Why be healthy?

Up until recently if you’d asked me why I was spending so much time, so much physical and mental energy on exercise and nutrition, I would have said “It’s a long-term experiment. It’s based on the theory that if you live a healthy lifestyle, you’ll live to a ripe old age. I want to live a long life, and I want it to be a good life up until the very end.”

Sound reasonable?

It’s certainly an alluring theory that’s much trotted out, but it bears examining. The tacit underlying assumption is that we’re all responsible for our own health and sickness. Which means that if we do get sick, and don’t live to a ripe old age, or if our old age is marred by sickness or disability and not “good” it is perhaps our fault. That’s healthism.

Which is a rather insidious notion, because it can turn us into corrosively righteous snobs who silently blame the victim. “They should have taken better care of themselves” is what we think secretly to ourselves when we hear someone has been diagnosed with a serious illness. Is that really fair?

If I take a look at my family I see

… my father who is almost 80 and is overweight and on crutches because he’s got a terrible back after a life of hard physical work and a couple of botched surgeries. Which means he can no longer walk very much.

my mother who is 70, in a nursing home and overweight, because she can no longer walk at all after a traumatic brain injury after slipping on ice, after a lifetime of healthy eating and lots of exercise.

… my aunt who can barely walk and is recovering from surgery after a non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma diagnosis.

… my grandfather who died young from cancer after long years work-related exposure to DDT

… my grandmother who lived to be 90 but suffered from dementia for the last 15 years of her life.

I see a family of people who for one reason or another didn’t achieve that “healthy old age” “good aging” ideal for a number of reasons that have nothing to with healthy lifestyles.

And there is a perfectly good possibility that I won’t either, for reasons entirely out of my control. The idea that somehow I can “earn” my way to a good old age is wishful thinking. Yes, if I abuse my health in some kind of dramatic fashion, my chances get slimmer. But the idea of achieving “hyper health” – of somehow earning my way up the ladder by obsessively optimizing exercise and nutrition is probably foolish.

The other side of the coin is that I am not obsessively attached to life. I am not one of those people (yet?) who feel they must absolutely live a very long life. I am not possessed by a consuming vocation that has me raging against death. For me, death is part of life, not a violation or a brutal enemy (once again, that could change – who knows?).

What I need more than anything is to make more of the life I have right now – to have a “good life” now. To live more voraciously, more consciously, more adventurously, more daringly. I’m often too complacent, too numb, too timid.

I reserve the right to occasionally drink more than one drink, to bum a cigarette of someone and to have a dark and deep conversation. I reserve the right to stay up til 3am once in while so I can dance my ass off, even if I feel crappy the next day after doing any or all of these things. I reserve the right to spend a whole afternoon in bed and read a book instead of doing exercise. I reserve the right to eat jerk chicken or bhel puri from a street vendor now and then, even if they’re not hormone free and have been cooked in vegetable oil. I reserve the right to go on road trips where I spend a good part of the day just sitting in a car looking out of the window. None of this is healthy, but to live a life without these things isn’t worth it to me.

I don’t need more years, just more life.

Jessica Mitford, queen of the badasses, who died at 78 but lived an amazing life

Jessica Mitford, queen of the badasses, who died at 78 but lived an amazing life


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.


Patterns: mortality

I originally started this blog to find out if there were larger patterns to the things I love.

The tags don’t lie: there is a very consistent theme to almost all of my posts, and it’s mortality.

Oof. I hadn’t quite expected that.

I think of myself as an optimistic, forward-looking person. And all I seem to want to talk about is death, the fragility of existence and the past. Where could that be coming from?

I don’t have any really good answers for right now. The only one I can think of is that I have subconsciously adopted this outlook from previous generations of my family.

My mother was two years old when she spent months on the road with her mother and three siblings, fleeing westward by cart, foot and train, through an apocalyptic Germany, ruined cities, dead people, dead cattle, forever crying babies, the smell of dirty diapers, meagre food, sleeping on floors. My grandfather had fled separately, since his presence would have meant certain death for the whole family had the Red Army caught up.

When this little band finally reached their destination my grandparents were both jailed and my mother was given to relatives.

