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the Texas experiment

Last fall when I went to Charleston SC, I KNEW I was in for some good food. There are a few places in the U.S.  that are known for fantastic food, Charleston is one of them. I vowed that during my time there, I would search out the best of the best and eat it all. It was going to be goooooood. And it was goooooood and because of that gooooood food, I came home 10 lbs heavier.

Weight is hard to shed once you hit the 40s and the 10lbs I gained in Charleston was a stubborn 10. Heck I am not even sure it had ALL gone by the time I needed to leave for Texas 25 days ago.  Last year at this time I was closer to 200, pre Texas I am pushing the high 200 teens.

Anyway that is in the past.

Last month I got the word that I was going to Gainesville Texas  for 25 days. The first thing I thought was “oh man I KNOW Texas has some good food!”  And the barbecue, I LOVE barbecue. This was going to be a trip of good eats as Alton would say.

I should go back and say that in the month or so preceding this trip, my physical well being was pretty sad. I haven’t been riding my bike much, actually not doing much of anything physically and coincidentally I have felt terrible. Getting up in the morning, it felt as if everything hurt, I was achy and felt like I was 70, not 45.  It got to be so bad that I started thinking that there was something wrong with me. Something felt off. I went to the doctor right before I came to Texas and told him my story.  He said that we better run me through the barrage of tests.  I did that but left on this trip before I could get any results.

So the day before I was to leave for Texas, I started thinking. You know, Texas is going to be pretty boring. Yeah there are a couple things to see, but for the most part, staying in Denton Texas was going to be pretty dull. I started to think, what if I changed things up on this trip? What if I joined a gym? Not the tiny useless gym at the hotel, what if I went to a real gym everyday I was in Denton? And not just one time a day TWO times a day.  What if I got up early everyday, went to the gym, ate just good food all day, no crap, no desert, no fatty foods, no BBQ, no fried chicken, hell no fried anything. Then what if I went back to the gym after work and worked out again? What if anything would come out of that effort? Would I lose weight? Would I look any different? After all it was only going to be 23 days. But 23 days of two times a day, good food, doing everything right. I decided I would enlist the help of a trainer and a nutritionist, this would be an experiment that would entail being able to eat the right foods at the right time and be able to do it while eating out for every meal.

Before I left, I found a couple gyms and called one in particular, Brickhouse Gym in Denton  http://www.thebrickhousegym.com/. I asked if they would let me do a one month membership while I was in town, no problem they said.

When I got to Denton on the first day, I drove to Brickhouse and joined. I asked about a trainer and was introduced to 58 year old Mike Jones, Brickhouse owner. Mike is an unbelievably nice guy and built like I wish I was built when I was 20. He is ripped like Jesus.  At 58.  I told Mike my plan and asked if he could steer me in the right direction. Not only did Mike help me, he seemed excited to help me.  He liked my plan and was more than encouraging. I told him I needed diet help also, for this Mike said we would enlist the help of Dr. Quin Skains. Quin is probably the same age as Mike and in just about as good of shape. There is a picture of Quin on the wall of the gym maybe ten years earlier of him on a golf course with a gigantic belly, probably 100 lbs+ overweight. Then right below it, a picture of him competing in a bodybuilding competition, he looked amazing.  Dr Quin clearly knows what he is doing.

I told Mike that I was willing to do anything for the 23 days I had left to workout. Twice a day, cardio, weights, whatever he suggested.  Mike gave me a routine and cardio workout that involved cardio in the morning, and weights followed by cardio in the evening.  Quin told me that I needed to be eating 200 grams of protein a day divided into 6 meals. No bread, no fat, low carbs, lots of veggies, no alcohol, and god help me, no desert.  He told me what to eat and when to eat it.

For breakfast, I was to eat egg whites, at least 4 or more, and a bowl of oatmeal. Quin even gave me the name of two restaurants next to my hotel that serve egg whites and oatmeal. Then every two hours after that, more protein, my choice. It could be tuna, protein shake, not a sugary one, I suggested muscle milk which I have drank at home, he said that MM is bad because it has lots of sugar. Oh THAT is why it tastes good.  For dinner I was to have fish, chicken or turkey with a small amount of carbs, like a dry baked potato.  Oh man this is going to be tough.

I decided that I would take pictures of myself every few days just in case there was visible progress, I wanted to be able to see if there was a difference. One thing I didn’t do that I wish I had, was to measure myself.

Day one, I got up at 5am and went to the gym. I went right for the elliptical for my cardio. At this point, I wasn’t given any length of time that I should be doing cardio for in the morning. So I got on the elliptical machine and started a fast walk.  I haven’t been on the elliptical for 5 minutes when Quin comes over and says that today is the last day I will use the elliptical. He said people don’t generally think so but elliptical machines are hard on joints, especially at an incline. He said that its a knee killer. He said that starting tomorrow, he wants me on the stair climber. He said to use the “incline” setting and go for a half hour. He said my heart rate needs to stay at 60-65% over rest to be in the fat burn range and to set the difficulty setting accordingly.  He said that I will burn as many calories on the stair climber in a half hour as I would on the elliptical machine in an hour. Great, I HATE the stair climber.

That evening after work, I go to my hotel, change into my workout clothes and get back in the car and back to the gym. I start the lifting routine. Nothing out of the ordinary here. Day one, Chest, biceps. Day two, back, triceps. Day three, shoulders. Day four, Legs. Everyday do abs. After a week Mike comes up to me at 5am as I am about to do my cardio and says, “lets go work legs this morning”. Mike explains that legs are the most under worked part of the body. The legs house most of the muscle mass in your body and have the capacity to burn enormous amounts of fat if you work them hard. He said that with my leg size, if we can work them hard, we can start them burning a lot of calories.  Mike then puts me through an hour of legs exercises and when we are done, I seriously don’t know if  I can walk to the car.  This was on a Friday. For the next three days, I can hardly walk. I would put the pain level in my legs at about an 8 or 9. Its just about enough to bring me to tears at times. Everything is hard, standing up, getting in the car, sitting on the toilet causes me to scream out in pain.  I should have been pissed but I’m not, if they hurt this bad then Mike has done his job and they will start burning the amount of calories that they should be burning.

