Sunday, October 20, 2019

Tired, Bone-Weary, and Old

An immense liberation: the heartbeat, slosh and knock, like a dishwasher heard from the other room -- sure, all that, and the fear that wakes you in the night with a sour taste, and a sudden jolt of forgetting -- but mostly the clouds moving, the dappled ground, the sense of space that comes when you have drastically, drastically shrunk.

And I have shrunk, and I may shrink some more, in prosaic inches and pounds. The desire to vanish altogether is almost overwhelming, at times. When I first lost my weight, I immediately embarked on a project to build more muscle. I was panicked by the thought of being small. But now I don't care. I want to be small. I want to turn sideways and vanish. I want to feel the air blowing through between my ribs and carrying the last bits away. Something for the squirrels to build nests with.

But that too is one of the deflections, one of the ways I have always evaded the real issues, and my patience with all those subterfuges is pretty much gone. The truth is that I have always been fearful and desperate for approval, and there is something unlovely and sly about the way I linger. But another thing I have lost patience for is blaming myself for being what I was inevitably made by my circumstances. I need only do that if I am determined not to change, if I'm not willing to do the work. I'm willing to do the work, now.

I ate lunch in my car, today. Romaine with bits of carrot and radish; almonds; two bananas and an apple. A rain shower visited while I ate, and moved on, and a rainbow appeared to the north. I wasn't feeling up to lunching with the other people in my workshop, even though half my motive for taking it was to find people to practice Thai with. Time out. And eating is still so hard, so fraught. I remind myself of our older, rather neurotic cat, Kiki, who can't bear to eat if anyone is moving about within a few yards of her. I sometimes try to sidle past her in the kitchen without disturbing her at her meal. I'm usually unsuccessful. She hurries away, and like as not Van Buren saunters up to eat her dinner before she can stand to come back.

So no: one thing at a time. Willing to do the work, but not all the work all the time all at once: that's not possible either.

The almonds were sweet and good. And I am tired, bone-weary, and old.

Thursday, October 17, 2019


I just read two books by Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis and The Righteous Mind. I heartily recommend them both: I think they both shed a great deal of light, and they both say things I've struggled and failed to express. As well as much that I had never thought of.

I am not likely, of course, to agree with the political opinions of someone who calls himself a centrist. While I agree with him that conservatives bring a great deal to the table, I do not think the current crop of Republicans are conservatives; I think they are simply a nightmare version of liberals -- far more like us, in all important respects, than they are like the Republicans of, say, 1970. They are not concerned with conserving anything but their own prestige and their own assets: and they are sold on a version of Christianity that Bonhoeffer neatly summarized as "cheap grace." No need for messy crucifixions or time-wasting penance! God approves of you right out of the box, and all He wants you do do is feather your nest.

(I actually think of myself in my heart as a conservative, although I longer call myself one, since it only confuses people. Those little online quizzes consistently identify me as "very liberal." They ask no questions about Edmund Burke, or perfectibility, or the importance of custom and tradition.)

Anyway. Where was I? Yes. I completely agree with Haidt that we arrive at the best solutions when Liberals and Conservatives (as he defines them) bang up against each other and knock each other's rough edges off. But I think the political positions of, say, Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, are, in fact, just such compromise positions -- old compromises, informed by both conservatives and progressives as we used to know them. The Left used to have some bargaining power, because our labor was needed, and the sinister figure of the Soviet Union was lurking behind us. Now our labor is superfluous -- plenty more where that came from, should you need it, which you probably don't; and where the Soviet Union used to be is the gangster state of United Russia, a China which really would rather not bother with us, and a European Union that can't even mind its own store, let alone anyone else's. Different world. Our leverage is gone. And in the meantime, the very wealthy coalesced, under the Kochs, into a formidably organized and fabulously rich political machine. They hold all the cards, now, and they can only fail by drastically overplaying their hand. (Which seems to be exactly what they are doing, so maybe we have a chance after all. Who knows?)

But. Read Haidt, who is much cleverer about social psychology than he is about politics: both his books are very illuminating reads.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Ellen and W

Well, I'm on Ellen DeGeneres' side. 

Of course by several criteria George W. Bush is a war criminal. So is Barack Obama: I can't think of any criterion that rules George in that rules Barack out. Waging undeclared war? Check. Authorizing strikes intended to kill civilians? Check. Maintaining prisoners in inhumane conditions, because it's politically inexpedient to release them? Check. Authorizing torture? Check. The difference is that Barack is our war criminal, the scale is smaller, and the justifications are slicker. The victims, though, are just as scarred, injured, and dead.

Tu quoque is a much used and abused argument these days. I'm not saying I find the two men morally equivalent: I don't. George is more to be blamed because he caused a great deal more suffering. Barack is more to be blamed because he knew better what he was doing. For those who get a thrill out of reckoning up exact quantities of blame, and being sure to assign people to the correct seat in the correct circle of hell, no doubt there's hours of excitement here. I'll pass.

I'm not offering anyone forgiveness, and I don't hear DeGeneres offering anyone forgiveness either. What she's offering is kindness. The recognition of humanity, even in our erstwhile or present enemies. There are some notable authorities who recommend that. I stand with them. 

