Sunday, March 22, 2009

Think Exercise and Get Fat

I recently read about a new University of Illinois study that was published in the journal Obesity. The researchers said that public health campaigns that promote exercise seem to cause people to eat more. They found that people who viewed posters suggesting that they join a gym or take a walk ate more food after looking at the posters than people who saw similarly designed posters prompting them to make friends or be in a group. Subliminal words about being active had a similar effect on study participants, said Illinois psychology professor Dolores AlbarracĂ­n, who led the study.

"Viewers of the exercise messages ate significantly more (than their peers, who viewed other types of messages)," she said. "They ate one-third more when exposed to the exercise ads." Those exposed to subliminal words about activity during a computer task ate about 20% more than those exposed to neutral words, she said.

This explains a lot.

Lately my daughters and I have been trying to balance our TV watching habits by viewing “Top Chef”, “Dancing with the Stars”, “Ace of Cakes” and “Biggest Loser”. I wondered if watching these shows in combination was putting me at cross purposes to my goals, one of which is to lose weight and get in better shape, or whether watching a healthy mix of cooking and exercise shows would simply put me in a well balanced state of mind. I found that I cook more creatively and am more aware of blending ingredients since I’ve been watching “Top Chef”. I bounce more in my overstuffed easy chair when watching “Dancing with the Stars”. I laugh a lot when watching “Ace of Cakes” and I'm in awe of their artistry but I honestly have no desire to eat cake (have you seen where they put their hands when they're rolling fondant?) And every time I start watching “Biggest Loser” I find myself immediately craving potato chips. I’ve gained and lost the same five pounds several times over the past few months. I had thought I might need to add another exercise show to speed up my weight loss but after reading the University of Illinois study I’m beginning to think reverse psychology may be more powerful than I realized. I’m considering adding a few more food shows to my television diet.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

One Wednesday Morning

One Wednesday morning I looked out my window and noticed two elderly women heading toward my house. Both had white hair but one was in a red motorized chair while the other walked briskly beside her. As they approached my porch I went out to greet them. Up close I could see that they were twins, although the one in the chair was much heavier and seemed far older than the other. While I was sure we hadn’t met, they felt disquietingly familiar.

“Can I help you?” I asked.

“Why not invite us in for some mojitos?”

“Or lattes,” the one in the chair added. You always made good lattes.”

“She might want something stronger today,” the standing one said chuckling and they nodded conspiratorially to each other.

“Do I know you?”

At this they broke out in hysterical laughter, as though this was the funniest joke they’d ever heard. “So you don’t recognize us?” the standing one said when she’d finally caught her breath. “Take a good look.”

“A really good look,” the other chimed in, and they turned their faces to me expectantly.

The hair on the back of my neck stood erect while wriggling eels entered my stomach. This could simply not be happening.

“We came in response to the letter you wrote. Remember? When you were thirty?”

It all came crashing back, although this was hardly what I had envisioned thirty years ago when I wrote that I wanted to meet my ninety-year old self when I was sixty. It had been one of those silly exercises you do and promptly forget, when you’re trying to motivate yourself through a sticky patch in your life. You certainly don’t expect two old ladies to show up asking for drinks.

“We thought we’d go you one better and show you two potential outcomes from your choices,” the standing one grinned as she helped the other heave herself out of the wheelchair. “A little help here. She’s pretty heavy and can’t walk too well.”

Once inside, I settled them in the living room and headed straight for the booze. Coffee was not even an option. “I don’t have mint for mojitos. Straight Jack okay?”

“Oh, you know us too well,” they giggled in unison.

I threw back a double before filling three glasses. I handed them around while studying the girls. “You look great,” I nodded to the one who’d been standing. She was slender and stylish, her white hair clipped short in a flattering cut. The only wrinkles on her face seemed to be from smiling, which she did freely.

“Ninety is the new sixty,” she chirped.

“Oh shut up!” the other snapped. “Miss Goody Two-Sneakers here is insufferable. No desserts. Daily exercise. Always busy. Who wants to live like that?”

“Maybe she does,” replied the other slowly, as she flashed me a questioning smile.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Make a Wish

The moon rose early and round. Behind the distant trees a lavender haze reached up and tried to prevent the moon’s escape but its tilted face gazed down impassively on the families that were reluctant to leave the park. Behind me the sun had just slipped from view and was headed off to warm some other corner of the world.

