Sunday, August 27, 2017

The Two Secrets of my Success

The secrets of my diet success? Well, there's two, and they're interrelated.

The first is, I AM NOT DOING MY OWN MEASURING. I don't trust myself. Now, I am an exemplary measurer. For a long time in fact I was a professional measurer. I'm comfortable with measurement. I understand that a big apple, which looks half again as big as a small apple, may well have four times the volume. It easy when estimating by volume, to be off by 400%, even when you're not biased. But I still don't trust myself. 

Estimating by weight? Better. (Are you really going to weigh every thing you eat, every time? I'm not.)

No hungry person who's measuring the food they are about to eat is unbiased. It's simple as that. Add several 400% errors together, or even 50% errors, all leaning one direction, and the fact of the matter is that you don't know within a factor of 2 or 3, how much you're eating. You don't have a clue. Your numbers will be garbage. And research on self-reporting confirms this. You think you're an exception? You're not. So the answer is simple: don't measure your own food. Have someone else do it.

Calories in / calories out is a reliable principle. (No, not because of the 1st Law of Thermodynamics, which applies only to closed systems and has no plausible application to the open system -- of staggering complexity -- which is the human gut and fat-storage system. It's reliable simply because it has been rigorously and repeatedly tested.) It works great if the calories are measured accurately. It's pretty useless if they're not.

If we really wanted to measure calories, we'd be in a fix, really. It's just too hard. But we don't actually care about the absolute numbers. We just want a deficit. Fewer calories going in than are coming out, by roughly 500 per day. We'll figure out if we're getting that deficit by measuring something else -- our body weight.

So I don't have a clue, no idea at all, how many calories are in my breakfast, and I don't need to. I don't know whether the guys in the kitchen actually put two eggs or four into my omelet. I don't know how much sour cream is in the little plastic cup the server brings. I don't know how big the two slices of toast she brings me are: all I know is that I only eat one of them. 

Do all these things vary? Of course they do. But I'm not in control of the variation. So they vary randomly. All the errors don't fall one way.

So now we come to the other secret of my success: MY PROCESS IS SELF-CORRECTING. I weigh myself carefully every morning -- actually I weigh myself three times and average the results, every morning. Then Wednesday morning I take the average the last seven days' weights. Now I have a number that I actually have some confidence in. 

I compare it to the previous week's number. If it's not a pound lower, I drop something out of the breakfast. Permanently, for good. A couple weeks in I dropped half the hash browns. A few weeks after that I drop the rest of them. Then I dropped half the toast. How many calories was I dropping each time? I have no idea, I'll never know, and I don't care.

(Actually it's a little more complicated than that. I only chop something out if I'm not a pound down *and* if I'm "over the blue line." But it would work either way.)

So I don't have to guess about anything, or know any absolute calorie values. If my calorie expenditure drops because my metabolism shifts, or because I'm twenty pounds lighter, or if my calorie intake increases when the guys in the kitchen start buttering my toast more heavily, the scale will know about it within a week, and the diet will change accordingly. I don't have to guess, or think, or worry, or compensate. It's all taken care of. It's out of my hands.

And so when I eat -- I just eat. I love my food: I don't know if I've ever enjoyed eating so much, as I have in the past three months. And I know my diet will work, because it fixes itself if it doesn't. I'm home free.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

The Fat Weird Guy Talks About It

May 11th to August 26th

The weight loss goes on apace, one pound per week (a pound per week is the blue line, in the chart above: my personal idiom for "on track" has become "below the blue line," as in "well anyway, I'm below the blue line on that, so I don't need to sweat it.")

I'm a mass of conflicted feeling about sharing this. On the one hand, it's the main thing I'm doing right now. On the other hand, it's something I should have fixed and been done with forty years ago.

Back to the first hand: being fat has been a plague and a distress to me all my adult life, bearing false information about my self-control (which is actually average-to-good) and creating a default self-image as being the fat weird guy no one takes seriously. But back to the second hand: you don't get away from being the fat weird guy by talking about it. You get away from it by pretending it was never there. That must have been some other guy.

First: it's actually working. Well over three months and it's still working, and it's not even hard. Second: well of course it's working. All diets work. Losing the weight isn't the hard part (though it's damn hard enough): it's keeping it off that's hard. Don't crow till you have something to crow about.

First: I'm just excited about it. It's so cool that I've found a way that works for me.
Second: yeah, but it's stupid and expensive and self-indulgent. Restaurant food twice a day, every day? 

First: it comes of actually learning a bit about obesity science, and getting past a bunch of stupid popular notions about how weight loss works, and relying on what's actually known about it. We know a lot more than we used to, and I've kept up with it. It comes in the category of "fixing life problems by actually understanding how things work." 
Second: so then what if it all collapses tomorrow? You don't actually know any of this is working, and you won't know, in any meaningful way, until 2022. If we even get to 2022. Speaking of which, shouldn't you be focusing on maybe ensuring that there is a 2022, rather than on weighing 160 pounds when (if) we get there?

