The Lady of the House has a Fitbit that buzzes at her if she’s been sedentary too long. Me, I’m from a pre-digital generation. When I get busy and have to abbreviate my fitness routine, I just have these guys come around and stare into my window.
The Lady of the House has a Fitbit that buzzes at her if she’s been sedentary too long. Me, I’m from a pre-digital generation. When I get busy and have to abbreviate my fitness routine, I just have these guys come around and stare into my window.
Once I realized I was old enough to die, I decided that I was also old enough not to incur any more suffering, annoyance, or boredom in the pursuit of a longer life. I eat well, meaning I choose foods that taste good and that will stave off hunger for as long as possible, like protein, fiber, and fats. I exercise—not because it will make me live longer but because it feels good when I do. As for medical care: I will seek help for an urgent problem, but I am no longer interested in looking for problems that remain undetectable to me.
In her recent article for Harper’s, Lionel Shriver raised a point that I hadn’t precisely considered before. Comparing it to the current enthusiasm for demanding “total social and professional exile” for thought-criminals, she noted that during the O.J. Simpson trial in the mid-’90s, for the infinitely more serious crime of double murder, there was no equivalent demand to give his previous sporting and acting careers the collective silent treatment, to erase them from cultural memory. Were we more mature and sagacious then, capable of handling ambiguity, or did our vindictiveness simply lack the laserlike intensity that social media would later provide?
Anthony Kronman, in his magnum opus Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan, explored the theme at length: having posited that God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and completely free to act according to his own uncaused will, envious Westerners set out to usurp his throne and claim these qualities for themselves through scientific mastery. But what would we do if we had a God-like power to control and optimize existence? What vision of the Good motivates us, exactly? A life of unrestricted choice, free of suffering? What if our desire to eradicate all the “bad” parts of life, from the personal to the political, is just the immaturity of the perpetual adolescent who only wants to affirm a comfortable life of video games and junk food while wearing earbuds to ignore the sound of the responsibilities and tragedies of adulthood pounding on the locked bedroom door?
Ehrenreich has come to the conclusion that freedom paradoxically comes from relinquishing the obsessive desire for control, from accepting that ultimately “only one ship is seeking us.” A life spent in paranoid anxiety over optimizing one’s health is not worth extra decades or centuries of existence, no matter how many tools we develop to make it possible. Likewise, a life spent enraged by the idea that our fellow citizens are thinking the wrong thoughts or pressing the wrong button in the voting booth is a waste of time. The body politic can’t be purified and indefinitely preserved any more than ours can, and the efforts to do so will be rife with unintended consequences.
At another time he said that he contracted the illness “by eating a hundred golden pippins at a time, at Richmond,” adding that the first attack of deafness came on several years later after he fell asleep outdoors. For a while the nausea and vertigo seemed to come on independently, but eventually they tended to coincide, and Swift was often tormented by “a hundred oceans roaring in my ears.” He became progressively deaf as well, first in one ear and later in both. The dizziness affected his balance, and he referred to it variously as “tottering” and “vertigo.”
…Due to a disturbance of the labyrinthine canals in the inner ear, Ménière’s syndrome produces four classic symptoms, and Swift had them all: irregular attacks of “rotational vertigo” that can last for weeks; progressive hearing loss, especially in the lower frequencies; tinnitus (the roaring noise); and a feeling of fullness and pressure in the ears. It is common for sufferers to feel deep depression, and as the years went by and the symptoms worsened, that is indeed what Swift felt, lively and energetic though he had been in his prime. Referring to himself in a late poem, he lamented, “That old vertigo in his head/Will never leave him till he’s dead.”
— Leo Damrosch, Jonathan Swift: His Life and World
Swift was convinced that eating too much fruit was the cause of his torment, but it turns out that excess salt is the culprit. I know because I was diagnosed with the cochlear version of Ménière’s several years ago after having suffered symptoms since around the year 2000. In my case, the vertigo which is the hallmark of the classic version is apparently rare; I’ve only had a few fleeting episodes of it. Mostly, it consists of the feeling of fullness and pressure in the ear with the accompanying loss of hearing. Episodes could last for weeks or months with varying intensity, and would usually end with vomiting and a need to lie down and sleep it off.