I looked up at the sky, searching for the first star. You never want to waste the chance to make a really good wish. I had several wishes in mind but it wasn’t until I actually saw the star that I’d know which one to choose. There. There it was. I took a deep breath and made myself very still inside. The wish floated to the surface and I offered it up to the star. Then I licked my thumb, tapped it on top of my fist and thumped my fists together. The wish was sealed and I let it go.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

My String of Pearls

My godfather was in the Merchant Marines and travelled the world on a ship most of the year. When I was about seven he gave me a strand of pearls he brought back with him from Japan. He brought a matching strand for my mother. The pearls were ivory colored and graduated in size from very small at each end to a larger one in the exact center of the string. I remember he showed us how to tell they were real. He took a small wooden matchstick from a little cardboard box he always carried in his pocket. He used these matches to constantly light and re-light the pipe that seemed to live with its stem clamped between his yellow teeth. He put a drop of water on the stick end of the match and touched it to the surface of one of the pearls where it clung like a crystal ladybug. He said that when water beaded like that it meant the pearl was real. To this day I don't know if that is true or not. But apparently these pearls he gave me were the real deal because my Mom paid real money to a jeweler to have them restrung. When we got them back the pearls were separated by perfect little white silk knots and the string closed around my neck with a beautiful silver clasp that looked like lace.

Thinking back I am amazed that I was given such a valuable gift at such a young age. But it was the fifties and women regularly wore pearls, hats and white gloves when they went out, even young girls like myself. I didn't think too much about the pearls except that they were from my godfather whom I seldom saw.

I remember the last time I wore those pearls. I was dressed up for my high school senior ball. I wore them with a floor length gown I'd made from fabric covered with coral colored flowers. My boyfriend borrowed his dad's car to drive us first to dinner and then the dance. After the dance we parked in the woods and things got hot and heavy. I was nervous because I knew my mother would disapprove. 

It wasn't until a day or two later that I realized my pearls were missing. My boyfriend searched the car but never found them. It's possible that I might have lost them at the restaurant or the dance but I was frantic. I turned my room upside down and looked surreptitiously around the house. I was always afraid my mother had found them, picked them up, and put them away somewhere in her room. It would not have been out of character for her to simply wait for me to ask so she could interrogate me about how they might have left my neck. I never told her they were missing. I swallowed my loss in silence and simply wore my guilt, especially after my godfather died.

When my mom died a few years ago I inherited a lot of her stuff. My youngest daughter recently needed some pearls to wear with a collared golf shirt -- the dress uniform, it seems, for the all women's college she was attending in the South. She was searching through a jumble of boxes in my dresser, still not organized since my recent move. One string of pearls fit the best and looked the nicest on her neck. I examined them more closely and saw that the pearls were separated by tiny silk knots. The clasp was silver with a  lacy filigree pattern. Could this be my old strand of pearls? Or was this its twin that had belonged to my mother? 

I will never know the answer. But seeing it resting so beautifully on my daughter's neck brought back a flood of memories along with a few tears. I realized that more than anything, I wanted her to feel only joy and pride when she wears it -- not the sadness and guilt I feel whenever I gaze upon a lovely string of pearls.

Lessons I Learned at Work -- The Early Years

1. File Clerk and Assistant Bookkeeper, Optometrist Office

In 8th grade these were my optometrists. My enthusiasm led them to offer me a part-time job after school. The work was boring but I loved the people. Having a job made me feel important and gave me money that was my own. For Christmas one year they even gave me a pair of green contact lenses since they knew I'd always wanted green eyes.

Lessons learned: The friends you make are more important than the work you do. If you're reconciling columns of figures always check your answers twice. Money provides choices.

2. Counter Clerk, Sausalito Gift Shop

Sat behind counter and sold stuff. Made earrings from twisted wire and beads to sell in the shop.

Hole-in-the-wall shop on the waterfront was stuffed with scented candles and soaps plus oodles of touristy junk. The smells from the fish and chips joint next door wafted into the tiny space, mixed with the soap and candle scents, and practically gagged me. All the tourists who came in would exclaim about how great it smelled.

Lessons learned: Tourists can be really dumb. The skills I learned making those silly little earrings put food on the table later when I was strapped for cash.

