Saturday, July 31, 2021

Great Antony

[Re-enter Witenberg]

Witen. Forgive me for using the door marked "gentlemen":

my need was great. There was none marked for knaves.

---

The trouble with reading Shakespeare is that pretty soon everything comes in pentameter, and you are liable to come down with the dread Middlemarch Epigraph Disease.

First Gentleman. Nay, 

but this wording of our great original

o'erflows the measure: 'a speaks of antic turns and japes,

and abuseth the hist'ry of this his mother tongue.

Second Gentleman. And affecteth the grammar of a bygone time:

'a useth 'thou' and 'ye' consistently,

as never yet the Bard did in his life.

---

But I am besotted with Antony and Cleopatra. As always, I begin reading it with great dislike: for the first two acts there's no one on stage who is not detestable, in one way or another; the "haw haw aren't women stupid, and aren't we stupid for liking them!" jokes don't land with me as they're aimed; all the "great Antony" this and "great Antony" that is annoying when the only Antony we've seen is a vacillating nincompoop. Antony and Cleopatra when they're riding high are thoroughly unattractive.

But then they start to lose, and gradually they acquire a weird grandeur. They actually are, in their way, thoroughly devoted to each other and thoroughly devoted to their love: and they're quite willing to pay the price of it. Antony sends on Enobarbus's baggage, and we finally glimpse the great Antony of hearsay. The grief and nostalgia is particularly poignant for us, maybe, equally belated, equally overripe Americans, mourning the democracy-in-arms of Eisenhower. 

His legs bestrid the ocean: his rear’d arm
Crested the world: his voice was propertied
As all the tuned spheres, and that to friends;
But when he meant to quail and shake the orb,
He was as rattling thunder. For his bounty,
There was no winter in’t; an autumn ’twas
That grew the more by reaping: his delights
Were dolphin-like; they show’d his back above
The element they lived in: in his livery
Walk’d crowns and crownets; realms and islands were
As plates dropp’d from his pocket.

Monday, July 26, 2021

Learning to Live

They proposed mapping out a perfect day, and I drew a really frightening blank. A perfect day? I didn't even know how to imagine a good day. 

"Well, there's your problem, right there."

All right. In my perfect day, there are three work sessions. In the first, I work directly on the Thing. In the second, I work indirectly on the Thing. And in the third I work on something deliberately far afield from the Thing, looking for the serendipitous finds that will eventually fertilize the first two sessions.

In between, I take care of business. Make my food and eat my food. exercise. Do laundry. Go to work. Do a massage every once in a while. Find the perfect sun hat. Dally. Things like that.

The alert reader will have noticed that all this depends on the Thing. On the Thing existing, and on knowing what it is.

Now, maybe there's my problem, right there, and maybe not. I am suspicious. Is that really the question? What is my mission? That's the "meaning of life" move, and I think it's usually a misdirection. "What's the meaning of life?" people ask, when what they really mean is "I'm tired of doing the dishes." Mark Manson avers that life is about having fun and solving problems: and that it's not really that hard to figure out what fun is available or what problems are pressing. It's only difficult when you're terrified by all the fun, or when you believe all the problems are insoluble. Then, and only then, do you go about, lugubriously and portentously, looking for life's meaning. (And at no time, I note in passing, could you be less qualified to establish what it is.)  Here could follow a whole disquisition on "the meaning of life" assuming a Creator who meant us to do this and not to do that, and how suspiciously that looks like the intellectual move of a child desperate to please an imaginary parent. But maybe not today.

The practice, maybe -- I'm speculating here -- the practice might be discovering more fun activities, and trading insoluble problems for soluble ones.

---

I walked, and said to myself, "the truth of the matter is that I don't know how to live," which is true enough. But that's hardly something new: I have never known how to live. What of that? The fact is that I've spent most of my life desperately evading authorities who wanted to coerce me into doing things I didn't want to do. I've outrun all authorities, now. I'm jogging along comfortably. No one's going to make me do anything. The fact that I haven't learned how to live -- how is that my fault? How is that surprising? I've been on the run. Of course I haven't learned how to live. What am I, Count Tolstoy, or Prince Siddhartha? Am I a man who started life with the resources to make it new? I hit the ground running with a pack of hounds after me. I should give myself some credit. 

People who know how to live work in groups, I mean really work, digging up roots or building weirs or hunting difficult prey. They dance, not because they are good at dancing (though they are) but because dancing is what you do. Their feet strike the ground in time with the drums, and the moon glistens on someone's shoulder and flashes on the curve of their cheek. So I hear. How would I know? That's not what I've been doing. I've been busy avoiding work details and team-building events. I've been learning to keep a low profile, and to live on very little. I've been designing priest holes and bomb cellars, in my spare time, for inclusion in prospective home designs. The art of life has not been an item on my daily agenda.

---

As so often, for me, my real problem here is not the task, but my conviction that the task ought to be easy, or even that it ought already to be done; and the way to get unstuck is simply to jettison the conviction. It isn't easy -- wiser and more learned people than I have found it impossible -- and whether it should already be done or not, it's not done, which only means that it needs doing. 

---

I have the enormous advantage, now, of being sixty-three, which is the precise age at which one discovers that one will never make oneself new. Whatever I make will be made with the materials at hand: I am a wary, slow-processing, obstinate man who requires a lot of transition time -- who likes to wake up before the sun, and to have a couple hours to get used to the idea that a new day is underway, before having to cope with broad daylight. I'm not going to magically turn into anything else. Turning myself into an ideal human being -- decisive, quick-witted, and flexible -- now that, that would be a task to inspire despair. But I don't have to do that. I only need to find more fun within my measure, and to take on problems of reasonable scope. Everything else, everything else I can let fall away. I can let it drift away in my slow, dark wake.

---

Which is not to say that I am not in need of redemption. Oh no, I am not saying that. Not to say that I don't need a visionary journey, which involves a substantial risk of never returning. I do need, as Paul Simon would say, a shot of redemption. But don't confuse that with learning to live. They're two different tasks: they accomplish two different things. Don't get muddled.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Rain in the Morning

The lash doesn't just describe a beautiful curve: it does come to the end of itself, and it does crack.

No one promised us soft mornings with a white sky and a gentle rain. We just thought that because it happened when we were children, it would always happen. What else could we think? But when I became a man, childish things were taken away from me. Rain in the morning was only one of them.

But look: there is no time for chasing vanishments. We have real work to do, and real enemies to outwit.

Back then, I could hear a hectic music, sometimes: the skirl of pipe and tabor. Back then my heart would lift, even if the battles I imagined were the mock-battles staged by our masters, and not the real fights on our own behalf, which I would only understand late, late in my life, when my strength was already dwindling, and my teeth were broken and rotting from so much nibbling on lies. My heart would still lift, and it lifts now. 

They still go in terror of us. They have won every contest, and they clutch every prize, and still we give them the horrors. It's not much to work with, is it? But it's not nothing.

Rain in the morning. Just once, before I die. 

---

There is no enemy. There is no battle. And there will be rain in the morning, many times. The sky is altered but it's still the sky. And death is granted eventually to every one of us. So take comfort, you silly overwrought boy. Leave this posturing and really think. Really think.

---

One tiny fragile thing at a time.

