Originally published Februrary 2013

Weight Loss, Ducks and the Art of the Silly Video

A year ago, Jan. 29, 2012, to be precise, I decided to lose some weight. I had not really been fat. I am pretty tall, so the weight distributes pretty well. But I was straining a lot of my wardrobe, and I had some clothes that were taking up space in the bottom of my closet because I bought them thinking that some day I'd lose enough weight to fit into them.

When I quit smoking in 2000, my weight started inching up (literally), until I reached 180 on the scale. When I decided to lose weight, I weighed in at 177.5 pounds. I had been getting cast in a number of little films at that heavier weight, but I believed that I could still play those roles plus add more "professional" type roles if I were trimmer.

You can see from the picture on the right how I looked in the 1980s. I was pretty svelte then, and I liked that look. By the time I returned to acting in 2009, I was a bit heavier — more than 35 pounds heavier. As pictures of the roles I've done more recently show on my acting page, I didn't become obese, but I definitely wasn't thin. The photo below left is from the set of Dinner at Desmond's, which was shot at the end of 2011. The weight was fine for the character, but not for my own self-image. And my doctor did tell me that my cholesterol levels could be better, and that losing 10 pounds would help.

I am not a good dieter. Over my many, many years of worrying about my weight, I have read books and talked to friends and joined groups to try to lose my excess pounds. I remember eating lots of protein on the Stillman diet when I was in high school (hard boiled eggs, cottage cheese, steak, chicken), and craving food after hearing my fellow dieters talk about it at Weight Watchers and Overeaters Anonymous meetings (I'd walk out of those meetings and rush for the nearest supermarket to buy brownie mix, then mix up a batch with cream cheese icing and eat the whole pan).

I successfully used the Overeaters Anonymous list to create eggplant dishes and other healthier food and did pretty well for a while, but eventually I slid off again.

I think my favorite "diet" was the one I designed, in the 1980s, and lost about 15 pounds. It consisted of two slices of pizza a day, and a half-pint of ice cream. I know that wasn't the healthiest diet to be on, but one thing I realized from eating that way was that when I have to spend time deciding what to get to eat, I end up getting a lot of everything and eating it all that same day. I'm better having limited choices (which is why I tend to eat the same thing at a restaurant, so that I don't spend time with the menu craving everything on it).

When I decided to drop some weight this time, I faced the fact that I don't do well being told what NOT to eat. Whether it's some diet or my own "discipline," being told (even by myself) that I can't have something makes me think about it all the time and want to eat it even more. I know I'm an emotional eater. I know that food takes on multiple meanings for me. I am aware that I use food to reward or punish myself, depending. Two sessions of psychotherapy gave me that much self-awareness, as did the extra body fat I gained when I was unhappy.

I realized that if I think I can never have a brownie, or chocolate peanut butter ice cream, or a steak, or bread, or pizza, or whatever, that's all I think about! I'm convinced that being denied that food is punishment, and I have all sorts of conflicts over that. And recently I have become very attracted to popcorn — at the movies, or at baseball games. And the popcorn must have "butter," or whatever it is they put on the really good popcorn these days (I'm sure it probably has nothing whatsoever to do with any of the basic food groups — probably more to do with a chemistry formula). So when I determined to drop some pounds, I knew that whatever plan I made had to include popcorn, or at least allow it, or it wouldn't work.

My new plan to lose weight this time came with a pretty depressing self-awareness of what would work and why I eat. I figured I had the best chance of succeeding if I used my need to make lists and charts and organize to counter my need to eat everything in my refrigerator in one day.

I designed an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of what I ate daily. I would use that to keep me motivated. It would be a visible reason to put off to tomorrow what I really, really wanted to eat today.

