Friday, July 30, 2010

It's Over: We Won

I think that in six centuries we've done a pretty solid job: that English literature is tolerably complete. The canon is built. We don't have to worry about it any more. There is English verse for all occasions: plaintive, soulful, boasting, seductive, spiteful, weary. We have epic, tragedy, satire and romance to fill every corner of the soul. We have the most justly famous playwright in the world. We have enough terrific novels to absorb a thousand beach vacations. The game is over. We won.

This is not to say that there is nothing new to write. Of course there is: there is always something new. And every new generation will have its own cares and concerns. There are still a few odd niches for new works to perch on. And I think there are writers now as good as any in the past. Yes, people as good as Shakespeare. But the thing is, that even if you write a tragedy as good as Macbeth – something I think entirely possible – it won't displace Macbeth, and it shouldn't, because our literary culture is built around Macbeth. I say, Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, and you automatically say

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.

And that's as it should be. To displace Macbeth you would need to write not just something as good: you need to write something significantly better. And I tell you honestly, much as I admire your work, my dear friend, you're not going to do it.

It's not just a function of age. Six centuries is really rather young (I count from Chaucer, as the earliest English most people can read without much linguistic instruction.) But we here in the English-speaking world have been at the center of the global information explosion. The classics of dozens of traditions have long been translated brilliantly into English. Anyone from Rumi to Li Po to Homer to Gabriel García Márquez. It's all here.

Does anyone actually have a hard time finding something to read, in English? Someone who finds herself saying, “man, I'd sure like to read a sonnet, or a novel, or an introspective conversation poem, but there's just nothing out there”? I don't think so.

Now, this is a grand thing. It's not a problem. It's something to celebrate, to delight in. But it means that we live in a different literary world. The canon-building days are over. We are latecomers, and if we are writing, we're writing either ephemera or oddities. There's nothing wrong with that. But it means that, as writers, it's time to stop taking ourselves so seriously, to kick off our solemnities and party a bit. Forget about genius and making a name. That lionized novelist of our generation is not going to be the new Shakespeare, two hundred years from now. He's going to be a footnote. The work has been done: it's time to play, now.

There's one thing that's genuinely new and exciting about our generation: what the internet has done for us. We can watch literature being built in real time. We can watch a brilliant poem or novel or play being born. As writers and readers we can interact and converse – any of us – as only the luckiest of writers and readers could in the past. Ben Jonson paying his penny to see Shakespeare's latest, Coleridge leaping the fence and running to greet Dorothy and William Wordsworth, Pound settling down to edit “Prufrock” -- we're all in that position now, if we care to be. What could be more wonderful?

Take this ode to little rock. I know so much about where it comes from. I don't just have the great privilege of knowing Peter online, having read his book, and knowing something about how deeply the story and meaning of his name resonates for him. I have context reaching every which way. I know the Big Tent prompt he was writing to. I know the koan Dave Bonta set (“is half a stone still a whole stone”?), and have been pondering it myself. I know of Peter's fondness for the radically short lines of Robert Lax. I'm even cursorily acquainted with Braque because of the same posts, even though I don't remember whose posts they were or what they said. It makes my reading of the poem wonderfully alive. It gives the sort of depth that footnotes in classics try to, but can never quite, give.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010


As we turned into the park on Sunday, I saw a signboard announcing that today's free concert featured a band called “Innisfree.”

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made,

I recited, and surprised myself by going on and saying the whole poem. I didn't know I still knew it.

Tryon Creek State Park, where Martha works now on weekends: I was driving her in to work. It's not old growth, but it's had a generation or two to recover from the logging, and it's pretty and peaceful, if not grand. It's tucked into an elbow-crook between Lewis and Clark College and the uncertain sprawl of southwest Portland. It claims to be the first urban state park. It was slated to be developed in the 1970s, but the neighbors got together and purchased the land instead, and eventually gave it to the State to be kept as a park. The original group, the Friends of Tryon Creek, still exists, and Martha works for them, sharing space with the park rangers in a “Nature Center.”

