Monday, July 30, 2012

Thoughts on ZAMM

A few thoughts on Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig. I'll keep them brief since I'm no philosopher:

- I'm puzzled at the popularity of this book, since it gets pretty academic when it comes to philosophy. I suppose, as Pirsig explains in the Afterward, that it was a book that tapped into the public consciousness of the mid-70s. Still, it's dry at times, especially if you're not versed in philosophy.

- I haven't encountered a better way of thinking about technology: "The Buddha, the Godhead, resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer of the gears of a cycle transmission as does at the top of a mountain or in the petals of a flower."

- On the other hand, the notion of "Quality" continues to mystify me. Is it really something new, or is it a new word for an old concept from Eastern or Western philosophy? The author substituted "Quality" in for "Tao" at one point, but didn't conclusively equate the two.

- I'm curious about the connection to real Zen philosophy. From Wikipedia: "Though it may not deal with orthodox Zen Buddhist practice, Pirsig's book in fact deals with many of the more subtle facets of Zen living and Zen mentality without drawing attention to any religion or religious organization."

From the Wikipedia on Japanese Zen: "Zen meditation ideally is not only concentration, but also awareness: being aware of the continuing changes in our consciousness, of all our sensations and our automatic reactions."

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Refined sugar fast: Day 21

Last night I dreamed of eating a donut at church this morning. A jelly-filled one covered in powdered sugar.

Also, I am not going to consider dunking some French fries in ketchup today as cheating on the fast. I'm just not.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Refined sugar fast: Day 20

Could dessert for breakfast be the key to losing weight? It sounds too good to be true. Here is what I read in O magazine last week:

In the study, two groups of overweight and obese people were instructed to consume the same number of calories daily (1,400 for women, 1,600 for men); the difference was that one group ate a modest breakfast each morning, while the other went all out with a high-calorie (600), high-carb (60 grams), high-protein (45 grams) meal that included a sugary treat. (Imagine a scramble of cottage cheese and eggs—two with the yolk, one without—on whole grain toast, an eight-ounce container of low-fat yogurt on the side, plus a fudge brownie.)

After eight months, the dessert-at-breakfast group had lost an average of 38 more pounds per person than the traditional dieters.

Apparently the modest breakfast eaters started to cheat on their diet while the dessert breakfast eaters had fewer cravings for sweet and fatty foods during the day. Once you look at it that way it starts to make sense. I suppose it doesn't work if you eat dessert for lunch and dinner as well :-).
From the LA Times' obit of actress Lupe Ontiveros:
Veteran actress Lupe Ontiveros, the El Paso-born daughter of Mexican immigrants, once estimated that she had played the role of a maid more than 150 times during her career.

That's why the 4-foot-11 actress was so overjoyed more than a decade ago when director Miguel Arteta approached her backstage after a theatrical showcase and said he had a screenplay for her to consider.

"He said, 'Look at the part of Beverly,'" Ontiveros recalled in a 2009 National Public Radio interview. "I said, 'Beverly? You said Beverly? Her name is Beverly?' And I said, 'I'll do it. I don't care what the script is about, because her name is Beverly.' It wasn't Maria Guadalupe Conchita Esperanza, this Latino stereotype."

Friday, July 27, 2012

Refined sugar fast: Day 19

I've stuck to the sugar fast since I've been back from vacation. I successfully resisted a biscocho cookie and a piece of cake at work this week. Oh, temptation.

Two things I've continued to notice this week: my skin has cleared up. The month before the fast I was really breaking out. Now I still have a couple of zits but my skin is a lot better than it was.

The second thing is I'm sleeping better. Before this I would wake up with my heart pounding during the night sometimes. That hasn't happened to me lately.

I've never had cholesterol tests so I'm not sure if my change in diet is affecting that. But I would think so. I was putting so much junk into my body and now I'm not.

I think avoiding sugar has also helped me avoid putting more fat and calories into my body. For example, now I won't have a candy bar because of the sugar. That means 200-300 fewer calories and less saturated fat in my diet.

So there are some real benefits here, but are they worth giving up the comfort of sugar? It is difficult to resist and I don't know how long I could keep it up beyond the 30 days.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Refined sugar fast: Day 16

I think I am going to eat a bag full of jelly beans on Wednesday, Aug. 8. I can't get sugar off the brain.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Refined sugar fast: Day 15

I cheated on the refined sugar fast six times while I was on vacation in NYC:
- 1/2 cup of gelato in the Chelsea Market. Dolce latte flavor.
- Bowl of Oatmeal Squares with milk on two mornings.
- 1/3 of a tiramisu (split with my mom and sister) at an Italian restaurant
- 1/2 cinnamon raisin bagel when I was really hungry at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
- 1/2 Au Bon Pain blueberry muffin at the Denver Airport.

