Monday, April 30, 2012

Brain Training to Avoid Alzheimer's

 Since I have set myself a goal of living at least as long as my grandmother, who died just short of her 99th birthday, I have had this tiny, nagging fear in the back of my head that my body might hold up just fine but my brain won't keep up. That little fear has kept me alert to information that might help me tip the scales in my favor.

Age-Proof Your Brain

Earlier this year, AARP Magazine had an article with suggestions on how to prevent or at least delay problems with dementia. It recommended:
  1. Getting enough exercise
  2. Strength training
  3. Challenging your brain
  4. Meditation
  5. Eating a Mediterranean diet
  6. Eating spicy foods, especially curcumin, found in curry
  7. Finding your purpose in life and setting goals to get there
  8. Having an active social life
  9. Avoiding diabetes, obesity, and hypertension (which all the above will help)
  10. Getting checked for vitamin deficiencies

Studies are finding that there is a good chance that exercising your body and challenging your brain can lower the amount of the protein that builds up in the brains of those with Alzheimer's.

People who have had the highest levels of mental activity throughout life seem to have less protein build-up. They think that mental activity keeps the disease from developing, or at least slows it way down.


It turns out that neuroplasticity is what it's all about. They used the think that intelligence was fixed at an early age. In other words, when we are young, we get smarter and smarter until, at a certain age, we've gotten as smart as we're going to get. Beyond that point, they thought, we had no more potential for improvement.

But in the last few decades they figured out that when the brain is confronted with new challenges, it can actually reshape and reorganize itself to be more efficient, regardless of its age. And it turns out that video games can be a highly effective method for improvement.

That was certainly enough information to convince me to look into finding a way to challenge my brain. When I Googled "brain training", I got a long list of companies offering to fix me up:;;;; and were just the first few that came up. How would I choose?


I followed a bunch of links and decided that Lumosity seemed to me to be the one that had the best program. Lumos Labs works with researchers at universities that I respect to develop and continually improve their program. They explain the science behind the program in terms that everyone can understand. And they let me try enough of the games for free that I could tell I would enjoy the daily challenge.

There are over 35 different games and exercises that can dramatically enhance the brain's proficiency in the areas of speed, memory, attention, flexibility, and problem solving. The games are set up so you start with courses of basic training and then focus on specific areas where you might need a bit more help.

I decided the smart thing to do was to sign up for one month to be sure that I would like it well enough to continue for a longer period. As soon as I had done that, they made me an offer for one year at a price that I could not refuse.

That was in November. I set up a daily reminder email and did it religiously for about four months. I have climbed to a very high percentile for my age group - actually, almost exactly the same as my high school achievement tests. Now I have taken more control and pick and choose from my favorites of the games in the areas where I have the most room for improvement.

I Love a Challenge

Every time I get a really good score at a certain level, the game automatically moves me to the next level and it gets harder. Because of this my brain is always being challenged. This is something that crossword puzzles, sudoku, and solitaire cannot do for you.

Are you ready to join me and the 20 million other people who are members of Lumosity?  
Why not follow the link, read what they have to say, and try out the free games? I think you might just like it as much as I do. (By the way, I am in no way affiliated with Lumosity. I'm just a fan.)

The Best Medicine in the World

Your doctor maybe never mentioned it; he might not really know much about it. Pharmaceutical companies certainly don't want you to know about it; they are too busy promoting the overuse of drugs. The US government supports the big agribusinesses by promoting the same old eating habits.

100_3284.JPG by Kathy Sterndahl
This is it! The best medicine in the world is eating a diet based on fresh produce.

Most Americans are eating a health-destroying diet that is high in fat, salt, sugar and animal-based foods, even though this diet is the main cause of obesity, heart disease, strokes, high cholesterol, and cancer.

According to the American Dietetic Association: "A well planned vegetarian diet is associated with a lower risk of death from ischemic heart disease. Vegetarians also appear to have lower LDL cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, and lower rates of hypertension and type 2 diabetes than non-vegetarians. Furthermore, vegetarians tend to have a lower body mass index and lower overall cancer rates."

Remember the Good Old Days?

The thing is, we are the hippie generation. Remember back in the 1960s and 70s when vegetarianism became a fad along with pacifism, drug use, sexual permissiveness and the protest culture? Remember Mother Earth News? Going back to the land? Growing your own veggies in your own garden?

Sure, we grew up and it made sense to grow out of some of those things. But why did we let go of the gardens and jump into meat-eating so easily? And meat may not even be the worst of it. Processed foods - the stuff sold in cans and boxes and as frozen meals, most of which wasn't even available back then - are full of salts and sugar and chemicals that make us sick.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that you are still eating that junk because you think eating vegetarian will deprive you of the food you love. Or that you will always be hungry eating rabbit food. Or maybe you think you can't get enough protein eating vegetarian.

So I'm going to help you come up with a plan to move closer to vegetarianism a little bit at a time. Maybe you won't go all the way, but keep in mind that every single step you make in the right direction is a step toward better health.

A Tiny Step in the Right Direction

Step #1 is just to reduce the amount of animal-based foods you eat and start adding a few more fruits and vegetables to your diet.

Even the government recommends that we all eat 2-3 servings of fruit and 3-5 servings of vegetables every day. Few Americans eat anywhere near this much fresh produce. So, this week, try to move closer to meeting this goal. Eat the produce first and then see how room you have left for meats.

Keep in mind that the more animal products a person consumes, the greater the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers.

Think about the meals that you already eat that may be vegetarian or can be easily adapted to vegetarianism. Pasta primavera. Chiles rellenos with beans and rice. Stir-fried veggies with tofu and rice. Portabello mushroom 'burger.' I'll bet you can come up with a lot more. Write them down. Make a list and post it on the fridge. Give your body the gift of one meat-free dinner this week. If that is easy, make it two.

Let's Do It Together

Approximately once every week or ten days, I'm going to help you do this by passing on another idea or two to make the change easier for you. I hope you will join me in this quest. Every step toward a vegetarian diet will be one step toward a healthier retirement.

I was already so close to being a vegetarian that the final step wasn't difficult, but it has taken a long time for me to get where I am. Over the next few months, I intend to move closer to eating a vegan diet - no animal products of any kind. No dairy, no eggs, not even honey.

