A Brief Interruption

We interrupt the previously scheduled Adventures in DC post to give you this news bulletin: our party and cocktail site is live.

There’s been so much interest in the cocktails and parties aspect of this blog (perhaps mostly from Stephanie and me, but still …) that we decided to spin it off into its own site, and maybe more. Some pictures of past parties are up, and new blog posts are coming soon. If you like our parties and cocktails, or have gotten good cocktail advice from us, check out the site, and please like our Facebook page.

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http://www.robertsandjune.com

Adventures in DC. Episode 4. Among the Monuments.

Photo by Daniel Schwen, from the Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Daniel Schwen, from the Wikimedia Commons

I know this will make me sound like a bumpkin, but I’m getting more of a kick out of living in the city of national landmarks than I would have guessed. The plentiful monuments and public buildings season the most ordinary activities with an extra sense of scale and importance. It can’t simply be a walk to the corner store for some eggs if it’s in full view of the Capitol dome, right? Passing all three branches of government on the way to coffee doesn’t make the coffee taste any better, but it makes it pretty obvious that you live in a place where important things happen. Is your coffee date one of those important things? Let’s just assume it does, unless it’s proven otherwise.

By Chief Photographer's Mate Johnny Bivera; cropped by Beyond My Ken (talk) 18:19, 2 May 2014 (UTC) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Chief Photographer’s Mate Johnny Bivera; cropped by Beyond My Ken (talk) 18:19, 2 May 2014 (UTC) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Last week, Steph and I decided to have a picnic dinner; so we took a short bike ride over to the lawn beneath the Washington Monument. In a way, it’s just a city park: joggers, fellow picnickers, kids playing, a softball league. That, and the White House to the right, Jefferson to the left, Lincoln straight in front of us, and the Capitol over our shoulder. There’s something irresistible about glowing white marble at night.

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I imagine I’ll eventually become jaded. After all, my old neighborhood wasn’t completely devoid of famous landmarks. But passing through Harvard Yard to get to coffee had lost its magic for me quite some time ago. I didn’t notice the lights on the bell tower anymore, or think about the fact that JFK lived in that dorm; and the tourists just got in my way and made me late for coffee. So, I know it’s just a matter of time before that glimpse of the Capitol dome becomes blase. I hope I can hold it off for a while, though. What’s not to like about adding a dose of wonder to your trip to CVS?

By Graysick (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Graysick (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Adventures in DC. Episode 3. Life on the grid.

The first time I went to West Somerville my mind was blown by the discovery that Broadway, Highland, and Elm, three roads I was familiar with from further east as being parallel to one another, eventually all merged. It took me about fifteen years of living in Cambridge and Somerville to figure that out. Boston is a challenging place to navigate. At this point, I know all the cycling routes like the back of my hand, and there are huge swaths of Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville that I can navigate blindfolded. But even now, one wrong turn into an unfamiliar neighborhood, and I’m sunk. The thing about getting lost in Boston is that it’s really hard to find yourself again. There’s little inherent logic you can fall back on; the roads just go where they go. You just need to gradually build your knowledge of the city road by road, neighborhood by neighborhood, by trial, error, and memorization.

And there’s a certain pride about that.

I remember a friend who, as a naive newcomer to town, went to a city council meeting to suggest that street signs on side streets might be helpful. Everyone looked at her with befuddlement. ‘But we all know what all the streets are,’ they said. And if you want to belong, you’ll figure it out too, on your own, the hard way.

It’s therefore been a pleasant shock just how hard it is to get lost in DC. They have this thing called a ‘grid’ here. And if you understand how the grid works, you can at least roughly navigate your way through the city.

