Archive for September, 2009

posted by Amy on Sep 21

A good friend of mine lost over 20 pounds about 5 years ago, and has kept the weight off. When I asked her what she eats, she said, “fish and vegetables.” In addition, although she’s always been active, she ramped up her physical activity, and she has kept doing that.

At the beginning of the summer I decided to get serious about changing my body composition. I wanted to maintain or increase lean body mass, and burn fat. I started off on my friend’s “fish and vegetables” regimen, and it’s a good one, but I got tired of eating so much fish. I decided to change it up, and I expanded it. You could call it “protein and produce.”

I eat enormous quantities of vegetables. I’ve been doing that for several years. It’s a consequence of two related changes in my life. First I more or less accidentally became a semi-vegetarian (i.e. I eat eggs, dairy, and fish, but no mammals or birds). Then, back home in Colorado, I signed up for a weekly delivery from “Door to Door Organics,” which dropped a box of organic produce on my porch every Thursday morning.  Even the small box from Door to Door Organics was far more produce than one person would ordinarily consume in a week. (Most people probably don’t eat that much in a month.) I would give some of it away, but for the most part I tried to eat it all before the next shipment came. Somehow this was different from my previous pattern, where I would decide to eat more veggies, buy a bunch of them, and then forget them until they became inedible in the crisper drawer, and I’d have to throw them away. It was as if I put myself in a competition with myself to take advantage of the opportunity presented by all that great food.

Even though I don’t have home veggie delivery anymore, I’m still eating a lot of vegetables. There’s a produce stand in the Reading Terminal Market, near my church, that offers a 10% student discount. Their stuff is already quite inexpensive, and with the discount it’s the lowest price I’ve found. It doesn’t keep very long, though, so, once again, I have to be focused on eating it all before it goes to waste. On the other side of the spectrum, near where I live there’s a Farmers Market every Saturday that sells amazingly fresh produce from farms in Lancaster County. It costs a bit more than at the grocery store, but the flavor and quality are superb.

Several years ago I took to heart some diet advice that said to limit fruit and dairy in order to keep carbohydrates down. This summer I’ve been eating a lot of fruit, in addition to my ridiculous quantities of vegetables. (Somehow a spinach smoothie just doesn’t sound very appealing.) I think fruit plays an important role in my health, and it tastes so good it also contributes to satiety. It may also be that the acid-base balance generated by my high intake of produce affects body composition. I didn’t make that up; I have a well-researched article that says it’s important to eat foods, or food combinations, that have a neutral or alkaline effect on the body. Fruits and vegetables, as well as herbs and spices, will do that. So, for example, to reduce the acidity of a meat meal, one should add herbs, spices, vegetables and fruits. This preserves muscle and assists in fat loss.

The article suggests some other strategies, such as getting enough sleep, avoiding foods that cause insulin to surge, getting enough calcium and Omega-3 fatty acids, and eating frequent small meals. I have incorporated a number of them into my life.

When I started this “project” I didn’t have any obvious places to cut back. I don’t drink pop, or eat candy. I don’t munch on chips. I dislike donuts. I despise white bread. I have long had a reputation as a “health food nut.” At one law firm where I worked, I used to bring my own lunch most days, and I ate it in the lunch room. Almost every day, someone would come into the lunchroom, look at my lunch, and say, “Wow, aren’t you eating healthy food?” or words to that effect. Several things about that, besides its utter predictability, struck me. One thought was always, “Shouldn’t just about everything we put in our mouths be good for us?” Another was, “Boy, it’s rude to pronounce judgment–even a positive judgment–on what someone else is eating.” But, despite a high quality diet, I was getting too much of a good thing.

In June I decided to limit portion sizes and make some other adjustments. I figured out how much fat, protein and carbohydrate should be in each feeding, and I pre-planned some combinations that closely matched those micronutrient targets. That way, I don’t have to count calories. Every “mini-meal” has about the same number of calories, and about the same micronutrient composition (i.e., grams of fat, protein and carbohydrate.) It is high protein and moderate-carb, with the calories calculated at about 20% less than my maintenance level. I aim to stay within those limits most of the time, with the occasional “cheat meal” or treat. (This eating plan was inspired by my favorite fitness and weight management coach, Tom Venuto. His advice is intelligent, scientifically sound, and sane. You can access his blog here.)