I might have passed on these but come on, this was vacation and I didn't want to be that kind of stick in the mud. I didn't want to make a big fuss in the mornings because there was no sugar-free option available or turn down a dessert that everyone else was sharing in. I admit, I also just didn't want to have my mom worry that I might be starving myself. My mom does worry, a lot.

I have to give myself a little bit of a break because on other occasions I would have eaten my way through New York one sugary treat at a time. The temptations are abundant. Gelato, pastries, coffee drinks, lemonade, Italian ice, popsicles, cupcakes and crepes lurk on nearly every corner of the city. My mouth waters just thinking of the food in NYC.

Funny how I did notice a certain sluggishness in my body after eating sugar again. A big bowl of cereal made me want to nap about two hours later. It really made my mind sluggish. And tiramisu, while absolutely delicious, may not be the best way to finish off your meal after eating a huge bowl of pasta.

One fear is I'm starting to pick up other food vices. I drank plenty of coffee on the trip (black or with milk or cream). Am I trying to replace that sugar rush with caffeine? Also, I could easily fall into the trap of drinking a 100% juice drink when I feel a sugar craving -- technically non-sugared but the idea behind the fast is to try to reduce the constant cravings for sweetness. That's also why I haven't done diet soda or Truvia-sweetened pastries. I haven't even touched Extra chewing gum, as I think these products feed into the sugar craving even if they don't have the same number or calories.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Refined sugar fast, Day 8

The refined sugar fast is getting easier. I think the weekend has been the hardest time so far because it is typically the time I allow myself to enjoy food more. On weekdays I eat pretty humdrum food.

I am starting to eat a lot of nuts. Whenever I eat them that song from an old commercial goes through my head, "Sometimes you feel like a nut..." I am starting to feel like a nut, for sure. But the thing is, nuts *are* a much better snack than say, a cookie. They leave you feeling more satisfied, not like a cookie where you always want at least one more, if not two or three.

I do feel more energetic in a lot of ways. I sleep better and I have less anxiety about my weight. On the other hand I've noticed this tension in myself, especially when I think about food. I suppose the feeling is one where I think to myself, can't I *ever* relax? Because food used to be how I relieved anxiety. Maybe that is the next step in this progression, to find another way to deal with stress.

New York, Part 2

I'm going to New York City tomorrow. Some random notes:
- I'm going to see the Statue of Liberty up close this time, not from the Staten Island ferry. We're also going to see the 9/11 Memorial.
- We have tickets to the musical Memphis. According to Wikipedia, it won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2010.
- I asked on Facebook about things to see and do. I got conflicting answers on whether to eat hot dogs from street vendors. My coworker told me to go to the Burger Joint in Le Parker Meridien hotel. Hmm, $7.35 for a cheeseburger and that doesn't include French fries. Grimaldi's pizza sure looks good, though.
- Weather in New York tomorrow: High of 98 and partly cloudy. In comparison it's going to be 95 in El Paso tomorrow. My sister has advised me to take an umbrella.

- I've asked my sister to take me to a real NYC bookstore that's not Barnes and Noble's. Not sure where she's taking me, but Gothamist has 10 cool bookstores where I would love to hang out. I envision that as my third trip to New York, a tour of bookstores and nothing else.
- I'm planning to take way more photos than I did in 2008. Here's what I wrote at the time. I wonder if the subways still smell like a public restroom. I bet they do. Also I'm not planning any studio tours this time. On my first trip I was quite enthralled by the NBC tour.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Check it out: my blog friend Stu has an instantly addictive interview series called The Sunday Seven.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Day 5: Refined sugar fast

Today was rocky on the sugar fast front. It's my habit on a Friday afternoon to have a nice sugary coffee drink at Starbucks. I decided to forgo Starbucks altogether after realizing that it would be torturous to go there and not be able to order what I *really* wanted. I didn't want to have to look at the display of muffins, cakes, pies, cake pops and cookies or see someone order one of those million-calorie drinks like the Caramel Frappuccino.

I thought about my options at Starbucks and there are a few that come to mind: regular hot coffee (milk or cream but no sugar), iced coffee, non-sugared iced tea, juice or water. As for regular food, my options are oatmeal or a banana. I've seen some stores sell sandwich items, I guess those could be an option, too.

