Thursday, March 31, 2011

My Prepaid Life

I've already confessed to my book-buying compulsion. Now let's talk about Groupon.

I purchased my first Groupon on July 24, 2010. In eight months, I bought 62 Groupons for $675. I also purchased three half-price bike tune-ups for $147 from another site plus a few offers from Groupon imitators. All told, I've spent about $850 for the promise of roughly $1700 worth of food, drink, books, CDs, magazines, package liquor, etc.

I have redeemed only nine of those 62 Groupon offers thus far, six within a few days of their expiration. Shit, I'm barely keeping up with them. Since my wife and I only dine together twice a week (that's dine, not "go out for dinner" -- and often my wife just wants to relax at home on her days off), I'm going to be hard pressed to use all of these Groupons before they expire. I can knock out the smaller ones by myself, but it's not easy for a single person to spend $40 on dinner. I suppose I could order single malt whiskey and steak, but I have a better idea: I need a Groupon mistress!

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

BC2011: Forget It

Now that the Borders bankruptcy sale has reached an appropriate discount level, I have totally blown whatever chance I may have had to win this year's challenge. Granted, this is a once-in-a-lifetime sort of thing (at least I hope it is), but in the past week I've dropped about $600 I'd rather not say, and at discounts ranging from 46% to 68%, that's a hell of a lot of books. I've chopped more than 40 books off my wish list. This is even worse than the Labor Day sale at Half Price Books that inspired the first Book Challenge (speaking of HPB, I completely ignored their 40-30-20-50 single-item sale last week). The sickest thing is that I plan to visit a few more locations before they close.

Borders still has plenty of books, but the CD selection has been pretty weak. Borders has always charged way too much for new releases, so those weren't worth considering until the discount reached 40%. Alas, the ignorant masses had already gobbled up those $18.99 CDs when they were $15.19 even though Amazon surely had them for less. On top of that, Borders' limited selection and my obscure tastes have never had a lot of overlap. Nevertheless I found Tom Russell's latest at one Borders, and I picked up the Bill Hicks CD/DVD box for about half price. At least Borders has good prices on some older discs. I got a few best-of CDs for under $4, which is dirt cheap even by Amazon standards. I've probably spent about $80 on discs ($20 of that being the aforementioned Bill Hicks box), which is nothing compared to what I've spent on books.

I wish it would freaking warm up around here so I can start bicycling again and stay out of those bookstores!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

BC2011: Drinking with George

George is George Wendt, known to many as Norm Peterson on Cheers. I bought this for my dad since it's somewhat about beer (only $1 at Borders before the bankruptcy!), but when I looked at it some more, I decided to read it myself first. Besides, in light of recent events I wanted something light and funny.

Drinking with George: A Barstool Professional's Guide to Beer fits that bill perfectly. I read it in a few hours and laughed a lot, even though I was in a public place. Ostensibly about beer, this book is really a beer-soaked memoir interspersed with beer facts. Wendt and co-author Jonathan Grotenstein crafted a book that really sounds as if some guy sat down next to you at the bar and started telling stories. The fact that many of those tales are set in Chicago, where Wendt was born and raised, makes this book even better. In spite of the subtitle, this isn't much of a beer guide, but anyone who enjoys entertaining stories should like this book.

So Long,

Two months ago, I wrote about the Internet sales tax bill sitting on Illinois Governor Pat Quinn's desk. Today he signed that bill, and the Chicago Tribune sent me an e-mail alert at 2:04 PM. At 5:31 PM, I received an e-mail from titled "Notice of Contract Termination Due to New Illinois Law." Unless I relocate to another state before April 15, my affiliation with and the millions tens of dollars in commission that it earns for me annually will end. I guess I'll have to find a new way to illustrate Book Challenge 2011.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Top 10 Misconceptions About Diabetes

This is a guest article by Dorothy Bea Kato. I am sharing it here because diabetes runs in my family.

Here are 10 common misconceptions about diabetes along with the real facts that you need to know.

