Friday, May 18, 2018

Making It Taste Better


On Facebook, I said offhandedly, in re my morning broccoli, "I don't try to like it." A couple of people chimed in with helpful suggestions on how to make it taste better, which all sounded good (and all involved increasing its calorie density.) In my present frame of mind I found this odd, and telling. We go so automatically to "how do I make this taste better?" 

But I don't want my food to taste better. It already tastes so good I'm strongly tempted to eat more than is good for me. Why on earth would I want it to taste better? It's basically impossible for me to enjoy my food more than I do now. My levels of enjoyment tune to what's available and expected. Right now, my oatmeal is especially enjoyable because I like it more than my broccoli, and my boiled eggs are more enjoyable still because I like them more than my oatmeal. If I raised the baseline on the brocs, I could make the oatmeal tastier by adding, say, brown sugar and cream, and then make the eggs tastier by scrambling them in butter and adding various tasty things. I would end up enjoying the breakfast -- well, exactly as much as I do now, after the novelty wore off (which would take... two days? Three?) And I would start to get fat again. The enjoyment is a zero sum game, but the caloric accumulation is decidedly not.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The Year of Dieting: a Historical Retrospect

A year and four days ago, rather mysteriously, I began the "Tom's and Burgerville diet." I say mysteriously, because I had grown extremely skeptical of diets, and had more or less decided to be through with them. I don't know what motivated me to make one last try. The process is meticulously reported in a document titled "Yet Another Diet Plan," but it begins, like any good epic, in medias res:

The “diet” part actually happens later. What happens now:
  1. Make the chicken soup 
  2. Measure waist and weigh myself every morning. We’re establishing baseline 
  3. Prep salad and brocs every morning (OR the evening before, if the morning will be challenging (i.e. Monday, Thursday) 
  4. Breakfast is the full Spanish omelet with toast, hashbrowns, sour cream, 5 creams in the coffee. The full catastrophe. 
  5. Lunch is the brocs and the soup and an apple and a cutie orange 
  6. Dinner is the Tillamook w/ half a small vanilla shake, and the (already prepped, right?) salad. 

We’ll do this for two weeks. It is, of course, remotely possible that this IS a diet, that I’ll be running a calorie deficit. In that case we just continue. Otherwise -- we just start cutting the splurgey things, one by one, till we do achieve calorie deficit.


No mention of why. No mention of goals. As I remember it (an introductory phrase that should induce extreme caution) I fully meant it to be the last attempt, which maybe lent it some extra heft. When I failed this time, I would have failed for good. Enough already. I'd thrown enough of my life at this problem. And apparently I had the basic method down, which was to eat the same thing every day, to weigh and measure daily, take a weekly average, and to cut something out of the daily regimen if this week's average weight was not a pound lower than last week's.

The first item was to make the soup, which was to be mainstay, and still is. Every four or five days I make a four-quart slow cooker full of soup. I've only been late once or twice, in which case I substituted a can of tuna for the bowl of soup. This is the most I have ever cooked, consistently, in my life.

I did, and still do, weigh and measure myself every morning.

At item 3 we hit what I did NOT succeed in doing. I failed to make myself the daily salad and broccoli almost at once. Many months into the diet, I was still only eating either one a couple times per week. This is an important thing to notice. Eating less turned out to be far easier than eating differently. Even now, when I finally have made the broccoli part of my daily routine -- I prepare a bowl of it every evening, and microwave it, covered, in the morning, as the first part of my breakfast -- even now, the salads are hit or miss. Four or five times a week.

For nine months I kept going to Tom's for breakfast, although I had to abandon parts of the breakfast to keep the pound-per-week loss going. Whenever the weight loss started to stall out, every six weeks or so, I jettisoned another component: first half of the hash browns, then one slice of toast, then the other half of the hash browns, and the other slice of toast, finally two of the five creamers. The Spanish omelet with sour cream stayed my breakfast, though, for nine months, through three quarters of the weight loss.

Lunch stayed the soup and the two pieces of fruit, for this time, too. (The broccoli was, as I say, haphazard at best: I soon viewed it as optional.)

Dinner was the Tillamook cheeseburger from Burgerville, and half of a small milkshake (Martha and I split one.) This held steady for the same first nine months. The salad happened only occasionally.

In mid-January I hit my initial goal of 180 pounds. Right around then I suddenly changed a lot -- largely because I was tired of spending so much money on restaurant food that I was not actually very thrilled about any more. (After nine months, even Burgerville loses some of its luster.) I began eating at home. I tried to swap out for equivalent calories on the meals. This was hard to do. I don't think most people grasp the extreme difficulty of accurately measuring calories in the real world. There was some trial and error.