My primary physician didn’t seem to think much of my complaints early on, suggesting that I just blow my nose while pinching my nostrils shut to clear the pressure. The otolaryngologist he referred me to, though, whom you would expect to recognize the symptoms of Ménière’s right away, diagnosed me as being allergic to newspaper dust (I worked in the newspaper business at the time) and put a tympanostomy tube in one ear. Seven years later, it was the Internet which would be my savior where professional medicine had failed me, when a French fellow I knew online described his symptoms along with their name. Armed with this new information, I went to a different specialist and was prescribed a diuretic along with the injunction to keep my sodium intake to 1500 mg or lower per day.
My otolaryngologist is overweight, 260 pounds and probably 5’9” or so. I appreciate that insouciance about him somehow. I mention it because he joked to me that if he got Ménière’s, he’d probably lose a lot of weight because of all the foods he would no longer be able to eat. Well, there are salt-free versions of many dishes to be found, but you will definitely end up making a lot more food from scratch than you would otherwise. Most prepackaged grocery items and restaurant dishes are ridiculously salty, and the less accustomed you become to it, the less you can tolerate it. A couple years ago, we ate at a diner during a trip to Maryland. The soup that came with the meal was a tiny cup of chicken noodle. I figured I could handle it, since I routinely come in under-budget on my sodium consumption, thus allowing me to cheat a bit on occasion. Well, my ears were fine afterward, but my god, my lips were on fire the rest of the day! I must have guzzled four bottles of water afterward in a vain attempt to quell the burning. It makes me shudder to think of how many people eat probably around three to four thousand milligrams of salt a day and then try to quench their thirst with soft drinks, which are, of course, useless for anything but delivering sugar and caffeine (which is another contributor to Ménière’s).
Over the past few months, I had started eating omelettes more often, though I’d never really been fond of eggs as a rule. The high-protein/low-sodium combination, though, made them ideal for me. At first, I used mostly Swiss cheese (the lowest in sodium) with some cheddar for flavor, but complacency snuck in, and I started using a spicier variety of cheese for extra tanginess without checking the sodium levels. After a few weeks, I started to notice my symptoms coming back, and it was only then that I checked and realized, to my horror, that I’d been getting almost my entire 1500 mg daily allowance from my omelettes. I immediately put myself under a strict sodium embargo, hoping to avoid a full-blown attack, and mostly succeeded. But yesterday, as my inner ear finally started to recalibrate, I got one of the worst headaches I’ve ever had in my life. It felt like someone had stuck their thumb up inside my right eyesocket with their fingers drilling down into the top of my skull. I was completely useless for the rest of the day, just lying in bed with an ice pack on my head, mewling and whimpering and longing for Death’s sweet embrace.
Earlier this year, I had to see my otolaryngologist to renew my diuretic prescription, and he complimented me on my discipline in living within my sodium means, having gone a few years without any flare-ups. I was shocked to hear that most of his patients, having been given clear instructions on how to relieve their misery, would ignore it or practice it halfheartedly. The Lady of the House laughs and calls me naïve, but I can’t imagine why anyone would want to go through that routinely if they could do anything at all to avoid it. As for me, this latest brush with my old enemy has scared me straight and renewed my determination to rout the saline menace from my diet. My family can rant about politics all they want at Thanksgiving next month, as long as the stuffing is made from scratch.
In 2008 economists David Blanchflower at Dartmouth College and Andrew Warwick published an article, “Is Well-Being U-Shaped over the Life Cycle?” They relied on surveys that asked adults of various ages, “All things considered, how satisfied are you with life as a whole these days?” Adjusting for income, marital status and employment, they found that the level of reported happiness by age had the shape of a gently curving U, starting high in young adulthood and ending higher in old age, with an average nadir at forty-six.
…If average life satisfaction is lowest at forty-six and there is a variation around the norm — a certain proportion of people being above average, a certain proportion below — we would expect emotional trauma to peak at roughly that age. That is what Blanchflower and Oswald saw. Looking at the incidence of depression and anxiety in a U.K. Labor Force survey, they found that the likelihood topped out around forty-five, with a rate roughly four times that of teenagers and three times that of older adults. The chances of falling apart are significantly higher in midlife, even if the majority get by.
