Wednesday, December 30, 2009

In Praise of Alec Baldwin's Belly: Talkin' 'Bout My Inspiration!

(Alec Baldwin in It's Complicated)

Now, I'm not usually prone to giving movie stars blog space - they already have publicists to make sure their pics are everywhere. I also don't like to overpraise Nancy Meyer's fun but formulaic romantic comedies aimed at "women of a certain age", especially given their complete absence of any characters who aren't white and wealthy.

However, I've got to give a shout-out here to Meyer's newest offering, It's Complicated, for one simple reason: its presentation of the far-from-svelte and no-longer-youthful Alec Baldwin as a 50-something, overweight guy who nevertheless still has that make-her-knees-buckle alpha-male vibe and is still hot as hell, hairy paunch be damned.

I'm old enough to remember Baldwin in his Streetcar Named Desire days, when he could make an audience catch its breath by tearing off his shirt (which he did regularly on Broadway!). Unlike a lot of aspiring heartthrobs then and now, Baldwin didn't shave or wax his chest and abs, but you know what? He was amazingly hot, partly thanks to his muscles but even more thanks to his take-no-prisoners, sex-on-a-stick attitude.

Well, here we are a couple decades later, and Baldwin has definitely put on some extra poundage, as the pics above show and as anyone can see by flipping on their television Thursday nights for 30 Rock. He's somewhere between beefy and stout now, but the old swagger is still there and in this movie he is totally credible confusing the hell out of ex-wife Meryl Streep with his renewed ardor for her.

Better still, Baldwin is comfortable enough with his weight to use it to texture his characterization. Standing in his undershorts after sex with Streep, he can slap his hairy paunch and comment on all the weight he's gained in his second marriage - but with no trace of embarrassment. He can banter about his weight with Streep, asking her, "Why do you keep calling me 'Big Guy'? Is it because I'm fat?" And he can sprawl naked on Streep's bed, then explain afterwards that he thought she'd find that tactic "irresistible" - even though he's doughy and not buff these days.

Any guy with issues about his weight should see this film, just to watch Baldwin be sexy despite being substantially overweight by most standards and downright fat compared to the media's presentation of buff (not to mention hairless) guys with toned abs as the masculine ideal. Baldwin's Jake looks his age and carries the extra pounds that many middle-aged guys (yours truly included) can't manage to shed, either. But he's not a hapless sidekick or a pathetic, deluded loser: he's the movie's leading man, he's bracingly virile, and he exudes self-confidence, either in spite of - or because of - that paunchy body.

Am I saying we should all give up on losing weight? Hell no, it's still a healthful thing to do. But should overweight guys hide indoors until we lose enough weight to consider ourselves publicly "presentable"? Hell no, again. We need to learn to unbutton our shirts and slap those bellies of ours as long as we're still carrying them around.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Feeling Thin When You're Still Fat

(Fernando Botero, Ballerina to the Handrail)

Lake Mileage: 5.8k
MP3 Player: Vangelis, Chariots of Fire
Currently Reading: Born Round (Frank Bruni)

I have to say, even at the risk of jinxing my current progress (I'm a superstitious dieter, no question!), that I'm currently at a point where I'm feeling good about what I've accomplished since February. I'm now in the mid-to-low 230's (233 this morning), about 50 lbs. lighter than what I weighed then. That's close to 20% of my worst-case body weight. I feel lighter, I feel thinner. I move more easily and less awkwardly, especially now that solving the running shoe problem has been a major breakthrough on the exercise front. I've gone down several sizes clothes-wise: in the winter I was wearing 42" jeans and 44" khakis from Lands End, now I've dug into the closet and retrieved the 36" jeans and the 38" khakis from 2006-7. People volunteer approvingly that they notice the difference.

The problem is, of course, that in reality I'm nowhere near as thin as I feel. For a 5'8" guy, even an endomorph like me, 233 is still fat. 36" jeans and 38" khakis are still fat clothes. Someone meeting me for the first time would still consider me seriously overweight. I've read any number of books and blogs where a formerly fat guy describes how disgusting and grotesque he was at my current weight, or worse, when he weighed even less than I weigh now. Runners World columnist John "the Penguin" Bingham, whose cheerful embrace of non-elite athleticism I like a great deal, talks about being frightened into weight loss when he weighed 240 - and we're the same height. "I was well past stout. I was rotund," he writes in one of his books. In another he talks about his "ever-widening waist and sagging arms" and describes himself at that time as "a fat cat", as "old and overweight and out of shape." Charlie Hills, whose blog Back to the Fridge I follow and enjoy, talks about the horror of passing 200 lbs. for the first time and makes jokes about hardly being able to see the scale numbers with his gut in the way - but if, oops, when (be positive, people always say) I hit 200 again, I'll be ecstatic. I may faint right there on the scale, in fact.

If a dieter isn't careful, this reality check can take a lot of the gratification out of actual progress. I want to celebrate losing 50 lbs., because it's a big accomplishment. But at the same time, I know that my weight loss so far is only half - and the easier half - of my 100-lb. goal, and even then I'll still be overweight by most people's standards. According to the BMI tables, so far all I've managed to do is go from "Morbidly Obese" to "Obese"! Maybe I shouldn't start celebrating yet.

On the other hand, losing nearly 20% of my body weight is something that a lot of people don't manage to do. And I do in fact feel better, I do in fact move around less effortfully, and I am in fact seriously thinner. If I didn't lose another ounce from today onward, I'd still be healthier living at 233 lbs. than at 284 lbs. And even if other people are still correct when they classify me as fat, that's not the whole story. It's like the stock market - the current price of your shares by itself doesn't matter; what matters is whether that price is higher or lower than what you paid. Maybe my current weight isn't impressive, but compared to where I was, I'm already showing a profit.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

It's All About the Shoes!

Lake Mileage: 5+k
MP3 Player: Torchwood: Golden Age (BBC)
Currently Reading: Strides (Benjamin Cheever)

Maybe the Wicked Witch of the West, Glinda the Good Witch, and Dorothy were right all along: you just can't get anywhere without the right shoes. A few years ago, my running was going well; I was putting in 4-6 miles/day, which made it a lot easier to control my weight and gave me much more energy. Then I let myself get talked into buying a different running shoe: the Brooks Beast, which is marketed to "heavier runners." Since I definitely fit that category, even when I was fitter, I thought using shoes designed for endomorphs might be a good precaution in my early 40's. For the first year or so, they were comfortable enough, but then in June 2007 I had a huge flare-up of my old enemy, Plantar Fasciitis - and somehow I managed to blame this on my own "over-training", without even considering the fact that I'd just started wearing the newest 2007 model of the Beast. Since then I've sporadically tried to get running again, but I could never build up any distance without the PF causing progressively more pain, so I always had to give up and settle for the elliptical or something far less satsifying.

This spring and summer have been no different. As you know if you've looked at previous entries in this blog, I've been trying to get back to running at the nearby lake with its 5k running loop, partly with the help of the Podrunner intervals. At first those were great because they didn't put any strain on me, but as they shifted the proportion of running (okay, jogging, shuffling, pick your word!) to walking, my lower legs and arches were starting to complain. Anything much past 3k of steady running/jogging would leave me sore, sometimes limping, and not sore in the good way of having sore muscles after a real workout, either. This was a bad kind of sore, the kind that's warning you about being headed for serious problems. I was happy that I could at least cover the whole distance, but I still wished I could run/jog all of it, and I could foresee that soon I wasn't going to be able to keep up with the Podrunner's pace. I was doing this, of course, wearing this year's version of the Brooks Beast (I never bought the 2008), which I'd bought - ironically - for maximum protection, in an effort to cure the PF.

Then a couple weeks ago, I happened to be glancing through an old issue of Runner's World. An article about shoe selection said something about how the Beast was one of the good shoes for the runners built like me (they like to call us "Clydesdales"), because heavy runners nearly always over-pronate - that is, we roll the foot inward when we stride, putting lots of weight on the arch of the foot. The Beast compensates for that by being what's called a "motion-control shoe." This kind of running shoe is rigid and engineered to correct that inward roll, shifting the runner's weight outward away from the arches. Readers could confirm that they're over-pronators, the article continued, by looking at the wear pattern on the inner soles of their own broken-in shoes.

Well, guess what happened when I felt curious enough to check out my shoes? On every single pair I looked at, all the wear was on the outer edge of the shoe; on the running shoes, it was absolutely obvious that I push off at every stride with the outside of the foot, digging in with the last couple toes rather than the big toe. My foot doesn't roll inward at all when I stride.

