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Archive for November, 2011

A Mindless Diet

Many of us like food. Some of us just like eating and don’t know it yet. So, what happens when we try to eat better, or less, is that we mind, very very much. And unless we have an iron willpower, we cave in, and our bellies cave out. The diet fails. Diets are unfashionable these days and taking their place are eating plans. In his book, Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, author and food psychologist Brian Wansink proposes one such eating plan that can be adopted to counteract mindless eating (often overeating) – mindless better eating.

We might not be aware of it while we are (over)eating, but we do notice it at some point, much before our neck finally disappears. It’s when we feel the need to loosen our belts, or perhaps wear a bulky wrap so the folds of our jolly belly won’t show. We are even more intensely aware of what we eat, when we undereat deliberately.

Our body and mind fight against deprivation diets that cut our daily calorie intake from 2,000 to 1,200 calories a day. But they don’t really notice a 100-200 calorie difference because they’re not as sensitive within this range – it doesn’t ring the starvation alarm in our body’s mechanism. We can trim this calories out of our day relatively better. They key is to do it unknowingly. To mindlessly eat better. To reach this goal, we need to reengineer our mindless margin.

The mindless margin that Wansink introduces in this book is a calorie range (100-200) that we are able to add or remove painlessly from our diet. And that means it only takes an extra glass of milk every day to add 10-20 lbs a year. Or, more importantly,it is just as easy, in principle, to knock the same weight off in a year. And this is exactly what Wansink prescribes.

All diets eating plans are some variations of ‘eat less, burn more’, and the Mindless Eating Plan focuses on eating less food, but not by a lot. The reason eating plans often times fail is that we are keenly aware of the suffering that results when we don’t eat as much as we want to. Eating less food is also difficult because there is no instant gratification – eating one less doughnut does not magically transform our chunky thighs into more slender parts. The mindless eating plan certainly does not claim to produce fast results, in fact it’s non-drastic approach promises as much as a year to see noticeable difference. But the key is that it is not accompanied by the agony that often go hand in hand with other eating plans, heck, diets.

Wansink devotes much of the book to reengineering the mindless margin, i.e., how we can trick ourselves into eating a tiny bit lesser every day. It’s nothing we haven’t heard before: stop when you don’t feel hungry anymore, eat more fruits and vegetables, make’ bad’ food invisible and ‘good’ food more visible, don’t go back for seconds; together with some interesting theories, such as how health claims on food labels can result in overeating and how baggy clothes can indirectly lead to weight gain:

At a Midwestern jail, inmates with an average sentence of six months, were mysteriously gaining 20-25 “prison pounds” during the course of their “visit”. Upon release…”they blamed their jailhouse fat on the baggy orange jumpsuits they had to wear for six months. Because these orange coveralls were so ill-fitting, most of them didn’t realize they had progressively gained weight – about a pound a week – until they were released and had to try and squeeze back into their own clothes.”

After using up around 200 pages telling us how to eat better (which, well, most of us know quite a bit about, although Wansink does pepper his advice with interesting research stories), he spends just nine pages talking about setting goals and sticking to them. He suggests that we personalize changes and draft our own ‘food policies’, just three of them in fact, and maintain a daily checklist that will help us track our progress. This is where most people stumble – sticking to the goals – and although this is a vast topic in itself, I wish he had dedicated some more pages on how to be accountable and not give in to temptation.

It’s certainly easy reading, and while you may learn a thing or two, nothing is going to shake those lbs off if you don’t persevere.

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A sea of grass

Reading Prairie Spring only deepened my regrets over a lost opportunity. On our last visit to captivating, friendly Cape May just when fall was about to unfold, I had plans to go on an early morning bird walk led by author Pete Dunne. The plans fell through, and the creamy fig and brie sandwich we had later didn’t quite make up for it.

Prairie Spring is the story of spring over the American grasslands, seen through the eyes of Dunne and his wife, Linda. Talking about his travels through the prairies in 2007, Dunne aims not only to capture the essence of this fleeting season, but also to describe the unique ecology, history and importance of the glorious, often overlooked prairies. But the real, undisguised ambition of the narrative, he says, is to…

“…entice an estranged audience to explore an exciting, overlooked, and now alien environment (i.e., the natural world that surrounds and supports them.”

