2016 was a complex and crazy year for all of us. A lot of negatives and the year won’t be remembered well, whether it was the large number and importance of the people that left us to the election here in the states, which is likely to echo forward into future years as well.

But for me, the year had a lot of positives, a lot of frustrations, and was in reality a complete reset to allow me to move forward in a happier and more constructive way.

2015 was the year I lost mom, and it made for a tough year, so I started 2016 stressed, tired and generally feeling like a set of tires at the end of a Top Gear episode.

I’ve felt for the last few years that I was on the long downward slope to being that old fat guy on a scooter (see note1), and I hated that idea — and despite everything, found myself unable to get off the path or prevent the progression.

Which made me made me sit down with Laurie and talk over options, and in the end, I decided it was time to make myself my top priority.

I go on sabbatical

I took my first job when I was 12, delivering newspapers (remember those?) by bike. Since then I’ve been unemployed longer than a week three times, all for about six weeks. I’ve basically been on someone’s payroll, non-stop, for 45 years.

That’s why I called this sabbatical a long delayed gap year. The primary goal was “simple”: focus on recharging my personal batteries after a couple of tough, draining years; work on my fitness and health, get the weight loss jump started, and get me off that long slow path to scooterville.

My secondary goals were to work on writing more and turning out better material, to dig into a project I’ve wanted to do for literally a decade and write an app I’ve wanted to do forever, and to focus more on my photography.

When I told my boss I wanted to go on sabbatical, he was surprised and supportive. He explored what options might make sense short of me quitting including whether we could do something with medical leave. Ultimately I turned that all down because all of them would have required his team to leave the headcount empty until I returned, and that wasn’t fair to him, and all of them ultimately put pressure on me to end the time off and return, which seemed counter-productive.

My initial thought was maybe I could take a month off, maybe 2, and have everything set up to go back. Then I sat back and realized that was setting me up for failure, and stress, and that was stupid, which settled it. I resigned, freeing me from any obligation to hurry back (or at all), and them from having to work around my not being there for however long I was off on this journey. I miss my team at Cisco, but I had too much love and respect for them (and my boss) to push that on them.

Besides, I’ve never once been a total free agent. It was something I wanted to explore.

Guess what? First two months of sabbatical, I gained five pounds. Yup. Which wasn’t too surprising, because I’d been on that long slow climb since Mom died.

So imagine you finally take that big step off the cliff, expecting to invent a parachute on the way down, and then the sewing machine breaks. So it was time for plan B.

Health and Weight

I’ve been with my doctor for a long time, and he’s well aware of my struggle to get the weight off. We talk fairly regularly, mostly via email (which rocks; how did we live without that?), and so I brought up what was going on and what I was seeing.

He went off and did some digging and came back with information showing two of the drugs I was on either inhibited weight loss or tended to encourage weight gain. Whoops.

I’ve talked in the past about how we’re taught a lot of really bad advice on health and diet, and one part of that is the idea that a calorie is a calorie, and to lose weight you eat fewer or exercise more, and to gain weight you eat more. Which is nice and simple, but, well, wrong in many ways. For instance, they’ve found that highly processed foods are a lot easier to digest — in other words, you use less energy eating processed white flour than whole wheat. So the net change on less processed foods is that they burn more energy being turned into energy.

The worst part of it all is the fat shaming, which honestly, I’ve mostly avoided. Society wants to tell you if you can’t lose weight, it’s your fault. Chances are, it’s not. You’ve been taught bad ideas about how to eat, no tools on how to fix that, and much of the dietary information we have is being proven wrong. Fortunately, we’re seeing this start to change, but the embedded interests in the status quo are fighting the change. Ultimately, I expect they’ll lose, but we’re in a global dietary experiment that’s screwed up multiple generations health and proven that most of what we’ve been told is incorrect. Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?

By the way, the drugs here are interesting examples of how side effects of what you take can affect you in unexpected ways. One was my diabetes drug, Actos, which manages your sugar levels by shoving excess sugar into fat cells. it works fine, but it also to some degree acts like diabetes training wheels: if protects you from eating more carbohydrates than you should, but the side effect is weight gain.

The other was a blood pressure drug called a beta blocker. It works by slowing your pulse and reducing the intensity of your heartbeats, which reduces blood pressure, but as a side effect, that seems to slow down the metabolism, and if you’re trying to exercise, you’re reducing the amount of oxygen and body you can get through the body. In other words, it puts you in low energy mode, which is good if you’re a laptop on a seat tray, but not so good if you’re trying to burn excess weight and get some exercise in.

So we decided to swap them out with different drugs: Victoza is an injectable that effectively stands there poking your pancreas with a cattle prod yelling “stop slacking off”, and we went to a calcium channel blocker for the blood pressure which relaxes the walls of the blood vessels to encourage more blood flow, reducing the pressure inside.

