I’m going to DNA Disney Land!

Happy Sunday, Superheroes. Is everybody having a wicked weekend? My morning started EARLY today.

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Stupid-early

At this point you may be asking yourself: “Why did this oddball wake up at four in the morning to go run nine miles in the rain?”

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I do that for fun?

The reason I decided to imitate a distance running Dracula this morning is because I had a plane to catch at 7:42 am. I finished my run, shed my spandex, put on compression socks, grabbed some oats in a jar that I prepared last night, and set off for SeaTac.

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Carbs? Caffeine? Compression? Good attitude? Check, check, check, and….working on it

This week I am attending a conference at the Eaglewood Resort and Spa in Itasca, Illinois. The conference is called “Dynamic DNA Structures in Biology.” I could not be more excited for the week ahead. If it’s not abundantly clear, I’m more than passing fond of that magical macromolecule responsible for storing genetic information: the divine double helix, DNA.

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All those scintillation vials contain tritiated DNA…

My job is to study how Bacillus subtilis copies its DNA, and the problems that can happen when my favorite bacteria is replicating its genome. Specifically I am interested in what happens when the molecular machines responsible for copy the DNA run into the protein complexes that transcribe DNA into RNA. Here’s a brief recap of basic bio, if those terms seem unfamiliar and scary to you. I promise I’ll be gentle, and include some nice soothing images.

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If you get scared of biology, think about how Porter was brave enough to confront the yard-cow! Be inspired by her adventurousness!

Every living thing on Earth is made out of cells (viruses aren’t made out of cells, and therefore viruses aren’t technically alive…we could argue philosophy taxonomy, and semantics about what is “life” all day, but I don’t want to…and don’t get me started on prions). Cells are bags made out of fats and carbs that are full of a molecular soup made out of nucleic acids and proteins. Proteins, for the most part, do all of the grunt work in the cell: giving it structure and shape, as well as performing the cornucopia of chemical reactions that keep life living (yes nucleic acids can be catalytic or structural [see: ribosomes], there’s exceptions to every rule that are SUPER cool, unfortunately I cant learn EVERYTHING about everything).

I can try!

I can try!

DNA is a cell’s instruction manual. It contains the necessary information to make every single possible protein in the repertoire of a particular organism. Ribosomes are the cell’s construction crews: they make all of the proteins. Ribosomes cant read the directions in the DNA directly. Ribosomes are only able to read RNA, which is basically DNA’s single-stranded, chemically unstable cousin.

There's at least one in every family!

There’s at least one in every family!

When a ribosome uses the instructions encoded in RNA to make a protein, it’s called translation. For translation to happen, another machine in the cell, called RNA polymerase, uses the DNA as a template to make a piece of RNA. Every cell doesn’t need to make every single possible protein all of the time. So, when a cell needs to make a protein, RNA polymerase finds the gene that codes for the protein in the DNA, transcribes the gene to make a piece of RNA, then a ribosome translates the RNA to produce a protein. To torture a metaphor: Ikea makes a lot of different kinds pre-fab furniture, and has the directions to assemble every single piece of particleboard. The directions happen to be in Swedish. When you want a coffee table you need to get a copy of the English directions, which you follow to make a Vittsjo. You DON’T need the instructions to make a Grundtal in your living room, so you don’t need the English version of those instructions.

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This goes in your living room

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This does not

My favorite machine in the cell is called the replisome. The replisome’s job is to copy the DNA. The replisome is really good at its job, but sometimes it needs to copy a region of the genome when RNA polymerase happens to be making RNA from those genes: conflicts occur between replication and transcription.

This cartoon is in ALL of my talks

This cartoon is in ALL of my talks

I study what happens to the DNA when the two machineries bump into each other. It turns out that quite a lot can happen: the replisome gets stuck, the DNA can break, and mutations can occur within the genes. I’m interested in how these processes affect the bacteria. I’m especially interested in how the mutations that do occur as a result of conflicts between replication and transcription impact evolution in bacteria.

This conference will have a session all about replication-transcription conflicts. They happen in all organisms, and have been linked to mutagenesis leading to autism, fragile-X syndrome, and even cancer! I’m super stoked to hear about what other people in my field are researching, but the conflicts session is just one out of eight!

DNA is an amazing molecule, and it does some pretty crazy things in our cells. We think of DNA as being a double helix. However, whenever DNA does something interesting for biology like getting copied or transcribed, it needs to be opened up into the two individual strands. When DNA is single stranded, it can start to do some pretty amazing acrobatics. DNA will form hairpins, cruciform structures, triple helixes, and non-canonical base pairs.

Sometimes, if the sequence is right DNA will knot itself up into a structure called a G-quadruplex that is so stable it stands up to being boiled in acid for 15 minutes. G-quadruplexes happen in our cells, and they can seriously mess with how a gene gets turned on and off.

Sometimes DNA will base-pair with its unstable cousin RNA to make a structure called an R-Loop. R-loops are a serious roadblock for my favorite machine, the replisome.

Source: Aguilera, Mol Cell, 2012

Source: Aguilera, Mol Cell, 2012

When DNA gets broken, it is repaired by a process called homologous recombination. For recombination to happen the DNA gets into a complicated conformation called a Holliday junction. It’s vitally important for cells to sort out these structures correctly, otherwise they run the risk of breaking the DNA further or losing genetic information.

This could be a MESS

This could turn into a MESS

I’m going to be learning about a panopoly of parlor tricks that my preferred nucleic acid performs. I could not be more excited for the week ahead.

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Also, my boss and I got picked up in a patriotic stretch-limo. This bodes well

I’m about to have science coming out of my ears, so I’m going to be taking a brief hiatus from blogging until I return to Seattle. Rest assured that I’ll be waking up early every morning to run around Itasca and think about chromosomes, but I’ll be posting fewer selfies in the coming days. I hope everyone has a blessed, wonderful week! I’ll catch everyone on the flip-side.

I'll miss you, but Porter will keep my bed warm.

I’ll miss you, but Porter will keep my bed warm.

 

 

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Wellness Wednesday: Greens, eggs, and Sam

Happy Wellness Wednesday wonderful readers. I hope that you are as egg-cited as I am to cook a delicious and nutritious dinner. Sometimes, during the busy week, it can be quite a scramble to get food on the table. I’ve got a great recipe for when you come home from work feeling totally fried, but you don’t want to shell out beau-coop bucks for take out. I’m not yolk-ing around when I say that this is one of my favorite recipes.

Three guesses as to where I'm going with this

Three guesses as to where I’m going with this

This installment of wellness Wednesday is inspired by a recipe by Yottem Ottolenghi. Ottolenghi is an Israeli chef who lives, cooks, and writes in London. He became famous for writing a series in the London Times titled: “The New Vegetarian.” His cookbook, Plenty, is full of gorgeous and flavorful recipes, highlighting the versatility and variety of vegetables. Ottolenghi himself is NOT a strict vegetarian (much to the radical-millitant-vegan communitiy’s chagrin).

"Someone writing vegetarian recipes eats MEAT!? The horror! Gather the troops and the carrots, we attack at dawn!

“Someone writing vegetarian recipes eats MEAT!? The horror! Gather the troops and the carrots, we attack at dawn!

Ottolenghi’s approach to cooking puts vegetables front and center in each dish. He describes himself as “not burdened by rules…or ideology,” but rather strives to “celebrate vegetables without making them taste like meat, or as complements to meat, but to be what they are. It does no favour to vegetarians, making vegetables second best.”

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Veggies are the BEST

I love Ottolenghi’s approach to cooking and food. “Vegetable-based cookery” is often negatively associated with bland food and Birkenstocks. Great dishes should stand on their own merits: exciting combinations of fresh flavors. Oftentimes vegetarian, or so-called “healthy” recipes seem to go out of their way to emphasize what is ABSENT from the dish: gluten-free, low-carb, no-animal-protein, no-fun.

