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.