People can be wrong. They are wrong. I am wrong. I recognize at least time when, had I been president, I would have made a disastrous foreign policy mistake that would have cost thousands, probably tens of thousands, of lives. It would have been a sin of omission -- failure to act in the face of the Serbian ethnic cleansing -- but that wouldn't have made it any less disastrous, or made the suffering of the Albanians any less. You all could have rightly despised me forever.

If you can't think of a disastrous policy mistake you would have made, as president of the United States, then -- to put it as gently as I know how -- you're an ignorant idiot. So shut up and let Ellen and W watch their football game. And hope you're never in a position to display to the world the depth of your ignorance and the shortfalls of your compassion.

Thursday, October 03, 2019

Peeling Eggs

For over a year now, I've been eating three boiled eggs every morning. It's not that I particularly like my eggs boiled: I prefer them scrambled, and I make good scrambled eggs. But boiling eggs is easy, and one of the secrets of my dietary success has been the rule, "if it ain't easy, it ain't happenin.'" I start them boiling, and by the time I'm done with my oatmeal and brocs, they're ready: the part of my breakfast I most enjoy.

So I have a lot of experience now with boiling eggs, and I feel I can make authoritative statements about it. In particular, how to do it so as to make peeling them easy.

First, and most important: don't boil new-laid eggs. Just don't. There is no way to make really fresh eggs easy to peel. (And anyway, if they're as fresh as that, why wreck them by boiling them? Make an omelet.) I deliberately age the eggs I'm going to boil: I want them at least a week old.

Second: "shock" them with cold water. This helps, a little, though not nearly as much as some people think. Mostly it just makes them easier to handle when they've just come out of boiling water.

Third: some eggs will never peel easily. Ever. No matter how old they are, or what you do to them. The occasional egg comes along with a membrane that sticks tighter to the flesh of the egg than to the shell, and there is no good way to peel it. Surrender gracefully. You can strip the first layer of flesh off and scrape it from the shell with your thumbnail. Whatever. Do what you must. It's not your fault.

It's delightful when the shell slips off an egg all of a piece, and it makes you feel very skillful and clever. The impulse to take credit for it is overwhelming. But in fact it's just dumb luck. Anybody would have found that egg easy to peel. If you only boil eggs once in a while, you can be forgiven for thinking that you've got the hang of it now and you've solved that egg-peeling thing and you know exactly what to do with them. It's an illusion, I'm afraid. There is an impossible-to-peel egg in your future. Maybe not today, or tomorrow, but soon. 

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Reflections on a Tour of the Grand Spreadsheet

I just went through my grand spreadsheet, updating it with the weekly averages for my weight and waist, which meant filling in data for two and a half years. It was inefficient -- I could have written formulas to do the same thing -- but I find it useful sometimes to wade through data and get a feel for it at different scales and tempos.

In general, I'm happy with what I've accomplished and where I am. The great disappointment, of course, has been that no magic resolution has presented itself. The grand fantasy is that at some point one recovers normalcy of appetite, one can eat ad libitum without gaining weight. I'm pretty much certain, now, that that will never happen. I can restrict my daily eating carefully, or I can be obese; there is no middle option.

Given, then, that I'm restricting carefully, weighing and measuring, going to all this trouble (and the trouble is enormous: it occupies quite a bit of my uncommitted time), I might as well get exactly what I want out of it. So what do I want?

The question arises because I have been batting back and forth several potential steady-states, and how to arrive at them. Should I ride the present regimen down to a 32" waist, and see what that looks like? Or should I continue my gradualist, "follow the blue lines" strategy, trying to keep my waist very slowly dwindling while my weight very slowly increases, as my lifting program progresses and I put on more muscle? What, exactly, am I aiming for, and how will I know when I've gotten there?

One risk, as so often, is mistaking markers for actual goals, and obsessing on hitting numbers that don't actually capture the end-goals. And another risk, one I'm especially prone to, is setting a goal of endless progression: at present really what I'm attempting is to perpetually build muscle mass while perpetually reducing fat. I used to design my exercise programs that way, until I finally understood that basically what I was doing -- piling on more weight, more reps -- was guaranteeing that I eventually exercise to exhaustion or injury. Not clever. I should have end-points. 

What are the actual goals, then? There's an optimal body composition: I should get there and stay there. It's not that far off. I pretty much like how I look now. I don't particularly want to be bulky and hugeous. I'd like my waist to be a little trimmer, my legs to be a bit thicker; but that's about it. I think that if I do get to having my waist measurement be 90% of my hips, I probably will have something like a 32" waist, and I'll probably look as good as I want to bother with.

But backing off to get a wider view, looking good -- although I must ruefully admit it's the best motivator -- is only a side goal. What I really want is -- as a duty -- to live vigorously as long as I can, so that I can avoid being a burden on my loved ones, and hopefully help them out, for as long as possible; and what I really want for myself, my deepest wish, is for mental acuity and physical energy. That's what I want to maximize. And here's where I need to be careful to measure what I'm actually interested in. 

