Wednesday, September 28, 2011

It's a Digital World, Baby


 I never thought I'd feel this way, but I think I'm at the point where, unless it's a band that I'm a hardcore fan of and I just *need* to have the physical CD with the artwork/booklet, I'm going to be sticking mainly to digital copies of my music. It's so much easier not to have to store boxes of CDs and to just keep my music on my iPod, computer, and Spotify.  Buying CDs just doesn't excite me as much as it used to, which is something I never would have thought I'd have said even a few years ago!

I do plan on purchasing the new Dream Theater album on CD, for example...they're one of my all-time favorite bands and they always have excellent album art. But other than the bands that I'm bonkers about, for me it's not worth the price and hassle of storing the discs when I can download them cheaper and they take up no space in my house.

I should add that this in no means is meant to imply that I dislike record stores or want them to go out of business. I still *LOVE* going to my local indie record store and spending a lot of time browsing and buying stuff. I guess what I'm trying to say is I'm going to be much more selective about it from now on. Unless it's an "essential" band to me, digital is just fine. (cue my fellow audiophiles saying "but mp3s sound so shit compared to what comes out of your sound system at home!" I agree, but for a lot of stuff, it's not that much of a difference to me anymore to warrant the outlay of cash and storage space in my basement!)

I'm wondering if anyone else my age (30s) is beginning to feel this way or already does?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A Lighthearted List of Signs That I May Be Getting Old...

...(from an admittedly young 31 yr old)

-With R.E.M. retiring last week and The Bluetones playing their final farewell shows this month before hanging it up, two of my favorite bands from the 1980s and 90s that I grew up listening to are finished. In fact, other than a handful of bands that have debuted over the last few years, everything I listen to is a band that's been around since I was younger that still happen to be active...

-In that vein, bands I liked as a teenager that broke up have reunited (Pixies, Soundgarden), while nostalgia has gripped two iconic bands that debuted when I was a teenager (Pearl Jam and Nirvana, both hitting 20 year anniversaries this year). And we used to make fun of the Stones being around for so long! (and I'm a Stones fan myself)

-I was reading a chapter-book with my soon-to-be 7 year old daughter that had one of the characters downloading songs from the internet and calling her dad on her cell phone when she needed to be picked up from a friend's house. And to my kids, this seems completely normal since they don't know anything different. When I mentioned buying records/tapes/CDs and using pay phones, they had no idea what I was talking about...

-The athletes on my favorite pro teams are either the same age as me (and getting ready to retire within the next few years) or are young enough that I was in junior high when they were born...

-My two oldest daughters are always asking me what it was like in the "old days...you know, the 80s and 90s!"

-I'm certainly no prude...I can be vulgar and laugh at disgusting humor with the best of them. But I haven't found a single "comedy" movie funny that's come out over the last 10 years or so, with rare exceptions (Anchorman, for example, is one such movie that WAS a riot)

-I can remember when the movies that are being remade now were new in the theatres in their original versions (Total Recall, for example). My kids and cousins have never heard of most of these...

I'm sure I'll come up with more of these as time goes on...this is certainly the first in a series of such humorous (I hope!) posts.


Thursday, September 22, 2011

What I'm Listening to: September 2011

(In no particular order...)


Bands:

1. Blur (of course)
2. Nirvana
3. Dream Theater
4. Rush
5. Death Cab for Cutie
6. The Charlatans
7. R.E.M.
8.Credence Clearwater Revival
9. Weezer
10. Pulp

Albums:

1. Pulp - This is Hardcore
2. Dream Theater - A Dramatic Turn of Events
3. Rush - Permanent Waves
4. The Charlatans - Up to Our Hips
5. Blur - Modern Life is Rubbish
6. Genesis - Selling England by the Pound
7. Death Cab for Cutie - Narrow Stairs
8. The Who - Tommy
9. Cream - Wheels of Fire
10. Husker Du - Candy Apple Grey

Songs:

1. Fitz and the Tantrums - "Don't Gotta Work it Out"
2. The Charlatans - "Come in Number 21"
3. Portugal the Man - "People Say"
4. Keane - "Clear Skies"
5. Neal Morse - "Seeds of Gold"
6. Cream - "White Room"
7. Led Zeppelin - "Nobody's Fault But Mine"
8. Beck - "End of the Day"
9. R.E.M. - "Harborcoat"
10. Morrissey - "Girl Least Likely To"

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

It Was 9 Years Ago Today...

