August 21, 2010

Come fly with me

Today I am going with my cousin Sarah, her boyfriend Marty, Sarah's sister Rachel, Rachel's boyfriend Steve, and Rachel's daughter to the Illinois State Fair. As far as food ... I'm going to do my best. Am I going to not eat all day? No. Am I going to try deep fried everything? Absolutely not. But I'm not going to put life completely on hold. I've never even eaten fair food! When we were kids, my parents would bring my sisters and I to the Durham Fair in Durham, CT (small beans compared to the Illinois State Fair!), and we were not allowed to get fair food or go on rides. We looked at all the judged baked goods and the livestock, and sometimes we'd watch the tractor pull. So I'm really looking forward to seeing all the animals and stuff like that at the fair; the food isn't the first thing I think of. And luckily, Sarah knows I'm trying to lose weight, so hopefully we can be good together. I read somewhere that the first and last bite of anything are the most delicious, so I'm going keep that in mind when faced with all that temptation!

I'm also really looking forward to the three-and-a-half hour trek to Springfield. Most people probably dread the sound of that, but I'm really excited. When I was little, my family hardly ever went on vacations. my arm, jill's camera - eastbound from chicago, 2007When we did, it was almost always a road trip down to Florida to visit our grandparents over February or April vacation. We'd load up the station wagon and drive down, with Mom and Dad alternating driving so we could save a little money and not have to stay at a hotel. It wasn't anywhere fancy, but we loved it. The reprieve (however brief) from winter weather was amazing, but one of my favorite parts was always the car ride. The close quarters, the fights with my sisters, the cassette tape sing alongs. We took vacations so infrequently that in between trips, we all seemed to forget the down sides, and we remembered only the great parts of road travel.

My love of travel grew in college when I took my first flight - Hartford, CT, to Chicago, for the summer vacation that was supposed to save my life. While the events of that summer left much to be desired, two passions were born thereof: Chicago, and long-distance travel.leaving chicago That first flight opened up the floodgates for me; I've never had any interest in dropping hundreds of dollars on name brand purses, but now I'm almost always tempted by moderately discounted flights for weekend getaways. I went back and forth to Chicago several times before moving here, down to Florida once or twice, and I've taken a few trips to Paris, France. en route to connecticutThe vacations themselves are incredible, but there was something about the traveling part that I always enjoyed. I love "passengering" - I love being whisked away, not worrying about how to get somewhere, yet ending up exactly where I need to be.

I haven't flown in a really long time, though, opting instead for trains. Last summer, I took a train for the first time. Sort of. Growing up on the Connecticut shoreline, we found ourselves taking the train to New York City every now and then; in Chicago, I've taken the El and commuter trains. But this was a real, long-distance train ride: New Haven, CT, to Washington, D.C., and then the Capitol Limited to Chicago. This summer I did a different route, the Lake Shore Limited, from Chicago to Springfield, MA, followed by a regional shuttle to New Haven. Both trips took a little over a day, and they were great. There are big panoramic windows that help you fully take in the terrific views. westbound LSL - indianaAs you coast through fields of corn and soybeans and pass schools and locks of the Erie Canal, you get overwhelmed with this feeling of American pride. I think it's easy to visually represent the United States with our cities like New York and Chicago, but this was, to me, the real heart of the country.

I think another reason why I have chosen train travel as of late is the seats. I don't think I'm alone in dreading airplanes - when you travel with someone, it's not that bad, as you can sit together and (at least for me anyway) your loved ones don't mind your thighs encroaching on their seat. But as a young single person, I find that I often travel alone, and that has never been a good thing. One side of a two-seat section is pretty bad, but the absolute worst is middle of three (nope, I take it back - middle of five, which I was unbelievably grateful to not have had on my last trip to Paris). I find myself on edge the entire flight - even though I've never had a problem with buckling the seatbelt, it's still a cramped situation. I find myself disembarking from every flight swearing that I've been humiliated enough, I have to lose weight. But last summer, when travel was necessary, I decided to try the train. eastbound LSL - buffaloI was already upset enough by what was happening in my life at the time, I didn't need the overexaggerated frustrated sighs of someone else to make it worse. Things are different on the train. The seats, even in coach, are big and there's plenty of legroom. There are no rules about bringing food or liquid on-board, so I make a few sandwiches, bring a few waterbottles, and enjoy the ride.

