Thursday, July 23, 2015

The mailbag returns with... the dreaded "macros" question

So, let me ask you a question: why are you doing this diet/lifestyle-change thing anyway?

If it's for some aesthetic goal, like a "beach body" or "great abs," or any of that shit, then I have nothing for you. Go do whatever you are going to do and have a good time with it.

But if you are in this game for good health, long life, all those kinds of important, life-changing, sustainable goals, etc., then the answer is pretty simple: start by eating real food. We've gone over that before. If you want to specifically lose fat, I've given you a multi-level guide to that previously, as well as the Reader's Digest version.

But then I got a question, just the other day: "Hey Steve, what do you think of this 'macros' thing?"

My answer's pretty simple: mostly, I don't like it.

See, here's the thing: a whole lot of people have seriously fucked-up relationships with food. And for those people, turning mealtime into a math problem is not going to change their seriously fucked-up relationships with food. It's going to make the problems worse. What's going to fix all that is throwing out all the awful food in the house and eating real food to satiety (every single time). Do that for a month, or two, or three or four. Learn how to feed yourself properly. Learn how to love yourself, to stop hating your body and to love eating real food. Learn how to think, "I eat whatever I want and, you know what? No, I actually don't want to eat food that makes me feel awful." (Or, sometimes: "Hell, yes, I want that awful thing, and I'll eat it, love the hell out of the experience, and get right back on the real-food bus, guilt-free.") Then, once your whole perspective on food/life/everything has changed, you can start playing with macronutrient ratios, if that really is necessary at that point. (But, really, it's probably not).

Because if you take the average person who hates the way she looks, hates mealtime, hates just about everything at this point, and start her with weighing and measuring the amount of hate she is stuffing into her mouth three, four, whatever times a day, exactly how is that going to help? (And yes, I just made that hypothetical person a woman, because facts are facts, and more women than men have horrendous food neuroses). Let's cut to the chase: it's not. And if this sounds like "Free your mind, and your ass will follow," well, yeah. Truly sustainable changes in the way you eat come from your head, not your stomach. And if you aren't here to make a truly sustainable change, then you're just on a fucking diet, and those are categorically stupid and unsustainable. And they have nothing to do with long-term health.

The other point is this: you can "zone" or "macro-count" frozen pizza, cookies and diet Coke. It's just a math game; that math has nothing to do with underlying food quality. Yet, what's more important to health -- the reason you're here, remember? -- than food quality? That would be nothing.

So, you're here for good health. Good health requires eating good quality food in a sustainable way. I can't see how turning mealtime into a math problem is going to help most people do that. Sure, there are a few rare birds out there among us who already have a great relationship with food, and already consistently eat high-quality food, and still want to tweak macronutrient ratios -- maybe to help attain certain athletic goals. And that's fine. But applying the dietary strategy of those few to the masses is as misguided as applying programming that is designed for a CrossFit Games athlete to the average gym goer. It's utterly inappropriate.

Fix your head. Eat real food. Love yourself. Love the whole food experience. If you get all that straight and then you still want to go all math-nerd on your amazing food... whatever, dude. Have a ball. It just seems like the wrong strategy for the vast majority of people.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Clearing the fog, while observing the fog

In light of the fact that I've been running around to Mekons shows, it's been a couple of days since I meditated. I woke up on this humid Sunday morning with a swirling miasma in my brain of ideas for things to do today. But I didn't have a plan.

By and large, I need a plan.

I also was feeling a little restless, so my standard seated meditation wasn't going to cut it today. I required a little locomotion. So I hit the pavement for a walk, sans phone, sans music, sans headphones. Just me and five miles of country roads.

My head cleared almost immediately. Ideas fell into place for what I really could accomplish today versus what was likely just too damn much.

The corners and crevices of my brain opened up so much that I noticed things that I might otherwise zoom past, like a family of Canada geese crossing a cedar-stained stream in the shadows cast by trees being beaten down by a fat old summer sun:

                                                     (See 'em waaaaay back in there?)

And all around me, people were going in circles.

That's not a metaphor. Or not entirely a metaphor, anyway. Really. I kept seeing the same cars over and over.

We live in a pretty rural area. Our "block" is over two miles around, with no connecting streets in the middle, and most of the roads around here are like that -- big old country two-lanes with high-ish speed limits. We live on one of the more "main" of those roads, a north-south highway that has a fair amount of traffic. During the portion of my walks that are on that road, I tend to stay way over off the shoulder. It's not worth the risk of getting hit.

This weekend's been a different story, though. Just a short way up from our house, the main drag is closed for road construction.

Not like "down to one lane."

Closed. Completely shut down.

The highway department has been warning drivers about this for weeks with giant flashing solar-powered signs in both directions telling us all that the road was going to be "CLOSED" all weekend. And, now that the weekend has arrived, farther down the road there are "Road Closed Ahead" signs warning: "Local Traffic Only."

