Tuesday, October 23, 2007

My Own Private Ramadan

This fall, as happens every 32 years when our two different lunar calendars intersect, the Jewish High Holy Days coincided with the Islamic month of Ramadan.

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is an absolute 24-hour fast. Before sundown the night before Yom Kippur, one eats the Meal of Cessation, called Seudat Mafkeset. From then on, it's NPO, nothing by mouth. You don't even brush your teeth, lest a drop of water be swallowed.

Finally, after sundown the next day, the fast is broken with a traditional meal that varies by culture. The Sephardic custom is egg-lemon soup, avgolemono. We Ashkenazim go for a dairy meal--bagels, cream cheese, smoked fish, cheese blintzes. (A traditional Yom Kippur greeting is "May you have an easy fast!" My own family of origin took that to its limits, enjoying the fast-breaking feast without ever enduring the fast itself.)

Ramadan is very different, an entire month alternating diurnally between fasting and feasting. Fasting during the daylight hours is still a considerable feat and sacrifice, especially when Ramadan, which migrates through the solar year, falls in the longest days of summer. The faithful stoke up with Suhur, the morning meal, before dawn, and cannot refuel again until Iftar, the festive evening meal. (Harira, above left, is an Iftar tradition in Morocco, lamb stew with lentils and chickpeas.)

What does all this have to do with me? I have never kept the Yom Kippur fast, and wouldn't even notice when Ramadan came around if we weren't at war in two Muslim countries. By next week, maybe three.

But lately, on many days each week, I seem to be simply putting off eating until late in the day. In short, I am finally doing what my blog title says, Waiting For Hungry. No breakfast except coffee, no lunch, no snacks. Finally, in mid-afternoon, I allow myself a meal.

It's my own private Ramadan.

The Man in the Blue Tarp

I keep seeing this story. It's always a different person, but the story is the same. In this case from Lansing, Michigan, a 900-pound man, who had not been able to leave his home for four years, was brought to the hospital by extraordinary means. Firefighters and paramedics cut a hole in a wall to remove him from the second floor of his duplex, using a telescoping forklift. To shield him from the gawking crowds, they covered him completely in a blue tarp. The press, in its unfailingly humanitarian fashion, has made photos available.

For those not willing to avert their gaze, the Web also offers tarp-free images of the similarly immobilized Manuel Uribe Garcia of Monterrey, Mexico. He is now down to 800 pounds, but at 1200 pounds he was acclaimed the heaviest man in the world. Modestly he plays down his achievement. Just a regular Jose, he told ABC News. "I used to eat normal, just like all Mexicans do. Beans, rice, flour tortilla, corn tortilla, French fries, hamburgers, subs and pizzas, whatever regular people eat. I worked as a technician, repairing typewriters, electronic calculators and computers. So I worked on a chair. It was a sedentary life."

Manuel's picture isn't easy to look at, but one must look. What are we to make of this freakshow display? Perhaps it is a cautionary tale. You cannot ever turn into a two-headed calf or a snake-faced woman, but if you don't watch out, if you get always get fries with that, if you are a desk worker instead of a bicycle courier, if you let yourself go, this could be you: a man in a blue plastic suit whose other car is a forklift. You have been warned. Tarpe diem.

Star Light

In September, I joined Weight Watchers, not for the first time, but this time it's working. Why?

The last time, I used their Core Foods plan. That turned out to be too loosely structured for my already too-loose, screw-loose psyche. The Points plan, along with online tracking of everything I eat, suits much better.

Nutritionists and other Helpful People have always told me to get a notebook and log my food, but I simply couldn't. Clicking online is much easier, and much more satisfying. Because the E-Tools immediately calculate not only how many points you've already eaten, but how many are still ahead in the day, it seems to have a soothing effect on the anxiety of hunger. (A point is roughly 50 calories, with some reduction in calorie value given for high fiber content.) My initial plan allowed 42 points, or 2100 calories. As I've lost weight, the points allowance is adjusted downward, now standing at 39.

We meet in a church basement. I don't talk much, but when I announced I had dropped 25 lb, the leader shrieked and ran out the back door, apparently to her car for a prop. When she came back in, she was carrying a medium-sized black suitcase, and gave it to me to hold. "This suitcase weighs 25 pounds!" she said. I held it up over my head like it was the Stanley Cup. Then she gave me a star-shaped refrigerator magnet.

Weight Watchers. Whodathunk it? Keep Watching.

Monday, August 13, 2007

You are getting skinny. Very very skinny.

We arrived back in Vermont two weeks ago. I nearly got down on my hands and knees to kiss the tarmac, but I didn't want to be mistaken for the Pope. It is bad enough being mistaken for Luciano Pavarotti.

While we waited for the moving van to catch up with us, we couch-surfed at various friends' homes, and I pursued my hobbies, like listening to music on hold and negotiating with utility companies. I also made an appointment with my hypnotist. The last time she put me under, I lost 60 pounds in a few months. Nothing else has ever had that kind of impact, so I went back.

I don't know how hypnosis works; nobody does. I've never even heard a coherent theory. All I know is it worked for me. Others in town swear by this therapist, who has helped people quit smoking, deal with grief, and other problems known to respond to hypnosis. She also does past lives regression. Ordinarily, this would put me off entirely, but I've decided it's harmless.

In the therapist's office, I chose the big black recliner armchair over the couch; if I lay down on a couch right now I'll fall asleep. We strategized for a few minutes, trying to identify the elements of the previous therapy I wanted to recapture. I also asked if she were willing to do "aversion therapy"--planting hypnotic suggestions that would make certain foods positively unpleasant, even nauseating. She demurred; she doesn't like the idea. I tried again and she refused again, and we left it at that.

Then I closed my eyes, settled back in the recliner, and got totally paralyzed. There are people who can't be hypnotized, but I'm not one of them. And then it started. I can tell you exactly what she said -- I've got a tape of the entire session -- but I don't really think the words would tell you anything. For the first 10 or 15 minutes, she said relaxing things and I relaxed. For the next 20 minutes, she spoke about food and eating and satisfaction and health and said many sensible things that I've heard before, but there's apparently something different about hearing them in a trance, whatever a trance is.

