Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Last Week's Work Travel

I SHOULD NOTE A FEW facts about last week's travel, before zapping off for another dose of it this week. After which, successful trip or not, I'll be quite ready to settle in for a few months.

Getting to the airport: Because flights to Central City on Continental are far less frequent than those to Las Vegas, I needed to awaken at 3:15 to get to the airport for a 6:15 flight. Oh, both of those are ante meridian. In a radical cost-cutting move, and to avoid having another narcoleptic chauffeur from the company's standard car service, I drove my own car to the airport. I decided to bet on there being little traffic, and that I would have no problem leaving my car untended in one of the medium-term lots at Newark for 2 full days.

The one hitch was food. Neither of the local bagel joints were open. I didn't feel like Dunkin Donuts (heresy to some readers here), so I got on the road without further local exploration and pulled into the McDonald's after the Route 3 exit on the Garden State Parkway. There, I ordered the only edible thing on the menu, hash browns. A guy who appeared to be the only employee in the joint asked if it was okay if it took a few minutes to get the two of them cooked, as he had none under the hot lamps; I said no sweat. As if to apologize for the very short wait, he gave me what felt like an extra one. I thanked him profusely and began digging them out one by one, shoveling them in as I drove with my knees. It turned out he gave me five of these steamy little grease slabs! I finished wolfing them down while navigating the little dippity-do through local streets to get from the GSP to 78 East, as I'd seen numerous car-service drivers do on past Vegas airport runs, and was, in record time, zooming onto airport property with an oil-scorched tongue and greasy fingers.

Parking: I left my car somewhat close to the entrance of the airport-wide monorail in one of the medium-term parking lots. I figured the closer to the Air Train entrance, the more often the airport security patrols would pass my car. There were plenty of spaces, actually, and probably even more in the cut-rate long-term lots. I didn't want to experiment while on such a tight schedule. At any rate, the lot was virtually dead. I took a picture of the nearest sign with my cellphone, and hefted my bags over to the escalator to wait for the train. Aside from a change of monorail cars halfway through, this process was quite simple, and I soon found myself at Continental's Terminal C.

Security: The streak of all but cartwheeling through the TSA gauntlet continues unabated. By this point it was about 5:00 or so, and the checkpoint was a ghost town. It might even have been that ersatz Rock Ridge from Blazing Saddles, complete with prop-up plywood TSA staff. With no computer, and all fluids obediently parceled in 3-oz. doses, I had nothing of interest to them. Putting my shoes and belt back on took longer than the whole scan of both me and my gear.

Now we wait: In addition to no bagel stores being open near home, the other flaw in my plan was that newspapers had yet to be delivered to the airport. Considering there had been big weekend financial news, I was hoping to read about the last living moments of Lehman Bros. I would have to wait until I arrived in Central City for a Web-based refresher. So I gritted my teeth while listening to the airport CNN and inane phone conversations of my fellow passengers. (Who the fuck was awake at that hour to take a call?) Boarding of our surprisingly full plane commenced on time, and we pushed away and lofted only about 10 minutes late. Flight was quick and smooth.

Lodgings: It was still way too early to check in at my hotel, but it was across the street from the Central City HQ, so I did duck in to check it out. Seemed nicer than the place I'd stayed the first time. I made my way up to the office, found a rest room to change into garb a bit businesslike, and accompanied one of the Central City magazine staff to my temporary cube. Aside from a computer set up for me to help close the issue in house, the cube was entirely empty. Considering my cube in the NJ office was strewn with many hastily unpacked piles from our move several weeks ago, I gazed on the blank walls and desk surfaces with envy.

Meetings and more meetings: One of my teammates estimated that we spent 5 hours in meetings that Monday. Brutal. The two meetings that mattered most were more or less painless, but I was numb by the end of the two days. Between meetings, I reviewed copy for the issue in production and harassed friends via email.

