Monday, December 31, 2007

Getting into the "Zone"

I'm quietly getting myself into the zone--no, not the Twilight Zone, although sometimes it feels that way (and probably reads that way to you, gentle readers).

I'm resuming CRON tomorrow, January 1st. It's not a New Year's Resolution-thing (see my previous post for thoughts on that). I'm not making any resolutions or promises. But despite all that, I find it hard not to look at January 1 as an opportunity for a fresh start, symbolically. And also to use that symbolism as a mental tool to free myself of the past. To shed 2007 like an old cloak that I no longer wish to wear. It's still there if I want to look at it, but it's not hanging on me, weighing me down. Symbolically unburdened of all the dramas I've been wallowing in lately, I can enjoy the beginning of the new year, savor each new moment as it comes, and not need to view it through the lens of the past. Sounds good, doesn't it? Well, that's my aspiration. Reality will be somewhere between that and where I am now, I'm sure.

So I'm getting my mind into the CRON zone by tinkering with CRON-O-Meter today, plugging in foods that I know I have on hand, and seeing what sort of menus I can come up with for the next several days that fit the basic CRON scenario.

I'm also quite literally adopting "The Zone" as my macro-nutrient target. I know many CRONistas (thanks for the great new name, April!) use Zone-like ratios. I've researched The Zone but have not read Sears's book itself. But I'm aware that reducing inflammation by achieving some sort of hormonal balance through proper diet and nutrition is part of the plan. And reducing inflammation is something I very much need. I am a bundle of aches and pains these days. Some are brought on by the mechanical stress of extra weight burdening my joints. But I think some are definitely caused by diet issues and hormonal imbalances. And I also know that I do much better at lower carbohydrate levels, in terms of energy, mood, and all-around sense of well-being.

So, I've started the process of planning my diet out for the next few days. I'm in the position of being a little too broke at the moment for an all-out grocery shopping blitz this week to stock up on CRON-friendly foods, so I'm needing to work with what's in the pantry already with just a few additions. This means I need to plan carefully. I'll also need to take supplements because I'm probably not going to be able to balance nutrients as well as I'd like until I can do more grocery shopping for veggies.

So I'm optimistic, ready for change, ready for what comes. At the same time, I know myself pretty well, and I know my challenge will arrive not tomorrow, or the next day, but in a week, in a month. Sustaining good habits and behavior when temptations arrive to tease me with the promise of instant gratification. Staying present in the moment, being willing to endure the discomfort of predictability and boredom, perhaps pangs of hunger, an overwhelming desire and appetite for escape--these are the bugaboos that await me. I don't know when they will strike, but when they do (and they will), I have the opportunity to experience personal growth. And in that sense, perhaps I will remember to welcome their appearance and embrace the pain.

I will see you all on the other side, in 2008!

Friday, December 28, 2007

Abandon all hope.

No, this isn't a dreary, depressed, despondent call to give up. I was reading Skinnybitch the other morning, and she had this to say about the end of the year 2007:

But in the calm after the storm [of the holidays], as we survey the damage - bulging waist lines and a wicked hangover, most likely - most of us will become reflective and, perhaps, a bit remorseful. Another year is about to die, and with it, all our failed good intentions of the previous year. What about that resolution to go to the gym every day? To eat less and exercise more? To be more patient, organized, forgiving, productive and self-disciplined?

Meanwhile, April submitted a post on New Years Resolutions.

They and most of us are tapping into an essential undercurrent that flows at this time of year, this urge for self-reflection and introspection. So many of us share this sense that we haven't done it well enough, that we could do it better, and that therefore we should do it better. Sometimes loudly proclaimed, and sometimes unspoken and whispering around in the subtext, is that we are just not good enough as we are. Nothing is ever good enough as it is.

I see this as derived, in a way, from the Protestant work ethic. We should always be busy. Always working. Working at our jobs, working on ourselves, basically work work work. You better work! Time to lean is time to clean. Cleanliness is next to godliness. Ad inifitum. Ad nauseum.

But careful: our culture does not reward this introspection and self-reflection unless it results in concrete action. You will not be an effective, virtuous person unless you channel those New Years resolutions into successful accomplishments. If you fail--and you will (even disciplined April jokes about which resolutions will be the first to go)--you will be revisiting a self-prescribed litany of failures at the end of 2008, wondering how you got off track, while hopefully planning your salvation in 2009. Lather, rinse, repeat in 2010. Ad infinitum. Ad nauseum.

I'm not immune. I've practiced CRON only in fleeting fits and starts, actually gaining weight while simultaneously stopping exercise and losing muscle tone. I'm stretching the seams of my fattest clothing. I've all but abandoned work on my novel. I hatched elaborate plans to train for and run a marathon, then bailed as soon as I found out the Chicago race had filled up and I couldn't get in.

If I wanted to sit down and revisit my shortcomings, either explicitly by listing the failures, or implicitly by mapping out the resolutions for "positive changes" next year, I could easily do it. I could do it in my sleep. With my hands tied behind my back. Hell, with my hands AND legs tied behind my back. Hogtied, I could list and wallow in the muck of my shortcomings, my dashed hopes, and my failed expectations for the work I could and should have been doing all year long.

For me, however, this year has been about survival. At some point in 2007, I finally abandoned hope. I started giving up on my perfectionism, and my expectations for perfectionism in others. I started learning to wallow in my slothy, lazy ways, to calmly recognize my impetuous ego-clinging, to look clearly and honestly and without judgement at my difficulty in resisting the apetites that defeat me.

Always wanting to be noticed and appreciated and adored by others, I learned somewhwere along the way this year to embrace the anonymity that comes from not being virtuous and beautiful and perfect. It became comforting to realize that people were looking through me instead of at me. That I could at times become invisible. To feel a sense of comfort and relief when no one was thinking about me. To not mind when no one expected anything from me, and to not feel that others owed me something.

Losing hope sounds scary and depressing and nihilistic, but that's not how I mean it at all. If hope is one side of a coin, what's on the other side? Fear, it seems. We hope for better, but fear the worst. Our fear drives us to hatch harebrained schemes which THIS TIME will free us from the truth about ourselves for sure! We have fears about our story, our character, our essential nature. We hope to change them all.

New Years resolutions are all about clinging to hope that we can be better. We find it so easy to accept that we were bad before, and yet so difficult to accept that we were good. Or good enough. We are afraid to not be good, to be better, to not be the best we can be. We're afraid that we were bad last year and if we don't do something we'll be worse than ever this year!

We want to run away from our fears, but we're stuck because we can't run into the future where everything has already been solved. Hope is our way of getting around that pesky fact of our time-space continuum: we only have access to right now--this instant. And since we can't solve our problems this instant, we turn to hope. Hope gives us a place to locate our longings.

2007 was a tough year for me. And for my family. And for the world, for that matter. I'm glad I made it out alive, in one piece, and not too much worse for the wear. But I can honestly say that for the first time ever, I am not filled with remorse for the things that didn't happen in 2007. There are plenty of things I'm glad did NOT happen in 2007. In fact, the list of things that didn't happen that could have been or surely would have been worse is infinite! So I'm thankful for that!

I'm sure I had high hopes for 2007, but with all that actually occurred, I cannot really recall what they were. I can't quite bring forth the specter of who I was at the end of 2006 and all his horrible shortcomings and failures. Nor can I materialize the ghost of who I thought I'd be at the end of 2007.

I'm learning to abandon hope. I think the more I'm able to do that, the better I'll be able to abandon fear. Maybe I won't be afraid to go to bed a little hungry some night, maybe after a day in which I've eaten enough, but not as much as usual. Maybe a 230 pound man going to bed a little hungry isn't that scary after all.

Maybe the discomfort of getting up at 5am so I can squeeze a reviving workout in at the gym, and the irritation of being a little tired, maybe that's not so scary.

Maybe being bored and lonely isn't frightening enough to make me flee to the warm comfort of an extra glass of wine.

Maybe being alone and quiet and still isn't so bad, and even if it feels so bad in the moment, well maybe feeling bad doesn't always require an escape or a remedy.

Maybe if I'm not so afraid to confront and engage with the pain (whatever type it is), I won't hope so hard for it to go away. Maybe I won't feel so strongly the urge to act based on my hopes and fears, instead of acting on what's actually happneing here, now, in this moment, where and when I actually have the ability to act.

I can't honestly say that I don't have hopes for 2008, and fears too. Those thoughts will surely cross my mind every day. My idea is to not be ruled by them. To let those thoughts cross my mind the way a bird crosses the sky...see them up there flying by, and let them continue on their way to wherever they are going, leaving me to sit here quietly.

So I'm abandoning hope.

The hand gesture depicted in the image at the top of this Gratuitous Musing is called the Abhaya Mudra. It means "no fear."

I'm abandoning fear.

(But I might still blog about it once in awhile...)

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Grandma: "I think we'll all feel better after we see a few people getting slaughtered."

I'm in a dark place. Allow me to share.

Well, it's been awhile. I haven't submitted updates to CRONOLOGY for a very long time primarily because I haven't been practicing CRON. At times I entertained the thought of treating this blog as my own general journal/diary, and going ahead with postings about miscellaneous stuff unrelated to my stalled CRON practice. But in the end, I felt I wanted to keep things somewhat on topic.

The reasons for my lack of CRON are varied and numerous. Or maybe that's "excuses" rather than "reasons." So much has happened since my last entry that I'm not sure how it all fits together with my CRON practice. Maybe I'll just start back in July and see where this goes. [Author's note: Danger--it goes pretty far--and pretty far afield; turn back now.]

I was just getting back into CRON at the end of July. I think I wanted to drop some pounds before a Labor Day trip to New Orleans that I'd been excitedly anticipating. Well, that didn't happen. I'm not even sure why I didn't stick with it that time. It was summer, there were gobs of great fresh vegetables and fruits available at farmer's markets all over Chicago.

New Orleans was fun--I stayed for 8 days with three friends from DC. We ate nothing but horribly unhealthy (but so delicious) food the entire time. And of course, we drank massive quantities of alcohol. I mean, a LOT of alcohol. Like "frat boys on spring break" quantities of wine, beer, gin--you name it. If I was conscious, and it wasn't morning, I probably had a drink in my hand. We started at the hotel, and continued on the streets of the French Quarter until all hours of the night (or morning...).

This alcohol business is not an insignificant issue for me: I have long struggled to keep my alcohol intake to a low moderate level. On CRON, it's pretty easy, because alcohol eats up calories without providing nutrients, and I'm usually unwilling to feel that hungry in order to maintain a high level of alcohol consumption. Never mind that it's counterproductive for longevity. Or depression.

And I'm always mindful that I come from a long line of heavy drinkers. My grandmother on my father's side died of either lung cancer (from smoking) or cirrhosis (from drinking) or both--we can never remember. At any rate, she was often "in her cups" as it were. My grandmother on my mom's side went to rehab twice before kicking her long-time addiction at around the age of 55. She's been sober now for 25 years. I have spent my adulthood partying with my parents. Family occasions are always occasions for drinking. Alcohol-drinking behavior is encouraged and reinforced constantly in my family, and in our culture at large, and resisting it, just like resisting our obesigenic food environment, is difficult when you thoroughly enjoy the stuff.

My own drinking habits have been spotty over the years. I've gone long periods with moderately normal consumption, then gotten a little carried away for awhile, then turned to abstinence for long periods. When I go too far for too long, a switch seems to flip in my brain that orders me "stop drinking completely," at least for awhile, and I usually comply with that command. Inevitably I quietly start drinking again later, and the whole process repeats.

New Orleans at the end of August was rather a binge for me. I came back to Chicago feeling polluted and ill. I went "on the wagon" yet again, for a couple months. Then I started drinking again in November. So far, so good--for me at least. I'm managing moderation for now, and I'm enjoying the times I can have cocktails or wine with my friends over dinner. When I resume CRON, the drinking will necessarily be further diminished, and I'm fine with that.

But from the period of just before Thanksgiving until today, I have had an ugly glimpse of the possibilities that await me if I should fail to remain vigilant about my alcohol use.

My uncle (my mother's brother) has been a long-suffering alcoholic, just like his mother. He's fifty, and the last 10-15 years have seen his alcohol abuse go from an immoderate low-level to the level of "how the hell is he still alive?" While my mom and I knew about his problem, he'd been concealing it from his parents (my grandparents).

Then Grandpa died the Friday before Thanksgiving. Grandpa was 96 years old, had lived a long and happy life, pretty much did what he wanted to, and his death itself, while sad for the family, was not a tragedy. It was just his time. He failed pretty quickly, spending a week in the hospital before dying of heart failure.

But during that week when he was dying, my uncle was on a 24-hour a day binge for a week. He didn't go to work. He didn't go to Ft. Wayne to be with his dying father. He missed the death because he was drunk and felt guilty and then drank more.

When we finally all got to Ft. Wayne to deal with things, my uncle was a physical train wreck. He was so sick, we persuaded him to go to the ER. He was admitted to the hospital two days before Thanksgiving with kidney failure. Everything about his addiction finally came out in the open at the hospital. We had Thanksgiving dinner with him in the hospital cafeteria. It was dreadful. We were mourning grandpa's death, and at the same time worrying about my uncle.

After a few days of detoxing in the hospital, they got his kidneys working again. He was released on the Friday after Thanksgiving, pledging to enter rehab and deal with his addiction. He was contrite. He said all the right things. But he was not ready, it seems. Three weeks later, he was at it again.

Meanwhile, with grandpa gone, grandma decided she didn't want to do the usual Christmas, so we all went to a bed & breakfast in South Bend, Indiana, for a Christmas away. I should clarify: when I say "we all" I mean me, my mom and her husband, grandma, and my drunk uncle. My druncle. We are a small and dwindling family. Neither my uncle nor I show signs of producing offspring, and in both cases, I can't say that's a bad thing. Some families are just better off dying out, I think.

My druncle was already deep in his cups when he arrived late at the b&b. Everyone was pissed because he was 5 hours late and had made no effort to call and provide an update as to his whereabouts. The holiday went downhill from there.

Christmas was basically a captive, two-day long intervention filled with acrimonious exchanges, bitter recriminations, petulent stomping off, faux-contrite returns, promises of rehab followed by pouty retractions of promises of rehab, veiled suicide threats, excuses, excuses, and more excuses.

On Christmas eve, we needed escape from the pressure cooker we'd stepped into. It was decided we'd go see the new film version of "Sweeney Todd" with Johnny Depp. My sweet, little old grandma said without a trace of irony, "I think we'll all feel better after we see a few people getting slaughtered." It was one of the few times I laughed over the holiday. "Grandma, I have waited my entire life to hear you say something like that!" She was kidding, but on the other hand, her little joke quite illustrated the dark place we all felt we were trapped in together. When violent, vengeful, bloody murder seems an escape, you know you've got issues.


The trouble is, we didn't feel better. "Sweeney Todd" is NOT a feel-good movie. Vengeance doesn't deliver redemption here. Everyone dies horribly. Well, perhaps not everyone, but you get the strong sense that the few who live aren't looking forward to living. Squalid London is a depressing prison captured in an aggressively grayscale color pallet. You can smell the sewage in the streets, taste the rotten cat and rat meat in Mrs. Lovett's pies.

I enjoyed the movie--the performances were terrific, the music gorgeous, the cinematography breathtaking--but it was also thoroughly disgusting and depressing, and perhaps not the best choice for a break in our intervention. After the bloodshed, we headed back to the Inn for round three (or was it four?).

More acrimony, more bitter recriminations, more promises of rehab, and Christmas was over. Happy Birthday Jesus...hope you enjoyed our ill pageantry.

But lo! There is a new light on the horizon: my mom and grandma headed to Indianapolis Wednesday to escort my druncle into rehab. Seems they persuaded him to do it, and so while he was drunk as ever, he managed to work out arrangements with his employer, and was checked into an inpatient facility Thursday! That may sound depressing and traumatic, but honestly it's the only spot of good I've felt in, well, I can't really remember.

So, how to tie all this back to CRON, and thus, render it appropriate for CRONOLOGY?

The events of the past two months have really exposed a reality of human life that I identify as helplessness, or perhaps it's more accurate to say powerlessness. In so many things, we are powerless: powerless to save dying grandpas. Powerless over drugs or alcohol. Powerless to help the ones we love when they meet their match, be it alcohol, faulty relationships, or simply circumstances beyond their control.

I may be powerless, helpless to fix all these problems in others. But I can make some choices here and now about how I respond to them myself. Will I use the pain and darkness as a reason, or excuse to abandon my aspirations? Will I medicate myself with food and alcohol and escapist television and anything and everything else I can grasp at to avoid the discomfort of the present moment?

I've concluded that the vices that haunt me--my immoderate food consumption (I've ballooned to 230#, the fattest I've ever been my entire life), my occasional forays into problematic drinking, my seeming difficulty committing to CRON--these all stem from my very human (yet ironically mindless) impulse to avoid the occasion of discomfort, and to escape it when it appears.

I tend to give in to the itch, to scratch until I bleed, rather than wait it out with equanimity and an open heart and mind. Discomfort and pain are not abnormal things to be eradicated at any cost. They are facts of life. Learning to stay with that notion, to non-judgmentally label pain and discomfort and thoughts that distress me and then relax into them, to stay present, to sit with them awhile with a sense of curiosity instead of fear: that is my challenge.

If you've wondered, yes there are Buddhist principles at work here in my gratuitous musing. Buddhism is something I've been exploring lately. And reconciling certain Buddhist principles with a quest for health and longevity (with their inherent forward-looking hopefulness about the future and the desire to delay or even prevent death) is something I have pondered. But that's a topic for another day, one that deserves its own entry.

For now, for today, I'm just satisfied to have reopened this blog. If anyone is reading, thanks for hanging in there. And while I am considering my options for re-engaging in CRON, and I'm sure I will have some things to say about it in the coming days, for now, well, no promises. I've got a few more pressing things to get through first.

I wish the best to all for an acceptable conclusion to 2007, and a good opening to 2008.