Thursday, September 27, 2012

In Which Being Happy and Being Healthy Are Very Similar

Since I wrote this post about being happy, several people have said to me, "Badger, that sounds well and good, but can you put it into practical terms?

I can, and I'm going to talk about one of my favorite things:  food.  I'm going to lay out my philosophy for having a healthy diet, which is remarkably like my philosophy for having a happy life, and I'll even explain why at the end.

1.  Know your limitations.  This may seem like a downer of a way to start, but when you're looking at building a healthy diet, the first thing you have to do is figure out where to say an absolute 'no' to yourself.  Are  you allergic to any foods?  Do you have any sensitivities, or any conditions like Celiac Disease or lactose intolerance?  Cut out the things that damage you, that should be nourishing you but are attacking you instead.  For now, whether you 'should' do certain things is irrelevant, 'dietary guidelines' are irrelevant.  Simply try to identify all the things that actively harm or poison you, and cut them out of your life.  I, for example, cannot have artificial sweeteners; they give me migraines.  Rather than lamenting my inability to have something most people can have without trouble, I accept that I have a non-negotiable hard boundary that limits me in some small way.  I incorporate that boundary (and a few others) at the foundation of every meal I build and every set of decisions I make about food.  It's part of who I am.

2.  Know your history.  Do you have any addictions?  Any relationship with certain types of food you feel you don't control?  A fear of trying new things?  Do you have a condition like diabetes or high blood pressure, that affects the choices you need to make about food?  Did  your family express love through certain types of foods?  Did your family instill certain 'food rules' in you?  Where, simply put, do the attitudes you manifest come from?  My mother instilled in me at an early age that it's not dinner unless there is a green vegetable included.  I've been able to expand this to things like squash, but if I try to eat just meat and potatoes for dinner, I feel unfulfilled because my internal expectations for 'dinner' haven't been fulfilled, no matter how much I eat.  Learning to acknowledge my expectations and determine whether they're reasonable has been one of the most empowering things in my entire life.

3.  Really understand your goals -- and the goals behind them.  If you ask someone, "Why do you want to lose weight?" you could get back a variety of answers:  to be healthier, to be more attractive, to feel better about myself, my doctor says I have to, I have a really kickass dress my butt is just too wide for...the list is endless.  Sometimes, though, the answer really is, "Because I think I'm supposed to want that."  When you set goals, especially goals based around something as necessary as food, drill down through those goals until you really get to the heart of what motivates you, and make sure that what's motivating you is not, in fact, a set of expectations someone else chose for you.

4.  Make sure your choices are feeding your goals.  If you want to gain or lose weight, if you want to completely change your diet, if you want to become a locavore, if you want to raise your own food, you're going to have to make months, maybe years, of small, sustained choices that lead you to the goal in incremental steps.  If you believe that eating a certain way (paleo, organic, vegan) will bring you a set of benefits you want, then regularly check in with your habits *and* how you're feeling.  Every so often, step back and make sure that your choices are pointing at where you want to be.  If they're not, then either the choices need to change or the goal should be revised.

5.  Will is strong, but so is Science.  If you really really want to subsist on nothing but bacon and vodka, you will get scurvy and eventually die, no matter how much you believe that's a sustainable diet.  It is theoretically possible, through skilled and powerful application of tremendous Will, to bring almost anything to pass -- but if you have that sort of skill and power, why use it to change the molecular makeup of bacon to include Vitamin C when you could just drink a glass of OJ instead, and have all that energy for something else?  If you can use science and reason to your advantage, your Will can achieve more than if you try to fight them.  If, for example, I know that eating high-protein cinnamon-chocolate multi-grain oatmeal will keep me feeling full twice as long as the same number of donut calories, or that certain vitamins improve my absorption and use of other nutrients, then I can use the science to boost the power of my choices.

6.  Listen to your cravings.  Once you really start focusing on feeding yourself what you need, and paying attention to what you put into your body and bring into your life, you'll find you have a lot sharper awareness of what you want.  Generally, even the 'bad' cravings (the ones out of line with your goals) tell you something important, and you can train your body to respond to a need for iron and protein by telling you "I could murder a good steak" instead of "I need a Big Mac."  If you're willing to listen, you will generally tell yourself what you need, and how best to nourish yourself.

7.  Don't eat anything that isn't delicious.  This sounds like a stupid rule, but there are so many ways to have good, tasty, healthy, nourishing food that you should never say to yourself, "It tastes like shit, but it's good for me."  There is no 'good' food and no 'bad' food.  There is "Food that will help get me where I want to be" and "Food that will get in my way."  Never choose penance when there are joyful options.

