Non-Tech Fun: Vacationing in the Mid-Atlantic Area

It’s that time of year when vacations are starting and you are looking for great places to take your family and relax and have some fun.  And, what better places to take them than to the amusement parks, right?  Well, sure, but there are new types of amusement parks that do not involve rollercoasters or ferris wheels.  First, though, I am going to talk about rollercoasters.  BIG ONES, at that.

Overview of Carowinds entranceThe tallest giga-coaster on the East Coast, and one of the tallest in the country, is called Fury 325 and is located in the very nice Carowinds theme park located near Charlotte, North Carolina.  This thing is 325 feet tall, has an 85 degree first drop and is over 6600 feet long. It towers over the park.  Now, Carowinds isn’t a one trick wonder. No, it also has another tall coaster: the Intimidator. Named after the late, great Dale Earnhardt, this out and back coaster features a first drop of over 200 feet and, prior to Fury 325, was the south easts tallest and fastest roller coaster.  Rounding out Carowinds collect are Nighthawk, a coaster where you lay down and Flightdeck, a hanging rollercoaster that is very fast and features many inversions.  Carowinds is a delightful place to take your family and won’t break the bank.Overview of Carowinds entrance

Charlotte is also home to an NFL team and, of course, NASCAR.  The NASCAR Hall of Fame is located in downtown Charlotte, just minutes from the theme park.

Travelling north, to Virginia, you will find not one, but two world class theme parks, lots of museums, and history, a ton of history from the revolutionary war era, to the Civil War and both World Wars. 

Griffon, at Busch Gardens WilliamsburgStarting in Williamsburg, you have Busch Gardens, a true world class park.  It’s theming, food, service and, of course, its rides, all make it THE best theme park to visit, period.  For its rides, you have Alpengeist, a daring hanging coaster that was the tallest of its type for many years.  The Loch Ness Monster, which, when it opened, was the tallest and fastest coaster in the country. Then, there is the Griffon. Griffon takes you up 205 feet, dangles you over the edge and then lets you drop down an almost 90 degree drop.  It’s a real heart stopper.  Apollo’s Chariot is hypercoaster that will never cease to thrill.  Busch Gardens has terrific food as well.  Oktoberfest lets you sample German cuisine while Festa Italia gives you a taste of Italy.  Down the road from the park you will find Water Country, USA, a huge water park.

Also in Williamsburg, you will find Colonial Williamsburg for a sampling of life in the 1700’s.  There’s also shopping, fine dining and more touristy things to do like the Ripley’s Believe it or Not Odditorium. Finally, there’s mini-golf, go kart parks and the famous Williamsburg Pottery Outlets.

Oh, yeah, I’d me remiss if I neglected to mention Great Wolf Lodge.  This nice resort features a good sized indoor waterpark, included in the price of your room. 

And, don’t forget, to the east is Virginia Beach, about a forty minute drive. And Norfolk, which contains even more things to do, including an aquarium and battleship.  Virginia Beach also features an even better aquarium that also has zip lines and a rope course.

Loch Ness Monster, BGWJust north and west of Williamsburg is Richmond.  Richmond is rich in history, culture, fine arts and food. Lots of restaurants with everything from soul food, to country food to anything European, Korean, Japanese or Chinese.  There’s also a tremendous amount of Thai food restaurants.  You name, you can likely find it in Richmond.  In addition to shopping and food, you’ll find many art museums, history museums and the Edgar Allen Poe Museum.

There’s minor league Baseball, NASCAR twice a year (in April and September) and several short tracks for that weekly dose of speed.  There’s adrenaline junky places like Jumpology, a trampoline fun house.  Coming soon to the area is an indoor park featuring an American Gladiators type course, several zip lines and rope courses. 

A few minutes north of Richmond takes you to Virginia’s second world class theme park, Kings Dominion.  Kings Dominion is a sister park to Carowinds and, as such, contains many of the same types of rides and attractions.  It includes a nice collection of Dominator Rollercoaster, KDrollercoasters, including what was the tallest and fastest giga coaster on the east: Intimidator 305.  This 305 foot tall beast, also named for Dale Earnhardt, gives you the feeling of the high banked turns of Talledega and Daytona.  The first drop takes you into a sharp right turn that may cause a momentary ‘grey out’ in which you lose vision for a fraction of a second. This is normal and is not harmful, just weird. It is caused by blood flow and is harmless. 