Night of the living Jesus freaks: Fortunately, my only night out there was a Monday night, so I had the Cowboys–Eagles game to watch. It turned out to be a barn-burner of a match. I caught part of the first quarter over mediocre Mexamerican food at a nearby Chili's. The scoring never stopped in this game; I missed one touchdown while calculating the tip, and a turnover while scouting out the restroom.

I scurried back to my hotel after eating to watch the rest. The lobby, previously empty, was seething with the members of some sort of Christian religious organization. A tour bus or two must have dropped them off. People of all ages, with matching religious medals on their chests, were standing around chatting. Some looked like high schoolers; I wondered how children could get sucked into a sect like this so young. Through the parents, perhaps. A whole clutch of these clowns was fussing over a fundraising sale in one of the small conference rooms, scrutinizing jewelry that made the knockoffs on Canal Street look like the contents of Tiffany's windows. I had to excuse myself twice to edge past one fervent pilgrim buttonholing a priest with the following query: "Does the prayer say, 'Now and at the hour of our death,' or, 'Now and at the hour of our deaths?'" Keep counting those pin-dancing angels, true believer.

I arose late the next morning; between watching the entire game and the luxury of a 2-minute commute, I could afford to sleep in. I wandered out sometime around eight for the hotel's breakfast. In the lobby and lounge, what looked like the entire group of Jesus freaks was congregating for a morning ceremony of some kind. As I sat in the adjoining restaurant area, I watched the harried hostess try to stop the worshippers from taking the chairs away from the tables into the lounge. Each time a new person came down from his or her room to attend the Mass, he or she would try to steal a chair, forcing the hostess to repeat her polite, wordy request not to take chairs from paying restaurant customers. So much for the Eighth Commandment.

One of these zombies tried to shuffle off with my chair while I was toasting a bagel. I rejected the hostess's apologetic approach and merely grabbed the chair to arrest his retreat, saying, "This is mine." The hostess caught up with us and she eased the thief away with her standard apology, sparing me the effort of escalating to threats of a broken pelvis. Apparently this crowd clots the joint a number of times a year. Assuming this poor hostess therefore had to repeat this act each visit, I tipped big.

After showering and dressing, I hauled my shit out to the front desk, having to thread through these pinheads once again. This time, they were all focused on something happening up by where the priest might be. Those not in the lounge seemed distracted, as did the hostess, temporarily drawn from her chair-guarding duties. I found out why. As exited the hotel, an ambulance pulled up, followed closely by a second emergency vehicle. Someone must have been stricken in the short time I was in my room. Well, at least this trip would be memorable for them.

Escape from Central City: My boss kindly drove me to the nearby airport, where — at about 5:15 p.m. — there was no security line whatsoever. I cruised through that, then bought a Wall Street Journal to read about the fast-moving collapse of Lehman for an hour or so. The flight back through beautiful stratospheric twilight took about another hour, and deposited me in Newark on time. There, to my relief, my car sat where I'd left it. I burned rubber for home, where I dropped my luggage and slept deeply, happy to be back in my own bed again.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Nutritional Bankruptcy

HAVE YOU EVER BEEN HAPPY to report failure? Surprisingly, I am. Last week, I failed to stick to the usual eating plan, and didn't track my eating accurately each day. What makes me happy is that this was only the first time I did so in 2 months and 3 weeks on the 30x40 weight loss quest. Even with my hit-and-miss dinner choices during some weeks, this is one of the most consistent attempts to establish a positive habit I've ever undertaken, and I am very pleased with the effort and the results. Plus my failure highlights the vulnerabilities of this plan, which will help me anticipate and avoid them. So even this misstep can be useful. And I'd be more nervous than anything else if I hadn't had at least one bust of a week.

Travel triggered my failure. I spent Monday and Tuesday in Central City, contending with chain-restaurant food, office-cafeteria grub, and gluey nutrition bars, with no gym access. Due to a late-Tuesday return, I had little time to buy decent food (especially vegetables) before Wednesday's workday began, so that day's nutrition was haphazard. Through Saturday, I did record my consumption on paper while at work, and I resumed gym visits Thursday morning, to my great relief (and soreness Friday morning). But my rhythm was thrown off. Most of my meals were in fact "on program," featuring the usual whole grains, proteins, nuts, and smoothie-makin's I eat or drink each day. Dinner choices, though, were poor, including a trip to a Chinese restaurant one night, which I try to restrict to weekends, and rarely at that. I supplemented during the remaining weekdays with protein bars, which I've come to believe are terrible, last-ditch replacements for real food.

