The Big One

It’s my birthday. Not just any birthday, either. It’s the big one. The big 6-0. As in, senior citizen discount at some places. As in AARP stuff in the mail EVERY SINGLE DAY.

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My classroom

I had a great day. My classroom was decorated with streamers, lots of little goodies and treats found their way to my desk, students brought in cards and gift cards, room parents brought in a cake, a large pumpkin spice latte, a beautiful plant, and colleagues dropped by throughout the day with well-wishes and lovely gifts. One daughter gave me a gift bag full of birthday treasures and the other daughter sent the most beautiful arrangement of autumn flowers. My husband gave me a lovely glass and crystal cross, as well as a well-planned vacation for us in the near future.

 

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Flowers from my daughter, Maddie

In spite of all of this, however, I’ve been thinking about this birthday with trepidation for about a year. I had trouble in my late fifties keeping the numbers straight. Am I 57 or 58? Sometimes I literally had to do the math. As in, “2014 minus 1956 equals 58. Yeah, that’s right, I’m 58.”

 

It’s not that I was in denial; I just didn’t care. The numbers didn’t seem to mean anything to me. I didn’t feel any differently at 56 than I did at 55 or 53 for that matter, so 57 and 58 really didn’t matter. BUT, and this is a big but, 59 hit me hard. On the morning of my 59th birthday, the first thing I thought was, “In one year I will be SIXTY.”

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Charles Dickens action figure from my daughter, Margaret

There is no doubt about it. Sixty carries a certain degree of gravitas with it. My dad was 60 when his first grandchild, my older daughter, was born. Two years later, when my younger daughter was born, my mother was 60, and for her, that is when it all went to hell. She had a physical breakdown after enduring a very stressful incident where my baby brother was lost (and subsequently found, thank God) on the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico during a historic ice storm. She nearly died, and in the ensuing tests, was discovered to need bypass surgery on several arteries to her heart, renal bypass surgery as a result of untreated high blood pressure, and a cone biopsy for cervical cancer.

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Birthday balloons from Twitter!

The bypass surgery and cone biopsy went well, but the renal bypass did not, and she came out of that operation on dialysis and on the kidney transplant list. For two years she endured dialysis and poor health until my aunt, her sister, gave her the gift of life with one of her very own kidneys. This selfless act of love gave my family twelve additional years with my mother, twelve years we would not have had were it not for Nanny Pat and her perfect match.

 

So, I was thinking last year on this day, how can I be one year from all of that? Luckily, just before my 59th birthday, a very brusque cardiologist stopped me dead in my tracks, and said one sentence filled with words that had taken me a lifetime to hear, a lifetime of yoyo dieting, faux exercising, and moaning over the fact that I could not lose weight, a lifetime to finally get, “Have you read your own medical history? If you continue on this path, you will be giving yourself insulin in a year, with more challenging health issues to follow.”

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Downton silliness from a co-worker

After emptying my purse of any and all edible items while standing at the parking pay station that afternoon, I cradled my iPhone on my shoulder while telling my husband, “I’m done. That’s it. The foolishness is over. DO NOT purchase or bring home anything from the following list: pasta, bread, white potatoes, rice, dessert.” Instead, we eat primarily from a new list: lean protein, low-fat dairy, seeds and nuts, fruits and vegetables, and beans.

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An array of cards and notes from students and teachers

A little over a year later, I am not just a sixty-year-old woman, I am a new person. After a lifetime of having little to no willpower, I now understand that my everyday routine does not have to include large amounts of carbohydrates, which turn into sugar, which is a bad thing for me. I managed to lose a significant amount of weight, and successfully make it through major holidays, two birthdays, three vacations, daily trips to the faculty room, otherwise known as carbohydrate central, and much, much more. My husband and I have changed so much about how we eat, how we order food in a restaurant, how we grocery shop, how we treat ourselves.

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Crystal and glass cross from my husband

Late this summer I joined a gym. When I walked into Planet Fitness for the first time, it was my first time in a gym. I was grossly intimidated by the shiny machines, by the endless spandex, by the stoic way in which everyone was just going about their own business getting it done. With the help of a friend and my husband, I made myself comfortable on a few of the machines and began the process of slowly getting into better shape. This was made easier by the several years of dog-walking, where I slowly increased my daily steps from dismal to not too embarrassing.