The eating part of this experiment winds up being incredibly easy. Red Lobster of all places is great. They have a daily fresh fish menu and you can get it grilled with a mountain of broccoli and a potato. I switch that up by going to a couple other places. Quin said I can have lean steak a couple times a week so I do reward myself with a steak once in a while.  What does become hard and was ultimately my only failure is eating every two hours. Its REALLY hard for me to eat tuna two hours after a big breakfast. I try but many times I just cannot choke anything down at the two hour interval.  Ultimately this means less protein in my system which means slower muscle growth. I’m not going backwards, just not going forwards as fast as I could be.

Lunch with the guys in Gainesville winds up being a bit of a challenge as they like to eat real food. Not the silly pansy stuff I am eating.  They have all been really cool about my quest though and have tried to take me to places where I could find something to fit my requirements.  One place we went to twice was a BBQ place close to the factory.  There was an old woman there that was quite disgusted with my order. I ordered a grilled chicken salad. When I ordered she said “What!?” “You aint from here are ya?” I respond “No I am from Seattle”. She says “Figures” and walks off. When we come in the next time, she says “Oh its you, you want another S A L A D?” in as disgusted tone as possible. Its hilarious. The guys apologize for her but I am about in tears from laughing so hard.  You might as well tell people you are gay than to order a salad. At one of the two places I eat breakfast, the Old West Cafe. When you order egg whites and oatmeal, I kid you not the entire place turns around to see who the queer is. There is head shakin and disgust a plenty  let me tell you.  People here just about git a rope when you send back the biscuits telling them you cant eat bread.

Ultimately I thought this was going to be really hard but its actually been really easy and one side benefit is that its made the time fly by. You know how time flies when you have something crappy coming up, yeah well I kind of dread going to the gym twice a day so the day flies by and its always time for the gym again.

I am kind of addicted to watching the Biggest Loser, despite its reality cheesiness, its amazing to watch the transformation of the people. I have heard the two trainers talk about what to order in restaurants and that there is always something you can eat. I can attest to that. One late night I ate at Denny’s and thought they wouldn’t have anything decent, but even Denny’s has low calorie dishes. They might not be that good, but they fit my requirements.

Anyway the 23 days are over. What has come of it? I have looked at the pictures and I don’t think I can see a difference, but I have gained a notch on my belt and my pants are much baggier. Mike did tell me that if we do this right, I shouldn’t lose much weight if any. He said, that he wants me to lose fat and gain muscle at the same time. I have weighed myself and I am down about 5lbs. The nice thing is that I am sure that is 5 lbs of fat. Other than the clothes fitting differently, the biggest thing is that I feel great. All that pain and achiness that I had before I came to Texas, gone, completely gone.  There wasn’t anything wrong with me other than my body slowly getting very out of shape. Mike told me that our age the muscles really go down hill fast if we don’t work them. He said that studies have shown that our bodies do much better under physical stress. Besides the obvious strength benefits of lifting weights, the biggest benefit is that more muscle = more calories burned daily at rest. Want to eat more of what you want to eat? Lift weights. Work your legs until you feel like throwing up once a week and your body will burn a lot more calories.

I guess the real test will be if I can keep this up at home. Mike said don’t set my goal at two a days. He said lift 3 times a week HARD. Make the time count and feed the muscles what they need to grow and I will see results.  He said that he BETTER see me bigger the next time I come back to Denton. I am sure that at some point I will come back here and I don’t want to disappoint him.  This guy could throw me across the gym:)   I guess its back to Golds when I get home.

PS.  Thanks to Mike and Quin and the incredibly nice people at Brickhouse Gym in Denton. Mike did all my training and wouldn’t take a dime from me for it. He said he wants me to take this knowledge and use it. He said if I do that, then its worth his time.

PSS. When I got home, Sara ran up and gave me a hug and said, and I quote “WHOA you seem smaller around, did you lose weight?” None of my family knew I was doing this so I was anxious to see if they would notice. That would be my sign that it worked. Sara called Kate to look at me and Kate agreed with Sara that I am much leaner.  I guess we can call this experiement a success.

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che cosa queste mele hanno pesato?

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Travel is a great thing. I put a period at the end of that but I probably should have put a comma and a but. Travel is good in small doses. If you do it all the time it wears you out. Its a constant struggle to be understood and to understand other people and other customs. I generally love the challenge, but there are some days I really could just do without it.

Yesterday after work I decided to run. The run was just not going well, I felt terrible and just could not run. I decided that I would do the sprint, walk thing for 3 1/2 miles. So that is what I did. Oddly that is always way easier for me. I can sprint until I am going to drop, walk a block and then do it again. So I make it back to my room and I am dead. I sit and surf for a while and then get up to tinkle. I could hardly move. I thought oh god if I sit here all night and do nothing I am going to atrophy and die. So I shower and decided to walk the two miles to the grocery store and back. The mall here has a large grocery store so I decide to get some snacks for my room and as I am trying to offset the daily pasta lunches,  I decide to get some apples. At this point, even though it has nothing to do with the story per se, I must say the grocery stores here are just amazing. In particular the meat departments, which also, for what appears my convenience, are combined with the cheese section. There is a man behind a counter with a large slab of cured and dried pig leg which he is shaving and passing out to shoppers. Si Gratzie. I get a pack of some sort of peppered cured meat and a cheese of unknown origin or type to add to my healthy apples.  After adding a bag of biscotti and a lemonade to my basket, I go to the register and stand in line. When it was my turn, the checker takes my apples and asks me something. I have no idea what she said, so I say what I always say at this point, “mi non parlo italiano sorry”. She says something else while pointing to the apples. She is clearly irritated already and is being huffy with me and I am wondering why she keeps talking to me. I just said I don’t speak Italian. Does she think my interpretation is going to develop in the checkout line? Finally I think, AH! She wants to know if I know how much these were. So I try to impress her with my Italian numbers (I have managed to memorize them) “cento novanta chinqua!” I say in my most proud voice. She says in a very snotty tone “no!” then does the international pantomime for weighing something. Now I get what she wants but at the same time don’t know what she wants. I point to her scanner thing and say “qui?”. She says “no”.  With all the confusion and the people in line behind me probably getting more irritated by the second, I finally tell her “no mele” (yeah I know the word for apple also) and wave my hand in the internationally known sign for just forget it.  Then and I swear to you this is true, she litterally chucks the bag over her shoulder. Now this is irritating because I am nice. I treat people here with the utmost of respect. I consider myself a guest here but that snotty ass woman didn’t need to give me attitude because I didn’t know what the deal was with the apples. Hell if I was at the store at home and someone from another country was stuck in line not knowing what was going on, I would help them, not be pissed at them. Although I am sure someone would be.