Beginning on a cold Groundhog Day, Dunne makes his point by bemoaning how most people think of Bill Murray and not a badger (or any other burrowing animal) in reference to the holiday celebrated on February 2. Well, come to think of it, many people might think of a certain radio variety show when they heard the word ‘prairie’.

Dunne’s writing is poetic, witty (except, perhaps, his conversation with the drawing of a horse), nostalgic, philosophical, and educational all rolled into one. Even when he is describing a species of grouse thus:

“…all efforts to describe the sound of a bunch of hormonally fueled male prairie-chickens are doomed to failure, complicated as the phenomenon is not only by multiple birds but by an array of vocalizations. There are clucks. There are descending chortles that sound like a cross between a chicken’s cackle and a kookaburra’s laugh. There are peevish whines. There are rippling burbles that sound like a coffee percolator throwing a tantrum or a sheet metal rippling in the wind. And remember, there are multiple birds! Commonly, all these sounds are heard at once, and the conjoined cacophony sounds like a cross between a crowded hen house and a penny arcade, sounds like spring coming to a boil.”

Dunne discusses prairie ecology at length in this book, especially in the context of its relationship with man. Man, especially modern man, has done much to upset the delicate balance of the grasslands, starting with when European invaders collided with, and ultimately drove the Native plains people (‘Indians’) out of the prairies. This war represented not just a clamoring for the land, but also a clash of two diametrically opposite philosophies: agricultural vs. nomadic hunting. While the natives had a deeper relationship with the land and all the life it supported, Dunne says, the newcomers were rooted in an agricultural tradition that considered land a commodity to be used to serve their needs. The natives, on the other hand, had no sense of property ownership, while at the same time were spiritually bound to the earth, and thus helped maintain its “biological integrity”. European settlers engaged in cattle ranching and mechanized plowing to allow for large scale cultivation. Overgrazing and farming practices that disregarded wind erosion led to the Dust Bowl – a period of droughts, dust storms and damage to the prairie habitat in the 1930s.

Fires are an integral part of the prairies, as grass “both promotes fire and profits from it”. Like the proverbial phoenix, grasses emerge renewed from the soil after the nutrient recharge provided by a fire. For much of the first half of the 20th century, all wildfires were thought to be deleterious and were immediately suppressed by fire fighting crews.

The rejuvenating effects of fires were not realized until much later. Fires also help maintain the grass/tree balance in the prairies.

“…in essence, a prairie is a prairie because it isn’t wet enough to be a forest. Trees require more water than grass. Where waterfall amounts are insufficient to maintain forests, you get prairies.”

Trees are as vulnerable to fires and grasses are tolerant of it. Without fires, drought-resistant trees (several planted by man) will compete with grass for resources and flourish at the expense of grass. And what is a grassland without grass? Trees also completely alter the ecology by bringing in ‘foreign’ birds and animals that normally are not found in the prairies. And these new additions compete with native birds and animals.

Such as the aforementioned prairie-chicken, or prairie dogs (which have been almost hunted into oblivion). Or the once common Mountain Plover,

“a bird with a fawn-colored back, a cream-colored breast, and an expression so baleful a basset hound might die from envy”

I told you he was funny.

Reading in detail about the flocking habits of Sandhill Cranes, the intimate mating habits of Lesser Prairie-Chickens, or the melodious songs of the Western Meadowlark, I can be sure to be able to ID a few more birds on a quiz. I will also be sure to look out for red tags, brands and radio collars on the not quite ‘wild’ bison at Custer State Park.

I hope Dunne’s other seasonal odysseys (Arctic Autumn and Bayshore Summer) are as enthralling as Prairie Spring, because I certainly intend to read them all.