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French macarons and gifts from co-workers

Shopping for clothing in the last few months as I have continued to tone up a bit even when not losing any new pounds has become less of a dreadful experience, where I now leave with things that I “love”, not things that just “fit”. Everything I already own fits better, and a few things actually fall into that previously unknown category of “too big”. This summer I bought a bathing suit that I actually was happy with, and wore it in Florida to actually go swimming—without a cover-up.

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Birthday surprises everywhere!

It’s the little things, right, but my blood work is not a little thing. With a modest weight loss of just a little over 10% of my starting point, I reversed all my bad numbers and increased all my good numbers. I am no longer pre-diabetic and I do not at this time need a statin or cholesterol-lowering drug.

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Gift cards and a pumpkin spice latte, my favorite!

Do I still have work to do? Absolutely. My next weight-loss goal is to lose enough to weigh the “lie” on my driver’s license. My next fitness goal is to tone up my arms so I can wear sleeveless dresses and tops, especially when my husband and I go to Puerto Rico in November, which was my big 60th birthday present. I can’t wait. Flying is so much more comfortable since I’ve trimmed down a bit, and I have no fear that the seat belt won’t buckle or that I will feel like I’m spilling out of my seat onto my neighbor. Going to Puerto Rico has been a dream of mine since second grade, when my good friend Patty moved there because of her dad’s work. I can’t wait!

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Daughter Margaret and me at birthday dinner #2

And so as my big day, my big 60th birthday day, comes to a close, I feel content and at peace with my new age. I don’t think I will have trouble remembering how old I am this year, and not because I feel panicky about being this old. I feel really good about where I am right now, both personally and professionally.

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My husband and me at birthday dinner #1

My husband, who is my best friend in the whole world, worked really hard to make this birthday really special. I’ve gone out for a birthday dinner every single day since Friday! Some dining choices this long weekend have been healthier than others, but have no fear, I’m back on the wagon tomorrow! I’ll also be making a visit to Planet Fitness this week to work off some of this birthday glory before things get out of hand.

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Birthday cake from my students

My daughters have been so thoughtful and kind, just a reminder of what wonderful young women they have become. I am so incredibly proud of both of them; and while we miss having them at home with us, we are happy they are happily out on their own, making their own path through life.

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Daughter Maddie sent birthday wishes from LA!

This is my tenth year of teaching, and six weeks in, it feels like it will be my best one yet. My eighth grade class this year is unbelievable, a wonderful group of smart, hard-working, sweet, young men and women who really want to do well. They have re-inspired me to be the best teacher I can be, both for myself as well as for them.

mark-twain-quoteIn closing, I leave you with a favorite quote of the great American author, Mark Twain, who never took himself too seriously. As I start my next (seventh, YIKES) decade, I will try to remember this. I’ll keep working on my health and fitness goals, continue to grow spiritually and professionally, cherish my family and friends, and try not to take myself, or my age, too seriously. Cheers, à votre santé!

Scared Skinnier

kensington doctorsAlmost a year ago, on May 18, 2015, I visited a new medical practice to have an initial consultation as my internist was in the process of retiring. I asked the mother of one of my students, married to a doctor, for recommendations from him of doctors with offices near the school where I teach. Yes, I based my choice on the three magic words of the real estate industry: location, location, location. The office space itself was tired and dated but right away I could tell that the staff was efficient and well-versed in the technology of the 21st century, something that was sadly lacking in my previous doctor’s practice.

laptop and stethoscope

My medical history was taken by a PA through a series of questions with my responses entered directly by her into her laptop. While I loved my former doctor, and felt that he was an excellent diagnostician having steered me safely through shingles and Lyme disease, I felt immediately at ease with her and really liked her bedside manner.

cardio system

Because it was my first first visit and I was seeking the refill of a prescription from my previous doctor, she did a mini-physical: weight, blood pressure, pulse, EKG. And, that’s where the visit took an unpleasant turn. The weight discussion. And to make matters worse, she disclosed that my EKG was abnormal. She gave me an order for lab work, to determine my blood sugar and cholesterol numbers. She also wrote out a referral to a cardiologist for additional tests. The subsequent visit with the cardiologist and follow-up cardiac tests was unbelievably scary and life-changing.

