Guilt on the Side

I’m tired of being 5’11”, 167 pounds, and still feeling like I still live in my 14-year-old 235-pound body – my inner Fat Kid. (I think he actually ate my Ego.)

The summer between 9th & 10th grade, I lost 40 lbs. I went from being a weird, nerdy, insecure, smelly 235lb 13-year-old kid who only wore “husky” sweatpants and baggy shirts (to hide the chesticles) to being a weird, nerdy, insecure, slightly less smelly 190lb 14-year-old. And no, I wasn’t into P90X before it was cool. (Newsflash: it will never be cool, so stop writing about it on Facebook, people named Eric.)

I owe that relatively astounding & ultimately life-saving drop of elbees to my sister, who was diagnosed with anorexia in spring of that year. In fairness, the fam knew something was not right, but in our little town, eating disorders were not widely discussed. She was down to 68 lbs (even at 4’10” that’s not a sustainable weight) and had started growing fur all over as her body’s survival instincts to keep warm started to kick in. It took her collapsing in shock at the bus stop one morning at school & a concerned school nurse to get her to the right medical professionals & to be diagnosed.

Not that I find her disease to have been a good thing just because it led to my transformative summer. In no way was her challenge a healthy one. It was a cloud, a pall of frustration & embarrassment & worry over our heads for years later. But if you can’t grow by going through that type of thing, then you’re doing it wrong (along with a lot of other things, probably).

For all the agony that summer and the years leading up to it contained, it was the turning point in our knowledge about food. Nutrition Facts had only recently become de rigeur, and at 235lbs I obviously couldn’t stop eating boxes of Wild Berry Pop Tarts long enough to examine that panel, let alone translate the numbers into anything useful… and useful was loosely defined as delicious for me at that time. And the parents? Forget it. Food was food, and the faster and cheaper and easier it was to feed us, the better. Aside from the occasional seasonal tomato (for 5 Minute BLTs on white Wonder bread slathered with mayo, of course), the main color of our fridge’s interior was soda-caramel-brown; we used the “Crisper” drawer to hold a case of soda, and I just thought that was the model name of our fridge, like a car. Our pantry was a New Mexican sunset of clay reds & mustard yellows & unnatural purples, Betty Crocker scalloped potato AND brownie mixes, Hamburger Helper, Tuna Helper, Little Debbie, Hostess, Lays, KoolAid… Basically we bought food that had someone else’s name or charismatic cartoon character on it. There wasn’t a whole grain or unrefined flour to be found. Scratch was not a type of cooking, it was only something you did to your ass or balls when it was hot out.

I was addicted to eating that way. Did it for 14 years. And we honestly didn’t know any other way to do it. (I certainly didn’t, and if the parental units did, they chose the path we were on in spite of it.) So the addiction (which maybe now I could downgrade to an extreme affinity) to that sort of food, whether it’s mental or chemical, is still there.

That spring my sister spent two months in the hospital, learning the skills she (okay, we) needed to eat enough of the right kinds of foods. For better or worse, we learned later that her main concern with food was about control: she refused to be told by Mom or Dad that she had to eat, what to eat, when to eat; so in order for us to know that she was getting the right nutrition, we ALL had to learn what the right nutrition was.

In my mental movie of this life, the transition happened so fast that I barely even remember it, but it seems that almost overnight, the soda was replaced by cans of Ensure or Boost or Slimfast (the band aid solution to being able to count calories and track nutrient mix for her until we all got up to speed on just how shittily we were doing as eaters). Then the 2% milk became skim milk, and was even (briefly) replaced by soy milk. (This was still mid-90s in rural Pennsylvania though, so it was long before there was “milk from beans” that didn’t actually taste ironically like a cow’s asshole; hence the brevity of its appearance.) Then, in what seemed a remarkable shift in the palette of our kitchen’s canvas, there was color… naturally-occurring, found-on-trees-or-leaves, non-Looney Tunes-related colors. Salad. Fruit. Wheat bread. Vegetables that DIDN’T come out of a box. It was like living 100% Warhol for 13 years and then discovering, oh, I don’t know, EVERY OTHER ARTIST THAT EVER LIVED.