---

It is possible to turn, turn in that very slight and graceful way, so that you're presented edgeways to the world, and infinitely narrow, so that for practical purposes you disappear. Then you step sideways, along that plane: and you're gone. Not in this world anymore. Then you have a little time to think. You can still hear the footsteps of busy, anxious, unseen people, but they can't see you or even imagine you. Have you forgotten this? I think you have. That's one of the real problems.

Thursday, July 01, 2021

Eat and Reading

 The story is told of an American Buddhist teacher -- I can't remember which one -- that a student, finding him eating lunch with a book before him, asked if this multi-tasking didn't running counter to his mindfulness principles. Shouldn't he be doing just one thing at once, with all his attention?

The teacher fixed the student with a baleful stare. "When I eat and read," he replied, "I eat and read."

---

This story passed into the idiolect of my marriage, so that "eat and read" was understood, and sometimes conjugated, as a single verb: "I was eat and reading yesterday when the phone rang..." 

I was binge-eating the other day, after a visit with my father -- those visits reliably precipitate binges -- and I noted that suddenly that as I ate, I was reading as I used to read: cruising through a hundred or a couple hundred pages per day. The penny dropped: so that's why I got through so little reading these days! I've been reading The Old Curiosity Shop for nearly a month, and I'm only two thirds through it: time was I would have dispatched it easily in a week. The reason I do so little reading now is that I no longer eat and read. I just read when I read, and reading by itself is a different activity, one that doesn't keep me bound so tightly into its orbit.

---

Not sure what to do with that realization. Maybe I'm not a reader: maybe I was never a reader: maybe I was just an eat and reader. Being the sort of person who reads a Dickens novel in a week has been part of my identity for so long that I have difficulty even bringing the notion that I might not be that sort of reader into focus. It's taken me four years to notice that there has been a change.

My knee-jerk response is, well, I must simply make myself read more. Or take up gum, or something. I can't actually read less. That would mean I was no longer me.

---

Or I could just not read as much. I don't need to be me, after all. Often I wish I weren't me. Why defend this identity? What do I really stand to lose?

---

Meanwhile, I got Eric Foner's classic history of the Reconstruction out of the library. (I have a couple more recent books on the same topic on hold, but they're taking forever to come in.) I realized at some point that much of my history reading was undershooting the target. Long ago I decided since that wars change things, I should read about the wars. It's useful to understand these things -- I often wish lefties understood more about military matters -- but for understanding the changes, what you really want to know is what happened after the shooting stopped. So rather than reading yet another history of World War II last year, I read Tony Judt's Postwar Europe. And now I'm reading about the Reconstruction. I've always shied away from it, knowing it would be grim reading, and that it's largely (from my perspective) the story of how the bad guys won after all. But all the more reason to dig in.

---

But I think one thing I am doing wrong -- if I want to read as I did back in the old eat and read days -- is that I am reading too many books at once, and taking my books as medicine, rather than as psychedelics. The whole point is opening the doors of perception, nicht? Washing the windows. Instead I've been primly reading improving books. No wonder my attention flags. I should take my reading in heroic doses.

---

As I walked this morning, before dawn, there was actually a little rain, or a least a heavy dewfall. It felt miraculous. A post-apocalyptic blessing.

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Draft of Policy Guidelines for Public Review

You go further into the dark. Forget
what you may have stepped on, what you may have done
to your bare feet. Damage assessment
comes later, if at all.
You, and I mean all of you --
your dicey back, your runny nose, that fold of flesh
that used to be plump with fat, where the hamstring meets the glute --
you have one last run, and only one, 
and you're doing it in the dark. 
Kick this thing over. Get it started. A nice 
even pace.

Listen, the story comes after, if at all.
Not yours to worry about. Yours is to run.
It's not really different. We may be hunted
by different animals, we may have sharpened other spears.
but the same bloody sun will rise, and the open
is no place to be when the light arrives.

Thursday, June 24, 2021

Copper

I am a reptilian thing with huge jaws, trying unsuccessfully
to reach an itch between its shoulders: I can't quite twist my neck
so far, and my thrash foams the water and frightens the fish. Hard luck

for the anglers. Remember how the pennies would warm in the sun
until they were drops of fire? You could pitch them in and dive for them
and they almost burned your fingers. Copper, veering to red:
 
little suns wavering among the green shadowed rocks,
while the water's huge respiration pulled the light
this way and that -- If it's wings growing there, we will need more
 
than the simple plates that do for a lizard's shoulder blades.
Hence no doubt the itch. We'll need bony ridges for the muscles to grip,
tendons for guy-wires, reciprocating levers for the forelimbs --

It is of course all nonsense about gold and dragons. Gold is insipid,
pale and unlovely under the water, incapable
of oxidation, doomed to be forever itself and never to burn.

It's copper, burning always, burning to peacock blues and greens,
burning to make your heart ache. Copper, answering fiercely to the sun,
to the water, to the air. Copper for the shells already clustering,

pea-sized, in my belly. What else would dragon eggs be made of?
In long years, long after the new webbing of my new grown wings
has extended and dried, after my first exultations in the air,

after I am so used to strength and freedom
that this present weakness is a dream: I will come home to this
cold green dark and shadowed river and lay my drops of fire

in the river mud, to glow and blaze and glitter;
you will need both hands to prise one up, should you
be so unwise, and it will carry heat like the pennies

so long ago, when you were a tow-headed boy
and the river-water made you gasp, and red coins
winked in the sun.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Infinite Regress

The last day or two I have been nearly as unhappy as I have ever been. It's in the way of unhappiness that one of my preoccupations has been establishing exactly how unhappy, and since when. Since the miserable days of teaching that ill-fated Chaucer course at Bridgeport University? Not quite that unhappy: that was the only time in my life I've been so unhappy that I didn't want to eat. But anyway. Long years ago.

And I am unhappy on account of nothing: nothing is wrong. I have suffered no loss. Everything jogs along as before.

Minor setbacks in most of my current projects. Some binge-eating on a small scale: which is to say, a day or two of eating as I used to eat every single day of my life. A minor pause in my reading. A little back trouble, entailing a setback in my exercise. The pain is trifling: I've had canker sores that occasioned more distress. The pestilential neighbors had a party and played loud, bad music that was just their usual hysterical shouting and profanity, mildly tweaked into an insistent rhythm. All these things are lightly discouraging. Not so discouraging that one should find oneself saying aloud, "I wish I were dead. Why am I not dead yet?"

Of particular silliness is the irony that timor mortis conturbat me: If I so want to be dead, then of all things intimations of mortality ought to be the most welcome. But of course emotions have their own life, and logical consistency is not what they aim at. What do they aim at?

Well, they are saying you must change your life

Gah. I'm tired of changing my life. I'm tired of running perpetual experiments on myself and trying to get myself to do things that will supposedly result in happiness. The whole project is misconceived. 

What, then? I can imagine no response but to embark on another program of self-improvement, training myself not to try to improve myself. At least the infinity of that regress is so obvious that even I can't miss it.

---

Yesterday, for the first time in over a year, the daily Covid new-case count reported by the Oregon health department dipped below one hundred. It was a fluky number, of course; Monday's numbers are often artificially low. But it was nice to see. A harbinger. 