Today's me and my wife's wedding anniversary. We've been together 12 years and married 9 years today. I won't to into detail other than to say that marrying her was the best decision I ever made. She's helped me grow and mature so much (and I needed it!), supported me through everything, put up with me, and has been an amazing wife and mother to our 4 kids.

I love you, K!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Secret is That There *Is* No Secret



I apologize in advance for another fitness/weight loss post in advance if they're are annoying you in any way...

Also, I'm going to do my best to not be preachy or condescending, and if anything comes across that way, I apologize in advance. I'm no expert or inspiration by ANY stretch. I'm just a 31 yr old guy with a family and a job who got tired of being fat and finally did something about it after many aborted attempts in the past...

In case you're new to reading this blog or don't know me well in person, I'm a big guy. I'm 6'5" tall and up until my birthday this past February, I was very heavy, too. I had been active and involved in sports from the age of 5 but as soon as I started graduate school at 21, got married, had 4 kids with my wife, got my PhD, did a postdoc, and a full-time job/career, I let myself go and topped out at 359 lbs. I made the decision (spurred on with help and support from my wife and oldest daughter) to get in shape this past spring. I decided to take up running again as it's something I really enjoyed as a teenager and it's something I can do cheaply (all you need are sneakers) and anytime I want, indoors or out (although I should add I've always *HATED* running on treadmills!). Since I made a concerted effort to run regularly (3-4 times a week) in May 2011, as of today I've lost 93 lbs, 5 inches off my waist, and gone from an XXXL tall in my shirts to an XL tall. I feel fantastic...no more daily knee pain, no more lower back pain, I sleep fantastically now, and I think I look pretty good.

So all of this leads me to the crux of this post. Whether people are seeing me for the first time in a while or regularly, when they notice my weight loss and how fast it's come off (and I will admit, losing 93 lbs in 5 months *is* pretty quick, and something I never thought I could do), the inevitable question always comes up:

"What's your secret?"

I'm here to tell you my secret, to reveal the hidden mystery about weight-loss that has been kept from humanity for decades:

There is *no* secret.

Yes, that's right. There is no secret. Nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch. A big ol' goose egg. And so on.

A lot of people don't believe me. Hell, even my own doctor at one point asked me how I did it, and asked if I'd had gastric bypass, lap band surgery (neither of which I would have even been a candidate for with my frame size...359 was MUCH too heavy, but I have a broad frame so it's not like I was morbidly obese or even close to it). Some people have asked about diet pills, supplements, etc.

Nope. None of those. How have I done it?

The old fashioned way. Good ol' DIET AND EXERCISE.

Yes, you read that right. I've done it *ALL* with watching my diet and exercising on a regular basis.

DIET: I'm 100% Greek-American. Both sides of my family came to America from Greece about 100 years ago or so. I'm third generation, and it's no secret Greeks love to cook and love to eat, so I grew up eating lots of yummy homemade Greek food from my two Yiayia's kitchens. Most Greek food is pretty healthy, but I developed bad eating habits along the way. Now, when you're a growing teenage boy and constantly on the move with sports practices, playing pickup basketball or football with your buddies, and generally running around doing stuff all of the time (not to mention having a fast metabolism) it can keep you in check. But once I hit my early 20s and the exercising slowed down and then stopped (mainly due to having NO TIME to sleep, let alone be active, when my PhD studies got really crazy busy) then it caught up to me. So how did I break 30 years of bad habits so easily?  I started tracking my calories.  People have mentioned keeping a food journal for years, and I'd tried it and it worked, but I never stuck with it.  The reason I finally did this time and it worked is because they now have websites and accompanying smartphone apps that do the same thing.  I'm a huge tech geek and Apple fanboy in particular. There are numerous websites and iPhone apps (and these sites usually have Droid and Blackberry apps, too, if you don't have an iPhone) that do this very thing. I tried a few of them, including MyFitnessPal and Free Calorie Counter, but the one I liked the most and have stuck with and will continue to stick with is called Lose It. It's a free website (www.loseit.com) and they have apps, too. You set your height, weight, age, and gender and it calculates your daily calorie budget. The goal is to not go over it each day. Also, as you exercise, you input your activity, which "wins" you calories back in your budget. I like Lose It for a variety of reasons. To me, it has the most visually pleasing aesthetic and layout. It's very easy and user friendly to navigate. There are some fascinating charts and graphs it constantly updates for you so you can track your progress, performance, and behavior. And this might sound lame, but there are little extra things that are great motivators, such as winning badges for certain achievements relating to weight loss and exercise, as well as posting (optionally) your activities to Facebook and Twitter. That's a great motivator...obviously you don't want to embarrass yourself in front of all of your friends and family (albeit online)!

