Sunday, March 30, 2014

Life Lessons and Cancer Snark

I'm not crazy about Self magazine in the first place. To me, it's just one more exhaust fan churning out the poisoned air of body shame. But they really stepped in it this time.

In an alleged attempt at humor, they took a photo of a young woman wearing a superhero shirt and a fluffy tutu running a marathon. They ran it with a mocking, snarky caption making fun of the tutu trend. As it turns out, she's a brain cancer survivor who makes the tutus to sell for charity. She also was (understandably) hurt and went public with the whole thing. Ouch. I'll let you read the full story here, if you haven't already. It really verges on "kicking angelic golden retriever puppies" territory.

Maybe if they'd been paying attention, the DIE TUMOR DIE on her bib might have tipped them off, but apparently not.

The magazine is, of course, falling all over itself apologizing for being "inadvertently insensitive." I have news for Self. They were not inadvertently insensitive. They were insensitive. They just picked on an extremely sympathetic victim and got their fingers burned for it. Self would be well served to retire its BS Meter column, if this is what it serves up.

It should not have mattered whether she was a cancer survivor or just a happy young woman out to have a good time. I have a suspicion, though, that if she were the latter, going public would have done her little good. The Internet trolls would have piled on saying that the tutu really was lame.

I don't want to get too high and mighty, though. If anything, this is a life lesson to me to stop and think before I do the same, to pull that plank out of my own eye first. If I am honest, I know I've engaged in snark for some artificial boost to my own over-inflated sense of superiority. Plenty of times. I've done it more recently than I would like to admit. For me, this story isn't just about a women's magazine crossing a line. It's about trying to pry the meanness out of my own heart.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Don't Have to Sniff that Milk Twice

My husband has a saying that you don't have to sniff the milk more than once to know that it's bad.

I've never been a calorie tracker, but for some reason in December I decided to start tracking my intake using the USDA SuperTracker. I had non-weight loss reasons. I just wanted to make sure I was eating a balanced diet. Or so I told myself.

Bad girl! Sit! Down! STARVE!
For the record, this was not a typical day.
Plus, I was flat-out curious, because I had no idea how much I was eating, calorie-wise. With one or two rare exceptions, I have always eaten a lot. Fat, thin, in-between, I've always enjoyed food. But I kept getting the message from the world that there was some arbitrary level that I was supposed to eat.

I promised myself I would be totally honest with it, but not go hungry. I'd use it for analysis, not as a straitjacket. In practice, it didn't work out that way. I probably should have called the grand experiment quits when:
  • The kitchen sink was filled with measuring cups and spoons.
  • Ordering a restaurant meal was a stressful, estimate-based calculus.
  • I'd gloat over undershooting my calorie budget and be ravenous the next day.
  • Measured portions overruled whether I was actually full.
  • Not staying within the "allowances" gave me anxiety.
  • I considered giving up the whole milk I love for skim just to make the numbers work.
  • I ran out of everything but veggie portions before dinner and considered eating nothing that night but baked potato and avocado.
  • I'd eat a meal in front of the computer so I could record what I was eating.
So what was the last straw? Lately, I've noticed I was flying off the handle a lot to the point where it was embarrassing. Irrational, unreasoning rage over stupid things that I knew were inconsequential. I was chalking it up to pre-menopause. Then I asked my husband how long I'd been like this.

"Oh, a couple of months," he said. About the same amount of time I'd been food tracking. Could there be a connection?

I hadn't felt hungry, but still I wondered if I wasn't eating enough for me. Saturday I stopped writing anything down. I started eating what I wanted, when I wanted. I had a bowl of ice cream. I scarfed down the local restaurant's pot roast burger  with relish (more accurately, with enough horseradish to make my eyes water.) I didn't worry about exceeding some "allowance."

I haven't had a bout of agitated, unreasoning rage all week.

So to all those who recommend food logs: I tried it your way. Really. I tried. It didn't work for me. I'm allowed to stop beating my head against the wall. Even if I get pudgier, I'll take that over bitchier.

I sniffed that jug of milk. It was bad. I'm not sniffing it a second time.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Really, it's OK to set different priorities

I got as far as getting my cycling clothing on today before I stepped outside and got hit in the face by the wind. At the time, it was 22 MPH from the west, gusting to 29. Three hours later we're under a high wind warning and up to 41MPH with gusts of 60.

