Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Donating your voice can change a life

You know how Stephen Hawking talks through a machine with a synthesized voice? Millions of people around the world rely on similar technology, but that means that women, little girls and millions of others use the same masculine, adult, American-accented voice (I think there's also a female one, but still). Recently a company called VocaliD developed a way to pair an individual with a voice that closely matches their natural one. It requires a sample of the recipient's voice and the voice recordings of a donor who matches the recipient's age, size and vocal quality. VocaliD is currently building a voice bank for the millions of people who need individualized, synthesized voices, which means they need millions of voice donors from all over the world, people of different ages, sizes, voice pitches, languages and accents. Will you help?

VocaliD is facing an incredible task and it's doing it with:
  • Voice-blending technology
  • Donors who submit samples of their voices for the voice bank (for free, there's no payment involved)
  • Scientists and designers who blend a donor's and a recipient's voices until they have a completely unique voice that will be used only by the person for whom it was created (no one will be walking around with your voice, it doesn't work that way)
  • A website that makes it easy to submit samples of your voice.
Talk about a way to help others without having to give anything but a few hours of time, and you don't even have to leave your home. Plus it's a way to live forever because your voice can be used to help countless people.

I signed up and spent an hour and a half reading sentences into the microphone on my laptop computer. It's best to give three to four hours of speaking time, but you don't have to do it all at once. You need a computer with a microphone and the website says the Chrome browser works best, but I managed to do it with Firefox.

Upon registration I entered my gender, age, height and weight. After I read a few sentences, I was prompted to answer questions such as where I live (Chicago), where else I've lived (California) and what kind of accent people tell me I have (none). A question asked for one word that I'd use to describe my voice (I chose "soothing"). Then it was back to reading sentences. They started out very simple like Thank you and This is my new voice and I love you. They got more complicated as it went on, including statements like Food Network is crushing it with the kid chef shows. Then the sentences began to form little stories. The statement I enjoyed enunciating the most was I owe you a yo-yo.

Eventually it became clear that the sentences had been lifted from works of literature and at one point they alternated between novels. I think a Louisa May Alcott/Jack London mashup produced this sequence (earlier some of the sentences had included wolves and the names "Jo" and "Meg"):

A lady is always known by her neat boots.
He touched her with his muzzle.

Don't shake hands if you are introduced to anyone.
He ran with his head even.
She could not move about and amuse herself.

The pack formation would have been broken up.

And the sentence I said with the most relish and force: Kids don't belong.

I'm grateful that the hours of recording don't have to all be done at once because my voice gave out after an hour and a half. The website states that even one hour of recording helps, but I'll go back in and do more. I enjoyed it.

Does the idea of donating blood make you squeamish? Do you never have any money to give to good causes? Do mobility or transportation issues make you unable to volunteer outside of your home? Do you nevertheless want to make a difference in the life of a stranger? Donate your voice. The video below shows how big a difference you can make (it's just a minute and a half long). After you watch it, go to VocaliD and become immortal!

Sunday, January 18, 2015

"I don't have time"

When a woman who's working full-time, has children to raise and runs a household tells me she doesn't have time for one more thing, I believe her. But I suspect there are many people who say they don't have time for stuff, who aren't telling the truth.

As an undergraduate at U.C. Berkeley and then a graduate student at Cornell, I made time for what was important to me and didn't make time for what wasn't. One thing I did a lot was sleep, about eight hours a night. I've always prioritized basic needs like sleep over everything else, even grades. But since grades were also critical to me, that meant I spent most of my eight years at UCB and Cornell sleeping and studying. I never studied past 10 p.m, which meant I had to get all my essays written, math problems solved and texts read in the rest of the hours of the day. That was possible because I cut out almost all other activities during that time of my life. When someone invited me on a weekend trip or an afternoon swim, I might have said I didn't have time, but that wasn't strictly true. I had the time, but it would have meant losing time for the things I considered more important. I would have had to finish assignments by rushing through them, possibly sleep deprived, and that just wasn't in my nature.

We all have time for what's important to us. Recently a friend told me why he had waited so long to get back to me about something. He listed the home projects he'd needed to do and his preparation for an event. His explanation petered out with, "...and I procrastinated."