Anyway, I walk the mile back to my hotel. Claudia the girl at the counter who speaks great English says hi. I walk over to her and tell her my story. She thinks its funny so when she laughs I sort of forget how irritating it was. She says “Ah yes, you need to weigh the apples in the back and get a sticker”.  Claudia told me that when she was visiting her sister in DC, she had the same thing happen in reverse. She was wandering around the produce section trying to find the machine that weighs the fruit and gives you the sticker. Of course she speaks English and is cute as a bug so I am sure she had no problem getting help. I don’t know why the cashier was doing giving me attitude, its not my fault they are stuck in the 19th century with checkout equipment.

THEN. The other day I go to get gas. This is the first time I have had to gas up since being here and I pull into the station. First I screw up by starting to pump my own gas. A young guy comes out and says something to me, yeah yeah, “mi non parlo italiano sorry”. I get that he was supposed to pump my gas. Not sure if that’s the deal everywhere but whatever. As he is pumping the gas, I take out my wallet and show it to him while pointing to the store area. He says “si”.  I head in to pay for the gas. The guy working the counter looks like an ass. No I am not being judgmental, you know when someone is just going to be fun to deal with. I take out my corporate card, which is how I am supposed to pay for gas. He snatches it out of my hand and starts swiping it through his machine. He can’t get it to work and is grumbling. He tries another machine and it still doesn’t work. So he leaves the store goes somewhere around the corner and comes back with another machine. He swipes my card as he is coming through the door and as he is handing me back my card he mutters vaffanculo. When I was in Charleston with the Italian guys, one of the ways we passed the time was by teaching each other all the pertinent swear words in our native languages. At the top of their list of most vulgar was the famous vaffanculo. Go F yourself in the A! As luck would have it, the guy in the gas station uses on me one of the very few words I would recognize. I don’t do well when someone tells me to vaffanculo, even when I am a guest in their country. I respond “vaffanculo mi?” “Mi compreno vaffanculo you ass!” in my most menacing voice. I read before I came here that if you ever get in a confrontation with an Italian be as loud and firm as possible. That Italians have this view of Americans as laid back and not ones to get riled up (I wonder where they got that from). If you stand up to them, it generally scares them.  It was actually funny. I was pissed that he said it, but I thought it was funnier that I knew what it meant and that I was able to call him on it. He did seem a bit set back by the whole ordeal. I was quite a bit bigger than he and seemed to lose the attitude after that.

I guess Americans don’t have the lock on being assholes. The world is full of them from every country. For the most part I do think Italians are very friendly and seem to be helpful when you don’t know the language.

On a completely unrelated note, as I sit here typing this, I have my hotel window open. I am on the 2nd floor and I can hear loud music coming from somewhere and at this very second Suspicious Minds by Elvis is playing.  LOL the next song came on and its  “In the Ghetto”.

Good times in Italy….

Racing George Bush

Well not really, actually if it were George Bush I am sure it would have been much easier.

Being that its 60 degrees and sunny here in Latina Italy, there is really no excuse not to run. 60 is the perfect running temperature for me. I heat up like an oven and need a lot of cool air to keep me from keeling over.  So for the second day in a row, I will run.  I got back to my room after work, got my running gear on, donned the iPod, and as I opened my door to leave, there was my coworker, (lets call him George Bush (GB)), getting off the elevator.

I met GB when I got to the company I am working for here in Italy. GB is a really nice guy, to be honest I can see only one flaw, he HATES Obama. HATES I tell you. I must say, I really can’t trust anyone that hates Obama. If he wasn’t your first choice, I get that, not sure if he will do a good job, I get that too, but hate… What in Gods name is there to hate? Every day, several times a day, he says something like “Man am I sick of seeing that OBAMA on TV, man that guy pisses me off”. I don’t even know what to say to that. Well actually that’s not totally true, I should rephrase that, I don’t know what to say that can be said at WORK. SO other than him hating Obama that is it, he really is a nice guy.

My GB (the nice guy) is from Texas and I find him somewhat of a contradiction to what I think Texans are. GB has lived in Italy for 5 years or so. GB has learned a fair amount of the Italian language, and GB is really friendly and generous. Hell GB even married an Italian girl, but, make no mistake he hangs from the far right by the tips of his fingernails just based on all the comments he makes throughout the day. Today I mentioned the legalization of marijuana. He said “why would you want to do that?” I said “because its not harmful and its a waste of taxpayer money to incarcerate people for doing something that doesn’t hurt you”. He said (and I love this) “what do you mean its not harmful, its a drug!”  The conversation went on a little bit, long enough for the other guy that is working there to get his red neck ass into the conversation also.  I was on my own there, let me tell you.

Oh there is one other thing about GB that breaks a stereotype I have about people from Texas,  he is fit. He is lightly stocky. I would say 6′ 195 lbs and appears to have no fat on him.  We have talked a bit about running and he says he runs and has said a couple times that we should run together. Yeah sure, no problem, Mr, run a few times a month, run with Mr. fit republican. One word, nightmare.

Anyway today I get ready to leave to run and I open the door to my room and there is GB just getting off the elevator. He says “hey are you going running?” I am forced to say “Yeah you want to go?” I should say at this point that I hate running with other people, ESPECIALLY people that kick my ass, yes Barb I am talking about YOU! LOL When I run alone I can run at my own pace and I don’t have to worry about my ego being squashed by running machines, yes Barb I am talking about YOU again.  So yes of course GB wants to go running. He says he will hurry and get changed.  This gives me time to ponder. I think to myself, this is like running for my team. Team Obama, and I am running against everything I don’t like.  The religious right, GB, Cheney, retarded, non thinking Republicans (yes there are two types of Repubs), and of course FIT people. I think to myself, there is no way I can let this guy kick my ass, I am going to have to run like I am running for the good of all mankind. This is good vs evil.