People apparently don't like to hear that sort of thing. Over and over and over today, I'd watch folks slow down, ponder the "local only" sign, and, apparently thinking, "Fuck it. That doesn't apply to me," they would go around it. Moments later, I'd see them coming in the other direction, post-U-turn, looking pissed-off, confused, appearing as if it'd all be different <angry get-off-my-lawn old-guy voice> "IF ONLY WE'D HAD A LITTLE WARNING!"

They had a lot of warning, both long-term and short-term.

So my walk was full of metaphorical splendor of many types.

Yeah, my own head cleared out and stacked the tasks of the day into a neat pile, ready for attack. But I also got to observe the madness of the modern non-mindful world in full bloom. I shit you not: people were circling back and forth and around and around, often more than once -- refusing to believe that if they had just made that damn right turn back at the "detour" sign, everything would be peachy. Nope, they were going to pound a square peg into a round hole. They were going to make the impossible happen. They were going to eff the ineffable... well, until they just plain couldn't anyway. As far as I know, no one tried to crash the barrier that was manned by law enforcement.

Slow down. Take a look. Breathe. Think. Your brain loves that shit.

Now it's time to get some things done....

                                                     (The typical scene on this road involves a whole lot 
                                                      of cars and no "road closed" sign. This is more fun, 
                                                      hay bales and all).


Saturday, July 18, 2015

"It looks like an accident...." Live review: The Mekons, Harrisburg, PA, July 17, 2015

They were Lester Bangs' favorite band. And he died in 1982, so he never even heard their best stuff.

They've been cranking out albums for almost 40 years. Their period of absolute and complete genius, which I'd call 1985-1993 or so, matches or exceeds that of any of your favorite bands. And yet, the chance that you've even heard of the Mekons, let alone that you approach them with the sort of slavish devotion that Lester did -- or with which some of the rest of us still do after all these years -- is pretty small.

I'll let you poke around that Wikipedia link, and this one too (from AllMusic) if you'd like to edu-macate yerself on all things Mekons. It will not be time wasted, I assure you. But the rest of this review is for the fanatics, the freaks, the devoted (non-)hordes -- the kind of people who fully and completely understand why I drove over two hours to Harrisburg, PA to see the Mekons three days before I am already planning on seeing them Monday night in Philadelphia.

"This is our first time in Harrisburg!" Jon Langford exclaimed, with the sort of gleam in his eye that warned the Langford-aware that he might just come out with a zinger at any moment. But he didn't. Well not then, anyway. He seemed genuinely amused and honored that the room was nearly full in a city where he'd never previously set foot. Then again, moments earlier he'd denied any knowledge of the story told by the emcee/host/booker guy who introduced the band. Pointing to Langford, the man declared, full of pride: "I am so thrilled to introduce this band. Jon and I got drunk together in Mexico last year." "It's all lies!" Langford interrupted, with the same gleam in his eye. "I've never been to Mexico!"

And we were off to the races. A Mekons show is always a recklessly-stirred slumgullion stew of musical genius, comedic moments, drunken witticisms and barbs exchanged between band members, and, yes, often episodes of complete chaos. At their best, or most memorable, you might get all those things in the course of a single song.

So the band thundered its way through the opener, "Memphis, Egypt," gave "Beaten and Broken" the amped-up-waltz treatment and locked into a heavy reggae-ish groove for "TINA." Vocals were expertly traded amongst Sally Timms, Tom Greenhalgh, Rico Bell and Langford. The rhythm section of Steve CompleteFuckingGenius Goulding (his actual middle name... look it up) on drums and new bass guy Dave Trumfio (introduced as "Baron Von Trumfio") was, as one would expect, locked and (not nearly as) loaded (as its bandmates). Violin player Susie Honeyman, as always, somehow floated above the cosmic fray, alternating expressions of "Good god, Jon, shut up," with genuinely amused/bemused looks that told you she still gets a kick out of being in this band, where her expert playing is an essential cog in the indescribable machine. And Lu Edmonds, looking decidedly Middle Earth-ian, skillfully played an electric saz that added Middle Eastern textures to song after song.

But let's not pretend that all was perfection in paradise. This was the Mekons, for fuck's sake. They wouldn't know intentionally perfect if it bit them in their sarcastic asses. They'd pour tequila over their heads and light each other on fire onstage, if necessary, just to throw a touch of the unexpected into a gig. No need for that, fortunately. Not long into the show, something went wrong with Lu's foot pedals; Langford, clad in an inexplicable pith helmet that he's been wearing all tour, filled the repair time by telling jokes, each increasingly more groan-worthy than the next. He then told us again that it was the band's first time in Harrisburg. Sally didn't hear that; so she then told us all that it was the band's first time in Harrisburg. Langford, looking at her with the kind of incredulous expression that really ought to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, interjected to much laughter: "Have you been drinking, Sally?" "Yes, I've had a few," Sally smirked.

Langford's clearly driving the bus here. He leaped about the stage on song after song, conducting the orchestra, stomping his foot in time, singing off-mic to parts that others already had well-covered. When Tom lost his place headed into the chorus of "Sometimes I Feel Like Fletcher Christian," Langford shot him an "Oh, give me a break..." look that was priceless, and then took over the vocal until Tom could get his bearings and right his own personal ship. He coached Trumfio, gave Rico noogies when his hands were free, and didn't bother Susie at all, because I think he knows better.