Misconception 1: Overeating sugar causes diabetes. The exact causes of diabetes are not totally understood, but what is known is that simply overeating sugar is not likely to lead to diabetes. Instead, diabetes begins when something disrupts the body's capacity to turn foods into energy. To comprehend what goes on if you have diabetes, keep these things in mind: The body reduces a lot of foods into glucose, a kind of sugar necessary to power your cells. A hormone called insulin is created inside pancreas. Insulin helps cells in your body use glucose for fuel. These are the most frequent kinds of diabetes:
  • Type 1 diabetes happens when the pancreas cannot make insulin.
  • Diabetes type 2 takes place when the pancreas will not make enough insulin, the insulin can not work properly, or both.
  • Gestational diabetes occurs in pregnancy in certain women. 
Misconception 2: You'll find lots of rules in a diabetes diet. When you have diabetes, you will have to plan your diet. However the general principal is easy: following a "diabetes diet" means choosing food that will work together with your activities and any medications to maintain your blood glucose levels as near to normalcy as possible.

Misconception 3: Carbohydrates could be unhealthy for diabetics. Actually, carbohydrates are great for diabetes. They make up the foundation of a proper diabetes diet. Carbohydrates have the greatest influence on blood sugar, which explains why you must watch the amount of carbohydrates you take in when following a diabetes diet.

Misconception 4: Protein is superior to carbohydrates for diabetics. The major problem is many foods abundant in protein, including meat, are often full of saturated fats. Overeating such fats increases your risk of coronary disease. In the diabetes diet, protein should account for about 15% to 20% of the total calories you consume daily.

Misconception 5: You are able to adjust your diabetes drugs to "cover" anything you eat. If you utilize insulin for your diabetes, you might figure out how to adjust the quantity and type you take to complement the quantity of what you eat. But this won't mean you can eat just as much as you would like, then just use more drugs to stabilize your blood glucose level.

Misconception 6: You will have to give up your preferred foods. There's no reason to discontinue your selected foods on the diabetes diet.

Misconception 7: You will need to quit desserts when you have diabetes. Incorrect! You are able to develop many methods for including desserts in a diabetes diet. For example:
  • Use sugar substitutes in desserts.
  • Reduce the quantity of dessert. Instead of two scoops of frozen goodies, have one. Or share a dessert with a friend.
Misconception 8: Low calorie sweeteners are dangerous for those who have diabetes. Sugar substitutes tend to taste sweeter compared to the equivalent quantity of sugar, therefore it takes a smaller amount of them to equal the sweetness present in sugar. This could lead to eating fewer calories than when you use sugar.

Misconception 9: You have to eat special diabetic meals. The difference between a diabetes diet and a "normal" weight loss program is this: When you have diabetes, you should monitor whatever you eat a little more closely, including the quantity of calories you take in and the amounts and kinds of carbohydrates, fats, and protein you consume.

Misconception 10: Diet foods are the most useful options for diabetes. Just because a meal is defined as a "diet" food does not necessarily mean it is better for those who have diabetes. In reality, "diet" foods may be expensive and no healthier than foods found in the "regular" parts of the supermarket, or foods you prepare yourself.

About the author: Dorothy Bea Kato contributes articles for the menu for diabetics blog site, her personal hobby blog that shares ideas to help visitors to prevent/manage diabetes and help spread the focus on healthy eating.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

BC2011: How Doctors Think

It's weird that I ever bought this book. It's not like I have much interest in medicine or interaction with doctors. Heck, I haven't even had a physical in the current millennium (cue hypochondriac wife's nagging here). I bought How Doctors Think (shockingly subtitle-less) by Jerome Groopman, M.D. when I was in an I have to find something to buy here mood in December at Borders in Wilmette (now my "local" Borders since the bankruptcy). What's even weirder is that instead of letting it languish on my sagging "unread book" shelves for years or at least many months, I decided to read it. Maybe I chose it because my Grandma was in the hospital, although she was beyond the point where understanding how doctors think would make any difference.

