Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Going Grain-Free ... For Now

A full 9 months into this year and my medical quest to find health is at its end.  I have exhausted all options for doctors and learned much along the way, mainly about things that I don't have.  I do not suffer from high cholesterol, diabetes, a malfunctioning thyroid, nutrient deficiencies, a sleep disorder, any endocrine issues, allergies, or a number of gastrointestinal disorders.

My recent endoscope/colonoscopy revealed a relatively healthy GI system, with the exception of acid reflux.  Which is odd, considering I don't experience symptoms of heartburn.  Nonetheless, erosion to my esophagus lining was noted.  Nothing else was found.

It's a funny thing to know your body isn't functioning properly and have no diagnosis in hand to improve your health when the regular efforts of diet and exercise haven't touch your ailments.  At this point, I rather give up on finding a concrete reason why I can't achieve physical wellness.

But the search these long months has not been in vain.  Dumping birth control profoundly stabilized a number of issues I was experiencing and Vitamin D cut through the mess of hormones the birth control had created.

It will be interesting to see if taking Prilosec for the acid reflux will make any difference.  I'm not fond of taking medications long term, so the plan is to use the pills until the end of the year and then examine other options.  

In the meantime, I'm initiating my plan to cut out grains from my diet.  If I'm eating cleanly, then maybe I'll have better luck at figuring out what triggers my digestive distress.  I don't know if this will be a permanent diet switch and I'm certainly not being as strict as avoiding things with yeast extract or corn starch.  

I'm simply categorizing grains as a treat, something to have once in a long while.  Because I know this Casey's pizza lover will eventually cave.  At this point, drastically cutting back but not out is my approach.

Here's a recent dinner: 8oz of tandoori-spiced chicken, green beans with almonds, parmesan-roasted potatoes, and this amazing blend of orange-poached pears and apples (recipe to come since BHG doesn't have this online).  Paired with a glass of milk, my belly was comfortably full but not gassy and I have leftovers that will be the envy of my coworkers tomorrow. 

Do note that me avoiding grains isn't about vilifying carbs - it's about me trying to find what balance of foods is right for my body.  With oats a problem, whole corn a source of headaches, and rice recently making my tummy unhappy, it's very much worth my time to rid myself of related foods to see if that will help. 

On an ending thought - Did you know your insurance is unlikely to cover an endoscope/ colonoscopy if you're under the age of 50?  Me neither, though I doubt knowing that beforehand would have changed my mind about getting one.  Is $350 worth knowing that I definitely do not have Celiac's, IBS, or colitis?  I'm not sure if I could say either way. 

What are you doing as of late to improve your health?

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell (review)

Do you believe in the idea of the self-made man or woman or do you acknowledge that we are all products of hundreds of influences, from our parents, teachers, and friends to innate abilities, the culture we're born to, and our ability to seize an opportunity?  Outliers: The Story of Success is a fascinating book by Malcolm Gladwell that explores how the world around us is just as important to our success as individual traits. 

I got introduced to this book at work.  My coworker had found the book somewhat depressing, in that her interpretation was that it argued that uber successful people - like a Steve Jobs, the Beatles, or Bill Gates - are rare anomalies in our culture, folks who just happened to be at the right place at the right time.  I've never looked kindly on the idea that success is a matter of luck, so I was intrigued.

Turns out the book takes a different approach - it argues that we incorrectly define success as the result of someone's individual traits and efforts while ignoring the many influences that shape that person. 

In an interview included at the back of the book, Gladwell says, "What I came to realize in writing Outliers is that we've been far too focused on the individual - on describing the characteristics and habits and personality traits of those who get furthest ahead in the world.  And that's the problem, because in order to understand outliers I think you have to look around them - at their culture, community, family, and generation.  We've been looking at tall trees, and I think we should be looking at the forest." 

The argument is that no man or woman is an island - success isn't forged from a person's singular will and drive.  Instead, it is a complex, fluid combination of factors, some that you have control over, some that are a byproduct of your culture and time period.  "Ability, opportunity, and utterly arbitrary advantage" drive our achievements, whether we want to acknowledge that or not.

The common yet incorrect notion that success is achieved by individual efforts alone
This was an intriguing idea to me.  I've always been curious about influences such the validity of birth order (I fit the description of an oldest child to a T), your personality profile (like Myers-Brigg, I am totally an extrovert), or even something as unscientific as astrology signs (again, perfect example of an Aries).  But I'd never really wanted to acknowledge how the sum of my life is a collaborative effort and any resulting success is owed to those factors.

Gladwell provides many examples of how a person's skills and experiences + their ability to recognize an opportunity can catapult them to astronomical good fortune.  What's important to recognize is that the outliers of any given time, like a Mark Zuckerberg, logged in many hours to get to where they're at.  Personality traits and culture opportunities aside, hard work is still at the heart of success.