So gradually, I started to shed some weight. I no longer looked like the really fat Keebler elf that bakes delicious treats in a magic tree that somehow never burns down even though there are elven bakers living in its insides. I started to more closely resemble Theodore from Alvin & the Chipmunks, only slightly taller & with longer shirts. And I felt so much better about myself, which got me fully invested in dropping more weight, creating a virtuous cycle that, eventually, became most of the food habits I still have today.

Slightly smaller chesticles, and the possibility of them going away completely, weren’t the only reasons I was investing in this less convenient & significantly less fun meal plan (there is something entertaining about eating M&Ms by the handful). Being the nerd that I was (okay, am), I really became obsessed with the numbers & the math & the science behind nutrition, metabolism, weight loss, etc. I began counting calories, tracking nutrient mixes, and genuinely thinking about eating instead of just eating what I was given or eating because I was bored. It gave the analytical side of me something to do every time I encountered food, which was quite often.

But it wasn’t easy giving up the fun foods. I started to feel incredibly guilty every time I ate something that I knew my sister wouldn’t have even thought about eating, which was a very long list of all my favorite things. In my head I knew if she wouldn’t eat it, it couldn’t possibly be good for me, but I still craved them. Unknowingly, she was a huge source of dissonance for me. (No hard feelings though – only now am I even aware that that happened, and the guilt couldn’t have come along without the life-saving change to healthier options. They’re like matched luggage.)

And I went about managing that dissonance in exactly the wrong way: I deprived myself of them as long as I possibly could, and then when I found myself confronted with them & no access to a healthy option (I.e. School pizza parties or birthdays), I over-ate like no other. Friends from high school have stories of watching me eat a whole pizza, multiple foot long subs, bags of Doritos, cases of Pepsi, boxes of Little Debbie, barnyards of McNuggets… All with a dollop of guilt slathered on top like a condiment. Tasted great on the way down, but the taste of mental anguish lingered for HOURS afterward. That type of avoid-resist-indulge-binge-hate cycle is exactly what defines addiction, and its key side effect is Guilt.

The guilt still sits with me. The addiction to shitty food and its associated guilt are huge parts of my daily internal monologue. There is still a fat kid inside me.

Over the years & with lots of research and experimentation, I’ve finally figured out the path around those pitfall moments, but the negative feelings surrounding those foods are omnipresent. The knowledge we gained eliminated any possibility of the ignorant bliss I need to be able to actually enjoy most of them. I can’t really even look at the bakery case at ShopRite without triggering the craving, fighting to resist the craving, and then hating myself a little bit for even having the craving itself – even if I completely succeed in fending it off. How f’ed up is that?!?!? I can’t even let myself LOOK at a baked good without some level of self hatred? That, my friends, is what the French call Le Bullshitte.

In my humble opinion, Life without muffins and chocolate cake would not be worth living. But not being able to enjoy them without self-imposed psychic damage is, arguably, a worse proposition. What it means is that I still struggle with the self-loathing fat kid in me, and will always struggle if I don’t forgive myself (and the Fam) for ever being a fat kid in the first place.

So I am forgiving myself. Three reasons:
A) I never chose that lifestyle or that body in a conscious way.
2) Behind Regret, Guilt is the second biggest waste of energy in the world (Glenn Beck is a close third).
D) I don’t want my daughter (or any of my loved ones) to pick up such a useless attitude towards the food that can be such a wonderful, simple & available source of pleasure.

I’ll take one giant Chocolate Chocolate Chip muffin please. Leave the Guilt on the side.