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Vintage Comic Genius

In the wake of the 9/11 tragedy, Art Spiegelman channelized his considerable angst and plentiful skills into “a series of ten large-scale pages about September 11 and its aftermath”. A resident of Lower Manhattan, Spiegelman was witness and participant in the hysteria and panic that hit his neighborhood. These color newsprint pages are complied together in In the Shadow of No Towers.

Spiegelman writes of how his attempts to deal with these life-changing events and find solace in music and poetry were largely unsuccessful. What soothed some of his pain were turn-of-century comic strips:

The only cultural artifacts that could get past my defenses to flood my eyes and brain with something other than images of burning towers were old comic strips; vital, unpretentious ephemera from the optimistic dawn of the 20th century. That they were made with so much skill and verve but never intended to last past the day they appeared in the newspaper gave them poignancy; they were just right for an end-of-the-world moment.

In an introduction to a delicious sampling of comic strips, many of which no doubt ended up as fish or tomato wrap, Spiegelman talks about how comic supplements were attacked with charges of “vulgarity, violence and illiteracy” almost immediately after they entered the world.

Their cardinal sin was that they were Sunday supplements – the day kids ought to be in Sunday school studying the Bible, not yukking it up with semiliterate full-color lessons in mayhem.

Of the seven ‘plates’ included as part of the book, what stood out to me was the delightful and magical Upside Downs of Little Lady Lovekins and Old Man Muffaroo, which in addition to offering subtle social commentary, also demonstrate the brilliance of the format. You really need to sit down and read one to understand the sheer genius and inventiveness that creator Gustave Verbeek must have had in abundance. Spiegelman calls the strips

…a frighteningly ingenious experiment in compression, the first half of these strips magically become the second half when the reader turns the page 180 degrees.

Verbeek’s was the hand behind this famous upside-down drawing:

Upside-down drawing: Boat

Upside-down drawing: Canoe

 

Now imagine creating six such images which tell a story that continues in the six images obtained by inverting the entire comic strip. You most likely can’t, if you haven’t seen one such drawing.

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Time Thieves

Overheard:

Working father 1: She told us at the meeting that she was pregnant and was going to have to cut back on her work. We will be starting implementation shortly – such perfect timing.

Working father 2 (who recently hired the female employee in question): Oh. She didn’t mention this at the interview (only a few weeks ago). I don’t have the authority to hire more resources, so I guess it means I’ll have to log in some extra hours and get the work done.

Working father 1: Haha. She won’t be available for a few months.

Working father 2 (resignedly): Well. I don’t know. I guess I would have done the same if I were pregnant.

It is probably a fair statement to say that most working fathers don’t physically get pregnant. Women experience pregnancy and childbirth  differently than men, and working mothers certainly deal with this life-changing transition on an entirely different level. And because of (a) biology and (b) traditional expectations of men and women, most men do not have to struggle with life/career decisions such as (a) should I continue working? (b) how can I cut back on my work hours? In some cases, financial reasons make such decisions easy to make (and difficult to implement). But many mothers return to their positions full-time after the customary six  weeks off. I have wondered many many times, how working couples deal with work and family related responsibilities without getting burned out. Most other people I know sum this up in one of three ways:

  • “People do it all the time”
  • “I don’t know how they do it!”
  • “Why do these people have kids if they can’t care for them?”
I do hear working couples regularly talk about time scarcity (why, even stay-at-home mothers complain about it). So, I would imagine that if working mothers and fathers were provided with opportunities to manage their work hours so they get to spend more time at home, they would jump. Imagine my surprise when Arlie Hochschild says, most men and women prefer to spend more time at work if they can.