Ottolenghi goes out of his way to CELEBRATE how delicious, vegetarian cooking can be. The fact that many of his recipes lack meat is incidental; what’s important is that his recipes are exquisite, mouthwatering, and indulgent. You won’t miss meat if you’re too distracted making “yummy” noises and licking your plate. I’m personally mostly a plant-based person, but I see no reason to limit myself with hard and fast rules concerning what kinds of foods I eat. There is equal space for soybeans and steak on my plate. It is far more important to me that my ingredients are high quality, rather than that they adhere to the framework of some specific dietary regime. As I mentioned in a previous Wellness Wednesday post, my idea of a complete meal consists of: protein, high-quality carbohydrates, vegetables, and healthy fats. The recipe that I’ve chosen to adapt for you (find the original here) is: Skillet Baked Eggs in a Nest of Greens.

That’s enough talking out of me, let’s get the SHELL into the kitchen and get cooking!

I'll LAY off the egg puns now, I promise! Whoops

I’ll LAY off the egg puns now, I promise!
Whoops

The original recipe scores high marks for veggies, protein (from the eggs: did you know one egg has seven grams of protein? Eggs are nutritional powerhouses, packed with vitamins and minerals, not just a breakfast food) and healthy fats. However, I was, as always, craving something carb-y when I made this meal; luckily, my CSA provided me with some gorgeous baby red potatoes. This dish would go equally well with grains (I bet bulgur would be nice), or even some good crusty bread. I started my potatoes boiling before I did anything else, to give them time to cook.

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To make the main dish gather together:

¼ white onion

2 cloves of garlic

jalapeño

1 medium sized bunch of kale (any green would work- spinach or mustard greens would be tasty!)

2 eggs

1 lemon

olive oil

salt and pepper

½ tsp cumin seeds

I also made a tzaziki-style sauce to go on top of the greens and eggs. To make that you will need

¼ cup greek yogurt

1 Tbsp olive oil

Fresh cilantro

First chop your onion and your garlic

Ready...set...chop!

Ready…set…

CHOP

CHOP

Reserve half of the garlic in a small bowl for the sauce.

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Grab your jalapeño.

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Remove the ribs and seeds, and finely dice the pepper. As I mentioned when I taught you to make Caliente Clams, the ribs (placental tissues) contain the majority of the fiery capsaicin that makes peppers painful. I wanted a little bit, but not too much, heat for this dish. If you like things HOT, by all means leave in the seeds.

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Heat a tablespoon of olive-oil in cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. We’re going to be putting the skillet in the oven later, so DO NOT USE A NON-STCK PAN. When your oil begins to shimmer, and you can feel warmth emanating from the surface of the pan if you hold your hand an inch away, add your onions and garlic. Add salt and pepper, and sautee for a few minutes until your kitchen starts to smell really good.

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While the onions and garlic cook down, get your greens ready.

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It helps if you sing to them

De-rib and coarsely chop the kale.

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Before

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After

Time to check on your onions. Add the chopped jalapeño, and cumin seeds to the pan. Stir everything around and let the flavors meld together for a few minutes.

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Add the chopped kale to the pan, turn down the heat to medium-low.

20140708-213715-77835289.jpgHit the green with a squeeze of lemon juice, and a dash more salt and pepper. Let your greens wilt down, stirring occasionally, for four to five minutes.

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While the greens are wilting, let’s take some time to make the sauce. First, add a tablespoon of olive oil to the reserved garlic. Next we’re going to do something kinda strange: microwave the garlic-oil mixture for 30 seconds. This is a fast way to infuse the oil with garlic flavor. Your kitchen is going to smell INCREDIBLE.

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Chop up roughly a quarter cup of fresh cilantro leaves. Add them to the garlic/oil blend. Add ¼ cup of greek yogurt, and the juice from one lemon wedge.

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Mix everything together and add salt and pepper to taste.

Rachel Ray's fancy pink salt is entirely optional

Rachel Ray’s fancy pink salt is entirely optional

Good job! You made the sauce! If you’re feeling extra sassy you could add cucumbers and mint and make tzaziki! Or substitute dill and serve it with fish for a tasty variation on tartar sauce. There will be extra, and it’s great on sandwiches or as a veggie dip. Or eaten directly from the bowl with a spoon.

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Not that I’ve done that…

Now that we’ve made the sauce, it’s time to check on the greens, they probably have cooked down by now. Use your spatula to arrange the greens to form a large ellipse, with two indentations in the center.

These are the nests for your eggs

These are the nests for your eggs

Crack your eggs directly into the indentations, and begin pre-heating your broiler.

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Add salt and pepper, let the eggs cook for no more than two or three minutes. We will be finishing cooking the eggs in the oven, we don’t want chalky, overcooked yolks.

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Take the pan and place it under the broiler.

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Broil for 2-3 minutes, or until the whites of the eggs JUST begin to set. Confession time: I got distracted while I was making this dish, and left it under the broiler for too long, it turned out delicious, but not exactly aesthetically pleasing (and my yolks weren’t deliciously runny, as I had hoped). Don’t be like me: pay attention to your food while it is cooking! Broilers get REALLY hot.

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Ooops

Before you overcook your eggs, take the skillet out of the oven. Slide the whole nest of eggy green goodness on to a plate, along with your carbohydrate of choice. Top the eggs with a dollop of sauce.

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I chose to accompany my dinner with a light green salad, which is optional.

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You might decide to skip the salad, or choose cous-cous instead of potatoes. Those are perfectly acceptable options, however I must recommend, in these lovely long summer days, that you enjoy your dinner outside.

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Dining al fresco is NOT optional

Thanks for stopping by! Have a delicious week!

 

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Seattle is splendid in the summer

Happy sunday superheroes! I hope that everybody had splendid weekends. It was a scorcher up here in Seattle, the mercury climbed to the high eighties and mid nineties both days! I chose to take full advantage of the heavenly heat by getting outside as much as humanly possible, and by wearing the smallest amount of clothes that I could reasonably get away with in public.

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Less pants, more DATA. If I go into the lab on weekends, I set the dress-code

I started my weekend off on the right foot…and also the left foot…and then the right foot again. I got up and grabbed seven glorious miles. I’m very pleased to report that Achilles was a true valiant warrior: my tweaky tendon had no complaints!

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There is nothing more obnoxious than an injured runner, and nothing more joyful than a runner getting back on the roads after a forced rest!

After my morning miles I hit up a yoga class. I got my asana on, then met up with some fellow microbiologists for an afternoon of deep scientific inquiry into fluid dynamics, buoyancy, fermentation, and photosynthesis.

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Deep DEEP scientific inquiry

Before I arrived at UW, one of the senior, and extremely talented graduate students, in our department invented a sport called “ca-booze-ing.” It’s extremely difficult to master, so I will break it down into it’s component parts:

1) Step one: rent canoes.

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Helpful tip

2) Step two: Paddle canoes around Lake Washington, while enjoying a dry riesling.

 

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3) Step three: there is no step three.

We had a great time paddling around the arboretum, enjoying the sunshine. Seattle may only get 60 sunny days per year, but those 60 sunny days are pretty spectacular

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This was going to be a big, busy, smelly overpass right through the arboretum until some environmental groups got construction halted. Now it’s a cool “bridge to nowhere”

The absolute highlight of our nautical excursion (and possibly my mid-twenties) was getting up close and personal with a family of ducks.

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Quack quack quack

I got EXTREMELY up-close-and-personal with the momma duck. 

We’re 24 hours out, and so far I’m not showing any symptoms of H5N1 bird flu. Here’s hoping that Louis Pasteur, the father of microbiology, is looking out for me. Coming down with a highly transmissible and often fatal disease would be socially awkward and really throw a monkey wrench into my fall training schedule.

Get your shit together, Sam!

I KNOW that Louis Pasteur, my old housemate’s cat, has my back

I think that starting a global pandemic is likely grounds for dismissal from a PhD program. Although, judging from the recent reports about misplaced smallpox virus, carelessly handled live anthrax, and accidents with H5N1 at the CDC, starting a global pandemic may NOT be grounds for dismissal from government research.