After she brought me out of the trance, she brought me a glass of water. She gave me the tape and reminded me not to listen to it while driving. I've listened a few times since; once I listened all the way through, the other time I fell asleep.

Result of all this: A calm indifference to food. Greatly increased ability, when the mind begs for food, to change the subject to something else. Restored hope.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Into the Bariatric

Baros is Greek for heavy. Iatros is Greek for physician. Bariatric medicine specializes in the treatment of obesity. Doctors have always had obese patients, but recently the field has organized and formalized itself. And medical suppliers have responded to the need for bariatric stuff.

These two white-shoe medical professionals are wrapped in a Bariatric Towel. The towel is 45 x 102 inches. The maker describes the towel this way: "Oversized design accommodates any body size or style."

I've been a catalog writer a long time, so I know that bland sentence wasn't the writer's first thought. No, that's a classic second serve, safe but not jazzy. Before he settled on that, he would have first tried something more picturesque. Something like these:

"Our Big'n'Tall towels cover acres of cellulite!"

"No more dripping wet fat guys!"

"Our whale-sized towel fits your plus-sized patients!"

"She may not fit in the shower, but she'll fit into our towel!"

"Gigantic towel doubles as a shroud!"

Our Ever-Expanding Global Reach

This blog is getting some far-flung eyeballs. It isn't just David's poetry friends anymore, no. We've gone totally global. We have reached the farthest shore. It doesn't get much better than this. Today the blog drew a complimentary comment from Rodrigo, the Brazilian T-shirt printer. He was so excited, in fact, that he posted the same comment three times, and I don't have to tell you what that means. Rodrigo, welcome to the audience. We are honored. We are overwhelmed. And we have reinstated comment moderation.

Here's what Rodrigo said: Oi, achei teu blog pelo google tá bem interessante gostei desse post. Quando der dá uma passada pelo meu blog, é sobre camisetas personalizadas, mostra passo a passo como criar uma camiseta personalizada bem maneira. Se você quiser linkar meu blog no seu eu ficaria agradecido, até mais e sucesso. (If you speak English can see the version in English of the Camiseta Personalizada. If he will be possible add my blog in your blogroll I thankful, bye friend).

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

What Gets Measured

"What gets measured, gets done." But for measurement to matter, we must measure the right thing in the right way. Otherwise you get Iraqi civilian body counts, No Child Left Behind, U.S. News & World Report's college rankings, the Guinness Book of World Records, and other towering monuments to the folly of mismeasurement.

In a weight-loss diet the obvious way to measure progress is to step on the scale. The problem, as every dieter knows, is that one failing report card from the bathroom scale can be so discouraging that the whole diet is abandoned.

My friend Laurence avoids the scale. Instead he tracks his progress with a trusty old leather belt. (Disclaimer: The photo above does not depict his belt, or his waist.)

We own no less than three scales.

One, a doctor's scale with sliding weights, is in the attic back in Vermont. Another, a digital bathroom scale, works very well, but will not register anything over 308 lb., and I have zoomed into that dreaded territory several times this year. Finally, after much searching, an analog scale was found that goes up to 330.

The digital scale has some extra features, some quite unnecessary. It purports to gauge percentage of body fat by measuring the electrical resistance between your feet. I forgive it for this lofty pretension.

What I like best is how I can turn it on by poking a button with my big toe, and the cheery, non-judgmental beep it emits as it displays my weight. Except when it displays OL. I don't know what that means. Over Load? Or maybe it's short for LOL.

So much for scales. I wanted a measuring tape, one of my own, not one borrowed from Ann's ancestral sewing box. I went into the fabric store in Watsonville.

When men walk into fabric stores, fabric store ladies see us coming, nervously striding into unfamiliar territory. They know we are good for a laugh. (Usually, one fabric store lady confided in me, all men want is Velcro for something in the shop.)

I got a nice little yellow retractable tailor's tape for under $2. The lady asked me if the color was okay. She had the same thing in purple and red. I said it wasn't going to be a fashion accessory.

The first thing I measured, and the only measurement I am going to tell you now, was my neck: 19 inches. That's awful. A 19-inch neck all by itself is highly diagnostic for sleep apnea. Everybody worries about their waistlines; nobody should ever be fat enough to worry about their neck circumference.

Ok. There's a benchmark. I'll keep you posted.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Bread: What We Used To Eat

Back in the mid-1970s, a Wesleyan professor was doing ethnomusicology field work in Indonesia, and like a good investigator he asked lots of questions. But his host and informant asked a question of his own. "What do you eat in America?"

The professor didn't answer right away. What to say? Our diet is so varied, how to sum it up? Nor did he wish to embarrass his host by describing America's extraordinary plenty, or by extension his own comparative personal wealth. "I don't know," he said. "Lots of things. Um...chicken?"

The Indonesian laughed. "No, no," he said, "what do you eat?"

Finally it dawned on the American that his host was curious about America's staple starch. Was it rice? Taro? Potatoes? That's what you eat. A chicken is a luxury item, party food, not a national diet. "Bread," said the professor finally. "We eat bread."

It wasn't exactly a lie. Although bread no longer holds the same place in Western cuisine as rice still does in Asia or potatoes did in pre-blight Ireland, it did once. "Give us this day our daily bread" was no mere synecdoche. Once, bread was food, and food was bread.

I've never forgotten Balzac's description, in "Lost Illusions," of a venerable Paris restaurant, Flicoteaux's, where impoverished students could eat for a few sous. The fare was not fancy, but the menu carried this irresistible item: "Bread at your discretion." All the bread you can eat! Unimaginable plenty. And to back up the offer, the tables were heaped with six-pound loaves, cut into quarters.

By bizarre contrast, I have more than once heard Americans complain about the basket of bread served in restaurants. "They want you to fill up on bread before the food arrives!" This is a sentence that could never, ever, have been uttered by a Frenchman in any century.

There's a stock character in classic Greek and Roman comedy named Artotrogus, or Bread-Eater. Artotrogus, thou shouldst be living at this hour!

