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.