Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Small Liberties

A sly grief, twining up through the blue sky and the sudden maple blossom. Another trick of age has come upon me: I squint, now, at moments of irritation or perplexity. Wrinkle my nose, in that wonderfully expressive, nonsensical English phrase. I catch myself doing it, and in the moment the fact that I turn sixty in a few days becomes suddenly explicable. Inevitable.

Still the wind is fresh, and the crows climb up to play in the gusts, and there's a fine sunlight, laid on with a hasty brush. It will do, I suppose. I suppose it must. I walk up to where Burnside Street bridges the freeway to have a look at the mountain. Pure white and larger than usual, as though someone over on the far side had carelessly elbowed it, shoved it closer.


Home. Stew in the crockpot: done for now. I'll leave it to simmer overnight. In the morning I'll add some broccoli, portion it out into containers. Lunch for us for the next five days.

Dark flows in now. I'll wash up at some point, do the dishes, call it a night. 

That which is impossible to thee is not impossible to me: I shall save my word in all things and I shall make all things well.


Small liberties: taking transit instead of driving, and not having to trouble about my car -- I don't need to remember where it is, or track how the parking fees might be tallying, or worry about going out of range of it: none of that. I'm free. But I am so small, now, the wind could blow me away. An eddy might blow me aboard the train, or sweep me off again.

Good night!

Thursday, March 01, 2018

An Irreparably Broken Appetite

Circling back, as I do these days, to why my weight loss efforts are working -- I have been "on program" since last May, losing a pound a week: I started out at 222 lbs and I'm presently at 170 -- why did it work this time? 

There's lots of answers. Every time I've failed I've learned something. I painstakingly built up a knowledge and habit of simple cooking and maintaining a kitchen, which I badly needed even for the "Tom's and Burgerville" stage of my present weight loss: a big part of this was the huge crock pot of soup or stew, made every five or six days, that has been my (and Martha's) daily lunch. Other habits, and learning about what makes me tick -- what makes me hold a line or crumble -- were essential. But the one that stands out to me most at the moment, and the one that was very different this time, was conceptual: it was deciding that my appetite was totally, irreparably broken.

Lurking behind every attempt before this was the idea that at some point, if I ate the right things, or ate in the right way, if I developed the right habits and attitudes, I would eventually want to eat the right amount of the right things. This idea was peddled to me by all sorts of people of all sorts of dietetic persuasions. Back in prehistoric Scarsdale days, I was told that I would learn to find fat greasy and disgusting, and my grapefruit-purified appetite would naturally find salad and cottage cheese as attractive as a burger and fries. Atkins told me that if I stopped eating carbs my appetite would be healed, and I wouldn't want to overeat. Different people identified different food demons, but the common theme was: exorcise the demon, eat the right things in the right way, and your appetite will be a trustworthy guide once more. You'll naturally eat the right amount.

And I totally bought it. I bitterly resisted logging my eating and measuring my food, because I hated the constraint, and because it really wasn't going to be necessary, right? Once fixed, my appetite would be reliable again. The artificial constraints -- a needless scaffolding -- would fall away, and what I wanted to eat and what I should eat would be exactly the same thing. Such an appealing dream! And however much everyone disagreed about other things, they all seemed to agree on this. Getting back to a naturally dependable appetite was possible!

Well, after the collapse of my Atkins-ing, I was finally open to not believing this. In retrospect, I'm not sure why I ever found it particularly believable. I suppose partly because I so much wanted it to be true; but also because the Natural held such cultural sway. What you wanted couldn't just be wrong, because that's not how the world worked. Desires were healthy. They could get twisted a bit by a weird upbringing, hijacked by taboos, corrupted by conceptual distortions, but they always had a healthy foundation, which, given enough reasoning and effort, you could return to. I had real difficulty abandoning this conviction, and entertaining the idea -- which really, all evidence supported -- that my appetite for food would never be a reliable guide to what I should eat, or how much I should eat. 

When I finally came around to this, I found it oddly liberating. I didn't have to make myself like anything, or to pretend I disliked anything. I didn't have to change my instincts or my appetites. I didn't even have to change what I ate at all (even if eventually I did.) All I had to do was eat less. 

It was still a formidable problem, and one that has required all my will power and ingenuity to address. My particular solution wouldn't necessarily work for anyone else. But it was finally the right problem.