— Kieran Setiya, Midlife: A Philosophical Guide
Should there be any eavesdropping Greek deities around (or any Old Testament ones with a taste for placing squalid bets), I certainly hope it won’t be taken for hubris if I report to you, live from this apparently-desolate temporal junction, that I have no serious complaints. I can’t even truthfully say I’ve dodged a bullet, because in a blithe state of Mr. Magoo-like unawareness, I didn’t even realize anyone was shooting at me. Long may it continue? (Please don’t smite me.)
Through diet, exercise, cosmetic surgery, or all combined, we ardently seek it. The means may differ but the end is always the same: how to stay young, how to avoid growing old. Everyone has felt the lure of remaining young. I know I have.
Impossible of achievement, the quest is inevitably frustrated; for youth, though it can sometimes be prolonged a bit, cannot really be maintained much beyond its normal span. Trying to do so is a game that can’t be won. Not that this stops vast numbers of people from playing, as witness the crowds at gyms and jogging tracks. “Fitness is about sex and immortality,” Wilfred Sheed has written. “By toning up the system, you can prolong youth, just about finesse middle age, and then, when the time comes, go straight into senility.” Or, I suppose, be in near perfect shape just in time for death.
— Joseph Epstein, “Grow Up, Why Dontcha?,” Narcissus Leaves the Pool
You hear this sort of wisecracking a lot about what a waste of time it is to stay in shape since we’re all going to die eventually. Of course, if you want to pursue this line of thought more rigorously, you could further argue that thinking of time as a limited commodity that can either be invested wisely or frittered away foolishly is an illusion, since nothing ultimately matters at all, and we might as well all just live short lives of debauched hedonism. But reductiones ad absurdum aside, a physical fitness routine doesn’t have to represent vanity, fear, or immaturity; it can just as easily embody discipline, gratitude and humility.
Right around my twenty-eighth birthday, I went to my doctor for a pain in my right wrist that had been nagging me for a few weeks. The first thing he did was a blood test. “Well, you don’t have arthritis,” he said. I was surprised that had even been a consideration. Of course not, I vaguely thought to myself. Arthritis is for old people. Since the possibility had already been dismissed, I likewise banished the thought from my mind.
Three and a half years later, I was finally diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, after having had three wrist and hand surgeries which, of course, were about as effective at slowing down an autoimmune disease as the Maginot Line had been against the Wehrmacht. By chance one day, I showed my orthopedic surgeon some tiny bumps near my elbow which he informed me were rheumatoid nodules. He then sent me to get an MRI, which prompted the diagnosis and a referral to a rheumatologist, where I learned that I am apparently in the lucky 20% of people who don’t show a positive rheumatoid factor on a blood test, which is why this wasn’t caught at the beginning. You keep hearing horror stories about scalpel-happy surgeons and overzealous doctors, but in my experience, all my doctors’ mistakes were ones of caution, of proceeding a little too much by-the-book, as it turned out.
I was in rough shape, as you can imagine. Every joint in my body was inflamed and aching. It hurt my back and knees to stand for more than ten minutes. It hurt my hips to sit for ten minutes. I couldn’t sleep too deeply because lying on one side or the other hurt my shoulders, hips, and back too much, so nights were filled with painful tossing and turning. My hands were slowly transforming into bird claws, and my shoulders and elbows were becoming increasingly immobile. I basically had to stay in slow, gentle motion as much as possible to avoid the inevitable stiffening up, like slowly shuffling away from a predator who has all the time in the world to enjoy this sadistic game.
After six months, the medication finally started to do its magic, and shortly thereafter, I embarked upon the first serious exercise routine of my adult life, the first one since being banished from the Garden of effortless fitness that I had always enjoyed as a youth and adolescent soccer player. Let me assure you, you don’t really appreciate what it is to be able to walk. You got over that thrill when you were still a toddler. But I, I can say that to this day, I still consciously reflect on how wonderful it is after 45 minutes on the treadmill, to feel so alive and full of endorphins, to be able to swing my legs without reflexively wincing. Two months ago, I pulled a muscle in my lower back/tailbone area which forced me to have to take a break from walking, and it was a serious blow to my equanimity, rather than a sweet reprieve from labor. I don’t exercise to “stay young” — I long ago forgot what it even feels like to be “young.” Even now, I probably ignore and accept more aches and pains than I should, partially because I’m not sure what “normal” aches and pains would be at my age, but partially because, hey, it’s not nearly as bad as it once was! Who am I to complain? No, exercise is a practice of gratitude, my ritual of thankfulness for not being crippled, for still being capable of doing activities that most people long ago gave up on out of cynicism. In a time before modern medicine, I would have been an invalid, a burden on others, assuming I didn’t commit suicide out of pain and despair. I try regularly to be appreciative of that fact and show it through effort.
