I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my feet the Sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch -
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.

Emily Dickinson, c. 1864

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Wheat and sugar blues

I looked at these cream puffs at the coffee shop and wished I could eat one. It had been three months since I last ate any wheat or sugar, but this last week, I indulged. While at the movies, I realized I would need something to tide me over until dinnertime, and while I waited for my friend Judy to arrive, I perused the offerings. A very enticing chocolate cookie made by a local bakery caught my eye, and I thought to myself that I could share it with Judy. By the time she arrived, however, it was gone. Completely. Biting into it, I realized that it was not only rich and tasty, with chunks of melting chocolate, but the texture was also completely scrumptious. It was very enjoyable.

In some ways I am fortunate that I have a reaction to sugar when I haven't eaten it in awhile. During the entire movie, my heart pounded and I felt a little shaky and broke out in a sweat. It's a familiar feeling I get when I eat something sugary and rich on an empty stomach, and indicates to me that my insulin level has just spiked. It wasn't until we were in the restaurant later that my body felt totally normal again. I ate a tuna sandwich (more wheat) and was just fine after that. The tendency toward diabetes runs in my family, and I have little doubt that if I ate a normal American diet, by this time in my life I would be either pre-diabetic or completely so. My grandfather died of it at 62, and my mother developed Type II diabetes in her forties.  One of my younger sisters takes insulin shots for it.

The mechanism of how insulin spikes work is this:
In normal physiology, the body is able to balance the glucose (sugar levels) in the bloodstream. When a person eats, and glucose levels start to rise, the body signals the pancreas to secrete insulin. Insulin "unlocks the door" to cells in the body so that the glucose can be used for energy. When blood sugar levels drop, insulin production decreases and the liver begins producing glucose.
Apparently when my blood sugar levels begin to drop, they don't stop dropping until I become mildly hypoglycemic and I experience that feeling described above. Once I return to eating a diet low in simple carbohydrates, I don't get those uncomfortable feelings when I eat. It's a good way to keep myself on the path of eating what agrees with me. When I've had my fasting blood sugar checked, it's always been within normal limits, but I suspect that there is some imbalance in either my pancreas or my liver that doesn't work as it should. I could worry about it, but I've found that if I am cautious about what I eat, it doesn't happen at all. Every once in awhile I guess I need to remember that. The cookie did its work.

There is another side effect of falling off the wagon: I begin to crave sweets. It's impossible for me to know if this is physiological or completely emotional, but those cream puffs caught my eye and I decided to take a picture of them since I wouldn't allow myself to have one. I imagined biting into it, feeling the creaminess of the chocolate and the soft whipped cream inside the shell... ooohhh. Heaven for a little while. Then I remembered how I would feel afterwards, and I was able to resist.

The other trick I have is to carry some raw almonds and walnuts in a little baggie inside my purse or pocket, so that I can have something that takes away any hunger and is good for me. I never have reactions from them, no matter how hungry I am. Within a few minutes, my hunger is gone and I feel just right. I had forgotten to put any in my pocket for the movies, which is why this whole treadmill has started again. It's important for me to remind myself that the craving will diminish as long as I don't indulge again any time soon.

I don't think I had any reaction to the wheat itself. I read the book Wheat Belly (as opposed to Beer Belly) and have found it true that my belly has diminished in size over the past three months. I am no longer dieting per se, but my body seems to be redistributing my fat deposits. I keep being surprised when I put on a favorite pair of pants and find that they are loose, although I haven't lost any more weight. The only thing I have changed in these past three months is to stay away from wheat and sugar.

There is one other rather interesting side effect: my mood is much improved, and it's the depths of winter right now. Other than the Christmas season when I was robbed (I wrote about it here), I've been in a really good mood. Could it be the diet? If you read the book, the author swears that your mood will improve if you get rid of wheat. I don't have any way to know how I would be feeling otherwise, which is always a problem if you try to figure out what changes what. I'm also possibly susceptible to suggestion. Who knows? I'll take it, whatever the reason.

