Friday, November 26, 2010

Stronger

I hope everyone in the US had a wonderful Thanksgiving. I had two invitations this year and somehow managed to get to both places, which made me feel very loved indeed despite not having any family here in New York.

You may have noticed that things have been pretty quiet around here lately. I mentioned that I've been wading through an avalanche of catch-up from being in Italy for a week, but something else happened a few weeks ago that's taken my attention elsewhere.

Most major marathons have professional photographers on the course, and the race I did in early October was no exception. I received an email a few weeks ago to look at proofs of the photos, so I duly clicked the link and saw the glory that awaited.

It was horrifying.

I mentioned a while ago that I put about ten pounds on earlier this year, mostly following my mom's stroke and hospitalization. I haven't been able to shake it off, but I also haven't really tried. Marathon photos are seldom flattering at the best of times and this year it rained during the entire race, so I was expecting to see myself looking bedraggled.

I wasn't expecting to look so, well. . .

Fat.

Yeah.

To put things in perspective, I realize that my body image is skewed. This is pretty common among distance runners: When you can feel every additional pound slowing you down, an extra five or ten pounds can take on the histrionic feel of a Greek tragedy. I'm short with a large, muscular frame, and I learned a long time ago that a healthy, generally maintainable weight for me is about 140 pounds. That puts me into a size 4-8 depending on the manufacturer, settling in at about size 6 on average. Lately, I've been dragging out my largest 8's and even a few 10's that I kept in the back of the closet, but it took seeing my marathon pictures to internalize the fact that I either need to embrace my larger size or do something about it.

That was my come-to-Jeebus moment.

I was a grad school project for a nutritionist friend five or six years ago, so I pulled out all the tools she gave me for managing caloric intake and started using them again.

After two years of convincing myself that yoga is better than weightlifting, I went back to the weight room.

Since Boston Marathon training season is just around the corner, I ramped up my base running mileage to about forty per week.

At the end of the first week of targeted running, lifting, and more sensible eating, I pulled out the tape measure, hopped on the scale, and recorded the full extent of the damage: 152 pounds, meaning twelve pounds and two extra inches on my waist to lose.

Three weeks after finally getting on the scale, I'm sticking to between 1500 and 1700 calories most days. In addition to running, I'm also doing a full-body weightlifting session twice a week. I was shocked by how my strength has declined after two years away from throwing the iron around, but I'm very gratified by how quickly it's coming back: I've gone from one full push-up at a shot to thirty; from zero unassisted dips on parallel bars to three sets of eight; from lunges with an empty 45-pound bar to 125 pounds; and from bench pressing with fifteen-pound dumbbells to an 85-pound barbell (and a few at 95 with a spotter).

It's paying off. I've dropped five pounds in three weeks, and the definition in my arms, shoulders, and back is coming back. I also bought several very form-fitting dresses online. Seeing how nice they look as my stomach has flattened out is incredibly motivating.

I expected the hardest part to be cutting back on sugar, but that's actually been the easiest. Recording my caloric intake probably has a lot to do with that, given how high in calories most sugary foods are. I've noticed, however, that once I get started with anything sugary (like the pumpkin cheesecake that turned up at Thanksgiving dinner #2 last night), it's awfully hard to stop at just a little. As a result, I've been planning for the occasions where I know there will be dessert by cutting way back on calories earlier in the day. The rest of the time, not having any is much easier than having just a little, so that's the approach I'm taking.

I feel better. So, so much better already.

I should add that I'm in no way passing judgment on ANYONE who is heavy. If the rest of my family is any indication, we are genetically predisposed to put on weight. My experience over the years certainly bears that out: Managing my weight takes effort. When I take my eye off the ball, I gain. Aside from being concerned about the raw numbers on the scale, with cancer, strokes, and heart disease in both of my parents and all of their siblings (not to mention the two quirky autoimmune disorders I already have), I am highly motivated to keep my risk factors to a minimum.

Ultimately, it really comes down to how I feel. I am an endorphin junkie. I credit exercise-induced endorphins for helping me keep a sunny, optimistic outlook towards life most of the time. Regardless of the cause, the darkest periods of my life emotionally have always been those in which I exercise the least. Without maintaining a certain base fitness level, I think I'd spend far too much time off of my emotional equilibrium.