Yes. I procrastinate all the time. I'm procrastinating now. If someone asks me tomorrow why I didn't get a certain thing done today, it wouldn't be truthful to say, "I didn't have time." The truth would be that I didn't feel like doing that other thing, so I occupied myself with blogging and watching Twilight Zone episodes until I looked at the clock and said, "Oh, it's too late to do that now." And if I were very honest, I'd say, "I didn't do it because I was afraid that X might happen if I did it, and I'm just not ready for that yet."

It feels better to say, "I don't have time" than to say "I don't think I'm smart enough" or "I'm afraid to find out that answer" or "I'd have to change who I am" or "I don't want to fail." And when we truly don't have time to squeeze in one more thing, that's because our lives are full of the things that are important to us and that other thing just doesn't rank. It's much more polite to say, "I don't have time" than "I just don't like you" or "I don't want to" or "Why would I want to spend time with those people?"

So we say we don't have time and it's easy to believe because Americans are some of the busiest damn people on the planet. We almost shun sleep and tend to overfill our schedules, so when one American says to another "I don't have time" no one challenges it. But I say that such a statement isn't honest. It lets us get by without opening ourselves up, but it's not the true reason that people don't prioritize whatever they're saying they don't have time for.

Maybe I'm setting myself up for some awkward moments by posting this. I can imagine my friends no longer letting me get away with saying I don't have time (but at least that would tell me which friends read my blog). I guess that would serve me right and keep me honest. Of course, if you press me, I'm usually happy to tell you what's really going on in my head. So feel free to stop me the next time I say I don't have time. Ask me for the real reason, but be careful: I'll tell you.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Potatoes, too? Yes, damn it.

Maybe I already knew this but was in denial: white potatoes don't do anything good for us and might even be harmful. Damn it. Some online research I did yesterday reminded me that white potatoes are members of the nightshade family of plants and contain alkaloids, which are toxic to humans and animals. Alkaloids can cause problems with the stomach lining and worse. Damn it!

Of course I already knew that white potatoes turn to sugar the minute you put them in your mouth and cause even greater blood sugar surges than plain white sugar. So as far as my insulin levels are concerned, if I'm in the mood to munch on potato chips, I'd do better to sit down with the sugar bowl and spoon. Christ.

I don't know if I'm ready to do anything with this knowledge yet. I was trying to tell myself that if I cooked the potatoes myself, in healthy coconut oil or ghee, they were okay. I wanted to believe that, but I can't any more. Now when I sit down to a meal that includes white potatoes, I'll have to be honest with myself about what I'm doing: choosing to eat a toxic food because I'm just not ready to let go of it yet. I'm not!

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Menstruation and the homeless

The Huffington Post published this article: For Homeless Women, Getting Their Period Is One Of The Most Difficult Challenges. This had never occurred to me, but now I wondered: how are homeless women supposed to afford pads and tampons? Getting your period when you don't even have a home, much less hourly access to a bathroom, sounds like a nightmare bigger than the ones I already have at night.

First, can we please finally remove the taboo from talking about menstruation? Americans are so squeamish about women's monthly menstrual cycles that problems like this can go on and on without ever being addressed. Women menstruate. Let's be mature about this biological fact and make it okay to acknowledge in public.

Next, here's what I'm going to do: I'm going to start purchasing extra pads and tampons when I do my usual grocery shopping. The closest homeless support organization to me is Cornerstone Community Outreach in Chicago and they accept goods donations seven days a week from 8:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. at 4628 N. Clifton Avenue (near the Wilson el stop on the red line). If you live in Chicago, join me in donating regularly to Cornerstone Community Outreach -- or another homeless shelter -- so that women without their own homes, bathrooms or showers can at least get the menstruation products they need. What a horrible predicament to be in: homeless and on your period. These women need our help.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Cake, cake, cake...

Last night I went to a birthday party. There were so many delicious homemade dishes (it was a potluck) that I ate very slowly so I wouldn't over do it. But there was birthday cake. I ate birthday cake. I also had a cookie and half a donut.

I hate that I inherited my father's sweet tooth, got hooked on sugar as a child, formed emotional attachments to the act of eating sweets and have had to work like hell for decades to try to get rid of this addiction. And it's not gone. On nights like last night it feels like my obsession with sugar hasn't gone anywhere and all it takes is a help-yourself frosted layer cake for me to go down the rabbit hole of just-one-more-piece.

But arguably I didn't go down that rabbit hole very far. I didn't go nearly as far as I have in the past. That's progress. I also cut myself a piece of that cake to take home, but then dropped it in the garbage so I wouldn't even be tempted to eat it today. Right now I'm back on the wagon (this is important because I'm in danger of becoming pre-diabetic).

