The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Friday, February 22, 2008

Damning Ourselves

Prejudice and Weight

Yesterday, you guys did me the honor of discussing your prejudices, and I thank you. Predictably, some pain came up. I openly discuss my own wounds, and the way I have struggled with them, hopefully to make it crystal clear that I don’t consider myself a “superior” anything except maybe a superior Steve compared to who I was yesterday. I can live with that.

For the record, here are my thoughts about overweight :
1) Low metabolism. A real factor. It can seem terribly unfair that one’s siblings or friends can eat all they want and not gain. The solution: grasping that life isn’t fair, and deciding “so what?” Some people are better looking than you, or at greater ease in public. You still have responsibility to find love and a healthy social circle. Some people are born rich. You still have the responsibility to balance your checkbook and get out of the trailer park. It doesn’t take a huge amount of time to jack up the metabolism. A HUGE amount can be done in 15 minutes a day. I didn’t say it was easy.
2) Ignorance. Not stupidity. I mean lack of real information and clarity about how the body works. This is not your fault—there are so many frauds out there (I simply can’t believe anyone would buy Dr. Phil’s diet book. Would you buy a book on “Stop Smoking” from a chain smoker? On having healthy relationships from someone who’s been married a dozen times? On managing finances by someone broke? Hope to God not.) If you want to lose weight, you must START by controlling intake (food) on one end, and output (exercise) on the other. If you don’t do both, you will yo-yo, or your metabolism will simply slow down. Anyone who tells you different is selling something.
3) Emotions. The voices in your head and the pain in your life. This is a big one, and frankly, this is one of the real reasons for prejudice against the obese. We look at your bodies and KNOW there is something wrong. The body doesn’t lie. Now…that doesn’t mean that the rest of us are healthier…just that we hide it better. We can lie to the world about it. So people who aren’t willing to look at their own stuff reject you because you remind them of the work they have to do. I like the “throwing someone into the deep end of a pool and telling them to swim” example. It is both true that that MUST be what it feels like when people say “just lose it” and also that you have a lifetime to learn the lessons.
4) Lifestyle. We did not evolve to live in a world where an hour of work can pay for a day of food. (The cost of an all-you-can-eat salad bar is lower than the average minimum wage. Eat one huge meal a day, and there you go.) A gram of animal protein is absurdly cheap in terms of the calories you expend to earn it. Sugar was not this plentiful. Our hindbrains work against us. But what do we tell our children? Do we accept from them the excuses we accept in ourselves? "I don't wanna" "I'm not interested" "it's HARD" "It's not fair..." Probably not. But it isn't fair that eagles eat rabbits, either. Either that friggin' rabbit gets hopping, or it gets eaten. Life isn't fair. It isn't unfair. It just is. Get over it, or surrender hope.
) ##
Is it fair that people judge us for our failings and weaknesses? Hell, no. But we ALL do it. Don’t tell me that you don’t select your friends for their intelligence and honesty, your lovers for their level of attractiveness. And ANYONE who marries someone without concern for their emotional health is, in my thinking, a fool.

We all make judgments. We all do the best we can. We all have responsibility to take responsibility in our lives: otherwise, we are eternal children. I don’t know a single human being without a perfectly good set of reasons to be a failure and an asshole. And I’ve rarely seen a set of circumstances that SOMEONE didn’t overcome.

It isn’t easy. I was dealing with so much emotional pain it took me SEVENTEEN YEARS to earn my first black belt. I can’t begin to tell you how much pain, and shame, and guilt, and fear I felt. But I kept going, because I knew that if I backed off, I would never confront the scars that bound me, and would have a lesser life because of it.

Weight is, in my mind, the same as bad relationships, or finances. People struggle with all three of these arenas, all their lives. Others succeed. Pay attention to those who succeed. Truth is that the basic means of success in all three arenas are pretty much the same:

1) Have clear, written goals.
2) Find others who have accomplished those goals and maintained that accomplishment for a decade.
3) Model their beliefs, actions, emotions.
4) Take action toward your goals SLOWLY, at the rate of about 1% a week.
5) Expect failure. Keep track of the emotions that come up. Every time you either fail or succeed, keep track of what you learned: what worked, what hurt, what felt good.
6) Develop a method to ignore the negative voices in your head.
7) Maintain flexibility, trying different things and evaluating the results.
8) Never, ever quit

Saying “my habits are sedentary” is interesting. So what? What if the issue was being broke? Would you say: “I don’t like going to work?” How about school? Would you say “I don’t like doing homework”? If you don’t like exercise, then choose an extremely efficient exercise, (like Hindu Pushups and Hindu Squats) so that your entire routine lasts only two or three minutes (at first). If you can’t set fifteen minutes aside, this has nothing to do with your hobbies. You have stuffed a vast ocean of pain into your body, and MUST process it, or you will poison your life. In life, there are reasons, and there are results. You cannot have both.

