In Honor of Saint Valentine...

Sunday is that "holiday" that women tend to swoon over and men dread: Valentine's Day. Now, I have always been single on February 14th and this year will be no exception. I tend to put up a front of cynicism, referring to the date as "Single's Awareness Day (SAD)," or, more recently learned from a friend, "Bitter Single's Awareness Day (B-SAD)." Really, this is just a way to hide that I'm a hopeless romantic and lonely.

I think the modern reason for Valentine's Day is nice. It is a day for us to show that special person in our life what they mean to us, and thanks to mass marketing it is a date that everyone can remember (unlike, say, an anniversary). Few people know it started as a three day feast c. 197 called Lupercalia. Ancient Roman men would run around naked and whip women on the ass with goat-skin or dog-skin whips. This was thought to improve the women's fertility. Apocryphal stories of martyrs named Valentine dying on February 14 in c. 289 & 496, combined with stories that at least one of these men secretly performed marriage ceremonies for soldiers who were banned from marrying, gave way to the romantic history of the holiday. This would be further perpetuated by Chaucer, marriage courts in Paris, and Shakespeare in Hamlet, eventually getting us to fat, diaper-clad, winged babies shooting people with arrows, and heart-shaped, lace-trimmed boxes of candy.

Unfortunately now Valentine's Day has become horridly commercialized and an exceptionally high-pressure holiday. If you are single, it is practically a 6-week long reminder of your status, for once Christmas is over the stores explode with pink and red hearts. If you are in a relationship, the pressure is on for the best gift, the best day. This is especially true for guys. It has become the standard in society for men to have to go all-out on February 14th. If marketing is to be believed -- and unfortunately it does tend to shape sociological thought -- hetero men are expected to 1) purchase that expensive piece of overpriced jewelry that is now magically on sale, 2) get another unique gift, such as a custom teddy bear for about $80, 3) order flowers, which are coincidentally marked up between Feb. 1 & 15, 4) make the perfect dinner plans, and 5) give their female partner an amazing sexual experience. Oh, and don't forget the chocolates.

No pressure, guys.

Women, for their part, are expected to... um... look pretty? I have yet to see a commercial geared towards women and what a woman should get her man for Valentine's Day. I haven't even seen a lingerie commercial directed towards women, although I have seen them directed at guys (the gift for both of you). When did this become the day when men had to show women their affection, but not the other way around? Granted, most all of the women I know in marriages or relationships are good about doing something for their significant others. But we must be honest, there isn't the societal pressure on us that there is on guys. In fact, all this advertising has conditioned women to expect lavish gifts and attention from men.

Granted, I'm single, but I would honestly be happy for a quiet evening with an inamorata, just the two of us. The schedules most Americans keep preclude us from quality time. Is this something we're really going to achieve with a reservation at a crowded restaurant, where they want to turn the tables as quickly as possible to maximize the number of patrons on a special night? When did doing something together that both enjoy become so underrated?

My fellow ladies, I hope you'll stop and really appreciate your man and not put outrageous societal expectations on him. And men, I'm sorry this day has become so materialistic. Believe it or not, creativity goes a long way. That line, "it's the thought that counts?" Well, it really does.

So to my friends in relationships, congratulations. May you honestly enjoy your time together. And to all my single friends, it's almost February 15th.


Tebow's Super Bowl ad - So What?

The Super Bowl is about a hour away from kick-off, and like millions of people I've been watching most of the excessive pre-game coverage. (Really, 5 hours?) There's been some good interviews and feature pieces (I'm particularly glad that the current status of New Orleans was featured, for in these post-Haiti earthquake days we seem to have forgotten the blight many of our own Americans are living in) and some that I could've done without (is the Super Bowl pre-game coverage really an appropriate time for a political interview with President Obama? I think not.).

But I have now seen the "controversial" Tim Tebow/Focus on the Family commercial at least 3 times. And, as a pro-choice person, I say, "So what?" The word abortion isn't mentioned. Based on what his mother says, she could be talking about a difficult pregnancy, maybe a lack of quality health care. It is an invitation to view a website and to appreciate those in your life.