For a subject I don't have much interest in, this was at least a mildly interesting book. I was rather proud of myself for figuring out the correct diagnosis for the patient in the introduction before Groopman revealed it, but fortunately the rest of the book wasn't so obvious. The doctor is also a staff writer at The New Yorker, which means he knows how to make the field of medicine understandable and accessible to laypeople.

While I found How Doctors Think worthwhile, I might have been content with a magazine article that just spelled out what patients need to know and ask to prevent doctors from falling into the various cognitive traps described in the book, something a little like the epilogue. In fact, I will make this bizarrely backward suggestion: if you're not sure whether you want to read this book, read the epilogue first. If that leaves you begging for more, you'll probably like this book a lot. If not, then at least you've learned something useful while saving your time and money. Had I read the epilogue first, I suppose I would have fallen somewhere in the middle, and that's about how I feel about this book -- I didn't love it, but I didn't think it was a waste of time or money either (granted, I only paid $5.99).


These Things Come in Threes, Right?

My 21" monitor died Friday night, the last of the great cathode ray tubes. The more I think about it, the bigger a pain in the ass it will be to replace. My entire workstation has been designed around a 20-21" CRT monitor for the past 14 years (a 20" monitor cost $1445 in 1996!). I have a huge desk that takes up a whole corner of a room, with the monitor situated so that its massive body extends into the corner. This space is ideal for a 4:3 screen, not one of those damned widescreens. I hate widescreens, but to get a new monitor in 4:3 costs 2-3 times as much because the rest of the world apparently prefers 16:9. I guess the rest of the world doesn't have a large collection of vertically oriented photographs? Bastards.

Now I'm just staring into a big empty space beyond my laptop, which by the way is not a damned widescreen.

Friday, March 04, 2011

BC2011: A Disastrous Month of Binge Shopping

I would love to ignore February for the purposes of Book Challenge 2011. I was fully prepared to do so if I went overboard at the Borders store closings, but that was not the case. Instead, I binged at Borders before the bankruptcy. On the bright side, I only spent $1-2 per book. Unfortunately, the Book Challenge has little to do with economics and everything to do with the growing stacks that may soon literally blot out the sun in my library.

It started at Borders in Orland Park. After a fruitless pass through the rest of the store, I discovered a bargain rack in the corner. I saw a book for $2 that was in my Amazon shopping cart for $6, then I found Shut Up, I'm Talking, and eventually I ended up with ten books, all buy-one-get-one-free for a total of $20. If I had stopped there, I would have been okay. Instead I set out to visit as many Borders stores as possible over the next week because I've learned that every store has a slightly different selection in such sales. It's not uncommon to find six books at one Borders, then visit another that has none of those books but has four others that I want. Along the way, the prices dropped to $1 each. By the time I was finished, I had combed the bargain racks at ten Borders stores for more than two dozen titles. And those weren't the only books I bought this month.

It was also a tough month for reading. I started out hot, burning through four books before Valentine's Day. Then I took on Voodoo Histories, which was longer and didn't flow as quickly. I might have finished another book before the end of the month, but life got in the way.

February Totals: 5 finished, 36 acquired
Year-to-Date Totals: 15 finished, 43 acquired

Another part of the Challenge is to get rid of two books every month. Coincidentally -- I didn't realize until I brought them upstairs and started writing this -- I purchased both of February's farewells on the same Colorado vacation.

Bushworld: Enter at Your Own Risk by Maureen Dowd -- I bought the hardcover for $4.98 at a Barnes & Noble in one of those I have to find something to buy here moments (stupid in retrospect since I don't get to read much on driving trips). I'll confess, I once had a crush on Dowd. Unfortunately, her next book, Are Men Necessary?, was like a big bucket of cold water poured down my pants, and I didn't even read it. I don't have any interest in her anymore, and reading about Bush these days is like reliving a really bad hangover.