This was when I began to wonder if the Beast was helping me or hurting me. If I already tend to supinate, wearing a shoe that effectively causes extra supination (to correct pronation) is going to exaggerate the imbalance rather than neutralizing it. Maybe this was why I couldn't seem to run even 5k without the various pains starting? Maybe the arch supports were stretching and hurting my arches instead of supporting them? Maybe the 2007 Beast was even the reason for the sudden return of my PF?

So I did more research, and decided to try a different shoe: a "neutral" shoe that's not engineered to correct a runner's motion, and one with enough cushioning to take my weight. I found a sale with a great price on the Nike Air Pegagus, now 25 years old, which was one of the first expensive running shoes I ever bought in college! (I seem to recall a pair of Saucony Jazz in there, too, but the Pegasus was definitely my favorite then.) The Pegasus is a straightforward neutral cushioned running shoe, I remembered liking it back when Reagan was president, and the price was definitely right. More important, I had the gut feeling I was onto something.

Well, guess what?! On my first run at the lake wearing the Pegasus, I intended to run the first 2k, walk the third (and middle) kilometer, and then run the last 2k. When I got to the 2k mark, though, I felt so pain-free for a change that I decided I'd keep on running, wait to walk at the 3k mark instead, and then run the last kilometer. That seemed like a fair plan, but I still felt fine at the 3k mark, so I decided I'd run the first 4 kilometers and just walk the last one for a cool-down. But again there was no trace of pain at the 4k mark - which meant that I ran the entire lake loop for the first time in over 2 years!

A few more runs confirmed this: the pain I was having whenever I ran wearing the Beast just didn't happen when I wore the Nikes instead. Once I knew that, I decided to trade up beyond the Pegasus, to the Nike Vomero, which is their top-of-the-line neutral cushioned shoe. So far they feel great!

Maybe it really is all about the shoes.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

My First 100 Days!

Lake Mileage: 5+k
MP3 Player: Thomas Hampson, "American Song"
Currently Reading: Full Dark House (Christopher Fowler)

100 days! 100 is yet another one of those magic numbers for us, no doubt courtesy of having evolved with 10 fingers and using base-10 mathematics. And it's certainly true that 100 is no more special a quantity than 99 or 101, except in some arbitrary sense. But nevertheless, even knowing all that, I'm feeling good about the fact that today marks my 100th straight day of exercise: every day since April 24th, I've either done at least 5 k at the lake or done 30-40 minutes on the elliptical when the weather's foul. This may not seem like a major accomplishment to you athletic types out there, but for me, it might actually be a lifetime record! And, better still, real improvement in terms of endurance is happening at the lake: I'm able to run (jog? shuffle? huff and puff?) nearly the entire 5-k loop now, though I still walk the initial part of the first kilometer to make sure I stretch enough and don't get myself into trouble again. Soon, though, I should be able to do the whole distance and then start working, very gradually, on incrementally adding speed: two years ago, before I got injured, I was able to run the entire loop in a little under 30 minutes - far from spectacular, but not awful for a non-athlete. Today I'm nowhere near that, since my "speed" is very modest indeed, but if I work at gradually adding faster segments to the total run, progress shouldn't be out of the question.

Monday, July 20, 2009

On a Diet Plateau, No One Can Hear You Scream (in Frustration)

Lake Mileage: 5+k
MP3 Player: Podrunner, "First Day to 5k", Week 4
Currently Reading: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Jane Austen/Seth Grahame-Smith)

Sorry for the unexpectedly long hiatus! I'm tempted to just say that I've been distracted by the summer course I'm teaching this month - in other words, to lie. But the real reason, to be totally honest, is that I found myself stuck at a plateau when I weighed myself on July 10th - no weight loss in 10 days, despite continuing the exercise streak and sticking more-or-less faithfully to the diet. I was at a plateau, and I just did not want to talk about it.

It's not that I'm new to plateaus. I've been on enough diets to know that they inevitably happen at certain places in the weight loss process, whenever my body gets nervous enough about the ongoing loss of stored fat reserves that it demands a full-scale internal investigation and freezes my progress. But plateaus are always dispiriting nevertheless, especially because I'm always half-afraid that this will be the weight at which the entire diet effort grinds to a final screeching halt before the numbers on the scale start creeping upward again. So I didn't much feel like posting about no progess whatsoever, though I know this makes me a bad weight-loss blogger indeed! On the other hand, though, I did actually post the July 10th weight on this page and on the graph, so at least I didn't conceal it - but I didn't want to discuss it, either.

Furthermore, I wasn't really making no progress. I did keep up the exercise plan, which is why I'm on Day 88 of the streak today - less than two weeks until I hit Day 100, which will certainly be a record for me since I was 20-something. And each week I've advanced to the next level of Podrunner's interval mixes moving me toward running an entire 5k loop again, so my fitness was improving even if my weight wasn't.

And sure enough, as at least half my mind knew (just not the half I was listening to, typically for me), that discouraging plateau was going to lead into a sudden burst of weight loss, almost like free fall when you go sky-diving. Today the scale gave me the very welcome news that I've lost 10.5 pounds since July 10th, bringing myself down to 238 lbs. - as I've said before, not exactly svelte, even still "obese" according to the BMI calculators, but compared to the 280.5 on the day I started the diet back in February or the 284 that was my worst weight for 2009, it's a great improvement. It even feels within striking distance of the 50-pound mark, having started at the low/mid 280's and broken through to the 230's, though admittedly not yet by a lot. And I had to dig into the closet again for smaller pants, which is always one of dieting's biggest satisfactions.

I suppose I could wind up here with a cliche or two about the value of perseverance - and they'd be cliches because they're true, since weight loss really is all about perseverance over the long haul. But I already know that, even when I get discouraged. Next time I hit a plateau, though, I hope I won't avoid posting.

Monday, June 29, 2009

A Shout-Out to Podrunner!

I want to give a quick shout-out to Steve Boyett's Podrunner site, where he offers up free (that's right, free!) mp3 workout mixes. I found his site courtesy of Jennette Fulda at PastaQueen, where she recommended his interval workout series to train for a 5k run. I've never been good at interval training, but I thought alternating between walking and running when the mix tells me to might be something even I could handle. So far I'm liking it as a change of pace (pun intended). Boyett also has other kinds of workout mixes for free download, so check him out.

Friday, June 26, 2009

The Spirit of St. Louis

(Franz Marc: The Little Mountain Goats)

Lake Mileage: ~6-7 k
MP3 Player: Betty Buckley
Currently Reading: Au Revoir to All That: Food, Wine, and the End of France (Michael Steinberger)

I've just come back from a short summer "culture blitz" in St. Louis, which was a big deal for me diet-wise: it was my first out-of-town, overnight trip since starting Atkins. I had no idea how it was going to go from a food and fitness point of view. I worried about doing all my eating in restaurants, at least partially accomodating the wishes of the friend I travelled with, working out, etc. But everything turned out all right: I managed to drag myself down to the Hampton Inn's fitness center every morning for a full-length stint on the elliptical, I ate sensibly in restaurants (despite some worry when one Italian place served me sole cooked differently than the menu had described it), and ... (drumroll, please) ... I didn't gain any weight! I also didn't lose any, it's true, but for me it was a big accomplishment to stay in control rather than simply going into "vacation mode" - which for me usually means eating whatever and however much I want, sleeping in rather than exercising, and absolutely refusing to think about what's healthful and what's not.

As far as the cultural side went, St. Louis has a lot to offer. My primary reason for the trip was to catch two performances at Opera Theatre of St. Louis, which does a great summer opera festival, complete with pavilion tents and picnic baskets. The first night we saw a production of the young Mozart's rarely-performed opera Il Re Pastore, or The Shepherd King. I considered the performance quite successful musically, but much less dramatically. Heidi Stober was a first-rate Aminta, and young tenor Alek Shrader sang Alessandro's arias very well indeed; I also liked Paul Appleby's Agenore and Maureen McKay's Elisa. This opera is not easy to stage, though: it doesn't have the psychological depth of either Idomeneo or La Clemenza di Tito, but it presents the same portrait of an exemplary Enlightenment monarch who is ruled by reason and as a result rules justly and compassionately in the name of his subjects' good. Director Chas Rader-Shieber, however, said quite frankly in the program notes that he would replace this central conceit - which is only the subject of the opera, after all! - with one that he considers more philosophically worthwhile:
"For each of the characters in Mozart's story, there is the fulfillment of the dream that a noble nature alone can change the social order, but there is no such fantasy in our world. Mozart's tale of uncomplicated transformation becomes, in this new setting, a reflection of the eternal desire to become other than who we really are, and who society commands us to be."
This statement, of course, really raises the question of why Rader-Shieber wanted to stage an opera the message of which he considers utterly irrelevant to modern audiences. It also raises the even deeper question of "relevance" - even if the ideals of Mozart's Enlightenment are no longer shared by our society (and I think this is simplistic on Rader-Shieber's part), then shouldn't a perceptive staging of an Enlightenment opera address the complex philosophical relationship between the two cultures, rather than simply dismissing the allegedly irrelevant ideas in favor of more modern ones? Rader-Shieber's play-within-a-play device, turning the opera into an amateur performance of Mozart's score by a group of young aristocrats and servants in an Edwardian country house, did solve the "problem" of having a woman play Aminta, since here there was no effort at actual impersonation, and it did allow tenor-of-the-moment Shrader to be paired off with "Aminta" at the end (since the aristocrat singing her music was his future wife) rather than standing alone and blessing the couples whose marriages Alessandro has decreed, but it created so many incongruities, confusions, and contradictions of the text that by the second act, the performance might as well have been a concert in Edwardian costume. Beautiful though the set and costumes were, Rader-Shieber's perspective was just too smugly contemporary, philosophically speaking, to do justice to Mozart.