Being pro-choice does not mean forcing everyone to have an abortion. Pro-choice means having a choice, pure and simple. During the third Presidential debate, this question came up and our now President, then Senator Obama, had a very eloquent response. He said, in paraphrase, that he believed the best person to decide whether or not to have an abortion was the mother, in consultation with her family, doctors, and religious leaders. Pro-choice means women have the access to education and the option to terminate a pregnancy should that be the right choice for them.

Ultimately a woman may decide to keep her unborn child. I may be a pro-choice Christian, but until I'm in that position I cannot honestly say what I would choose. Should I make a poor decision and get pregnant right now, I'd probably choose to terminate because I'm not in a relationship, I'm not employed full-time, and I don't have health insurance. I'm in no position to care for another human being, to be a single mom. If one or two of those situations was different, I might make a different decision. But I simply can't say right now.

What I do know is that if I cannot make this decision for myself at this moment, how could I possibly make it for someone else? Who am I to tell someone they cannot end an unwanted pregnancy because it goes against my moral beliefs? I applaud those who work to educate women about their options when they get pregnant, and just as abortion should be an option, one of those options is also to keep the child.

I suppose the real controversy is that we get all het up (yes, I said het up) whenever someone makes a statement that is different than what we believe. Pro-choicers are upset simply because an organization that is pro-life has purchased a Super Bowl ad. This is the same childish behavior that has stalemated Congress, the "I'm against it simply because you/your party supports it." Guess what, America. It's time to grow up and be responsible adults. Quit getting your feelings hurt, justify your beliefs, and have mature dialogues. And as Jesus said, "Let him who is without sin throw the first stone."


Skinny Jeans

The other day, I wore my skinny jeans. For several hours, no less.

Now, I'm not talking about the "skinny cut" jeans, which are essentially denim leggings with zippers at the waist. (Speaking of that, ankle zippers on jeans are now coming back? Cringe.) I'm referring to the pair of jeans I bought without trying on, in a cloud of denial and size optimism, only to discover that they were too small and were subsequently relegated to the back of the closet. 5 years ago.

The fact that I can 1) button and zip them without resorting to the laying-on-the-bed technique and 2) wear them with some modicum of comfort for several hours is extremely encouraging. It ranks up there with the most encouraging things to keep up with weight loss, ever. It will still be some time before I'm comfortable wearing them in public, but it's a start, a step in the right direction. The past couple of weeks have been full of these encouragements, big and small, so here's my list of the ones I particularly love.

1. Hearing, "Have you lost weight?" This is particularly wonderful when it is followed by, "Well, it really shows" and/or, "I noticed it a while ago and have been meaning to ask." Hearing all three sentences together is a high better than chocolate decadence. (Well, maybe not quite, but you know what I mean.)

2. Fitting into long-shelved clothes. Now, this can have a downside -- you finally fit into/back into something but it's no longer even remotely in style. Fortunately, jeans are pretty forgiving in style, since you can find just about every cut at any given time. The rest of my closet is full of fairly traditional items. The only things I have to really watch out for are tapered leg slacks. But, knowing I can walk into my closet and wearing anything in there and know it won't just fit but look good is a great thing.

3. Pictures. When I'm off gigging, cameras are prevalent. So many pictures of me on Facebook are candid shots from gigs, and many of them are simply hideous. There's one of me doing my make-up and I, in concert black, look like the Michelin man in mourning with my ample rolls. It gives new meaning to the term "spare tire." Last week was another gig week for me, though, and the pics that have gone up are encouraging. Even *I* can see the weight loss. One candid pic that I saw coming was taken from what I was sure was going to be a horrid angle, but I was pleasantly surprised when I saw the pic.

4. Concert heels. At last week's gig, I wore heels. We stand for 75 minutes, give or take, on stone floors while performing. Even though I'd run around my college jobs in heels all the time, I rarely did concerts in heels. At work, I'd be sitting most of the time, not on my feet for an extended period other than to conduct or lecture. Concerts can be brutal, though. The heels I wore aren't the most comfortable ones in the world but they aren't inherently uncomfortable. And I did fine. I credit having 30 or 40 less pounds on my poor feet. Being a shoe diva, this has me all a-twitter.

