My Name is Jenion, And I’m a Backslider

I grew up Catholic, so there’s always been a deep-rooted desire in me to confess my failings. Like many children in parochial grade schools, I prepared a list of sins well in advance of kneeling on the padded bench in the confessional – there was nothing more humiliating than speechlessness when facing a dark screen, behind which sat the priest during this sacramental rite. So, also like generations of Catholic school children, if I couldn’t come up with something authentic, I made something up. Yes, that’s right, I lied during confession. I also had one or two generic sins to share, such as the ever-popular, “I fought with my brothers and sisters”. With five siblings, this was bound to be true, even if I was unable to recall a specific incidence.

The point is, I am a confession junkie of sorts. If I feel particularly badly about something I’ve done, I actually have a difficult time NOT blurting it out to someone. For example, there was the New Year’s Eve party when I introduced myself to a room full of strangers by announcing I had just eaten a large Papa Murphy’s pizza by myself and was feeling a little…full-ish.

And so I come before you today with a confession to make. Despite my best intentions, I have spent the past few weeks floundering. Oh, alright, backsliding. You may recall that I have spent the last year barely creeping forward with my weight loss goals. I plateaued. I dropped to a very low calorie diet, which made me cranky and didn’t help with weight loss. I upped my caloric intake and stepped up the exercise. My body shape rearranged itself slightly, but my weight barely fluctuated.

After a couple of years of posting my weekly weigh-in on this blog, in September I decided to post my weight only monthly (read the explanation here). And I made a valiant effort to feel positive and proactive without over-regard for the reading on my scale. As November rolled in, I was doing ok and holding my own. However, by mid-month, I was frustrated again with the lack of progress toward my goal. They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing but expecting different results. Well, taking this thought to heart, I decided to shake things up a bit. Based on new research (yes, reputable research!) I began to increase the protein in my diet and added more dairy (something I’ve typically kept fairly restricted). And in spite of adding to my work out routine I just didn’t feel right. I stepped on a scale and was horrified to see that I had inched up by ten pounds!

We all know that such moments can be turning points. And so it was for me – a turning point in the wrong direction! So I am hereby confessing that I was so discouraged, I went out and bought a 10-pack of 100-calorie pouches of Goldfish crackers. And I ate all 10 pouches in 2 days. (For those of you keeping track, that’s 1,000 calories of crunchy, cheesy little fishies.) I wasn’t completely out of control. But I was too depressed to maintain self-discipline. A little temptation could easily overcome my resistance.

In the midst of this backsliding-palooza, along came Thanksgiving – the holiday devoted to binge eating in America. Interestingly, as the anniversary of Jenion, and the beginning of my own path to emotional and physical health, the eating holiday had the effect of helping me reconsider my backwards slide. The first step for me, as it is in any 12-step program, is to admit my own powerlessness – I can make decisions day by day, I can be proactive, I can manage. What I can’t do is ever live a life in which food isn’t an issue for me.

Until I sat down to write this blog post, I never really gave much thought to the 12-steps and whether they have any usefulness for me and this mighty effort to make lasting change in myself. However I can see that the other steps in 12-step programs are more or less instructive for me: make a fearless and searching moral inventory of myself; admit to God, myself and another human being the exact nature of my wrongs – these I’ve done using the vehicle of this blog and my penchant for confession!

Many of the remaining steps have to do with God, or whatever one’s concept of a higher power may be. I do know there is a spiritual component to this whole thing – and I must say that the following phrase (Step 2) struck me in particular:

Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

On the one hand, as a person of faith, I read that Power to be God.

On the other hand, as a person who has benefitted from the power that is born of love – the support, encouragement, willingness to engage with my issues (and hear my “confessions”) shown by family, friends, loved ones and even well-meaning strangers…I have to read that Power also as community.

God and community: a backslider’s most trustworthy allies. You are there to restore my sanity, to remind me that I am cared for regardless of my weight or what is listed on my food tracker any given day. And I know you’ll be by my side as I hop back on the wagon – even if it means hearing all about my latest transgression or failing. For that, how can I be anything but truly grateful.

Note: The 12th Step can be summed up as “Helping Others”. As someone fully aware of the gifts that have been showered upon me, and the willingness of so many to walk with me, I want to reiterate that I am ready and willing to “pay it forward”. If you or someone you know needs help, someone to talk with, any support that I can offer, please don’t hesitate to contact me!