First: there was that weird experience of seeing that a ridge of visceral fat was actually pushing up between the right and left rectus abdominus, shoving through from the abdominal cavity because there was no more room in there. And various interesting results of there now being room again. Increased bladder capacity. Recovery of libido. 
Second: man, are you trying to drive away readers?

First: but people should know about this! Eating the same thing every day. And eating the stuff you really like, just cut back to where you're running a slight calorie deficit. Focusing on satiety and brain chemistry and reward psychology, rather than on fairy tales about macronutrients and insulin. This is hot stuff! 
Second: like us fat people never have anyone telling us that there's some new way to lose weight, championed by someone three months into a new diet? All diets work. You bring nothing to the table but the old misery wrapped in a new cloth. Shut your trap until 2022. Then you can tell people all about it.

First: it's my blog and I'll do as I damn well please.
Second: well, don't say I didn't warn you, that's all.

* * *

There's plenty more, but you get the gist. Anyway. That's where we are now. Estimated arrival time of 180 lbs, which is the end-point of the current phase, is March 1st, 2018. ETA of a 40-inch waist, my most eagerly awaited milestone, is January 1st. Stay tuned. If First Hand wins the day, there will be updates.

Friday, August 25, 2017

A Quick Quiet Fish

But it is good to shake free, and to think clearly, to run the numbers, to make sober projections. To be still and quiet and take stock.

I have always been good at pretending not to care what other people think. It was a survival skill, in middle school, and sometimes it serves me still. Learning to really not care what (most) other people think is a much more advanced skill.

Cutting loose of what other people think altogether is probably a bogus enterprise: it wouldn't mean not caring what other people think, it would mean only caring about what the shadow audience my mind invents thinks. It would take away the only value of social anxiety (gathering in and using the judgement of others) and replace it with smugness. The alpha male of one's parents' basement. It's a common enough solution, but it's not the one I want.

So no, not altogether. But. My little brushes with being a public person have made me quite clear: I do not want to be a public person.

And the whole dream of "being a writer" -- what does that mean, but craving an imbalance, wanting to be in conversation with a large number of people, but still have only your own opinion be important? That's what being a writer is. Being able to talk to a crowd, say your piece, and walk away. Never to have to engage. Never to have to change your mind.

No: I think I'm done with that notion. I don't actually want to be in relationships like that. I actually want to know. I want to understand. I want to end my day with a larger understanding, not a smaller one.

Unless what I really want is to disappear altogether. I think of that sometimes. I tire of being myself, of shoring up the fragments of my ruins, of the fret and busyness. I want to strip off these bulky stiff canvas clothes, and dive into the lake, a quick quiet fish, where the sunlight comes dim and strange in the water. What is all the rest of this for?

I don't know: I really don't know.

Saturday, August 19, 2017


I must read and write again -- that's the long and and short of it. 

The other stuff, the diet & exercise, the languages, the frugality & investment, keeping up with the political news & carefully fashioning political opinions, maintaining a social media presence -- all these were all meant to be ancillary to a literary life, a life of reading things that are beautiful and dangerous, and writing as close to the truth as I can. But I've let tending the scaffolding replace tending the building.

No. The real reading and writing have to be there, or all the rest is useless.

Last night I pulled The Mezentian Gate off the shelf, and had a good look at its cover, which, as a teenager, I thought was the last word in hauntingly beautiful art. Now I find it extravagant and crudely colored, vague where it should be precise, and precise where it should be vague -- much like Eddison's book. But that's not the point. The point is that at the time, Eddison bowled me over and took me somewhere else, and so did this cover artist. (Barbara Remington, I find: the same as made the Tolkien paperback covers that so entranced my teenage self. And so exasperated Tolkien: "what is the thing in the foreground with pink bulbs?" he demanded. Very rightly. What the hell is it?)

It's good to become aware that the extraordinary literary and artistic experiences I had were, in my mature view, experiences of stuff that was second-rate. It's not the quality of the stuff that matters, in the end; it's the quality of the experience. At fourteen Eddison was as steep a mountain as I could climb.

But anyway -- I have not done much climbing lately, though I have much better equipment and a lot of experience. So it's time to climb again. Read things that require all my attention, and write in answer to them. Even if it all turns out to be second-rate. If I'm here for anything, if I've trained all my life for anything, this is it: so I had better do it.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017


The fact of the matter is that last fall I went into the ditch, and I'm only now climbing out of it.

In November, the presidential election. I was following it closely and I knew exactly what it meant: the end of democracy and social progress in the United States for the rest of my life. 

