Monday, December 30, 2019

Moderate Daily Doses

I broke my caffeine habit this year.  No longer a junkie, I can fully attest to what an absolute wonder drug caffeine can be.  It is amazing, really.  I didn't fully appreciate just how stimulating its force is while I was swimming in it all day long.  I'm still a daily user, but no longer a mindless, all-the-live-long-day one.

I'm having a nice strong cup of English Breakfast tea as I write, in fact.
I used to steep my way through 7-12 tea bags on an average day, easy.  Plus maybe a soda, too.  My current daily average is a single dose--one tea bag or one can of espresso coconut water, one soda.  That's just an average, of course.  Some days I have none.  Some days I have two.  Every now and then I indulge in a straight up caffeine bender!  Most days though, it just the one.
It all started because of a book that Matt was reading back around the start of the year--Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker.  I have poor sleep quality and Matt suggested maybe my caffeine habit wasn't helping.  I  had always claimed to be immune to caffeine and able to drink it all day and still fall asleep easily.  Falling asleep was one thing and staying asleep was another though so...I thought I'd try cutting back.  No harm in trying.

I was crushed by tiredness in those early days.  I didn't wean myself down, but jumped right from almost dozen servings to one overnight.  Crushed.  There is no better way to describe it.  I was crushed with tiredness.  I was ready for bed at 6pm.  I never realized how much caffeine was holding me up, how essential it was to mask my tiredness.

Because that's the thing:  Caffeine doesn't make me less tired.  It just makes me feel that tiredness less acutely.  The tiredness isn't eliminated though.  Beneath the facade of caffeine it just keeps building and building and building.  By deciding to crack through that facade I unleashed quite a bit of tiredness. 
Not long after embarking on this caffeine reduction mission, another book crossed my path at the library--Caffeinated by Murray Carpenter.  This book was a real mindblower for me.   It covers the cultural, scientific, and regulatory history of our relationship to caffeine from chocolate to capsules to coffee to cans of energy drink.  Turns out, like so many things, caffeine is great when used in moderation, but can quickly leads to trouble if used in excess.   It was fascinating and multifaceted--reviewing caffeine's effects in competitive sports, on people with anxiety or depression, on soldiers in the field, in sleep patterns and digestion, on FDA regulation and so on.  One thing is for sure--and underappreciated--caffeine is a complicated drug that affects different people in a lot of different ways.

[Sidebar:  Cigarette smokers tend to experience half the kick of caffeine versus non-smokers and so need more to feel the same effect.  The opposite is true for women taking oral birth control who experience twice the pep.]
If they're asked, most people say they enjoy the delivery mechanism, not the caffeine itself.  They like the ritual of making the tea, the tang of the Red Bull, the smell of the coffee, or the bubbles of Coke.  It isn't about the caffeine, it is about the coffee break or the moment of relaxation.  That sort of thing.  This is something Murray talks about in his book.  I think that is all true.  I do love the slightly acrid taste of stout black tea, unsweetened or adulterated with milk.  But, I also know that part of what keeps me coming back is that the caffeine is a drug that makes me feel good.  Back when I was a caffeine junkie I would have said that it made me feel "normal."  So the delivery mechanism is important, but I think that if caffeine hadn't been part of the picture we'd all enjoy that mechanism a little less and we wouldn't have so much ritual built around them either.  
I never realized how widely accepted caffeine use and dependence is.  Being a caffeine junkie is not really frowned upon.  It is a socially acceptable addiction.  It is a source of mirth, in fact, fodder for memes and pajama slogans.  While reading Carpenter's book I had a library user (male, white, mid-60s) pantomime injecting his vein with a needle as he passed me on his way to the Keuirig.  I was floored.  What other drug could we make such blase jokes about?!