I’ve read Hochschild’s insightful report on two-career parents and how, in most cases, the woman takes on the second shift of housework and childcare. This book, The Second Shift: Working Parents and the Revolution at Home, provided me with more than just material for my term paper while at graduate school. It raised questions that were important, relevant and urgent even though the book was nearly twenty years old. And so I was eager and curious to read her analysis of family/work tensions in The Time Bind: When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work. This book is the result of a study Hochschild conducted at a Fortune 500 company, which goes by the fictional name Amerco, which was then named one of the ten most family-friendly workplaces in the US. Shadowing and interviewing professional men and women (and sometimes their families) at all levels – top and middle management to clerks and factory workers, she looked at if and how the family friendly policies were working (for the company and its employees). Amerco had been offering employees opportunities to manage work-hours by working part-time, flexible hours, flexible locations, or job-sharing with another employee. Hochschild discovered that:

Firstly, Amerco workers declared on survey after survey that they were strained to the limit. Second, the company offered them policies that would allow them to cut back. Third, almost no one cut back.

So, what was happening? One possible explanation was that even though these policies were being offered on paper, many supervisors were not willing to put them in practice. The workers who were interested in implementing such policies did not have the necessary clout, and those with authority were not interested. Even so, both men and women frequently put in more hours than they had to.

Why didn’t they cut back?

For both men and women, more so in the upper echelons of management, hours logged corresponded to commitment. In such a cultural climate, going part-time for a male professional (also for a female professional) indicated lack of ambition, and this could have serious implications in the long-term for one’s career prospects.

I am just as good as you

Women, in particular, reported feeling that their commitment to both realms, home and work, was being questioned when they chose to be working mothers. Being a working mother implied that the their home and children were being neglected (“It takes a lot more than paying the mortgage to make a house a home”). On the other hand, taking time off for childbirth and to attend to family needs implied that women could not prioritize work in the way men could. In the face of male resentment, many women put in more hours than they needed to because “shorter hours meant surrender”. Many organizations do offer “mommy tracks” that offers women the flexibility they sorely need. But the package comes with the assumption of no ambition. One woman employee called for ‘an honorable middle rank’:

We need to be told, “You may lose out on some money or a promotion down the road, but we still value you”.

Work is the new home

For both men and women, and especially the women, home was no longer the haven it was touted to be. As a female employee explained:

“My husband’s a great help watching our baby. But as far as doing housework or even taking the baby when I’m at home, no. He figures he works five days a week; he’s not going to come home and clean. But he doesn’t stop to think that I work seven days a week” [bold emphasis mine – note how the woman categorizes her husband’s fatherly activities as being a favor – a “help”]…

“…Bill, on his second shift at home, would nap and watch television instead of engaging the children. The more anxious the children were, or the messier the house was when she walked in the door, the more Linda felt she was simply returning to the task of making up for being gone. “

Overworked and under-rested, women often felt that they “only get relief from the ‘work’ of being  at home by going to the ‘home’ of work”. Hochschild speaks of research that shows that across social classes, fathers reported more “positive emotional states” at home, and mothers, at work. She conjectures that “because women are constantly on call to the needs of other family members, they are less able to relax at home in the way men do”.

Women in hurry use fast appliances, speedy services, and express foods to be “even more amazing”. Only, I know a few who look a tad more distressed than the impeccable Kelly Ripa.

Just a housewife? Devaluation of the work of raising children

Along the years, the notion of kinder, kuche, kirche as the woman’s domain has become less attractive and desirable. Hochschild writes that “the ‘male’ world of work seems more honorable and valuable  than the ‘female’ world of home and children”. She says:

The more women and men do what they do in exchange for money and the more their work in the public realm is valued and honored, the more, by definition, private life is devalued and its boundaries shrink. People generally have the urge to spend more time on what they value most and on what they are most valued for.

Women who do paid work, researchers have consistently found, feel less depressed, think better of themselves, and are more satisfied with life than women who don’t do paid work. One study reported that, paradoxically, women who work feel more valued at home than women who stay home.

There are no certificates, annual award dinners, plaques or other forms of recognition offered to mothers (or fathers) who stay at home. With the ‘home’ being a less-desirable alternative, it’s no wonder that fewer women are aspiring to be ‘homemakers’ and fewer men consider it a place to relax and unwind. Even when flexibility is offered by the employer, men and women chose not to opt for it as ‘flexibility’ often translates to ‘more responsibilities at home’.

Is parenting more challenging than work?

