Tuesday, January 01, 2019

End of Year Check-In, 2018

2018 saw the end of the weight loss project. But I've changed nothing about how I regulate my eating: I just slightly increased the quantities of a few of my daily foods. I doubt I will ever be able to eat ad libitum, like a person whose appetite has never become disordered. I am on a diet for life, you might say. Which takes fair amount of tedious planning and effort, but I actually find it psychologically easier than the ceaseless fret of "what do I get to eat next?" -- which feels to me now, at the rare times when I entertain the possibility of returning to it, like a worse confinement than just restricting my eating. I know exactly what I'm eating next, in what quantity, so I don't have to think about it. I don't have much of a yen to go back to those cycles of craving and fleeting gratification and self-contempt. It was not much fun and a lot of ickiness.

Here's the charts:

Red line: weight in 2018. The blue lines were projected weights I was steering by.

Waist measurements in 2018

(You can see the 2017 charts here). I levelled off my weight at about 155 pounds (70 kg), with a plan to gradually bring it up to 160 pounds (72.5 kg) while either keeping my waist where it is, at 33 inches (84 cm), or bringing it down to 32 (81 cm). Changes at this point are slow and will be mostly invisible to the casual viewer. Lots of resistance training.

The other thing I'm undertaking in 2019 is trying to figure out my salt intake, and probably reducing it. I find the science on sodium intake confusing so far. And like the science on diet, founded on a lot of very dubious self-reported data. I don't think most people have any idea how much sodium they're consuming, just as they don't have any idea how many calories they're consuming. I'll keep reading, and in the meantime, I'll undertake to describe how much salt I'm eating with an actual reliable number. 

If there's one firm conclusion I've drawn about weight loss, it's that the primary difficulty has nothing to do with will power or psychology, and everything to do with accurate measurement. It's an engineering problem with fairly fine tolerances, and we approach it with laughably inaccurate measurement tools: what we end up doing is wildly oversteering until we capsize. I expect the salt problem -- if there is one -- will look a lot the same.

Anyway, happy new year to you all! The sun is shining, and melting the ice on the skylights: squares of pure pale blue are appearing there. As we say in the Buddha hood, may all beings have happiness, and the causes of happiness; may all beings be free of suffering, and the causes of suffering


Saturday, December 29, 2018

Squinting into the Distance

Three months ago, I took a pretty complete set of measurements: chest, arms, shoulders, thighs, calves, with the intention of repeating the measurements quarterly: I was setting out to build muscle, working out four or five times per week, and I wanted to be able to measure my progress. Yesterday I did it again, and found that all the measurements were -- exactly the same, except a quarter-inch smaller around the chest and around the thigh. So that was disappointing.

Well, except. I weigh myself and measure my waist and hips every morning, so I know those measurements quite precisely. Three months ago I weighed three pounds less, and my waist was 3/4" larger, and my hips were .5" smaller. When I actually put all these facts together, I realized that there's really no other way to interpret them. My volume is staying the same while my weight is increasing: that can only mean that I am becoming denser. That three pounds can't be fat, given that the waist was shrinking. It has to be new muscle, and I have to have been becoming leaner. In fact the numbers meant I was doing exactly what I set out to do, and in fact going at twice the pace I had hoped. I've been building a pound of muscle per month. So that's cheering.

The point of this is not to brag, although of course I'm doing that too: the point is that it's easy to mistake and misinterpret what numbers mean if you don't have enough context. My initial and quite erroneous response was, "I haven't built any muscle, I've failed!" I might have taken that to heart and given up the project.


Ultima Thule. It hadn't even been discovered when New Horizons launched, and now we're going to get a look at it. Four billion miles is a long, long way from home.


"Our main business is not to see what lies dimly at a distance, but to do what lies clearly at hand," said Thomas Carlyle. 

You have to do some of both, of course, but my life has skewed toward squinting into the distance. It's surprisingly refreshing to spend most of my energy on what's clear and close at hand: cooking my food, doing my exercise, tending my finances, doing my work at the foundation. I am distinctly happier.

