Thursday, July 31, 2014

Living with the Ghosts of Weights Past and Future

Time to get real here, folks---

I have been 100% guilty of spending a lot of time lately with the Ghosts of Weights Past & Future. In other words, instead of focusing on my current body shape and what I'm currently capable of, my mind keeps drifting back to "happier" weight times (like back in high school or when I was in the thick of training for a full marathon) or forward to skinnier weights to come (like when I've finally managed to discipline myself when it comes to sugar).

And while my weight now is not at the point where I hate my body, I am definitely at the point where I hate the trend I'm seeing.

You want to know the truth?

Since setting my goal to lose 5 pounds back in April for my half-marathon, I have gained not only those five pounds back, but 10 pounds on top of that (for a total of 15 pounds). I am now just as heavy as I was when I had my great life revelation 3 years ago about taking better care of my health and losing the 25 pounds I'd gained on my mission (a revelation which had helped me to keep off all that weight until about two months ago).

I know that I am still relatively fit and at a borderline-healthy weight for my height and that there are people out there who look at my problems like they're a drop in the ocean (and they are, really), but as anyone who has ever tried to permanently lose weight knows, it is HARD. It requires constant vigilance, permanent changes, and a totally different frame of mind than you had before.

The problem is, it's not like those paradigm-shifting "aha moments" grow on trees---based on my personal experience, something has to just about snap for them to happen. (And it it's up to me, I'd really rather not let myself get to snapping point before taking action.)

But I'm being held back by a lot of silly lines of reasoning. One of the strongest excuses that keeps coming up is that I'm going to go out and lose all this weight only to get pregnant at some point and get fat anyway, so why bother? Or another is that I should just learn to love myself as I am because my husband likes me as I am, so why do I have this pressing need to lose weight?

I could go on for pages about the flaws in my reasoning. I could go on for novels about how my "pressing need to lose weight" is probably fueled almost entirely by the fact that I live in a culture where everywhere I look, I am told that I have to be a certain size to be beautiful, to be loved, to feel good about myself. And that I've let myself believe some of those lies.

I WANT to change though. I know all my reasons for wanting to change aren't all the most noble (yes, I do want to be healthier so I can live a long time and so that I can actually have a family of my own, but I also want to lose weight because I like the way I look when I'm a bit skinnier), but nevertheless, I think that whatever the reason, those desires will push me in a more positive direction than I'm at right now.

I've been reading a lot of health and exercise blogs lately (like Blogilates and Peanut Butter Runner), and as I've proved to myself time and time again, I am heavily influenced by what I read. Since starting to follow those blogs, I have been looking for more little ways to move and stay active as well as been more aware about how much junk I really do consume. I haven't made any major changes yet, but I'm hoping that getting back into the routine of school in a few weeks will act as a natural starting point to get into a better routine when it comes to my health.

But here's what I'm really thinking about---

1. I want to change up my current mindview on health and wellness (like I did 3 years ago).
2. Blogging is a great motivator for me as well as a great way to keep me accountable.
3. The book I Dare Me is inspiring me to try out new things a lot more often.

So I've got a bit of a scary proposal for myself----

At least one week each month, I want to take on a new health or exercise challenge---I'm talking going vegan for a whole week, cutting out processed sugar in all its forms, doing one form of exercise every day for 7 straight days, etc. I will announce the challenge before I do it, experience the challenge in all its glory (and pain), and then blog about that challenge when it's finished.

I've always been fascinated by diet and exercise, so I'm hoping my natural passion for the subject will fuel me through when the discipline gets tough (and that the blog will keep me accountable).

I'm scared to death to even publish this because so many of my challenges have failed before.

But I'll never know if I don't try.

Guess there's no looking back now.

To help me, I'd love it if you'd let me pick your brain for a minute. What are some diet types I could try for a week? Or some particular food challenge I could take on? Do you know of a type of exercise you would be interested in reading about? Or something related to diet and exercise that would just be entertaining to hear about someone trying out?

(If I end up taking on your challenge, I'll make sure to give your blog a shout-out! So make sure to leave your blog link below your comment if you'd like some extra traffic coming your way.)

