Try Anything

Raise your hand if you can identify:

It’s Wednesday morning. You’re looking for something to wear, your Zoom sweatpants and work-appropriate shirts are just snug enough to make a day in front of a camera uncomfortable in more ways than one.

No problem, you think. I’ll just swear off meat/carbs/diet soda/sugar/rat poison and turn my life around. I’ll work out for an hour a day and run a marathon like everyone else.

Everyone knows you always start a diet on Monday, however, you should enjoy those last hurrahs of meat/carbs/diet soda/sugar/rat poison until then. You think about how fit you’ll be by the end of the year as you indulge in a last bit of gluttony on Sunday.

Monday rolls around, and your first morning of abstinence starts beautifully. You even get some exercise in – a slow start, of course. You can’t go from couch surfing to marathons overnight.

And then dinner time rolls around. You’re not really hungry, but suddenly you remember just how much you loved meat/carbs/diet soda/sugar/rat poison.  Maybe you should try a different diet/lifestyle change. Maybe have just one bite of that favorite food.

Wednesday rolls around again, and you’re thinking maybe you need to buy a few new shirts.

That’s been my winter, and I’ve tons of excuses for my bad behavior.

  • I’ve been dealing with a bleeding disorder that causes anemia making it hard to build iron, and I need to eat more (I actually have been, but the eating more part was just an excuse).
  • I’ve been tired.
  • I’ve been depressed.
  • I’ve been working too much to workout (but not too much to study or watch TV).
  • I’ve been tired… Oh wait.

Now it’s spring. I’m looking at the scale and the mirror, thinking a loop of the two images could make a great horror movie I’ll call ‘Terror in the Bathroom.’ It might finally get my blood pressure up, but won’t be progress.

Last Wednesday, I had started my ‘time-to-change’ mantra just before a lunchtime Zoom book club at school. We’re reading Lost at School by Ross W. Greene, a psychologist and child development researcher whose nonprofit, Lives in the Balance, promotes the idea that most maladaptive behaviors result from unlearned skills rather than a lack of motivation or consequences.  I’d read his work during a prior behavior analysis and intervention class and found it immediately applicable in working with students with challenging behaviors.

The book club should have been my a-ha moment, but it took a day.

Instead, as soon as class ended, I resumed my own maladaptive behavior – planning for a healthier lifestyle to start four days hence, preceded by overindulgence to mentally ‘prepare’ for deprivation and discipline.

To be sure, sometimes I’ve disrupted the cycle long enough to lose 40 or even 50 pounds, but no ‘lifestyle change’ is never permanent. I’ll blame circumstance or my mental health for the addictive/obsessive behavior. Never once have I questioned if a lack of skills has kept me on the hamster wheel.

Thursday I was debating the merits of low-carb vs. whole foods plant based diets. Each plan has brought some success but eliminating entire food groups – even with the promise of gorging on ‘allowed’ foods – always leads to ‘cheat days’ that turn into cheat weeks and months.  I’ll beat myself up, knowing I ‘have the skills’ to lose weight but not the motivation (even though I really do want to be able to run up our mountain when the zombie apocalypse happens).

Recalling our book club discussion from the day before, I wondered, if I had the skills (and, possibly, the motivation) what function does the hamster wheel serve?  What skills do I lack?

I looked at my diet behavior which is usually at one extreme or the other. For a while, each extreme feels good physically and emotionally, especially when I’m hitting a depressive phase. Next, just like I would with a student with a challenging behavior, I looked for a healthier replacement.

Trying to remember the opposite of extreme, I stumbled over a strategy that had worked in the past – moderation.

I’d tried moderating ten years ago with slow but steady progress. It wasn’t a deliberate strategy, however, and the siren call of extreme dieting and workouts ultimately pulled me back to battling the extremes.

Thursday, instead of eliminating entire food groups or adopting an unrealistic workout routine, I came up with a set of deliberate behaviors that will, hopefully, eschew the extremes. I identified a reasonable daily calorie limit. Everything is on the menu – in moderation. There are no diet days and no cheat days. There will be physical activity every day – in moderation.

Then, just as I would with a student with ADHD or bipolar, I identified skills to learn or relearn and practice moderating.  That means accountability with a food journal. It means serving emotional needs with activities other than over-eating or extreme dieting/exercise.

I don’t know if this plan will work, but I do know the definition of insanity is repeating the same behavior and expecting a different result.  And, needing to keep what precious little sanity I have, I’m willing to try anything. Even moderation.

I’ll keep you posted.

Pieces of 2021

A lot of people think that no good can come of checking your phone at 2 AM in the morning, but anyone who’s ever been getting ready to go into a meeting at 2 PM knows that there’s nothing like a quick glance at that glowing window to distorted reality that take your eyes off the prize so quickly. Even if it’s just for a second, that glance — that loss of focus – can almost make you forget what the prize is.

 January 6, just as I was signing into an IEP meeting I’d been anticipating for weeks, I stupidly glanced at my phone. My kiddo, learning at home all year because of health issues, armed with nothing more than cheerful fortitude, had blown his math and reading goals out of the water. It’s the kind of conversation you love to have with a parent.

But there I was, clicking the start button for the meeting as the chaos in the capital, and not this kid’s triumph, tried to command my attention. When the other faces popped on the screen, the sea of smiles hinted that my colleagues had not seen the news.

