Monday, 28 February 2011

This Week At The Gym: Week 14

There's a nasty cold going round London and I had it last week. I made it through Monday, woke up on Tuesday realising there was no way I was up to commuting, so I missed the planned Abs class that lunchtime. Wednesday I went in because I had reservations with my sister for an early supper at Murano, and I had no intention of missing that. (Sweetbreads followed by pigeon followed by a pistachio souffle. Some of the best food I've eaten in the last five years.) I went for a run Wednesday lunchtime, and tried the SCS class on Thursday evening. This was the beginners class, and it's about doing some basic weights exercises fairly quickly without a lot of rest in between the sets. Light weights for the first time. On Friday morning, I was aching from the after-effects of the squats. We had different tutor for Friday evening Pilates, who took us through some different exercises that made other different parts of me ache. And I still have that cold.

So let's talk about "playing hurt and working sick". Listen to athletes and sportsmen / women, and they almost always have something wrong with them. It's so unusual for them not to have an ache, a cold, a sprained this or a tired that, they actually make a point of saying they're on top form. If you want to achieve and maintain a respectable level of fitness, you will be aching, occasionally in need of massages and osteopathy (athletes take regular consumption of both for granted) and cannot take time off from training just because you have a cold. If you have an actual thermometer-busting fever, sure, you stop because training on a fever can mess up your heart, but if all you have is a cold and a cough then you train, in fact, you compete unless your coach and doctor physically restrain you.

One of the many, many things the know-nothing Government health and fitness advice slides over is this harsh fact. If you want to make a serious difference to your fitness and weight, you are not going to do it by taking a week off every time you get a cold or feel under the weather. You'll lose at least four, if not eight weeks a year like that, and each time you do, you'll lose most of the progress you made in the previous period.

Friday lunch with The Gang took us to a Korean behind Centrepoint, where I had really tasty noodles and beef. That evening I weighed 88.8 kgs with a body fat of 19.8%. The weight will come off, as it's mostly water retained by the noodles, and possibly a reaction to the Fluox, but I am going to have to swear off the Friday lunches until I've hit the target weight.

My primary purpose is to get to the end of the day without having a drink. My second purpose is to get to the damn targets I've set myself. Everything else comes after that.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

This Week At The Gym: Week 13

I talked about my back and shoulders last week. I spent the Tomatito and Rocio Moilinas concerts in minor pain waiting for an appointment to have my back massaged and clicked by the wonderful Taj Deeora, who has been undoing the effects of my bad posture and genetic lordosis for longer than either of us would care to remember. Now have a back that wants to move and shoulders that are easing off. I can go back to exercising. I ran last Monday and did Pilates on Friday: the two running sessions at lunchtime wedre cancelled due to pain.

My scalp is a mess, fortunately hidden by my hair. I'm seeing the doctor about that after I collect the car from its MoT this Monday. I'm taking paracetomol to ease the twinges from whatever nastiness is going on up there: it's not so much painful, unless something scores a direct hit, as distracting. I'm not good at ignoring my body when it demands attention.

My weight is 13st 12lbs, or 88 kgs in new money. My body fat is about 21%. I haven't been in this territory since I was... well, since about 1994 / 5 or so, when I quit smoking. I doubt my body fat was 21% then. I think my body is deciding whether this is all real or just a temporary aberration. Next week, I've booked myself in for Scs, Abs and Pilates classes, plus a run. This is for real. I've had a rest, probably forced on my intentions by my body. I have 2 kgs to lose and then I'm at target - see earlier remarks about diets. I'm kinda there on the aerobics bit, the Abs classes are to get me there on sit-ups. Press-ups are clearly more traumatic than I thought and will need approaching indirectly. With massage. It's still only February.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Flamenco Season 2011

It's February, so it's been the Sadlers Wells Flamenco Season. I saw Israel Galvan, Aida Gomez, Rocio Molina, Tomatito and Eva Yerbabuena. Which means I saw three of the best dance troupes - Galvan, Molina and Yerbabuena - in the world today. Yes, including the Royal Ballet and anyone else you want to mention.

