Minding Pavlov

We all know about Pavlov, yes? The dude with the drooly dogs.droolingdog

So, really, what happened was this: In the late 1890’s Pavlov was researching digestion and so he had a bunch of dogs and he was measuring their saliva to see how much they produced and at what point in eating. The dogs were doing something weird though. They would start producing saliva before they were fed. Weird.

Pavlov noticed that and said to himself, “Hm.” Here I imagine that he scratched his beard thoughtfully, because that is the gesture that accompanies discovery, “Perhaps they are only smelling the food.”

So, he sent in the lab technician who was feeding the dogs without any food for them. They still salivated.

Being a scientist, he said, “A-ha! Something strange is happening. We will investigate it in excruciating detail and build a life’s work around it.”

The rest is history involving drooling dogs and ringing bells.

Though his work Pavlov became the father of a school of psychology known as behaviorism, which holds that all behaviors are a response to stimuli that are reinforced by a reward. So, in practice, the pattern reduces to: Stimulus -> Response -> Reward. Which eventually will reduce to Stimulus -> Response in the anticipation of the reward.

Why do I care about a dude with a drooling dog?

Because I do things. Some of them are healthy; some of them are  not healthy, and some of them are totally inexplicable.

See, at the advice of a doctor, I’ve been investigating mindfulness meditation. The basic idea here is to let go of other thoughts and just really pay attention to just what is. Let go of the five trillion things that are stressing you out and just pay attention to exactly how your body feels in this second. You might be surprised what you uncover. Sitting here for a few seconds, listening to my body, it is telling me that I am slightly sore from yesterday’s work-out, I am stiff with tension because I’ve been pulled away from what I want to do (write this post) about a dozen times, and very slightly hungry.   So, with that in mind, I consciously relax my body, and think about what I might have to eat. And breath. There is a lot of breathing. And focusing on breathing.

Most of us rarely really breathe. Especially those of us with young, high intensity children. If you breathe they will ask you for something, so you hold your breath. Don’t, they ask you for things anyway.

Part of this mindfulness though, has been paying attention. To the food that I eat and how I feel when I eat it. To the things that I do and how I feel doing them. To my motivations. To my exhaustion.  To tension in my shoulders and back and jaw. To my habits and responses.

It was at that point in my mindfulness that I remembered Pavlov.

Mindfulness has been allowing me to pay attention and notice (without judgement against myself) my responses.

For instance, I frequently overeat.

Paying attention to the texture of the food, it’s colors, flavors and sensations has led me to pay attention to my body’s sensation of fullness. I noticed something. I frequently overeat. My body will begin to tell me it is full about half way through my average portion. Half-way. That means that I’m eating more than twice as much as I should.

After paying attention for a week, I noticed that I usually do this at dinner.  Stranger still, I wasn’t really enjoying the extra food. I didn’t really want to feel that full and, despite the fact that I cook delicious food, once my appetite was sated, I didn’t really like the taste enough to continue eating. So, why was I still eating?

Dinner is when all of the stress of the day has culminated. I’ve excercised willpower and self-control and patience all day. I am at my low ebb. It is also the witching hour. Fiona is at her lowest, her neediest, her most difficult. She is at this point:

And, the one exception I make to taking care of the dishes, and the bath, and the stories, and the everything, is that during dinner I get to sit and eat.  By paying attention, being mindful, I realized that I wasn’t eating because I want food. I was eating because I wanted to sit and not meet the needs and expectations of anyone other than myself.

Ah-ha! This is why I care about drooling dogs. I had a conditioned response.

Stimulus: Long stressful day.

Response: Overeat at dinner.

Reward: Longer patch of time where I could be still and not hold myself accountable to other people.

Now that I know I can begin to change my conditioning. What if I let myself have that extra time without the extra food? What if I give myself a quiet half-hour earlier in the day? What things can I do to break that cycle?

I’m beginning to pay attention to my conditioning. I’m minding Pavlov.


Ninja Brownies

BeetpicFiona is three. She likes sugar. She likes chocolate. Some days, she flat refuses to eat anything resembling nutritious food. She is actually pretty typical for a kid. She’d like a steady diet of gummies, cookies, and juice. Punctuated with the occasional piece of heavily sugared cinnamon toast.

With that in mind, I wish I had my camera in hand when I’d opened a can of beets yesterday.

She had been very excited to come help me cook and I think she thought that I was pulling a dirty trick. (Actually, she burst into tears and declared that she’d never eat those, they were yucky!)  Like I explained to her, though, beets are sneaky. Beets are the ninjas of the root vegetable world. They can hide in some pretty yummy food and you’d never even know that they’re there.

After all, that can of beets helped make this plate of brownies. BrownieBars

Given that she ate about four of them before I cut her off, I’d say that they’re yummy and that she will indeed eat beets.

(This recipe is one that I created.)