I have been so focused on the fact that I have had an easy pandemic -- it would probably be hard to find another American on whom it's had so little impact -- that maybe I've underestimated its cumulative effect on my mood and imagination. I handle being alone just fine, and anyway, I was homebound with the most congenial person imaginable. I'm under no economic threat. I had no professional ambitions to be dashed. And extraordinarily, none of my family or close friends fell ill: and now they are all vaccinated. The risk is receding daily, even with the delta variant. So -- an easy pandemic. And now, they say, happy days are here again. But for me the sense of constriction has not lessened. The ambiguities multiply. 

I used to love being among strangers. Hence the restaurant breakfasts for most of my life. Just a sense of the abundance and variety of human life. I loved to study the faces going by. I had given up the restaurant breakfasts before the pandemic: but now, I didn't even have the bus or the train. And even the faces I saw were either masked or offensively unmasked. Something withered. My association of strangers with abundance and possibility evaporated. They were just more people: more stupid, obstinate people, incapable of critical thought or collaborative action: chattering primates hell-bent on their own destruction. The fewer of them the better. Godspeed, delta variant.

---

I treasure, above all, a sense of spaciousness. Wilderness. Of all the calamities of the past five years, none has distressed me so much as the wildfires. Not even fresh air to breathe: not even a national park to escape to. Everything has been ruined. There is nowhere to go. 

---

Thus von Tal, who is given to extravagant Germanic gloom. But surely Dale is somewhere here as well? He can't quite have vanished. The cool morning air is not tainted with wood smoke. Birds are in fact tuning up, as dawn gets underway. The sky may have been served its writ, but it's still there. And you well know that its death was guaranteed, from the beginning. Emptiness is a wind that blows no matter what the weather.

Wrong from the start, said the infamous Ezra Pound, that most American of Americans. Is it that we haven't stepped far enough back, or that we've stepped back too far? I'm not sure. 

Monday, June 21, 2021

Bucking and Bridling

 How my mind bucks and bridles, when fixed on the matter of my back pain! Now I am a disciple of Stuart McGill, religiously doing my "big three" exercises, an apostate from the "pain is an opinion" faith. And then I fall into doubt, and whisper that it's not working: and work myself up into a fret about it, when all the while I have not even done the simple assessments that McGill requires as the first step in his Back Mechanic book. 

The correlation between back pain and psychosocial stress is as plain as can be, in me, and in the literature. But that doesn't mean that we understand either the causation or the mechanism. Maybe we move foolishly, under stress, and ignore our own perceptions, and injure ourselves in quite physical (if not necessarily measurable) ways. There is something charming about McGill's insistence that there is always tissue damage. And it sets a red flag. How the hell does he know? He doesn't.

But anyway, I must force myself to complete his assessments, first. My symptoms are puzzling to me, and it seems to me that this pain is not like the pain I have had before: I may have two injuries, one old and one new, the old one having to do with flexion of the lumbar spine, and the new one to do with extension and torsion of the thoracic spine. Or it may, of course, simply be free-floating pain inspired by grief and anxiety about my father's state of health: which of course I can hardly help taking as prefiguring my own future. No way to isolate the variables, here, that I can think of.

In the meantime, I've maybe rashly extended credit to McGill, and altered much of my exercise regime, in order to bend my spine less and spend more effort building up the strength and endurance of the "guy-wire" muscles of the spine. My working McGillian hypothesis is that my original back trouble was caused by flexion, and I addressed it historically by erasing the lordotic curve of my low back, and building the flexive strength of my abdominal muscles, all too successfully. Now I must restore some of that curve and train up the opposing extensive muscles. But I'm suspicious of how exactly the "normal" curves of the spine were determined, or whether there are good reasons to think that this "normal" is actually relevant to anything. Really the value here is that I'm trying different things and interrogating my daily movements and postures. 

If there is value. Probably if I changed nothing and just waited, the pain would just go away anyway.

"You think too much: that is your problem." Well, yeah, but it's also the only strength I've got. Might as well use it. And anyway, don't declare defeat before the troops have even been deployed. Do the damn assessments.

Saturday, June 19, 2021

A Prayer for the Last Rain

I go in the morning of the day to the high places
where the clouds build tower upon tower, and the light
comes up from the moving water to fill the sky;

I break the glazed bowl and scatter the offerings
as you told me to, remember? that July in the days before.
My fingers remember the grit and the hard edges

and the loom of the forgoing, the endless necessary
and useless refusal of pleasure, which amounts to nothing
and informs nothing; the shape of the leaves left by the wind

on the hilltop. Christ Jesus, walking in this bitter way,
gave us three instructions: the first two I have forgotten,
but the last was "do not break the bowl!" and if I wake in tears,

of a Saturday, it is just this memory: of all that I have broken,
and forgotten, and lost. If you make a bowl of your hands
and let it fill with light, how will you keep it? It spills

and the moving air takes it. That high-strung English boy
thought it was seed for the west wind, but it is only the splash
of a ruined vessel. All of the made things break;

all of the leaves crumble. The pouring rain smells of tannin,
the mud runs clean, and the gutters fill with yellow and orange and red.
Please let this rain never end. Let this one be the last.

Friday, June 11, 2021

Narnia After The Snowmelt

The lab numbers are back, and the cholesterol ones haven't moved at all. The triglycerides went down sharply, but my triglyceride numbers were already pretty good. I really thought that losing these last two inches from my waist, and cutting out the red meat and ice cream altogether, would move the needle on the cholesterol: but not a bit. 

I had already laid down the number that was going to make the statin decision: if the total cholesterol / HDL ration was still over 5.0, I'd start taking them. My number was 5.5, so -- here goes. I don't buy the story of cholesterol being a driver of ill health, but there's probably some value in taking the LDL level down. If I have any side effects from them, I'll stop. I don't really view it as a terribly important decision, which is why I sort of picked a number out of a hat to make it for me. I've already given it more energy than it deserves.

Anyway, I'm glad to have gotten my waist down to 32 inches, which is sort of the land of fable, for me. I wake up in the morning, suck in my gut, and explore the terrain curiously with my hands: the segmented columns of the rectus abdominis and the lat-like flare of the obliques; the easily palpable guy-wire of the linea alba, the startlingly strong pulse of the abdominal aorta. A landscape I knew was there from my anatomy texts, and from years of doing massage on other people, but which I'd never been able to read with my fingers. Narnia after the snowmelt.

So lots of crosscurrents, here; and lots of over-interpretation. I can fix on the small waist, and the greatly-improved triglyceride/HDL ratio, which is quite close to 1.0 now, and which is supposedly the best marker for insulin sensitivity (in Caucasians), and think of this as a victory. Or I can fix on having caved in on the statins, which means that I'm not immortal after all, that I haven't outrun the medical establishment, and that I'll die awash in medicines like my mom did, not even knowing what the hell all of them were for. 

Or I can decline all the stories, and acknowledge that actually very little has changed, and that possibly the most important development of the past three months has been learning not to dread going a day or two without food.

I am in the critical phase now: the weeks after the weight loss, when my motivation for tracking and restricting intake is lowest, but my body will make its most determined hormonal bids to get the fat stores back up. People focus on the weight loss, but that's actually the easier part. The harder part is convincing the body that this is the new normal. My set-point may come down -- the evidence on that is scanty and contradictory -- but if it does, it will take a long time, at least as long as the weight loss did. Some people say that if you nudge your intake up very gradually, your metabolism will speed back up even while your fat stores remain constant. Maybe, but maybe that's wishful thinking. It would be nice if it were true, but I don't see any reason to think it must be.