A stuffed beaver perches in squirrel posture by the back door. He's seen a lot, in his second life, and he's a bit battered now. He's the delight of toddlers. One, perhaps 18 months old, walked up to him, Martha tells me, and stopped, radiant with wonder.

“Horse!” he exclaimed.

And I shall have some peace there,
For peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning
To where the cricket sings . . .

Just so, one feels, Yeats walked to the shore to gaze at the lake isle of Innisfree, and exclaimed “Peace!”

Doug firs and big leaf maples netting the sunlight, far up above our heads. Below, the quiet green light that sifts down through the leaves, and a few stubborn mosquitoes outstaying their time, floating like dust-motes. I'm fond of mosquitoes, even though they are pests, and have probably inadvertently visited more misery on our species, by way of malaria and yellow fever, than any other creature we've ever lived with. Still, Oregon mosquitoes are harmless, humble and obsequious, politely waiting their turn to suck your blood – lacy, delicate creatures, surprisingly clumsy and surprisingly deft. They mean no harm, and they even take the trouble of injecting you with anesthetic before taking your blood, which is more than your doctor's lab-assistant does. Armed gnats. There is about them something terribly improbable, and rather gallant. I'm a sucker for gallant. They're pitched into a world where their livelihood depends on nose-harpooning a creature far greater to them than leviathan is to us: a creature not only huge, but also wickedly alert and clever, a master of poisons and deceptions, and (to their kind, at least) utterly without mercy.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Anna's Hummingbird, Nesting

When the fledgling lifts his needle bill,
who knows the tenderness in her
tiny drumroll heart? Who knows what pins her
to the flickering air?

God save us from the slow raccoon
God save us from the mocking crow
God save us from the wide-eyed cat
God save us from the fingered apes.

She is the stylus of an etch-a-sketch,
the point of a glitter-pen;
frantically motionless; hanging; the sky's
avian crucifixion.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Neglecting Pieties

“Resolution” is just the first phase of an endless cycle, a four-phase rotation. It goes like this: Resolution → Deprivation → Breakdown → Indulgence → Resolution, and so on and on and on. At the moments of Resolution and Breakdown I am supposed to believe that my true self has been unveiled at last (I am the master of my fate; I am hopelessly weak), and at the moments of Deprivation and Indulgence I pretend not to see that the true self of the former phase is crumbling. I am beginning to find the whole sequence irritating and useless, and I'm inclined to abandon it. I may have to live my own stories, but I don't have to believe them.

The tumults of this month have left me a little shaky. Mt Hood, with its canted shoulder, hovers over the foothills, floating free, just temporarily tethered over the sunrise. A sense of failure, of imminent disaster. What have I been doing all this time? The mountain has nothing to say to me, and I have nothing to say to it. Surely there are pieties that I have neglected.

Then I think, and I have to laugh. I'm an American: neglecting pieties is what I do. That's why God put us here -- to be the destroyers of worlds. I'm just doing my job.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Six Billion Great Apes

A soft, gentle, cloudy morning. I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore. That kind of morning.

I need to go out and get massage from some new people: I'm too settled. I realized last week that, although I'm gifted with vibration – some people have a knack for it and some don't – I have not been using it much. But it makes for a really nice, efficient microstretch after a trigger point release. I wonder if I could train my left hand up to it? I can only do it presently with my right hand. It wears you out pretty quick: you have to be stingy about deploying it. If I could do it left-handed I could do more of it.

I've started reading Roy Porter's “medical history of humanity,” The Greatest Benefit to Mankind. He confirms what I suspected: that the advent of herding and agriculture was a medical disaster for our species – it was not a glorious advance so much as a clever but desperate response to having exhausted our hunting and gathering resources. He notes that “neolithic skeletons are typically some inches shorter than their paleolithic precursors.” Famine is characteristic of farming peoples, not of hunter-gatherers with sufficient range; and most of our troubling diseases we picked up either from domesticated animals, or from living in our own shit and multiplying our parasites (or “urbanization,” to use the elegant term.)

I love cities. I love Portland. I gaze at her in ecstatic admiration. Age cannot wither nor custom stale her infinite variety. She is a living creature of her own, a more complex, more intelligent being than you or I. Coming over the bridge at dawn I always feel as Wordsworth did on Westminster Bridge: “the very houses seem asleep, and all that mighty heart is lying still.” Felix culpa: a happy fall.