Edgar Allen Poe MuseumThe park also features many ‘launch’ style coasters, where, instead of the train being pulled up a hill and released, linear induction motors propel the train forward at tremendous speed.  One of them, the Volcano, shoots you out of the station, around the base of a volcano mountain and then up and through the Volcano itself.  Quite thrilling and was my favorite coaster until I rode Fury 325.

Kings Dominion also features a nice but small collection of wooden rollercoasters, including the Rebel Yell, which is featured in the motion picture ‘Rollercoaster’. 

In addition to nice collection of rollercoasters, the park also features shows and a good collection of flat rides including a Ferris Wheel, a Carousel from the 1920’s and a smaller replica of the Eiffel Tower (this one is one third size at 300 feet.)  For thrills, there is the 300 foot tall Drop Zone tower and the 305 foot tall Windseeker, a swing that takes you up nearly 300 feet.

Richmond, VA - richmondcitybook.comRichmond is nicely located with Washington DC to the north, the beautiful Skyline Drive to the north and west and, of course Williamsburg and Virginia Beach to the east.  All of these destinations are within a two hour drive.  The Outer Banks of North Carolina are just three hours from Richmond.  But, there’s certainly plenty to do in the city and one could spend a week here doing it all.

The East Coast from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina all the way up to Ocean City, Maryland (two of my favorite vacation spots as well) offer up a tremendous opportunity for a fun filled vacation pretty much any time of the year (the amusement parks are seasonal, however) and none of it will break the bank either.

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Rollercoaster Odyssey

WP_20140417_089It’s that time of year again when the amusement and theme parks gear up for a summer of fun and BIG, BIG rides along with the flow of greenbacks. Yes, it’s rollercoaster time again. For some, it’s a year ‘round thing, for most of use, however, it is from late March until about the end of October.  It’s no different for Half-Byte. This year, Half-Byte took a rollercoaster filled vacation, an odyssey, if you will.

Now, before I go on, I have to admit that it was more of Half-Byte’s family who did the coastering and not Half-Byte.

WP_20140417_064We spent a week in what could be the Coaster capital of the world-certainly, North America. Yep, we went to Orlando, Florida.  Let me tell you, that is NOT a place that Half-Byte wishes to relocate to, if the opportunity arises. Crowded, construction everywhere and LONG LINES for even entry into local restaurants.

I’ve been there several times in the past, but my oldest doesn’t remember them and my newest family members have never been (save my wife, she went when she much younger.)  My son’s girlfriend came along as well.  So, this was quite an adventure. I’ll spare the gory details about the trip down and back-we drove, ‘nuff said.

WP_20140415_100The main attraction is, of course, The Magic Kingdom, Disney World. The problem with Disney World, and coasters, is that there are only three (with a fourth to open shortly.) BUT…they are pretty killer coasters.  First, there’s the Barnstormer, a ‘kiddie’ coaster that manages to pack some light thrills even for adults. Then there’s the Big Thunder Railroad. Boy, that’s a terrific ride. Fast, lots of turns and great theming all around. I rode it first, years ago, with my son and, this time, with my step son. Brought back wonderful memories and I’m really glad that he LOVES rollercoasters. Lastly, there’s the big one: SPACE MOUNTAIN. I stayed off it this time, my wife rode with my step son and they had a blast. I sat it out with the Xanman, my infant son.  WP_20140417_028Can’t wait to do this with him.

Disney done, we headed to Sea World. They have three rollercoasters, but none of us did the ‘kiddie’ coaster this time. I rode Kraken with my son and his girlfriend. That was quite a thrill, fast and furious…but, it felt dirty.  In fact, I was a bit shocked by how dirty the whole theme park ‘felt.’ Oh, there wasn’t any trash strewn about and you can tell the park makes an effort to keep the place clean, but…it felt dirty, rundown. Like Six Flags America in Maryland.  My wife, son and his girlfriend rode 076Manta, a ‘lay down’ coaster. They loved it.  I sat it out with my son and step son.

Next up was Epcot, which I loved for the atmosphere but, it’s more of a shopping experience and has little for the kids.  Not much on the thrill rides either. Mission Space was off limits to us as we all have conditions that would preclude us riding it.  Test Track, however, my son and his girlfriend rode and appeared to like.