Since my little foray into wheat and sugar, the only thing I still notice, a week later, is that my eye tends to drift toward the dessert tray at the coffee shop a little more often. I know that will eventually diminish, unless I indulge again. Then I remember that awful shaky sweaty feeling, and that helps me decide to look at the pretty clouds in the sky outside, instead.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

March family reunion

Me, Norma Jean, PJ, Buz, Markee, Fia, oldest to youngest
Last year I traveled to Texas in March for a family reunion and to finish the celebration of Pete's life with the rest of our family. Norma Jean didn't want the entire clan to descend upon her little mobile home when Pete died, so we made arrangements to gather in Texas to give us all a chance to be together once more and to celebrate the man we all loved.

I also got another chance to spend time with Norma Jean, Allison and her beautiful child Lexie. She's grown so much in a year, but then again, she was only nine months old then, and now she's a toddler, with a full set of teeth! Allison had this picture taken and added to her Christmas card this year. She is certainly a happy child.

There is an incredible number of people around when you have five siblings who are all married and have families. At one point I think we had two or three dozen of us together, with barking dogs, shouting kids, and laughing adults. A madhouse.  Every one of the young children are right around the age my grandchildren would be, if I had any, that is. Actually, now that I think of it, Chris would be fifty right now and could be a grandfather himself and I could be a great-grandmother! How quickly time flies by.

Although it was hard to travel again so soon after having spent three weeks in Florida with Norma Jean, it was wonderful to reconnect with my family again. The ones we really missed, though, are our parents, who seemed to peek out every now and then in the expression or mannerism of one of my siblings. Although I don't have any living children or grandchildren, I will never lack for family to love and be with if I choose it. Here in this part of the country where I live now, I've made friends and have a life that fulfills me, and because of iChat and Skype, I can visit with many of my family members any time I want. This technology makes all the difference in my sense of being connected. We live in a very interesting time.

I haven't traveled again since last March, unless you can count the numerous local trips I took with my Trailblazer friends. This past summer was filled with our regular Thursday outings, plus six or seven extra ones to new and different parts of the state. I learned so much and wrote a post on my other blog about my favorite hikes this past summer.

Now we are in the depths of winter, and the cold and snow of last week has given way to our usual wind and rain. At least the driving is reasonable again, but it seems a long time ago, more than a year, that I visited my family, and a long time ago (more than a few months) that I spent my days hiking in the sunshine, taking pictures of flowers and mountain vistas. These days are spent reading, blogging, talking with Smart Guy and just basically feeling more housebound than usual. I realize how much I enjoy being outdoors, when I'm dressed for the weather and active. We haven't gone snowshoeing yet this year, since the snow took its time getting here and now the avalanche danger is very high.

When I read the posts of my blogging family, it's clear that many of us are feeling a bit of nostalgia for other seasons. Some of my bloggers are in the Southern Hemisphere and dealing with heat and humidity. It makes me realize how insular my view of time and the world is. A year is a long time when I think of the change that has happened, and it's a very short time when I look at the longer view. The older I get, the smaller a percentage a year takes up in my entire lifetime, so maybe that's one reason it seems to have gone by fast.

And then I think of the many long dark days before the birds will be singing outside my window before I wake. This morning I am sitting in bed, laptop perched in my lap, and it's dark and silent outside. It's after 7:00am -- in the middle of summer the sun rises three hours earlier. It will come around and I'll wonder when that happened. Slowly, a minute or two each day... change comes on little cat feet.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Florida in February

BetMar Retirement Community grounds on a foggy morning
Last February I spent three weeks in Florida with my sister Norma Jean. It's been almost a year since my brother-in-law Pete died on February 10. His death was not unexpected, since he knew he was dying of emphysema and COPD. At the young age of 67, no less. He was a lifelong smoker and was unable to give it up, even though he knew it would cost him his life. Pete started a blog in 2010 and wrote over a hundred posts, a legacy of his writing and viewpoints that I cherish. Nobody could write quite like Pete, and he wrote several of them while he was suffering from low oxygen levels. Nevertheless, they are still very well written and give a little taste of who he was. Here's one of the last ones, called "Hop, Skip, and Off to Hospice We Go!" -- I just now re-read it and Pete's character jumped off the page and into my heart. I didn't expect to make this post into a remembrance of him, but sometimes you've just got to go with the flow.

