Do I Look Fat?

In August of 2019, I had some work-related headshots taken by a professional photographer friend of mine. The photos were fine but it was clear, just from the headshot, I was fat. Fat in the face. Not abysmally fat, mind you. But when just a headshot indicates reveals you’re overweight, then there’s no denying it.

The Unlikely Virtue of Ego

Ego. I’m not usually a fan. Ego has caused me to make all kinds of mistakes in life. Anger, depression, anxiety, social blindness: they’re all tied to ego. There’s a reason that Buddhism teaches one to abandon one’s ego. It comes with way too much baggage.

But this time, for one brief shining moment, my ego served me well.

Mind you, I’d been writing in a food journal for well over half a year but had made precious little headway in the weight loss department. I guess maybe I’d lost 5 to 7 pounds from the time I started.

On the other hand, I’d been giving a lot of thought to my family history, personal attitudes and behaviors related to food, and the modern epidemic of obesity in the US and elsewhere. I guess you could say I’d be doing the groundwork for a while.

But there was something in those damned photos that make me think, “That’s it, dude, time to get serious.”

Not Stupid Serious, Mind You

I’ve attempted weight loss enough times to know I wanted to get serious but not what I call “stupid serious.” When it comes to weight loss, stupid serious comes in many forms. Fasting is one I’ve used before. Any fool can fast for a few days and lose weight. But that weight will come back with a vengeance once the fool starts eating normally again.

Blame it on the wisdom of the body, which automatically tries to conserve your fat reserves when it believes you’re going through a starvation period. Your mind says, “Get off me, fat!” but the body says, “Dude, my job is to keep you alive in the lean times. I need to slow down your metabolism so you don’t burn through your fat reserves too quickly. I’m trying to keep your dumb ass alive!”

So, fasting doesn’t work in the long run. Not for me, anyways. Maybe not for anyone.

The Dangers of Eating Disorders

In fact, if taken too far, fasting can lead to anorexia nervosa, the condition in which people avoid food, severely restrict it, or eat tiny small quantities of only certain foods. Sometimes people suffering from this condition binge and purge, which means consuming a lot of food quickly and then purging it through vomiting or laxatives.

Anorexia nervosa can be deadly serious. People can develop  medical complications associated with starvation, and this too often kills people. Moreover, the NIH reports that “suicide is the second leading cause of death for people diagnosed with anorexia nervosa.”

There are other deadly eating disorders as well, including:

  • Bulimia nervosa
  • Binge-eating disorder
  • Avoidant restrictive food intake disorder

I’m no doctor and won’t pretend any expertise in these areas, but I do have enough experience to know I want no part of them. The goal–or at least my goal–is to get healthier, not wind up in the hospital.

Move Past the Ego and Study Up

For me, getting serious meant studying the attitudes and practices of people who have had success in losing weight over the long term while staying mentally and physically healthy. I wanted to be shed not only of the extra pounds but the cravings and self-loathing of the Dogman.

I knew that this jolt to the ego wouldn’t be sufficient. Not by a long shot. In fact, it could lead all kinds of bad eating decisions. My ego may have been tweaked, but I knew by then that the only way to really make progress was to deal with my big, fat-loving brain. I needed a better plan, and I thought I knew where to look. That’ll be the story of my next post.

Featured image by Orazio Gentileschi, Two Women with a Mirror (1620)

Say It Loud, I’m Fat and Proud

One in a series of posts on my struggles with maintaining a healthier weight, starting in early 2019 and working into the present day

#WEIGHT: 245 LBS IN July OF 2019

I exaggerated when I said nobody wants to be in the big, fat club. Some folks don’t mind. In fact, they embrace their identity as a fat person, decrying fat stigma and working to raise awareness of how socially toxic fatphobia is.

This is great. I’m all for it. But, it also raises a confounding question. If I want to lose weight, is it because I’ve been brainwashed by all the fat-shaming so common in our culture? After all, one of the reasons people deny that they (or their family members) are overweight or obese is because so many cultures stigmatize fat folks.

Fatty Fatty Two by Four

In the United States, fat bias starts when we’re just kids. In 2010, researchers at the University of Michigan started publishing research on the topic after following 800 kids in 10 US cities. They surveyed the kids, their teachers, and their parents and found that “kids who were obese were 65% more likely to be bullied than their peers of normal weight; overweight kids were 13 percent more likely to be bullied.” 

I know, shocker, right? When I read that, I thought, “Only 13%? Today’s kids must be a lot more civil than when I was a kid!”

I wasn’t an especially fat as a kid, but I do remember chubbier kids getting called “lard ass” or “fat ass” or “double wide.” I’m old enough to remember some kids using “Fatty Fatty two by four.” In case you’re not familiar with that little ditty, here’s how it went:

Fatty Fatty two by four fatty couldn’t get through the bathroom door, so he shit on the floor, wiped it up and did some more


Sometimes the fatter guys had to prove they were willing to fight, and some of them really could. In those cases, the fat comments started to fade away but no one forgot they were fat. If they football players, they were “a truck.” If they wanted dates, no “regular-sized” girls were available.

Speaking of which, I think the girls had it tougher than the guys, enduring insults like “cow” and “fat bitch.” As we got older, the implication was that overweight girls were happy just to be asked out on a date. Those were the not-so-good-old-days.

So, yes, fat shaming is real, and it starts when we’re kids. 

“Have You Lost Weight, Guy?”

