Macro a day, week 3

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Several of this week’s photos portray a new raised bed we installed last weekend for vegetables and herbs. I confess I was so preoccupied with the project that I missed doing my macro challenge one day, so I used two photos from another day to make up the week.

The stretch of mild spring weather encouraged me to seed several crops. Within three days arugula had sprouted. Thyme, sage, tarragon and lovage went into their squares today. Chionodoxa, miniature daffodils and crocuses appeared around the neighbourhood.

Macro a day, week 2

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Here are the photos from my second week of shooting a macro a day, focusing mostly on the world of small beneath my feet. In keeping with early April in Ontario, the weather gave me a chance to photograph snow and rain.

But the unrivaled highlight of the week was spotting and photographing a lovely butterfly this afternoon, a new species for me. It’s Nymphalis milberti, Milbert’s tortoiseshell, which inhabits the boreal forest, much further north than here. It’s in the same genus as the larger mourning cloak, a more common sight this time of year. However, the Peterson field guide says this beauty occasionally migrates further south. I feel lucky.

Macro a day, week 1

Click photos to view in a carousel.

Beginning April 1, I began a self-challenge to take a photo every day using my new macro lens. I’ll post the results periodically in galleries. So here are the first four.

The lens came as a reward for 11 months of exercising regularly. Every week, if I exercised at least four days, I could put money in a jar toward the purchase. Bribery works wonders, and I seldom fell short of the goal.

It’s a good thing to give ourselves incentive to achieve difficult goals. I don’t necessarily enjoy rigorous exercise, but I love doing photography.

For a long time, I’ve wanted to do more serious macro photography. The basic lens that came with my Canon Rebel XSi camera has a reasonable macro function. But I couldn’t get as close to the subject as I liked. The new lens allows me to do so.

I’m used to having a zoom function. This lens has a fixed focal length. This forces me to put extra consideration into how I compose photos when I take them. It’s going to be a learning experience. I haven’t set an end date for this challenge. A year might be impractical but interesting.

This photography project will focus primarily on the world of small beneath our feet, things that live and grow on the surface of the earth.

Opportunity and adventure: moving to Waterloo

Houseplants in living room window

It might look peaceful enough, but this living room is the scene of a recent dramatic transition. My partner and I have just finished moving our home from Guelph to Waterloo, Ontario.

Moving is supposedly one of the most stressful life experiences, along with getting married and losing a loved one. Having a sensitivity to the spirit of a place or genius loci, I’m prone to anxiety about changing my home.

We didn’t especially want to give up the place we left. We loved the house but the rent was high. Finances required us to reduce housing costs. We considered buying but the time wasn’t right. We had to weigh our priorities and make some compromises. It could have been a terribly depressing process. Besides, I had lived in Guelph for 32 years and loved the city.

Despite this, the move has turned out extremely well. The right frame of mind was essential. Treating the transition as an adventure and opportunity has made it happy rather than regrettable. Good luck brought us into a spacious townhouse backing on extensive parkland rather than a cramped inner city apartment. We’ve still had to downsize. It has been a valuable exercise in simplifying our lifestyle. But I look forward to living here with unreserved joy.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll post some more thoughts on the subject of moving, along with some portraits of our new home city, Waterloo.

Coincidentally, I bought a new macro lens. Starting yesterday I began challenging myself to take a photo every day with it, lasting some period of time yet to be determined. This photographic study will emphasize the world of small and the ground beneath my feet. Watch for periodic galleries of these images.

In leaving Guelph, I considered whether I should change the name of this blog. I no longer have any immediate connection with the Speed River or its little sister, the Eramosa River. However, in some respect I’ll always feel at home with them, and both flow into the Grand River which is the lifeblood of Waterloo Region. For me, place has to do with knowing who we are and where we belong, and flowing water remains a metaphor for life. For now, the rivers of Guelph remain part of my identity.

