Sunday, December 13, 2009
"Downward to darkness/On extended wing"
This phrase, from a poem by Wallace Stevens called "Sunday Morning", is one I often think of on Sundays at this time of the year as the days get shorter. It describes a couple who seem to be on that "downward glide", post middle-age: reasonably prosperous, comfortable, generally satisfied with their lot in life.
Although not entirely so. We hear their reservations: apparently it hasn't been quite all they would have hoped. One of them admits, "But in contentment I still feel/The need of some imperishable bliss".
Well. Why not a little imperishable bliss? We do need that. And surely it's not too much to ask. Should be available at Costco this week on special. Right? Or if they're all sold out, maybe there are still a couple of cartons left on the shelf at Wal-Mart.
It cannot be a coincidence that almost every culture seems to have evolved a "staving off of darkness" festival. And it cannot be a coincidence that -- whether we take a religious approach or a secular approach or adopt a hybrid of the two -- our Christmas celebrations are overlaid upon a much more ancient and pagan solstice rite. So these December celebrations answer a deep human need to halt the plunging mood evoked by the lessening of light. The end of the growing season. Anticipating the inevitable end of each of our own lives. Like the lives of everyone who went before us and the lives of everyone who will follow. Not imperishable, after all.
We scurry around shopping. What we want most can't be bought. But we try to acquire it for ourselves, and we try to giftwrap it for others. Just a small portion of bliss. As I scurry in compliance with the seasonal imperatives, I experience my own resistance to that "downward to darkness" movement with a fluctuating sustainability which I expect is famliar to most of us. There IS joy. There is also slush, crowded parking lots, frayed tempers, too much to do. And joy again. More slush. Joy in the interstices, okay, but not necessarily more than that.
Today it was close to twilight by 4:30 or so in the afternoon. I had had a late but more substantial-than-usual breakfast -- including a toasted wholewheat bagel -- and then braved the crowds to get my grocery shopping done. By the time everything was put away, I was ready for an early supper, including a steaming bowlful of this week's soup: a lively curried chickpea and lentil stew. Mmmmm.
Imperishable bliss? Well the soup was good. Very good even. And I was wearing my cozy sheepskin slippers while I enjoyed it. Quite pleasant, actually. But perhaps not amounting to bliss exactly, imperishable or otherwise.
The snowy white narcissus blooming on my kitchen window sill? Not imperishable either. But lovely. Especially lovely against the dark and deep red pine forest in the park outside the window.
Downward to darkness; can't stop it happening. And then?
With agonizing slowness, almost imperceptibly, the days will begin lengthening. All the while, it will get colder yet and there will be much much more snow. Howling winds. Gusting blizzards. Snowbanks higher than my head.
But there will be occasional days of bright blue skies and sunshine sparkling on frost-etched tree branches. In February there will be light still at the end of the workday; I will drive home to spectacular winter sunsets. And by late March there will be snowdrops outside my door.
I'm counting on it.
Saturday, November 21, 2009
That's the title of the very best diet book I've ever read.
Over this past week -- just to refresh my motivation and my weight loss maintenance techniques -- I 've been rereading it once again. And I still think it's a great read for people like me who know they will always need eternal vigilance to keep excess pounds at bay.
Making the Case for Yourself has sat on my bedside table since I acquired it June 11 2001. As I recall, it was on the remainder table at the big box book store and I got if for a ridiculously low cost: $5.00. To me, it's easily worth 100 or even 1000 times the price I paid.
When I bought Making the Case for Yourself I weighed 230 pounds. The day before, I had shared a box of six large doughnuts with my husband at a roadside pit stop. Doughnuts!! On that warm day in June 2001 I was wearing size 18 shorts and filled with self-loathing: but I still ate three of those six doughnuts!
So when I saw Susan Estrich's 1998 book, Making the Case for Yourself, I was desperate but not genuinely hopeful. I'd read lots of diet books. I knew all about calorie counting and I knew all about exercise -- or so I thought. Before I went back to school in 1992 (in my early 40s, commuting, with a 6 year old and a 9 year old) I was probably about 170 at 5'9" and wore a size 12: not thin, maybe, but certainly not fat. And I had been fit: I'd been running 10 km most days. I'd been a certified fitness instructor and volunteered at my gym leading fitness classes. As a teenager, I'd been a lifeguard and swim instructor.
