I achieved my original fitness goal – weight loss to 200lbs (91kg) – on July 4, 2016 – Independence Day.
There were fireworks all day. After dark, combustible celebration lit the sky. It was the most raucous public carnival in recent memory. I let myself imagine that everyone in the city was happy for me.
I went to the 50% off holiday sale at one of my favorite thrift stores and bought most of what I needed to finish a minimal, modular, new wardrobe. I spent $28 on IDK how many pants, shirts, jackets, and shorts.
You would have to know me – which really is my fault, because if I were faithful with this blog and you read it, you would know me already – but over the last 17 years shopping is about the least likely activity you’d catch me in. Before this day I would buy 5-10 identical outfits – all black – and wear them every day, year round, until they wore out. The last set I bought in 2008, and I chose it specifically for durability. Also I’m famously cheap – I would buy a restocked, marked down toothbrush if such a thing were available.
The Fourth of July was a memorable milestone kind of day. It feels as if I threw a switch from anxious, depressed fatso to fit, smart-dressed, high-functioning person in a single moment. In reality it was just one of those times when I suddenly realized how far I’ve come in a little over a year.
It was two days before that milestone that I heard the episode of the This American Life podcast titled (I think) Tell Me I’m Fat. It grabbed my attention in a way that this podcast almost never does – as often as not it’s pleasant background chatter or lazy entertainment for me and my wife. In this episode, though, I heard people who seemed to come from a starting point similar to my own – being immensely fat, upset about everything that attends obesity, and at a loss for what to do about it.
Following are some quotes that really grabbed me.
“The way that we are taught to think about fatness is that fat is not a permanent state – you’re just a thin person who’s failing consistently for your whole life… I don’t know why I live in this imaginary future where I someday will be thin.”
“At some point I was just like, you know, it’s fairly likely that I’m going to be fat forever, so why am I putting off figuring out how to live with that? Rather than spending all my time counting almonds, why not try to figure out how to be happy now?”
“No further manpower needed on the shame front.”
[following a stat declaring a large percentage of USA is obese] “There must be some other way to think about this.”
“You know what’s shameful – a complete lack of empathy.”
“Why should I have to swallow that kind of treatment at my job?” (Fat shaming from boss)
“…come out as fat”
“When you come out as gay, most people accept it because they know you can’t do anything about that, that’s who you are are, you can’t change it… but coming out as fat, doctors and your family, and kinda the entire culture is organized to point out how wrong-headed you are. When you’re over a certain size, it’s been explained to me by a few people now, complete strangers walk up to you in the street and tell you to lose weight, they shoot you dirty looks when they see ice cream in your shopping cart. They talk down to you about nutrition and calories, as if pretty much every fat person has not been around the block 500 times on that one already. That’s why deciding to stay fat – and be okay with it – is at a peculiar frontier right now, where things are shifting and people do not agree about what’s acceptable to say and think.”
“The problem with ‘overweight’ is that it implies there is a correct weight for people.”
I Am Totally Onboard for this Coping Solution – At Least I Totally Validate the Impulse
Later, for the thorough/dour among us, I’ll list a few of my very many reservations regarding TAL in general and this episode in general. This American Life is the maximum depth into middle-class pop culture that my atmospheric diving suit can handle. For now I just want to say that I 100% identify with these people featured in this episode. The posture they propose constitutes a novel, clever solution to the same problem I had.
At present I’m not even considered overweight for a middle-aged American. My body fat percentage is somewhere south of 15% now – haven’t checked in a while. I started out at 315 pounds. Somewhere during that time I latched onto the following idea.
Fitness exists only relative to lifestyle, and correct nutrition is dictated by the immediate demands of that lifestyle.
The Definition of Fitness
Dammit here’s another tangent already: when I say fitness my mind is leaning strongly toward all the stuff that makes a bicycle go fast: power, weight, speed, skill… That’s what’s most relevant to my lifestyle, because I ride a bicycle as my primary means of transportation and also just for fun. When people engage me on the subject of fitness they use words that seem to be barely-protruding icebergs of insanity, but I don’t have the acuity with pop culture to see down under the water. This includes the word fitness. I’m guessing the word fitness is so diluted/dissipated because of commerce. It’s that American habit of turning literally every last possible thing into a Wild-West, senseless, crass industry.