Still, we will never be happy or healthy on this planet until we return to a sane population. This planet is not designed to sustain six billion great apes, and nothing we can do will change that much. The fundamental, intractable problem is that there are at least a thousand times more of us than the planet can support. If we don't address that problem, nature will address it on her own. I don't think we will like her solutions.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Answer #8

In the last review session before our final exam, our physiology teacher took pity on us. “Look,” she said, “if you don't know the answer to a question, the answer is 'connective tissue.'”

Tendon, ligament, bone, cartilage, fat. And the syrupy “ground matter,” which I always think of as anatomy's version of the astrophysicist's “dark matter.” When schoolkids learn anatomy (if they ever learn anything so old-fashioned), they're given pictures of the body with the connective tissue tidied away, so they can see the real parts: heart, liver, kidneys, brain. The following pages will show you the circulatory system, the nervous system. Of all the varieties of connective tissue, the only one allowed a moment in the spotlight is the bones. Never, never will you see a nice plate of what the connective tissue looks like with all those messy organs and clots of epithelial tubing cleared out of the way. And so we go on: thinking of the body as a brain with its net of nerves, a heart with its net of arteries and veins, a skeleton with its net of muscles, a digestive system, some lungs – and (vaguely wave the hand) some “stuff.” Packing materials. A little sheathing, a little twine, a little lubricant.

So Dave asks me, “viii. What kind of cartilage connects us to the stars?”

What, indeed? Well, I can't tell you, but I can with fair confidence tell you some of its properties:

1) Its apparent disorganization will always cause systematic thinkers to avoid examining it (or sometimes, even seeing it.)

2) It will take an astonishing number of forms and bear extraordinary forces without losing its (difficult-to-define) integrity.

3) Throughout your life, your deepest pleasures and pains will come from the manipulations of this tissue. (To explain them you will make up stories in which suns and moons, brains and hearts, play heroic roles.)

4) Like certain other non-Newtonian fluids (such as silly putty), it is hard and brittle when cold and untouched, flexible and strong when warm and worked.

So if you don't want it to break, you had better stroke and knead and warm it regularly. Given its extraordinary variety, this is not at all difficult to do: hugging people, shaking hands, throwing pots, writing poems, painting in watercolor or oils, writing poetry, giving or receiving massage, bird-watching, playing music or listening to it intently (live is more effective, but the attention is the important thing), cooking, listening to a child describe her dream last night, making love passionately – any of these methods will do. Others will suggest themselves to the reader.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Cold Summer

They lie in the road like maple-litter strands,
their dull, dull stings are sheathed and crumbling knives;

they press the goading screen -- my unstung hands --
too old, too old to wish for other lives.

It doesn't bode well for the black-gold bands.
they stumble, stumble home to their bare hives:

this summer has showed too cold to move by dance,
and the fading, fading sun never arrives.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Summer not Summer

I don't know why this year the bees are coming to us to die. Every morning there is one or two or three motionless on the screen. Tomorrow they will lie curled on the porch, and we'll sweep them away, and one or two or three silent replacements will be on the screen. They've been doing this for days.

Does one go back to the hive, each time, to dance “this is a good place to die”? And do the ones that plan to come tomorrow watch him, gravely, attentively, studying for tomorrow's recital?

Once on the screen they never move, never murmur: protesters holding a silent vigil.

The 18th of July, and we have had two summer days. Cold and cloudy this morning. Lovely for me – I do not much like hot days – but eerie.

A cluster of bubbles on the surface of my coffee deceives me: I think a pale spider is floating there, its legs curled inward.

Either I was early, or my friend was late: I had twenty minutes in her quiet evening office to meditate, perched on the edge of a chair, my eye idly making flowers out of patterns in the carpet, feeling the sky wheeling slowly over my head, my inbreaths and outbreaths barely noticed, coming and going like hospital nurses in a sleeping patient's room.