So I set my data points for my do-it-yourself homeostasis: nudge my weekly intake up, and if the 7-day rolling average of my waist-hip ratio hits 0.91, fast it back down to 0.89. That should keep me in range. And I can entertain myself by working on getting my glutes swole, to cheat up that denominator.

Wednesday, June 09, 2021

Fire Drill

I pull into the three-quarters full parking lot and find a space on the far side, so that people with trouble walking can get the nearer spaces. (One of those things you can allow yourself to do when you're semi-retired and not in a hurry any more.) A beautiful morning. Some deep breaths. Do the little juggling routine: key into my pocket, glasses off, tie on mask; glasses back on, get out of the car, fish the key back out of my pocket, lock the car. 

I stride toward the building, feeling bold and enterprising. But I slow as I approach. A wave of some dozen masked people comes out. A second, and a third wave. Each wave wanders deeper into the parking lot, and then stops. What the hell?

Oh. I've seen this behavior before. It's a fire drill. More waves come out; they gather in little clusters, chatting: some cheerful, some resigned. Who knew how many people were in a nondescript, three-story medical building? There must be a hundred of them.

I stop well away from them: they're all masked and probably all vaccinated, but a crowd is a crowd and it's going to be a while before I'm comfortable in one. (As if I ever was.) Besides, nothing's happening till the floor captains have counted noses and the drill is over. So I go for a little walk in the parking lot. It's  godforsaken stretch of ground between the light rail tracks and a shopping center. But it's a bright and blessed June morning nevertheless.

Every one files back in, and after a few minutes, to give them time to become a functioning medical organism again, I follow them, and after a reasonably short time (but long enough to have been asked my name and birth date three times) I'm back on the sidewalk, plus a wad of gauze taped to the inside of my elbow, and minus a vial of blood. My lipid panel! It's been three months since the last one: I'm ten pounds lighter and two inches narrower, and now I get to see if I've moved my numbers.

This is wildly, wildly outside my comfort zone. I actually made this test happen. I initiated an interaction with my health providers. I have never done such a thing before.

It's boy thing, I guess. You always hear of women needing to drag their husbands to the doctor. I've never exactly needed to be dragged, but I've tended to go limp -- like a peaceful anti-nuke protester -- and I certainly never started anything.

But now I have, and I'm feeling absurdly cocky and sure of myself. A bit pathetic, but -- hey, it's part of the project of inhabiting my own life, and it's gone well so far, and I'm taking it as a win.

Thursday, June 03, 2021

Prawns with the Heads and Tails on

What put you off Dickens, you said, was his absolute moral certainty. And sure, I know what you mean: there is a juvenile insistence on innocence and depravity which can be grating. Especially the innocence part, which generally means a weak, languid inability to assert oneself. The Victorian enthusiasm for Little Nell strikes us as pathetic, if not pathological.

But as I read The Old Curiosity Shop, I am struck by the centrality of the demonic Quilp. The narrative adores Quilp: he draws Dickens' attention as Edmund draws Shakespeare's in King Lear. Whenever he is on stage, the language gains force; the dramatic intensity shoots up; everything becomes more vividly felt and extravagant. Sure, he's the bad guy: but without him, could there be a play? Of course not. What actor would turn down such a gorgeous role?

So Dickens may be morally certain, but his novels are not. What if the meaning of life is self-assertion and dominating your inferiors? How do you know it's not? Is it better to be Nell's grandfather, or Dick Swiveller, than to be Daniel Quilp? I don't think so, and I don't think the novel thinks so. I'm only a hundred pages in or so, which is barely getting started in a Dickens novel, but there's an interesting absence here: where is the young hero? Where is the young Dickens stand-in -- the Copperfield, the Clennam, the Pip? The shadowy narrator has already effaced himself and vanished. The entire field of virile masculinity is occupied triumphantly by Quilp, who faces down legions of discontented female rebels with ease and relish. I can't think off-hand of another Victorian novel that leaves the Young Hero slot so empty. Instead what we get is Quilp, leering at his mother-in-law in the mirror, and crunching up the heads and tails of prawns and the shells of boiled eggs.

Dickens, like Shakespeare, goes where the story takes him. And that to my mind is the whole duty of a storyteller.

When I realized how few books I would still get to read in this life -- do the numbers sometime, O fellow reader; you will be as appalled as I was -- I sketched out a course of "great books" to read. At first I had four historical categories, from which I'd pick books in turn. But soon I realized that might leave me reading, say, John Gower, or Ben Jonson, without ever having gotten back to Macbeth or Copperfield: that couldn't be right. So I expanded the categories to six: Ancient & Classical, Medieval & Renaissance, Shakespeare, Enlightenment & 19th Century, Dickens, and Moderns. And then I said the hell with it. I could die tomorrow. It's Dickens and Shakespeare that I want to read. Gower and Jonson can wait: they can wait till my next life, if necessary. And suddenly all my vacillation and weariness about reading were gone. I will crunch up my Shakespeare plays with their tails and heads, and my Dickens novels with the shells: and be damned to comprehensiveness or correctness. 

Wednesday, June 02, 2021

The Doubts

They come in delicately, like shrimp,
their antennae forming long and graceful curves,
their expressions undecipherable. These are the doubts.
They move slowly, seemingly without intention,
but they crowd until the panic starts to rise.

Is it the opaqueness of the eyes, or the stiffness?
Or maybe the capacity for suffering, beyond
mammalian imagination? They die in multitudes
when the waves go bronze, and the sea's skin
is a rocking shell of copper colored plates.
They die without objection, quiet to the last,
not rushing even then. And the sun goes down.
Evening brings the smell of their decay.

You asked me once to tell about the whales
still in the deep places, untroubled. So I did.
I had a voice that persuaded then: I was young
and believed in victory. Far out to sea and far below,
I said, they are moving, huge and slow, older than us,
older than time, waiting us out. They know places still
that we do not. At last you fell asleep,
exhausted by fear and wretchedness: but I lay awake
and all night the stars picked their way across the sky.

Tuesday, June 01, 2021

Making the Corn Right: Nixtamalization

"Nextli" is Nahautl for "ashes,"
"tamalli" for corn meal dough.
"Nixtamalization" is soaking the corn
in a wood-ash solution.

Everyone did it:
if you lived on maize, you prepped it
with wood ash. Otherwise
you were courting deficiencies

of niacin or amino acids.
And yes, right now, yes
I could do with a tamal.
But the point is

No one knew why they did it
Or they believed they did it
for some other reason:
it made the corn right.

And this is why I say
to storytellers, 
great and small:
just make it right.

Don't worry about niacin.
You don't have to know what the fuck 
the ashes are doing. 
You can be wrong

and still be right.
Write
the goddamn
story.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

4th Fast

 This one was 48 hours. Much more challenging than 36, because the second night I got only two or three hours' real sleep; I dozed a couple more, but it wasn't near enough. My body clearly thought this was no time for sleeping: I should be out tracking an elk or gathering a yam. Maybe next time I'll cut my caffeine in half; that might help.