But between 1992 and 2001 I'd earned three more degrees, articled (the year's internship required to practice law), and spent one more year revising my thesis for publication while working. On that June day in 2001 I'd just sent the proofs back to the editor. Done.
None of it counted, really. Instead of feeling jubilant, I was thoroughly unhappy with myself. Waddling, thighs chafing, grossly overweight, out of control: how was it I'd lost sight of myself?
Sure, I'd tried to keep up my fitness, even sacrificing sleep to do it. I'd been catching the early commuter bus, reading frantically for the hour+ ride to the university, heading for the gym before class, reading frantically again all the way home after class, carving out three hours with my kids every day before they went to bed, and then working on my studies again from 9 to midnight or later. Stressful. Deluding myself that appearance didn't matter as I bought ever-larger sizes of jeans. Telling myself that I wasn't eating that much too much. And probably I was not. Maybe 100 extra calories a day. However that 100 extra calories had been enough for me to accumulate just about 10 extra pounds a year. Not paying attention to myself at all.
So --my eye fell on the catchy title, Making the Case for Yourself, and I wondered, who was this Susan Estrich? And then I saw the subtitle, A Diet Book for SMART women. Whoa, then, that pretty much disqualified me from reading it! Because if I was so SMART, why was I so (yup, no other word for it) FAT? I put the book down, then changed my mind and picked it up again. Five bucks, why not? Couldn't be too much of a dumb waste of money!
Hmmm. About Estrich. On the back cover: pretty impressive. First woman editor of the Harvard Law Review. First woman to run a presidential campaign. One of the leading American scholars on rape law. A feminist, pretty likely. Former Harvard law professor, current University of Southern California law professor. Nationally syndicated newspaper columnist, television columnist on legal affairs and political events.
This was a woman with SERIOUS academic creds. So what was she doing writing a frivolous, slender little book on dieting and weight loss??
And what could she possibly know about it anyhow? Her picture -- so feminine, so cute! Blonde, toned arms, lovely proud posture. Not anorexic, but not an extra ounce anywhere that I could see.
Didn't look as if she'd ever been overweight a day in her life.
But: she had.
And she had me hooked from the very beginning of the very first chapter:
"For at least the last twenty years, I've been struck by a very central contradiction in my life. I could do almost any task I set for myself. Except one. Lose weight. " I took her book home and started gulping it back.
Written in a disarmingly candid style as if she were chatting with a girlfriend, Susan Estrich dished out the straight goods. She'd been a size 14 most of her life (me too) and on a diet for 23 years without success. But then for the past 3 years, a size 6 (or even a 4). Now she wore sleeveless tops to showcase those biceps achieved by lifting weights. She went shopping not necessarily to buy anything, but just for the sheer pleasure of trying on clothes (jean shorts! sparkly slip dresses!) and hearing the sales clerks comment on her nice figure. And she admitted it!
So how did she do it? And could I do it too?
She assured me I could, and that she would show me how -- by marshalling the legal arguments, the techniques of legal reasoning which I had learned and was applying in my work. If I could make a case for my clients, I could also "make the case for myself". Just as she had made the case for herself. You apply the rules; you structure the argument; you anticipate the objections, and you deal with them in advance.
Because: it's important. It is as important to make the case for yourself (about yourself) as it ever could be to make the case for others in the legal realm. And losing weight is not an issue of frivolity or shallowness; we all want to look and feel and be as healthy as we can. We are reluctant to admit it only because we are afraid of failing. But there is no need to fail. I've got only about an 80% chance of winning my best case in a court of law. because ultimately that result depends upon the judge and the client, but I've got a 100% chance of making the case for myself.
Susan Estrich's succinct summation persuaded me: I could decide that losing weight is important and make space in my life for it OR I could decide that losing weight is not so important and not make a place for it. But what I was actually doing was really stupid: namely, believing and deciding that losing weight was really important to me -- maybe a 9 on a scale of 1-10 -- but that it wasn't important enough to treat it as a priority.
I started treating it as a priority.
I set appointments with myself for my gym time -- regular cardio, weights, abs, stretching -- characterizing the time as "billable hours" foregone as an investment in myself. I was worth it. With respect to my eating I imposed upon myself the appropriate duty of care (a familiar tort law concept) . I made a contract with myself commiting myself to tracking my progress. I launched my weight loss with Susan's Miracle Diets One, Two and Three. I used her "rules" which taught me once again how to eat better, and also provided for gradual transitioning to the point that I could establish my own rules: my own "constitution" of rights and responsibilities that was best suited for my own constitution.
