Penman No. 30: Music to Lose Weight by

Penman for Monday, Jan. 21, 2013

AS I’VE been reporting lately, I’ve lost quite a bit of weight since my doctor ordered me six months ago to take brisk walks and go on a sensible diet to fight the onset of Type-2 diabetes. I seem to have hit the wall at a weight loss of 45 pounds, but I guess I should be happy where I am, in the low 170s. With my blood sugar in the 100 range and my blood pressure steady at around 110/80, I’m a whole lot better off than where I was a year ago—and, I suspect, than many men my age.

But this isn’t about cholesterol, triglycerides, and all that; rather, it’s about another unexpected side benefit to all this huffing and puffing. Because I take 30-minute to one-hour walks around the UP Academic Oval several times a week, I’ve rediscovered all the music I’d stored away in my iTunes. I have about 2,000 songs all in all—apparently not much by the standards of today’s kids, some of whom I’ve seen to profess having 10,000 songs in their playlists (of which, I’m pretty sure, 9,900 will sound all the same to me).

As you can imagine, most of my music is made up of what seniors know as “standards”—vintage pieces from the likes of Doris Day and Bing Crosby that can put a 20-something to sleep in 30 seconds, the kind of music you’ll hear on FM radio at 2 pm. Of course I have the complete Beatles collection (and could probably sing 80 percent of it from memory), a boatload of Broadway, Sinatra from here to eternity, Michel Legrand in both English and French, opera like I knew Italian, enough bossa nova to make me wish I knew Portuguese, and instrumentals from the likes of Jackie Gleason (yes, he was also a bandleader). Henry “Pink Panther” Mancini, and Toots Thielemans, who can make a harmonica sound like a love letter with your address on the envelope.

I do have quite a few new songs—but “new” to me usually means something 20 or 30 years old. Instead of Linkin Park, I have Led Zeppelin; instead of the Eraserheads, I have Heber Bartolome and Banyuhay. OK, I have a couple of songs by Journey (what else but “Open Arms” and “Faithfully”) and one by INXS (“Afterglow”) but no Nirvana, no hip-hop, nothing to disturb my hard-won equanimity or my illusion that the world is anything but an ordered whole.

It’s that old-guy sense of order and purpose that drives my left foot in front of the right and the right in front of the left, for 2.2 kilometers around the oval until I reach the Oblation and then do it all over again. I have to believe that all of this exertion will actually mean or bring something good, and for that I need emphatically optimistic music.

Broadway, I find, best puts me in this mood. If anything—from Carousel to Les Miserables—Broadway’s been built on selling the power of love and the indomitability of the human spirit, so you could whistle a happy tune and never walk alone and look to the rainbow and be sure that the sun will come out tomorrow. I might start with something light like “Dites Moi” from South Pacific or “Question Me an Answer” from Lost Horizon, progress to something more dramatic like “We Kiss in A Shadow” from The King and I or “If Ever I Would Leave You” from Camelot, and then push myself for another turn around the oval with something truly rousing like “On the Street Where You Live” from My Fair Lady or “There Is Nothing Like a Dame” from South Pacific. I’m singing all of these in my head, but being deaf to the world with my noise-canceling earphones on (not the smartest idea on the open road), I’m sure—from the strange looks I get from people I pass by—that I’m making noises I’m not hearing.

Next to Broadway, my two favorite genres are Latin music and OPM. I don’t really speak anything more than schoolboy Spanish (thank God for the old Spanish Law, which of course all of us detested in our time), but whenever I listen to someone like Luis Miguel, I find myself feeling foolishly sorry that we kicked those Spaniards out. I have eight versions of “Sabor a Mi” in my iTunes, and savor both Andrea Bocelli’s and Ennio Morricone’s versions of “Amapola” (which Morricone used for the soundtrack of Once Upon a Time in America). Speaking of Morricone, how could anyone resist “Gabriel’s Oboe” from The Mission, especially when it’s Yo Yo Ma doing the honors? And speaking of Yo Yo Ma, how much sweeter can a cello get than on “Doce de Coco” from his Brazilian album?

Ah, Brasil, where hearts were entertaining June, and we stood beneath an amber moon…. I’ve told my wife June (also known as Beng) that when I croak, the kind of music I’ll want at my wake will be that of Antonio Carlos Jobim, especially “Desafinado.” There’s something in the gentle insistence of the bossa nova that speaks to my own temperament. And here I have to bring up one of my favorite divas (aside from the inimitable Barbra and our own Sharon—yes, I’m an unabashed Sharonian)—the Japanese-Brazilian chanteuse Lisa Ono, whose “Pretty World” never fails to add some lift to my shoes.