It will be interesting to see where my numbers rebound to, as I re-feed. In previous fasts they've bounced back surprisingly little. I give myself permission to eat the food I missed, the day after my fast -- i.e. if I want to double the portions on my next three meals, I can -- but so far I seem to want only one make-up meal, and then I'm back to my usual routine. I actually expected a lot more bounce-back in the numbers than I'm seeing. If it turns out that losing weight was as simple as fasting occasionally, I'm going to be pissed. All those elaborate meal plans and finicking about macros! 

I'm joking (mostly). I had to learn how to eat way differently. I had to give up processed foods. I had to learn to plan. I had to learn to maintain a kitchen. I had to give up spontaneous eating, except on three or four special occasions per year. It wasn't going to work without that.

But still, compared to the misery of continuous calorie restriction, this is just absurdly easy. Sure, I get hungry from time to time, but I was hungrier -- way hungrier -- when I was fat. When I was fat I was ferociously hungry several times a day. I think people who have never had a disordered appetite do not have any conception of how desperate that hunger is. Compared to it a 48-hour fast is a walk in the park. Who cares? I get to eat day after tomorrow. It's not like I'm going to starve.

It's downright comical to see the graph of my weight drop like a stone, off the bottom of the chart, after so many years of grimly driving it downwards, pixel by pixel. 148.5. But we have still to see the bounce-back, and to see if cravings arise. So far, nada.

I finished the fast at 2:00 yesterday, which is more or less dinnertime in my current routine. I ate "breakfast," and then a couple hours later I ate "lunch," and I was done. Now I'm back to the usual.

Saturday, May 22, 2021

Catch and Release

"He must be very fond of you," said Rosa.

"He bears up against it with commendable fortitude, if he is," returned Mr. Grewgious, after considering the matter.

---

I return to Dickens, like a fish to the sea.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Through Dickens

 


I am rereading Edwin Drood. Bowled over, as always, by Dickens' linguistic power: no other writer of English prose holds a candle to him. And more convinced than ever that if you want to understand the English-speaking world, this is where to look: this is the writer who most perfectly expresses -- and had no little hand in creating -- our culture. 

For better and for worse. We are cloyingly sentimental, given to wild outbursts. We but slenderly know ourselves. We are violently suspicious of institutions, which makes us -- paradoxically -- uniquely vulnerable to them. Our medical system, our prison system, our legal system, our political system: all seem to stalk among us, loathed by all, but never to be changed:  to change institutions you have to believe in them. We are political cripples.

And for a people deeply and genuinely committed to kindness, we are astonishingly cruel. In this too we follow Dickens. Our ferocious belief in our moral perfection leads us to very dark places. We fall in love ecstatically, fall back out again, and loathe our erstwhile infatuations with no apparent sense of contradiction; no uneasiness. We put together families and recklessly explode them.

We work frantically, wearing ourselves out, in constant terror of poverty. There is never enough. We are never out of the shadow of the workhouse. We are never done with being ashamed of home.

A way forward, if there is one, leads through Dickens. There's no way around him.

Saturday, May 15, 2021

Bells that still Ring

 Yeah, well, the pandemic. I don't talk much about it. I had figured out how I was going to deal with it by March of last year: quit doing massage, and reduce my exposure to human beings who were not Martha to once per week (to go shopping.) That was no great hardship: I don't like human beings much anyway. My workplace was blessedly good about making it possible to work either alone there, or from home. Life went on.

I was surprised at how surprised people were. We all knew this was coming. We all know a much worse one is coming, for which we also refuse to prepare. Except apparently we didn't all know. I don't know exactly how you miss the foremost epidemiologists in the world repeatedly warning the public that we're in for zoonotic viral pandemics every decade or so from now on -- they've been perfectly clear since SARS 1 (2003) and MERS (2012) -- but lots of people managed. Social media has been full of people announcing how blindsided they were, and how nobody could see this coming. Jesus. Get a clue, you chuckleheads. Listen to a scientist once in a while.

So anyway, the point of the pandemic for me was the same as the point of Trump's election, and the same as the point of the wildfires in maritime Oregon. It's not the end of the world. It's not even something that impinges on me and mine all that much. The point is that we human beings are not going to look ahead and cooperate, not even in the face of destruction. We're not up to the challenges, and we're going down. It's that simple. The pandemics, the rise of fascism, the change of climate that makes rain forest burn like desert scrub -- those are the easy challenges. If we can't rise to them, it's absurd to imagine we'll rise to the harder ones coming.

So as a species, we've got our diagnosis: stage four pancreatic cancer. There's three ways of handling that: ignore it, defy it, or accept it. Most people I guess choose to ignore it. Defying it is maybe ultimately the driver of neofascism. (I don't really know: I understand those people even less than I understand most people.) But my way of handling it is to accept it. We're in humanity's final chapter. It's time to put our house in order and turn our attention to last things. All our collective hopes and projects are void. We're dying without heirs. What does that mean for an individual human being, living an individual life?

Well, it means give up. Give up on public life. It means settle private accounts and ask for forgiveness. It means shake free of the bitterness of the local squabbles and vendettas. Treasure these last moments with loved ones. The death of all people is not so different than the death of each one of us.

---

Thus Von Tal, who is sounding, frankly, a little unhinged to me: I think he's worried about his dad's health, and unhappy about his back being iffy again after all the work he's put into repairing and fortifying it. If you don't like people much, Von Tal, then the "fact" that they're going down surely shouldn't bother you, let alone induce despair? You're swimming at the bottom, my friend, and stirring up clouds of mud: you can't see very far from down there. Ease off a bit. Play a little.

So this morning: meditated, first thing. And that feels helpful.

It's time to take a vacation, and wander some country lanes. Time to look at the sea and the tide. Wind and wave.

---

Yeah. clarifying, would be the word for this last visit to Eugene. Of course, my father's mortality evokes my own. He handles it much as I would (will): he knows damn well that muscle mass is the key, and he's just not being able to produce it. What works at 63 no longer works at 92. And you can swap the numbers around however you like, but even if they're 83 and 112, you get the same answer. At some point it stops working.

---

When I visit, now, he makes sure that I know that he wants me to have his onyx bookends. It's hard to know if he knows that he's said that before: he's always had the good teacher's capacity for clear repetition. He knows it's not enough to say something once. One of the reasons I've always been a poor teacher is that I'm not able to repeat myself. If I even suspect that I repeating myself, I stop short; I'm mortified; I can't proceed. Not that it actually stops me from repeating myself: I'm often startled, if I look back at my older posts, to see how often, how tiresomely, I say the same thing. I've said all this before, too. 

The bookends are massive, Mexican onyx, from some foray into Juárez. And I do indeed like them.

---

The mallet just kisses the huge metal disk: it rings, or rather throbs: a low tone on the edge of hearing, but a sweet call. If the huge slow earth were a cat chirruping with pleasure at the sight of a friend, it would make this sound. More things, more things in heaven and earth. A la deriva, but at least in motion. The sky is a pure wordless blue. This year's wildfires haven't started up yet. And we don't actually know that they will.  There's lots we don't know.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Retrato


My version of the "Retrato" with which Antonio Machado introduces himself in Campos de Castilla (1912, revised 1917.) At this point, trying to translate him is a lunatic venture. This poem rhymes abab, but you'll just have to imagine that part: no way am I trying to do that in English.


