place pesto in an ice cube tray, and then thaw it in the amounts you need.
* Place a rosemary stem or two in a salt shaker and the salt will pick up the taste. Not much use to me in my low-sodium world, but I know other people are reading this.
* The chef made a salad that consisted solely of greens and... wait for it... MINT! It is amazing how much better it tasted with the mint. Other good taste changes are basil and chives. Since I eat an average of 7 salads a week, this is one I am going to try for sure!

Blood pressure very good this morning, lost another half pound since yesterday. Breakfast was a lovely, albeit very spinachy, quiche. I am almost getting used to Aqua Aerobics--they do a lot more stretching than I do at home. Maybe I should stretch more, but I usually don't have time, haven't been injured yet, and I probably need the aerobic more than I need the stretch--although my body is a little unstretched and creaky in places. Saw the behavioral therapist for my weekly check-in. She believes I am ready to be released into the wild. After lunch, 45 minutes on the elliptical machine.

There really is an arc to the week; Friday is the quietest day. I had one class, Volumetrics, a theory of eating by a professor at Penn State. The subtitle was "eat more to lose weight," and it is all about eating stuff that has more volume. Over time, we eat the same weight of food every day, so if we eat stuff with low caloric density, we will be full and satisfied while taking in fewer calories. EAT MORE FRUIT AND VEGETABLES. In fact, in one experiment, there were two groups. One was told to reduce portions and fat. All the researchers said to the other group was "eat more fruits and vegetables." The first group lost an average of 15 pounds in a year. The second lost 20. Be careful of liquid calories; if you take them in, reduce your solid calories. The larger the portion we are served, the more we eat.

Protein keeps you full longer. When my weight started to creep up two years ago, I dropped the protein out of my lunch. I am going to put it back. My wife is a vegetarian, but she is very supportive, and to honor her principles I am going to alternate chicken and black beans in my lunch salad. I could use sunflowers to, but they have a very high calorie density and so would not be as satisfying.

Well, technically I had a second class as well: Gentle Yoga, which is taught at the nearby Duke Integrative Medicine facility. There were 15 women and me. We started on our backs on the floor, did some sitting and standing poses, did some face down poses, and concluded with some stretches. I recognized many of the poses, not only from lessons 40 years ago, but from Tai Chi 10 years ago, my current trainer at 24-Hour Fitness two weeks ago, and the leader of the aerobics class today at Duke Diet and Fitness. For example, laying on your stomach and lifting you hands and legs. I have no ear for foreign languages, so I didn't catch the name of the pose. My trainer Barry calls it Superman. Earlier this week, in the pilates/yoga class, we were on our hands and knees, tucked in our pelvis and pushed out our breath while arching our backs Barry calls it Cat Vomit. Arms high, a string attached to your crown shakra, balance, and stretch. The techniques of yoga, if not the spirituality have, apparently, permeated the exercise culture. It truly was gentle, which I appreciated as I am, to put it mildly, out of practice. I did about as well as a person my weight can do.

My Weekend

I was just going to sit around and read, exercise and not eat, when I realized I was only seven hours away, by train, from Washington, D.C. A couple of my friends there were out of town, and, besides, if I took the train, I would only have 18 hours in the capital, and would spend 8 of those sleeping (in the amazingly inexpensive and well appointed River Inn. If you have to spend the night in Foggy Bottom, spend it there). So I invested all 10 waking hours in PP, a classmate and friend of mine from The Tech at MIT. We ate at an all-salad restaurant, then went to see The Campaign. The next morning, I went to Eucharist at a lovely little Episcopal church across the street. We then took a cab back to Union Station. We talked. The whole time. A good time was had by all.

The Carolinian

I had never been on Amtrak south of Washington, D.C. before. Many are the hours I have ridden the electrified Boswash corridor in my youth, but I never had a reason to be any farther below the Mason-Dixon line until now.  It is a beautiful and isolated right of way, mostly tree lined and away from roads and homes as befits a line of its age. Alas, this also means no cellphone reception. It is quite different from the Capital Corridor between SF and Sacramento in California, or the  Road Runner between Albuquerque and Santa Fe in New Mexico, routes which have wide open vistas for most of their runs. I have now personally ridden the heavily state-subsidizes rails in numerous states, those mentioned as well as the commuter rail in the Southern California metroplex and in Massachusetts and Illinois (35 years ago). Most of the other lines are sufficient for commuting, but the North Carolina line only runs two trains a day in each direction, making it somewhat useless in that regard. Three if you count to Carolinian, a "real" Amtrak train that runs from Charlotte to New York City, and, in this case, took me to Washington, D.C.

Wifi was advertised but not available. It is cellphone based, so no reception means no wifi. In essences, the service is the equivalent of a trainwide personal hotspot.