One of my non-scale weight loss goals is to feel comfortable on an airplane again. I like the train, I really do. But if I ever want to get back to Paris (or anywhere else abroad, for that matter), I've got to get back into flying.

August 20, 2010

Roses and thorns

What a week! End of week three for my new lifestyle changes and week two for my blog, both are going pretty strong, I think! Thank you for reading, I really appreciate having someone here to listen to my stories, and your comments are invaluable.

I'm down 1 pound from last week, a total of 13 pounds lost overall. ("But wait - didn't you say 13 last week!?" I'm bad at math. It's not the end of the world.) I'm pleased! After last week's huge number change, I'm glad things are evening out to a small but steady loss.

This week's thorns: giant bubble wand = coolest toy ever
I cheated. Last Saturday, I was kind of depressed and feeling lonely, and I knew there was a spinach and mushroom pizza in the freezer. I made it, ate the entire thing in maybe 10 minutes, then fell asleep. I woke up feeling bloated and sick, and even more depressed than before.

Roses for the week:
I didn't let it win. I just thought, What do I really want - a temporary high, or long-term results? And I got right back on track, eating well, drinking lots of water, and going for walks. In the past, I would see cheating as a failure, but I turned it into a learning opportunity. I didn't treat it as a defeat, and that felt really good. Like I'm really learning things, like I'm ready and mature enough to succeed this time!

Also fantastic - getting back to work this week. My job is going great so far, although I will say that one of the hardest things for me is relinquishing some of my old power. Last year I worked as the assistant to the program director, making exams and basically being the boss' right hand lady. This year, I've been hired "simply to teach" - yes, I am still a resource to the TAs, but I'm not the first or second person they should go to for help. I loved being "in charge" of certain things, being the lady with all the answers! I'm sure I'll appreciate the changes more once classes start and I have a new set of challenges to work with. Also great about my new position: a new office! postcard from johnny!Our nine TAs share one big office with wooden chairs and two computers; some of them even have to share desks (not usually a problem since most of them aren't all in the office at the same time). But with my new job, I am in a smaller office with two other lecturers and we each have our own desk, our own computer, and nice swively office chairs! It's silly, but I think that was one of the best things about my week! It really made me feel like an adult.

Since I haven't had a paycheck since school ended and we get paid monthly, my finances are a little tight until mid-September - I'm getting pretty good about budgeting, but this means I can't get a membership to the school gym for a few more weeks. To keep active in the meantime, I've been walking a few times a week - I'd like to walk every day, but I was busy a couple times this week, with training and all. Living in the city makes this all pretty easy - I walk two blocks north, four blocks west, two blocks south, and four blocks east. It's a mile and a half! Eventually I'll expand, but since I'm just starting, I'm okay with what I'm currently doing.

And finally - I got a postcard from my friend Johnny, who is currently spending a month in France! I love getting mail, especially postcards, so this really made my week.

How was your week?

August 19, 2010

Don't look at me

Once, when I was maybe 12 or 13 years old, my grandmother sent me on an errand. She didn't have a drivers license and my grandfather was sick, so she gave me $7 and sent me to the drugstore to pick up some medicine for him. taken at isaiah zagar's magic garden, phillyIt was less than a mile's walk and the weather wasn't too hot or too cold. It's strange, I can't tell you if the sun was shining the first time I kissed a boy or what the temperature was like when I went to the senior prom. But this one insignificant day ... I could describe absolutely everything to you.

I took a shortcut up a one-way street and cut through the library parking lot. I was in front of the Methodist church, right next door to the CVS, when I heard someone call out:
"Hey fatty! Why don't you go eat some chicken?"
Two kids whizzed past on bikes - I didn't recognize the voices, but they sounded like boys. I remember my first thought being "Isn't chicken a lean meat?" and I continued on my errand. But once I got back home, I went straight to my bed and sobbed.