As I age, I’m aware, almost to a morbid degree, of the possibility of injury, disease and premature death. Every day spent in good health and cheer is to me a hard-won prize from an indifferent world. Hiking, walking on a treadmill, doing yoga, doing the “ups” (pushups, pullups, situps), eating right — these all fit comfortably into my tragic, Sisyphean view of life. They reflect my conviction that nothing is guaranteed, good things in life require constant maintenance to avoid corruption and decay, and anything worth having requires disciplined effort. They have nothing to do with a shallow vanity or refusal to grow up and accept my fate. The only pride involved is the pride justly taken in the results of long, hard work. For better or for worse, humanity will never stop trying to understand and control as much as possible. Wisdom does indeed consist in knowing and accepting the difference between the things you can change and the things you can’t, but when you know what to do to live a longer, healthier life, for example, and don’t, is that wisdom, or something more like laziness and cowardice? Why would resigning yourself to a pot belly, a bum knee, and high blood pressure represent a mature acceptance of life? If the thrill is indeed in the chase, I’m sure the Grim Reaper will appreciate you making him work for it.
I’ve often said that Montaigne is a role model for me, but I didn’t realize that an overly-literal Fate would take that to mean that I wanted to develop gallstones at the same age as he developed kidney stones. Yes, I’m back in the hospital this week, waiting to part ways with my gallbladder tomorrow morning. I already knew that I wasn’t the writer Montaigne was; now I’m aware that I could never be the equanimous Stoic that he was. No Italian spa waters for me, thanks; I’ll choose morphine, heated blankets, wifi, and an adjustable bed while I get caught up on some reading and writing. Only fanatics seek misery for its own sake; pragmatics take things as they are. I’d like to think that ol’ Mike wouldn’t have been too philosophically attached to suffering to sit here with me and enjoy streaming German soccer games while listening to new music from Beck and LCD Soundsystem.
It is more difficult to write interestingly of good people than bad; villains are generally more memorable than heroes. A newspaper that reported only acts of kindness and generosity would be insufferably boring and would go bankrupt faster than those that relay only disaster caused by defalcation. To adopt very slightly Tolstoy’s famous aphorism, good people are all good in the same way, but bad people are all bad in their own way.
To write of good people is often to sound either naïve or priggish; whereas to write of the bad is to appear worldly and sophisticated. One of the reasons, of course, for the difficulty of writing interestingly of the good is that there seems so much less to say of them than the bad. The good act according to principle, and are lamentably (from the literary point of view) predictable. Once you know how they behave in one situation, you know how they will behave in others. The bad, by contrast, have no principles beyond the pursuit of short-term self-interest, and sometimes not even that. They are therefore unpredictable and their conduct is infinitely various. As I discovered in my medical work, the variety of human self-destruction is, like the making of books, without end; and even the least imaginative and inventive may discover new ways of exercising malignity. Since variety is the spice of prose, the bad are lingered upon with affection by most, if not by all, writers.
— Theodore Dalrymple, “Beauty and the Beast,” Farewell Fear
The city where I was born and raised to adulthood has been the subject of worldwide interest recently, thanks to her christening as a major battleground in the Weimar America wars of political religion. Now I see and hear her name being casually advertised and barked all along the seediest streets in the red-light clickbait district of the web, inviting all sorts of scumbag pundits to come in and enjoy a cheap fondle of this small, virginal college-town for a moment’s political pleasure. Should I parlay my insider advantage into a topical piece of my own to cash in on the trend? Or should I be more noble, like the narrator of Iron Maiden’s “22 Acacia Avenue,” and brusquely demand that she pack her bags, she’s coming with me back to a life of virtue? Instead, I find myself sitting in my hospital room, reflecting on the quiet heroism of registered nurses.
