Thursday, September 17, 2015

I've decided to try to lose weight -- a nearly impossible-to-lose amount of weight. And I've decided to be public and brutally honest about it.

Me at about 305 lb.

How I Got Here

I'm just a quarter inch under six feet tall, and when I reached my current height around age 20 I weighed 165 pounds, which is right smack in the middle of the mythical "ideal weight" charts.  If you were draw a line between that point and the 283 pounds I weighed on my last birthday, it would be equivalent of adding about the weight of a nickel (5 grams) every day.  If you've ever tried weighing yourself daily, you'll know that the readings often go up or down by hundred times that amount on successive days.

Of course the process wasn't quite as linear as that.  There were periods where I plateaued, others (usually after some kind of injury) where I suddenly put on five pounds or so that stayed on. But the point is that the underlying trend is tiny on day to day basis. So tiny as to be imperceptible. And it's very difficult to monitor a trend that that's too small to see, and if you can't monitor it it's nearly impossible to control it.

And in fact there wasn't much objective reason for me to try hard to control it. My blood pressure was generally OK to good.  My cholesterol was OK -- low LDL and sky high HDL.  The only red flag was the distribution of the fat I was putting on.  My limbs are quite lean; nearly all of the fat I put on is belly fat. That's important because the fat that accumulates around your organs, the so-called "visceral fat", has been implicated in a number of inflammation-related diseases including diabetes and dementia.  But aside from the location of the fat I was putting on I could have been the poster boy for "Health at Every Size."   Until December 27 of last year. 


I was driving home from Christmas dinner at my sister's house when suddenly my hands stopped working; it wasn't a cramp exactly but my fingers would not ungrasp the wheel.  The following day I went to the emergency room where I had a random blood glucose reading of 349 -- normal would be 100-120. They gave me a shot of insulin and immediately I felt better than I had in years.  Which is interesting because it shows how feeling "OK" isn't necessarily something you should put much stock in. "OK" can be what "lousy" feels like after you've got used to it.

Diabetes runs in my family so the diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes was no surprise.  I went home with a prescription for metformin, a drug which prevents high blood sugar by inhibiting the body's conversion of stuff it has lying around (like lactic acid) into glucose.  Metformin is the mildest diabetic medication there is, and it's unique in that it cannot cause low blood sugar.  As long as you can manage your diabetes on metformin, you don't have to take onerous daily precautions to avoid dangerously low blood sugar.

This was an opportunity for me; despite my large size I've always been active.  Even being in my 50s and weighing nearly three hundred pounds I can get on a bike and ride thirty miles, or hike for four or five hours over rugged terrain.  My doctor says I'm "robust" for my age.  So I set out to manage my diabetes with an aggressive regime of exercise, and initially it paid off.   One of the most useful yardsticks for how well you're managing your diabetes is called "Hemoglobin A1C"; it's a measure of the cumulative effect of high blood sugar over the past several months.  When I visited the doctor in mid January I weighed 281 pounds (about 30 pounds under my maximum body weight ever) and had a super-high A1C of 10.5.  When I followed up three months later I still weighed 283 pounds, but my A1C at 5.8 was just a hair above normal.

I'd also joined the Y and found I could easily burn about a thousand calories an hour on an elliptical machine, but the real foundation of my diabetes control strategy was simply walking.  Whenever I walked for two hours or longer my blood sugar levels would drop back into the normal range -- low 100s or even under 100 -- and stay there for the rest of the day.  

Setback my Exercise Regime

Although it required a high level of commitment, it looked like I'd come up with an effective long-term strategy for managing my diabetes. Then I slipped on the ice crossing the street on one of my walks and injured my knee. 

That actually happened in February, a month and a half before my excellent April checkup. Despite hurting my knee I continued to burn 3000-4000 extra calories a week, but over the course of April my knee deteriorated fast. By the start of March walking more than a few steps had become painful and I could only walk with a cane. I had essentially become almost entirely sedentary.

This turned out to be almost like an experiment. I had super-high A1C (10.5) in January. In April after three months of intensive exercise my A1C was practically normal (5.8).  Then after three months mostly sedentary my A1C crept into the moderately high range (6.5). Surprisingly I'd also lost about seven pounds. Of course some of that could be muscle, but my experience in this period suggests what may be the problem with the idea of losing weight by exercising.  When I stopped exercising a lot of my appetite went away.  A big sandwich that a few months ago I'd have snarfed down without even tasting now looks like way too much for me to tackle now.

Why I've Decided to Lose Weight

Thanks to a combination of steroid injections and and physical therapy I can now walk for about 45 minutes before my knee starts sending warning signals.  And despite the inactivity imposed on me by my knee injury, my A1C remains well within the therapeutic target range for diabetic patients.  So being forced to be sedentary isn't exactly a health crisis.  The problem is that my knee limits many of the activities I enjoy.  I can't hike, or bike for very long and I can't kneel to paddle my canoe. Even if my knee get better, the writing is on the wall: my orthopedist tells me I have arthritis in both knees, and from the increased strain I'm feeling in my "good" knee I can tell I don't have a lot use left in either knee. At least not at the levels of stress they've been getting. And I've been having other inflammation-related health problems which are almost certainly related to central obesity (i.e., visceral fat).