Ninja Brownies

Preheat oven to 350F.

  • 1 Can unsalted Beets (Drained throughly and mashed)
  • 1/3 Cup Crisco
  • 3/4 Cup granulated Sugar
  • 1/4 Cup packed brown Sugar
  • 2 c. flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/2 c. cocoa powder
  • 1/2 cup chocolate chips

Grease and flour square baking pan. Set aside.

In a large bowl cream the Crisco and sugar. Blend in the beets and mix until well combined.

Without stirring, add the flour, salt, baking soda and cocoa powder. Mix until soft dough forms.

Add chocolate chips and mix until combined.

Flour your hands (so the dough doesn’t stick to them) and gently press the dough into the baking pan to form a level surface.

Bake for 20 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

Cool, cut into squares, and watch with amusement as your family enjoys the nutritious addition of beets to their diet.

Patience Cake

Have you ever baked anything with a little kid?

Fiona’s birthday party is on Saturday. She’ll be turning three. Now, I’m of the variety of parent that is, if the truth were told, entirely lazy. If I had choices in the matter we would be buying a sheet cake from the local grocery store bakery and I would not be involved in the baking or frosting process, except in a debit card capacity.

Unfortunately for me, but not for our party guests, Fiona’s food allergies preclude the easy answer. For giggles some time, try telling an underpaid bakery employee that you want to order a cake with no milk, butter, eggs, cornstarch, or corn syrup in it. Their expression is worth the few seconds it takes to ask.

So, how, you ask, is a cake made with very few of the commonly necessary ingredients?

It goes like this:

You will need:

1 large bowl
Measuring spoons and cups
1 mixing spoon
1 spatula
1 electric mixer
2 9in round pans
1 small sauce pan

2 cups flour
2 cups sugar
1 cup cocoa powder, plus a small amount.
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 cup almond milk
2 tbsp flax ground flax-seed
2/3 cup oil
2 tbsp vanilla
1 bottle of red wine

Infinite patience, a roll of paper towels, one helper under the age of six.

First turn on the oven to 350F.  Remind the small child that this means that the stove is hot and she will get burned if she touches it. Grease both of your cake pans and powder them with cocoa powder.

Combine flax-seed with 6 Tbsp of water in sauce pan. Heat on stove over medium heat, stirring as often as possible while reminding your helper not to dump the whole container of baking soda in the bowl because you’ll need some for the cake. Move the sugar so that your helper stops sticking her fingers in it. Turn off the heat and move the pan when the flax-seed goo starts to resemble the way raw egg whites separate when you stir it away from the pan. You have created two eggs.

Retrieve another bowl or convince your helper to empty her creation into the sink. Combine flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, and salt in the bowl. Measure carefully and allow your helper to dump each ingredient into the bowl. Remind your helper not to eat the sugar, because it needs to be in the cake.  Stir in milk, oil, and vanilla. Finally stir in your flax-seed goo.

Use the electric mixer to blend the ingredients until smooth.  Remind your helper not to stick her fingers in the mixer. Try not to panic when she tries to anyway. Scrap batter evenly into both cake pans. Bake at 350F for 30 minutes or until a dry spaghetti stick inserted into the cake comes out clean.

Remove the cakes from the oven and turn out onto cooling racks. Remind your helper that the cake is for the party and she may not eat it right now. Even if she sees the cake and immediately goes to the silverware drawer and come back with a fork clenched in her little hand and a delighted grin on her face.

Now, if your anything like me (it’s okay, I understand that you’re probably better adjusted), then by the time you reach this step you’re pretty frazzled. It’s okay. This is the last and final step, pour yourself a glass of wine and wait until tomorrow to frost the cake.

Healthy vs. Normal

I know that I write about the things that I learned in therapy almost alarmingly often, but I keep coming back to this one. When I first started therapy, I kept walking into my therapists office saying things like, “I don’t know what normal feels like.”

I think that after a few dozen iterations of this Auralee, The Worlds Best Therapist™, said, “Stop focusing on normal. Normal isn’t necessarily a good thing. It’s time to change the way you look at the world. Stop trying to be normal. Start trying to be healthy.”

It’s a weird juxtaposition. Healthy vs. Normal. In so many ways I’ve been able to take that advice and run with it. It allows me to stop the comparisons with the people around me and start focusing on the best outcome for me personally.

I’ve applied it to my self talk, though it’s still not healthy it’s better than it was. I’ve applied it to my relationships, friendships and romantic. I’ve learned how to apply it to the balance between work and home. I’ve used that set point to change so many things in my life.

I’m starting to realize that I need to apply it to food and exercise too. I weigh over 200 pounds. I have an unhealthy, but alarmingly, normal relationship with food and exercise. Unfortunately, my body can’t handle a “normal” relationship with food and exercise.