Besides all of that, probably the biggest reasons I've stuck with it so long and will continue to is that it gives me a nice visual list and number to look at. I've got a touch of OCD (heavier on the O=obsessive part) and have always functioned best when I write out lists of tasks to do at school/work. Seeing things crossed off is a huge motivator to get things done. Likewise with Lose It and similar apps, seeing the actual numbers is a great way for me to stay on target.

More importantly, it's about changing bad habits. For instance, I used to drink a fair amount of soda. Now, I just stick to water and unsweetened iced tea, two things I always drank a lot of...now I just drink more of 'em. Both are low in calories (water = 0 and iced tea with a lemon wedge in it = ~5-10 calories for a HUGE glass of it). I still drink soda, but instead of having the equivalent of 3-7 cans/week, I'll maybe have the equivalent of 0-2 cans/week. People are shocked to hear this but I eat WHATEVER I WANT! Yes, I still eat even ice cream and french fries and pizza, etc The difference is now, since I track calories, I just don't eat as much of it.Whereas I used to eat 3-4 slices of pizza in a sitting, now I'll have 1 or 2. Instead of having a huge bowl of ice cream after dinner, I'll have a scoop or two as long as I have enough calories left in my budget for the day.  I never feel hungry or deprived, and it's helped me make better decisions about what to eat, when to eat it, and how much.  "Should I have a slice of cake now before dinner, or hold off and have a bit extra spaghetti and meatballs at dinner? I'll have this extra helping of lasagna now and run an extra mile tonight to work it off." And so on.  Little changes = HUGE results.

EXERCISE: Yeah, it's not too exciting, but you gotta exercise as well. Not only does it help with weight loss, but it's just good for you anyway, not that I'm telling you anything new! Now, for me, running has been a godsend...as well as being great exercise, for me it's great mental therapy, a fantastic way to de-stress and get some energy and anxiety/aggression out after long days at work. I've logged 170 miles (and counting) since the beginning of June and am now consistently running 4-5 miles each run at a 9:45/mile clip (when I started, I was barely running 1.75 miles in 30 minutes)! It's been great for me to notice the improvement in my performance as the weeks go on, and to notice how great I feel after long runs now, as opposed to feeling like death warmed over in the earlier weeks.  I also do stairclimbs in my house on non-running days, as well as sit-ups and push-ups. Eventually I'd like to get back into weight lifting, which is something I used to really like as a teenager.

Now, obviously, not everyone likes to run or wants to run or *CAN* run, for whatever reason. The important thing is just to do SOMETHING and do it consistently. Not only is it good for you physically and mentally (the adrenaline highs during long runs are AMAZING, for instance!) but it improves other aspects, too. You'll sleep better, feel better, have lower blood pressure and blood sugar, not get sick as much, etc. For me, it's helped with chronic knee and back pain which was brought on by being overweight (both are pretty much gone now) as well as eliminating my constant headaches and migraines (which I suspect were due to high blood pressure). And for me, exercise is almost an addiction now. On the days when I can't work up a sweat for whatever reason, I'm almost grumpy or cranky (ask my incredibly patient and long-suffering wife!) and cannot WAIT for the next time I can run or do something active.