Portrait

My childhood is memories of a patio in Seville,

and a bright garden where the lemon tree grows;

my youth, twenty years on the land of Castile;

my history, a few events I don’t care to recall.


I was not a Don Juan or a Casanova

(you know my sartorial attainments!)

but I duly received Cupid’s arrow,

and where I found a welcome, I loved.


There are drops of Jacobin blood in my veins,

but my verse flows from a serene spring;

I’m not a man who lives by a catechism,

but (in the good sense of the word) I am good.


I love what’s beautiful, and in the modern vein

I’ve cut old roses in the garden of Ronsard:

but I don’t love the current stylists’ “product”;

I’m not one who warbles with the new flock of birds.


Not for me, the romances of hollow tenors;

the chorus of crickets who sing to the moon.

I pause to tell voices from echoes,

and among the many voices, I listen to one.


Am I a Classic or a Romantic? I don’t know. I would leave

my verse as a commander leaves his sword:

known for the strong hand that wielded it --

not for the metallurgical lore of its forger.


I talk with the man who always goes with me

(the person who talks to himself hopes someday to talk to God):

my soliloquy is a heart-to-heart with this good friend

who taught me the trick of philanthropy.


And in the end, I owe you nothing. You owe me what I’ve written.

I go to my work. With my money I pay

for the suit that I wear and the house I inhabit,

the bread that feeds me and the bed where I lie.


And when the day of the last voyage arrives,

and the ship that never returns is ready to leave,

you’ll find me already aboard, traveling light;

half naked, like the sons of the sea.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Anabolic / Catabolic Switch

 


This is possibly the most information-rich of the graphs I keep. The blue line is my hip measurement and red line is my waist measurement. I was not tracking the hip measurements until my big weight loss was nearly complete, unfortunately: it would be interesting to see what that looked like. But there's two and half years of daily measurements, here. To me there's one really striking fact that jumps out at me: my visceral fat is always either rising or falling. It's really striking given that my muscle (as represented by the hip line) was doing pretty much exactly what I was aiming at: a slow steady increase. But my visceral fat (as represented by the waist line), despite my best efforts at a slow steady decline, never did that. Not even for a couple weeks at a time. It was always either rising or falling, and always at about the same slope, either way. When you back off and just get the gestalt of the chart, it's obvious. This despite a very rigorous discipline in the number of calories consumed: I did change things, occasionally, but always in a controlled manner, and never by more than 100 daily calories. Yet, between those changes and the very occasional binges, the chart shows this very strong pattern.

It could be sheer happenstance, but I suspect I'm seeing an important physiological truth here: that for me there's an master anabolic/catabolic switch that has only two settings. It's either on or off.

I have always held, as an article of faith, that what I wanted was a slow steady loss of fat, until I hit the desired level (i.e. where I am now), whereupon I would ease up on the calorie restriction slightly and level off, and live happily forever in the perfect steady-state. But I realize now that I have no particular reason to believe such a thing is possible. I mean, clearly a steady state is possible for people whose appetites have never been broken: but it may not be possible for me. I may have to settle for a consciously-imposed version of homeostasis, flipping this switch back and forth every few weeks. Or maybe, with fasting as a new tool in my kit, it's will be a matter of generally leaving the switch on, but fasting for a few days every time I hit a tripwire, to jolt the line back down.

The steeper slope of the last visceral fat loss, by the way, coincides with taking up a ten or eleven hour feeding window. I'm playing with making that window smaller, and being done with eating for the day by 2:30. (This sounds quite stern and draconian if you don't take into account that my first meal of the day is often before 6:00 a.m. It's just a slightly early supper: the equivalent, for someone who's less of a morning person, of knocking off eating by 5:30 p.m.) I find, to my great astonishment, that I really don't like going to bed on a full stomach, now: it feels weird and impairs my sleep. 

The time-restricted feeding and the general calorie restriction don't coexist entirely comfortably: I'm still thinking about that. In general, I'm sort of doing both, since I generally don't want to cram any more eating into the feeding window than I'd be allowed under my usual calorie-restriction anyway. But on the rare occasions that I do, maybe I should let myself, so long as it's just a matter of more of my usual food.

Saturday, May 08, 2021

Four Years


On May 11th, 2017 -- four years ago next Tuesday -- I undertook a diet, for the last time. I weighed 222 pounds, and my goal was to get down to 180. If I failed -- or if I succeeded and then gained the weight back -- I was done for good and all. No more diets ever again.

I didn't really understand the scale of the enterprise, back then: that the project would take up the lion's share of my intellectual, spiritual, and physical energy for four years. I succeeded. I weigh 152 pounds today. If I maintain the success for another year, I grant myself permission to declare the success official, and probably permanent; but the cost was proportional to the benefit. I would do it again, but not entirely for the reasons I started. Everything looks a little different, from this vantage. I am, for one thing, much more charitable toward my previous failures. I was navigating with crappy information, and shockingly bad advice, and I was working full time. There was no way I was going to succeed back then.

Why would a person devote this much of their life to a silly project like losing weight? In theory I buy back the four years by having won back as many years and a healthier life: but that's statistical and speculative. If I die in a car crash tomorrow, the joke's on me.

Well, some of the story is personal and rather sad. My earliest memories are of my mother collapsed in an armchair, her sky-blue eyes wide and blank, slowly and inexorably eating a container of store-bought chocolate fudge frosting with a spoon. She would eat it to the bottom and swipe every bit of it clean with her finger. She fought with her weight all her life, and lost. She warned me that I too would ruin my life if I kept eating as I did. I kept eating as I did. She was clinically depressed, and the depression was so inwoven with the eating behavior that there was no untangling them. I loved to eat too, and we would often binge together, united in defying the world's determination to take our one pleasure away from us. I learned early the phase-shift between obedience and defiance, between fighting oneself and giving way. It dominated my life for a long, long time, and not just in the domain of food.

There were two of me: one who meant to eat well and one who did not. They would struggle for motor control. At times it was so finely balanced I could watch my hand slowly reaching for the freezer door, and then jerking back, and reaching again, and jerking back, as the different selves struggled for mastery. Sometimes one would win and sometimes the other. Even as one won motor control, the other would be planning and scheming: I could binge on ice cream while planning my next diet. I could also force myself to eat a salad while planning my next binge. Only one self at a time ordinarily had motor control, but they were both thinking all the time. It was an exhausting way to live, and it did not leave me with a high opinion of myself.

It did, however, teach me a lot about being a human being. I understood early a truth that many people never learn: that I could not control myself. In a knock-down drag-out fight between my will and my hormones, my hormones would win. Not every time, sure. but the self determined to eat all the food only has to win every once in a while, to win the war. You can win a dozen battles a day for six days, and eleven on Sunday morning, and still, there you are: eating enough on Sunday evening to make a comfortable week's surplus of calories. Your 83 straight victories mean exactly nothing. You're a glutton, and everyone can see that you're a glutton, no matter how baggy your shirts are. 

So I learned some compassion for people, the hard way: I learned early, and believe to this day, that no one can actually control their appetites. "Those who control their desires," said William Blake, "do so because theirs are weak enough to be restrained." I could count myself lucky -- and it was sheer luck -- that my desires were no more destructive and unacceptable than they were.