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Chocolate Irony

You want irony? I'll give you irony. Remember in "Out of Milk" when I promised an essay about chocolate and how I would never eat it again as long as I lived? (It has been 10 days already, and 10 days without chocolate is a long, long time. ) (Photo: Detail from "Chocolate Kama Sutra," artist unknown.)

Here comes the irony. Just now my wife Ann has forwarded me notice of an intriguing job opening at a company in Vermont that needs a marketing person just like me. The company? Lake Champlain Chocolates, purveyors of super-premium gift chocolates, "made in small batches," for prices that approach $30 per pound.

So I have written a very memorable letter to the chocolate makers about how I would bend my creative talents to their noble purpose, and I mean every word of it. I could do that. I love chocolate. I love all food that comes with a story.

I remember my grandmother feeding me, zooming a spoon around in front of my face. I was well past the age when I needed to be fed by an adult, but she was my grandmother and it was a luxury. She would say, "Here comes the airplane, now open the hanger!" or "Here comes the spaceship!" What was the food? I don't remember. I remember the story.

I remember my mother burning the toast, and saying "Aunt Susie would have loved it. She always asked for the burnt toast."

I heard that my Aunt Lois, during the hungry times of the Great Depression, was asked what she wanted for her birthday. She replied, "A whole chicken, all to myself." I never heard whether she got it.

There are foods that nobody would eat at all if it were not for the power of the accompanying story. Matzoh is one example, and its near cousin, communion wafer, is an infinitely better example.

Haggis is in the same league of foods that can only be consumed with a heavy sauce of narrative. I remember a Bobby Burns Night concert in Cambridge, when folksinger Jean Redpath brought out a haggis on a platter, and even in the tenth row I could sense that eating it would require an act not of hunger but of faith.

You can tell stories about chocolate, but chocolate requires no story. Chocolate doesn't need to talk its way into your mouth. Your mouth is made for chocolate, the way your lungs are made for air. There is no resistance, no hesitation, no intermediation, no required ritual, no byplay of salt-licking and lime-biting.

That's the problem with chocolate. It doesn't say no. It doesn't even say "Wait a minute." It says "Eat me now. Eat all of me. It's what I live for."

I read once that a properly-planned dinner must include a "piece de resistance" and that although that French phrase has lately come to mean merely "a very special dish," its name comes from the idea that this should be the most substantial part of the meal, the part that takes some time, that slows you down, that offers resistance. It's not a two-bite appetizer, not an amuse-bouche. It's food that takes some work and study to eat. When that course appears, the conversation dies down and the serious eating begins.

For me, chocolate is just too easy. It lets me eat too much too fast with too little effort. It's not like walnuts in the shell, which must be attacked with various steel surgical tools. It's not like pomegranates, or steamed crabs, or artichokes. Those foods are all resistance.

There's a bag of chocolate morsels in the pantry, waiting to be made into cookies. I know where it is. I leave it alone. This doesn't sound like much, but it's a breakthrough.

Peanut butter, milk, chocolate. Now what? What next? I will entertain nominations from the floor.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Punching Down Day

"When the dough has doubled in bulk, punch it down." A human baby doubles its birth weight by six months. It's a milestone, an occasion, a passage, like a birthday. Call it First Doubling. May it have its own page in all the world's baby books from this day forth. Call it Punching Down Day.

Most adults stop gaining weight after their fourth doubling. Starting at 8 pounds, they go to 16, 32, 64, 128, and a bit more. Most stop a bit after four; I, after a long pause, kept going until a bit after five. It's exponential.

And me? You thought I was an exhibitionist, discussing my embonpoint so boldly here on the embonet? No. Not an exhibitionist. I'm an exponentialist.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Out of Milk

In Barbara Kingsolver's novel "Pigs in Heaven," a single mom, Taylor Greer, brings her adopted Cherokee daughter, Turtle, to a doctor. Turtle has been having painful abdominal cramps. The doctor asks about Turtle's diet. Taylor is panicky and guilty--she doesn't have much money, but she's been trying to do right by the kid.

"I make sure she gets protein," she tells the doctor. "We eat a lot of peanut butter. And tuna fish. And she always gets milk. Every single day, no matter what."

"Well, actually, that might be the problem." The doctor then instructs Taylor, without explaining why, to stop giving Turtle milk.

"Excuse me, but I don't get this," Taylor says. "I thought milk was the perfect food. Vitamins and calcium, and everything."

"Cow's milk is fine for white folks," the doctor answers, "but somewhere between 60 and 70 percent of the rest of us are lactose intolerant. That means we don't have the enzymes in our system to digest some of the sugar in cow's milk. So it ferments in the intestine and causes all kinds of problems."

In the current American estimate, I'm white folks, but that's a fairly recent development--see Karen Brodkin's fascinating book "How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America." I'm nouveau blanc. But I'm also one of the earth's lactose-intolerant billions. I grew up loving milk and I still do, but enough is enough. Last week I finally put milk on my banned list, as part of a subtractive process of figuring out what's wrong with me and my diet.

I'm not allergic to milk, that's a rare problem I don't have. I'm not ethically opposed to dairying industry practices, BST, antibiotics and all; and if I don't object to eating cows I can hardly object to milking them. Nor do I have any alternative or mystical ideas about milk or the holy sacred function of the bowels.

I just want to give the food I eat a chance, for once, to be digested in peace, floating lazily down the steady-flowing peristaltic river of life, not rushed along in repeated spring spates and flash floods. (I could have said this more plainly but be glad I didn't.) My hope is that I can establish a more normal relationship with the food I eat if it spends a more normal amount of time in my gut.

What took me so long? The problem has been evident since I was 11 or 12, and I've known its name for at least 20 years. But the ill effects of lactose strike so late in the process. It doesn't make my lips and tongue and palate itch, the way raw apples do. It doesn't make my stomach burn, like walnuts, or make me throw up, like mussels. No, I love drinking milk. By the time the trouble starts, the eating is done. Mission Accomplished! And when it comes to eating, I guess that the mouth is "the decider" and devil take the hindmost...which it does.