Tomatito's band are a straight-ahead flamenco trouple: guitars, cantores and an athletic gypsy dancer, Jose Maya. Tomatito mixes flamenco with jazz, doesn't let his technique get in the way of expression when needed and has a preposterous groove - sorry, compas. In the second half of the concert, the band hit "an impeccable groove" and no-one wanted to go home. This is an example...

Israel Galvan will make you think several times about what flamenco, tap and modern dance could be. Cheeky, technically challenging, full of odd poses and supremely confident. His guitarist Alfredo Lagos was startling: there are a handful of people who can play a trill with their fingers and a tune with their thumb and still keep a beat, and he's one of them.

What do I say about Rocio Molina? Sexy, inventive, a confident young lady with a style all her own... He stage presence when she wasn't dancing reminded me of a guy called Miles, the way she would stand away and then suddenly take the centre for her dance and pull everything together. The set looked like something a top-end ballet company might do if it had the budget. Her cantoras, including La Tremendita, complemented and challenged her. This time round I was starting to regret I don't speak Spanish.

And so we come to Eva Yerbabuena, one of a handful of artists who have reached the point where, if you don't get what she's doing, that's your problem, not hers. The show was When I Was... set in the Spanish Civil War. I'm going to let a professional critic describe it. The show was about how flamenco isn't just a bunch of moves and neat tricks on the guitar: it's an approach, a mood, a style, a way of interpreting. The only non-Spanish form like it is jazz. Yerbabuana could pull in a Chaplin-esque routine and moves, and make them flamenco; she could take a straight modern dance piece you would stand and applaud the Ballet Rambert for doing - the cockfight - and make that flamenco; she could set a number of traditional pieces - including a beautiful shawl dance - in a dramatic setting you'd expect to see at the ENO. And she could create a moment like this...

that hypnotised everyone.

How many times do I have to say this? What these guys are doing, right now, is the best new work in dance on the planet today. Get over tutus and swans, or body suits and bare stages, and arms held "like a ballerina" and watch what these guys are doing, feel what they are performing. This is how it must have felt to be able to go downtown and hear John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Miles Davis play in the early sixties.

Friday, 18 February 2011

The Diets: It's Coming Off That's The Catch

The pat theory is that you exercise more - we've dealt with that as a non-source of calorie loss - and eat less. The "eating less" bit has to mean "drastically less", as in 500+ calories a day, not "a little less" as in 100 calories a day, because you simply can't control your intake to within 100 calories a day. It's a slice of Dove Farm bread or half a Yoga Bunny Bowl from Pret. Or a good long look at a bar of chocolate.

According to the US Army, those of us with a sedentary lifestyle need between 12-14 calories per pound of body weight as an equilibrium diet. That would be "sedentary" is by the standards of the US Army, not a London office worker. You and I are "sedentary". When I started The Diet, I weighed 95 kgs, giving an equilibrium intake of 2,500 calories a day. I cut this to around 1,500 calories a day and aside from yearnings for food mid-morning, it's not hurting at all.

Now here's the catch: when I hit my target weight, I don't "go back to eating like I used to", which is what the pat articles in the press say. I go back to the equilibrium diet for that weight. At 87 kgs, that's 2,300 calories. 800 calories is not a) the croissant with the morning coffee + b) a Snickers in the afternoon +c) some chocolate in the evening + d) fries at lunchtime on top of e) slightly larger meals with more veggies in them for additional roughage. If that's what I do, I'll be back up at 95 kgs again.

You understand I'm thinking out loud here. The extra calories cannot be extra carbs - unless they are really slow-digesting. Extra carbs means early-evening carb crash. That does not help the quality of my life. Contrary to anything you may have heard, veggies have calories, but Good Calories - not many per 100 grams and accompanied by a lot of fibre. I could have more veggies, but where does that happen in central London? So-called 'vegetarian' restaurants are actually very high on carbs: rice, noodles, potato. And the prices do not reflect the cost of the raw materials, but the aspirations of the customers.

