Saturday, October 21, 2017

Arha

I think I have to make a project of conserving my attention.

Siphoning off attention has flowered into the primary business of the global economy. They have the resources. They have the tools. They have the people.

They have the extraordinary advantage on their side that people think they can't be fooled. You think you can't be fooled. I think I can't be fooled.

It wasn't true even when Dorothy Sayers wrote Murder Must Advertise, in 1933, a year which saw some other significant events. But read the novel (it's worth reading again!) and ponder how quaint it is, how primitive the tools were. They are far, far better now. More subtle, with a far wider reach. And infinitely configurable, in real time, directed by artificial intelligences that are already smarter than we are.

We, my friends, are toast. Buttered and jammed. They will eat us.

They are already eating us, and they are empowering us to marinate and cook each other. They don't mean any harm: they just want to make a buck. But that won't make us any less eaten.

Every day, I think I can make a Devil's bargain with them, and win. And every day I lose a little more of my soul.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

The October Without Masks

In the morning I lie on the little Persian carpet in the wreck room and do my back exercises. Sometimes I think of the person who gave the carpet to us: exactly flying-carpet size, perfect for its job, remote from the place (Olympia) and time (our wedding, in 1981) when it arrived. The giver, with her perfectly ungoogle-able name, has vanished from our life. She was a poet. I wonder if she is still.

Anyway, I lie there and lay my hands on the hips and ribs and musculature that is surfacing as the flesh subsides. I guess I didn't yet do any resistance training the last time I weighed this little, because the body emerging is unrecognizable, supplied with ropes of hard muscle under the loosening skin. I dwindle, I become smaller, also I come into focus. It's pleasing, a little disquieting. I also am nearly sixty now, which becomes more apparent too. I am becoming healthier, lighter, more vigorous: or I am drying up, withering, and scabbing over. There is a second transition behind the present one, and it's easier to see now too. An old man looks thoughtfully at me from the mirror, sometimes.

Fall comes with a rattle and a sigh, and in daytime the yellow leaves are brilliant in the sun, at least for now. This morning, this world. Halloween comes, trying unsuccessfully to replace the meditative quiet of October with more easily confronted, store-bought fears. No. The night is not scary because of creepy-crawlies or animated corpses: it's scary because it's large and old and still, and the same stars that looked down on Alfred in the Fens look down on my battered Honda in the drive.

I am totally on the side of the night, now: totally a partisan of October, the old October, the October without masks. 

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

A Going Concern

Well, it's arrived: the real break-your-spirit, think-of-nothing-else hunger. It's been an extraordinary run: five months of losing a pound a week pretty nearly like clockwork, and never getting really hungry unless I was late with a meal. But I suspect the jig's up: I've tripped the alarm and the hunger hormones are on to me. I've lost 12% of my body weight, and somewhere around 10% is where it usually kicks in. I've been expecting it, but I had decided to just keep riding the escalator down until it started to jerk and spit and run rough.

Within a week or two I should be down to 195, which is a good stopping place for phase one. At that point I'll "go onto maintenance," meaning I'll stop trying to lose weight, for six weeks at least. In practical terms, what it means is I get a potato and a banana every day. It will leave me with 15 lbs to go to the fabled 180.

A potato and a banana! An entrancing prospect. I am looking forward to them eagerly.

When I embark on this orgy of luxury, one of three things will happen:

1) I will keep losing weight, but more slowly, at say half a pound per week. That's what the numbers say should happen. If that's the case I might not have to do the weight loss thing again: I might slowly drift down past 180, and come gently to a halt at some delightful weight my body settles on. Or

2) I will just hang out at 195, till such time (at least six weeks hence) as I feel ready to resume the struggle. Or

3) I will start gaining weight. The course of action in that case is straightforward enough. I just start chopping things out (half a potato, half a banana) until I level off.

The hunger may or may not subside, in any of these three cases. That's the really important unknown. If it doesn't, the whole enterprise becomes shaky, and I'll have to reevaluate at the end of the six weeks: I do not intend to spend years of my life obsessively hungry. If it does, then I don't really care which of the three scenarios I find myself in: whupping the food thing will still be a going concern.