Susan reminded me to carry myself better and to breathe better. Very important, she even gave me permission to buy myself pretty pretty new underwear. Right away BEFORE I had lost enough weight to "deserve" it. Just because I deserved it anyhow. This was about reclaiming my pride.
Making the Case for Yourself is a book I've reread again and again since 2001, probably 25 times at least. It's still funny, and I still learn new things every time I read it. If I've fallen off the rails a little, I might return to the discipline of Miracle Diet One: it only lasts for three days, but it's great for a little "re-education".
Do you have to be a lawyer to understand Making the Case for Yourself? Not at all: Estrich is pitching her argument to the members of our internal "jury". And we know that a jury panel is comprised of average folks with good common sense who only have to be prepared to listen. To be persuaded by the facts, in the context of the law. Which is not that difficult. Because the "law" in this case is comprised of the two rules of dieting we already know: you've gotta track your calories and you've gotta track your exercise, so you don't take on more fuel than you burn. Simple. Really.
Is the book a little dated? Maybe in places: we know more now, for example, about the importance of healthy fats in appropriate quantities (within calorie restraints) for satiety and to optimize the release of vitamins from our vegetables. And a few of Estrich's references to then-contemporary political events (she is a law and politics academic, after all) may not immediately resonate with those who didn't live through the times.
And Susan can be the confrontational law professor at times. Mercilessly grilling you about whether you've done your homework. Absolutely prepared to use your guilt against you, to play the "good mother" card, to play the "stop being a martyr" card -- whatever it takes . But: Susan Estrich's Making the Case for Yourself remains the most marvellously intimate, BFF-interventionist and ultimately useful "weigh of life" handbook I've ever read.
And (I checked her out on google) Susan Estrich herself, now about 57 years of age, still looks fantastic. It's obvious she's still maintaining, still making the case for herself.
Estrich's book worked for me. I made the case for myself. Between June 2001 and February 2002 I'd peeled off 80 pounds. And kept if off, too, but for that temporary blip after a health scare when between February and May 2009 I put on 20 pity party pounds.(SparkPeople got me back on track, thank you all, and that 20 pounds was gone again by August: kept off since then.)
SparkPeople is an amazing site and maybe all that anyone ever could require. But if Estrich's approach sounds appealing to you for your bedside table or for your reading on the elliptical cross trainer at the gym, I checked the title at several on-line book stores. Her book, Making the Case for Yourself, IS still readily available, new and used copies both.
And the book still costs so much less than it's worth, at least for me.
Saturday, November 14, 2009
A recent blog by LADYBUG7157 about how hard it is to make herself do what she wants to do really hit a nerve with me. And it made me think about AKRASIA again -- that is, it made me think about AKRASIA again consciously, because akrasia has a powerful hold on my being and is pretty much where I live most of the time anyhow!
So what's akrasia? When I tossed the word out to her jokingly, LADYBUG7157 came back with a useful definition -- it's "the state of acting against one's better judgment".
But for myself, I think of it more along the lines of absolutely deciding NOT to do x (say, eating a piece of bittersweet chocolate) and then finding myself doing it anyhow. Mmmmm. So good! And maybe another piece would taste even better!! And so on.
I decide NOT to do it, and then do it anyhow. Eat it. And then I dump all over myself.
OR I decide TO do it -- get up at 5 a.m. and head to the gym -- and then turn off the alarm and roll over and go back to sleep. Compound NOT doing it with two warm croissants with butter and jam for breakfast. And then dump all over myself.
Akrasia, then, is pretty closely linked with self-condemnation. Bad bad bad bad bad.
As TS Eliot put it, "Between the idea and the reality/Falls the shadow". Yup -- it's called "akrasia" because it makes you crazy. Or that's what I believe.
OK, maybe that's not the etymological origin of the term. Akrasia is actually derived from the Greek word for power, "kratos", so a person in the grip of akrasia is acting without will power, or contrary to her "sincerely held" moral values. Which means akrasia has nothing to do with being crazy at all! But when it's happening, it sure does feel pretty crazy-making.