diabetes symbolIn my essay When Best Friends Become Enemies, I briefly discussed the beginning of my journey to health, which I mark July 17, 2015, as the official start date. Since then my husband and I have completely changed the way we eat, the way we shop for food, the way we order food when we eat out. We are not on a diet; we are on a health plan. We have given up certain foods but for the most part we don’t feel deprived or depressed about it. We have instead replaced those food enemies with food friends we also love that are healthier for us. Yes, it has taken willpower and discipline to make these lifestyle changes but to say it has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done would be a lie. It would be much harder to live with type 2 diabetes, which is where I was heading, or to recover from cardiac bypass surgery, which was almost a certainty. The diabetes and bypass surgery may still happen in the future, if genes and family history have any say in the matter, but I truly believe I have delayed if not prevented them from happening, which is nothing short of a miracle.

faux sandwichA few weeks ago I visited the PA again, ostensibly to be sure the lingering effects of a terrible head and chest cold had not evolved into a sinus infection. As usual, she sat across from me on a tiny rolling stool, laptop balanced on her knees, asking questions and typing in answers. She asked me how I was feeling overall, other than the hacking cough, and I told her GREAT. I said, “Take a look at my weight today and compare it to my first visit with you back in May of 2015.” She clicked a few keys and replied, “Wow, what is that, like, 30 pounds?” I said, “31 to be exact!”, which every dieter in the world knows that even one pound is worth a correction. She was truly impressed that I had taken heed of the serious warnings from my May 2015 visit with her, my subsequent lab work and EKG. I told her of my visit with the cardiologist and how she had outlined what were to be my new food enemies and my soon to be food friends. And, for some reason, I explained to her, fear of my impending health crises had finally motivated me to make drastic lifestyle changes.

lettuce wrapsWe chatted about this journey to health I had undertaken and my successes thus far, along with the successes of my husband, who has also staved off, no doubt, health issues with his weight loss and new level of fitness. She decided we should do labs again to see how my blood sugar and cholesterol had changed in the ten months that had passed. As I had not eaten anything yet that day, I went right to the lab and had blood drawn. Later that night, through the marvels of technology and the innovative way this medical practice operates, I received an email from the PA, and it was one of the best emails I have ever received. My blood sugar was completely normal, well out of the pre-diabetes range, and my overall cholesterol was only two points from normal, which given that I am not on a statin or any other medication for cholesterol reduction was great news. The most significant decrease was my triglycerides, which went from 197 to 112.

While it was great knowing that was going on inside my body was on target for better fitness, there have been more tangible results as well. I can walk longer distances and at a substantially quicker pace than before without huffing and puffing like a three-pack a day smoker. I can see a noticeable difference in the shape of my legs. I’ve had to purchase new jeans and dress pants. new outfitMost significantly, I recently purchased clothes at a popular women’s clothing store, one that targets younger and more affluent career women, a category I haven’t been in for quite some time. This is not a store that carries plus sizes, and other than a necklace I purchased for my daughter’s birthday present one year, I’ve never been able to shop there. On a whim, I went in and tried on a blouse and cardigan from the sale rack. Yes, it was the largest size they had, but a long way from the plus size I had been wearing. It fit and I almost cried right there in the dressing room. That one shopping experience was worth the countless salads and low-carb meals I have had over the past ten months.

zoodlesSo, dear donut, dear cupcake, dear pizza, dear cheesesteak, it has been totally worth saying no to you. And, dear zoodles, dear butternut squash, dear arugula, dear baked sweet potato fries, thank you so much…you made all this possible.