So in sum, I declared nutritional bankruptcy last week and decided to soldier through the weekend as best I could, with this week as a chance to pick up where I left off. I weigh 223 lbs. today, not terrible, but a few pounds over where I had been last Sunday. The week proceeding that Sunday was great; I dropped fat on a clean diet and got stronger, particularly in my squat form and capacity. I knew 2 days of travel would disrupt this, so I tried to charge into it with fitness to spare. Gaining fat back to 223 during that trip and its aftermath is therefore not an immovable barrier to progress.

But I have to travel yet again this week, this time to, oh, let's call it River City. This hotel appears to have a partnership with a local gym, so I may be able to lift more often than I could during my two Central City trips. I would be overjoyed to find a squat rack with an Olympic bar to keep that up over my 4 days in the area. But I will be happy with some dumbbells and a couple of weight machines that were manufactured sometime after the release of Pumping Iron. The real challenge will be to find decent food while out there. Once past this week, I should be looking at a free and clear October — and autumn — in which to make the next big push toward the goal.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Elusive Sleep

I'M HAVING SOME TROUBLE SLEEPING. This poses a problem, as I need to awaken tomorrow at 3:00 a.m. I have a sixish flight out of Newark to Central City, and I'm taking the unprecedented step of driving there and parking my car in an airport lot. I prefer to handle unknowns by padding them with lots of time in which to fuck up once or twice.

I'm throwing the company a vague bone in using my own car. The last time I traveled for them, they raised no complaints about my use of the car service with which the company contracts, at an expense of somewhere between $175 and $200 for transit to and from the airport. I'm a little nervous about the expense it takes to get me out there — between hotel and flight, nearly a grand — and I wonder how long it will be before they decide not to burden themselves with such an expense in the NYC area if they can just cut me out and hire locally, as they did when they relocated several titles out there.

I will get reimbursed for using the car at IRS rates, as well as for parking fees and tolls, but using Newark's parking garages is an unknown quantity to me. I have a map of the airport, and the route of a tram that appears to connect the garages with the Continental terminal. My parents quailed at the prospect of my leaving the car so near to Newark. For two days' worth, I figured it was worth a risk. Just as long as I don't come back to find a decomposing Mob figure in my trunk.

If the remnants of Ike don't screw up landing conditions in Central City, I ought to get there well before the opening of the office, and hours prior to the usual 3:00 p.m. check-in time at the hotel out there. I doubt I'll be able to claim my room that early, but I might be able to dump my bags across the street at the office, then use the hotel, then just sort of announce my presence as an eventual paying guest, and either use their gym facilities, or ask them to point me toward the nearest source of real food. The hotel boasts a breakfast buffet. As long as it has caffeine, I'm set. As for the check-in, I'm very tempted to see if they'll compromise with a noon room-claim, then cut over there at lunch and nap for an hour-and-change.

It's actually two meetings I need to attend, one Monday, one Tuesday. The Monday one will probably end up being something I could've attended via speakerphone. The second one affects design of the publication's website, and thus may have a visual component. They're setting up a computer for me out there so I can do work. For some bizarre reason, perhaps because we're ramming this month's issue through production to compensate for three workdays we'll lose to an industry convention at the end of September, I broke a major rule against working on weekends by updating the website from here. (And in record time, with no office distractions.) Granted, the Giants game was on during part of it. But I am a firm believer in not working for free. Still, with my parents trekking down to the Jersey Shore, and thus not present for our usual Sunday dinner, and no duties today save the gym, packing, and football, I wedged in a bit of work. For which I fully intend to take back time from the company at an opportunity of my convenient choosing.

