Couch to 5K

I’d heard of the Couch-to-5K before, but I always wrote it off as the sort of thing “athletic” or “healthy” people do. Well, we’ve been getting healthier around here lately, and Couch-to-5K suddenly seemed like a perfect fit.

The program begins with a mild workout with 60 seconds of running alternating with 90 seconds of walking, and over the course of nine weeks builds to a full 5 kilometers of running without stopping. It’s designed for people spending a lot of time on the couch, which is precisely where we were when we read about it.

Well, nine weeks after we started, I ran (for the first time in my life) five kilometers straight. Time: 32:46. (I’ve run a four 5Ks around the neighborhood, with a best time so far of 30:27.)

So the program works! In that first week, 60 seconds of running felt an eternity. My finger hovered over the treadmill button ready to slow it down the very instant the time rolled over. In the ninth week, I stepped outside three mornings before work and enjoyed a run around the neighborhood, with breath enough to spare to greet my neighbors as they picked up their newspapers and climbed into their cars. Apparently I’m one of those “healthy”, “athletic” people now.

I was supposed to participate in my first formal, timed run this past weekend, but (to my eternal disappointment) got sick and had to skip it. I’ll be trying in a 5K “fun run” in a couple weeks, but my iPod will still be the only timer. The next formal, timed race in town? July 13th.

Reel Mowers are Real Mowers

Reel Mower

Reel Mower

It’s our first full summer since moving into this house, and time to buy a lawn mower. I envisioned spending $300 on a gas mower, but in the end spent less than half that for a good old fashioned reel mower. (The cheapest ones were $70, but we splurged for a fancy $130 model.)

This is full of advantages and has no discernible disadvantages.

First, it uses no gas. There’s a cost savings, an environmental savings, and a noise savings. I can mow the lawn whenever I want and bother nobody, and I don’t spew pollution into the atmosphere every time I do it. This is what got me looking in the first place and it’s a big selling point.

Second, it’s inherently a “mulching mower”. It doesn’t leave ugly rows of grass clippings or require disposing of bagged clippings. It conveniently leaves the clipped grass right where it started, where it serves as fertilizer for the lawn.

Third, it’s faster and easier to use. For straight rows of grass it’s no easier or harder than a gas mower; you just push it down the row. (And no, it’s not even a tiny bit hard to push.) But it corners more easily and can handle edges that might be dangerous for a gas mower. For example, I can push it more slowly over rocks, so if one does get kicked it up won’t do any harm — a gas mower would kick the thing right up.

I can mow our entire yard, front and back, in about 10 minutes. That’s about as much time as our neighbors spend yanking fruitlessly on the starting cord for their gas mowers.

Drivers, Ms. Daisy

A relative’s Dell XPS 8000 recently suffered a hard drive failure and had to be restored from backup onto a new drive. Naturally, it could no longer connect to the Internet.

Problem 1: The machine’s BIOS no longer recognized any USB keyboard that Dell didn’t create, and so wouldn’t boot with my keyboard in order to fix the problem. I had to borrow a Dell keyboard.

Problem 2: Windows did not have valid drivers for either the wireless or wired network cards. Dell distributes the drivers via its website, but without already having the drivers it’s impossible to connect to the Internet. I had to download them from my iMac, burn a DVD, and load them from DVD on the PC.

Problem 3: When given the “Service Tag” for this machine, supposedly identifying the specific machine so Dell can provide the correct drivers, Dell provides 64 bit drivers which are completely incompatible with the 32 bit processor. This one was a doozy. I had to ask Google to find every possible driver for any model Broadcom NIC and then try them all until one worked.

Just for a little comparison, my own iMac suffered a hard drive failure last year. Apple installed a new drive, I restored from Time Machine, and it was like nothing had ever happened.

I don’t mean to insight a religious Mac vs. PC debate, and in fact Apple does plenty of stuff I dislike, but that much effort to connect to the Internet (via a wired connection, no less) is just ridiculous.

Stay on Road

Sunshine Canyon

Sunshine Canyon

I enjoyed careening down Sunshine Canyon on this delightfully quaint dirt road yesterday. The snow and ice already on the ground, the 10°F temperatures (much lower with windchill), and the lack of guardrails all made the experience particularly excellent.

I appreciated most that a road crew had taken the time to install (in lieu, I suppose, of a guardrail or some roadside reflectors) a sign saying “Stay on Road”.