Postscript: I wrote this a couple days ago and set it aside. The hunger has in fact subsided, all by itself, but I think I'll follow the steps outlined above anyway. My sense all along has been that it would be wiser not to try to drop all the way in one go. Leveling off is something I've never tried to do before -- I've never gotten that far -- so it will be interesting in itself. When my weekly average goes to 195, which should happen next week or the week after, I'll see what leveling off looks like. I might deal one of the new foods in first and give it a couple weeks to settle in, and then do the other. When I look at in near prospect it seems like a lot to change at once, to do both.

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

The Second Wife in the Stately Manor; or, a Discourse on Methods of Measurement

If you're going to lose weight, you're going to have to do at least one of two things: 1) declare some foods (including some of your favorite ones) off-limits, or 2) measure what you eat. Successful diets vary wildly -- it's well worth your time to browse through the National Weight Control Registry and get a sense for the diversity of ways people have accomplished their weight loss -- but they all have a least one of those two components. 

Popular diets tend to stress the first thing, declaring foods off-limits, both because it's easier -- no fiddling about with scales or measuring cups -- and because it suits our general approach to problems: find the wicked evildoers and cast them into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth! So you identify some foods and declare them evil, anathema, taboo. And I do that too, with a few things. I love pizza, french fries, and soda pop, but I'm probably never going to eat them again. They are so tasty, so dense in calories, and so slow to induce satiety, that I can't figure out any way to work them into a rational diet. They just don't fit. Some people are skillful at creating a disgust-response to these things, which probably helps a lot in avoiding them. I've never managed that though, and don't really want to. I take a dim view of demonization and disgust-responses as guides to living.

But anyway, that's not what I want to talk about now. What I want to talk about is the second thing, measuring. Far less sexy, I get that. But critical.

The thing about dieting is that only the top flap of your brain, the cerebral cortex -- and not necessarily all of that -- is really into it. The rest of you is designed, top to bottom, to load up on calories when they're available, and even to overload when some windfall turns up. This worked fine in environments where calories took effort to obtain. You might have a lucky hunting day or find a terrific honey-comb, and have a huge feast and invite all your friends, every once in a while, but what weighed on the other side of the scale was that usually it took a fair amount of effort to get your food, and you weren't really motivated to put the effort in until you were hungry. Effort-free food, among hunter-gatherers, sends up the Party! Party! Party! signal. Everyone eats too much, everyone has a good time, everyone sleeps in the next morning. But then it's back to the leisurely, but full-time, job of finding and wringing calories out of stuff that didn't have that many calories in it in the first place. 

Now we live in a world where the Party! Party! Party! signal is going off all day every day. Let's not lose sight of the fact that this is a good thing. Having enough food is wonderful. Compared to not having enough, having too much and getting fat is a minor problem, a problem many people in the world would dearly love to have. But still it is, for us, a problem, and if we're not going to solve it by cultivating disgust-responses, we're going to have to solve it by eating less. To eat less we're going to have to know how much we're eating. And that means measuring.

At first glance, this seems trivial. Well, of course. So you just eat a little less. How hard is that?

As it turns out, it's excruciatingly hard, for some of us.* The thing is that we do most of our eating habitually. We don't ordinarily think about it much. We just eat what we always eat, and maybe decide what's for dinner, but we're not used to steering and micromanaging with the cerebral cortex all that much. It's tiring to do so, and leaves us less capacity for doing everything else we need to do. And the rest of the brain is not down with this project at all. So when we want to change what we eat, we're in the position of the second wife in a stately manor, surrounded by servants who are determined that things will go on as they did before. At any given time she can intervene and give orders, and while the servants are directly under her eye, they'll do as they're told. But as soon as her attention is elsewhere, they go back to doing it the way the old missus would have wanted it. The right way.