My first cut at the home regimen looked like this:

Breakfast: 1/3 cup steel-cut oats w/ 2 tbsps chopped nuts, bowl of broccoli, one egg, black coffee
Lunch: bowl of soup, apple, orange
Dinner: hamburger patty (1/3 lb), a microwaved potato, a cup of ice cream

On this, I started losing too quickly. I added a second egg to my breakfast almost at once. A month later I added an afternoon snack of 20 almonds and a banana. Now I really was eating the broccoli daily, and the salad more often. It was starting to look more like the diet of sane person.

When I wasn't losing a pound a week any more, I cut the hamburger to a quarter pound, and finally I cut the ice cream to half a cup. Somewhere in this time I started buying my potatoes in ten pound bags, and eating two or three of them with my dinner. (They're about half the size of the big potatoes you buy individually.)

The apple migrated to breakfast, because I found myself really wanting something sweet with my second cup of coffee. The orange migrated to become a bedtime snack. The salad became more frequent: I generally eat it (just a pile of romaine with some carrot and radish) when I'm hungry but it's not lunchtime or dinnertime yet.

I approached the endgame with extreme caution: I knew it was where I was most likely to screw up. The goal I really wanted to reach was having a waist measurement that was 90% of my hip measurement. I still haven't reached that, and I don't know if I will. I had other criteria for stopping the weight loss, though: I decided that 150 lbs would be just too small, and that if my strength started going down (as measured by reps lifting weights) it would mean I was losing muscle mass, and I should stop. So any one of those three conditions was to trip the halt! wire. Sure enough, when my weight went under 160, my strength started dwindling. It was time to stop. I added another egg to breakfast, a few more almonds to my afternoon snack, and a third (or fourth) potato to my dinner. The weight loss part of this is done.

This is what the regimen looks like now:

Breakfast: oats with chopped nuts, broccoli, three eggs, coffee, apple
Lunch: (salad?), soup
Snack: banana and 1/4 cup almonds
Dinner: (salad?), 1/4 lb hamburger patty and 3 or 4 potatoes, 1/2 cup ice cream
Snack: orange

All this stuff is plain: I don't use any condiments but salt and Worcestershire sauce.

I don't presently plan to change anything. Still hoping to lose a couple more inches around the waist, but by stepping up my exercise rather than by cutting back on food. 160 lbs seems to be about where my body likes to be. And if the last couple inches don't go, then they don't.

I had a 50 inch waist a year ago. It's 36 inches now. I'm pretty psyched, and I'm pretty confident that I've hit a solution I can live with indefinitely.

It's been a long haul.

Wednesday, May 09, 2018


After a while doing fitness training you start to recognize The Next Thing You Need To Do. 

And it's pretty much never the cool stuff, which you took to right away. It's the stuff you're bad at, the stuff that makes you nervous.

I don't work out in a gym, but if I did, it would be the stuff I'd be embarrassed to do there because, if I could do it at all, it would be with a ludicrously low load. And people would be hiding smiles behind their hands. ("Oh my God, that old man deadlifting twenty pounds! Isn't he adorable?")

I knew from the moment I tried them that I hated and would always hate lunges.

Now, a lunge is not an obscure movement pattern. You take a step and sink down until the knee you've left behind touches the floor, and then you come up again. That's pretty basic. There must have been a time, in my remote youth, when this was an ordinary and nonthreatening thing to do. But I grimace when I even think of it, now.

I don't have a lot of groin flexibility, for one thing. Just the stride makes me anxious -- I'm opening up too far, I worry about pulling an adductor. And then -- since it's a movement I avoid -- I don't have the balancing instincts. There's a real risk that I'll simply fall over sideways. 

In other words, it's exactly the thing I need to work on. Okay. So they go into my routine, as one of the Big Six. Lunges, holding dumbbells. Work up those quads. Develop the balance muscles and the motor skills. We do this thing.

But a new worry came along. I added them to the end of an already tiring sequence (my "lift" day). When I finished the simple set of lunges -- eight lunges on each side, twice over -- I felt lightheaded, like I might just keel over. Syncope. Not good. Was I over-stressing my heart? Was this fitness thing just a brief Indian summer before my inevitable cardiac collapse? Was I rushing to my doom? I stopped the progressive load, but I kept them in the routine. I didn't want to give up but I didn't want to kill myself. 