The extra calories allow treat meals, such as I had at Santore on Exmouth Market before Rocio Molinas' amazing performance at Sadlers Wells. Treat meals are good. It allows sushi and a little something with afternoon tea - just not muffins. How muffins got to be on the Good List I have no idea: bland taste and packed with fats and carbs. But I could home-bake some biscuits: equally fatty and full of carbs, but much more flavour. What I eat in the evening now is about right: you need to be Spanish to have large evening meals and not turn into a Lard Tub. I eat enough at breakfast now. Maybe I could graduate from the sandwiches to the stews at Fernandez and Wells.

This is the catch. We really don't need to eat that much and it's really easy to eat more than enough. What I need to work out is a baseline diet on top of which I can put treat meals and the odd bit of comfort eating without messing up the weekly average. Oh. Right. That would be what I'm eating now. And that's the catch. There is no "return to normal", only a bunch of new habits and a certain amount of vigilance.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Joni Mitchell's Blue

There are a handful of moments in my life when I experienced something like a complete conversion to a cause. One of them was an edition of the John Peel Sunday show in the winter of 1970/71, when Joni Mitchell played an hour-long solo set. (Warning: I can't find this via Google, but since I heard the repeat when I was a summer intern with the CEGB at the Pembroke Power Station, and that was summer 1971, I think I'm right.) My first reaction was "oh, she wrote Clouds" and so I was expecting some twee folkie stuff. I'm sure she previewed some songs from Blue and her then hit Ladies of the Canyon. I was totally converted and genuflecting in front of the radio half-way through. I had no idea anyone could write songs and sing like that.

Joni Mitchell is one of a handful of artists in any genre who never stopped developing. Miles Davis. John Coltrane. Francisco Goya. Henry James. David Bowie. She never hit a groove and stuck with it, but kept on changing. Grow up following the career of artists like that and the regular guys, who hit a groove and stay with it, seem like, well, tradesmen. Entertainers. It gives you crazy expectations.

She released Blue in the summer of 1971. I heard it again after a long while recently and it sounded better. It is, in fact, perfect. Perfect in the way that Kind of Blue or A Love Supreme or In A Silent Way are perfect. You know the songs by heart, but there's always another little detail in the accompaniment, another piece of phrasing in her singing, that you didn't notice before - just as happens with Kind of Blue. Maybe Ashley Kahn should write a book about it.

Blue swings between ectsatic love-song (CareyMy Old Man) with the immortal lines "But when he's gone / Me and them Lonesome Blues collide / The bed's too big, the frying pan's too wide", to the darkness of Laura Nyro in the song Blue: "Acid, booze, and ass / Needles, guns, and grass / Lots of laughs lots of laughs / Everybody's saying that hell's the hippest way to go / Well I don't think so / But I'm gonna take a look around it though". The rockingest song she ever wrote, covered by Nazareth (!), is there in This Flight Tonight and A Case of You has been covered by more than a dozen people.

It's not for everyone. Joni Mitchell has been described as making music for sensitive girls of both sexes, but they aren't paying attention to the lyrics. Joni Mitchell doesn't expect love to last, and she doesn't regret that it doesn't. She expects it to be wonderful when it's there but for it to pass away pretty soon. That's not a girl-y sensibility. A woman's, maybe, an artist's defintely.

Monday, 14 February 2011

The Diet: Week 7

Last week I passed into the Target Zone: on Friday morning I weighed 87.5 kilos with a body fat of 22.4%. The target is a stable weight of 87 kilos, which means I have to get down to 86.5 or so before resuming the non-diet. Except there's a catch with that I'll explain in a later post.

Last week was an Emotions Week. I've had a tight right shoulder and my middle back is rock solid. If I sit still for ten minutes, I start to ache and without thinking to rub my right shoulder-blades. Also, there's a really complicated thing about the getting near to your objectives: it's not actually a cause for celebration. Suddenly the spectre of failing becomes serious - up until you reach the Target Zone, you can say "at least I tried", but once you're in the Zone, it becomes "I failed". By the time I reach the Target Zone, the fun has drained right out of the exercise: I'm in grit-my-teeth and finish this mode.