I'm open to it all! Thanks in advance for all your help!

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Provo: Not the Armpit of the State?

When I first flew the nest and started out on my own, I somehow came up with the saying that Provo and Ogden were officially the armpits of Utah, a statement that always inevitably offended half of Utahns while simultaneously delighting the other half. This judgment was based loosely on two things:

- the few short stints (none longer than the equivalent of a week) I spent staying in Provo, and
- the stereotypes perpetuated about Provo that abound throughout the state

Granted, I seemed to find evidence of the stereotypes wherever I went. Take the most recent time I stayed down in Provo for an extended time, back in 2008---I was working at an internship in Orem (a neighboring town, for all you non-Utahns) that required me living with, mentoring, and tutoring a bunch of high school students Monday - Friday. When the weekends came, I would drive over to Provo to hang out with people who were actually my age and to check out the local scene.

Maybe it was because I was hanging out with people who went to BYU or maybe it was because the people I was with just happened to fit a lot of the stereotypes or maybe it was because I was simply looking for evidence to justify my own preconceived notions, but I clearly remember that Provo back then was EXACTLY how I pictured it---a town so saturated in Mormon culture that you could almost feel the high tension of dating, the anxiety of competing students at the university, and the overt self-righteousness almost everywhere you went.

(Seriously, the few times I've been to BYU's campus, it was like I could tangibly touch the stress of the students everywhere who were equally freaking out about grades, righteousness, and dating.)

Granted, I was 21 at the time, and more than a little naive. I tended to see what I wanted to see, and I hardly spent enough time in the area to get a good feel for it.

Maybe it's because I'm six years older now, or maybe it's because I'm here under different circumstances with an entirely different type of people around me, or maybe it's because my "photographer's" eye is getting keener, but Provo's kind of growing on me this week (a statement I never, EVER thought I would say).

Today I took a long walk after having written test questions in a 60-degree, tightly enclosed room for 8 hours. I took my camera with me and set off from the hotel, without any kind of plan in mind about where I would go, what I would do, or what I would eat for dinner. All I knew was that for once, it wasn't a billion degrees outside and that I needed to get out of the Birch Room of the Marriott (where I have already spent approximately 14 hours this week and counting).

I quickly realized that in my trips to Provo before, I had very narrowly experienced the city. I had spent mostly all my time in school-approved housing or by the campus, and I had spent all of my time with people who happened to be in the time of life many think of when they think of a typical Provo citizen--BYU students looking to get married (most of them from 21-23 years of age who had just returned home from serving missions).

Today on my walk, I thought about how each city eventually gains a reputation that seems to precede it--that makes strangers to that city pre-judge it before they ever have a chance to experience it firsthand. Whether or not this is unfair, I'm not going to say, but it's definitely true---for example, thinking of what a "New Yorker" is like will get you a totally different mental idea than what a "Nashville-ian" will. Where I live (Logan), we tend to be known as a laidback college town full of outdoorsy, almost-"granola"-ish people. Since a part of that statement is applicable to me, I've never taken offense at it, but I'm sure some city folk don't like the label that's been put on them merely because of where they live (Provo-ites included).

But moving on. On my walk today, I discovered that downtown Provo is actually downright charming---the plethora of gorgeous architecture, well-manicured gardens, and aging historical sites made me wish I could be a portrait photographer here because it would give me so many options to choose from. In fact, I almost started asking strangers to pose in pictures for me just to try out some of the various locations (although I managed to refrain from giving into that particular impulse). 

And while it's still too early for me to totally throw away my notions about what many people in Provo are all about (seeing as I haven't really talked with anyone here all week), I can definitely say that as far as the city goes, Provo is definitively not the armpit of the state anymore.

(And just for the record, I know the people here are lovely--I just had enough friends who attended BYU that I like to give them a hard time every once in awhile.)

And my absolute favorite feature of Provo so far? The fact that in my entire walk today, I didn't run across a single chain restaurant. I only came across locally-owned establishments, and ones representing about every single cuisine at that. For a foodie like me, downtown Provo seemed to be a bit of a paradise, actually.