In great contrast, the next night's performance of Corigliano and Hoffman's The Ghosts of Versailles was profoundly moving - in fact, it was arguably much truer to the spirit of Mozart in its wisdom and humanity than Il Re Pastore. Underpinning all its wit and invention, all its evocations of Mozart and Rossini, is the fact that Ghosts is about the power of art itself: it begins with the dead Beaumarchais's idea that he can change history itself with his opera A Figaro for Antonia, thus altering his beloved Marie Antoinette's fate and restoring her to earthly life, one of its key moments is Figaro's conversion from loathing of the queen to pity for her after he witnesses Beaumarchais's re-enactment of her so-called trial, and it ends with a truly Aristotelian catharsis in which Marie Antoinette finds herself purged, by means of Beaumarchais's dramatic efforts on her behalf, of her anguish and longing to return to the life she loved so much; she can now accept her fate and live contentedly in the unique afterlife conjured by Corigliano and Hoffman. Art, in Ghosts, is a path to redemption and wisdom, and OTSL's production embraced this without cynicism.

James Robinson staged this very complicated piece with admirable clarity, aided by Allen Moyer's marvelous set and James Schuette's sumputuous costumes. Soprano Maria Kanyova gave a really great performance as Marie Antoinette, singing superbly (the high pianissimi near the end of the opera showed no signs of weariness) and digging deep into the character's emotions. OTSL stalwart James Westman was a dramatically subtle Beaumarchais. Among his creations, Christopher Feigum offered an engaging Figaro, Dorothy Byrne a shrewd Susanna, and Matthew DiBattista a show-stealing Begearss, especially in his bravura performance of the "Long Live the Worm" aria. Sean Panikkar and Hanan Alattar were well-matched as the Almavivas, Panikkar noteworthy for his comfort with the Count's relentlessly high tessitura. Michael Christie conducted an assured reading of the score.

Seeing these two productions on consecutive nights felt paradoxical - or, as the King of Siam would say, "a puzzlement." It seemed quite ironic that the authentic Mozart opera, first seen in 1775, was staged in a spirit of disillusionment, contrasting the original libretto's faith in Enlightenment nobility and the power of Mozart's music with the soul-grinding compromises of the modern world, while Corigliano and Hoffman's undeniably postmodern opera, written over two centuries later, so emphatically affirmed such "old-fashioned" ideas as forgiveness and wisdom.

While in St. Louis, I also spent some time in the St. Louis Museum of Art, which has a very fine collection of German Expressionism (including Franz Marc's The Little Mountain Goats, shown above, which uses colors in a way I love) and also had a great exhibition of Ansel Adams's photographs taken in Yosemite. Highly recommended!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

A New Breakthrough, The Psychology of Numbers, and China Miéville

Lake Mileage: 5+k (power walk)
MP3 Player: Cleo Laine Sings Sondheim
Currently Reading: Perdido Street Station (China Miéville)

It's an interesting phenomenon, I think, how certain numbers on the bathroom scale matter so much more than other ones. After all, a pound lost is a pound lost and a pound gained is a pound gained, right? Is it any worse going from 152 to 155 than it is going from 158 to 161? Obviously, it's no different in terms of weight gained, but for most people, it would feel lots more discouraging to move from the 150's into the 160's - arbitrary though those numbers are. In the same way, moving down a "decade" when you're losing weight feels like much more of an accomplishment, even if the incremental weight loss that accomplished it is no different than the same loss in the middle of a decade.

And even if you know that, it's hard to fight off the temptation: I was certainly excited today to get on the scale and see 249.5 lbs.! Maybe I just barely squeaked past the line, but it was still very gratifying to see myself weighing less than 250 - I feel like I'm at least in the lower half of the 200-300 lbs. range rather than in the upper half. 250 might be a purely arbitrary number; everything would be totally different, for instance, if I weighed myself in kilograms or stone or whatever. But the numbers we've internalized do have a certain power over the way we perceive weight loss or gain.

Nevertheless, this 249.5 is real progress. I now weigh less than I have anytime this year or anytime in 2008; the last time I weighed under 250 was fall 2007. I've lost 31 lbs. since the start of the diet, more than 20 lbs. of it on Atkins, and I'm nearly 35 lbs. lighter than my worst weight for 2009. This also means I've lost more than 10% of my initial body weight, so my cardiovascular system as well as the rest of my organs and my knees have to be happy about that. And if you look at the graph to the right, "The Plan and the Reality", you can see that for the first time since I started the diet, with a goal of losing 100 lbs. by next summer, I'm actually ahead of where I need to be to stay on track - another good bit of motivation.

On the book front: a big shout-out to author China Miéville for his thoroughly amazing novel Perdido Street Station. The power of imagination at work in this book is extremely impressive - it's this wonderfully mind-expanding (or mind-warping!), incredibly detailed portrait of a striking fictional reality, with a setting, characters, and situations I couldn't have imagined if I sat at a desk for twenty years. I'm just awed by how good he is.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Highway 51 Blues: Attack of the Killer Macadamia Nuts!

Elliptical Mileage: 9.1 miles
MP3 Player: Les Miserables (Original London Cast)
Currently Reading: The Billionaire's Vinegar (Benjamin Wallace)

Since I live, work, and blog less than a mile from Highway 51, I couldn't resist skipping an entry for Day 50 of the exercise streak yesterday and posting this road sign today instead. My Highway 51 isn't the same one Bob Dylan sang about ("Highway 51 runs right by my baby's door / Highway 51 runs right by my baby's door / If I don't get the girl I'm loving / Won't go down to Highway 51 no more"), since that one takes you from Wisconsin down to New Orleans (or vice-versa, I suppose), but I can pretend I don't know that when I hear the song. And yes, I did hit Day 51, so my momentum on the exercise front is still building. The big challenge will be when I go out of town for a few days in two weeks: I'll need to walk or work out at the hotel if I don't want to have to start back from the beginning.

I'm now in Week 4 of the Atkins Diet, still in the extended induction phase. The weight loss slowed down for a short while about a week ago, though, because when I passed the two-week mark I got a little cocky based on the success I'd been having. This should be one of The Unbreakable Rules of Dieting, by the way: Don't Get Cocky. The Atkins books say that you're allowed 1 ounce of nuts/day after the first two weeks, and I thought that would be a great snack. Unfortunately, though, I ignored the warning that sometimes it's hard to restrict yourself to only 1 ounce, especially after two weeks of no snacks at all! So even though I tried weighing out the macadamia nuts I bought (they have the lowest net carb count and tons of good nutrients), the jar kept calling to me from the cupboad and soon enough I was snagging an extra two or three nuts every time I passed through the kitchen! Also, I let myself indulge in a few of the other acceptable items according to the Atkins book - half an avocado, some olives, etc. - but I ignored the common sense fact that eating the approved portions of all of them every day, in one big evening snack session, was not smart. These shenanigans weren't enough to push me out of ketosis, but they did slow down the weight loss noticeably. I realized I need to be more strict if I want to keep on shedding poundage, which was a good lesson at this early phase.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

14 Pounds in 14 Days!

Lake Mileage: ~5k (power walk)
MP3 Player: Titanic (Original Broadway Cast)

The Induction Phase of Atkins turned to be a success: during the first two weeks ending last Thursday, I lost 14 pounds! That took me from 273 down to 259 - 21 pounds lighter than my starting weight on this diet (not to mention this blog), and 25 pounds lighter than my heaviest weight so far this calendar year. It's also the first time I've weighed below 260 since March 2008.

Now, I know some people out there are thinking, "That's great, but you're still way fat" - or at least, I'm occasionally thinking that, in between the good thoughts about finally seeing some substantial downward scale movement for the first time in months, if not years. Obviously, I do live in a house with some mirrors in it (not that I haven't thought of taking them all out!), and I do know that at 259 lbs., I'd still need a crystal ball to see a day when my weight won't be the first thing people notice.