But that's me and what I want. I'm not going to push you to go farther than you can comfortably change. Don't even think about that right now. Just take this tiny little step for now.

This Week's Assignment

1. Add some fresh fruits and vegetables to your diet each day.

2. Make a list of meat-free meals that you already enjoy.

3. Plan and eat at least one meat-free dinner this week.

4. Why not share what you come up with by commenting to this post? It can help others who might be having trouble coming up with ideas.

Fat or Wrinkles?

It seems to me that we have a big decision to make as we approach retirement age. I'm not talking about when or where to retire or whether we have enough money saved up. But I am talking about something that can make a huge difference affecting the rest of our lives - the choice between accepting weight-gain, which stretches out the skin and keeps it smoother or losing the weight and accepting all the wrinkles that come with a thinner body.

By now, we have been fighting wrinkles for quite a few years, but no amount of fancy creams or lotions are going to make much of a difference in the long run. Gravity will win the battle. Various tucks are possible, of course, but they are a temporary solution. The only other thing I can think of is to keep adding fat as the years go by to keep stretching the skin more and more. I could never accept that solution, but could this be a subconscious reason behind the growing number of overweight people in the US?

What is Average/Normal/Healthy?

I'm sure everyone has seen the statistics by now. According to the CDC, 33% of Americans are overweight and another 34% are considered obese. I've read of people being very upset when BMI charts put them in these categories. They see themselves as average. So many of them are overweight that they don't even recognize it anymore.

Consider this: the average American woman is 5'3" and weighs 165 pounds. To put this in perspective, I am 5'2" and weigh 115. I'm not trying to brag - this is how much I should weigh. I am actually muscular and rather big boned for my size, not some skinny little thing.

Dangers of That Extra Weight

Here are some statistics to consider:
  • When obese Type 2 Diabetes patients had bariatric surgery, 85% of them were able to go off their medication within two years, saving an average of $4,500 in annual health care costs (Archives of Surgery)
  • The risk of developing Type 2 Diabetes drops 33% with 20 minutes of exercise three times a week (Annals of Internal Medicine)
  • 36% of overweight people who were diagnosed with asthma and taking medicine for it don't actually have asthma. Excess weight can decrease lung volume. (Journal Chest)
  • The average American watches five hours of TV daily. Cutting that time in half can lead to a 12 pound weight loss per year. (Women's Health)
  • Being overweight can raise the risk of heart disease and various cancers. Visceral fat infiltrates and coats the organs, releasing inflammatory fatty acids linked to cancer and heart disease.
Some Healthy Goals
  • Blood pressure between 90/60 and 120/80
  • Resting heart rate (pulse) between 60 and 100
  • LDL Cholesterol less than 100
  • HDL Cholesterol more than 50
  • VLDL less than 40
  • Triglycerides less than 150
  • Fasting Blood Glucose between 70 and 100
  • **Waist to hip ratio between 0.6 and 0.8
** This number works better than BMI for predicting heart disease. Measure the skinniest part of your stomach (usually right above your belly button) and the widest part of your hips (your butt). Divide the first number by the second number to find your waist to hip ratio.

What Can We Do to Get Closer to Health?

Of course, this is the big question. Fortunately, there is an answer that is fairly simple and can help almost everyone become more healthy. You insurance won't pay for it, but that's OK because it doesn't really cost much money. But this is such a huge topic that I'm going to stop here and continue in my next post: The Best Medicine in the World.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Karma and Kiva

Charity has always been a difficult thing for me. I don't mean that I don't want to help out, just that I want my help to go where it's really needed. I don't want to give a beggar money for drugs or alcohol. I don't want to donate to a charity that will use my money for administrators and advertising rather than the purpose I've donated for.


I've learned my lesson with scams here in Mexico - people who drag their children around in dirty clothes showing all the gringos a copy of an ancient prescription and claiming they need money to fill it because the child is very sick. Who bothers to check the date on something like that? You just glance and reach in your wallet. Until you realize that you see the same person going door to door in the next village over with the same prescription and a different kid.

Weekends are really special here when the town fills with people from Guadalajara who come out to enjoy a day at the lake. I usually get a run on people ringing the bell at my gate and asking for money for food. I've learned to keep my money and give them a bit of food. I often make a big pot of soup on Sundays anyway, so I keep some disposable bowls and plastic spoons on hand, just in case.


That's why I was so happy to discover Kiva. The people at Kiva work with microfinancing institutions in 61 countries on five continents to provide loans to people who do not have access to the traditional banking systems. Yet loans made through Kiva have a 98.91% repayment rate!

Kiva is funded through optional donations by lenders and through grants, foundations, and corporate sponsors. One hundred percent of every dollar I give goes toward funding loans. Most loans are $25, but many people make loans to the same person.

Making a Loan

The part I really like is that I get to choose exactly where my money is going to go. I choose what country I'm interested in loaning to and then go through the list of people from that country who are asking for loans. I get to see a picture of the person I'm considering loaning my money to and read about them, their lives, and what they need the money for.

My current loan went to Jhanet, a 20 year old woman in Huancayo, Peru. Jhanet supports herself by making and selling aprons. She asked to borrow $1,125 to buy fabric and yarn and an industrial treadle sewing machine, since she lives without electricity. I liked the idea that her line of work is based on sewing, something similar to what I did - something I can understand.

Actually, I loaned Jhanet $100, which she is due to pay back in August. This is her third loan through Kiva. She paid back the first two, so I feel pretty comfortable with this one. When I look up my loan, I can see who else kicked in for this loan, too. It makes me feel a part of a community that has come together to help this young woman.

Somehow, the personal nature of this loan made me feel better than any donation I've ever made. And it's not even a real donation because I can get my money back after she repays the loan. I don't think there is a way to deduct it off my taxes, but who cares?

For me, it is a donation. I don't want the money back. When she pays it off, I intend to loan the same money to someone else in need - and then kick in another $100 to loan out. If I do this every year, on the fifth year, I will be giving out $500 in loans. On the 10th year, $1000. That's a lot of $25 loans!

Can you imagine what would happen if everyone who could afford it did the same thing?

"Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot,
Nothing is going to get better. It's not."
                                              - Dr. Seuss

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Is Sleep the New Sex for Boomers?

We all want it. We all need it. But no matter how much we try, we can't get enough. Considering the number of emails I get from friends that are posted between 2 and 4AM, I have to wonder how we are staying awake during the day. Apparently, sleep problems affect about 70% of Americans.

According to Dr. Mehmet Oz and Dr. Michael Roizen, "Getting the right amount of sleep is one of the most vital things you can do. Sleep should serve as a major health barometer."
Sleep helps our brains store memories. It gives our brains the downtime they need to repair and refresh their systems.

The Sleep Cycle

We go through four to six 90-minute cycles each night. In the first stages, when we are sleeping lightly, our brain waves are slowing and the brain is resting. Then our sleep becomes deeper until we reach REM - Rapid Eye Movement. During this stage, our eyes are moving rapidly but our bodies are kind of paralyzed. This is the level the brain really needs. It takes about 60 minutes to get to that deepest REM stage. If we're waking in the middle of the night, we're throwing the  whole system out of whack.

How a Shortage of Sleep Affects Our Bodies

The problem is much worse than just feeling sleepy during the day. Lack of sleep makes a person less mentally alert and so more likely to have accidents. It also causes some health problems:
  • increased arterial aging and risk of heart attack and stroke
  • less serotonin is released so we crave more sugar to compensate
  • messed up hormones cause us to eat too much
  • a decrease in the amount of dopamine means we don't feel as good
  • increased chance of viral infections
Types of Sleep Problems

Insomnia is not being able to fall asleep in the first place, or not being able to get back to sleep after waking. About 25% of the people with insomnia wake early in the morning and can't get back to sleep. Over 30% wake repeatedly during the night. That gets worse with age; people over 65 might wake up 25 times a night.

Sleep Apnea is when a person stops breathing for a short period in the night - for up to 10 seconds - and then is startled awake. It is associated with snoring, but it is the silence of the non-breathing time that demonstrates the problem.

Sleeping too much is a sign of depression, but anxiety keeps keeps you awake. And up to 30% of us over 50 have restless leg syndrome.

What Can We Do About It?

Doctors Oz and Roizen offer a list of suggestions:
  • Establish regular bedtime routines
  • Try just letting go of being awake and kind of melting into sleep
  • Avoid nicotine and alcohol for 1 1/2 hours before bed
  • No caffeine at least 3 hours before bed
  • No eating 3 hours before bed (to avoid reflux issues)
  • No heavy exercise before bed (except sex)
  • Treat allergies that cause a stuffy nose or other problems
  • Have pain? Take an anti-inflammatory one hour before bed
  • Try herbal supplements such as Valerian Root or Ginseng Extract
  • Still not sleeping? Don't force it. Get up and do something calming: meditation, yoga, soft music. I read.
Make Your Bedroom a Calming Place

  • Keep it cool and dark
  • Add white noise to cover outside noises
  • Loose clothing is good; none is better
  • Get the most comfortable mattress and pillow you can afford
  • Train your circadian rhythm. Establish a standard wake up time, including weekends
  • Don't allow computers or a TV in your bedroom. (The doctors say that people who don't have a TV in the bedroom have 50% more sex than people who do!)
What Works for Me

A whole lot of us are popping pills to go to sleep. It's better if we can do it without them. I used to have a glass of wine and settle down with a good book about an hour before I wanted to go to sleep. But then I started waking up every night at 3:30AM - exactly! I found out that booze can do that. Most people can handle one glass without problems. Apparently, I can't. I tried the herb Valerian. It helps me go to sleep, but I've never had a problem with that. It didn't stop me from waking in the middle of the night. I tried Tylenol PM. One pill knocks me out for the night but can leave me feeling drugged. Now I've discovered that the PM part is Benadryl. I need something at night for my allergies. Benadryl takes care of both problems. I sleep well, I don't feel drugged, and my nose doesn't run.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Travel Tales: Staying Flexible with Your Plans

Beautiful sunset, right? But those clouds in that sunset are really smoke from a huge forest fire about 45 minutes from my house. One thing about traveling is that you never know what might happen along the way.

You might meet a local or a fellow traveler who tells you about a special place or event that sounds so good that you decide to change your plans.

After leaving Osaka I learned that they were holding a special exhibition of textiles from around the world. I got back on the train and returned in time to see what was probably the very best part of my six month trip.

Other times, it might be something that really messes up your plans - like if you were planning on backpacking through Guadalajara's Primavera forest a couple weeks ago.

Fortunately, I believe in keeping my plans very loose, because that trip to Japan went through some pretty radical changes along the way.

Retirement Plans, Expanded Version
I knew years in advance that I was going to move to Mexico when I retired, but I decided that I would first visit Japan to see first-hand the quilting techniques and designs that I had been teaching for about eight years.
Then I read Tales of a Female Nomad by Rita Golden Gelman. She had spent time in Mexico, the Galapagos Islands, Borneo, and Bali and it made me think of the possibilities out there for me. Rita and I exchanged mails and, with her encouragement, I came up with a plan for a year-long trip around much of Asia, including longer stays in Japan, Bali, and Thailand and shorter stops in Korea, Shanghai, Taiwan, the Philippines, Java, Sumatra, Singapore and the rest of Malaysia, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Hong Kong.
It turned out that Rita was going to be in Seattle at the same time as I was and we managed to get together for part of a day just before I left on my monumental trip. She had stories to tell about her travels and share some information that wasn't in her book. By the time we parted, we were both psyched about what I had planned.

I bought a ticket to Japan with a return one year later. Everything else, I planned to buy as I decided exactly when and where I'd go next.

First Stop - Japan
Two days after my arrival in Kyoto, I received an email from my sister-in-law telling me that the US had just closed it's embassy in Jakarta and had issued a warning to American citizens traveling in that area. I promised that I wouldn't go anywhere dangerous. Maybe I'd have to fly from Bali to Singapore rather than traveling overland.
Watching the online news carefully, I learned that there had been some recent problems in the Philippines with tourists being kidnapped. I told myself that I wouldn't go to that part of the Philippines and continued enjoying my travels around Japan.