Which is why on Friday lunchtime the Gang and I went to Soho Joes on Dean Street at lunchtime and I had the burger and chips. Which is very good and I loved every bite. Promptly at half-past-five I had a carb-sugar-crash the like of which I remember from previous fries-with-lunches and haven't had since The Diet started. Crashes like that used to send me straight home feeling awful, cancelling any plans I may have  had, but this time I went to the Pilates class and worked through it. By the time I'd showered and came out, I was just fine. And had put on over two pounds in the day, because my weight was 88.6 kilos - usually I weight about the same at the end of the day as at the start.

Huh?!!??! A bowl of fries slams on two pounds? Well, yes. Because you retain more water to process the carbs and because you don't burn off any triglycerides (aka Bad Fat) in your fat cells because the chips de-compose more or less instantly into blood sugar, which turns up the insulin, which turns off the Bad Fat metabolism. I was calm about the weight increase, because I knew it would be back down as long as I didn't eat any more crap.

So the Saturday, I had more fries for lunch, and the vanilla ice cream with hot chocolate sauce - at the Med Kitchen on Upper Street, before going to see Aida Gomez' Carmen at Sadlers Wells. When I came out, the sky was blue and the air was clear and I stretched my legs by walking back to Waterloo. Sunday morning: 88.0 kilos. Also a much steadier emotional state allowed by a bit of indulgence over the weekend. Which is what I need for the next week or so. Emotions are the rocks on which many a good intention about our bodies crash.

Friday, 11 February 2011

Things I Saw Where I Lived and Walked: Part 29

Autumn bushes in Virginia Water (I think); office workers crossing London Bridge; M4 Friday evening westbound; toadstool in Bushy Park. All Olympus 0M10 on film and early 1990's.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

The Diet: Week 6

A couple of weeks ago, I was supposed to go to a conference in the centre of universe that is Birmingham International. A large chunk of The Bank was going, and a couple of cancelled trains meant that mine was packed, my reserved seat occupied, and I would need to expense another ticket to get up there. I decided I didn't need to be going.

I needed to be getting an opinion about the lump on my skull. It had been aching over the previous two days and couldn't be an infection because infections on my head run out of control really fast. At my age, random lumps carry only one fear. It was that fear I needed to address. Which I did at the Soho Walk-In Centre first thing that morning. The nurses there, who impress me more than the nurses at other walk-ins I've been, decided it was a skin condition for which a medicated shampoo would do the trick. It was an emotional day.

The previous day, after a lunchtime run, my weight had dipped below 90 kgs for the first time. That day, it went straight up to 90.6 kgs and held around the 90 - 90.5 kilo range for the rest of the week. Last Tuesday I shared this stuff at my meeting, and that helped clear the emotions. After the usual Spin / Boxing / Pilates sessions, Saturday morning I weighed 88.3 kgs, with a body fat of 20.9%.

The bureaucrats portray a weight loss programme as a "eat-less, exercise-more" calorie-accounting exercise, with steady rewards for marginal changes in net calorie consumption. As if. The human body doesn't work like that. What you're feeling affects what happens as well. Duh. Emotions = hormones rushing round the bloodstream along with all the other chemicals that affect nutrition and digestion.  Get the emotions clean and simple and everything else follows.

Like that's easy. Il Maestro Robert Townsend says: "A sure sign of frustration is putting on weight. Watch for it on the people who work for you. Remove the cause and the weight will come back off." Right now, I'm not feeling frustrated in the way that has me comfort- and consolation-eating. 

Monday, 7 February 2011

The Philosophical Irrelevance of... Happiness

I was flicking through a book called "The Pursuit of Unhappiness" in Blackwell's recently and a thought happened. If philosophers have been discussing a subject for two thousand and more years and still haven't reached a conclusion, then they are discussing the wrong subject. Indeed, the very subject may be a distraction and a scam to stop us looking at the really important stuff.

Happiness is one such thing. Philosophers, psychologists and even politicians have been talking about it for upwards of three thousand years and getting nowhere. Everyone thinks it is important, and no-one can describe it. In surveys, most people in most countries say they are happy. If happiness is the state of a majority of people living in England, then either life in London is very different from life in any other town, or happiness really doesn't mean much. It may have started out as a respectable idea, but ever since it took up with the utilitarians, it's been staying out late and coming home drunk, smelling of politics.

