Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Screw It!

A self-fulfilling prophecy is a prediction that causes itself to come true due to the simple fact that the prediction was made. Some say it must, by definition, be a false premise that is caused to come true by such a belief. So whether I was a victim of “self-fulfilling prophecies” or not may be up for debate. Either way some ideas I recently heard may have indeed influenced my behavior. 

The first one came from our weight management program facilitator, to the effect that sometimes, when people go off track a little, they may temporarily throw in the towel. I wish had a clearer recollection of her exact words, but for me it sounded like, “Well, now that I’ve blown it today by eating this [fill in the blank] I might as well say 'Screw it!' for the rest of the day.” It not only sounded like that to me, it happened like that—not quite as abruptly, or consciously—more insidiously—but the net effect was the same. The real danger is that this can lead to a succession of  tossed towels…

The other statement came from the reading material the program hands out about this transition phase we have entered, where we gradually are moving from 960 calories a day of food replacements to increasing amounts of real food and a normal sustainable level of calories. This I can quote directly from the text. It said, “Many people, but not all, experience an increase in appetite as they start to eat real food.” Ya think?! When one subsists entirely on imitation food pellets it isn’t as challenging as one might think to turn a blind eye to the real food that abounds, but like one sip of wine to an alcoholic, just tiptoeing into the world of real food sends the eyes and the taste buds into a state of high alert. Therefore, in stark contrast to earlier in the year, when I took in some real food as necessary nourishment during my long bike rides, or partook in a single wedding meal, when confronted with (sort of) similar occurrences this past weekend I found myself completely without discipline. With only slight exaggeration, the word “insatiable” comes to mind. 

What happened? And more importantly, what did I learn? 

Saturday morning I met a friend for cycling. I had anticipated two or three hours on the road, including the likelihood of some rigorous climbing. In the current weight management phase, two small meals are prescribed, and even though carbohydrates have not yet been reintroduced, I figured some oatmeal before riding would be appropriate. I had calculated the calories in a third of a cup of rolled oats with two loosely packed tablespoons of raisins, a tablespoon of chopped walnuts and a tablespoon of real maple syrup to total 211. Not a bad start to the day at all…but then, to play it safe before going out on the road, I downed an Optifast shake—160 calories. I was still pretty much in a mindful state—I think. From then on I nourished myself much as I did when I took a gargantuan ride to the ocean and back the week before last—half of a protein bar every half hour. I may have even skipped one after the relatively easy descent from Skyline Boulevard back down Old La Honda Road. The real problem was not during the ride, but after. Unlike on the Hazon Ride where I calmly, methodically just slipped back into my routine of bars and shakes, Saturday’s reentry was more tentative—okay, it was downright unruly.

New size small cycling regalia
Timing was one issue. I got home and felt that aforementioned “increase in appetite,” but it wasn’t mealtime—or was it? Having had more bars in the morning than according to plan it was hard to determine where to pick up for the rest of the day. Moreover, even before we began this official transition to food I had been snacking on very low calorie items (i.e., pickles, kimchi, rice cakes, viz., http://yesh-indeed.blogspot.com/2012/08/of-crackers-and-cabbage.html) to get me through some of the rough patches. These have their benefits, but I can’t say that I have approached them with the discipline and rigor that I might. The result is that even if they provide little physical harm, psychologically they recreate the old excitement of binge eating that I need to tame.

Well, one thing led to another on Saturday. We went downtown to the Palo Alto Art & Wine Festival—can you say Oaxacan Taco Truck? Later we decided to go to a movie that was timed to conflict with my scheduled "real food" dinner. What to do? What to do? Do I eat before? After? Or during the movie? I opted for all three, munching a bit of the previous night’s leftover chicken breast before heading to the theater, more than a handful of Debbie’s very small bag of very lightly buttered popcorn before the feature started, as well as the protein bar I brought for the second reel, and Lord knows what else I ate the rest of the night. Earlier we had  purchased some groceries for a brunch we were to host Sunday morning. Wanting to give my visiting nephew, Daniel, something he had not tasted before, I opted to prepare one of my favorite (read “trigger”) foods—chilaquiles—kind of a Mexican matzah brei with tortilla chips and chile salsa. (You can already spot this disaster coming!)