The mainstay of the eating plan is “protein and produce.” I have about 22 grams of protein every time I eat, and I have at least one fruit or vegetable every time. I shoot for about 320 calories per feeding, and eat four or five times a day. On the mornings that I do yoga, I have a smoothie afterwards made with buttermilk, protein powder, and fruit. Other mornings I have an omelette made with one whole egg and three egg whites, and a cooked vegetable such as collard greens or broccoli. If I don’t want to cook I have low fat cottage cheese, berries, and coconut oil. Sometimes I have oatmeal, because I really like it, and a smoothie, because oatmeal doesn’t have much protein. One of my favorite lunches is a wrap made with a low-carb whole grain tortilla and tuna salad, or thinly sliced fake turkey, and raw spinach. “Side dishes” are usually steamed vegetables, or raw vegetables such as carrot sticks, celery sticks, peppers, and cucumbers. “Dessert” is usually fruit. For dinner I often have fish and vegetables. At least once a day, I have a big salad. When I’m in a hurry or don’t want to cook lunch or dinner, I have lettuce, cottage cheese, fruit, and pecans or walnuts.

Generally, I try to pay attention to what I’m eating, and mindfully enjoy the flavors, colors and textures. I try to stop eating when I’m no longer hungry, but before I actually get full. It’s not about denial or privation, or “losing” anything. I want to build capacity–strength, endurance, energy, flexibility, balance, and vitality.

It’s working. Some of my clothes are actually a little too baggy. Mostly I’m wearing the same things, but they aren’t as snug, and I look better in them.

I use a heart rate monitor when I exercise, so I know how many calories I burn. It’s getting harder to burn very many calories, because that’s a function of heart rate, and as fitness improves it gets harder to get the heart rate up and keep it up. Doing my favorite power yoga DVD used to burn about 330 calories, and now it’s down to 176, making it close to useless for creating a calorie deficit. Nevertheless, exercise is important for me because it reduces stress, and keeps me from using other stress-management strategies that involve ingesting extra calories.

Human bodies were made for motion. It’s important to move, to get out of breath, to challenge the muscles, and to be in the body and fully present in moments of movement. For me, yoga is an ideal way to keep all those things in my life on a regular basis. The effect on the shape of my body is obvious, but the benefits go far beyond aesthetics. I am more flexible. I am more relaxed. I am calmer. My ability to maintain my physical balance has improved, and so has my emotional balance. These mental and emotional effects make it easy to get back on the mat. One morning last week I thought I couldn’t spare the time for a formal session with the DVD. I thought I’d just do a few sun salutations to wake up my body. But after one sequence I decided I really wanted to do a whole hour, and I did. I don’t think it was wasted time. I didn’t get any less done that day than I would have if I had skipped the workout.

posted by Amy on Sep 12

As a precondition to obtaining a divorce, my husband and I were both required to take a class in “parenting after divorce.” I remember thinking how great it would be to have a business where the clients were under court order to do business with me. I now have four clients who pay me to help them with their writing because the seminary told them to do it.

I like my students, and I respect their calls to ministry, their many spiritual gifts, and their compelling stories.  And, despite having no choice in the matter, they all have great attitudes, and want to improve their writing. I look forward to our tutoring sessions, and I have been working hard to learn how to be an effective writing tutor.

I want to write about the experience of being a writing tutor without violating my clients’ privacy. I also wouldn’t want anyone to read my blog and think I’m arrogant or judgmental. For those reasons, I will be vague about my students’ identities. That goes against advice that I give them (“Be specific! Give details! Add some life!”), but I want to protect them, and show them the respect they deserve.

Teaching helps me learn. Being the teaching assistant for the summer New Testament Greek class in July and August gave me a perfect opportunity to review the material and reinforce my own comprehension. That was my main reason for taking the job. Having to explain Greek to other people sharpened my skills. Unexpectedly, I also really loved doing it. I was genuinely fond of all of my students, and I wanted them all to succeed. It was a joy to see understanding dawn on a student’s face when I came up with an explanation that finally connected. Some students were struggling at first, and doubted their own abilities. The ones who trusted the instructor and me (and the author of the text), and who persevered, all did well in the class.

One particular student made a huge gain in understanding in the last few days of class. Regardless of their scores on homework, quizzes, attendance, and a group translation project, in order to pass the class they had to come in and translate a passage from the Gospel of John, using any materials they wanted other than a Bible written in English, and get a passing grade on that. This student had done poorly in practice tests, and she asked to meet with me one-on-one. We worked together on a section from John’s Gospel, and luckily we chose a passage that had some good examples of common issues that come up for beginning translators. All I did was give her a few pointers, cheer her on, and tell her I respected and admired her tenacity and hard work. Her grade on the final was significantly higher than the grades on her practice tests. I was so happy for her.

Because of that experience, I am confident that I can be a good coach for my writing clients, and can help them gain confidence, find their own voices, and get the most out of their seminary educations, but I am on a steep learning curve. They are looking to me to help them, and in some cases I do not see a way just yet.

