Monday, September 22, 2008

In Defense of Vanity

All this talk about how much I enjoy gorging myself right before bed has led me to ponder why I don't continue the gorging. The answer, I think, is vanity.

It's not really a concern about my health. My short-term craving for shoving my face would definitely overcome any attachment I could develop to a long-term plan for health. And it would also overcome some attachment to an abstract ideal like self-respect. I think, in the end, it's just vanity. And vanity, to my mind, only means one thing for a (straight) guy: appealing to a particular woman, or women in general.

That's right: the only reason I don't gorge myself every night, is that my vanity has managed the spectacular feat of overcoming my gluttonous desire to do so. Put more simply, I just wanted my wife to like me more.

Strangely, losing weight didn't achieve that (but that's another story). But at least I can content myself to some small degree with the idea that however plain I might look, I'd look worse with more weight on. Or something. Hell, I'm not even really conscious of what's going on in terms of motivation, now that I think about it.

But let's just say it is common old vanity. If so, I like it. It makes humans bathe and stay healthy, brush their teeth, be polite, perform feats, do things which others will praise them for. In that sense, vanity clearly has survival value. Maybe we'd all be dead if our ancestors weren't vain.

I know I'd certainly be a lot chubbier!

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Sweet Joy of Laying In Bed Shoving Your Face Full of Food

This post is in response to comments posted by "anonymous".

First, I should say I hear anonymous's point that there is a natural variation in metabolisms, and that it is much harder for some people to keep fat off than others.

As it happens, I have had some experience with sustained overeating myself. The fattest I've ever been was this past spring - I hit 200 for the first time ever. That is about twenty five pounds over my normal weight, and it was virtually all chub (not muscle). (Also, I should mention I'm six feet).

What I did was shove my face full of food every night before bed, for months. Usually it was three (or more) pieces of my favourite sourdough bread, toasted, with melted cheese on it, with two giant glasses of milk, or a chicken pot pie and fries from the local pub. I also regularly augmented my cheese on toast with fried rib steaks. Every once in a while I'd eat an entire little tub of Haagen-Dazs (vanilla or vanilla bean). Sometimes I'd wash everything down with a Strongbow Cider (or two). Frankly, I friggin' loved it. I'd be eating right now if I could without packing on all that chub.

It's kind of easy to lose perspective on yourself, but I got a wake-up call when I went to the doctor's and weighed myself. "200! 200?! I've got to get myself together", I thought. So, I tried to change my eleven o'clock pig-out habit. It was tough. Laying there in bed, watching rugby on the big screen, whaling like Henry could I give that up?

I started to scale down my nighttime meals, and since I wanted to start playing rugby anyway, I also managed to track down the former strength and conditioning coach for the Canadian national rugby team, Dave Smit. He agreed to train me, so I paid for twelve sessions.

These turned out to be extremely intense "crossfit" style sessions, and I often could barely walk to my car after an hour (no exaggeration). By then I'd cut out my midnight mini-medieval feasts, and I was pretty amazed at how quickly I lost chub and started to get toned.

I haven't weighed myself for awhile, but I think last time I did I was 185 or thereabouts, but the extra weight is muscle, not chub, so I guess I'm okay for now.

But dang...I sure miss those feasts!

From Helen to Captain Marvel - and back again

Three years ago, my son E, then nine, said he wanted to play soccer.

I was excited. After all, E has a lot - a LOT - of energy, and can be a difficult child. Some great passion, I knew, would be great for him, something he could really excel in, give him something to focus on. It would also give him and me something to do together, so we could grow closer. It seemed like it would be a great father/son adventure.

After having so many children, it is rare to feel a lot of shock over things anymore; but E's first game shocked me. And mortified me. He was entirely unable to form any conception of direction or orientation. His coach sent him in to play defence; he began running all over the field, sometimes off the field, trying to score on his own goalkeeper as often as on the other goalkeeper...and all the while, his Chinese-Canadian coach was shouting, "E! Wha' you doo-ing?! E!! You go wrong way!!! NO E - COME BACK - NO, THAS OTHER FIELD!!! You pray DE-fence, E! Go back to your own goal!".

But E couldn't remember which one was his goal. He couldn't remember which direction to go. He couldn't figure out who was attacking and who was defending. It was like watching Helen Keller. It was, without question, the weirdest, most horrific athletic performance I'd ever witnessed in my entire life.