Monday, December 24, 2018

This Pleasant Lea

"If your religion excluded hearth and home, and was intellectual self-indulgence, then no wonder you jettisoned it," said Lekshe. It would be too much to say that was all it was, but some of it was. There was also Wordsworth's longing for attunement:

...For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.--Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

Well and good, William, but you don't get attunement for free. A world in which you really believe in Furies is a far different world from one in which you saunter along pleasant leas and indulge a passing literary yen for wholeness. 

I've recognized in myself, and in some of my readers, a weakness for following the story rather than the discoverable and verifiable facts, which leads by easy stages to caging children in border camps. I and my people have been far too fond of having our cake and eating it too. 

Bread and stone, tree and water: a few things we all have handled daily, Pagans, Christians, and Buddhists alike. The morning sky and the bell. 

I am realizing my loyalty to science and experiment: to keeping alive the suspicion that if you can't dream up a repeatable experiment to demonstrate a difference, the difference may not be there. However obvious it may be. Lots of obvious things aren't true.

But also science is not enough, and a regular practice of compassion is necessary to keep me from "falling off the other side of the horse." Because in certain long views, who the hell cares? So the human species is experiencing an "outbreak," and will drown itself and many other species in its own shit -- why should I care? How is that different from any other biological shift? Much of what I cared about most deeply is already gone. The old growth forests of Oregon linger in a few little parks and sanctuaries, but the whole point of the old forests was their immensity, the fact that you could get lost in them. A lion on the savanna is magnificent, but a lion in a zoo is just sad. 

I don't know. I get muddled, I lose the thread, I repeat myself. And after all, the question of "am I a Buddhist"? is neither essential nor even interesting. The interesting question is, "what next?"

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Sucky Little Promises

The changes come slowly, and all at once.  Two years ago I was rolling along consuming my way through an American life, despite realizing that, unless I increased my income, something was going to have to give. Despite fully understanding that the consumer life was not delivering on any of its promises, even its sucky little promises: the treats didn't even taste good; the conveniences weren't convenient. I was living lavishly, like a lord, but the poverty of my spirit was every day more obvious.

And then I just stopped.

It's not quite as simple as that, but almost.

Now I eat things that have names, rather than trademarks. Eggs, oats, apples, potatoes. I cook my own food. I have spreadsheets to tell me when, for instance, I'm spending a ridiculous portion of my income on Worcestershire sauce. I take the train or the bus to work. I think about what I earn and spend and invest, as if this was actually my life, as if I actually lived here, rather than being one of Steinbeck's temporarily embarrassed millionaires, camped awhile on the banks of the Willamette while my glorious future is preparing.

Many things converged. Some, I'm sure, I will only understand later, or not at all. "The death of Jesus set me free," as William Blake asserted: that's part of it. The election to the presidency of a man who, improbably, manages to unite in his person practically everything I have ever despised had a hand in it: my political despair is absolute. It's odd I guess that it's just when my sober assessment tells me that adopting a simple life can no longer move any of the needles that I should have found the wherewithal to do it. But I'm doing it for me, not for you. You can rot in hell, my countrymen. You will. You already do.

But I pull myself away from that. I don't mean to pay him or his people any more homage or attention than I must. Send them on their way. Don't let the trap hit you on the way down, sweethearts. I have other things to do, in the time left.

No. What is important now is dismissing fear, and turning only and always to what is beautiful. I practice this over and over. If it's neither practical nor beautiful, I want no part of it. And it must be here now, today, or this week, this month at a stretch. Not ten years from now. Not when the city on the hill is built.

And -- not opposed to this, but actually gracefully part of it -- I have to live as if my choices mattered, even though I know they don't. I have to stop consuming more than I need, not because it will have any effect, but for my own peace of mind. I don't mistake it for political action, which is the only real path forward (if there is one) for the environment. But I just can't do it any more, the relentless spend spend spend acquire acquire acquire waste waste waste. I'm done. I'm living as simply as I reasonably can. 