Get Your Bloom On!

Springville, Iowa, July 27, 2012.
 I am standing in the middle of the main street of town, with my good friend Tricia Borelli and thousands of others, and I am suddenly overcome with emotion. I tell Tricia, “This is what I want for everyone!”

Let me explain what I meant – and it wasn’t for everyone to stand in the streets of Springville, Iowa-though I believe there could be worse fates. We had just finished what proved to be the hardest 10 miles of a 208-mile bicycling adventure (three consecutive days of RAGBRAI). With a sore body operating on little sleep, the 10 mile leg just completed, consisting of lots of climb against a strong headwind, called upon every reserve I had. This middle day of the ride was “supposed” to be the easy one, too. What a betrayal of my expectations!

As Tricia and I pulled into town, the members of our team who had arrived ahead of us flagged us down. We explored the town, grateful for the food and beverage options and for the hospitality of the local Methodist church which allowed us to used their indoor bathrooms. Take it from me: porta-potties used by thousands of bicyclists are not the preferred option. We had some time to kill before our last two teammates arrived, which meant real leisure to soak up the ambience.

People of all shapes, sizes, abilities, ages, ethnicities and backgrounds swelled the small town’s usual population of around one thousand to nearly ten times that. Banners flapped in the stiff breeze, music came at us from every direction, colorful costumes and jerseys caught our attention. The sun beat down on us and sweat caused our spandex-laden clothing to stick to our bodies. I downed a bottle of blue Gatorade with relish – something I would normally avoid as exuberantly as I avoid eating liver.

As I watched the spectacle and felt myself just one more colorful piece of it, I experienced one of those rare moments of clarity in life. This exact moment that I was living in with such joy, I would once have shunned. The July heat. The crowds. The physical exertion. The athletic, ebullient, friendly, happy individuals surrounding me.

Until the recent past, I eschewed entering fully into my own life. I stayed away from situations that called upon either my inner resources or the direct experience of strangers. In that way, I kept my world small and my life manageable. I felt safe but I rarely felt joy. I felt “in control” but never expansive.

All of that has changed, and my life is so much richer for it. Suddenly, standing in the middle of the street in Springville, my heart paradoxically wholly open and completely full, I realized:  it isn’t enough to want these things for myself. It isn’t enough to continue to work on my own growth and development. To know and experience my own “before and after” is to want that for anyone else holding back from fully living their own lives.

You know who you are – those of you waiting for something to change in your life in order for you to feel happier, better understood, more passionate. Those of you who feel stuck in a place you never really intended to be. Those of you who feel called to…something else, even if you don’t quite know what that is. For each of you, I want the more you’re longing for. The future you don’t quite know how to reach. And I promise you two things. First, I promise that I will continue to hold your heart’s desire  in my thoughts and in my prayers. Second, I promise that whenever the opportunity arises to offer something tangible – and within my power or ability to give – by way of support or encouragement to another late-bloomer (like me, like you) I will.

You may feel like a bedraggled weed, but you’re really a beautiful flower. You may not, just yet, believe in yourself or in your ability to change your life. But I already believe in you. After all, I’m just another slow-blossoming flower on the midwestern prairie – if I found a way to fully open my petals and bask in the sun, so can you.

Nutrients vs Food

I’ve been watching food-related documentaries this month: King CornFresh, and Lunch Line. Each film takes a look at different aspects of food in the US: production, environmental impacts, public policy, and the costs of our current ways of relating to food. I have been learning so much the past two years about food – both how it impacts me and how it affects the world around me. This is another of the unintended consequences of the Hunger Challenge that began this blog and my current foray into learning what my best life/best self might look like.

In Lunch Line, several of those interviewed spoke about changing the school lunch guidelines from “nutrient based” menus to “food based” menus. In case you haven’t heard these terms, current USDA policies require certain nutrients in the lunches served, rather than numbers of servings of types of foods (like 2 vegetables and a fruit, for example). This is the kind of policy which led, during the Reagan administration, to the brouhaha surrounding the consideration of ketchup as a vegetable. One self-described lunch lady said, “When was the last time you saw a food label on a peach? Real food doesn’t need labels.” I don’t begin to consider myself an expert on these issues, but this idea makes intrinsic sense to me. As some of you may know, when I first began to lose weight several years ago, I joined Weight Watchers. I cannot say enough positive things about Weight Watchers and how their approach has helped so many people make changes in their lives – me included. However, I eventually stopped going, in part due to what I consider their pushing of “fake food” – highly processed foods with artificially enhanced nutritional content – rather than a reliance on whole foods, well-prepared.