Lastly, we hit up Busch Gardens in Tampa.  Now, this is a theme park I’ve been wanting to visit for years. Well, since I started going to the one here, in Virginia. Busch Gardens Williamsburg is a sprawling, wooded, and just gorgeous place to visit. It has great rides and wonderful food.  The staff is top notch-on par or better than Disney.  So, I expected the Tampa park to be the same or better.  So, imagine my surprise when we pull into its parking lot…boy, were we shocked. The park is land locked in what appears to be University area.  The parking lot we were shunted into is dilapidated and did not give us a good first impression. Upon entering the park, however, we realized it was not quite as bad as the parking lot. BG Tampa is themed to the African wild. The theming is well done, but, like Sea World in Orlando, it felt a bit run d152own.  The staff, while nice, wasn’t as good as the staff here in Virginia.  We got mixed signals about the use of our BGW season pass, what it could and could not do.  However, once we got into the park proper and began riding the rides, we knew it was good park.  The Cheetah Hunt rollercoaster, one in which all of us but the Xanman rode, was top notch. This thing has four linear launches, quite a kick In the butt.  Several inversions and lots twists and turns later, it was over. It was the only coaster that my step son rode multiple times and wanted more. He would have ridden it all day if he could.  The other coasters in the park were met with various thumbs up from the family, with Sheik-Ra being a favorite of my oldest son (it is very similar to his favorite coaster, the Griffon.)

WP_20140417_073Rides aside, the other astounding thing about this odyssey was the cost of food: it was outrageous. The most expensive ‘lunch’ I think I’ve ever had was at Sea World: $75. We can have dinner at Outback and save money, compared to lunch at Sea World.  Oddly, Disney’s food was more moderately priced. A similar lunch at Epcot was about $25 cheaper.  Busch Gardens Tampa was similar to the park here in Virginia.  The food was good and cost about what Disney did. Interesting since Busch Gardens and Sea World are the same company.  But, it was vacation and we had budgeted for eating at the parks.  Still, it was a bit of sticker shock.  Makes me appreciate our two parks here in Virginia.

So, we did four major parks in a week (and a local attraction called Wonder Works) WP_20140412_009and it was both too much and not enough.  Ticket prices are very expensive with Disney costing the most.  If you want a multi-day, multi-park ticket, be prepared to shell out a HUGE chunk of change. We only did a two day pass and it was outrageous.  We skipped Universal for this reason: it is nearly as high.  We got lucky with Sea World and Busch Gardens: fifty bucks per person per park. Much cheaper than anyone else.  Of course, if you JUST want Disney or Universal, then the multi-day tickets are a bargain: you can come and go as many times as you want. Add park hopper and you can visit all Disney parks in a day. Don’t do that, you will miss a lot. Looking back, we should have hit up Animal Kingdom or Hollywood Studios instead of Epcot. Maybe next time.

Of all the parks we went to, Busch Gardens had the best thrills.  Disney was, well Disney.  Those two make a great pair and book ended our odyssey. Great way to start and a great way to end.  It was fun.

I am glad to be back home.

Planning a trip to Great Wolf Lodge? Here’s a few things you should know

Recently, I took the family for a mini-vacation at a Great Wolf Lodge in Williamsburg, Virginia.  Williamsburg is about an hour from where we live, so we weren’t too far from home, thus gas cost was at a minimum, a good way to start of any vacation, long or not. My son and I have stayed at the resort on two other occasions and cost was never much of a concern then.  We had either planned for the trip or, as luck had it, I had extra disposable income.  Those were several years ago and, apparently, the cost of staying at this particular resort has gone up quite a bit.