Hell, between these couple of hours, and the time I'll need to burn tomorrow morning and Tuesday night getting my ass to and from the airport, they'll probably end up owing me the better part of a day. The only question is whether to take it as a full day, or to salami-slice bits off of several workdays and either cruise home through unobstructed streets or get 30 minutes more sleep each morning.

May this be the most difficult side effect of letting travel for a job crimp my free time. I'll just be happy if my car's intact when I return.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Squats Are Paying Off

DESPITE SOME OFF-PLAN DINNERS this week, I managed to meet today's goal weight of 221. This after a temporary spike, last weekend, to 226, which I attribute to Sunday's carbohydrate-heavy dinner at my parents' place. Three of my dinners this week were considerably subpar as compared to the clean, controlled portions of protein, complex carbs, and healthful fats I had through the other four or five small meals each day. So why, at the end of the week, when I weighed myself and then double-checked the result with a tape measure around my waist, did I still manage to drop 5 lb.?

I believe it's because my addition of squats to the exercise regimen. This week, I did squats on Tuesday and Thursday, owing to taking Monday off from the gym after a solid week of gym visits. I actually woke up before my alarm on Tuesday morning eager to get over to the gym Squatting was the first thought on my mind. How weird is that?

I bumped up this week to eight reps (from seven) of five squats with nothing on the bar. I'll visit the gym for weight training tomorrow, after a cardio session today, because I don't know what sort of gym facilities the hotel where I'm staying Monday and Tuesday in Central City will have. Doubtful they'll have a power rack. I'll be lucky if they have one of those vibrating weight belts from the Coolidge era. So my idea is to put in a vigorous workout tomorrow that will hold me through spotty exercise opportunities and food options until Wednesday.

But back to the weight loss conundrum. I noticed my face looked a touch thinner; I could see my cheekbones more clearly. The waist measurement this morning indicated I'd lost ½" since last Monday, when the scale read 226. When I walked during the week, I was conscious of my quadriceps, the large thigh muscles that squats target. The feedback I got from them was an odd combo of postworkout soreness (though far less than the first couple of times I squatted) and the sense of being larger. The shape of the muscles are a touch different than two weeks ago. They're not Incredible Hulk huge by any means; I won't have to lay in a massive supply of purple pants to replace the ones my gamma surges shred. Indeed, my quads compete for space with no small amount of adipose tissue, to put it clincally. But it seems to be a slightly smaller amount of said fat, and a touch larger amount of said muscle.

I am permitting myself the least perceptibly hubristic shred of joy I can muster.

When you have an enemy on the run, you pursue and reduce them while they are thus vulnerable. My war against fat is still young. But any war comprises many battles, many duels between armies across the vast theater of strife. If I was able to add muscle and drop fat even when I had nacho chips and cheese two nights this week, along with pizza on a third, how much more success might I achieve with an entirely clean diet? Rather than ruing my slips, I will take them as proof that my exercise plan is working, that the overall 30x40 goal may be achievable, and that if I die young anyway, it will be in the midst of a fight I finally have dedicated myself to winning.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Too Late for a Blog Title Change?

HAD THIS BLOG STARTED ON 9/11/07 instead of 9/11/05, and had I read this interview, by Nick Hornsby, of David Simon, creator/writer/producer of The Wire, at the time, I might have been tempted to use the line in bold Verdana as my blog's title:
NH: Every time I think, Man, I’d love to write for The Wire, I quickly realize that I wouldn’t know my True dats from my narcos. Did you know all that before you started? Do you get input from those who might be more familiar with the idiom?

DS: My standard for verisimilitude is simple and I came to it when I started to write prose narrative: fuck the average reader. I was always told to write for the average reader in my newspaper life. The average reader, as they meant it, was some suburban white subscriber with two-point-whatever kids and three-point-whatever cars and a dog and a cat and lawn furniture. He knows nothing and he needs everything explained to him right away, so that exposition becomes this incredible, story-killing burden. Fuck him. Fuck him to hell.

(Original pair of quotes found, via Merlin Mann's Kung Fu Grippe, in The Believer.)

