(We Can Decline)
495 · 22 July 04
It is often cold where I live. But it does warm up for a month or two each year, and for a while you can get a much clearer idea of what a lot of people's bodies look like.
It isn't very pretty. News reports about the nationwide epidemic of obesity are easy to criticize, starting with the deliberately incendiary word "epidemic", but walking around Boston I'm increasingly inclined to believe the worst. As a populace, we aren't looking great. It's no longer novel to see people so fat I can't really comprehend how they function, and if you postulate that the average person here is noticeably overweight, you can look around and pretty strongly suspect that you're right.
It's hard to be too mystified about how we got this way, though. We are socially optimized for volume of commerce, not clarity of understanding. Basic bodily self-maintenance ought to be a subject simple enough for even an adult to grasp. Eat in balanced moderation, get some exercise, and every once in a while take a look at yourself naked to make sure you aren't screwing up in one direction or the other. If you are, fix it. If you have some medical condition that makes your situation more complicated than this, get help with it.
In mediated urban America, however, these quiet ideas are hopelessly drowned out by the incessant idiotic clamor of advertising, which is merely the evident veneer of the qualitatively more idiotic dialog represented by the industries whose ads they are. I'd bet that the average American can effortlessly name more brand-name "snack" foods than Presidents and countries and four-syllable words combined. My subjective guess is that at least 95% of the nominally edible things whose existence is imposed on my awareness have no sane biochemical justification, and the pointless meta-narratives they cast themselves as characters in are usually even more insidious. If a hundredth of the energy expended on the destructive distraction of carbohydrate reduction were spent on mounting food-porn photographs of well-balanced meals on the sides of city buses, we'd probably be eating ten times better by now. Editorial media, supposedly responsible for counter-weighing cynical corporate self-interest, contribute to this noise primarily by amplifying it. They have to. There's no story in "there's no story". There's no story in "everything you've known you should be doing since you were six, you should be doing."
Over the course of a year, starting two years ago, I lost 60 pounds. This is the somewhat less humiliating way of saying that I'd been screwing up the very simple process of maintaining my own body for a very long time before that, and then I finally fixed it. The effect on my appearance was and continues to be fairly dramatic. People who've seen this happen in their peripheral awareness ask me two questions in a rigorously predictable pattern. The first is always "How?!", and the "!" almost invariably denotes their anticipation that my experience will finally tell them which fad eating program actually works. Their reactions, when I admit that I didn't use one, are generally either disappointment or confusion. I might as well be saying that I made up my own religion, or that I have some incurable wasting disease. Actually, I think some of them think I am sick and don't want to say so. Warring diet and exercise factions have established such an omnipresent clanging din in our lives that the idea of somehow stepping outside of it ceases to be wholly conceivable.
The second question comes a month or two after the first one. "How's your diet?", it sometimes goes. From people who don't filter what they say to people they think of as being in fragile states it's sometimes the far more pointed "So are you gaining it back?" This might be insulting, except that I visibly am not. I wasn't dieting, I changed my life. I went from 200 to 140 in a year of careful effort. And then I just kept eating the same way. I lost a few more pounds, slowly, but for the last six or eight months my weight has fluttered lazily back and forth between 130 and 132. This has not been hard. Literally speaking, it's been effortless. I follow my improved eating rules, and nothing changes. No crap, no eating out of boredom, vegetables are good, whole grains are good, frying is to be avoided if there are viable alternatives, beige is the color of danger. Even the food pyramid is kind of overcomplicating the problem. But the ubiquitousness of the question hints at how deeply the food industry has been able to embed the secret reassurance that consumption is good. Of course diets will fail in the long term. The natural healthy state of a consumer is consumption. Maybe I shouldn't be so baffled at the extremes people can subject themselves to; the layers of fat insulate defeat they internalized long, long ago. In a consumer culture, consumption is the path: towards desirability, towards health, towards peace, towards self-esteem. But towards, somehow, always towards and never quite getting there.
Here is, for me, the most appalling personal measure of what we've become. According to the BMI tables for American males my age and height, I have gone from the 79th percentile of weight to the 5th. I don't know which number is more awful. One in five people like me are even heavier than I ever got? One in five have put off fixing their screwed up systems even longer than I did? And 79 to 5 looks like I overcompensated, but I don't think I have. My body is now pretty much the shape it seems to want to be. Only one in twenty get this far? Physically, I believe I have gone from puffy to equilibrated. Socially, apparently, puffy is well within the bell-curve and equilibrated is heretical.