Kids might be obvious about their fat bias (aka, weight bias, aka obesity stigma), but I don’t think it ever really goes away, not even when you hit the workforce.

One 2017 survey indicates that fatter job applicants are less likely to be hired because hiring managers sometimes associate fatness with laziness. And fat employees tend to be compensated differently even when they are hired, earning $1.25 less per hour than other employees. 

This happens throughout careers. Occupational Medicine & Health Affairs reports, “Qualitative reviews have concluded that individuals who are overweight face weight bias and discrimination at every stage of the employment cycle. These reviews have identified evidence for weight bias across a variety of evaluative outcomes, including selection, placement, compensation, assignments, promotions, assessments, discipline and termination.”

The employment bias can show up not only among employees and bosses but among human resources (HR) professionals who are often trained to be sensitive to discrimination issues. One computer-based study investigated workplace-related weight bias by using a sample of HR professionals who regularly evaluate and make career decisions about other people. These HR pros were asked to evaluate a group of people for whom they had standardized photos. 

They were asked to rate people in regard to recruitment, work-related prestige and achievements. 

The authors found that the HR professionals showed strong weight stigmatization in terms of hiring. They also found that “participants underestimated the occupational prestige of obese individuals and overestimated it for normal-weight individuals.’ Individuals who were categorized as obese were also less often nominated for supervisory positions. Lastly, they found that weight-related stigmatization was most prominent towards obese females. Findings from this study support previous findings that weight-related stigmatization and discrimination exist in hiring and evaluative outcomes in the workplace. 

“Weight Bias in the Workplace: A Literature Review”

Speaking for myself, in the workplace it’s hard to know when somebody is biased against you because you’re fat. Unlike when we’re kids, hardly anybody will come out and say it, of course. Instead, during my heavier years, I’ve tended to live in a minor but chronic state of paranoia. 

For example, say my boss is rude to me. Is that because he’s having a bad day, or because I did something to make him mad? Or because is it because I’m fat and he’s cool with bullying the fat guy. It brings back all that old playground bullying of the fat kids. 

Am I that kid, just bigger and on a different kind of playground?

Sometimes, however, it isn’t rudeness that makes me paranoid. It’s compliments. “Have you lost weight?” is something I’ve heard too many times. Sometimes it’s just a friendly greeting among the guys. Kind of a new “hail, fellow, well met!”

But thin guys never ask other thin guys that question.

Often the query is followed up with, “Looking good!” or “Keep up the good work!”

This all sounds innocuous to people who are not and never have been fat. In truth, I don’t take it to heart. It’s not intended to offend. Quite the opposite. It’s just that it grates on the ears a bit because it indicates that people are always looking, always judging, always weighing you in their minds without even consciously knowing they’re doing so.

The US Civil Rights Act does not protect against the discrimination of fat people. Nor does the Americans with Disabilities Act unless an employee has a disability that results in their being obese. 

If you live in the US, you probably live in a so-called “at will” state (because they’re all at-will except Montana, last I heard). This basically means your employer is legally able to terminate you at any time for any reason (except an illegal one such as race or gender) or, in fact, for no reason at all. 

My Doctor the Fat Bigot

Maybe even worse is that a lot of doctors aren’t impervious to fat bias, not by a long shot. In 2003, one study found that half of primary care physicians viewed obese patients as “awkward, unattractive, ugly, and noncompliant.” 

Yikes. Yet, as the son of a doctor, I have a little sympathy for them on this score. Unless a doctor has personally struggled with weight issues, it’s probably easy for them to get frustrated with patients who don’t lose weight even when those patients seem to be suffering ailments caused by or associated with being obese. My guess is that some doctors feel as if a fat patient is just ignoring their advice or even sabotaging their treatment plan.

But these doctor biases can be deadly. In an interview with Healthline, Dr. Lilia Graue, MD, LMFT, said that doctors often “fail to provide adequate and timely diagnosis and treatment due to all kinds of assumptions, [which] affects patients along the full weight spectrum.” For example, 

These biases can have a deadly impact on fat people because whenever they seek medical attention, doctors and other healthcare professionals assume overweight patients’ health issues are weight-related even when their symptoms are unrelated to weight. As a result, fat people often shy away from doctors, having learned that “doctors repeatedly advise weight loss for [them] while recommending CAT scans, blood work, or physical therapy for other, average-weight patients” who display the same symptoms. 

This means that fat patients sometimes needlessly suffer or die simply because their doctor can’t see past their weight issues and so misdiagnose them.

 The Fat Acceptance Movement

Given the well-documented bigotry against fat people, it’s little wonder that the fat-acceptance movement (aka, fat pride, fat empowerment, and fat activism) has emerged. I’ll delve more into this movement later, but for now I’ll quote a small section of of the Wikipedia entry on the topic:

Fat activists argue that anti-fat stigma and aggressive diet promotion have led to an increase in psychological and physiological problems among fat people. Concerns are also raised that modern culture’s focus on weight loss does not have a foundation in scientific research, but instead is an example of using science as a means to control deviance, as a part of society’s attempt to deal with something that it finds disturbing. Diet critics cite the high failure rate of permanent weight-loss attempts, and the dangers of “yo-yo” weight fluctuations and weight-loss surgeries. Fat activists argue that the health issues of obesity and being overweight have been exaggerated or misrepresented, and that the health issues are used as a cover for cultural and aesthetic prejudices against fat.