On October 16, I received another email from Susanne. This time it was about the bombs going off in the nightclub in Bali. It was obvious that the tourists were the target. This brought things a little closer to home.

Within a few days, it became obvious that the perpetrators were Muslims and they were not happy with Americans. This scared me. What kind of defense is there against someone who hates you because of where you are from? My mind kept flashing with vague memories about Sukarno and Suharto and uprisings and killings.

The Changes Begin

Because I was interested in the Buddhist religion in these areas I was planning to visit, I never noticed that there were so many Muslims there, too. I finally decided to skip the Philippines and Indonesia and spend more time in Japan and Thailand.

By the 18th of October, I had learned that southern Thailand also has lots of Muslims. I certainly have nothing against Muslim people in general, but the world had been getting a bit crazy since September 11 of the previous year. It now seemed like a good idea to check into the possibility of teaching English in Japan. I could go to northern Thailand for a month or so and return to Japan for the start of the semester.

On October 25, the Danish President of the European Union announced that they feared Thailand would be the next target for terrorist attack. By then I was about ready to change my ticket and crawl back to the US with my tail between my legs, but I still felt very safe in Japan. I would wait and watch before deciding anything.

Holding on to a Bit of It

When nothing had happened a month later, and I needed to leave Japan for a week or so to re-enter with a new visa, I decided to go ahead and fly to Thailand and stay in the northern Buddhist area. I was giving up so much of what I had planned and I wanted so much to hang on to that one little bit.

After an initial nervousness, I some got over it and had a great time in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai for ten days. It was much less than I had planned but I was enjoying Japan so much that I wasn't too disappointed. Maybe I could go back another time when things were more settled.

Settling in Japan

Back in Japan, I moved into a small apartment in Osaka and settled in to wait for the box of clothing my mother was sending me. I needed to dress more professionally to work. When the semester starting date passed and I still had no clothes, I talked to my mother again. She had sent my box via ship because she thought airmail was too expensive. (It was my money she thought she needed to save.)

As I talked to her, I began to realize that something was not quite right. I knew she was having some health problems but nothing she shouldn't have been able to handle. It seemed like she was holding something back. The more we talked, the more I knew that I had to go back to the states and find out for myself what was going on.

The Lesson Learned

I had another 60 days left on my visa and I decided to finish that time out before leaving. Fortunately, I had a ticket that was easy to change, but I was so happy that I had not purchased the tickets or made reservations for all of my planned travels. I enjoyed my final six weeks in my apartment in Osaka, but I was disappointed that I had to leave before the cherries bloomed.

Since that trip, I've learned to travel with the least amount of preplanning and reservations possible. I book my airline tickets and a room for the first and last nights. After that, I go wherever the trail leads me.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Travel Tales: Chicken Buses of Guatemala

It seems like most everyone has heard of the "chicken buses" in Guatemala. They buy old Bluebird school buses from the US and drive them to Guatemala to be used for regular public transportation. The owners decorate the buses with great care, adding bright paint jobs and sometimes even fancy chrome. I imagine that the regular passengers soon learn to identify the buses by their individual paint jobs and don't even have to wait to read the destination signs on the front.

The first time Terry took me to Guatemala, we made plans to take one of these buses from Panajachel to Solola's Tuesday market. He had lived in Guatemala for a while so he was my tour guide - at least until he came down with the flu. I patiently waited around for him to feel better, but we soon realized that if I wanted to see everything, I was going to have to venture out on my own. He gave me a bit of explanation of how it all worked - where to catch the bus and how to identify the route by the sign above the front window. Where to get off would be easy - at the end of the route in downtown Solola. Since it was market day, there would be lots of buses going so I shuldn't have to wait long.
 I saw the bus pull in just as I rounded the corner, so I went to the door to ask the driver the price to Solola. He told me that it was five Quetzales. I paid my fair and got on. I chose a seat about half way back and sat down to wait for the bus to leave. It didn't take long for people to start climbing aboard and soon the bus was full. I kept expecting to leave, but we just sat there as more and more people came. Soon the seats that were meant for two children were each holding three adults, and the people still kept coming.

By the time the driver and his helper considered the bus really full, we were jammed in four to a seat. The people sitting on the aisles were actually leaning their shoulders and hips against each other to keep from falling on the floor. It was not possible to walk down the isle. I assumed that everyone had paid before boarding the bus just like I had, but apparently not. Suddenly I saw the driver's helper jump up and stand on the metal bar that ran across the top of each seat.
He walked along those bars, over the heads of all the passengers, leaning down to collect money from each one. It seemed to me that many people were paying five Quetzales and getting back change, so I was trying to pay attention but it was hard to see over all those heads. As he got nearer it became clear that I had been changed double. That didn't surprise me but he wouldn't get away with it again. 
 The helper had finally collected from everyone and climbed down somewhere at the back. The bus started off up the road. The driver tried to get a running start but he couldn't get going very fast before the road started up the steep mountain.  With the bus so badly overloaded, we were soon barely creeping along. Halfway up the hill, we made a stop at San Jorge la Laguna to let a couple off. They were at the back of the bus so the helper opened the back emergency door to let them climb out. He shut the door and we were on our way again.

As soon as we got going again, though, the back door suddenly reopened and people started hollering for the driver to stop. It turned out that two people had fallen out the door when it opened. Fortunately, we were still moving very slowly so they weren't hurt. The bus stopped, the people climbed back on and we started off up the hill again. I was happy that the rest of the trip to Solola was uneventful. I knew I had to ride another chicken bus back to Panajachel later that day, but I decided that would be my last one!

Note: The first four photos are mine but the last three were found on the Internet.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Cooking as Adventure

I guess you might say that I am a collector of cookbooks. But it is not just any cookbooks I collect. I want my cookbooks to offer me plans and dreams along with the recipes. I guess I demand a lot from them.

I want cookbooks that double as travel guides. I want to see beautiful photographs of the places where this food is traditional. I want to learn about it's history and geography. I want to look at a lot of photos and pretend that I am there as I cook and eat the meal. I want to learn about the ingredients that are traditional to this area - how they are grown or raised and how they are used. I want to know how a dish is served and what is served with it.