Today I keep thinking about it. Unfortunately, this party was in my apartment complex and I can easily walk over to my neighbor's place and wheedle for some of the sweets that were left over at the end of the night. I could send him an email or a text telling him what a great time I had and then drop a hint that I'm available to help him with any cake or donuts that he got stuck with. If he has any, he'd invite me right over.

Because I keep thinking about doing that, I'm going to tap and meditate now. I feel angry, deprived and hopeless. It's time for a few (or a hundred) rounds of Emotional Freedom Technique tapping.

Pregnant? Have a drink.

There's no correlation between women who drink moderately (no more than one drink a day) during pregnancy and Fetal Alcohol Syndrome: http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/study-no-connection-between-drinking-alcohol-early-in-pregnancy-and-birth-problems-201309106667. Risk for Fetal Alcohol Syndrome increases with heavy drinking, which is more than one drink a day.

American women used to drink moderately during pregnancy as a matter of course before American society swung heavily towards our current beliefs that children are precious and fetuses matter more than the humans who carry them. In the 60's and 70's babies and children were regularly vilified in American mainstream media from movies like Rosemary's Baby (1968) to The Brood (1979). I believe the current angelification (I made up that word) of kids is temporary and in another generation or two we'll be back to a more reasonable view of how much adults should sacrifice for children.

So if you're pregnant and you want a drink, have a damn drink. And if you see a pregnant woman enjoying a glass of wine or shot of tequila, leave her alone!

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Healthy practices - don't fight yourself

While I've been successfully improving my health and losing weight by altering what I eat, that's only half the story. The other half is the inner work I've been doing to align my conscious self with my subconscious, that place from which so much self-sabotage comes. At the age of 48, I've spent decades fighting myself: part of me wanting to eat healthy, nutritious food while another part of me NEEDED that cake. The battle waged every day and it was hell on my self-esteem and body.

Why is taking care of yourself so hard? Why do we sometimes know exactly what we need, but still not do it? I believe we resist it for emotional reasons. We're blocked by things we don't want to look at such as believing we deserve what we've got or thinking life is supposed to be hard or fearing that being healthy means giving up something else. Such issues go very deep, are often very old and take concentrated effort to heal. That's why it makes no sense to try to force yourself to exercise or improve your diet. You have to be emotionally ready to make those changes or you'll just go back and forth, taking steps forward and backward, over and over. I did that for years. If you’re not ready to face the emotional pain that will come up when you start to improve your health, you won't improve your health. Those of us who want to push and pull others towards the health we know they're capable of aren't honoring the fear and pain that keeps people where they are. Some people need to stay where they are. Some people need it so much they stay there for a lifetime and die that way and that's just how it is.

I'm only able to stick so well to my current detoxification plan (no sugar, dairy, grains, caffeine or alcohol) because I've done two decades of work on my sugar addiction and self-hatred. The daily war I used to wage within my mind and body has calmed down to a daily skirmish (I'm still working on it) because I've dug into those painful issues. I’ve moved out the old fears enough to be able to get this current toehold on true health. My journey has included countless therapies and healing modalities (talk therapy, meditation, Emotional Freedom Technique and Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing were big ones for me). All that work had to be done before I could get to this place where I truly have a shot at treating myself well without giving in to old habits of bingeing and self-loathing.

To give an idea of the kind of work I'm writing about, here are some practitioners who are good at getting down to the hard-wiring that keeps us from consistently doing what's best for us: Jon Gabriel, Margaret Lynch, Joe Dispenza, but there are many ways to get there. I've worked a little bit with their books, but I did most of my personal work with practitioners in Chicago and Wilmette, Illinois. I think personal work with a practitioner is best.

People who trumpet their physical health accomplishments without mentioning the inner work it took to get there, irritate me. Reaching health and staying there takes resources, especially emotional ones. Maintaining poor habits is often the result of learning that we don't deserve better. Unlearning that belief has to come before we can reach lasting improvement in how we treat ourselves. 