Devil's Bargains: Tourism in the Twentieth-Century American West by Hal K. Rothman -- I purchased this at a little bookstore in Leadville called the Book Mine ("The last working mine in Leadville"). In the early 1990s, I read a book about three western tourist towns in different stages of development that was interesting but short. That's probably why I thought I would like this book, but it has proven to be too much. I tried several times to get into it over the years, but I got through only 30 of its 380 pages (425 including notes). It's harder to let go of a book I've started, but I'm giving up.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

A Shockingly Good Day

When a week kicks off with a death and its attendant ceremonies, one doesn't expect much. But today everything seemed to go my way. Nothing big, but all the little things fell into place. For starters, it was a sunny day and mild for early March. When I took the L downtown for my dentist appointment, my transfer train arrived at Belmont along with my train. I was ten minutes early for my appointment. My procedure was quick and uneventful, the Novocaine pleasantly effective. On the trip home, I met up perfectly with my transfer train again (twice in a day outside of rush hour is incredible). Tonight I went to dinner at Rockwell's, and just after I finished my BBQ chicken sandwich, they asked me to move to another table to accommodate a large party... and gave me my meal for free!

My Grandma, Marilyn Becker 1928-2011

Here is the eulogy I delivered at Wednesday's services. I've never written one before. I felt clueless about what to say on Monday, but when I awoke Tuesday morning, the words just started flowing. I ran upstairs to the computer before eating breakfast, and aside from a few minor tweaks, wrote it in about 15 minutes (writing works that way sometimes). I felt that it needed more of an ending, but everything I thought of seemed too trite. I let my wife and my mom read it on Tuesday, and they didn't suggest any changes even when I expressed my uncertainty about the conclusion. The only change I made Tuesday night was to reprint using the largest font size that would fit on a single page so it would be easier to read.

I'd rate myself average as a public speaker. I get a little nervous, but it doesn't scare me. This time I remembered to look around the room (this came before we entered the church proper) as opposed to reading off the page. Although this was a funeral, I didn't expect so many people to be looking down as I spoke -- I didn't make much eye contact. There was no podium or microphone, but I forgot to be conscious about maintaining good posture, not fidgeting, and projecting my voice. People I polled later seemed to think I did okay at those things anyway. The finish was awkward -- I really should have put more of an ending on it, or maybe I should have delivered the last paragraph with more finality. In retrospect, just changing the first words of the last paragraph from "And of course" to "And finally" would have helped. Anyway, here it is...

When my family asked me to write something about my grandma, I thought, Boy, this is going to take a while because there are so many things to say. I started jotting down notes about Rold Gold pretzels, the Olympics, Wheel of Fortune, the Chicago Cubs, her Roman Catholic faith, and WGN radio. Then they spoke with people at the church and changed my assignment – they said it had to be something shorter, just a few thoughts or memories.

At first, I panicked. I mean, how do you choose from such a rich and memorable lifetime of 82 years? Then I felt unworthy because I had trouble remembering specific stories from the past few decades. But I finally realized that Grandma can best be summed up by something that happened very recently.

About two weeks ago, Grandma was admitted to the hospital with pneumonia and placed in intensive care. One night we were all there except my Aunt Lynn and Uncle Jack. Jack was having an outpatient procedure performed on his nose. We were gathered around Grandma's bed in the ICU, and she was lying there with all that medical equipment hooked up to her. We were very worried because deep inside, we knew her prognosis wasn't good. But Grandma just kept asking about Jack. She wouldn't relax until my dad called Lynn and assured Grandma that Jack was doing fine.

I think that was Grandma in a nutshell. She was such a generous, loving, caring person that even in a moment like that she was concerned about someone else in the family. And the more I think about that moment, the more the rest of her life falls into place.

Grandma loved hosting family gatherings and decorating the house for Christmas. She prepared huge spreads for Easter and Thanksgiving, feeding upwards of 20 people. Besides family, she took a genuine interest in everyone around her. Just ask the waitstaff at any restaurant that my grandparents frequented.