As I have been reflecting on this concept, Nutrients vs Food, it has occurred to me that the idea may be generalizable to other consumables in our lives, not just comestibles. How often do we settle for something “good enough” to fit the bill, rather than something truly soul-satisfying? Think about how regularly we opt for ease and a quick fix rather than work a little harder for the real deal. We read pulp fiction, but not literature. We hit headline news, without seeking in-depth analysis of world events. We spend more Facebook time than face-time with our friends. I have one friend who puts hot sauce on everything he eats – an easy way to flavor the food on his plate, but everything ends up tasting the same. In our drive-through, a la carte lives, perhaps it might be better to take the time to season things, to enhance and deepen the flavors, rather than cover them up with a single-note sauce to make them palatable.

Some weeks, I feel like nothing more than a hamster on a wheel, and the race I’m stuck in is both a marathon and a sprint. The illusion I sell myself is that this is how life is, there is nothing to be done except keep running and gasping for air. The truth is, I make the choices that keep me on the wheel. The truth is, I don’t change that because change is hard. Really hard, sometimes. But I don’t want my diet to be a list of nutrients to be checked off. I want it to be a menu full of delicious and nourishing food. And that is what I want for my daily life, as well. Rich, full, well-seasoned with spices – and so real and whole it doesn’t require labels to recognize component parts.

To achieve this requires attention. It requires a willingness to go for the slightly more difficult option. Not every time, but often enough that I develop a taste for the more complex selections. Eventually, the headlines (and the chick-lit and the twitter) are seen for what they really are: appetizers – quick and tasty but hardly confused with a real meal. And the meal itself – deep conversation with people I care about, art and poetry, self-reflection and a well-rounded knowledge of the world I live in – becomes nourishing and satisfying in the truest sense of those words.

“When you recover or discover something that nourishes your soul and brings joy, 
care enough about yourself to make room for it in your life”
–Jean Shinoda Bolen 

Acquired Tastes

The other night, I joined friends for Indian take-out. The selections included two kinds each of lamb and chicken curry, sag paneer, samosas and two flavors of naan. I had some of each curry over savory rice, plus a samosa and the garlic naan. A couple of the dishes were quite spicy, but the flavors were rich and layered. I loved all of it.

Later, as I drove home, I remembered the first time I tried Indian cuisine. I hated it. What were those pungent smells and earthy flavors? None of it tasted right, all of it was unfamiliar. These thoughts brought to mind other items I disliked at first blush, but grew to like (or in some cases love): country music, bald dudes, the smell of Quaker Oats. Below are a few other acquired tastes that may need a little explanation:

  • Bike shorts: All of my adult life I have joined friends in making fun of people who wear bike shorts. Especially if they are wearing matching jerseys (or, like the couple I saw on Saturday, BOTH wearing the same matching shorts/jerseys outfits). “Really?”, I’ve thought. “You need to wear a diaper in skin-tight spandex in order to ride a bike?”  With the purchase of my first pair of biking shorts this summer, I have had to take it all back. I may still be less than comfortable with the skin-tight spandex, but I am loving the diaper part. Comfortable doesn’t begin to describe it – those shorts have literally saved my butt.
  • Squats and lunges: A number of years ago, when I still weighed close to 350 pounds, my friend Ryan designed a workout routine for me. He included lots of these moves, and I told him I couldn’t do them. He said I could. We went round and round on it, but the truth is, I nearly fell over when I tried a lunge and I thought I looked like a weirdo when I attempted a squat. I gave them one chance, and refused to consider them again. Once I joined Sisters’ Gym, the fitness classes almost always included squats and lunges. I did them as gingerly as possible, and complained frequently about how they hurt my knees. However, this summer I have turned a corner – all the bike riding has strengthened my knees, increased my physical confidence, and allowed me to see that squats and lunges just add to my body’s strength. I don’t wait until my trainer’s back is turned to fudge on them anymore.
  • Top 40 Radio: To be fair, this is a re-acquired taste. I loved it as a teen. I despised it throughout my 40s. Last year, I was exposed to it while riding in a van with Mike and his teenaged sons. I had to listen, because the volume was cranked. I distinctly remember hearing “Magic” by B.O.B. and thinking, “Wow, I’ve never heard this before, but I can already sing along!” When it came time to update the workout songs on my iPod, I turned to the ever-popular popular music for songs which might be inane (Brittney or Ke$ha) but have a good beat (Flo Rida or Usher).
  • Power bars and sports drinks: Back in the days when I was always looking for the most delectable snackfoods, I thought these were terrible. The bars were sticky and tasted like sawdust, while the beverages were sweet with a strange aftertaste. Also, when you never break a sweat, they seem dumb. Now I know better. Early morning physical activity benefits from food intake, but I just can’t do breakfast sometimes. And long bike rides during severe heat advisories are just safer when electrolytes are replenished. I have come to appreciate (yes, even like) these items. 
  • Movement: There was a point in my life when I avoided things that required extra movement, or really any movement. My mother often commented on my strange talent for finding a way to complete household chores while seated. Sometimes, I was actually jealous of the people on motorized chairs in the grocery store – why did they get to ride while I walked? When friends needed help moving or completing work projects in their homes, I usually volunteered to bring food rather than engage in the labor. Now, some days I feel lazy. But most days, I need to fit in some kind of physical activity, even if the day is a long one, in order to feel truly well. It turns out, I like moving. A lot.