"L'Enfant plan" by Andrew Ellicott, revised from Pierre (Peter) Charles L'Enfant; Thackara & Vallance sc., Philadelphia 1792 - Library of Congress. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:L%27Enfant_plan.jpg#/media/File:L%27Enfant_plan.jpg

“L’Enfant plan” by Andrew Ellicott, revised from Pierre (Peter) Charles L’Enfant; Thackara & Vallance sc., Philadelphia 1792 – Library of Congress. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:L%27Enfant_plan.jpg#/media/File:L%27Enfant_plan.jpg

The Capitol is the center of the city, and all the streets build out from it, by letter of the alphabet north and south and by number east and west. The grid is neatly split into four quadrants, based on–who’d have thought–the compass: NW, NE, SE, SW. So, you only need to know 3 things–a letter, a number, and a compass direction–to orient yourself. And here’s the best part: those three things are clearly posted on the street signs of every intersection in the city. And they are also on pretty much every address in the city; so simple counting can get you pointed in the right direction from where you are to where you want to be.

I still have a lot to learn, like what streets to avoid at what time of day, and how to make best use of the diagonals (there are streets named after each of the 50 states, going diagonally through the grid. I don’t get how those work yet). But for the time being, I’m pretty grateful that I can poke my way around just by using my ABCs and 123s.

Adventures in DC living. Episode 2. Grocery shopping.

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There’s a famous grocery store in Somerville, MA, called Market Basket. For a long time, it’s been famous locally as the busiest, cheapest supermarket around. Briefly, the whole Market Basket chain was more broadly famous for a family feud which led to a board coup. Market Basket looks for all the world like a quite ordinary, you could even say somewhat outdated, grocery store. And yet it’s so popular that it caused traffic jams in our neighborhood on Saturdays and Sundays (and just before any snowstorm), and it provokes such fierce loyalty that the board coup was reversed by employee and customer protests.

Not everyone loves Market Basket. It can be, to say it mildly, an overwhelming place to buy your groceries. The traffic jams on the roads to the store are nothing compared to the traffic jams in every aisle of the store, jam-packed as they are with carts and with huge pallets, because the groceries fly off the shelves so fast that they have to constantly be re-stocked, even at peak shopping times. Furthermore, the carts are being pushed by representatives of 37 different ethnic cultures (thirty-eight if you count hipsters) with their own convention for how you navigate a grocery store. There’s no agreed upon order to go through the store, side of the aisle to travel down, or rules for when and where you leave your cart to pick up an item. It’s colorful chaos.

I, however, am a big Market Basket fan. The fact that I lived only half a block away meant that I could go whenever I wanted for a targeted grocery run, using only a hand basket and the express lane, and thereby avoiding most of the lines and congestion. So for me, Market Basket was a delightful place to be among a fantastic variety of people and find fresh produce, great sausage and cured meats from about six different ethnic cuisines, and low prices.

Yesterday, we made our first trip to the supermarket here in the District, and it made me realize just how long it might take me to forget Market Basket. It was only seven blocks away, which, while not half a block, is still a very pleasant walk. However, the prices were not by any means low; we spent $2 more, for instance, on a dozen eggs. I didn’t take a careful look at their cured meats. But the low point came when we saw that the recipe we wanted to make called for a chili pepper. At Market Basket, the question would have been, ‘Which of the eight varieties of chili pepper should we use?’ Here, the question was, ‘Do you think a bell pepper will work if we add some red pepper flakes?’

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There is an upside

We’ve lived in DC for a couple of weeks now, but this was our first time at the supermarket, because while the supermarket is 7 blocks away, this place called Eastern Market is only a block away. Seven days a week, Eastern Market contains several butchers, a baker, a deli, a pasta maker, and a couple of farm stands. On the weekend, every farm from a four state area brings its wares as well. So, we’ve just been popping over to the market for the meat, vegetables, cheese, and bread we need for the day, supplementing with more vegetables and some fruit on the weekends. There are worse ways to make a meal.

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What I’m wondering

  1. How our food tastes will change, based on the food available in our neighborhood
  2. Where we can find a chili pepper in DC.

Adventures in DC Living. Episode 1. Riding to Annapolis.