I have infinite sympathy with those struggling with pain in all three areas. My life is a daily confrontation with my own shortcomings. Every damned day I have to remind my self what I am committed to, who I am, what I live for. What I am prepared to die for. Every damned day.

NO ONE has the right to point a finger at you, and say you are bad and wrong. But we must admit: we all have standards of what is right and wrong, strong and weak, beautiful and ugly. All of us. We have the responsibility to try to succeed ACCORDING TO OUR OWN STANDARDS. What do I think the minimum standards should be (and this is what I believe we all aspire to, not where I think we should “be” )?
1) Earn our living doing something we would do for free. Make enough money doing it to be able to contribute to those we love, and be a force for good in the world.
2) Love ourselves deeply. Be able to externalize that love to include others, to create healthy relationships. To have, if we so choose, a healthy intimate relationship with someone who loves us, mirrors us, and rocks our socks off.
3) To have a body healthy and strong enough to work hard all week, and party on the weekend. When we strip down and look in the mirror, we should find ourselves sexy as hell.

From my position, if you don’t have those things, you aren’t living in alignment with your own values. THAT’S ALL RIGHT—FEW OF US ARE. The problem is when you don’t admit you want it, or abandon hope of having it. The road to creating these three things (as a minimum: feel free to add, but never subtract from this list!) will teach you everything you need to know about life. You spend your life seeking joy, you spread love, you forgive others and yourself, you try to make every new day your masterpiece. You get up early, singing.

But overall, you remain in alignment with your true self, and struggle to keep that alignment strong. When people talk about how much “energy” I have, THIS IS WHAT THEY ARE LOOKING AT. Harlan Ellison, one of my heroes, said that the definition of success is “to bring into existence, in adult terms, your childhood dreams.”

Well said. The question of the day is: What is YOUR definition of success?
Watched the debate last night. Loved the way Hillary carried herself at the end. That woman, I would vote for in a minute. Pity we haven’t seen more of her. She could still win, but her chances are fading. If she loses Texas, she should make a deal with Obama to be…oh, I don’t know. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare? Supreme Court nominee? Not sure. But I think she has extraordinary capacity, and if she is genuinely committed to service, I hope she gets her chance to shine.
McCain and Torture. It has been suggested that he didn’t want our enemies to know our playbook in this regard. I understand your point. I consider that someone could hold that opinion and be a good person, a good American, and a better person than I. But that is a more utilitarian view of human beings than I could hold and be in alignment with my values. I know the monster inside me, the one who would flat love to kill someone, I kid you not. Who would LOVE to come across someone…oh, I don’t know. How about raping a nun? Yeah, that’s about right. To have a perfect, socially justifiable excuse to let out all the pain and fear and anger I’ve stuffed my whole life, and break someone’s neck, watch the light go out in their eyes. And be praised for it. God almighty, there is a part of me that would love that. And if anyone ever hurt my family or my friends, I’d let it out. I know it’s there. And it whispers in my ear that those who have harmed me are meat.

The whole waterboarding thing is a magician’s trick. “Don’t look at my right hand.” “Don’t look at the man behind the curtain.” As if waterboarding is the worst we’ve done. Bullshit. As if we’ve only done it, what, three times? Bullshit. That’s like accusing someone of stealing, or cheating on his wife. NO ONE admits it until they are caught dead to rights. They have simply admitted to the smallest amount of torture (“a little water up the nose”) that people would believe, based upon the incontrovertible information that has come out.

If you don’t believe that, in my mind you know little of history or human psychology. I believe our country is based on the best set of principles I’ve ever seen or heard of, and we struggle to live up to them. But we are still human beings. The Stanford experiment (I believe it was Stanford) showed how swiftly people placed in the position of “Guards” begin to exhibit cruelty to those perceived of as prisoners. Other experiments show how swiftly people will apply pain to others if they have a “justification.” Combine this with fear, anger, and the hierarchical tendency of mankind (“they are as good, as human, as cherishing of human life as we”), human prejudice and the fact that a certain percentage of us are, frankly, smiling monsters. MONSTERS. And what kind of jobs do you think they will seek out? Sociopathy is a very real thing, and while most of us have a little of it, some have a lot. Combine with the tendency to forget that an irreducible percentage of those we incarcerate or arrest are INNOCENT. You can’t get past this. You can’t deny it, without ignoring history.

Add this up, and what happens away from our sight, in dark cells, behind closed doors, is supposed to be limited by what’s in a book or manual? Bullshit. But we can try. We can refuse to sell our souls to save our bodies. At least, that’s the way I look at it.