I certainly didn’t journal the rest of the day—or any of it really—especially when the day ended with my wiping taco chip crumbs off my face, standing over the counter with a spoon in one hand and a dangerously delicious container of Haagen Dazs (that I “bought for Debbie’s Shabbat dessert”) in the other hand, thinking, “Screw it! I blew today, better shove in all I can before tomorrow comes and I start over with a clean slate.” It was the kind of thinking that spawned the month-long Farewell to Food tour that preceded participation in the program.

That might not have been a bad strategy had Sunday truly been a return to plan, but remember the brunch? I got up early Sunday to prep the meal, and since I had not made chilaquiles in a few years I needed to make a practice batch—just one egg. I even calculated the calories of a handful of chips and salsa and some sautĂ©ed peppers and onions and a little cotija cheese. It wasn’t terrible—not if I had stopped there at least. Fast forward—I ate more chilaquiles during the brunch (which I told myself I would not do), and ate some more when I cleared the table…ended the evening taking Daniel to a dinner of Indian chaat including the mango lassi I told myself I would not drink, and once again closed out the day leaning over the counter spoon in hand thinking, “Screw it! I blew today….”

Is there a moral to all this?

Life truly is a succession of exceptions—bike ride one day, guests the next, funerals, bar mitzvahs, weddings, celebrations, food festivals (was there art and wine?)—it’s always something. Gotta plan. Gotta stick to the plan. Gotta have a Plan B to deal with the inevitable, perpetual curveballs. Gotta get back on Plan A as soon after straying from it as possible.

I did not have Plan B in mind this weekend. The good news is that two days does not a complete relapse make (but it’s a slippery slope!). I learned from W. Edwards Deming, the guru of Quality and a professional statistician, that when a system goes out of whack (technical term) twice in a row it still does not constitute a trend, but three times in a row means it’s time to take a closer look. So despite the fact that the bathroom scale crept up two consecutive days in the wake of my indiscretions, they did not constitute a trend. I’m glad to say that’s where it stopped. Monday I was solidly back on plan and it had the desired effect—weigh-in went much better this morning. (Yeah, yeah, dieting doesn’t always work out that way.)

Maybe the best message is knowing that I can and did say, “Screw it!” and it truly wasn’t the end of the world, and therefore did not lead to a lasting “screw it” mentality. The key was to note that two-day lapse and make sure it didn’t become a three-day trend by making a return to mindful, disciplined, structured eating. I did it, and I commit to doing so if/when the need arises again. Let’s put it this way—if I ever need any incentive to do so, all I need is one look at my "before" picture!
Never again!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

B’nai Shimon

One of the prayers that I wrote for myself, when I authored a personalized version of the Amidah[i] for my daily ritual, makes the petition that I hear my own prayers and the prayers of others. It is based on the standard appeal for God to hear our prayers, but in my attempt to make this request meaningful to one who may not be so sure about the existence of God, per se, I sought to connect to that piece of divine spark that resides within—surely that is more palatable to the agnostic who also resides within. Even with all that manipulation, hearing my own prayers is still elusive—much less hearing the prayers of others—and yet it is one of the prayers that I recite (almost) daily.

I sometimes find clues to my hidden prayers in my dreams. This morning I would like to thank my cat for her assistance in this regard. Sometimes, ironically, we cannot be aware of our dreams until they are interrupted. Mayla, as has become her recent habit, signaled her desire to leave the house at about 5:30 this morning. Technically I was no longer dreaming, nor was I fully conscious. I was in an interstitial space of restful reverie. I was gently drifting along in the wake of a dream and observing the ephemeral patterns it was leaving across the river of my consciousness. The cat’s insistence at having the door opened for her opened the door to my wakeful awareness.

