After Work Cometh the Dogman

One in a series of posts on my struggles with maintaining a healthier weight, starting in early 2019 and working into the present day

Back in early 2019, I tended to stop working around 5 pm, though often more like 5:30 or 6. If I’d been good that day after lunch, sometimes I’d had a mid-afternoon snack, something along the lines of fruit or a slice of cheese. If not, however, I’d had something more. Either way, though, by the time I’d knocked off work (keeping in mind I was working from home), I was pooped. 

The Dogman

That’s when it got harder for me to make good eating decisions. I could hear the scratching, scratching of the “other” Mark wanting to get in the door of the wheelhouse. I call that version of myself the Dogman.

The Dogman is kind of like the Wolfman, except not as scary to anyone but myself.

Let me start by saying I love dogs. I grew up with a black Lab who was, as the trope goes, my best friend. His name was Spiro. He was a character, and I could write a book on him alone. He was also a big eater and a bit of a drooler who would lay his jaw on my thigh when I was sitting down for a meal. 

I fed him from the table, of course. How could I not? This was back in the days when having a trained dog just meant you could get him to “shake.” Screw discipline. We were the Vickers family. We ate what we wanted and we damn well fed our dogs what they wanted as well.

Hank the Dog

Later in my adult life, my wife and I got a yellow Lab named Hank. It was a different age and we lived in the city, so we trained Hank. It was easy, except when it wasn’t.

Like so many members of his breed, Hank was smart but impetuous when he was a young dog.  We taught him to stay, heel, wait and a bunch of other commands. He was a natural, learning so fast you’d think he was just remembering commands rather than hearing them for the first time. We were grateful to have such a brilliant student. Or, at least, he was brilliant in the backyard

In the “real world” it was a different story. I’d take him for a walk off the leash on the local college campus where I worked.  We’d be soaking in the scenery, the grass expanses, the hibiscus and azalea, the palms and the tall oak trees. If I asked, he’d heel like a champ, like there was an invisible lead between us.

Until, that is, he saw a squirrel. I was, of course, usually able to see the squirrel first because of my height advantage. So, I’d tell him to heel, which he did…right up to the time he saw the squirrel. Then his eyes would light, his ears perk up, his feet start to dance. 

“Hank, heel,” I’d say in a low, alpha-dog voice, practically a growl.

But, then, he just couldn’t take it anymore, and off he’d dash, running the squirrel or squirrels up the nearest tree. 

It’d burn my ass. He knew better. He just wasn’t listening, damn it!

I’d bring him back and tell him what a schmuck he was. He looked truly repentant, as if saying, “Sorry, Mark, I’ll never do it again. Cross my heart and hope to…”

But then there’d be another squirrel and off he’d go.

Eventually, I learned to get him on the leash before he could see the squirrels. He’d yank on the leash at first but then realize he was stuck with me. At that point, he’d heel properly, though focusing all his attention on the squirrel.

“Good boy,” I’d tell him. “Good boy.”

SKERAAAATCH!

So, what does the Hank story have to do with my eating issues? Well, there were two Hanks. There was backyard Hank who never failed to obey a command, and there was college-campus Hank, who sometimes gave my commands a big “screw you.”

Same dog. Different behaviors. 

Hank could also be two different canines when it came to eating. He loved to eat, a true Vickers. He could wolf down a can of dog food in 30 seconds. He could even devour a dried pig’s ear (yes, those are a thing) in only a minute or two.

When it came to eating, there was Hank when you were around and Hank when you weren’t. When you were around, Hank wouldn’t beg at the dinner table, or eat the cat food, or even grab meat off the kitchen counter. 

But when you weren’t around, he’d chow down on the cat kibble, beg from any houseguest who didn’t know the rules, and give into the temptation to pull down Publix slices of roast beef off the kitchen counter (which, in his defense, he only did once or twice–as he got older, he really became quite disciplined).

Well, you get the picture. As with the squirrels, Hank had impulse-control issues, especially as a younger dog.

And so it is that I refer to my “other” self as Dogman, the beast inside me who also has impulse control issues. 

Oh, I don’t mean all the time. Not even usually. But enough of the time to get and keep me fat. 

And it was usually after work that I could feel the Dogman scratching at the door of my mind in the same way Hank would use his big paw to scratch at the back door when he wanted to come in. It was a scratching sound that started off as a low sound, but got progressively louder as he grew more impatient.

Before long, it was a loud, drawn out SKERAAAATCH! A grating and subliminally frightening noise, something out of an Edgar Allen Poe story. 

It was also a sound that would drive my wife into a fury. She’d jump up, fling up the door, and yell “Enough already!” at the Hank, who with a slightly sheepish but secretly triumphant look, walked by her and into the living room, where he’d jump up on our (increasingly worn) brown couch, deeply sighing as he sank into a comfortable sleep.

In the meantime, my wife would be examining the ever deepening gouge marks on the outside of the door and bemoaning her fate as the long-suffering owner of a “bad dog.” Which he wasn’t, really. But the scratching, oh, that scratching, was monstrous.