Jungle Gym Jitters…

… is probably the coolest name for a kid’s book I’ve ever seen. Alliterative, descriptive, and anxiety-inducing! C’mon, we’ve all had them… whether the jitters came from being the fat kid who couldn’t even run TO the jungle gym without wheezing (Bad Jitters), or whether they came from being the popular kid who always got to make out with all the girls who wanted him to be their first kiss (Good Jitters), we’ve all been somewhere on the jitter spectrum with regard to jungle gyms. That, my friends, is what we call a common point of reference. It’s what Jung would qualify as a collective memory. And it’s what red states call bullshit.

I saw that book in a book store on my way to get coffee this morning. I went to a new coffee place. It’s like six blocks farther to that place than my ‘normal’ coffee place. Why, you ask? Because I could. Because I just made it happen. Because my big-ass time-sucker of a project at work is FINALLY over. Because that project was the last major to-do item for me for 2008. Because, my friends, I have now been brought back from the brink of the corporate chasm, and I have learned a thing or two.

Thing One: Owning a big project like that, when you’re ready for it & you know what you’re doing, is frikkin’ AWESOME. The only thing that would’ve made this one better is having another set of hands/another left- and right-brain duo to share in some of the work. But all in all, I’ve discovered that the level of responsibility that comes from managing a shit-ton of work for a lot of very well-respected business people is something I can handle. This time, I was ready for it, and it worked out very well. I made it happen.

Thing Two: I need to get way better at owning stuff like that if I ever want to see my wife, family, friends, blog, or NA sponsor ever again. Not only did I not have time for you, dear reader, but I didn’t even have time for Jesus. And we all know how important it is to make time for Jesus. (This is different than “making time WITH Jesus”, which is the old-timey way of describing the act of copulation with the deity.)

In the last… oh, maybe 8 months, I’ve sacrificed a LOT of the personal stuff. Comedy/improv has just completely fallen off, podcasts have been canceled & rescheduled, races have come & gone without a decent performance, and even my ‘happy-go-lucky’-ness (is there a less pansy way to say that?) has seen better days. Just ask the wyf – I’ve gone through all seven Dwarf namesake emotions in as many months. (The month as “Doc” was weirdest – somehow I drew the proctology card on that one. What’d I learn in a month as a proctologist? Every guy has an ass-rope braided between his cheeks after years of wiping, so I’m not alone. Note: not all ass-ropes are created equally; some smell worse than others. If yours is uncomfortable or causes an erection lasting more than 4 hours, see your therapist/professional waxer/non-proctologist doctor.)

But when you ask your next question, ‘Was it worth it?’, I’d say yes. But I think that has to do with my need for validation. See, this project came out well, and a lot of congratulatory emails of recognition & appreciation have come my way. And it’s been a LONG time since I’ve gotten many of those that actually felt like I earned them. Or maybe this is just the first time I’ve been mature enough to know that it’s okay to accept compliments/appreciation without feeling they’re unwarranted. But in any case, it was this project that has made me feel the most validated in my ‘career’ since 2005. Worth it.

What’s next? Not sure. Definitely moving out of my current roles & responsibilities, either to a level higher in this group, or to a level higher in another group that’s got more of a consumer/customer focus to it. It’s great that there’s probably some permanent validation on its way, as I anticipate a promotion, AND I’ll get to move into something I’ll probably enjoy even more.

Here’s the “…but”: I haven’t TOUCHED my stand-up material in ~3 months, and haven’t had an improv session in even longer. Hell, the only creative juices I have flowing right now leak right into Twitter, where they just get soggy & start to smell like ass-rope after a few hours. S-U-C-K-S. But I could wallow in that sacrifice, or I could recognize that it paid off professionally, and then challenge myself to use my time better & employ both sides of my personality at the same time. Ideally, this would be done for me by having a job that required both sides – but as I don’t see that happening in the near-term, I’ll have to make it happen.

So here’s to making it happen. Oh, uh… so here’s where I might’ve tried to weave this back into the Jungle Gym Jitters thing, but give me a break – it was a moderately weak headline to begin with, and I just made two ass-rope jokes laced with a Viagra reference. That’s enough awesome for one entry.