I was surprised by the amount of single track--which means you wait for freight trains now and then. Most of the track was well-maintained, and the rides was smooth except for a few miles near the Virginia Border which is apparently maintained by having several guys kick ballast below the track with their shoes. The ride was juddering and the train was subject to a go-slow order. There is one very weird section of right-of-way, just north of Richmond; a double-track mainline with no wall, no berm, no nothing. It was center-of-the-street, like an antique streetcar line.I have only seen the likes once before: the SP mainline through Oakland's Jack London square. I mean, we didn't  highball through it, but still.

Update August 13, 2012: I have heard from a reader who knows this stretch of track: "The town you're describing with the tracks down main street is Ashland, Virginia. The town prides itself as the home of Patrick Henry, Randolph Macon College (which you can see from the train) and its railroad tracks"

Polished Quotes and Differential Memory

I recently wrote a friend about two issues near to my heart, events which two people remember differentially (usually one remembers and the other doesn't) and the fact quotations get polished over time.

In college, he remembers me saying of myself, "Wish-wash, Wish-wash, I'm so wishy-washy I don't know whether to sleep in a bed or a bowl." That struck him, but apparently not me, as I don't remember it.

But then I tell people my freshman adviser told me, "If you don't stop spending all your time at the newspaper, you're in the twilight of a mediocre academic career," and 25 years late he didn't remember saying it either.

Actually, and you may know or have heard of this phenomenon, that quote is "polished," as linguists say most quotes are. Rick did not say "Play it again, Sam," even though that's how most people remember it. My contemporaneous recording of my adviser was, "You're well on your way to a mediocre academic career." But in telling the anecdote over the years, I've polished it, as anecdotes become polished (at least by me) to the snappier version I now tell. I probably didn't say to the chief engineer on the phone, "I don't see four silver tubes. Just four black tubes," when I blew up the transmitter, but that's the gist, rendered elegantly.

We can often apply l'esprit d'escalier to our retold lives in ways we can never apply it to them during the actual living of them. Which may be one reason we tell stories.

As Woody Allen put it near the end of  Annie Hall, "You know how you're always trying to get things to come out perfect in art because it's real difficult in life."

My friend went for a loftier quotation: "I believe Kierkegaard observed that it is a shame that life must be lived forwards, for it can only be understood backwards."

Total Recall

3 stars out of 5
The movie runs 2 hours and 1 minute, of which about 1 minute is dialog and plot. I heard Aaron Sorkin mention that he invented the pediconference because his scripts are talky without much action. The people in this film talk, but usually as they are kicking the crap out of each other. Fights. Chases. Explosions. Enough CGI to choke several horses, as well as some scenes that appear to have been shot on actual sets. Talk about reminiscent of  Blade Runner (not surprising, since that film, like this one, is based on a Philip K. Dick short story). I don't mention the stars, director or writer because they are window dressing. Talk about the computer graphics wagging the movie! My heart rate will probably be elevated for a week. Entertaining but mindless. I mean, they might have done something with the "reality versus illusion" concept, up to and including the perennial and ultra-cheap "It was all a dream," but instead they introduce a metaphorical "gun" in the first act, which not only doesn't go off in the third act--it is never seen again!

The Campaign

4 stars out of 5
Critical reaction has been mixed, but this is a laugh-out-loud raunchy r-rated comedy.  Director Jay Roach, working from a script by Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell, makes stars Will Ferrell, Zach Galifianakis and Jason Sudeikis look like comedy geniuses, and coaxes a pitch-perfect pair of cameos from John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd as a pair of Koch brothers wannabes. In fact, there are no bad actors in this film, nor are there any bad roles. I particularly enjoyed the two scenes where people confess bad things they have done (although I wonder about psychological scarring of the child actors in the first one). The plot is so flimsy as to be beneath comment, but the laughs are consistent and nicely spaced. If you can stand sex jokes and bodily function jokes, you'll enjoy it.

Comedians in Cars, Olympic Rower, Political Notes, Dan Grobstein File

Letters, of course, is also where one-liners go. I wouldn't want you to think that everything I know I get from podcasts, but it is kind of true. I heard about this on the Slate Culture Gabest: Comedians in Cars getting Coffee, featuring Jerry Seinfeld. The Larry David episode: great. Ricky Gervais, not so much.

Then there's the Boner Rower controversy fanned by Gawker. Funniest thing I've heard about the Olympics.

Two political notes: Blatant Disenfranchisement and Nationwide Search By Journalists Establishes In Person Voter Impersonation Almost Non-Existent; Independent Check Shows Republican Lawyers Offered No Evidence Of In Person Voter Fraud

Dan Grobstein File
[Editor's note: It's been a while, but an e-mail from a reader asking "Who's Dan Grobstein and why does he get a file," leads me to think it is worth mentioning again. Dan is the brother of a woman to whom I was engaged in 1972, but never married. He is an avid reader of the column, and an avid contributor whose taste in links I thoroughly enjoy. Plus, unlike some of my other contributors, he is proud to have his name on his links.]