There were, of course, sound problems. Put eight people on a tiny stage and someone's monitor mix is going to suck, and then, because it's the Mekons, at some point everyone's monitor mix is going to suck. And they'll joke about it with Dave the soundman. And it won't get better. Then Dave will just seemingly disappear. "Oh no. Dave's hung himself," Langford quipped. And then, because they are the Mekons, someone -- Sally this time -- will suggest that they ignore the shitty onstage sound and just rock out. So they did. It was glorious.

The setlist looked almost exactly like this (photo by Heather Copeland at one of the band's Chicago gigs):

We didn't get "Big Zombie" -- a shame, that -- but we got a soaring Sally vocal on "Ghosts of American Astronauts" to make up for it. Otherwise, I believe every song on that list was played. And if you forced me to pick favorites, I'd tell you "Memphis," "Beaten," "TINA," "Ghosts," "Hard to Be Human," and the melange of waltz-y goodness that resulted when the band blended "Shanty" with "Wild and Blue" to make, yes, "Wild Shanty," but, really, it was all great. If the Mekons want to make me absurdly happy on Monday in Philly by playing a song that I know they taught the good Baron for this tour, "I Have Been to Heaven and Back" would be an extraordinary addition to an already perfect slice of Mekons bliss.

I love this band, if you can't already tell. They have never, in many many gigs over the years, ever disappointed me. And when they bring their sardonic wit and their shambolic brilliance to my fair city on Monday night, I'll be, once again, in full Mekons glory. Lester Bangs? He had no idea how great this ride was going to get.

Long live the Mekons.

These pics are all from the band's recent Chicago gig. Photo credit is Heather Copeland's for each one:

Friday, July 3, 2015

Opening the mailbag, for yet another fat-loss question

I get this one fairly often, always from a woman -- not because guys don't have the same issue, just because... oh hell, I don't know. Guys just generally don't ask each other these things.

I'll paraphrase:

"Hi Steve, so I'm eating (mostly) paleo, pretty low-carb. I'm doing CrossFit metcons three or four times a week and lifting heavy those same days. My sleep's pretty good, at least seven hours a night, often more. I'll cut to the chase: WHY CAN'T I LOSE BODY FAT?!?!? I'm stronger than I have ever been. I'm also leaner than I was when I started to change my food and exercise habits, but I'm nowhere near where I want to be in terms of body comp. What the hell? Suggestions?"

Just about a year ago, I did a blog post called "How can I lose body fat?"

The answer is definitely in there, but I'm going to give a hint at an even simpler solution. Because here's the thing.... our protagonist isn't starting from Step One. She's been at this thing for a while. She's not eating food from packages. She's all about prepping her meals and eating real food. She's picking up heavy shit and putting it down on a regular basis. And still she has hit a plateau. Her body fat isn't budging.

For the next month, my friend, don't change anything except for two things:
(1) stop drinking alcohol and (2) take a walk for at least an hour every day at the fastest pace you can walk.

At the end of that month, you'll know whether you are making progress. And you will be, because you are already eating pretty well, sleeping well and lifting heavy. Then, once progress is made, you can decide how, or if, you need to modify this, or any other, aspect of your routine.

I've said it a bunch before, and I will say it a lot more in the future: alcohol -- I love it. But it screeches fat loss to an awful, untimely halt. If you are fatter than you want to be and you are still drinking alcohol, stop. Just stop. Like a wise man once sang, "Not forever. Just for now." But, really.... STOP until you get to where you want to be body-comp-wise. Then play around with it. But, until then, you are, metaphorically speaking, trying to sprint with your shoelaces tied together. Fat loss in any significant amount is unlikely to happen while you keep drinking. It's fine to drink a little if mere maintenance is your goal, but fat loss? Nope.

And daily walking? It's the missing low-stress/low-cortisol component in almost everyone's fat-loss protocol. Let me guess.... you think walking is boring. I have no answer for that, except this: if you walk at a brisk pace for at least an hour a day, it works wonders for fat loss. It's also -- perhaps because it is so free of thrill-a-minute excitement -- a pretty decent sub for daily meditation. You know... it focuses you on the here and now. (And if I had to add one additional cortisol/stress-lowering activity to your fat-loss protocol, it would be meditation). So think of walking as the way to kill two birds with one stone. If you leave the headphones at home and just walk for walking's sake, you'll simultaneously be stoking your body's engine and metabolism for fat loss and you'll be clearing your head of the unwanted muck of the modern world.

And seriously, if , like most of us, you are a resident of the northern hemisphere of our big blue orb, when is there a better time to start a walking routine than summer? That'd be right now. Hell, there's daylight out the wazoo. Take advantage of it. 

Then you'll even sleep better than you are now, which, un-coincidentally, helps fat loss too.

Everything affects everything, folks. And if you are stuck in the fat-loss department despite eating only real food and having a solid heavy-lifting routine, put the drink(s) down and take a walk. Every day. For a month. You'll like the results. Then, like the grown-ass woman (or man) that you are, you can decide where to take things from there.