PS – Thursday is Turkey Day! Come back later this week for a Turkey Day Tribute! It’ll be awesome! I promise! Meanwhile, I have to go learn how to trace my hand on a webpage so I can make an electronic hand-turkey. (Now you’re really excited! Me too! I’m four!)

Am I On To Something?

To borrow lyrics from Jason “Geek in the Pink” Mraz, let me be lugubrious witchoo. (Editor’s note: lugubrious means sad, but I think Mr. AZ intended it to mean something like loquacious. In spite of his intentions, that’s how I intend that lyric to be read. Ahem.) WARNING: this is heavier than usual. Buckle up.

Sitting on the bus today, listening to my iPod. I was near the back, facing the rear of the bus, and was sitting in that pod of 8 seats that’s just before the back row. I’m one of 11 people in that area, the other 10 of which I can see directly, thus they constituted my reality during the trip to the Embarcadero. Of the other 10 people, 6 of them were also listening to iPods. Two others were both reading this week’s issue of The Economist. The remaining two? Glued to a Blackberry or some such heroin-like device of connectivity. Not a single person looking around the bus, looking outside the bus paying attention to the slice of meatspace we’re weaving through, sleeping a few more winks on a coffee-fueled Monday.

This is not new to me. In fact, I perpetrate this attitude on a regular basis. But the following interaction (which barely qualifies as such) is what set me off this morning: Dude #3 (iPodder) that sat directly across from me gets up for his stop, and Dude #2 (connected man) looks up at him as he gets up, sizes up his shirt, his pants, then his shoes, and goes directly back to the emails he’s receiving from other addicts. As I see this, I realize that Dude #3 has just judged Dude #2. At the very least, #3 has compared his own fashion sense to the soon-to-depart #2’s, and has drawn some conclusion.

When I asked myself “Why does #3 feel compelled to do that?” I realized that it was not due to some primal survival instinct. When I say ‘primal’, I’m getting at the fact that at no point did #2 do anything to threaten #3 or cause #3 to raise hackles. Yet this act of comparing/judging happens all over the place. I even realized, after observing THIS interaction, that I myself had committed the exact same type of evaluation when I got on the bus. (This is a lower-minded activity than observing the isolating activities in which my fellow busizens were engaged, yet they share an ilk.)

Then my world blew up.

I realized that, while not physically threatened by #2, #3 was in fact suffering from an insecurity about himself that caused him to evaluate #2.

Wait, before I get into this, let me just put it out there that I believe that we all suffer from insecurity. Disagree if you must, but consider it as you continue to peruse.

Where was I… ah yes. #3 insecure about #2. While my initial reaction took more of an “Americans as consumers” angle, the more I thought about it, the more I realized it goes back to something very primal indeed. #3, as most of us are, is afraid of death. Not in the sense that he feels compelled to avoid all danger (he certainly wouldn’t get on the number 1 bus were he a germaphobe or agoraphobe or a claustrophobe), but in the sense that he knows, deep down, he will someday die and his life will be summarily judged by those that knew him/loved him/hated him. Leaving the questions of afterlife aside, I consider this a universal truth: we will all die, and we will all be judged by the size, shape, color, taste, smell, depth, significance and solidity of the hole we create in the fabric of life when it happens.

Some cultures accept/deal with that better than others. My conjecture is that #3, facing that judgment, wishes it to come out as positive, as touching, as polished as possible. He is concerned that his judgment need be better than that of #2. This, for lack of a better label, is an American way of thinking. Keep up with the Joneses, bigger better faster stronger, duty honor country… whatever your banner, the vast majority of us (myself included) are nearly obsessed with having, being, providing the BEST that we can, ALL that we can. These maxims are, by definition, comparative. Hence our propensity to compare.

