The untracked life, worth living?

I jest, of course. I officially quit my manic tracking & over-exercising ways 25 days ago, and this is a little summary about the experience so far.

The first few days after ditching my Fitbit, retiring the scale  and stopping with the calorie counting were hard – antsy, guilty and rudderless days. Not having my Fitbit on me made me feel amputated. I kept feeling for it, then realizing its absence with a pang.

I know this will sound absolutely ridiculous to someone not so afflicted, but if you’ve been devotedly keeping tabs on every movement, every bite of food for two years you somehow feel that without those controls you’ll start eating crazy amounts, gain tons of weight, lose all self-control, turn into an inert blob or something even worse.

And obviously just because I wasn’t using mechanical devices that didn’t stop my head from keeping tabs. Tabs on distance walked, calories burned, food eaten. Just not quite to the same level of detail.

Things did get better after a week or two. I’m working out of an office at the moment which also helps. Less time to “over-walk”, less time to think about this crazily trivial, yet somehow mind-consuming nonsense.

And I did lapse here or there, I confess. Not with the Fitbit; that’s still stowed away, though I still miss it. I weighed myself a couple of times and I tracked calories a couple of days, when my paranoia about putting on weight got the better of me. I also couldn’t quite stay away from the health, exercise and nutrition blogs. They’re such catnip to me.

Please don’t judge me. This stuff sounds crazy. I swear I am a sane, intelligent person. I have a master’s degree, a responsible job and a family. Nobody knows about this.

The learning so far is, you can take the trackers off your body, you can delete the spreadsheets and hide the scale. But changing your habits of your mind so that it will no longer keep tabs is a painful, long-term and perhaps futile project.

I will say though that it is getting better, if slowly. I spend a lot less time thinking or reading about the whole subject. It’s footprint in my mind has gotten smaller. And I walk enough, but not as much of it is just to rack up mileage. So I’ve got more time for other things. Next questions: what grand, adventurous, productive thing to focus on now?

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A grand unified theory of everything

My mother’s family has never been normal. And they’ve never been satisfied with ordinary explanations.

Extreme beliefs run rife there, in particular beliefs of the ToE variety – Theories of Everything. Grand ideological edifices that explain and prescribe How Humans Should Live. My grandfather and my grandmother, I am sorry to say, were life-long passionate believers in National Socialism, mixed with Nordic religion, and the collapse of the Third Reich, detention and a life on the margins did nothing to cure them of their fervor. If anything, it made them feels like possessors of special knowledge, which the masses were too dumb to understand.

One aunt took those selfsame beliefs and added a dose of Wiccan magic and started her own cult.

An uncle ran a youth organization training the next generation of right-wing activists.

Another uncle sought refuge merely in a particularly austere variant of Protestantism.

And yet another uncle became a committed communist and staunch defender of the Soviet Union, but after the grand collapse switched allegiances to buddhism and the new age.

Many of my cousins were or are members of right wing organizations. One is a fundamentalist Christian. One  of my sisters is a new age practitioner and teacher of highly unorthodox therapies and for a while became a breatharian until reverting to raw veganism. Another sister believes that chelation will take care of most diseases, and is busily prepping for Armageddon.

My mother’s journey has taken her from astrology, to Christianity, to the power of crystals and other new age practices.

I am of course not saying that these Theories of Everything are equivalent – they range from the outright evil to the benign. All I’m saying that my mother’s people are either genetically or through upbringing predisposed to search for Meaning with a capital M.

I’ve always prided myself on my dry pragmatism and my pursuit of scientific knowledge. After all, I didn’t just study philosophy, I also studied psychology, physiology and statistics.

And yet, I know I have that Meaning-seeking urge in me. I’m drawn to ideas and theories that propose grand solutions that promise to make everyone healthier, wiser, happier. There is something elegant and seductive about a good Grand Theory. It begins to answer the question of How to Live – the biggest, unanswerable question of them all.

And I have to keep reminding myself, that Theories of Everything have a terrible record, especially in the hands of politicians and dictators.

And then I remind myself that I am also my father’s daughter. A long line of hardworking, humble, honest people who tried to do the best they could for their families and the people around them. Most didn’t go to school beyond their 14th year and yet they all read widely, were curious about the world, traveled, but never thought they had all the answers.