You just need to get out there and DO IT. Even something simple like taking a walk, a little swim in the pool, riding your bike, etc is doing something active. It's always hard to do it the first time, but I've found the hardest time is doing it the SECOND time when you're sore and tired and still not into it. You have to force yourself to do it, initially, even when you don't want to. Eventually it becomes a habit, and then something you'll (hopefully) look forward to.

BE PATIENT AND STICK WITH IT: This is very important. In the past, if I wasn't seeing results in the mirror after a few weeks, I gave it up. You'll have results even if you don't see anything at first. Just stick with it and eventually you'll see results, which will make you want to keep at it. I wasn't seeing results the first month or so, but the numbers on the scale went down little by little and I kept at it. Eventually I noticed my pants were too loose, my shirts too big, my belly was smaller, my face thinner, etc. Once you get there, then it's pretty easy to keep at it.

THE FINAL WORD: In my opinion, fitness and diet fads are stupid and probably >99% of the time either fail or are so bad for your health that they do more damage than good. Anything promising "fast and easy" results are a sham, whether it's a special new piece of equipment, a diet that screws up the balance in your diet, pills, hormones, therapies, surgeries, etc. Just in my own life, I know MANY people that lost a bunch of weight via fad diets, surgery, pills, hormones, etc and then, as soon as they were "done" and stopped, gained it all back, and in many cases, added ADDITIONAL weight. Think about it:

1) WHAT in life can ever be meaningfully accomplished easier and faster in life than doing it the tried and true way via hard work and dedication? Whether it's in school, work, a relationship, a task, fitness, sports, music, art, writing, etc, the person who works hard and is dedicated to what they do will almost ALWAYS come out on top and be better at it than someone who looks for the easy way out. Obviously there are exceptions, i.e. people born with incredible God-given talent/looks/ability/etc but those people are just that, the rare EXCEPTIONS!

2) If you don't change the underlying habit, you're not addressing the problem. As a ridiculous but, I think, effective example, let's say you have a habit of constantly banging your head very hard against a brick wall day in and day out. It's giving you headaches and causing brain damage. So you decide to buy a football helmet and wear it when you keep on banging your head against said brick wall. Sure, the pain and the damage you're causing may lessen, but have you changed the actual habit and STOPPED hitting your head? It's easier to go buy a helmet than to stop whacking your cranium, but in the end are you really any better off? I know this is a completely ludicrous example, but the point is, if you don't take some personal ownership and modify your habits, you've really done nothing to address the problem. This goes hand in hand with the fad diets, surgeries, treatments, etc. The reason all of these people regain the weight is because they slide back into their old bad habits!  The problem was not addressed, just the effects of the symptom, so to speak.

IN CONCLUSION: Again, I'm totally NOT trying to be preachy or pretend like I know it all...I don't, and I know I don't! As I said at the beginning, I'm just a dude who got tired of being fat and finally did something about it. I'm only writing this to offer my personal insights and opinions based on my experiences (since this is *my* blog after all!), and to share it with anyone reading it to show you that you *CAN* do it and you *CAN* succeed if you just roll your sleeves up and put your head down and DO IT!

 *********************************************************************************

For the last 15 years or so, I failed miserably at staying in shape (and later on, getting back INTO shape) and finally, at 31, I'm successful at it. Some of it has to due with simply being older and wiser and having a better perspective on life and myself. A huge part of it is having a wife and 4 kids who I love more than anything in the world and wanting to set a good example for them and be around for many, many years to see their kids and, God willing, their grandchildren! And a humongous part is being so sick of how I felt and looked and finally grabbing the bull by the horns and taking complete control of my behavior and harnessing my manic energy toward this goal. I tell people all the time that it's been easy, and I'm telling them the truth. It's been easy because all I had to do was change my behavior and put in some work. To me, that's much, much easier than paying lots of money and spending lots of time on all of these ridiculous machines and accessories and pills and pre-made meals and supplements and depriving yourself of certain foods or walking around in a starvation-induced zombie-like state on a crazy diet. I get to eat what I want, control how much of it I eat, and go work up a sweat for 30-60 minutes every day.  It doesn't get much easier than that, in my view!