I understand that the cost of running such a massive hotel (it is a large hotel) that contains:

  • a full water park
  • a sizable arcade
  • a full spa
  • bowling alley
  • mini gym
  • mini golf
  • outside pool
  • one of the largest water slides on the east coast (there are actually three of them, two right here in Virginia)
  • dance club
  • full service restaurant
  • Pizza Hut express
  • Store
  • Several snack/sweet shops
  • Gift/Souvenir stands and mini stores

That’s quite a bit, yes.  The upkeep on all of that, well, I imagine it is pretty high.  However, this is the problem I have with the resort: it’s too bloody expensive.  The rooms, on a normal stay, are $300 and higher per night. A good size room, one that can accommodate a family of four, for example, is in the $450 range.  If your party is bigger, you could spend $600 or more.  While comfortable and very clean, these rooms do not warrant such a high cost.  Imagine, a family of four staying for five nights.  You hit $2000 just for the room and the ONLY amenities you get? The waterpark and the gym.  Everything else is an up-charge.  The mini-golf is five or eight bucks, depending on age, per game, per person. Same with the bowling.  The arcade requires tokens, which you have to purchase.  The spa…well, you get the idea.  Oh, that full service restaurant? Be prepared to shell out twenty bucks per person for the buffet dinner and fifteen for the buffet breakfast. Not including drinks. That’s $80 plus drinks for that family of four, for one night.

Throughout the day, the kids will want a drink and snack, so there goes another twenty to thirty dollars there. Maybe a souvenir. You see how quickly this adds up.  How in the world does this company expect families to stay for any length of time?  My guess is they don’t.  Each time we’ve stayed, it’s been one or two nights. For us, that’s about all we want. The waterpark, while tremendously fun, is small and it takes just a few hours to exhaust everything.  There’s only so much fun to be had going down the same slides all day.

Fortunately, since this particular lodge is in Williamsburg, Virginia, there’s plenty of other things very close.  For example, just a few miles west of the lodge is a go-kart park, complete with thrill rides and mini golf. To the east, there is Busch Gardens, a world class theme park.  Then you have colonial Williamsburg itself. Beautiful and very charming. If you like to shop, there are a ton of outlet centers around and there is even a Ripley’s attraction. So, there is a lot going on around the lodge.

Don’t get me wrong, you CAN stay there on the cheap.  For example, they regularly have promotions that can end up getting you up to half off the cost of a stay. Some require a minimum two night stay, others are during the week.  You just have to watch the web site as many are not advertised.  Subscribe to the newsletter as there are discounts there as well.  Other ways to save: go to the Wal-Mart that you must past when you exit the interstate and get you the basics: bread, peanut butter, jelly, soda/juice/whatever, etc.  Each room contains a mini-fridge and a microwave so you can make some of your meals there.  Als0, there’s several fast food places around the Wal-Mart and there is a restaurant right off the entrance to the lodge called Jungle Jim’s. The prices are reasonable and they have free delivery to the lodge. Just avoid the dine in restaurant for most of your meals and you will save a ton of cash. It is worth a breakfast, though, as the breakfast foods are pretty decent.

The sweet shop, while expensive, is worth a treat or two.  They have Starbucks coffees, ice-cream, chocolates and fudge.  I wouldn’t venture there too much though, or your waistline and pocket book will suffer.

We have found the staff to be both pleasant and not so pleasant and I suppose that is to be expected.  Well, no, not really. For the cost of a stay, the staff should ALWAYS be pleasant, no matter what.  I understand that some guests will be difficult, but that is no excuse to be rude to everyone or even the next guest.

Staying at this resort is a lot of fun, but it can be quite costly. My advice to anyone who is considering (and you should, if you like water) a stay is to be prepared to spend money. A lot of money, even if staying ‘on the cheap.’  Plan ahead. Book your room or rooms far enough in advance to get a good deal.  It is possible to have a great time there and not need a loan to do so.  And, if staying for more than three days, be sure to venture out to surrounding area. Williamsburg is a beautiful place and full of history. Make the young ones learn while on vacation, that, in itself, will be worth every penny.

Oh, one more thing…if you bring your camera or cellphone into the water park, you need to keep two things in mind: it is likely to get wet and it is hot and humid.  They keep the temp at 84 degrees and, with all of that water, it gets humid in there as well. Wet and humid do not mesh well with electronics. Bring a baggie to store them in while in the park. If possible, get a waterproof case for them.

And, watch for that big ass bucket…

Starbucks goes instant with Via

OK, here is where I become a shill for Starbucks.  And, before I go on, let me state that I am not getting paid for this and it is not really an ad.  That said, Starbucks new Via instant coffee is a damn fine product.  Currently, there are two brews: Colombia and Italian Roast.  You can get the coffees in three and twelve packs.  The three pack is $2.95 (US) and the twelve pack is $9.95 (US).  It is not cheap, but, man, it’s a good cup of java. 