For something more soulful I’d turn to Laura Fygi’s “Abrazame”—and it may be an odd way of looking at these ladies, but if Laura Fygi and Lisa Ono’s voices were like ink, Laura’s would shade to purple and Lisa’s to green. To top off my Latin section, no single album gets more airplay in the car or in my earphones than the soundtrack of Woman on Top, which has an upbeat vibe you can listen to all the way to Baguio. (I was playing it in the car once while driving around Pampanga, and everyone with me wanted a copy.)

And did I say OPM? Much as I may appreciate exotic melodies like “Dein ist mein ganzes herz” or “Les moulins de mon coeur,” they can’t get me going like Sharon’s “I-Swing Mo Ako” or “Bituing Walang Ningning.” When I’m rounding that long bend around the Sunken Garden and am tempted to linger under the acacias for a lick of sweet sorbetes, I strengthen my resolve by drawing on “Sana’y Wala Nang Wakas”: “Kahit na ilang tinik ay kaya kong tapakan, kung iyan ang paraan upang landas mo’y masundan… Kahit ilang dagat ang dapat tawirin, higit pa riyan ang aking gagawin!

And that—plus a lot of kangkong and hasa-hasa in sour broth—was how I lost 45 pounds in six months.

Penman No. 16: Promises to Keep

Penman for Monday, October 15, 2012

AS YOU read this, Beng and I should be in the US, on a sem-break visit to family (my mother, daughter, and sister, and Beng’s sister). I’ll also be attending and speaking at the International Conference on the Philippines in East Lansing, Mich., about which you’ll hear more from me next week.

This trip’s an annual pilgrimage we all look forward to, despite the sacks of loose change it entails. The two or three weeks Beng and I spend every October in the States virtually guarantees penury at year’s end, but we’ve learned not to mind. For me, the whole point of working my butt off is to save enough so we can buy time together, which is never a waste of money. I’d rather have a trove of happy memories than a hefty savings account, and Beng absolutely agrees, so we’ve been blithely footloose and spendthrift. Curtailed by the fact that we’ve never had enough to be truly extravagant, we’ve had great fun scouring the antique malls of San Diego, feasting on hotdogs in Coney Island, and hunting for bargains in the thrift shops of Virginia.

The eating part of this trip has always been a highlight for me—and you could have seen it in my stocky frame—but this time around, my Stateside folks are in for a surprise. A new Butch is coming to town, less 35 pounds of excess baggage mainly around the waist, and with worn-out walking shoes in his luggage. He won’t be sneaking out to Walgreen’s for a six-pack of Coke or Coors and a gallon of ice cream; ridiculously—if you knew him at all—he’ll be sipping tea and munching carrot sticks, doing his gritty darnedest to resist the lure of the steaks smoking in the backyard.

This visit’s going to be a test of my new resolve—which I manifested a few weeks ago, after being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes—to lose weight by eating right and exercising as the doctor ordered.

Like I said then, I knew I had it coming. Writers lead notoriously, pigheadedly unhealthy lifestyles. Not only are we bound to our desks most of the time; we’re tethered, physically and psychologically, to bottles of beer and packs of cigarettes.

T. S. Eliot was a chronic smoker and eventually died of emphysema; so was Dylan Thomas, who also loved booze and drank himself to death (famously telling a friend after a binge: “I’ve had 18 straight whiskies. I think that’s the record”—and it probably was). The death wish appeals to the romantic in us, to our inner Poe (who, doctors now say, may have actually died of rabies and not alcoholism). Here at home, I’ve had writer-friends who openly flaunted that death wish; they lived on the edge, and died there.

Me, my days as a devilish Dylan are over. I used to smoke four packs of Marlboros a day—count them, 80 loaded pistols, with an open pack in my shirt pocket and another one in my pants, the easier to grab a stick when you needed one—until Beng and I decided to quit, cold turkey, about 17 years ago. I haven’t had one puff since, although I still get the occasional craving, and wake up feverishly from a dream (a most pleasurable one, I must admit) of having smoke curl through my parched lungs. I still think it’s one of the smartest decisions I ever made, next to marrying Beng, but quitting smoking came with a downside—I regained my appetite, which morphed into another monster, and somewhere along the way I ballooned from about 160 to nearly 220 pounds.