And I really feel as if I've hit the jackpot if I find one of these wonderful books in Spanish so I can also use it to build my knowledge of the language. I suppose it would make more sense to buy an Italian cookbook in the Italian language, but that would be pushing the challenge a bit too far.

Italia de Mis Sabores

I bought this one about six months before I went to Italy. I have to admit that I spent way more time drooling over it than cooking from it, but I've loved every minute of it. It explains how the different areas grow different crops and, therefore, have evolved different food traditions. The photographs on every page are wonderful!

Giuliano Bugialli's Foods of Italy

Giuliano Bugialli's Foods of Italy This oldie is certainly still a goodie. And I just saw it at Barnes & Noble for $1.59! It has great pictures and lots of information about ingredients and how to use them.

It brings back lots of wonderful memories of my trip last year and makes me think about when I can return. I know both my travel buddies would be happy to join me.

The Asian Kitchen
Product Details
I bought this one years before I moved to Mexico. It was published by Barnes & Noble and I think I got it from their bargain books.

It has recipes from all over Asia: China, Thailand, Indonesia, Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia, and India. All the places I intended to go when I first retired - but more of that in my next post. There aren't any photos of the countries, but there are great ones that show all the steps of preparation.

Not long after I moved to Mexico, I dated a Mexican guy who owned a small Chinese restaurant. I loaned him my book and he never gave it back. After a long search, I finally found another copy. I don't loan out cookbooks any more.

Product DetailsCulinaria Greece
This is another one with beautiful photographs of the people and countryside of Greece. It's filled with information about Greek life and traditions in addition to the recipes. There are articles on herbs and medicinal plants, wines and cheeses. It's another one that I have in Spanish. I got both the first one and this one from Costco, so they are probably available in English at Costcos in the US.

The Mexican GourmetThe Mexican Gourmet

This brings me back home to Mexico and another big, beautiful, colorful book full of wonderful recipes from the homes and restaurants from all corners of the country. It is a great book but also old enough to merit a really low discount price at

Growing up in the Los Angeles area, I have eaten "Mexican food" all my life. But it turns out that the Mexicans don't eat what we did - at least not in any part of Mexcio I've visited. The recipes in this book have much more variety, much less fat, and is much more healthy than what I grew up with.

The Taste of Mexico
Taste of Mexico

In my experience, this book may be the more authentic of the two. The pictures and recipes found here are what I see in the markets, on the streets, and in the restaurants where I live and visit.

It has lots of photos of the country I love and plan to spend the rest of my life in.

I guess you can tell that I borrowed this photo from, but I don't hink you can really look inside. But follow the link to go there, you can get a used copy for less than $8.

I hope you've enjoyed this little culinary journey. Whenever I'm getting ready to go somewhere or even wishing I was, I love to get these books out to decide where I want to go, what I want to do, and what I want to eat.

Of course, the eating part I can do any time. And I do. But i never cook the same thing twice. There are so many great new recipes to try - and that is the adventure part of it - that I have no desire to repeat the same old thing.

Travel Tales: Roussillon, Provence, France

One of my favorite places that I visited in Provence was Roussillon. I had never heard of the place, so I wasn't prepared for how overwhelmed I was by the beauty of an entire village colored by the dirt around it.

This small village, population about 1,300, is built on top of a steep-sided mountain of ochre. The buildings blended right in with the countryside around it.

The colors of ochre range from yellow to orange and red. Large quarries were established in the late 1700s because the ochre was used as pigments in the textile industry. The deposits had been mined by the Romans since the time they ruled the area, but the quarries were shut down in the last century and the deposits are now protected and no mining is allowed.

Since it is a hill top village, it was interesting to look over the walled edges to see the bright rust-colored cliffs and pretty little farms below. The combination of the ochre-colored dirt and the green crops and trees was beautiful.

le beffroiBut what I really loved best was walking through the town and enjoying the wonderful old buildings. Many were made of cut stones in shades of beige, tan, orange, or rust held together with mortar of another shade provided by the ochre. Or if the buildings were plastered, they were painted in a shade of ochre.

From a distance, the buildings almost look like they are piled one on top of another. But once we entered the village, we realized that there are interesting little roads, alleyways, and paths that weave between and around and even under the buildings.

We just picked a road at random and started following it. The village is too small to get seriously lost. Sometimes we might come to a dead end, but we'd just turn around and follow another road which might suddenly round a bend to reveal a lovely little plaza with small shops offering flowers or wine or art supplies.

The plazas were all dotted with restaurants that had a kitchen and a few tables inside with the preferred seating outdoors under umbrellas and surrounded by pots of herbs and flowers.

I couldn't resist buying a box of pastels of the "local colors" of Roussillon. It's been nine years and I still haven't used them. They are too beautiful to mess them up! Maybe this post will encourage me to use them for some drawings of Roussillon.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

What Are You doing for Earth Day?

It doesn't seem possible - the 42nd anniversary of the first Earth Day is coming up this Sunday. They are expecting 20 million Americans to rally for a sustainable environment with large events planned around the world.

We've come a long way since 1962 when Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, but there is still so much more to do.

So what are you planning to do to help save our planet? I went to the Nature Conservancy website to see what they have planned. They have events going on around the US, but I liked their idea for a Billion Acts of Green. People all over are pledging to perform an 'act of green.' 

Here are a few of the ideas they came up with:
  • Limit water usage - cut shower time to 5 minutes
  • Use low-energy light bulbs
  • Wash clothes in cold water
  • Turn off the tap while brushing teeth
  • Turn off the TV
  • Use less electricity
  • Stop using toxic chemicals
  • Recycle batteries
  • Use reusable grocery bags
  • Reduce, reuse, recycle
  • Start composting
  • Plant a tree
  • Plant a garden
  • Buy organic
  • Eat locally grown food
  • Eat more plants and less meat
  • Pack a 'trashless' lunch - use plastic containers
  • Walk or ride a bike more and drive less
  • Drive fuel efficient vehicles

Our Jalisco state goverment passed a law requiring recycling to begin January 1, 2011. It finally got started here in Chapala a month ago. It took the local authorities that long to figure out how to organize it. But at my house on the coast, the people there know nothing about it, and it is also in Jalisco. Things move very slowly in Mexico.