In the dream I was home, clad in my pajamas. Jacob was in the house. The doorbell rang. It seemed to be a distant cousin with his toddler twin girls in tow making a sales call. I thought of Ken Ungar, though it was not literally Ken, and his twin daughters who I have seen only once in person, but who are very clearly in the image of the girls in this dream. Ken, let’s just call him that, had barely uttered a word about whatever business he was proposing, when the toddlers chimed in, talking at length about their use of some computer media. At this point my mom was there spellbound, as we all were, at the sophistication—at least to our uneducated minds—of the technology these children were able to access as effortlessly and nonchalantly as if they were playing with sock dolls. They were so sassy that I commented to my mother how they were surely related to her. I also acknowledged that they were indeed the leaders of the 21st Century (even though the Mickey Mouse Club of the 1950’s used to refer to my generation of viewers as such). Another detail of the dream was my perusing the file drawers of what appeared as one of the early architecture firms in my career. Everything was in perfect order, and yet just the thought of having paper stashed away in alphabetically arranged folders seemed highly anachronistic. (Why paper? Why alphabetically?—when there are much more logical and efficient ways to store information today!)

In my post-dream reverie I started to imagine the generation immediately ahead and the generations that may follow. I connected this thread to the generations that have preceded us and the dream my father was expressing when he typed his Rosh Hashanah sermon 47 summers ago, in 1965.[ii] While he hoped for the best—for Jews to live actively Jewish lives of Jewish study, good deeds based on Jewish values, connecting to Jews of all nations and of all times, attending and supporting the synagogue—while he prayed for all of this, he also seemed aware that for many it would not become a reality. Despite that realization, he held onto the fervent belief that Am Yisrael Chai—that the People of Israel would still live, that a remnant would always survive despite our greatest challenges.

I continued to lay in the predawn darkness wondering about these twins, the progeny that God willing will ensue within my own family, and the subsequent generations. Of what relevance would they find the words of Torah that my father crafted and that I am lovingly and optimistically preserving. Will these generations be part of the remnant of Israel to which his hope clings? Will they be able to comprehend that they are literally b’nai Yisrael, b’nai Shimon, and b’nai Yeshaya—the Children of Israel (Ballon, my grandfather), the Children of Sidney (Ballon, my father), as well the Children of Yeshaya—me!

It dawned on me that that is my prayer, that I petition that this remnant be connected to their father’s fathers (and certainly their mother’s mothers) recognizing that there is a reason we are not called b’nai Avraham or b’nai Yitzchak. The reality is that Abraham and Isaac had children whose paths led to other religions. Nor are we called b’nai Yaacov. The reality is that until Jacob wrestled with God he was not on his highest spiritual path. Only then did he receive the blessing. Only then did he become known as God-wrestler.[iii] Only then did he become the patriarch of the Jewish nation. With obvious discomfort at comparing myself to Jacob, I would at least want to see the Jacob in me that wrestles with the angel. I would go forth from that struggle limping but blessed so that I may bless, so that I may not only hear, but fulfill the prayer that my father and his father’s fathers had—simply that succeeding generations live lives imbued with the ideals, knowledge, and practice of our Jewish heritage.

[i] The Amidah is the central prayer of the Jewish liturgy. Observant Jews recite it at each of three prayer services in a typical weekday: morning, afternoon, and evening. viz. my blog for the full text of the personalized Amidah that I customized for my personal practice, http://yeshaya.net/Ethical_Will/Sulam_Shalom.html
[ii] viz., http://harav-shimon.blogspot.com/2012/08/jews-without-problems-rosh-hashanah.html
[iii] Jacob’s name was changed to Israel (lit., wrestler with God) after he spent the entire night wrestling with a stranger—perhaps a man, perhaps an angel, perhaps God; Genesis 32:29 And [the angel] said: 'Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel for thou hast wrestled with God and with men, and hast prevailed.'

Monday, August 6, 2012

Fast and Furious

The lessons are coming fast and furious. After a weekend of brown rice cakes and kimchi, after carbo and electrolyte loading for my big bike ride yesterday, I stepped on the scale this morning to find I’ve lost a week and half in the battle of the bulge. I weighed in a full three pounds heavier than Saturday morning! How does that happen!!! It doesn’t seem as if I even ate three pounds of food! My little experiment with low calorie noshes may or may not be conclusive scientifically, but it serves well to alert me to the slippery slope of careless eating.