Milk-white sky, the ferns nodding occasionally, like sleepy old men pretending to pay attention: the quiet of the morning, one of the few parts of The Season that I really like, has set in. 


My religious impulses have withered, in these last two years, as my attention has turned to home and hearth. My affable tolerance for magical thinking has vanished, to be replaced by a maybe more authentic hatred for that sort of intellectual self-indulgence. I am much, much less nice. I have moments of contempt that frighten me: they come surging up from basement rooms I didn't even know my brain had. This is me too, of course, as I've always been. I work on it, kneading it, trying to soften it. Sometimes I think I'm getting somewhere.

"I'm a religious person..." I began to say, somewhere. Social media, I expect. But I stopped and didn't hit "enter." Maybe I'm not a religious person. What was it I started to mean, when I said that? That for me ecstatic experience trumped quotidian concerns? That I was willing to entertain falsehoods, if they would lead me to new understandings? That I was aware of larger consciousnesses than the one I call "mine" sharing my space? 

Or maybe, just that I'm a contrary old cuss, whose friends are largely unreligious academics, and I like rattling their cages? All of these, none of these, I don't know. 


The wind picks up, and for a moment or two the ferns are lively, and the hedge shakes itself like a dog coming out of a river. Merry Christmas, y'all. 

Saturday, November 24, 2018

User Interface

I finally bit the bullet and used my oven yesterday.

I actually have used this oven before, but it must have been ten years ago. It intimidates and frustrates me because a) the oven's conceptual categories don't match mine and b) the crucial feedback mechanism -- the little register that tells you the "phase" and reports the temperature setting -- is so dim that it can only be read -- if it's nighttime -- by switching off all the lights in the house and crouching down close to it. In daytime it can't be read at all.

So Martha and I sat down and read the owner's manual, the other day. We searched for a way to embrighten the register, but no luck. But at least I got over the conceptual stumbling blocks. It had seemed to me that, having set a "preheat" temperature and attained it, you should then proceed to set the baking time, using the "bake" button. Because now you're going on to the "bake" phase, capiche? That's what we're doing here, we're baking something. But the oven doesn't think that way. There is a "preheat" button. What it does is bring the oven up to a certain temperature, 350 degrees by default, and it leaves it there. Fair enough. Then there is a "bake" button. What this does -- so far as I can tell -- is go straight to whatever behavior will maintain the oven indefinitely at the set temperature. "I'm now baking at 350," the oven says to itself, even though it's sitting there at 70 degrees. After a while it will get there, but it won't ever engage the upper element to do so. And once it achieves 350, it will stay there forever. So it's very, very like the "preheat" button, and I'm at a loss to understand why anyone would ever use it. "Heat up to 350, but be slow about it!" Whatever.

So my first real conceptual difficulty was my conviction that, since I was setting out to bake something, I should at some point press the "bake" button. I have cleared that away. In the ordinary course of things I will never touch the "bake" button at all, unless what I want to do is reduce the heat. (I suspect I could use the "preheat" button for that as well, though I haven't run the experiment.)

My second conceptual difficulty was my naive belief that the oven would not let me turn it on for perpetuity. Surely it would turn itself off, by default, after a day, or three days, or something? Not a bit of it. Here we probably run into Things That People Do With Ovens that are beyond my ken: food drying maybe? Anyway, it ain't so. Once it achieves its heat, it will stay there forever, until the stars burn out. If you want to limit the time it will stay on, you use the "bake time" button, and then set the time using the up and down arrow buttons. The time set will appear in the amber lights that cannot be read in daytime, just as the temperature does. It goes up or down in 5 minute increments. To turn off the oven -- which seems to me to be a pretty fundamental oven command -- you push the "cancel" button. Cancel? Really? In what world does "cancel" mean "off"?