Those are my people too.

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A world before the fall

I’m writing this post on the last day of Summer, so this could just musings on the transience of the seasons. And yet, today’s post is a brief history of the 30+ year experiment in “healthy” eating that is my life.

Beneath the nutty quest that took me from every extreme food ‘religion’ to another was the idea that there is a pre-ordained way for people to be. That there is some kind of imaginary Eden in which people lived and ate a certain way that was perfect for all human minds and bodies. That if we could only rediscover or reconstruct this paradise before the fall, we could live in perfect harmony and health.

This idea first crossed my path when I was thirteen, probably from one of my mom’s healthy eating pamphlets.  I promptly decided to become vegetarian. Teenage rebellion and a rejection of my father’s hunting ways surely had a part to play as well. So for the next four years I followed a vegetarian diet, which was in those days highly unusual and rarely catered to. I didn’t know much about nutrition, so I just ate a lot of bread, cheese and spaghetti with tomato sauce. I was a pasty, un-athletic punk living a nocturnal life, but had the innate health of a lanky teenager, so I was basically OK.

When I was 17 I came across a book extolling the virtues of living on raw foods only, and this is when I got serious about the idea of discovering the “perfect” human diet and increasing up the nutritional content of what I was eating. Raw foods seemed to make sense – after all, that’s how animals eat; cooking seemed like a wrong turn that mankind had taken by mistake. I switched to a diet of huge salads, lots of fruit, raw milk and soaked and sprouted grains. This worked quite well until I moved to London in the depth of winter, surviving in a youth hostel with not a lot of money. I lived off fresh and dried fruit and yogurt until my teeth started collapsing in on themselves. I still have gaps in my molars from those brutal days.

I didn’t put two and two together then, blaming it on poor dental hygiene. I added more foods such as gigantic amounts of vegetables, olive oil and sprouted grains. I ate and ate and ate, and still felt hungry all the time, even though I was so bloated that I couldn’t sleep. I was freezing continuously, and pale and tired, but it was Thatcher’s England after all; I was poor, and worked long hours in fast food joints, so I didn’t think to blame my diet.

I spent a few months in Southern India, living off Indian Vegetarian food, got a stomach bug and came back with a BMI of 16. I  worked in cafeterias and had crazy binges late at night. I blamed myself for my lack of self-control, not realizing that my body was fighting for survival. I added back “bad” cooked foods, mostly bread because digesting huge amounts of vegetables was painful. For years after I basically lived off bread, boiled vegetables and a bit of fruit and yogurt. That I didn’t get sick is a miracle. I worked during the day, went to classes and studied at night and weekends, often falling asleep in my bed with my books. I had so little energy.

During college, without a kitchen I tried my hand at veganism, subsisting mostly on whole wheat bread, fruits and vegetables, with a bit of peanut butter thrown in. What saved me then was an insatiable, and totally explicable desire for smoked mackerel. I beat myself up over slipping from my almost-vegan ways. My body was craving fat, protein, omega 3s. Again, I was often tired, and also quite timid and very scared in general of my much more confident, well-educated and affluent fellow students. I spent much time in hiding, studying, walking, rather than fully engaging in student life in Oxford. This is still look back on as perhaps the greatest waste of my life. Food was only a part of it but it didn’t help. I don’t live life with regret, but if I could rewind any part of my life, this would be it.

Over the next few years I added a bit more variety, like beans, hummus and tuna. But I didn’t escape from this dietary limbo until my thirties, when I met my husband who is an excellent cook. It forced me to straighten out my bizarre and highly deficient diet. But right up until then I still thought I my diet was exemplary and supremely healthy, and pretty close to perfect.

Things got better since then, apart from a dalliance with low carb eating which left me weak, tired and emotionally flat.

Then, in a final tussle with dietary dogma I started eating a paleo diet two years ago. Once again, a diet that promised to deliver mankind from original sin, by literally encouraging to eat as we would in some imaginary Eden.

I still do believe that the basic tenets behind paleo eating are sound if you mean unprocessed food, fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, dairy, starches. But to appropriate and brand this kind of eating – which encompasses a very broad range of foods and ways of preparing them – seems silly to me in retrospect.

