Tuesday, April 29, 2008

On Being Abrasive About Atheism

I composed this as a response to a post on a freethought forum I belong to. It got long, and I decided to put it here, as well.

There are a good number of nutjobs on both sides of the fence (and probably a few who sit on the fence, too). I mean, Ann Coulter and Bill O'Reilly are almost in a class by themselves for the amount of truly offensive crap they spew into the environment.

But one thing about them is this: people talk and have opinions about what they say. They are brash, harsh, abrasive, blunt, opinionated, and completely and totally in-your-face about what they say and believe. They don't give a rat's ass about who they offend. Their job is to be that person. To be the total nutjob who takes things that extra step, who says things that no sane person would believe, but who make people think and react and talk about them, and perhaps examine their own viewpoints more closely than they ever would have done without the provocation.

And Hitchens and Dawkins are doing the same thing for "our" side. Dawkins says that bringing a child up in any religion is child abuse. Do I agree with that? Maybe a little, in principle, but I wouldn't go that far. The same goes for some of the things Hitchens says. But it got them noticed. People know who they are. People talk about what they say. They are brash, harsh, abrasive, blunt, opinionated, and completely and totally in-your-face about what they say and believe. They don't give a rat's ass about who they offend.

A lot of parallels get drawn between the "rationalism movement" and the "gay movement." It must be working at least in part, because gay people are less reviled by society as a whole, now, than atheists are. If you believe the polls. And what did it take? A lot of people decided they'd had enough of being marginalized, put down, and discriminated against for something they couldn't control. They became brash, harsh, abrasive, blunt, opinionated, and completely and totally in-your-face about what they said and believed. They didn't give a rat's ass about who they offended. Don't want to see two men or two women dance together, hold hands, or kiss? "Then look away," they said, "because we're not going to go away."

Love them or hate them, Dawkins and Hitchens (and others) are doing something that needs to be done just to compete for air time. Do you think Ann Coulter would get the kind of recognition she gets if she was polite but firm about her beliefs? No! Making that quip about how she'd have to go to therapy if she called Senator Edwards "gay" was one of the most successful things for her career that she's ever done. It was offensive on so many levels that almost everyone out there had an opinion about it. And it got talked about. And people thought about what she said and why it was offensive (or wasn't). If Bill O'Reilly were anything other than the asshole he is, no one would know his name, because he'd be some third-rate reporter working in some podunk market instead of Fox News. But as it is, very few people don't know his name, and the ones that do have an opinion about him one way or the other. Again, because of the way he says what he says, he makes you think about why it offends you or doesn't. I could include Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart, and even Keith Olbermann in the same category, but on different levels and with different goals.

I guess my point is that we need MORE people like Dawkins and Hitchens. Maybe people in general really do instinctively understand that for every complete nutjob you see out there saying outrageous things, you have a legion of decent, honest people who believe some of the same things, but aren't so in-your-face about it. Penn & Teller come part of the way on their show on ShowTime, but they aren't mainstream enough, yet, to get the kind of reaction that the other guys do. Randi mostly takes on people that the majority already know are charlatans. In the big scheme of things, the Sylvia Brownes, Uri Gellers, and John Edwardses of the world are small potatoes compared to the issues that Dawkins and Hitchens and a few others are taking on. I hope Roseanne Barr is an atheist. I think Kathy Griffin is. Maybe we need a few more abrasive people out there making an issue out of it so that it gets in the public's craw and makes them a little uncomfortable. "Gee, what if the neighbors are atheists? Does that mean they're suddenly bad people?" (Maybe I'm giving the public too much credit, but maybe not.)

I'm not overly fond of some of the things Dawkins says, either, to be honest. I think he goes too far. I'm not as harsh as he is, but I make no qualms about my atheism, either. I've laid it pretty raw on my other journal a number of times, and I've lost a few friends over it, but the majority of them stay even though the vast majority of them disagree with me. Because even though I rant and rave, I try to do it in an entertaining way, at least, to get across the message that I have my passions and my windmills, too, and I'm not all that different than they are.

