A Creature of Habits

…”Coffee-guzzling chocoholic,” reads the brief intro on my Twitter. Hah: THOSE were the days.

Because here I am, dancing ‘midst the debris of my lost, lamented habits….


Don’t feed whole grains to your autistic dear one, the article said, citing all kinds of recent research at reputable hospitals and teaching universities. Whole grains just are not digestible by the autistic gut.

Huh, I thought. In an effort to get fiber into Jim’s diet, we had bought whole grain breads and cereals and pastas. Maybe, what we thought was so good for him was really not so very.

We put white bread and sweetened corn flakes and semolina pasta back in the pantry, and I printed the article. I sent it off to our new doctor, who is smart and cares for  someone on the spectrum and who is vitally interested in nutrition and diet and exercise. Have we been feeding Jim all the wrong things? I wrote. I look forward to talking with you about this at my next visit.

A few months later, I went in for a check up; everything was fine, and we started talking about the whole grain thing, and she said yeah, probably pulling the heavy duty whole grains from the boy’s diet was a smart plan. We talked about vitamins and supplements, essential in the diet of one who will not eat anything leafy, green, or orange. And then we talked about wheat and how everything, it seems, has some kind of wheat by-product in it, unless it’s overtly marked ‘gluten-free.’

She told me that she’d been going without gluten for a long, long time, and she feels, really, much better–she’d been getting downright sodden there for a while, sick and dragging.

I told her about my former colleague who jettisoned grains and lost a whole slew of weight and gained a jetpack of energy.

We talked about wheat bellies and the importance of protein and all the wonderful attention that’s being paid, in cookbooks and on cooking shows, to the creative possibilities vegetables offer, culinarily. And then it was time for me to go; I pushed down my sleeves and slid off the table and grabbed my purse.

The doc handed me my papers to give to the women in reception, and she said to me, “So, are you really ready to do this?”

I looked at her, puzzled. “Do….?????” I began.

“Go gluten-free!” she said, smiling big. “No more wheat!”

Wait, I thought. Me? “No more WHEAT?” I repeated.

“GREAT!” she said, squeezing my shoulder. “You’re going to feel SO much better. I’ll get you back here in three months and we’ll see how it’s going.”

I took my papers to reception and I wrote out my co-pay check and I toddled out to the car, where I sat with the key in my hand, tracing the conversation backward.

“No WHEAT?” I thought, and I swore to myself I would never send my doctor another interesting article about my son’s diet, ever again.


I have been wheat-free for over a month now, with one tiny apple pie indulgence, and I have to admit it: I feel better. My joints don’t ache, and I have more energy. I may even, maybe, have lost a little weight.

But, oh, I miss my nutty nuggets, my go-to cereal, crunchy little pellets of wheat and bran. Sometimes, up for a change, I’d get me a box of wheat chex, pour my skim milk on that in the mornings, sprinkle a little sugar on top and chow right down while I read the news and did my word puzzles. But now—goodbye wheat chex. And nutty nuggets: no more.

Now I eat an egg for breakfast, fry up a little ham. And I purchased a stick blender and the stuff to make breakfast smoothies. Sometimes, even, I have a morning salad.

And I’ve been exploring cereals–there are many, I know, that are gluten free. But I miss my old nutty nugget habit.

It’s not the only habit these grown old years have stripped from me.


The worst habit, of course, was smoking, which I did from the time I was about 14, newly skinny and desperate to be cool. It was the Virginia Slims era, and my friends and I practiced gracious gestures, waving the long thin cigarettes in our long thin fingers. We thought it was especially effective, as the oldest among us acquired licenses, to drive around after school, past where certain young men hung out. Our elbows would rest on the open window ledge. Our hands would wave the lit cigarettes. Our gazes would be elsewhere, not noticing those boys who often yelled rude things as we trolled by. The essence of smoky cool, we were.

(I couldn’t stand that I wasn’t REALLY dangerous, edgy, daring–that I was in fact, just a very young version of the English teacher I would grow into.)

And the prop soon became an addiction, for me. My weight stayed down, but I was very quickly buying a carton of cigarettes a week.

I smoked through college (where, in the early seventies, so did the professors. Classrooms would be blue-hazed caverns of smoke, and ash trays sat on desks in every office.) I smoked through jobs and a brief first marriage; I smoked long past giving up the other vices college opened doors to, and I was still smoking when I was 29 and married Mark, who had asthma and allergies.

And I smoked anyway, for five more years, even though, more and more, I wished I didn’t. But it wasn’t until I had my gallbladder plucked,–I stayed in the hospital for 72 hours and kind Doctor Conti said to me, “You haven’t smoked for three days. The worst of the physical effects are over. Are you strong enough, mentally, to let it go?”–that I decided it was time, for real, to quit.

Of course I am strong enough, I assured that wonderful doc. Of course I will not smoke again, I told Mark.  And I went home to clean the nicotine residue from the television screen and the windows, to wash curtains yellowed from years of smoking, and to ponder the loss of that habit.

Hmmm, I thought, passing through days without the ritual morning cigarette, drinking my coffee without the plus of a ciggie in my hand, talking on the phone unassisted by nicotine. Hmmm, I thought: who am I if I don’t smoke?

I wasn’t one hundred per cent in love with the answer. I imagined going back to work, sitting in the break room and grading papers, and I could not see how to do it without the aid of a cigarette.