So what the servants do is -- fill up the plate, even if it's technically what our grandparents used to call a platter.** Add an extra spoonful of this and an extra dollop of that, because you wouldn't want to have to go back and get more. And condiments, condiments are just flavorings, right? Who wants to fuss about how much mayo, how much ketchup? As for apples, you pick the larger apple, because, after all, an apple? Who gets fat eating big apples?

By the time the servants are done, you're eating a lot more than you meant to. And you can't understand why the number on the scale isn't going down. You're being so good!

Well, no, you're not, actually. If you were running a calorie deficit your weight would in fact go down. You're going to have to lean on the servants, to get this right, and take as much of it out of their hands as possible. Here are my strategies:

1) Put the measuring phase as far away as possible from the eating phase. Ideally, do it when you're not hungry. Measure out the ingredients of anything you're cooking ahead of time -- not as it's actually transforming into food. When I'm making breakfast, I get a certain amount of cream with my coffee and a certain amount of sour cream with my eggs-and-salsa. The amount I get of each, each morning, goes into its own little cup: they're on the table before I put the eggs in the pan. You never, never, add from the big container right there at the table. You think they won't add two ounces of cream to a single cup of coffee? You think they won't look at that spoonful of sour cream and decide it was a little one so you should have another? You don't know the servants very well, then. If it's there, they'll do it.

2) Eat stuff that comes in natural units, and buy a lot of them at once. That way you don't keep choosing the biggest ones. A dozen large eggs are all about the same size. If you buy a dozen apples of various sizes, and you get just one each day, it doesn't matter than some are bigger than others: on average, you'll get an average apple. But if you buy just one or two apples at a time, you'll pick the biggest ones. You will. Trust me on this. Uncle Dale knows. Or if you're not buying natural units, measure the bulk and figure out how many servings ought to be in it. That's how many you get, and if they're too big early on they'll be smaller later. "This box is eight bowls of cornflakes, period. If there's nothing left on day eight, I just don't get any cornflakes on day eight."

3) Use dishes that are just barely big enough. I get a bowl of soup or stew for lunch every day. It's the same bowl, a little pyrex bowl that I can stick in the microwave. I have no idea how much it holds. I have no idea how many calories are in the soups and stews I make. But I do know this: those pyrex bowls hold only so much. It's not possible for me, even at my most absent-minded, to trick myself into eating more than they hold. The servants will fill it as full as they can, but they can't gradually fill it fuller on the sly. It holds what it holds.

These are my strategies for outwitting the servants, adapted to my own circumstances. You may need others. Each domestic staff will have its own particular methods of subverting the new regime, so it's hard to generalize. But you do need to be aware that the household is not all on your side, in this. They will thwart you if they can.


* Nobody really knows yet why it's so much harder for some than for others: there's an obvious large genetic component to it. Variations in will power explain little of it, less than you would expect. Stay tuned: science is working on this one.)

**  Did you know that a "dinner plate" used to be nine inches across? Fact. They're often, now, eleven or even twelve. The area of a nine inch circle is about 64 square inches; the area of a twelve inch circle is about 113. Pause on those numbers. 64 versus 113. "A full plate" holds nearly twice as much food now as it did in 1960. In fact that difference tracks pretty well with the waistline difference between the average American in 1960 and the average one now.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Critical Lessons

I've been told that a person who quits smoking for good does so, on average, on his sixth attempt to quit. I've mulled over this fact for a while. There's a similar (but less well-attested) fact about losing weight for good: it's really rare for somebody to do it successfully and permanently the first time around. I've seen the number five, but I suspect that's low. Whatever it may be exactly, it suggests to me two things: a) that it's harder than most people expect it will be, and b) people who eventually succeed do so because they accumulate critical lessons from their failures.

Who knows how many times I've tried to lose weight? I was startled, when I read back through my blog entries under the Whupping the Food Thing label, to find a 2013 attempt, which apparently lasted three months, of which I have no memory whatsoever. None.

