Friday, November 20, 2009

The Weight

For most of my life, I've carried around extra weight. I'm not talking about the kind of poundage that would, say, require a rented motorized three-wheeler to navigate around Disney or anything, but over the years I've generally been overweight. Plump. Husky. You can pick your word.

I've gone through thinner phases and heavier phases, lost some pounds - sometimes for years at a time - and then put them back on. When I say I have suits and other clothes in various weights I'm not talking about fabric thickness or the seasons. I haven't done a wide variety of exotic diets, mostly when I've trimmed down it's been a result of getting disgusted with myself, resolving to "watch it" in some relatively formal way, and committing to regular exercise.

I remember one particular health class in high school, the teacher stood at the front of the room and said he had a diet that was guaranteed to work. He played with us for a while, solicited guesses around what it might be, and then wrote these words on the blackboard in big bold letters, I can still see it in my head - YOU MUST RUN.

He was right, of course. I ran through college and beyond and they were some of my leanest years, but the dedication to getting out and pounding the pavement did not last. I experimented with the Atkins diet years ago, at the height of its popularity, and it worked, but for most of my life I have steered clear of red meat (a challenge on that plan) and generally could never get past how inherently unhealthy the mix of foods and fats that were "allowed" seemed. The amount of plaque a dental hygienist scraped off my teeth after eating like that for just a few months told me everything I needed to know about the bad things that had to have been happening on the inside, regardless of what the good doctor wanted to tell Larry King on TV. Ketosis and pork rinds were not going to be my yellow brick road to health and happiness.

Of all the various regimens and plans I've come across in my life, the South Beach Diet was the one that made the most sense to me, on many levels. Most of all how it made me feel when I was on it, how it didn't seem like a "trick" or a way to game reality. I don't believe there will ever be a pill that doesn't come with serious side effects, or an effortless, no-cost approach to getting your body into shape. There's no free lunch in this world. I think people with my metabolism - which naturally defaults to "puffy" - will only really be able to preserve leaner and meaner for the long haul by making fundamental and sustainable changes in the way they eat and live.

This has been my experience, in a life filled with upswings and downswings that always seem to settle a good 25-30 pounds north of where I'd ideally like to be. I'm currently in a downswing, a slow and steady downswing and one I hope and believe will endure. Here are some of the things that have worked for me, five key pillars of a successful weight loss program. There is no rank order here, for success all five elements need to be in play.

1. Portion control. This is so obvious it seems barely worth mentioning, but it's fundamental, has been one of my key issues from the beginning, and clearly plagues many others as well. You could talk about the expanding amount of food offered in dining out environments, the pervasive "Supersize" mentality, but in the end it's really about how much you put in your mouth, how reasonable you are in what you consume. There's a difference between a handful of potato chips and a bag, a healthy helping of pasta and a pound. I've never been big on measuring and weighing servings, it always seemed like too much work, although I think at times - especially at the start of a new way of life - it can be helpful for illustrative purposes. Another natural enemy on this front is an inalterable adherence to the three-square-meal approach. "Sure, it's 10:45 a.m. and I'm a little hungry right now, but I'm going to hold off and wait for lunch and then I'm really going to EAT."

We still plan around three main meals a day, but there's nothing wrong with a handful of pistachio nuts an hour before lunch to tide you over, or an apple or cup of lowfat yogurt at 4 p.m. to make you less ravenous when the feed bag gets strapped on at the dinner table. In general, the deny-to-reward dynamic is does not seem to be a good or sustainable way to operate. It also breeds rationalization and excess.

2. Physical activity. My high school teacher was on the right track with the running. Being active in a dedicated way is an essential part of being healthy and losing weight. We have a Precor machine in our basement, and if I can find the discipline to run on the thing for 30-45 minutes 3-4 times a week it makes a tremendous difference in how I look and feel. At work I take the stairs instead of the elevator, eschew the intercom in favor of getting up and walking around when possible. I saw Frank Bruni, who eats for a living, on the Charlie Rose show recently and he talked about exercise as making a "down payment" on the food you were going to eat. That makes a lot of sense to me, and - in addition to helping maintain a healthy weight - working out or just being active will help mitigate the damage when you decide to indulge, because we all do, and should, at times. I have never in my life regretted a decision to exercise at the end of a workout. But that doesn't make it any easier to lace up the sneakers. You just have to find a way to get there.

