Thursday, July 19, 2012

Norwegian Women Don't Get Fat, or at least that's what I try to believe!

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My well-bookmarked Mireille Guiliano collection

Today's post is a complete departure from my usual type of entry. I have taken a little break from my normal art projects to give attention where it has been sorely needed for a while: to myself! As you know if you have been following my posts, we recently found ourselves inundated with work, first selling our home and then moving into my parents' perennially overstuffed upstairs. I haven't had much time for myself for months, years actually, and it shows. So I decided for the past few weeks to make myself the only project to which  I devoted my very spare bits of extra time, and I am happy to announce that it is already showing results!

I have noticed a curious phenomenon over my past 13 years as a mother: that of the post-baby weight gain. As you know, I have both biological and adopted children, so I was surprised to find this problem crossing into both areas. No matter whether my baby is one I have borne of my body, once that child is old enough to be sleeping mostly through the night I always find myself with an extra 20 or 30 pounds to lose! When this happened to me the first time it was extremely traumatic, as I had just managed to lose all but 5 pounds of my pregnancy weight only to have it creep right back on. I thought it was due to circumstance: my husband became disabled in a terrible work accident when I was about 3 months into my pregnancy and when my son was born I was still working full-time and freelancing as well as taking care of things Jerry couldn't yet do. So I thought that was a fluke and lost most of that weight, not expecting to deal with it again.

I was not at all pleased to find the same thing happening again with my second and third children, who we adopted from China. I suppose it has to do with all the hours of therapy they have needed, eating away at my time. Happily, I was able to come across a book called French Women Don't Get Fat a few years ago at our local library. I did dimly remember hearing the title through the adoption and therapy fog (this book was published when we were in the midst of our daughter's Chinese adoption) but I didn't discover it until maybe late 2009. This book was a revelation for me and made me realize what a rich heritage I myself have to draw upon. I checked the library copy out so many times that Jerry finally took pity on me and bought me all three books, the original, French Women for All Seasons, and the cookbook. Following these principles I was able to lose 15 pounds in three months the year we returned to China to adopt our third child.

Sadly, everything fell apart, weight-loss-wise, after that which brings me to my current situation. So, I am re-reading my French Lady books again trying to inspire myself and also to pinpoint what keeps happening. I was once again taken unaware by weight gain with my youngest. He was an older baby, but very traumatized by his removal from his foster home, his country, and his extensive surgery. He decided he was not letting me out of reach and so I found myself carrying a 30+ pound 2-year-old absolutely everywhere for a year and a half. I do wear my Fitbit to track my steps as well as work out daily, so how could I possibly be gaining weight? It all, I think, goes back to a cycle Ms. Guiliano points out is so common here: the boom and bust attitude toward fitness. In America it seems you're either training for a triathlon or a pie-eating contest; there's no in-between. I think, also, that having a child who wakes you up several times a night wreaks havoc on the hormones. My youngest is three now and MOSTLY sleeps all night, though I type that with fingers crossed! This week he did keep me up one night. I am hoping now that I am mostly on a regular sleep schedule things will return to normal.

Another reason I love to read these books is to re-acquaint  myself with the many lessons I learned in childhood when we lived in the center of all our family. Admittedly, both my grandmothers were pretty hefty, but they did teach me lots of valuable lessons. My mother taught me both good and bad habits depending on the events in her own life. My very earliest memories are of California, when my father was still alive. He was an optometrist who loved to scuba-dive, so he didn't take any appointments on Thursdays and we would head for the beach every weekend. My dad caught all sorts of wild seafood, my favorite being abalone. We had so much abalone in our freezer it was like hamburger for most people. My mother would say, "Oh, I don't know what we'll eat tonight...I guess abalone." She would beat it with a studded mallet to tenderize it, dredge it in eggs and cracker crumbs and pan-fry it...the food of the Gods! I didn't realize until my college years that abalone is a very expensive delicacy in most of the world. Abalone is of course so pricey it isn't even offered most places. I think I've seen it on a menu maybe twice and both times it was just a smidgen enhancing another dish.

After my dad died my mother basically lost it for a few years and so I was being raised then by my grandparents. Once we had a home of our own my mom and I ate processed food, but at my grandparents' houses I ate fresh food, usually from a garden or a local farm, skillfully prepared. At my Norwegian grandparents' house there were raspberries, tomatoes, apples, pears, grapes, and plums, along with much other produce. We ate the plums out of hand; they were sweet and exceptionally juicy, but my grandmother would save enough to make plum cordial. Fall took us to my aunt's farm in Indiana, where we would take a hayride to the apple orchard and the whole family would pitch in to pick the apples and then to make our own cider, applesauce, and pie. We split the haul, and it was impressive. My grandparents and my family as well as my mother's 5 siblings would each take home a car full of apples in bags and jars and bottles.

