Ancient Greeks, Unread Books and Fat Chances
“Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid” is a 1979 Pulitzer Prize-winning book by physicist Douglas Hofstadter, a whimsical, creative look at mathematical and other scientific concepts. It’s filled with fables, puzzles, asides, and adventures in intellectual discovery, and it was a big hit.
I was enthralled by this book in my early 20s, by its dive into ways of thinking I’d never considered, by the way it opened up a world of scientific and philosophical reasoning. I’d often go to the bookshelf and pull it down, starting at the beginning, preparing to wade once again into the realm of big ideas.
And then I’d put it back on the shelf, wishing books would come with signs like the ones for carnival rides. “Your brain must be this big to read the book” it would say, and then I’d know and could go back to comics.
It’s still on a bookshelf, somewhere around here. It’s possible I’m not as dumb as I once was, and that I’d get more out of it now, but it looks pretty impressive just sitting there. I’m inclined to leave well enough alone.
What managed to stick with me was mostly Zeno of Elea, one of those ancient, wacky Greek philosophers who left bread crumbs for future generations. Zeno is known to us for his paradoxes, thought experiments proposing that motion might be an illusion. An object traveling from point A to B must first go halfway. There are an infinite number of points between A and B, and therefore an infinite number of halfway spots, and thus nobody ever goes anywhere.
It’s a sort of ancient Greek joke, perhaps designed to make some future young person feel inadequate, although the joke’s now on Zeno. I comprehend motion just fine these days. I have a Fitbit.
Lots of people do. It can be a Fitbit or a Garmin or an Apple Watch or just a regular pedometer, but we’re trackers now, seeking steps. It’s become an electronic mother, nagging us to stop sitting and go outside to play.
That part isn’t a joke. Societies and cultures vary widely, but it’s not too general to suggest that over the past decades, human beings have become a largely sedentary population. Notice how cleverly I snuck in “largely” right there.
We’ve got plenty to worry about in this world, enough for an old story to slip off the front pages, but the obesity epidemic we were all reading about a few years ago hasn’t gone anywhere, except up. A recent New York Times article demonstrated how obesity has now come to Brazil, along with junk food, but why pick on South America? This is a global condition, and it’s getting worse. In a modern world in which hunger is still very much a problem, more people are obese than underweight.
I don’t know if this is a crisis, concern, or just a statistical snapshot with unclear consequences. I’m just aware that we’re getting fatter, because it’s not hard to see. Watch a movie or TV show from 40 years ago; ignore the stars and look at the extras, the people passing by on the street or in the store. By today’s standards, most of them are remarkably lean people.
Again, I don’t know what this means other than steady employment for endocrinologists. We may be destined to be a race of chubby life forms, huffing and puffing a little but not likely to eat ourselves into extinction. I know plenty of technically obese people who are fit, healthy and, importantly, happy. Being overweight has health consequences, but fat isn’t fatal.
It also isn’t permanent, or doesn’t have to be. I speak as a recovering fat person, one who wasn’t healthy and happy. One whose weight gain wasn’t some genetic imperative, I suspect, but more a bad attitude and the result of bad choices. I wasn’t the type of person I describe above, someone who exercised regularly, who moved, who ate a healthy diet and just packed on some pounds, as will happen. I was miserable.
A friend brought this up a few weeks ago. He’s not obese, but he seems lately more interested in fitness and healthy living. He wondered why I didn’t write about it more. I rolled my eyes, a little.
I’ve written about it dozens of times, from the beginning of this path to some of the more peculiar detours, until I reached a point of even boring myself. I’m glad it happened, but I can’t imagine my story helping anyone else, assuming anyone wants help.
But my friend is a smart guy, and he pushed my columnist buttons. Were there a few details of my mostly unremarkable life that might be useful to a random reader? Other than the books I own but rarely open?
And it’s been 10 years.
In September 2007, alarmed at a scale that was heading in the wrong direction, I sketched out a plan and started. I remain a lazy person, discipline never my strong suit, much preferring a recliner to a treadmill. I love ice cream, chocolate, fried anything. If I eat something that’s green and leafy, it probably blew in my mouth when I was mowing the lawn.
But 10 years ago I lost 100 pounds, and they remain lost. Next week I’ll tell you what happened. Set your Fitbit.
Or skip it, and just read a good book. I’ve got a suggestion.