Four best gluten-free bread recipes

Gluten Free Maple Oatmeal Bread

It takes a little extra time and patience, but there are few do-it-yourself foods so satisfying as homemade yeast bread. It presents a special challenge for gluten-free cooks. Gluten-free bread gets a bad rap for being fussy and cardboard-like. However, I’ve discovered it’s no harder than conventional bread and, as usual with gluten-free cooking, with persistence we can find alternatives every bit as delicious as conventional recipes, if not more so.

I didn’t have much information when I realized I was gluten intolerant seven years ago. I had recently bought a bread machine as consolation when my mother was dying of cancer, but it only brought more grief. I was aware I had some unidentified food sensitivity but unfortunately it was all that good, fresh, homemade bread that made me truly sick for the first time. When I started recovering on a gluten-free diet, one of the first things I had to do was get that bread machine out of my home.

We didn’t have as many gluten-free options in 2008. All the bread I tasted was truly horrible. So I stopped eating it entirely for several years. We didn’t have that many recipes either, so I had no idea delicious homemade loaves were possible let alone straightforward. I consoled myself with simpler experiments, and discovered gluten-free muffins can be awesome.

Recently, some delicious gluten-free bread has become available from local bakeries. Over the past year, we have become daily consumers of fresh bread again. However, I have several serious reservations about these.

First and most serious, they don’t necessarily come from dedicated gluten-free bakeries. While the recipe itself contains none of the forbidden grains – wheat, rye, barley, spelt or kamut – conventional wheat bread comes out of the same kitchens. No doubt the pans and ovens are contaminated with gluten. Though I’m not sensitive enough to get sick at these low concentrations, it’s still a serious consideration because people with celiac disease can have ongoing damage without showing any symptoms.

I hate to criticize local bakers who want to make life easier by baking for people on a restricted diet. Unfortunately it’s part of an overwhelming fad around the gluten-free diet that can trivialize the safety of millions of people with a serious health problem. In my own life I’m moving toward buying food only from dedicated gluten-free kitchens, and it seriously restricts my options. I may not be able to buy bread from the neighbourhood bakery, as I’d like to. Fortunately, many more businesses, restaurants and food stores are beginning to take gluten contamination seriously.

My other gripe has to do with healthy grains, never mind whether or not they’re gluten free. Gluten-free baking has to combine whole grains flours for flavour and nourishment with refined flours and starches to soften the texture. In my own baking I use two parts whole grain to one part starch, which provides a good balance of wholesomeness and tastiness. The delicious local bakery bread calls itself quinoa flax bread, two seeds rich in healthy fibre, protein and fatty acids, but I suspect the soft texture comes from an overabundance of tapioca starch.

This is no different from conventional baking. People love the texture of white bread, but it’s not so healthy for you. Those refined flours have a higher glycemic load. Recent information from food research indicates starches are also to blame for high cholesterol, a risk factor for heart disease.

Finally, it’s hard for budget-conscious folks to buy gluten-free bread without balking at the price. Three loaves of quinoa flax bread sell for $15 at our farmers’ market. It’s a bargain by gluten-free standards, but still 60 percent more than I’d expect to pay for conventional artisanal bread.

With safety, nutrition and economy in mind, I recently started baking our own bread again. In the future I’d like to experiment with my own formulae, but it’s best to take a few lessons from experience. There are lots of excellent blogs about gluten-free cooking. Two I’ve often drawn inspiration from are Gluten-Free Goddess and Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef. I’m confident any of their recipes will turn out well, plus providing interesting and beneficial information.

In the past month I’ve tried four bread recipes, and it’s not as hard as expected. They tend to follow the same pattern: proof the yeast, whisk together the dry ingredients, add the liquids, blend thoroughly with dough hooks in the stand mixer, pour into a loaf pan, let rise in a warm oven and then bake. Kneading doesn’t come into it, because that’s a process designed to activate the stickiness of gluten. Neither does punching down the dough and letting it rise again a second time. So in fact gluten-free bread involves less hassle if we get the formula right. Thankfully, for the past few years lots of people have been experimenting and telling us what they know.

