Are You Living the Simple 7?

Map of Heart Disease Death Rates in US White M...

Image via Wikipedia

My day job is editing online health information, and because I spend approx 40 hours a week immersed in health and medicine, I don’t spend a lot of time discussing it here, on my blog, which is more for my off-hour pursuits and interests.

But I came across this article from Calorie Count that I really want to share with my reader(s), on the American Heart Association‘s new My Life Check “Life’s Simple 7” plan. In an effort to simplify the abundant information overload out there, the AHA came up with these guiding principles to help people prevent heart disease and diabetes (often intertwined). These rules also will help lower the chances of getting other related diseases linked to chronic inflammation (cancer, Alzheimer’s).

So they’re good solid rules, and I hope this simple summation does finally sink into Americans’ brains:

  1. don’t smoke;
  2. maintain a healthy weight;
  3. engage in regular physical activity;
  4. eat a healthy diet;
  5. manage blood pressure;
  6. take charge of cholesterol; and
  7. keep blood sugar, or glucose, at healthy levels.

Sex Offenders and the Swamp

Florida sunset!

Swamp full of danger, or respite? Image by Odalaigh via Flickr

Florida has been called America’s heart of darkness, a descriptor mentioned in a book I just finished, The Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks. The comparison with Heart of Darkness Joseph Conrad’s novel chronicling a journey in the uncivilized Congo, is still apt — modern Florida is a scary, fascinating place, full of terrors joyful, nightmarish and mind-numbing, which is perhaps why it so often serves as the setting for terrific books. Along with The Lost Memory of Skin, I’d add Swamplandia! by Karen Russell to the category. Reading the books one after the other was an interesting, serendipitous exercise.

The Lost Memory of Skin chronicles a few days’ existence of  “the Kid,” a young, not-too-bright convicted sex offender living on the muggy streets of a Miami-like city. The Kid’s life is harrowing and complex. He must contend with living under a causeway with a bunch of other exiled sex offenders while navigating a legal, social and cultural system murkier than any African river from Heart of Darkness. How will he, if at all, overcome the odds?

Skin’s point-of-view is two-fold — first from the Kid’s, and also from a sociologist researching the Kid, known only as the Professor. They provide different viewpoints to understand the issue both from the offender’s perspective and that of our society at large. Only briefly does Banks cross over into preachy exposition, via the Professor, in an attempt to make us understand the Kid’s circumstances. The Kid comes across as a somewhat sympathetic figure, a fully developed person, just as some sex offenders are in real life, despite what we’d like to believe. Banks shows us the Kid is lonely but not evil or without love – he cares for pets, taking in an iguana, a dog and a chatty parrot. He seems more of a hapless product of his environment, one in which pornography of the most illegal kind is only a click away for anyone. By the time the Kid finds his way into the real swamp, the heart of darkness, we are relieved. The swamp – with its invasive, deer eating Burmese pythons and mosquito swarms – seems quaint compared to the Florida streets or even the Kid’s childhood bedroom. I found myself hoping he’d stay put, and not move back to the causeway, fraught with its urban dangers and temptations.

By the end of the book, the plot has turned from an interesting novel with an intriguing scenario – how do castigated Florida sex offenders make ends meet? – to a murder mystery/thriller. The pace is fast and riveting, if at times a little too rapid. (The Kid gets fired from his job, loses his best friend and kicked out of his encampment, all on the same day.) Because of how human he made the Kid feel, I would be curious to see how Banks might write from the perspective of another character in the book – a state senator turned sex offender, who Banks hints committed crimes far more heinous than the Kid’s, and who is hard not to despise each time he appears in the book. What’s his story? Do we feel more comfortable with him living the completely unlivable life of a convicted sex offender?


Then, when you pick up Swamplandia!, keep the Kid in front of mind when the novel’s protagonist, Ava Bigtree, encounters another intentionally vaguely named character, the Bird Man. Ava, also a product of absentee (but loving) parents, lives on a former wildlife-based amusement park on a mangrove island in Southern Florida with her teen siblings and widowed father, who is often back on the mainland trying to find new ways of supporting the family. Because of the remoteness of her home, Ava lacks access to modern temptations like the internet, but that doesn’t mean she stays out of trouble as she grows up. She too embarks on a journey through the vast Florida swamp, trying to find her runaway sister. While we were relieved when the Kid sought out the swamp, we feel the opposite for naive Ava as she sets out on her quest. Waiting for her is the Bird Man, who I see the Kid becoming as he reaches middle age, still lurking in the swamp. Russel’s Swamplandia! doesn’t tackle any big political issues (though it does touch upon the shifting economy in Florida), but it is is more mystical and dreamy, and less gloomy. It’s an easier read, since Ava isn’t constantly assaulted with obstacles like the Kid.