It is worth noting that people don't rob banks or break into houses to support a caffeine addiction.  It is also worth noting that they don't have to since this particular drug has largely been given a global green light, despite its far reaching, albeit more subtle influence on society.  Once I started looking for it I was surprised at how challenging it was to limit my caffeine unless I paid attention.  
Sunkist was a surprise for me.  I, incorrectly, assumed all citrus sodas were caffeine-free.  Many, maybe most are, but that is not a safe assumption.  Sunkist packs a wallop.  I was also surprised by the "Antioxidant Infusions" that I occasionally buy as a healthier soda alternative.  I was halfway through one when I spotted the caffeine content on the back label.  Then there was the beer brewed with coffee beans and my propensity for White Russians.  All my favorite sodas are caffeinated--which is probably NOT a coincidence.

In the beginning I had to be diligent to keep it to one dose of caffeine a day.  In addition to dodging unexpected bullets it also meant if I wanted a soda in the afternoon or a White Russian after dinner I had to have a cup of decaf in the morning.  It took some strategy and planning until it became the new habit.  I also had to dial in which herbal teas I thought were equally satisfying.  Tip:  I love herbal teas that contain chicory.  It gives it a darker, roastier color and flavor that is more akin to "the real deal."
Now I wake up and I don't need my cup of tea.  I'm not one of those don't-talk-to-me-until-I've-had-my-coffee/tea people.  I often still have a cup, but some days not until mid-afternoon.  Some days I don't have caffeine at all.  I love that it is no longer a requirement.  I still enjoy it immensely.  Possibly even more than I ever did in the past.  I enjoy it more mindfully, that is for sure.

I think I sleep a bit better now, but just a little.
I love having this ace up my sleeve, too.  Now that caffeine is a powerhouse for me once more it is so dang useful.  It can really zap a minor headache.  I'll sip a strong cup of tea and the pounding diminishes, sometimes completely.  It can also be a wonderful crutch to power through trying times.  My Dad was in the hospital for a couple days following surgery last week.  Since I was only there for a handful of days I pushed myself--staying up too late and getting up too early--but just compensated for my tiredness with unlimited cups of tea and other caffeinated beverages.  I'm not saying it is a healthful strategy or anything (Mathew Walker would not approve), but it worked exceptionally well in the short-run.  Coming back off such a caffeine bender is another very interesting--groggy--experience.  It wholly confirms my decision to be a more moderate caffeine user.  It is a sweet spot for me--just enough to be pleasant and helpful, but not enough to be a detriment.
Photos from a Forest Service cabin in Wyoming that we rented this fall.
I highly recommend both books.  They're not only personally relevant to most people, they're darn interesting to boot.  

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Take Joy!

I salute you! There is nothing I can give you which you have not;
but there is much, that while I cannot give, you can take.
No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in it today.
Take Heaven.
No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this present instant.
Take Peace.
The gloom of the world is but a shadow;
behind it, yet, within our reach, is joy.
Take Joy.
And so, at this Christmas time, I greet you,
with the prayer that for you, now and forever, 
the day breaks and the shadows flee away.
          -Fra Giovanni Giocondo
This bit of verse is commonly attributed to a guy named Giovanni Giocondo.  I'd never heard of him prior to stumbling upon this piece in Tasha Tudor's Christmas collection recently.  The story goes that Giocondo wrote this in a letter to a Countess on Christmas Eve 1513, to reassure and comfort her.  I can't speak for her, but I know that I loved it.  The empowering internal language makes my heart soar with hope and light.  We all have so much potential to realize.  So much within us already, waiting to be seized, to be taken, to be set free.  

We have everything we need if we can remember it and reach for it.  Take heaven.  Take Peace.  Take Joy.  They're possible for each of us and not just in a remote and distant way, but in an active present one.  I love that.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Comet and Cupid, Thunder and Lightning

I've read half a dozen or more different version of The Night Before Christmas this month.  It was my interest in language (and the holiday cheer) that prompted the repeats.
I noticed two things that piqued my curiosity.

One, was the names of Santa's reindeer.  The other was the expression "Happy Christmas."
When I was growing up, I learned the reindeer's names as Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, and Blitzen*.