GB comes out of his room looking fit in his tight shirt. I on the other hand look like an overweight 50 year old woman with saggy boobs.  GB says “ready?” I’m not, but I say I am.  GB looks ready to kick this Obama supporters butt. I must not let that happen.

We take off running, I have mapped out a route through town. Its a little over 3 miles.  HEY LAY OFF, I HAVEN’T RAN IN A WHILE! We take off and GB starts off running really fast, damn near a sprint. I am generally a slow runner, I do not need to break records, plus I need my heart to be in the fat burning range, not the iron man range. I think “oh this is really going to suck”.  There is just no way I can let him beat me, hell I can’t let him be in front of me. I can’t do much to make a difference in our country but I voted for Obama and by God I can stay in front of Mr. Fit from Texas.  I got in front of him and kept on the gas. I noticed fairly soon that he was slowing down, oh good, maybe I won’t die. We continue on at a moderate pace with me in front. There were a couple times he was really lagging back and as I consider myself to be a compassionate man, I helped him by running even harder. When he slowed down, I picked up the pace. I didn’t need to just win, I needed it to hurt a little. Him, not me. We ran the entire way and got to the last street, probably an 8th of a mile to go. I said “sprint?”. I am a fairly good sprinter, much better than I am a distance runner actually and before he could answer, ran like I was running for the good of all mankind.

I did finish ahead of him albeit inches, hell he probably thought it was funny to let me be first only so that he can kill me at a later date. I crawled up to my room and collapsed on my bed. I am dead, I ran way past my abilities. It just goes to show what can be done with a little anger in your soul and a little too much testosterone coursing your veins (does testosterone flow in your veins?). I need to stop running with people that are clearly much better than me. Or maybe I don’t. Maybe that anger and pride will melt away the man boobs faster than waltzing along at my normal pace. Well at least I beat GB and my ego is in tact.

Anyway I need to go now, I must get some Ibuprofen.

Bean based sweets and other food atrocities

Bean Filled Horror

Well after being here in Japan for three weeks and eating everything I could get my lips around, I have had much that was good and some that was not. If you are eating traditional normal day to day Japanese food then you are in for an adventure and to be honest it wasn’t as good as an adventure as I was hoping for.  The Japanese palate is on the other side of the food spectrum from what we are used to.

After getting to travel some in the past few years the one thing that really amazes me is how much food there is out there that I have never seen or even heard of.  I have eaten vegetables that I couldn’t identify. I have eaten fish that I didn’t think were edible. I have eaten bowls of stuff where the only ingredient I could identify was noodles and it was really good. Today I had something that was somewhat like an eggplant but was so meaty in texture that I was shocked it wasn’t meat. The Japanese love pasta, not just Japanese noodles either. They do a lot of dishes with spaghetti and everyone I tried was really good.

The other night I was wandering around searching for someplace for dinner.  I wish I could describe this well enough to do it justice but I can’t. In the area where I am, there is literally an underground city. There isn’t enough room for everything and everyone on the surface of the earth so they have simply made another level to the city. When my coworker was talking to his wife on the phone the other morning, I overheard him say “I swear, its like another city underground!”

Underground

Anyway I am looking for a place to eat, which I should say is a pretty funny thing to do because every single place has plastic models of their food in the window so even though I can’t read what it is, if it looks good I go in.  So I find this pasta place with tasty looking plastic food and go in.  The waitress says something to me in Japanese, I say Hai and ichi, (yes and one) I assume she asked me if I wanted to eat and if it was just me. Of course she could have asked me if I liked men and what my IQ was. She sits me down and asks me something else. I think its funny that she does like we do in America and just assumes that you are in her country so you must know the language.  I do the same thing in this instance, I assume she just asked me the question I am used to getting at this time in every restaurant, I order a drink.  I order bubble tea which if you haven’t had it, its iced tea with these half inch diameter black tapioca balls in it. It requires a giant straw to pull those things through it. Its chewy thirst quenching goodness.  I also order some spaghetti based pasta, looks like it has butter, lemon zest maybe and some tomatoes and a couple tiny mushrooms. Perfect.  When the pasta comes it looks great and tastes great. I have eaten about half of it when I think, wow they have really put a lot of Parmesan cheese on this. Then I look and my cheese has eyes. IT WAS NOT CHEESE. It looks just like cheese, but it was these tiny clear fish. I would like to be able to say it tasted bad but they really didn’t. The taste and texture was not all that far off from hard cheese actually. The thing is, once you realize your food is full of baby fish staring thier tiny crying eyes at me, its hard to finish.  If you look close you can see all the little eyes.

fishes

I wish I could say that was the end of my food horrors, but it wasn’t. The biggest horror came today in the form of a frequent visitor to the Japanese cuisine nightmare. Bean based sweets.

Vending Machines

Japan is huge with the vending machines. They are everywhere and sell everything from coffee to used girls underwear. I wish I was lying about that second one but if you think American men are weird you haven’t even met weird until you come here.  We have quite a few vending machines at the company I am here visiting (sorry no underwear there). Today I went to the restroom and passed a vending machine. I thought a little coffee would be good. As I was standing there pondering the many possibilities, I spied a shiny red can with Japanese writing all over it. There was not one word of English on it, which is a little unusual even for here. Normally there is at least the word coffee on the can somewhere identifying what it is. Not this can. Just shiny red kanji. I am a food gambler and thought what the heck, its a buck ten, I’m rolling the dice. I buy it and it comes in a small can and the can is pretty warm. The drinks come in both hot and cold from the same machine, this came from the red area so I knew it was a hot drink. A hot drink in a can no less. So I carry it back to the area where we do inspections. As I am carrying it, I am shaking it and it seems thick. Not watery like coffee, thick like syrup. Rut row.