Strange how nervous it still makes me, to stand up in front of people and say things, even my written-down poems. I would say it means nothing to me, I have nothing invested in it, but my shaky hands and quavering voice give me the lie. What do my hands and voice think? That strangers are really listening to me, really trying to see into my heart? Or that if I was good enough I could make them do so despite themselves?

But I did enjoy reading a couple of Sage's poems. It would be fun to do a reading in which you all read each other's poems. I would enjoy that much more than reading my own, both the reading and the listening. I'll never forget Beth in Teju's Brooklyn apartment, reading my poem “Santiago” aloud. – Now that did feel like someone seeing into my heart.

They're wonderful readers: Tiel, Carolee, and Deb. Sage couldn't come, so Tiel and I read some of her poems. And Deb read one of Jill Crammond Wickham's poems, so that all the Big Tent Ringmasters were represented. This is what modern poetry is, to me. Not “fame, that all seek after in their lives,” but rather, a way for friends to slow down and understand each other deeply. No doubt my hands and voice would get all excited about the prospect of being in the Norton Anthology of English Literature in 2046, but I don't. I get excited about hearing Carolee read “Jalopy.”

Friday, July 16, 2010

Box (I)

She only knew the box was hers to keep. “What's in your stupid old box, anyway?” She wouldn't answer; she didn't know; it was locked, it came that way. She wasn't even sure who gave it to her: maybe one of the dead aunts and uncles they still talked about as if she should remember them. Uncle Bill Who had a Way with The Ladies, or Aunt Sarah Who was not Always Wise. She liked the sound of Aunt Sarah.

When her grandpa offered to prise the box open, she reacted with a violence that surprised even him, though she was given to violence, and he of all people should have known why. He let it be: for a miracle, he let it be.

It made a faint jingly rattle when you shook it. Jewelry? Money? No one knew. It was small, smaller than a brick, and she had a dozen hiding places for it. Hide it in the same place over and over, and people would guess the place by watching her go to it. Someone would find the box and try to open it. She knew enough of the world to know that. And either way they would ruin it. Either the contents would be something they really thought valuable and they'd take it away, or they would put names on it that would steal its potency. “Just trinkets,” someone would say, or “Irish pennies and not even old.” No. She wasn't going to risk that.

She grew up awkward, too tall, inclined to be plump, and dangerous, with a cold eye and a hair-trigger temper. “Sullen,” they called her. She carried a purse unfashionably big, so she could stow the box in the bottom of it. People thought she was trying to look feminine and failing. She didn't much care what people thought.

In dreams she went away to the state college, where they read poems that didn't rhyme and had penises in them. They would sit in big classrooms and talk about the poems as if the penises weren't there. She wasn't sure she wanted to go to college, but she knew she wanted to get out. And there was a slender young East Indian man, a man Grandpa would have called a nigger, in her dreams. He stood sideways to her, respectful and silent, and one day she gave him her box to hold while she got her things together. All in the dream, of course. He handed it back with the bare shadow of a smile, nothing pushy or loud, and said, “we know about boxes in India.”

Sometimes he was in the bathroom with her, which never seemed wrong, in the dreams, but which made her blush when she woke. He said the same thing there. He held the box and when he handed it back he said, “we know about boxes in India.”

In one dream she tried to explain that she was not violent because she had red hair, she had red hair because she was violent, and he said no, she had red hair because of the box, because of what was in the box. This made her cross, because how did he know? And he said, “Listen, this is important.” He put something in her hands and folded them over it. His skin was dry and supple like a snake's. And then he vanished, moving gently sideways till he wasn't there anymore.

She woke with her hands folded together, and when she opened them, there was a silver key.

Now: when you open a real box with a dream key, is what you find real or dream? The problem seemed like one of arithmetic principles. Are dreams associative or commutative? Or was it like negative and positive numbers, a dream times a real always made a dream? Or maybe it was the other way around. Did you learn things like that in college? She doubted it. But now she had two things to hide, the box and the key.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Reading Saturday Noon at St Johns Booksellers

St Johns Booksellers
8622 N. Lombard St., Portland, OR 97203

I'll be reading, and so will Tiel Aisha Ansari, Sage Cohen, Deb Scott, and Carolee Sherwood. About ten minutes apiece: no heroic feats of listening endurance required.