Lately I seem to have the exact same conversation with lots of people. I will run into someone I haven’t seen a year or so. I’m a musician so I think this is maybe more common for me than for people in other vocations. This person I haven’t seen in a while will be amazed at how different I look, and the question is almost always the same, verbatim: “How did you do it?” – and I think the unstated assumption is that I was sitting at home one day, eating potato chips, and then I suddenly decided to “get in shape.” The Rocky theme started playing, I threw down my chips and ran from my front door, past a shipyard where an old-timey sailing ship was docked, and up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art – i.e. I just pulled myself up by changing a few habits and digging deep into willpower. Lately in these conversations I’ve been trying to keep it to “I’ve been riding a bicycle everywhere I go,” but that doesn’t seem to satisfy anyone. I used to try to compress my whole story into a single paragraph but that was even more unsatisfactory for everyone. I’m starting to think that maybe people want to hear the brand name of a program that they can buy, add to their existing lifestyle, and GET RIPPED!!! DOCTORS HATE HIM!!! SECRET SUPERFOOD GIVES MEN 6-PACK ABS!!! The next thing that usually happens is that people want to tell me about all kinds of cockamamie, crackpot cleanses, “exercise” programs, and crash diets that they have tried – or, much much worse, because then you are duty-bound to be optimistic and encouraging: the diets they are currently on. I think what’s happening here is that I fail to follow the conventional success story, so the interviewer fills the void with all the trendy programs stored in recent memory. Anyway, there is a dazzlingly immense, insane, inexplicable (to someone withdrawn from pop culture), turbid conflation of notions around the idea of fitness.
I did a Google search to see what the internet says about fitness and I kinda recognize the craziness as a whole – machines and weights in gyms, expensive specialty clothes unwarranted for their intended activity, celebrity interviews, magazines, the idea of “exercise” which AFAIK is just make-work that elevates the heart-rate or creates resistance training for nothing in particular, trending foods – lots of emphasis on what absolutely everyone should be eating, irrespective of how they intend to use those nutrients?!?! The timbre of the din is familiar, but I’m not familiar with any one particular lunatic howl. I’ve never actually waded into the conceptual cesspool to examine the individual turds. What’s another metaphor… sometimes there’s sometimes a buggy, how many drivers…
Using the usual tools available to a 2016 American, it’s hard to find any sane information or instruction that might lead to a meaningful, positive, transformative change in lifestyle. If I go to WebMD, America’s trusted source of information on which mega-corporations want to advertise on WebMD, one of the top results of a search for fitness is a drug called Fitness Formula, which seems from the description to be a multivitamin – I’m guessing it’s many times overpriced compared with standards like Centrum.
What if I reach out to Google – you know, as a friend, just this one time. If I type I don’t want to be fat anymore, here is the top hit, which seems not too informative, until you scroll through pages of horrible cash-grab gambits and and sea of forum conversations full of unrealistic-or-otherwise-bad advice and “sorry, it’s really hard.”
I need to be more direct with Google – tell Google what I want. How do I get fit? Top hit is not as bad as before – I can sense the openness of the hypothetical fitness-seeker in the first illustration. Yet this page is merely a page of generalities that would be true of any lifestyle attending better health – it gives no actual specific instructions regarding how to build any particular lifestyle. I.e. it will directly lead to exactly zero people worldwide getting fit.
Most of the hits for this search start with the unstated assumption that getting fit involves going to a gym and doing workouts – on top of the shitty lifestyle I already have. Just bolt this thing or that thing onto the way of living that is currently killing me, and I’m golden. I will say that there is a possible benefit for young men searching this way: they will have to break for 15 minutes of good cardio for every page in order to masturbate, because in these search results there is no escaping pervy pictures of hot, gorgeous, female models – hair and makeup done – in nudity-style “workout” clothes.