I think the biggest compliment I've ever gotten on that front is a passive one. My father's family--almost all of whom are devout Southern Baptists--have no idea that I'm an atheist, except for a couple of cousins. I don't make it a secret, but most of them don't see it because...I'm nice. I'm pleasant. I don't eat babies, worship Satan, or murder and rape indiscriminately or any of the other horrible things they've been taught that we nasty ol' atheists do. I don't chant Latin backwards while they're saying grace before Thanksgiving. My hope is that as the knowledge of my atheism trickles through the family (and it will), they'll be able to look at me as a positive example that you can be an atheist and have morals, be a nice person, support charities, and even--gasp!--love your family, all without God being necessary.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Positive Steps

Years ago, I was lying in my dorm room one Saturday morning, enjoying the fact that it was Saturday and I didn't have to get up to go to class. My roommate was already gone to some ROTC thing, so I had the room to myself. I started to introspect about life and what I was doing with it, and right there, lying in my twin bed on a Saturday morning in May, it came to me: I need to get in shape. I was maybe 20 years old and weighed over 200 lbs. It was time.

So I went out that day and joined a gym. Had my first work-out in two or three years. And it felt good. I went religiously. I didn't eat all that much better, so my progress was slow, but it was steady, and even though I didn't lose a lot of weight, I put on muscle mass. I was benching > 200 lbs. I could do 400 crunches (and still didn't have washboard abs, dammit). I felt better, certainly looked better, and at least had the knowledge that I was doing something about a personal goal.

I don't know why I stopped going. I honestly can't recall it. But stop, I did. And let my membership lapse after two or three more aborted attempts at regaining the momentum I'd lost.

Several years later, I'd graduated and was in grad school. I had watched my father get sick with lung cancer and die over a nine-month period. During that same nine-month period, I gained 50 lbs. I gained the weight so fast, I got stretch marks which I still have to this day. And then I had another epiphany. Well, it was the same one, really. I needed to do something about this weight. So I began to look around Tuscaloosa to see what was available. I didn't want some namby-pamby "lose 10 lbs in 10 weeks" nonsense. I wanted real results. I weighed 260 lbs and that was ridiculous. Then I saw and ad for Physicians Weight Loss.

Their whole thing is, basically, starvation. And they examine you medically every time you come in, which is three times per week. You take massive doses of vitamins and minerals (especially potassium), and you eat protein supplements to maintain muscle mass. The goal: remain in ketosis so that you know it's fat that's burning and not muscle mass.

I was restricted to 500 calories per day for something like two weeks, then 750 calories per day for the next four and a half months. I lost a total of 88 lbs, and honestly, I felt wonderful about myself. And then...my will power just dissolved. During those months, I'd go to restaurants with my mother and her friend Peggy and literally watch them eat and then go home and eat my 200-calorie dinner and my 50-calorie bedtime snack, and somehow I managed not to cheat...very often. I was in ketosis and the fat melted off me, yet I wasn't starving all the time. I got down to ~180 lbs, which was ~23 lbs shy of the PWL-set goal. See, PWL relies too heavily on those ancient charts that say, unequivocally, that someone of my height, gender and age was to weigh between 150 and 157 lbs. Period. And PWL won't let you set a goal that is above your "optimal" weight. So my goal was 157. But...

To get to 157 lbs, I would have had to start cutting things off me. The measure of my wrist circumference doesn't take my barrel chest into account. I may have had a 34-inch waist for the first time since high school, but I still had a 50-inch chest. And that's without working out, which you can't do on PWL because you don't get enough calories. So I couldn't remain in ketosis anymore, and without ketosis, I started to get hungry.

And 750 calories per day wasn't going to cut it. So I dumped PWL against my mother's wishes and tried to maintain my weight.


By 1990, I was up to 270 lbs. Over the next 9 years, I worked one job at a local steel mill. I tried a few more times to lose the weight, but it was no good. I slept irregularly, ate irregularly and poorly, got little to no exercise...in short, I was a couch potato. The only diet I ever maintained without any will power was The Zone, but unfortunately with that one, you have to eat at the same time every day and sleep at the same time every day and...I was on call 24 x 7. I might stay up 36 hours at a stretch or sleep 15 at a time. The Zone was doomed to failure, even though it had just started to work when I had to give it up.