I went on line to see how many calories I would have to eat each day to lose a pound a week, a rate I thought would be healthy. I came up with 1400 calories a day (I'm not sure which Web site I used, but that's what I found). It seemed to be a reasonable number — over the 1000 calories a day I had read was needed for good health. I would keep track of what I ate on the spreadsheet, keep a running total of the calories (either from packages or educated guesses based on Internet searches). On the right you can see the spreadsheet from that first week.

The first column had the date, the second what I ate (creatively headed "FOOD"), followed by the calories, followed by the daily total, then the number of calories over or under 1400. I started counting on a Sunday. On Wednesday of that first week, I had my first weigh-in, 177.5 pounds. On Saturday evening, I gave myself a weekly over/under figure (that first week I was 235 calories over for the week, a bit less than 35 calories a day over — not bad, I thought).

The second Wednesday, I discovered I had lost 4 pounds. That was incredibly encouraging! So the next week I stuck to the 1400 calorie-a-day plan and actually came in under 425 calories for the week.

If I was eating out (for instance, on a film set), I'd send myself e-mails listing what I ate, so that I could fill in the chart later that evening. I remember one time looking up on my smartphone the calorie count of one slice of pizza and then sending myself a message. That act alone kept me from eating two slices.

 Lunch on  The Big C , Feb. 13, 2012

Lunch on The Big C, Feb. 13, 2012

And by March, when I was on a set as a background player, I took a picture of my lunch and sent that to myself so I would not forget what I ate. Knowing I would account for every bite helped me choose an orange instead of a bagel for breakfast at the crafty table.

After 22 weeks of the 1400-calorie-a-day eating plan, I had lost 30 pounds! I had literally lost my ass. Sitting was more uncomfortable, especially in the Yankee Stadium seats, but that was a pain I was happy to live with. I debated whether to stop there, or to continue. I still had a bit of a tummy and some clothes were still tight (though others now seemed to fall off me). I decided to be a little less strict, but to aim for a total loss of 40 pounds. After a year of eating this way (and developing some wonderful meals that fit well on the chart, like pasta with artichoke hearts and sun-dried tomatoes, or salmon baked in Dijon mustard with wheat cracker crumbs), I have lost 38 pounds total and kept them off. I try now to average no more than 1800 calories a day to maintain this.

But what about the Silly Videos? What on earth does losing weight have to do with making little films?

And what does all this have to do with ducks? Or geese? Or sea gulls? That is a very good question, and one I will now try to skillfully weave into this narrative. You've been patient enough, Dear Reader. Time for some entertainment.

For some time before I started the new eating plan, I had been walking the 20 blocks north to my voice lesson and music workshop, and then walking home. I wanted the exercise, which I knew would help keep the weight off. The more I walked, the better I felt. And the easier it was to maintain the weight loss. I began to get off the train after an afternoon Yankees game at 103rd Street and walk home through Central Park. I began to see the ducks at the Pool, and loved that they would just go right up to you.

I began posting some of my duck pictures on Facebook, and then posting other pictures from my walks in Central Park and elsewhere in the city. My Facebook friends who lived in the Midwest and in Europe said they enjoyed seeing them. What does a little praise do? It creates a monster! I wasn't to be stopped.

I started walking more and more, documenting the High Line and Riverside Park and the Reservoir in Central Park. These were not new places for me, but ones I was starting to see again with new energy. The walks got longer and longer as I got thinner and thinner. I walked from the NYU Dental School on East 24th Street to the hovel on West 76th. I walked the High Line from the Village to West 31st Street, then home by way of the Hudson River and Riverside Park South. At first I considered 20 blocks a long walk. Then 30, then 40, and now 120 blocks or longer.

On the morning of Oct. 29, the day Hurricane Sandy threatened New York, I headed to Riverside Park so that I would have a better sense of what was about to happen. I was amazed at how high the Hudson had come to the walkway in Riverside Park. Water that was usually 6 to 10 feet below the walkway was now lapping over it. That morning I took two videos (now combined, above), one from the pier near 69th Street, the other capturing the viewing pier near 71st Street. I posted the viewing pier video on Facebook to show the power of the hurricane that was threatening us. I let the sound be the wind hitting the microphone of the cellphone. Though I didn't label it a Silly Video, it was one of my beginning attempts to capture my walks using both video and pictures.