In December, my mother died. My failure as a son was complete and beyond remedy.

So. I've spent a while walking in despair. It's an interesting country.

People who express a lot of despair actually don't live there: they're teasing themselves with it, playing tag with it. They don't really believe it. When you believe it, it stops being a thing. It's not an alternate route: it's your own road, and it's the only road, and it's actually a pretty good place to have a good think. It's quiet there.

So I learned some things: one, that although I would have said I didn't have much hope for America, I would have been lying. Losing all hope for my country meant losing a lot, for me. It woke me up to how much I loved it and valued it: how basic a part of me it was. 

Of course, it's always been a painful relationship. So there's some relief in ending it. I still live here, but my alienation is absolute, now. I'm a foreigner. An expat with no pat to be ex of.

I don't want anyone else to despair: I'm not writing this to urge anyone else to despair, or to stir up anyone to confute me. Not interested. 

Losing my mom was another thing, more complicated, more difficult. It was a relief, first of all: I never expected her to die without having ruined me financially and emotionally, so to wake in a new bleak world, still solvent and still capable of love, was a surprise and a bitter-tasting pleasure. 

It marked the end of all joyless obligation. Obligation is a good thing, and I am happy with all my remaining obligations: they are all based on love. That's a luxury that I've just begun to understand.

So I'm starting my life over, just waking up. I have everything to do over again.

Saturday, August 05, 2017

Before My Coronation

It was in the mid 1980s that I tossed my battered edition of the Canterbury Tales into my briefcase, gave a brief smile to my students, and walked out the door. I walked down a dim hallway and then out into the thin Connecticut sunlight and headed for the train station. I was done with academia forever, though I didn't know it at the time: I would never wear a tweed jacket again.

You don't leave academia just like that. It stays with you for a long time. It's a self-contained world, and its tumults can seem very important. One professor's scandal, another's missed tenure, are huge events. The cliques are as formidable as in high school; the rivalries as bitter; the betrayals are felt deeply.

And there is beautiful, difficult work being done. People make fun of academics -- they're easy targets -- because universities are mature institutions and the low-hanging fruit in most fields was gone centuries ago. The work still to be done is harder to explain. It takes some expertise to understand why it matters. But it does matter. Not all of it, of course. But at Yale I learned tremendous admiration for the careful, painstaking work that added up to, say, really knowing what the Beowulf-Poet meant by a particular image or turn of phrase. I will not laugh at the work these people do. I realized I was not up to it -- I was too slapdash and quicksilver. My work, when I finally found it, would be different: but not better. Just different.

There's a lasting regret in not being part of that secret ministry. But I hope I learned from them a rugged skepticism, a devotion to the verified fact, a respect for the second (third, fourth) opinion. I never heft an edition of some old poet -- an edition full of glosses and footnotes and erudite introductions -- without a surge of gratitude. I have been rescued from so many mistakes and misinterpretations: I have been handed the clean, beating hearts of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson. I'm grateful.

Nevertheless, I'm grateful too to have walked away from it. There's a culture of despair and depression that cobwebs academia -- especially now, when the promises of tenure and respect have proven mirages, and the remuneration dwindles while the work mounts. It's not, generally, a happy place. Much of the conversation, as I remember it, was savoring the hopelessness of the world, and counting over the number of ways in which we have decayed and the number of things we stand to lose.

I am myself in deep social and political despair, but I don't want to dwell on it or share it. Such solutions as come will come by addressing what can be addressed, and trusting in the mutability of things. I was on a retreat one time with my favorite Buddhist teacher: he had come down with a nasty flu. He sat on a bench, pale, miserable, panting slightly. I asked if he was feeling any better, and that drawn face was suddenly transformed by his characteristic impish grin. "Well, sometimes," he said, "impermanence is on our side."

So it is. And, at the same time, the beauty keeps coming, the sweetnesses of summer and skin, of cold water and blue sky, and my own incongruous, inexplicable good fortune.

So. I find myself gravitating to people who love to solve problems and fix things, and who plan for things no larger than their own households and their children's lifetimes. Cheery straightforward optimists. I simply want to work on things that I understand pretty well, and help people I know can be helped, and solve problems within my scope.

And it helps to remember that I've been a singularly crappy prophet. In the 1970s, when I was a teenager, I knew -- knew for a certainty -- that in twenty years we would have had a least one nuclear war, and that even without one, overpopulation would have made the world an uninhabitable hell-hole. Maybe I was right then, and just had the timing off by a couple decades. But maybe I was totally wrong. And maybe I'm totally wrong now in my gloomy expectations.

In any case, I have not noticed anyone anxious to make me emperor of the world: so spending a lot of time figuring out what I will do after my coronation is probably not a good use of my time. There are many other things to do. My neighborhood is full of joys to be made and sufferings to relieve.