On the other hand, this is more progress than I've made in quite some time, and it was very gratifying yesterday digging into the closet for pants and shirts one size smaller - most of the stuff I could wear in the 280's is too baggy now.

And it's also gratifying to feel more in control of my appetite for the first time in months: I'm not drinking 2-3 gallons of milk straight from the container every week (but it was skim, so I figured it was okay), I'm not polishing off 3 or 4 containers of fruit-added yogurt every evening (but it was non-fat, so I figured it was okay), and I'm not starting every day with an ultra-sweet chocolate Slim-Fast shake with an extra banana thrown into the blender for good measure (but it was Slim-Fast, I used skim milk, and everyone knows bananas are good for you, so I figured it was okay - notice a trend here?!). Better still, I'm not waking up at 3:00 a.m. and half-sleepwalking into the kitchen for some yogurt, milk, and maybe a few slices of bread (but it was organic whole wheat, so I figured it was okay) just to satisfy cravings I was blaming on low-calorie eating. Cutting out the sugars may be the healthiest thing I've done in years.

So yes, I'm still fat - but I'm making important progress on a few fronts. And today is Day 45 of the exercise streak, which I figure must be good for my heart even if it might not burn enough calories to seriously impact the weight loss.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Progress At Last!

Elliptical Mileage: 8.3 miles
MP3 Player: Turandot (Caballe, Carreras)

Okay, just when I needed some encouragement, my notoriously unfriendly bathroom scale finally threw me a bone: I'm down to 263 today, 10 pounds less than on May 20th. Clearly something about the Atkins Induction phase jarred my metabolism loose, so this is a good thing. I'll be interested to see on Thursday, after the full two weeks of Induction, where I'll stand then.

Also, on the exercise front, my streak is still going - I'm ridiculously proud of myself that I did something every single day this month, either the elliptical or the 5k loop around the lake. That is a lot better than the 14 days out of 30 when I exercised in April, let me tell you! On the other hand, I'm still having trouble making progress on the elliptical - my legs still feel heavy, and by the time I get to the 32-minute mark, I don't feel like I have enough gas in the tank to go for 36 or 40. My big goal is consistency - working out every day without fail is the most important thing - but I'd like to be upping my time/distance as well. Not sure what's going on with that ...

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The First Week of Atkins

Elliptical Mileage: 8.3 miles
MP3 Player: One Touch of Venus (New Amsterdam Concert w/ Paige O'Hara)

The exercise streak almost ended today: after fast-walking the 5k lake loop yesterday morning, I ended up with this nasty pain in my left foot that had me limping all day and all evening; I was afraid I wouldn't even be able to do the elliptical today, and that would spoil the fun of using this Thai highway sign to mark Day 35! Fortunately, when I woke up this morning the foot felt well enough to climb onto the elliptical and keep my streak going.

Today also marks one whole week on Atkins. So far it's going well, though my cravings for sugars and starches still keep coming back every so often to nag at me - for instance, I never realized that I drank so much milk (the single guy's worst habit: drinking it straight out of the carton!) mainly for the sweetness. And let's not even talk about all the containers of fat-free, ultra-sweet black cherry yogurt I went through most evenings! I think I'd gotten myself into quite a loop of blood sugar spikes and drops; whatever the faults of the Atkins system, at least the carb restriction is keeping those kinds of foods out of my mouth.

As far as the weight goes, I've resisted climbing on the scale so far, but Sunday, being the last day of the month, is one of my official weigh-in days, so we'll see then what kind of progress I'm making.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Elliptical Mileage: 8.4 miles
MP3 Player: Mame (Original Broadway Cast)

That's right, today marks Day 30 of the exercise streak - for me, a very good sign of ongoing motivation. Also, the Atkins Diet Induction Phase is now in its third day, and so far the withdrawal symptoms I'd read about haven't put in an appearance. My legs do feel heavier than usual on the elliptical trainer, which might be due to my suddenly lower carb intake, and my dreams seem more vivid than usual (don't worry, I'm not going to start describing my dreams here!), but beyond that the diet shift seems relatively painless.

Music Note: Before today, I hadn't listened to the original cast recording of Mame since the last time I had a working turntable - in other words, a very long time ago now. It's a much better score than I remember, and Angela Lansbury is in great voice. And it was nostalgic to hear the inimitable and recently deceased Bea Arthur again - what a way with a line that woman had! No other Vera Charles can touch her in the role.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Atkins Diet - The First Day

Elliptical Mileage: 8.3 miles
MP3 Player: The King and I (1977 Broadway Revival Cast)

Okay, so today is what Charlie Hills would call my latest "Day One": the Atkins diet, Induction phase. So far it doesn't seem too traumatic: I had scrambled eggs and bacon for brunch, went to a Japanese restaurant for sashimi, and snacked at home on cheese and hot dogs. Right now it seems I could get to like this (I can't remember the last time I ate bacon without feeling guilty!), though I know that anything can get monotonous if I don't mix it up. I've also discovered as a useful site for keeping track of the daily carbs, which might be a big help.

No other news to post - but if you read this, wish me luck! I may need it over the next few days ...

Monday, May 18, 2009

And the beat goes on ...

Elliptical Mileage: 8.3 miles
MP3 Player: Sondheim - Merrily We Roll Along (Donmar Warehouse 2000-1, in-house recording)

I'm rather enjoying finding images to mark each new 5-day bloc of my exercise streak; it even gives me a little extra motivation not to give up before I can post the next one. As you can see, today was the 25-day mark. I haven't missed a day yet this month, in great contrast to last month's blobby laziness. And while this may not seem like much to you active, athletic types out there, this represents real effort on the part of a couch potato (or at least laptop potato!) like your faithful blogger here.

I've almost 100% decided to start Atkins later this week. I've been reading up on it, along with Gary Taubes's excellent Good Calories, Bad Calories, and I think I will give the Induction phase a whirl. I've been stocking up on the right stuff for that diet and not replacing foods like milk and yogurt that I won't be eating during Induction when they run out. I think Thursday will be what Charlie Hills so aptly calls another Day One!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

School is out! And Sancho has left the building.

Elliptical Mileage: 8.4 miles
MP3 Player: Cleo Laine Sings Sondheim

My final exams are corrected, my final grades are posted, and school is officially out! This is invariably one of the nicest days in the year - the pleasure of sleeping in with no responsibilities (if only for that one day) is enough to make even the most dedicated professor sympathize with the old joke: Q: What are the three best reasons for going into teaching? A: June, July, and August.

Nevertheless, I did climb back up on the elliptical trainer this morning, so as not to break my streak and deny myself the satisfaction of marking Day 20 here on the blog. Not only that, I mowed my lawn for the first time this spring, which at my house involves wrestling a push mower around for about 45 minutes, so that must have burned a few more calories. Actually, a couple days ago I went to the local lake instead of doing the elliptical: I ran/walked the 3-mile trail just to get outdoors for a change (miraculously, it had stopped raining), but that still definitely counts as part of the workout streak. Of course, my feet and knees didn't like it nearly as much as the rest of my body did; I should really consider going to a sports medicine doctor and getting a professional opinion. Maybe orthotics in the running shoes would be the ticket?

I'm also considering trying the Atkins Diet this summer. For whatever reason, my usual bag of low-fat, low-calorie diet tricks are just not working this time around, and it's starting to depress me. Yet another decision ...

Friday, May 8, 2009

Will Power. It's Good.

Elliptical Mileage: 8.3 miles
MP3 Player: Cats (Original London Cast)

Okay, at least I'm getting some will power flowing: today was my 15th consecutive day doing a first-thing-in-the-morning workout on the elliptical. And after today those morning sessions get easier to manage, since classes and exams are now officially over. The most important thing, though, has been breaking through the daily temptation to sleep an extra hour, take a day off, etc.

Hopefully I can build on this self-discipline over the summer!

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Repeat after Me: Exercise burns calories. Exercise burns calories. Exercise burns calories.

Elliptical Mileage: 8.3 miles
MP3 Player: Cabaret (Original London Cast w/ Judi Dench)

Okay, maybe April wasn't the cruelest month, but it certainly wasn't a good one weight-wise: I managed to go in reverse and actually gain weight back. Part of this was due to post-Lent temptation, or at least to not resisting it, since I did a lousy job of saying no to some of the foods I wasn't eating for 40+ days prior to Easter. Heading straight for Applebee's to wolf down chicken wings as soon as Easter Vigil Mass ended at 10:30 Saturday evening certainly wasn't a good start, and that huge block of extra-sharp Vermont cheddar at the grocery store a couple days later was an incredibly bad idea - even as I was putting it into the shopping cart, I was thinking that the much smaller package right there in front of me would take care of my craving for the flavor just as well. (And let's not talk about the crackers and pretzels which had to accompany it.) Nor was the economy-sized bag of chocolate-covered raisins very smart, since I knew perfectly well that my idea of making it last at least a week by eating no more than an ounce or two at a time was just not a plan I'd manage to stick to for long.