In 1999, I left that job and moved to Atlanta to work for the same guy who'd hired me at the first job. It was a huge thing, moving out of my "safe" world into an unknown territory, but I did it, because I thought it was the best move for me. And then after I'd been at this little dotcom startup <ominous chord> for about a year and a half that I had the same epiphany yet again: I needed to do something. I'd been hearing about the Atkins diet. A lot of people swore by it, and it sounded like it was something I could handle. I was massively overweight and rapidly approaching 40. So I gave it a try. I lost 50 lbs before the Unholy Allure of Sugar™ coaxed me back to the dark side. But I was determined to keep the weight off. So I took the advice of a co-worker and joined his gym: LA Fitness. I even sprang for the extra bucks to get a personal traininer through Body of Change, which is basically also LA Fitness.

From the get-go, I should have known something was wrong. The trainer they saddled me with wouldn't listen to a thing I said about taking it slow, and he made me work out on his schedule. When I asked about other trainers, there were none available at the times I wanted to work out.

While all this was going on, I bought a house using some of the proceeds from the sale of my first house in Alabama.

You can see what's coming by now, I'm sure. But maybe not. Before it had a chance to become a problem, the startup dotcom I'd quit my stable-but-soul-destroying job in Alabama for decided that it could not sustain the number of developers it was paying for a product that was too expensive for people to actually own. So it laid off 22 of us in one, fell swoop. They fired me over the phone while I was moving from my apartment into the house I'd closed on just days before. I had to leave moving to drive in and collect all my belongings.

I kept working out--it was one of the few constants I had--for about two months, when it became apparent that I was not going to just bounce back and get a job immediately. I called LA Fitness and Body of Change and told them the situation. I was told to send in a letter of cancellation and LA Fitness would cancel me, no problems. However, Body of Change would not. I had signed a contract, they insisted, and that contract said I owed them a certain amount of money each month for 12 months, and if I didn't pay up, they'd take legal action.

I begged and wheedled, cajoled, yelled, and threatened legal action myself. None of it did any good until I went to a different gym, explained my situation to the management there, and had them call in and intervene on my behalf. My "regular" gym? Told me to get lost, basically. My "trainer" was nowhere to be found. He wouldn't return my calls.

Body of Change "graciously" "let" me out of my contract, but only at the cost of paying half of it as a penalty. I vowed never to darken the door of LA Fitness again after the way their lapdogs Body of Change had treated me.

So now we come to the present. I'm 280 lbs. That's over 100 lbs overweight. Morbidly obese doesn't even begin to cover it. The weight is causing health problems that are getting worse and worse. It's time to do something about it. Again. I'm sick of diets. I want to just eat what I want, but in reasonable amounts. I mean, the minute you tell me "You can't have," whatever it is you've told me I can't have is all I want to eat. Atkins would never work for me, now, nor would The Zone or even PWL. I don't want to buy supplements or pre-prepared food, so it finally lit a fire under me.

I started looking at local gyms. I found one that sounded great, but the cost is prohibitive. They had a pool, which would allow me to swim again, but is a pool really worth $60/month and a $200 fee to join? Not really. LA Fitness is close by, but...never. Never, ever again. But they're the cheapest alternative around, unfortunately, and they're also the only ones my company has any sort of deal with. And have you ever visited a gym? The salesmen there rival car salesmen for sliminess and weaselhood. Several gyms I visited actually turned me away because of the hard-sell bullshit they tried to pull on that initial visit.

But then I saw an ad for Fitness 19. A new, small gym that opened just three weeks ago about a mile and a half from my door. Closer than the other two. $20/month, no contract, no joining fee (a special because they just opened), and a one-time processing fee of $30. So for something like $68, I got membership in Fitness 19, and they'll charge me $20/month until they receive 60 days notice to stop. The woman who was there when I visited that first night greeted me warmly, showed me around the place, and wasn't the least bit slimy. So when she said, "Does this sound like something you'd want to do?" I said, "Sure. Why not?"

They're a small place. It's one large room packed with some of the nicest-looking equipment I've seen. There's no pool, or steam room, or sauna, or even locker rooms. It's two small, unisex changing rooms, bathrooms, and a big room full of weight and cardio equipment. There's no towel service, no trainers, and they aren't selling high-priced supplements or water at every turn. I love it. :)

I've been once, and I'm going again today. For the first time in a very long time, I feel like I've made a decision I can feel good about considering my health. It's going to take a while. But considering that I can go to this gym for five years on the same amount of money Body of Change/LA Fitness made me pay them to break my contract, I think it's one I can afford even if it does go bust or something.