I'm still wearing my mismatched lycra. I had planned on hopping on our bike trainer and watching the auto race (NASCAR fan. Surprises a lot of people when they learn that about me.) Never did it. What happened was I got sucked into a writing project. I have two pieces -- a short story and an essay -- that I want to enter in the Wyoming Writers contest. I'm taking a break between the two to write this blog post.

I love to exercise. I'm not particularly strong or fast, but I love to move. This doesn't mean I have to make exercise my top priority every single day of my life. Lately, I've been realizing that if I want to make time and energy to write more, I may need to scale back on exercise. In this society, that's heresy since I'm not BMI 24.9 or lower. Until I get an acceptable body, I must do my penance at the gym.

Screw that. Fornicate that audio.

One of my writing heroes is Ted Kooser. He's a funny, unassuming man from Nebraska who is a past National Poet Laureate. He spent his working life in the insurance industry. Every morning, he woke up at 4:30 a.m. to write poetry before he went to work. He writes beautiful poetry, and he is a kind and insightful teacher when I have seen him at workshops. I do not believe the world would have been better served had he spent all those mornings at the gym.

I might still jump on the trainer tonight when Cosmos comes on. I am (sigh) old enough to remember Carl Sagan repeating "billions and billions" in the original when it came out. Exercise is still a priority, but today it's not my top one.

We carve out time for what matters. What matters varies from person to person and even day to day. It's OK to choose something that matters other than exercise.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Totally hooked on blackstrap molasses

If my local health food store ever quits carrying blackstrap molasses, I will cry.

The stuff is fiendishly difficult to find. If the grocery stores carry molasses at all, it's usually the Plain Jane stuff. Blackstrap has a strong flavor and it's less sweet than the other.

I've never been much of a dieter, but I have a fascination with nutrition. Blackstrap molasses is wonderful stuff -- a tablespoon gives me one-fifth of my iron and calcium for the day and a good chunk of my potassium.

It's lovely drizzled over spoonbread. The other morning I mixed mashed sweet potato, quinoa, blackstrap molasses and enough milk to make it creamy. It looked dreadful, but it was so tasty. Just sweet enough with black coffee.

This morning I had a chocolate shake for breakfast with blackstrap molasses in it. It's not as indulgent as it sounds. In fact, here's the recipe:

Breakfast chocolate smoothie

3/4 cup milk of your choice
1/2 tablespoon blackstrap molasses
1 banana
1/4 avocado
1/2 cup plain Greek yogurt
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
1 tablespoon ground flaxseed (optional)

Warm the milk and dissolve the molasses in it. (The molasses won't dissolve in cold milk -- tried it.) Let cool. Toss an ice cube in it to cool it if you're in a hurry. Combine all ingredient in blender and blend until smooth.

Makes two cups. I'll leave it up to you as to whether it's one serving or two. For me, it's one, but it's my entire breakfast.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Food tracking of a different flavor

I've been following Shaunta Grimes's "eat the food" experiment with some interest, and decided to join her on the tracking front. Semi-join her anyway.

I am not noticeably fat in street clothes and do not have a long and troubled history of food restriction. Some, yes. I believe we all swim in the fouled air of dysfunctional body images in this society, but I feel blessed to have perhaps inhaled a little less of the poison.

Eating a reasonable amount of food so that my body may function is not a radical idea to me. In fact, I rolled my eyes every time my workplace Mayo Clinic "wellness" program recommended a 1200-calorie diet for me. I'd eat the linoleum off the counters after two days of that.

What I do want to do, however, is move toward a way of eating that better nourishes me but doesn't shackle me. I started a food log just before the new year (no, it wasn't a resolution, just random timing) using the USDA's Supertracker because I was concerned I wasn't getting enough iron. After a few days, lo and behold, I was finding a few nutrients that I struggled to get up to par.

Based on the formula Shaunta provided and my current exercise level (moderate), it looks like my BMR is 1424 and my TDEE is somewhere around 2200 -- which is precisely where USDA pegged my recommended caloric intake if I'm to maintain my weight. I'm working to up the exercise level, so the TDEE may go up, particularly when I start cycling in the summer.

Even though I have this idea in my head (thank you, popular culture) that it's horrifying for a woman to eat over 2000 calories, I find I need to get close to that 2200 to not be hungry and cranky. I don't do hungry and cranky well, and I have other priorities in life that don't mesh well with hungry and cranky.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Please don't call me a cancer "survivor"

It embarrasses me every time. Some acquaintance of my husband shares a cancer diagnosis -- their own or that of a loved one -- and he tells them, "You know, Sue had cancer."