So it wouldn't be sure disaster to go into a Starbucks. But it's funny how when it comes to food it comes down to a primal craving. When I want to feel better after a long week of work, sugar + caffeine at Starbucks is what I use to relax. It is very difficult to deny myself this comfort.

I thought the sugar fast would get easier after the first few days. In some ways it has as I find out what foods I can make a habit of eating that don't have sugar in them -- fresh and dried fruits, vegetables, oatmeal, nuts, etc. But in some ways it is harder, as it gets harder to deny myself things like chocolate and cookies and cupcakes that I enjoy, but more than that use almost like a drug to feel better during my day.

Here is a big question I am asking myself: Emotionally, am I happier when I periodically pacify myself with sugary treats, or happier when I can control what I eat and reap the benefits? So far I really can't tell.

One perspective is that it doesn't matter, it is all what you get used to. Now that I've stopped using sugar as a mood booster, other things can replace it. When I'm used to this diet I won't even miss sugar, I imagine.

But a second perspective is the "everything in moderation" view. If I allowed myself one sugary treat per day, I don't think it would put me on the path to diabetes and heart disease. It would bring me a little pleasure, a little temporary happiness and that is nice once in a while. Do I really need to not eat a brownie for the rest of my life?

For now it is benefitting me to go without sugar for awhile 1) to realize I can do it, 2) to realize what exactly I'm doing to my body by eating so much sugar. From there I can decide how much I will allow myself once the 30 days are over.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

It's the year 2012, why can't women have a high-flying career and a family, too?

Can women have it all? Not in today's America, Princeton professor Anne-Marie Slaughter says in the most recent issue of The Atlantic, and she shares her own story demonstrate. Slaughter left a top-level State Department job after two years to spend more time with her husband and two teenage boys. After years of being able to make her own schedule, with much success, she found a demanding job with a rigidly structured schedule took too much of a toll on her family life. It's a discouraging message: If a highly motivated and intelligent woman like this can't make it work, who can?

Slaughter says the lack of women in top positions is not a problem with women not being committed enough, or not being ambitious enough. Rather it is a work structure -- a rigid schedule, a mindset that rewards long hours -- that was not built with women's lives in mind:

(Facebook COO Sheryl) Sandberg thinks that “something” is an “ambition gap”—that women do not dream big enough. I am all for encouraging young women to reach for the stars. But I fear that the obstacles that keep women from reaching the top are rather more prosaic than the scope of their ambition. My longtime and invaluable assistant, who has a doctorate and juggles many balls as the mother of teenage twins, e-mailed me while I was working on this article: “You know what would help the vast majority of women with work/family balance? MAKE SCHOOL SCHEDULES MATCH WORK SCHEDULES.”

She provides concrete examples of things that could be changed in the workplace, including flexible schedules, use of technology and scheduling in-person meetings during the school day.

In the meantime, Slaughter advises women to have kids before 35 (or freeze their eggs) and plan for their career peaks to be later, late 50s-early 60s (when the kids are out of the house) rather than late 40s-early 50s:

Along the way, women should think about the climb to leadership not in terms of a straight upward slope, but as irregular stair steps, with periodic plateaus (and even dips) when they turn down promotions to remain in a job that works for their family situation; when they leave high-powered jobs and spend a year or two at home on a reduced schedule; or when they step off a conventional professional track to take a consulting position or project-based work for a number of years.

I found this article to be both sad and hopeful. Sad because women *still* have to make these tougher than tough choices, when men often don't. It seems usually the result of the choice is that the family wins and women don't make it to top positions, and because of the lack of women at the top it seems we will be waiting even longer for change. But also hopeful because her solutions seem doable, if as she says it is a matter of prosaic issues like scheduling that hold back working mothers. Flexible schedules are more possible than ever with technology, and work-family balance seems to be becoming a more important priority both for men and women in today's workplace.

I also think it's brave for someone to be so candid about the problems women face in the workplace, and to risk being called a failure or not committed enough because she is willing to share her own story. Bringing that level of honesty into the conversation is a great step in the right direction.

Even more with Anne-Marie Slaughter:

An interview on NPR's Fresh Air

Video with the story from The Atlantic:

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Day 3: Refined sugar fast

As I write this I'm eating my breakfast of two pieces of toast, three strawberries and a glass of milk. Not bad for a quickly thrown together non-sugar meal.