Thanks for the tip! So, you’re saying I should not veer suddenly off this cliff, killing us all?

See if you can guess on Progressive’s graph of our speed throughout this trip which part was on the snowy cliffside dirt road and at what point we reached more level pavement:



Fun fact: The several points where we stopped momentarily all represent when someone in an SUV came racing down the mountain behind us at easily triple our speed and I had to stop to let them pass.

On Cruising: The Crew

For our honeymoon we cruised on Carnival Imagination for four days to Cozumel. This is part of a series of anecdotes on the experience.

On our last day aboard, Carnival offered a “Behind the Fun” tour visiting all the crew-only areas of the ship to show how the magic is made. I couldn’t resist! The answer: it’s made through a lot of hard work.

We visited the galley, where a bar of baking chocolate as large as a desk literally and figuratively dwarfed everything else in the room. I ate some of it in the form of cake at the all-you-can-eat chocolate buffet later that day.

We visited the laundry room, where workers fed sheets into giant machines to be folded and ironed, in an endless progression. We tourists got to try our hand at the towel folding machine. As we giggled with goofy delight at seeing an unfolded towel enter, and then drop seconds later into a neatly folded pile, the crewmen’s eyes seemed to say, “You realize we get paid to do this all day, right?”

We visited the bridge, where one officer must always be looking out to sea, while others supervise an array of modern cartographic technology.

We visited the engine control room, where one whole wall schematically depicts the flow of electricity to various ship systems, with an enormous console filled with gauges and buttons and levers stood ready to run the entire ship if needed.

But surprisingly, the visit that’s stuck with me most was the ship’s stores: giant freezers stocked with meat, poultry, and seafood; a refrigerator the size of a large bedroom full of liquor and other beverages; and workrooms to prepare food for the galley. (For whatever reason, chopping vegetables and meats isn’t charged to the galley staff, but to the provisioning department.)

On opposite sides of the ship mirror freezers, thawing refrigerators, and prep tables process separately the poultry and meat headed up to the galley. Carnival has one supervisor for meat and another for poultry to ensure that no one person ever handles both.

In one room, a pair of crewmen cut fruits and vegetables, with boxes of carrots and cantaloupes piled around them and a work counter covered in bowls of freshly chopped ingredients.

And in one room — in the most staggering room — were potatoes. Boxes of potatoes piled high along every wall, with a diminutive machine in one corner to peel them, and a small work table in the center. They called the worker there Potato Man, and his only job is to cut potatoes.

Like all crewmen we met, he works ten hour shifts. Like all crewmen we met, he works seven days a week. And like all crewmen we met, he has a six month contract, and then two months off before the next contract.

So for ten hours a day, seven days a week, six months at a time, he cuts potatoes. He does not trade jobs, since Potato Man is his assigned position. He does not get to try his hand at chopping the occasional cucumber or celery stalk. He just stands at his post, reducing potatoes to edible sizes.

And when his boss introduced him to us as Potato Man, an unmistakably authentic grin spread across his face, and he gave us an enthusiastic thumbs up. He is the Potato Man on that ship, and he knows it.

Most of the crewmen we met had been working those long hours and weeks for decades with the company. And we tourists were there to get respite from a few months of grueling nine-to-five computer work.

They served hash browns at breakfast the next morning, and oh were they delicious.

On Cruising: The Confinement

For our honeymoon we cruised on Carnival Imagination for four days to Cozumel. This is part of a series of anecdotes on the experience.

We’re told cruising isn’t for everyone. Some people love it, while others vow never to return. We assume this family falls in the latter group, based on what we overheard from their table on our last day aboard — a “Fun Day at Sea” while we sailed back to Miami:

Mother: Today we have to stay on the ship all day.
Daughter (age 5): Why can’t we stop somewhere?
Mother: We have to get back to Miami on time.

Daughter: But why are we on the boat?
Mother: Because we have to be here for grandma and grandpa’s anniversary.

Oh, the noble sacrifice you’ve made for their happiness! Perhaps they took some consolation in the all-chocolate feast laid out just a few hours later. Nobody can be too miserable when they’ve got ten different pieces of cake in front of them.

On Cruising: The Destination

For our honeymoon we cruised on Carnival Imagination for four days to Cozumel. This is part of a series of anecdotes on the experience.