All the recipes I’ve tried this month have been excellent, but this is partly because I have enough experience to know a disaster (or at least a waste of time and ingredients) when I see one. For instance, as yummy as buckwheat may be, I won’t be trying pure buckwheat bread with no other flours. My intention was to get a few promising recipes in my arsenal so we don’t have to eat the same bread every week, and find out what makes the perfect loaf before I start tweaking to suit our own taste buds. Here’s a review of the ones I’ve tried so far:

  • Gluten-free oatmeal maple bread from Gluten-Free & More. My first attempt was possibly the best bread I’ve ever made, no exaggeration! My favourite conventional recipe for many years was maple oatmeal bread from one of the Harrowsmith cookbooks. I tried to convert the recipe several years ago, but while cakes and muffins can handle conversion, bread recipes don’t work very well because the differences in moisture and flours is so drastic. So I was delighted to find this recipe (top photo) turned out so well: soft, not crumbly, slightly dense but not heavy, not dry, crust slighty crunchy, and with my favourite redolence of oatmeal and maple syrup. As a first effort, it was an overwhelming success. I expect this will become my favourite standby again. The recipe makes two loaves and freezes well.
  • High protein quinoa bread from Simply Quinoa. It was hard to find fault with this one. If I hadn’t been so blown away by the first experiment, I’d be more effusive about this one. It’s an excellent bread that will become another standard in the repertoire.
  • Gluten-free multi-grain sandwich bread from Gluten-Free Goddess. Another delicious bread. The cornmeal imparts a certain squeaky crispness to the crust (like deep snow on a very cold day) and a novelty to the inner texture. The bread was slightly crumbly. My partner liked it a lot. It was my least favourite so far, but only because the others were so outstanding. It scores high enough to become another regular.
  • Gluten-free pumpernickel bread from Carla’s Gluten Free Recipe Box. I recently discovered Poschaven Farms grows and mills organic, gluten-free buckwheat in Northern Ontario. This inspired me to look for a rye-style bread based on buckwheat, containing molasses and caraway seed. It took some persistent Googling to find one that met my criteria. I used to love pumpernickel, so this was fun to make. It just came out of the oven this morning (photo below) and it’s very good: more fragrant than flavourful, but still tasty. It’s a little on the soft and spongy side, very appealing, but it contains more starch than is necessary. So I might try tweaking this one next time around by replacing some starch with more buckwheat or another flavourful flour: quinoa or amaranth. But this clearly holds its own in my Evernote cookbook.

Gluten Free Pumpernickel Bread

Note that all these breads become a little stiffer with time. I’m not sure what does this to gluten-free breads, but I suspect its the eggs, used for leavening, which harden with age. It doesn’t mean they’re stale. It might take getting used to, but toast the slices lightly and they’re awesome as ever. The maple oatmeal bread makes particularly wonderful toast.

I slice the entire loaf as soon as its cool (fairly thinly, because these breads are hearty enough to stretch a long way). I suspect they would be more crumbly if I didn’t slice them right away. They’re good for four or five days in the refrigerator. I froze the second loaf of maple oatmeal bread (already sliced) and it was just fine.

I almost regret waiting seven years to start baking bread again, but maybe the timing is important. We’re getting ready to move so it’s a time of transition. I’ve recently been trying to make even more of our food from scratch: things like hummus, granola cereal – and bread. It’s less convenient and requires some commitment, but the reward is better nutrition and satisfaction in what we eat.

The personal energy budget: recognizing limits

Resting Sheep

The present is a satisfying time and place to be. The pleasure I find in my work is also providing a new lesson about relaxation.

For many years anxiety and depression limited my energy, holding me back from doing many things I needed or wanted to do. I don’t believe those limitations were wrong. It was a check and balance system identifying what I could handle, what took too much energy and what aspects of my emotional organization and environment needed improvement. Now I’ve fixed so many things that I no longer encounter those limits, at least very seldom. I still know and respect my own limits. But when an opportunity arises, I’m more likely to accept it than balk at it. This new energy balance has persisted for 15 months.