When Best Friends Become Enemies

In April I flew home to Louisiana to help my brothers with my dad, who had been in and out of the hospital and nursing home due to his worsening heart conditions. After we worked through all of the issues with bringing him home to my brother Tommy’s house, I was able to cook a few meals before I had to return to Maryland. roast chickenOne day I roasted a chicken and made a pan of baked macaroni and cheese. One of my brother’s friends was staying for dinner and when he came into the kitchen to fix his plate, he remarked, “Where’s the rice?” I told him we had just had red beans and rice the day before and leftovers of it for lunch, so I hadn’t made rice for dinner. I gestured to the large pan of homemade macaroni and cheese, glistening with its cheesy goodness draped over the bed of soft pasta, and his retort was short and to the point, “You should have made rice.”

louisiana rice“You should have made rice.” The comment stung a bit since I had spent the afternoon in the kitchen while running back and forth to help my dad with things and do his laundry. My dad and my brother seemed very happy with the baked macaroni, however, which I had made based upon my memories of my mom’s. My brother ate a huge serving of it, and later that night, I saw him having another serving of it between two slices of bread…a baked macaroni sandwich!

RiceIsKingCrowley1938The comment, while unwelcome at the time, had some validity to it. In fact, when my father was younger, he frequently said “It’s not dinner if there isn’t rice.” You would almost think we were an Asian family rather than a half Scottish/half Cajun family. We were not unique, though. Rice is a staple in Louisiana. It’s cultivation in Louisiana began at the time of the Civil War, and today, Louisiana is one of the six states responsible for 99% of all rice grown in the U.S. Just think of all the great Cajun dishes that have rice as a foundation: dirty rice, chicken and sausage jambalaya, seafood gumbo, crawfish étouffée, shrimp creole, red beans and rice, roast and gravy, crab stew served over rice, stewed chicken and gravy, and boudin, all things I grew up on.

We did not eat much pasta in my house while I was growing up. My father really didn’t care for “tomato gravy” as my family called it. Occasionally my mother would cook a daube (a cut of roast) in her tomato gravy and we would eat that on #4 spaghetti. He wouldn’t be happy about it, but he would eat it. She also used #4 spaghetti for her oyster stew, which was delicious. We never had any other kind of pasta except for the elbow macaroni my mother used for two things: her baked macaroni and her famous macaroni salad.

We did eat a lot of potatoes, all kinds of potatoes. We regularly had parslied potatoes, baked white potatoes, homemade French fries, scalloped potatoes, baked sweet potatoes, and of course, potato salad. My mom also had something she called “scotch potatoes” which was a local hit. She would peel russet potatoes and cut them into thirds crosswise. She would then place them on sheets of aluminum foil, reassembled in their potato shape, inserting a slice of raw yellow onion and a pat of butter between each piece. She would then salt and pepper them and wrap them tightly in the foil. They would bake until tender and the onion would become soft and sweet. The bottom of the potato would brown and get crispy from the melted butter while the rest of the potato was soft and fluffy.

pasta dinnerBut, then I married an Italian American, and pasta became a staple of my diet, adding it to my other carbohydrate best friends: rice and potatoes. My first family dinner at the home of my future in-laws was lasagna, meatballs and spaghetti, Italian sausage, and huge slabs of Italian bread. The many shapes of pasta and variety of sauces meant an endless cultural experiment, and I grew to love pasta as much as rice and potatoes, the starches of my childhood.

Irish soda breadAnd then there’s bread. What can I say about bread? I’ve never met a bread I don’t love: French bread, po’ boy bread, pita bread, Irish soda bread, raisin bread, Italian bread, baguettes, croissants, biscuits, scones, waffles, and even plain old white sandwich bread. My parents gave me a bread machine in 1996 and I have made many, many delicious loaves from it, along with the dough for dozens of batches of focaccia studded with fresh rosemary and garlic, yeasty dinner rolls, and the foundation for homemade pizzas.

Even though I have always worked full-time, and even with two small children undertow, I cooked dinner every night: a meat, a vegetable, and a starch, which meant that rice, potatoes, or pasta was on our plates most nights—most nights, that is, until July of this year.