Donner and Blitzen didn't really seem to fit with the others--which are all recognizable words--but as a kid I didn't think on it too much.  I just accepted it as a quirk of Christmas like the fact that Santa could still get into our house to deliver presents even though we didn't have a chimney.  If I was going to ponder anything it would have been on logistics like that.
On my first read of The Night Before Christmas (also called A Visit from St. Nicholas) this year I learned that those were anglicized names.  Those two reindeer were originally called Dunder and Blixem, from the Dutch words for Thunder and Lightning.  (They're also related to those same words in German and Swedish, too.)

I thought that was marvelous.  Simply marvelous.  And I have been telling everybody about it!
Clement C. Moore is generally considered the author of The Night Before Christmas.  There is a little uncertainty/controversy on that point though because it was anonymously published in 1823 and Moore didn't take credit until several years later.  When he came forward he said he had written it for his children, but didn't want it attributed to him initially because he was a professor and scholar.  He thought it would hurt his reputation to publish such ordinary, non-scholarly works of a popular nature.  True or not, that is a lovely story in and of itself.  It certainly turned out to have a long lasting impact in America.
The original poem--and many modern adaptations--conclude with the phrase "Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night."  This caught my eye, since that  wasn't how I thought the poem went.  I'd have sworn it ended with a "Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night."  I don't know anyone who wishes people a "Happy Christmas."  Everyone I know says "Merry Christmas."  We do all say "Happy birthday," and "Happy New Year," etc. though.  So... I had to know more.
I learned that "Happy Christmas," is still common enough in England.  There the use of "Merry Christmas" has historically been associated with the lower class and their more rowdy revelry.  The Queen, for example, still sticks with "Happy Christmas."  So, there seem to be some class issues at play there.
I also read that "merry" is more often used for external actions whereas "happy" is more often an internal state.  As such, many think that "merry" is a better option because of all the jubilant "merrymaking" activities of Christmas--caroling, sledding, parties, church, decorations, feasts, etc.  Again, England came up in my reading specifically.  For many English folks, I gather, the word "merry" is linked with mild intoxication, but is also fairly interchangeable with the word "happy."  This isn't so, in my experience of American English.  Merry is basically a Christmas word.  Or in the phrase "Eat, drink, and be merry."  My conclusion is that either way is appropriate, it just depends on what you like, I guess.  I can't see myself wishing anyone a "Happy Christmas," but I do think is has a certain charm.
The original The Night Before Christmas is totally "Happy Christmas."  It was modernized and updated to "Merry Christmas," in some adaptations.  I probably grew up reading one of those.
I think it would be really cool to have this poem memorized.  Heck, having read it so many time recently I might be halfway there!
Matt and I have decorated sugar cookies twice this week, once with family and once just the two of us.  It was so much gall dang fun and I think they turned out really cool.  I could have decorated little Christmas trees until the cows came home.
*and Rudolph, but he isn't part of the original The Night Before Christmas reindeer gang so I'll leave him as footnote. 

Monday, December 23, 2019

Newspaper Packages Tied Up With String...

This year I decided to wrap our Christmas gifts in newspaper with colorful upcycled t-shirt yarn (tarn) as ribbon.
I think it looks simple and bright.  Homey, but festive.   It reminds me of brown paper packages tied up with strings from old photos of Christmases past.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

The Softness of Candlelight

I always miss the long days of summer; the daylight hours gloriously stretching on well past dinnertime,  until the sun finally, almost grudgingly concedes to evening.  The night comes so early this time of year. 
The softness of candlelight is one compensation for me though.  They're a seasonal fixture at our house, an almost exclusively wintertime activity.  It adds a special warmth and light to long and often dreary days.  There is something so soothing about watching dancing flames.
Wrapped up alongside my Christmas cheer has been eager anticipation of the Solstice.  I am pleased to mark this day in the treasured knowledge that we've passed the shortest day of the year.  They're growing steadily longer once again.   Hooray.  I'll raise a glass to that.