There are 3 Japanese inspectors that follow us around and Harold San our interpreter, standing in the inspection area. As I walk up I say “Harold San, I wanted something to drink and thought this can looked good, what is it?” At this time I should say, that in life you are given signs. Some might say its a higher power, some might say its mother nature, and I don’t know but I do know that we are given signs and it was at this time I was given a sign. As I held up the can, everyone started laughing. Not ha ha laughter either. The kind of laughter that you laugh when you can’t wait to see the look on someones face when they drink the red canned drink. Harold San says “Cary San, this is hot sweet bean drink”. Holy mother of all that is good and pure in this world. Who thought “you know hot sweet bean drink would be a great product!”.  Well I bought it so I might as well get this over with, I open it and smell it. It smells like refried beans. I even let Mike smell it. He said “refried beans”. Yeah.  So I take a swig. Let me break this down for you. Have you ever bought kidney beans in the can? You know the juice in the can? Take a cup of that juice and add a half a cup sugar, now take a few of the beans and mush them with a fork and stir them into the mixture. Now heat it on the stove until reduced to a thick syrup like consistency and pour it into a mug. Yup, that’s the stuff. Sweet, warm, thick, gritty, chunky, bean based drink. As long as I live, I would be surprised if I ever drank anything this odd ever again. I can’t say it was horrible, it was bad, but not gag bad. In my best Tony Bourdain impression I did drink most of it but I couldn’t do all of it. I tried to get Mike to drink some. He wouldn’t even speak the word no. He just shook his head as if I had just asked him to drink dead cats.  In true sick Cary fashion, I will be buying several cans of this stuff to bring home. Don’t be surprised to get a can for Christmas next year.

Bean drinks aren’t the end of it. I was in Tokyo last week and there was a line a mile long for something. I squeeze my way to the front to see what all the fuss is about. Its this machine that is making cookies. It puts some batter on one side of a mold, then it drops in a chunk of brownish stuff, then more batter, flips the whole thing over, cooks it and drops it out, wraps it, all within a few seconds. Its really cool to watch and the people are going NUTS for these things. They smell fantastic so I must get some. I finally get the womans attention and point to the sign that says 3 for 100 yen. She thinks I am reaching for cookies and actually slaps me. I had to laugh, chill lady, I cant speak Japanese, I need to point! She gives me my cookies. They are warm and soft and I take a bite and…. THEY   ARE    FILLED     WITH      SWEET     BEAN       GOO.   I just about gag. How is it that mobs of people are killing each other to buy these things by the thousands and the very same food makes me gag? Here are a few pictures of the bean filled cookies. I ran into a stand tonight that made them in fish shapes. Yum fish shaped sweet bean cookies. I wonder if when kids get home from school here, they ask their moms for bean filled cookies to dip in warm bean drink. I think will serve that at my next party.

Bean filled goodness

The woman in the hat is the one that slapped me.

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That is a thick bean cake he is painting batter on.

Bean Fish

They look good right? They even smell good.

Finished

The tale of the killer hawk

Well I have been here in Japan almost a week and am a little worn out already.  Its a tad claustrophobic for my taste although there is much to see and experience and if you know me, you know I love that.

Today being my first day off from work, my interpreter from YRC, Harold san, offered to take me to Kamakura which is an ancient city fairly close to Yokohama where I am staying. Harold san is from a group of men that promote Japan as a public service. With a little advance notice, or in my case working with him everyday, he will show you whatever sights you would like to see, all for the low low cost of buying him lunch. Actually that is not a prerequisite, its just the very least he deserved from me for giving up his day to shlep my hiney to the sights.  By the way that is Harold san below.img_0273

Kamakura is about a 20 minute train ride from Yokohama where my hotel is, that is unless you take the #9 train as instructed but were not told that you would have to change trains in Totsuka. Fairly important info I would say. When my train started going in reverse in Totsuka I knew I had problem. Next stop, get off and find the right train and get to Kamakura where I would meet Harold san. By the way, that wasn’t my only train snafu of the day…

I met Harold san and he took me to several temples and to see a giant Buddha. Harold san was great tour guide because he knew the history of the city in great detail. Kamakura is built within a ring of mountains and was a very easy place for the ruler back then to protect from invaders.  The first place we went was to the Samurai Temple which is where the first Samurai were trained. As we were walking into the temple area, a group of girls saw me and ran over and spoke to Harold san. They asked him to ask me if I would be willing to participate in a project for school, which they would film. He asked me and of course I said yes.  When it doubt, choose the option that makes the best story.  Basically they had two stuffed animals, a Snoopy and a Picachu. They asked in unison “Which do you like better, Snoopy dog or Picachu”. Then I was to place a dot on a board on the side of the charactor I liked best. I chose Picachu much to their delight. Here is the series of pics that Harold san took of the event. Don’t ask me what that face is in the last one. I look like I am doing my impresenation of the church lady.

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After that Harold san took me to the hand and mouth rinsing station. Everyone entering the temple is supposed to rinse out their mouth and wash their hands. Of course there are no towels and it was about 40 degrees today, but when in Rome. Harold san offered to get photos of the hand washing. I opted out of the mouth washing as it was a communal hand washing and mouth rinsing station. I do have my limits.

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We saw a couple temples that were very impressive. Harold san and I had lunch at the 2nd temple. I told him to choose where he would like to eat. He chose bowls of soup with noodles which as you might imagine is the standard fare here for the locals. It was slurpity good.  After lunch we got on anther small train that literally snaked its way through peoples back yards to get where it was going. We got off and walked to a giant bronze Buddha.  I think it was probably 40 feet high or so, now normally a 40 foot cast statue wouldn’t be that big of a deal unless you consider that it was built like 1300 years ago when people were just learning about casting. They built the mold by filling in dirt around it and then continually raising the dirt until it was made. Quite the amazing feat. I was thinking that it would look great in my yard next to the house.

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It was quite impressive. You can even go inside of it, which I did.

From there we went to an island called Enoshima. One thing that was interesting was how many hawks there were, hawks were everywhere along with signs that said beware of them. Beware of hawks? Really? I mean how bad could they really be?

Killer Hawks

Yeah yeah, blah blah blah beware of scary hawks.  I saw one fly down at one of the temples we visited and it snatched some food off a table. I figured that is what they were worried about. Little did I know.