(For the record, I ran across another pupuseria (Salvadorean restaurant) again today--"El Salvador Restaurant." While the red sauce that comes with the pupusas was a little bit better at the place I tried yesterday, I thought the quality of the pupusas at both places was excellent, and the pupusas at the place today were cheaper and bigger, making it a difficult call about which is ultimately better. Guess I'll just have to eat at them both, ha ha. Then I finished off my walk with a peach cobbler milkshake from Sammy's, which was delicious, even in spite of being a bit more milky than I like. Thanks for the recommendation, Corina!)

I was a little worried my time here this week (outside the hotel) would be insufferable, but I've definitely enjoyed myself so far. Shame on me for judging this place so hard, eh?

Out of curiosity, I want to know if you Provo-ites out there are really bugged by the stereotypes surrounding the city, or if you just think they're funny? And as for the rest of you, what is the stereotype surrounding your city? Do you agree with it?

Monday, July 28, 2014


(photo unrelated to post, but I like it so I'm posting it anyway!)

Today I woke up at five o'clock so that I could drive down to Provo for a week-long educator conference that consists of me writing standardized test questions for 8 hours a day, 5 days this week.

Today I found out that writing standardized test questions is exactly as awful and tedious as it sounds.

Today I also discovered that standardized testing companies must have all the real money when it comes to education---I get my own room at the Marriott all week, all my meals paid for, my gas reimbursed, and $100 a day. Not bad.

Today on my two-hour drive down to Utah County, I got quite the scare as a long stream of toilet paper flew across the freeway and swirled around right in front of my windshield.

Today I saw that same stream of toilet paper attached to the antenna on the back of a car, waving and flapping fifteen feet behind it like the worst kind of after-bathroom embarrassment.

Today I went on the first run in over a month that I really, truly enjoyed. The steam rising up from the pavement combined with the cold rain streaming down from the sky made for ideal running conditions.

Today, in the middle of that run, I came across the best pupuseria (Salvadorean) restaurant I've tried in the States yet (El Mexsal). Thanks for the recommendation, Leah!  

Today I came face-to-face with the reality of why I've only gained weight this summer---I really like to eat. Like a LOT. It's kind of a problem.

Today I checked into a hotel solo for the first time in my life. I've got a spacious room with two full-size beds and over 80 channels of cable t.v. 

Today I discovered that even with 80 channels, I'm still not a big t.v. watcher.

Today I started missing my husband from the second I closed our apartment door behind me at 5:30 this morning. Friday afternoon can't come soon enough.

What has your day been like? (And if anyone knows of other good places to eat in Provo--preferably not chain restaurants, I've got a $16 stipend for dinner every day and need some recommendations!)

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

On Mixing Routine & Novelty---Thanks to Rhubarb

A couple weeks back, I ordered the book I Dare Me off of Amazon, which is the true story of how Lu Ann Cahn, a woman in her mid-fifties who was feeling officially stuck in a rut, changed her life entirely by making herself try something new every single day for a year. (Side note: I don't know what it is with me and people who devote a year of their lives to doing something out of the ordinary, but I love them--exhibit A: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle; exhibit B: The Happiness Project; exhibit C: The Year of Living Biblically, which is about how humorous writer A. J. Jacobs, a self-proclaimed agnostic, spent 365 days trying to live every single commandment in the Bible, even the most obscure.)

There's something simultaneously fascinating and motivating to me about reading stories of people who have taken deep plunges into unusual territory in order to try and snag a breakthrough.

I don't think I'll ever get sick of the genre.

Anyway, I'm about a third of the way into I Dare Me, and without consciously meaning to, I've discovered myself constantly looking for opportunities to try new things, from the hike we attempted last Saturday to one of the new-ish restaurants in town, which we've already eaten at twice in about 4 days. Without fail, these experiences have invigorated me and have opened up some interesting conversations between Matt and I as well.

(For instance, he admitted that he almost always needs an outside push to go outside of his routine and comfort zone, whereas I'm often going stir-crazy because I need something new to happen, and stat.)