Friday, December 13, 2019

The Frowny Faced Cooler

I left the cooler on the porch instead of putting it away.  
          It snowed.  
The universe left me a sign saying I should take better care of my stuff, that my cooler was sad on the porch and really wanted to be put away in the garage where it belongs.
          It made me laugh.
I put the cooler away.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Ho, Ho, Ho

I love Christmastime.  As December approaches my spirit swells with an increasing jolliness and delight.  If its not "the most wonderful time of the year," it is darn close.  I love the music.  I love the lights.  I love the messages of peace and love and goodwill to all.  I love the food.  I love the parties.  I love the family time.  I love the candles.  I love the charity.  I love the stories.  I love the gift-giving.  I love the joy.  I even love the snow.
Matt, while a shade more subdued in his Christmas cheer, seems tickled to enable my exuberance. 
Defying our usual wait-until-December-actually-starts convention we put our tree on November 30th.  It was a gorgeous winter day and we were both in the mood.  A thick layer of snow had fallen overnight and we walked the few blocks to pick out our tree, dazzled by the sparkle all around us.
Matt selected a tree for us--we like the long-needled pine--and we strapped it on our runner sled and pulled it home over the snow.  It was so fun and charming.  I was nearly beside myself with happiness.
Matt sets the tree firmly in its base and then helps me wind the lights and garland.  After that, I am left to my own devices since he knows I love placing the ornaments just so.  Every ornament on our tree has a story or sentimental attachment behind it.  Many are handmade.  Almost all of them have followed Matt or I since childhood. 
Matt put on the Christmas carols so I could have a holly-jolly singalong as I worked.  My favorites are the sort of classics--Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, that sorta old-school sound.  Now that we've got the smartphone with unlimited data I can stream a variety of holiday tunes to my little heart's content. 
We took advantage of a recent snowfall to drive about town looking at Christmas lights.  Snow makes the lights all the more sparkly and magical for me.  I insisted we stop along Archway Lane so we could walk down the sidewalk under some of the arches.  We spent a good half hour in front of this dental place that has an insane light show synced up with a bunch of Christmas tunes over the radio.  I won't lie:  It made me bust up/squeal/exclaim aloud in delight a few different times.    It is a solid little light show, though Matt and I dispute that Amazing Grace is a Christmas song.
We had our photo taken with Santa last week during a visit to my Dad's.  Kriss Kringle asked what I wanted and I told him "a lava lamp," and he said he could handle that.  Then he asked if I remembered the string-and-oil lamps from the 60s.  We had one in our living room when I was growing up.  I'd been in love with that thing so I was tickled that Santa was also a fan. 
I helped my dad and Dana hang Christmas lights at their house while I was in town.  Matt entertained us playing with the snow in the yard.  He made an adorable miniature snowman and, along with my sister, turned the street-sign into a snowball target.
Last night I stretched out at the foot of the Christmas tree to read under the soft, colored lights.  Ginger curled up with me as I finished a collection of Christmas stories, poems, and songs put together by Tasha Tudor.  I loved reading the different Christmas stories, like The Little Fir Tree or The Gift of the Magi, and the legends that offer origins for the Robin's red breast or the name of the Rosemary bush.  The book made me recall a collection we had on the shelf in my childhood.  I don't recall the name of the anthology at this remove, but it was red in color and contained O. Henry's The Gift of the Magi.  That story of unselfishness is associated with some of my earliest Christmas memories.
The cats, to my pleasure and surprise, do not have much interest in the Christmas tree.  I saw Ginger bat at an ornament once and both will sniff the needles, especially the first day the tree arrives.  I got my very first kitten for Christmas back in the 90s.  I named her Holly in honor of the season and one of the first things she did was scale the Christmas tree.  Ginger and Johnny though are much more indifferent.
I am eagerly looking forward to a couple weeks off over the holidays and drafting a list of projects to amuse me and fill my days--sewing, reading, making soap, visiting family and friends, taking candle lit baths, baking and cooking, making music, and so on.
While we still have lights to hang on the front fence and porch railing, we have successfully converted the greenhouse into the Christmas Clubhouse.  Matt had a brilliant idea to hang our hammocks in there this year, in addition to the red Christmas lights.  It is a surprisingly pleasant place to spend a wintery afternoon, book and cuppa in hand.
I find myself saying, "Ho, ho, ho!" at least once per day.  I am so merry it border on obscene.  I wouldn't want it any other way.