Let's be a little careful here. My Chambers tells me "happy" means: "lucky; fortunate; expressing...content; well-being; pleasure, or good; apt; felicitous; carefree; confident; mildly drunk (slang)." This is not what therapists and counsellors mean, and it is not what your manager means when she asks you if you're happy in your job.

What they mean is that you are not feeling discontent, upset and wanting to be somewhere else. Therapists and counsellors deal with people who are miserable, discontent, depressed, obsessed, angry and a hundred other negative feelings. All of them wish not to suffer the pain of those feelings, and all of them will say that either they don't want to be depressed (or whatever) all the time, or that they "want to be happy". Used in this context, "happiness" is nothing more than the absence of whatever toxic and dysfunctional feelings we want to be rid of. Your manager wants you to say you're happy because then they don't have to worry about you. You don't need a pay rise, bonus, perks, training and development, or promotion, nor are you likely to up and go leaving them with an empty position the hiring freeze won't let them fill. Your partner in a relationship that has long been more habit than passion wants you to say you're happy because then you are not going to leave or have an affair and they don't have to bother with you any more than they aren't already. Politicians want the electorate to be happy so they will be voted in again and don't have to re-build the schools, make sure the hospitals are clean and staffed, let alone mend the roads and stop companies shipping jobs overseas.

I used to think that Gilbert Ryle's definition was about right: to be happy is to be doing what you want to be doing and not wanting to be doing anything else. I've always thought that sounded slightly like the state of mind of an Englishman tending to his garden, but you have to appreciate the subtlety of that "not wanting to be doing anything else". Now I think Ryle was really talking about a particular state of mind that used to be called "being absorbed" and is more trendily called "flow". To call this loss-of-self "happiness" is concept-stretching way past breaking point.

Most philosophers have understood that if happiness is to be the desired state of human life, there's a lot at stake when you define it. Especially if you include the aspect of contentment. That's why Aristotle was canny enough to separate happiness from mere pleasure and thus be able to equate happiness with virtuous action and living. Because if happiness is the goal of human life, then it can't just be a feeling, or else it could be satisfied by taking Soma, Aldous Huxley's happy drug in Brave New World, and tolerating the most awful injustices and atrocities. Isn't it good to be happy? Not if you can happily cheat your customers. Not if you're wilfully ignorant of facts that would upset you or deluded about your chances in the world. Is it good to be miserable? As long as you make the changes in your life you need to stop the misery. Don't I want people to be happy? Not if it means that in their colossal complacency they get dumber, fatter and uglier, and make the world a less pleasant place for the rest of us. There's nothing wrong with being happy, but there's more to life than feeling content. (Remember, when the Founding Fathers talked about the Pursuit of Happiness, they meant the practice of those occupations and pastimes that you want to do, they didn't mean getting high.)

If you're still not convinced that "happiness" has turned into a scam, recall the "research" by the New Economics Foundation allegedly showing that happiness increases with salary up to about the national median wage, and doesn't improve much after that. What an astonishingly convenient piece of research that is for employers - the largest of whom is the State.

Most people would, if asked, say they were happy: it's almost rude not to. It takes a John Stuart Mill to affirm that "it is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied". When I think about it, I have been neither happy nor content in my entire life. Ecstatic, transported, absorbed, lost-in-wonder, giggling-in-mischief, relieved, entranced, amazed, laughing-my-socks-off, pleased, calm, rested, joyous... a hundred positive emotions, but never "happy". Maybe people who say they are "happy" just don't have the vocabulary to name accurately what they are feeling.

And maybe philosophers talk about happiness out of habit. It is, after all, just another state of mind. It's not even clear that it is a valuable state of mind. The question that philosophers should be asking is: what value do the various states of mind have? Even self-pity has its time. You can think of your current state of mind as a some kind of reaction to your circumstances. You can let yourself be conned by New Age pseudo-psychologists into thinking that you can make your state of mind what you want it to be - so that it's your fault you're miserable. Or you can view your state of mind as a tool to help you get done what you need to do. I can't think of one thing that happiness helps me get done, but I do like that light, cheerful feeling when the air is fresh, the sky is blue, the sun is shining and I'm in the South of France with a day job to come back to at the end of the holiday.