One of my losses in moving from Boston to DC is my encyclopedic knowledge of all of the good cycling routes. Back in Boston, I could  just jump on a bike and go, deciding on the fly where to head, and knowing pretty much exactly what the ride would be like: road and traffic conditions, how long it would take, where the good spots to refill water are, good places to take a break, etc.

In DC, I’m completely dependent on the internet for routes.

Steph had the fun idea to take a day trip to Annapolis. It’s supposed to be a pleasant little town to poke around in, only about 35 miles away, so not a bad distance for a ride. So, I downloaded two different routes onto my bike GPS, one to get there and one to get back. You don’t get much of a preview of routes you download–just distance and hilliness, really.

Here’s what we discovered.

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Apparently, for the route out to Annapolis, the map creator’s rule was, at all possible times, to choose the largest and most heavily trafficked road on which cycling is still technically legal, until such time as an even larger road becomes available. We spent 75% of our ride on six lane roads with speed limits between 40 and 50 mph, and cars going 60. On these roads a peculiar sort of bike friendliness was in action. There were no bike lanes, and not even sidewalks to jump on to in particularly dicey moments. There were, however, these signs about every quarter of a mile:

How reassuring.

How reassuring.

We did end up taking the full lane, much more often than we would like, because, besides there being no bike lane or sidewalk, there was also no shoulder. Just car lanes, curb to curb. If somehow a shoulder manifested itself, it was immediately turned into a freeway entrance. If necessary, gravel was dumped on it to make it impassable. Our only relief was occasional extremely long right turn lanes. I’m used to right turn lanes allocated to one, specific right turn. These right turn lanes were instead more general purpose, for anyone intending to turn right at any number of intersections in, say, the next half mile. We used these long, flexible right turn lanes as a sort of impromptu bike lane when we could. And between that and the early hour making traffic fairly light, we survived. But I wouldn’t call it fun; and it takes a lot for me to say I’m not enjoying a bike ride.

Epilogue: The ride home was quite lovely, on back roads past farms, and stables, and lazy little rivers. It made us wonder, ‘What was that first guy thinking?’ All in all, today’s experience made me crave the day when I know where I’m going in DC. In the meantime, thanks aznboy on MapMyRide for getting us home, and for letting us know what’s possible in DC area riding.

Annapolis was, by the way, very quaint.

Annapolis was, by the way, very quaint.

10,000 Miles: The Finale

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I’m the type of person who is highly averse to changing his mind once he’s made a plan. And on Sunday I made the plan to ride my 10,000th mile yesterday. I realized that by the end of Sunday, having accumulated 125 miles in December’s first 7 days (not bad!), I would be only 65 miles away from 10,000. Sixty-five is more miles than I like to ride in winter, when the the cold makes the experience less pleasant, the exercise harder, and the scenery kind of bleak. But I liked the idea of one last extra-effort putting me through to 10,000, and the weather report looked favorable, calling for temperatures in the mid-30s, which is still winter but not bitter.

It was even colder out of town, where I spent most of my ride, never making it over 20.

It was even colder out of town, where I spent most of my ride, never making it over 20.

When I recognized that it was ten degrees colder than predicted, and saw that–despite the unambiguous cloud icon in the photo above–it was snowing, I almost turned around. But the snow was a wispy, dry one that didn’t look like it would make riding dangerous. And if I didn’t hit 10,000 yesterday the odds were it would be on some random 2-mile commute sometime in the next week, which seemed anticlimactic. And I’m resistant to changing plans anyway; so I kept pedaling.

Acton Center, approximately the mid-point of my ride. I've passed through here many times in my 10,000 miles.

Acton Center, approximately the mid-point of my ride. I’ve passed through here many times in my 10,000 miles; West Acton, where I was headed, is one of my favorite destinations.