That's probably the take-home message here, since, as I've learned as I've gotten older, those are real habits that will help you in ALL areas of life.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

All About Chemistry

(^^^That's my workspace in the lab that I work in^^^ I always have SEVERAL things going on at once...multitasking is an essential skill to have as an organic chemist!).


"Why did you choose to be a chemist?" is something people ask me all of the time. I know I touched briefly on the subject in terms of chemistry as a career path in an earlier post HERE. However, since I get asked this ALL the time when people ask me what I do for a living, I thought I'd write a post about it... Basically, anytime I meet someone new and they ask what I do and I tell them I'm an organic chemist, I get one of two general reactions: 1) "Wow, good for you, you must be smart, I did horribly in that class," or 2) "Ugh, I *HATED* chemistry in school" as they make a disgusted face. Most people do think it's interesting when I explain in layman's terms what I work on, although they all invariably say "it sounds like you're speaking a different language!" (which I totally understand). So I figured I'd write here about what I do, how I got here, and why I chose the path I did. Yep, it's another self-indulgent post, but as I've said before, it's my blog, so it's my right :-)

When I was finishing high school, I wasn't quite sure what I wanted to study in college. I was pretty adamant I wanted to go to medical school after college, inspired by my father, who is a doctor. I used to go to work with him during my school vacations or on weekends and watch him work and learn about what he was doing. I knew I wanted to do something in the sciences, as I'd always been a science buff growing up and loved learning about the world around us, how things work, and why they worked. That being said, I had *NO* idea what I wanted to study when I went to U. of New Hampshire orientation in June 1997. My parents dropped me off at the area for undeclared major students and said they'd be back later in the afternoon to pick me up. So there I was, sitting amongst a bunch of fellow incoming freshman who looked like they were more interested in putting off the real world for 4 more years on Mommy and Daddy's dime than actually getting an education as the person from the university advising center went around the room asking each of us what we thought we'd probably want to major in. When it came to me, on the spur of the moment I blurted out "I actually know my major, I don't know why I'm here!" When she asked me what I was going to major in, I said "chemistry." They sent me on my way to the registrar's office to change my paperwork to chemistry and then told me I could make the rest of the orientation for incoming chemistry majors after lunch. I went ahead with the rest of the day and when my parents picked me up and asked me what, if anything, I decided to major in, I told them it was chemistry. They were surprised to say the least, but pleased as well.

The little bit of backstory here is that my dad had gone to UNH for college in the early 1970s and got his degree in chemistry. He'd go visit the department every once and a while when I was growing up and I tagged along a few times, so I was somewhat familiar with the building, his old professors, and the science itself. I hadn't particularly liked chemistry in high school, but I put that down 100% to having lousy teachers who were as ineffective teaching the information as they were generating excitement among the students. Anyway, I picked chemistry and began classes that fall. I hit a few speed bumps along the way that first year and wasn't sure I really wanted to continue with it, but once I took organic chemistry as a sophomore, I was *HOOKED* on it. Part of the reason was that I had a phenomenal professor who ended up being my BS and PhD advisor (and I will add here that EVERYprof at UNH was top-notch as a teacher...I mean that, I can't think of a lousy one at all). The other part that got to me was the science itself. I'd always loved building and tinkering with things as a kid...models, electronics, my chemistry set (yes, I had one), so to learn that I could do this with MOLECULES was just incredible to me. I really hit my stride that year and ended up beginning to do lab research in said professor's laboratory starting that summer and for the next 2 years, culminating with my BS thesis. I found that I absolutely loved being in the lab, learning and using different techniques to do directed research (as opposed to the more rudimentary lab courses we were required to take alongside our classes). Not only was I learning new stuff from my advisor and his graduate students, I was learning how to use instrumentation and interpret the data, how to give presentations at group meetings, and how to think scientifically to approach issues along the synthetic way. I even published 2 papers as an undergrad and presented my research at conferences! As a bonus, I was so far beyond what we were learning in the lab courses that those became that much easier for me.  