Worse, though, was my blobby laziness when it came to working out. During April I used my elliptical machine only FOURTEEN times - less than half the days in the month. And most of that number came from a four-day streak in the middle of April and a seven-day streak right at the end - in other words, there were big stretches of the month where I was adding no exercise, no calorie burn, no metabolism boost, to high-fat eating. No wonder the scale started telling me numbers I didn't want to see! I simply have to use the machine more often; working out fewer than 50% of the days in any given month is not the way to be healthy.

On the plus side, I'm continuing the streak I started with that solid week at the end of April, so today was Day #9 (the photo above is evidence; you can even see the display numbers if you work at it!). This is a positive sign. I just need to build on that (especially since all the cheese and raisins are long gone from my kitchen!).

Music Note: Cabaret turns out to be another decent score for working out to, especially the songs for the cabaret act. And Judi Dench is a great Sally Bowles in the original London cast recording - I think I like her better than Liza Minnelli precisely because she's not a spectacular singer; it makes more sense that her Sally would be stuck in a third-rate Berlin dive, whereas Liza sang the songs so well that I always have to work to believe in her as a failed cabaret performer.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Thoughts on Planting a Tree

On Tuesday I did something I'd never in my life done before: I planted a tree. Okay, fine, you caught me: I sat and watched while the guys from the nursery did the actual sweaty shovel work, instead of planting it myself in the middle of my very small front lawn. Of course, even if I did want to do that with no help, I'd have no idea even how deep to dig the hole, much less how to pour in the right amount of an exotic chemical to stimulate root growth, stake the tree properly so it doesn't fall over in a windstorm, encircle it with a ridge of earth, and cover everything with wood chips. And since my goal is that the tree actually survive, asking the nursery guys to do the actual planting still seems like the smart thing to do.

While I was watching the whole operation, though, a diet-related thought did cross my mind (besides how many calories I'd be burning if I were doing the digging!). Planting a young tree is not an instant gratification kind of project - I love the mental image of a mature Chinese Pistache dominating my front lawn, shading the house and turning amazing shades of gold and red every autumn, but in order to have that happen years from now, this spring I have to plant something which looks a lot more like a broken-off branch with a few leaves still clinging to it. It's not particularly scenic and it certainly doesn't create any shade, but this is where you have to start if in ten or twenty years, you want to be able to give people directions like, "Turn right at the stop sign; it's the blue house with the Chinese Pistache in front."

It's the same thing with major weight loss, I was thinking. Right now, with 100 lbs. or more ahead of me, I'm about as far away from the reflection I'd like to see in the mirror as that sapling in the photo is from being a full-grown shade tree. And the two or three pounds I might be able to lose during the next week with exercise and diet seem like nothing in comparison to all the poundage that I'd still have left around my midriff and on my butt. But if I can accept that starting with the leafy stick is the way to end up with a real tree, accepting that the beginning phases of a major weight loss are going to be equally unimpressive shouldn't be impossible. And if I'm willing to commit to the seriously delayed gratification involved in waiting for a tree to mature, it doesn't make sense not to commit to a weight loss goal just because it can't possibly happen anytime soon. Right?

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid.

Elliptical Mileage: 9.5 miles
MP3 Player: Anything Goes (1989 Australian Cast w/ Geraldine Turner)

Okay, this is what I see in the mirror after I find excuses not to do the elliptical for 5 straight weekdays!

I don't know why I have a problem with this concept, it's pretty simple: if I do the elliptical several times/week, I maintain or lose weight. If I don't, then bad things happen! Thus we can see yet again the age-old difference between human Knowledge and human Will. Knowing what you need to do doesn't always mean that you'll do it. Why is that?!

Of course, if I could answer that question, I'd be a philosopher or a psychologist, not a literary critic!

On the plus side, I did do the elliptical twice this weekend rather than just continuing my indolent streak. And posting Friday's weight, rather than pretending I forgot to do the April 10th weigh-in, also took a bit of willpower. That's much harder than posting a new lower number.

Oh, and Geraldine Turner is an amazing Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes!

Sunday, March 29, 2009

"In Case There's a Change in the Weather ...."

Elliptical Mileage: 8.3 miles
MP3 Player:
Telly Leung, Getaway

Yes, the weather changes fast around here: compare this photo taken Sunday afternoon to yesterday's entry below, taken Saturday morning of roughly the same view of my yard.

I think I'm going to attempt a different approach to the weight-loss project this time, rather than going with my usual crash-diet "under-eat and over-exercise" method of dropping poundage in chunks during the intervals when I can sustain feeling half-starved and getting dizzy every time I stand up too fast. Instead I'm going to shoot for smaller benchmark goals, aiming at losing about 6 lbs./month., which means 2 lbs. every time I weigh in on the 10th, 20th, and last day of each month. 2 lbs. in 10 days ought to be manageable with self-discipline but without self-torture, or at least most of the time - bowing to the inevitable lapses and plateaus. So the new goal for April 10 will be announced this Tuesday, when I weigh in on the 31st. Stay tuned!

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Contemplating Snow

Elliptical Mileage: 8.3 miles
MP3 Player:
Michael Nyman, MGV (Musique à Grande Vitesse)

It is not supposed to snow like this in my part of the country on the last Saturday in March! Nevertheless, as you can see from the above photo of my back yard this morning, we seemed to have borrowed today's weather from some Saturday last December in Chicago! It was a good day to stay home, especially given how little experience most people born and raised here have had driving in snow and ice.

On the plus side, today I finally managed to summon up enough willpower to climb back on the elliptical machine, after replacing those defective runner wheels earlier in the week. I did a solid half-hour with no sense of strain during or sore muscles afterwards, which I'm taking as a good sign. I hope to get back into the routine now that I've finally started again, and perhaps that will persuade my metabolism to start burning calories faster.

Facing out into the snow swirling around my back yard while I did my miles on the elliptical made me think about Hans Castorp in Mann's Magic Mountain (my favorite novel, in case anyone should ever ask you). I kept remembering the chapter called "Snow", when Hans slips away from the luxurious Alpine sanatorium where he's hoping to be cured of a "moist spot" in one lung and he goes cross-country skiing - only to get caught outdoors in a blinding snowstorm and to have a waking dream that brings together all the novel's themes. With the snow blowing up against the big windows my elliptical machine faces, I felt a bit like Hans heading into the blizzard with his skis and ski poles ... though of course I didn't have any epiphanies about the meaning of life and death, only the small satisfaction of starting and finishing a workout for the first time in over a month. Better than nothing, though.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Dieting with Lady Lent

(Detail: Bruegel the Elder, "The Battle between Carnival and Lent")

Dieting and Lent should really go together like peanut butter and jelly or like fish and chips, shouldn't they? In the Middle Ages Christians gave up meat and sometimes dairy products for the entire 40 days of Lent (calculated without counting Sundays), and today many people still perform some kind of synechdochic fast by giving up favorite foods. Nor are Christians alone in such penitential practices, of course: the Jewish observance of Yom Kippur requires fasting, as does Ramadan in Islam. Therefore, the weeks between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday ought to offer Lent-observant Christians both practical opportunity and spiritual motivation to say "no" to whichever fattening foods might present particular challenges to their willpower, right? Why not hire the Middle Ages' allegorical figure Lady Lent (above, as pictured by Bruegel) as your diet coach?

Unfortunately, I'm not totally convinced it's that easy on either the religious or the dietary side. On the religious side, the potential substitution of a selfish motivation for the intended one is problematic: Lent is supposed to be about mindfully making sacrifices to prepare yourself spiritually for Easter. In a small way (a very very small way, for most of us!), a Christian is trying to emulate Christ's 40 days without food or water in the desert and to think about God when temptation comes knocking. Using Lent for dieting purposes, though, risks substituting self-interested vanity for real sacrifice and penance - the primary goal of those 40 days shouldn't be garnering post-Easter compliments for looking fitter and slimmer.

