Last hurdles and fast legs

This morning I joined a pack of riders from my cycling club on a fast-paced, three-lap tour of New York's Central Park at 6:00am. This was a no-holds-barred, keep-up-if-you-can ride -- and I was proud to be the only woman hanging on at the end! I keep surprising myself with cycling, putting in longer distances and reaching faster speeds than I would have thought possible even a year ago. But it's easy, in a way, because I love it! I took to cycling, as I told one of my ride leaders, like a fish to water. It feels right and good to be perched on top of my bike, to go fast and furious down the roads of New York and New Jersey, and to join in the camaraderie of a long, slick paceline.

I like cycling, too, because in becoming a cyclist I feel that I am overcoming the last hurdle in my eating disorder, meaning that I am beginning to repair my relationship to exercise. For a long time after my eating disorder abated, I did not want to engage in any form of intense exercise; I had forced myself on too many runs and had spent too many hours of my life on the elliptical machine at the gym to continue to do so once the compulsion to exercise ended. I turned to yoga, and long walks, and occasional jogs; those things were healing and gentle, and I needed them for a time. But now I yearn for sweaty exertion, for the feel of my body soaring through the air. Cycling gives me these things, but it also gives me a community of likeminded people to share in the endeavor; while in the past my exercise was solitary, now it is almost always conducted in the company of others, my early-morning training buddies and weekend ride partners.

Many -- or most -- of these people are men, and I find that I enjoy being in masculine company for a change. Eating disorders are such feminine concerns, after all, centered around women's bodies and women's roles; writing here, for example, I am mostly addressing a female audience. Clinical psychology, my chosen field, is also increasingly dominated by women, as men flee pscyhology for the less touchy-feely disciplines of psychiatry, neuroscience, and behavioral medicine. As for myself, most of my classmates are female, and I spend a few days a week working with breast cancer patients, so I certainly have my share of the fairer sex! When I'm cycling with (mostly) men, on the other hand, it doesn't matter how thin or how pretty I am; all that matters is that I go fast, or ride well in a group, or show up on time. It's such a relief, for a change, to be able to focus on those things in a sport, instead of thinking about how I look in the uniform.


Chocolate caliente

I have had a hankering for hot chocolate lately -- the homemade kind -- and today's rainy, foggy weather in New York made the yearning reality.

Courtesy of The Joy of Cooking:

Stir together in a small, heavy saucepan:
  • 1 tablespoon unsweetend cocoa
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
Vigorously stir in, first by tablespoons and then in a slow, steady stream:
  • 3/4 cup milk
Heat, stirring constantly and scraping the bottom of the pan, over medium heat until bubbles appear at the sides. Remove from the heat and stir in:
  • 1/8 teaspoon vanilla
Top with:
  • Ground nutmeg or cinnamon
  • Whipped cream or marshmallows

I have had a large bag of organic cocoa on hand now for quite a while, not really knowing what to do with the powdery goodness (there are only so many chocolate puddings that you can make for your husband before he has to admit that he doesn't like pudding, anyway). Here and there I had been reading that "milk makes a great workout recovery beverage" and being the kind of person who eschews bottled protein drinks in the first place, I thought that I might doll up my post-bike ride cuppamilk with some cocoa.

Have you had homemade cocoa lately? Not the kind that comes in packets with names like "Goodnight Hugs" (Hersheys) or "Premium White Mocha" (Ghirardelli) or that kind of thing. I'm talking about the kind of recipe that I used, consisting of just three real ingredients: cocoa powder, sugar, and milk. I have to admit that the last time I made homemade cocoa was probably in eighth grade, when I bought Abuelita Mexican chocolate for a Spanish class assignment. Hardly an authentic cultural experience (poor Abuelita is owned by Nestlé), but I still remember having to resort to my mother's cleaver to cut the chocolate disk in half. Try the above recipe instead; it's much simpler, and much cheaper, than buying premade cocoa mixes or a bar of granny choc.