These are some of the poets I most admire. They got me started writing poetry and keep me writing poetry. (They can't help that, mind, so don't hold it against them.)

Tiel Aisha Ansari
Sage Cohen
Deb Scott
Carolee Sherwood

Monday, July 12, 2010

Jupiter Tonans

Jupiter riding high in the south, unwinking: a faintly yellowed white, like ivory.

I'm still reading Elizabeth Bishop, but I can't drink her by the pint, as I could Oliver. A shot or two at a time is as much as I can handle. In the meantime I read about orangutans and the building of the Brooklyn Bridge.

All these projects seething in my head. Never have I seemed to myself so flighty, changeable, and useless. I wonder and wonder about the pain some of my clients are in. About fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, chronic fatigue syndrome. About cancer. Am I really doing all I can for people? Why are people's bodies turning on them with such ferocity, these days? I have no sympathy with the desire for purity that drives much of the yen for “natural” and “organic” stuff, but on the other hand it does seem awfully likely that we're all being slowly poisoned.

I do trigger point, and sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. Much of this myofascial pain comes, ultimately, of loneliness, of sleep deprivation, of feeling unneeded and useless: of this queer zoo-like combination of isolation and overexposure, unappeasable hunger and constant eating, no exercise and no rest. That's what we have to change. I can ameliorate this pain but I can't fix it.

And in the meantime, the clocks all running backward: my own life so full of joy, and the stars spinning slowly away in our wake. Jupiter Tonans has never been my totem, but he seems to have taken me for his own, now.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Worn Almost Away

Of the great apes, we are the only ones that are much good at swimming.

The mosquito people must be feeling ill-used this year: it went from too cold for them to too hot for them in about 36 hours. They've worked off their resentment by biting me more times in the last couple days than they did all of last year.

Such a beautiful fresh morning. Never been able to understand sleeping through the most beautiful part of the day. Though I'm glad most people want to: it means I can be quietly alone with the sunrise. The light lies on the world like new-fallen snow, and I don't really want it criss-crossed with tracks, yet.

I don't know what I've become. Not what I intended, but not what I feared, either. So far from where I started. The only thing I still have, that I started with, is my sense of how beautiful it all is.

Some are born to sweet delight
Some are born to sweet delight
Some are born to endless night.

It's not that I'm never sad, or that I don't miss you. But I'm like a swimmer being pulled into the current of delight. It runs faster and stronger all the time. And why I'm being pulled into this one, instead of the dark one, I have no idea. I've done some things wrong and some right, like everyone else. And willy nilly, I think of death as being completely swept away in that delight. I don't mean I think of it, I don't think of it at all, in the ordinary sense. I'm aware of it like a stage actor's aware of the audience, or a hiker's aware of the sound of a river. Behind everything, holding it up – the real reason for all this – there, you see? The minute you start talking about it you find yourself saying stupid things, false things. Automatic phrases, things you want to be true but you know aren't, quite.

And you want to give it to people. It seems so clear and direct. Here, have my joy, what could I possibly do with so much? I'm being washed over with bright oceans of it. And yet I can't do it. I can hold someone in my arms, willing the delight into them, and they can be right there in the dark, in the emptiness, feeling nothing but despair, as thoroughly in the dark as I am in the light. I don't understand how that can be.

Rest a while. I am tired: I am exhausted, actually. I feel like a shell worn almost away: translucent, beautiful, fragile.

Wishing I could set things right before I go.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Original Sin

Such an article of faith it was, among my people, that it was civilization that had ruined mankind. Like all radicals, we looked back to a golden age – in our case to the golden age that “the gentle Tasaday,” we thought, had never left, and to which we could return by the simple and wonderfully attractive expedient of refusing to do anything we didn't like to do. It's sad but not surprising that the idea of actually taking the Tasaday seriously, and trying to understand how they had achieved a peaceful and egalitarian civilization, never occurred to us. We really had all our prejudices intact. What was there to study? They were natural. They had by definition no civilization: that was what made them good. Our project was not to build, but to dismantle.