3. Emphasize fresh foods (vegetables and fruits) and whole grains, the "good" carbohydrates, and avoid white flour, processed foods and refined sugars. This is the piece I got from South Beach and it works. It's also not absolute - we still eat pasta from time to time (although Barilla Plus carries the day much more often than our "old" favorite, De Cecco) and I still bring home pizza for the family on most Friday nights, I just have two slices instead of four, or five. The bread in our house that we use for toast in the morning is sprouted wheat from Alvarado Street Bakery or Ezekiel, when we make pizza dough we go heavy on the wheat flour and sparingly, if at all, on the white. It is easier than ever today to choose whole grains and fresh/minimally-processed foods, and I firmly believe that's helpful on multiple fronts. If it comes in a bag or a box with any kind of significant shelf life, it probably should not be eaten in volume. We eat potatoes rarely and sparingly. Same thing with white rice.

4. Plan ahead.
This goes hand in hand with #3, because in a pinch it's easy to make bad choices, when you haven't taken the time to stock supplies that allow for smarter ones. A helping of raw almonds out of a bag you keep in your desk is a much better mid-afternoon snack than a trip to the vending machine. A pomegranate or some sliced strawberries a better antidote to a nighttime sweets craving than a chocolate bar or scoop of ice cream.

5. Focus on the big picture, changes and habits that can endure.
Keep your perspective on living, instead of losing or maintaining. I think that's the problem with most diets - they force people into phases that determine how they act. You have a start weight, and a "goal" weight, you work to reach your goal and - if you are lucky enough and determined enough to get there - you shift into some new mode in order to "maintain" that weight. Ease up about it. This isn't a Band-Aid you put on and expect to take off at some point, it's the way you are going to live, the mix of foods you are going to eat and a level of physical activity you are going to expect and demand of yourself. Forever.

If these five guiding principles are followed to a reasonable degree, the pounds will come off and your general level of healthiness - I believe - will increase. At least that's been my experience. The other thing I think is really problematic about the "phases" approach is that it leads to a rigidity and an obsession with the scale that is very difficult to maintain. If you can't take a bite out of a brownie some co-worker made, or a slice of birthday cake at a family function without feeling like it's going to set you back a week in your weight-loss regimen you're ultimately going to have a problem. At home we choose sprouted wheat bread, buns and tortillas, but that doesn't mean if we stop off for a ball of fresh mozzarella on a Saturday afternoon we don't buy a loaf of crusty Ciabbata to go along with it, because everyone knows leaving a pool of olive oil and balsamic on the plate is a sin. If forced deprivation is an underpinning of your weight loss program, it's probably not going to last very long. Build reasonableness and healthy offsets up around your indulgences, and enjoy them when they happen.


This is in no way complete, but here are some of the foods we focus on keeping in stock around the house as part of our healthy eating regimen, our staples.

Fresh vegetables and fruits, notably green and red peppers, celery, cucumbers, leafy greens (arugula, romaine, spinach), small cherry tomatoes, avocados, apples, strawberries, melon, blueberries, pomegranates, raspberries.

Beans - mainly black beans

Onions, garlic, shallots

Salsa, we like Herdez, also any kind of canned tomatoes, amazing flavor-to-calorie ratio here, on the good side

Olives, pickles - especially these

Olive oil

Low-fat cottage cheese, yogurt

Feta, Romano, sharp cheddar, fresh mozzarella

Lean proteins, especially chicken, also like soy-based products like Tempeh in a stir-fry


Wasa - I like these fiber-rich crispbreads, (full disclosure) Madison and Ava call them "rabbit food."


Water - drink a lot of it

But the key is not to constrict yourself to any limited set of foods, these are just the ones that work for us, and the list is ever changing. I do think the South Beach books are helpful reference guides, the Glycemic Index is something I believe in. A banana, for example, is not the same as an apple, it's closer to Wonder Bread than to an apple. Beer is a problem, in a way that wine is not - and I'm not talking about the alcohol. Anyone who has spent any time on this blog knows that we love food, and we love to cook, and this can all coexist with a healthy diet and lifestyle.