I was intimidated enough by the exercise that I wasn't really thinking clearly. I was working hard when I did the lunges, but certainly not harder than when I did, say, squats. Why would these be harder on my heart than anything else? That just doesn't make sense.

Well, the penny dropped this morning. It was totally silly and obvious. I was focusing my attention on my balance, really paying attention to what I was doing, doing the movement mindfully... and holding my breath. If you do this sort of exercise, even lightly loaded, and you don't breathe, you run out of oxygen. It was neither mysterious nor sinister. 

So now, I breathe. Which actually helps the focus, rather than impeding it. And I did another set, unloaded, just for the hell of it, which was totally easy, and I didn't keel over, and I'm not too old to lift, and the dogwood tree is really, really beautiful this morning.

Friday, May 04, 2018

What I'm Doing

Peder Severin Krøyer, At the Victualler's When There Is No Fishing, 1882

I guess it's not entirely true that I don't know what I'm doing. When I come to a turning point, I tend to say "I don't know what I'm doing and I've never known what I'm doing!" but actually that's not true. It's been a giddy ride, with lots of swoops and steep banks and sudden plunges, but since I began this blog in 2003 (!) I actually have completed a number of projects important to me. In fact I've pretty much fixed my life. That counts as doing something, even if it's a very local and private something.

1) I established my fellow-traveler status with Buddhism. I did a lot of meditation and a lot of reading and a lot of contemplation, in the early oughts. This was work that absolutely had to happen. I got to watch my mind running itself off the rails again and again. I got to think through what I agreed with in Buddhism (no-self? Yes) and what I disagreed with (reincarnation? No) and what I was going to lay by (enlightenment? Maybe.) I saw my afflictions clearly, for the first time, as afflictions.

2) I quit the work that was intolerably stressing and unsatisfying -- doing software development at IBM -- and found work that was instead supportive and satisfying. I love working at the Library Foundation, and I love doing massage. This is work that gives me the affirmation and support that I crave (v. supra, afflictions) and yet gives me to time to address other things.

3) I make less than half the money I used to make, but my financial house is in better order. By the only marker that it actually makes any sense to steer by: I used to spend more than I made; now I save about 15% of it. I have my expenses under control and I can see my way to a comfortably funded retirement and final illness.

4) I played seriously with writing poetry, and published a book of it, and established to my own satisfaction that a) I could have made myself a minor poet of some local standing, had I wished, but that b) I did not have the kind of talent that obliges a person to give their life to its cultivation. 

5) And most recently, I lost the weight that has distressed me all my adult life, dropping from 222 to 160 lbs in the course of a year. I don't get to claim that victory until the year 2022, when I've kept it off for five years, but I'm pretty confident that I'll do it. I'm walking a couple miles a day, and working out three times a week. My blood pressure has dropped from perilously high to comfortably normal.

So that is all pretty wonderful and it's ridiculous to summarize it as "not knowing what I'm doing." I've known exactly what I was doing. I've accomplished what I meant to accomplish.

I don't have to say, "What the hell am I doing with my life?" I can say, "What do I want to undertake next?" And it's all right if it's some weeks before I know that answer to that.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Monsters in the Sea and Angels in Heaven

I finished The Sea, The Sea. I'm now about halfway through Conradi's biography of Iris Murdoch, plodding through a particularly shapeless part, detailing a love life that is various and interesting but somehow, in Conradi's hands, never quite comes into focus. I'll learn more I suspect by reading more novels. (I like Conradi, by the way, but I think he might not be ruthless enough to be a really good biographer.)

Everything that comes from fifties and sixties feels icky and ungainly to me: our species lost some crucial sense of proportion, some instinct for beauty, during that time. We never recovered it, I guess, but the absence hurts most in those early years, when it comes along with some sense of what we had lost. Murdoch comes from those decades, essentially: that's where she came of age. But she stayed slant to it, which is as much as anyone can ask.

(It's the intellectual world that I inherited, twenty years later, as an undergraduate in the backwater of Washington State: it was Sartre who proved your virility back then. Remember? I owned a fat paperback copy of Being and Nothingness. I probably even read it: I read everything, back then. How lost that world is now!)


Anyway. Murdoch. One way to take The Sea, The Sea is as a mordant joke: the narrator in fact does precisely what one is supposed to do -- fall in love once and for all, with a passion that never wavers -- and the result is somewhat grotesque, forty years down the road, when all the tokens of status and influence have shifted. The narrator is quixotic, or maybe just demented: it's hard to say. One way to read the novel is as a sort of romantic dystopia: okay, so this is what perfect love is supposed to be? Let's play it out, then.