It's actually kind of amazing, because this was the first time anyone had ever called me fat or made fun of me for my size, at least to my face. taken at isaiah zagar's magic garden, phillyI had always been pretty autonomous, sticking to my friends, family, and schoolwork, and not really caring one way or another what anyone else thought. I wasn't the most popular girl but I wasn't socially awkward, either. I had always thought that people were okay with me, and I was okay with being fairly invisible.

By the beginning of eighth grade, I was about 235 pounds; by the end of high school, I was just over 300. In the meantime, my personality changed quite a bit - I was still very academically minded, but I also had a seemingly permanent attitude problem. I guess I figured that if people were going to hate me, I'd give them a reason. When they're slinging insults, "fat" is usually the first thing that rolls of their tongues. I decided "bitch" was better, and I made sure I deserved it.

Behind the tough exterior, though, was a very weak little kid. I was obsessed with what everyone else thought of me. It would have been so easy to go for walks around the block or down to the marina, but I was so scared of someone else yelling at me from a bike, a car, their yard. At first I started walking around my backyard, doing laps of the fence around the pool - after about a week, the grass was packed down in an obvious path. Eventually, though, I gave up entirely and just sat at home, my problem worsening.

Every now and then, I feel reminders of the terrified kid that I once was. At the gym, I always pick the machines closest to walls or corners. On the bus or the train, I turn up my iPod and pretend that the music is the only sound, because I automatically assume every whisper is a comment about me.taken at isaiah zagar's magic garden, philly At the grocery store, I race through as fast as possible so no one can see what's in my cart and judge me. Even when I'm eating sensibly, I worry that someone will look at what I'm buying and think judgemental thoughts - look at her, spending all that money on Weight Watcher meals! Does she know you're only supposed to eat one at a time?

David Sedaris describes 12-year-old males as "a demographic group second-to-none in terms of cruelty." It's hard to accept as an adult that such strong fears are based on nine words shouted by a couple of immature young boys, kids who undoubtedly never thought for another second about the exchange. I'll never be able to completely forget what they said, but I can try to use it for motivation instead of allowing myself to be paralyzed by fear.

August 18, 2010

A hundred and ten percent

Following up on one of last week's entries where I talked about my support system for my success, I'd like to talk about my immediate family. I'm very close to my family, and their thoughts and opinions matter to me very much. Unfortunately, I cannot count on them for support in my weight loss journey. This really breaks my heart, because they are the most important people in my life.

My parents had very different upbringings. My mother's family was not very well off, and growing up, we heard stories of her having gravy bread for dinner. my folks at dad's 50th birthdayFor my father, the sixth of nine kids (eight of which were boys), mealtime meant grabbing as much as you could while it lasted. For both my parents, food was an expression of love and care - having lots of food on the table, delicious nourishing food, meant that they were successful and they could provide for their family.

My parents got divorced when I was in seventh grade, and although they later reconciled and forged a civil relationship, it was a very difficult few years for all of us. We became less active and our food habits worsened. Food became our comfort, and we all grew unhealthier. My father had been diagnosed with diabetes a few years earlier, and when the divorce made him severely depressed, he stopped taking care of it. dad and brother one year before his heart attackHe didn't exercise, he didn't eat right, and worst of all, he stopped taking his medications.

In 2006, a week after his mother died, my dad had a heart attack. With diabetes came neuropathy, and my dad literally couldn't feel what was happening. He spent a long time in the hospital, could barely walk (even with help from a cane), and had to retire from work. It was an unbelievably tough time for our family. My father had always been this big, strong man, and now he needed help with basic things like showering, and couldn't even go to the grocery store anymore since it would be exhausting.

My father's father is in his late 90s (as were most of his siblings before they passed away). my folks, walking in the snowBut my dad, at 52, is dying. It shouldn't have been like this. Being overweight and not taking care of himself had robbed my father of years, maybe even decades of his life. If I ever get married, I won't get to dance with my dad - even if he is alive, it's just outside his physical capabilities.

It should have been a wake up call to all of us. But now, nearly four years later, we've all gained weight and maintained a generally sedentary lifestyle. I would say that I am the most active of my family members, if only because I live in the city and they live in a Connecticut suburb - I walk to the grocery store, etc., while they drive everywhere.