Akrasia is vividly present in many areas of human experience. Young woman decides that third date is too early for . . . erm, you know. But: scarcely notices she's changed the sheets and shaved her legs and put on the lacy undies anyhow because . . . she's already acknowledging that because of the power of powerlessness, akrasia, it just MIGHT happen!! Or: middle-aged fella heads to the casino with $50.00, just $50.00, because he's not going to spend a dime more, no way, no how. Gonna zero the MasterCard bill. But: completely forgets to take his debit card for the ATM out of his wallet and . . . probably it wouldn't hurt to play a little longer, and if necessary just pay the minimum on that whopping credit card this month, right??
Of course here on SparkPeople we're most aware of the akrastic "deciding to do something and not doing it and beating ourselves up " thingy in the context of weight loss. Or failure to lose weight. Or gaining back weight that once was lost and now is found . . .
Jumping into bed too fast and gambling away too much money are familiar moral situations where we expect to beat ourselves up if we don't meet our self-imposed expectations. So: if we writhe with self-loathing at SparkPeople when we can't make ourselves stick with the programme, is it because losing weight and controlling weight is a moral value? Yes, most of the time we probably think it is. There is the moral value of taking care of the body I've got -- avoiding diabetes or obesity-related cancers -- keeping myself strong so that I can be useful to others and my community -- not wasting food that others could use -- not wasting money on replacing clothes that no longer fit -- and so on and so on.
All right then. If weight loss is a moral value, and moral values are a product of the rational decision to identify what is good and behave wisely, why can't we just gird our loins and determine that we will exercise all possible power and self control and stick to our "moral values" of not eating too much and exercising enough??
Reason over passion? Plato thought we could control passion with reason, and he thought that we SHOULD make reason our ultimate focus. But then Plato and his "philosopher king" notion provides us with a pretty dry and unidimensional picture of what it means to be human. Coulda, shoulda, woulda.
Weight loss IS rational and technical: every excess pound is 3500 calories to be "not eaten" or to be "burned off" or some combo thereof. That's the wisdom of weight loss. But: I know too well when I try to compel myself to comply with unrelenting and unrealistic restrictions on calories, unrelenting and unrealistic prescriptions for exercise, then my decisions about nutrition and fitness may be rational but (don't know about you) they seldom work for me for long!
For me, weight control and fitness are also about emotion: vanity and appearance and black leather pencil skirts, right?? But deeper emotion too: the pleasure of feeling good, moving a fit body, experiencing strength, pride and comfort in my own skin.
Aristotle -- Aristotle was also fascinated by akrasia but much much more pragmatic than Plato about the whole thing. Aristotle was the great observer of how human beings actually do function and what human beings actually are capable of. That's because, I think, Aristotle understood that dwelling in the realm of conflicting impulses is where most of us spend most of our lives. And: here's the blinding insight into the obvious for me -- Aristotle knew it's essential that we do just that if we are to be fully human.
That's because for Aristotle there aren't Platonic certainties, Platonic absolutes, eternal Platonic ideals, Platonic wisdom. Virtue for Aristotle is the art of the possible, the kind of wisdom in action which permits us to change and make our lives better. For Aristotle, all moral decision-making is an active process of "phronesis" -- sifting and sorting among shifting and contextual factors, some of which we are scarcely conscious of at any given moment. We have to weigh the fleeting, the evanescent, the non-quantifiable. This kind of moral decision making is much tougher than following unbending rules; much more nuanced than following unbending rules; much more uncertain too because every single day we encounter circumstances which we have never encountered before. Will never encounter again.
So: phronesis may allow for the caramel meringue torte when I'm enjoying a leisurely coffee with my sister WITHOUT self-condemnation and self-loathing -- because it's a sweet moment calling for something sweet. It may allow it, depending. Perhaps because I know tomorrow I will get right back to my oatmeal and calcium-fortified skim milk with new enthusiasm. After the gym!
Phronesis operates on the inherent understanding that moral decision making requires the integration of reason and passion.
Amazingly, this Aristotelian insight is also completely congruent with the most recent brain function studies. For example, new MRIs demonstrate that when the emotional centres of the brain have been damaged in an accident or for some reason have been removed surgically, a person is actually incapable of making fully rational or moral decisions. Such a person faced with a moral decision is paralyzed. The "decision-making" areas of the brain don't light up. They actually fail to fire!
Aristotle, clever guy, knew what contemporary science demonstrates: that the human exercise of rationality requires an integration of the emotional components of human cognition in ways which can scarcely be articulated or fully understood. Smothering passion with reason kills both. We attempt to excise the emotional component of human cognition through an act of purely rational will power at our peril. We are more likely to fail than to succeed, and we become less fully human when we try.