Despite extremely hectic work schedules, male and female workers reported feeling more in control at work, than at home with their children. Fathers, in particular, felt more confident that they would be able to “get the job done” at home, than at work. One workaholic male worker commented that “the job of raising three children is three times harder than a job at the factory”. Has parenting changed or are parents resource depleted? In traditional societies, extended families often participate in raising children. With relatives that share and care (and meddle), the task of parenting is distributed and seems less daunting. Modern nuclear families often receive little in the way of social support. Those that lack the financial resources to outsource help suffer even more. (And yet, there is evidence that some women find it easy and comfortable to be mothers. I read recently about how Bethany Frankel manages ‘fame with being a mom to her daughter’).

Weakening family ties

Currently the divorce rates in America (for first marriages) is around 40%. Rising divorce rates have certainly made the home far less secure. The workplace on the other hand offers social interaction, friendships, and a ‘shared’ experience, and is a whole new family. A job represents much more than a paycheck, it is “an emotional insurance policy on the uncertainties of family life”.

Did you have fun babysitting?

To be fair, men are increasingly willing to participate in household chores. Those that don’t pitch in voluntarily, grudgingly acknowledge the necessity of their contribution. However, cutting back is often not a real option for men. Hochschild writes about a male employee (one of only two) who availed the paternity leave (after coaxing an unwilling supervisor into it). While women looked up to him as a hero and cheered for him, male colleagues either chose to ignore it (“Were you on vacation?”) or playfully chided him for taking on un-masculine/undesirable tasks (“Did you have fun changing diapers?”). Undeniably, many men felt that he was setting up a bad example and that their own working wives would begin to pressure them to cut back and help out. Hochschild suggests that

In the modern family, however, “family man” has taken on negative overtones, designating a worker who isn’t a serious player. The term now tacitly but powerfully calls into question a worker’s masculinity.

Indeed, taking care of a child is often perceived as unmasculine, especially by other men. When my father stayed with us to help us take care of an infant while I worked full-time, one of his (male) friends made jabs, asking him “Are you going to be babysitting?”, implying that my father was giving up his current role, to take on an inferior, unsuitable, unmasculine role as a babysitter. The male employee in the story asked, “Isn’t there a thing as a Daddy or Father? Isn’t there a difference between ‘babysitter’ and ‘dads’?”.

Whoa!

Clearly there are no easy fixes to this deeply vicious cycle: more work, not enough time at home, tensions pile up at home, escape to work. Many of the factors that have contributed to these consequences are deeply ingrained in organizational and societal culture. Hochschild calls for a social movement to address the issue, but that really is the subject of another book. How do we even begin to clean this up? As parents continue to suffer, the children pay the real price.

The gender war has to stop! As long as people continue to make assumptions about what men and women are supposed to (or not supposed to do), productive and collaborative relationships cannot be forged, at home and at work. Each family model is fraught with its own challenges – the traditional family with the male breadwinner and female caregiver might still work for some, but clearly makes others unhappy. Even in dual career families, arrangements may differ, but it is essential for both partners to respect each other and to acknowledge each other’s contribution at home and at work (I sometimes feel that a good assessment of workload is to ask ‘how much leisure time do you get?’ In an ideal situation, both partners must have around the same leisure time).

Home and child related work is sometimes invisible and difficult to quantify – try and put a dollar value on it. Yet, it is real, unpredictable, challenging and even exhausting (and so very rewarding!). The home must be valued and so should it’s caretakers, male and female.

Organizations must foster a culture where family-friendly policies are not only offered on paper, but encouraged whenever possible. Family- friendly policies should not be considered ‘women’s issues’. Hours must not be the only benchmark of commitment and ambition. Workaholism must not be rewarded, efficient work should.

All easier said than done.

 I do not aspire to be a super woman. I cannot spend nine hours at work (and two hours commuting) and hope to make it up to my child in a protected half-hour pocket of Quality Time. And yet, if I must work, I cannot spend the same eleven hours with my child. I hope to be able to make the right choices, and to be an able parent and a serious employee, to take on what I can, and do really, ridiculously good work.

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