Reservoir Ducks was filmed Dec. 31 at the Central Park Reservoir. I added music by Handel to accompany the duck dances. At the end I hinted I would do another video soon about the Hudson River ducks (although I showed pictures of geese). Quite a lot of video has been shot for that film, and it is in post-production, as they say. Much of the film was shot on a long walk along the Hudson from West 76th around the southern tip of Manhattan to the South Street Seaport. Along that walk I almost tripped over Big Bird (below), another in the Silly Video series. I didn't feel this needed any sound other than that of the event itself.

Central Park: A Short Wintry Walk documents one traipse near the Lake on an overcast, then rainy Jan. 11. It came a few days after I spotted a blue heron at Bank Rock Bay, and I started by looking to see if the heron was still there (check out the My Blue Heron Silly Video below). I branched out from birds in my walk video to add some very photographable squirrels (or as Henry Morgan once called them, "bushy-tailed rats"). Vivaldi just seemed right for what I saw. When I got near the boat basin, it started to rain, and I tried to capture a bit of that rain hitting the lake.

As I noted above, it was exciting to come across a blue heron at Bank Rock Bay one afternoon. I watched and photographed and video-captured the beautiful bird strolling tentatively across some very thin ice. I had a chance to talk to a lot of people who spend their days photographing the birds in Central Park.

My efforts pale when compared with theirs, but I hope people enjoy the results as much as I enjoyed watching the birds. I used Scarlotti for My Blue Heron.

If you want to follow the Another Silly Video by Susan Kirby series, you can subscribe to the Susan Kirby channel on YouTube. And if you want to see the first Another Silly Video, look at Emeralda. By the way, since you need to have a first silly video to have Another Silly Video, that first one was Oh Mr. Tree, Oh Mr. Tree. These are closeups of my Christmas trees, set to music. And your Chronicler even sings in Emeralda! These videos are on the YouTube channel, and can also be viewed through the archive blog entries and pages, Merry Christmas! 2012 and Oh Mr. Tree, Oh Mr. Tree.

Sunday at the Pool, Central Park, the most recent video in the Another Silly Video by Susan Kirby series, was shot around the Pool, at the north side of Central Park. I used music from the accompaniments to Bach's "While Sheep Gently Graze" and Hugo Wolf's "Bekehrte." I hope the cinematography has been improving. This is a very relaxing Silly Video, in my humble opinion.

And for a preview of the Hudson River project, which now is tentatively titled Flocks and Gaggles on the Hudson River, I offer A Seagull Takes Flight. It is the shortest Silly Video, but fun, I hope. I will try to capture a lot of seagull flight in the Hudson River project, and the flight of ducks and of geese as well.

I first saw the geese on a very long walk up the Hudson to 131st Street before Thanksgiving, when I discovered how bold they are. They can be found most afternoons, if my experience is any indication, on the path by the Hudson around 116th Street. They are very photogenic, and so far I'm finding it hard to cut down the footage. They have been a joy to watch, and the walk to watch them is always exciting.

The most recent Silly Video was filmed in Asbury Park, N.J., at the end of January 2013. I shot it between takes of Reds & Blues, a short film written and directed by Karina Vidal of the School of Visual Arts. We shot one flashback scene at the beach on a very cold day, and I was so happy to be able to film the sea gulls between takes and then again at sunset after I finished my part in the film (with thanks to Ed Sequeira driving me back to the boardwalk).

After I edited the clips, I was looking for music to highlight the joy of these gulls, and serendipity came through for me. I attended a concert at Carnegie Hall by the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. They played Beethoven's Eighth Symphony, and while listening to the second movement, I knew I'd found the music for the gulls.