E didn't play much that first game. His coach kept him mostly on the sideline, and when he had a chance, tried to explain to him what was going on. But E, standing there in his gold and blue uniform, only stared blankly, confusedly, out at the chaos of players.

"E", I said when I got home. "We need to go over some stuff". I drew a picture of a soccer pitch on a piece of paper.

"Your team is the X's, the other guys, the O's. Your goalie is here. Which goalie should you score on?"

"That one", he said, pointing to the O goalie. Thank God, I thought. "And that one", he said, next pointing to the X goalie.

"No - you don't score on your own goalie, dude. You only try to score points on the other team". I was trying to keep things calm and light.

"That's weird", E said, in his quick, rapid-fire delivery. "I-think-if-there's-a-goalie-then-you-should-be-able-to-score-on-him-it-would-make-the-game-way-more-exciting-and-"

"E - stop. Stop. Let's just go through the game, step by step. K?"


And so we did - over, and over, and over, and over. And over. I ended up buying one of those soccer coach whiteboards so we could go over what had happened after every game. And slowly but surely, things started to click in E's head. And he began to practice more and more.

And then all last year, he really, really focused and practiced; and by the end of the year, he had locked down the center-midfielder position, and was setting up plays, regularly scoring goals, calling for the ball, beating guys one on one, taking free kicks, covering the whole center portion of the pitch with a really good sense of the whole game, brimming with confidence and determination, directing the defenders, directing the forwards - a HUGE leap, especially given how shy he has always been. E had finally come into his own.

The club director couldn't believe it. His coaches couldn't believe it. The other parents couldn't believe it. Every game, people would come up to me and say, "I can't believe how much E has improved!". And he finished the season with highlight reel stuff: in the last game, E scored two goals, and set up the third.

"I've told the club director I definitely want E for my gold team next year", said Cecil, the gold team coach, in his east London accent (the league places kids in bronze, silver, and gold according to skill level). "He's brilliant. He reminds me of Bryan Robson (the Manchester United star from a few years ago). They used to call him 'Captain Marvel' because of the way he ran up and down the pitch and controlled everything. We definitely need him".

From Helen Keller to the Gold team's Captain Marvel in three years - wow. That was an achievement! Especially for a kid who still couldn't pour milk into his cereal bowl without spilling it everywhere.

"You did it!", I said to E exultantly after my chat with Cecil. "Can you believe it? You're a lock for the Gold team!". I called up the older brothers and told them to make sure to congratulate E. We talked about it at the table. I even got my brother to call him and congratulate him. E seemed like he was on a high, and the whole family rallied to cheer his achievement.

And then summer started, and E said he wanted to take a break from practicing. Okay, I thought. I can understand that.

The end of June came - but E still didn't want to practice. And all throughout July, he didn't want to play. And he began to say, "I don't think I want to be a soccer player when I grow up". Weird - he's spent the last three years saying that's all he wants to be, and now all of a sudden, right after his break-out year, he changes his mind? "You don't have to be a pro soccer player when you grow up, E. But it's still fun to play, and you might as well do your best. Maybe you'll change your mind again".

But August came, and E still didn't even want to pick up a soccer ball. Formal Gold Team assessments arrived in mid-August. E went, and was horrible. It was as though he'd lost his game sense in the space of ten weeks, and most of his personal skills. Scrimmage after scrimmage, E was non-existent to a liability. He was Helen Keller again.

Finally, after five scrimmages, the club director pulled me aside and said, "What happened with E? He was a shoe-in for Gold, and now he can't play anymore".

"Uh - well - he seemed to lose interest over the summer. I don't really know what to say; he is kind of a strange kid; all I know is he just seemed to totally go off soccer once summer hit".

Long story short is, E has been passed over for the Gold team, and he seems very certain he no longer wants to play soccer. Now I've got coaches, parents, emailing me, saying "what happened? Please try to convince him to play. He turned into one of the best players in the club!".

But how can I force a kid to play a sport he, for whatever reason, has absolutely zero interest in anymore? Even though it kills me - after all, I put in hundreds of hours with him, taking him to the park myself to run drills, watching and dissecting televised Premier Leagues games with him, driving him back and forth to soccer academies, buying him soccer books, drawing up plays, picking out soccer shoes, teaching him to kick, the whole thang...

