Taking Time: Food Prep and the Academic Body

As I wrote in yesterday's blog, my environment and schedule as a master's candidate led to a number of problems. After working my way out of the chronic-pain cloud, I had to deal with the aftershocks of 18 months of bad medicine, no exercise, and daily Velveeta. I ate the Velveeta because 1) it was cheap; 2) its use required little to no culinary knowledge; and 3) okay, fine, it tasted pretty good to me. Master's students at my university made about $650 before taxes (EDIT: that figure is for the first year, the non-teaching year. Stipends bumped up to around $1,000 in the second year), and I was lucky to be married and have a second income to help with the food bills. Still, we were fairly strapped for cash, and neither of  us had the time or energy to think about food prep. It was too easy to catch $1 burrito night at Senor Taco or split a pizza. I anesthetized myself with food during those months, and heavier foods meant that I would sleep fitfully but for a long time. It was also cheaper and less fussy (I thought) than preparing real meals.

My turning point happened in a dressing room in B. Moss at the Knoxville Center Mall. I had to buy a new pair of pants for a reading I was scheduled to give that weekend. Nothing else fit. And, as it happens, I had gotten too big to fit into the biggest of B. Moss pants. I had exceeded their definition of "largest size." What happened next is a blur of ice cream, nachos, and crying.

Here, I'm trying to tease apart two very different kinds of pain: the physical (the injury itself) and the emotional (feeling cumbersome and bloated, and then being "on display" three times a week teaching). 

I had to immediately adjust my home work space (a generous term for the couch) so that I didn't round my back while reading, typing, or grading. I followed what my PT called the 30/30/30 rule: Every 30 minutes, take 30 seconds and focus 30 yards away. A stability ball and pilates mat took up residence in the corner of my (creepy, dusty) office. I scheduled time to prepare food on Sunday nights: six chicken breasts, broccoli, one dozen boiled eggs, and baggies of portioned oatmeal.  And as much as I hate the company, I enrolled as a Sam's Club member. I could buy chicken and vegetables in bulk (and I often took friends with me so they could stock up).

Eating is a biological imperative, which is why I think it's so hard for people like me--people with troubled pasts with food--to reframe it. As I noted in this blog, I tend to be a teetotaler. All or nothing. I'll eat all the food, or I'll eat no food. I had to hedge this tendency, so I mixed two plans: IF (Intermittent Fasting) and grazing, via this plan. I still basically follow variations of both, and I find them to be flexible enough to fit into my life but firm enough to keep me from mindlessly consuming blocks of Velveeta. (Though in the last month, I've moved away from grazing, and I feel much better, so that part's in flux.)

Those who don't tote food or weight baggage are lucky. I do, though, and I had to find a sensible, sustainable way to fit food into my life, when so much of my life is spent sitting. (And with the uneven schedule most academics follow. It's never as clear as Monday-Friday, 9-5.) It sounds counter-intuitive to have a plan for eating, and I'm one of those people Pollan rails against in his books. Americans shouldn't require a plan in order to perform something so basic as eating, but with so many faux foods (and preposterous portions), I think it's an important discussion to have. And when your schedule and/or income seems to preclude fresh and healthy foods, I think it's even more important to talk about the care and feeding of the body.


Gravis, Gravitas

I gained 50 pounds in my first year and half of master's study. This isn't a tale of impostership or anxiety, how I ate my feelings because I just didn't belong. I was injured.

I didn't know how bad things had gotten until I went to the doctor for what I had complained was a sinus infection. The headaches were unstoppable. I hadn't slept in what felt like years. My neck was so stiff that I couldn't look to my right when pulling into traffic. I had slowly lost all of my peripheral vision.

Loss of sight isn't a symptom of a sinus infection. Even a really bad one.

Backstory: I think adjustment to graduate school is tough all over. While it's easier for some, it's tough for everyone. I don't know anyone who, in the midst of getting a master's degree, can say, "Oh, I feel like a perfectly confident and capable person right now!" The atmosphere just isn't conducive to confidence. Most programs are too short; once you feel comfortable with the script, you're done. (And, even then, it took me two years of doctoral study to really feel like I had caught on.)

Ergonomic injuries are cumulative, and by the time my second year--my teaching year--rolled around, I was experiencing a myriad of symptoms: blinding headaches, stiff neck and jaw, this strange alternation between rock-solid sleep (for 16-18 hours) and insomnia. And the weight gain, up to 60 pounds by that time. The doctors (and I saw many of them) chalked it up to stress (duh) and "chronic pain."

