Friday, June 1, 2012

Sixteen Weeks

I dream of food—literally. Not every night, that I recall, but I do dream of food. I have found myself chomping down on some delectable only to freeze with a sudden realization that I have mindlessly and inadvertently “gone off plan!” Then, fortunately, I wake up. I had a different sort of food dream this morning. I was striding quickly toward the stairs leading to an elevated train platform alongside a woman who I sense was providing the fare for me. She handed me her purse and I remarked about her trust in a complete stranger. I must also have made some remark about her need for a cigarette, although I don’t remember that exactly. Something elicited her retort, seemingly in defense of her habit—how was her smoking different than my eating hot dogs! That woke me up—literally— perhaps, figuratively as well.

Was this a proverbial “wake up call?” I pondered her sentiment. How is eating a hot dog like smoking a cigarette? Well I don’t eat two packs of hot dogs a day, or even a month, but if I broaden the definition to include the class of foods that contain high amounts of fat, salt, nitrates or any number of other specious ingredients, foods that I eat out of habit, or from an uncontrollable impulse to comfort rather than to nourish myself—that could include a lot of metaphoric hot dogs. Eating a hot dog is the gastronomic equivalent of hammering nails in one’s coffin one cigarette at a time. I was about to argue that at least poor eating doesn’t impinge upon the health of others, but I had to stop myself. I am guilty of exhaling into the faces of others the excitement of pizza and tacos and pastrami and ice cream with as devastating effects as blowing secondary smoke into a baby’s crib.

But, but, but…you can’t go “cold turkey!” You can never quit eating. Well, no, you can’t swear off food, but one could swear off junk food. “No! No!” my inner addict shouts, “Don’t even suggest that.” Well, it is a thought. Isn’t that what sixteen weeks of food replacements is trying to teach us? Well, that—and a bunch of other stuff I am sure.

For instance there was that morning, as I was innocently walking through our family room, when I had one of those sudden bolts of consciousness. It hit me that one lesson in the “sixteen weeks” was an awareness of the difference between “eating to live” and “living to eat.” Not that I yet am a convert from the latter to the former, but at least I get a sense of what that is like. I dutiful eat my 160-calorie meal replacements at 3-hour intervals in a methodical process of providing myself sustenance. With only a minimum of eager anticipation, I perform this ritual far more out of necessity than in response to desire, gluttony, emotional self-medication, camaraderie, or a half dozen other inappropriate motivations.

I also learned, or at least I’ve started to develop an awareness, that having set times and menus, and exercising a commitment to maintaining this schedule, affords me the opportunity to experience hunger without feeling compelled to immediately eradicate it. That may not seem like much to some people, but that is a biggie for me. The behavior of eating whenever one is hungry is especially challenging when one has difficulty distinguishing between true physical hunger and its many psychological imposters. I have often tried to discern whether my march to the refrigerator was a response to the needs of my body or of my mind. The beauty of this plan is, it really doesn’t matter—that is not if one no longer feeds oneself at the first sign of every real or imagined pang of hunger. Now I say, “Hunger is my friend. I will live with it for an hour until it is time to eat.”

The power of these sixteen weeks is great. I may not yet have fully discovered all their lessons. I imagine it is like other rehab programs—an opportunity to clean out the system from addictive substances, an opportunity for a fresh start. I have occasion to wonder about the effect of going off plan in the midst of this period. As I last reported, during the long fundraiser bike ride, I had a clear physical need that I addressed. I chose the ride over the plan and ate a bit of real food. Tomorrow night I will be at a family wedding, and I have chosen, during a weekend of catered events, to make another isolated exception to the program. I decided—rightly or not—that to eat food replacements at the reception dinner was a distraction to the joy of the occasion—perhaps more so for my fellow guests than even myself. I argued that to be fully present to and engaged with the sacred ritual I would make this one exception and sup with others at the wedding dinner. I will not partake in the tempting Korean barbecue Friday night. I will not partake in the cocktail hour hors d’oeuvres. I will not eat the likely rolls and butter or the inevitable dessert (well, maybe a bite). But I will have the porcini dusted chicken, roasted corn, bell pepper, Swiss chard, wild mushroom succotash, Meyer lemon beurre blanc & saffron oil with crispy sweet potato hay rather than, as I did on the bike ride, bring my oversized mug of chicken flavored food replacement soup to the table and go into the whole song and dance about why I don’t have a plate of food like everyone else, incurring their pity and provoking their self-consciousness, nervousness, or shame.

I talked at length with our dietician/instructor about how to approach this meal in a way that will provide the best chance of success, including portion control and some of the limitations listed above. Still I wonder: am I shooting up in the midst of rehab? Will this make me stronger or set me back? I suppose I will be able to make that determination in a few days. Meanwhile I am hungry. The sky is growing light, but I am hours away from my prescribed first “meal.” I will drink some water and go back to bed, perchance to dream…of food.
The salad was tasty, too!

Epilogue: The dinner went easily. I remembered my instructor's words--what if someone says "you've got to taste..." The idea was that I would "just say no." Nonetheless, since the bride herself made just such a recommendation, and since I had a rigorous 4-hour hike earlier in the day to Wapama Falls at the Hetch Hetchy Resevoir, I had a few pretty fairly healthful hors d'oeuvres and enjoyed them. I also learned that the grilled elk loin option on the menu had less fat than the chicken and swapped my chicken for the elk with pomegranate port wine reduction, white truffle-chive mashed potatoes, sautéed spinach & rainbow Swiss chard, garnished with fried shallots. The elk portion was much smaller than the chicken so that also helped ease the portion control aspect. I left some potatoes on my plate and did not even have a taste of dessert. Bottom line--I lost 2 pounds this weekend!

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