The summers we spent partly in Michigan. Northport, our hometown, is the pinnacle of Michigan cherry production, at least in the eyes of my family. We can still visit my great-grandfather's cherry farm there and see his trees. And then there is Leland.
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Leland, Michigan

Leland, Michigan is a gorgeous town on the the shores of Lake Leelanau and it is home to the last of the historic fish towns. Every morning in Leland the fishermen bring their catch into Fishtown to be smoked. That fish is to die for! The trout is my favorite; it is the most succulent fish you'll ever eat. But the salmon and whitefish are wonderful as well, and even the smoked chub are a treat. I'll never forget the first time Jerry watched me stop to get my treat of a chub. The fish store is next to the ice cream parlor (nothing like a great mix of scents!) and everyone else was getting ice cream. I waited in line at the fish store, which is a lot like the Soup Nazi's line in the famous Seinfeld episode, and grabbed my prize, a whole chub smoked and wrapped in wax paper. Then I sat on the steps, as is customary, and ate the whole thing like corn on the cob. I thought Jerry might pass out from either disgust or laughter! But smoked chub in Leland is a rite of passage for us, as are the cherries. Most lunches, in fact, and several dinners in Michigan are just buffets of packets of smoked fish laid out on the counter with a huge bowl of fresh cherries and crackers.
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Historic Fishtown in Leland
On our last trip I even saw a restaurant advertising a martini garnished with a whole smoked chub!Northport is a stone's throw from Peshabetown, the Chippewa, Ottawa, and Ojibwa tribal lands, and I hear now there is a man from the tribe who smokes his own fish and brings to sell in Northport. It is supposed to be just as good and much cheaper.
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The National Cherry Festival in Traverse City
Besides being eaten fresh, we eat the cherries in everything from muffins to bratwurst, and they are even made into the most delectable wine on the planet. Michigan cherry wine isn't the sickly-sweet cherry-flavored grape wine, as you sometimes find here in the South. It is actually made from cherries in every vintage from dark reds to cherry "champagne".  I highly recommend the Cherry Republic "vineyard". Alas, Michigan does not allow the export of its wine to North Carolina, so I have to stockpile cases on our rare 5 to 10 year trips. We return with the car loaded to the roof with dried cherries, cherry wine, and smooth rocks from the shores of Lake Michigan. In the 1930s my grandmother was even a runner-up Cherry Festival Queen!

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Lake Michigan as seen from Peterson Park in Northport
So, how is it that someone raised to eat mostly fish, cherries, and vegetables can get fat? Well, for one thing there is the fact that I am stranded far away from my roots. I have noticed my relatives who live on in Northport and Norway stay much slimmer. Northport is a traditional village. You can walk or ride a bike everywhere, and there are year-round sports from skiing to snowshoeing to rock climbing to enjoy. A huge number of foods we depended on aren't even available here in North Carolina. Cherries, for instance, don't grow here at all, so there are only mostly lackluster varieties which have traveled across the country. I've never even seen smoked fish here, other than the unnaturally orange, nitrate-loaded supermarket fare. Jerry will occasionally smoke me a lovely salmon, but it takes forever and the salmon is frozen while still fresh to preserve its nutrients, but it can't really claim the same flavor.

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The Village of Northport, Michigan

Then there is the genetic component. My grandfather's mother, who was all Norwegian, kept her figure trim all her life, even while bearing 8 children. But my grandmother's mother, Norwegian and Swiss, despite working daily on her cherry farm and raising 10 children during the Depression still managed to be fat for almost all of her adulthood. My grandmother and my mom and I share that Swiss figure type where we start out very curvy and end up round. Whenever I lament the passing of my pre-pregnancy 25 or 26-inch waist my grandmother says, "Yeah, you're not getting that back!"

Also, there is the wine. Norwegians seem to be blessed to varying degrees with an ability to drink almost unlimited amounts of wine or beer without getting fat or drunk. My grandfather drank a 6-pack or beer every night while snacking on pickled herring and peanuts and never gained weight or seemed impaired in any way. He lived to be almost 92, riding his bike all around town even the day he died. His cousin Ida, a maverick feminist who read tea leaves and was quite scandalous in her day, lived past 102. I attended her 102nd birthday party when I was in college. I learned at my elders' knees that wine is a great relaxation and stress-relieving device, as well as a life-extending miracle, the result being that parenthood turned me rather quickly into a wino!