Sunday, February 25, 2018


I have no fondness for the hope, the emotion. Insofar as I must traffic in expectations, my policy is to make them as realistic as possible. I am all too ready to take my fantasies and projections about the future to be real and trustworthy: I don't need to be encouraged in my self-deceptions.

So -- I was long in appreciating hope, the virtue, and even longer in finding a secular version of it. But it has become central to my political thinking, such as it is. Hope is critical. And it is a virtue: it may in fact be the political virtue.

When I first read Paul, and he listed the principal virtues as "faith, hope, and love," I was merely puzzled. How could hope be a virtue? It was simply an opinion, or a prediction: good things were on the way. Well, maybe they were and maybe they weren't, how were we to know?

But of course for Paul, and for any Christian, the hope isn't for anything worldly. It's the hope for union with God. It's believing such a thing is possible, and continually trying to imagine how it could come about -- what it would entail. It is about the farthest thing possible from just expecting that everything will turn out all right, really: because if I really take seriously the idea that I could somehow make myself capable of receiving God's goodness, I am forced to recognize how much work that would require. Which would be: all of it. All the work I could imagine and more that I can't.

I am not, technically, a Christian. But of course I am drenched in Christianity, as is anyone in the West: if you can't see your Christianity, it only means that you've blinded yourself to it.

So. When I lost hope, in November of 2016, it was not primarily an emotional response. Oh, there was definitely an emotional response: I didn't sleep more than two or three hours at a time for days. But the problem was not an emotional one. The problem was that my political hope was destroyed. I could no longer see the way forward. I was not at all sure there was one.

With election of President Trump, I could no longer believe that the election of such people was a fluke, an unfortunate hitch before democracy came of age. No. What this election meant -- quite apart from its catastrophic immediate short-range effects -- was that we will periodically elect leaders who do not have in them any of the ordinary restraints that would prevent them from beginning a world war which would be the last war, and the last of our species. We survived Hitler. We will probably survive Trump. But there will be another and another and another, one per century, perhaps, each one bringing, say, a five percent chance of annihilation. That adds up to an eventual certainty, or close enough: we might have a millennium, with luck, but we don't have ten of them. The hope for an eventual future, then, won't be a progressive democratic one. The idea of slow progress, a gradual evolution to a less violent, more compassionate, freer future, depends on there being a future. A reasonably long timeline in front of us. Which we now do not have.

Where, then, is a viable future? Well perhaps one formed by AI and surveillance. The Chinese model of pseudo-democracy, maybe: for some time their system has been producing the sort of stolid, dependable leadership that does not make for catastrophic breaks, which efficiently crushes disruptive democratic movements, and which makes possible strenuous responses to economic and environmental change. It is an ugly government, but it is not a suicidal one. The same sort of system could easily grow up here, if one of the government agencies, or one of the parties, gets the decisive upper hand with artificial intelligence. Military and communication technology now runs very strongly in favor of centralization. The age of the rifle and the printing press was an age of revolution and liberty: I suspect that the age of the counter-insurgency team and the internet will be an age of centralized authority and manipulated elections. This is probably a good thing, or at least a thing tending to survival: free human beings would only destroy themselves.

So. This is hope? Well, of course not. But life was worth living before democracy, and it will be worth living after it. And in fact, neither you nor I like actual democracy very much, close up and in person. Few people love political life, and few think that modern political life brings out the best in people. Most of us think it does not.

Okay. So start again. What is my political hope, if it's not hope in progress, as I ever understood it, or democracy, or freedom? 

Well, for now it rests in unknowing. No one can see very far ahead. There will be dangers and opportunities, as there always have been. People who are not part of the wealthy elites will have less power than we had in the past, most likely, but really we have never had very much, and losing the exaggerated sense of our importance may do us (individually) some good. But it is still our duty to imagine a good future, and to try to discern which of the branching paths before us seem likely to lead there. My choices will be far less confident than they used to be. But I do still know where I want to go, that I turn towards truth and compassion, towards valuing human beings (at least) because they are human beings, and not because they speak certain languages or carry certain papers or wear certain colored skins. Towards fairness and the rule of law and strict limits to the authority one human being can ever hold over another. 