3. File Clerk, San Francisco Insurance Company

Having any freedom meant I needed money of my own so I left college and took the first job I was offered. I lived at home, commuted by bus to San Francisco and saved everything. I wanted to travel to Europe. Every day the bus driver would have to wake me up at the end of the bus ride. This entire insurance office was grey-green, from the floors, walls, and desks to the inverted ice cube tray lights and the faces of the people who worked there. I did make one good friend and stayed longer than I should have because of it. This job was so deadly dull that I started getting migraine headaches just to be sent home. At first they would disappear the minute I left the office but then they became a pattern. I was plagued by migraines for years.

Lessons learned: Don't stay in a horrible job just for friendship. My body will do whatever it takes to extricate me from a harmful situation, but there may be a price. Don't automatically take the first job you're offered. I hate to file.

4. File Clerk, UC Davis Personnel Office

When my husband and I applied for financial aid we were told one of us would have to work while the other went to school. Never looking at my husband, they turned to me and asked if I wanted to work as a lab helper or a file clerk.

Lessons learned: Men count. Women are just support systems. The last two sentences are a lie -- fight for your dreams! I REALLY hate to file.

5. Receptionist and Pre-interview Screener, UC Davis Personnel Office
I made a good impression as a work-study file clerk and they created a full-time job for me.

Lessons learned: Given lemons, you can make lemonade if you're resourceful. And sweet.

6. Secretary to the Associate Dean, UC Davis College of Engineering
Having never even typed a letter, I practiced, gave myself a typing test (in my role of "Pre-interview Screener") and passed. I talked my way into a new job where I typed correspondence and research grant proposals (complete with scientific formulae which I understood not a wit) and created budgets for proposals. During my interview I told the Dean that I'd never created budgets. (I didn't mention the typing.) He looked me over, winked and said, "A smart girl like you won't have any trouble picking this up."

Lessons learned: The Dean was right. But if you're looking for a job it doesn't hurt to be young and pretty.

7. Secretary, UC Santa Cruz, University Relations and Alumni Office
My altruistic task of putting my husband through school (and then law school) was over. I was now getting a divorce and a new life. I wanted to be an artist but my artwork was filled with horizontal lines from living in the flatlands of Davis. I yearned for more diagonals. On a lark, while visiting a friend at UC Santa Cruz, I popped into the Personnel Office, went on an interview and was hired on the spot.

Lessons learned: When looking for a change of scenery, take a chance. It can do wonders for your art.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

A Finale Lesson on Top Chef

Did you see the Finale of Top Chef? My daughters and I watched horrified as Carla, one of the three finalists, unintentionally threw herself under the bus (as the contestants often like to say on the show.) The only positive spin I can put on this, as one who has been rooting for Carla to win, is that by doing so she has given a lot of us women out here a real gift -- a lesson, if you will. Follow your instincts. Especially when it really counts, always take care of yourself first. Like they say on the airlines, fasten your oxygen mask before you help others fasten theirs.

Of the three finalists, Stephan, Hosea and Carla, Carla was all about the love. Stephan was extremely talented, smug, snarky and insufferably cocky. Hosea, who ultimately won, was also talented but not as experienced, a bit whiny and continually engaged in a culinary pissing match with Stephan. Carla was calm, quirky, funny as hell, talented and always tried to infuse her food with love. Ultimately it was the love that did her in.

Each of the contestants was given a sous chef to help them prepare the dishes of their final challenge. When Carla's helper started suggesting a different way to prepare her meat and a souffle for dessert instead of a tart (which Carla was known for) you could almost see Carla not wanting to dampen her helper's enthusiasm. She didn't say, "No. I'm the chef here and we'll do things my way." Instead she saw her helper and herself as a team and she agreed to try some things the way her helper suggested. Bad move this time.

When the judges tasted her food their response was, "This doesn't taste like what we expected from you. You got to the finals by cooking your own way. Why would you change now?" You could see Carla deflate before your eyes, like a souffle that's been startled before its time. She knew immediately what mistake she'd made. All the nurturing women watching knew instantly what had happened because we've probably all done this to ourselves in the past. You take care of everyone around you before you take care of yourself.

I'm not saying this is a bad way to be. I think it may make you a better person, providing you don't overdo it. It makes you a great team player. It makes you a great mom. If you run a restaurant it may make your kitchen more harmonious. In this case, it just didn't make Carla a Top Chef and for that I'm sad. 

Carla accidently threw herself under the bus and reminded all of us out there that there are times when putting ourselves first is absolutely okay and is, in fact, "being all about the love."