Just a short way down the highway, over hill and dale, the chattering classes are busy crafting lurid narratives of violence and hatred. Here, nurses are being attentive and supportive, to their patients and each other, even over the smallest things in the wee hours. There, journalists and pundits are marching along in search of new angles, new interviews, and new perspectives, much like how I singlemindedly stride the mountain trails in pursuit of whichever arbitrary endpoint I’ve chosen that day. Here, nurses are skillfully and quietly mending the damage done to countless individuals, like the uncomplaining spiders who patiently rebuild the webs I carelessly brush aside on my hikes.
I’m not romanticizing the profession, of course, just granting it some poetic burnishing. I’m well aware that office politics apply here as to any other workplace, and even the best of us can only briefly pose as selfless angels. But like Dalrymple says, it’s far too easy to wallow in the salacious details of the latest atrocity, soon to be supplanted by the next one. It is indeed almost impossible to say anything truly compelling about the simple, obvious, and yet so necessary, acts of unacknowledged compassion and generosity that go on around us all the time. No, this feeble effort is merely my attempt, as I sit here recuperating in the pre-dawn hours, to reach out and take hold of just a few of those anonymous acts before they slip gently away with another good night, smile, and express my deepest gratitude for their existence.
Ill health — which had granted me quite a long spell of leave — has attacked me without warning again.
— Seneca, “Asthma”
I feel Seneca’s pain, and then some. For while I don’t doubt that the inability to fill one’s lungs is a harrowing one, I might be willing to trade him for the acute pancreatitis that I’m currently enjoying. I’ve been ensconced at the hospital since last Saturday, which, coincidentally, is the last time I ate anything. Still, I’ve managed to gain eighteen pounds of water weight from all the IV bags they’ve emptied into me, which has led to the excruciating edema afflicting my belly and all points south. How much I would have loved an enforced week off from work to do nothing but read and write! What’s that, you say? I can have that? All I need to do is wish upon this monkey’s paw? Great! Hey, wait, the pain is too distracting to focus! And the painkillers leave me in a drooling stupor!
A couple of summers ago, I landed awkwardly while jumping into the pool. I had placed my hands on the deck, turned, and dropped down into the water, landing with my arms up in a sort of goalpost-stance. Perhaps my feet landed a little too squarely. Whatever it was, I assume I got what they call a “stinger” — a sharp jolt up my spine, flowering out beneath my shoulder blades, like burning electricity. I stood frozen for a moment like that until I caught my breath, then gingerly moved my arms and torso around to make sure everything was still functioning.
Ever since then, I’ve had some chronic soreness and weakness in that mid-back area. Still, it didn’t prevent me from being physically active — I walk on the treadmill for a few miles at a stretch several times a week, I do a thrice-weekly routine of push-ups, pull-ups, chin-ups, sit-ups and dips, I hike most weekends, time and weather permitting, and I do up to an hour of yoga every day. I assumed a little nagging back pain was just one of the inevitabilities of middle age, possibly even a casualty of misdiagnosed-and-therefore-untreated rheumatoid arthritis from ages 28-31. Walk it off, champ.
Last week, on my way home, I started to feel some discomfort in my mid-back, which also made its presence felt in my stomach, in an almost-nauseated feeling. The pain increased steadily for the next half-hour or so, until it felt like my stomach was violently contracting. Then my arms and legs started to tingle and go slightly numb. When I stumbled in the door, the Lady of the House took one look at my chalk-white face, now streaming with cold sweat, and assumed I had food poisoning. I dropped to my arms and knees, groaning in pain, writhing around in an attempt to find some sort of posture to relieve the pressure, and, in between gasping for full breaths, managed to convey that no, it wasn’t food poisoning, something was wrong with my back. After a few minutes with my back rounded and my chin tucked, I felt stable enough to make my way back to the car, where I re-assumed that posture in the back seat while she drove to the ER.