It's easy to make fun of this mental substratum now. Less easy to get rid of it. It has been shocking to me, reading about orangutans. Rape was something I associated with civilization: in fact I realize now that it was almost my definition of civilization. Institutionalized rape. To find it common among another species, among the species arguably most like our own, seemed to me both horribly wrong and nightmarishly probable. Like those moments in horror films when it turns out that everything is just as bad as you always thought. So that's why I've always been afraid of this: because it's true.

But things aren't true because we're afraid of them, any more than they're true because we want them to be true.

I love orangutans. Always have. I used to gravitate to them at the zoo: I loved their slow, deliberate movement, their meditative, melancholy aspect, the way their clear brown eyes were wells of sadness. I wanted to sit down beside them and absorb their quietness. I loved the fact that they were so strong: four times as strong as human beings, said one of my books. If an orangutan gets hold of something, good luck getting it back, said another. If it gets hold of your shoe or your camera, you just wait till it's done, and hope it doesn't pull it to pieces. Even a youngster is stronger than we are.

I love their posture, even more slumped and pot-bellied than mine. I love that they think things through. Chimps given a bunch of boxes which, stacked the right way, will allow them to get to a treat, will go to work at once, stacking them every which way, figuring it out by trial and error. An orangutan will sit there and work it out, solving the whole problem before lifting a finger, and then slowly, deliberately, set box on box and climb up to the treat.

To find that they have a bully-wins-all social organization, and a propensity for sexual violence – well, it meant that the Catholics were right all along. Original sin.

That's silly, of course. Orangutans are no more early human beings than the Tasaday are. We don't know where we came from. A couple crates of old bones and chipped stones is all we have to go on. But I think I need to read more about all of the great apes. Anything they all – chimps, bonobos, gorillas, orangutans – have in common, is very likely to be our heritage too.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Orangutans, Whores, and Massage Therapists

Touch me, touch me not. I can't get the subadults out of my head. Orangutans go through the jungle in a grand procession, you see. A dominant male, huge and fully-flanged. (Males keep on growing: they just get bigger and bigger.) A coterie of females with their infants, spread out like a disciplined soccer team. And tagging at the corners, out of reach of the king, the subadult males, hoping for a shot at raping one of the king's consorts.

Subadults, because they're not flanged. But fully capable of siring children. And desperate to fuck. But no female orangutan wants anything but a flanged, full adult. So, among the dimorphic orangutans, even subadult males much bigger than females, that means rape, a lot of it.

(All great apes, I once heard an anthropologist say, are obsessed with sex -- by primate standards, by mammalian standards.)

Subadults. Usually, “adult” means “capable of reproduction.” So it's odd that the name “subadult” should stand. Because, weirdly, there's no telling how long it will be until a subadult flanges. Anecdote says that they won't, as long as they're in the orbit of a flanged adult. It can be as long as 25 years, or half the life-span of an orangutan. Maybe the name stuck before people knew that. Or maybe it sticks because we buy into orangutan culture, because it's so close to our own.

Now, I'm supposed to be indignant because some people call us massage therapists whores? Because we touch people who haven't earned it by status? I glory in it, bucko. Call me a whore. Call us all whores. The 4th of July is when we celebrate the overthrow of kings, remember? Blow out your flanged jowls and hoot all you like. I don't play by your rules: never did, never will. Maybe I can't fix the system, but I'm damned if I'll ratify it, damned if I'll believe in it.

No, but seriously. We're talking about real people here, trying to make a living, the whores and the licensed massage therapists alike. I care about people being able to clear space for doing touch therapy without being molested, being able to offer massage that's clearly not sex. It's what I want to do myself. My calling. But when somebody calls you a nigger, you can get mad for two different reasons: because they're calling you a nigger, and you consider yourself white, or because they're calling anyone a nigger. This is a society that makes prostitution inevitable. We're supposed to despise the prostitutes and the subadults who frequent them, reserving our (scarcely covert) admiration for the dominant males who don't have to pay for multiple partners. I'm just not interested in keeping up the game, frankly. I don't believe in any of the ground rules, I don't believe the virtues are virtuous, I don't believe the vices are vicious. I just want people to stop hurting each other.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

The Making of the Grand Salad: an Occasion for Fanaticism

So I'm on my second round, four or five days in, and I have made my second grand salad. This is a critical piece of my regimen – it may, indeed, be the critical piece of my regimen. So I must be fanatical about it. My conviction grows that, in the absence of inifinite oomph, success in changing what I eat is a matter of choosing, very carefully, when to be fanatical and what to be fanatical about.