I am much more energetic at this weight and fitness. I used to be basically exhausted by dinnertime: now I often do things in the evening. Every night before bed I do the dishes and prep for breakfast, which would have been totally beyond my powers. But of course this extra energy is largely devoted to... keeping up my diet and fitness regimen. My disposable energy has not really increased: it may even have declined.

It feels better though. And feeling mentally sharper is priceless. I think better. I'm more concise, more methodical, quicker on the uptake. That's what I care about most. 

I have long harbored the notion -- probably picked up from the elderly protagonists of Michael Innes mysteries, and offhand comments by longevity buffs -- that if I restricted calories really severely I'd be sharper still. Now that I examine it by daylight, it doesn't seem especially likely: it's probably an ascetic fantasy. There's probably a sweet spot, and it's probably considerably this side of starvation.

There may be actual information about these things. I should seek it out. 

And I should think about how to measure these things. Energy and acuity. People like to say that this, that, or the next thing can't be measured. They're always wrong. Anything that can be perceived can be measured.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019


Morning: a fine rain, and wet branches gleaming.

At one point I grew self-conscious and annoyed with myself: It turns out I begin about half my posts by informing my public that it's morning. Morning is important to me. Morning is not a time of day so much as a state of being. Morning is freedom, possibility, freshness. A whole new world with the dew still on it, and not a trammel or a busybody to be seen. I love mornings. But not everybody does, and even if they did, the whole point of writing is to Make It New (we know this because Ezra Pound told us so, which maybe should rouse our suspicions right there) and anyway, how new and fresh is this morning, when to the reader (very possibly not inhabiting morning at all, or inhabiting it and wishing they weren't) reads the same damn thing every morning? So I pulled up my socks and tried to avoid it, or at least cut it out when I was done.

But this, O Reader, turns out to be a very bad idea. Because it means I begin my morning self-consciously, in an editing frame of mind, which is a very fine frame of mind in its way, but is NOT the writing frame of mind. And besides, most of what I have to say, if you boil it down, is that it is in fact morning. I write for the same reason the cock crows. There it is. So from now on, I am going to begin every post by informing you that it's morning. Feel free to skip that part.


Some time ago I read a book about cultural evolution, The Secret of Our Success, by Joseph Henrich. I recommend it, both for itself and for a way of thinking about our present political polarity. We do have a culture war going on, and it's important, and it's not as simple as it looks. I am thoroughly and unapologetically on the liberal side, and I think actually that we are winning handily, dark though the days look sometimes: but that's not my point, not at the moment. We liberals are outcompeting conservatives for several reasons: we pay more attention to science, which gives us a consistent edge; we're more open to innovation; our childrearing practices are more effective; we have a near-monopoly on education, the media, and the arts. Short of nuclear war or genocide, we are probably going to win this thing. But we do ourselves no service by refusing to examine the conservative strengths. They understand things we don't (culturally speaking), and they can do things we can't. We should think about that. 

The winner of this culture war is not going to be the smarter, better informed side (that's obviously us.) It's not going to be the more stubborn, belligerent side either (that's obviously them.) It's going to be the side that makes people feel safest, most special, most connected to each other, most like they belong to something, most like their lives are important and make sense. The side that seizes and holds that redoubt is the one that's going to win. We need to think about that. Because the problem is hard and the stakes are enormous.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

The Light of Summer

Morning: the throb of the washer: a single fat sparrow in the hedge, cautiously investigating the birdbath.

The skylights are covered with dew, and beyond them the sky is gray. A somber day: the light of summer already seems far away and long ago.

Ironic, that this new moment of nationalism comes precisely when global capitalism has made us all so much alike; and that we should be extravagantly focused on cultural difference precisely when there is so little of it left. There was more cultural distance between a Southerner and a Yankee in 1860 than there is between a Honduran and a Norteamericano now. We live in the same conditions: we respond the same way. If I were a strategist for the Right, I would put all my energy into trying to suppress language learning: I don't think there's any other way to try to keep up the fiction that we're terribly different from each other. We wear the same t-shirts and bill caps, eat the same food, watch the same kitties on YouTube. We work the same absurdly long hours under the same unremitting financial stress. We have the same loss of faith in government and the same witless loathing of our political opponents. The same inability to conduct a legitimate election. It's at this moment that we choose to defend our borders? What's to defend? Our uniqueness consists of playing football with a prolate spheroid, instead of a ball.

Speaking of which, what the hell, Thorns? losing 0-6 against North Carolina? Sheesh.

Just finished reading Jonathan Haidt's "Happiness Hypothesis," which I found disconcertingly like my own thoughts on the matter. I think I'm going to just turn back to the beginning and read it over. As always, finding my own thoughts in print makes me doubt them: if somebody else thinks the same thing, then we're both probably wrong, right? But it's also interesting. And I don't at all understand what he means by saying that "Happiness comes from between," so I need to read that last chapter again, in any case.

The other book I'm reading is La Tía Julia y El Escribor -- "Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter" -- by Mario Vargas Llosa, which is really quite a wonderful book, so far, though you have to be alarmed by the thought of a man dictating the story of their courtship to his lover, which is apparently how this book was written. Yikes.