(One interjection here...something I have heard ad nauseum over the last 15 years is how chemistry, and organic in particular, is "all about memorization"...no, it's not. It's about learning basic concepts and yes, memorizing many general things, and then applying those lines of thinking to new problems to build off of them. Once I made this connection in my own mind after my freshman year, I had a major breakthrough. It was the proverbial lightbulb going off or the tumblers in a lock all falling into place at once).

My senior year, in 2000-01, presented me with a tough decision...what to do after I graduated? I had always assumed med school, but I was loving chemistry so much that I was considering going for a PhD in organic chemistry. I decided to go with what my heart was telling me and go for the PhD. Not only did I learn that chemistry grad schools waive tuition and pay you a stipend (as opposed to paying ~$40,000+/yr for med school and being in debt until you're 50, not to mention 3-15 years of training AFTER school before finally practicing on your own) so that I'd come out of school with no debt, but I'd seen the kind of life and stress my dad had (and still has) as a doctor...crazy hours, stress, etc. While I respect him to this day for doing what he does at such a high level of quality and helping to save people's lives for going on 30 years now, I wasn't sure I wanted to do that. Plus I was newly engaged to my wife and we were getting married the following year, so I had to think about what kind of life we'd have as newlyweds over the next few years when I was in school, no matter which path I took.

I decided to go to grad school and worked toward my PhD with my same advisor. Again, I hit a few bumps here and there but ended up finishing my PhD and secured a postdoctoral fellowship with a world renowned professor at Clemson University. Not only did I learn even more in terms of technique, instrumentation, and approaches to thinking about chemistry in my 2 years there, I was promoted a couple of months into my fellowship to a research faculty position and given the responsibility of running the day-to-day operations of the group for my advisor as he had a very prestigious and important high-profile position with a government agency concurrently with his position at the university. In addition to my research, which I loved, it gave me experience as a manager, mentor, and valuable experience writing journal publications, funding proposals, keeping budgets, and dealing with other issues I would never have been exposed to as a "regular" postdoc. I was also a co-author on over a dozen high quality journal publications, writing many of them myself and editing, formatting, and contributing something to all of them. It was a priceless experience that I count myself blessed to have gotten to this day. And the best part of grad school and postdoc, besides growing as a scientist and getting my degrees, is that I have made great friends with my advisors and keep in touch with them to this day.

After Clemson, I got a job at my current company, where I've been for 3 years now, working on a few different projects..my major project that I've been working on for over a year (and counting) is going really well and is absolutely fascinating, not only because of the chemistry I'm doing, but because of what I'm learning about the engineering and physics components from our collaborators, who are experts in those areas. I also was given some managerial duties after my first year, which have been challenging but interesting so far. And maybe that's been the best thing about this whole journey...being able to constantly learn something new every day, either in chemistry or a field that's related. I know I'll be able to continue this learning for the rest of my career (and beyond), and along the way I've made an amazing number of great friends and contacts, both personal and professional.

Is chemistry hard? Absolutely. Is organic chemistry dangerous? Yes, but as long as you work safely and carefully, it's (relatively) safe. Do I have some aptitude for it that may have helped me out? Definitely. Is it for everyone? No way. But it's definitely been the right choice of study and career for me and I look forward to many more years of learning and doing.

So maybe next time someone asks me what I do and I tell them, they'll mention how interesting it sounds instead of how much they hate it or how badly they did in the class in school. Hey, I can dream, right?

Thursday, September 1, 2011

TV of the future

Kristie and I are seriously considering cancelling our Comcast cable subscription (which is a rip-off, especially considering we watch a total of *maybe* 20 channels out of the 800 we're forced to pay for) and instead subscribing to Hulu and Netflix ($9.99/month EACH) and saving >$100.00 a month. We'll just stream it to our TV via our Wii and WiFi network. Our one concern, however, is not being able to watch our sports teams (the Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics, Bruins). Does anyone out there know if you can watch sports on, say, Hulu? And if not, is there a service or site that streams games, even for a small fee? Feel free to comment and let me know!