Nature Conservancy is doing Picnics for the Planet. I don't know of any events where I live but I like the idea of a picnic - a communing with nature kind of thing.  I think we'll pack up some cheese and wine and other goodies (in reusable containers) and take a walk somewhere to enjoy them with Mother Nature.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Me, Oprah, and the Maharishi

 So, what do I have in common with Oprah and the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi? I meditate every day. And so do millions of other people. A few weeks ago, on Oprah's Next Chapter (Oprah Winfrey Network), Oprah visited Fairfield, Iowa, where thousands of people practice Transcendental Meditation twice each day. 

If It was a Pill, Everyone Would be Begging Their Doctor for a Prescription

People who meditate, and many doctors, say that meditation:

  • helps them sleep better
  • helps to reduce stress and anxiety
  • leads to less depression and greater sense of happiness
  • increases their ability to concentrate
  • helps them to avoid being distracted
  • increases their capacity to retain information
  • leads to an overall sense of well-being
Doesn't that sound like a pill worth taking?

Transcendental Meditation
His Holiness Maharishi Mahesh Yogi
Maharishi Mehesh Yogi brought Transcendental Meditation to the United States in the 1950s. It really caught on when the Beatles became followers in the late 1960s. Many people practice TM, including Ellen Degeneres and Clint Eastwood and over six million others. Oprah does it with her entire staff. I've been doing it for almost forty years. 

Each TM follower pays a rather hefty fee for the training and is assigned a mantra to 'think' while meditating. But most, if not all, of the good of meditation is available to everyone without paying a fee or attending a class.

Sitting Meditation

Anyone can meditate. It is free. No need to join anything. It does not require any special clothing or equipment. You don't have to contort your body into any painful position. All you need is a quiet, comfortable place to sit down and a bit of time without interruption.

Ready to try it? Find a comfortable place to sit  - on a chair, on the bed, or the floor - with good support for your back. Now, close your eyes and take a few deep, slow breaths to relax. Then, concentrate on your breath - nothing else, just your breath. Try to breathe deeper and slower and more quietly with each breath you take. Think about all the fresh air that is rushing in to bring oxygen to your body and brain. Fill your lungs as much as you can. Now slowly - as slow as you comfortably can - let that used up air empty from lungs. Keep going until it is all gone. Now you're ready to bring in some new air. That's it!

As you sit there breathing and trying to concentrate on nothing but your breath, your brain is going to try real hard to distract you. You'll suddenly realize that you are thinking about what you need at the grocery store, or something else you need to take care of. This happens to everyone! Don't worry about it. Just recognize that you got off track and return your thinking to your breath. This gets much easier with practice.

You don't need to do this for a long time. Followers of TM aim for twenty minutes twice a day, but that seems like a long time to beginners. Try it for five minutes. If that's too long, try two minutes. Then you can slowly work up to fifteen or twenty minutes - whatever feels right for you. That is all there is to it!

Mindfulness Meditation

The idea of meditation is to let your mind have a break from the constant barage of thoughts running through it. That can also be accomplished through the Zen idea of mindfulness meditation. If you find sitting meditation difficult, this might work better for you.

The idea is to bring your full attention to whatever you are doing - eating, sweeping, washing dishes, or mopping the floor. Even something like fly fishing can do the trick. The key is that you think of nothing but the one thing you are doing. I especially like chopping vegetables into little pieces for soup. Or working in my garden.

Think of the concentration required to rake the sand so perfectly in a Zen garden. You'd really have to pay attention to get that right. That's what I'm talking about.

Your mind will still try to wander. That's what it is used to doing. When you realize it is happening, just bring it back to the task at hand.

Making Meditation a Part of Your Life

That's pretty much what meditation is all about. It has nothing to do with religion. It is not a cult of any kind. You can do it as part of a group. You can do it alone.

You can even do it while standing in line at the market, caught in a traffic jam, or riding on a bus. You're still aware of what is going on around you. You don't even need to close your eyes. Just take slow, deep breaths and concentrate on that air moving in and out of your lungs.

Try to find a couple of times in your day that you can set aside for meditaton. Your brain and nerves will thank you for it.

Friday, April 13, 2012

What Does It Take to be Happy?

The formula for happiness is really quite simple:
  1. Someone to love
  2. Something to do
  3. Something to look forward to
  4. Smile!
One of my Twitter friends tweeted this formula for happiness that really made me sit down and think. Could something so huge really be that simple?

Someone to Love

Well, I certainly love my kids. I don't see them very often, but I love them very much. Ditto for my brother and sister and their families. We are all so spread out that it is hard to get together, but the Internet helps.

Since I retired and moved to Mexico I have developed more close friendships than I've ever had at one time in my life. That seems quite easy to do when so many of us are living in one area and in similar situations.

My most important 'someone to love' is my boyfriend. When I got divorced in 1992, I didn't think I was going to go there again. I was happy and independent. Then I met this guy with whom I have almost nothing in common. But it turns out that what we each have to give is exactly what the other one needs. More proof that opposites attract, I guess.

Terry and I have been a couple for six years. His family has become my family, too. His father, his brother's family, his cousins, and even his best friends from many years ago are my family and friends, too.

Something to Do

The Japanese call this iki gai, a reason to get out of bed in the morning. People who live exceptionally long lives say this is part of the reason for their longevity. They have things to do and people who are relying on them.

Sometimes this can be hard after retirement. If your whole life revolved around getting up every morning and going to work, it can seem like you suddenly have nothing to do. I see so many who spend their mornings watching TV and their afternoons in a bar. Sure, you look forward to relaxing after so many years of working, but it doesn't take long to become bored to death.

I've never had this problem because I have so many creative things in my head just waiting for their turn that I will never get to all of them in my lifetime no matter how long I live. Right now, my writing is what I can't wait to get to each day. I know we are all different and some people have never thought of themselves as creative. That's fine; there are many other possibilities out there.

Even if you don't realize it, there are things you know and can share with others that can make a big difference in their lives. Volunteer to tutor English as a second language. Help out in a school or at a hospital. Build a home with Habit for Humanity. There are so many people and organizations out there that really need your help. The possibilities are endless.