Weight loss is simple, some people tell me, and I agree that it ought to be. But I seem to have complicated my life in many ways such that nothing ever seems simple. My new strategy involves radical simplification, round after round of it, more rounds than I thought would be necessary, but here we are.

No peanuts, no milk. So much to blog about. Next time, chocolate gets it between the eyes. You don't want to miss that.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Poem Titles I Am Saving For Later

I do not "find" poems. "Found poems" are a minor curiosity, like optical illusions, or interesting ways you can fold a dollar bill to make George Washington look like a mushroom. Once you've seen a few, that's enough. The existence of found poems does not prove anything about the essential nature of poetry in general, or free verse in particular.

But I do "find" poem titles. Here are three I am saving up.

1. OTHER NOTABLE RAMPAGES (headline of a sidebar in New York Times coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings)

2. LIGHTFIGHTER DRIVE (name of a freeway exit I pass every morning)

3. WHALES ALL YEAR! (sign at a tour-boat company in Moss Landing)

And no, this has nothing to do with my blog. It's strictly Off Topic.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Peanut Extinction

Is there any sadder idea than extinction? Dinosaurs have been gone for 75 million years and I never get sentimental about them, but I think constantly of the mammoths. The last mammoth on earth died on Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean around 1700 BC. That's an eyeblink ago, well within the span of written human history. I know poems that old.

I keep a round slice of mammoth tusk in my dining room. It isn't even old enough to be fossilized, it's a piece of natural ivory. It is creamy white, polished, with light brown streaks. Sometimes I pick it up and hold it, and all I can think to say is, "You almost made it. You almost made it."

Behaviorists also use the term "extinction." Behaviors can be erased. They can, for a variety of reasons, become less persistent. This can happen quickly or slowly. A behavior can be nibbled away, or it can vanish overnight. It is extinct. It has been extinguished.

I have several behaviors that deserve to be extinguished, maybe a dozen or more. I can't seem to do it globally, wholesale, all at once. There does not seem to be an internal commandment that I can issue to myself that is strong enough. So I'm breaking down the problem into its component parts.

This is embarrassing, as usual, but that's the whole point of doing it in public like this, isn't it?

Yesterday I marked three behaviors for extinction. Number one is eating peanuts and peanut butter.

And at the exact moment I write these words, an email comes through. In honour of Kevin’s birthday, there are peanut butter cookies with M&Ms by the printers. Cake will be later. There you go. Invent a new sin and a new Satan appears.

More about peanuts, stay tuned.

Photo: A brachylophosaurus nicknamed "Peanut" at the Judith River Dinosaur Institute dig in Montana.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Wrong Way, Right Way

Consider the story of Douglas "Wrong Way" Corrigan, who in 1938 accidentally, or maybe not so accidentally, flew east from New York to Ireland, when he was supposed to be flying west to California. Corrigan had been trying for years to get permission for a transatlantic flight. When the federal aviation authorities repeatedly refused, it seems, he just decided to go anyway. Wrong Way Corrigan never admitted that he made the flight deliberately. His 1938 autobiography was titled "That's My Story."

Corrigan was in the air for 28 hours. What did he bring to eat? Two chocolate bars, two boxes of fig bars, and a quart of water.

There was another famous "Wrong Way" character. Even before Corrigan's flight, Ron Riegels, a University of California football player, in the 1929 Rose Bowl against Georgia Tech, got spun around on the field and ran the ball 74 yards in the wrong direction, contributing to an 8-7 loss.

I don't know what Wrong Way Riegels ate that day, besides crow and humble pie, but for years after, people would send him gag gifts, reportedly including upside-down cakes.

All this is to say with puzzlement and regret that having established my blog to chart my weight loss progress, my weight has gone not down but up. I need to think about this, don't I? I don't want to be David "Wrong Way" Weinstock.

I'm thinking, I'm thinking.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Leaving the Party of Food

Hezbollah calls itself "The Party of God." The Republicans are a little sore about that, but Hezbollah got there first, fair and square. The advantage of calling yourself The Party of God is the succinct way it makes all the other parties seem anti-God, godless, even Satanic.

But what about me? Do I have a party? What party am I? Investigation reveals that I'm a registered member of "The Party of Food." I'm pro-food. I'm food-positive. I think food is A Good Thing. I have a benign view of food. You know those sports fans who will watch any sporting event on TV, even sports they've never played or followed or even heard of? Like curling? They are from The Party of Sports. I'm from the Party of Food, as sure as I'm a Democrat, but I'm wondering if it isn't time for me to quit.

A scary thought: How completely must I turn my coat? Does resigning as a food booster demand that I become a food basher? Do I have to be one of those insufferable people who know the fatal flaw in every dish? I hate that. I even hated it even when I was thin, even when I had no weight issues on my mind. It's such bad table manners to offer color commentary on the health dangers of everything on the menu.

So now you see how my mind works, or fails to work. Although I am never vain in matters of dress or physique, I am a flaming foppish snob in other, even more foolish ways. For the truth is, I have much to gain by turning against food: health, energy, respect. Those things are infinitely more precious than the pathetic style points to be gained, in my private tally, for being able to sound like a restaurant critic.

Party's over.

Sunday, February 11, 2007


Childhood demands an excruciating quantity of waiting around. Waiting for adults to finish talking,waiting for Christmas, waiting to grow up. The ultimate form of of waiting is being forced to stand in line. We lined up for the morning school bus. We queued for the water fountain, recess, lunch, dismissal, and the afternoon bus home. I despised everything about lines. Didn't everybody?

Of course not. There were kids for whom standing in line was making the scene, being where the action was. Missing a line was like missing a party. I remember them streaking across the playground, singing out a joyous call, like the call to prayer: "Line up, line up, L-I-N-E-! U-P-!" It was the high point of the day. Only there could they play out the urgent social dramas of their lives. Who stands next to whom. Who let who cut. Who is whose best friend today. They must have felt about line-standing the way I felt about spelling bees--a golden chance to show the world what you're made of.