Here’s our friend WebMD again. Again, it’s the assumption that I’m bolting on a gym-type routine to my lethally unhealthy/dangerous lifestyle, only AT HOME WITHOUT A GYM! (Only it’s all the same kind of stuff you would do at the gym). This is the kind of out-of-the-box iconoclasm the big-money advertisers are lining up to endorse.
This isn’t working. Google, I’m going to lay all my cards on the table and just type I’m worried that my weight is a health risk and my doctor won’t help me. Did I ever mention that I desperately implored my doctor to tell me what was wrong with me when I felt like my heartbeat was strange and I thought I needed to get in shape? He sent me to a cardiologist and gave me a pamphlet (which I can’t find now – wish I could, I’m sure it’s rich with comedy). I do remember the stress test at the cardiologist’s – and I remember having to goad the cardiologist into telling me to lose weight – no ideas on how I might do that. Anyway, so now I’m asking you, Google, to help me.
Well, it doesn’t solve any of my problems, but I feel more American being told that I am a victim of patient profiling. As a middle-aged, white male it is sometimes hard to get in on the victim-identity game, so thanks for that. Next hit tells me the big secret: burn more calories than you take in. Oh shit – now I remember the cardiologist telling me this exact thing – that’s where I first heard the aphorism about losing 1 pound of fat by burning 3500 calories. Still, no ideas how to make that an integral part of my life.
Okay, everything I can find in mainstream media or from health care professionals is operating on the same, faulty, unstated assumption. All experts – and loud, visible sources – are basically asking people to keep living a shitty, unhealthy, dangerous lifestyle. In an average case it is 99% probable that the individual seeking help is already overworked compared to mid-20th-century standards. That person is instructed to bolt onto the existing, untenable lifestyle the following items.
- • gym
- ⁃ buy a gym membership
- ⁃ drive to that gym 3-6x weekly
- ⁃ spend 3-12 hours per week in that gym…
- ⁃ …doing repetitive tasks that are almost perfectly meaningless and impossibly boring – that prepare the person for zero real-world activities – e.g. bench press prepares you only to do more reps of bench press next time you go to the gym
- ⁃ …in an ugly, fluorescent-lit environment
- ⁃ …against the increasing volume of the misgivings in the back of the head asserting that this doesn’t lead to anything, doesn’t constitute a legitimate way to live, etc
- • food
- ⁃ first, become a competent dietician yourself – the type who could be protecting us from harm in the first place
- ⁃ become a competent chef
- ⁃ search like Indiana Jones for safe, healthy ingredients appropriate to immediate needs
- ⁃ spend lots of extra money on non-subsidized, non-harmful foods
- ⁃ transport your own food everywhere you go, like astronauts on a mission to the International Space Station, because trying to find normal, human-suitable nutrition in suburban USA – A.K.A. the whole goddammned thing if you round off the the nearest % by area – is like trying to find good food in the vacuum of space
- • recovery
- ⁃ plenty of time to sleep – every night
- ⁃ more on nights after you go hard
- ⁃ leisure to sleep until you are recovered
- ⁃ leisure in general – anxiety crashes every onboard system from the brain to the toenails
- ⁃ mental tranquility to sleep undisturbed
- ⁃ better have your food game on lock so your digestion doesn’t wake you up
- ⁃ fuck it – this is impossible – i have to work two jobs to pay for medical bills, this is never going to happen, i welcome premature death. U.S.A.! U.S.A.!
This is the point in this hero’s journey when I become privy to an ancient bit of information, which, if obtained, will aid successful navigation of my trials in the special world. I know that Google is going to tell me everything I want to know through the prism of contemporary, mainstream culture, but there is a secret way in which Google is connected to lost, mythical, long-ago world of Civilization Before It Lost Its Goddamned Mind. It makes this connection in the forbidden, shadowy realm of The Dictionary.