How to get there? I know less and less about that. But "they also serve who only stand and wait." I will stand and wait, and give my imagination rein. I am not required to know: I am only required to try.

Friday, February 09, 2018

Endgame: The Last Four Months

Another check-in. (Sorry, this is of absorbing interest to me. Feel free to wander off while I'm obsessed with this project.) I've been at this for nine months, now, and here's what the next four months should look like. I've solidified my next, and last, goal: to get my waist measurement to be 90% or less of my hip measurement.

When I began, last May, I would have thought such a goal absurd -- grandiose -- in fact a plan for failure. How could such a thing even be? And of course it still may be unattainable. But I have yet to encounter real sustained resistance to my new diet, real stubborn hunger. I have no illusions about being able to bull my way through that, and I don't plan to try. But this is what I'm aiming for. If I need to pull up, I'll pull up.

Weight -- the first chart below -- is now second fiddle. I don't really care what I weigh anymore. The blue line is the projection of a pound-per-week loss, all the way from last May, and the red is where I actually am. The current trajectory takes me to the neighborhood of 160 lbs by early June (the exact number, I note with some annoyance, that the insurance charts I have heaped scorn upon suggest for me. Hmph.) But really, now that I'm under 180, the weight ceases to be a very interesting marker. I'm far more interested in the girth.

Weight: The Last Four Months

So below is projected girth. My hips currently measure 37.5", and I don't expect that to change much, if at all -- I'm pretty damn lean there, at this point. So 90% of that will be a waist measurement of 33.75", and I should hit that in the first couple weeks of June.

Girth: The Last Four Months

And what then? What's my maintenance plan?

I don't actually have one. I don't plan to change much at all: I'll go along as I have, eating precisely the same thing every day. I'll nudge amounts up slightly so as to level off. In the long term I have notions of trading in more veggies and olive oil and trading out the red meat: but all in good time. Or never, if never works better. I'm happy with this.

A few weeks ago I stopped eating out, so this is no longer the Tom's Diner and Burgerville diet (on which, be it remembered, I did most of the weight loss: I did not do this by "eating healthier," I did it by eating less.) My diet now looks a bit more like what most people would call a real diet, especially at breakfast -- broccoli and oatmeal with chopped nuts and boiled eggs, rather than the Tom's Spanish omelet with sour cream. But that's mostly a matter of not wanting to put time and energy into food prep. Dinner is hamburger patty and microwaved potatoes and a cup of ice cream, now. Marginally healthier, maybe, than the Burgerville cheeseburger and 1/2 milkshake, but not enough so to fuss about. Mostly, it's just a damn sight cheaper.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Perfection of the Life

The intellect of man is forced to choose
Perfection of the life, or of the work...

So said Yeats. It's "man" rather than "person" not only because of the scansion. Perfecting the work may always end a tragic failure, says the poem: but at least you haven't been a sissy and done something so easy and trivial as perfecting your life.

Well. I suppose it's always the job you haven't taken on that looks like the easier one. It's perfection of the life that I'm aiming at here, or at least improvement of the life. The shadow world of my personal finances and domestic habits: all those things that we all supposedly have under control before we step out of the door and greet the world and present ourselves, but which are actually a shame and a shambles. 

So I hit my both my weight loss goals this month. The next two things I'm undertaking involve habits as stubbornly inwoven as overeating: the restaurant habit and the driving everywhere habit. I have eaten breakfast out every morning since I was seventeen years old; and apart from the glory days of bicycling, when I lived closer to downtown, I've been driving to work for most of my working life. Burgerville every night was a godsend to my weight loss effort, but it wasn't cheap. Not the way I reckon cheap, anyway. 

The arithmetic is simple. Daily, I save at least $10.00 by making breakfast at home; $8.50, reckoning gas and parking, by taking transit; and $6.00 by making dinner at home. In total, $154.50 per week, which comes to a shade over $8,000 per year. These habits are expensive. (And every one of those savings estimates was lowballed.)

By the standards of some people, we were already living cheap. We make well under the Oregon median income, and we've been planing along, just meeting our expenses. This has been fine, because our retirement (at this same modest level) is funded. But I'm a gloomy, conservative person in my financial posture and I've always meant to pad the margins a bit in these last few working years. The padding wasn't happening. 