Grandma loved to shop, but what she really enjoyed was giving gifts to make people happy. I think the only person with a longer shopping list at Christmastime was Santa Claus. When my brother and I chose not to have kids, she set about spoiling our cousins' kids instead. She was also generous with her time, knitting afghans or cross-stitching pictures for us in addition to the gifts she bought.

And of course, I have to say something about my grandparents as a couple. Their 62 years together through good and bad have been an inspiration and role model to me, and judging from the longevity of their three daughters' marriages, for them, too.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Five Days Ago Feels Like Forever

When I arrived at the hospital, Grandma was on a morphine drip. When Mom had called two hours earlier, it looked like this was "it" but now Grandma would probably be with us for another day or two, at least in body. The odds of her ever being the Grandma we remember again are too remote for the medical staff to even mention. All those years of smoking and the resultant emphysema have finally caught up with her. It's a testimony to our family's genetics that she has made it to 82.

I have been pretty blessed, thanks to the aforementioned genetics. Not many 40-year-olds can claim three living grandparents (I lost an alcoholic grandfather 22 years ago). All four of my great grandmothers were still alive when I reached my teens, as was one rather ornery great grandfather. Grandpa gave us a scare awhile ago, but he seems to be doing well for 85 although caring for Grandma has challenged him lately.

Now Grandma was asleep, breathing well but not her usual talkative self (a trait Mom and I inherited from her). A ray of hope emerged last weekend when she left intensive care, but now she was back there in worse condition than before. I had planned for a long night at the hospital, but Grandpa was tired and wanted to get dinner and go home. Who could blame him? He's been at her side day after day for hours and hours.

One by one, we said our goodbyes. Her extended hospital stay has helped to steel us all for the inevitable. Just the same, I whispered, "See you later, Grandma." Even though I knew it could be the last time I see her alive, I couldn't bring myself to say goodbye.

The hardest moment was still to come. Grandpa leaned over to kiss Grandma on the forehead and say goodnight, as he always did. I looked away; the moment was too intimate for me to watch. How does a man say goodnight to the love of his life, the woman who has stood beside him for 62 years, knowing that this might be the last?

Marriages like my grandparents' are becoming rarer. Between marrying later and divorcing more frequently, it's unlikely that many of my peers will celebrate 60th anniversaries despite living longer. In 2009 I met a guy who was impressed that I had been married for ten years! If my wife and I make it to 60, we'll be 88 and 90 years old -- not impossible but somewhat improbable age-wise.

Grandpa quit smoking before I can remember. He tried for years to get Grandma to quit, but she was too stubborn. He would say, "I can't believe you're going to give up years of your life, years you could be with me, for those cigarettes." Even when her mother died of lung cancer, that didn't deter Grandma from smoking. Only when she wound up in the hospital nine years ago with pneumonia and emphysema did she finally stop. If she hadn't quit, she would have died.

I never realized how strong a hold the cigarettes had on her until one day a few years ago. She said something about when she quit smoking, and I said she really didn't have a choice. "Oh, I had a choice!" she retorted. Even when the doctors told her to quit or die, the decision didn't come easily.

Postscript: I wrote the above last Thursday, which was indeed the last time I saw Grandma alive. It felt too personal to share here, and it probably is, but Grandma never restrained herself so why should I? She died on Sunday morning, and the past few days have been a blur. Grandpa wanted to "get it over with" and pushed for a quick burial. Although I threatened to attend in my underpants (my new dress pants weren't supposed to be ready until Wednesday), the wake was Tuesday afternoon and the funeral will be Wednesday morning. Special thanks to Jos. A. Bank in Schaumburg for rushing everything so I wouldn't be standing before Grandma in my skivvies -- it's been many years since Grandma saw that much of me, and it wouldn't seem nearly as cute now as it did then. I've also been asked to write and deliver a eulogy, which I may post later.