All these conversations have got me thinking a lot about balance---balance between routine and novelty, between the so-called "mundane" and the out-of-the-ordinary. While I've been renewed by trying at least 4 new things in the last 5 days, I've also felt longings to curl up with the more familiar in order to recuperate a bit. So, although I've learned that I definitely NEED some novelty a little more than many people, I've also learned that I will more often than not need a good amount of time spent in my comfort zone right after.

That's why trying out new recipes is so great for me---while working with new ingredients and trying out a new recipe is always somewhat of a risk, it combines the new (recipe or ingredients) with the comfort of the familiar (cooking).

Confession: before this week, I don't think I'd ever tried rhubarb. I know for a FACT that I for sure had never cooked with it. Sure, I always had lots of opportunities to eat a rhubarb pie or try some rhubarb jam, but it was hard for me to go ahead and check it out when there were already tried-and-true favorites alongside them. (I think it has something to do with the fact that I sometimes unconsciously seem to have a scarcity complex when it comes to food---even though I know there will be many other times to eat cupcakes or come back to a restaurant or make a totally unusual dish, I find it hard to sacrifice THIS particular time to try something unknown or give up a chance to eat chocolate cupcakes when I have proven time and again that the usual choice is perfectly satisfactory and that just in case I never get the opportunity to again, I better make sure I enjoy THIS particular time by choosing something I've done before and enjoyed. I don't know if that makes sense to you, but that's how it is.)

But last Saturday, Matt and I went to the local farmer's market to see if there were any apricots to satisfy my cravings for them (which always seem to start up around mid-July), and I saw some gorgeous red and green stalks of rhubarb stacked up high in piles and rubber-banded together that were being passed reverently from farmer to consumer in paper bags, their leaves slightly wilting out the top.

I'd never eaten rhubarb (much less cooked with it), but I wanted something new, and I wanted it now. 

It took me a couple days to work up the courage to try it, but luckily, I stumbled across a great recipe for a rhubarb galette while reading this blog. The recipe seemed to be a good blend of the unfamiliar and the comfortable, and while I waited for Matt to come home from work one night, I decided to take the plunge.

The odor of the stalks as I sliced into them tickled my nose with their unfamiliarity, and I was caught in that space between thrill at the new-ness of it all and disgust that it was a smell I didn't recognize. I knew that rhubarb was technically a vegetable that was often sweetened to taste like a fruit, but it didn't take away from the strange feeling that I was making a sugar-coated veggie pot pie.

And even though my tart looked about perfect coming out of the oven, it still took me about half an hour to work up the courage to try a bite:

What if I hated it and I'd spent all this time for nothing?

When Matt finally did get home, I poured myself a glass of freshly-bought milk, cut myself a slice of the galette, and prepared to be disappointed.

Luckily for me (as is often the case when trying new things), I was delighted---the cinnamon-and-nutmeg-laced mixture tasted slightly like some fabulously new kind of decadent apple pie, and I was pleased that the rhubarb stalks (which, in their texture, reminded me so much of celery) had been cooked into creamy submission by chilling in a concoction of sugar and flour and baking for an hour at 350 degrees.

In short, I found out that while I may not *quite* be ready for trying something new every single day, I am ready for more novelty than I often let myself have (something I should have realized from the Change It Up Challenge I did a few years back).

And now, thanks to that knowledge, I know that I apparently love rhubarb.

What's your favorite way of preparing rhubarb? What's the next challenge I should take on with it? (And does anyone know of a time when rhubarb is treated more as a vegetable--like in a savory dish--than as a fruit?)

Monday, July 21, 2014

Top 5 Tips for Better Vacation Photos

I have always been a bit obsessed with taking pictures---it was an obsession that started with the disposable cameras of my girls' camp days that has continued (with ever increasing enthusiasm) to my latest DSLR purchase. In my friend circle growing up, I was generally the one who could be counted on to capture everything on camera and share it with everyone later (I still have over 10 photo albums I took from my junior high and high school days alone). Now, as my natural affinity with photography becomes even stronger, I find myself intent on documenting everything I can, from the small moments of everyday life to the momentous occasions that come around only every now and then. 