I was a plump child. I skinnied down for a couple years when I was a teenager, but by the time I was in college my weight was drifting upwards, and it basically drifted upwards whenever I wasn't focusing on losing it. My mother was quite obese and she would predict darkly that my eating habits would lead eventually to me being terribly fat and (of course) miserable. I responded with my usual obstinate cheerfulness. Maybe I would be fat, but I didn't intend to be miserable.

But I took it to heart. In my inmost heart I knew I was going to be fat, and I was going to die early of cardiac disease, just as my maternal grandfather -- whom I strongly resembled, everyone said so -- had. He died at 62. (I have three years left, now, before I hit that ominous number.)

Anyway. I had a complicated relationship with losing weight. It was what my mother was always trying and failing to do. I didn't want to be fat, but I also didn't want to diet: they were both things my mother did. I wanted to be my own person.

But diets did happen. The first I remember distinctly was the Scarsdale diet. This was in the heyday of the vilification of fats and the glorification of grapefruit. One lost three or four pounds per week, if one stuck to it. One did not. One became extraordinarily hungry, and one white-knuckled one's way through for a few days, and finally one broke. So that was my first critical lesson: I was not going to win through this by brute force. Whether my will was peculiarly defective, I didn't know, but it wasn't up to the task I was setting it.

A couple decades later, along came Atkins, the vilification of carbs, and the glorification of meat. I LIKED that. I adore meat, and I love fat with all my heart and soul. Eggs! Hamburger! For quite a while, eating that way worked just as Dr Atkins said it would. I didn't even want to eat too much. I didn't want to binge. I was eating the food that spoke to my soul. I became a big low-carb convert, and swore by Gary Taubes, and regarded sugar as the Devil's own poison. Life was good.

Well, except. As the weeks went on, I got kind of sick of all that fat. I began to dream of carbs. I would fixate on them. They wandered into my daydreams. I knew they were wicked, and I wanted them. But my will held, until the Night of the Pepperoni. 

I wanted something to snack on, and I'd bought some sliced pepperoni (having carefully examined the label to make sure there was no sugar added, of course -- you'd be surprised at all the stuff they inject with sugar, these days!) I love pepperoni, but of course if it had no carbs it would not make me hungrier, and I would not binge on it.

I binged. I ate and ate and ate, voraciously and unstoppably. And miserably realized that it wasn't true, and I had gradually been realizing it wasn't true. I *could* binge on meat, and I would, and my present diet in fact was making me feel real crappy. My skin was breaking out. I was fatigued all the time. The low-carb magic was gone.

That was the end of the low-carb thing, for me. And the end of the Magic Macronutrient thing. Later I read more, and learned that the whole insulin resistance story actually had big holes in it. I didn't believe in the villainy of fats any more, and that was a plus, but I didn't believe in the villainy of carbs either. Maybe the problem was exactly what someone in the 1950s would have identified as the problem: I was eating too much. There was nothing wrong with sugar and fat except that they were calorie-dense and I was too fond of them, particularly when they teamed up, and especially when they were abetted by food scientist flavor-artistes. I read Stephan Guyenet's blog: he was writing about high-reward foods and dopamine signalling and so forth. Maybe my love of certain foods was not addiction -- he sensibly refuses to participate in that particular slugfest -- but it activated a lot of the same pathways and used a lot of the machinery of addiction.

The last thing I tried was probably the smartest, and might actually have worked eventually, if I had had the patience to wait twenty years. Rather than try to fight the demons, I'd try to simply go around them. Learn to make food in my own kitchen, and displace the high-reward foods by crowding them out with plain good foods that weren't so dense in calories and didn't produce such a pleasure-storm. This was probably a necessary step too, because I learned stuff about maintaining a kitchen and preparing food and planning stuff out that I needed to learn. 

But I wasn't losing any weight: in fact that steady upward drift was, if anything, faster. I was getting uneasy about the state of my knees and hips, if I stayed heavy. If walking became really uncomfortable, and I stopped exercising, what would become of me? Well, I knew what would happen. I have plenty of clients who are caught in that predicament -- moving hurts too much, and the only comfort for it is eating, which makes moving even harder, and comfort even more necessary. What happens is that you get really fat, and moving gets really hard, and eventually type 2 diabetes comes along to keep you company.