For me, waiting has no redeeming features. I dislike suspense or anticipation. I don't think getting there is half the fun. That's one reason dieting is so damned hard. It's all about waiting, waiting for normal body processes to do their inevitable but very, very slow work of burning off stored fat. Yes, the process can be sped up by exercise. But still it's like trying to empty the swimming pool, not by opening a drain, but by letting the water evaporate.

My dear reader, you have been listening so patiently. Now you have some advice to give me, don't you? I'd love to hear it. Get in line!

Sunday, February 4, 2007


On Saturday I drove to Costco to buy a folding card table. A young man in his own jeans and a store-issued green plaid shirt checked the inventory on the computer and said there were no card tables in stock, but I should check back around Father's Day. Father's Day? Yes, that's when they have card tables. This caught me off guard. Was I supposed to have given my father a card table? It would never have occurred to me in a million years.

So there I was, in a gigantic warehouse store with nothing to do and no shopping list, so I wandered. Back in the '70s I would hear stories about Soviet emigres, after consumer-deprived lifetimes of standing in long lines in empty shops, getting their first dazzling glimpse of American supermarkets. I've been in American supermarkets all my life, but Costco has that same effect on me. Abundance! Hyper-abundance! Mega-giga-tera-abundance!

Everything is multiple. Nobody would go there to buy one of anything, when here is the world packaged in super-economy size. There are 24-packs of Snickers, and 5-pound bags of dried cranberries, and shrink-wrapped pallets of bottled juice, and 4-packs of lace thongs, and 12-packs of crew socks and 250-packs of kitchen garbage bags.

My father, the father whom I never gave a card table, grew up in the Depression, and may have had an abundance issue. Once, when he owned a house on a tiny lake in South Jersey, he bought me a very big aluminum canoe. Too big really, too big for the lake and too big for me. "Why so big?" I asked. " He said, "It didn't cost much more than the smaller ones."

My father was overweight most of his adult life. He was a gourmet cook and a gourmet eater. He died young, at 59, in the Houston airport. May I give you some advice? Never read the autopsy report of anyone you love. Along with a number of other facts, both routine and pathological, the Harris County medical examiner noted his weight: 210 pounds.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

My dream weight

I had an odd dream Saturday night. In the dream I was living on the moon. My dream moon was a basically pleasant and ordinary place, like Vermont. I spent most of my time there in a Chinese restaurant with red and gold dragon wallpaper. But at one point, I suddenly remembered that I was on the moon, and only weighed one-sixth of my Earth weight, so I did a triumphant, slow-motion back flip.

This made me wonder what I would weigh on other planets, and promptly found a website that provided the answer. I would weigh 342 pounds on Neptune, and I am never, ever going to Neptune. On Mars I would weigh 114 pounds, and I don't think I'll be going there either.

Let's shoot for Venus, 276 pounds. How far is it to Venus? Millions of miles, millions. But it's on my way, so I'm going.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

The Prisoner of Splenda

"Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat. " Since the dawn of time, diet plans have included a list of "free foods" which may be consumed without penalty. The list varies widely from diet to diet. Which brings us to the topic of Splenda.

Splenda is the latest and best in a series of non-nutritive sweeteners. There was saccharin, which I remember in the form of tiny, vile white tablets fizzing around on top of my mother's coffee. Saccharin is still available, mixed with dextrose, in Sweet & Low's pink packets. There were cyclamates, popular but soon banned for being possibly carcinogenic. There was Nutrasweet, aspartame, in the blue packets.

Finally came Splenda. Splenda, sucralose, tastes almost like sugar. The advertising says it tastes like sugar because it's "made from sugar." I can't vouch for the chemistry of that claim, but it's true that the stuff fools me better than all of its predecessors. Next to the coffeemaker at home I keep an 400-packet industrial-size box of Splenda. A litter of shredded yellow packets follows me everywhere.

Why do I need Splenda? Because I don't like the taste of coffee. Why do I need coffee? Because I need to stay awake. Why do I need to stay awake? Because I don't get enough sleep. Why don't I get enough sleep? Because I stay awake. Of all the many vicious circles in which I dance, this is the very viciousest.

I could give up coffee and just take caffeine tablets, but they taste worse than saccharin pills. I could drink Diet Coke, which is fairly palatable, but expensive, and then there's all the aluminum cans on top of the refrigerator.

I'm giving up so many high-calorie foods right now that it hurts to think I should also give up anything from the free list. But I don't think coffee is doing me any good.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

A new theory of everything

Here's an idea. I like this one. This explains a lot.

Suppose it happened like this. Suppose he came to think that all that extra food was somehow doing him not harm but good. Active good. Positive, even healing, good.

Or to put it another way, suppose that he was a rare, specialized and secretive sort of hypochondriac. Not the kind who comes down with imaginary cases of every foolish disease he reads about and complains loudly about it; no, he was not so promiscuous, and he never complained. It was something more like this: whatever went wrong with his body or his mind, he instinctively identified the disease as hunger or one of its manifestations, and he treated it with food.

If you could listen in to his internal dialogue, it would sound like this: I'm tired; I should eat. I'm cranky; I should eat. I don't want to be argumentative, I'd better load up. I've eaten something heavy and greasy; I should take something light and sweet to cut the grease. I have to keep up my energy, I'll eat. I don't want to crash later, I'll eat now. I'm chilled; probably not eating enough. How does that rule go, feed a fever and starve a cold, or is it the other way around? I forget; I'll feed them both to be safe.

Taken all at once, of course it sounds like absurd rationalization. But nobody says to himself, "From this day forward, I will be utterly and self-destructively absurd." No, no, no. It steals up on you gradually, one lunatic rule at a time.

This insight has the ring of truth. Do I dare to trust it? I want to, for it has what the scientists call "explanatory power," and I'm dying for an explanation. Somebody said, "An explanation is where the mind comes to rest." My mind wants a place to rest.