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So we were walking through the shopping/eating area of the island and I stopped at a stand selling some sort of deep fried ball. I asked Harold san what they were and he said they were like a ball of bread with little fish in the middle and asked me if I wanted to try them. Sure I am game for anything. They were actually quite good. The inside was gooey like cheesy fishy gooey but in a good way. Almost like deep fried cheese.

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Anyway I get some and am eating them on the bridge of hawk death when I drip some cheesy fishy goo on my shirt. Damn. So I am cleaning it off when I am hit by a dive bombing kamikaze hawk trying to get his talons into my fish balls. The hawk tried to take it right out of my hand. Luckily I have cat like reflexes when it comes to protecting my balls, (fish balls that is), I held tight to my balls and the hawk flew away empty taloned.  Of course I had a serious gash on my hand from the ordeal. Ok not so much a gash as a barely imperceptible scratch and tiny hole. If you look close you can almost see blood.

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I am not sure what it is with animals trying to take food from us gaunt Americans. Ed can relate can’t you ed? Anyway Harold san and I got great laughs from the whole thing as did all the people around me on the bridge.

Anyway the day ended with me missing my Yokohama stop on the train because I was sound asleep and waking up in unknown territory somewhere in Tokyo. I asked some kid where I was. To the Japanese kid I am sure it sounded like, “blah blah blah, yokohama, blah blah I am a fat stupid American, blah blah” all the while I am pointing at a map. He tells me in Japanese that I am in fact an idiot and am on the wrong train. Or at least I think that I was he said. Anyway I got the point and got off at the next stop and right back on another train going the other direction.

All in all a good first day of exploring.

So here are some observations about Japan in general. There is not one garbage can in this entire country. Or so it seems. Seriously, today I saw a total of none. I asked Harold san why and he said you are supposed to take your trash back to your own house. The city is not paying to haul away your trash. Oddly enough the place is incredibly clean. Much cleaner that the ole U.S. of a trash can on every corner A. and way cleaner than you would imagine a country with no trash cans. When I got back to my room tonight I had pockets full of trash. Along with no trash cans are no paper towels in the bathroom. When you wash your hands you dry them on your pants, period, no exceptions. I have yet to enter a bathroom anywhere with paper towels OR a hand dryer. Oh speaking of bathrooms. Today I was at a temple, the big Buddha temple, and I had to wizz. So I find the bathroom and walk to the urinal and do my thing. I didnt think much about it when I came in but the entrance to the bathroom was like 10 feet wide and had no joggle. As I am peeing I look left and there are hordes of people standing right there doing their sightseeing thing. They can litterally look right in and see me peeing. I have to wash my hands to get into the temple but I guess once you are in, people can watch you pee.

Secondly, the Japanese are both the most considerate and well mannered, and the most pushy people I have ever seen. Get in front of them while trying to get on a train and they will push you to get around you.  But in every other way they go out of their way to apologize for doing anything bad to you. They bring polite to a whole new level. If you aren’t competing for a train seat.

When on trains you will see kids immediately get up to offer their seat to an elderly person. I have seen it every time I have gotten on a train.  Kids appear to be very respectful to elders.

The toilets here are awesome. Heated, butt cleaning, warm air drying, pieces of Japanese awesomeness.  Why in the world has the U.S. not gotten these yet? We claim to be nuts about cleanliness but these things take it to a whole new level. I must have one of these.  You can see the controls on the one from my hotel room which oddly enough, has less controls than every other one I have seen.

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The food as you can imagine is really different. The Japanese like their food in weird shapes and in odd colors. Most of it doesn’t even look like food.  They also like to display the food in every restaurant with amazingly realistic plastic models of the dishes they offer. That is handy for me, as it make choosing food easy when I can’t read the menu.”yes mam I would like the shiny fluorescent pink soup with seaweed please”.

Plastic Sushi

Today I saw the oddest snack treat I have ever seen in my life.  Here is the deal. You have these presses that are somewhat like waffle irons without the waffle holes. They are flat. The girl takes octopus out of a bowl and lays them out side by side on the press. Then she closes the press and starts to crank this handle which applies a great amount of pressure to the press. Then steams bellows out everywhere. When she opens it, there is a wafer thin octopus snack cracker thing. All that is in it is octopus and corn starch to hold the thing together. I really wanted to try one but the line was about a hundred feet long. Too long for a curiosity taste. Here is a picture of the woman building the cracker, its not that great but you can kind of see her piling octopus on the press and you can also see some cracker remnants on the paper.

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Lastly, no matter how well I think I speak a word of Japanese, they have no idea what I just said. Every time I say something in Japanese they look at me as if I am from mars. I thought about it. When I am trying to understand an asian in the U.S. I have the same problem. Sure they are speaking our language but it doesn’t sound the same. Its a weird thing to get used to and I think its worse with Asian languages because they sound completely different from romanic languages. I say Totsuka and they hear “tshieshkciencjskse”.  Oh well I am in their country and therefore am here for their entertainment.

Tomorrow, I am headed for downtown Tokyo. No guide, no help, only my cat like, ball protecting reflexes to help me find my way.

PS. If you want to see the rest of my pics. Go here:  http://flickr.com/photos/cleland/sets/72157612896949470/

the great camera debate

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I have a friend that is a fellow camera buff, for the sake of argument lets call him Ed, because that’s his name.  Ed and I should be studied by camera companies. Every time Canon or Nikon put out a camera they should call us first to make sure we are happy. Between the wants and needs of Ed and I, we cover just about everything a camera should have. You would think that maybe we want the same things, but that wouldn’t be true at all. We actually are very different in our camera requirements. Well mostly anyway.

Ed and I had this conversation a while back where we discussing what would be the perfect camera for each of us. We decided we would write about what would be our dream cameras and why. He has written his, this is mine.