And so was the mental scratching of my hunger after work. It started as a low, barely perceptible scratching, but it grew progressively louder and more demanding. My wife couldn’t hear it, but she could hear me rummaging. What could I eat? Popcorn, perhaps. A piece of cheese, some fruit, a slice of salami. Maybe each of these, though not all at once. Just enough food to tamp down the inner, relentless scratch-scratch-scratching of the Dogman.

It was worse when I sat down or, usually, lied down on the sofa to watch some television before dinner, which my wife usually cooks. (Yeah, I know, traditional sexist role assignments. We’ll get to that.)  This was part of stress relief after work: watching television or, to be precise, streamed television since we don’t have traditional cable, a distinction without a difference in this case.

This habit goes back, way back, to my childhood, where my big, fat-craving brain was first trained and nurtured, setting me on a road which I’ve since traveled for far too long. I’ll get into that in my next post.

Feature image from magazine illustration of Lon Chaney Jr in makeup as The Wolf Man. From Horror Monsters, volume 1, number 1, page 2 (inside cover). Edited in Photoshop to be black-and-white. Wikipedia.

This Time Will Be Different!

One in a series of posts on my struggles with maintaining a healthier weight, starting in early 2019 and working into the present day

#Weight: 247.6 lbs on Feb. 4, 2019

At the start of February, 2019, I was making some progress, down a few pounds from my recent 250-plus lbs status. My research on and insights into obesity in the U.S. and abroad helped me a little, giving greater context. But I also felt as if it amounted to societal/cultural psuedo-explanations for my own predicament.

For me, I knew from experience, it all boiled down to one major factor: my damned brain.

The often absurd story of my fat-happy head would start just about every morning. Maybe it’ll help if I describe that.

I would wake up and determine that today’s the day that I’m going to turn my big, fat life around. If I’m especially courageous, I step on the scale, which I actually keep in my closet. I get a little ding of pleasure, despair or frustration, depending on whether I’m up or down since the last time I checked.

Maybe I even jot dot my weight in a notepad near my bed stand or plug it into a file on a phone. You can’t manage what you can’t measure, right? That’s Management 101, and I’m sure I can manage this problem if I can just add a little structure to my day. I just need some logic, data and discipline! 

In the back of my mind, I hear a little voice asking, “How many times have we been here before?” and I respond that this time it’ll be different, damn it. THIS time I’m not just committed but experienced. I know how to manage the recalcitrant, moody employee that is myself.

My Virtuous Breakfasts

I hold fast to this idea as I make breakfast. I pull down my box of Rice Chex off the top of the fridge. Ah, my virtuous, virtuous Rice Chex. The top of the box proclaims:

WHOLE GRAIN is the 1st Ingredient 

 Yay, whole grain! You go, Grain! Getting on the grainy train. Going to make it grain, baby!

Why such enthusiasm? Because, I’m being so smart. You see, I’ve got science on my side now. That’s right, actually science. In your face, Fat! 

Of course, I know better than to expect cereal-based miracles. Sure, whole grain rice is supposed to be some kind of wonder food, according to “the literature.” But I tend to take any and all nutritional literature with a grain (so to speak) of salt, since the research is in a chronic, constant state of flux and contradiction.

What’s more, I’m aware that eating a processed food like cereal probably isn’t the same as eating something more authentic, such as a warm bowl of brown rice. Still, I feel pretty good about my Chex. First, whole grains are supposed to result in a reduced risk of weight gain (too late!). Second, some folks argue that rice is a better kind of starch in general. They talk about things like amylopectin (more common in wheat) versus amylose (more common in rice), but that’s too much detail for me to worry about.

Please, just make me feel better about being a virtuous eater!

So, I start off my morning by pouring some my unsweetened almond milk over my Chex and tossing in some fresh or defrosted frozen fruit. Jeez, I’m good. I’ll be thin in no time at all. I try not to do the math, but it’s almost automatic by now.

Let’s see. If I can lose just two pounds a week, then I’ll be at 200 lbs in just six months of so. Let’s see, when is my next family reunion? Boy, they’ll be impressed and envious of their oh-so-svelte brother. This time I’m really going to pull it off!

My Not-so-certain Lunch

By lunch time, I’m still feeling hopeful but am also somewhat tired, stressed and hungry. Maybe there’s a report I’m struggling to edit, or maybe there’s a not-so-happy client who wants something as soon as possible and preferably yesterday.

Anyway, I start casting about for lunch. My morning plan was to cut up an avocado and tomatoes, maybe with lettuce, olives or whatever’s around. Then I’ll pour some nice Italian dressing over it. Sounds pretty nice, right? Savory, even.

Well, sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t. On my good days, I eat that lightish lunch and get back to work. Maybe I add some tuna or canned sardines if I want to add a bit more protein and fat. Even then, though, I’m feeling pretty good about things.