I didn’t include any people on my list. However, experience has taught me that first impressions should not be allowed to determine the course of relationships. I have a number of treasured friends whose personalities or styles were an acquired taste for me – and I am certain that the same is true for them with regard to me. I know all about the research on first impressions, their tenacity and the lightening speed with which they are made. But I also know that first impressions can strike deceptively far from the truth. The important thing, whether I’m talking people or curry, is to keep an open mind. Like most important life lessons I’ve learned, this one bears repeating. Luckily, the opportunities for having it reinforced are many!

Stress Fantasies

It is no secret to anyone who knows me: August is my least favorite month.  This sentiment has everything to do with the annual opening of the fall semester. To put it in perspective, August is the tax season of Residence Life (I’m sure any accountant reading this blog will fully appreciate what I’m saying.)

In August, when things blow up at work and I find myself either in the office or working at home/the coffeeshop evenings and weekends, I find myself fantasizing a lot. In fact, every quiet moment finds me longing for something I can’t have or do in August.   One definition of fantasy is “…the free play of creative imagination”. However, these stress fantasies are both strange and a little embarrassing, because their content is…not right. One should never give one’s imagination license to play freely and then come up with…

…laundry. I can’t believe I fantasize about taking the time to run multiple loads of laundry through my basement machines. Mostly, in August, I decide what I want to wear the next day and before falling into bed throw a load made up of exactly that – including the underwear, socks/stockings, and outer garments – into my washer. In the morning, the whole load dries while I shower. I dress in scalding hot garments, standing on the cold cement floor.

…sleep. Sitting at my desk after RA training activities, slogging through the entire day’s emails, I dream about sleeping. I imagine myself crawling into bed in a dark room and…zzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

…falling down the stairs. Ok, this is my dark fantasy in August. They say visualization works – athletes use it to successfully achieve their physical goals all the time. This is the month every year when I visualize myself falling down the library steps when my arms are loaded down with binders, balls, and coffee. I see it happening in my mind, then tell myself that this is an effective technique only if I actually WANT to fall. And I don’t, because I can’t be assured I will hurt myself in a manner that would require me to get more bedrest.

…going to the bathroom at the moment that I actually need to.  Let’s agree, no one should ever have to fantasize about this.

…winning the lottery. Enough said.

In past years, August has managed to derail my good exercise and eating habits. Suddenly, there are not enough hours in the day, and the management of work-related concerns leaves me exhausted and stressed out. This is a terrible one-two punch to the core of my healthy lifestyle. This year, though, my exercise habits are well enough incorporated into my life that I am finding time time for exercise regardless of the rest of the schedule. I feel stronger and more energized as a result. Yes, the sudden availability of a wide variety of delicious yet nutritiously damaging foods is a temptation (the dining room reopens, RAs and other staff bring treats, we bribe – I mean thank – them for their hard work with icecream and candy). Luckily, I am tempted one day and able to manage appropriately the next, so I am hopeful that I will be able to maintain recent losses.