Recently, I’ve started encountering another limit at the other side of my energy: the long side rather than the short side. It’s simple mental exhaustion, in which I have to stop working. I encountered this several times in February because I would work though the weekends — not a full day, but maybe three to six hours on Saturday and Sunday. In consequence, exhaustion would hit midweek.

Two weeks ago, on Thursday, I got up, tried to write and had to go back to bed four times before realizing I wouldn’t be able to do any work and had to take the whole day off. Unpleasant emotions did not present themselves. My brain simply refused to supply the level of concentration needed for work.

After a day’s rest, Friday was remarkably productive.

It’s amusing to observe this unfamiliar aspect of myself unfold. Never in my life have I enjoyed working as I do now. Occasionally in the past a personal project, like self-publishing a chapbook of poetry, would consume all my time and enthusiasm for several weeks. When it ended I was always exhausted and the familiar listlessness of depression would take over again.

Now it’s becoming easier to distinguish weariness from the Slough of Despond. The solution is simple: just unplug myself for a day. There’s no need to lose enthusiasm for what comes next. There will be more and better work two months and two years from now. It’s something to look forward to at every turn.

There’s a wee part of me that wishes I were even more energetic, that I could run a little harder and longer before losing steam.

But at 50 years, I’m stronger and happier than I was at 46 or 31 or 24, overall I enjoy how I’m spending my time, and evidently my body still has things to teach me about balance. Really, I wouldn’t change anything. I’ve always believed the best things in life are worth working for.

What is your personal energy budget? How do you know when you’ve reached the limit? What do you need to recharge? How do you balance the need for rest and relaxation within your work routine?

Gratitude and the exercise groove

Dumbell

Since a string of minor physical ailments in January broke down my exercise routine, I’ve finally overcome physical and mental barriers and returned to the groove the past week or so. I’m glad of it, but whenever I do the intense resistance workout (three times a week), I still (as always) hear a whining inner voice: “I don’t want to do this. How many more seconds for this set? When will it be over?” Today it made think about the reasons I’m thankful for this routine.

With that thought….Bang!

I realized I’ve been missing one of the vital parts of my morning wake-up ritual: writing three points of gratitude when I arrive at my desk. I completely forgot about it. I don’t know how long ago: months probably. Despite the fact it was something I really liked doing.

I suppose this is part of the reason community rituals (as in churches) are so powerful: they remind us what to do. Unfortunately for me, community rituals trigger old trauma. I need to use pictures, words and the structure of routine to remind myself, and they’re not always foolproof. Tomorrow morning I’ll start again.

But for now, here are specific points of gratitude related to the resistance workouts. I’m thankful for having more energy, the support to good mental health, the long-sought improvement in my blood cholesterol, the subtle improvements in how my body looks and feels, the 20-minute midday music break long enough for five or six songs, and learning to stick with something I don’t necessarily enjoy doing.

Reducing cholesterol: my reluctant ban on cheese

Cheeses by Graeme Mclean on FlickrI just received excellent news from the doctor’s office.

For the past couple of years we’ve been struggling to bring down my blood cholesterol. In the fall, my doctor said I’d plateaued just below the level of moderate risk for heart disease and, with no sign of improvement, she wanted me to start taking statins to control it. She gave me a prescription.

I told her I didn’t want to take statins. So I agreed to sign up for a year-long health program through the clinic. In November I started meeting with a nurse, a nutritionist and a kinesiologist once every three months.

I think a lot about food. I prepare most of our meals from scratch and try to make them balanced and healthy, but as of November my cholesterol had not responded.

So I decided to give up cheese. Close friends will know this was a painful sacrifice. The foods I love best are fruit, mushrooms, shellfish and cheese. Unfortunately, when I’m tired (which happens every evening) I loose discretion about what I eat. I was easily consuming two pounds of cheese a week.

This is by no means an argument that people should cut out cheese for heart health. Cheese is a good source of protein, and not the worst culprit where cholesterol is concerned. The nutritionist expressed doubts about eliminating it while still permitting butter and coconut oil.