Interestingly, 10,000 hours of time dedicated to honing a skill allows you to call yourself an expert.  The number is borrowed from computer programming, but it serves as a benchmark for any skill you need to develop.

The Beatles are a great example.  You could write a whole book about how each of the four members were really gifted musicians and how they spent their childhood developing their individual proficiencies.  But singularly gifted musicians do not a successful band make.
Gladwell points to their time spent in Hamburg, Germany where the band took a low-paying, lack luster gig where they played for 8 hours a day, 7 days a week.  They ended up playing live 1,200 times before their success blew up in Liverpool.  All of that practice resulted in fine tuning their style, memorizing all their music plus covers, and developing the stamina for perform live.  

The key here is that the Fab Four not only were a mixture of individual talents, but together they recognized the value of their performances in Hamburg.  Because they saw the benefit of hours on end of practicing, they could take advantage of it.

And that's the key takeaway from the book - you need to recognize your own strengths and when an opportunity comes along to develop them further.  

"It is not the brightest who succeed ... nor is success simply the sum of the decisions and efforts we make on our own behalf.  It is, rather, a gift.  Outliers are those who have been given opportunities - and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them" (pg 267).

I think about my own life and find this to be true.  An average college professor teaches 6 courses a year.  When I lived in Cedar Falls, I taught 30 courses in two years - unintentionally cramming five years of teaching experience into less than half the normal time.  

Before that in college, I was a marching assistant in marching band, meaning that I taught drill and marching fundamentals to my section.  I was also in a greek organization and for two years I was responsible for the education of new members.  In high school, I helped with Sunday School, was a teaching assistant to a grade-school band, and spent a semester helping in a special ed classroom.  And hats off to all of the wonderful teachers I had along the way that encouraged me to grow and served as role models.

I joke that being a teacher is part of my personality.  While that's true to some extent - I like talking in front of people, I gravitate to leadership roles, and I'm a passionate learner - I've also amassed a huge volume of teaching experiences in a condensed time frame.  

And it wasn't by accident - I always knew I wanted to be a teacher in some form, so I was always looking for opportunities to try it out.  It doesn't mean I'm a better teacher than other folks my age, only that I'm a more practiced teacher.  I'm more experienced and comfortable because of the exposure I've had. 

I could outline the same thing when it comes to my love of writing and literature - how my parents swear I could read at an early age, the availability of books in our house, how my hometown had an excellent library, that I had fantastic English teachers at every step of the way, and how I was always writing creative stories as a kid.  

But it was me who decided to turn this love into a degree, strategically picked classes, joined professional organizations, took an editing job at my college newspaper, tutored in a writing center, volunteered to edit a department publication, and went to a ton of conferences to test out my own research. 

I hope I don't sound egotistical looking at my path to success, which is moderate in my own eyes given my 28 years.  Will I ever be famous as Bill Gates or Lady Gaga?  No, and that's ok.  We can't all be outliers (not to mention that kind of fame has a lot of downsides).  But we can take an inventory of our own strengths and be vigilant for opportunities to move us forward.

"It is impossible for a hockey player, or Bill Joy, or Robert Oppenheimer, or any other outlier for that matter, to look down from their lofty perch and say with truthfulness, 'I did this, all by myself.'  Superstar lawyers and math whizzes and software entrepreneurs appear at first blush to lie outside ordinary experience.  But they don't.  They are products of history and community, of opportunity and legacy.  Their success is not exceptional or mysterious.  It is grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky - but all critical to making them who they are.  The outlier, in the end, is not an outlier at all" (pg 285). 

I truly enjoyed reading this book - clearly from the length of my review, it was thought-provoking.  Not in a controversial sense, but in that it encouraged me to look at my life and acknowledge the many shaping influences to my achievements, whether I had control over them or not.  It also prompted me to revisit how I personally define success: in life, relationships, my jobs, our finances, ect.  Definitely something to mull over.

I would recommend this book to anyone, but particularly those in career-oriented fields, those at the bottom of the corporate ladder, and anyone who enjoy sociology or behavior sciences.  The book is written in a clear writing style, is well organized, and cites all of its research.  I'll definitely be checking out Gladwell's other books in the near future.

How do you define success in your life?  Can you see how particular moments, key people, and personal qualities have helped you get to where you are?

Monday, September 3, 2012

Tidbits from a Busy Bee

Hello strangers!  The Busy Bee is ready to give her monthly report.  Ready?  In between interesting tidbits, my photos will show some of the fun I've squeezed into my crazy schedule.

Madison Farmer's Market


The ongoing hunt to find the source of my health issues is hopefully on the last legs of the journey.  A trip to the allergist showed nary a peep of an allergy, both for foods and pollens.