So…that is legitimately my position, and I can also grant that I’m not “right.” I’m just clear on my position. And morality is more important than my own life. At some point you have to make a stand. Anyone who knows me knows that I take no shit from anyone, ever, in any way. This is not weakness. It is a refusal to let my fear make me less than the best I can be.

I hope that every decision McCain makes he is making from superior knowledge and perception, and his deepest, clearest values, and not from any mere desire to appease an electorate. If so, he is a good and decent man, and we simply disagree on the shape of the world.

If not, he is damned.


Anonymous said...

You say I don't need more than 15 minutes to get the necessary exercise, okay but did you take into account that due to certain health problems when I play knock down the silly pins with my grandkids I have to make them reset up the pins, because I suffer dizziness if I bed over to setup the pins myself. Or that I suffer from COPD and need to use an inhaler. My son has been using an inhaler since he was eight. My father did too. The Marine ad says be all you can be. Some people just are limited in what they can be no matter how much they want to be else wise. The secret is too be happy with who you are.
By the way I may be a fool by your standards. My wife had many emotional problems when I married her and I knew it. She came from an abusive family, her brother was a drug addict, and her sister ran away from home at fifteen. There were problems to deal with the first couple of years of marriage, but did pretty well dealing with them and I have never regretted my decision to marry her despite the problems.

Steven Barnes said...

Here was my comment:
"And ANYONE who marries someone without concern for their emotional health is, in my thinking, a fool."

I didn't say that you can't marry anyone with emotional problems. I said that you must be concerned. Must factor those in to the overall quality of the relationship. It appears you did.
Of COURSE I didn't factor in your specific health issues, friend. That's your defensiveness kicking in. If you were my student, I would need to consult with your doctor, see exactly what your limitations were, and work within them. If your weight is currently stable then, yes, you could lose weight with the addition of 15 minutes of the right kind of exercise. What would that "right" exercise be? Can't say. But given your limitations, I would think Coach Sonnon's FlowFit would work well. But again, I'd have to know exactly what you can and cannot do, the health of your joints, etc.
But if you can walk, stand up and sit down, you can exercise sufficiently to lose weight, assuming you have control of your caloric intake, and understand what you are doing, yes.

mjholt said...

I'd like to add a couple of thoughts to being overweight:

First, low metabolism is linked to asthma, which is rampant: probably coming from the environment of our homes, the air we breath, and a result of allergies. I saw my allergist yesterday because I had a couple of bad allergy weeks. I had gained 5 lbs, and he told me that the asthma decreased the amount of oxygen in my system, and my metabolism slowed proportionally. (I do not have asthma as severely as Anonymous, and his story is very scary for me.)

Second, high-fructose corn syrup, which is in so many foods, not only prepared foods but also some ingredients. One has to go to raw or whole foods to avoid it.

Thanks for your blog. You nailed it.

I do have one thought for Anonymous, if you have not done this yet, see if you have food or environmental allergies. Nasal allergies, which are usually to pollens and scents get most of the attention because the drug companies are able to fix adequately for huge profits (don't jump on me about profits, I know how to make them).

Food and environmental allergies are more difficult. For example, I am allergic to most of the legume family (including soy), rice, and any number of other things that ceased to be food to me, so I can't even think of them. I am also allergic to penicillium (it is spelled correctly), and other molds. My food allergies are also environmental because I cannot handle them, or, in some cases, breathe the air when they being cooked.

Penicillium gives me a variety of symptoms, but one of the worst is swollen joints. Rice gives me extreme intestinal problems. And so on. Allergies can make you depressed, need to sleep 10 or more hours a day, and anxious. Also, any of these can close down your air ways causing asthma, and death.

Rory said...

"Add this up, and what happens away from our sight, in dark cells, behind closed doors, is supposed to be limited by what’s in a book or manual? Bullshit. "

Personally, I think it is limited by hearts and souls. I've spent a long time in those dark places, Steve, more than the most hardened of criminals and haven't seen anything that approaches the freak show horrors that some imagine. The Zimbardo experiment did not show what happens when people are put in authority... it showed what happens when untrained children who have already been told by their college professors that anyone who wants to wear a badge is an atavistic personality type will do what they have been told is expected.

If you can find a copy, pick up "Signal Zero" from the same era. Or spend a few days with me at work.

Steven Barnes said...