And on the dietary side, the problem is that Lenten sacrifice only lasts until Easter Sunday, when you finally get to dig into whichever foods you've been denying yourself. Lent can be useful for breaking bad habits cold turkey - once I decide to give up a certain food as of Ash Wednesday, that's an effective way to stop eating something I've otherwise had trouble resisting on a daily basis. But then Easter eventually arrives and the motivation provided by Lent disappears: the psychology inherent in observing a fixed period of penance doesn't create a lifestyle change. Instead, seeing Lent as a diet reinforces the most dangerous temptation built into dieting, the trap of (mis)understanding a diet as a period of self-denial you suffer through until you hit your target weight, at which point you can and definitely do celebrate - and then you fall back into all your old eating habits and soon you're searching your closet for the larger-sized clothes you thought you'd never have to wear again.

So, after all this pondering, what am I doing this Lent? I did give up unhealthy salty snacks like pretzels, potato chips, etc., in an effort to at least break the habit of putting them into the shopping cart and reaching for a handful or two most nights. Likewise cookies, though on my office bookshelf there's an unopened box of Girl Scout cookies I bought from a coworker's daughter, which I suspect won't last long on the Monday after Easter. It does take effort to do this, but I can't deny that they're really dietarily-motivated "sacrifices" more than anything else; I'm using Lent as a willpower supplement to stop scarfing down fatty calories that go straight to my midriff.

On the other hand, I also gave up meat this year, sticking to vegetarian and fish/seafood meals the way my grandparents and great-grandparents would have done in pre-Vatican II days. For me that mainly entails giving up chicken and turkey, which are not only fairly healthful but are also a big part of my regular diet - it's a Lenten decision that narrows my eating options, especially in restaurants, and it does force me to be mindful without yielding the obvious dietary benefits of giving up potato chips and Oreos. Who knows? Perhaps some spiritual benefits will turn up instead.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Food for the Eye: Zurbarán's Still Life With Lemons, Oranges and a Rose

While I was visiting New York last week, for the first time in several years I spent a morning at the Frick, which might be my idea of the perfect art museum. Virtually all the paintings there are worth spending at least a few minutes with and the collection is just the right size for my attention span; as much as I love the Metropolitan Museum and the Prado and the Louvre, they have so many artworks that after a few hours, diminishing returns set in and I find myself looking at paintings and sculptures without seeing them.

One reason I decided to revisit the Frick was a visiting exhibition from the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena which included Zurbarán's Still Life With Lemons, Oranges and a Rose. I love this painting, but I'd never seen it before in person, only in reproductions. Why is it that seeing an original painting in person feels like such a unique experience? We don't insist on reading Don Quijote only in the first edition, much less Cervantes's original manuscript, but studying even a perfect copy of a painting somehow falls short of the authentic experience.

I think one reason I love this painting is that it was the first still life I studied which didn't have dead pheasants or peacocks or rabbits stretched out on a table or hanging from hooks! Not that I'm vegetarian or even anti-hunting (as long as you eat what you hunt), but the dead game in a still life painting is usually the most explicit symbol of the artwork as a "memento mori", a reminder of the inevitability of death. Zurbarán's painting (at least as I see it) doesn't aim at reminding viewers of the fact that their bodies will die and decay, but rather at illuminating what's transcendental and sublime in the ordinary.

And while iridescent peacock feathers allow other artists to show off their flashiest techniques, I see a very different art in the way Zurbarán gives these superficially simple-looking fruits a subdued glow in the light streaming in from the left and in the way he gives the peels of the lemons (or citrons) and the oranges those vivid textures your fingertips can almost feel when you look at them. I think it's most likely harder to paint a great orange than it is to paint a great peacock!

Also, it's fascinating to see Zurbarán turn from his overtly religious subjects, especially all those paintings of martyrs and of the Virgin Mary, to a still life. Many experts consider this another kind of religious painting and attribute symbolism to the various objects, seeing them as offerings on an altar - in this interpretation, the lemons, oranges, orange blossoms, rose, and water all represent aspects of the Virgin's purity, piety, and motherhood, offered up to God. If that's indeed what Zurbarán meant to do, then surely endowing ordinary objects with that kind of allegorical aura is even more impressive than painting dramatic scenes of the Virgin's Assumption or the Immaculate Conception. And if it's not what he meant to do (and who knows for sure?!), then giving fruits and flowers their own innate radiance is just as marvelous.

Of course, eating lemons and oranges is much more healthful and lower-calorie than wolfing down plates full of pheasant and rabbit with all the trimmings, too! So perhaps Zurbarán also painted a still life for dieters without even knowing it ...

Saturday, March 14, 2009


I'm in NYC now for my usual spring break opera and theater blitz. Last night after Il Trovatore at the Met, I was near the cash register at my favorite 24-hour grocery-salad bar place, scooping salad into a plastic container, when a very handsome 20-something guy came in to buy cigarettes. Obviously he was a regular customer, and part of the conversation he had with the sales clerk went like this:

GUY: Have you seen that friend of mine lately? You know the one I mean, right? The girl I keep talking to in here?
CLERK: Right, she came in this afternoon, around 1:00 or 2:00.
GUY: Well, if she comes in tomorrow, can you do me a favor? Tell her I'm going to call her, but I lost my cell phone. Can you do that for me?
CLERK: Sure. She's a pretty girl, isn't she?
GUY: Yeah, real pretty. (pause) You seen my girlfriend, though? She's even prettier.

I had to work so hard not to burst out laughing.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

The First Month: Moving in the Right Direction

Following Richard Watson's advice in his thoroughly excellent book The Philosopher's Diet, I usually do "official" weigh-ins on the 10th, 20th, and last day of the month (except on January 1st every year, and the day I began this blog!). Today's results mark the end of my first month as a weight loss blogger, and the number was encouraging: after my initial misstep during the first third of February, I've dropped a few pounds and I've managed to slide past the 280-pound mark again. This also happened without much exercise, since I need to replace a second roller wheel on my home elliptical and it hasn't arrived yet, and that's a good sign - often I can't lose any weight at all without working out, no matter how careful I am about calories and fat grams.

On the other hand, when I look at the weight log going back several years that I have taped to my refrigerator door, 278 is still a dispiriting number: it's only 20 pounds more than I weighed on Feb. 28th last year in 2008, which isn't awful, but it's 80 pounds more than I weighed two years ago in 2007, when I'd just recently broken through the big 200-pound barrier for the first time in years. It's not a happy thought remembering how much work went into that weight loss and knowing I gained it all back. On the other hand, I did learn a lot about dieting and exercise during that period, so in at least one sense I'm not really back where I started, no better off than before. If only I can put that knowledge to good use!

Tonight's dinner is going to feature the Barefoot Contessa's roasted broccoli recipe, courtesy of Adam Roberts at The Amateur Gourmet by way of Shauna Reid, aka Dietgirl. If it's as good as both Adam and Shauna (and their significant others) swear, a review will follow!

POSTSCRIPT: The roasted broccoli was excellent! I cut back on the olive oil, I left off the pine nuts, and I served it up with brown rice and a big salad. This is definitely a "keeper" recipe. If you want to check it out, the Amateur Gourmet link one paragraph up will take you to straight to it.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Hansel & Gretel: Opera about Food!

Last night I took in a very enjoyable English-language performance of the opera Hansel and Gretel (originally Hansel und Gretel). The young singers were very promising, and the production (sets designed by Maurice Sendak, most famous for the classic Where the Wild Things Are) was totally charming. While I was watching and listening, though, it did occur to me that this is the ultimate Cautionary Opera for Problem Eaters!

Hansel & Gretel is unusual to start with: unlike most operas, it's not about unrequited tragic love or requited "Happily Ever After" love. Instead, it's about eating - which should put it high on every dieter's list. The plot is a version of the folk tale most people heard when they were children, courtesy of the Brothers Grimm and their gentler-minded successors: Hansel and Gretel are a brother and sister whose father's broommaking business isn't putting three meals a day on the table, and one day their mother sends them into the forest to pick berries for dinner because they accidentally break the jug of milk which was the only food in the house. After they can't resist eating the entire basketful of berries they pick, they're too frightened to face their mother at home and they get lost in the forest. Hansel and Gretel come upon a house made entirely of gingerbread and candy, which they immediately start devouring until they're captured by the Witch who lives there. She plans to fatten them up and bake them into gingerbread cookies, but they outsmart her and push her headfirst into her own oven.

Let's face it, this opera is not food-friendly! That gingerbread house might look charming in pictures, but it's the Witch's bait for trapping kids with a sweet tooth. And when Hansel and Gretel start breaking off pieces of the shutters and wolfing them down, they nearly end up getting baked alive in an enormous oven. And then if you add in how the milk pitcher gets broken because they take it out of the cupboard to skim off the cream, plus how they plan to eat just a berry or two but then lose control and eat the whole basket - well, Hansel and Gretel is one big long warning about what happens if you can't say no to foods you're not supposed to eat! Giving in to temptation might seem harmless when it's only a handful of strawberries or a piece of gingerbread, but the next thing you know, you're headed straight for the inside of a roaring oven. And why does the Witch get baked herself? Because she was so greedy for sweets that she made gingerbread out of children! Think about that next time you feel the bakery or the candy aisle calling ...