The last stop is the gastroenterologist (GI specialist).  I suffer from an unneeded amount of digestive distress.  While I've done sleuthing in my diet to discover triggers, the inconsistency in my symptoms has made it impossible on my own to get to the root cause.

Boating on the Mississippi
Later this week, I will have the distinct honor of getting an endoscope and colonoscopy.  I am so excited <sarcasm>.  The doctor's going to be looking for signs of Celiac's Disease, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and Colitis. 

No matter what's found, I have decided to avoid wheat products henceforth.  There's a lot of diets out there that echo this - Paleo, low carb, Atkins, ect.  This isn't about those.  It's about me acknowledging that if oats do terrible things to me and corn sometimes gives me a headache, then maybe grains as a whole would be better left out of my diet.

Over the last few months, many well-meaning folks have given me the advice to cut out meat, dairy, and/or grains.  They all claim the same thing - eliminate the trouble food group and your body will bounce back in no time.

Olbrich Botanical Gardens (Madison) - right before my camera batteries died
Here's the thing - we don't all share the same genetics.  I truly believe you have to find what works for YOUR body.  If one master diet could serve us all, you'd think we'd be eating it by now.  What's healthy for an average person could cause inflammation for someone with lupus or fibromyalgia.  The foods needed for someone who does marathon training differ for someone recovering from cancer.

I think we can all agree organic, natural, unprocessed foods are best, but which combination is right for you is best decided by you.  


Our finances are in really strong shape at the moment.  Here's what I've accomplished since Mike's deployment checks have rolled in:

Personal family debt: eliminated
Jamaica vacation: 100% paid for
Savings account: currently $4,000
Rent: paid through December
Credit card balances: $0 across all five

Omaha Zoo
Originally we were going to pay off the car, but we both decided that a real savings account would serve us better.  This is largely because while right now money is great, we are looking at a significant gap when Mike returns in a handful of weeks.  There's no job he's coming back to.  There's the possibility of classes, but he wouldn't be able to start again until January 2013 - which means his first GI payment wouldn't be until February.

Looking at a nearly 4-month gap is nothing to take lightly (in fact, it's a little scary).  That's why I've been funneling all of my teaching paychecks to rent.  We don't want to be stressed and wringing our hands over food vs. gas while we wait for Mike's classes to begin or he hunts for jobs.  We don't want to go to Jamaica and regret spending the money on a vacation. 

I'm really hoping 2013 is the year for Mike to get a break.  We're talking a lot about how to rustle up a job, looking at whether we should throw all our energy into finding him a full-time job, settling for part-time so he can still take classes, or even get into temp work.   We will make this work.


One thing that I've been doing is really digging into our finances.  It's easy to budget when you just look at your monthly bills and estimate how much groceries costs.  But there's tons of other semi-regular expenses that can be anticipated if you only calculate the cost.

Here fishy fishy fishy fishy!  More of the Omaha Zoo
For example, cat food.  Laugh now, but anyone with furbabies knows they're not free.  I know that we get a huge bag of cat food for around $35.  What I've never considered was how long that bag lasts us.  I know it's more than one month, but is it 2 or 2.5?  At what interval will I need to spend that $35?  Once I figure that out, I can then think about how much we spend on cat food annually.

This same activity can be applied to seemingly random but necessary items - furnace filters, cat litter, laundry detergent, shampoo, soaps, vacuum filters, ect.  Most of these are also things that you can stock up easily.  

Imagine you know that you spend $25 a year on your shampoo.  Doesn't seem like much, but that's $5 or so in a shopping trip where it might make a difference.  And yes, I've been there at the end of a shopping trip, trying to decide where I can cut $5.  Put back the shampoo or the frozen veggies?  It's not a fun game to play.   

Squeaky cheese courtesy of Wisconsin

These variable items are different for everyone, but make a list of how many you go through in a year (or even quarterly).  If you have a little extra one paycheck and you know exactly which items you still need to get, you can maximize that 5 or 10 bucks. The key here is stocking up to your needs, not buying just to fill up the linen closet - only buy the volume you need.  

Another trick I've found?  Look for store gift cards that A) have no expiration date and B) no inactivity fees.  You can use those as a portable savings account, especially for perishable items.  I'm using this technique for gas currently, as it's a relatively fixed constant that I can defray in advance.

So wish I could have taken some home, but alas, they wouldn't have survived the trip back to Iowa

So there you have it.  Up until last week, my life was consumed with wrapping up my other two summer classes and the regular duties at the magazine.  I have a break for the next 8 weeks and then start back with two more in the fall.  It's not ideal, as I've already laid out, but it's 4 more months of rent that I can secure.  

Soon enough, Mike will be back too.  Not only will some of my responsibilities be shifted (I think I deserve a month off from scooping cat litter), but my favorite travel companion, food and movie critic, mandatory exercise enforcer, and snarky jokester will be around to keep things interesting.