What about the cherished concept of the neutral, objective, rational judge in a court who suspends emotional response to analyze the facts in the context of the law and render a verdict completely congruent with precedent? Can't happen. Doesn't happen. And the wise judge knows it's not happening. Because the circumstances of this case are always different from whatever went before.
And what about when it comes to judging ourselves?
Bad bad bad because I had the caramel meringue torte? Nope.
Good good good because I got up at 5 and burned 400 calories at the gym on the cross trainer??? Nope.
Human because I did both? Both in moderation? Without beating myself up for not eating less? For not exercising more? Made the decision at the time in accordance with the circumstances? Didn't make myself too crazy?? Yup.
I gotta do both if I want to sustain a healthy body and mind and heart in the long run as a way of life.
That's what it is. A weigh of life.
Sunday, November 08, 2009
Every weekend (or oftener if I run out) I make a big pot of fresh soup and keep it in the fridge for midweek suppers.
When I walk in the door from work, my self-discipline is generally at its lowest ebb for the day. I'm always insanely hungry.
Even if I've stopped for an appetite-quelling fat-free sugar-free yogourt from the office fridge just before I hop in my car, I'll be hungry.
And I know about myself only too well that I can resist anything but temptation.
I KNOW that I can inhale 800 calories (cheese, crackers, butter, wine . . . ) in about 15 minutes while I'm just THINKING about what to have for dinner. Done it way too many times. Lived the reality that just 100 extra calories a day meant 10 extra pounds in a year -- and the next year -- and the year after -- until in 2001 I was 80 pounds overweight.
Took it all off. And then put twenty pounds back on in early 2009.
But if I did it before I COULD do it again. And I know just what time of day it's most likely to happen.
It's completely predictable at that crucial home-coming moment I could sabotage myself -- my 5:30 a.m. gym work out; my breakfast oatmeal; my leafy lunch salad -- my whole day's worth of careful attention to exercise and to nutrition.
So that's why it's vitally important for me to have supper ready to eat almost instantly. And for me what really hits the spot is a bowl of soup that I can nuke in the microwave in about four minutes.
Is four minutes fast enough? Nope. Sadly, experience tells me even the four minutes can be problematic. So weak-willed am I that four minutes is more than enough time to do myself a serious damage if I hang around waiting, opening and shutting cupboards, grazing mindlessly.
My soup has gotta be heated up while I'm outta the kitchen, away from temptation, shucking off my work clothes, getting into my jeans. Or into my jammies, depending upon how late it is when I roll in the door.
Soup. It works for me because I need something filling, something full of vitamins and minerals and complex carbs, but not too high in fats or in calories.
My protein intake generally requires attention, so the soup may be accompanied with a handful of almonds or walnuts, a spoonful of peanut butter, maybe a lilttle cheese, maybe some chicken or shrimp or chickpeas. And these protein partners could be "add-ins" to vary the basic soup or "on-the-sides" to go with the soup. If I'm still hungry after bowlful number one -- bowlful number two is a real possibility! A second bowlful will still be within my calorie budget!
My soups generally aren't based on any particular recipe -- it's just a matter of what happens to be available in the fridge or in the cupboard or in the cold cellar. I very rarely make the same soup twice, and that's probably why I don't get tired of eating the same soup every night for the week or so that the pot lasts.
Last weekend there were some amazing vegetable bargains at the supermarket. I bought 10 pounds of huge beets for $2; 10 pounds of onions for $2; 10 pounds of giant carrots for $2; and 20 pounds of potatoes for $2. All fresh from the farmers' fields just a few miles down the road from my house.
So this afternoon I scraped and steamed about 8 of the carrots, 6 of the beets, 2 of the onions and 4 of the potatoes in about four cups of water until they were quite soft.
Then I pureed them in small batches in the food processor, and stirred in a large can of diced tomatoes, some vegetable broth, and some rosemary plus some Frank's hot sauce for zip.
What a mess! Little splatters everywhere! With a serious potential for lethal staining -- I'll have to be careful not to spill any anywhere while I'm slurping away this coming week.
But: glorious flavour! glorious fall fragrance! glorious texture! above all, glorious colour!
I'll pick up a little fat free sour cream to swirl in each serving after heating it up, and chop some fresh dill on top for garnish.
So simple, so beautiful.
Magenta velvet in a bowl.
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