This debate about health versus social bias is one that arises again and again in discussions about about the stigma against overweight people. And it’s a topic that I’ve wrestled with in regard to my own attitudes toward weight loss. At some point in the future, I’ll try to craft a more cohesive stand on the topic.

Featured image: Portrait of Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger

I’m Not Fat, You’re Fat!

One in a series of posts on my struggles with maintaining a healthier weight, starting in early 2019 and working into the present day

One of the reasons I said that nobody wants to be in the fat club is because they often don’t view themselves as fat even if they technically are.

The Roper Center for Public Opinion Research reports:

While the CDC may classify more than one-third of Americans as obese and another third as overweight, the public don’t see themselves that way. In a 2014 Gallup poll, just 5% say they are very overweight, while 35% say they are somewhat overweight, and 56% believe they are about right. These numbers are comparable to the results of a 1965 Harris poll, long before the rates of obesity began to climb rapidly, which found 38% of respondents considered themselves overweight, and 55% about right. In a 2013 Gallup poll, 51% said they would like to lose weight, a number essentially unchanged from the 52% who said so when the question was asked in 1990, despite an 11 percentage point increase in the obesity rate in that time frame.

But this it’s not just ourselves we have blind spots about. It’s also our family members. A 2009 Ipsos-McClatchy poll found that only a third of participants said weight was a minor problem for their families, while about half (49%) said it was no problem at all. 

So, fat is in the eye of the beholder. That unknown kids on the playground over there? Yep, that kid is definitely overweight. But my kid? Nope, no way. Sure, maybe he has heavy bones, but that’s not the same as being fat!

Feature image is Watkin Fat Cat by Allen Watkin. Wikimedia Commons.

The Weight of the Dogman

One in a series of posts on my struggles with maintaining a healthier weight, starting in early 2019 and working into the present day

#Weight 247 in April 2019

Back in the first half of 2019, I was getting frustrated by my inability to lose more weight and wrote the following:

What I hate most about the Dogman, aside from his combination of dominance and weakness, is his weight. Today, I am 247 lbs. This means that I am, literally, carrying around an extra 52 lbs, which is not much less than the average weight of a fully grown Labrador Retriever. 

Think about that. Ever tried to pick up an adult Lab or some other big dog? Yeah, umph! Now try doing it day after day after day, every time you get up. How much harder is it to rise in the morning? How much harder is it to pick yourself when you’ve fallen? 

It makes life so much harder. So much heavier. If only I could get out from under the weight of the damned dog. When you think about like this, why does anyone get overweight? How can they even stand the thought of it? It’s like some Black Mirror nightmare. 

Yet, we do. We do. Because the Dogman exists in so many of us. He’s a monster, yes, but oh so attached to us, hard to resist with its girth and big, brown, pleading eyes that want so badly to stick around. So hard to resist even if we do need to pick it up day after day after day.

Featured photo from Labrador on Quantock; IDS.photos from Tiverton, UK

Food, Family and Weekend Eats

One in a series of posts on my struggles with maintaining a healthier weight, starting in early 2019 and working into the present day

#WEIGHT: 246 LBS IN MARCH OF 2019

The Weekend Father

When I was a kid, weekends were for eating. My father was a doctor who was often ghostlike on the weekdays, rising early in the morning before anyone else to make his hospital rounds. He didn’t even grab breakfast, just dressed in the dim morning light (or total darkness in the winter) and disappeared behind the wheel of his latest Buick. 

When he came home in the evenings, he seldom ate with us kids. He’d chat with our mother for a bit while changing his clothes, then pour himself a Scotch or two. It was often after having his drinks that mom would serve him dinner. After dinner, he’d go up up to bed and read books, usually the latest blockbuster thriller, until falling asleep. The next say, he’d do it all again, again and again. This routine didn’t allow for a lot of conversation, or even interaction, with the kids.

But the weekends were something different. Yes, he’d again disappear in the early mornings, though this time to play golf. But in the afternoons, something grand would happen. Dad would arrive bearing a feast in white paper bags, big cardboard buckets, and towers of sprawling, savory smelling boxes. 

The Santa Claus of Carbs

It was the best part of my week, when the old man–still wearing his tan bucket hat and dressed in an Izod golf shirt and plaid golf pants–came home like the Santa Claus of Carbs. The first boxes to flip open were the ones from the Di Camillo Bakery and Top’s Supermarket.

Oh… My…Lord.

Glazed donuts, donuts dripping in chocolate sauce, cream-filled donuts, maybe a buttery croissant if you wanted something “healthy.”  And those were just the appetizers!

Then there were the cinnamon buns, the chocolate chip cookies, the oatmeal raisin cookies, apple turnovers, raspberry turnovers, bear claws, puffs, Danishes, and, the pièce de résistance, chocolate eclairs.

Oh, I’m sure there were other pastries in there whose names I didn’t know but whose redolence and appearance would transport me to those blissful Saturday afternoons.

After raiding those boxes, there were still the glazed sugars and chocolate icings and custard creams stuck to the bottoms of bakers papers, doilies and of the cardboard boxes themselves. I would lick and suck the sugary remnants off the paper. I would try to draw up what I could from the boxes with licked, wet fingers.

Finger-Licking Fast Food Feasts

Then would come the fast food feast. I remember two primary versions: Kentucky Fried Chicken and Arby’s. Both were a treat, partly because in Lewiston, NY there were none of the traditional fast-food chains in those days. My father, fresh off the Niagara Falls Golf Course, would score our main course up in “the city.”