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Two Minor Steps Toward Better Fitness

LABOR DAY WEEKEND WAS, as I suspected, a foodfest. Though it lacked the sweets and chips I had over July Fourth weekend, just before I started my 30x40 program, it nonetheless included much "off-program" food I don't usually eat on a Monday. After a scary spike to 226 last Tuesday, I worked down to something closer to more recent averages. I missed my target weight for this Saturday of 221.5 by one pound, but it's drifted down a bit today. Even at 222, that leaves 24 more pounds to lose, about 2.4/month by next June 27. Insofar as I've been as low as 219.5 in mid-August, the new goal for next Saturday (221 lb.) ought not be unimaginable should my eating and exercise be sound.

I did make two changes to my life along both these lines in the past couple of weeks. I reduced the amount of Diet Coke (and with it aspartame) I drink, and I added the dreaded squat to my exercise program.

I am a hardcore Diet Coke addict. Caffeine addict, to be precise. Three cans per day keep the headaches away. Nine, twelve, and three is the dosage schedule. I kicked caffeine completely once, for several weeks, by weaning myself off using caffeine-free Diet Coke. This ended when my stress level at work surged. You can imagine how such abstinence didn't occur to me earlier this year.

I've been drinking green tea as the main liquid ingredient of my post-workout protein smoothies for months now. I brew up a big jug of the stuff every week or so and keep it in the fridge, ready to go when I come back from the gym. Two weeks ago, I brewed a travel mug of the tea separately, to drink at work later that morning while eating my cereal or oatmeal. No sweetener; I get enough early-morning simple carbs from the fruit and protein powder in my smoothie. I've been doing this since, except for last Thursday, when I forgot to bring my travel mug home.

This wasn't as much a caffeine-control move as a way to cut my aspartame intake. The amount of tea I'm drinking to replace that first Diet Coke contains nearly twice the caffeine of the omitted soda, according to Wikipedia's caffeine entry. (Though a couple of days last week, I got afternoon caffeine-withdrawal headaches. Another razor-accurate Wikipedia page for you.) For several weekends, I'd been drinking either hot green tea or coffee for my first day's caffeine, so this seemed a a good way to cut my dosage of a potentially dangerous chemical. The last thing I want to find out 40 years ago is that the tumors I'm having irradiated are due to this nasty shit that Donald Rumsfeld pimped to the food industry while working for chemical company G.D. Searle. By then he'll be too dead to receive my vengeance.

As for the exercise change, I attempted to add squats to my exercise routine in 2005. Recovering from the first couple of sessions in which I did them was tough, and I let that difficulty convince me to drop them in favor of an isolation-exercise machine for quadricep development. But I began studying the articles on squats at Stronglifts.com, and realized that I hadn't been doing them right.

I've given them another try, and thus far, I think I'm not only doing them right, but building a little more muscle with them. I have no weight on the bar, which itself weighs about 45 lb. I've been able to increase from five sets to seven (the goal is to have three light warmup sets, then five "working" sets with heavier weights). My quadriceps were burning burger last Sunday, and I could barely manage to sit while standing or get up once seated. The recovery time for each subsequent squat session has been shorter, even while adding new sets. And only my quads have hurt; last time I tried these, my back and knees hurt during recovery. Properly done, squats call upon back muscles and knees as stabilizers; only your quads should be hit. I think I'm doing a better "flight check" of the steps one takes before and during the motion. Bottom line: I haven't blown out a knee or snapped a hamstring. With any luck, greater proficiency and more weight will make those fates even more distant.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Storm Puts Brakes on Poker Jones

A TROPICAL STORM APPROACHES the area, threatening rain, wind, and flooding. I haven't wandered next door to the supermarket to engage in the ritual pre-storm purchase of milk yet. I used to wonder why folks swarmed the milk before hurricanes and snowstorms, but then I began drinking coffee, and then I Understood. Don't keep the residents of America's hurricane belt away from the morning joe, and maybe a nail to suck down while nervously eyeing the Weather Channel.