If you are like me, you inherently know when you are overdoing it, indulging yourself beyond the point you should, and there are times when you will want to make that decision - but do so sparingly, and recognize those moments for what they are. The easiest way to backslide, I've found, is to get sloppy and suddenly five extra pounds turns into 10, then 15 or 20. "It's OK," you'll tell yourself. "As soon as these holiday parties are over, or after all the summer BBQs, I'm going to 'start' again." That's the problem, the idea of having to start.

Never stop. Just live. The rest will take care of itself.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Air Up There

Saturday, November 14, 2009


Thursday, November 12, 2009

Backing-Up Disney

A couple of developments I want to get on-the-record, so to speak, on this neglected little parenting blog. First is our recent trip to Disney.

Long-time readers may recall our trip with the girls a couple of years ago, this time around we had my parents to blame - they came up with the idea, secured housing, coordinated with my siblings and basically facilitated a large family pilgrimage to the place where dreams come true. They also paid for everything, so we had that going for us, which - in the immortal words of Carl Spackler - was nice. Rather than try to do another full-on review/trip report, here are a few key truths and takeaways from what will certainly be our last grueling death march magical trip to Orlando for at least a few years.

1. Don Draper would hate the Magic Kingdom. For one thing, there's more alcohol in his desk at Sterling Cooper than in this expansive (and entirely dry) pre-fab environment. I also think he'd have a problem with the expanding army of guests who are so obese they can only navigate the park on electric three-wheel scooters, which Walt's minions are only too happy to rent to facilitate drive-up service at the nearest fried carbohydrate or refined-to-within-an-inch-of-its-life sugar stand. Granted, there are staple rides and attractions here that are essentially required reading for parents, especially with small children. Height and terror considerations are less of an issue in this walled garden than anywhere else in the Disney complex. If a Disney vacation in general is taking one for the team, the Magic Kingdom raises that dynamic to mind-numbing extremes. Plan carefully and try to survive. In the end it's only a day or two out of your life. As I wrote a couple of years ago, there's really no way to get through a trip like this unless you decide early on to live it from behind the eyes of your children. The more quickly you embrace this perspective, the better off you'll be.

2. Epcot is still the best park experience for adults, with enough for the kids to strike a pleasant and satisfying balance, especially during the annual Food & Wine Festival, which we've been lucky enough to coincide with on both recent trips. Soarin' is my favorite ride across all of the parks, Test Track is terrific, and there's always the Nemo attraction and Turtle Talk with Crush for the really little ones. It's also worth noting that you are more likely to come across physical matter that resembles actual food walking through the various countries at Epcot than anywhere else in the Disney universe. Not to mention the beer and the wine, which is overpriced but readily available. And everyone knows you can't focus on the prices at Disney - it's about the experience, and you haven't really experienced the wonder of parenting in this curious land until you've saddled up to a glass of chardonnay in France, or a pint of Bass in England, or a flute of champagne at one of the little stands you pass, or all of the above. And if you plan ahead and book a dinner at the nearby Flying Fish Cafe to cap your Epcot visit (a short walk away on the Disney BoardWalk) you have basically elevated a theme park experience to an adult-friendly art form.

3. The Rock 'n' Roller Coaster, alone, makes a visit to Disney's Hollywood Studios (formerly MGM) worth it, and not just because it's the only place Aerosmith is playing together these days. The only reason we returned to this park was the fact that last time around Ava wasn't tall enough to ride this memorable attraction (unlike her big sister Madison) and for some reason we collectively decided it was worth forking over about $300 to undo memories of the extended crying fit that ensued as a result. It was, and the mock American Idol show, during which actual park guests sing against each other and are rated by the audience, was a great little discovery the girls loved that did justice to the "real" version on FOX. We sat through three shows, including the grand finale at 7 p.m., and it was a genuine highlight, featuring real drama, fake banter between a poor-man's Brian Dunkelman in the house and recorded commentary by Ryan Seacrest and other Idol luminaries, and some legitimately good live performances.

4. SeaWorld is nothing to write home about - a smallish park littered with road-side carnival attractions and other money-making schemes and traps - with the exception of the Shamu show (which is incredible) and some epic roller coasters that (tantrum alert) young kids under 54" are not tall enough to ride. I tried to buy a popcorn at one point but was dissuaded by the sight of the woman on the other side of the counter meticulously picking skin off one of her hands. And, to quote Forrest Gump, that's all I have to say about that.