I am currently shopping for a new camera. I have a camera already, its a Canon Rebel XTi with a couple lenses to go with it. The XTi does a great job and takes great photos but its big, especially with my 17-40mm lens on it. For many situations this doesn’t bother me at all, for other situations its a huge pain in the arse. Ed once made a blanket statement that no one uses big cameras because they are such a pain to carry around, which of course is just a ridiculous statement. At the time I had taken around 20K pics with mine and carried it daily. Ed is right in the respect that there are many times that it just is silly to carry around that monstrosity. I think when you have a giant camera around your neck it draws attention to you and maybe keeps you from getting candid shots that would be more easily obtained with a smaller more covert camera. I also think that people may worry that you might be shooting in somewhat of a professional capacity and might be leary about being in a shot that may be printed somewhere they don’t know about. I have actually been asked by people if I am taking pictures for magazines as if they were worried about it. Ed despite his previous statements has just bought a couple of SLRs and is starting to carry them, not sure why, my guess is that he finally would like the flexibility or quality that they provide DESPITE being a pain to carry sometimes. Yes they are big and yes they are an incredible pain to haul around sometimes but the simple fact of the matter is that they are better than point and shoots. No point and shoot to date has put an SLR sized sensor in their camera and therefore PAS (point and shoot) cameras are plagued with high noise levels and less versitility. So if you want the best quality you can get, especially at higher ISO levels you really need to be shooting with an SLR. Here is one area that Ed and I differ greatly in opinions. He made the statement that (and I am paraphrasing) that image quality is secondary to composure, or artist level. I disagree. I want a high quality image first and foremost. If you have taken a great shot, its artistic, its composed well yet is a noisy mess because you had to shoot at 800 ISO, then its unusable to me. Now of course all this makes little difference if you aren’t printing large prints which actually very few people do. I do, that is why its important to me. At 12×17, noise and blur are very evident.

So all that is the long way around the start of my list of features that I would like to see in a camera and why.

1.  First and foremost I would like a camera that has  extremely high quality photos in terms of sharpness and color. This means low noise at all ISO levels up to 800. After that I am willing to deal with some. I shoot in low light and being able to use a higher ISO is critical to getting those shots. This means some camera manufacturer is going to have to put a large sensor in a PAS. I doubt this is ever going to happen because then less people would buy their SLRs, especially the lower end ones.

2. A fast lens. I want a lens that is AT LEAST 2.0 on the wide end. It would be REALLY great if they gave me something faster than that, but 2.0 is fine. Panasonic has a camera out right now that I have considered, the LX3 which has a 2.0 lens. That is great but it fails the perfection test in other areas which I will get to later.  Also to go along with a fast lens, I want image stabilization. I didn’t make it its own catagory because all cameras have it these days so I don’t need to wish for it. Its already a industry standard.

3. A good zoom range. I would like something wide on the lower end, at least 28 but wider would be better. I shoot more wide than telephoto but that is because I don’t own anything long. If I need long, I rent it. I would like the high end to be 200mm. 128mm is acceptable but this is my dream camera so I want 200. I am tired of standing on top of people to get candid shots. The lack of a long lens has just about caused me bodily harm in a couple situations.

4. Being able to shoot in RAW format. I now shoot this exclusively. Yes its more work, but iPhoto can view RAW photos so I only need to process the ones I need to print which is not that often. I have done much comparison and RAW simply provides a nicer image by a wide margin and provides post processing flexibility that you just can’t get in a JPEG. If you never print anything big and you are just going to be viewing your photos on a computer then don’t bother with RAW. If you are going to print photos big and hang them on your wall, then you are short changing yourself if you aren’t using it.

5. A REALLY good rear LCD, and it would be nice if it were articulating like the older G series but the articulating thing is not a deal breaker for me, just a wish. The newest G10 has a LCD that is very high resolution and has been remarked that NOW its a high enough resolution to actually be able to tell if your photos are perfectly sharp or not. Because I often will look at a shot as soon as I take it to make sure its sharp, having an LCD with a high resolution is important. I do like that many new cameras are using a 3″ LCD. I remember some of the first ones weren’t even 2″.

6. Being able to shoot HD video. This wasn’t even on my wish list a year ago. But now several cameras do HD. The Canon 5DMarkII shoots HD that is gloriously beautiful. I want that in a PAS. I thought I had found the perfect camera with the LX3 because it has a fast lens and it shoots HD (it has one very big shortcoming which I will get to). The only problem is that it doesn’t use a decent compression so the HD is 3megs a second. That is a little high.

7. Weather resistant. This has always been high on Ed’s list but not as high on mine. Lately I have had moments where I was caught in torrential downpours and wished that my camera was more weather resistant.  Its my wish list so it needs to be here albeit at number 7.

8. Ergonomically comfortable. Ed likes tiny cameras, me, not so much. Even though I want something smaller than a SLR, its not important that its pocketable, but what is important is that its comfortable to hold. When I was reading up on my XTi before I bought it, a lot of people said it was terrible to hold. I couldnt find one in town to hold so I just bought it. When I got it, and first held it I couldn’t believe how terrible it felt in the hand and was just about to box it back up and send it back when I remembered something I read that said that if you get the battery grip for it, that it adds an inch to the grip and makes  it comfortable. So I went out and bought it and they were right, it went from the most uncomfortable thing I have ever held, to something very comfortable. Plus the battery grip holds two batteries so my battery life is incredible. I can shoot on and off for a couple weeks without having to charge the batteries. All of the prosumer level PAS cameras are a little bigger than the standard pocketable PAS. This is a result of them needing to do more things.

Well that is it. That is the wish list. There are minor wishes like a decent menu system and good controls but those things generally aren’t deal breakers for me and think that you can get used to whatever controls they give you. So right now because I am headed off to Japan in a week I have thought about buying a camera to take with me that wouldnt be such a pain to haul around. I have narrowed it down to 2, although Ed wants me to add a third consideration to the mix which I am not going to do as there is not one site anywhere that says it compares with the two I am considering. The Canon G10 and the Panasonic LX3. Lets go through my list and see how they stack up.