Our ship stopped first in Key West, but we stayed aboard and enjoyed massages at the spa and other onboard luxuries. When we got to Cozumel, though, we raced to disembark as fast as we could say, “One giant bottle of water, please.”

Even walking down the deepwater pier toward the port at San Miguel, we marveled at being on foreign soil for the first time — discounting a visit to Montreal as “barely foreign at all”. Our eyes picked out every detail identifying this new place and making it distinct from our home. And what were the first signs we were able to read? Starbucks! Burger King! Welcome to Mexico.

Just beyond the pier is a small shopping district (“Cozumel’s only shopping mall”) catering blatantly to the cruise ship crowd. One or two men — exclusively men — stand outside each store beckoning passers-by to sample their wares. “Maps of the ruins! Rent a scooter to see the ruins!” were popular enticements. And my favorite was when we were caught leaving one store and skipping the next: “It’s my turn now! I have something different for you!”

A few stalls christened themselves “The Dollar Store” and tagged all their merchandise with hand-written $1 USD stickers. More legitimate businesses quoted prices in pesos, but every business on the island accepted pesos and dollars interchangeably.

If a stall wasn’t “The Dollar Store” it likely had no prices at all, making everything negotiable. When we saw one man selling woven name bracelets and spotted a “Sophie” in the mix, we asked for a price. $12. And a moment later: $10. And when we put it back down, $8.

And when we walked away and saw nine more men selling the same bracelets? $4. Welcome home, Sophie! We got you a bracelet in Mexico!

At the appointed hour we lined up for our tour of the Mayan ruins with our guide Mimi, and our group marched back through the shopping mall to our bus. The place was transformed. The pairs of men still sat on stools beside their shops, but nobody made a move or uttered a word. They know that nobody can entice even the weak away from a tour group.

The Mayan ruins at San Gervasio offered a chance to see and touch and explore history in a way no textbook photography or classroom filmstrip could ever emulate. Some of the forgotten history has been hilariously substituted with wild speculation (“we don’t know what this was, so it was probably ceremonial”); but when you see a rocky road stretching off toward the distant ocean, met at the town’s entrance by a great stone arch, its purpose is hard to misconstrue.

With the sense of ancient history comes also a sense of a truly different place. Rain forest surrounds the ruins on all sides, and more than a few iguanas lounged beside the path as we passed by (some eyeing the tourists with familiar indifference; others fleeing at the sight of us). Even on a cloudy day, the temperature was easily 90°, and only a potent insect repellant (evidently not available in the United States) kept the mosquitos from eating us alive.

Follow that historical adventure with an hour to read on the beach, sipping a “Coca-Cola Light”, and dipping our feet into the impossibly blue water of the Caribbean ocean, and we’ve got ourselves a vacation.

On Cruising: The Budget

For our honeymoon we cruised on Carnival Imagination for four days to Cozumel. This is part of a series of anecdotes on the experience.

The basic appeal of a cruise is that it’s an all-inclusive getaway. With your ticket you get round-trip transportation to one or more vacation destinations, lodging, meals, and a variety of entertainment. Just choose a sail date and a ship and your entire vacation is planned.

The reality is that quite a lot isn’t included. Alcohol is clearly the biggest seller on board, running $7 to $10 for most drinks and available everywhere. Soda, espresso, and other beverages are also upsells — only tap water, coffee, lemonade, and iced tea are included. And with a 15% gratuity added automatically to every purchase, ubiquitous waiters are effectively working on commission to sell those drinks.

Not thirsty? Buy a commemorative picture of your vacation taken in the dining room, on the pier, or in front of staged sets and backdrops throughout the ship. A 5×7″ print costs $10 with a variety of framing options and photo albums available. Or order a heart-shaped “Happy Honeymoon” cake, visit the on-board shops to buy gold chains by the inch, book a shore excursion, schedule a massage at the spa, or play some Blackjack at the casino.

We never felt pressured to make any purchases, but the opportunity was omnipresent. We had budgeted some extra expenses and we went through about $40 just in coffees, sodas, and bottled water to drink in Mexico. Other guests, though, seemed to have sticker shock upon seeing their final bill on debarkation day. On a cashless ship where room keys serve as charge cards, it must be easy to get carried away.