I guess I will have to cherish in memory those moments for their own sake, rather than as the exciting steps to something more.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

"Religion Without Dogma": Uh huh

I walked past a booth on the lawn of the Univeristy of Victoria advertising the Unitarian Church today; the banner across the booth said, "Religion Without Dogma".

Hm. Isn't that like saying "dinner without food", or "war without conflict", or "sexual intercourse without penetration"?

If we make the definition of religion so elastic as to accomodate both institutions founded on, and thoroughly saturated by, dogma (like, say, the Catholic church), AND an institution virtually inherently free of dogma (like, say, a fire department, or to hear Unitarians tell it, the Unitarian church), then we have defined the word "religion" right out of existence - and then we couldn't even talk about "religion" anymore. As any kind of meaningful concept, it wouldn't really exist. And if that is the case, then the Unitarian slogan really ought to be simply, "Without Dogma".

But that poses another problem, because as anyone who has ever visited a Unitarian church knows, it is not that it is free of dogma - only that it is free of certain dogmas. But that is only to say as much as we would about any other church in the world, including the Pentecostal, Seventh Day Adventist, or Moonie. It's not dogma versus no dogma, but one dogma versus another dogma.

Unitarians, for example, do not believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the saviour of mankind, or that he makes people speak spontaneously in unknown languages. But they do believe in certain "progressive" ideals, like the morality of "eliminating poverty", "eliminating sexism", etc., which, insofar as they turn out to be coherent ideas, have as little rational basis in the end as the belief that Jesus is still alive and living up in the sky watching everything we do. And I'm not sure how to characterize a devoutly-held belief lacking any rational or evidentiary basis as anything other than a dogma...(?).

My conclusion:

Any institution entirely free of dogma does not qualify as a religion (your local poker club, for example, as opposed to your local Catholic church). So, taking the Unitarian slogan seriously, we would be forced to say that Unitarianism isn't actually a religion.

But since the Unitarians are actually deluding themselves by thinking that Unitarianism does not rest on factually and logically unsupportable beliefs (dogmas), Unitarianism does in fact qualify as a real religion. It has just substituted humanist dogma for sectarian dogma.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Sizing Up the "Obesity Epidemic"

First point:

You wanna know what an "epidemic" is? The Bubonic Plague of the 1340's. That's an epidemic. It came, so to speak, out of nowhere, and killed 75 MILLION human beings, including around half of the European population.

The Spanish Flu outbreak after World War I was another epidemic. It killed many tens of millions of people, possibly as many as 100 million, around the world.

"Epidemic", at least until the last couple of decades, was always a special word reserved for referring to a sudden outbreak, or increase in, the incidence of a particular disease. As such, the word was very useful. Now it has become just another victim of "word definition inflation" by, presumably, people who don't want to hurt the feelings of obese people, or perhaps, by obese people themselves who can't bear the horror of actually taking responsibility for their obesity, and so must imagine that they are as little to blame for adding one hundred extra pounds to their frames, as 19th century London street urchins were for falling dead after inadvertently drinking contaminated water. And there's something really wrong with that.

Obesity is caused by overeating - and overeating is a bad habit. It's not a "disease". One may be predisposed genetically to obesity (see article here); one may experience thyroid gland malfunction; but regardless, obesity requires eating far too much relative to one's expenditure of energy for prolonged periods of time. That is just a fact.

Second point:

But bad habits, including obesity, per se aren't the end of the world, are they? Everyone has them; most are just not as obvious as obesity. And why a collection of schoolboard control freaks, bureaucrats, media people with nothing better to write about, and health food Nazis should care so much about the bad habit of gluttony - versus, say, the bad habit of trying to tell everyone else on the planet exactly how they should live - is quite beyond me. As long as we're not paying for their food or medical bills, and we're not forced by government to hire them to do jobs (like chimney sweeping, rodeo clowning, or teaching gymnastics) which their obesity has rendered them incapable of performing, who cares if they're obese? It's not like they don't know that obesity is bad for them. So why not leave them alone?

I like to stay fit myself, but I'm also sick of hearing about a "disease" which isn't really a disease, and an "epidemic" which isn't really an epidemic, and endless haranguing about how unhealthy obesity is when everyone already knows it, and obese people obviously don't value fitness enough to begin eating and exercising properly. What is there to talk about really anymore?