I have not mastered myself. I have learned, at great cost and with sustained efforts, to maneuver myself and arrange my life such that the self that doesn't give a damn about eating well gets control seldom, and has limited access to food when he does get control. I have not beaten him, and I never will. 

We do, however, jog along more comfortably together than we used to. I still binge from time to time, under certain kinds of stress, and I imagine I always will. But I waste far less energy fighting with him, and far less being ashamed of him. I watch him go to work now with mild interest. Huh! I failed, and a binge is coming on. I don't particularly try to stop it, or even to limit it. It will wear itself out. All I require of myself is that the next day I spend some time analyzing exactly where and how I could have planned ahead or intervened so as to head it off, so I can prevent the next one. Occasionally there is no answer: nothing on God's green earth could have prevented this binge under these circumstances. Fair enough: you do what you can. No one can do more.

For the first three years of my "success" you will find two- or three-day holes in my spreadsheets where the binges happened. When the binge guy was in control, I could not muster the wherewithal to record my food consumption, my weight, or my measurements: I only started recording again when my disciplined self was in the saddle. Now there are no holes in the spreadsheets. I record binges as meticulously as I record everything else. They are just information, and I need all the information I can get. 

So, there's some of the "why": putting this Manichean struggle somewhat to rest opens up some space, at least in theory, to live in a different way. To escape the depressive atmosphere of my childhood, and that blank, blue-eyed gaze into nothingness. It's fun to be lighter-weight. It's fun to be able to do pull-ups, and to imagine living to be eighty years old. But I don't know if it would have been worth four years of sustained effort, if that had been all I gained. Maybe: maybe not.

But this, this measure of peace with myself: yes. This was worth the four years.

Monday, May 03, 2021

Machado, Roses, Back Pain, and Covid

Another Machado poem, "Tal vez la mano, en sueños…":

in dreams maybe the hand 
of the sower of stars 
sounds the forgotten music 

a note on an immense lyre 
and that humble wave comes to our lips 
in a few truthful words

---

The climbing yellow roses make their serpentine, parasitic way through the laurel, and dangle from the eaves. They're not really roses and the laurel is not really a laurel, I'm told; they both have odd polysyllabic names in clumsily grafted classical tongues. But I'll call them roses and laurel. It's my damn hedge. The roses are gorgeous this year: apparently this ominously dry April suited them.

---

The back? It's no longer giving me pain, if I'm careful. I don't want to be careful, is the thing. And I most particularly want to do what my back least wants me to do: go for long walks. So I'm perpetually peeved.

Nevertheless, my energy returns, and that's welcome. Continual pain, even if it's low-level, easily managed pain, does weird, unwelcome things to my spirit. It shrinks suspiciously from contact: it contracts, and wrinkles. I become a self-absorbed teenager again. Bad enough the first time, when it was age-appropriate. I weigh how much of investment I want to make in learning do-it-yourself physical therapy. My faith in American-trained physical therapists is low enough that I don't even want to bother trying to get insurance to pay for a few random sessions with some random PT. Better to spend that energy actually learning and experimenting.

---

I have a conviction, based on basically nothing, that this week will mark the peak of the second Covid wave in Oregon, and that we really have blundered our way past the halfway mark. The lack of discipline and public spirit so far does not make me optimistic about how we'll fare if a really bad virus comes our way. We are rich children who expect our parents to buy our way out of any trouble we get into. It's not always going to happen that way.

Meanwhile, I personally, continue to bear a charméd life. And this May is quiet, cool, and sweet, whatever the summer will bring.

Lots of love, dear friends.

Saturday, May 01, 2021

Occupatio

A rhetorical device (also known under the Greek name paralipsis) by which a speaker emphasizes something by pretending to pass over it: 'I will not mention the time when…' The device was favoured by Chaucer, who uses it frequently in his Canterbury Tales. --The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms

I am reading Samuel Delany's Tales of Nevèrÿon. A strange ship has come to the Ulvayn Islands -- a ship captained by a large black man and crewed by some forty blowsy female hands -- and the locals, outraged by this crew's attempt to recruit some of their daughters to their company, swim out to the ship by night and burn it. It is all to me rather obscure -- I am confused about both what this ship is and why the locals are outraged. But Delany is apparently anxious that he is telling a story so conventional that his sophisticated readers will be contemptuous, because he announces that "certain storytelling conventions would have us here... insert some fictive encounter between the girl [the protagonist] and one or more of the sailor women..." But he is not going to do this, he solemnly says -- after giving a couple examples of the meetings he has in mind -- because such meetings frequently do not happen, and because reading them lets us off the hook by making us feel we have already responded adequately to the discomforts of the story (? I think? Since I don't quite know what conventions we're talking about, I'm not sure I have this part right).

This is a thoroughly Chaucerian occupatio -- there's nothing Chaucer enjoys more than informing you that he is not going to tell you this, that, and the next thing, in considerable detail. Since I'm all at sea as to what the convention is that he's rescuing me from, I'm a little perplexed, but probably I just haven't been reading the right things. That's all right: you have to start somewhere.

It is a little startling to be told, in a fantasy story, that the author's conscience will not let him narrate something because that something happens infrequently. The hobgoblin of realism is to plague us even here? Maybe this is just a joke, but it doesn't feel that way to me. It feels sincere: that he felt a conventional twist to the story coming on, and he resisted it on our behalf, but he did want to let us know what the danger was and why it was avoided.

What is clear is that Delany feels that it's his responsibility to make it new (as Pound would say) and to make it real: and that to do less would be to participate in the sin of making us comfortable in the story: making us feel that there was nothing we needed to feel uncomfortable about, nothing we actually needed to do.

All of us who received a literary education in the 20th Century will recognize this as our time's fundamental justification of the study of literature. What literature was for was to make people uncomfortable: and nothing was worse, more unliterary, than a book that made you complacent. You could in fact measure a book's worth by how uncomfortable it made you. The end result of this doctrine was that most of the 20th Century's deliberately literary works are unreadable: the literary production was enormous, but the amount that will be read a hundred years from now will be very small; my guess is that future readers, if we have them, will mostly skip from Tolstoy and Dickens to whatever the 21st Century has in store.

Anyway, that's my view of it, a curmudgeonly view, and possibly a ridiculous one. Time will tell. My view of the storyteller's job, in this modern world -- a world which is saturated with stories, brimming over with them -- is to repair the old stories, to take the stories that have become painful and ill-fitting, for one reason or another, and make them over so that they suit us in our new-made world: that stories are precisely a comfort and a refuge, and it's what they ought to be. Which is not to say there's nothing to be learned from them. There is. Obviously I think so, since I have dedicated my life to them. The stories, the great stories: we go on telling them, it's the most human thing we do, and we desperately need the right stories to allow us to go on working together; to go on recognizing -- for instance -- that strangers are not necessarily enemies; or that people make mistakes in good faith. What we learn is seldom groundbreaking. It's not science, where the world is really made brand new every ten or twenty years. These are old, old lessons: that loyalty is better than treachery, that courage is better than cowardice, that honesty is better than lies. Promises must be kept and children must be cared for. That sort of thing.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Chimeras


The numbers you get at the end of a fast are chimeras, of course: they're mostly about lost water, not about lost fat. I knew they would bounce back, and they have; and they may not yet be done rebounding. Still, it was agreeable to see two long-awaited numbers heave in sight: the 32" waist, and the waist-hip ratio of 0.900. 