I need to be fanatical about the salad. I must always have the salad. I make a great big one, and it lasts four or five days. It's good food that is ready to eat immediately, and I eat it a couple times a day. If I don't have that, then I will go off-regimen. And stay off-regimen for a surprisingly long amount of time: almost two months, last time. So on the day I am going to run out, I have to go buy the stuff and make the salad, and I have to do it immediately. The stuff doesn't even go into the fridge. Throughout the two non-regimen months, I bought salad makings two, maybe even three times. They sat in the fridge until they were dubious – could I, should I, still make salad out of them? – and their presence there became a major obstacle to getting back on track. Not only would I have to buy salad stuff and make it – I would have to deal with the dubious produce in the fridge, first. So, rather than getting back on track, I'd indulge for another day. And another. And then two months had passed.

So this is one of those points of leverage. Where it really is worth it to go all steely-eyed and grim-jawed and muscle my way through by sheer will power. When the salad's running out, I make a new one. Even if it's inconvenient for other people, even if I don't feel like it, even if it will make me late for work. Now, this is a good candidate for spending oomph, because it is finite, and because it only comes up every once in a while. I don't have to heroic every day. Once or twice a week, that's all. I can manage that.

I'm wondering, in fact, whether I should measure my time “on-regimen” by salads made, not by days. In which case the last “on regimen” period wasn't nine days, it was two salads.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Where I've Been

I've been scarce. I'm writing a book, backwards. Didn't know if I wanted to post any of it here, but what the heck.

Here is a simple set of four points summarizing the prevailing theory of why people get fat:

1) Human beings, having evolved in feast-or-famine conditions, are designed to store excess food as adipose tissue, which their bodies then consume to keep them alive when they don't have enough food.

2) By a simple exertion of will, such as that by which a person can make their bed each morning, a person can simply decide not to eat as much as they want.

3) Some people simply will not make the effort. These people get fat.

4) It doesn't matter what they eat. It's simple arithmetic: if you eat more calories than you expend, you get fatter; if you expend more calories than you eat, you get thinner.

I grew up believing these to be true. They are not abstruse propositions, nor are they particularly difficult to verify or disprove. In fact they are all false, and have been proven to be false: but their hold on the public consciousness is tenacious. Here are some contrary propositions:

1) Human beings don't “bank” calories, or not much. Fat people don't starve much more slowly than skinny people. When the body lays in excessive adipose tissue, it's because the endocrine system is malfunctioning.

2) People have no long-term control over how many calories they consume, just as they have no long-term control over how much oxygen they consume. The cerebral cortex can override the rest of the brain temporarily, but not permanently. The amount we eat is no more under our voluntary control than breathing is. If we found that people were taking in more oxygen than was good for them, we could tell them they ought to breathe less. We'd get results similar to the results we have gotten by telling them to eat less.

3) Some people have vulnerable endocrine systems. The homeostatic processes break down in these people, under certain environmental pressures, and they get fat. Some people do not have this vulnerability, and they do not get fat. There is no observable difference in the amount of will power between the two groups. Normal weight people, of course, think that their conscious decisions determine their weight, for the same reason that normal people confronted with lights that randomly switch on and off, and a switch that is disconnected from these lights, think that their flipping of the switch influences whether the lights come on and off. If there is supposed to be a causal connection between random events, people will perceive it.

4) It is indeed true that if you eat more calories than you expend, you will get fatter, and if you eat fewer, you will get thinner. But since the regulation of calorie intake is not under the long-term control of the cerebral cortex, this is not really useful information for someone who wants to lose weight. Human beings in general cannot, or will not (at the public health level, it doesn't matter which), regulate their calorie intake. If we can't change how much our bodies want to eat, we can't lose weight. We can torment ourselves, and struggle heroically, and lose weight for weeks or even months at a time, but in the end we will be fatter than ever.