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Getting back to the real me

25 Dec 2013

20 Dec 2014
So last September, I started reducing sugar and starches because my blood work showed high blood sugar. Then in November, I completely cut out all sugar, grains, dairy, caffeine, alcohol and processed foods because of horrific menstrual cramps. Between 24 November and 24 December 2014, I exclusively ate meat, chicken, fish, eggs, vegetables, avocados, nuts and beans. Contrary to the still popular belief that the way to lose weight and improve health is to count calories and reduce fat intake, I didn't count calories and ate fatty cuts of meat and plenty of butter, eggs, avocados, nuts and coconut oil (lots of coconut oil).

In early December new blood work showed that I'd improved my numbers! I was happy to learn that I'd lowered my fasting blood sugar level, and by Christmas I'd even lost some weight. I have better energy, digestion and moods. No one can tell me that cutting down on fat and animal foods is my path to health. My path to health includes dead animals and lots of oils and fats.

Exercise is also supposed to be necessary for weight loss, but even though I've tried to get myself to exercise, I didn't manage much more than a few yoga stretches a few days a week. Burning calories hasn't been part of my transformation, yet I still took three inches off my waistline. But exercise IS a huge part of physical and mental health. I've got to get myself in gear because physical movement is critical for brain function, good hormonal levels and healthy organs; it just isn't part of losing weight.

Some backstory:
It was October 2012 when I began my weight gain. From 2012 to 2013 I put 50 pounds on my 5'2" body, until I weighed 180 pounds at my mother's funeral in June 2013. Early details of my adventure going from a size 8 gym rat to a size 18 non-exerciser are here, here and here. For the whole story, also see:

Today as I was toweling off my arms after a shower, I saw the definition of my biceps for the first time in two years. Recently my collar bones have started to emerge. As a sculptor carves away the marble that isn't part of the statue, I'm discarding the parts that aren't really me. I'm getting back to my natural weight. I'm getting my real body back and I'm very excited about it! (If you've read this post, please also read this post.)

Sunday, December 21, 2014

25 Dec 1914: The World War I Christmas Truce

This summer and fall, many have been recognizing the 100th anniversary of the early events of World War I (which lasted 1914-1918), but here's one we should all note. Do you want a story about two warring armies who - for 24 hours -  stopped firing on each other, out of respect for a holiday? It almost reads like a fable about desperate men who just couldn't bring themselves to obey orders because this one day felt too special, but it happened. Soldiers on both sides of a grisly war honored a completely impromptu cease-fire, even against the wishes of their commanding officers. If you want the whole story, pick up a copy of Silent Night: The Story of The World War I Christmas Truce by Stanley Weintraub (2002). It's a stunning narrative and it's all true (unsurprisingly, it's currently sold out at Amazon and Barnes & Noble, but you can get it instantaneously as an ebook. I found a paperback copy in a used bookstore last September).

Weintraub's brief (184 pages) history of the days surrounding the truce gives details of miserable war conditions and horrible weather that somehow didn't cause everyone to hate each other even more. Stress conditions have been proven to increase violence, but incredibly by December 24, 1914 the Germans, Englishmen, Irishmen, Indians, French, Belgians, Scotsmen and North Africans entrenched on the Western Front were ready for a holiday break. Weintraub combed newspapers, letters, personal accounts and military reports for evidence of this truce and he confirms that the Germans initiated it. The English believed the Germans were barbarians and the Germans saw the British and French as soulless, materialists incapable of appreciating Christmas, so everyone's eyes were opened that year!

On Christmas Eve, German soldiers began setting up Christmas trees on their parapets, causing the Allies to wonder what game or trap they were setting up. Within hours the Germans were waving signs that read "WE NO FIGHT YOU NO FIGHT" and the British could hear them singing. Men's voices carried "Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht" across the area between the two armies, known as No Man's Land. It took some doing for the Germans to convince the English, Irish, Scots and Indians that they were sincere, but the most distrustful, according to Weintraub, were the French. When German soldiers began crossing No Man's Land unarmed, bearing wine, chocolates and cigarettes, the French took the longest to believe them, but eventually they laid down their arms, too. In one area, a trained German dog carried bread, cognac and newspapers back and forth between the German and French lines.

Weintraub speculates that the Christmas tradition might have been stronger in Germany at that time, explaining why the German army equipped themselves with Christmas trees and candles and pushed so hard for everyone to suspend fighting. Many German soldiers risked their lives to walk - completely unprotected - over frozen earth towards the Allies' line. That the Allies held their fire when the enemy began advancing, even unarmed, shows how different war used to be. One English soldier later reported that with German soldiers walking towards their trenches, the English didn't feel like they could shoot unarmed men, but they also couldn't let the enemy behind their lines. What else could the English do but walk out to meet the Germans halfway? So that's exactly what happened: up and down the Western Front soldiers left their trenches to meet, chat, smoke, exchange gifts and even play ball in No Man's Land. For 24 hours they all acted as if they had never been fighting at all.