The 32" waist is not a serious goal: I don't really care what my standalone waist measurement is, so long as it's under 34". But it has long been the purely theoretic number that lodged in my head as the size my waist ought to be: I think it may have been my waist measurement when I was a teenager. Or I may have thought it was: possibly it was the size of my Levis, which would have been total non-information. Who knows. I didn't learn to measure and record with real discipline until decades later. So it's not really what I'm aiming at -- just as 160 lbs wasn't ever really what I was aiming at -- but it eases my adolescent heart to see it.

My weight dropped to 150.9, and bounced back to 152.5 today. This is the least I have weighed in my adult life. When I did my initial big weight loss, I got down to 152 for a few days. I deliberately gained back to 160. At that point I felt like I was too damn little. But I've had a few years to adjust my mind to the fact that I'm actually an average-sized guy: no longer "beefy," or "husky," or "stocky." Maybe 150 or so is where I land: I can live with that. But weight, while it's easy to measure with (spurious) accuracy, is not a serious measure of what I'm really driving at, which is metabolic health. My best number for that is my waist-hip ratio: that is, my waist measurement divided by my hip measurement. I've been aiming at getting that number down to 0.900, and keeping it there.

I got there at the end of the fast yesterday: 0.889. I'm still there today, at 0.896. Since I have a nice data set now, four years of numbers, I know exactly how this graph behaves, so I know that keeping a 7-day rolling average around 0.900 means having that average wander back and forth in the region between 0.890 to 0.910. So it's business as usual until the 7-day average falls to 0.890: it's currently at 0.901. At that point I will cautiously lift my foot from the pedal.

So -- God willing and the creek don't rise -- I'm in the end game, now. It's been a long savage fight, but I think I'm winning this thing.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

3rd Fast

3rd fast: the 36-hour one. This continues to be absurdly easy. You just don't eat. Nothing bad happens to you. You get hungry, and you tell yourself, "so this is what burning fat stores feels like!" and you get on with your life, except that you don't have to fuss about food prep. I feel something of a chucklehead: I tried so many difficult and convoluted methods, and I finally worked my large weight loss with a huge expenditure of energy and attention -- and all the while I could have just not eaten, from time to time. Sheesh.

Early days, early days, of course: I'm sure there's more to learn. And maybe the fasting wouldn't have worked without having established such ingrained habits of eating good food in reasonable amounts. We'll see. I keep tracking the numbers and observing the behavior. I have a considerable bank of actual data, now. It's not easy to fool me about what's going on. If my hunger hormones go "sproing!" and drive me to eating wildly, I'll calmly note it down, and lay my course accordingly. 

The back continues fairly borked. If it isn't much improved in a week's time, I'm going to escalate more resources towards it: do some more reading and see if I can get some physical therapy. This episode is a little different than my former ones -- less of the panic-seizing-up and more of just plain old pain. The paraspinals are remarkably sore from sacrum to mid-thorax. There is a faint possibility that this last ten pounds of weight loss has shifted loads or movement patterns somehow: but I'm more inclined to think that I just pushed too hard on the sprints, and stretched a little too much, and then asked my back on top of that to do a couple things it hadn't done in a year -- viz., a massage, and a drive to Eugene and back. That's still my working hypothesis. If that's so, then it really ought to resolve in the next week or two. Again: we'll see. I am managing to get a fair amount of exercise in now, even though walking more than ten minutes is out of the question. 

At the moment, with a full belly and a spreadsheet full of lovely numbers, my cup overflows with benevolence, regardless of the silly rituals I have to go through every time I transition from sitting to standing. The lark's on the wing, the snail's on the thorn, & etc. 

Monday, April 26, 2021

Mak ye Divel Paye

 Once upon a time, I was greatly impressed by C.S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters, and I was particularly struck by a passage in which Screwtape (a senior demon specializing the temptation of human beings) remarks that, while he is willing to see people get pleasure, if he must, the summit of his art is getting people to sin without conceding any pleasure in return.

I conceived then of the motto for a family crest, which my mind's eye saw (and my mind's ear pronounced) in Middle English: "Mak ye Divel Paye." Abandoning sin, I recognized, might be beyond me, but I could at any rate insist that the devil pay up. I would not guiltily bolt forbidden fruit: I would savor it.

That was nearly fifty years ago, but the motto has lingered, in the persistent way of one's early perceptions and resolutions, and it came into my mind slantwise in regard to exercise when my back is wonky. The connection, as I try to make it explicit, is tenuous, but it is similar somehow. My back pain can make me stop doing some things, but I can insist that it actually make me stop them. After a couple days of initial recovery, I go straight back into my workouts, unloading them or abbreviating them as necessary. My deadlifts today were two sets of zero x four: grasping an imaginary bar and lifting it four times; resting, and doing it again. That's it, and it was iffy. But the point is to not cede any movement territory to the Devil unless he really means to take it. No avoiding things on the off chance that they might be too much. Just find out. Sure, there's some chance of making the problem worse: but the real risk, the existential risk, is being put off of movement. That's when you really lose capacity.

Your mileage may vary, of course. And this is assuming that there is nothing actually structurally wrong; no "issue in the tissue." One never knows, unless one has a personal MRI and radiographer on call.

---

Von Tal frowns, nearly deletes all the above text from yesterday, but leaves it, for the moment, at least. He suspects it doesn't actually make sense.

What Dale did today, he thinks, is more to the point. He's getting worried about not getting much aerobic work (as we ancients call zone 2 training): but it's damn hard to get if your lower body is offline. It would be easy to trash one's shoulders or elbows trying to make aerobics out of, for instance some mix of push ups and pull ups. But it's been over a week. "Come on, dude," said Dale to himself (because in addition to referring to himself in the third person, his diction swings wildly into bro-isms when he thinks about exercise.) "If you found yourself legless after getting run over by a train, or blown up by a land mine, you'd know you had to figure out a way to get your aerobics anyway. So figure it out."

He's not even really legless, in fact. He can still do, say, heel drops. And he can even do a very shallow squat, if he's well supported. So his dip station -- which is the inside corner where his kitchen counter makes an 'L' -- turns into a squat-and-bob station. He supports himself as for a dip, but does a shallow squat instead; and when that gets tedious he leans forward and bobs: does a thing that's halfway a dip and halfway a hip hinge. He looks like a damn fool (though rather, he thinks cheerfully, like the American Dipper that is his totem); but he actually manages to generate a burn in his quads, and even some work for the glutes, after just ten minutes. Dude. This works, for leg day. Add some inverse rows, and Bob's your uncle. Or a least a second cousin. You've got something kinda sorta like a zone 2 workout. 

"Hah! Mak ye divel paye!" He thinks.

Von Tal frowns again. "I do not think you really know what that motto means, Dale."

"I don't really care, dude. It's my motto, and I'll do what I like with it."

In this mood, it's best to leave him be. And anyway, the metabolic press is on again. Let the back complain all it wants: we're doing this thing anyway.