This all annoyed my grandmother to no end. She, being quite a bit Swiss and having a rounder figure to begin with, did not share the tolerance of alcohol. She often complained that if she drank like my grandfather she'd weigh a ton. My grandmother on the other side was also never thin after she hit her 40s, and my Grandma Ruthie, her mother, said she never would lose weight because she liked to eat and drink too much. Ruthie was herself as fat or maybe even fatter than her daughter, but she had a lovely face and had come of age in the Victorian era when plump was pretty. In her little hamlet of Neptune, Ohio she was considered quite the raving beauty, still, when she died in her late 80s!

My mother kept up and still keeps a punishing regime of not eating any regular meals, though she does snack often, and then drinking wine until midnight or later. She would occasionally go on crash diets or big exercise benders. She often manages to be exceedingly thin on this program, but she is always up and down. She is also extremely critical of anyone else carrying what she considers excess weight. When I got my first training bra she informed me that I didn't really need a bra; I was just fat. I have always been ashamed of my busty frame since then. She was wrong about the bra thing; two years later I was in a D cup at age 13! No matter how thin I've been (at some points well below the lowest weight for my height) I have never been able to reduce my chest any. So, I didn't learn any other way to lose weight or relieve stress on my own. It works for my mom: she inherited her father's ability to drink without consequence, but it doesn't work for me. I  can't say too much bad about my mom though. This week, knowing I wanted to make enough money to buy Jerry a really nice anniversary present, she gave me several barely-used high end handbags to sell. Her heart is in the right place, but I just can't follow her weight loss program!

Speaking of Jerry, I can look to him as someone who really managed to make lemonade out of lemons. After his accident Jerry could have decided to stay home on disability since he was no longer able to do his job. Instead, he worked like a champion at rehab. He had to relearn even the most basic skills, like writing. Then he went back to school and became an electrical engineer and is now a project lead engineer on one of the world's first Smart Grid energy programs. He took a horrible situation which upended our lives and made a better life for us out of it. We have been married for 15 years this week, and he has been an inspiration throughout.

So for the past two weeks I have been following my French recasting, substituting a lot of my wine with herbal tea, streamlining my portions, adding vegetables. I have been swimming daily, my favorite exercise (I did inherit something from the Norwegians!). The first week a stomach virus helpfully abolished four pounds. The second week, with my recovery, I gained two back. But a pound a week is a respectable rate of loss, and I am seeing even better results in girth reduction when I take my measurements. Jerry says I can write my own Norwegian weight loss book. We'll see how that turns out! I will have to lose a lot before it would be credible! Mireille Guiliano's books read something like, "As I write this I am looking down from my window at the Champs Élysées..." but mine would be more, "As I write this, I am serenaded by my 13 year old staggering drunkenly through his piano song, which he has put off practicing until the day of his lesson..."! (Don't call the police on me; I mean he just sounds drunk, not that he is inebriated!) Mine might actually be a bit more realistic for many of us!

The best advice for me, I think, is the French principle of savoring food while you have it. I have followed every diet to come along for many years. I have attended Weight Watchers. They all tell you to stop celebrating events with food. Well, I don't know about you, but that would essentially cut me off from my family! All we do is eat and drink as celebration! I have at this moment just finished baking a Nutella Marble Cheesecake for our anniversary dinner.

I think Mireille's advice to enjoy without guilt the celebration is so much more realistic. You can cut out some other mundane food later. Besides, I don't want to stop celebrating with certain foods. The fish and cherries and cherry wine we have in Michigan are an ode to summer and each of these are foods I only taste every 5-10 years. The abalone my father caught is long gone. I will never taste it again, just as I will never more hear his voice. I am so glad I appreciated it and can remember its flavor.

I promise I will get back to my regular projects soon. Right now I just need to make myself the priority for a while!

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Forgotten Harvest

My berrying bucket with wild berries

Well, once again I owe all my loyal readers an apology for my prolonged absence from the blogosphere. I know it has been a terrible trial for you all to live without me! We have had an eventful month, to say the least! As you may recall, in my last post I was working on my mother's old dolls in a hurry to finish them before we moved in with my parents. I was only able to finish the one, the Betsy McCall. She was well-received, luckily.

After we got the offer on our home, the buyers initially asked to close in 6 weeks. Then they changed their minds and asked to move it forward, meaning we had only about 4 weeks to get packed and moved over to my parents. We fit a 4-day trip to the mountains in there during that time as well. As glad as we are to sell the house, this has been a difficult and bittersweet time for us, or at least for me.

I don't really get along with my parents all that well. They like Jerry a lot better than they like me, and he goes to work all day, so he is happier here than I. Living upstairs with all the children is a cramped and uncomfortable venture. I know we are lucky that my parents have enough room for us and are willing to let us stay, but I get the feeling we aren't really welcome here. My parents have been using their giant house as a means of never throwing anything away for the last 20 years, and when we got here not one bit of space had been cleared to make room for us. Every drawer and closet, the space under every bed, every tiny nook, is packed full. So my time since we moved in two weeks ago has largely been taken up with cleaning and reorganizing, trying to carve out a little room for ourselves.