Now, I am not claiming that this odyssee was either unusual or unfair. Millions of people had the same experience, my family had supported the war, they had the benefit of coming out alive unlike so many others, and my grandparents deserved their prison sentences.

But I am trying to put myself in the head of a two year old, and the impact of this apocalyptic journey on the brain of a small child.  Moreover, my mother grew up to the constant lamentations of the lost estate, the lost rank, the lost reputations, the lost country.

Wouldn’t that somehow implant the idea that everything falls, everything will get lost,  will die and come to nothing?

But how would that outlook get transferred to me, since my mother rarely talked about her childhood?

And if this is – perhaps improbably – the case, how do I rid myself of this weight, this outlook?

Life on the coma ward

I spent many hours of my life in the waiting area of a coma ward. Even though visiting hours were supposed to start at 4pm, they often got delayed. Some medical crisis, patient needing to be cleaned, new admission meant the lone little group of visitors were forced to stare at the blank walls or the well-kept aquarium. It principally housed two large fish, but one had a problem with his swim bladder, and was forced to swim upright in the same spot with no reprieve. It kept banging into the same coral and had lost most of its tail in the process. The other fish would continuously try to tempt it into a different part of the aquarium. The handicapped fish would try but would soon return to its familiar spot.

This tableau was perfectly set up to induce thoughts of futility and disappointment. The strange chemical smell added to it. It did actually smell like what I imagined decomposing human flesh smells like but surely was only extra-strength cleaner of some kind, specially engineered for intensive care units.

My mother, an intrepid walker just like myself, had set out one sunny morning for the vineyards, ignoring warnings of ice. She slipped, fell backward, resulting in unconsciousness and traumatic brain injury. Other walkers found her, nobody knows how long she’d been lying there. We were told she was in critical condition and might well not make it.

Driven by the thought, more than any other, that nobody should die alone, I got myself onto a plane, and began a lonely vigil.

A decision had been made to keep my mother in a coma, to prevent further pressure and irreversible damage. Hence, the coma ward. It held ten patients but was probably the quietest ward in the hospital. Apart from hushed conversations between nurses the main sounds were those of beeping indicators, feeding tubes into necks, waste products back out, with the occasional alarm signal when vital measurements went out of range. Occasionally, a family would put on some music for a patient, hoping that a familiar song would get even just a little response. Never has chirpy German Schlager music sounded so mordant.

After a few days this becomes your new normal. You begin to recognize familiar faces among the visitors. You notice which patients will occasionally twitch or even grunt, with some envy. Your mother is still. A machine is breathing for her. A drug drip keeps her far under – no detectable brain activity. You wonder what it feels like to be so far removed from the world. At first you’re shocked to see her like this, but then you get used to her condition. You begin to talk to her under your breath. You never really got on all that well. But you don’t want her to die either. So you lay out how you feel, holding her hand all the while to let her know that someone’s there, no matter which path she chooses to take.

Hours go by. Nobody talks to you. You get to see the doctors once in a while. They are young and full of fear. They do not like being the bearers of bad news. There is really only question you want to know – “what’s her Glasgow Coma Score?” – but you dread the answer, so you don’t ask. You suspect it’s a 3, the lowest. Just a bit more alive than dead.

At night, with nothing to do, unable to sleep, and no-one around, you try hard not to Google “GCS 3, prognosis“, but you do. The words “dismal” jump out at you. Only a few percent who make it through in a non-vegetative state. You can’t sleep. You think the phone will ring any minute. You are tired, pale, a spectre. The hospital sent back the clothes they cut off her. Destroyed they lie there like the person they belong to. The shoes that let her down lie there innocently. Killer shoes.

You begin to crave the calm sanctuary of the coma ward. It’s the only safe place. The only place where you know right at that moment that everything is still OK, everything still in balance, the cards not upturned yet. Order, not chaos.

After ten days, one of your sisters comes to take over the grim vigil. You go to the movies and drink a glass of cheap supermarket wine. So strange – there is a life outside this self-contained little universe?

Anyway, my mother woke up from her coma (slowly and un-soap-opera-like) and has gradually recovered most of her faculties. She can’t walk well and still needs constant care, but she’s mostly herself and pretty chipper. She credits me for getting her through that narrow passage, but she’s wrong.