And the taste? I couldn't believe how good it was. Let's just say that I won't wait for another workout to try this one again.


Would you exercise if it didn't change your body?

This is a question that I once posed to a friend, another woman with ED-like behavior. She was the kind of runner who would run until her bones snapped -- and then keep running (this actually happened to her in a race! -- I'm not kidding). We met in high school, when I was an exchange student in the mining city of Copiapó, Chile, and she was another exchange student in my program. Sara was from Alaska, and just about every sport that I had tried -- running, skiing, swimming, hiking -- she had tried, too, but under more extreme conditions. I felt like a novice when she talked about cross-country skiing to school with a gun strapped to her back in case a bear came by, or when she described the time that she was climbing up a glacier and the person below her hammered her calf with an ice pick, necessitating an emergency evacuation. My stories of canoe camping in the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota paled in comparison to hers. But in one respect we were similar -- in our devotion to running (our obsession, I should say) -- and we soon became running partners. There were few desirable places to run inside Copiapó proper, so we took to running in the mountains surrounding the city, the bare slopes of the Andes that course through the Atacama desert halfway between Chile and Peru.

One day, as we charged up a mountain, I asked Sarah if she would run if it didn't make her fit -- that is, if her body never changed no matter how much she ran. At the time, I was desperately trying to lose the twenty pounds that I had put on since leaving the U.S. (a common occurrence for exchange students, no matter the country), and running seemed like the most direct path to my goal. Sarah hadn't gained any weight, as far as I could see, and I credited her devotion to running (versus my having participated in no exercise, whatsoever, in the first months in Chile) as responsible for her slender figure.

Her response to my question was "I probably wouldn't run just for the view."

With that, I knew that she was also running to stay thin.

Since then, I have asked this question to myself: Would I exercise if I didn't believe that it would change my body in some way? Right now, I am asking myself that question about cycling, as after almost two months of very hard effort on the bike my body seems pretty much the same as it did before. I weigh the same that I did in November, I have the same trouble getting into my favorite jeans, and I still feel guilty when I decide whether or not to have dessert.
Let me make it clear that my intention, upon starting this cycling program, was not to lose weight. I had plenty of other reasons to ride my bike, such as feeling freer and more alive; controlling my stress; meeting new people; getting outdoors; and just plain liking the feel of my body on the bike. But, despite these good reasons, a little voice in the back of my head still says:

"Yes, but wouldn't it have been nice if you had lost some weight, too?"

This is exactly the problem.

Does this little voice bother you, too?

I find myself reading cycling columns about weight-loss and diet during training, trying to see what I'm doing "wrong" here. The other voice in my head, usually the stronger one, says:

"Just keep riding and doing what you like to do. Don't worry about how you look. Worry about how you feel."

Even though this voice is immensely more sensible than the other voice, sometimes the smaller voice is more obvious to me; it's like the way you can always pick out the piccolo in an orchestra, while the tuba tends to blend into the background.

How do you make sure that you hear the tuba instead of the piccolo?


Buenos Aires and back

It has been a while since I have written here.

Now I feel like I'm apologizing to my diary!! -- which, in fact, this blog has effectively replaced.

Chuan and I spent the last week in Buenos Aires, of all places, as a much belated honeymoon. I hadn't been there in over five years, since I studied abroad at the Universidad de Buenos Aires in 2003, but the city has been one of the most important places that I have lived in, and I have long wanted to show it to my husband. So, when we had the same week of spring vacation from our respective universities, we jumped at some cheap airline tickets, found ourselves a small apartment to rent for the week, and took on the town!

Besides being the place where I perfected my Spanish, Buenos Aires was where I first saw a therapist for my eating disorder, where I took the first steps towards understanding it, and where I purged for the last time. I was worried that, being there, the old urges might come back, but they didn't. The very foods that I used to binge on -- ice cream, alfajores, cakes and candies -- did not hold the same allure as they used to. This time around, I was more interested in trying out different steak houses and drinking Malbec than in stuffing my face with sweets.