Before I continue, let me also put it out there that I believe in fewer universal truths than Ben Franklin. I’m the first guy to agree with someone that what I value, what I hold as RIGHT and WRONG, as TRUE and FALSE, is quite probably the exact OPPOSITE of what someone else holds; my Rights equal their Wrongs. (If Newton were more of a philosopher, or better yet if I knew a Newtonian philosopher’s work that applied Newton’s third law of motion to the karmic cosmos, I would quote that person here… alas, I am in need of education.) So even when I say something is Right for me, Wrong for me, Bad, Good, Evil, Sexy, whatever… I by no means superimpose them on you for any longer than you’re reading about them. Live and let live, no?

Now, the point (finally, eh?): we are comparing ourselves to death. Literally, figuratively, seriously. What matter be it that #3 had nicer shoes or better hair than #2? In fact, I sort of believe as I mentioned above that there really is no ‘universal’ nicer, better. #3, had he concluded that he was less than #2 in fashion sense, might have winced. Might have felt bad about himself. Might even have changed his behavior/wardrobe/significant other because of this particular instance of the evaluation ritual. And for what? Because he believes that, when he dies, I will show up to eulogize that, without question, his fashion sense was greater than that of #2? How could #3 know whether his funeral-goers will agree? What’s better fashion sense to one person is quite probably much much worse fashion sense to another. To the extent that it’s possible for those two opposite-believing individuals to be at #3’s funeral, #3 has placed a value on ‘better’ that he quite possible cannot achieve.

We (again including myself) tend to compare each other to ourselves, to one another, to some ideal or standard, and one could cite the above logic to argue that it’s a complete waste of time because you’ll never know (save for the example of being the only person doing the judging or comparing). To the extent you can be self-disciplined, self-aware, self-valued, and likely fairly less afraid of death than the rest of society, your logic would hold (at least to you) and you could be declared “right.”

So why do we do it? If it’s all useless, worthless, valueless, how did it come about to be so apparently a universal (at least American) tendency? Because, if we didn’t, we wouldn’t know if we were doing well, if we were making progress, if we were getting better, if we were successful. We wouldn’t know because we rarely place value in our own sense of worth – we find it hard to believe that whatever clothes I choose to put on (or not to put on) are the “right” clothes. It’s hard to believe that whatever career, whatever car, whatever zipcode, whatever life we select, that is the “right” one.

Though I would argue that I’m CRAZY for not knowing that, because I’ve just convinced myself that I can’t know what ANYONE ELSE THINKS IS RIGHT, therefore the only standard left to compare myself to is myself!* And if that’s all there is to compare against, they are in fact one in the same! =. = = = = =. They are EQUAL. I would never be wrong. I would never be insecure. I would not fear my own funeral, because the only opinion of my life that I can know is my own, and that opinion is defined by my life itself. They are singular.

Okay, I’m down from the soapbox. I’m not a logician. I’m not even a lawyer (a.k.a. poor man’s philosopher). Poke the holes in my theory, start a thread of invectives against this semi-Nihilist attitude, send me white powdered donuts. And know that if I were really a student of this school of thought, I won’t care, and society would call me crazy. But is my hypothesis here (or my adoption of it as a moral guiding my reality) really any crazier than #3 going through his day and changing his behavior to meet some standard he can’t possibly know? It may be slightly more socially acceptable, and certainly something that’s easier for him to justify to his funeral-goers, and if you place value in those things, #3 beats me. If you don’t, however, then maybe, just maybe, #3 and I are equally off our rockers. Except I’m right, and he’s chasing phantoms.

Don’t be surprised to read that I got this from Improv class. Because, in improv, whatever you pick up off the table is exactly what the rest of the world saw you pick up off the table; you can’t be wrong. It may not be funny, but it is powerful. Improv, on occasion, is both.

*Note: an obvious exception to this is if you aspire to be someone else. However, this is self-defeating. You will never be someone else. You are who you are, and someone else is who someone else is. You can look like them, talk like them, dress like them, go totally Tyler Durden about it… but physics dictate you can’t be the same person.