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.