I've decided that the only way I can continue to enjoy the things I used to enjoy is to lose weight.  A lot of weight.  Around least fifty pounds I'd say, although half-again that would be even better. The problem is that losing this much weight is statistically improbable, and keeping it off for more than a few months is nearly unheard of.  And, although absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, there is no scientific evidence that diet and exercise can achieve sustainable weight loss. But I'm going to give it try anyway.

Right from the outset it's a virtual certainty that I'm going to fail.  I have certain advantages that most people attempting this don't have, but realistically my chances of success are something like 5-10%. But that's OK. One of the things I learned in my professional life is not to be afraid of failure. The real problems with failure are taking to long to acknowledge it, stubbornly refusing to learn from it, and being so afraid you get too timid to take risks.  And after all, what am I risking here? A couple of years of effort surely.  A chance that I might come out of this a little bit heavier.  

On the other hand even if I fail I may get a window of opportunity in which I can strengthen my knees and extend the time I can enjoy strenuous physical activity by several years.  One of the keys to being a "successful failure" is finding something useful you can take out of a project that doesn't meet its goals.

Why I'm Sharing This

I've also decided to be very public and open about this.  Normally I keep this sort of thing to myself because I'm an introvert. That doesn't mean I'm shy or socially awkward, it means I don't particularly enjoy being the center of attention.  But weight management is something a lot of people struggle with; it makes people feel like failures.  I, on the other hand, am not afraid of failure.  In this case not even a tiny bit. I don't think it'll mean I'm a bad or contemptible person.  

So although it's contrary to my usual inclination, I'm going to share my personal successes and failures. I intend to take one almighty hell of a whack at this thing, and if I fail I'll move on and take whatever useful I can from it.  I also intend to be brutally honest about what it's like to attempt this, in the hope that other people who are trying (and perhaps failing) can take some comfort in my experiences.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

WBR: A Voyage To Arcturus by David Lindsay (1920)

I thought I'd say a few things about David Linday's seminal 1920 sci fi/fantasy novel, A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS. This is a novel which immensely influential for many important 20th Century writers and critics. J.R.R. Tolkien was an admirer, and C.S. Lewis was clearly deeply influenced by it. Even literary critic Harold Bloom fell under its spell; his one attempt at writing his own novel was a sequel called A FLIGHT TO LUCIFER.

Here are the opening 13 lines (note -- A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS is in the public domain):
On a March evening, at eight o'clock, Backhouse, the medium—a fast-rising star in the psychic world—was ushered into the study at Prolands, the Hampstead residence of Montague Faull. The room was illuminated only by the light of a blazing fire. The host, eying him with indolent curiosity, got up, and the usual conventional greetings were exchanged. Having indicated an easy chair before the fire to his guest, the South American merchant sank back again into his own. The electric light was switched on. Faull's prominent, clear-cut features, metallic-looking skin, and general air of bored impassiveness, did not seem greatly to impress the medium, who was accustomed to regard men from a special angle. Backhouse, on the contrary, was a novelty to the merchant. As he tranquilly studied him through half closed lids and the smoke of a cigar, he wondered how this little, thickset person with the pointed beard contrived to remain so fresh and sane in appearance, in view of the morbid nature of his occupation.

This opening gives an almost entirely misleading impression about what is to come. It sounds like the start of countless Victorian and Edwardian adventure stories, but this is nothing of the sort. Faull and Backhouse along with a number of other nicely-drawn characters from the first chapter simply disappear. The novel moves on to the enigmatic gentlemen Maskull and Nightspore, and then for the bulk of the novel just Maskull alone.

Looking at a manuscript opening like this I'd immediately pull out my red pen. It's inefficient to introduce the readers to characters in the opening when those characters are going to immediately disappear, especially "point of view" characters. And generally you want to let readers know the kind of story they're in for -- at least in genre fiction, where you generally take the reader by the hand and show him he's come to the right place. And there are other things you expect from a science fiction adventure too: a dramatic structure with a readily identifiable beginning middle and end; a protagonist with motivations and problems who deals with a series of rising complications and ultimately resolves them.

What you get in A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS is none of these things. It is not dramatic, it is epic, episodic and nightmarish. It's a long and difficult slog because so much of what carries you through a conventional, dramatically structured novel just isn't there. Chief among these are characterization and motivation. Maskull has no real reason to visit Arcturus other than a vague interest; once he gets there he goes from place to place, not because he has any reason to, but more in that he has no compelling reason NOT to. Maskull reminds me of Mersault in Albert Camus' THE STRANGER, who also does appalling things for no particular reason.