Last fall, I decided to buy an exercise DVD sibs and me at MA graduationto try and get more active - that way, even if I didn't have time to make it to the gym, I could at least do something. My father, who can be very loving and supportful but not always completely tactful, made a comment about the neighbors below me and the sound of elephants stomping around upstairs. The plastic never came off the DVD. Another effort this past spring was thwarted by a series of IM conversations with my mother. An excerpt:
Mom: this healthy eating is not agreeing with me
Me: yeah it's tough - but it will be worth it
Mom: i'm not joining that bandwagon - i'm being defiant - i ate mcdonalds in secret today
Me: that's awful mom
Mom: it felt good
Me: dad's dying - we all are - this will kill us
Mom: a burger and nuggets - i know - i just rebel
Me: that's not good mom
Mom: as soon as i have to, i don't want to, ya know?
Me: we need your support - this is going to be really hard for us
Mom: i know - i'll support you 110% - i just need to get myself together - not have everyone tell me what to do
It's so hard to sit and eat chicken and vegetables while your mother brags about two of your favorite things (fast food, and eating in secret). I love her very much, but I guess 110% support means something different to each of us. None of us is perfect. My weight is the most severely out of control, but everyone could stand to lose weight. I just wish I could not only have their support in what I am undertaking, but their participation.

August 17, 2010

Eggplant gnocchi

I didn't get this big eating rice cakes and drinking water. I love food. I LOVE it! And as much as I love eating it, I love making it. I love the feeling of taking raw materials, combining them in interesting ways, and making something to share with the people I love and care for. I'd like to post recipes here every now and then, and hopefully get either feedback - or more recipe suggestions!

For now, I'd like to share a recipe I made with my cousin Sarah a few weeks ago: eggplant gnocchi. Talk about combining two already perfect things! Gnocchi are Italian dumplings usually made with potatoes; this recipe is like a less sinful eggplant parmesan. My mother found the recipe here via a link on Food Gawker and asked me to translate it for her (the site has the recipe in French and Italian). Here is is for you, translated to English!

- 2 medium eggplants, slightly less than a pound each
- 4.5 oz (weight) of whole wheat flour (plus some for working the gnocchi)
- 1.5 oz (weight) of grated parmesan
- 1 egg
- 2 cloves of garlic
- several leaves of basil, chopped
- 5 cherry tomatoes, sliced lengthwise
- 4 oz (weight) of ricotta salata
- olive oil, salt, pepper, and a chili pepper
1. Cook the eggplants: cut them the long way, making incisions, and bake at 350ºF for about 30 minutes.
2. Peel off the cooked skin, cutting the eggplant into very small pieces with a knife and putting it back into a frying pan with 2 tbsp of olive oil, 1 clove of garlic, and the basil. Cook over medium heat. Switch off, remove garlic, and let cool.
3. While the eggplant cools, prepare the sauce. In a saucepan, sauté 4 tbsp of olive oil, 1 garlic glove, and a pepper. Add the tomatoes in a single layer and cook over medium heat for 10 minutes. Turn and cook on high heat for several minutes to lightly fry the tomatoes. Salt.
4. Mix the eggplant with the parmesan, flour, and the egg. Salt and pepper. to your taste. Work the mixture to create a well-mixed pasta that will be moist. Flour it.
5. To form the gnocchi: pour batter into a pastry bag (or form dumplings with two teaspoons - or even form them by hand, but it will take more flour). Over a saucepan of boiling salted water, cut small strings about 1 inch in length and sink them in the water as you go. Remove them with a perforated ladle 2 minutes after they have returned to the surface.
6. Pour the gnocchi in the pan with the tomatoes to season them, then serve topped with slices of the ricotta salata.

Servings: 4-5

A few notes: (1) The measurements are all Metric (2) Ricotta salata is a dry salted ricotta cheese - NOT the same as ricotta like you use in lasagne - it's like Italian feta. Since it's a topping and not a key ingredient, we had no problem substituting fat-free feta. (3) We prepared them via the pastry bag method, and let's just say that they were visually ... well, they looked like poo. But they tasted amazing, so the look didn't matter much. (4) Instead of a chili pepper, we used a few shakes of crushed red pepper. Still good.