Nebulous term, "chronic pain." It means "pain that comes and goes, and we'll leave it at that because we're not sure why. Here's a pill designed specifically to treat such a problem. Take it and be in good health."

Maybe I'm a little cynical.

For a full year, November 2004 through November 2005, I took high doses of Amitriptyline, which intensified the insomnia and had the pleasant side effect of causing edema. The jaw pain was enough to warrant a spinal tap to check for meningitis (nope, and there's nothing like an unnecessary spinal tap to make you question all that's good and right in this world), and the headaches were sharp enough to warrant a brain scan (brain's there, for you doubters, and now I have photographic proof). The medicine knocked the edges off the pain; my body became a memory of ache: I could feel where it was supposed to hurt, but the pain was muffled.

Fast forward a bit: two more MRIs, vials and vials of blood work, and finally finally someone suggested I see a physical therapist. Diagnosis: weak lumbar. The lone cause of all that trauma was a loose core, which referred pain to my neck, jaw, and head and compressed an optical nerve. Three weeks of physical therapy, I came off the drugs, and my symptoms dwindled to only mild inconvenience. In my present still-sitting-most-of-the-time occupation, I have to work a few planks into my day to keep my core tight, or I'll get headaches. Hours a week slumped over books and first-year composition papers triggered a series of physical reactions that led to seeing a neurologist and a football team's worth of other specialists. And it all happened in about 18 months. More importantly, it still happens when I let my core work go too long. If I don't want to be broken in half, aching, and blinded by a pinched nerve, I have to listen to my body: feed it, move it, and give it a comfy place to create.

Once they finally figured out what was wrong with my broken body, I had to lose my 50-pound parting gift. I'll spend some time in the next few posts talking about the feeding habits of graduate students, per a conversation with a friend about the horribly unnatural things one must consume in order survive on $643 a month (pre-tax) and when reading for class on the bus home is considered "down time." Eating is, for me, is an emotional topic, since it's wrapped so tightly in cultural and social implications (and by its association with fat, which is a scary word for so many people. Hence the italics.).


Passing the Marshmallow Test

I wish this were a post about s'mores.

I tend to fixate. When I have a goal, I focus sharply, usually to the detriment of other things. I drafted my dissertation in eight weeks during the summer of 2010, during which time I spoke to practically no one besides my husband and YMCA personnel. Reentry in August was difficult. I kept wondering where all those people came from.

Learning to balance has been a process of giving up things, where I'd measure my losses as collateral damage against what I hoped to achieve. Usually, it paid off. Taken whole, I've been the kind of 4 year old who would eat the marshmallow immediately, rationalizing that a marshmallow now is much superior to two marshmallows later.

Patience hasn't been my virtue: We moved to Ohio on a whim, a feather, and a promised scholarship. I put an offer on the first house we looked at in Raleigh. I will take off on a Friday without reservations or destinations (sometimes even remembering to feed the cats). I overcorrect with hyper-regimentation: We haven't taken a proper vacation in years. I'll drive my car until the repair exceeds the value (hail damage still intact). I'll schedule writing for a big project under deadline, and I'll hold to that schedule no matter how many "Coming home yet?" texts I get.


Self-control is my practice, since I don't have the patience to sit through a one-hour yoga class. And I achieve the most when I stop looking. When my goals are periphery, they stop being singular and all-encompassing. When I fixate on my weight, I stop thinking about it, simplify my diet, and I lose it. Same with writing, relationships, the minutia of cleaning or repairing (see also: writing, relationships). Put this way: Focus is important, but I think intermittent focus is far more productive.

I'll particularize the experience by connecting it to my scholarship: I have to read, write, and publish. It's my job. Lore says that Assistant Professors burn out keeping up with the Publish or Perish dictate. I've heard horror tales about all-night writing sessions that lasted for years. It's like Scared Straight for Professors: Live clean, kid, or you'll start collecting milkmaid figurines and querying journals about guest editing a special issue on Hummel Pedagogies.

I won't postulate about conspicuous consumerism and how it contributes to people not only eating the marshmallow but taking out second mortgages to buy cases of marshmallows (to then eat immediately, preferably rapidly, and usually in a dark room). But I do think that American culture supports this pervasive sense of instant gratification. I'm certainly working to detrain myself. The academic market actually helps with its ridiculously long time lines. I work consistently, not anxiously, knowing that effort over time has to be a more productive--and healthier--approach than burning fast and intense.