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.