"Seriously guys, get your shit together!" Kisses, Louis Pasteur

“Seriously guys, get your shit together!”
Kisses,
Louis Pasteur

I greeted Sunday morning with some sun salutations. The sun greeted me on my way to yoga with a marvelous sunrise.

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How many times can you write the word “sun” in two sentences?

After a soothing savasana I changed out of my yoga-spandex and into my biking spandex. My housemate, Alli; Sheldon, a post-doc in my lab; and I put pedals to pavement and rode west on the Burke-Gilman trail.

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It was a lovely bike ride. I was nervous heading out the door that the heat and humidity would leave us dehydrated and defeated. Luckily there was a cool breeze off of Lake Washington, and we managed our hydration like professionals.

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Does beer have electrolytes?

We rode to the 192 Brewery Taphouse, in Kenmore. It’s a great little spot to kick your feet up and enjoy a hard-earned refreshing beverage in an outdoor beer garden. The entire bike ride ended up being around two dozen miles, round trip. The Burke-Gilman trail is scenic, and flat as a pancake; pedaling on the trail is a dream. It was fun to bike with Alli and Sheldon, although I seriously need to start incorporating some speed workouts in my cycling if I ever hope to progress as a triathlete. Sheldon and I busted out a sprint on a straightaway section. I should rephrase that: Sheldon sprinted, Sam got left in the dust. Nevertheless a good time was had by all.

procompression

I might not be a speedy cyclist, but I’m certainly a patriotic pedaler.

Overall it was a wonderful weekend. The entire population of Seattle loses its collective shit when the weather turns nice for good reason: summer in this city is absolutely GLORIOUS. (I love The Oatmeal’s take on the “four…but actually two…seasons” of Seattle weather). I gave myself gotten a serious dose of sunlight to combat a creeping case of Outdoor Deficiency Disorder. I’m feeling pumped and ready to take on whatever the week throws at me.

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Hopefully my week does’t throw something cute and deeply disturbing at me…

How was YOUR weekend? What did you get up to?

Was it hot where you are?

What’s the weirdest encounter you have ever had with a bird?

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The saga of Achilles

Once upon a time, there was this Greek dude named Achilles. He looked like Brad Pitt

Achilles was the FIERCEST warrior up in the Adriatic Area.

Christian Siriano is the Fiercest warrior in all of Manhattan...Is this reference way too out of date? I haven't owned a TV since Achilles was tramping around the Mediterranean

Christian Siriano is the Fiercest warrior in all of Manhattan…Is this reference way too out of date? I haven’t owned a TV since Achilles was tramping around the Mediterranean

Achilles’ mom was a nymph named Thetis. According to the Grecian gossip, Thetis dunked Achilles into the River Styx when he was a baby, making him invulnerable…mostly. Thetis held Achilles by the ankle while she was submerging her son in Styx’s waters, so his ankle wasn’t inured with magic mojo. He had a single week point: his Achilles heel.

Now if we could find a way to dunk the BAND Styx into the river Styx...

Now if we could find a way to dunk the BAND Styx into the river Styx…

I’m not sure why Thetis went through all the trouble to make her son invulnerable, but didn’t finish the entire job. It seems like it wouldn’t be too difficult to flip her baby boy around and go back for another coat of wonder-water. Maybe double-dipping was a serious taboo in ancient greek times?

Zeus is going to smite you SO hard if you go back into that guacamole twice with the same chip.

Zeus is going to smite you SO hard if you go back into that guacamole twice with the same chip.

Despite his podiatric problems, Achilles grew up to become a handsome, talented, and well-rounded Greek guy. He had a rewarding career: he loved slaying Persians, and rumor had it that he might be up for a big promotion to vice-president of pillaging. He had a great family life: he got along really well with his mother, and, even though they hadn’t had “that conversation” yet, he was thinking about becoming exclusive with his favorite slave-girl. Every Friday, Achilles and his best buddy Patroclus went out for happy hour at the Olive Garden.

Athena LOVES those damn breadsticks

Athena LOVES those damn breadsticks

Life was looking good for Achilles, until a teenage Trojan’s panty-raid sent the whole peninsula into pandemonium.

The king of Sparta, Minalaeus, had a hot wife named Helen. Paris, the prince of Troy, and Helen high-tailed it together, after a night of steamy passion, on what was supposed to be a routine diplomatic visit. Menalaeus, his toga thoroughly in a knot, launched a thousand ships full of giddy greeks to kindly request that his wife return home. The Siege of Troy was long, and boring. Troy had thick walls, and the ancient Greeks didn’t have bunker-buster bombs.

HOLY ZEUS!

HOLY ZEUS!

Eventually the greek soldiers got antsy (or maybe drunk), so they decided to do some arts and crafts. They made themselves a giant wooden horse, and all piled inside of it. The Trojans were desperate for entertainment after months of being besieged (this was before the age of Netflix, otherwise I’m sure that everybody could have happily holed up and binge-watched “House of Cards”). They decided to bring the giant horse inside the city’s gates.

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Primary documents indicate that the Trojan Horse was likely NOT this fabulous and sparkly

Safely inside the walls of Troy, the Greeks within the horse slept off their hangovers until nightfall, then popped out of their pine-wood pony like a giant people piñata! These guys had just spent over a day LITERALLY crammed into a horse’s rear-end. They were not cheerful. They proceeded to express their displeasure via sword-point to the citizens of Troy. Our man Achilles went ape-shit: he knew that if he showed exceptional leadership while he sacked Troy, the big promotion was in the BAG. Unfortunately for Achilles, Paris, the pubescent prince who started this whole mess, got his hands on a bow and arrow and shot our hero right in the foot. The vulnerable foot.  Things ended tragically.

People named Paris screw EVERYTHING up

People named Paris screw EVERYTHING up

At this point you may be asking yourself: “Has Sam finally gone bananas?”

Don't you DARE put me on hold

More bananas than usual?

This blog is a place for recipes, races, rants about climate change, patriotic ramblings, ruminations, and selfies in running gear. Why in the world am I subjecting you, my gentle readers, to the least accurate historical re-telling since “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.”

Was this movie as awesome as it sounded?

Was this movie as awesome as it sounded?

Translated literally, “Achilles” means: “grief of the people.” I’m telling you this ancient saga because Achilles’ namesake tendon has been giving this modern runner no small amount of grief lately.

Achilles-tendonThe alternate title for this pedantic post is: “Sam stopped running for over a week and he’s really O.K. with it”

9 whole days!? Aggghhh

9 whole days!? Aggghhh

Really.

"I'm fine, REALLY, I'm overjoyed"

“I’m fine, REALLY, I’m overjoyed”

My left ankle felt vaguely tweaky on last Tuesday’s run. I ran seven miles on it Wednesday, which allowed me to realize that I recently made a series of poor life decisions, and I need to check myself before I wreck myself. I have, as I always do, been skimping on recovery. I didn’t really take any time off from running after my marathon in May. I didn’t taper going into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Seattle Half Marathon. As I mentioned in my post about routines and ruts, my “training” in June (if you can really call it that) has been heavy on junk mileage, and I’ve been skipping yoga.

I'm boring, but consistent

If variety is the spice of life, I’m serving up a pretty bland sandwich

Wednesday’s run (and the limp-y day that followed) was a wake-up call. Walking was painful, and my ankle felt especially tender when I first got out of bed in the morning, or stood up after sitting for an extended period of time. I’m not a doctor, but I’m neurotic, over-educated, and I have access to webMD: I think I was feeling the warning signs of Achilles Tendonitis. This is not my first running injury. In 2012 I knew something was not-quite-right in my right foot, and decided to ignore it. I trained through pain, and was rewarded for my efforts with a calcaneal stress fracture, crutches, and three solid months of aqua-jogging.

I think the chlorine broke my brain...