After two hours in the waiting room, and a further three waiting in a room to see a doctor, all spent leaning forward with a rounded back, the pain had largely subsided on its own. After an EKG, blood tests and a CT scan all came back with nothing to show, the doctor was left scratching his head and grasping at the straw of a possible gallbladder problem, which he conceded was very unlikely. He agreed with my suspicion that I had probably pinched a nerve, but there was little he could suggest. I arrived home at one a.m., no closer to a solution than I’d been eight hours earlier, though at least I knew I hadn’t herniated a disk or something drastic like that.
The next day, I called a masseuse/physical therapist I’ve seen before and asked him his advice. He said the numbness and tingling definitely suggested a neural problem, not a muscular one, so a massage wouldn’t help. He suggested a chiropractor, and when I said I didn’t visit one, he recommended the one he works with. Now, I’m not exactly enamored of the wide variety of practices conventionally grouped together under the rubric of “alternative medicine” — like the related joke goes, there is no “Eastern medicine” or “Western medicine;” there’s “medicine” and there’s “stuff that hasn’t been proven to work.” I’ve been to chiropractors before, and while I have always thought, based on those experiences, that there certainly is a correlation between certain pains and the misalignment of vertebrae which can be relieved by manipulation of the spine, I didn’t trust them much beyond that point. Some of them seem a little quackish when they try to pronounce on matters outside of their specialty, which I’ve heard them do often. In my experience — again, as someone who has spent a lot of time in doctor’s offices dealing with autoimmune disorders — my “conventional” doctors were open-minded and well-informed while readily admitting when they didn’t know something for sure, urging me to trust my own judgment. My chiropractors, in contrast, have seemed unprofessional in their scorn for “mainstream” medicine, while making sweeping judgments and proclamations on the efficacy of this or that treatment based on scant evidence. The last one I visited first suggested that rheumatoid arthritis wasn’t really a disease, before later claiming that it was all caused by diet, and urging me to take various over-the-counter supplements. When I asked my rheumatologist about the diet and supplements, he said that there was a lot of smoke about those sorts of claims, no real fire, but if I noticed that eating something made me feel worse, I didn’t need him to tell me to avoid it. As for the supplements, they were more for osteoarthritis, and wouldn’t do much for me. I appreciated that sort of straightforward common sense. In my opinion, there’s probably some sort of inferiority complex going on, where the alternative practitioners feel compelled to rush into the gap any time conventional medicine steps back and says “we don’t know for sure”, looking for any advantage they can get. Unfortunately, that kind of dogmatic certainty is a Pyrrhic victory at best.
Still, humbled by what was probably the most intense pain I’ve ever felt, I was willing to try just about anything, especially since the hospital wasn’t offering anything beyond cortisone injections to the spine. It turned out that this chiropractor uses what’s called the Gonstead method, which is much gentler than the usual kind — no twisting of the neck or hips. She had me sit on a stool while she rocked me very slightly from side to side, feeling along my spine from my sacrum to my neck for any misalignments. She identified three — in my right hip, my T6 vertebra, and my first rib, which was causing shoulder and neck pain. The adjustments were so mild, especially in the neck, that I could hardly believe anything had been done. One soft “pop” from the T6. The neck adjustment was me leaning my head back a bit while she pressed quickly but gently with the knife edge of her hand into my trapezius muscle. I barely felt the pressure, didn’t feel anything change, but the difference has been astonishing. I could feel the positive effect in my hip while walking out of the office. You don’t realize how much a chronic ache has been affecting you until it suddenly disappears. I still keep turning my head to the left just for the novelty of not feeling any pain along the left side of my neck and spine.
While reading up on the spine later, I learned, interestingly, that the T6 vertebra being close to the stomach, if injured, could cause heartburn, dyspepsia and indigestion. In hindsight, I realize that I came close to having similar problems on a few occasions, where I felt that same combination of back pain and nausea. In those instances, I had been able to move around and shift my posture before the nerve got terribly impinged, but there were a few times where I took some antacids, wondering if I had heartburn or something (I still don’t know what heartburn actually feels like). I also recall that Kurt Cobain famously claimed that he started taking heroin because of a persistent stomach problem. In Michael Azerrad’s biography of Nirvana, friends described Cobain as rolling on the floor in agony while dry retching, a condition that was recurrent enough to make him suicidal. He claimed that heroin cured him of this problem, but some of his skeptical friends, like Buzz Osbourne of the Melvins, argue that he never had a stomach problem to begin with, that it was just a typical junkie excuse for using drugs he’d always intended to use. But Azerrad’s book also mentioned that not long before he finally did commit suicide, a doctor had diagnosed Cobain’s ailment as a nerve problem related to his scoliosis. From this side of my trip to the ER, I look back on that old story with new appreciation — if I experienced excruciating pain like that on a regular basis with no apparent hope of relief, it might drive me out of my mind with desperation too. It’s strange to ponder how Cobain’s life might have been different, or longer, if only his spine had been straighter, and it’s humbling to realize how easily any of us can be reduced to utter helplessness by our own skeleton and nervous system.