We begin these conversations by talking about eating and exercise, and that's often the last time the word "exercise" is mentioned. I didn't get fat just by overeating, I also had to sit around a lot. I was not a completely immobile person during those years of accumulation, but I knew perfectly well that I was letting my body constrain my activities. Puffy people can play soccer. You just substitute a lot, and stick to levels at which decent positioning can compensate for poor acceleration. But that isn't exercise, it's recreation, which is not the same. And the more bulk you're attempting to maneuver, the greater the likelihood that you'll eventually wreck something. In my case it was an ACL.
The knee injury was my turning point, because it took me out of all my existing forms of physical activity save walking, and for a long while even that was reduced to limping. So not only did I need a whole new replacement set of activities, anyway, but to my disgust I discovered in the course of rehab that I wasn't even in good enough condition to perform basic physical therapy. I got to the point where they wanted me to ride a stationary bicycle for twenty minutes, and I couldn't do it.
Exercise is more complicated than eating. Eating well fits into the time you already have allocated for eating badly; exercise requires explicit and conscious additional investment. Modulo unusual chemistry, everybody's "eating well" should be largely the same; preferences and capacities for exercise are much more varied. I knew I needed a permanent exercise plan, not a quick site repair, and counting on having the time and patience to go to a health club three or four times a week for the rest of my life sounded unrealistic. I bought a rowing machine. The exercise industry may not be quite as corrupt as the food industry, but it isn't for lack of enthusiasm. The standard caveat about home exercise machines is that they get used for a few months and then sit in a corner depreciating.
You don't have to be a statistic if you don't want to. I steadily worked up to rowing for half an hour, five or six days a week. The advantages to this were that the machine fit in my house, a thirty-minute workout could thus add no more than thirty-five minutes to my morning schedule, and while I was rowing I could watch old episodes of Urusei Yatsura for Japanese practice. The most obvious disadvantage is that a rowing machine isn't specifically preparing you for anything except rowing, so if you don't need to row for real you're are only investing indirectly in general fitness. Also, when it's nice out it's kind of dopey to be sitting inside simulating something you should be doing outside. Arguably that's kind of dopey even when it's miserable out.
My rowing machine got used for several months, but now sits in a corner depreciating after all, a victim not of personal apathy but of changing circumstances. I got into a relationship. The machine isn't portable, so obviously I couldn't use it if I was at Belle's. It's also not quiet, and only one person can use it at a time, which made it hard to incorporate into our shared morning routine when we were both at my house. And now that we've moved in together, there's nowhere to even set it down. I still don't think I would have lost weight successfully without changing my attitude towards my body's use, not just its feeding, but the plain truth is that about half of my weight loss was accomplished with only erratic exercise, and it didn't actually go much more slowly that way than it did when I was rowing regularly.
Weight, however, is not at all the same as fitness. After dealing with the former, I could easily testify that doing so hadn't magically fixed the latter. Belle and I went up and down a couple mountains, and my knee didn't like it much. We went on a fairly short sea kayaking trip, and I struggled to keep up. It is no exaggeration to say that I have never in my adult life been remotely fit. Rowing was my first methodical exercise plan since childhood PE. The things I used to do, casual soccer and volleyball and softball and walking, might reward fitness but don't require it. The new things I wanted to do more of, hiking and kayaking, are not nearly as tolerant. In exploration, there are no goalkeepers. And you don't row kayaks.
The simplest exercise in the world is running. It requires minimal equipment, negligible time overhead and no appreciable skill. But not every body can do it. I tried to take up running a few years ago, when I was still getting fatter. It was clear that systematic aerobic exercise would improve my life, and running seemed like it would be no more tedious than any other option. I bought a new pair of shoes, charted a short and scenic bridge-and-river course, set my alarm a little earlier, and braced myself for fitness.