Now that I think about it, perhaps I do have one appropriate August fantasy: the one where I survive the month feeling confident, strong and healthy. Perhaps this one will come true if I visualize!

50 about 50: On Food

If you have been reading this blog, or following me on Facebook, you have to know that I will be turning 50 at the end of this month. While I have made it a point to celebrate and enjoy my birthdays the past few years, I am not typically one to navel-gaze about each passing year (oh, I navel-gaze with the best of them, just not about that, generally speaking!). However, 50 feels different, in many ways. I can’t help thinking it is still too young to be the gateway to old age, but there is no denying that it is likely to be the metaphorical entrance into the second act of my life. In plays, the first act is usually longer than the second, and youth seems endless. Act I is followed by an intermission, kind of a rest period, which might be an apt description for your late 40s. Not quite your youth, but also not quite your elder years. Then: curtains up, Act II.

As I approach my birthday, I am taking-stock, thinking carefully about my life thus far and about the life I hope to live in the coming years. As a result, each Thursday blog post in July will be part of my “50 about 50” list. It won’t be a continuous list, but several lists. I have given thought as to how to organize these lists, how to share the discoveries I have made along the way, the seredipitous moments and the surprises that have contributed to who I am and what I value today. There are only 4 Thursdays in July, so one post will include a bonus list! To get started:

Ten Things I’ve Learned About Food

1.  Your tastes change over the course of a lifetime.

Ok, I’ve never been a picky eater, ask anyone. However, for many years of my life I lived without the joy of avocados. I tried them as a youngster, and did not care for them. By the time I got around to trying them again, they tasted like ambrosia. And that’s just the tip of the asparagus spear – there are many other foods that I have come to enjoy over time that I did not care for earlier in my life. It pays to be open to trying again. And sometimes again.

2.  What we know about foods and their nutritional value and physiological effects changes periodically.

So don’t completely give up anything you enjoy based on a current news report. Moderation in everything, as my former roommate Michelle Fouts was fond of saying.

3.  Food is a social justice issue.

For most of my life, I never thought about this. But even a few statistics can change your view on this if you really take them in. For example, in the U.S. in 2009, households that had higher rates of food insecurity than the national average included households with children (21.3 percent), especially households with children headed by single women (36.6 percent) or single men (27.8 percent), Black non-Hispanic households (24.9 percent) and Hispanic households (26.9 percent). In 2009, 7.8 percent of seniors living alone (884,000 households) were food insecure. (Statistics courtesy of Feeding America) And it goes deeper than the number of people who experience hunger. The social justice issues surrounding food also include issues related to obesity, alarming increases in diabetes, the unequal access to healthy, fresh food experienced by those in economically disadvantaged communities.

4. “Food addiction” as a term is an oxymoron.

We are all addicted to food. Can’t live without it. Figuring out how to live WITH it is the important thing!

5. Oatmeal is my delicious friend.

My folks weren’t oatmeal eaters. The first time I was served oatmeal was at Camp Little Cloud when I was approximately 9. It was a gelatinous pile of what tasted like salty paste. No way! This morning, I had instant oatmeal, maple flavored, with one tablespoon of creamy, all natural peanut butter. The first spoonful elicited an audible sound of delight from deep in my throat. Almost a purr really. In the past four years, I’ve made up for the dearth of oatmeal in my early life by eating it multiple times each week. It never lets me down. When Starbucks started selling oatmeal, and fittingly named theirs “Perfect Oatmeal”, it was a happy day in Jen-land.

5. Food is a sustainability concern.

Locavore. Organic. Community Supported Agriculture. Slow Food Movement. We’ve all heard these words. It is impossible to maintain a laissez-faire stance once one begins to educate oneself about the issues. Read Michael Pollan, watch a couple of the excellent documentary films that have been produced, attend your local farmer’s market. It isn’t even difficult anymore (for those of us lucky enough to have the resources) to become aware of and begin to change our choices in accordance with a more loving stance toward our earth. I have only taken a few tentative steps, but hope to continue further down this path.

6. Not enough poetry has been written about kale.

Or really, about any of the lesser greens, root vegetables, or legumes that middle-America gave up on in favor of Chef Boyardee and Hot Pockets. Discovering these oldies but goodies has totally enriched my diet. They may not be the most beautiful, but they are arguably some of the most soulful foods going.