I described my foray to the Korean market in yesterday’s blog (http://yesh-indeed.blogspot.com/2012/08/of-crackers-and-cabbage.html). What I was a little vague on was whether I had eaten my kimchi and puffy wafers as part of a conscientious eating plan or stood before the open refrigerator with fork in hand, eating out of the kimchi jar and had grabbed a bag of wafers and mindlessly munched on them while watching a Top Chef season 3 marathon. I didn’t do either of those exactly, but in all honesty it was closer to the latter than the former. I managed to close the refrigerator and stand dumbly over the counter eating out of the kimchi jar, sometimes delicately topping a broken wafer with the stuff to make a nice little canapĂ©, sometimes just throwing the cabbage right down the hatch. That was especially true when I returned from my 32-mile bike ride yesterday that included a big climb up Old La Honda Road (famous in these parts).

Sunday morning, since I knew I was setting out for a long, strenuous day of cycling, and remembering how the weight management plan failed to give me adequate energy for the big ride I did in May, I also started the morning with a conscientious bowl of oatmeal, raisins, and a bit of maple syrup. I can say "conscientious" because I looked up all the component calories and figured it would all work well given the calories I would be burning over hours of cycling. I also had a piece of toast topped with butter and some shavings of hard cheese (the calories for which I did not look up). Out on the road I had maybe a half dozen Shot Bloks (Clif Bar’s chewable, 33-calorie cubes, designed to customize and track caloric and electrolyte intake during long outings and races. I just didn’t track ‘em so well.) And a mini-Clif Bar. And some other power bar I had stuffed in my Jersey pocket on the way out of the house—a paradigm of consciousness, yes? No.

Today will be different.

This morning I sat down with my seven o’clock chocolate shake, recited the blessing for all manner of food—Baruch attah adonai eloheinu melech ha-olam, she-ha-kol nihyeh bi-d’varo—Praised are You, Lord our God, Kind of the universe at whose word all things come into being (forgive the traditional gender biased language). I took a single draw on the tiny flex straw that comes glued to the side of my box drink, set the drink down, closed my eyes, breathed deeply and imagined all the nutrients diffusing throughout my body from head to toe, providing sustenance and satiety for at least the next three hours, until my next food replacement infusion. Ahhhhhhhhhhh. And then took another sip, repeating the entire experience, one conscious, meditative sip and savor at a time.

When I got to that last straw sucking gurgle at the bottom of the container I took one more relaxing breath and sang quietly to myself the blessing after meals that I have learned in recent years—Brich rachamana malka d’alma maray d’hai pita—You are the Source of Life for all that is and Your blessing flows through me. Then I sat a little longer, eyes closed, making the entire little meal a spiritual act.

Upon rising I went to the cabinet and grabbed a small plastic container, shook out a few capsules and washed them down with a long swig of water. With all the rice cakes this weekend, a little Metamucil couldn’t hurt.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Of Crackers and Cabbage

Our friend Judith gave us a package of Kim’s Magic Pop that she discovered on a recent trip to New York. Korean wafers of puffed wheat, brown rice, and corn, about six inches in diameter, the critical feature of which is that they are a fun snack and only 15 calories each! While that particular brand is only available back East, Debbie and I decided to take a short spin down to Sunnyvale where there is a large Korean population and correspondingly large Korean markets. We love walking into an environment where there are virtually no English conversations to be overheard, where we are among the few, if not the only Caucasians, and where we can pretend we have just taken a mini-vacation to Asia. It’s a cheap thrill.