Also, until recently, I could and did drink up to ten bottles of beer in one sitting, proudly if foolishly remaining amiable and ambulant after the fact. In between beers, I tanked up on Coke—about three cans of the sweet syrup a day, to go with snacks and meals. It’s funny how I could write of other people having death wishes, when I was effectively living through one myself.

Well, I haven’t had a Coke in three months, and only about four or five bottles of beer in that same time. Stranger still, my food cravings are gone. I take a brisk 3-to-6-kilometer walk around the UP Academic Oval once or twice a day, and when my stamina flags, I just try to think of every pound lost as another day saved to spend with Beng and Demi. (The incorrigible techie, I use a free Nike app on my iPhone to track distance traveled by GPS, and to count calories burned.)

I still go on my poker all-nighters, but now I use the time between hands to surf on my phone and keep up with the news and discussions on the diabetes and dieting sites. (My newest discoveries: eating 2,000 calories or less a day will enable weight loss; exercising before breakfast is good, because it burns fat rather than carbs, which your sleeping body nibbled on all night; don’t skip breakfast after working out; you also need carbs for serotonin, which keeps you smiling.) I’ve learned to chew my food, manage my portions, count calories, and read the labels.

I had the deepest, sweetest satisfaction the other day when I sent over six pairs of my khaki pants with 40-inch waists to the neighborhood tailor for alteration, down to a smarter 36. The repairs cost me P450, but I’d gladly pay thousands more if I had to send them back after a few months to be trimmed by another couple of inches.

I know I’m far from being out of the woods, and of how easy it is to backslide. Anyone can lose weight fast—and naturally that became my early obsession—but keeping it off and feeling good about it is going to be the bigger struggle. (You know you’re not alone when you type in a search term in Google and it auto-completes the form three words away from finishing what you had in mind. Some time ago, I punched in “lose beer belly…” and something like “lose beer belly fastest way” came up, as though the machine had read my mind.)

But if America has burgers and Slurpees, it also has miles and miles of wooded walks, and that’s what I’ll be going for this time. Although he meant going to the woods in another sense, Robert Frost might as well have written these lines for me: “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep / But I have promises to keep / And miles to go before I sleep…”

ON ANOTHER note, I was deeply saddened to hear of the passing of two friends in the arts. The first was a shocker—Nonoy Buncio, a passionate art collector and a Botong Francisco connoisseur, was shot by unidentified gunmen while on duty as a Quezon City official tasked with clearing up the chronic congestion on Commonwealth Avenue. If they only knew how deeply Nonoy, a committed socialist, loved his country and his people.

The other friend who passed away was celebrated film director Marilou Diaz-Abaya, for whom I had the privilege of writing a script (for the 1994 movie that came to be retitled “Ikalabing-Isang Utos: Mahalin Mo, Asawa Mo,” which I’d somewhat more sedately but perhaps uncommercially called “Sylvia, Susan, Soledad”). Among the many directors I’d worked with, Marilou was the most methodical, approaching every sequence not just with technical but philosophical questions. Years ago, we also worked together on two abortive projects—a docu-drama on the EDSA 1 revolt and a film biography of Joseph Estrada, before he ran for president.

I wish we had enough time to finish everything, but there never is, and that’s why I’m in America, visiting those dearest to me.

Penman No. 9: Battling the Big D

Penman for Monday, August 20, 2012

I USED to boast to friends that I could (and did) eat whatever I wanted with gay abandon—lechon, crispy pata, chicharon, fried chicken, and generally anything that once wagged a tail. I guzzled three bottles of Coke a day, slurped one (or two) cups of ice cream, and feasted on chocolate cake like a condemned prisoner. My excuse was that, by all indications, my side of the family wasn’t genetically predisposed to hypertension and all that jazz, and my last exams didn’t show anything worth worrying about. Sure, I had attacks of gout once or twice a year, and sure, I was overweight by at least 30 pounds—but these minor annoyances weren’t going to kill me, were they? I went back to the buffet table and piled on the pancit.

Not anymore. Two months ago, I was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes—thanks to my mom, who’d developed the same condition late in life and who badgered me to let her test me with her kit, and to Beng, who dragged me to the doctor for a proper check-up and a talking to. The diagnosis confirmed that I was now in the exalted company of Ernest Hemingway, Mario Puzo, H. G. Wells, Elvis Presley, Thomas Edison, Ella Fitzgerald, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Neil Young, Sharon Stone, Elizabeth Taylor, Mae West, and Gary Valenciano.