Yes, it explains a lot. It explains why, when Helpful People offer to explain my problem, I rarely recognize myself in their stories. And this is not a basic stubbornness of mine, a blanket refusal to be known. It seems to be limited to food. In most other arenas, I can't resist a good story about myself. When I took the Meyer-Briggs personality test, I was insanely delighted that such a simple instrument could reveal so much about me; I was pleased to be found out, to have my unlisted number scrawled on such a public wall. When close friends have told me secrets about myself, I have always acknowledged when they have hit the mark, and treasured both the insights and the friends for their vision.

So now I have this new story, this exciting new explanation. No matter what it looks like on the outside, inside I am a misguided self-medicator. I am an elaborately self-deluded food pharmacist, a snake-oil salesman with only one customer, dosing himself up a dozen times a day, saying sincerely each and every time "This will make you feel better!"

Two things can happen when you're caught in the act. You can stop. Or you can find a new act. I wonder which I'll do?

Operating beyond design limits, part 2

Chuang Chuang the giant panda has gotten too fat to have sex, I see by the news. Chuang Chuang and his mate Lin Hui live in the zoo in Chiang Mai, Thailand. He weighs 331 pounds, and that's too much for Lin Hui, a relatively svelte 253 pounds. The zookeepers want the pair, who are on a 10-year lease from China, to reproduce, so they are trying various measures.

For one thing, Chuang Chuang's diet has been restricted to bamboo leaves; he may not have any more high-calorie bamboo shoots. Good luck on that. I haven't eaten a bamboo shoot in years, and look at me.

Also, the zookeepers are going to show Chuang Chuang some panda pornography. You may wonder where to get panda pornography. You get panda pornography the same place you get your pandas, from China, where it is an important part of the panda breeding program. If you are in a hurry and don't want to go to China, try YouTube first.

Once, years ago, I read a guidebook to Chiang Mai, a square little book with an orange cover, I remember vividly, full of the cultural and geographic wonders of the place. But only one thing caught and held my interest: a brief listing for a restaurant that served meat from exotic animals: elephant, giraffe, mongoose. Eating mongoose. Somehow that struck a chord deep within me, an insatiably omnivorous longing.

During our zoo-visiting phase, we read about a German zookeeper who had a policy of tasting all his animals when they died. He just had to know what every species tasted like. Once, while he was on vacation traveling away from the zoo, a Siberian tiger died and was buried. Upon his return, he insisted that the tiger be exhumed so he could have his meal of it.

We never got to Thailand; I'm basically a stay-at-home type. But eating is a way of encountering the world, and I've done much too much of it.

I never bade you go
to Moscow or to Rome
Renounce that drudgery.
Call the muses home.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Working things out at the black bird

Writing about my weight problem, which to my surprise I have been enjoying, is a completely different experience than talking about it. Why is that?

Maybe it's that writing is just like talking, only without being interrupted, except by yourself. I am writing at length and at leisure and keep seeing myself say things that surprise me, things that I would have never have gotten around to say in the usual give-and-take of conversation.

I use writing to figure stuff out. I was never the kind of writer who takes dictation from the muse, the way Mozart got his tunes, direct from God and the angels. I'm more like a mathematician, a speculative geometer, working things out at the blackboard.

Not that I don't occasionally receive a gift from the ether, a verbal donnee, a word or sentence or a little bit of beat that shows up in my ear, unbidden and undeserved. This past week I've been getting more than my usual portion of those; it has been a minor meteor shower of unearned blazes of grace. I would give you an example if I could, but I can't just yet. These things are mysterious visitors; they are articulate but cryptic; they perch on the bust of Pallas squawking, repeating themselves, commanding attention, and waiting patiently to be understood.

All this is to say that I'm not just talking now; I am writing. For those who want me to change, know that that is a change, and that all the changes I've ever made have started that way.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Too much of a good thing

In Sacramento last weekend, a woman died after drinking about two gallons of water in a radio station's "Hold Your Wee for a Wii" contest.

Nobody at the radio station was thinking about the fatal effects of hyponatremia. What was on their minds was much smaller potatoes -- fourth-grade bathroom humor. It's one more senseless tragedy that could have been avoided by hiring better writers. Think of how much funnier KDND's marathon of wee-wee jokes could have been if the contestants had been drinking yellow Gatorade instead of bottled spring water, and nobody would have died of fatal dilution.

Food, like water, is a good thing. You could argue that it's the good thing, the mother of all good things, the big universal need. You can't live without food and neither can any creature we know about. You can live perfectly well without alcohol, without tobacco, without cannabis and opium; I do it every day. But you can't live long without food. Food is a good thing.

Nearly everyone agrees on this, although you'll meet the occasional dissenter. Back in college, we knew a boy who claimed to care nothing for food. My guess is that he resented the time that eating subtracted from his studying. He was a pre-med whose father was a doctor, so he had no viable Plan B if he didn't get into medical school. He said that if he could swallow a daily pill that would take care of his total nutritional needs, he wouldn't miss food one bit.

Where is the food-hater now? He's a senior vascular surgeon in North Carolina. What does he do all day? Triple, quadruple and quintuple bypasses on people like me.

Doctor, did you ever find that pill? I'd like a bottle now.

Silver Leaf & Green Meadow

The best exercise is walking somewhere you can't get back from without even more walking. The corner of Silver Leaf Drive and Green Meadow Drive is six-tenths of a mile from my office; up and back makes 1.2 miles, a 20- or 25-minute stroll. It's uphill yet not steep on the way and pleasantly downhill back. It's far enough for me to lose my desk-job stiffness by the middle and be striding expansively by the end.

Hypothesis #1, lightly held and hopefully offered: Any day I eat 3 moderate meals and don't do any late night eating to cancel out all that lovely moderation, I will lose a pound or so.

Hypothesis #2, "yif that I can": Any day I eat 3 moderate meals and also walk to Silver Leaf and Green Meadow, I will do even better.

Stay tuned.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Operating beyond design limits, part 1

"Our text books like to illustrate evolution with examples of optimal design—nearly perfect mimicry of a dead leaf by a butterfly or of a poisonous species by a palatable relative: But ideal design is a lousy argument for evolution, for it mimics the postulated action of an omnipotent creator. Odd arrangements and funny solutions are the proof of evolution--paths that a sensible God would never tread but that a natural process, constrained by history, follows perforce."
Stephen Jay Gould

Even if no one (and nobody) can be said to have designed the human body, it definitely must be said that I am operating my body "beyond design limits."