I think the chlorine from the pool broke my brain…

Being sidelined with a major injury was DEVASTATING. I do not want to go through the strum und drang of a long, drawn-out recovery again. Last week I decided to stop running, and tried to avoid impacting my tender tissues. It took three days before walking didn’t give my tendon a twinge, but I had residual pain first thing in the morning for a few days hence.  Forcing myself to give up my miles of meditation has been mentally challenging. I keep telling myself that it is better to voluntarily take time off to to heal my tendon now, than be prohibited from pounding the pavement for months on end. In the meantime I’ve been doing a lot of this:

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I forgot how much I love biking!

A lot of this:

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“Hit the pool, not the bottle”

And trying to minimize this:

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“But sometimes you have to hit the bottle too” Not that bottle, though…that wine was god-awful

I’ve even taped myself up, and climbed onto the elliptical to try and determine empirically whether or not I still hate low impact cardio cross-training machines.

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Survey says: YES. God the elliptical is so boring! How do people DO this every day?

I’ve been icing, stretching, doing eccentric heel dips like a BOSS, and I hit two yoga classes! I’m trying to approach resting and recovery with the same level of manic focus and determination that I apply to training.

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“I am TOTALLY going to PR in icing! What are my splits? 20 minutes on/20 minutes off is sort of like interval training…”

I have a lot in common with my housemate’s dog, Porter: we’re both easily excitable, we have fabulous hair, and we start howling if we don’t get our daily run in.

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After nine days way from my favorite sport, I am ALMOST ready to start climbing the walls. Fortunately, I am also walking, skipping, and doing jumping-jacks pain free. I think that means I am ready to return to the roads. I am going to take myself out for a cautious test-run tomorrow morning to evaluate and appraise. If things are tweaky I’m going to stop immediately and take some more time off. If things feel good I’m going to ease back into my normal mileage, and be thankful that I dodged a bullet, this time.

I want to hear your injury recovery triumphs and horror stories! Let me buy you a virtual beer and we can commiserate! 

 

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Wellness Wednesday: Keep clam and carry on!

Happy Wellness Wednesday! Shucks, you guys. I have to apologize that last week’s Wellness Wednesday post (or lack thereof) was such a clam-ity. I wanted to flex my culinary mussels, but I feel like a shell of my former charming self. It was so shellfish of me to withhold this clam-dunk of a recipe from you, my gentle readers.

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If I stop making “clam” puns, will you forgive me?

This week we’re headed back out to the oceans with another seemingly fancy, but super-easy, seafood recipe. I love seafood. I’m lucky to live in Seattle, where I can get my mits on fresh, local, frutta di mare at a moments notice.

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Fish and shellfish are delicious sources of omega three fatty acids, and they pack a powerful protein-punch. Shellfish in particular are great sources of iron and B-vitamins; which is great for anemic runners who eat very little red meat!

Source: http://seafoodhealthfacts.org/seafood_nutrition/patients/composition_chart.php

Source: http://seafoodhealthfacts.org/seafood_nutrition/ patients/composition_chart.php

Unfortunately, while eating these superfoods of the sea is healthy for humans, the way that humans harvest fish can be harmful to the planet. According to the most recent surveys, 7% of the world’s fisheries are depleted, and 17% are over-exploited (which is a one-way ticket to depletion city). Buying fish can be confusing. Is fresh better than farmed? (Usually, but it depends on the fish, and where the farm is). Was this fish caught sustainably? (If it came from one of the U.S.-managed fisheries, yes…if it comes from abroad, probably not). Do I need to worry about mercury or BPA levels? (Yes).

Luckily your fish does not have to be elusive! There are fantastic resources available to help you in your seafood shopping. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program aims to educate consumers to put their purchasing power towards prosperity through sustainable choices.  They publish a pocket guide and mobile app listing the most ocean-friendly options to order at restaurants and grocery stores.

NOAA’s Fish-Watch is in charge of monitoring domestic fisheries and seafood farms. They have an awesome, extremely user friendly website that gives a “Seafood Profile” for almost any fish you’d be interested in buying: from anchovies to wreckfish.

This is a Wreckfish, apparently no fish start with the letter "Z."

This is a Wreckfish, apparently no fish start with the letter “Z.”

The profile for each species gives information on population levels, fishing, habitat impacts and by-catch. It gives you an overview of the fish, the fishery, current research, AND tasty recipes.

The resources I linked to above are great. However, I understand that buying fish can be a little daunting. Sometimes you want to just pick up some protein quickly from the grocery store, without cross-referencing a nutrition facts table and two government databases to determine whether your choice gets Poseidon’s stamp of approval.

"I'm Poseidon, and I approve of this fish!"

“I’m Poseidon, and I approve of this fish!”

I love my Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch App, but when I’m seafood shopping I typically use a much simpler rule of thumb: the lower on the food chain a fish is, the more sustainable (and healthful) it is likely to be. Smaller fish have shorter lifespans and reproduce quickly, making them less vulnerable to overfishing. Big fish, like swordfish, take a long time to reach maturity. While they are growing up, the big fish eat the smaller fish, so they tend to accumulate toxins (like mercury!) in their flesh. They are some of the most threatened populations in the oceans. You don’t have to swear off them entirely (I don’t want to live in a world where I can’t have ahi tuna), but they should be eaten occasionally, rather than often, for your health and the health of the planet. Shellfish, as filter feeders, are as low on the food chain as you can go. The fact that they happen to be delicious, nutritional powerhouses, in addition to being sustainable choices, is icing on the cake…the crab-cake.

Today’s recipe is a lightning fast steamed shellfish dish, inspired by latin-american flavors. I used to think about mussels and clams as strictly “out to dinner foods.” They always taste AMAZING when you order them at a restaurant, surely the chef spent HOURS slaving away in the kitchen to turn gastropods into gastronomic genius.

I was so wrong. Shellfish is dead easy to cook at home: you can throw together a delicious, light, and healthful meal in less than 20 minutes flat. All you need to do is steam open a bunch of cephalopods in a big pot with some nicely flavored liquid. I learned how to cook mussels from my favorite sacred text: Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

"Bless us Saint Julia. May our soufflés soar, our wine pour, and our meals be merry"

“Bless us Saint Julia. May our soufflés soar, our wine pour, and our meals be merry”

Julia Child helped me face my fears with her bulletproof bivalve recipe: Moules a la mariniere  (here’s a great interpretation of this classic recipe by Deb at the smittenkitchen). Julia’s recipe cooks up mussels with garlic, shallots, parsley and white wine (of course there’s wine) for a simple, satisfying, and supremely French supper. I put my own spin on this classic technique, headed south of the border and cooked up some Caliente Clams in Tangy Tomatillo Sauce. I used clams because I couldn’t find mussels at PCC (this is the first time that my favorite grocery store in Seattle has ever let me down). I was craving something more spicy than sophisticated, so I went with some latin-inspired ingredients. Cooking is all about improvisation: take the ingredients you have and turn them into the food you want. So keep clam, and get the shuck into the kitchen….let’s get cooking.

I’ll give you the measurements to make a single serving of this dish, because that’s how things went down in my kitchen. However, I must recommend scaling up by a factor of two, and serving this with margaritas to somebody you intend to seduce. Cooking is sexy, and shellfish may be bona-fide aphrodisiacs.

To make this dish (which I ate in its entirety) I gathered:

6 tomatillos

2 cloves of garlic

¼ of a white onion

jalapeño

~¾ lb fresh clams in their shells

1 beer (I used an IPA, anything but a stout would work well)

Fresh cilantro

Olive oil

Salt and Pepper

My wits

We are going to start by blistering some tomatillos. Tomatillos are those funny-looking green tomatoes that have their own jackets. They have a tangy flavor. We’re going to add a layer of smokiness on top of the tang by broiling the bejeezus out of these bad-boys.

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Remove the papery husk, give them a rinse, and set your tomatillos on a foil-lined baking sheet.