The difference is that a teaspoon of butter on toast can pack a load of satisfying flavour. Cutting back to an appropriate daily serving of cheese was not going to work for me, because I was using cheese to satisfy an emotional craving – one that was never satisfied.

The only practical strategy was an outright ban, to begin with. Danny agreed, good man, because he loves it as much as I do. Initially I had in mind that we could have cheese once a month for a special treat.

Two months into the experiment, I’ve found it possible to buy cheese if it’s dedicated for a specific meal, usually low-fat. For example, last week we bought half a pound of low-fat mozzarella for a lasagna that gave us two meals.

When I open the fridge in the evening, I still crave that cheese, but can remind myself of its purpose. Instead I reach for something containing less fat. For my daily fix of richness, I’m relying more often on high-protein Greek yogurt or toast with a little butter. No more giant pig wedges every night before bed.

Krista, the kinesiologist, has been particularly helpful in achieving my exercise goals, phoning every two weeks to see how I’m doing. My goal is exercise six days a week: three days walking and three days of resistance training: essentially a high-energy workout that combines cardio with light weights to develop different muscle groups.

With winter weather, house hunting and getting ready to move, I’ve had a hard time staying on top of it, but the accountability has helped. In reality, I’ve been exercising four or five days a week, and it dropped off completely when I was sick in January. But I keep getting back on the horse. When I went for an extra check-in with Krista a month ago, I had lost six pounds since November.

Now for the good news. In preparation for my appointment with the health program trio next week, I went for blood tests yesterday. The results already came back to my doctor this morning. Her assistant called.

My bad cholesterol has come down significantly. I’m on target! She asked if I was taking statins. No, I didn’t get the prescription filled. I don’t need to take them, she said. The doctor wants me to continue with the health program for the full year, of course, which I will gratefully do.

My low-cheese diet is working. The key is treating it as an ingredient instead of a main course. A wedge of nippy whiskey cheddar or a silky Camembert disc sitting in the fridge at night would be harder to resist. Even those are candidates for special occasions, parties and birthdays. I like looking forward to things, and few things are more delicious to anticipate than cheese. But my relationship with it has changed, and my heart is thanking me.

Photo courtesy of Graeme Mclean on Flickr via Creative Commons.

Oral hygiene versus the microbiome

toothbrush and toothpaste

Last week I went to the dentist to find out that a tooth, which chipped about two months ago, had indeed become abscessed. We can’t afford the root canal, but losing this molar would not be a good option because the adjacent premolar is already missing (since about 1986). I’d lose too much chewing capacity on the right side. A root canal it must be.

I don’t especially hate dentists. Though I must say, I’m skeptical about conventional hygiene, oral and otherwise, with its phobia about dirt and bacteria. Except for the previous emergency 10 years ago, when one of my wisdom teeth split in two and had to be extracted, I hadn’t attended a dentist in about 12 years because I couldn’t afford it.

As an experiment, I stopped brushing about eight years ago, and my previously very sensitive teeth stopped hurting. No one reported bad breath when asked. My gums stopped receding and nothing fell out. I still floss sometimes. I have two previously chipped teeth that were sensitive for a while, then stopped. I’d fix them if I could afford to, but the roots weren’t affected and they haven’t given me any problems in five years.

But until last week I hadn’t owned a toothbrush for years. At the moment I’m enjoying the sensation of having them clean, but aren’t we all trained this way ever since those regimental fluoride applications in grade school? How much is necessary and how much are we supporting an industry that has us all convinced we need to spend many thousands of dollars on our mouths over the course of a lifetime? This is so ingrained that I’m embarrassed to admit this rebellion in print.

I have come to believe that my mouth is healthier with a natural population of microbes. Probably most of our dental problems come from inappropriate diets. I’ve minimized my consumption of refined sugars and I’m working on reducing those starchy carbohydrates, the two main offenders against healthy enamel. This seems to me a more effective, economical approach.

