September 8, 2007

Culture Clash

When it comes to food, I was a stereotypical American this summer. You know, just always on board for too much.

In addition to too much work, this summer involved too much bacon (thanks to the bacon of the month club), too much steak (barbeque season will do that), too much wine, and even too much dessert (which should give some perspective because given a choice, I'll take more savory food over dessert almost any day).

I don't mind, really. After all, I am American. And I do enjoy summer celebrations with excessive hedonism just as much as my nearest countrywoman. Our excessive exuberance is one of our more distinctive and wonderful qualities. In fact, I had an awesome Summer.

But, ever since learning to love and relate to food in non-American ways (mainly in France and Italy), I've generally tried to embrace some non-stereotypically American lifestyle and cultural realities with respect to food. (If I am to be fair, I should point out that California, and in particular, the bay area, has evolved quite a bit in the last 20 years, such that California's default approach to food is significantly different than the American farm-and-famine-influenced approach to food under which I was raised.)

For example, I insist on enjoying food, both cooking and eating it (although I really should slow down when I eat). I prefer to make all homemade meals from fresh ingredients and do my best to do so.

Also, I refuse to diet. After years of being surrounded by eating disorders, more than likely having one in my teens, and being raised by a constantly dieting mom, I associate dieting with psychological issues, I don't think it's healthy, sustainable, and, most importantly, it's just not fun, or fun to be around.

I also refuse to flip out about an oscillating scale read-out. After college sports, for a few years, I revolted and refused to step on a scale outside of the doctor's office. Finally, after a particularly nasty 'bout with some stress-related illnesses, I returned to the gym as a way to manage my stress.

With the gym came access to a scale, and since about 25 or so, I've taken the approach of identifying a 10-lb range that I felt was relatively healthy and doing my best to stay in it. Initially, I just weighed myself at the gym once a week or so and if I had popped out of the high side, I'd bear that in mind while making work-out and menu decisions until I popped back under. It usually only took a week or two to get myself back into the range where I felt comfortable. I didn't ever think about what I ate other than, am I getting enough nutrients? And, is this good for me?

Over the last 5-6 years, the 10-pound range that I consider healthy has slowly moved downward. If I don't touch the top 5 pounds in the range and occasionally slip under the bottom for 6 months or so, I'll just reset the range. I attribute this downward evolution to a combination of several things: 1) I started running more regularly first year of law school, which is an activity that pushes bodies towards a lower total mass, 2) I had a ton of muscle from 15-20 years of muscle-intensive sports, and over time, I slowly lost most of it due to non-use, and 3) I have lost chunks of weight due to distress (gastrointestinal illness, stress) at various points over the last half decade, and since, outside of summer, I tend to live a relatively calorically balanced lifestyle, I've just kept the non-water-based portions of those chunks off, while realizing that the pounds associated with those chunks were likely former muscle, which, probably needed to go since it no longer did me any good (but thank goodness I had it to lose in the face of the distress!).

It's the clash of my personal non-American approach to food and body image with this year's American Summer that leads me to my current dilema. Generally, according to my typical pattern, I'll pop outside of my healthy 10-lb range about 3 times a year. After the winter holidays I tend to pop out, but I generally drop back down and oscillate within the middle of the range 'til late spring, at which point I'm generally at a low point just in time for Summer, when I steadily climb my way up to pop out after Labor Day, only to fall back down in fall to what is generally the lowest numbers of the year (mmm...healthy harvest food) in time to prep for the winter holiday ramp-up. But this summer, if I'm honest with myself, I cleared the high-mark in June, after Vancouver, in July, after a couple consecutive weeks of debauchery, and again at the end of August, which just stayed with me through the fabulous weekend of home-made ice cream over Labor day (4 servings of ice cream in four days!!!! Delicious!).

This conflict is simple. Either, due to being in my thirties my healthy 10-lb range has actually moved upward for the first time in at least half a decade. Or, once I return to the healthy 10-lb range that has stuck for the last two years, I should face the fact that a truly American summer is not healthy and I should be a bit more European next year.

Rock and a hard place, I tell you. Both are completely rational, reasonable conclusions. Accepting either one means accepting a reality I won't like.

I think I know the truth. I think, in my heart of hearts, I know that the numbers of my 10-pound range are and my American Summer isn't healthy. At least for my body. But part of me thinks that conscious restraint in favor of a weight range is actually bad. That I should live heartily, vivaciously, and fully when the opportunity presents itself, and if that means being somewhat weight unhealthy one season a year, then good for me, because my mental health is more important. That part of me also asks, "What's the point of having a body if you don't use it to its fullest?"

But, the reality is, if I embrace the American Summer at it's fullest, I'm going to also have to accept that what I'll be doing will be close to dieting in order to return to the middle of the 10-pound range at Summer's end. And, as I said, I refuse to diet.

So, there's a cultural show-down going on within me right now. The American within me craves life at its brightest, knowing it could be extinguished at any point. The European in me wishes for a more even-keel warm light, one that doesn't come with sharp darkness as its price because the fuel is spent before the lamp is refilled.

Perhaps, this is aging. Maybe truly American Summers are only for the young and exuberant and those of us who are more mature should settle into a slower-paced pleasant Euro-American Summer?

Regardless, E and I are in our traditional post-summer 2-week psuedo-lent right now. No alcohol. Healthy home-cooked vegetarian meals. Lots of sleep. Yoga. Running. Biking. I suspect I should wait 'til we return to our ordinary lifestyle before I resolve this cultural conflict.

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