Both worked fine, but a side effect we’d been fighting before the change was made a bit worse by the channel blocker (which was expected): water retention and swelling in the feet and legs. So we added back in a diuretic I’d been taking with the older set of drugs to try to cut the swelling.

Emergency Room

It turns out that for some reason, the diuretic I’d been taking for years just fine refused to cooperate with one of the new drugs I was now taking. It seems like they settled into the liver for a gang fight, and it was an enthusiastic one.

And the fun began. If by fun you take dehydration and stripping of potassium and sodium out of your body fun. And by the way, if your potassium and sodium get too low, you die. Nothing serious.

Various dosage attempts and two trips to the emergency room later, my doctor and I agreed this was a stupid thing to do, and so we stopped trying. This is not a common drug interaction and wasn’t expected, and to be honest, it was a couple of months of very much not a lot of fun as we tried and stopped and tried smaller doses and stopped.

I will say this, though: the emergency room teams and doctors I dealt with were awesome. My second trip was on a Friday night — aka Rush Hour for an ER — and they took great care of me, triaged me through the system without ever making me feel like I was being neglected, while carefully taking all of the more serious cases first, and without ever losing their focus or smile. These are heroes in a war zone and don’t get enough recognition for the challenges they deal with on a nightly basis.

They are also the nicest people I hope to never see again. But I have to say I think everyone was basically happy to be able to solve the problem with a bag of saline and a couple of horse pills of potassium.

Was it all worth it?

Coming out the other side, was it all worth it? Well…

As of when I write this, my weight is 380. That’s down 20 pounds since November 1, down 25 pounds from my high for the year, and down 35 pounds from my all-time high weight. It is also below the weight I was at the day my mom died and is the lowest I’ve weighed since 2006. This is the weight I was at when I left Apple a decade ago.

So yes, totally worth it. There is still some swelling in the legs, not as bad as it has been, and my doctor and I have talked about how to deal with it, but put everything on hold over the holidays, so we’ll see about that in January.

By the way, you definitely notice not hauling around that much weight. If you have trouble visualizing what it means, think about this: a 2 liter bottle of soda weighs five pounds. So losing 20 pounds means taking four of those bottles that have been strapped on your body off and throwing them in the recycling bin.

And that’s been done without any significant dietary changes — I’m eating smaller portions because one side effect of Victoza is a reduced appetite (and it’s true), but I haven’t really ramped up the exercise yet. It’s mostly — I believe — the change away from that beta blocker that was suppressing the metabolism. There’s some evidence of weight trends as we’ve reduced or increased the dosage of that drug over time, but it’s not provable. What is is that what I’m doing is finally working, and it’s been a great improvement to my attitude.

As John Gruber would say, “finally”

The House

One of the projects we ended up getting going this year was the house. it wasn’t originally in my plans, but for a couple of months, it more or less took over. We started by bringing in a landscaper who pulled out much of the old, neglected yard and replaced it with a new, low-maintenance yard.

Then we brought in electricians to update the switches and outlets, and that led to one outlet exploding in smoke and flames, which led to an insurance claim, replacing the old 1956 era fuse box with a modern circuit breaker system (long overdue, to be honest) and upgrading the electricity throughout the house with seven added circuits and what turned into a complete rewiring of the garage — where I brought in the electrician to inspect and I simply said “I didn’t do this, honest”.

Then the plumbers came in to fix replace a couple of faucets that were beyond their prime, and I had them look at the water heater, and we then got a new water heater, too — at 15 years, definitely due.

And since we were deep in the infrastructure of the house, we brought in the HVAC people, and, yup, the 20 year old furnace was replaced, and we fixed some long-standing ducting issues out here to my office, and it’s made a huge difference and seems to be reducing out heating bills (too soon to be sure)

And then we stopped because the holidays were approaching and we were ready for a break, because having crafts people tromping around the house makes it hard to concentrate, even when they’re trying to stay out of the way. But in 2017, I’m expecting to bring in the carpenters and painters and carpet people, and hopefully sometime in 2017 we’ll be through what’s turned into a fairly major remodel. Definitely worth it, and in reality, we’ve set up this house for our next 20 years here, and I’d much rather do that before it turns into a 3AM panic attack…

Ultimately we want to replace the cabinets and counters in the kitchen, and one bathroom could use some more significant work, but at least we know the core pieces that keep the house functioning are solid again as we consider some of the more cosmetic updates…

And we closed the year by recognizing that we could continue to fight to keep the house and yard up to our standards, or we could outsource that and free up all of that time for stuff we wanted to do, and so we’ve hired a maid service and a gardener. A bit sad, because I enjoy gardening and getting out in the dirt, but the last six months were crazy enough that I never caught up with even the basic maintenance, and honestly, I’d rather go out birding with the camera at this point, so it’s money well spent.