The project was not a success. My first time out I discovered that I could sustain what felt like a natural jogging pace for not quite a whole minute. At the slowest increment over my walking pace I could physically devise, I could stretch this to not quite two minutes. It's amazing how little ground you can cover in either of these manners. My "short" route took me over an hour to traverse, and by the end I felt comprehensively demoralized. But I beeped my stopwatch, recorded my time (down, naturally, to the second), took a day off to rest and then a couple more days off due to ongoing labor disputes with my alarm clock, and then tried again. To my impatient displeasure, the results were as bad or worse. I'd start running, and have to switch back to walking long before I'd gotten out of sight of my starting point. My legs hurt, my heart was racing, I had trouble breathing. It was painfully obvious that a blackout was far more imminent than fitness. By the time I made it home, the stopwatch mockingly insisted that it had taken me two minutes longer the second time than the first, even with a minor but humiliatingly dishonest shortcut. I never went out for the third run. Running made me feel bad, and took too long to do it.
So if I couldn't have changed my eating without the reinforcement of rowing, maybe the encouragement of having lost weight was what I needed for running. Or maybe it's just that much easier to move 130 pounds than 200, or maybe nine other surrounding conditions are right. This time Belle and I picked a gradual regimen actually designed for beginning runners, and started it together. A sane plan is huge, as is company. It turns out that you're not supposed to go out and try to run three miles at a race pace the first day. The first week we jogged slowly, for a minute at a time. By the fourth week, we were still only up to five minutes at a time. At the end of the fifth week you jog for twenty minutes straight. By the ninth you can run for half an hour, and reasonably aspire to cover three miles in that time.
I reached three miles in late May, and have been running three or four mornings a week ever since. I get out of bed, and by less than an hour later my day is already a success before the rest of it has even started happening. Running takes up no space in the living room, can be done together, and if you do it alone the other person can sleep. It gets you out into your environment, and if your environment isn't that great it can get you back inside fast enough to avoid serious exposure. I don't have the time or interest for marathon distances, but I can feel what the shorter ones are doing for me, muscularly and aerobically. The first time I ran three miles without stopping, the same exact path that took a painful hour a few years ago, I made it home in less than half that. A couple months later, my stamina is now greater than my patience for the first time ever. Two laps around the pond across the street from my office is four and a half miles, which is now my relaxed cruising distance. The three-mile river loop I run for speed, and I've steadily replaced 10:00 miles with a succession of improving personal records, most recently 7:06 yesterday morning. 7:06/mile will not win you any races against real runners, but it's fast enough to blow by casual joggers. It's fast enough to say that I'm really doing this. It's fast enough to suggest I can go farther and faster still. It's fast enough to confuse me about who I am.
So I was once a sedentary person, and now I'm bordering on athletic. I grew up surrounded by flat land, and I'm learning how to go out into the ocean and relearning how to climb up and look out over things. My body is different, and my wardrobe is different, and for good measure I quit shaving my head. When I went to find clothes to wear to my wedding, I realized that I don't entirely know what I look like. On the days when the mirror looks right, old photos seem inexplicable. I am 37. Once the wedding is dealt with, Belle and I will begin the rest of this, and our options will start to register. We could have children, we could move far away, we could become novelists or jewelers or rock stars. I don't know what we'll decide. I don't know how we'll decide. I don't know very much. For most of my adult life I have measured my progress by how much I think I understand, but this is introspection as a way of processing outside stimuli, and exploration is a way of settling enough of your internal issues that you are ready for discovery.
But if you ask, and I'm pretending you asked, I know this: you are more than you guess. You are not confined by what you have been, much less by what you think you can't be or don't want. What you did yesterday was an expression of yourself, but so will be what you do tomorrow, no matter how little they have in common. We are surrounded by pressure to define ourselves by brand loyalties and concrete affiliations and statistics of our histories and historiographies. We are immersed in what purport to be stories of our successes and failures, and offered the tantalizing shortcut of buying into them instead of having to do the work of succeeding or failing on our own.
We can decline. We can change our patterns. Identity is far deeper than any of these labels and habits. We are not what we do, or even how we do it or why. We are what we feel. Identity is in the surge when you recognize unverifiable truth, or the pang when something snaps that you can't see, or the way you know that you love something you'd never even contemplated. We are not the sum of our fears or our atrophies or our helplessnesses, we are the product of our hopes and our surprise and our inexplicable instincts. We are broken as a test; we are repaired as a challenge. We contain divinity and infinity and infamy. We are beautiful under these terrible layers and clothes, in motion where we sit, warm in these climes, improvised in panic. We can walk away from the stories they're trying to sell us, and write our own. If they hang on us, we can throw them off. If they pursue us, we can run.