(While I've been getting my physical well-being back on track, I've also been engaging in some completely indulgent planned spending. I'll go into that in my next post.)

For me, fitness and being at a healthy weight are tied closely to my overall sense of well-being. Where does your sense of well-being lie, and what do you do to reinforce it?

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Sunday, November 21, 2010

A different perspective on money

Over the past few months, I've gotten to be close friends with a neighbor I knew only in passing for years. She's a single mom who lives upstairs from me. We talked about money recently, and my neighbor had an interesting perspective: She told me that saving every penny is the stupidest thing anyone can do, and that it's important to enjoy life today in every way possible. She went on to tell me that she should be saving for her two young kids' educations right now, but that if paying for college is unaffordable, the kids are dual citizens and can always go back to my neighbor's home country in Europe and get educated for free.

My neighbor has a good income (much higher than mine, I suspect), but still, she's a single mom in New York. Raising two kids on her own can't be easy.

Is she irresponsible?

A couple of years ago, I would have said absolutely. In this situation, however, there's a twist: My neighbor's husband developed a rare and extremely nasty form of cancer three years ago. Despite throwing every possible treatment at it, he died less than twelve months later at the age of 39. My friend is now doing her best to be both mom and dad to two kids who aren't old enough to remember a whole lot about their dad, but are old enough to still miss him terribly. A large part of her is still very angry with (pick your favorite: God/the universe/forces of nature/random, chaotic events and consequences/whatever you want to call it) that her husband was taken away, but she's started making new friends and dating in order to move on with her life. For her, part of moving on means living almost wholly in the moment.

As some of you know or might have guessed, my historical tendency for most of my adult life is to fall too far to the opposite end of the spectrum, where I'm so focused on the future that I forget about living in the present. That's something I've been trying to change over time after paying off my mortgage and more recently, as my investments have gradually gone back into the black, but I've never had a defining moment that triggered a major change in my perspectives on money. Unless that happens (and to be honest, I'd really rather not go through something like that), I suspect that living more in the present will continue to be something I have to work at.

Has there been a major life event that completely changed how you think about money and personal finance? What was it, and how did it change you?

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Monday, November 15, 2010

Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry

Ever come back from vacation to get hit with an avalanche of stuff that piled up while you were gone?

Yeah. That happened to me.

In addition to that, we had the New York City Marathon, and I had some marathon activities throughout the week. (I also jumped in to run the last six miles with a friend, which is strictly forbidden.) My awesome house guest showed up for four days after that, and then I went to a wedding and left the wedding reception early to fly out here to sunny California on business.

I'm hoping to carve out a little time this weekend to play catch-up. Thanks for your patience in the meantime. (I seem to be saying that far too much lately!)

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Monday, November 1, 2010

Historic Rome

Like many other visitors to Rome, one of the main attractions for me was its long, rich history as one of the earliest foundations of Western civilization. Having grown up in a place that wasn't settled until the 1840's, I find New York's history of European settlement dating back to the 1600's incredibly ancient. From this perspective, it's hard to fathom buildings and settlements dating back two thousand years or more, especially juxtapositioned within a modern, vibrant city.

I guess wanting to see and hopefully understand a little more about truly ancient history is more or less what I was looking for when I came. In that respect, Rome delivered. Over the week I was there, I managed to cover every neighborhood in the historic center, as well as a visit to the Via Appia Antica, which is still in Rome but a short, hair-raising public bus trip away from the center. This visit to one of the the ancient Roman roads was one of the biggest highlights of my stay. I stopped in at the tomb of Cecelia Metella, a first-century noblewoman's wife. The tomb was written up in my guidebook as a not-to-be-missed highlight, but after having seen so many museums and churches and ruins already, I thought it was a nice building but otherwise a washout because so much of the interesting stuff had been stripped away. (Maybe some people are interested in detailed descriptions of earth striations, but I'm not.) It was a nice day and the public bus wasn't coming back anytime soon, so I walked farther along the ancient road until I came to the catacombs of St. Sebastian. The location is marked by a fourth-century church in honor of St. Sebastian built over a long stretch of catacombs (7.6 miles, I think) dating back to the second century, where pagans and Christians alike were buried in wall niches covered with marble or terracotta plaques.