Speaking of opera, by the way, if you like smart weight loss blogs and you're not yet reading mezzo-soprano Cindy Sadler's The Next Hundred Pounds, you should check it out.

On a side note, Hansel and Gretel inspired one of my favorite lines from Sex and the City (what? you expect college professors to only quote Shakespeare?!), in the episode when the four heroines go to a married friend's baby shower in the suburbs. They find themselves surrounded by pregnant women and hyperactive small children, and after Miranda gets hit in the head by a flying nerf ball, she says:
I just realized... maybe it's maturity or the wisdom that comes with age, but the Witch in Hansel and Gretel -- she's very misunderstood. I mean, the woman builds her dream house and these brats come along and start eating it.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Weight Loss Lit: Would You Like Estrogen or Testosterone with That?

As I've already noted in this blog, I'm a compulsive reader. Anything I'm thinking about or doing or thinking about doing, I borrow and buy books about. (This is why entire rooms of my house could be mistaken for a used bookstore!)

So, as you all can probably guess (provided there even is a "you all" out there reading this!), I have at least a few shelves full of books on shedding excess poundage, including lots of weight loss memoirs - the best ones make great inspirational reading, and even the not-so-good ones at least distract me from rooting through the kitchen and wolfing down calories instead.

I have to say, though, that there's a definite gender gap when it comes to weight loss books. Most of them tend to be written not only by, but also implicitly or explicitly for, women - which is totally understandable given the body image issues our culture saddles women with. Nevertheless, not being a woman myself, these authors can't quite lead me to identify with the Bridget Jones triumphs of finally fitting into slinky, seductive dresses, for instance, or catching the eye of a passing Prince Charming! I tend to find the triumphant last 50 pages of these books less personally compelling than the earlier sections, when the author builds up the resolve to diet and then sticks with it through the various setbacks all we problem eaters face. Those are the parts I keep in mind when I need a little extra motivation to get on the elliptical or not to order dessert!

On the other hand, the number of weight loss books written by and for men is a lot smaller, and many of those fall into what you might call the "Frito-Chomping Couch Potato Discovers His Inner Jock" category: how a guy whose main exercise used to consist of wheezing his way to the kitchen and back to the sofa during ESPN commercial breaks manages to haul himself to the gym and throw out his stash of fried pork rinds. Even though that was never my particular lifestyle, I can relate to starting an exercise program and cleaning out those kitchen cupboards. But by the time the last 50 pages roll around, he's benchpressing his own weight (current or former), playing full-contact pick-up basketball with the guys he used to envy at the gym, and shaving his now-flat stomach to show off his newly acquired six-pack abs at the beach. But me? I'd like to be less fat and more fit, sure, but I don't even have an inner jock - if I do, neither my father or an endless series of phys ed teachers and coaches ever managed to find him, and believe me, they looked. I couldn't care less about someday bonding sweatily with "the guys", so I tend to flip through the endings of these books, too, after being caught up in the authors' victories of mind over matter earlier on.

My conclusion? Male and female authors' descriptions of their weight and food problems are more similar than different at the beginning and in the middle of weight loss stories - being overweight makes both men and women feel like outsiders, and that sense of exclusion transcends gender. And the internal psychological battles to reclaim the control you either lost or never had over your own body and your own life are very universal experiences as well, whether you're male or female. The bigger differences set in after people become thin and fit enough that they stop always experiencing themselves as outsiders: at that point you're no longer socially categorized - and dismissed - as a "fat person". That's when every author's individual inner ideal of the man or the woman they want to be becomes their new goal; they've travelled from primarily wanting not to be something - fat! - to wanting to be something, and that something is often a sexy siren or a ripped fitness model look-alike.

But what's a heavy-set, geeky intellectual who just wants to be a medium-weight, geeky intellectual supposed to do?! There's only one answer: keep reading!

Friday, February 13, 2009

Peter Mayle, Food Porn, & Expatriate Lit

Okay, clearly this current weight-loss effort is off to a rockier start than some previous attempts: I actually gained a few pounds between Feb. 1 and Feb. 10, though I'd like to imagine that the one scale reading represented a "light day" and one represented a "heavy day", so maybe neither of them is totally typical. And I seem to have suddenly skipped a few days on the elliptical machine, a hiatus I'd like to blame on a broken part Spirit needs to replace - but since I can still use the machine in the meantime, that excuse really won't fly. I need to get back to the basics: fewer calories, few fat grams, more exercise. It's funny how knowing and doing just aren't the same thing - which makes me question whether putting nutritional information on menus will really put much of a dent in most people's eating what they're hungry for!

Maybe I can blame the weight gain on Peter Mayle? Lately I've been re-reading all his memoirs of living in Provence. As anyone who's read A Year in Provence or any of the sequels will confirm, Mayle's descriptions of his memorable meals are so mouth-watering that you half-suspect even reading them might be caloric: the parades of goat cheeses, tapenades, saucissons, baguettes, truffle omelets, asparagus, melons, rabbit civets, olives and olive oils, and of course wines are highlights of the books for anyone who loves food. These passages are Mayle's most evocative writing; the books are Food Porn at its most sensual, and Mayle is a star in the Food Porn Galaxy. I like to imagine, living as I do surrounded by books both at home and at work, that reading about food is a good distraction from eating it - but does salivating over Mayle's accounts of endless time-stopping culinary masterpieces in out-of-the-way, unpretentious Provence restaurants make me eat more once I finish his books and put them back on the shelves? Someone should research this!

Speaking of Mayle, there's something else his books always make me marvel at: how Anglo-American readers seemingly never tire of expatriate memoirs like Mayle's or Frances Mayes's (who's usually right next to him on the bookstore shelf, which is convenient for food porn addicts in a hurry), in which an American or Englishman impulsively buys a decrepit house in Provence or Tuscany or some other picturesque Mediterranean locale. They have to struggle with the language, they learn to bond with the nearby goodhearted countryfolk whose mystical connection with the land they envy, they try to make their houses habitable despite the best efforts of amusingly devious local workmen to take their money without ever finishing the job, and they eat meal after meal of amazing local cuisine.

Judging from the travel section in most bookstores, readers will buy and devour endless variations on this relatively basic theme. (This probably connects to the amazing success of the Mamma Mia! film in the US and the UK, too.) I can't help wondering, though, if French and Italian bookstores have shelves full of expat memoirs by Parisians and Florentines, recounting how they moved to rural Mississippi, bought tumbledown houses, learned English from their incomprehensible new neighbors, and consumed plate after plate of barbecue and fried okra!

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Culture Shock at the Gym: Why I Own a Home Elliptical Machine

Elliptical Mileage: 7.1 miles
MP3 Player: Nine (Original Broadway Cast)

I'm getting a streak going on the elliptical machine: today was my tenth consecutive day without finding an excuse to stay in bed instead of waking up early enough to put in my miles and still get to my first classs on time. Since I've never liked exercise, this is a noteworthy achievement! Now I have some motivation to keep the streak going, because who wants to start back at the beginning, right?

Is anyone wondering why I shelled out roughly $1200 to have a good-quality Spirit elliptical machine at home, instead of going to the gym like most people? I'll tell you: because international travel and adapting to foreign cultures aren't nearly enough preparation for surviving in a gym where senior citizens make the rules!

In the university town where I live, the best-equipped gyms are the campus facilities, no question. Also, I checked out the other gyms, and most of the clientele there were the grown-up versions of the guys who made me try to fake leprosy and bubonic plague to avoid phys ed all through middle and high school. But even though it was easy to rule those places out, using the main campus gym is not my idea of a good time, either: it's always crowded, finding a free elliptical or treadmill is almost impossible, and working out with my students - all of them half my age and most of them naturally athletic - is just too depressing to face first thing in the morning at my time of life.

So I turned instead to the small, no-students-allowed gym reserved for faculty and staff in what's annoyingly called the "Campus Wellness Center." (Is "wellness" even a real word?! I don't think so.) That seemed like a better fit, especially the absence of 20-year olds with 28-inch waists. Little did I know, though, that most of the faculty and staff preferred the main gym (maybe they like the eye candy factor of all that buff youth gleaming with sweat), and that during the before-work hours, the Wellness Center gym was Senior Citizen Territory.

When I joined on the first morning and saw that I was going to be the only person there under retirement age, I didn't think anything of it - better sharing the equipment with senior citizens than with college kids, right? Ha! At least I was once in college myself, so I know some of the tribal customs. But, still being a fair distance away from my first AARP card, the rites and rituals of senior citizens together remain undiscovered country for me.