Keep in mind that the Falls, as we called it, was well-known to our father but something akin to a foreign land to my younger brother and me. That’s partly because Mom, who had a phobia of driving up Lewiston Hill or across any bridges at all, almost never took us there.

So, in those days, a big bucket of KFC seemed blessed by the gods brought down from the escarpment to us low-lander Lewiston mortals by the typically remote, almost Zeus-like figure of our old man.

The family tore into those these wonderfully greasy, finger-licking-good capon carcasses as if they were sacrifices to familial bliss, which in a way they were. It was a bit of a joke in our family that we’d leave nothing left but the barest of bones.

Food and Family Bliss

Only later in life did I discover that “normal people” didn’t eat chicken down all the way to the nub like that, the way that piranha ate hapless human victims in all those reruns of old Tarzan movies we watched on the weekends.

But why am I going into such detail about our family’s weekend eating habits? Because this is how food becomes part of our mental and emotional makeup. It isn’t just about the food itself but about our memories of family gatherings, times of euphoria and a sense of belonging, a time when we could put away our little sorrows and insecurities for a time and thoroughly enjoy one another’s company.

This is what food means to us. Or, at least, to me. Bonding, harmony, warm recollections, peace, laughter and joy. 

It isn’t only food we get addicted to. It is everything the food represents, both consciously and subconsciously. It is little wonder, then, that we eat when we feel stressed, lonely, or just sad. We not only crave the pleasure of the food itself but all the other pleasures associated with our family and friends, celebrations and holidays. At least for some of us, food itself is happiness.

Featured image: Pastries at the Bellagio Patisserie at the Bellagio Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada from Calgary Reviews, Wikimedia Commons

On Oreos and Ultraman

One in a series of posts on my struggles with maintaining a healthier weight, starting in early 2019 and working into the present day

#Weight: 247 lbs in February of 2019

When I was a kid, eating and TV went hand in hand. I remember sitting there on our worn red leather sofa with a full package of Oreos watching reruns of Ultraman on television. I must have been 11 or 12, say, because this was soon after we first got cable television. That was the new technology of the age in the 1970s, and it was a lovely change from the fuzzy, foggy, horizontal lines of broadcast television. 

I’m sure I watched plenty of things besides Ultraman, but he’s who sticks in my memory. The show was a schlocky Japanese program built on the premise that humongous, Godzilla-sized monsters are appearing so often in Japan that the authorities have created a special anti-monster defense agency named the Science Patrol. Despite the patrol’s cool, sci-fi weaponry, they’re constantly out of their league and in need of saving by an immense silver alien they called Ultraman. 

Somehow, Ultraman is the secret identity of one of the members of the Science Patrol, a guy named Hayata. I don’t remember exactly how that worked, and I doubt there was a lot of logic to it. The real point was to see Ultraman using his ray powers and martial arts prowess to beat up big ugly monsters who were clearly other people dressed up in a wide variety of schlocky but wonderfully baroque rubber suits. 

There was nothing subtle about it. Ultraman was children’s wish fulfillment of the most basic kind.

A Kid’ll Eat The Middle of An Oreo First

So there I was as a pre-teen unscrewing Oreo cookies, licking the “frosty cream” in the middle before chomping down the “chocolate cookies outsides.” Yes, there was a whole commercial jingle on how kids should eat Oreos, a song followed by the lines “Aren’t Oreo kids lucky? Aren’t Oreo moms wonderful?”

This was some serious, circular brainwashing back in the day. Kids watched their favorite shows while eating sugary cookies that their parents bought them while watching commercials showing versions of themselves eating Oreo cookies provided (and therefore approved) by their “wonderful” moms.

And so habits are formed (or more like forged, given their strength) during those impressionable years. Part of me still associates sugary or salty crunchy foods (yes, sometimes my snack of choice was Lay’s potato chips: “no one can east just one”) with the joys of escaping into fantasy TV shows in which small, mostly helpless people suddenly become larger-than-life, powerful heroes who save the world from legions of mysterious monsters.

It was only decades later, as I wrote down these memories in my diet journal, that I fully recognized the strength of these psychological bonds between eating and watching TV. Television allows one to eat almost unconsciously while engaged in the low-rent raptures of kid-show consumption.

You Don’t Need to Be an Academic to Get It

It doesn’t take B.F. Skinner to figure all this out but, once it sank in, I started to investigate the concept. It turns out there’s plenty of research on this array of topics: food, television, advertisements, etc.

For example, after much statistical analysis, one paper succinctly states:

Exposure to television during childhood (up to 12 years old) was directly related to greater endorsement of the messages in unhealthy food advertising and long-term unhealthy diet, even after controlling for parental mediation. In the absence of a ban on unhealthy food advertising, the most prudent advice for parents may be to restrict the amount of commercial television that their children watch, beginning at an early age.

“The Relationship between Television Viewing and Unhealthy Eating: Implications for Children and Media Interventions”

Just to be clear, however, my feeling is that advertisements only play a secondary role in the links between food and TV. It is the act of eating foods in front of a television (or any other media-playing device) that truly forges the habit.

No More Eating in Front of the Boob Tube

And so it was that I pledged not to eat at all while watching television. This not only applies to snack foods but to any foods at all, including meals. The purpose was to break this lifetime of conditioning.