Avocados are, after all, another wonder food, right? A person can hardly go wrong with one of those neat, green little symbols of nutritional virtue.  Avocados are, in fact, so good for you that when I just Google the word, the first site that pops up is 12 Proven Health Benefits of Avocado – Healthline. And the second is Everything You Need to Know About Avocados – WebMD. So, avocados, like whole grain rice, is a food for virtuous person, the person who views their body as a temple, the person is so lithe and enlightened that they’re practically levitating around a world bogged down by burgers and candy bars and greasy-fingered Netflix watchers hunkered with a bowl of chips.

Avocados are so stinking healthy that they’re stocked in the produce department with a sign flashing their many virtues:

  • 20 healthy vitamins and minerals!
  • More potassium than bananas!!
  • High in heart-healthy fatty acids!!!
  • Packed with fiber and, get this, antioxidants that can protect your eyes!!!!

 Yep, they’re a wonder food, alright. Too bad they’re so bloody bland!  All the literature talks about how rich and creamy they are, but they seldom mention that your average store-bought avocado is so boring and lackluster that the only time most normal folks eat them is when they’re made into a zesty guacamole that you eat with a nice, big bowl of chips and salsa. 

Yum!

But, no, shut up. That’s no good for you. Chips? Verboten, evil carbs. You’d might as well dip your lunch in crack cocaine.  Settle down. Bring on the boring alligator pear with a little oil and vinegar. Eat your salad and go back to work, you undisciplined bovine!

Such is my inner monologue. Maybe not every day, but too many days. It can be most dispiriting to live in my brain sometimes.

Eating a Snack on the Treadmill!

The workaday life is often compared to a treadmill. In my case, it’s literally true. After many years of fighting the battle of the bulge, I got a standing desk and the kind of treadmill I can walk on while I work. It’s pretty impressive. I can use it to walk anywhere from .1 to 2 mph while I’m working. 

It’s a nice way to burn a few extra calories….if you actually use it. Therein lies the rub. I mostly use it when I’ve something relatively tedious to do, something that doesn’t require my full concentration. When I have more challenging work, I tend to turn it off so I can think better. 

So, I just end up standing still on a motionless treadmill the whole day. Now, it could be worse. Some folks have claimed that “sitting is the new smoking,” suggesting that sitting at a desk all day is as bad for your body as smoking. 

Here’s how one article sums up the research: “There’s a direct relationship between time spent sitting and your risk of early mortality of any cause, researchers said, based on a study of nearly 8,000 adults. As your total sitting time increases, so does your risk of an early death.”

That’s pretty grim sounding, but is sitting really as bad as smoking? Not really. In fact, not even close, according to Healthline. Still, sitting for long periods of time is not good for you, so I suppose I’m getting something out of just standing at the desk all day.

But it’d be better if I used the treadmill for, well, treading (that is, assuming I don’t fall and break something, which would really be defeating the purpose).  This is another area where I do better in fits and starts, committing to actually walking for an hour, or two, or four. But, when the choice comes down to doing my work well or using the treadmill, I’ve got to prioritize the work.

You may be thinking, “But if the fat boy used it more often, he’d get better at working while treading and so his problem would be solved!”

Yes, that’s what I keep hoping for as well. But I’ve not been able to get there yet and, even if I do, walking in itself isn’t a panacea. Why? Because human beings were literally evolved for walking long distances while burning a minimum of calories. 

You wouldn’t know it by looking around the shuffleboard courts, but our ancestors were mostly lean, mean walking machines. Let’s say you weigh a nice trim (for me!) 180 pounds and you walk for a mile. Do you know how many calories you actually burn?  1000? 500? 300?

Not even close. You burn a whopping 96 calories, a little more than the calories you get in a single slice of bread, and way less than the calories you get eating a medium-sized donut (195 calories). 

So, you want to work off that donut you ate during the staff meeting? Then go for a two-mile hike and you might just get there! And if you happen to weigh only 120 or so pounds, then you’d better be ready for a three-mile hike, because you don’t burn calories as quickly as I do.

This mile-to-calorie efficiency was an awesome bit of evolutionary magic for our hunter-and-gatherer forebears. They could walk a long, long time looking for food and still maintain their big, calorie-burning brains. And human beings lived that way right up to till, at most, 10,000 years ago, the time of the first agricultural revolution. (I should mention that the ancestors of a lot of folks who might be reading this were hunter-gatherers much more recently, such as within the last hundred years or so.)

So, let’s do the math. Modern human beings have existed for at least 200,000 years (and far longer if we include human-like species leading to modern homo sapiens). If we only started farming 10 millennia ago, then that means we spent (as a species) 95% of our existence walking around looking for stuff to eat. If we count our very similar forebears, Homo Erectus, who were also nomadic tool users, then we’ve only had agriculture for a teeny, tiny fraction of our collective existence, somewhere on the order of .000005555556%. 

Image by José-manuel Benitos, 2007

So, the bottom line is evolution designed us for walking, not lounging on recliners and watching some sort of digital device. Evolution designed us for food scarcity, not food abundance. It designed to us to WANT to store as much fat on our bodies as possible, assuming we’d be burning most of it off.

More on that little conundrum later. In the next post, we’ll move on to dinner and then the after-work hours. Those are the truly tough ones.

Featured image Sisyphus (1548–49) by TitianPrado MuseumMadridSpain