In each of the three novels I've read now -- The Bell, An Accidental Man, and The Sea, The Sea -- there is at least one supernatural event that remains unexplained: something that pleases me, even in my current violently anti-superstitious mood. It is necessary to be reminded, repeatedly, that we do not understand how this thing -- human life -- works. That we are almost certainly horribly deceived, and that under the influence of that deception we are probably committing crimes and cruelties that we do not comprehend. 

It is reassuring to read someone from my own withered time who has the conviction that the intimations, as Wordsworth would call them, have to be attended to. There are monsters in the sea, and angels in heaven. The fact that we must be mistaken about them does not mean we can ignore them.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Taking My Own Advice

Well, I am taking my own advice unusually well, these days.

I began surfing about, looking for tables and lamps and used restaurant booth-benches on the internets, without finding much that captivated me, and then I heard my own solemn sententious voice, in a recent sermon, saying build one to throw away.

It's a software saying. "Rapid prototyping" is the dignified term. You don't really know what you're making till you've built it, so don't get ahead of yourself with planning and designing. Build a crappy one first, and then you'll know what building one is like. You'll know what the hard parts are, and which parts you don't need to worry about, and above all, once you have a clunky prototype and use it a few times you'll have some idea as to whether it even addresses the problem you're trying to solve. Remarkably often, projects turn out not to do that. They're intelligent, compelling solutions to problems that no one actually has. And there is the short history of a hundred failed dot-coms.

So I stopped looking for lamps, tables, chairs, and I just built a crappy workspace from the materials at hand:

Work Space: Rapid Prototype

And, when I began to use it, I realized: no way. Not here, ever. It's too low, and there's too little natural light. I will never want to work in a place that feels like a burrow. I want to be up in the light, up where I can see the sky, preferably on the roof of the Astronomy tower. That is the problem. Tables, lamps, and chairs are neither here nor there. I need a view.

I have no idea how I'm going to do that. But at least now I know what I'm trying to do. And I haven't thrown away a lot of time and money on acquiring, and trundling about, a bunch of irrelevant stuff.

And I worked a couple hours this morning in the living room, with real physical books, in the light of the big window, and felt happy. I'm working again, for real.

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

The Next Project

The Wreck Room: Site of Proposed Work Space

So the year is winding down. The year of losing weight, that is. The anniversary will be May 11th: that was the day in 2017 that I measured my waist, got 50 inches, and decided this really had to stop.

Am I embarrassed about throwing pretty much an entire year's allotment of oomph into losing weight, which is about as self-absorbed and self-centered a task as a person could undertake? Yes. I am. But tough. I needed to do this.

I'm not done yet. My initial goals were a 40 inch waist and 180 lbs: I hit those in January and February. My last one is to have a waist measurement that's 90% of my hip measurement. This one is a little harder to draw a bead on, since both measurements have been dwindling. I'm actually training now to build some butt muscle, which I felt silly about at first, but having read around some, I find that trainers of old people take this quite seriously, for good reasons, so that it's not just a matter of hacking the numbers. It's why the numbers were there in the first place. Glutes are a big deal in getting up and down, and lifting things off the floor, and generally not being feeble.

So. Right now the numbers are dead even: it's 36.5" for both of them. Holding the hip measurement steady, that would be a waist target of 33.0" -- three or four months away, at my regular loss-rates. I suspect the end-game will be harder and longer, though. We'll see. 

But in any case, the project should be winding up in a few months. Of course, maintaining it will in many ways be no different. I will still have to cook food and track everything. I have zero expectation that my appetite will magically repair itself -- that I will ever be able to eat ad libitum. But both the stress and the reward of change will diminish. I will gradually have -- I am already noticing that I begin to have -- more spare oomph to deploy. I will be able to to undertake a new project, and hopefully a less selfish one. Or anyway, to prepare for a new project.

As I write here -- this is not so far what I meant to write, I meant to brainstorm about the new project -- it has become clear. The next thing I have to do is make a work space at home. That's my next project.

My work space used to be the cafes I breakfasted in. Bright lights, large sturdy tables I could spread out books and spill coffee on, comfortable booth seats I could sit in for hours. I don't do the cafes any more, so I need to make that space here at home. Here, where I sit now, in the wreck room. I need: a bright light, a sturdy table I can spill coffee on, a chair I can sit in for hours. 

Well, that was easy. The theory was easy, anyway.

I have never really tried to make spaces in my own home, and I find it an oddly disquieting ambition. But no odder, no more disquieting, than being a skinny guy. I will do this thing.