Both the Canon and the Panasonic take decent photos. The G10 has the edge in bright light, the LX3 has the edge in low light. Neither are fantastic above the lowest ISO levels.  Canon 2.8 lens on the low end. LX3 2.0 on the low end. Winner LX3. As for zoom range, the G10 does 28-140mm the LX3 24-60mm. This is where the LX3 gets the boot (although I am still on the fence somewhat). 60mm is REALLY short. I am just not sure I want to be held to that. Yes the lens is fast, 2.0-2.8 but it really fails my zoom needs. HD, LX3 does it, the G10 doesn’t. To be fair, the video on the G10 although not HD, is good and it doesn’t take up gobs of card space. As far as rear screens go, from everything I have read, the Canon screen is stellar. The LX3 just good. I like stellar. Neither are weather resistant and both are fairly equally matched ergonomically (although I must say I am just going by photos and from what I have read, I have yet to hold them). Both shoot RAW

So there you have it, neither is my dream camera. One is better at some things, the other is better at other things. I am going to go down to Kenmore Camera this week and chat with them and get their thoughts. I could just take my XT1 to Japan and put the whole thing off but that camera can’t go in my work bag and therefore has to get left behind when I go to work. In Germany that wasn’t an issue as my room was a 15 minute walk from work. In Japan where I am an hour train ride to work, I need a camera with me. There are simply too many things I am going to want shots of during that time and may not even get back to my hotel before bedtime.

Nikon, Canon get crackin on my perfect camera will you!!! You have 7 days to get one done and get it to me!!!!!

If there is a hell, its calling the Verizon help line for all eternity

My home internet connection is slow. Actually slow is really an understatement, its sluggish, sloth like, it makes the sound the slugs make when racing across my lawn. Finally the other day I got fed up waiting for something to load and decided to go to Verizon.com to see what else was available. I should say that I cant get cable so I am stuck with DSL which in my opinion, sucks.

I get online and find that Verizon has 3 available plans. 1mb, 3mb and 7mb. The prices are 19.99, 29.99 and 42.99 respectively. I wasn’t sure what I had now but I was willing to bet the farm it was the slowest one.  I decide to call Verizon and find out what I have now. I call and am told that I have 768kb. Well this is odd because they don’t even offer that speed anymore. Its so slow its not even on the list! Imagine my surprise when I ask what they are charging me for 768 and I am told 24.99. So they are charging me more for something so slow that they don’t even offer it anymore.

I tell them I would like to upgrade to the 7mb.  The woman says fine and quotes me a price of 52.99 a month. I tell her no, that online it says 42.99. She says that is an online price and that the only way to get that price is to order it online. They are unable to give me that price over the phone. As idiotic as this sounds, I say fine and hang up. I log into Verizon and click the “upgrade my internet” link. I immediately get a “We are unable to complete your request at this time, please call this number for service”. Then it includes the number. I call the number and tell the women the entire story. She gets into my account and the system and says “Sir I can upgrade you to 7mb but the only price I have available is 52.99, I am sorry sir the 42.99 price is only available online, you will have to order it online to get that price”. I ask her if she heard my story. “I SAID I am unable to do it online because I got an error message”. She said she was sorry and would connect me to someone that could help.

I get woman #2.  I tell woman number two the entire story with the woman #1 addition. She gets into my account, then the system and says “Sir I can upgrade you to 7mb but the only price I have available is 52.99, I am sorry sir the 42.99 price is only available online, you will have to order it online to get that price”. At this point I just about scream “ARE YOU DEAF, CAN YOU NOT HEAR ME!!??”. But I refrain and ask her if she heard what I said. I tell her I am unable to do it online because of the message to call Verizon for help. I told her I am calling for help. She apologizes and says she will connect me to someone that can help me.

I now have woman #3 on the phone. I tell her the, now growing story. She apologizes for my troubles and gets into my account.  Care to take a guess as to what she said?  If you guessed, Sir I can upgrade you to 7mb but the only price I have available is 52.99, I am sorry sir the 42.99 price is only available online, you will have to order it online to get that price, then you are a winner, collect your prize online at Verizon.  I am so crazed with frustration at this point I am almost passing out. I tell her that I am “UNABLE TO DO IT ONLINE AS IT SAYS I CANNOT AND THAT I MUST CALL THE NUMBER WHICH I HAVE DONE”!!!!!!! She apologizes for my troubles and says she will connect me with someone that can help me. I told her “I do not believe you”. She said “excuse me sir”? I said “you heard me, I do not believe you, but do what you must”.

I now get “help” person numero quattro. He is a man and I tell him my tale. Its a long sad tale with an unhappy ending, but I tell it nonetheless. He apologizes and gets into my account. If you are feeling sporty, you can wager double or nothing on what he said to me. Care to wager it all? If you guessed, Sir I can upgrade you to 7mb but the only price I have available is 52.99, I am sorry sir the 42.99 price is only available online, you will have to order it online to get that price, then you now have two prizes waiting for you at the Verizon help desk. Call them to claim. At this point I tell my man helper that I do not believe for one second that Verizon has any intention of selling any of the deals that they advertise online and that I think the entire thing is a scam to force me to pay 52.99 for 7mb internet. He tells me “Sir Verizon is a multi billion dollar company, I assure you it is not in the business of scamming people”. I respond, “well then give me the deal online or fix your site”.

After fiddle farting around for 10 minutes or so, he says that he thinks he has a solution. He says that although he cannot give me the 42 dollar deal he has a different deal he can give me. He is able to give me 7mb for 35 dollars a month with the first month free. At this point, I am thinking I have seen the end of civilization and it is ending right here on the phone with this idiot, who after spouting his douchebaggery for almost 15 minutes can now give me an even better deal than the one I have been fighting to get for almost an hour now.

Of course I take the deal but not after telling him that I find it amazing that Verizon finds it acceptable to do business in this fashion. “Imagine my surprise when I found out that Verizon is now throttling me down to a speed that they dont even offer for more money than a current faster speed.  I am stuck with Verizon today and maybe for a few years, but someday I will have options, one day I will have cable available or some other technology will come along”. I asked him if he had to wager a guess, would he guess that I will stay with Verizon or kick them to the curb in hopes of finding a company that WANTS my business. He said he didn’t care to wager. Yeah I bet. Imagine how happy I would be with Verizon if every now and then I got a letter that said they have upgraded their system and that the new minimum speed has increased and is cheaper and as a result I can expect to have faster internet at a new automatically lowered price. I would stay with a company like that for a long long time.