It is with profound joy

While we’re on Klemperer, I’d like to add a digression on the birth announcement of my mother, which appeared in January 1943. It read something like

“With the most profound joy we would like to announce the birth of our daughter Brünnhilde. May she give birth to many courageous warriors. Munich, The Brown House.”

The announcement had a thick black edge, and was set in fat Gothic type.

A few details beg to be annotated. My mother gave birth to four girls, none of which turned out to be warriors, an irony never lost on my mother. “The Brown House” was in fact the NSDAP (Nazi) party headquarters Munich, in which my grandfather had been employed until the end of 1942, reporting up to Martin Bormann, Hitler’s much-despised second-in-command. His fiefdom was however more mundane than the address or his direct report suggested. He was in charge of village culture, with a particular focus on decreasing participation in church choirs to the benefit of patriotic singing circles. It took me several years to weasel out this fact; a fact that gave me some relief, since this time had been unaccounted for, and 1942 being a particularly dark year among dark years.

What had always irked my mother about her birth announcement, beyond the fake-Teutonic spelling of Brunhilde, was that the language and presentation was that of a funeral announcement. Let’s turn to Klemperer.

I have already mentioned the persecution and suffering of the Klemperers. But what I love about Victor Klemperer is that he did not stop working, even though there was no outlet for his writing. As a philologist he turned to analyze the language all around him, the language of the Third Reich, resulting in the masterpiece LTI (Lingua Tertii Imperii). LTI is a cold-blooded analysis of the ‘new speak’ of the Nazi propagandists, a heavily clichéd language that infected not only speeches and announcements but newspaper reporting and everyday speech. It allowed Klemperer to keep a perspective beyond victimhood,  as outside observer of the lunacy and self-delusions of the era.

In the chapter “Familiananzeigen als kleines Repetitorium der LTI” (family announcements as small instances of repetition of the LTI) Klemperer proves through examples that birth announcements unthinkingly began to mirror the language and appearance of death announcements. This as a results of the pages and pages of death announcements in the papers, in which any kind of good news must have seemed almost sacrilegious, and requiring tempering.

LTI is an extraordinary book. Seething, sarcastic yet disciplined and thorough, it is an amazing product of scholarship under adverse circumstances. It is a fascinating read.

What is style?

Jean Genet

Jean Genet

There are many definitions of what style is. I’d like to add mine. Style is a response to injury – it’s a way of dealing with pain. Those that are truly stylish, and not merely fashionable or well turned out, are often those who grew up deprived of love or attention, who had a dream shattered, or who were forced to suppress an important part of themselves. Style is a form of grief. “I had the simple elegance, the easy bearing of the truly hopeless” (Jean Genet, The Thief’s Journal).

When I grew up I had no style. My mother chose my clothes for me until I was 12. I had no opinions on them beyond their practicality. I had no favorites. It just didn’t matter to me. I embarked on my style journey when my best friend Martina Belgrad told me one day she didn’t want to be my friend anymore because she was embarassed by the clothes I wore. I wasn’t wearing jeans or sweatshirts, but frumpy dresses and skirts. This opened an abyss. I realized that the rules of childhood no longer applied, that puberty had officially begun and that I was alone and adrift on my own floe (my mother being woefully unequipped to be any kind of guide).

It was time to make up my own rules. The first of which was to utterly reject who and what had rejected me. I would define for myself what is beautiful. I chose a hard a time to do so. Rural Germany in the late 1970s lacked resources. Clothes in stores were unflattering and dowdy. Magazines were gaudy and populist. The only subculture were the so-called “freaks”, hippies in army parkas and jeans and jute bags. The world was drab.

But this lack of resources was liberating. I had latched on the existence of punk scenes in New York and London, but pictures were in very short supply. I took those few signals and interpreted them myself. I knitted, sewed, altered, dyed clothes that I thought might approximate a punk look, without being able to verify. My clothes were sui generis, as a result, if rather androgynous. The few images I had seen of female punks were too intimdating in their provocative sexuality. I avoided the cliches of ripped holes and safety pins, sensing even then how cartoonish these were. I wish there were pictures from this period. Sadly, there are none. I had cut ties with the rest of the world before it had a chance to cut ties with me. No-one ever got close.

Vivienne and Malcolm