8.  Make sure you know what you're feeding.  Some things feed your body.  Others feed your mind.  Others feed your spirit.  Ice cream may be a good source of calcium and dairy protein, but I eat it because I love it and it makes my soul happy.  You should not eat anything that doesn't nourish you, but different things will nourish you for different reasons, and once you manage to work out your cravings and listening to your needs, you'll be able to understand what to feed, and when.

Now, it should be fairly obvious how I apply these to both diet and life.  If you start from a position of knowing what it's just not reasonable for you to expect of yourself, and build yourself attainable goals that meet *your* needs, then you start to build healthy practices in focusing your energy where it'll bring you the most joy.  If you shift your life so that everything you bring into it feeds you somehow, nourishes or supports you somehow, then your path becomes much clearer.  And if you make it your daily practice to choose the joyful, nourishing, fulfilling options, you may not ever be completely free of unpleasant obligations, but they'll hold a much smaller space in your heart.

You'll notice there are no details here.  No "always eat organic" or "never eat processed sugary snacks."  That's because there's a different path to health and happiness for each of us, and we have to choose how we'll find it ourselves.  What works brilliantly for me might be poison for my friend, and you can't judge the success of your journey by how well you walk the best path for someone else.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

In Which Courtesy Gives Way to Clarity

I live in a nice quiet apartment complex.  We do not yell.  We do not throw loud parties.  We occasionally drink wine on our balconies and call "Howdy!" to our neighbors as they pass, but we're not Loud People.  When one of us *is* loud, it stands out very clearly.

Today, as I arrived home from the CostCo, I noticed that my neighbor's car alarm was going off.  The woman who lives in the apartment behind me was walking past, and we stopped for a moment, heads cocked like RCA dogs, while we talked about whether or not we thought it likely that the person sticking out of the car was stealing it, or merely unable to silence it.  We decided on the latter.

A few minutes went by.  I could see that the gentleman in question appeared to be taking his door apart, so I figured that he was having some troubles with the electrical system.  I went inside, and the alarm stopped.

Two minutes later, it started again.  The downstairs neighbors' dogs began to bark, which causes the Simple Cat a certain amount of directionless panic.

It went on for a couple of minutes, and stopped.  Then it started again, just as the cats and dogs and badgers had all calmed down.  Three more times, five minutes apiece, then on and on for almost ten minutes.

I sighed, and went out into the light rain.  I walked over to the car and said, "Is everything OK?"

The man half-into the car stood up and looked at me irritably.  The door panel was in pieces.  "Yes."

I said, "Your car was making that noise, so the other neighbor and I were thinking that we'd feel awfully silly if you were stealing it and we just watched you, so I thought I would come over and see."

"If I'm stealing it?"

"Yes.  You don't appear to be."

"Don't people who steal cars usually...TAKE them?"

I nodded.  "Yes, that's the usual way.  But this is Austin.  You could be turning it into an art car.  It doesn't look like that's the case.  You do, however, appear to be taking bits of it apart."

"Yes.  And?"

"Just observing that, and that it keeps making that noise when you do.  Do you need any help fixing your car?"

"No, it's not broken."  I refrained from pointing out that most of the door was hanging off at an unsustainable angle.  The alarm stopped.  I nodded, wished him a nice day, and turned around.  Eight steps later, the alarm went off again.  I turned around and walked back.

"Excuse me?"


"Are you sure your car's OK?"

"Yes, it's perfectly fine.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with it.  Are you sure YOU'RE OK?"

"I'm fine..."

"Great!" he said somewhat sarcastically.

"...which is best evidenced by the fact that I haven't been honking in the parking lot for the last half hour."  I unleashed the +4 Gaze of Asperity over the rims of my glasses at him.


"So, because the 'friendly chat' part of our conversation appears to have failed, allow me to clarify:  please either acknowledge that your car is broken but you are fixing it, or stop making it make that noise.  Because if your car is OK, and this is its normal state, honking and slightly disassembled, then I am going to request that it live elsewhere."

"Oh.  I'm sorry.  Yes, it's broken and I'm fixing it.  I didn't think anyone would notice the noise."

"If I may be blunt, is it likely to keep making that noise for much longer?"

"Uh, no?  I mean, I hope not."

I smiled cheerily at him.  "OK!  Thanks so much!  Enjoy the rest of your evening!"

I skipped back across the parking lot and bopped up the stairs to my apartment, leaving him standing there looking slightly confused, door panel in hand.  It went off twice more, and has been silent for the last hour and a half or so.  I remain boggled as to how you can stand next to your flashing, honking, partially disassembled car and insist that it's perfectly fine and there's not a thing wrong...

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Why I am Pro-Life

I have something in common with Planned Parenthood.  We are both pro-life.