For some people, these might be little things. I'm choosing to not advertise my weight loss on Facebook because I crave some of these reactions from people I see periodically. My goals are set around trips. By the time I return to Florida in mid-March, I want to pack those skinny jeans and be able to wear them all day with whatever shirt I choose -- not one that is flowy or blousy to hide a muffin or mushroom top. I have a dress that I love that now fits again but is not public-appearance-ready. I want to pack that, too. I have other gigs, other goals, but one huge one: there is a person, a good friend, who I won't see until late September. We won't have seen each other since December 2009. There was chemistry, but I ended up being "The Friend." You know how that works, ladies. My huge goal?

Make him eat his heart out.


My "Diet Plan"

Last week I was off gigging, and had a conversation with a friend & colleague about my weight loss. She wanted to know what I was doing to lose the weight, and we chatted briefly about mainstream weight loss plans. She had had some success following the South Beach Diet, but had ultimately put some of the weight back on. Another friend of ours regularly does Atkins, but I think he's been gaining and losing the same 15 pounds for 10 years now.

I have chosen to not go on a diet plan at all. I think that diet plans are great if you are only looking to lose maybe 20 pounds or so. Read the fine print on those Nutrisystem or other weight loss plan commercials whenever someone says they lost 50 pounds: it says, "Results not typical." Personally, I really need to lose a total of about 115-120 pounds to put me where I'm "supposed" to be. Programs like Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig are better suited for more significant weight loss, but still, for many people much of what you achieve is often through their pre-prepared meals (especially on Jenny). Not only are the programs pricey, but you often have to buy their food, ostensibly for the rest of your life, to maintain your weight loss. That's just too many frozen dinners for me, who loves to cook!

I do have a couple of friends who have lost huge amounts of weight on Weight Watchers. One lost over 100 pounds, and another is starting to near the 200 pound mark. That is incredible and inspirational. I also know, though, that they will be counting points for, well, the rest of their lives. One of those friends I called once at 3:00 p.m. seeing if he wanted to grab dinner later. It had been a travel day for us both, and he said he couldn't because he's bad when he travels and he'd already used up his points for the day. At 3:00 in the afternoon. Now that's just not healthy to go from 3:00 p.m. to breakfast the next day, if you ask me. I applaud him for sticking to the program, though!

For me, whenever I try to keep track of my food to the calorie and limit the number of calories I eat, all it does is make me think about food. Suddenly, it's "I'm hungry but I only have 76 calories left for today." Or, "I really want a ________, but then I'd have to basically not have dinner because I don't have enough calories allotted." Really, it should be about a weekly amount, so if you do splurge one day you can still lose weight over the course of several days. Still, that is very hard to do when you are counting every little calorie that enters your mouth and you feel guilty for that indulgence.

So what am I doing? Better eating habits, period. Here are my "rules," for lack of a better term.

1) Eat three meals a day, and especially be sure to eat breakfast. This may seem like a Captain Obvious moment, but ever since I had 7:00 a.m. classes in high school I haven't been a breakfast eater. I love breakfast foods, but I just don't usually wake up hungry. Then, I overindulge in the afternoon and evening, when my body needs the fuel the least. A bowl of healthy cereal, or a bagel, or some yogurt and juice in the morning makes a huge difference throughout the day. Occasionally I'll have something with eggs if I have time and want more protein.

2) Eat more whole grains and fruits/vegetables. I've never been great about the fruits and veggies thing, but as I get older I realize that I don't mind a lot of the vegetables that I used to deplore. I'm still not fabulous, but I'm getting better. Soup is a very easy way to get those vegetables in, and when it is 20 degrees outside it is also a tantalizing way to warm up. When it gets warmer, I'll be back to my love of salads, as long as I keep tabs on my dressing. Even now, though, it is very easy to throw some spinach on a sandwich or into some pasta, or saute some peppers and mix them into scrambled eggs. Whole grains are easy to work into your eating habits, especially with the new dietary guidelines and everybody making or marketing whole grain products.

3) Try to not eat much later than 6:00 p.m. This one is trickier, especially when I am travelling. When I am home, and often getting up for work at 5:00 or 5:30 a.m., I head to bed around 10:00 p.m. so eating at 6:00 isn't that early. When I'm on the road gigging, often I don't get out of rehearsal until 6:00 or sometimes 7:00. Eating earlier in the evening helps me with that breakfast thing, since I'll wake up hungrier. And I do occasionally have a light snack before bed.