I didn't intend to go to Florida, but a few days after he passed, my niece Allison (who was there with her mom when he died) called to tell me that Norma Jean's little long-haired chihuahua Moose had been run over and killed right in front of her house, and she was simply devastated by the double whammy. That happened on the 15th and I arrived on the 17th. I slept on the couch on her back porch, while Allison with her infant daughter Lexie slept in Norma Jean's bedroom together, and Peter (her son) slept in Pete's office. One by one they would leave; first Peter, then Allison and Lexie, and finally I was alone with Norma Jean. But before they went back to their lives, we had a celebration of Pete's life. Pete did not want a funeral or any fuss made over him, but we pondered the whole idea of holding something for those of us left behind. A celebration of his life seemed appropriate. On the 20th, we carried some of his art (he was a gifted photographer) to one of the clubhouses located on the BetMar Retirement Community grounds. His motorcycle friends and many people from around the community showed up.
His son Peter constructed a slide show that rotated hundreds of pictures of Pete during his life. One of Pete's most successful photographs is displayed above the monitor, "Sunrise over Tampa Bay." It was a very fitting celebration, but it was also very hard on all of us. We trudged through day after day, just trying to make it through the hardest part of the grief. I would wake in the middle of the night to the flickering of images reflected on the wall, and I'd realize that Norma Jean couldn't sleep and was up watching TV. She used headphones so I wouldn't have known except for the light. I wasn't sleeping all that well, either. I'd get up and we would talk, for hours. We would talk, laugh, and cry together and watch the sun come up. But the three weeks finally passed and it was time for me to return home.

Many of the family members felt it was important to get Norma Jean another dog, and she and I went to websites to figure out how to get a rescue dog. Before long we ended up with two of them, and I hoped that when I left it would give her something to fill her days. She eventually decided to go to Michigan and spend three months in the town where her son Peter lived. She turned the dogs back to the rescue organization (you are required to do that) traveled first to visit her daughter Allison and then soon after for those three months in Michigan. It was too soon to bring those dogs into her life, I know that now, and I suspected it while I was there. She needed more time.

Now she has a wonderful little dog, a Papillon puppy she named Icarus (because of the ears, you see) but it has been shortened to Icky. A bit unfortunate, maybe, but the dog is perfect for her now. And her son Peter was laid off from his job in Michigan and is living with her temporarily. He brought HIS dog with him, a little Jack Russell terrier named Zen, and so two dogs run and play again in the house. I am familiar with them because of the changes that happened in my own life because of my three weeks in Florida.

First, Norma Jean swims every day for exercise, so I began to join her. She had not been swimming since Pete died, and as normality began to return in her life, she decided to start swimming again. I myself had not swum laps for exercise in decades, so I was at a disadvantage, but I remembered how to breathe and just... started. It was incredibly hard to find a pace I could maintain, and at first I couldn't go more than a few lengths before I had to catch my breath. Before I left Florida, however, I could swim ten laps without stopping. When I returned home, I decided to use the pool at the YMCA (where I work out) and see how it progressed. Now swimming laps once or twice a week is part of my repertoire.

The other major change is that I talk with Norma Jean two or three times a week on iChat. Now that I've been there with her, it's easy to fall into the same routine we had then: somehow we never seem to run out of things to say, to share, to talk about. And recently I discovered how to send her pictures while we're chatting, and now I save them up so she can see the birds or other scenery I want to share with her. Of course she reads my blogs, but it's so much nicer when I'm looking at her and we are doing things together. The added bonus of seeing her makes it seem very much more immediate and intimate. I miss being with her, but nowhere near as much as I would have without iChat or Skype.

Looking back at the past year, I realize how incredibly full it was. The new year, 2012, is likely (God willing) to be much less so. I traveled twice in a year's time because of major loss, and I'm hoping that nothing like that will happen this year. It's a Leap Year, too. Smart Guy and I will both turn 70 this year, and of course it's also supposed to be the end of the world in December. I'm hoping I'll get to have a satisfying retrospective in January 2013. Most likely I will.