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Crank up the broiler and set place the baking sheet on the top oven rack. Let the broiler’s dragon-breath toast those tomatillos. You want the skin to blacken and blister. You might hear some squeaking and popping if the tomatillos burst and release their juices. That’s a good thing, we’ll use the juices later. Makes sure to peek in on the tomatillos in about 5 minutes, and turn them over so that they experience the inferno on all sides.

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You’ve got some time to kill while the tomatillos roast, so chop up 2 cloves of garlic, and ¼ of an onion.

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Now collect a jalapeño, and ask yourself a question: can you HANDLE the heat!?

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If you like spicy foods, chop up the whole jalapeño, seeds and all. If you want a milder dish, remove the seeds and ribs from the jalapeño before processing your pepper. In either case, be sure to WASH YOUR HANDS after handling hot peppers. The peppers we’re using aren’t super-intense (they rank a mere 5,000 Scoville heat units, compared to the 300,000 Scoville units put out by a habanero pepper) you’re in for a severe stinging sensation if you happen to rub your eyes after handling jalapeños.

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I like spicy foods so I left the ribs and the seeds in place. The compound inside hot chili peppers that makes them hurt so good is called capsaicin. The taste of spicy isn’t actually a taste at all. Capsaicin itself is flavorless: it doesn’t interact with taste-buds, but rather directly interacts with pain receptors to produce a burning sensation; that’s why rubbing your hands in your eyes after chopping hot peppers makes you cry like a baby–even though you don’t have taste buds in your eye! Capsaicin is produced by the ribs of the pepper (the placental tissue) and acts a mammal-munching deterrent: pepper seeds are spread by birds, capsaicin doesn’t stimulate the pain receptors on bird nerve-cells. Paradoxically, capsaicin is a great topical analgesic. Capsaicin produces such a dramatic pain response that when you rub it on an area that is feeling slightly painful, the nerve cells in the area get overwhelmed by the signal and just turn off, masking the underlying pain. Capsaicin cream is an effective treatment for rheumatoid arthritis!

I digress. If you want your clams to be caliente, leave the seeds and ribs in place. If you’re a wuss, cut them out. In either case, heat up some olive oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat.

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Slide your onion, and garlic into the hot oil. Add salt and pepper, and cook until your things begin to become fragrant.

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Add the chopped jalapeño to the pan, and stir. The pepper is going to release some pretty potent fumes when it hits the heat, so stand back. However, if you are feeling congested, leaning over the pot and taking a big whiff is a no-fail method for clearing your sinuses. If your pepper is too pungent open a window; anything worthwhile should involve some blood, sweat, and tears.

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Those tomatillos are probably ready by now. Take them out from under the broiler.

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Add the tomatillos (and any juices they might have thrown off) directly to your onions and pepper. Stir everything around. Use your spoon to crush the tomatillos and break them down as much as possible.

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Sauté everything together for a few minutes, then add roughly ¾ cup of beer to the mix. This is going to be the deliciously flavored liquid for steaming open our clams. I used an IPA because that’s what I had in my house. I imagine that a light Mexican beer would be a delicious, and thematically appropriate choice, as well.

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Bring the mixture to a boil, then turn down the heat and let everything simmer together for 2 minutes.

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Take your clams (or mussels!) out of the fridge.

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Bonus if your seafood counter cleaned them for you! If not, scrub the shells under cold running water, and pull off any straggly beards you see with the edge of a knife

Add your shellfish to the simmering liquid.

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Put a lid over the pot, and let the steam work its magic.

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While your shellfish are steaming, chop some cilantro.

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Grab yourself some good-quality whole grain bread, and stick a few slices in the toaster.

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Check your clams after approximately 5-7 minutes. They should all have sprung open.

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Throw a generous handful of chopped fresh cilantro into the pot, and mix.

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Serve immediately, accompanied with a big green salad (for your veggies) and that crusty whole-grain bread (for soaking up the delicious juices). Enjoy!

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Make sure you have a shell-bowl!

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July on the fly: how can we set our selves up for success when we set goals?

Hello boys and girls! I hope all of you Americans had a nice time celebrating Independence Day this past Friday. I declared my independence with a fun bike ride along the shore of Lake Washington, featuring some patriotic ProCompression.

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It felt good to be back in the bike saddle for a long ride. I really haven’t done very many tours since my old bike was stolen in February. I’ve been using my new bike, Velox, to commute every day, but the purpose of those rides is to get to work in a timely manner. It is MUCH more fun to set out on an adventure where the only goal is to propel yourself forward with your pedals and explore.

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Powered by pedals, and patriotism

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I like to take the beginning of the month to look back on what I’ve gotten done in the past thirty days, and set some goals for the coming lunar cycle. June was a wild month in marathonsam-land: my mom had neurosurgery, I ran a half marathon (without much preparation), I went camping (almost…sort of…we tried, OK), and I tried to confront my deep and deeply irrational fear of public transportation (OK, I didn’t try very hard).

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I also made a LOT of bananphone calls

I did set some goals for June. However, I am beginning to understand that I need to tweak my goal-setting strategies if I ever hope to have any degree of success. Self-improvement gurus from Tulsa to Timbuktu agree that highly functional human beings set SMART goals.

TEACH ME YOUR WAYS!

TEACH ME YOUR WAYS!

S.M.A.R.T. stands for

-Specific

-Measurable

-Attainable

-Results-Oriented and Rewarding

-Time-based

“I want to drop 10 minutes from my marathon time at my next race” is a SMART goal for marathonsam- highly specific, easy to measure, hopefully realistic, and extremely personally rewarding.

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No better feeling than crossing a finish line

“I want to write and publish a review article about the molecular mechanisms facilitating adaptive evolution in bacteria by the end of 2015″ is another SMART goal.

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Fly little DNA space-ships, FLY

“I want to be the running king of Twitter” is a VAPID goal, for me.

Dear World: Sorry about this one

Like this, but with more spandex and anti-chafe cream

I’m not hating on Twitter: I love social media! Follow me! But setting myself the goal of becoming Twitter’s merry-monarch in Mizunos is setting myself up for failure and diasppointment. VAPID goals are: Vague, Aimless , Personally-unfufilling, and Ill-Defined. I didn’t see anyone contending for “running king of twitter” on my last mail-in ballot. Even that WAS a real position, do I even want to be Twitter’s running king? What would my responsibilities be?  How can you issue edicts in 140 characters or less?

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At least I have a SOLID energy policy in place for The People’s Monarchy of Twitter

I’m torturing this allegory to make a point: the way that you go about setting goals for yourself can hugely impact your success in achieving those goals. Ambitious, yet attainable goals with easy-to-measure benchmarks are encouraging when you make progress. Don’t try to bite off more than you can chew. Additionally, before setting yourself on a conquest, contemplate your own personal reasons for pursuing your desired result.

Motivation can be either instrumental or internal. Internal motivation, as the name implies, comes from within: the simple pleasure of doing a task well. Instrumental motivation is external: the recognition and associated rewards associated with performing a task at a high level. Running gives me joy: my favorite way to start the day is with an early morning run-rise.

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Racing gives me an ego boost when I cross the finish line, collect my medal (and banana), and check my time to see if my hard work and training has paid off.

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And then I can get an ego-boost later and play dress up

Running, gives me a nice balance of instrumental and internal motivating forces. Similarly: I enjoy blogging because writing relaxes me and genuinely like sharing my thoughts. I’d be lying through my teeth if I claimed not to get a humungous surge of dopamine every time I checked my page-view statistics.

9 views! Heck YES

9 views! Heck YES…I’m no better than a slot-machine player. And no richer for it.

It’s important that your goals give you some external  positive reinforcement, but getting caught up in outsiders’ opinions is a fool-proof path to failure. A recent study in PNAS found that, as expected, strongly internally motivated (presumably by a desire to serve their country) West Point Cadets went on to excel. They found that strongly instrumentally motivated cadets (persons who saw officer training as a sure-fire path to status and high salaries) tended to have a lesser degree of success. Surprisingly, they found that those who enrolled in West Point with a strong mix of both motivations performed worse than  people who were solely internally motivated (read a nice summary by the authors, here). The negative influence of instrumental motivation actually overshadowed the internal reserves for the group that these authors studied.