For the most part, it felt like an enjoyable ride. I had put on all of my warmest clothes–2 layers of fleece leggings, wool jersey, winter coat, balaclava, snowboarding socks, lobster gloves, my last two hand warmers–and that kept me feeling relatively comfortable. I decided to ride all 65 miles non-stop, because going back out into the cold after getting warmed up is a terrible, terrible feeling, not worth the little bit of rest and a cup of coffee.

There were signs that it was pretty cold. It’s always difficult to drink enough on a winter ride, because you don’t feel as thirsty as in the summer and because you’re loath to pull down the face mask to take a drink. At one point, as I was passing through a corner of Stow, I forced myself to expose my face and take a drink; but a thin layer of ice had formed on the outside of the bottle, and it slipped right out of my hands. Not wanting that to happen again, I decided I’d wait until I was stopped at a red light to take my next drink: easier to hold the bottle, and easier on the face. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen until Lexington, 20 miles away; and by that time the water in my bottles had completely frozen. So, it was a thirsty ride.

But I made it home, and with one extra victory lap around my block, I passed 10,000 for the year!

Forgive the blurriness. By this time, I was shivering and couldn't hold the camera still.

Forgive the blurriness. By this time, I was shivering and couldn’t hold the camera still.

 

Here are the facts and figures for my 10,000 miles:

  • As you can see, I rode 491 times, and spent 646 hours on the bike. That’s about 8% of my time;
  • I climbed 169,340 ft. I also descended 169,340 ft., but somehow it didn’t feel that even;
  • My average speed over all rides was 15.5 mph;
  • And I allegedly burned 592,555 calories. That seems like an overestimation to me. But I did, in fact, lose 15 lbs and go down two pants sizes.

People have been asking me what next year’s goal will be. I don’t know yet; I’ve earned myself 23 days to think about that. All I know so far is that I hope to continue to fit into my new pants, and that my goal won’t be 11,000 miles.

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10,000 Miles: November Report

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Well, that’s better.

I had the month in November I was expecting in October. It took a few rides in chilly rain, but I also got in one ride in shorts; so, all in all the weather evened out. And it leaves me in great shape going into December:

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I can definitively tell you that winter arrived on November 13. On the 11th, the temperature was over 60 degrees on my morning ride, and it looked like this:

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Actual Photo from Nov. 11 Ride

On my morning ride just two days later, the temperature was in the 30s; and it looked like this:

Not Actual Photo From Nov. 13 Ride

Not Actual Photo From Nov. 13 Ride, but it felt like this.

With just 200 miles to go, and the weather turned colder, I’m officially exiting rain or shine mode, after spending only a month there. I do, however, expect that I will have wet feet for pretty much every one of those remaining 200 miles. It’s now that time of year when, no matter what, Lexington, Bedford, and Concord manage to be covered with a picturesque, thin blanket of snow; apparently they pay extra for the premium quaint New England winter weather package. I must admit that it’s very pretty, even while also insuring that the roads are just wet enough to splash my feet.

Photo by John Phelan, by way of Wikimedia Commons

Photo by John Phelan, by way of Wikimedia Commons

What Would Roosevelt Do?

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As I mentioned in my last post, I spent a good part of October fighting off an illness. Being home sick was ruinous for my riding goals and overall something of a bummer. The one bright spot to my days of being couch-bound was the fact that Ken Burns happened to be introducing a new documentary: The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, which tells the stories of Teddy, Franklin, and Eleanor Roosevelt. The Roosevelts were a subject I didn’t start out with much interest in, but Burns did a great job of convincing me that I should. What a family!

The Roosevelts were a well-to-do, long-established, upperclass New York family–perhaps they still are. Teddy and Franklin were fifth cousins. Eleanor was Teddy’s niece and Franklin’s wife. Teddy was the 26th President of the United States (from 1901-1909), and Franklin was the 32nd President (from 1933-1945).