5. It may actually be easier to navigate your way out of Disney parks via trams and rental cars (driving to off-property housing) than staying on-site and dealing with their shuttle bus system. Last time around, we stayed on property at the Beach Club, and probably the single biggest frustration we experienced was waiting for the Disney buses to take us wherever we wanted to go, and back to the hotel from wherever we were. It was miserable. This time around we stayed at a Marriott timeshare my parents arranged, and while I have to confess I was resistant to being relegated to off-property steerage status, getting to and from the parks via rental cars and parking lot trams seemed easier than our memories of standing around waiting for branded conveyance. I've heard from others that our observations are not unique. Disney needs to fix the on-site bus situation.

6. We have had great experiences with limited crowds and virtually non-existent lines, even for the most popular rides, in early November. As anyone who has taken on a trip like this knows, especially with kids, managing waiting time is as big a consideration as eating, drinking or finding out whether your request for individual TARP funding was approved. Disney's Fast Pass system is absolutely phenomenal, they have developed something that really works, that gives everyone in the park the ability to feel like they are on a VIP list, within reason. But even better than Fast Pass is not needing it, and that was typically our experience on both this trip and the one a couple of years ago - both were in early November, and I'm not sure we'd consider going any other time of year.


The other thing that happened a couple of weeks ago was that the hard-drive on our two-year-old iMac died and we lost all of the data it contained. At some point we turned off the machine and it simply never came back - gave us a blank white screen for a long while, despite multiple on-off attempts, and then ultimately displayed a small file folder in the center of the screen with a question mark in it. Obviously not the most hopeful of signs.

I made a Genius Bar appointment, hauled the thing into the Apple store and it took them about five minutes to run a variety of diagnostics and arrive at one inescapable conclusion - the hard-drive was gone, no option other than replacing it. The repair was free, since the machine was under AppleCare, but as anyone who has been through something like this knows, cost is not really the issue - you just want your stuff back. I asked the Genius, while we were staring at my non-responsive screen, whether or not it was unusual for a desktop computer to fail like this after two years, and as the question left my mouth I actually felt like an idiot for having asked it. What is the chance this guy, who sells and supports Apple computers for a living, is going to tell me that this catastrophic failure isn't unusual?

"It's not that rare," he responded, which astounded me. "A little more unusual in desktops than notebooks, since they're basically stationary. But the drive is the only moving part in the machine, so they do fail, it definitely happens."

We have an external LaCie drive and I thought I had been regularly backing up our data, turns out I was doing it wrong, which is even more idiotic when you consider how easy Apple makes it with Time Machine - which we are now using, religiously, on all of our Macs. The service experience with Apple was about as good as it gets - surprise, surprise - every single person I talked to expressed (with credibility) how sorry they were to hear about our situation. More importantly, they took the time to help me rebuild everything it was possible to retrieve.

The iTunes store extended a one-time courtesy download of all of the songs, shows and movies we had purchased on iTunes since 2003 that were still available, and we'd long been in the practice of transferring priceless photos and videos to multiple machines, so the damage wasn't as bad as it could have been. Another benefit of having something like this happen in the Apple/Mac universe was that we had one (responsive and accessible) company to talk to and deal with. I can only imagine the hellish netherworld one would find themselves in while appealing to Dell, HP, Best Buy and Microsoft for assistance while each company took their own shot at "that doesn't sound like our issue" three-card monte.

Apple made it as painless as possible, but we definitely lost some data and the whole episode taught me one invaluable lesson, especially in the digital age we're now living in. BACK UP YOUR STUFF. It's all right there, until it's not, and then it's gone forever.

There are a ton of obvious advantages associated with the transitions and developments that have occurred in the way we take and manage photos, videos and other forms of content, the one downside is how easy it is for all of it to go away if your hardware fails. Don't let it happen to you, and the good news is it's easier than ever before to put critical safeguards in place, if you just take the time. It's worth it. Believe me when I say that the photo above, and all the other ones we took in Disney, are backed-up beyond all reasonable measure, and - with our recent experience as a potent reminder - we'll never have it any other way.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

No Such Thing

Wandered down to the basement this morning with Ava to get in a little coloring time, and discovered this line Madison had written on our blackboard at some point, probably when she was leading one of her spontaneous classes, usually with a student of one, namely her little sister.

I loved the message, whether applied to crayons on a blank sheet of paper or even more broadly. And of course the missed (and subsequently inserted) word, alone, made this worthy of a post.