I’ve posted before about being process-driven rather than results oriented. What I’m taking away from this study is that it is good to get positive re-informcement, but it is important to remain true to yourself. Don’t let other peoples’ opinions about what you are doing let you forget why you started doing something in the first place. Set goals that are optimistic without being completely overwhelming. Incremental progress is still progress, and should be celebrated for it’s innate value. You don’t have to be the best AT doing something, as long as you give your best WHILE you are doing it.

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Do what you like to do, and do it well. Everyone else can take a flying leap

So, with all of that said. Here’s what my goals for June were, and how I did.

1) Settle in to a solid strength training regimen. 

Whoops.

I didn’t lift weights a single time after I posted that goal. I have been doing some core work on my own. I’m trying to do 50 push ups per day the entire month of July as part of an online challenge.

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I’ll jump at ANY excuse to take more selfies

I may or may not have done  a Jillian Michaels work-out video at work recently, while I was waiting for one of my big-giant gels to run on a saturday.

They take a while...Jillian is INTENSE

They take a while…Jillian now frightens me more than radiation

None of these are the building blocks of a solid or consistent routine. F minus.

2) Re-submit my manuscript. 

This paper has been a long series of triumphs, tragedies and frustration. I’ve been writing all weekend. We’re (fingers crossed) going to hit it, submit it and quit it on Monday.

3) Keep my yard in order. 

I give myself an A plus.

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4) Turn this blog into…something

Wow, Sam. What a specific and measurable goal you have set for yourself….I can’t even grade myself on this one, because the parameters were so ill-defined. I guess this blog is, and continues to be a “thing” in the sense that it exists. I give myself a grade of “HB.”

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5) Keep in touch with my friends

We went camping! Nailed it.

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My goals for July (which I am trying to make SMART) are:

1) Ride the Lake Washington Loop on my bike.

2) See live music twice.

3) Make three professional connections at the conference I’m going to at the end of the month. 

4) Read one novel

5) Select a goal race for the fall, and start a formal training program.

Thanks for reading! Those are my goals for this month! What are YOURS?

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Independence Day!

Happy Independence Day Americans!

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Today marks the official adoption of the Declaration of Independence by the Second Continental Congress, way back in 1776. It seems strange to have a national holiday marking a parliamentary procedure. The physical document that is under glass and argon at the national archive wasn’t actually signed until August second.

Declaration_of_Independence_(USA)

The sentiment was set in motion two days earlier, when our founding fathers voted to legally declare independence from Great Britain on July second (which also happens to be the day that L.B.J. signed the civil rights act in 1964). John Adams himself said:

The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”

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Nailed it! Almost…

Frankly the official day we decide to commemorate our declaration is irrelevant to the spirit of the holiday. I love the fourth of July, because it is a celebrates my favorite American trait: Independence.

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I’ve posted about my patriotism before. I love America for so many reasons. It is easy to love the natural beauty of our country, from our shining seas, to our purple mountains’ majesties. America has scenery to spare.

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OK- the sea isn’t really shining in this photo, it was a foggy day at Natural Bridges

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…and this mountain isn’t really purple. These are the Maroon Bells in Colorado, from my cabin’s back deck. Can you see the heart-shaped formation?

However, America is so much more that just a large stretch of land between the Atlantic and Pacific, as lovely as that land may be. America is great because it’s full of Americans.

Americans come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. We pray to different deities, we laugh at different jokes, we have different preferences, different opinions, different ideas, different convictions.

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Native American

If only my mustache was that majestic...

Gladiator-American

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Fabulous-Americans

Our country is founded on the principles of representative democracy. We certainly don’t have to agree with each other on everything.

Who needs evidence when you've got LOUD OPINIONS!?

We don’t even have to agree with each other on ANYTHING

However, we do all have to agree to get along, somehow. It’s laid out as plain as day in the opening lines to our country’s founding document. Our country was created because a bunch of pissed-off puritans got sick of being pushed around by their patriarchal king. The Declaration of Independence, along with its laundry list of gripes against King George, establishes this great nation as a place where each citizen should be free to pursue their own American Dream.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

OK. I recognize that the founding fathers weren’t perfect. They certainly believed that some men were created far more equal than others. Thomas Jefferson owned over 200 slaves in 1776, and accused Great Britain of “inciting the negroes to rise against their masters.”

C'mon Tommy....

C’mon Tommy….

We’re not perfect today, in our forward thinking, modern society. It is REMARKABLE that we live in a country where gay marriage is fully legal in 19 states (with 12 more on the way, hopefully). It is shameful and atrocious that we live in a country where C.E.O.s are paid, on average, 295 times their workers’ salaries. It is inspiring to watch old barriers fall: Michelle Howard just became the first African-American female four-star Admiral in U.S. Navy history. It is endlessly frustrating to see that highly qualified female financial specialists, doctors, and lawyers receive only 70% of the wages that their male counterparts recoup.

Our country may have its flaws. However, the best thing about our wacky little representative democracy is that when things aren’t perfect we have the right, no….the responsibility to change them. The instructions are laid out as plain as day in our own declaration of independence.

“…to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,—That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

In other words: if your government is getting in the way of your happiness, don’t take offense, take ACTION.

Of course, the founding fathers recognized that we can’t go throwing revolutions left and right at the drop of a tri-cornered hat.

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes

It might behoove some of our legislators to give the Declaration of Independence another quick once-over before they decide to shut the government down…again.

paul ryan

“I’m too busy reading Ayn Rand to read the ENTIRE Declaration”

John Boehner’s quixotic legal crusade probably falls under the auspices of “light and transient causes,” as well.

I digress, the point of this post is not to promote divisiveness and disunity, no matter how much disdain I feel for certain politicians. The point of this post is to CELEBRATE the fact that our founding fathers left us strict instructions: when the oligarchs obstruct our freedom, we have an obligation to get them OUT.

“when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”

I am patriotic, not nationalistic. I love my country enough to start righteously raging when we screw up. I believe in America, because we, as a country, have accomplished AMAZING things.

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The Space Needle sure is a nice looking needle

Some Americans just made an entire synthetic yeast chromosome! Source: http://www.nature.com/news/first-synthetic-yeast-chromosome-revealed-1.14941

We, as a country, have also made some AMAZINGLY unfortunate choices throughout our history.

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The best thing about America is that we, as citizens, are allowed and encouraged to take action if our elected leaders start to lead us in a direction we don’t agree with. We, as a country, are constantly evolving. We’re not perfect, but we’re working towards becoming a more perfect union every single day. John Quincy Adams, in his famous Fourth of July speech said:

[America’s] glory is not dominion, but liberty. Her march is the march of the mind. She has a spear and a shield: but the motto upon her shield is, Freedom, Independence, Peace.

Let’s march our minds together towards becoming a country we are all proud to live in. Let’s celebrate our independence, and delight in our diversity. Let’s recognize the things about our country that we want to change. Let’s recognize that we don’t all share the same ideals, but recognize that we all have the right to our own ideas and the responsibility to hear one another out. Let’s cherish what we have in common: we are all Americans. We have a big, weird, and wonderful country. For better or for worse, we all have to figure out a way to live together.

Happy July 4th everybody! Go drink some beer and blow some stuff up! 

How are YOU spending your Independence day? 

 

Posted in america, ruminations, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Wellness Wednesday….is postponed until Thursday this week.

Buenas noches beautiful people! I’m feeling a little sheepish at the moment.

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Baaaaaaad blogger, very very Baaaaaaaaaaaaad blogger

I started off my day with a 7 mile run, and every intention of writing up a killer recipe for the fourth installment of my Wellness Wednesday feature (previously I went over how to make broiled fish with zucchini; no-hassle hash with kale, sweet potatoes and turkey; and steamed fish with a chopped chimmichurri sauce).

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Cardio and cooking are my two favorite things!