Most of what I know about grammar and composition comes from my own reading and writing. I have been a bookworm since I first learned how to read. I am always reading, and I do a lot of writing. I have always kept journals and written letters. As a transactional lawyer, I’m paid to think, speak, and write. To me, grammar and usage rules seem obvious and intuitive. I’m sure I studied grammar in what they used to call grammar school, but I don’t remember how it was taught. It is so ingrained that I “just know” how things should be, and I “just know” when they look wrong. This is useless to my students. I do think their writing would improve if they read more, and wrote more, but right now they want concrete, specific help with diagnosing and curing their particular writing problems, and I have to figure out how to give them that.

With the exception of the one student who is from another country, they were all surprised and shocked when the seminary told them their writing is inadequate for graduate school. They have bachelors degrees, and they got good grades. One student gave me an undergraduate term paper as a writing sample, and I found it unbelievable that her college professor thought it was A work.

I have been searching for resources. I have collected many articles and books on teaching composition. I have found several excellent university websites with worksheets, short articles on grammar and composition, and even PowerPoint presentations. There is a lot of advice for writing tutors. Most of it is for people who work in university writing centers. That is different from the ongoing relationship that I have with my clients, but much of the advice is still valid, and I’m glad to have it.

One of my students speaks good English, has a great sense of humor, and is fun to talk to, so I know there is innate comprehension of grammar and syntax, but this student is very uncertain about parts of speech, comma use, clauses, and the like. I am trying to figure out how to make up for the fact that in 16 or more years of school the basic building blocks of language were not effectively taught. This student trusts me and likes me, and has said I have already made writing less onerous than it used to be. The first thing I did was assign some free writing, and talk a bit about voice, economy of words, and matters of style and process. At this point, the student needs an understanding of basic grammar concepts and terms,  so I will start including giving short grammar lessons and drills.

I have been looking for worksheets that are suitable for an adult learner. I found an internet site directed at home schoolers that has a lot of free worksheets, including several on comma usage, a weak spot for several of my students. The exercises look pretty good, but some of the answers are wrong! Now that I’ve been studying all the rules for comma usage, I can even explain what’s wrong with them in terms that go beyond, “It just doesn’t look right to me.” But, Oh, the internet; the mother of all buyer-beware situations! (As I understand it, in order to home school children, the parent/teacher has to use a standard, recognized curriculum. I hope that’s true. And I hope the folks who wrote these worksheets don’t also write home school curricula.)

The main thing is for me to be positive and encouraging. I am a coach, not a taskmaster. That comes naturally to me. The best parenting advice I ever got was, “You can’t build on weakness, only on strength.” This is as true for teaching as it is for parenting. All of my students, including the foreign student, speak good English. If they can talk, they can write, but only if they don’t get too freaked out to try, and if they don’t give up in frustration. My job is to work my way out of a job. To do this, I have to let them do the thinking, and the work.

Many students think that to get a good grade on a paper they have find out how the teacher expects them to sound, and parrot that. They also think a paper should use a lot of big words and long sentences. This can cause some big problems. One student was relieved to learn that academic writing should be simple, direct, and clear. This helped her relax, and find her own voice. Another student was relieved to learn that I have a hard time keeping up with all the reading and writing for my courses. Since I am convinced that the main difference between a good paper and an inadequate one is time on task, I’ve told them all how long it takes me to write a paper. (About two hours per page, after I’ve done all the research and note-taking.) I could do it in less, but it wouldn’t be as good.

There’s a lot of discussion in the English composition world about whether writing is a “product” or a “process.” I think it’s both, but another bit of advice for my students is that we rarely know where we’re going to end up, or exactly what we’re going to say, when we start writing. Writing is a way to learn what we know and what we think. Sometimes I start off with one thesis, but the paper that emerges is based on an entirely different idea. For example, last spring I wrote a paper about the Woman at the Well, and to my great surprise I found a strong message about the Holy Trinity. If I had not done the research, and written that paper, I don’t know if I ever would have seen that.

Some students have trouble reaching the required number of words for an assignment. I always have the opposite problem. There was one professor last year whose word limits were extremely spartan. My first draft of the final paper for her class was a full 50% longer than she allowed. Having to cut that many words was a great experience for me. The paper that finally emerged was lean, taut, and pointed. It’s among the best things I’ve ever written (although she did say, correctly, that it needed more of a conclusion. After slashing that much text, through several rounds of cutting, I decided to let the main body of the paper carry the weight of what I had to say.) Someone famous, I forget who, said that to write well you have to “murder your darlings.” We have to be ruthless with our pet phrases, our cliches, and our little words that take up space without adding any weight. I don’t do much of that on this blog, but if I ever write a book I know I’ll have to get out the red pen.

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