A routine physical with a new doctor In May led to a visit with a cardiologist in July, my first ever where I was the patient and not the daughter of the patient. This cardiologist, whom I shall call Dr. C., scared the daylights out of me. First, she recounted for me my very serious family history, as though I wasn’t fully aware that both parents had undergone multiple bypass surgery, my father had a pacemaker as well, and heart disease had led to both of their deaths. Then, she pointed out to me several other factors not in my favor: my age, my weight, and my sedentary lifestyle. She said I needed to have an echocardiogram and a cardiac stress test, telling me, “You probably won’t do very well on it.”  And then she “prescribed” a new health plan for me which began with these four sad words, “Carbs are your enemies.” Goodbye to rice, potatoes (other than sweet potatoes), pasta, and bread. Hello to the five items she said I should eat instead: fruits, vegetables, protein, seeds, and nuts. As for desserts, she said simply, “Birthday and Christmas, period.”

Duly frightened and newly determined, I took all of her advice to heart (no pun intended). My husband (who is in the running for “Most Supportive Spouse of All Times”) steadfastly signed on to follow the new “health plan” as well.

And, so the very next day we began changing our eating habits completely. We haven’t bought (or made) bread since July. We haven’t had pasta AT ALL. The only potatoes we cook now are sweet potatoes. And, rice? Yes, even my childhood best friend is no longer invited to our house for dinner. I won’t lie and say it has been easy. It was very difficult at the beginning. It takes a lot of planning and shopping to be sure we don’t fall into bad habits and order a pizza or fried rice from our local Chinese restaurant. veggettiWe bought a Veggetti spiralizer and learned to love “noodles” made out of zucchini and yellow squash. We eat lots of boneless, skinless chicken breasts and lean pork chops, served on a plate filled with vegetables like steamed broccoli, green beans, or asparagus. We have salad a lot more frequently. We watched Jacques Pepin serve a roast chicken on a bed of arugula and tried it, delicious. As Louisiana natives, we both ate a lot of beans growing up, so adding them as our healthy carbohydrates was no problem, chick peas, black beans, cannellini beans, and of course, kidney beans. We tried turning cauliflower into “rice”, and while I thought it was fine, my husband did not care for it. It didn’t taste like rice or have the same “bite” as rice, but it wasn’t bad.

battleFor me, the faculty room at my school is still a declared war zone. There is always something on the table in there, just waiting for me, winking at me, inviting me over to have a taste. It’s a battle, but when I have to go in there, I just march past that table to the copy machine and try not to linger. Most days now I eat at my desk, my “faux turkey and cheese sandwich”, which my husband makes me each morning. It is deli turkey and Swiss cheese rolled up and secured with toothpicks. I then dip it into hummus as my condiment. I supplement that with a small portion of mixed nuts and some fruit.

For the record, I had the echocardiogram and it was normal. I survived the cardiac stress test and the doctor administering the test declared that I had “passed it with flying colors.” I reported back to Dr. C who frankly said she was surprised at the results. She was even more surprised that I had really acted upon all of her very scary recommendations and she was very pleased with my results at the follow-up visit.

Since July, I’ve successfully navigated through the dangerous waters of weekend get-a-ways, birthdays of both daughters, a baby shower, two bridal showers, faculty luncheons, a rehearsal dinner, and a wedding reception. birthday dinnerToday is my birthday, and I’ve had a great birthday weekend with both daughters here to share it with me. We ate at one of our favorite Belgian restaurants last night, where I had no bread but I did eat the “frites” that came with my “moules”. I ordered dessert, but only ate a bit of it because it simply wasn’t that good. Today we had brunch out before our older daughter got on the road to return home. I had avocado toast (half portion), a cup of carrot soup, and a salad. happy birthday cupcakeAfter, we walked to a popular cupcake bakery and each picked out a beauty to take home. Mine was delicious and I was totally satisfied with my birthday treat.

pre wedding picMy weight loss has been gradual, even with the drastic exile of my best friends from my diet, but I’m really happy with my progress, and better still, I am still fully committed to this lifestyle change, as is my husband, whose results have been more dramatic. We both feel better and we both know we are actively doing something good for our long-term health.

food fightIn the end, Dr. C. did scare the daylights out of me, but I am happy that I was fortunate enough to get that 5-alarm fire burning under me to taking these steps towards a healthier me before something terrible happened. Yes, my former best friends are my enemies for now, but hopefully, in the future when I am healthier and fit, I can invite them over occasionally, for a brief visit to my dinner plate. Until then, the battle continues.