Okay this is more helpful. I typed into Google define fitness and it gave me “the quality of being suitable to fulfill a particular role or task.” Very simple – great!
For me, riding a bicycle is as central to my lifestyle as driving a car is for most others. It’s no exaggeration to say that for me, fitness is bicycle fitness: Joe Friel’s pyramid of force, speed skill, and endurance; or on a physiological level, greatly increased vascularity, very high heart stroke volume, lower blood pressure, increased muscle sensitivity to insulin, very low body fat percentage, high VO2Max, and a bunch of other things I don’t know about because I’m not a doctor… In short, fitness for me consists of things that make me move efficiently on my bicycle.
My moment-by-moment nutritional needs are dictated by my activities in the immediate future, as well as activities receding into the recent past. For example, on days in which I log a lot of road miles, I need thousands of calories more in nutrients, and a higher proportion of those will be carbs. I literally use a power meter to gauge how many calories I spend on my bicycle – in particular zones, which suggest different proportions of fat/glycogen fueling. I use MyFitnessPal to track nutrient balance and volume (calories). There are correct and incorrect choices. Some choices are healthy foods but are incorrect for my needs at the moment. E.g. everyone loves broccoli, but if I’m in a severe deficit of protein, broccoli is every bit as wrong as chocolate cheesecake in that moment. There are choices that make my macro-nutrient pie graph look balanced, but they are just shitty food – e.g. anything with refined sugar.
Fitness exists only relative to lifestyle, and nutrition is dictated by the immediate demands of that lifestyle. My lifestyle is centered on riding a bicycle the way most people’s lives are defined by cars. Correct nutrition for me is dictated by planning to ride somewhere in the near future, a deficit from a recent ride, bike trainer workouts that help me ride more efficiently, and recovery, which is the flip-side of workouts.
The American Lifestyle
Axioms of fitness and nutrition hold true for any lifestyle and activity, including the contemporary automobile-based model. Being monstrously unhealthy actually does constitute fitness for the American lifestyle. It doesn’t take a lot of aerobic capacity or strength or dexterity or flexibility to walk to a car or obtain manufactured food at the grocery store or receive the sugar-fat-salt treats that excrete from drive-thru windows. Living and eating this way also has the distinct advantage of hastening you toward an early reprieve from the American lifestyle while still skirting the culpability of willful self-harm – you are simply doing what is expected within the American, car-based lifestyle.
Nobody is doing a single damned thing to protect us from harmful food and lifestyle. We are all swimming in a toxic pool of bad food, bad transportation, bad urban design, bad information, bad culture. Finding alternatives is difficult and lonely.
This is where I converge with my fellow fatties that I just heard on This American Life. If you are obese because you drive a car everywhere and do no physical work and eat the abominable mainstream food available in USA, you are effectively not at fault – you are doing every last thing that is expected. More than that, it’s unreasonable to ask every individual to pull himself up above the surface and swim against the riptide – on his own, unprotected from maliciously harmful information, food, transportation choices, wealth distribution… Being obese-to-the-point-of-inviting-disease is picture-perfect fitness for the American lifestyle. It is right. Obesity fits Americans like a lycra skinsuit fits Fabian Cancellara. If I accept that it is possible for a normal, average person in the USA to build a fulfilling life from readily available components, I must accept that radical obesity is a legitimate state of fitness for that life.
When I first heard the Tell Me I’m Fat episode, I was really hung up on Ira Glass’ summary of the scenario: “…[complete strangers] talk down to you about nutrition and calories, as if pretty much every fat person has not been around the block 500 times on that one already.”
My knee-jerk reaction was, yeah, but obviously they didn’t master nutrition and calories. But what have I learned from searching for information? What did I learn from my own experience as a 315lbs hand-wringer, worrying that my life was slipping away? The problem isn’t mastery of a proven system, the problem is that the system doesn’t work. Bolting on extra shit to a toxic lifestyle still gives you a toxic lifestyle.