I eat because I’m bored. I eat because I’m lonely. I eat because food tastes good. I eat because I don’t sleep and it makes me feel energetic. I eat because food is a social event. I use food as a reward.

I need to develop a healthy relationship with food and exercise. I need to do it for me, and also for my daughter.

My ability to be healthy will effect hers.

I need to make changes. I need to figure out what healthy looks like and pursue it. I need to do so in the same healthy way that I’ve learned to make all the other changes. I need to do it with compassion and dedication. That means no cheat days. That means no giving up. That means that a mistake is an isolated mistake, it’s not universal failure. There is no such thing as failure. There is only learning.

***** I wrote that first part two weeks ago. *****

Since then I’ve been trying. I’ve been painting instead of eating in the evening, calling a friend instead of snacking, eating smaller amounts and acknowledging that my body doesn’t require a lot of fuel to function.

I’ve been redefining the difference between activity and exercise. Activity is doing stuff. Exercise is actively pursuing greater strength or endurance. Activity is living life in a way that is  filled with movement.

I’ve lost five pounds in those two weeks.

It’s not a lot, but I did it in a way that is healthy. I did it in a way that is sustainable. If I had to keep living my life this way for the rest of my life, I could. I don’t feel deprived. I get to eat with my family. I get to have coffee in the morning. I get to enjoy the occasional drink with my husband (mmmm…. homemade mojitos).

I also get to meet friends in the park. Go for walks with my husband and daughter. Dig in my garden. Take my Little Fishy swimming. And none of those things are exercise. They are just activity. They are just a part of life.

Changing the way I think about food is hard. I have some bad habits and some devastating emotional attachments to food. Food is not my friend. Food is not my enemy either. Food is just food.

Food is not a reward either. I don’t “deserve” chocolate. I’m not a dog. I will not demean myself by rewarding myself with food. I won’t demean the healthy choices I’m making by “rewarding” myself for them at all.

Choosing to be healthy doesn’t need a reward. The rewards are built-in. Weight loss necessitates new clothes. Exercise builds energy. Eating right makes me feel better. Not eating in the evening means that I have more time to paint and write.

Healthy vs. Normal. The goal is healthy.

Sugar is dangerous.

Food is yummy. Especially chocolate.  Despite this, we’re trying, as a family to eat healthier. I pretty much like most foods, though. I do draw the line at one of Fiona’s creations, chocolate almond milk over Cheerios. Yuck! But, she seems to like it so I usually allow it, as a treat.

I don’t allow it as a replacement for the turkey sandwich that she asked for less than five minutes ago. Just… No. My main reason being that it takes more than sugar to power a growing little girl.

I tried explaining this.

“Fiona, Sweetheart, you have to eat your turkey sandwich. You need the healthy energy in it. You need the protein in it. You can’t have the chocolate milk, it’s full of sugar. Sugar is tasty, but we can only eat a little bit of it or else we feel icky.”

She looked at me and frowned, “Sugar make me feel icky?”

I nodded, happy that my point was getting through to her, “That’s right!”

“Oh.” She said, “If I eat sugar I be on fire!”

“What? No!” I said, wondering where she got that, “No, you’ll just feel icky.”

“No. I eat sugar I be on fire. I burst right in flames!” She nodded emphatically. “I have a cookie?”

I’m really not sure what to say to that. It’s so far astray that I’m pretty sure that the path got turned into a cactus and we’re actually on a space-shuttle to our new home on mars. “No, you can’t have a cookie. Would you like regular milk on Cheerios or would you like your sandwich?”

I learned something today. Sugar is far more dangerous than I could have possibly imagined. Evidently, it causes spontaneous combustion in creative toddlers.

Trust Your Child

There is really nothing worse than having your kid in pain and not being able to make it better. Or, rather, there is and I count myself blessed that I haven’t had to go through it.

My daughter was sick over the weekend and seemed to be on the mend until last night. Last night, she spent about 4 hours wailing and arching and thrashing trying to get away from pain in her stomach.

It reminded me so very much of her first year. She spent most nights her first year trying desperately to get sleep, despite the pain.

I talked to our first doctor two weeks after she was born and said there was a problem. Something was wrong. I was told that there wasn’t, some babies just cry.

I said again at our six-week appointment that something was wrong. I was questioned about my own state of mind and sent home with the words, “Babies cry, she’s fine. You may just need to let her cry. Call us if you want to talk about anxiety and depression.”

I cut all dairy out of my diet.  It helped some. We went from sleeping for less than 20 minutes at a stretch to sleeping for up to 40 minutes if she was held.

At six months when we started to introduce foods we noticed more patterns start to emerge. Strawberries caused a rash. Cinnamon caused the worst diaper rash I’ve ever seen.

At a year, we found that she couldn’t have soy because it caused stomach pain, diarrhea, and rashes. Milk products caused projectile vomiting. Eggs caused hives and wheezing.