8. Food can, and in my opinion should, be a total sensual experience.

Mike and I made dinner one night over the Memorial Day weekend. He asked me how I managed, with such delicious leftovers in the house, to avoid bingeing on them until they were gone. I took a deep breath, inhaling the fresh scents of ginger,thyme, hand-grated nutmeg and toasted coconut flakes. I looked at the profusion of bright colors in the salad bowl and on our plates. I thought about the variety of textures in the food we were about to eat. And the answer was easy – when your food satisfies all your senses, it also satifies your hunger at a very deep level. Whenever possible, meals should be sensually fulfilling experiences. There’s no need to overeat or binge when every sense is replete.

9. Cooking for (or with) and feeding loved ones is one of life’s greatest joys.

Unless you have to do it every day. In which case it is a drudgery. I discovered the joy part back in the late 80s when I first learned to bake bread. My two roommates, the Michelles, would come home and immediately devour the first loaf while I enjoyed their delight. It continues to be one of my favorite ways to express my love for others. The drudgery part, I’ve heard from nearly every mother/wife I know.

10. I like food. Food’s my favorite.

Enough said.

Lazy Sunday: Rain, Laundry and Quiche

Sunday morning. Memorial Day Weekend, 2011.

I am sitting on the sofa in my living room. Outside the closed shades is a sky dark and gray with rain. Thunder grumbles. I take a sip of my hot coffee and stretch my toes. Breakfast is ready except for the quiche baking in the oven, I’m warm and comfortable. And Mike is folding laundry.

In revealing what I am about to share, I will likely be showing myself to be an easily entertained simpleton. So be it. The truth is, I love watching Mike do laundry. I’ve never seen anything like it (well, except the other times I’ve sat enthralled while Mike folded).

I pull clothes out of the dryer, often after they’ve sat there for days. Already hopelessly wrinkled, I hold each item up, twist it, turn it, put it in a pile in a shape reasonably approximating “folded”. Mike removes them immediately from the dryer, divides the clean load into items which will be folded in a similar manner. Each piece is shaken out, then laid carefully on the floor, wrinkles smoothed, then folded in crisp one-at-a-time folds. T-shirts are perfectly square packages which will fit perfectly into their cubby in his closet. Towels and pillowcases each have their own style of fold, and I love watching the ordered piles of clean laundry build on the floor in my living room. Flat sheets are crisp, fitted sheets make neat, flat piles – elastic, rounded corners pose no obstacle to Mike’s skills. Bedding gets stacked in sets so that there will be no searching through a messy pile for a matching pillow case.

While Mike folds, we chat idly about the weekend, or about the laundry itself. I could tell you about Mike’s undershirts…but then I’d have to kill you. I think Mike enjoys these moments as much as I do. When you live alone, as we both do, these humble household tasks are undertaken without much thought and always in a solitary fashion. Company makes them pleasant in a way that they never are otherwise. Also, laundry folding is usually at the end of our shared time together, when neither of us feels compelled to fill the moments with deep conversation or frenetic activity. When we have settled into an easy companionship and are savoring it before we go our separate ways again for months.

Mike folds a pillow case beside piles of clean laundry, and loves that I am snapping a photo!

I must tear myself away from Mike and his laundry to pull the individual quiches from the oven. Another thing I love about having company for the weekend is the opportunity to cook for someone other than myself. I always try new recipes, rather than stick with tried and true – there’s an element of risk, but I know Mike won’t mind if the results are disastrous – he’s sick of solitary meal preparation at home, too!

My breakfast menu for today: individual quiches, fruit salad with vanilla yogurt, hashbrowns. The quiche uses herbs de provence, which I have not cooked with before. As the herbs saute with the vegetables, their fragrance fills the house. (As always the recipe is included on the recipes tab on this blog).

Too bad you can't see the delicious veggies and goat cheese filling the quiche! Yum.

After we eat, we load Mike’s van and he departs for Minneapolis. I am not a fan of that first half-hour after company leaves – the house is quiet, I’m tired, and living alone suddenly feels terribly lonely. But that moment passes, and I am able to luxuriate in my still-clean house and my refrigerator stocked with tasty leftovers. Besides, I’m pretty sure that if I play my cards right, I’ll live to see Mike fold another day!