These women on This American Life had the lucidity – and nerve – to say no, goddammit, I’m the one who’s doing it right, I’m the one who’s doing the full lifestyle as prescribed! If there really is such a thing as discriminatory, ill-treatment of fat people, (I’m struggling to recall anything from decades at 315lbs, and I suspect people are feeling the pressure from insane pop culture, to which I am oblivious), then I applaud anyone who gives a big FUCK YOU to that oppressing majority. IMHO, these women correctly identified a huge, important error in the culture and are taking steps to correct it.
Obviously, I don’t like their solution as much as my own, but I have vastly more respect for the fat-identity thinkers than I do for people who go to the gym and buy fitness magazines and eat the latest trendy food and engage in all that insanity. At least the fat-identity people are observing well and thinking clearly.
I think the faulty, unstated assumption that leads the fat-identity people into error is the idea that the contemporary, mainstream culture in the USA in any way constitutes an organic reality. That’s a subject for another blog post.
JCPenny “Here I Am”
In the same day, I listened to the Tell Me I’m Fat episode of This American Life, had a text conversation about the episode that was solicited by a friend who also listens to the podcast – and then the next thing I saw on my phone screen was the following advertisement on YouTube. I guess this must be the tail end of the trend and I’m just now hearing about it – or do big corporations simply appropriate and monetize things faster nowadays?
This ad has got to be one of the best things we could put in a time capsule for future civilizations. Here are my favorite quotes.
“We’re countering a lifetime of learned hatred.”
“You can’t love your body for what you hope it turns into without actively loving it for what it is today.”
“The only person who should be defining me is me.”
“My size isn’t an indicator of my worth.”
- • get as far away from car-centric lifestyle as possible
- use any kind of human-powered locomotion: walk, bike, row, whatever
- • detox from mainstream culture
- stop looking at video screens, including this blog
- seriously – stop. i promise you won’t miss many substantial, edifying things
- reject legitimacy of centrally manufactured culture – e.g. the entertainment industry, which includes news, has no right to set the public agenda of issues
- drop out of anything that both relies on a video screen and includes in its name or description:
- • DIY urban design ad-hoc, piecemeal
- bridge all necessary and favorite amenities by covering the distance between them under human power. i did this by increasing my bicycle fitness to the point at which i can easily cycle to anywhere in the metro, day after day.
- • think less, do more
- ⁃ eat what you’re hungry for
- ⁃ as much as you’re hungry for (no more – this works out to the bicycle mantra of eat/drink little and often)
People do all this stuff, en masse, in different parts of the world. Part of that stems from the fact that most cities elsewhere predate the automobile scourge, but it’s still possible to do it here. The week I spent in Portland, OR last year opened my eyes to this concept: effectively shrinking my local geography of my reality by increasing the range of my cycling. The first day I stayed close to the city center, where urban design was already corrected and scaled down for human use – and I still saw people using bikes to get around even easier. But as I ventured further out I gathered that a few people actually commuted on bicycles – like from the icky suburbs. It would be hard now to write a coherent, comprehensive account of everything that went on in my mind that one week in Portland – I definitely felt the switch definitively snap to ON and I turned resolutely away from my previous lifestyle that week.
Actually that sounds like a fun, worthwhile project – writing up that experience – basically how I became Aluminum Bird. Two things just came to mind that seem like big milestones of that hero’s journey. One, I was in Portland, coming back from the suburbs and a I felt like I was waaay out of orbit – out where there are golf courses and Wal-Marts. Dude on a groovy vintage road bike, wearing a skateboard helmet, pulled up by me at a light and I asked him the big, burning question on my mind (my phone’s GPS had chosen the week I needed it most to stop working): is this the road that ends up at the Hawthorne Bridge? He took the time to explain to me more than I really needed to know just to get back to the familiar stuff west of the river, and I sensed that he was in a hurry, on his way to something and helping me was holding him back – I think he was just going to hang with me and ride me right into downtown – he might have thought of what he was doing as a rescue mission. I told him thanks for the help, you don’t have to wait for me, I got it. He said cool, good luck, etc.. and took off like a rocket. I had already been riding for a few months, dropped lots of weight, thought I was doing pretty well, so to see someone commuting at what seemed to me like Grand Tour sprint speed was literally impressive. Later in the day I saw him at the food truck pod on SW10th but couldn’t get his attention. I wanted to pay for his lunch – a token of gratitude – but I was held up because my burrito was going to be ready any second.