In March 2011 I got to visit my family in Texas and had another reunion. I'll revisit that trip next week. Until then, I hope that you have a wonderful week, filled with sunshine and even snow, if that's what you want. It's almost 7:00am and I'm getting hungry and ready to start the rest of my Sunday.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Resolutions and retrospective

Every new year I make a resolution or two, as most people do. And as the numbers of the year turn from one year to the next, it seems like a good time to look back on the past year and see how successful I was. Last year I saw a new doctor in January (because of the change in Medicare coverage) and learned that I had gained ten pounds since the last time I'd visited a doctor. When you're short like me, that's a significant amount of weight. I decided to start counting calories, and I wrote a post on my other blog about it, which I called "The long slog toward slim."

This January 2012, I have lost all the weight I wanted to lose, and then some. I wanted to lose the ten pounds but have actually lost 18 in total. I'm now thinner than I have been for years, probably since 2005 when this picture was taken.
I remember looking wistfully at this picture last January and wishing I would be able to wear those jeans again without a roll over the top. And now I can. In fact, the strange part is that I wonder now how come I allowed myself to gain weight in the first place. I continue to be active and exercise plenty. But I also had become fond of eating late in the day. It doesn't take many extra calories to add on ten pounds. Conversely, it doesn't take much of a calorie deficit for the weight to begin to fall away.

The hard part was getting started. Counting calories and using an online food diary taught me many things, not the least of which is that some of my food choices were adding calories that I could easily skip. I started counting out the nuts I eat every day (raw almonds and walnuts) so I could add them to the diary, and I experimented with ways to get sugar out of my diet. A scale helped me understand how much a portion was supposed to be. I kept my calories to 1500 per day and was rewarded with pretty consistent weight loss until I hit a plateau after I had lost about eight pounds. Since my new eating plan had become familiar by then, it wasn't hard to keep at it until I began to lose again.

Last year I read two books that helped me a lot: Mindless Eating and The End of Overeating.  Of course I had already read all of Michael Pollan's wonderful books about food. It is endlessly satisfying to read books about food when I'm trying to understand my own relationship to it. I've been a vegetarian for decades (well, a pescatarian anyway, since I eat fish) and things like bacon and steak don't even look like food to me any more. But it's really easy to gain weight by eating too many carbohydrates, especially the simple carbs. That's what I had been doing, and now I'm eating more protein and fat and limiting the amount of gluten foods in my diet. I continue to eat lots of veggies every day, but I was doing that before.

Not long ago I learned that two-thirds of all Americans are overweight. A full third of us are obese, many morbidly obese. The health effects of obesity are well known, but the problem is that our diets are apparently designed to keep us eating more and more. I know that when I eat something high in added sugar, I want more of it, even when I'm full. If I don't eat it in the first place, I lose the desire to overeat. Or I eat something else, something better for me.

Hmmm. This is not where I thought I would be going with this post, but it's a good one. It never ceases to amaze me that reading about food and food choices, diets, and body image is endlessly fascinating, to me at least. What I was hoping to do when I first started this post was to write about the past year's events. I started with the January doctor's visit and it ended up filling the post with food and weight issues. Maybe the thing to do is cover each eventful month one at a time. By the time spring rolls around, I'll have finished the entire year of 2011.

One nice thing about blogging is having the ability to go back and read how I felt a year ago. I've been writing this blog since December 2009. I started writing my own history and then got into the habit of pondering where I am today, giving myself permission to write whatever comes into my head once a week. On this blog I don't use labels or have much of anything in the sidebar except the chronological march of posts. Even so, this will be my 115th post, writing once a week.