The catacombs sounded interesting despite the dry passing reference in my guidebook, but the only way to see them was on a guided tour because apparently it's quite easy to get lost down there. I managed to join a tour conducted in English, and it was absolutely fascinating. The guide pointed out and explained ancient symbols and graffiti left over the centuries (I finally get why a fish symbolizes Jesus!), including scribbles left on the walls by people who gathered to celebrate and pray to St. Peter and St. Paul. There were also three underground mausoleums, part of what used to be a thriving necropolis business for the entombment of wealthy individuals and their families. There was a special chapel built in the area where St. Sebastian's body had been entombed in the second century, which was interesting but also slightly disappointing: While it was fascinating to see the nearly two thousand year old stone box in which his remains had been stored (the chapel was built around it, although the remains themselves are now housed in St. Peter's Basilica), I would much rather have seen the tomb as it originally was. In any case, getting a sense of how people two thousand years ago came to terms with death - or in some cases, didn't come to terms with it - seemed to help bridge the gap spanning the centuries separating the ancient world from the world of today. The mystery of what happens after death is still as big, scary, and unknown as it was back then, and religion is still needed by so many to hold back the dark unknown. In that sense, it seems like the people of ancient Rome and the people of today could probably understand and relate to each other.

Another historic highlight was a visit to the Museo Capitolini, which houses an unimaginable amount of ancient statuary. I spent a great deal of time wandering through the Hall of the Emperors, a room that is actually quite small but contains busts of many of the ancient heads of state. The carvings became more true to life over time, and the one that fascinated me the most was of Vespasian (67-79 AD). It's impossible to see from the linked image, but Vespasian's bust showed a man in late middle age with deep, careworn lines etched in his face. I know very little about Vespasian's reign, but he looked like a calm man of wisdom who was nonetheless no stranger to stress, worry, and probably a lot of sleepless nights.

I spent a whole day at St. Peter's Basilica and the Vatican museums. The Basilica took only ten minutes of waiting to enter, and I climbed the 600 plus steps to the cupola to see both the city view and the basilica floor. There was so much there and it was all so ornate that I know I didn't take in as much as I would have liked. The size alone is unimaginable, and there are side chapels and funerary monuments everywhere for saints, popes, and a lot of people I've never heard of but who must have historic importance in the Catholic church. A service started while I was in the basilica. I'm not religious myself, but I opted to leave rather than gawk at people trying to worship in peace.

By the time I trudged out of the basilica, the lineup for the Vatican museums was two and a half hours long, and the trip through the many museums on feet that were already sore and tired was totally overwhelming. Here too, my art receptors shut down without taking everything in, so while I spent plenty of time lingering over Egyptian historic relics and sculpture, I walked past the maps and tapestries without spending more than a few minutes looking at them. The last stop on the route was the Sistine Chapel, which was every bit as breathtaking as I've ever heard. Here too, the work is too overwhelming to take in at once, although having read up on the meaning of some of the ceiling and wall frescoes helped.

While the size and majesty of the Vatican is a testament to the strength and power of Christianity over the centuries, it left me cold in some ways. Not having been raised with religion, I found it a heck of a lot harder to find spiritual meaning in the overwhelming magnitude and ornateness of the Vatican than I saw in things like the worry carved into Vespasian's image. I'm sure a lot of people do find spiritual meaning in exactly the places I couldn't, and that's fine; it just wasn't for me.

Finally, another historic highlight of my visit was the Pantheon. I knew before going that the Pantheon was one of the oldest surviving buildings from the early Roman period, having been completely rebuilt by Hadrian in the first century after the original was destroyed by fire. What I hadn't realized, however, was that five hundred years later, the inside of the Pantheon was ripped out and consecrated as a Christian church. While the interior of the Pantheon is no less ornate than the other historic Christian churches I saw, the smaller size and scale made it much easier to take in and appreciate the artwork and the monuments to historic figures entombed there.

There were so many other places I visited, but these were a few key highlights that made me realize how very little I know about this cradle of civilization. I'm planning on doing a lot more reading about the early Roman empire and its eventual collapse, and also the rise of Christianity, mostly because I feel like there are a lot of gaps to fill in in order to make more sense of my experience.

What are some of the highlights of your travels?

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