Photography

Sandhill Crane in flight, Isenberg Crane Refuge

Speaking of cameras, 2016 started with a grumble but ended with a smile, as I was fighting with the camera entering the year, but after taking a break to reset my expectations and attitude, I’ve gotten back into working with the camera and turning out stuff I like. I talk more about this in my annual best of the year image review.

Writing

I’ve been pretty happy with the results of my writing this year. It’s been inconsistent at times, partly because I’ve found that being in the middle of a drug fight in your liver can make it hard to concentrate on your writing, but also because I’ve tried to take more seriously the view that if you have nothing interesting to say, you shouldn’t write it anyway and prove it to the world.

My view these days is to consider whether I’m adding something useful to a discussion, or merely joining it. And if it’s the latter, I’ll shut up and not add to the noise. I’d rather write less, but better, and I think that’s shown in what I do produce.

I’ve also been thinking more and more seriously about getting back into the fiction, but every time I start thinking this, I remind myself there’s another project that ought to come first. And that is…

The App

As I noted, one of the secondary goals of this sabbatical was to learn Swift, refresh my technical chops, and write an app for the Mac. This app is basically a modern view of the classic Unix app Rogue. A fair bit of work has actually happened behind the scenes, short of actually coding the damned thing, and I’ve been digging into Swift (like it) and designing some of the gameplay on and off.

But to be honest, this project got sidetracked during the frustrations over the lack of weight loss, and I put it aside to focus on that primary goal, and I’ve never really brought it off the back burner. Which I’m now doing, as we move into 2017 because I still want to see how this goes, and the big roadblocks finally seem out of the way. I hope.

So we’ll see what happens here (or doesn’t) in 2017. Fortunately, the only person who cares about the ship date delay is me, and I’m satisfied I made the decisions I needed to along the way. Delayed but not forgotten, and time to get back to work on it.

A peek at 2017

2016 has been a tough year, starting with the loss of David Bowie and ending (we hope) with the loss of Carrie Fisher. A lot of positive things happened to me in the year, though, so my feelings are mixed. I definitely won’t miss 2016 but I also see that it’s (I hope) set me up for a really awesome 2017. I do hope 2017 will behave and stop taking all of my peers and idols, though.

So I enter 2017 rested, motivated, happy and looking forward to accomplishing interesting things, not just grinding through it all.

Oh, and I’m looking for a job… Now that we’re past holidays, I’m going to widen that search and see how it goes. I’m still being picky about what I’ll take, but I’m definitely ready to jump back into the rat race. One worry about the sabbatical was that it might involuntarily be turned into a retirement, given my age. And I think I’ve seen some aspects of that, but I’ve had some really positive and interesting talks with potential options, too — just not ones I felt was the right match for both sides.

In 2017, I want to keep working on writing good and interesting pieces, perhaps try to do more, but really focus on better first. I’ll be getting the Occam’s Fireaxe podcast going again — episode 3 is half written, but between that drug gang war and the holidays, I decided to just let is sit until January. I’m trying to get out to the refuges with the camera 2-3 times a month until the end of the winter migration, and in 2017 I want to start with spring migration and get back to a focus on shooting and exploring my home county as well.

And keep up with the weight — onward to 350 and beyond.

And who knows what else? A good plan only survives the first complication, and after that, it’s iterating and adapting, so who knows where 2017 will lead. What I do know is for the first time in years, I’m really looking forward to where this journey leads me.

Hope your 2017 makes you happy. I’ll see you as we wander through it.

some quick lists — most popular writing in 2016

Some quick numbers on the blog. Overall readership was up almost 25% in 2015, at around 137K pageviews. Unique users was up 15% at 95K.

Here are the ten most popular pages for the year:

In case it’s not obvious, if I wanted to really raise pageviews on my site, I’d write more about Apple. But prefer picking my spots and writing when I feel I have something useful to contribute, not just frequent but mostly content free pieces. You’re welcome.

Images that got awards and recognitions

I generally haven’t been submitting images to photo contests due to a combination of time and confidence, but this fall, I decided it was time to jump into the mosh pit a bit, and I’m going to be looking for 6-8 contests to enter in 2017, just to be able to get a sense how my images stack up against others as judges by people who aren’t supposed to say “hey, I love it!” to me…

I entered two contests in 2016 and in both I had images place pretty well.

SFBBO

San Francisco Bay Bird Observatory does an annual photo contest as a fund raiser, so I’ve always tried to get some images in there and I always try to make them images from Santa Clara County. This year, one of my images was flagged for special merit, taken in the Don Edwards Education Center in Alviso.

Least Sandpiper

And wrapping it up

I hope you have an awesome 2017. I’m going to do what I can to have one, too.

Notes

1) No criticism implied here for people in this situation. it’s better than the (cough) alternative, and in reality being in that situation generally means you didn’t have any choice. I just didn’t want to get there without a fight, and I hated that I was losing the fight.