Hitler was a regular soldier that Christmas, but Weintraub reports that he refused to have anything to do with the fraternizing. Other soldiers later described him as an odd man who never discussed family or anyone back home, didn't smoke or drink and often brooded in his dugout. Apparently Hitler wasn't big on Christmas because not only did he chastize his peers for not fighting on Christmas Eve, he didn't even participate in the reading of the Christmas gospel.

One of my favorite stories comes from the personal letter of a German soldier who wrote to his beloved about going to cut down a tree outside of an abandoned house. While he was there, he wrote, he noticed inebriated members of the French army coming out with bottles of wine. He ran back to his division and returned with six men so they could get some, too. They entered the house and were about to go down to the cellar when a French officer saw them, but he was so drunk he didn't even notice they were German. The officer ordered them to "move out the champagne," so they willingly headed into the wine cellar where they found many Frenchmen, completely sloshed. At this point, the French soldiers recognized their enemy, but they all agreed to a truce for the rest of Christmas as long as the "Parleyvoozes" (the term this soldier used) helped the Germans carry fifty bottles back to their encampment. 

I also like the story of how a German baker dealt with some Algierian soldiers for whom December 24th didn't mean anything. On Christmas Eve the Muslim Algerians kept firing, enraging the pastry cook, who - incredibly - was working on a batch of marzipan balls. His work interrupted, the baker grabbed a decorated tree and furiously charged the enemy line. The Algerian soldiers didn't feel like they could shoot this crazy man, so they watched as the baker reached the halfway point between the lines, set down the tree and lit its candles. He reportedly bellowed, "Now you blockheads! Now you know what's going on! Merry Christmas!" At that point the Algerians received word of the temporary cease-fire and put down their arms.

Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce is full of details about that dream-like time when the entire Western Front of The First World War stopped fighting and started sharing cigarettes, souvenirs and goodies from care packages. They spent Christmas Eve drinking and singing, and on Christmas Day they helped each other bury their dead and then played some ball. You can also find an account of the Christmas Truce on Wikipedia, but be sure to throw Wikipedia five bucks if you use them.

This week, 24-25 December, 2014 is the 100th anniversary of this fable that actually happened. Take a moment to consider what it might be like if warring enemies were still able to see each other as human beings, even some of the time, and not as embodiments of beliefs and ideologies. Reviewer Robert Morris wrote that the incident "suggest[s] a human need which transcends military obligations." I call it my favorite war story.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

My Christmas tree

It's my Christmas tree with all-pink ornaments. This year I got a reindeer throw rug to go under it. I love December 17th because it's exactly one week before Christmas Eve, which is my favorite day of the year.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Test results

Finally got the results of my latest blood work. My fasting blood sugar is 95, which is back in the "normal" range and I'm out of danger! No pre-diabetes for me, thank god (to coin a phrase). I put "normal" in quotation marks because of the input of Dr. Emily Lindner, who's a great general practitioner who helps with hormonal imbalances. She's the one who has guided me to clean up my diet (rather than seek more drugs) and has been 100% right so far. She says a truly healthy fasting blood sugar level is somewhere around 70-85, so I've got room for improvement.

And how long do I continue to abstain from all sugar, grains, dairy, caffeine and processed foods? She said to give it eight full weeks and then it's a matter of when my menstrual cramping stops. Eight full weeks takes me to the third week in January, which gets me completely through the holiday season - oof! It won't be easy, but I'm willing to eat very well during the holiday period so I can avoid having a painful holiday period.

I'm stunned to hear that it's possible, even at my age (48) to live without any menstrual cramps at all. Apparently, once you've completely detoxed your body and regained hormonal balance, you can have your period with no symptoms! Can you believe it? I can't, but I'm determined to run the experiment. I'll let you know if it's true.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Single and dating again? Never mind.

Without that old desperation to find a man -
Without that old certainty that I'm a total loser without romance in my life -

- I just can't work up much interest in dating. So, never mind the online dating websites and keeping a constant eye out for available men. It's not a priority for me now.

I love being divorced. I feel so much more peaceful.