I have obstructive sleep apnea, caused by overweight. At some point, probably around 220 pounds, fat deposits built up in my soft palate and around my throat, causing an already small airway to close down whenever I wasn't consciously keeping it open. When I fell asleep, I couldn't breathe. After a few seconds, I would pop awake; I'd grab a breath and go back to sleep. A sleep study revealed that this happened about 90 times per hour, all night long.

In other words, I wasn't able to sleep for more than about half a minute at a time. Until my wife figured out what was happening and got me treated, I was a zombie, always on the edge of falling asleep, always half-dreaming.

Talk about "odd arrangements and funny solutions"! I sleep with a mask strapped to my face, covering my nose; the mask is connected by six feet of flexible ribbed tubing to an electric air pump. The apparatus is called CPAP, pronounced "see-pap," for Continuous Positive Airway Pressure. We refer to it as my breathing machine.

I can't go anywhere without it, and I can't even risk putting it into checked baggage on airplanes lest the airline lose it. Loads of people must be boarding with CPAP machines, because most TSA screeners seem to know what it is when they inspect my carry-on bag—although last time we flew, the San Jose inspectors rushed it over to the bomb sniffer. This was annoying, yet not half as embarrassing as another time I got frisked, presumably because of my jutting belly's resemblance to a jihadi's explosives belt.

CPAP is a pain in the neck, but I'm fortunate that I can use it. Many apnea sufferers never learn how. They can't master the trick of closing the back of the throat and sleeping with their mouths shut. Or they can't stand the noise. The secret of my success is a squirt of Afrin in each nostril, and a pair of foam earplugs.

I never don my mask except in the dark. The straps get tangled and I've learned to straighten them out without looking. I've even repaired a broken mask with duct tape without opening my eyes. I never look in the mirror while wearing the mask;I couldn't bear it. I know it would look too much like something I wish I'd never seen, the sight of my stepsister
in a hospital bed in New York City, comatose after a cerebral hemorrhage, breathing through a face mask.

Are you dieting to look good in tight jeans or fit into last year's bikini? Good for you. I'm dieting so I can take a nap on the couch without asphyxiating myself. How did this happen to me?

Friday, January 12, 2007

The goal thing

As I said in my opening post, I've tried most everything. One was NutriSystem. In NutriSystem, they sell you a bag or two of food every week and that's all you're supposed to eat, except for fresh skim milk and maybe salad greens you add as needed. Some people do fine on NutriSystem.

My first two weeks went well, but on the third visit I had a bad weigh-in. "Now what?" I asked the counselor. This was in Maine, and she was one of the Helpful People. In the course of trying to lose weight, I have met many Helpful People. God bless them, they mean well. "Have you tried setting goals for yourself?" she asked. Helpfully.

"Honey," I thought to myself but did not say aloud, "by the time a 38-year-old fat man asks a 24-year-old skinny girl 'Now what?,' he has set thousands of goals for himself. He has a clear and bitter memory of every one of them, and he now questions the value of goal-setting itself."

I wish I had said it aloud, because maybe, against all the odds, she might have known an answer that might have gotten through. She might have said something like this: "Let's set a mini-goal, something so small and so close that you can't possibly miss it. It's a confidence-building measure, as they say in Middle East peace negotiations, a baby step that obviously doesn't come within a million miles of settling the core problem, but which begins to begin to create a positive mood despite years of very discouraging history. So, suppose you lose one pound, just one little pound, by next week." I would have listened to that.

What the Helpful People often don't understand is that the problem has been on my mind for years. I've thought about it, however unsuccessfully, from every obvious and several obscure angles. Attention, Helpful People! I know I eat too much. I may be fat, but I'm not clueless. (Nor am I "in denial," but that belongs in another post.)

So watch me now as I get in touch with my own Inner Helpful Person. I will set one of those teensy-weensy, can't-miss goals described above, something that even Hamas and Hezbollah could agree on, and I try to build my confidence with it. No, I won't tell you what it is, not until I've done it.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The best sauce

I'm a high-taste eater. I can't bear food with weak flavor. When cooking, I automatically double the amount of spices called for in recipes, and triple the garlic. I've got to amp up the flavor.

But the most delicious things I've ever eaten, the meals I will remember all my life, are foods I ate when I was very, very hungry.

In 1971, I ordered a plate of radis avec beurre, radishes with butter, at a sidewalk cafe in Paris. If you've seen "French breakfast radishes" in a seed catalog and thought it just one more proof that the French are meshuggenah, think again. The long, red-and-white radishes were exquisite; the butter was as superior to American butter as Camembert is to Cheez-Whiz. When I had finished, leaving only the radish tops, the waiter dumped the greens into the street. A few minutes later, the gutters welled up with water and were flushed clean. The meal continued with an omelet filled with potato slices -- omelette a la russe is what I'd swear they called it, although the more usual name for that is omelette Parmentier.

Anybody's first day in Paris is bound to be memorable, but what fixed the scene in my mind is that I was extremely hungry. I have since tried to duplicate both dishes, but could never duplicate the experience. I wasn't hungry enough.

Hunger is the best sauce, said the Greeks. What if that's more than a proverb? What if it's actual cooking advice? Even weight-loss advice? What if I could improve the flavor of everything I eat from now on and for the rest of my life, simply by arriving at the table hungry?

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Giving normality a second chance

An old friend asks, quite reasonably, what's the plan? How are you going to carry out this project?

The answer, basically, is that I'm going to stop doing all the things that got me this far. I'm going to eat like a normal person, and after a while, I'll turn back into a normal person. What could be simpler?

I don't like being normal. I never have. I zig when everybody else zags. It's a reflex, and I'm starting to think it's not my healthiest tropism.

What seemed so wrong about normal? Normal looked boring. Normal seemed like something anybody could have; it wasn't special enough. Normal seemed unambitious, even mediocre. In a hundred ways, I have fled from normalness. In some limited areas of my life -- some very few areas, mostly involving my writing and creative work -- this instinctual aversion to the ordinary is an asset. But in nearly every other way, it's a craziness on my part, a thought-error verging on a thoughtcrime. I've distorted my body and my life by running away from normalness, and that was a mistake.