So I'm at the dawn of what I hope is a new day. My doctors, my mother, my friends, and even a co-worker or two has expressed concern about my weight. So even if it takes me a year to drop 50 lbs, I think this is a good thing. I can feel the commitment, but I needed something more. I don't like to announce things to the general public, but I know only one or two people read this, so this is a good place to mention it and still have that...accountability. To at least one friend and maybe two. The commitment to take charge and do something about my weight rather than allowing myself to get unhealthier and unhealthier and become one of those statistics you read about. A man in his 40s who dies of a sudden heart attack or a stroke. "Fat bastard," people reading it in the paper would say. "Why didn't the guy just lose some weight? Drop the fucking doughnut and eat some broccoli? Do a few push-ups?"

The fact that my doctor has said I need to lose weight but has not made a single mention of any sort of "diet" was confusing, but I think maybe she figured out right away that I'm not a "diet" sort of guy. "You can't ever eat doughnuts again" is translated in my mind to an intense desire for doughnuts, even though I normally don't eat one but maybe once per week.

So, here's the thing. I'm going to get into a routine of working out. I haven't found an optimal time, yet (I've only been there twice, and one of those was to sign the agreement). But once I do and I'm in that routine, I will begin changing my diet a bit at a time. I've already started a little. I eat more vegetables, and instead of having breakfast, several days each week I drink an Ensure. I'm diabetic, and I do have to have some food to maintain my blood sugar, so fasting is out of the question. I stopped eating Mexican out because it encourages overeating by putting that huge basket of chips on the table. And because I simply no longer can handle it without acid reflux. I stopped eating Italian a while back for the same reason. I've been eating at Subway for lunch most days instead of whatever the cafeteria at work has, because it's usually something unbalanced and unhealthy, and at least with Subway, I know what's in it.

I keep a supply of really good chocolate here at the house and a supply of good cheese. And as long as I have the option of having some of either or both, I find that I don't crave it like I do when I don't have it around. I've had a block of Valrhona chocolate for over two months, and it's almost gone. I slice off a chunk about once or twice in a three-week period and eat it. I have a chunk of cheese and an apple instead of opening a bag of chips.

So I'm trying. I just...need to stick with it and not get discouraged if the results aren't instant. Which intellectually I know they won't be. But we all know how much the conscious intellect is really in control of the body. I'm also under no illusions. I'm 43. The days of my having a metabolism that would allow me to eat everything in sight and not gain much weight are gone. My chance of looking like any of those models in magazines is 0%. I will never have washboard abs. I don't want to be a hulking behemoth with muscles out to there. I just want to be healthier and look better. And at 43, that's a lot different than it would have been at 20. And I'm okay with that.

I didn't mention this on my "What I had for breakfast and pictures of my cats" journal because...there are too many people I know personally over there to be accountable to. Too many people who will pester me with questions like "How's the diet going?" or who will say insincere things like "You look like you've lost weight!" because even though they can't see any change, they think they should say something because they think it'll be encouraging. It isn't. Not for me. All it does is underscore any perceived failure. I didn't go to the gym last night because I was tired, and now here's this asshole asking me how it's going. Guilt is the last thing I want. I want this to be positive. I want....

What do I want to get out of all this?
  • I want to feel better about myself.

  • I want to wear smaller clothes.

  • I want to fit in an airline seat.

  • I want to go into a restaurant and not have to say "I prefer a table instead of a booth, please."

  • I want to walk into a decent clothing store and not have the staff look at me pityingly and try to find a less obnoxious way of saying "We don't sell clothes your size."

  • I want to not get acid reflux (although this may not be weight-related).

  • I want to stop taking some of my medication.

  • I want to feel confident enough about my body to go swimming in public, again.

  • I want to stop snoring (again, this may not be entirely weight-related).

  • I want to wake up in the morning without pains (although this may be age- instead of weight-related).

  • I want to be able to walk up a flight of stairs without having to rest at the top.

  • I want to be able to go with friends to someplace like Six Flags or the Zoo or walk around doing touristy things without holding them back because I'm so fat I can't keep up.

  • I want to be able to shave off my beard. I'm told if I did I'd look younger, but if I do, my face is so round, I don't have a jawline. I look ridiculous. So...I keep the gray beard even though it makes me look at least 10 years older than I am.

  • I want to be able to clean my house without it taking two days.
I just want to feel like me again, and not some fat slob.

So...we'll see. I've told "the world" (all both of you) and...now I'm committed.

So...we'll see. :)