While it might be easy to peg the Kid as the criminal and Ava as the victim, both books will make you ponder that assumption, and at what point did the Kid cross over from victim, to criminal, or did he ever, really?

Goodbye, Uncle Steven

This weekend my family gathered in Corpus Christi, Texas, to remember the life of my uncle Steven. He survived so much in life – most notably a gunshot wound to the head at close range when he was in his early 20s – but ultimately colon cancer was his chief nemesis, which also took my grandmother’s life. They are now resting near each other, both free from the immense pain cancer causes. I will never forget the way he communicated with the world, using his own phrases and finger spelling at lightning speed with my aunt Martha (equally amazing person), who then translated what Steven was trying to say. The world lost a unique form of human expression and language when we lost Steven. I have so many good memories of Steven, even though his life was cut short at the age of 54.

Steven, gentle giant, biker hippie, the sweetest uncle a niece can have, I will miss you.


The Slow Reveal – I Spy the National Bird

Yesterday Brendan and I did a small hike at the Basha Kill Wildlife Management Area. We didn’t see much wildlife beyond squirrels, but we did have one great sighting that made up for weeks of nature-less existence in Queens (readers, I’m going a little nuts lately from too much urbanity). This sighting was helped enormously by my new vibration-control zoom Nikon lens, a great birthday gift from the dear husband.

Let’s play a bit of feathered Where’s Waldo. You can click any of these photos to get embiggen ’em.

Somewhere in that tree on the right is Haliaeetus leucocephalus, hiding in the sunlight.

Let’s try a similar framed shot, but with different lighting.

See him/her yet? S/he's right smack in the middle of the photo.

Now, let’s crop my photos and see what we get.

Are you immediately compelled to sing 'My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty...'?

S/he turned to the right for us.

S/he also mooned us. They're bald on both ends!

A full look at the Basha Kill wetlands, aka the eagle's territory. There are geese on the right, on the water. The eagle is in the tree, just very hard to see without a great zoom lens.

Roti Boti – A Lil’ Bit of Pakistan in Astoria

Roti Boti

The name means "a little morsel of meat." But you get a lot more than a little bit.

A few weeks ago, Brendan and I formed our very own New Year’s resolution-like pledge — to eat at more restaurants in our neighborhood. Since moving back from Mexico City in 2010, we’ve been living in Astoria, Queens, but doing a dismal job of getting out and sampling the local eateries, which range from real street food (none of that silly cupcake food truck stuff you see in Manhattan) to white tablecloth service. We like it all, but it sure is hard to find the time, especially when the couch and Netflix beckon so strongly night after night.

Last night, though, we stepped out for first eating adventure: Roti Boti, a Pakistani-Indian joint on 21st Street and Astoria Boulevard. We’ve always been intrigued by this place, which seems to cater to taxi drivers. It must be good, right?

Roti Boti is not the place to go if you're seeking romantic ambiance. Unless you're into plastic flatware, TVs blaring foreign news programs (we think in Urdu), and harsh lighting.

When you first walk in, you’re met by a long row of glassed-in buffet trays with steaming food. There are no signs we could read, but we did locate a tiny menu taped to the window, scribbled in English, with prices. Luckily, an older man walked up and asked us for our order, and we pointed to various things, and asked what they were. He fired off the names of everything on the line, most of it various types of chicken dishes, in sauces. Trying to get a variety of stuff, we ordered lentils, chickpeas, chicken tikka, and naan. Not sure what to do next, we wandered over to the dining area, and sat down. (Some of the patrons seemed to be going directly up to the buffet and serving themselves — not sure what that was about.)

And a feast soon arrived, plate by plate. First, salads with a spicy yogurt dressing, likely a type of raita (but much spicier). The server also brought us cups and a full pitcher of cold water, which was handy because we didn’t order drinks. Then all our food arrived in rapid order.

The two helpings of naan were perfection — crispy and a little burned on the outside, doughy and hot on the inside. Also, the size of a large dinner plate.

That's Brendan's hand -- big by any standards -- looking tiny compared to the naan.

The chickpeas — akin to chana masala — were good, if a little overcooked and mushy (but still quite palatable). Ditto to the yellow curry lentils, which were similar to mung dal.

The showcase item was definitely the chicken tikka. They serve it very spicy, and chargrilled to perfection. Without the naan and cold water to help me get through it, I’m not sure I could have eaten all my chicken, as savory as it was — it was that spicy.

Packed with pepper!

All told, we were stuffed. Best of all? Total price: $17.

Drink a Little Poison (or Just Listen to It)

I first heard this song on Treme, which does a fabulous job of showcasing New Orleans music.

This song has to be among the finest. Feeling a little sad? Listen. Feeling a little tired? Listen. Feeling a little homesick for the South? Don’t listen — it will just make that worse, while also making  you crave hush puppies and spicy boiled shrimp. Or maybe that’s just me.

This is antidepressant medication in a song, people.