I write this all out -- recognizing that it must be tedious reading -- in order to fully wrap my mind around it. It's deeply counterintuitive, to me. And it makes me grateful for the innumerable good user interfaces I use every day. I don't often encounter an interface, any more, that isn't immediately understandable. It also drives home how bad it is, for the user, to not have an immediate response to every command, a way to know it was received and understood. In theory, knowing that every press of the "up" button increases the heat by five degrees, or the time by five minutes, should suffice. In practice, not being able to see the temperature or time induces real anxiety, anxiety strong enough to have kept me from using the thing for years. 

Anyway. I baked some chicken thighs and potatoes, and they were good. A great leap forward. From the stovetop to the profundities beneath. New worlds.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Crowding; Revelation

It's odd that practically no one ever talks about the centrality of invisibility, in The Lord of the Rings.

In Tolkien's world, to claim power and to disappear are often one and the same act. Or (to say the same thing, but reversing the poles) you can appear, or you can wield power, but you can't do both. (This is something somebody should probably have explained to President Trump: it would have saved many tears.) Those who choose power become invisible, and ultimately nameless. It's a disquieting idea, but I think it's one that bears a lot of rumination.

(The exception to the power/visibility trade-off is Aragorn-as-King-Elessar, and it's precisely Aragorn's oddly repeated revelation-of-majesty scenes that were most stirring to me, in my youth, and are now least convincing to me, in my maturity. When Tolkien tries even to approach power that is visible, everything starts to wobble, and his language gets ever more archaic and grandiose. I loved it, as a teenager, but as an adult I know the signs all too well: he's trying too hard.)

I've played for fifteen years, here, with the gratifications and drawbacks of being visible. The yen to disappear has never been absent, but lately -- lately it has crowded in on me. Visibility makes it difficult or imprudent, sometimes, to say exactly what I mean: one of my most characteristic things to do these days is to write out a paragraph or a couple pages in response to something... and to think: no. Not here, not now, not in this persona anyway. And {delete}.

I was reading the Wikipedia article on the pseudonymous Elena Ferrante, and found the longing overwhelming. Oh, to be invisible, and to say exactly what I mean!

On the other hand: "He did not feel invisible at all, but horribly and uniquely visible..." There's that, too.

Sunday, November 11, 2018


A sunny morning in late Fall, a quiet Sunday morning. A scrub jay complaining somewhere offstage. Shadows of leaves. Reflections from the birdbath making wavery lines on the hedge, as if the whole world were lightly underwater. Beyond, through the thin spots of the hedge, the sun wavers on the neighbor's lawn and chicken run as well, and slantwise to that a few yellow bamboo leaves drift down.

There's a huge sadness behind me. I'm curled like a cat in its lap, feeling the rise and fall of its breath. Who knew it would take so long? How many corners would be turned, to reveal further corners in the far distance?

But. To practical things. Start the chili, get a shower, go into work and get a few processes underway. I'm getting better at inhabiting my life, at bringing my attention to what's actually under my hands. Thinking about shopping and cooking and cleaning, deploying my resources of time and attention as if I actually meant to have the life that I have. I have camped in my life too much, spent too much time in it as if it was a hotel room rather than a house. I've indulged myself too much, ordering stuff in and leaving it to the staff to clean up: that's one way to look at it. Or you could say, I have indulged myself too little: I've never bothered to make myself really at home. I'm trying to do that now. 

But today I'm wistful, and full of regrets and second thoughts. Other half-lived lives move away, out of my range of vision. If I try to look straight at them they disappear.

A book I read recently suggested that I write about what my life will be like ten years from now, when all my dreams have come true and all my projects are accomplished. The exercise was so foreign to me -- entailed thinking so differently than I usually think -- that I resolved to do it. But I've failed so far to get started. Ten years, who knows if I even have ten years? What should I be hoping for? What might I be trying to do, in that time scale? I think in the main it's a good thing not to be obsess on the future, not to make life something that's going to happen later when I've achieved X or obtained Y. But drawing a complete blank on one's future is maybe taking it too far. And surely how I order my life implies its ten-year goals, for better or worse? My habits and daily activities point to some ten-year conclusion: is it one I want?