Something to Look Forward to

I have a bucket list of places I want to visit while I am still young enough to enjoy traveling. I love planning a trip each year, and when that trip is done, I'm ready to start planning the next one.

If you haven't retired yet, you are probably looking forward to the day when you can actually do it. You should also be thinking about how you will use all that wonderful free time you will have. I spent a lot of time daydreaming about moving to Mexico and all the great things I would do.

You might not be ready for the expat life, but maybe you want to move someplace with a warmer climate. I don't miss snow at all! Sure, it's beautiful to look at, but I can do that in photos without the cold, shoveling the driveway, or the dangerous driving.

I'm looking forward to spending the rest of my life with Terry - even growing old together. Supporting each other in our individual interests and talking care of each other when the need arises. One time he pointed out a sweet old couple who must have been in their 80s and said, "That's us in 20 years." Since we weren't even dating yet, I thought he was crazy, but I'll never forget that day. IAnd it has certainly become something that I look forward to.


Sometimes, just the act of smiling is enough to change your mood and make you feel good.

I have to say that I have often recently been almost overwhelmed by how happy I am. It's not like there is any one thing that I can put my finger on. And I certainly have moments of anger or frustration, but they never last long. There isn't a day that goes by that I forget how lucky I am to be living the life I lead.

I guess that's why that Tweet grabbed my attention and held on. So what do you think? Does this formula work for you?

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Pleasures and Peculiarities of the Japanese Toilet

Having grown up in the United States, I always thought that toilets came in more or less one form. When I started adventuring out to other countries and away from the tourist resorts, I realized that I had a lot to learn. When I moved to Japan in 2002, I had no one to guide me and no advance information on this topic, so I never knew what to expect, but it wasn't long before I fit right in. (First, you should know that Japanese people leave their outdoor shoes in the entryway and change into slippers to wear in the house, which keeps the outside dirt outside.)
Now, the very first rule of Japanese toilets in private homes is that you do not wear your regular slippers inside the bathroom. You will find a pair of 'bathroom' slippers inside the door. Be sure to step out of your 'house' slippers and leave them outside while stepping into the 'bathroom' slippers inside. There are a couple reasons for this. First, it lets people know that the bathroom is occupied. And, second, it prevents you from tracking bathroom germs throughout the house. As you step out the door, (you should do this backward) step out of the bathroom slippers inside and step into your house slippers outside the door. Got that straight? It's a huge faux pas if you do it wrong.
The toilets in Japanese homes are generally the same as the ones you and I are used to, but that is not always the case in public places. Many public restrooms, especially those frequented by tourists, have one or two stalls with western toilets, but the rest are traditional "squat" toilets. This toilet is simple for the guys to urinate in, but anything else requires that the user squat down facing the 'hood'. If your knees are in good shape and you are lucky enough to find toilet paper within reach - no problem. If you are really stuck, you can always grab that pipe in front of you to pull yourself up. Think about the workout your knees would get from doing this all the time. 
 This is an innovation that I loved! It can be found on some squat toilets as well as on some "regular" toilets. After you've taken care of your business and you flush the toilet, you will find a small sink on the top of the tank with a spout of water where you can wash your hands. The water drains out of the sink and into the toilet tank for the next flush. Very environmentally conscious and apparently quite traditional since I found it on so many of the old squat toilets.
Something I really appreciated and wished we had in the US, was the baby seats built into many public restroom doors or walls. Ever tried to unzip your pants and pull them down and then back up while holding a baby in your arms? You certainly can't set them on the filthy floor!

Finally, we come to the luxury model.  The one I saw wasn't exactly like this, but close. First, it had a disinfectant dispenser with instructions for cleaning the toilet seat before you sit down. When you sit, your rear end is treated to a heated seat, which is really very nice in the winter. To the right of the seat is a control panel with buttons for:
  • Adjusting the seat temperature
  • A 'flushing sound' to mask any embarassing noises you might make
  • A 'powerful deodorizer'
  • One bidet spray for the 'front' area
  • Another sprayer for the 'back'
  • One to control water pressure
  • Another to control water temperature
When you are done, just stand up; the toilet will flush intself!

I loved my sojourn in Japan. It was fun to try to puzzle out things that just made no sense at all to me. Eventually, I had friends that I could ask, but they often didn't have answers either. If you have traveled somewhere and discovered other fun things that really got you wondering, I'd love to hear about them.

I started this blog in early February and originally included travel posts. After all, travel is one of my favorite things about being retired. But in March, I thought that maybe my travels should have their own blog, so I started Kathy's Travel Tales. Now I'm having second thoughts again since it is so much more work to maintain the two separate blogs. So, starting with this post, I am bringing the travel tales back home. I don't know of a way to move the old posts over, but there aren't many, and they will still be available on the other site. But who knows? I just might figure it out tomorrow. If you think I'm making a crazy mistake, don't hesitate to tell me why. Really, I need advice here.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Appreciate What You Value in Life

Queen of the Night by Kathy Sterndahl
Cereus - Reina de la Noche - Queen of the Night

The Riena de la Noche is an amazing succulent. When fully open, the flowers measure at least six or seven inches across. But you have to be sure that you pay careful attention; all the flowers on the plant open at the same time - in the middle of the night - and for one night only. If you're not careful, you'll miss it and have to wait for a whole year for it to happen again.

Some of the most wonderful things in life are like this flower. If you forget to pay attention, before you know it, you will have missed it. And so often, we do forget to pay attention. We get so wrapped up in work or play or even watching television, that the world just passes us by and we don't even notice.

When I lived in Japan, I got to experience the importance the Japanese people give to so many things that come and go without our notice. I attended a special ceremony to celebrate a full moon at a Shinto shrine in Kyoto. Moon-viewing parties have been a tradition in Japan for centuries.

When the weather cooled and the maple leaves started changing, they were so beautiful that it just took my breath away! I couldn't get enough of them. I spent my days walking through parks on carpets of brilliant red and orange leaves and with more of then as a roof over my head. Another area was full of bright golden-yellow gingko leaves. They were everywhere I looked. Even the foothills that surround Kyoto were dotted with the autumn colors. Were they growing there naturally, or had someone planted them hundreds of years before in anticipation of the effect? I was like a kid in elementary school; I wanted to gather all my favorites and take them home. How could I ever decide which ones to take? But all too soon, the trees were empty and the color was gone.