Since I made that pledge, I’ve broken it multiple times. As I said, it was a habit not just formed but forged. But keeping my commitments is a topic I’ll cover in other posts. For now, just let me say that this pledge has since become among my best strategies for maintaining a healthier weight.

Feature image from Otakon 2012 cosplay by Piotrus

After Work Cometh the Dogman

One in a series of posts on my struggles with maintaining a healthier weight, starting in early 2019 and working into the present day

Back in early 2019, I tended to stop working around 5 pm, though often more like 5:30 or 6. If I’d been good that day after lunch, sometimes I’d had a mid-afternoon snack, something along the lines of fruit or a slice of cheese. If not, however, I’d had something more. Either way, though, by the time I’d knocked off work (keeping in mind I was working from home), I was pooped. 

The Dogman

That’s when it got harder for me to make good eating decisions. I could hear the scratching, scratching of the “other” Mark wanting to get in the door of the wheelhouse. I call that version of myself the Dogman.

The Dogman is kind of like the Wolfman, except not as scary to anyone but myself.

Let me start by saying I love dogs. I grew up with a black Lab who was, as the trope goes, my best friend. His name was Spiro. He was a character, and I could write a book on him alone. He was also a big eater and a bit of a drooler who would lay his jaw on my thigh when I was sitting down for a meal. 

I fed him from the table, of course. How could I not? This was back in the days when having a trained dog just meant you could get him to “shake.” Screw discipline. We were the Vickers family. We ate what we wanted and we damn well fed our dogs what they wanted as well.

Hank the Dog

Later in my adult life, my wife and I got a yellow Lab named Hank. It was a different age and we lived in the city, so we trained Hank. It was easy, except when it wasn’t.

Like so many members of his breed, Hank was smart but impetuous when he was a young dog.  We taught him to stay, heel, wait and a bunch of other commands. He was a natural, learning so fast you’d think he was just remembering commands rather than hearing them for the first time. We were grateful to have such a brilliant student. Or, at least, he was brilliant in the backyard

In the “real world” it was a different story. I’d take him for a walk off the leash on the local college campus where I worked.  We’d be soaking in the scenery, the grass expanses, the hibiscus and azalea, the palms and the tall oak trees. If I asked, he’d heel like a champ, like there was an invisible lead between us.

Until, that is, he saw a squirrel. I was, of course, usually able to see the squirrel first because of my height advantage. So, I’d tell him to heel, which he did…right up to the time he saw the squirrel. Then his eyes would light, his ears perk up, his feet start to dance. 

“Hank, heel,” I’d say in a low, alpha-dog voice, practically a growl.

But, then, he just couldn’t take it anymore, and off he’d dash, running the squirrel or squirrels up the nearest tree. 

It’d burn my ass. He knew better. He just wasn’t listening, damn it!

I’d bring him back and tell him what a schmuck he was. He looked truly repentant, as if saying, “Sorry, Mark, I’ll never do it again. Cross my heart and hope to…”

But then there’d be another squirrel and off he’d go.

Eventually, I learned to get him on the leash before he could see the squirrels. He’d yank on the leash at first but then realize he was stuck with me. At that point, he’d heel properly, though focusing all his attention on the squirrel.

“Good boy,” I’d tell him. “Good boy.”

SKERAAAATCH!

So, what does the Hank story have to do with my eating issues? Well, there were two Hanks. There was backyard Hank who never failed to obey a command, and there was college-campus Hank, who sometimes gave my commands a big “screw you.”

Same dog. Different behaviors. 

Hank could also be two different canines when it came to eating. He loved to eat, a true Vickers. He could wolf down a can of dog food in 30 seconds. He could even devour a dried pig’s ear (yes, those are a thing) in only a minute or two.

When it came to eating, there was Hank when you were around and Hank when you weren’t. When you were around, Hank wouldn’t beg at the dinner table, or eat the cat food, or even grab meat off the kitchen counter. 

But when you weren’t around, he’d chow down on the cat kibble, beg from any houseguest who didn’t know the rules, and give into the temptation to pull down Publix slices of roast beef off the kitchen counter (which, in his defense, he only did once or twice–as he got older, he really became quite disciplined).

Well, you get the picture. As with the squirrels, Hank had impulse-control issues, especially as a younger dog.

And so it is that I refer to my “other” self as Dogman, the beast inside me who also has impulse control issues. 

Oh, I don’t mean all the time. Not even usually. But enough of the time to get and keep me fat. 

And it was usually after work that I could feel the Dogman scratching at the door of my mind in the same way Hank would use his big paw to scratch at the back door when he wanted to come in. It was a scratching sound that started off as a low sound, but got progressively louder as he grew more impatient.

Before long, it was a loud, drawn out SKERAAAATCH! A grating and subliminally frightening noise, something out of an Edgar Allen Poe story. 

It was also a sound that would drive my wife into a fury. She’d jump up, fling up the door, and yell “Enough already!” at the Hank, who with a slightly sheepish but secretly triumphant look, walked by her and into the living room, where he’d jump up on our (increasingly worn) brown couch, deeply sighing as he sank into a comfortable sleep.

In the meantime, my wife would be examining the ever deepening gouge marks on the outside of the door and bemoaning her fate as the long-suffering owner of a “bad dog.” Which he wasn’t, really. But the scratching, oh, that scratching, was monstrous.