August 16, 2010

Seasons eatings

Today is my first day of my first real, grown-up job. I was very lucky to get a full-time university lecturer position, my absolute dream job. This week I will be helping to train the new grad students for their Teaching Assistantships, and next week, I'm back in the classroom. I am really nervous, really excited, and definitely ready for it all to happen. Wish me luck!

Continuing a little on my last blog post, I've been thinking a lot about the foods that I eat and what changes I could make to be healthier. Specifically, I've been thinking about the colors of foods. I did an exercise a few weeks ago where, whenever I craved something, I would look up a picture of it on Flickr and save it to a file on my computer. At the end of the week, I sat back and looked at all the foods I wanted. There is a shocking lack of variety with the colors - lots of orange, yellow, brown ... colors that almost always mean "unhealthy." Sure, there are brown beans, yellow squashes, and orange ... um ... oranges, but those weren't the foods I was aching for. It's grilled cheese sandwiches, or pizza, or macaroni and cheese (I told you cheese was my weakness!). Very carb-heavy. So, I am trying to eat more seasonally - lean meats, not too many carbs, and whatever fruits and vegetables are in season. Right now it's summer, I need to take advantage of watermelon and raspberries and summer squash while I can!

I am very lucky to live in a fantastic neighborhood in Chicago: Pilsen. mexican produce meccaIt's Little Mexico, and I live in a great area that's near the "border" of a few different neighborhoods, so there's a lot of diverse stuff to see and do in the area. I love my street - it's mostly families, which gives it a great atmosphere while still being only 15 minutes from the Loop and downtown Chicago. One of the best things about Pilsen is the food - there are taquerías on most corners, little old women with tamale carts here and there, and men pushing paleta carts in summer (or even milder winter days!).

For as many places there are to go out to eat, there are just as many great grocery stores. My personal favorite is Pete's Fresh Market. come on, that's gorgeous!There are several locations all around Chicagoland, and the selection there just can't be beat. The first time I went there was with my cousin Sarah, and I remember being completely amazed at how colorful it is when you first walk in. They have a terrific variety of fresh produce, and the prices are terrific. I grew up in a fairly affluent part of Connecticut where paying $2 for an avocado can be a deal - at Pete's, they often have them on sale 3/$1! (The foodie in me got overly giddy last winter at finding Meyer lemons 7 for $1.) You can get the standards - apples, bananas, oranges, etc. - but they also have a great selection of "specialty" produce - stuff like tunas (cactus pears), which have a lot of small, hard seeds, but their flavor is exotic and refreshing.

Besides the produce, they also have a lot of Mexican cheeses, prepared foods like tamales, and a terrific meat market - I usually buy chicken and pork there since I don't really eat much red meat, and it's such a good deal. And every now and then I like to treat myself to a glass bottle of Mexican Coca-Cola - sweetened with cane sugar instead of corn syrup. I have them about twice a year - once on a really hot summer day, and then around Christmas. I don't really like soda - I'm not crazy about bubbles - but I'm a sucker for feeling like I'm recreating "classic" experiences.

My week's worth of groceries usually costs under $30. all packed and ready for the walk homeCan't beat that! Then I walk home with my cart all loaded up. Sometimes it costs more if I need to restock my staples, or if I am getting some of their interesting Mexican foods to put in care packages for my family and friends back home (chicharrones de harina, dried mangos with hot chili, chocolate-covered banana chips - oh my!). If you're ever in Chicago, you should definitely check out Pete's Fresh Market. Even if you don't need to buy "real" groceries, I still think it's a great experience!

August 15, 2010

Crossing the stream

Last week, I watched a few PBS documentaries to help me get motivated and focus my goals. A few were about food, since one of my problems is my current relationship with food and so I am trying to learn how to eat, so to speak. All of these documentaries are available to buy from PBS or Amazon, or to rent/stream from Netflix.