Aside from a catastrophic rainstorm back in 1994, I've lucked out during recent weather upheavals. Tropical Storm Floyd in 1999 laid waste to any parts of Bergen County near streams or rivers. An apartment complex owned by my landlord took on water to the second floor. Businesses near this building were saturated to the ceilings and condemned. All of this was only a couple hundred yards from my digs. While riding the bus on the Garden State Parkway the next day, I could see water shimmering in an unbroken sheet across the backyards of houses along the highway. Mere feet from my previous place of residence in Hackensack, Route 17 had become an inland sea through its Lodi–Rochelle Park stretch.

It's a stone bummer I won't be able to travel this weekend, but there's nothing out there that won't wait until fairer skies make my drive easier. I've got an itch to hit one of the local casinos. I haven't visited a cardroom since my return from Las Vegas. The Borgata is hosting a series of poker tournaments, which has the benefit of bringing out more crummy players, and would offer me another chance to say hi to the one and only Dr. Pauly of Tao of Poker, who is down there covering the tourneys. But that would take me straight down the barrel of the storm.

Heading north to Connecticut is the other option, but then I'd get tagged by Hannah's remnants while driving home in the dark. I do want to check out the expanded New England poker market soon. After missing out on the hold'em craze nearly from Day One by closing its poker room 5 years ago, Mohegan Sun launched a new cardroom this Labor Day. I've been giving them some time to get their shit together . . . and from the looks of this thread on the 2+2 Forums, they still have some glitches to shake loose. I hope they do.

It does seem they're trying to distinguish themselves from the 100-table poker room down the road at Foxwoods. From what I've read, poker dealers at Mohegan Sun keep their own tips, rather than following the lead of Foxwoods poker dealers many years ago to pool their tips with those earned by the rest of the casino's dealers. Nearly alone among the nation's poker dealers in this practice, Foxwoods' dealers occasionally get accused of being less committed to customer service. Insofar as the tips they're earning through good performance aren't entirely "theirs," they're perceived as not working for them as hard as Vegas or Atlantic City dealers do. I've seen dealers of every level of dedication at the Woods, both at poker tables and the regular casino games, but the rep was strong enough to motivate Big Mo's card-slingers to follow the example of their colleagues across the country and hang onto the chips they pick up during their downs.

Even grading the reactions of 2+2's posters on the usual curve for Internet opinions, there still seem to be some areas where the Mohegan Sun management can improve: selection of table limits, confused floor staff, the announcement system (i.e., the PA that calls players to games), weird cards. Plus they may have overtaxed their greenhorn dealers by soft-launching on a holiday weekend, which is going to stress even a veteran crew. Their official launch is said to be in October sometime. Still, even a couple of weeks' duty will tighten the operation, assuming the management is observant and attends to the real issues (and doesn't give in to any little nitty twitch of the notoriously fussy poker community). I'm looking forward to visiting, now that buying gasoline only requires a single kidney for collateral rather than both lungs or a leg. I like the ambience at Big Mo more than the mall-with-gambling feel of their older cousin down the road, Foxwoods. Granted the latter has upgraded its apparatus, pairing up with casino giants MGM Mirage to open a new wing. I haven't seen either the new Sun poker room or the Foxwoods expansion yet, and I'd like to take a day to explore them both.

This month will be a travel-packed cavalcade of whimsy, though. Two days in Central City midmonth, then four days at an industry convention in the final full week of September. Keeping the weekends free might be the only thing that keeps me sane amid this, and I might end up preferring just hanging locally for a boardgame night or run to a local eatery. We'll see how weekend plans pan out as this summer lashes us with its final few weeks of spiteful heat and hurricanes, before yielding to the welcoming embrace of autumn.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

The Sarah Palin Question Nobody's Asking

WHERE WAS SARAH PALIN WHEN the plane of Louisiana Congressman Hale Boggs — a member of the Warren Commission — disappeared without a trace in Alaska?

And don't give me that "But she was seven!" shit. I've seen The Bad Seed.