This all sounds much more unpleasant than it really is. Most of the ship’s amenities really are included. When we wanted to see a Broadway-style show in the Dynasty Lounge, we just walked in and found a place to sit. We watched two comedians at the comedy club, attended an art auction and a dance performance, and walked in and out of the restaurants about a hundred times. We played several rounds of miniature golf, relaxed in hot tubs, and read books in deck chairs overlooking the ocean. We took a salsa dance lesson and lost spectacularly at a dozen different trivia games.

The real basic appeal of cruising turns out to be that there’s no set agenda, nowhere to be, and nothing important to get done. We didn’t forfeit tickets or give up our seats if we chose to relax by the pool instead of attending a show, and that simple idea is the essential ingredient for a relaxing vacation.

On Cruising: The Passengers

Let’s break the pre-wedding hiatus on blogging with a series of post-wedding anecdotes on life aboard our honeymoon cruise ship: The Carnival Imagination.

Our first morning aboard the ship we awoke to the breakfast buffet: a sprawling multi-room affair with everything from apples to fried zucchini arrayed across seven separate buffet lines. Passengers happily piled eggs, waffles, sausages, and pastries onto plates to then eat in poolside lounge chairs, at tables overlooking the ocean, or in the air conditioned dining room.

While we waited in a line of six or seven people at the omelette station, another passenger came up behind us. After waiting a minute or so he erupted angrily, “This is ridiculous. There should be two people working here!” And he stormed off.

Yes. You’re standing atop a floating city in the middle of an ocean with a smorgasbord of breakfast foods free for the taking in a poolside buffet under the Caribbean sun, and what’s ridiculous is that you have to wait a minute for your custom-made omelette. As a friend recently remarked: this really is a first-world problem.

Cruise ships are the standard bearer for American gluttony: fat tourists squandering a fortune on drinks, food, and fuel romping about the ocean for sport. Fortunately, only one or two people seemed to fit the stereotype on our ship. When “Formal Night” came, we saw two thousand people walking the deck in ball gowns, suits, and in one case even a tuxedo. We may be gluttonous slobs, but we sure cleaned up nice when we wanted to.

Like Falling Off a Bike

My first attempt at teaching Sophie to ride a bike was made without any prior planning. It did not go well. Even well-armored with a helmet, elbow pads, knee pads, and wrist guards, riding a bike just isn’t fun after you’ve fallen enough times.

Learning to ride is really all about learning to balance, and unfortunately the most intuitive ways to teach bike riding do absolutely nothing to teach balance.

One common approach is to run alongside the child, helping to steer with the handlebars or with the back of the seat. This means the child can ride for quite a distance successfully, but only because it’s the parent who’s doing all the balancing work. The child learns nothing important.

The opposite approach is to give a push start and then let the child fend for herself. This means she alone is responsible for staying upright — but since won’t be able to at first, she’ll likely fall so quickly that it will be hard to learn anything from the experience.

We tried both these techniques with Sophie for a couple days without really getting anywhere.

Since the new rider has to learn to balance independently, touching her or the bike is completely off-limits. But since the cost of crashing is too high (with too little time to learn and the potential for injury), letting her ride unaccompanied is also not appropriate.

The solution: run along behind the bike with outstretched arms, forming a rigid frame — rather like rollbars. As long as Sophie was riding upright, I wouldn’t be touching her and she’d be balancing herself. But when she did start to tip to either side, she’d be leaning into my arm. I wouldn’t push her back up — she had to learn how to do that with her own body weight and the bike’s handlebars — but at least she wouldn’t fall to the ground. In fact, she could continue riding even while tipped impossibly far to the side, trying the whole time to figure out how to correct her balance.

And she did. After just 30 minutes of practicing with this technique, she was riding independently. That was last summer, and now that we have nice weather again she’s back outside riding like a pro. The only difficulty she has anymore is that we’ll ride so far at once (we’re up to about a mile now) her legs get tired and she has to take a break.

The only penalty for me was getting a good workout — which I probably needed anyway. This approach requires running behind a moving bike (at about six or seven miles per hour) while hunched over and often supporting the entire weight of a five year old and her bicycle.

This whole idea came from the advice of Sheldon Brown from Harris Cyclery in Newton, Massachusetts (apparently located just 15 minutes from my old apartment in Boston) on teaching kids to ride. Besides offering basic tips on building balance, the page also discusses some novel teaching techniques that would have been our next step if Sophie hadn’t learned so quickly.