I was able to get over to our old neighborhood a couple times to revisit my secret berry field.

Festive wild blackberries decked in red, white, and blue
I only got over there twice before my teenager, who is my helper, went off to Scout camp, but we froze two gallon bags of berries and made a "sonker", Western North Carolina's own version of cobbler. I may try to go some more before the berries are done, but the heat is so oppressive and I have two festering thorns stuck in my finger, so I don't know. It is good for me to clear my head, though.

I should be really excited about the new house and our impending move. But, when I walk through the model home and look at the house plan it all just seems too good to be true. I have never been good at celebrating good fortune; I am always too worried it will slip away from me. And now the company my husband works for is going through a big merger. This week it suddenly hit some unexpected changes, causing all the employees to fear for their jobs.

So, I need a way to remind myself that we are lucky. If Jerry loses his job, we will have the great luck of already selling our house, so we won't have a mortgage to pay. We aren't tied to a house right now, so he could look for work anywhere he chose. And if we have to cut back on expenses I know we can be happy with less because we have done with much less before. I was so thrilled every year to find this forgotten garden with its unexpected bounty. Except for the price of scratches and thorns, the berries are free. I have also read that wild plants, besides being the ultimate local organic produce, have far more nutrients than those in the store.

Berries as far as you can see.

I found this field one day when I noticed blackberry bushes flowering at the edge of the road as I drove past. I wondered if there would be more in the field so I went back on foot to visit and found berries beyond my wildest expectations. Besides their abundance, these berries are much larger and sweeter than wild blackberries usually, so I began to suspect this had once been someone's garden. Sure enough, a further inspection of the field turned up a falling-down mailbox and a pile of burnt debris tangled in the weeds. A lonely set of stairs climb into nowhere in the woods across the street. I concluded that some long-ago farmer's wife planted the berry bushes in her garden and they just ran wild as the farm was abandoned. This year my son and I climbed farther into the weeds than we've done before and discovered even more.

Passionflower vine produces lovely flowers and fruit.
First, I nearly tread on a passionflower. Closer inspection revealed passion fruits already swelling on the vine. I am watching these for ripeness. I don't think this tropical fruit is native to North Carolina, though I could be wrong. I have never seen it growing wild before, but I know you can buy it from seed catalogues. One of the days I was picking berries while I sent the children to piano lessons in the neighborhood. Hearing a little commotion, I looked up to see three hummingbirds flying in a sort of swirling dance through the air. I pulled my phone out of my pocket to take a photo but missed them. Following them, however, I stumbled upon a tree heavy with fruit.

I think this might be a quince tree, as the fruits look a bit like those on my flowering quince bushes.

Possible quince fruits on a wild tree.
I was so enthralled with the lovely synchronicity of the hummingbirds' flight and the glorious future fruit harvest from this wild tree, I failed to notice my keys fall out of my pocket when I pulled out my phone! I discovered the keys missing when I arrived back at my car, my bucket heavy with berries, five minutes before my children were due to be picked up from their lessons. I had to run about five blocks with my berries and walk back with them so we could search the field. Luckily, my oldest found them right away!

Every time I come to this berry field I think of the woman (I always imagine a housewife like myself) who tended this garden and harvested these fruits and flowers. I wonder how many children she had, and what sort of things she dreamed of. I wonder if she was happy on her farm, or if she longed for a different life. I can see she must have had a rich life, though. There would have been days of canning berries and quince jelly. The unusual passion fruit, sold as a houseplant for this area, hints at a rebellious soul with a streak of originality. Did she plant it wishing she could travel to a tropical clime? Did she imagine herself picking fruit on the shore of a Caribbean sea? I noticed blue allium like pom-poms this year. There is no function to those, save beauty. Did she plant her garden with sensible fruits but add the flowers, craving beauty?

If there is any lesson to be learned from a berry field, I guess it is that we are provided not always with what we want, but almost always with what we need. The trick is to adjust our minds to wanting what is given. I have sown a wonderful harvest. Two years ago today I first held my youngest baby all the way on the other side of the world in China. Seven years ago next week I held my beautiful daughter in another Chinese province. Thirteen years ago I gave birth to my first son. Fifteen years ago this month I was married. Through it all we have had worry and strife, but more often we have felt great happiness. It is a beautiful life, and my bucket is full. No matter what happens, I can find us enough to sustain us, and I can be happy with that.

My bucket is full.