Monday, May 28, 2018

The Island in the Wreck Room

"My God, you just keep on losing weight," said my client last night. And then, her voice sharpening -- she's in her seventies, the age when losses keep coming -- "are you all right?" 

My Dad remarked, in his slow, thoughtful way, "160 seems kind of low."

Maybe. I'm at 158 now; trying to level out. I get no help whatever from my appetite, which so far as I can tell still believes I should weigh 75 pounds more than I do. I have to steer this thing myself, carefully and deliberately.

I am nothing like emaciated. But I do note a curiosity about just how small I could become, and a delight in having control over it: the germ no doubt of anorexia, which bears watching. Still the greatest risk by far is simply falling back. I have no intention of dropping the reins, and I have no expectation that exercising this control will ever be much easier. This is my life, as far as eating goes. It's a good life. I like my food. I like knowing what I'm eating tomorrow, and making sure everything is ready and prepped well ahead of time. I like being master in my own house. 

So I just watch the numbers carefully: the numbers will take care of me. The process becomes very slow, now, but I have a goal still: getting my waist measurement to be 90% of my hip measurement. At present those numbers are 35.25" and 36.25". When my hips were 37.5" I thought that number could not really go down much, but it did, by almost two inches. I really do think it's stopped, and will even rise now, as I'm working up my lower body strength (which has always lagged, almost ludicrously, my upper body strength). The nice thing about this goal is that I can't be tricked into mistaking muscle loss for fat loss, or fat gain for muscle gain. But it's slow going, building muscle while losing a bit more fat -- reaching this goal may take half again as long as losing the 75 pounds did. Which is fine. I am smack mid-channel, right where the charts and tables say I should be. There's no urgency about the finishing touches. So long as the distance between the two numbers is lengthening, I'm making progress.

Holding the hip number still, the waist number would need to drop to 32.6"; holding the waist number still, the hips would need to grow to 38.8". Just reckoning roughly, here -- there's no point in being exact -- I should be trying to lose an inch or so off my waist, landing somewhere around 33.5", and gain an inch or so in the hips, landing somewhere around 37". This of course strikes me as impossible, but I already am living in an impossible world, in which my waist has shrunk by fourteen inches. All things, apparently, are possible.

I work out every morning, alternating core-and-glute days (when knee and elbow joints get to take the day mostly off) with days of lifting, pushing, or pulling. I find all of this very satisfying, but it is a sort of Robinson Crusoe endeavor, alone on my carpet-island in the wreck room. I feel sometimes I should be more in the world than I am, more in contact with people. But when it comes down to it, I'm not feeling very sociable or very well-disposed to my countrymen. Let them lie in the bed they've made: I have other things to do.

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.