I am definitely noticing the roles that sugar plays in my typical day. Yesterday I threw away a fortune cookie and dodged a suggestion from my sister to go get ice cream. I had a big lunch, but even then I would normally at some kind of sugary snack to get me through lunch and dinner, especially a long gap on the days I work the night shift. Minus the ice cream I got hungry around 7 p.m., at which point I ate some nuts. If I get hungry at work I usually buy a candy bar, but this time I actually had something healthy to eat.

I also normally would have something sugary upon arriving home very early in the morning, maybe a couple of cookies. I did get the craving as scheduled, but this time I had some Cheez-Its. Are Cheez-Its violating the spirit of this whole experiment, since I think they are considered junk food? Is refined flour much better than refined sugar? Still better than a candy bar, I suppose.

One thing I notice three days in is that I'm having less "food anxiety." While I am scrutinizing my food choices more I'm not worrying as much as I usually do afterward about packing on pounds. For example, if I had eaten that ice cream I would have enjoyed it for sure, but I would also have been anxious later about what it was doing to my body. Anxiety gone.

So far I'm not noticing any huge changes -- no huge boost in energy, major weight loss, or changes in my skin. Mostly it is subtle changes for the better -- a little more energy, a little less anxiety, and some weight loss instead of weight gain. But maybe the changes will become more noticeable as I keep going with it.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Day 1: Refined sugar fast

Today began my 30 days of no refined sugar. Breakfast went well. I poured a cup of water into five-minute quick-cooking oats and it came out surprisingly nice, very al dente. For flavor I sliced up a couple of strawberries to put on top. It was a little bitter compared to my usual sugar-fest breakfast but it was good.

Did I feel better than usual? I skipped that mid-morning lull that I usually get once the sugar is digested, at which point I usually feel hungry again. I think I also didn't feel quite as full as I usually do, by 11:30 I was ready to devour something else.

Lunch was leftovers, lots of vegetables plus chicken and couscous. I didn't even eat the apple I packed to go with it, it was so filling.

And then -- the first real test of my fast. My coworker brought me a perfect star-shaped cake cooked with strawberries and blueberries that looked SO good. OMG, I thought about breaking into the cake with my fingers and tasting the flavor of the berries and SUGAR. Instead I said thank you and tucked it into my bag. Ugh, sugar is so associated with pleasure for me.

I normally don't go for such self-denial but I made a pledge. I'm sure more temptations are up ahead. I'm talking like the cake is an evil trap sent by the devil, ha ha. But really I hate getting into the idea that food is bad. No, that cake in itself isn't bad, but on a typical day I'd eat that plus sugar with every meal, then dessert...well, you get the idea.

On to Day 2.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Day 0: Refined sugar fast

So one of the topics I plan to write about during my month-long writer's contract is that I plan to go 30 days without refined sugar. Starting tomorrow.

Why? I've noticed that I have started to use food, particularly sugary food, as a crutch when I'm feeling emotional. I will sometimes grab a sugary snack from a vending machine to eat on the way home from work. If it's been a really emotional day I'll reach for the chocolate. (I love chocolate. I'm certain I couldn't live without chocolate but 30 days might be OK.) I'm starting to think emotional eating is a really bad habit to get into, one I should try to end as soon as I can to avoid a myriad of health issues that might arise from it.

I also wonder if I would just feel better not eating refined sugar. Maybe I'd have more energy to deal with life. It might be nice not to deal with the sugar-high rollercoaster as often as I do. Or maybe not, but we'll see. It's been so long since I've gone without sugar I wouldn't even know.

This may sound funny, but many times (most of the time?) I feel like I'm not in control of what I eat. In the morning before work it's been quite a while since I've felt there was any other option besides sugary cereal and milk. My coworker brought some sugary Fourth of July cookies to work and of course I couldn't help but eat four of them. When I eat out, which is pretty often, it's always a diet train wreck. Bottom line, I want to achieve more control over my diet and eat things I feel good about instead of guilty. I think it will be good to shed some of that guilt.

And while my goal is not really weight loss, well, that might be a nice side effect. I'm not going to consciously restrict my calories, but I will substitute fruit if I'm craving cookies, or eat some nuts on the way home instead of gummy fruit snacks. I do not want to feel hungry.

I went to the store today and bought fruit, nuts and Triscuits as a start. That should help. For breakfast I'm planning to replace sugary cereal with oatmeal and/or hard-boiled eggs.

I'll report back tomorrow.

Friday, July 06, 2012

July photos