The first thing I noticed was that without an "in", even getting a machine was hard: if I used the sign-up sheet to reserve the next open elliptical or treadmill, when the current occupant finished she'd invariably say: "I'm so sorry, dear, but I already promised Martha she could use this one next .... No one in here pays attention to those sign-up sheets." And when an elliptical did open up for me, there was this one senior who liked wandering among the machines to chat with his friends who were using them - and he always ended up standing directly in front of me, actually draping his towel over the frame of my machine and LEANING on it, chattering away, while I was using it! (Let's not even talk about having every single television tuned to Fox Morning News at full volume, a regional tribal custom which constituted cruel and unusual punishment.)

I hung on as long as I could, but eventually I realized the culture shock was too much for me: one January day I grabbed the only empty elliptical machine, which was between two treadmills being used by two elderly ladies. No sooner had I gotten started than they started having a conversation right around/through me - a very loud conversation with lots of repetition, since neither of them could hear the other too well over the sound of the machines and the Fox News denouncers. The topic of the conversation: one woman's daughter's hysterectomy and the post-surgical complications - in great (and often repeated detail). Try to picture this:

SENIOR #1: And the day after the operation, she started to hemorrhage!
SENIOR #2: What?
SENIOR #1: I said, the day after the operation, SHE STARTED TO HEMORRHAGE!

The conversation went on from there .... and after about 10 minutes, midway through a discussion of surgical sponges accidently left in various friends' and relatives' abdomens, I knew that these would never be my people.

And so, that afternoon after my last class I went straight to the local sporting goods store, where the salesman told me he'd sell me an elliptical on credit, at 0% interest for the first 12 months. They delivered it the next day.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

... and things that go bump in the night!

Elliptical Mileage: 7.1 miles
MP3 Player: Nine (Original Broadway Cast)

Late nights can be a scary time for problem eaters (like yours truly!).

Human beings have always been afraid of nighttime, often for good reason. That's when carnivorous predators could make their move, or enemy forces could launch a surprise attack. Night is when the undead and similar monsters come into their own, as in the famous prayer often attributed to Robert Burns:
From ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggity beasties
And things that go bump in the night
Good Lord, deliver us!
St. John of the Cross spoke of the "long dark night of the soul", and contemplative religious communities offer prayers at night, knowing that this is when so many sins are committed in the world. In Exodus, it is at midnight when God smites the first-born in all Egyptian households but passes over the Jewish doorways marked with lamb's blood.

Nighttime, in short, is when humans frequently feel at their most vulnerable - and many problem eaters share that sensation. For me, at least, it's late evening when the temptation to undo all the progress I've made over the course of an entire day can become overwhelming. I'm one of those dieters who can eat a sensible breakfast, a sensible lunch, and a sensible dinner, not starving myself but not going overboard, either; usually I can even ignore the siren song of the vending machine during the day at work, though I won't deny that I do sometimes hear it calling me. But even after a satisfying dinner, by 10:00 pm or so the urge to poke around the refrigerator gets stronger, and it's then, in the dark of the night, when I'm most likely to give in. These "mini-binges" aren't decadent - non-fat yogurt, low-fat cottage cheese, air-popped popcorn, whole-grain bread, healthy cereal with skim milk, etc., but I can sometimes rack up hundreds of calories from foods like that in those last hours before I fall asleep, and I can never understand why my willpower suddenly fades at that time of night.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Re-Reading John Updike, Lean American Writer

Elliptical Mileage: 6.1 miles
MP3 Player: Telly Leung, Getaway

I've started re-reading John Updike's novels since learning about his passing last week - and I've noticed for the first time how often this famously lean American writer refers to how much weight his characters carry.

I first discovered Updike when I read The Witches of Eastwick in college, and he immediately had me hooked. I bought all the earlier novels and story collections, and after that I always paid him the ultimate compliment: I bought every new novel right away in hardcover instead of waiting for the paperback a year later - and this was in the Dark Ages before hefty discounts, boys and girls!

Few writers have ever been as observant as Updike was, or as articulate in bringing his observations to life; every novel has entire pages where the language is so evocative that it takes your breath away (try In the Beauty of the Lilies). And he brought a notable work ethic to his craft, producing 60 books, at least one every year, usually alternating novels and collections of essays, poetry, or short stories. If I'd done my Ph.D in English instead of in Spanish, Updike would have been one of my top choices to write my dissertation on, except the sheer size of his output might have intimidated me.

Updike, it should be noted, was a thin writer. So many tributes published in the last week describe him as a "slender, slightly stooped man" or speak of his "tall, thin frame." He seems to have been a lean man who wrote lean prose and verse. Is there any connection? Possibly, although not conclusively. It does seem plausible that a man who spends half a century precisely crafting paragraphs and chapters which sometimes achieve near-perfection might also bring that same restraint and control with him to the dinner table. Likewise, publishing 60 books over the course of a literary career suggests a level of self-discipline which could keep unwanted extra pounds at bay, even when practicing such a sedentary profession as writing.

I'm also quite sure John Updike didn't take his - or anyone else's - thinness for granted; I'm reminded of the narrator's description of his wife in Roger's Version:

Esther keeps her figure trim by a very simple procedure: she weighs herself on the scale every morning, and if she weighs more than a hundred pounds she eats only carrots and celery and water until the scales are brought into line with ideality.

This portrait of mathematical self-discipline, of Esther Lambert demanding that her body conform to her mental image of it, is pure Updike: one of his novels' great themes, good New England Protestant that he was, is the struggle for control between the spirit and the flesh in one set of characters after another. This may explain why he so frequently pays attention to his characters' body types, and never simplistically, either: fleshiness can signify ripe sensuality in one individual but petulant self-indulgence in another. Being thin can connote taut athleticism or obsessive self-denial.

I never suspected that concentrating on my own body shape would make me a better reader! But nowadays, when I read how the ex-high school basketball star Rabbit Angstrom's body changes and ages throughout the four-novel cycle that might be Updike's masterpiece, or notice the very different bodies of the pleasureless adulterers in Couples or of the three Witches (and then Widows) of Eastwick, I can't help but pay attention.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

A New Adventure: My First-Ever Blog Post!

Elliptical Mileage: 6.0 miles
MP3 Player: Michael Nyman, MGV (Musique à Grande Vitesse)

This first-ever blog post is definitely new territory for me, but on the other hand, it does seem familiar in a way: it feels like what I've been doing on the first day of classes every semester since I started teaching. Obviously, I need to introduce myself, but I also need to do something more, to make some kind of initial connection instead of letting students tune out on the very first day. That's not so different from what I'm trying to do here ...

So the first question is, why am I making time today - and hopefully, a fair number of days to come - to post here on this blog? Lots of reasons, I suppose. For one thing, the bigger the blogosphere gets, the more really fascinating blogs I stumble across and the more I see how unlimited the possibilities are for this very unique and still-evolving medium. For another, I've read enough weight loss blogs by now to know that the good ones aren't only endless lists of pounds lost or gained and anecdotes about fat-laden foods pushed away or wolfed down - they're full of honest insights and smart observations that expand the boundaries of what it means to talk about "losing weight", and I can't resist the challenge of trying to do that myself. And, finally, like a lot of other weight loss bloggers, I hope that putting my words as well as my successes and failures out here for anyone with an internet connection to read and to comment on will offer me a fresh kind of motivation the next time temptation comes knocking at the door!

And why am I determined this time to lose the weight and keep it off? Mostly because that wasn't how it worked out the last time around. By May 2005 I'd let myself balloon up to about 285 lbs., which is way too much on a sedentary guy who needs to stand up very very straight and stretch a little besides to touch the 5'8" mark. (It helped a little to have an extremely endomorphic body shape that's always let me pass for a lower weight, but still - it was too much.) Over the next two years I cut lots of junk food out of my diet, counted calories and fat grams, took up running again, and I managed to lose 90 lbs., actually hitting 195 - and looking down at the scale to see a number starting with 1 instead of 2 was a great feeling. But then in June 2007 I overdid the running and gave myself a slow-healing injury, and then before I knew it, my weight loss was reversing as if I were being yanked backwards in a bungee cord harness. It took me about a year to gain back the 90 lbs. it had taken me twice that long to lose in the first place. I've recently gotten back to saying "no" again when waitresses offer the dessert tray and I've climbed back onto the home elliptical machine I was starting to use as a very pricey coat rack, so that's allowed me to bring myself back down to at least a little below my peak weight, so I don't feel as if I were starting 100% from scratch. But I know from experience that those early pounds are also the easiest pounds to lose, so there's hard work ahead. Encouragement and suggestions are always welcome!

If you've read this far, thank you - and please stop by again soon.