Unfortunately, some very teeny tiny, but incredibly powerful forces colluded together to turn my Wednesday into a whirlwind of chaos.

Bacillus: I love you, but our relationship is getting REALLY co-dependent

phase

 

My plate was absolutely full of experiments today. I would absolutely LOVE to type up a protocol so that your plates can be full of vegetables on this Wellness Wednesday Evening, but, frankly, my microbiological mis-adventures have left me completely tuckered out.

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When in doubt, eat some veggies in your yard

Benjamin Franklin said: “He who is good at making excuses is seldom good for anything else.”

Sorry, Ben

Sorry, Ben

On the other hand, Lord Philip Stanholpe, The Earl of Chesterfield, said that: “any job worth doing is worth doing well”

Hey Phil! Thanks for the shout-out

Thanks for having my back, Phil!

I think that my Wellness Wednesday posts are worthwhile. I want to be able to dedicate time to typing up the recipes. I owe it to you guys, my gentle readers, not to phone-it-in when I’m writing my blog.

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Even though phoning it in via banana phone is 90% of what I do here

Wellness Wednesday has therefore officially been delayed one day. I made up a KILLER recipe for you guys that I am excited to share, and I want to do a proper post with lots of pictures. In the meantime, be happy, be well, eat your fruits and veggies (maybe turn to Carmen Miranda for some Tutti Frutti motivation), and check back in Thusday for Wellness Wednesday!

 

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Wet weekend wanderings: the camping trip that wasn’t

Happy Monday, maniacs! I hope everybody’s week is shaping up to be super! I tried to start the week strong with my typical swim this morning.

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Tragically, when I entered the University of Washington gym I was informed that my membership has expired because SOMEBODY forgot to register himself as a PhD student for summer quarter.

I don’t know WHO would do something as moronic as that!

Luckily I was able to purchase a temporary access pass to get my mer-man on. You can imagine how THRILLED I was to shell out five bucks for pool privileges that I am accustomed to being granted gratis.

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I’m overjoyed.

In a way, my morning misadventures, and beauraucratic bumblings are consistent with my entire weekend. On Saturday, Alli, Other-Sam, Katie, Catherine, and I tried REALLY hard to go camping.

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We tried, we REALLY tried

Have you ever had the perfect vacation? Have you experienced one of those elusive excursions where absolutely everything proceeds without a hitch, every aspect of your agenda falling perfectly into place, as though St. Christopher himself has been moonlighting as your personal travel agent?

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St. Chris has got yo’ BACK

This weekend’s camping trip was the exact opposite of that. I’m not sure what we did to piss off the Patron Saint of Travelers, but Christopher did NOT have our back on this weekends’ expedition. We must have accidentally directed our devotions to St. Genevieve, because our jolly journey devolved into a disaster.

Not quite three-mile island level disaster...but certainly not anyone's best effort

Not quite three-mile island level disaster…but certainly not anyone’s best effort

Maybe I lit the wrong candle? Or the Virgin Mary doesn't like my hair?

Maybe I lit the wrong candle? Or the Virgin Mary doesn’t like my hair?

Even though our camping trip was a disaster, we managed to have a great time! We went on a fun hike, we saw some beautiful scenery, Porter got to roll around in the snow. I will never complain about an afternoon spent in the woods with my closest friends! However, the amount of actual camping that we completed this weekend, if you strictly define camping as “sleeping in a tent and cooking food outdoors” amounted to approximately zero minutes.

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How can you be mad when you experienced this?

We tried REALLY hard to go camping. We packed our car full of camping gear, and left Seattle Saturday morning, bright eyed and bushy-tailed.

Porter was ESPECIALLY bushy tailed

Porter was ESPECIALLY bushy tailed

We applied accelerator to asphalt and made our way to Mineral Lake, two hours south of Seattle, in the shadow of Mt. Rainier.

Can you find it on this map? We couldn't either...

Can you find it on this map? We couldn’t either…

Mineral Lake’s hilariously out of date official tourism website declares this happy hamlet to be “The Hidden Gem of the Northwest.” The jury’s still out on whether or not “gem” is an accurate adjective for this quiet community, but we truly appreciated its “hidden” qualities. We missed the turn-off leading to the town. When we found the town, we overlooked the off-ramp that lead to our campground. Twice. Five over-educated adults with functional iPhones managed to get lost on paved roads with clearly delineated signage, which precisely predicted how we would spend the majority of our afternoon. Eventually we bumbled our way into base camp, set up our shelters, and attenuated our appetites with some good old american PB&Js. We were ready for action!

Tent sweet tent

Tent sweet tent

After satiating our starving stomachs, we piled back into our internal-combustion covered-wagon and traipsed off to the trailhead. We hoped to hike High Rock, which promises some of Washington’s most spectacular panoramas. Our morning meanderings faithfully foretold our (mis)fortunes in finding our intended trailhead. We took a delightful and extended back and forth driving tour of some of Washington’s most scenic forest service roads, before deciding to abandon our attempts at finding High Rock. We were still determined to have an outdoor excursion: any hike is better than no hike at all! We pulled over at the nearest labeled trail, looked it up in our guidebook, and made a split second decision to attempt to access Cora Lake instead.

In our defense, what kind of map has a compass rose with North pointing DOWN

In our defense, what kind of map has a compass rose with North pointing DOWN?

The hike was beautiful. June is rainy in Washington (we call it June-uary), all of the foliage was lush, and verdant.

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The moisture meant that the fungus was out in full force.

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Jelly Fungus!

The mists and the mosses lent a magical aura to the forest.

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We even encountered snow-fields, in the middle of June! Porter was thrilled!

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Our frigid feet were a little less thrilled about crossing the wet snow, but it was still a fun adventure

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Unfortunately, the same whimsical weather that confers lends the pacific northwest its supernatural splendor managed to soak each and every member of our merry expedition right through to the bone. After several hours of exploring we were unable to locate the lake. Our clothes told a different story: we could not have been more drenched if we had found the lake, dove in, and performed a synchronized swimming routine.

As the day progressed and the mercury fell, our moist and merry band of misfits decided it would be disadvantageous to our career goals to pursue cases of hypothermia. We returned to our chariot, bedraggled, yet buoyant from our wanderings in the woods.

This is Porter's road...everyone else is just passing through

This is Porter’s road…everyone else is just passing through

Scientists love it when a result repeats. We got lost four times on our way back to the campsite. We may be incompetent, but we are SHOCKINGLY consistent. When we finally made it back to our tents, we discovered that the rain’s ravages had not spared our cheery chalet. We changed out of our wet clothes into….damp clothes and huddled down to watch water slowly seep into our sleeping bags.

Plotted: Likelihood of getting lost in the morning (gray bars), likelihood of getting lost in the afternoon (white bars), likelihood of getting dry (black bars)

Plotted: Likelihood of getting lost in the morning (gray bars), likelihood of getting lost in the afternoon (white bars), likelihood of getting dry (black bars)

Every grand epic has a momentous moment when the hero is faced with a difficult decision. Should Frodo and Samwise press on to the gates of Mordor? Should our heros stick it out, eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for dinner in our tent, and try to keep warm by snuggling with Porter? Could we look ourselves in the mirror the next morning if we packed it all in at 8pm and drove ourselves back to our nice warm beds in Seattle? What would people THINK of us? How late is the Thai food place open? We had a spirited and deep debate lasting all of five minutes before deciding to decamp. We sped north on interstate five with our tails planted firmly between our legs.

Sometimes retreating is the bravest choice

I’m a little embarrassed to admit that a little bit of rain turned this plucky PhD candidate into a pathetic poseur of a weekend warrior, who didn’t even last an entire weekend.  I’ve been on a week-long river trip where HAIL the first night didn’t dampen my spirits313631_968967983298_4499577_n

I’ve slept through thunderstorms while backpacking. I’ve wiped my ass with a leaf.