I really didn't want that.

So I came up with the present program, which has been working for me for the largest weight loss, over the longest time, of any of these attempts. It's convenient. It's simple. It doesn't require fussing. I decided to go public with it, to add the threat of public humiliation to my motivations. And I banished one turn of phrase from my speech. I decided I was not going to say, ever again "I am trying to lose weight." That's what I used to say, if someone offered me something that I wasn't supposed to eat. "Oh," I'd say, apologetically, "I'm afraid I shouldn't, I'm trying to lose weight." 

But I'm not saying that any more. I'm saying, "I'm losing weight." That's all. And I'm not apologizing. I'm doing this thing.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Five and twelve

Arcturus setting last night, over the roof of the garage; the Sickle sweeping endlessly backwards; a mist rising from the streets. Vega so directly overhead that looking up at her, and turning to orient myself to the Summer Triangle, gave me vertigo. The desire for something afar / from the sphere of our sorrow.

All the things that tumble up out of the ground, or out of strollers, and take their improbable places as earthly powers, for a little bit, before they tumble down again.

Leaves going yellow. There will be floods and blockages where there were fires: detritus coming down the rivers, muddy water in the streets. But above the dirty clouds and the ruined air there are still stars.

Every morning I lie on my little Persian carpet on the concrete floor, and lay my hands on my ribs, which are gradually rising, like the basalt circles on the beach when a rough winter comes and the sand is washing away. Like that.

Ribs and hands, sets of little bones in parallel, go instinctively to each other, and play little mathematical games. With five and twelve you can do anything, anything at all.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

The Birth of a Right



Al Franken wrote to me this morning—we're tight, like that; he emails me a couple times a week—and he began:

Dale, 
Health care is a right. It's not a privilege.
Now, I've been in favor of universal health care in this country since before a lot of you were born, so I'm happy to see my buddy Al take up the cause. But it was the language that caught my attention. I hear this phrase a lot, these days, and I'm perplexed. Because in my youth, health care was not a right. Not even us leftie commies thought it was a right. It was something we thought everyone could and should have: but that's not quite the same thing. Rights are inalienable. They're intrinsic to being human. They're something—to stick to the ground they grew in—they're something that God intended as part of every human being's humanness.

A lot of people don't live on that ground anymore. I never did, having been raised atheist. So I'm a little cautious of the rhetoric of rights. What exactly are we talking about? Jefferson knew quite precisely. "They are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights." That's clear enough. But what do I mean, when I say that people have a right to free speech? Do I mean something other than "I think everybody ought to be able to speak freely"?

I think I do. Certainly we produce these assertions, not as our own whims, but gravely, as fundamental laws of human nature: we're not talking about "laws" like laws against jaywalking—our tone implies—but "laws" like the law of gravity. We may know that an ancient Greek would have been totally baffled by the notion that health care could be a right, (and would probably dispute that political rights could ever properly belong to someone who was not the male head of a freehold in the first place.) But we nevertheless hold that rights are—somehow—self-evident. Like my friend Al up there. He doesn't go on to argue it. You don't need to argue things like that. You state it and you're done.

You can see that this is true from the way the Republicans have fumbled the Obamacare repeal. You might expect Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell to say, "What nonsense. Health care is not a right. It's something you buy if you can afford it!" This is clearly what they think. But, as highly evolved political beings, they know, they can tell by its scent in the air, that to say so would be be political death. So they tie themselves in knots.

And at that point, when even the guys on the other side of the fence feel they can't deny it out loud, I think that we have to say—yes, health care has in fact become a right. Whatever rights may be, access to health care is one of them. So my question, dear reader, is—how did this happen? It's a sea change. A new right has been born in our very presence. Did you see it being born? Do you understand how it happened?

Or was I simply wrong, and has it been a right all along? Just because I was there to observe the waning years of the 20th Century, doesn't make me an expert on them.

I would love to know what you think! This one puzzles me.