It's almost as if Lindsay sat down to write a commercial 19th C adventure yarn and ended up writing an avant garde novel. It's possible; first novels do have a way of getting away from their authors. A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS anticipates much of later 20th Century literature. Practically the entire Existentialist lexicon could be indexed to this book; it's chock full of absurdity, despair and rudderless anxiety. Even Maskull's confusing inconsistency could be put down to lack of what Existentialists call "authenticity". 

Sound like fun? Well, at the time the word of mouth must have been disastrously bad: it sold fewer than 600 of its original print run, and I'd bet the very few of the original purchasers made it all the way through. But if you don't give up, the balance between frustration and fascination gradually tips toward fascination. A mere decade after it's publication it took C.S. Lewis three years to locate a copy; but even though in his correspondence he's clearly aware of ARCTURUS's limitations, its impact upon Lewis's own fiction is almost hard to overstate.

Now a lot of fans of A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS have written various keys to its enigmatic meanings, but the point of these writer's book reports isn't to discuss meaning, or even literary value; it's to look at lessons we can draw about *method*. But I don't think there's a lot of lessons to draw about method from this particular book. Its language is competently composed, but frankly I think that this book's virtues as a work of imagination are somewhat exaggerated by its admirers. Take the following:

The floor itself was like a magician's garden. Densely interwoven trees, shrubs, and parasitical climbers fought everywhere for possession of it. The forms were strange and grotesque, and each one seemed different; the colours of leaf, flower, sexual organs, and stem were equally peculiar—all the different combinations of the five primary colours of Tormance seemed to be represented, and the result, for Maskull was a sort of eye chaos.

At first this passage seems impressive, but if you really examine it you find it's only just that -- seemingly impressive. The "densely interwoven trees" etc. are fine as far as they go, but then Lindsay punts on the description. In so many words he's essentially telling us that the what Maskull is seeing is indescribable. I suppose a little of this is inevitable when describing an alien landscape, but I find that when this kind of handwaving is incessant it quickly becomes annoying.

This is not to say that the work lacks imagnation -- far from it. Imagination runs riot on every page, but mainly in the realm of ideas rather than sensation. In the chapter quoted above Lindsay gives us a character of a third gender:

He found himself incapable of grasping at first why the bodily peculiarities of this being should strike him as springing from sex, and not from race, and yet there was no doubt about the fact itself. Body, face, and eyes were absolutely neither male nor female, but something quite different. Just as one can distinguish a man from a woman at the first glance by some indefinable difference of expression and atmospheres altogether apart from the contour of the figure, so the stranger was separated in appearance from both.

See? It's the old handwaving trick again. You can't call this "unimaginative", but it strikes me as undisciplined; not fleshed-out as it could be.

So how did this clumsy and difficult text become the most influential underground speculative fiction novel ever? Where does the fascination come from? I think it's the experience of being in the hands of a totally uncompromising author.

Some bad writers like to think of themselves as uncompromising; they hide the fact they don't know how to engage readers by pretending they're not interested in catering to the unwashed masses. That's just craven, self-righteous posturing. But Lindsay is a different animal. He is sincerely obsessed with debunking anything you might believe lends your existence meaning or significance. This pig-headed skepticism, chapter after chapter, begins to take on the color of integrity. 

Which brings me to what I think is the lesson of this novel: the difference between the things that produce accessibility and the things that produce power in writing. 

I think we can lump much of what makes a piece of writing widely accessible under the heading of "technique". Imagine a writer of crude fan-fiction. At first what he writes is only interesting to fans of the franchise. As he gets better at prose style, plotting , structure and characterization, more people who can read his fan-fic without scorn. Eventually many can read his work with actual enjoyment.  His work becomes more accessible to the general reader, albeit starting from the opposite end of the spectrum that inaccessible highbrow literature does.

A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS may be the most inaccessible published novel I've ever read. And although this opinion will offend fans of the novel, I think it's because the novel is crude. Which is not to say it's stupid or unimaginative. It's just that it's prose style is at best serviceable, and it lacks things like structure, plotting, and characterization that help readers through a long story.

On the other hands A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS is immensely powerful. That's because the writer has something to say to practically every human being. Whether you're an ethical egoist, an altruist, a sensualist or a legalist, David Lindsay wants you to know you're just wrong, wrong, wrong. Even even if you insist on disagreeing with him, at least you have the pleasure of seeing him shoot holes in the opinions of other people you disagree with.

So power in writing, I think, comes from having something to say that's meaningful to readers -- at least some of them. A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS is a book for perhaps one in a million readers, but I believe it will always find those readers.

Should *you* read A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS? I'd say its practical value to a science fiction author is debatable; but I definitely think it is a must-read for fantasy and even more so horror writers. That's not a guarantee you'll enjoy it, but it's worth studying the way Lindsay imbues the landscape and its inhabitants with immanent meaning (albeit only to debunk that meaning).

Title: A Voyage to Arcturus
Author: David Lindsay
Published: 1920
Pubisher: Methuen & Co. Ltd., London UK
Edition Reviewed: ISBN 978-1480258426

Word Count: 93,000