In Recovery

On university campuses, May is a time of dinners, receptions, celebrations of many stripes. It is also the time when colleagues, holed up in offices all winter, emerge blinking in the sun, and greet one another with exclamations of “I haven’t seen you in so long!” At one such occasion the other night, I was happy to see the wife of one of our Deans, whom I hadn’t seen in, well, so long. She said, “You look fabulous! How have you done it?”

Normally, when people ask me that question, I assume they are interested in a short answer – diet and exercise OR bariatric surgery. So I generally respond, “The old-fashioned way.” For some reason, on this particular occasion, I launched into a longer and less clear explanation. I found myself telling her that I had refused for many years to take a real look at WHY I was fat. That, in fact, I preferred to believe that the only plausible reason was that I was engineered that way. I definitely wasn’t one of those people who was overweight for psychological or emotional reasons. I told her that I finally had to take a hard look at myself and evaluate my irrational thinking.

Last night, I attended a presentation being offered as part of our pre-finals “Stress Buster Week”, in which a panel of guests shared their personal stories of alcoholism and recovery. As I listened, for the first time it struck me just how much my relationship with food mirrored their relationships with alcohol. One panelist stated, “For most people, a few drinks quenches their desire or need for more. For an alcoholic, a few drinks just makes you more thirsty.” Substitute “food” for the word “drinks” in those sentences, and they will be true for me. In the same session, I heard the panelists say:

  • I knew I wasn’t normal. When I was drinking was the only time I felt normal.
  • Teachers and speakers told us alcohol was evil. But alcohol comforted me, so I wasn’t willing to do anything about it.
  • I drank in secret whenever I could get away with it. As long a no one saw me drink, I didn’t have a problem.
  • I was so ashamed.

Wow. These statements were all eerily familiar to me as well. I know there is a group called Overeaters’ Anonymous, patterned after A.A. I never considered joining, and when it was suggested to me periodically, I always said, “I’m just not a joiner.” Denial much?! And, if I am completely honest with myself, I wanted to distance myself from all those fat people. After all, I wasn’t one of them. I may have been fat, but that didn’t make me like those other people – I was smart and educated and never bought more than one value meal for myself at McDonalds. The fact that I looked upon others who struggled with the same issues as me with such repugnance is a testament to the irrationality of my thinking, and to the power of my addiction. I didn’t want to give it up, and if I admitted to having problems, I would be forced to face that food was just my drug of choice.

Another thing the panelists said last night that made me nod in agreement:  “The whole forever thing really tripped me up. To get better, I would have to stop drinking for the rest of my life. No way I was going to do that!” In order to truly face my addiction to food, I knew that the lifestyle changes I  needed to make would have to be lifelong. I read in one article that overweight women my age would need to work out 60-90 minutes a day, every day, for the rest of their lives to lose the weight and keep it off. Talk about a daunting prospect. Plus, I would need to maintain a change in my relationship to food – no more whole pizzas or whole bags of cheddar goldfish in a single sitting. In fact, I may have to forego some foods altogether if I couldn’t learn to control the portions. Yes, I definitely saw myself in the panelists’ struggle to come to terms with their addictions.

But here’s the really amazing thing: each member of the panel HAS faced his or her addiction, with incredibly positive and powerful results. Listening to their stories of living in recovery, and the positive changes that have taken place across all facets of their lives I started nodding along. I recognized myself in this part of the story as well. As I sat there, I was suffused with an overpowering sense of gratitude for each of our stories. I almost said, “for the happy endings to each of our stories”, but if I’ve learned anything (either in the last couple of years or from last night’s speakers), there is no happy ending to our stories. Our lives continue as stories being told one sentence at a time. One of the panelists summed it up, perfectly, “I take it one day at a time. Because I know that if I succeed today, tomorrow will be better.”

Conference – Day 2: Activism

I began the day with an early morning trek to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It was too early to enter the museum and see the exhibits, but that is not what I was there for, anyway. Like millions of others over the years, I visited the museum to see the Rocky steps. You know, the ones Rocky tackled as part of his training for the big fight in the original Rocky film. One of the reasons that movie has inspired so many is the whole idea of one regular guy taking on a corrupt system and, through application of hard work and heart, overcoming the odds that are stacked so high against him.