The same thing happens in Japan in the spring when the cherries bloom.The people pack elaborate picnics and spread their blankets under the cherry trees. Blossoms drift down like snow, covering their hair, the blankets, and even the food. People plan vacations to follow the blossoms, starting in the south and moving north with the warmer weather. Unfortunately, I had to leave Japan before it was time for the cherries, but I was still there when Osaka castle was surrounded by clouds of white plum blossoms in February. I moved from Japan to Portland, Oregon, and was delighted to find that my neighborhood had so many cherry trees. I didn't miss them after all, but no one celebrated them in Portland like they do in Japan.

The treasured, fleeting thing that comes to my mind closer to home is the speed at which our children grow and change. One minute they are tiny babies and the next they are teenagers driving us crazy. Before we know it, they are married with families of their own. It is so easy, especially today with both parents working, to be so absorbed with work and bills and all of the little daily problems, that we almost forget to notice how quickly they are growing and changing. It is hard enough for me to realize that my son is 40 years old; how can that be? And my grandson will be 18 in two months! That can't be possible! Even my 'baby' is thirty. Where did all that time go?

What makes all these things so special is the fact that they are here and then they aren't. But we have to learn to pay better attention or, before we know it, the things we value will be gone forever - or at least until next year. Don't forget to appreciate your family, your friends, and the beauty of nature all around you.

Some day soon I'll get back to Japan to reunite with old friends and celebrate the 'snow' of cherry blossoms on my picnic lunch, but until then I will try to remember the lesson I learned from them to pay attention and appreciate the wonderful things in my life during the short time I have to enjoy them.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Travel Tales: Assisi, Italy

100_3508.jpg by Kathy Sterndahl
Basilica di San Francesco - Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi

Assisi is one of my favorite towns in Italy, which is surprising considering our start there. We arrived in a pouring rainstorm, which gave us an excuse to take a taxi to our hotel. As we checked in, we re-verified that we indeed did have Internet access in our room, which was very important to us since we hadn't had it in the last hotel. Our room was actually in another building which meant that we were soaked again before we got there.

I immediately set out to wash some clothes in our little sink while Lynda tried to get online. When I had everything washed and draped around the bathroom to dry, I went out into the room and Lynda told me that she couldn't seem to get Internet access. I got my computer out and tried it only to find that I couldn't get the Internet, either.

Lynda went back to the front desk and was told that we would have to buy a pass that allowed us to have Internet access. She paid the fee for both of us and came back to the room. We tried again. Nothing.

This time we called. Turned out that there was no Internet access from the "other" building. They wanted us to come to the lobby to use our computers. I told them that was not acceptable and they would have to change our room. She hesitated and then said, "Well, you haven't used the bathroom, have you?" I thought of all the clothes I had draped everywhere and answered, "Well, of course we have!" I went on to explain that we had used
 it after we had been told that we had Internet. It wasn't our fault that they had lied to us.

I took down all my wet clothes and we moved to another room in the main building. We had Internet, but we also were surrounded by a bunch of kids on some sort of field trip. We made it work for that still-rainy night and decided move to another hotel the next morning.

The morning dawned cool but clear and we found another hotel right down the street and got moved right away. We put our stuff away and set out to explore Assisi. I don't think we had a map with us - we just wandered in whatever direction looked interesting. This is the part of travel that I love - just wandering and exploring.

OK, I am VERY frustrated here. I'm having a bunch of trouble with Google right now and I cannot get the photos I want to show you to upload here and I've been working on it for over an hour. Let's do it this way. Go to my Flickr account and then, on the right side, click on "Italy 2011" then click on "Assisi - May 2011". This will let you see all the photos I took in Assisi.

Now, the thing I love about Assisi is that we could have been walking around almost a thousand years ago and I don't think it would have been much different (except for the tourists). All of the buildings were built out of the same kind of stone. That was something we would see all over Italy, but it was a slightly different stone in each area. Everything was perfectly clean, but that may have been because of the downpour the day before. If you haven't yet checked out the photos, please go back up to the link to my Flickr page and check them out so you can see what I'm talking about.

We walked along the narrow main streets, curious about the tiny side streets we passed but not ready to turn off yet. We were still trying to get our bearings. We were heading downhill the whole time and I was beginning to dread the walk back up when we rounded a curve and saw the Basilica of San Francisco. This was just our first exploratory walk - we weren't looking for the Basilica and hadn't yet read anything about it, but we decided that we might as well go in since we were there.

In my opinion, this is the most beautiful church of all that we saw over the three weeks we traveled in Italy. Well, maybe St. Marks in Venice ties it, but it's a different kind of beauty. The Basilica of San Francisco shows the community's love for it's native son, who was born here in 1181, and the country's love for it's patron saint.

The building is huge! You can't even see that from the inside or the front - you have to see it from maybe a mile away and down the hill to realize it's enormity. The structure is fairly simple. The fanciest work I saw was the stone work around the windows at the entrances and the carved wooden choir stalls. Mostly, though, the basilica's beauty is in it's simplicity.

And the artwork... The walls inside are almost completely covered with paintings by Simone Martini (1284 - 1344), Pietro Lorenzetti (1280 - 1348), and Giotto (1266 - 1337). The paintings are beautiful and bright and colorful. Many look like they were painted last year. The whole place is a wonderful medieval art museum. Unfortunately, they don't allow photos, so here is another link so you can see what I'm talking about and learn more about the basilica.

After stumbling around in amazement for hours, we finally decided that we had seen all there was to see, stopped by the gift shop to pick up small books with the photos we had not been allowed to take, and headed back toward the center of town.

Now we took the time to explore every little alley and side street we saw. Since Assisi is a hilltop village, many of these streets were very steep. Some were really just paths and others became stairways. We headed in the general direction of our hotel, but at each fork in the road/path, we chose the one that looked the most interesting. We discovered lots of little shops - an excuse to stop and catch our breaths on the really steep parts.

Our final stop was in a delightful little deli off the main square where we bought some cheeses and a bottle of wine for the next day's train trip to Siena.