For months, I had been aware of national and world news but most days, it was on the periphery, nothing more than a headline to be liked on Facebook. I felt guilty for not tracking events more carefully, but I also enjoyed the bliss of ignorance created by the wall that work had erected, obscuring all but the most vital events.

I pulled my head back to the meeting. The IEP team took turns telling mom about her kid’s amazing progress. We discussed our hopes and goals for him for the new year, and I realized that everyone in our meeting – Mom and teachers – had been channeling fears and frustrations with the chaos of the last year into things we could control. We’d unconsciously rerouted our energies into creating hope for ourselves, one kid at a time. 

When the meeting ended, I checked my newsfeed again just to make sure the country hadn’t devolved into a full-fledged Civil War. Knowing there was nothing I could have done regardless of the situation on the monitor, I got back to the things I could control. 

Then I went back to planning a meeting for the next kid on my list and making up a new game for the next day’s math class. 

I didn’t completely tune out. A functioning democracy needs care and attention. It needs participants now and down the road.

Since January, however, I’ve let my list of meetings and to-do’s turn the news down to a faint din again because I’m not taking my eyes off the prize again. 

The victories our team nurtures and celebrates are small but significant, and we know we’re not alone. There are setbacks, but, faced with two images of the world on January 6, I’m glad I chose the one filled with hope. 

Still a Bad-Ass Chick

I just finished my last online class the other day when I heard a piteous squawk outside my window. I thought it might be Gold who, always starved for human affection, spends much of her day pecking at my office window. I was about to open the window and tell her she couldn’t come in when I noticed that she, along with the rest ladies, was still in the chicken run that we had relocated to a garden bed near the house for the winter.

I went back to my desk and heard the squawk again. Then there was a peck. I got up and actually opened the slider this time. 

Katy-the-Wonder-Dog was lollygagging in a sunny patch of snow (it was a balmy 35°), so I was pretty sure there weren’t any predators in the yard. One of the cats was sitting outside the chicken run gloating about his freedom. I looked the other way, and there was Joan Jett running back-and-forth in front of the house.

Back when we got the chickens, we named the Americaunas based on their personalities or distinguishing characteristics (The Reds, affectionate and incredibly productive, move as one and were harder to name). Fluffy had a silky mane.  Golda had appropriately colored feathers, and one ornery, independent little chick with a shock of black feathers on the top of her head is named Joan Jett.

Joan likes to investigate the woods, my greenhouse and garden, and, often, the inside of my car, so I knew her distress was not fear. She trotted past my window and back to the run, pecking at her sisters through the hardware cloth, clearly incensed that They had chosen the first sunny warm day to ignore her bold leadership in breaking out of the run.

She hopped up on the top of the coop, so I went out and unceremoniously popped her back into the coop, checking to make sure she couldn’t sneak right back out again. She gave an outraged squawk as I closed door and scooted down the ramp to the enclosed run so she could, I’m certain, berate her sisters for ruining such a good escape plan. 

When she got to the bottom of the ramp, however, she appeared to discover the perfect little sunny spot that must not have been there when she first decided to escape. I headed back to my office. She settled into her new spot, squawking at me and then her sisters one last time to make sure I knew that staying put was her idea and that she’s still one bad-ass chick, reminding me that just because you’re doing the same thing as the rest of the crowd, doesn’t mean you’re actually going along with it.

Would, Should, Will Do

You would rather paint today, but there are things you know you should be doing.

You should be writing and working on your project, whispers your conscience. But the laptop closed with the last task. If you were really a writer, you would. 

Admonishment doesn’t fire up the keyboard. Instead it makes paintbrushes heavy with guilt, and now the screen and canvas are blank.  But you tell yourself you should be a writer (that’s what you’re better at) and not an artist, and end up doing nothing.

And — as Oscar Wilde warned becomes of people who exhaust their lives chasing identity instead of living in the moment – you become static, nothing.

You feel nothing until even doing the wrong thing is better than being nothing at all. And, even though you should be this thing and not that, you pick up that piece of paper, feed it into the ancient typewriter, and, for the moment, focus on doing rather than being.

Your cat, of course, is completely happy being a cat.

A Good Night for the Good China

Most years, we have or are company at Christmas and Christmas Eve feasts for which all the stops — good china, good silver, family favorite recipes – are pulled out. This year, with Covid raging, ‘company’ is our little nuclear unit, and we were grateful to have it.

We knew this year would be different. No grandparents and no cousin means a smaller meal. Our little unit is a good deal more casual than my parents’ pod was, so we knew there would be no coats and ties, and I even thought I’d forgo the good china.

Then a few weeks ago, Thing1, our twenty-year-old who has spent the fall quarantining in an apartment with his cousin, texted that he wanted to make Beef Wellington. He and the Big Guy, now retired and indulging his own love of cooking through the pandemic began texting back and forth with ideas for a casual, but culinarily adventurous Christmas.

But, our four-person unit agreed, there would be no coats and ties. There would no fanfare.

It’s Christmas Eve as I write. Thing1 is assembling the Wellington, indulging in eighth-grade, low-brow jokes with his eighth-grader brother, Thing2 as they put together tonight’s over-the-top entree. The Big Guy is making popovers, occasionally contributing an inappropriate joke or two to the cooking banter.

We’ll still be casual this Christmas, but none of us can remember a warmer one. Sweatpants still seem like appropriate dinner attire for this crowd. However, as the boys joke and putter in the kitchen, concocting what I know will be the best Christmas Eve feast of our lives, it has suddenly become a good night for the good china.