It gave me a lot of satisfaction to be able to visit that city again, without feeling overwhelmed by memories of my eating disorder. In the end, despite the suffering caused by bulimia, my year in Buenos Aires was a healing experience. In therapy and out of it, I learned new ways of relating with the world around me. I discovered new sides of myself in Spanish; being a foreigner allowed me the space that I needed to construct a new, stronger identity for myself. I also credit the people there with helping me, albeit unknowingly, begin the road to recovery. The most meaningful relationships that I developed there -- with my therapist, my host mother, the director of my exchange program, and numerous Argentine friends -- offered me the opportunity to try out different ways of relating with others, and to establish personal boundaries that I had not been able to establish before.

This week, with Chuan, I was able to visit some of those people again, and to remind myself that the past is never past. It circles back and says hello from time to time. For a few years, not long ago, all I wanted was to return to South America, to escape everything fearful and broken about my life in the United States. This week I was afraid that, returning to Buenos Aires, I might feel some nostalgia or the stirring of those old longings to run away -- but NADA of that reappeared. I can always return to Buenos Aires to visit, I realized, but it is not my home in the way that Minnesota was and New York now is. I am American, not Argentine or Chilean or Brazilian or Chinese or any of the other identities I have tried on. I am home in New York now, and more at home with my body than ever before.


Enter, bike

I'm not sure who will be reading this Saturday night -- I rarely have a chance to sit down and write, so I take whatever free moments I can get -- but I wanted to put something out for the record, before I fall into sleep.

Today I rode 50 miles on my bike, the furthest yet this spring. One of my earliest posts on this blog was about cycling, and the sport continues to be one of the greatest sources of joy in my life. In that blog, I said that I would use a later post to write about how I got my bike; I don't believe that I ever followed through on that promise, so here it goes.

I got my road bike about a year and a half ago, shortly after our wedding. My husband was a cyclist in college, and he wanted me to be able to join him on his rides. Whenever we tried to run together as a couple, he was far faster than I was and the run would end up being frustrating to both of us. A bike, it seemed, could ease the gap between our speeds. With some of the cash gifts that we received for our wedding, we set about finding me a bike.

Our first -- and only -- stop was Trexlertown, Pennsylvania, site of a legendary, semi-annual "swap meet" where cyclists and shop owners converge on the Lehigh Valley Velodrome for a day-long bike fair. There, you'll see hundreds of sharp booths run by east-coast bike shops, along with more informal offerings of bike parts and frames scattered here and there across the grass. Chuan was ruthless in his pursuit of my bike. We stuck to our strategy of "bike first, gear second," and raced around from seller to seller looking for a fast road bike in our price range. We ended up buying my bike, a 2006 Fuji Roubaix RC, from a youth "development team" that had been sponsored by Fuji the year before and was selling their old bikes to make way for the new set that they would receive.

After I got my bike, the rest of the swap meet passed by in a frenzy. Chuan and I ran around looking to "gear me up," that is, to get me properly equipped to actually ride the bike. We bought a helmet, bike shorts, a jersey and a jacket, cycling gloves, a computer to track my speed and pace, water bottle racks, and a "trainer" so that I could ride my bike indoors in the winter. I knew next to nothing about bikes, other than that I had always known how to ride one, and I was amazed at the enthusiasm of the other cyclists that day, whether they were buying or selling equipment. I felt like I was gaining entry into a community, the community of serious cyclists. Strange people they were, and yet I liked this feeling of entering a sport, of being on the cusp of something new in my life.