Here’s the other story from that saga that just came to mind. I came home from Portland with no more elaborate cycling/lifestyle plan than to keep up the routine I had started in Portland, which was simply to ride to a new coffee bar first thing every morning. In my week staying in the Pearl district, this amounted to coasting a distance of a half block up to half a mile and wallowing in world-class culinary wonder. I got up to 5 miles mid-week to really cover lots of coffee bars, 3 a day most of the week.
In Kansas City, it’s not so simple or rewarding. I was just a few days into my nascent lifestyle and feeling discouraged. I was with my wife at a place I was saving as a treat – a good prospect to be on the same level as Portland coffee bars. I was sitting there, looking around at their not-quite-beautiful everything – thinking about the pleasure you experience even in simple, provincial places that seems to result from intolerance of ugliness. I was beginning to feel like I was drowning in ugliness.
This place where I was sitting – drinking a mediocre, $5-plus-tip pourover – was bumming me out. Some doubts were starting to creep to the fore of my mind – enough to take shape and see their outlines in words. Maybe this coffee-rides thing isn’t such a hot idea. Maybe the distances here are too much and the rewards are too little… Just as this sour note started to ring and reverberate internally, the theme song from Portlandia – Feel It All Around, with vocals and all, came on the second-rate cafe’s sound system. Here are the lyrics, which until that momentI didn’t know went with the lovely music (I’d only heard the instrumental on the TV show).
You feel it all around yourself
You know it's yours and no one else
You feel the thought of learning again
It's all around
You're tired of all the things you did
You'll work it out
Still gives me goosebumps thinking about it. Anyway, I snapped hard in that moment. I went ahead and built a whole new, radically different lifestyle and got fit and worked it out.
It was a few days later that I found Oddly Correct, which leaves absolutely nothing to be desired – compared with any coffee bar anywhere. (I never looked at their website until just now to get the link – that’s the only promotional pic I’ve ever seen that actually looks like the actual coffee bar).
The USPS carrier in my neighborhood has been probably the single most encouraging person in my journey toward bicycle fitness and general health. I had no inkling at the time, but I think he probably recognized even before I did what I was doing and what I was headed for. Early on he told me about vising some place he visited in England (London? can’t remember now) where people used bicycles for transportation – to a degree and prevalence that was shocking to him at the time. He told me that they use bicycles like cars, and the people all look so fit and healthy.
People make lifestyles that work. Sometimes all the pieces are right there, and sometimes the pieces are spread way the fuck out over an 8k-square-mile metropolis. I figured out how to do it with a bicycle – I’m sure there are other ways, too.
See Ya Round
Talking to interesting fellow at coffee station ant QuickTrip (forgot to roast, their Guatemalan is actually potable)
he said goodbye, which struck me as queer, to which I replied, “Okay, see ya.” – which seemed even stranger still
actually, in any normal human settlement, I would see this guy – just around. what’s bizarre is living in a single village that literally covers 8,000 square miles
i’ve come unstuck in time this morning, reading The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen – the Midwestern family setting, all the unspeakable mood and atmosphere of my own horrific childhood, – but especially when i read in passing the phrase “Spider parts”, which i had previously, spontaneously, independently through of and cherished enough to include in a list i called Identifiers – a repository of unassigned titles that i found slick, funny, witter, or whatever – just generally worth sharing – and there in this most brilliant novel was this identical, improbable phrase
OMFG – within 90 minutes of finishing The Corrections my dad called me – possibly on mom’s behalf – to guilt me into visiting. said he’s send me a check for $2k because they sent my brother a similar amount for some bullshit. sounds fishy but i’m going to deposit the check, anyway. and go visit (sigh)…