4) When possible, make lunch the biggest meal of the day. This is one thing European cultures do, and how many studies, best-selling books, and reports have we seen about how healthy and thin European people are? Americans tend to make dinner the big meal, but by that point of the day we've already used most of our needed calories. It's like doing a long car drive, then filling up the gas tank before putting the car in the garage. Rather than immediately using the gas, it just sits there. In the case of putting fuel into our human bodies, that unused fuel becomes fat.

5) Only eat red meat once or twice a week. I was raised a beef and potatoes kind of girl, and I loooooove my hamburgers. When I'm home, I don't cook red meat that often, but when I'm travelling or eating out suddenly anything red meat on the menu becomes like crack. There are benefits to eating lean red meat, but there are also some negative things, too. Limiting my intake not only helps me find the balance between the two, but it also gives me additional reason to ignore the McDonalds on the corner across from my apartment.

6) Don't deny myself. So many people backslide or put the weight back on because for so long they denied themselves something, be it chocolate, sweets, chips, butter, etc. It is all about portion control, and we are better off having a little bit of something bad than trying to fill that desire with low-calorie/low-fat/low-whatever foods that are ultimately filled with sodium and chemicals. I crave chocolate like most women, especially once a month. (Ladies, you know what I'm talking about!) Rather than just try to say "no," I have those 100 calorie packs of Hostess Cupcakes. They didn't really change the recipe, they just made them much smaller and they don't have that extra white icing on top. I think the three cupcakes in the package come to about 2/3 or 3/4 of a single regular-sized cupcake. But, I've had my chocolate and I'm generally sated, and I don't have any guilt. The same is true for cheese; a smaller portion of full-fat cheese is much more rewarding in flavor and ultimately healthier than having more of the low-fat (or, God forbid, fat-free) cheese, which is full of chemicals I'm not sure we were ever designed to actually consume. Quality over quantity.

7) Less alcohol. (Aaack!) When I'm home, I really don't drink that much, maybe the occasional cocktail or glass of wine. A contributing factor is the Kansas liquor laws, where anything other than a "cereal malt beverage" has to be purchased at a liquor store. (A "cereal malt beverage" would be beer or drinks like Zima or Mike's Hard Lemonade.) We can't even buy wine at the grocery store. Now the Missouri border is about 6 miles from my apartment, and in Missouri I can buy hard liquor at Walmart. Either going to the liquor store or Missouri, that's a special trip just for booze, something I have a hard time justifying. Consuming less alcohol is much trickier when I'm travelling and gigging, for where there are 2 or more musicians gathered there is usually a fifth. Alcohol is full of empty calories, although I do sometimes justify my Cosmos and Cape Cods by saying I'm getting my vitamin C in the cranberry juice. (If you want to feel guilty about drinking, look up how many calories are in a typical margarita.) This is just something I monitor like the above rule about moderation.

8) Consume more calcium. Apparently there have been some recent studies linking calcium consumption with weight loss. I haven't read them, but I'm still incorporating calcium not just for the weight loss but also because I have a history of broken bones and need the calcium and vitamin D for my skeletal health. Sometimes I feel like a little kid, having a glass of milk with my dinner, but that's okay!

9) Eat out less, and it is okay to get a doggy bag. The first part of this is easy, since I'm broke. It's not so easy when I'm travelling, don't always have accommodations where I can cook, and have a meal stipend, albeit a modest one. When I do get to eat out, I have to remind myself that it is okay to not clear my plate, no matter how I was raised and reminded of the starving children in the world. In fact, not clearing one's plate at a restaurant should be encouraged. Unless you are at one of the chains with the "right sized" portions section on their menu, most of the time what you get is equivalent to 2 or maybe even 3 servings. (Be wary of those "right sized" things; Weight Watchers tested their own meals at Applebee's and found that the nutritional information frequently didn't match -- the actual meal prep was higher in calories and sodium, mostly.) Also, having left-overs takes some of the sting out of the cost of eating out, since you're getting two meals for the price.

These are just my personal guidelines. This is not a diet plan, and I am not a medical doctor or nutritionist. This is something I can personally stick to, and I am definitely seeing results. I'm losing weight, I have good energy and mental clarity, and my insomnia is well under control. I credit those things with the combination of these adjustments to my eating habits as well as my obsessive gym time. If they work for you, that's awesome, and I'd love to hear about it!