It took all of about 16 seconds to determine that puff wafers of the kind we were seeking were plentiful along aisle 5A. There were many to choose from—lots of variations on the theme. I read every label for ingredients and calorie content and selected a few to bring home and sample. To take full advantage of our virtual trip to Korea we decided to peruse the rest of the store in search for other interesting Seoul food (sorry, I couldn’t resist). Making the highlight reel was a tank of slug-like creatures wiggling around in a tank of water. We didn’t buy any of those. We did pick up a few types of vegetable noodles some of which claimed to have zero calories. Those should make the remainder of my ersatz high protein Optifast chicken soup meals a tad more captivating. Later I lingered at the kimchi case a while noticing that an entire jar of the spicy fermented cabbage had 200 calories! As much kimchi as I would likely eat in one sitting would barely make the radar screen of my daily intake.

Now that I have all these crackers and cabbage I wonder: is this a good thing? Our weight management facilitator/coach has encouraged us to start reading labels and searching for healthful choices as we start to reenter the world of real food. The products I just purchased may cause little harm. On the other hand they provide little nourishment, and the big question for me is: does grabbing a snack of these demonstrate a sensible way to respond to the need to munch on something crunchy and tasty, or are they reinforcing old bad habits of thinking I gotta eat something just because I wanna eat something. In other words, would I be better off postponing this oral gratification, benign as it may be? or is this a reasonable response to a natural desire?

I will pose this question to our aforementioned coach. Meanwhile I will imagine what her response will be. Let’s see how close I come…. The answer is outside the boundaries of the question. Whether it is responsible or irresponsible depends on the mindset with which one approaches the behavior. Is eating kimchi and puffy wafers part of a conscientious eating plan? Have their nutrients been accounted for in advance as either part of a planned meal or snack in the context of a full day’s intake? Are the snacks measured out, eaten consciously, and logged in a daily eating journal? If all of these are true than we’re good to go! If, on the other hand, one were to stand before the open refrigerator with fork in hand, eating out of the kimchi jar, or grab the bag of wafers and mindlessly munch on them while watching a Top Chef season 3 marathon—not so good! What I am telling myself is that it almost doesn’t matter what food I insert into this question—lo-cal, hi-cal, Korean, Mexican, whatever—is it planned? is it conscious? is it recorded? These are what it takes to eat responsibly.

Did I get it right, Coach?  

Friday, August 3, 2012

That Church in the East

Sometimes a man stands up during supper
and walks outdoors, and keeps on walking,
because of a church that stands somewhere in the East.
And his children say blessings on him as if he were dead.
And another man, who remains inside his own house,
dies there, inside the dishes and in the glasses,
so that his children have to go far out into the world
toward that same church, which he forgot.
Rainer Maria Rilke
translated by Robert Bly

This may not be anything new or startling, but after some reflection the following is my takeaway from last night’s conversation in Men’s Group.

There are at least three distinct phases of life: childhood, adulthood, and eldership. Each of these has an overriding quality or role—play, responsibility, and wisdom, respectively. I must quickly add that the primary quality of each phase is not to the exclusion of the other two. Moreover, the inclusion of the other two qualities is an essential ingredient to living a balanced life.

We must vacate one phase and move to the next, not only for our personal evolution and satisfaction, but also to create the space into which the next generation may grow. In addition, as we inhabit each succeeding phase we provide models for our children. When we model responsibility as adults, were we not to demonstrate balance by exhibiting childlike playfulness or elder-like wisdom, we would be giving them an incomplete picture. We might even be discouraging them from moving into adulthood were we not to show that it is more than keeping the roof over their heads and driving them to the orthodontist. As we demonstrate the balance that is part of adulthood we also give them the message that their days as children need similar balance including a modicum of responsibility and wisdom in addition to their primary role of play. And on it goes in each successive phase.

When Greg comments, “It seems Rilke is suggesting that we must go out to that church in the East while our children are young.” I say, “Yes, we must seek that wisdom, but without abdicating the responsibility that is demanded of us at that time.” And we must continue to be responsible as we become sages. And we must be playful in each of those parts of our lives. And our children must — better, they get to—continue to be playful and wise as they mature into being responsible adults. When we fail to move along this continuum, when we fail to exercise balance by including aspects of each phase in our lives, we lose the full breadth, beauty, and blessings that the span of our years provides.