The new product rolled out nationally, in the US, this week.  I picked up a twelve pack of Colombian to try and, I’m afraid, I am hooked already.  This is not going to be cheap. 

I’ve never been much on the instant coffee scene, I prefer to grind and brew, but, once in awhile, I would like to enjoy a cup with out the fuss.  A nice instant coffee fits the bill.  I’ve been buying Taster’s Choice Gourmet packets, both full and decaf.  Those can be purchased at most grocery stores and Target.  At Target, you can get a box of seven packets for a buck, not bad.  However, this new Via blows that Taster’s Choice out of the water.  Starbucks did a fine job. 

If you are at all curious, you can read about it here.  If you wish to try, go to your local store, I’m sure you can find one. 

There.  I said it.  I’m not going to apologize either.  It’s a great product.

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Rochester Garbage Plate from River City Diner

After a day of fun with the family, we decided to get a bite to eat at a Richmond area staple:  River City Diner.  One of the specialties at RCD is the Rochester Garbage Plate.  I got a Garbage Plate today.  My doctor would have coronary.  This thing had potato salad, cole slaw, fried potatoes, baked beans, chili, two hot dogs and cheddar cheese melted on top.  It contains enough calories and carbs to last the week.  Talk about a cholesterol disaster.  Anyway, I thought I would share this treat.  Check out the photo below.

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Things you should know about fructose

High fructose corn syrup, a very common sweetener used in soft drinks and just about anything else that was sweetened by sugar, is worse than using sugar.  A recent study conducted by the University of California concluded that while people who consumed beverages sweetened by sugar or high fructose corn syrup would both gain about the same amount of weight.  However, those who consumed only the fructose sweetened beverages exhibited an increase in intra abdominal fat.  These same people also became less sensitive to insulin-which every one produces and controls the glucose level in the blood.) The level of lipids (fat soluble molecules) also increased.

Other studies have shown that for obese people, fructose sweetened beverages can have some very bad side effects such as an increase of triglycerides following meals where the beverages were consumed.  Risk of gout is increased as well. 

We knew that fructose sweetened beverages-as well as those using sugar-have also been linked to weight gain, but yet another study showed that while subjects who consumed the fructose sweetened beverages gained weight, they actually ate less.  Even so, they gained significantly more body fat.

The larger issue with fructose is that in humans, fructose does not fully trigger all of the hormonal systems involved in the control of food intake and metabolism.

From my own personal experience, I KNOW that fructose sweetened soft drinks do have an effect on your weight.  Several years ago, I was addicted to Root Beer, specifically Barq’s and Frosty.  Yeah, weird I know.   Then, I woke up one day feeling miserable.  I decided to lose some weight.  The first thing I did was cut out the sugary soda.  I started drinking more water and sugar-free drinks.  Problem was that I failed to do little else.  After a few weeks, I got a few comments from both family and friends.  “Are you losing weight?”  and “What kind of diet are you on?”.  Well, I wasn’t on a specific diet and was not doing anything in particular to lose weight other than cutting out the sugary soda.  I lost about ten pound over a couple of months.  I did later on go on the Atkins Diet.  That lasted about a year and I eventually lost about forty pounds, of which I have gained about twenty back.  I am working on losing it again.

I’m not advocating a ban on fructose or anything like that.  I think such crusades are a waste of time and effort.  The whole anti-trans fat campaign was ridiculous, though effective.  No, I think people need to be aware of the negative aspects of fructose and adjust habits accordingly.  There is nothing that is 100% safe, but there are things we can do to mitigate the bad stuff.

References:

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Healthier lunch time choices: McDonald’s, Wendy’s and what?

Being a 40+ year old with health that is, shall we say, not ideal, I am at a point in my life where I have to really watch what and where I eat.  Working in the IT field, I have developed many, many bad habits:  lots of caffeine, little exercise, long periods of time in front of a screen and keyboard and almost no sunshine.  All of these things lead to trouble.  The worst habit, though, is the eating out at lunch or dinner, for that matter.  While I have curtailed the lunch time habit a bit, I still eat prepared foods.  There is a Quizno’s in my building and I often get lunch from there.  The food is better, but I can only take it but so much, so I will  venture to Wendy’s or one of the other restaurants near my building.  On the weekends or during the week, I still have a bad habit of picking up something on the way home, thus extending my bad habit to my family. What to do…

Well, eating out does not have to mean eating junk food or bad-for-you foods.  In fact, there are several fast food restaurants that actually have food that is good or, at least, better for you than the standard fare.  And, yes, Wendy’s and McDonald’s are included, as it Taco Bell. 