I enjoyed To Market To Market To Buy a Fat Pig because it was really focused on eating regionally and seasonally. It showcased several farmers markets and interviewed the people who work and shop there. raspberries have holes - blackberries don'tThe available products ranged from fresh fruit and vegetables, to cuts of meat butchered to order, to honey and flowers, and more. There was a remarkable quality to everything - no chemical preservatives, nothing homemade french bread! One of my major hurdles is trying to consume fewer processed foods, which is much more difficult than you would think! Sometimes, at the end of a hard day, all you want to do is lay back and have cookies or crackers and cheese. I'm a huge sucker for cheese, in every incarnation - it's quite possibly my favorite food. Learning to limit myself is exceptionally tough. Besides cheese, I have given up buying bread. I like to have sandwiches for lunches and all, but more often than not, the bread never made it to a lunch - it was late-night slices of bread and butter or cinnamon and sugar toast. I have a few recipes for bread (including a French bread that I tried quite successfully), and while the process is not difficult, it is time-consuming. This makes it easier to label it a "sometimes" food.

Another show I watched was The Meaning of Food, a three-part documentary focusing on the relationship of food to life, family, and culture. It was really interesting to see how different societies and cultures use food not only as fuel, but as part of their traditions. One of my favorite scenes was in the first part where cookbook author and TV chef Nigella Lawson is reading aloud from M.F.K. Fisher's "The Art of Eating," a book I am currently reading. It's actually a collection of books, and in them, Fisher discusses not only the food itself, but life and love and emotion. foie gras ravioli in parisWhile watching the shows, I thought about my trips to Paris and how different meals were for me there versus back here in the States. It's partly due to being on vacation, I'm sure, but for some reason, it always feels like there are so many more hours in each day when I am in France. On my last trip, in June 2009, I would wake up every morning, walk about half a block to a boulangerie/patisserie for a morning pastry, then stroll through the jardin de Luxembourg, savoring the tastes and watching the day begin. Back home, I'm lucky if I can find the time for a cup of yogurt!

Overall, though, I think the most influential documentary I saw was called Fat: What No One is Telling You. Through interviews with doctors, scientists, and people going through the weight loss process, this documentary showed what I felt to be a really honest depiction of the emotions and the struggles, not only with being overweight and trying to lose, but with simply living life as an overweight or obese person. The interview subjects spoke very candidly about their history of weight gain and loss, and there was a strange comfort in knowing that someone else out there has had familiar experiences and knows what it feels like to be me. portobello mushroom with summer squash, polenta, and spinach saladOne woman got very emotional talking about being on an airplane, getting assigned a middle seat, and spending most of the flight apologizing to the people around her; a young man talked about how ashamed he was that his addiction was so visible. There was a married couple who was trying to lose weight and get pregnant - they got personal trainers and met with food therapists and dieticians - and it shocked me when, post-meeting, they spoke with each other about their new food plans: they didn't even know how to cook chicken or any ways to prepare vegetables! I know what I need to do, I just need to make sure I keep on track and actually do it.

There was a study done in the 1950s of people who entered treatment programs for weight loss. The research showed that most of the people in the program quit; most of those who stayed did not lose weight; most of those who lost weight did not maintain losses. The narrator pointed this out and cited an updated study that shows that, over fifty years later, the statistics are not all that different. She called this the "grim shadow behind weight loss efforts" - if the odds are not in your favor, why bother putting in the effort to try? During a scene with the married couple and their therapist, the latter said that, at some point, it finally hits you that "it's not about how far it is across the stream, it's about how bad you want to be on the other side."

So, in closing, I think I got a lot of great ideas from these shows, not only about food, but about all the lifestyle changes and how to transition into someone who is actively trying to do something about her weight. I'll leave you with a few great quotes from Fat: What No One is Telling You:
"Every time you put food in your mouth it's a tough part. It's different than having other addictions like drugs, because you don't need to do that to sustain life. But you need food just to live on a day-to-day basis, you have to constantly make choices on what you're eating. Every time you eat and make that choice, it's tough. Are you gonna eat McDonald's or are you going to eat a chicken breast and a salad? So you can look at it that way, or you can look at it like it's a beautiful thing that every three or four or five hours, when you're hungry, you have a whole new choice. You have a whole new lease on life. It's almost like you're given this brand new moment every time you're hungry." Mary Dimino

"It's not easy. It's a life commitment, and that's not to be taken with a grain of salt. You're going to fail, and you're going to get back on. I think that a lot of programs are like, 'Oh! Just do this and then you're good and you go back to your life.' You don't go back to your life. I mean this is your life." Carla Hurd