And over the past two years, I have found a community of fellow bloggers, friends from around the world who delight me and challenge me by leaving perceptive comments. These sometimes spark new directions and avenues in my thinking that I find to be rather addicting. Thank you for being part of my life. I am enriched by our interaction and continue to gain strength and courage from you.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

New Year's Day 2012

Craig Marker
I found this picture on line and need to go back and learn more about Andi Levin, who writes her blog from Seattle and sounds very interesting. I wanted a picture of the Space Needle at New Years and found this picture on her blog from last year's celebration. Her blog title is "Are we falling or flying... and will we ever know?" As a skydiver, I think I know the answer to that one: both. We are doing both.

Last night when the new year began, I was asleep and awakened by firecrackers going off. The bedside clock confirmed it: midnight. The sounds faded after a short while and I fell asleep again. Fortunately the neighbors must have put their dogs inside for the evening, because I didn't hear them barking. But then again, they might have been cowering in fear. Fireworks are not my favorite thing, either. At least I know what is causing the ruckus; they don't.

Yesterday was truly a turning point for me in regards to the theft I wrote about last week. Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve were night and day from each other. My recovery from the event is almost complete now, although I will always have lost money and security that will not come back. My sense of vigilance is heightened and I don't think I will ever be as trusting as I was before.

This morning I woke from a strange dream. I was in a restaurant with friends and had put my purse under the table. We were enjoying an ice cream dish together, when another woman cried out that her purse was taken. I looked under the table and mine was gone, too. Although the sense of loss was great, I knew that my driver's license and credit card were with me and not in my purse, and I was glad for me and sorry for my friend who was not so lucky. While lamenting our losses, a man walked up and stood in front of us, and he had my keys and pictures that had been taken in the theft. I looked at my old driver's license and a picture of my son Chris. I cried with gratitude.

And then I woke up, looked at the clock and realized I had slept longer than usual. I pondered the meaning of the dream as I made my tea, and now I'm here drinking it and writing off the top of my head, with little idea of the direction I want to take this post. It's a new year, and I read all my friends' new posts and left comments. It's my usual morning activity, sitting up in bed in the dark with my partner asleep beside me. The clicking of the keys is the only sound; it's my favorite time of the day.

The Serenity Prayer has been uppermost in my mind this past week. Most of us know it, but here is the first stanza:
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
It was written by Reinhold Niebuhr, I discovered in my google search just now. I've seen his name before but just learned that he was a theologian who died in 1971. I'll go study that link a bit more once I'm finished with this post. This is what happens to me these days: I look something up and head off on a tangent without meaning to. Our world is so incredibly connected, plugged in, and information of all kinds instantly available at my fingertips, so a little discipline is needed here. I feel the need to say something I haven't yet expressed.

Thinking about three important words in that poem: serenity, courage, and wisdom. It's not an easy thing to be serene when things are going awry all around you. It's much easier to feel confusion and become suspicious of everyone. That is anything but serenity. I have fought to find some serenity during this past week, and I have been moderately successful. It's taken a fair amount of work and the passage of time.

Courage. Today I will go back to Lake Padden to celebrate the new year with my walking friends. It's not an easy thing to make myself go back to the scene of the crime, but if I don't take my courage in my hands and live my life in the way I desire, I will be even more of a victim. The impact of this theft has been huge on my psyche, and I wonder how I would recover these days from an even larger tragedy. I'm nowhere near as resilient as I was a decade ago when my son Chris died. And back then I suffered terribly for a long time, but I did eventually learn to smile and laugh again.

Wisdom. Ah, that word. The dictionary tells me it means "the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment." You cannot be a wise person without going through a fair bit of life's roller coaster of highs and lows. I do realize that being almost seventy has given me a fair bit of wisdom, and my desire to be a good person has caused me to think and rethink my actions. I wish for myself and for all of you, my blogging family, wisdom. I am learning to know the difference between what I can and cannot change, and I will gather my courage and do what I can in this new year.

There is a fourth important word in that poem: change. It's a constant thing in our lives, sometimes small and imperceptible, other times a momentous event that keeps us from continuing on in the same trajectory. But one thing I know: nothing and nobody escapes change. We can sometimes choose the direction of change, sometimes we can't. But change can be positive as well as negative.

Blessings to you at this time, and may the coming year bring us all joy and prosperity. It's a big wish, but I think we can do it if we try...