I have arrived at these conclusions after a lot of reading and a lot of observation. I believe the second theory fits the observable facts much better than the first theory. The motivation for fat people to lose weight is overwhelming. They are led to believe (far more than is true, actually) that their health, their love lives, their sex lives, their careers – basically, their whole happiness – is at stake. If these motives don't suffice, it's hard to see what motives would. Far the simplest explanation for why people don't restrict their calorie intake, is because they can't.

The tantalizing thing is that diet obviously does affect weight. People can, to some extent, change their eating habits, and they do. They can induce great see-saw swings in the amount of fat they carry. What they can't seem to do is the one thing they want to do: lose fat and keep it off.

Some time ago I read quite a bit about weight loss, and I was startled by how little real science had been done. The real scientists considered the problem solved – people simply had to eat less: if they didn't, that was their own problem, not the scientists'. The field was left largely to hacks, who proposed diet after diet, claimed great success rates, and who rose and fell like the tides.

What the pop diet people understood – the solution they were groping for – was that there might be some kind of diet that would make people less hungry, some way of eating or thinking about eating that would solve the real problem. The real problem being that our bodies think they need more food than they do.

I believe this problem has now been partly solved: the single thing in the diet that most confuses our bodies are refined carbohydrates. Sugar and corn syrup, especially in liquid forms – the obvious and glaring culprits being soft drinks, fruit juices, “sport drinks,” and beer, which deliver incredible amounts of sugars virtually direct to the bloodstream – are the worst. After that come all the starches: the potatoes, and the overrefined grains: white flour, white rice, pasta. Nothing in our evolutionary history prepares us for these foods, and for some people – but not for others – they wreak havoc on the endocrine system.

Exactly how or when this damage is done, we really don't know. Some of it is observably “real time”: when I've been in a phase of eating lots of sugar and carbs, I am hungry virtually all the time, often savagely, ferociously hungry. But some of the damage may be done before birth, or in infancy. Some of it may be irreversible. And some of it may not be dietary at all.

I've done a lot of experimenting with diet and eating: I've become interested both objectively – interested in the science of it – and interested, as someone who practices meditation and introspection, in the mental processes involved. I've been overweight all my life – according to the usual (totally unscientifically arrived at) standards, by thirty to seventy pounds: that is, I tend to waver right around that magic line between “overweight” and “obese.” I have been as motivated as anyone else to lose that weight, and tried as many things as anyone else, and failed as miserably as everyone else. My knowledge of diet and nutrition is not that of an expert, but that of a well-read amateur. Likewise my knowledge of brain science. The only expertise I can claim is that of introspection. I have observed very closely what happens in my consciousness as I overeat, or do not overeat. It's fascinating and humbling to actually watch one's will crumble.

Will. It's an interesting concept, largely unexplored in the West, except among people who have a special interest in it: addicts and contemplatives, who are daily brought up against the fact that it doesn't work at all as advertised. We of all people know that will power is a very finite commodity, which has to be deployed with exquisite care. We can't afford the luxury of believing the cerebral cortex always controls our behavior: we know – by dint of repeated excruciating failure – that it does not.

I am writing this as part of an experiment. I already know that I am incapable of restricting my calorie intake. Whether this “should” be true is a question that I will leave to theologians, or anyone who thinks it is a meaningful question. That it is true, I have discovered empirically by repeated experiment, and I'm not interested in running any more (emotionally painful, if not devastating) experiments on that question.

My present experiment is to see if I can change what I eat (not the amounts, but the kinds of things), permanently. I am hoping, of course, that I can. And I am hoping that if I do, I will lose weight. But really at this point I am motivated more by curiosity and irritation than by hope. I'm ready to be done with this whole sorry business. If I can change what I eat, and maintain that change for six months, I will declare the experiment a success, regardless of whether my weight changes much. If I can't, I'll declare it a failure. This is not an experiment in diet so much as an experiment in will. My hypothesis is that if I deploy my will power carefully, at the points of maximum leverage, I can change my diet from one that makes me obese, to one that makes me merely overweight.