Through the years, I've definitely picked up on some tricks and tips that have helped the quality of my photos immensely. Today I'll do you the favor of passing some of those along to you (using the photos from my family's recent vacation to Bear Lake to illustrate).

Top 5 Tips for Better Vacation Photos

1. Get Closer

In this pic below, you'll notice that I have a nice photo-worthy moment, but that the picture is only so-so. One of the easiest ways to make most any photo better is to get closer to your subject, especially if you have a lot of space around them in the frame of the picture (that isn't that exciting to look at).

See what a difference getting a little closer makes? You can more easily see the expressions on their faces, and by crouching down at their level, I'm also able to fix the space surrounding them so it's a little more interesting than in the photo before.

Here are a couple other shots that are better because I simply got closer to the main subject(s).

2. Take pictures at different angles (or "levels").

This picture of my handsome husband would not have been nearly as interesting had I taken it from the standing position. Since he was crouched down by his mud creations, I wanted to crouch down as well to take the picture in order to more fully capture the detail of his "little mud city." Had I taken the photo from above (where my natural vantage point was), I would have missed out on the detail of what he'd been working on in the sand, and his gaze/facial expression wouldn't have been nearly as eye-catching.

There are certainly times when you'll want to take a picture from above or below the subject as well. When in doubt of which level to take the picture from, try taking one from all angles and see which works best. After awhile, your instincts will just know whether it's better to take it from above, from the subject's eye level, or even from below the subject looking up.

Here's an example of a slightly different angle---I wanted my nephew to look as small as he was (since I love pictures of adults helping children), so I took the picture just above my sister's level so that it clearly showed the grown-up/child dynamic. Had I stooped down and taken the picture looking up at my sister, the effect would have been completely different---it would have been more like I was taking a photo as seen through a child's perspective.

3. Take the time to edit your photos.

With so many free photo editing tools (like the various Instagram filters, the popular site PicMonkey, or the free Photoshop-like program GIMP), there is no excuse not to do some post-processing work on your pictures.

Check out these before and afters:

 My favorite programs for editing are Adobe Photoshop Elements (a much cheaper version of Photoshop that has most of the same main features of Photoshop but costs a fraction of the price--I got mine for only about $60) and Adobe Lightroom, which you can get for about $80 if you find a good discount and that allows you to automatically apply certain changes (called "presets") upon importing your photos into the program. So if you find that you do a lot of the same changes on most images (lighten shadows, increase contrast and sharpness, etc.), then you can save all those changes as one preset and apply it to all images when you import them in. It's a HUGE time saver!

 4. Look for "Mirroring"

Often, humans will "mirror" each other's actions without even realizing it. Some of my favorite pictures are candid (non-posed) shots of people subtly mirroring each other through facial expression, body positioning, etc. Obviously, this means you need to be on the lookout constantly for those moments, but the parallels between subjects really unify an image.

5. Use the Rule of Thirds.

This is the hardest compositional rule to get the hang of (I'm definitely still working on this!), but the Rule of Thirds basically means that you visually divide a photo into thirds, both from left to right and from top to bottom. The most interesting photos usually don't place the subject in the obvious center (or if they do, they have leading lines coming from the left third and the right third that lead up to the middle subject).

Because in the Western world, we read from left to right, many of the most visually interesting photos we take have the main subject in the right third of the frame.

See how the photo below has a subject in each third of the frame going from left to right, with the most eye-grabbing subject in the right-hand third?

Here's another example where the "subject" is in the right-hand frame:

Here are two more examples (notice how in the photo on the left, the photo is in thirds going from top to bottom and that the photo on the right has no subject in the middle but two subjects at "intersection" points between thirds, which is another good strategy).

Just as a note, the subject doesn't always have to be off-center to be interesting. In the photo below on the left, the fact that the shot is so close to the subject makes it interesting, and with the shot on the right, the lines of the water and horizon and sand in the background make it more interesting.

There are a ton more tricks and tips for taking photos, but these are some of my favorites. Hope you found some of them helpful!

Any more tips you have for taking great vacation photos?
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