So now -- flushed with victory as I am -- I mean to force the issue. Cutting $8,000 from my expenses will not only allow us to pad the margin: it changes the retirement calculus drastically. If my investments & social security have to generate $8,000 less, the capital required to fund my retirement is $200,000 less, too. (My rule of thumb is: 25 x annual expenses = required retirement capital. There are a zillion other ways to reckon this, of course.) Suddenly my financial future looks downright rosy.

Okay, but. These habits are deeply part of me. The habit of getting out into the public-but-anonymous world of the cafe to write has been essence of Dale for forty-some years. This is going to take some doing. And eating at home requires planning and tracking. It takes a lot of brainspace, especially at first: how many eggs do I have? How long do I have before the burger in the fridge goes bad? These things are not second-nature to me. They take effort. I have to make up new habits: and I already have the weight loss habits to protect.

So it's a stretch. If I end up not being able to swing it, well, I fall back to the old habits and hope I really do have enough savings already: I'm not going to let the weight loss slip away. But I'm ten days in and going strong. Here goes.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

End of Year Check-In

So. 2017 is a year that will live in infamy, but still: a good thing happened for me. In early May, finding myself fifty inches around the waist and 222 lbs, I set myself the task of losing a pound a week, with the concrete goals of bringing the waist down to forty inches and the weight down to 180. Both goals are drawing near, but the most astonishing and heartening thing is that I have actually been eating exactly what I planned to eat for seven months now. Nothing remotely like that has ever happened before -- this has been an issue all my adult life -- and the effect on my morale, even in the midst of sociopolitical dismay, has been remarkable. The weight has steadily dropped.

Weight Loss: Blue Line = a pound per week; Red Line = my weight

It looks like I'm due to hit 180 ahead of schedule, end of January or early February. The loss of girth has been less steady and puzzles me a little -- I keep working on the geometry of cylinders and spheres and it seems like, with a linear loss of mass, my waistline should shrink slightly more rapidly as I become smaller, but instead it's leveling off perceptibly:

The blue line here was just extrapolated from the first couple months' measurements

So that now it looks like my other major milestone of forty inches -- with the typical perversity of the actual measured world -- is due to fall, well, in the end of January or early February.

I have topography now where I have never had topography. The furrow down the middle of the rectus femoris (the front muscle of the thigh) is obvious, and there are engaging hollows under my biceps: I am becoming downright sinewy, which is something I have aspired to, wistfully, all my life. At my age, of course, the distinction between "sinewy" and "wizened" may be a little blurry: but still.

The point, however -- well, one of the points -- is not vanity, but health: to get rid of the visceral fat which is associated with "the diseases of civilization." The reason for the 180 and the forty inch goals was simply that pretty much everyone agreed that a man of my height ought to be under them. Now authority is less unanimous, and I can't really tell if people really think dreadfully aged men like me ought to weigh a little more -- and why would that be? -- or if they just do. If I'm still supposed to have a waist that's 90% of my "hips" (as we euphemistically call measurement around the bulge of the glutes), that looks like a bit of a project. One of the most striking effects of aging is the dwindling of the glutes: they really don't bulge much any more. What used to be the handiest location for fat reserves gets cut off, for some reason, right at the age when you could really use something soft to sit on. 

Anyway -- all in good time. I have still to get to the milestones: another month or so. Plenty of time for planning.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Returning to the Novel at Fifty-Nine

I am no longer beguiled, or even beguilable.
I do not believe your characters, their passions, 
or, except in special circumstance
(marked perhaps by parentheses or 
the uneven join of a thought too vehement
to stay quite neatly in a clockwork mouth)
your thoughts. The limping past
which so enchanted me once seems labored now:
you wheeze, dear, on the stairs. He said, she thought,
and again Sir Reginald decided: no. I am too old
to believe in simple time. Our stories run 
over and over because they must, not
because anything happened. Once, or ever.
But the distance: the shrewd glance back:
the holding of the thing up to the light: your
face backlit with the enchantment you tried
with all your young and desperate strength to cast--
Oh yes, I can love you again. Maybe I never stopped.
At my age it is difficult to tell: and it doesn't matter
nearly as much as anyone ever said. (Least of all
you, dear!)  Sit here beside me, in the glimmer
of a winter afternoon. Conjure up a house,
a family, an inheritance, a war: I will listen
pretend to believe
and love, as I always have, and must, and will.