I must absolutely grant you superior first-person expertise in the arenas you have excelled, Rory. A question for you, however: I wasn't speaking of count, city, or state lockup. My understanding is that these have undergone rigorous overhaul over the decades in America, with strongly supervised chains of command and much oversight. I mean what happens when prisoners are kept in the shadows, with no one directly responsible for what can happen, and the prisoners themselves are considered less than fully human. The history of slavery, for instance, is filled with horrors that occurred when the behaviors did not match expectations--and the human beings were not considered fully human. I know of no war in which prisoners were not maltreated at times, or civilians abused. Not that soldiers are less noble than typical human beings, but the context itself leads one to exploring the darker corners of the psyche. I'd bet that highly trained, psychologically supervised men, the result of centuries of study into how to provide incarceration humanely, do a VERY fine job. But the question of why that careful selection, and psychological oversight was necessary has to be factored in.

Rory said...

The problem as I see it, Steve, is a combination of sampling error and attempting to stretch the norms of a very comfortable, very sheltered society to a world or time where those things are rare. Mix in a desire to believe that anything you haven't experienced is closer to what you have seen on television than what you know about real people. And sources who make more money for emotional reaction than for reporting the status quo. Humans work to maintain homeostasis- the truly extraordinary efforts of ordinary people to retain ordinary values in ugly circumstances are heroic, and make for boring news.

So someone violates the ROE and civilians are killed- that makes the paper. Someone chooses to follow the ROE, knowing damn well that he is risking the lives of his team, that doesn't make the paper. The survivor just writes a book that doesn't sell very well but is passed hand to hand from veteran to veteran.

I'm aware of the history, Steve. Even have some ideas about why things changed. Shortly I may have an opportunity to see how it works in a different cultural context and will be able to see far more.

You just hit a nerve. One of our local papers implied that deaths and rapes are common in my facilities. There's been one murder in the seventeen years I've been there. We average about one suicide a year (in a 2k bed system) well below the national average. Every allegation of sexual contact, much less assault, is followed through hard and all but a handful have proven to be false reports.

Steven Barnes said...


Three deep bows in recognition of your authority and experience, as well as honor for your service. It is my belief that honorable men like you make the penal system something more than the utter hell it could clearly be, and has sometimes been.

Anonymous said...


I love much of your writing, but I have to take issue with a lot of your ideas about being overweight. As a start, I suggest that you read Gary Taubes' new book, "Good Calories, Bad Calories" to see what the science actually says about diet and nutrition and weight.

Let's start with your basic assumption, which is stated explicitly as "If you want to lose weight, you must START by controlling intake (food) on one end, and output (exercise) on the other."

True, insofar as it goes, but hidden behind it is the assumption that every calorie is the same, whether saturated fat, trans fat, whole grain carb, refined carb, or protein. Which the science says is almost certainly not true.

The pre-civilization Inuit diet contained no plant matter and no carbs (there is one plant root available to eat, but it apparently tastes so bad that they won't eat it unless they are starving). They existed on caribou meat, whale and seal, the very occasional bear, and fish. Obesity, cancer, diabetes, and scurvy were essentially unknown. And this is not genetic, because Europeans who spent years with the Inuit (including Richard Henry Dana of _Two Years Before the Mast_ fame) ate the same diet without problem. Twenty years after the diet of civilization became common (meaning white flour and sugar), obesity and diabetes became an issue. Similar stories are told by doctors working with primitive tribes throughout the world.

Our bodies are complex systems that attempt to preserve a healthy state. Because of this, we have a highly evolved endocrine system that regulates us: our energy use, fat storage, conversion of fat back to energy, etc. That system does not consider all calories to be the same, and the overuse of certain kinds of calories perturbs the system dramatically, making it easier for us to gain weight (store calories) than to lose weight (convert stored calories to energy for use). As Taubes says: we don't gain weight because we eat too much, we eat too much because we gain weight. Our homeostatic system gets out of balance and requires us to eat more to reach satiety. Restoring the homeostatic balance by eating the right food types makes it easier to eat less and lose weight.

Only about 2% of people who diet according to the "calories in, energy expended" paradigm lose weight in the long term, especially if they eat a low fat diet. Any system that has a 98% failure rate (and blames the user/victim for that failure rate) is pretty clearly bankrupt.

Taubes spent 5 to 7 years researching Good Calories, Bad Calories and it is a long, hard, dense read. About 20% of the page count is notes and references. But it shows just how screwed up the public heath recommendations for diet, nutrition and weight are in the US (and most of the rest of the world as well).

I won't spoil the read by telling you what the science says about diet, only that our assumptions are largely incorrect. Following the information Taubes provides (there's no diet plan in the book), I've lost 4% of my body weight in three weeks without ever feeling hungry or losing energy. Quite the opposite: I don't binge eat, my brain feels more active and happier than I remember it being for quite a while, my energy level is up, and my martial arts have improved all at the same time.

If I believed in miracles I'd call this one.