I’m finally waking up the idea that the idea of chasing some kind of ideal is ridiculous, given the broad diversity of healthy and thriving populations across the globe. That civilization isn’t just some malignant intrusion on primal perfection and that pleasure has always been a fundamental need, and isn’t an enemy of living “right”.

Also, please don’t think I’m criticizing vegetarianism, veganism or raw food eating. I’m sure there’s ways of making them work, but I couldn’t. They just made me dogmatic, obsessive and forever guilty about not sticking to them 100%.

Oh, hindsight …

But our lives are our lives, with all their wrong turns, seeming dead-ends, discoveries, revelations, obsessions and reversals. I’ve learned a lot on this crazy journey, and thank god I came out just fine.

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Source: creationmuseum.org

What are you afraid of?

I wandered through big cities by myself day and night, going to concerts and the movies when I was in my mid-teens.

When I was a teenager I quit high school one morning, got myself a factory job, and went home and told my parents.

I went on a television quiz show when I was 17 to make enough money to run away.

Instead of going to work, I took the train to another country, without telling my family beforehand

A country whose language I didn’t speak very well and where I knew no-one.

After working many menial jobs I applied to a famous university and got accepted after finishing high school in evening classes.

I moved to New York City where I knew no-one.

I studied art in my thirties even though I didn’t have a background in art.

I’ve photographed almost a hundred strangers whom I found on the internet.

I regularly present to large audiences, CEOs and senior business leaders.

I quit my job a few years ago and started a freelance career even though I am the main breadwinner in my family.

I’m no daredevil. But I have no fear of big decisions and big changes.

So why the hell am I so deadly afraid of putting on even just a couple of pounds?

Crazy, irrational, self-destructive, bizarre, ridiculous fear.

What are you afraid of?

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The rent is too damn high

That’s actually the name of a political party here in New York; yet another reason that makes me love this city, though I must admit I’ve never actually voted for it.

Reason I’m writing this, is I’ve been musing on a concept brought to me my a lovely Facebook commenter, who stated

“I found myself “healtifying” myself into a frothy quandary, although it did not feel obsessive or harmful to me in the middle of it. I looked at me being diligent, caring for myself, protecting my health, just being inquisitive. I would not have told you I paid much mental rent on all this stuff, it seemed I paid more mental rent without it.”

That’s exactly how I felt about my many health-related behaviors until recently. I knew I was devoting a fair bit of time and brain space on tracking, on analyzing the data, on reading health blogs and newsletters, on exercise, and just generally thinking about all things health-related. I used to think of it as this slightly nutty hobby, perhaps a bit over the top but mostly a good thing, since anything to do with health is good, no?

And then I did the ultimate Quantified Self meta-analysis. I analyzed how much time I’d spend on an average day on all that stuff I just listed:

– Logging, tracking, downloading and analyzing step, sleep, weight, energy expenditure, calorie, money, mood and activity data:  20 minutes

– Following a gazillion health related blogs, sites, Twitter and Facebook feeds: 20 minutes

– Exercise including walking beyond what I would have normally walked: 90 minutes or more

– Just generally thinking/obsessing about my health, what I’m eating, what I weigh, tracking: 20 minutes

Even if some of this is taking place consecutively, we’re talking over two hours a day.

That’s the rent I’ve been paying on this crazy obsession.

Well, there is an opportunity cost to spending over two hours a day on thinking and doing health-related stuff – namely, all the other activities I could have done or thought about instead. Two hours a day is 1.5 months a year, assuming a 16 hour day. Now, I’m not saying all this time was wasted – doing exercise is generally a good thing, and occasionally thinking about your health is probably wise. But even a month spent learning a new skill, with my family, studying, reading or who knows what else would have yielded greater dividends.

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This is an art installation by Darren Almond, an English artist and photographer, that I saw well over a decade ago, but it stayed with me.

It’s a giant clock the size of a shipping container. Every second a number flips down, just like with a much smaller alarm clock. While it looks rather mundane in pictures, it is as an installation quite haunting. The numbers turning over create the relentless noisy drum beat of time passing by, of a countdown to some unknown end, an urgency to hang on to time that’s evaporating in front of you.

You only live one life, so be careful who you are paying rent to.