We bought the bike in October of 2007; four cold months followed before I started to ride my bike outdoors. Last spring I taught myself the basics of road cycling, riding early in the mornings and occasionally on the weekends with Chuan. This year I want to go deeper with my riding, and I have joined the New York Cycling Club. On a whim, I decided to do their A Classic training group, meaning that every Saturday for the next three months you will find me on my bike in some remote New Jersey, Connecticut, or Westchester County roads. Today it was 50 miles around the New Jersey suburbs; next week it will be a longer ride to White Plains, New York, until we eventually work our way up to a "Century" -- a hundred mile ride!

It is especially meaningful to me to be able to join a new sport at this point in my life, after having recovered from an eating disorder several years ago. Looking back, I could never have done this sport when I was actively bulimic -- or any other sport for that matter. Honestly, I would not have been strong enough, and my obsession with food and exercise would probably have hindered, not helped, any training efforts. It is very rewarding to see that now, having changed so many of my behaviors towards food and exercise, I am at last able to participate in a sport for its own sake. What freedom!

As Susan B. Anthony said:

I'll tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than any one thing in the world. I rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a bike. It gives her a feeling of self-reliance and independence the moment she takes her seat; and away she goes, the picture of untrammelled womanhood.


Good-bye lunch

My sister came to visit us here in New York this weekend. She lives in San Francisco now, so my chances to spend time with her are far and few between. On Friday we went to Soho looking for a spare part for my bike, and then we wandered around Little Italy and Chinatown, searching for ingredients for a big meal we had planned for last night. I love walking around New York with a destination; I have lived here long enough that simply wandering the city just doesn't excite me like it used to, and I'm too American to be a flâneur -- I like to know where I'm going and what I'm going to do when I get there. It began to rain late in our tour, but it was a warm day, and the rain just added to the special-ness of the occasion: a day just to be with my sister, here in the city that I call home, doing nothing extraordinary but enjoying every moment of the intimacy of the streets.

My sister and I don't always get along. I know that most siblings are like that, but with us there have been some particularly bad months over the last few years. We are trying to make things better, even though we live so far apart. I think it's a good sign that, after she left this afternoon, I felt lonely without her.

This morning we both woke up early and visited the nearby farmers market, picking out sweet potatoes and parsnips, arugula and milk, bacon and cheese. It was delightful to walk around one more time with her, this person who looks so much like me, this person who knows so much about me, more even than I could tell you. I took particular pride in showing her our neighborhood and our city; maybe, someday, she'll decide to leave California and make her way to this coast.

We spent the rest of the morning much as we did growing up, each one working on her own project (she was finishing an article for work; I was starting a take-on exam). From time to time we called out to each other, commented on this or that, and then she went to have coffee with a friend, and I made us lunch.

I often make lunch on the weekends, for Chuan and me, but he was away with other friends this morning, and this lunch was for my sister. She has started to cook for herself, too, now that she has graduated from college and is living on her own. Every meal that we have together is sprinkled with questions and comments to one another about the recipe, the ingredients, how we did or that or what we might do better in the future. This time, she wanted to know how I make beans. I love making beans, and already on this trip she had tried one version of mine (large white beans, Italian-style, with lots and lots of olive oil and black pepper). For lunch I made a quick-cooking dal, flavored with hot curry, red pepper, asafoetida, and cumin seeds. We had carrot risotto left over from last night's Italian feast, and the salad was arugula and apples from the farmers market. Blackberries and honey formed a simple dessert.

I find it easy to cook for the people that I love. I only wish that I could do it more often, that my family were not spread across this country, shore to shore. In the scant hours before she left, I felt myself grasping at the time remaining, wishing that my sister could stay just a while longer. Afterwards, I sat at the same table where we had just eaten, and tried to focus on my exam. I couldn't. I felt sad and I just needed to feel sad for a few minutes. Listening to Bach's keyboard concertos helped, as did my bike ride later this afternoon, but I still feel lonely. And that's how I should feel, I tell myself -- there's nothing wrong with these feelings, but like all uncomfortable feelings, they are disconcerting. But rather than push them aside, let me admit that I said good-bye to someone today, and it hurt. I love her, I miss her, and I said good-bye.