Turns out, this was a fitting way to begin the second day at the NASPA Conference. The morning’s featured speaker was Emmanuel Jal, whose autobiography War Child tells the story of his turbulent youth in Sudan, where he witnessed many atrocities, at the age of eight became a child soldier, then a refugee and one of the “lost boys” of Sudan. But Jal’s path was destined to cross that of Emma McCune who saved him (along with 149 other Sudanese children). Jal now works for peace and to better the lives of those in his home country living in poverty. His goal is to change the world. I know he managed to take a bunch of college administrators and turn us into dancing fools this morning, so maybe he will succeed.

The afternoon featured speakers were Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, the documentary filmmakers who brought us King Corn the story of how hidden corn in our diets has literally changed us. They also took on a project of farming out of the bed of an old pickup, leading to their high-profile Truck Farm.  Advocates for sustainable practices in food production, they have also started an activism project modeled on Americorps, called Food Corps. Their aim is to send young adults into communities to teach about whole foods, grow school gardens, and get communities really thinking about the startling effects of our current food consumption patterns in the United States. This is a public health crisis (1 in 3 children is on track to develop Type II Diabetes), it is a social justice concern (our poorest communities have the least access to fresh foods), and it touches everyone. After the session, I spoke briefly with Curt Ellis, who is spearheading the activism side of their ventures. He indicated that Iowa (my home state) is one of the first 10 states to which Food Corps workers will be sent. We spoke about some of the challenges in Iowa of speaking directly and truthfully to farmers and to powerful business interests about these concerns. He said he’s met with higher level management at businesses such as Cargill (to name one major industry in my community) – and he believes that by and large they want the same things he does, among them food that makes people healthy rather than sick. The ten states they’re starting Food Corps in were selected because they already have statewide organizations which will support Food Corps’ mission and purpose. In Iowa, there are a couple of campuses with strong Americorps programs, and they will also be working with the National Center for Appropriate Technology.

In addition to the two featured presentations, I went to two additional sessions. One of these also fit todays theme. The presenters, from Marquette University, discussed the development of a social justice living-learning community based on the life and work of Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement. Dorothy Day, an activist whose example has inspired many to enter fully into lives of those who have little.

In all, I walked away from today’s formal events ready to take action in both my work and my own life. Inspiration is a great thing, but today’s speakers reminded me that without action, great ideas remain just that. As Emmanuel Jal, Ian Cheney, and Curt Ellis know, inspiration must lead to action in order to spark real change.  And this brings me back to Rocky. As we all know, sometimes the road to change is difficult and requires hard work. We love what Rocky stands for because he succeeded through sheer perseverance. Emmanuel Jal fasted for over 600 days to raise money to build a school in Africa because he promised the children he would do it. I don’t know about you, but I definitely call that perseverance! I’m happy to have both the fictional hero and a real life one to learn my lessons from. And the lesson I learned today is that it isn’t really a question of CAN I do it (am I good enough, strong enough, talented enough to change the world). Its more a question of WILL I do it? And the only way to answer yes to that question is…to get busy!

Salad Days

So, I wanted to share a post about salads as entrees and how I have come to love them in a way that I never expected. I began by giving the post the title, above, then got sidetracked looking up where the term comes from.  Luckily, I found all I needed to know on Wikipedia.

The origin of the phrase, “salad days” appears to stem from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, when Cleopatra, regretting an affair in her youth (with Julius Ceasar no less) utters the couplet:

my salad days/when I was green in judgment, cold in blood.

The Wikipedia entry goes on to quote Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, which summarizes several other possible meanings of the metaphor:

“Whether the point is that youth, like salad, is raw, or that salad is highly flavoured, and youth loves high flavours, or that innocent herbs are youth’s food … “

I love this summary, and the characterizations of both youth and salad.  Perhaps, subconsciously, I have made similar connections and this is why I delight in salad as my main dish. It is youthful, highly flavored, raw and herby. Innocent, in that I prefer salads without a a lot of fancy preparations – just start with a nice mix of greens and lettuces, then toss in any fruit, nuts, veggies on hand. A little highly flavored cheese (in the salad pictured above, the cheese is smoked gouda). No need for meat, expensive dressings (I prefer a sprinkle of balsamic vinegar and a spritz of olive oil) or anything sophisticated. The flavors are varied and lively. Yep, young and yummy. I feel energized after eating a really delicious fresh salad.

So, a late-bloomer as usual, I have finally in mid-life discovered my salad days…and they are good. Deliciously good!