Teddy was a Republican, and Franklin was a Democrat; but they had far more in common than they had differences. They lived during a time when holding political office was considered beneath the dignity of people of their class, but they each felt such a strong sense of responsibility to contribute to the common good that it drove them into political careers. They first fought against machine politics, they system by which each of the political parties mainly served to meet the selfish interests of the party members rather than the citizenry as a whole. Then, they went about seeing what good government could accomplish, and they were able to make it accomplish an astounding amount:

  • Have you ever vacationed in a National Park? You largely have Teddy to thank for that.
  • Believe that kids shouldn’t be factory workers? Both of them played a part in that.
  • How do you feel about the weekend and the 8-hour work day? Teddy got those ideas started.
  • Food labels, and meat inspection, and Social Security were all championed by one or the other or both of the Roosevelts.
  • Then, of course, there’s the fact that Franklin got the country through the Depression and World War II.

I could go on.

And then there’s Eleanor. When her husband Franklin began his political career, Eleanor didn’t even have the right to vote. But during his presidency, she was the first First Lady to be actively involved in politics and government. This was partially because Franklin, being wheelchair-bound, depended on her to be his legs, traveling where he couldn’t. Mostly, though, it was because she really cared. After Franklin’s death, Eleanor was appointed as one of the U.S.’s first representatives to the U.N. She chaired the committee that drafted a Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Eleanor, Franklin, and Teddy were rich, powerful, influential, and phenomenally talented people. To an amazing degree, they brought all of those resources to bear for the good of people who didn’t have the same advantages. And as a threesome, they championed the idea that our nation can be more like a family, where we all look out for one another.

Knowing that people like these three led our country 100 years ago makes me ask the question, why not again?

10,000 miles: October Report

Talk about a come-down.

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To my surprise and disturbance, my miles fell off a cliff this month. I went into the month expecting it to be a lot like September and its 700 miles. There was some beautiful fall weather this month, but it seemed like every time the weather was good I was sick, or traveling, or busy at work. And whenever I was available for riding, it rained.

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If I had indeed put in 700 miles in October, I would be up to 9500 miles now, with a very attainable 500 miles to go in two months. Instead, I have 900 miles to go still (956.48, to be exact). That’s still definitely do-able, but with the weather getting colder and the days getting shorter it’s by no means automatic. I guess things will stay interesting all the way to the end. I think I’m going to have to do something I was hoping to avoid: go into rain or shine mode. I think I can still afford to stay off the roads in whatever snow or single-digit temperature we might get; but otherwise on ride days I have to ride.

Most Interesting Ride of the Month: 50 Miles in New York City

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Here’s what we learned on our long urban trek:

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  1. The bike path along the Hudson, from high up on the Upper West Side in Riverside Park all the way down Hudson River Park to Battery Park, is really fantastic. It’s well-paved, well-marked, with great views of the River, the city, and even a little nature;
  2. Get off the bike path just before Battery Park. In Battery Park and beyond, the path is broken up by construction and overrun by tourists;
  3. If you’re crossing the East River, take the Williamsburg Bridge. It has a great, wide bike path, with many thousands fewer tourists than the Brooklyn Bridge. We went out on the Brooklyn Bridge, which would have been amazing and surreal if the swarms of pedestrians spilling over onto the bike path didn’t make it the most terrifying stretch of riding we’ve ever had. We took the Williamsburg bridge back to Manhattan. It was far better, despite the teenagers who did a bike drag race from the top of the bridge down to Manhattan;
  4. Manhattan pedestrians take the description ‘entitlement’ to a whole new level;
  5. You stop at a lot of traffic lights when you ride 20 miles in Brooklyn;
  6. There’s a really cool new bike shop in the neighborhood, if you’re neighborhood is SoHo. Tokyo Bikes has beautiful commuter bikes, and the coolest gadgets and accessories we’ve ever seen. We’d definitely think you should drop in next time your’e in SoHo, at least after they re-open for the season in March.

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Why can’t I stop snacking?