Here's the only plan I've got: Get normal. You can't afford any more specialness than you've already got. Develop a keen eye for the ordinary way. For once be the rule, not the exception. Because the normal people may have lots of problems, but they don't weigh 300 pounds apiece. They know something you don't. Study them.

Sunday, January 7, 2007

150 pounds of prevention

I don't like feeling hungry. For me, hunger is not just a sensation, it's an emotion, and I prefer to avoid it. Actually, "avoid" is not the word. I prefer to prevent hunger. I want to get way out in front of it and head it off at the pass. I take pre-emptive steps to make sure it doesn't happen.

On the surface, this makes a certain amount of sense. Why get caught short? You keep the gas tank filled so you don't run out of fuel in the middle of nowhere. You keep money in the checking account so you don't get hit with overdraft fees. Same thing, right?

Wrong. The problem is that filling your belly is not one tiny bit like filling a gas tank. My Subaru's gas tank tops off at 14 gallons and won't take another ounce. The Valero gas pump knows this and obligingly shuts itself off. But the body is a greedy miser, and in a billion years of no-second-chance evolution it has learned to be even more frightened of starvation than I am. Give it too much food, and it instantly, automatically, instinctively scurries around to find a place to put it. Give it even more, and it literally builds on an addition just to make room, with as little hesitation or regret as a classic car collector putting up a new 12-car garage for the latest batch of cherry '68 Camaros he found on eBay.

Exactly how much starvation prevention have I got socked away? Rough calculation: if my surplus 150 pounds are all composed of body fat, and if a pound of body fat is the equivalent of 3,500 calories, I've got 525,000 calories in the bank. A man of my height and age at his ideal weight burns about 2,050 calories a day, according to one of the Web's innumerable online calculators. Half a million calories, on a 2,000 daily allowance, would last 256 days ... or eight and a half months.*

It's January 7th. I shouldn't need to eat again until the last week in August.


*For quantitative geeks only. There are no less than three errors in this calculation, I know. Number one, my 150 extra pounds are surely not all body fat; some is muscle, because schlepping around my weight requires extra muscle. Some is skin, created to cover the extra bulk, and blood, to keep it all irrigated and oxygenated. Second error, it's not right to divide 525,000 by the calorie need of my ideal weight, because I'm not at my ideal weight. If I stopped eating now, I'd start by burning stored fat at a rate based on my current weight, about 4,000 calories a day just to maintain body temperature and basic processes. The smaller I got, the less energy that would take. I think that would take an equation with a logarithm in it, and I'd need to brush up. Besides, and this is another reason not to write the equation, there's a third error: the body is so averse to starvation that it doesn't willingly spend its reserves, no matter how excessive they are. Early in a fast, the metabolic rates slows down in a way not governed by an obvious formula.

Saturday, January 6, 2007

Waiting for hungry, part 1

I called this blog "Waiting for Hungry" because of a hunch I have about the nature of my problem. I think there is something screwy about my understanding of "hunger" and "hungry."

I suspect that it has been a long time since I've actually felt hunger in the normal sense. This will come as a shock to anyone who has watched me eat. Many helpful people who have watched me say that I eat like a starving man: too fast, too much, too messy, too loud. (Thank you, Helpful People. In a future post I will thank all of you in excruciating detail for that helpfulness. It's not your fault that your helpfulness hasn't, until now, helped one bit. It's my fault. Really. Thanks again.)

One rule, universally recommended by Helpful People and Zen masters alike, is "Eat when hungry." I follow that rule, after my peculiar fashion: hungry all the time, I eat all the time. That can't possibly be what the HP and ZM intended, can it?

Perhaps the problem is that there are multiple meanings to "hungry." Maybe two entirely different words both look like "hungry." They are identical twin words who dress alike and love playing tricks. They are Mary Kate and Ashley, or Fred and George. No, better say they are Thing One and Thing Two. I need to grab them both in mid-somersault, wrestle them to the ground, and tattoo an indelible blue star on one of their noses so I can permanently tell them apart. I lunge. I grab. Got em!

Yes. Upon further inspection, there are two. There is Hungry Type One, meaning "I want to eat," and Hungry Type Two, meaning "I need to eat." And I, despite an IQ well into three digits, have stupidly and tragically gotten the two "hungries" mixed up.

Never again. Hungry Type Two gets the blue star, and I will follow that star. I'm going to see if I can recover my longlost sense of "need to eat" hunger and put it to some use.

Scale check: Yesterday, 304.2. Today, 302.4.

Friday, January 5, 2007

I can eat, or I can blog

The other day I read the book that Julie Powell wrote based on her year of blogging her way through Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." The book is funny and profane and generally inspiring. I'm sure it will launch a thousand blogs.

But a year of French cooking not only made Julie Powell famous, it also made her gain weight. And I don't need to gain weight. I need to lose weight. In fact, I need to lose just about half of my body weight.

I am a writer by inclination and profession. I use my writing to figure stuff out. Ordinarily I only write about things that interest me, or things I am being paid to write about. Weight loss isn't either of those, but I think I've got to spend some time writing about it or I'm never going to make sense of my life.

So today, January 5, 2007, I am setting up this online diary for myself. I will use it, I think, in many ways. One of them will be to keep my family and friends informed about my progress. Another will be to give me something absorbing to do at moments when I might otherwise just go entertain myself by eating.

I've got to say that this is embarrassing to the max. I hate talking about my weight; I hate listening to anybody else talk about their weight. It is my least favorite subject in the world. Even when I was slim -- more than half my life -- I hated weight talk and dieting talk. More on that -- much more -- and on every other topic -- to come.

So here we go. Watch if you want, comment if you want. I'm going from 304 lbs. to 154 lbs. in front of your very eyes. I don't know how long it's going to take, but this isn't optional anymore and I have to begin immediately and continue in a way that I can't give up on. I've tried most everything else.