And a month or so went by, and Mark went away to a conference, and Matt went away to his mother’s, and I went away to the quickstop shop and bought myself a pack of Winstons. I had a thirty mile drive to get to where I needed to be, and I waited until I was out on the highway, and I lit up a smoke. I put it to my mouth. I breathed in, and I put it out.

Because two thoughts had occurred to me.

The first was that it really didn’t taste good. In fact: yuck.

The next was that, in all the brouhaha about the surgery and such it hadn’t occurred to me to remember to mark my monthly cycle. And just then I realized: I, who was never, ever late, was now late by at least three weeks.

And pregnant women should not smoke.

That was the last time I lit a cigarette. It was the last time, too, coincidentally, that I was thin.


But I baked. All the way through the growing up years of two special young men, I baked and baked: chocolate chip cookies, cupcakes, brownies. I prided myself on a full cookie jar, and I was my own happy best customer. And there’s nothing like a home-baked goodie washed down with a steaming mug of high-test dark roast.

The nicotine cravings subsided. The coffee cravings did not.

And then,–fast forward many, many years,–a light-headed episode propelled me to a doctor’s office, and the doctor said to me, “YOU have high blood pressure.”

What???? I do NOT have high blood pressure, I protested. My blood  pressure is–always has been—LOW.

And the man in the white coat showed me my test results, and this is what he said: No more caffeine.


I slunk, sadly, away, and I stopped at Kroger and I bought a pricey bag of decaffeinated beans. And I ground those and began mixing them with the sumptuous, high-test Italian roast nestled in my freezer. The first week, it was half and half; the next week, three fourths decaf. An on it went, until the Italian roast was gone, and I was drinking 100 per cent decaf coffee. It tasted good, although there was a buzzy little humming effect that I missed.

And my blood pressure dropped by 60 points. I had to admit the no-caffeine regimen was good for me.


And at least I still had chocolate, right? My only vice, I often said. Well, that and cookies.


And a day came when a different doctor solemnly pronounced the word, “prediabetic.”

PREDIABETIC! I said. What do we do about that???

You can find diets online, he advised me, less than helpfully. I went out and did some reading, and I discovered the low glycemic index, and I began to jettison foods there were not on it. Foods like–oh my—milk chocolate.

No more chocolate??? But, the diet guidelines assured me, a little dark chocolate now and then was permissible.

I sat down and thought about that. First the nicotine. Then the caffeine. Now the milk chocolate.

Exactly WHO, I wondered, exactly who am I NOW? I poured myself a cup of hot decaffeinated coffee. I buttered a slice of good, fresh, crusty bakery bread. I munched and I pondered.

And then of course, we found our wonderful new doctor, and I found that darned article and sent it to her.


Yesterday, a little package arrived in the mail: one pound of King Arthur, Measure-for-Measure, gluten-free flour. I like that it has a kind of Shakespearean name. I like that it promises me I can substitute it for wheat flour in any of my recipes.

I’m going to bake up a batch of Italian chocolate drops for the boyos, bake ’em up and then glaze ’em, hot from the oven. The house will smell wonderfully of chocolate and cloves.

And then I will mix up a batch of gluten-free Scotch shortbread, and roll it out into cutout cookies. There are some traditions–some habits–that are very hard to let go.

But there are others, I am finding, that I can do just fine without. I look fondly at photographs of my silly, younger self–Ooooh, look: here’s a shot of me and a giant hot fudge sundae! I am grinning widely in that diner booth, bathed in smoke from the Winston smoldering in the ashtray besides the ice cream confection. Once, I couldn’t imagine life without a cigarette or a fudgy sundae–let’s not even mention life without bakery bread.

De-caffeinated, non-nicotined, unchoclified , gluten-freed…I am striding into a future that looks, despite those changes,  bright and rich and full. It’s amazing the things one can let go. It’s amazing the discoveries one makes when one does.

So, yes, I am dancing midst the debris of some unlamented habits…feeling a little lighter. A little brighter, maybe even. Who knew, that, at this late date, having jettisoned a few more unwanted habits, I would get to be excited I have a chance to discover just who I am NOW.

7 thoughts on “A Creature of Habits

  1. Kimberly Allen

    Pam, I so enjoy your queries and examinations into your life and the journeys you take as the result. The term, press on ahead comes to mind, to whatever the new New is. I enjoy reading the roads you take., and admire the ways you adjust, adapt and as a result develop something new. Recently, I was listening to David Whyte on CD talk about deciding to become a full time poet. He talked about becoming an Apprentice to that idea. I thought, when I heard that term, you would enjoy it as well, and now I am reminded to tell you about it. It is a wonderful concept isn’t it, to Apprentice yourself to something new in yourself or in your life? I have adopted that perspective to see where it will take me! As I adjust to retirement, it helps me realize there is process involved in change., and to be patient with the unfolding, as I open myself to discovery, and get involved in new things. Happy Holidays to you and yours!

    1. Apprenticed to an idea…that is perfect, Kimberly. I am going to explore that thoroughly, including discovering more about David Whyte. I look forward to sharing the journey!!! Happy holidays to you…looking forward to a very interesting new year—-the first full year of free agency!

  2. Wow – look at you go! I know I should try all the same….. How is the King Arthur flour? Oh how I recall those Virginia Slim days…. lol! I can’t believe you gave up coffee!

    1. I know! Coffee has been the biggest challenge!

      Made pancakes with the King Arthur flour this morning…very, very good. Trying those shortbread cookies this weekend…I will keep you posted!

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