Focus

Have you heard of the Marshmallow Test? A marshmallow is put in front of a young child. The child is told that they can get the single marshmallow if they want to, but if they wait they will be given two marshmallows instead. Walter Mischel, the scientist who designed the test, discovered that successfully waiting instead of breaking down and eating the one marshmallow was correlated to such things as SAT scores and BMI and a bunch of other things later on in life. Waiting for that second marshmallow is a skill transferable to a lot we care about.

What I care about isn’t getting two marshmallows instead of one. Rather, what I’m trying to do is stop eating marshmallows altogether. Like Mischel, I don’t much care for the things. But unlike him in the Colbert interview, I find myself eating them all the same. If I pass by a bowl of candy, whether I’m hungry or not, whether I like the candy or not, the odds are I will eat one. And around this time of year, that’s not a hypothetical. For the next few days, there will be bowls of candy everywhere.

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And once the Halloween candy is gone, there will be pumpkin pie left over from Thanksgiving. And then this happens:

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All told, that’s two months of constant opportunity to snack. Inconveniently, it happens at about the same time as my cycling, my main calorie-burning activity, starts to taper off for the winter. Not a good combination.

The question I ask myself frequently, while taking a bite of that Milky Way bar that I’m not really enjoying that much anyway, is, ‘Why can’t I just say no?’ Daniel Goleman, in his book Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence gives an interesting possible answer; it’s multi-tasking.

I’m a sucker for multi-tasking. Give me a chance to take care of many things at the same time, and I’ll take it. It makes me feel so efficient, and so productive. Goleman points out just one little problem with multi-tasking: technically speaking, it doesn’t exist, or at least not the way we think it does.

Goleman tells us that our mind is actually broken up into two parts. First,there’s the back of the mind, which is in fact unconsciously attending to many different things all at once. It’s keeping us breathing, and making sure we don’t miss that hidden step, and considering how we feel about that strange interaction with a friend, and putting together a rough draft of a blog post, and a thousand other things, all at the same time. It’s kind of like we have a bunch of little minds, all busy on their own projects all of the time. That’s all going on at the back of the mind.

The front of the mind decides what of all of those busy little back of the mind projects we’re going to give our focused attention at any given time. The back of the mind is like a classroom of students, and the front of the mind is the teacher, deciding which student to call on. And the key is that the front of the mind can only call on only one thing at a time.

When we try to get the front of our mind to multi-task, it fakes it, by switching really quickly from one back of the mind thought to another without time, consideration or thought. That quick switching is really unsatisfying, and really tiring. It takes a lot of effort to take the focus off one thing and on to another. And our mind is making all of that effort for nothing, because no idea really gets its due. Imagine that the teacher in the classroom has only one microphone, and runs from student to student, hurdling over desks and skipping down aisles, take the mic away from one student mid-sentence to dash across the classroom to another, only to do it yet again. That’s what we’re asking our mind to do when we try to multi-task.

This effort makes us tired, and irritable, and stupider than we would normally be. We make bad decisions, like unthinkingly grabbing yet another Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup.

The key to getting out of this mess is not to try to shout down all of the voices. The scolding voice telling everyone to quiet down is just one more member of an already overcrowded, noisy classroom. It only adds to the cacophony. Instead, we have to slow things down.

What we need when our mind is overstimulated and overtired is something engaging enough to capture the attention of the front of our mind, and soothing enough to help it quiet down. Nature, including our own bodies, is full of such things: the sound and feel of our own breathing or our footfalls, the light falling on the leaves of a tree, the breeze moving the grass, a flame, waves. There’s a reason why we like candles, and campfires, and sitting by the ocean. These are natural antidotes to the stress that comes from the attempt to multi-task.

So, if you find yourself eating one too many slices of pumpkin bread, take a bike ride, or a jog, or even just a 10-minute walk around the block. Watch the wind blow the fallen leaves, or take a glance at a slow-moving cloud. Ask yourself at the end of the walk how you feel; your answer will probably be kind of nice, calm, a little more yourself. And, the next time you pass the snack table, you’ll find yourself able to resist.