McDonald’s actually has a pretty decent menu, if you skip several things like soda and fries.  The grilled chicken sandwiches, with lettuce and tomato, are a good choice.  The grilled chicken wrap, the salads (with light dressing) are also good choices.  The Egg McMuffin is an excellent breakfast sandwich that won’t add too much to your waistline.  Those potato cake things, well, just leave them there.  Oh, for desert, you can get a yogurt parfait.

Wendy’s is another good choice and they also have a pretty decent menu, again, if you skip the fries and soda.  They also have a great selection of replacement sides for those fries.  You can get a side salad, baked potato or chilli.  They also have mandarin oranges and bottled water.  While the grilled chicken choices are best, you don’t have to give up that burger just yet.  The jr burgers weigh in around 300 calories.  The burger and a side salad or plain baked potato will give you a filling lunch while coming in less than one hamburger all the way.  They also have a great selection of prepared salads, but, keep in mind, these are large portions.  Still they do not cost all that much, so you can still have a tasty salad and limit your portion while not wasting money.  Throwing away a part of that salad or saving it another meal is a prudent thing to do.  Portion control is key here and every where.

Taco Bell is probably the last place you’d think of when it comes to semi-healthy eating, yet you can do OK there.  Forget the tastier items on the menu, though.  They are either way too much-calorie wise-or are just bad for you.  Those large grilled burritos…forget them…BAD.  But the crunchy taco’s, regular burritos and other similar items-eaten in moderation-are not that bad for you.  And, remember what you heard about beans and your heart!

Along with the good places, though, you have the ones that you should just avoid.  Like Hardee’s (Carl’s Jr in some areas.)  While some of the food is tasty, and splurging ONCE IN A WHILE is OK, the menu at Hardee’s is chock full of bad-for-you stuff and almost nothing that is good for you.  They have, or had, one hamburger that contained 1900 calories.  It was many patties high, had lots of bacon and cheese.  Just thinking about this monster makes me ill.  Even the breakfast menu is loaded with badness.  They have an omlette biscuit that cannot be good for you.  I don’t know what nutritional value it has, but it is quite large and…well, you have to see this thing.  KFC is another place that has very little to offer that is not fried.  The grilled chicken sandwich-plain-isn’t bad, but the grilled chicken wrap, while tasty, has a sauce that is not quite low fat.  Get it without the sauce.  Most of the menu is, though, full of fatty or fried foods.  Burger King is also another restaurant that has more bad than good things.  The baconator and that quad patty burger are but two examples of things to stay away from.

My favorite fast food joints are Quizno’s and Subway.  I like Subway a bit more, but the big Q is right there as well.  Both offer a ton of choices and can be as good for you or as bad for you as you want.  Both have vegetarian only selections and both have a great selection of low fat offerings as well.  Subway is experimenting with non sandwich dishes like personal pizza’s.  I’ve not had them yet, but son tells me they are good.  The portions are small, so they should not be all that bad.  One day I will have to investigate them a bit more.

Lastly, ditch the soda.  I am a sodaholic, but have had to radically alter my soda intake over the last few years.  I’ve cut out the sugary soda all together, but still drink the Splenda sweetened soda.  But, even that has been curtailed.  I drink more and more water and enjoy good hot-teas in the afternoon.  These teas have little or no caffeine, are usually herbal and are relaxing.  Sobe has a few good sugar free drinks and there’s always fruit juices.

While I have not cut out all of the bad stuff, I am learning how to eat better.  I still eat too much pasta and really enjoy a good deep dish or thin crust pizza.  Eating a bit better and just getting off of my lazy butt and taking a nice stroll once in a while is paying off.  I’ve lost a few pounds and have the cholesterol under better control.  Living with such insidious things like diabetes is really hard, and when I was told I had it, it was pretty shocking.  But, it is not the end of the world and there are lots of things you can still eat and enjoy.  And going out to have lunch or dinner does not have to stop.  You just have to know a little bit about what you are eating.  And say no.  A lot. 

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