Educating the general public about the trials of being a larger woman is a worthy endeavor. But calling thinness a “privilege” presumes that thin people do not understand the suffering of anyone deemed by the western world to be “fat,” or do not have their own struggles. West and her brand of pro-fat feminism also wander into the rocky territory of oversimplified identity politics, trying to equate dress size with other oppressions such as racism, sexism and poverty, and ignoring that one’s weight is not an inherent privilege.
Last fall, I aggravated a recurring knee injury. Apparently I got a small tear in my meniscus. I say “apparently” because an MRI would have been expensive enough even without factoring in surgery to fix it, so I was content to just take my doctor’s best guess based on a physical exam. Not long after that, I began to feel the stirrings of an inguinal hernia on the left side, a year and a half after having the right side repaired. This was all on top of a very painful ganglion cyst in my wrist that had made weightlifting too onerous. Suffice it to say, this was demoralizing after having gotten back into a regular exercise routine, so I was feeling quite sorry for myself through the winter.
In late April of this year, I went in for an appointment with my rheumatologist. I complained about my ankles, knees, hips and back aching more than usual, expecting that he might suggest my arthritis meds were losing their effectiveness, as they are known to do in many patients over time. Surprisingly, though, he said my bloodwork looked perfectly normal. My body wasn’t showing any signs of reacting to inflammation. Honestly, he told me, the best thing you can do then is to lose more weight. Take more of those pounds-per-square inch off your joints, which have already taken enough abuse from the arthritis.
Had you asked me that morning why I wasn’t working out regularly anymore, I would have complained that I was in too much pain, and that I would probably need more effective drugs to get me to the point where I could start up again. Now I didn’t have that excuse anymore.
When I got home from work, my inamorata and I sketched out a brief meal plan based on reducing calories to around 1800-2000 a day and incorporating more fats and protein at the expense of carbs (this is something I never had the discipline to do on my own, but I’ve come to see that it is far and away the most important thing). Then I went out to the porch to begin my stretching routine before getting back on the treadmill.
Five minutes in, the muscles alongside my shins were starting to cramp. Shortly after that, my feet were protesting. By the end of a half-hour walk, I had reduced my speed and needed to grasp the handrails to keep steady. It was painful and humbling.
Still, the next day, I did it again. And the day after that. And every day since then. Having started by struggling mightily to walk two miles, I now walk four or five easily, at an increased pace. The minor aches faded soon enough, the knee healed well enough, and the hernia has benefitted from having less weight pressing down on it. I’ve never had any overwhelming hunger cravings or needed to exceed my calorie budget. I’ve lost thirty pounds in those three months, and aim to lose as much as thirty more (which would put me back to skinny soccer-playing weight). Even if I eventually ease off on the exercise, I think I’ve acquired enough knowledge and discipline about meal preparation to keep from overeating again.
I won’t pretend to know exactly what it’s like to be genuinely obese. Even at my weightiest, thanks to my former athleticism, I never showed more than a slight paunch and love handles. But it was enough to be disappointing in front of a mirror, and it certainly felt awful from a physical standpoint. Nonetheless, the point I’m making is that nothing at all changed on that spring day except my mentality. I could eat sugary snacks or pizza with the best of them, but after that, I simply stopped doing it. Those foods didn’t become less tasty, I just cared more about losing weight and feeling better. I’m not superhuman, I’m just motivated. It wasn’t like I got some grim warning that I needed to lose weight or else face an imminent demise. It was just a suggestion. I just decided to act on it. The rest is all rationalization and procrasturbation.