Look for these plants. They are VERY soft

These are the leaves you want. They’re really soft

I think it comes down to a question of mindset: if you are in the middle of nowhere and you have nowhere to be, a little extreme weather adds an aspect of excitement to the whole trip! However, if you are soggy and damp in a cut-rate campground two hours away from your own shower and bed, when you have a full docket of figures make and Immunoprecipitations to attend to the next day, the decision to cut and run doesn’t cut very deeply at all.

"This is nature calling, you're still a wuss"

“This is nature calling, you’re still a wuss”

I decided to mentally reframe our “camping trip” as a “day hiking trip…featuring tents,” which means that returning to Seattle the very same day could have been part of the plan all-along. I’m not proud that we cut-and-ran, but I had a GREAT time, regardless. Any time spent outdoors is worthwhile time. I love hanging out with my friends, even when we are all damp and cranky. Finally, I AM proud of the heroic amount of yardwork I accomplished on Sunday afternoon. I might not have proved my perseverance, but I pruned the HELL out of my grape vines.

Nature may have defeated us, but I defeated my grape vines!

Nature may have defeated us, but I am MASTER of my yard

My motto is: if at first you don’t succeed, keep on suckin’ till you do succeed. Our day-hike-with-tents was merely a preview of future forest frolics! I’m GLAD everything that could go wrong did: it gives us opportunities to improve. The summer is just beginning, I cant wait to go camping with these kids (and that dog) again!

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Have you ever had a totally disastrous vacation?

Have you ever just totally abandoned your intended plans?

Posted in adventures | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Routines and ruts.

Hello! How’s the weather where you are? It was gray and drizzly when I hit the pool this morning.

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Gray and drizzly in Seattle? SHOCKING!

I started my day with my typical swim workout. While I counted the floor tiles and lollygagged through my laps I started to think about routines and repetition.

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It’s easy to think about repetition when you are watching the same segment of pool floor back and forth, and back and forth, and back and forth, and….

It might be a case of meteorological malaise, but lately my morning training has become a trifle monotonous. I’ve found a swim workout that I like, so I keep doing it over, and over again. I love to wake up and run for around an hour, so I pick one of three routes, head out for eight miles, eat oatmeal, shower, rinse, repeat (with the exception of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon this past Saturday). I keep returning to my typical routine.

I'm boring, but consistent

I’m boring, but consistent

There’s a huge degree of comfort in having a routine. Routines allow for action in the absence of higher order decision-making. Every single choice that you make throughout the day, no matter how minor, sets a squadron of neurons in motion to weigh the costs and the benefits. Your brain cells burn glucose like it’s going out of style. The symphony of synchronous stimulation sweeping over your prefrontal cortex each time you choose between option A, or option B expends mental energy; that mental energy comes from the same energy currency that your muscles use to do physical work.

Which is why I ate a Gu before my PhD qualifying exam...

Which is why I ate a Gu before my PhD qualifying exam…I’m joking, I opted for a banana

Making choices works out your brain just like pumping iron works out your biceps. This is why you fell physically exhausted after grappling with a tough problem all day, and why sleep-deprived people make demonstrably worse decisions than when they are well rested. Decision making capacity is a finite resource: eventually exhaustion will set in.

We can't frack our way into better cognitive abilities.

We can’t frack our way into better cognitive abilities.

Some of these decisions are more mentally taxing than others. Important decisions cause a physiological stress response, just like exhaustive physical exercise. When I’m in the process of developing a brand new protocol at work, every step requires critical evaluation and assessment.

This is my thinking hat

This is my thinking hat

I want to resolve a large DNA fragment, should I use a 4% gel or a 6% gel?

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4%

I need DNA from cells that are growing exponentially. Should I harvest this culture now, or wait 10 more minutes?

Trick question! These guys are obviously in WAY into stationary phase.

Each of these decisions taps into my mental reserves, which is why there are many areas in my life where I try to minimize the mental energy I spend making decisions. Think about what you had for breakfast this morning.

SURPRISE!

SURPRISE!

I made precisely zero decisions about breakfast today. I had oatmeal. I always have oatmeal (with greek yogurt, peanut butter, and some fruit so I have a well rounded meal of protein, carbs and healthy fat). This is a routine that works for me. I happen to love oatmeal and therefore I don’t need to use up any time, or brainpower reaching a verdict on my morning meal. Similarly, I am not following a formal training plan right now and lately I have been returning to the same workout and running routes over and over to avoid making a decision when I head out the door. Should I do a tempo run? A progression run? Some Yasso 800s? Should I go 6 miles today and 5 miles tomorrow? I don’t know…stop asking questions…you did 8 comfortable miles yesterday and they were pretty good, just do that again!

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Routines are comfortable and they minimize stress, but they can cause stagnation. Aristotle said: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act, but a habit.” Some habits are healthy and enrich our lives. I’m not kicking oatmeal to the curb any time soon. However, if we’re truly pursuing excellence, developing NEW habits encourages personal growth.

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Porter is learning how to get along better with other dogs

Developing new habits and breaking routines requires mental energy and can be stressful, but that stress almost always is worth the short-term discomfort that it might cause. It’s satisfying to do things that you are good at. Trying something new is risky, what if you fail? Failure is frightening, but the reward is often worth the risk. Stress is a killer, to be sure, but sometimes a little stress can shape positive change.

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A lump of coal need tremendous pressure to turn into a diamond

In my professional life, developing a new protocol is STRESSFUL. It’s much easier to keep repeating an experiment that I’ve done a million times before. However, doing the same experiment only yields more of the same data…to move my science forward I have to suck up the stress and try new things.

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Like big, giant, pain-in-the-ass to work with,  REALLY worth it for the data, gels

In the context of my training, doing the same workouts over and over again will keep me physically healthy. Yet I will never become a speedier swimmer, or a faster runner if I don’t incorporate some new challenges into my regimen. If I am what I repeatedly do, I am on the road to becoming a runner who runs eight miles at a time at an eight-minute mile pace. I could be a happy eight-by-eighter. But I want to be a marathoner!

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One of the basic tenets of fitness physiology is that high-intensity exercise causes more pronounced performance gains than moderate-intensity activity. A recent paper in EMBO just uncovered the molecular basis for the benefits of the burn. High intensity exercise causes a physical stress response. Your glands go into overdrive, pumping out the stress hormones adrenaline, cortisol, and catecholamines to trigger the “fight or flight response.” All of these hormones affect your brain and your perception. Until recently it was thought that only adrenaline and cortisol have an impact on your body by priming your muscles for rapid action and getting you ready to stand your ground, or skedaddle.

Louis is ready to FIGHT the cow piñata

Louis is ready to FIGHT the cow piñata

This group just demonstrated that catecholamines have a physical function on top of their mental effects. These hormones stimulate muscle development! So the Stress response not only gets your blood flowing and your brain boiling during the stress itself, it triggers adaptation and improvement after the stress occurs. Every time you are challenged to the point of stress, your body lays the groundwork to become more capable of coping with the next task. This is the underlying reason why short bursts of high-intensity exercise trigger improved fitness gains than calorically equivalent long stretches of moderate-intensity exercise. A little bit of stress can be a booster.

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You run WAY faster when a T-Rex is chasing you….this might be too much stress

Too much stress is, obviously, unsustainable. Trying new things is great, but if you never put in the time and effort to master any one thing you are doomed to be a dilettante. After all, we are what we repeatedly do: if we never do anything repeatedly we aren’t anything at all. My take away message is everything in moderation: especially moderation. My training feels stagnant right now, so I am going to pick a goal race, and write myself a plan for the goal race that includes intense and varied workouts. If variation is part of the routine, I can eliminate the stress of making a decision each morning about how far I want to run, saving my mental resources for more important interests.

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Like how can I cram a banaphone into every single post I write.

And, yes, I STILL will eat oatmeal every morning.

elvis oatmeal

Elvis told me to….it must be the right thing to do

What are your comfortable routines?

Do you have any routines that are beginning to feel like ruts?

Posted in ruminations, running, training, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments