Thanks for Nothing

Monday December 01st 2014, 1:38 pm
Filed under: Main

Patterns, routine, and repetition are a big part of human existence, whether it’s getting up to go to work in the morning, or the way we tie our shoes, or seeing certain genres of movies that we like. Over time, we develop a set of actions, systems, and beliefs that stem from our experiences, both good and bad.

It’s important for me to keep this in mind during major holidays (and other celebrations, like birthdays). Because (as you may have guessed), I’m not really big on them.

I have a few fond childhood memories of major holidays (mostly around food, like a cake I used to make at Easter when I was middle-school aged). But since I became an adult, I’ve found that most of the time I feel forced into a box. Like having to have a date and go out to dinner on Valentines Day. Or needing to be “home” for Christmas morning, unwrapping presents under the tree.

Among the most pressing of these obligations is Thanksgiving. In the two decades or so before I was married, I frequently ended up being dragged off to people’s houses so that I could have the obligatory turkey and be surrounded by people and mounds of food.

Before you think I’m too mean, let me say that I understand these invitations were always issued out of concern and affection, and were meant to be inclusive and warm. But I’ll never forget how a friend of mine used to brag delightedly that on Thanksgiving he loved to “round up the strays.”

As if somehow being alone on Thanksgiving was akin to being a lost pet –out loose in the world without a home.

So it was that this year I was super careful to navigate my Thanksgiving strategy. I kept in mind that for my friends, family, and loved ones, this holiday was about togetherness, special foods, and strong memories.

When asked what my plans were, I was as vague as possible, and always tried to turn the conversation around. “Oh, I’m going to stay here for the holiday, tell me where are you going this year and what are you most looking forward to?” That kind of thing.

When pressed, I would always mention that I had plans “with friends that I enjoy spending time with.”

But here’s what I really did: NOTHING!

On Thanksgiving, I got up early, made coffee and had a nice breakfast. The friend I’m currently staying with got up and drove off to his family’s house, leaving me to me own happy devices. I went for a long run in Golden Gate Park and Point Lobos. Then I did some laundry, worked on a book I’m reading, and rested quietly. I had a nice salad for lunch, and in the afternoon I drove over to Fort Funston (a big park on a cliff overlooking the ocean) to go for a walk. As it got late, I walked over to the observation platform and watched as the sun slowly sank into the Pacific Ocean. After that, I went home, had a reasonable dinner, read for a while, and went to bed.

To me, THIS was a day to be thankful for. And during the long weekend I did manage to meet up with friends, go out for meals, and be sociable and have a good time in the company of others. But Thanksgiving itself was blissfully my own. Simple, restful, and utterly stress-free. The best day of doing “nothing” in a long, long time.

Oh, and by the way, in case anyone asks, I already have plans for next year.

The view from Fort Funston, looking East.

The view from Fort Funston, looking East.

Tools You Can Use?

Friday November 28th 2014, 12:09 am
Filed under: Main

For the past couple of months, WeightWatchers has been training staff members in a conversational model that is supposed to be better for helping people achieve lasting change. It involves, in essence, listening carefully to a person’s words, then asking questions that help the person discover for themselves what might work to change things up. To wrap up, the staff person reiterates the person’s commitment to change, so that they end up with a plan of action.

I have spent at least a dozen hours training to understand and use this model, and I’m really torn.

On the positive side, it builds on some knowledge and tools that we have been using for a long time, and it’s very action-oriented. I think people who ask for help often feel as though no one understands and they worry that there might NOT be a solution to what’s keeping them off track.

On the down side, it makes the person-to-person interaction very transactional. It may well be that the behavioral scientists are correct and that this method will work. But from the helper’s side of the equation, it feels formulaic and fairly robotic.

And what’s driving all of this in the background, is that meeting room attendance at WeightWatchers has been falling drastically year after year for quite some time now. (This isn’t a company secret, it’s in all of their public filings and it’s in the news. See this article for example)

Human beings have a fix-it nature. We are amazing at solving problems and using our higher-ordered brains to change our lives and the world. For the past 3-4 years, there’s been an astonishing rise in gadgetry that people are using to track fitness, eating, and overall health. (Personally, I use a Fitbit One to monitor my daily steps). The promise of this technology is that it will unlock answers that we can simply snap into place and then be done.

Recently, however, I had the good fortune to sit in on a lecture by the famous Temple Grandin about the nature of the animal thought process (another perk of working at Stanford University). She notes that animals think and understand through their senses (“thinking with pictures” is how she puts it, or with smells, or with other sensory inputs).

This type of thinking is one part of the way humans process thought as well, despite our higher-ordered brain. And what this means is that our emotional responses are strong and hard-wired, and are closely connected to clues in our environment.

In my own case, I became unable to ride the NYC subway because I began to develop panic attacks. They were triggered by an association I had that started on a crowded subway car one day, where we were stopped in a tunnel, and several people began arguing violently with one another. After that, every time I went down into a station, I started anticipating this fear, until eventually it became overwhelming.

So, I want to reiterate that the ‘action plan’ approach is potentially game changing, and I’m interested in using it at the right time and with the right people in the right situations.

But personally I overeat cookies for reasons similar to my subway panic attacks. It’s about patterns and habits that didn’t happen by accident.

And I’m not convinced that an “action plan” can fix it.

Screen Shot 2014-11-27 at 8.04.12 PM

Neverending Story

Monday November 10th 2014, 3:06 pm
Filed under: Main

I have an affinity for story-telling, and I like both creating and reading stories that have a clear trajectory. Sort of like the Hollywood movie with the proverbial happy ending.

Of course, real life is normally a continous web of storylines that begin, become interwoven with others, fade out, return, change, get confusing, and are never actually neatly and cleverly tied up.

When I tell my rehearsed “weight loss success story” in my role as a WeightWatchers leader, I have a 45-60 second spiel that adheres to a formula specified by our training:
How I felt before –> what got me to join WW –> what specific things happened and/or did I learn and/or did I do as a WWer member –> how much weight I lost –>
how I feel now.

Although it isn’t against the rules to alter this formula, I usually don’t go into the fact that I have regained weight and then gotten back on track multiple times. I also rarely mention to members when I am over my goal weight at the moment (or, as is the case right now, WAAAAAAAY over my goal weight). There’s a reason the story is told simply –our goal is to help people buy into a positive belief in themselves, that they CAN be successful. It muddies the waters to be overly complex or nuanced.

But life is messy.

A few months ago I began renting a room in a beautiful apartment in a beautiful neighborhood in San Francisco. In my mind, this was the “happy ending” part of a story that began a year earlier with me being unhappy and living in New York, and leading up to me moving back home, finding a job, and settling down.

But the housing situation turned out to be very unwelcoming and uncomfortable for me. As each week wore on, I felt increasingly stressed out and unhappy. There’s nothing like NOT wanting to go home at the end of a long day to make you feel out of place and depressed.

So here I am, re-writing the tale of the past 12 months, to accommodate the fact that a year ago I was at my goal weight and now I’m not, and a few months ago I had found a place to live and now I’m back to being a vagabond again. (Thank god I have kind and generous friends to stay with in times of need!).

It might not be the end I was looking for, but I suppose it’s not a bad place to begin.


The long, long run.

Monday October 27th 2014, 2:35 pm
Filed under: Main

I tried not to feel too bad when, on my birthday last week, Facebook “helpfully” pulled up an image I had posted on my birthday last year. You know, back when I had my eating and my weight under control. I’m not getting down on myself, but it’s hard to be on this particular side road of life’s long journey.

Ironically, I continually get compliments about “how young” and “how happy” I look these days. So what I see in the mirror isn’t what other people see. (Which I think is true for most people.)

In the end, what makes us feel vigorous? What makes us feel happy?

For me, it’s a combination of being in the right place, with the right people, with the right amount of physical health. So in that regard, reestablishing myself in San Francisco has been a win-win-win. There’s a connection I feel to the Bay Area, and to the widespread network of my acquaintances here, and to the beautiful challenge of walking and running up so many hills.

For my birthday this year, I decided to splurge on a one-year membership to a local running club (it’s about the cost of an expensive pair of running shoes). I’ve only run with them a few times, but so far everyone has been welcoming, and I’m enjoying their company on long runs ( I’ve been doing their 12 mile option on Saturday mornings).

Although this might sound like a no-brainer, in fact I put a lot of thought into it.

I’ve discovered that my long commute in the morning and the evening takes enough of a bite out of my free time on weekdays, that I’ve been pushing everything off to the weekends. I’ve been scheduling my waking hours on weekends with social things, church things, WeightWatchers things, and errands, and not finding anywhere near enough time for it all. Sunday nights keep rolling around and I feel like my batteries have run down.

So my biggest priority right now is to be very intentional about down time — free time where I’m not doing anything, not supposed to be anywhere, and not just resting between activities. In this time I go for walks, read a book, or perhaps just sit on the sofa and daydream. My goal is to arrive at Monday morning feeling refreshed rather than exhausted.

Joining a running club means that preserving my Jonathan time will require me to say “no” to other things. For example, I was asked to fill in at a WeightWatchers meeting this coming Saturday and I turned them down. (Trust me, that’s harder than it sounds.). And a really wonderful person from my church tried hard to recruit me to take on a more formal role on Sundays, which I also declined.

This boils down to taking care of myself. And my hope (expectation?) is that by attending to my mental, spiritual, and physical needs that I’ll stop feeling like I have to have a cookie (okay THREE cookies) before I go to bed. There’s no doubt that one component of eating is the comforting, soothing, de-stressing feeling it provides. So providing those feelings in another way is key to getting into the right groove.

I’m giving myself until my next birthday, plenty of time to get it all together!


Cookie Confessional

Wednesday October 01st 2014, 6:25 pm
Filed under: Main

A couple of weeks ago a WeightWatchers leader friend of mine asked me to come and be a speaker at a “success stories” event designed to showcase people who have successfully lost weight and maintained that loss. I said “yes” precisely because everything inside me was shouting “NOOOOOO!”

I don’t feel at all successful right now. But I’ve been through a lot in life and understand that how we imagine success and how success looks are almost always completely different.

The day before the event, I texted Melanie that I was “just giong to talk about how I couldn’t run before I lost weight and now I can.” She texted me back that she wanted more out of me. More vulnerability. Damn her! (She’s fond of noting that “the magic only happens outside the comfort zone.”)

So, I showed up at the event slightly nervous. The speakers before me had all lost a lot of weight and appeared to me to have really changed on the inside and the outside. They were so motivating and inspiring, so what was I going to say?! The more I heard, the more heartbroken I became.

But in the end, I got up and –ham that I can sometimes be– I started off by asking the group how many people had ever lost some weight and then gained it back. (This is a crowd pleaser: I’ve asked it a thousand times and every hand in the room always goes up, along with laughter). So then I told my initial weight loss story up to the point where I joined WeightWatchers.
Then I stopped to ask the group “what are the kinds of things we learn to do as WeightWatcher members?” and filled a flipchart with their replies. When they were done, I wrote “55” at the top and, pointing to the actions that were written on the chart, I said “this is how I lost 50 pounds.” No running marathons, no climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. Just real stuff.

After we were done with that, I mentioned that last year I had run over 2,000 miles! And then I paused, and told the rest of the story.

Last year my marriage ended, and by the beginning of this year, I was stuck in a place I didn’t love, and a place I didn’t love myself in. So I took a leap of faith and quit my job and flew home. But simultaneously a nagging foot injury began to really take a toll. And as a result, I was in a very out-of-kilter frame of mind. Lots of good things were happening, but it was a lot of change. And my normal stress reliever (running) was out of the question.

And so it was that I ate a lot of cookies (and chocolate and cake and etc.).

Taking charge of my life and starting over again was fun, but hard; exciting, but scary; and wonderful but occasionally depressing. I wanted to tell people that I had the tools to handle it. Except I didn’t.

So I crossed out the “55” and wrote “40” underneath, explaining that I’m now 15 pounds over my goal. It was embarrassing and heartbreaking, because I really judge myself on that score.

But the people in the room were warm and kind and responded very supportively.

Finally, I went back to the list of actions we had written on the board and said “The good news is that all any of us has to do is to take these steps. No running marathons, no climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. Just real stuff.”


Off the Scale

Tuesday September 16th 2014, 7:11 pm
Filed under: Main

Although I’ve done poorly with food and weight management for many months now, it does appear that I’ve come back from my heel injury and am now able to resume my active running schedule. Also, since moving to my new apartment, I’ve been biking about 8 miles a day as a part of my commute to and from the train.

And if anything “good” came of the time I was injured, it might be that I finally got back into the habit of going to the gym for strength training exercises, which I now do at work on my lunch hour either four or five days a week.

Earlier this month, as one of the many (many!) benefits I get working for Stanford University, I was paid to take a short “Fitness Profile” test at the school’s athletic center. In a way I was dreading it, because I was certain I would be told that I am overweight and have too much body fat. In fact on the way to the test I was doing a lot of positive self-talk (“Iit doesn’t matter what they tell me, I have the power to change!”).

Interestingly, however, the results of the test were that I’m in the “Fit” category for my age, weight, and height, and that my body fat (at 14.7%) is fine. Not only that, on the cardio test, where the scale ranged from a low of 14 points to a high of 53, I scored a 75. No, not a typo. I was literally off the chart!

Yet in a way this wasn’t really good news. Because since that time, I’ve been justifying a lot of bad eating habits (“Three more cookies? No problem, because I’m FIT!”). Not only that, due some scheduling issues, I’ve missed going to WeightWatchers meetings recently and have stopped getting weighed.

And this type of being “off the scale” isn’t healthy. I’ve noticed my clothes getting tighter and tighter, as well as all of the telltale signs of being at a too-high weight (fatigue, aches and pains, etc.).

While it’s nice to have a piece of paper that says I’m doing well, I can’t ignore the evidence. I’m a short, older person with a history of weight fluctuations. As a runner, my body fat could be a little lower, and certainly I should be eating in a healthier way.

I’m not mad at myself for being in the position I’m in, I’m just realistic about it. I successfully navigated a TON of change this year, and if I haven’t had the oomph left over to manage my health in a better way, it’s not because I’m lazy, bad, or a failure.

It’ll take me a while to work my way back to the weight and body I deserve. But I can do it.

Isn’t it funny how the best things in life take so much work?!


Positively Possible

Tuesday September 02nd 2014, 5:45 pm
Filed under: Main

The topic in WeightWatchers meetings last week was “positive self-talk” which –if you know me at all– is definitely one of my all-time favorites. Although I don’t have any meetings of my own right now, I did sub as a leader at one meeting, and I also attended a meeting as a member.

I really needed that!

When it came to part of the meeting where we wrote down one of the beat-yourself-up phrases that runs through your head, I put “I will never be able to control my overeating of sweets.”

Ironically, I’m in this magical phase of life right now where many things are falling nicely into place, patience and perseverance are paying off, and long-held dreams are being made reality.

One of my favorites phrases of the moment is “Don’t pinch me, because if this isn’t real, I don’t want to wake up!” In addition to my job, which I really love, and connecting with my social network, I also finally found a place to stay. And it’s phenomenal.

The woman I’m renting from has a spacious and well-appointed condo in one of the best neighborhoods, and she’s even more of a health nut than I am, so the kitchen is loaded with only the best-for-you foods. And if the home-grown tomatoes my roommate shares with me aren’t enough, I’m only a two-block walk from either Safeway or Trader Joes!

Yet during this time of change and uncertainty, even though things have really been going my way, I still find myself pulled in by the siren call of sweet foods and treats. Donuts, cookies, chocolate, etc. seem to keep finding their way into my hands at the checkout counter (and then into my mouth later in the day!).

What’s so disheartening to me is this is exactly where I was (in terms of weight, food, eating, clothes, etc.) last year. All the progress I made getting back to goal last November? Poof! Vanished. As I ate my way through my move home to California, the months of recovery from my heel injury, and the start of a brand new life, I just piled the weight back on for the umpteenth time.

So while I felt like a phony leading a WW meeting given my current state of mind, the positive self-talk topic was a good wake up call. It’s *possible* that I’m doomed to lose and gain weight over and over for the rest of my life, but it’s not my destiny. It’s conceivable that I’ll never get a handle on my ravenous sweet tooth, but there’s just as good a chance I’ll figure it out.

And in the meantime, I’ll take the message that I got when we swapped notes of hope at the end of the meeting: “Plan your meals this week and don’t obsess!”


View from my new roofdeck!

Teensy Weensy Success

Thursday August 14th 2014, 6:37 pm
Filed under: Main

Among the many privileges of working at Stanford University (and there are MANY), each year we are allotted $800 in funding for education and development related to our work. Because I’m new and the fiscal year is running out, I signed up for a very inexpensive one-week course called Tiny Habits. Interestingly, the founder of the course, BJ Fogg, is both a Stanford professor and the inspiration behind a lot of official WeightWatchers strategies.

Basically, I was given a list of very small things to work on this week and asked to choose three. Then I check in with my coach each day via e-mail, who gives details, ideas, direction, advice, etc. The trick behind the whole approach is to tie the new behavior with something you already do every day. Makes sense, right?

The three I chose were:

– Upon waking up, write down the number of hours I just slept (I do this in my food journal, which is on my nightstand).
– Upon arriving at the office, after turning on the light, grab my water cup and fill it from the tap
– Before turning on my computer, write down two very small goals for the day on my whiteboard.

Oh, and lest I forget the important part: I am supposed to CELEBRATE every time I accomplish any of these tasks, each and every time.

While the truth is that I already know a lot about this kind of strategy, and have a fairly high-level understanding of the basics of behavior change, this is definitely a great exercise for me to be doing this week.

The reason I gave for signing up for the course was to “enhance productivity and focus”. And while none of my three little tasks seems to address at first glance, in the end they are addressing the task head on. That’s because each of these teeny tiny things has a lot of repercussions.

For example, the other night I had five hours of sleep. (This was because I went out to dinner with friends, but still got up early to run the next morning.) While I’ve done this many times, the act of writing it down brought to a conscious level how getting too little sleep can easily affect my focus at work. The same goes for drinking water, and jotting down goals.

My life has been both wonderful and topsy-turvy lately. And this week’s Tiny Habits course is helping me see just why it is that I feel somewhat discombobulated, and how taking a few very small steps can truly help me get a stronger sense of balance.

And yes, this also explains very clearly why I have been making haphazard food choices the past few months. And what I can do to turn that around.


When No Means Yes

Tuesday August 05th 2014, 10:23 pm
Filed under: Main

Fear of rejection was always a potent force in my life, shaping a lot of the decisions I made from elementary school on up. Yet now I find that I’ve been going through much more than just a phase (an era?), where rejection is my touchstone.

What comes to mind obviously is getting divorced, which ultimately happened because I was “not enough” in my marriage. And then on the heels of that I began my insanely long and tortuous job search. (I’m still getting the occasional rejection notice — two this week!).

Putting myself out there again and again, approaching interviews from all angles (prepared! nice! relaxed! professional! engaging!) and attempting to turn my professional past into a seamless story of progression.

And I guess all of that wasn’t enough because for the past few weeks I’ve been going on Craigslist looking for a roommate situation. It’s just another log on that fire of “No Thanks.” In a white-hot rental market, people who have a spot to offer call the shots. And whether intentionally or not, they are more often than not dismissive or ridiculous or wildly restrictive in their requirements. And that’s just the 10% of people who actually reply.

But here’s the interesting thing: despite my loathing and fear of not being wanted, I’m finding a new capacity that I never had. Which is to realize that there are other paths. Other choices. Other solutions. Other questions to ask.

So here I am, having what is essentially the best year of my adult life, rediscovering the joy of community, the love of place, the warmth of being around what is so dear and familiar to me.

For example, after meeting a few folks who were looking for a roommate, I discovered that people live in all kinds of ways. Messy. Clean. Cluttered. Stark. Decrepit. Up to date. Modern. Classic. And since I’m lucky enough not to be under pressure (yes, I have the most generous friends in the world), it dawned on me that this searching for a roommate fit is just as much a part of the journey as any other.

I even realized that I needed to do some rejecting of my own (although of course I send a polite and complimentary e-mail, naming vague reasons for turning the spot down). It’s something I even did a few times in my job search —withdrawing from positions I had applied for that just weren’t right.

In the end, rather than seeing myself as being turned down at every step, I understand that it means there are many, many steps to take. Alleys to go down. Places to explore. The options aren’t ending, and my choices are not getting fewer.

And while this might not seem like a good topic for a weight management blog, trust me. It is.


It’s hard to believe

Friday August 01st 2014, 3:37 pm
Filed under: Main

One of the earliest lessons I learned as a young adult was that things would occur in my life that I never would have imagined on my own (jobs, relationships, challenges, journeys, etc.). In particular, I had to learn to trust that good things would indeed come my way if I could just look beyond the high walls of my imagination.

In essence, I learned to think of my hopes and dreams as being not protected by this wall of worry, but hindered by it.

The best example of this limitation was my inability to believe that I would ever get a job outside of government. I had landed in Washington DC to work for Uncle Sam right after college, but after five or six years I wanted out. At that time, all I could see was the safety and certainty of being employed as a public servant, and a slow progression through the ranks over time (to some mindless and unrewarding job as a manager).

In time, I “escaped” and eventually had a whole variety of jobs that I never thought possible. I worked for private companies and non-profits (and other government agencies), travelled the world, got laid off a few times, switched my career focus multiple times, and earned both a lot of money and very little.

I have regrets, of course, but quitting my guaranteed, safe job in 1995 is not one of them.

Lately I’ve been thinking about my crappy track record of weight maintenance. It seems to me that I’m always on a long trajectory of either losing or gaining. My impression is that I just am destined to struggle, struggle, struggle and never achieve a state of balance with my eating and my weight.

It’s somewhat disheartening, and it mirrors exactly the impression I had about my career when I was 29 years old — that ahead of me lay nothing but drudgery and disappointment.

But now I’m in my 50s, and if I have to be older then —dammit— I need to be wiser, too.

At the moment I see the challenges around my food behaviors, and I have in my mind the past experiences of gaining-losing-gaining-losing-gaining. But those realities are not the only realities.

New things will happen, no matter how hard it is for me to believe. Weight maintenance can be one of them.