And so was the mental scratching of my hunger after work. It started as a low, barely perceptible scratching, but it grew progressively louder and more demanding. My wife couldn’t hear it, but she could hear me rummaging. What could I eat? Popcorn, perhaps. A piece of cheese, some fruit, a slice of salami. Maybe each of these, though not all at once. Just enough food to tamp down the inner, relentless scratch-scratch-scratching of the Dogman.

It was worse when I sat down or, usually, lied down on the sofa to watch some television before dinner, which my wife usually cooks. (Yeah, I know, traditional sexist role assignments. We’ll get to that.)  This was part of stress relief after work: watching television or, to be precise, streamed television since we don’t have traditional cable, a distinction without a difference in this case.

This habit goes back, way back, to my childhood, where my big, fat-craving brain was first trained and nurtured, setting me on a road which I’ve since traveled for far too long. I’ll get into that in my next post.

Feature image from magazine illustration of Lon Chaney Jr in makeup as The Wolf Man. From Horror Monsters, volume 1, number 1, page 2 (inside cover). Edited in Photoshop to be black-and-white. Wikipedia.

This Time Will Be Different!

One in a series of posts on my struggles with maintaining a healthier weight, starting in early 2019 and working into the present day

#Weight: 247.6 lbs on Feb. 4, 2019

At the start of February, 2019, I was making some progress, down a few pounds from my recent 250-plus lbs status. My research on and insights into obesity in the U.S. and abroad helped me a little, giving greater context. But I also felt as if it amounted to societal/cultural psuedo-explanations for my own predicament.

For me, I knew from experience, it all boiled down to one major factor: my damned brain.

The often absurd story of my fat-happy head would start just about every morning. Maybe it’ll help if I describe that.

I would wake up and determine that today’s the day that I’m going to turn my big, fat life around. If I’m especially courageous, I step on the scale, which I actually keep in my closet. I get a little ding of pleasure, despair or frustration, depending on whether I’m up or down since the last time I checked.

Maybe I even jot dot my weight in a notepad near my bed stand or plug it into a file on a phone. You can’t manage what you can’t measure, right? That’s Management 101, and I’m sure I can manage this problem if I can just add a little structure to my day. I just need some logic, data and discipline! 

In the back of my mind, I hear a little voice asking, “How many times have we been here before?” and I respond that this time it’ll be different, damn it. THIS time I’m not just committed but experienced. I know how to manage the recalcitrant, moody employee that is myself.

My Virtuous Breakfasts

I hold fast to this idea as I make breakfast. I pull down my box of Rice Chex off the top of the fridge. Ah, my virtuous, virtuous Rice Chex. The top of the box proclaims:

WHOLE GRAIN is the 1st Ingredient 

 Yay, whole grain! You go, Grain! Getting on the grainy train. Going to make it grain, baby!

Why such enthusiasm? Because, I’m being so smart. You see, I’ve got science on my side now. That’s right, actually science. In your face, Fat! 

Of course, I know better than to expect cereal-based miracles. Sure, whole grain rice is supposed to be some kind of wonder food, according to “the literature.” But I tend to take any and all nutritional literature with a grain (so to speak) of salt, since the research is in a chronic, constant state of flux and contradiction.

What’s more, I’m aware that eating a processed food like cereal probably isn’t the same as eating something more authentic, such as a warm bowl of brown rice. Still, I feel pretty good about my Chex. First, whole grains are supposed to result in a reduced risk of weight gain (too late!). Second, some folks argue that rice is a better kind of starch in general. They talk about things like amylopectin (more common in wheat) versus amylose (more common in rice), but that’s too much detail for me to worry about.

Please, just make me feel better about being a virtuous eater!

So, I start off my morning by pouring some my unsweetened almond milk over my Chex and tossing in some fresh or defrosted frozen fruit. Jeez, I’m good. I’ll be thin in no time at all. I try not to do the math, but it’s almost automatic by now.

Let’s see. If I can lose just two pounds a week, then I’ll be at 200 lbs in just six months of so. Let’s see, when is my next family reunion? Boy, they’ll be impressed and envious of their oh-so-svelte brother. This time I’m really going to pull it off!

My Not-so-certain Lunch

By lunch time, I’m still feeling hopeful but am also somewhat tired, stressed and hungry. Maybe there’s a report I’m struggling to edit, or maybe there’s a not-so-happy client who wants something as soon as possible and preferably yesterday.

Anyway, I start casting about for lunch. My morning plan was to cut up an avocado and tomatoes, maybe with lettuce, olives or whatever’s around. Then I’ll pour some nice Italian dressing over it. Sounds pretty nice, right? Savory, even.

Well, sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t. On my good days, I eat that lightish lunch and get back to work. Maybe I add some tuna or canned sardines if I want to add a bit more protein and fat. Even then, though, I’m feeling pretty good about things.

Avocados are, after all, another wonder food, right? A person can hardly go wrong with one of those neat, green little symbols of nutritional virtue.  Avocados are, in fact, so good for you that when I just Google the word, the first site that pops up is 12 Proven Health Benefits of Avocado – Healthline. And the second is Everything You Need to Know About Avocados – WebMD. So, avocados, like whole grain rice, is a food for virtuous person, the person who views their body as a temple, the person is so lithe and enlightened that they’re practically levitating around a world bogged down by burgers and candy bars and greasy-fingered Netflix watchers hunkered with a bowl of chips.

Avocados are so stinking healthy that they’re stocked in the produce department with a sign flashing their many virtues:

  • 20 healthy vitamins and minerals!
  • More potassium than bananas!!
  • High in heart-healthy fatty acids!!!
  • Packed with fiber and, get this, antioxidants that can protect your eyes!!!!