Of course I knew something like this was coming. Guys who think they’re so smart will typically predict the future then do absolutely nothing about it, being less interested in the outcomes than in their prescience. In other words, we’re masters of denial, especially when it comes to our own bodies, which we think are the same ones we messed around with when we were 25, give or take a few (dozen) pounds. Of course I’d read up on diabetes long before I heard the word from my doctor’s mouth. Of course I knew that diabetes was a serious disease—at least for other people.

What jolted me into confronting cold reality were the figures that turned up on my mom’s tiny tester—three-digit figures that, no matter how I finessed the argument, kept telling me that “You’re going to lose your toes and die a slow, horrible death—unless you do something about it, now!” Guys will believe blinking statistics before they believe their wives, so those figures hit home, and hit hard.

That grim refrain kept running through my mind as my good doctor walked me through what I already knew but never quite believed was going on inside me—things about glucose and insulin and aerobic-this and Metformin-that. “Studies have shown that the best way to deal with Type 2 diabetes isn’t just medication, but a combination of a healthy diet, daily exercise, and Metformin,” my doctor intoned. Glancing up from my lab test results to my spillover gut, he added, “In other words, Professor, you need to undergo a complete lifestyle change if you want to lick diabetes before it licks you.”

Those were the words I both dreaded and wanted to hear. A gauntlet thrown, a clarion call, a battlecry—or, to put it plainly, a death threat.

I respond well to death threats. I scare easily, so this was exactly what I needed—a push over the railing, but a lifeline at the same time. “First of all, you need to lose weight—at least one pound a week.” The receptionist had weighed me before I stepped in for my consultation and I was entering the ring against the Big D at 218 pounds. There was going to be a requiem for a heavyweight if I didn’t watch it.

In a sense, getting diagnosed with diabetes was a relief. Ever since I turned the corner at 50, I’d always wondered what it was that was going to drag me down in a fight to the finish. A lot of worse things could still happen, but it was good to have a nemesis with a name that I could focus on and use as a reason for that “complete lifestyle change” I suppose I’d been secretly wishing for, but just never found the excuse to undergo.

About seven years ago, I’d lost nearly 40 pounds over several months just playing badminton, and that was the last time I could see clear to my toes without bending over. The badminton stopped—the victim of a long cold spell in the American Midwest, where I went as an exchange professor—and the starches, the fats, and the Coke began piling up again in my midsection, deciding that I was too cozy a host to vacate. My waist size ballooned from the mid-30s to 40, generously measured below the bulge.

The doctor wrote me a prescription and orders for all kinds of blood exams, with instructions to return for another consultation two months hence. I walked out of that clinic brimming with resolve. This was going to be something personal, something very personal, between me and, well, me.

If you’re looking for an ironic twist to this story, there isn’t any—yet. Those two months are nearly up and, much to my own surprise, I’m happy to report so far, so good. From 218 pounds, I’m down to 202—I even hit 199 one glorious day after walking 10 kilometers. I walk at least 30 minutes or 3 kilometers a day rain or shine (I’m probably the only guy you’ll see around the UP Oval toting an umbrella), and my walking shoes now go everywhere with me, like they recently did in Hong Kong even when a typhoon was blowing. I’m looking forward to losing another 10 to 15 pounds before the year is over.

Best of all, I seem to have tamed my prodigious appetite. I’ve survived—nay, thrived—on a diet of breakfast cereal, fish, kangkong, brown rice, lettuce, fruits, and the occasional slice of lean meat and cup of no-sugar-added ice cream. In two months I’ve had no more than three glasses of Coke, and only when I absolutely needed to. I keep a candybar in my bag or pocket in case I feel hypoglycemic (unfortunately, unlike our former Chief Justice, my diabetes doesn’t come with a huge dollar account), but so far it’s remained unopened. Lots of water, and again, lots of walking.

I haven’t become a health nut or an exercise freak; I certainly have no intentions of wagging my finger at other people, telling them to do this and not to eat that—something I’ve always hated being done to me. I’m just offering up this testimonial, for the benefit of all my fellow fat cats out there approaching their seniorhood, to the effect that sometimes the best thing you can get, before it’s too late, is a bad diagnosis. And never mind, for now, the glitter and the cash of the big literary prizes; the only figures I want to see are small ones—on my bathroom scales and on my glucose meter. I’m going to do my darnedest best to make sure that, when I croak, it won’t be because of the Big D.

(Photo from http://3.bp.blogspot.com)