I did, although it's not as bad as it sounds. I had papillary thyroid cancer five years ago. At my age, papillary cell thyca has a 99%+ 20-year survival rate. You read that right: 99%+. There was no chemotherapy and subsequent nausea. I kept my hair. No external beam radiation. I faced only one surgery.

Most importantly, I was never in real fear for my life.

The surgeon took out my thyroid. A month later, I swallowed a radioactive iodine pill to take out any stray cells. It came with a plastic bag in case I threw it up* and a set of instructions to avoid zapping anyone else while isotopes oozed out the pores for a few days.

Best sick day excuse for work ever: "I can't come in. I'm radioactive."

Yes, there were risks. I could have lost my vocal cord nerves or parathyroids. No surgery is 100% safe. Still, it wasn't terrible. I have a scar you can barely see and a high daily dose of thyroid replacement hormone. I'm on year 5 of a 20-year post-treatment monitoring plan.

I don't speak for others who've had thyca, and you should never tell someone who's had it that they had the "good" cancer. That's like telling them you gave them the "good" punch in the mouth because you only split their lip and didn't knock out any teeth. It still sucks. It just sucks less. 

But I cringe that I am sometimes thought of as a "cancer survivor." When I look up the word "survivor," it says "one who survived, especially a person remaining alive after others have died" (emph. mine). While I might have been one of the tiny minority for whom thyca is deadly, the odds were against it. There were no discussions of 5-year death rates in the double digits. I have no reason now to believe it will recur.

Calling me a survivor gives me too much credit. It implies a 15-round slugfest instead of a first-round knockout punch. It implies hardships I didn't endure, depths of bravery I didn't have to plumb. I don't want to compare your pitched battle with my minor skirmish, to be the type who shows up to a funeral and says to the heartbroken widow, "I know exactly how you feel. I had a dog die once."**


I don't know exactly how you feel. Thyca wasn't the most fun I'd ever had at a rodeo, but it's not the worst I've ever dealt with. So please, don't call me a survivor. My heart goes out to those who are fighting steeper odds. They are the survivors.


* So I could take it back to them to retrieve -- talk about a bad day at the office.

** Happened to a friend of mind. No lie.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Words I hate: "lazy" and "excuses"

I was in the weight room at the YMCA one day where a woman was lifting the lightest weights possible. No, I wasn’t monitoring her workout -- just following her on the machines and adjusting the weights for myself to the nearly-lightest ones.

Although her workout was none of my concern, she suddenly began talking to me about why she didn’t lift more weight. She seemed almost apologetic, as if she feared I were judging her. She had survived an auto accident that nearly killed her and left her paralyzed at the time. She had battled back from fucking paralysis, and 10 pounds on a machine was a victory for her. And she felt the need to explain herself to me, a total stranger.

I think I stumbled through some reassurance like, “we all do what we can.” I wondered why she felt the need to tell me this. Whether she thought I might have thought she was lazy, or just making excuses.

Lazy. Excuses. Two words I despise when they’re bandied about in the context of fitness. Words that disrespect others’ real limitations, barriers and even just their own damn priorities.

That’s why I bristled at this post over on Obesity Panacea that initially had a reference to "Lazy Susans" as annoying creatures at the gym. Yay, Peter for taking that part of it down!* Sure, screamers and lounge lizards at a gym interfere with others’ enjoyment of it, but how does someone doing a light workout hurt anyone? Is there a sign on the door saying “Crossfit enthusiasts only?” Do they issue heart monitors at the front desk so they can kick out anyone at less than maximum aerobic intensity?

Is it so important to judge those not working to full potential that you are willing to denigrate those with barriers you can't imagine?

I think Carrie Patrick said it better than I can, but you never know what someone else’s story is. I’ve been to the gym with neck pain so severe that I was nauseous and dizzy. From the outside I looked fine. You might have thought I was “lazy.”

Yes, sometimes I’m lazy and sometimes I make excuses. I know when this is the case. I also know when I’m tired or hurt or when life’s just getting in the way of my workout. You can’t tell any of those things by looking at me.

Two words I'd like to see banished. They hurt, and there are better ways to motivate people.

*Epilogue: As noted above, after feedback from myself and one other person, Dr. Peter Janiszewski responded to our comments and deleted the offending portion of the post. Kudos and thanks to him for that.