 Yep, they’re a wonder food, alright. Too bad they’re so bloody bland!  All the literature talks about how rich and creamy they are, but they seldom mention that your average store-bought avocado is so boring and lackluster that the only time most normal folks eat them is when they’re made into a zesty guacamole that you eat with a nice, big bowl of chips and salsa. 

Yum!

But, no, shut up. That’s no good for you. Chips? Verboten, evil carbs. You’d might as well dip your lunch in crack cocaine.  Settle down. Bring on the boring alligator pear with a little oil and vinegar. Eat your salad and go back to work, you undisciplined bovine!

Such is my inner monologue. Maybe not every day, but too many days. It can be most dispiriting to live in my brain sometimes.

Eating a Snack on the Treadmill!

The workaday life is often compared to a treadmill. In my case, it’s literally true. After many years of fighting the battle of the bulge, I got a standing desk and the kind of treadmill I can walk on while I work. It’s pretty impressive. I can use it to walk anywhere from .1 to 2 mph while I’m working. 

It’s a nice way to burn a few extra calories….if you actually use it. Therein lies the rub. I mostly use it when I’ve something relatively tedious to do, something that doesn’t require my full concentration. When I have more challenging work, I tend to turn it off so I can think better. 

So, I just end up standing still on a motionless treadmill the whole day. Now, it could be worse. Some folks have claimed that “sitting is the new smoking,” suggesting that sitting at a desk all day is as bad for your body as smoking. 

Here’s how one article sums up the research: “There’s a direct relationship between time spent sitting and your risk of early mortality of any cause, researchers said, based on a study of nearly 8,000 adults. As your total sitting time increases, so does your risk of an early death.”

That’s pretty grim sounding, but is sitting really as bad as smoking? Not really. In fact, not even close, according to Healthline. Still, sitting for long periods of time is not good for you, so I suppose I’m getting something out of just standing at the desk all day.

But it’d be better if I used the treadmill for, well, treading (that is, assuming I don’t fall and break something, which would really be defeating the purpose).  This is another area where I do better in fits and starts, committing to actually walking for an hour, or two, or four. But, when the choice comes down to doing my work well or using the treadmill, I’ve got to prioritize the work.

You may be thinking, “But if the fat boy used it more often, he’d get better at working while treading and so his problem would be solved!”

Yes, that’s what I keep hoping for as well. But I’ve not been able to get there yet and, even if I do, walking in itself isn’t a panacea. Why? Because human beings were literally evolved for walking long distances while burning a minimum of calories. 

You wouldn’t know it by looking around the shuffleboard courts, but our ancestors were mostly lean, mean walking machines. Let’s say you weigh a nice trim (for me!) 180 pounds and you walk for a mile. Do you know how many calories you actually burn?  1000? 500? 300?

Not even close. You burn a whopping 96 calories, a little more than the calories you get in a single slice of bread, and way less than the calories you get eating a medium-sized donut (195 calories). 

So, you want to work off that donut you ate during the staff meeting? Then go for a two-mile hike and you might just get there! And if you happen to weigh only 120 or so pounds, then you’d better be ready for a three-mile hike, because you don’t burn calories as quickly as I do.

This mile-to-calorie efficiency was an awesome bit of evolutionary magic for our hunter-and-gatherer forebears. They could walk a long, long time looking for food and still maintain their big, calorie-burning brains. And human beings lived that way right up to till, at most, 10,000 years ago, the time of the first agricultural revolution. (I should mention that the ancestors of a lot of folks who might be reading this were hunter-gatherers much more recently, such as within the last hundred years or so.)

So, let’s do the math. Modern human beings have existed for at least 200,000 years (and far longer if we include human-like species leading to modern homo sapiens). If we only started farming 10 millennia ago, then that means we spent (as a species) 95% of our existence walking around looking for stuff to eat. If we count our very similar forebears, Homo Erectus, who were also nomadic tool users, then we’ve only had agriculture for a teeny, tiny fraction of our collective existence, somewhere on the order of .000005555556%. 

Image by José-manuel Benitos, 2007

So, the bottom line is evolution designed us for walking, not lounging on recliners and watching some sort of digital device. Evolution designed us for food scarcity, not food abundance. It designed to us to WANT to store as much fat on our bodies as possible, assuming we’d be burning most of it off.

More on that little conundrum later. In the next post, we’ll move on to dinner and then the after-work hours. Those are the truly tough ones.

Featured image Sisyphus (1548–49) by TitianPrado MuseumMadridSpain

Joining the Big Fat Club

One in a series of posts on my struggles with maintaining a healthier weight, starting in early 2019 and working into the present day

#Weight: 250-something in January, 2019

In January 2019, I wrote:

The obvious remedy to being fat is to stop eating so much.

But here’s the thing: I can’t seem to do it. Or, at least, I can’t seem to do it over the long run.

Look, there are thousands of diet and fitness books out there. I own some of them myself. But I know that this isn’t about eating more meat and less bread or whatever. This is less about my body than my mind. 

Having said that, I imagine there are some genetic components. In my family, we males tend to gain weight on our hips and only later does it creep up and around our stomachs. At the beach, it’s all too easy to identify us as siblings. 

But, hey, even if there is a genetic factor, that doesn’t mean I’m somehow fated to be fat. It just means that losing weight is a somewhat bigger challenge for me than for some other folks. 