Friday, 4 February 2011

What I Want From My Holidays

You will remember I had a bad case of the blahs last year and didn't see the point of spending lots of money to be fed up in a foreign country when I could do it for free at home. If i'm not careful, I'll do it again this year, and I'd rather not. So what do I want from my holidays? Fantasies first, reality later.

No old people. This is getting to be a real problem. Go on sunny-places holidays in the off-season and there are eighty-year-olds in the hotels. Pushing retirement is one thing, cheating the grave is another. I know I'm no spring chicken, but, no, eighty-year olds are depressing. My work colleagues are attractive people in their twenties - I have high standards.

No bald people with tattoos from Essex at the pool bar. That cuts out every beach hotel in the world except possibly a Four Seasons.

No poor places. You may be comfortable with the thought that you are paid more in a week than the families in the mud huts round the hotel make in a decade, but I'm not. 

No days on the coach, or on the train - unless it's a sleeper or a TGV and Julie Delpy is sitting across the table from me. I spend five days a week commuting. This is a holiday. I want everything within walking distance, or a short-ish cab ride.

No long flights in cramped seats with wailing babies. Yep. That pretty much cuts out air travel.

I'd like to sleep for ten hours a day. I get about six hours a night, seven if I'm lucky, and eight leaves me feeling actually rested.

Blue skies. Sunshine. Temperatures no higher than 80F at noon and no lower than about 55F at night. Good restaurants. Things To Look At. Places To Hang Out In: cafes, beaches, gardens with swimming pools. In fantasy land, I'd like to meet someone and carry on a flirtation. Actual sex would be amazing - if I can remember what to do and why at the same time. Failing that, broadband access.

Ask me what the best holiday I had was, and I'll say it was two days in Paris, an overnight sleeper to Nice and an overnight sleeper back, followed by a TGV to Amsterdam for a weekend staying with friends. I'm not sure I really like the idea of seven days in one place, but two here and two there sounds about right. Nice-Sardinia-Paris. Milan-Basle. I don't need to get to know a place: it's not like I'm going to live there. I need it to be not-England.

What I'll tell you if I'm feeling cynical is that I'd like a week not being me. That's not quite true. I'd like a week when I don't have to amuse and busy myself all the time - gotta see the sights, visit the galleries, pretending I'm having a holiday, pretending this is a rest.

Maybe I should just go on a retreat. Four days in a monastery.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Things You Forget In The Household Budget

I have a budget for my income and expenditure. Of course I do, I once ran the finance function of a decent-sized estate of pubs for a property company and produced five-year P&L, Balance Sheet and Cash Flow forecasts for quite a few companies. Knocking out a forecast for Seven Dials LLC is a doddle.

Except there's one line that always trips me up. Other than holidays. Holidays always cost more than I plan, but isn't that the point of a holiday? I have lines for Gas Bills, Water Rates, the MoT, Road Tax and all my insurances. I have how much I spend at Caffe Nero on tea and coffee every week.  The gym subscription is in there as is an estimate for lunch at work and food at home. Even the bi-annual visit to the dentist. Holidays count as capex projects, along with upgrading hi-fi and re-doing gardens.

Except for the new battery for the car the AA had to fit for me recently because the old one suddenly decided to die. That made for some standing around in freezing weather while they came and did their thing. And that visit from Dyno-Rod I talked about earlier. And replacing the broken Polti steam iron with a cheaper but just as decent Bosch (I take ironing seriously). And the service on the Dyson DC5 vacuum cleaner. And now I come to think of it, I replace my trainers every year and that isn't on the budget either.

It's all the random stuff. Fixing things that break, replacing things that tear beyond repair. I used to budget £100 a month for it, but that was back in the days when £100 could buy you things. Now I bet I have to budget about £200. Which is okay for you and me, but it can break someone who's on the edge, or on welfare.

They don't tell you this about life. It isn't the regular stuff that beats you, it's something random, that you didn't consider. That's what can leave you in tears of frustration and despair. Or at least it used to, before I got too old to have hormones that felt that way.