It’s not only the teeth. I’ve reduced my use of other personal products as well. Some years ago, I stopped using any soap above the neck. This was not a private experiment, because I knew others who had done it. Soap goes only on those body parts that actually need it: armpits, genitals, crotch and feet. I have sensitive skin, too. Without soap, my face stopped getting adult acne.

I wash my hair with water alone. This adjustment was hard. At first it felt so greasy, it drove me nuts. But my scalp chemistry changed over the next six months. My fine hair became softer, glossier and healthier than before. Unfortunately I’m naturally oily (I’m one of those people who stains his pillow, though it was even worse when I used soap on my head), so my hair won’t take to growing long.

I even tried dropping my lifetime dependency on antiperspirant, but that experiment flopped. A yeast infection plagued me all last winter. Even corn starch and health store alternatives failed to do the trick. Apparently my pampered body was not ready to make the adjustment. Okay, I’m inclined to sweat, so I retreated to my Gillette stick. Maybe this would have been more successful were I more physically active and less overweight, but that’s an alternate reality. Everybody is different and this is one thing my body and lifestyle require.

Overall, I think we’re too obsessed with being clean. Medical research is only now revealing how much our bodies depend on the microbiome, that huge population of organisms that lives in and on us. In fact, we can’t survive without it. It effects our digestive, nervous, immune and other organ systems. I’ve been reminded of this by the regimen of antibiotics, necessary to bring down the infection in my tooth, and what harsh side effects it has had on my digestive process. I’ve been tired and dehydrated for 10 days.

There is even evidence that the bacteria living in plaques on our teeth provide protection against certain diseases. So maybe I’ll stop using the toothbrush again once this ordeal is finished.

No doubt, I need a dentist now. Without modern medicine I might die of infection or, at the very least, lose the tooth in a painful, undignified and risky way. Evolution didn’t design our teeth to last 75 years, but I do hope to live and enjoy meals for at least that long.

Maybe that’s why we’re so paranoid about filth. It’s the old fight against eternity, and the gnawing realization that bacteria will someday consume our bodies. The body’s slow decay during life and afterward is tragic, inevitable and natural.

Interview with gluten free expert Joe Murray

Joseph Murray photo courtesty of Mayo ClinicIn my research for Gluten-Free Living I’ve spoken with many experts, focusing particularly on celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity. I’ve had the privilege of several fascinating conversations with Joseph Murray, M.D., at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.

Most articles call for me to interview various people, then select a few smatterings of insight to include. This is one of the hardest parts of journalism: passing judgment on the relevance and erudition of other people’s words, and getting it right.

If I were writing a corporate publication I could let the person proofread my interpretation, but for a journalist this is inappropriate. Certainly, I check facts with the people I interview, but to some extent I must trust my own understanding of what was said. This requires serious homework beforehand and never being afraid to ask stupid questions, especially when discussing something as complicated as an auto-immune disorder.

Last year Dr. Murray wrote Mayo Clinic Going Gluten Free, a definitive volume for anyone who needs to follow the diet. The book became available in November. Gluten-Free Living asked me to do a question-and-answer format story with the author.

As I recall, I received a review copy about 48 hours before the interview. I’m no speed reader, but it was fascinating to wade through. Besides that, I had been following research in this area for a while, so I had some questions he didn’t address in the book.

I took more of his time than usual: a full hour. It was, for me, one of the most interesting interviews I’ve done. Big sections needed to be cut to fit the space available. Fortunately one of these cut questions inspired a further article slated to appear in the March/April issue of the magazine. But essentially, I was able to share with readers most of this stimulating conversation.

If you haven’t already seen it in the magazine, I hope you’ll enjoy it now. I’ve added the PDF to my portfolio page: Writing the Book on Gluten Free: Celiac Disease Expert Joseph Murray Pens a How-To guide.

One of the things I love best abut journalism is telling other people’s stories, and what they know. Dr. Murray is one of those fascinating people with great passion for their work, and it’s satisfying to be in a position of interpreting his knowledge for other people.

Photo of Joseph Murray courtesy of Mayo Clinic.