Yet, that are a lot of other folks, of course. Not long ago, I was at the shuffleboard courts and decided to look for men that weren’t fat or, at least, overweight. Know what? It was a challenge. We fats guys are legion.

Yeah, I know. Shuffleboard, right? The ultra-low impact sport of fat fellows. Especially older fat fellows. But here’s the thing. It’s getting to be a pretty popular sport among the Millennial and Gen Z generations, and a lot of them are pretty heavy as well.

But, again, shuffleboard! 

Okay, so go ahead and Google that stuff. You’ll see that an astonishing 80% of U.S. men ages 50 to 54 are either overweight or obese. It’s a frigging American epidemic.  And, though we U.S. guys are the poster children of fat people, being fat is a global thing.

We fat folk are over 2 billion strong, at least 30% of the whole world’s population. The number of overweight and obese individuals in the world increased from 857 million (20%) in 1980 to 2.1 billion (30%) in 2013. And things aren’t getting any better. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the percent of U.S. adults aged 20 and over who are overweight or obese was a whopping 71.6% in 2015-2016. 

Okay, so there’s not just a genetic component, there’s a cultural one. We denizens of the so-called developed world are just a lot more likely to be fat. Why? Take your pick.

  • Jobs where we mostly sit all day long
  • Lots of processed, tasty and calorie-packed foods
  • Entertainments (Netflix anyone?) where we also mostly sit or, even better, lounge
  • Tons of work and life stress, especially in the U.S.

Those are just the tip of the iceberg. If we wanted, we could delve into the evils of advertising, the fantastic success of the modern agricultural revolution, and more. But you get the drift. There are a lot of external reasons so many of us have gotten fat.

And, for me, there are a lot of internal reasons as well, which I’ll get into later.

The Fat Men’s Clubs of Yesteryear

Does it matter? That’s a question I keep coming back to. At one time, being fat was fine, even trendy.

There actually were fat men’s clubs in the U.S. back in the day, meaning the late 19th to early 20th centuries. They were literally social clubs that you could only join if you weighed over 200 lbs (91 kg). Back then, the stereotype associated with being a fat man (and, yes, there was double standard for women even back then) was that they were financially successful, benevolent and, well, kind of jolly.

Times have changed, though. Now we fat folk are in a club that few folks want to be part of. Maybe that’ll change again in the future. For now, though, we are legion yet often still ashamed of our not-to-hot bodies.

Engraving showing the 15th Annual Clambake of the Fat Men's Association in Connecticut by Neosho Absecon

On the Stories of Others

Since the death of my mother, I’ve had this urge to reach out to old acquaintances. It’s not only that I wish to connect but I want to know more of their life stories. At my age, people have a lot of experience to draw on: happy moments and sad, adventures and mind-numbing routines, loved ones gained and lost, pain and pleasure and so much more.

Every person is story, a path taken. Some paths have been sweeter and others, but they’re all stories.

Do I want to write those stories down? Well, writers tend to like stories as material for future works. But I don’t think that’s my primary motivation. I mostly just want to see life from a different perspective than my own.

It All Goes By So Fast

When my father went to the hospital for the last time, he said to me, “It all goes by so fast.” He wasn’t a philosophical type or reflective man most of the time. He was a doctor and man of action. But in his last hours, he gifted me with that observation, and I don’t think I’ve made the most of it since.

But now I’d like to. How does one stretch time out a bit? No idea, really. I know that theoretically you could do some really interesting things with a really fast spaceship, but I don’t think that would stretch out your psychological experience of time.

I’ve read some articles on the topic. One recommends, among other things reminiscing. I suppose that’s one reason I’m increasingly drawn to the stories of friends and acquaintances. It’s not so much that I want to relive old times. In fact, I really don’t care if I’m involved in their stories. From a purely selfish perspective, I guess I just want to expand my own experiences through theirs, to acquire insights that have often been hard won by others.

This is part of what reading is for, of course. By reading a good book, fiction or nonfiction, you’re broadening your life–or at least seem to be–in ways that are nearly miraculous. But there’s something different about listening to someone tell you about their life in real time.

And there’s something different yet about reading letters. Too bad that’s a dying art form, killed by social media, email and every other electronic pastime filling our days, from computer games to Netflix. (Yes, you can write a letter in email form, but how many people actually do?)

Tell Me Your Story

So, I suggest starting a movement. Let’s call it the “tell me your story” movement. Sit down with a friend and ask them to tell you some of their stories. Some won’t especially want to. Maybe they’re embarrassed, or may they believe their story is none of your damn business (which is fair).

But some will. You’ll get to live through their eyes for a brief time, and you’ll learn to understand them as individuals in a deeper way than you had before. To me, that feels like one of the most precious gifts ever given and, in fact, more precious for being rare in the electronic wastelands of our modern lives (says the man typing away on his digital device).

At some level, though, we’re aware of the precious nature of these gifts. It’s one of the reasons many still croon the words to “Auld Lang Syne” on New Year’s Eve, even if we can’t exactly remember what they mean. You know the ones:

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne

The title, which literally translates to “old long since,” is an ode of past times, old friends and lost loves.

Stories can “bring to mind” old acquaintances, but they can also do more, I think. They’re capable of enriching us in ways few other things can.

Featured image by Adolphe Joseph Thomas Monticelli - A garden party. Storytelling, Wikimedia Commons