But through it all we didn’t sleep. We slept in snatches and we slept together. I trusted my daughter. The doctors kept telling me that she was “just in the habit of waking up” and that I should let her cry. I told them they were wrong, she was in pain and it was their job to figure it out.

The doctors fought me. They didn’t want to check. They didn’t want to do tests. They told me that she was gaining weight and hitting her developmental milestones and that was all that mattered.

I couldn’t seem to get anyone to value her well-being. No one seemed to care that she was in pain. When we weaned at 13 months, because I needed a medicine that could have damaged her liver, it got worse again. Coconut milk was giving her rashes, rice milk left her with painful constipation, and the prescription formula was the worst.

My friend, Chris, watched her one afternoon and called to ask if poop was supposed to look like coffee grounds. The answer is no, it’s not. That’s blood.

I got the doctors to test for allergies and to run a scope into her stomach. They found an allergy to eggs and nothing else. The doctor said that she probably had irritable bowel syndrome and not to worry unless she stopped gaining weight and that she was probably just waking up because it was a habit.

I, again, chose to believe my daughter. She was learning to talk and would wake up repeating, “Owie, Owie, Owie!” while holding her stomach.

We went back to rice milk. She screamed every time she pooped. She refused to poop unless I was there. It was too scary to be in that much pain without her Mommy there to hold her.

Finally we found our answers. We were having dinner with friends and they served corn-on-the-cob. I gave a piece to Fiona, only to have her face break out in an instant rash.

Oh! Corn is everything! Corn-syrup solids are the main ingredient in even the prescription formula.

We cut out corn, corn-starch, corn-syrup, all of it. And we switched her to Almond milk to reduce constipation. Within days we had a totally new child. She stopped crying. She started sleeping. She stopped clinging to me and started exploring her world. She was happy.

She was also not in pain for the first time in her life.

Last night made me think of all this. Made me remember all that we’ve been through to get to a point that she can eat, and sleep, and live without pain.  I feel so bad for her, but so very glad that she is my child.

This morning we’re a little worse for the wear. She’s clingy and I’m tired. It’s probably going to be a little bit of a rough day.  I also went label reading to see if I missed something and sure enough, those hamburger buns have milk and the second to last ingredient in the new cookies is cinnamon.

I think the point of writing all this out is that, no matter how hard you advocate for you child (and there were times where I was taking her to the doctors weekly and calling them daily), there will be times when the experts will not listen to you. They will not believe your child. They will tell you not to trust your child.

Ignore them. Trust your child. If you’re wrong, you’ve lost some sleep. If they’re wrong, you’ve left your child in alone to endure pain.

Lessons in Chili Powder

I had been upstairs making a to do list for getting the house cleaned and I came downstairs to a couch absolutely covered in chili powder. Quiet two-year-olds are always into mischief.

“Did you put chili powder all over the couch?!?” I demanded, my voice rising with frustration. Then I looked at her face. It fell. She had been so happy.

“Yes.” She said in a quiet voice.

I looked at the couch in frustration. She watched my face. At almost exactly the moment that I noticed the small bowl and measuring teaspoon, she fled the room bawling. I followed her, “It’s okay, Sweetheart. It’s okay. Mommy’s not mad.”

She sniffed, “You not mad?”

I petted her head, “Nope. I’m not mad. You were just trying to cook, right?”

“Right.” She smiled at me through her tears, “I be a mommy. I cook burritos.”

“It’s okay.” I say, hugging her to me. “It’s a little messy for the couch though. Next time let’s keep the chili powder in the kitchen.”

She started crying again. “I mess on couch. I kitchen. I cook kitchen.”

“It’s okay, Baby. It’s okay! We can clean it up. Do you want to help me clean it up? We can use the vacuum.” I try to reassure and entice her.

“We clean up?” She asked me still teary-eyed. She brightened to her normal sunny self, “Okay! That’s awesome!”

Looking at the couch, she looked up at me and said, “I made big, big mess! I sorry.”

“Did you have fun?” I asked her.

“Yes. I cooked. I like Mommy.” She smiled at me.

“You are!” I agreed. “We can clean up the mess. What’s important is that we have fun and learn things and clean up after ourselves when we’re done.”

So, we vacuumed and wiped down the coffee table and lamp.

We both learned a lot from a little bit of chili powder.

She learned that messes can be cleaned and not to be afraid to make them. She learned that cooking happens in the kitchen. She learned to clean up after herself. She learned that Mommy doesn’t punish her, or get mad, when she makes mistakes.

I learned that my every word and expression count. I am the most important person to that amazing, intelligent, sensitive little girl and I have to weigh what I say and do against that.  I learned that looking at the world a second longer can make all the difference in the world. It’s easy to miss little bits of evidence and attribute things to naughtiness that are simply development. I learned that it’s easy to vacuum chili powder out of a couch.