It amazes me that people have co-opted that particular term to promote an agenda that does anything but promote life.  I could say a great deal here about how their aim is control and dominance over women, how they use the cloak of enforced morality to create a culture of shame, fear, and powerlessness.

But I won't, because this is not about them.  Enough people talk about them.

Instead, I want to talk about how Planned Parenthood and I are working together to end abortion in the only way possible:  by making it functionally obsolete.

It's a sad reality that no one wants to have an abortion.  No woman gets up one morning and says, "Boy howdy, I'm gonna make a series of choices that will end with me terminating a pregnancy!"  The myth of 'women who use abortion as birth control', who cavalierly and willfully have unprotected sex with abortion as a safety net, kind of befuddles me.  I have never, in two decades of pro-choice activism and even longer just plain hanging out with other women, met anyone who thinks that.

When a woman terminates a pregnancy, it represents a failure somewhere, somehow:

Perhaps it's a failure of education.  Comprehensive sex education would prevent many unplanned pregnancies, simply by drilling the basic biology of conception into us at a young age and ensuring that everyone past the age of puberty knows that penetrative penile-vaginal sex has a strong chance to lead to pregnancy *and* that there are ways to decrease the possibility of it doing so.  We especially need it made clear that many factors can affect a woman's fertility cycle, and that until you fully understand how your own body works, there is no such thing as a 'safe day' for unprotected sex.  We need to overcome the completely wrongheaded idea that you cannot teach young people to be both responsible and joyful about sexual intimacy.

It could also be a failure of access.  A frankly stunning number of women don't have access to safe, effective, low-cost birth control.  Many women cannot use hormonal birth control due to side effects or expense, so they're dependent upon barrier methods.  Many lack affordable healthcare, or the sole pharmacist in their town feels an obligation to enforce morality and refuse to fill a prescription.  Currently, the only options for male birth control in the US are condoms and vasectomy, neither of which is an ideal solution.

Maybe it's a failure of empowerment.  Young women are taught from an early age that they must please the men in their lives, and that can lead them to give in to pressure to have sex before they're emotionally ready, or to have unsafe sex.  Young men get a constant message that the only way to demonstrate manhood is through the display of sexual virility, preferably with multiple women.  Men and women of all ages need to believe that sex is a choice they have the right to make, or not make, wholly on their own terms and for their own reasons.  To be a virgin, to be a slut, to be a committed monogamist or an unashamed polyamorist, to broadcast your sexuality or keep it private, each of us has the right to establish our own sexual identity, and the only people we should be explaining our decisions to are our partners.

It's quite often a failure of resources.  A woman who might otherwise want to carry an unplanned pregnancy to term may find that her job or her education has to be completely derailed, especially in areas where unwed motherhood carries social stigma.  Parents may throw out or refuse to support a child who becomes a parent at the wrong time.  A couple facing an unplanned pregnancy may find themselves unable to financially cope -- not only with raising a child, but even with paying for prenatal care and delivery.  Some people might find adoptive parents to bear those expenses, but especially among minorities it's more likely that they will fall into the gap of 'too poor to afford it, but not poor enough for welfare'.

There are other, darker failures.  We have not ended rape in this country or any other.  We have not ended domestic abuse.  We have not ended human trafficking.  In each of those situations, a pregnancy can be a tie that binds you to the one who brutalized you, and in more than thirty states a rapist can sue for visitation of the child he fathered.  Abusive husbands are finding sympathetic courts to grant them visitation even when the abuse is documented, and there are advocates for laws that would allow an abuser to block his victim's abortion.  We have not ended molestation, or incest.  We do not protect those who cannot protect themselves from predators.  The 'Morning After' pill is not fully accessible, and carries many of the same side effects as hormonal birth control, but it's currently the only option for a woman who's been raped and is afraid she might get pregnant.

Some of our failures are medical.  Women who don't get good prenatal care are at higher risk of developing complications that can require the termination of a pregnancy.  We do not diagnose and address potential problems with the mother's body or her health before they become critical.  Our screening techniques for genetic predisposition to fatal birth defects aren't good enough.  We don't have options to support parents who are facing a lifetime with a disabled child and unsure of their ability to cope, or the therapies to treat many common birth defects.

Abortion, by and large, represents solvable social and technical problems, and I stand with Planned Parenthood and with those who wish to solve them:  by advocating for comprehensive sexual education at all levels of schooling; by advocating for and funding access to safe, low-cost birth control for all women; by supporting those seeking to develop better birth control options for men; by seeking to empower men and women BOTH to make responsible and informed decisions about sex and relationships; by providing better resources to those facing an unplanned pregnancy; by breaking down the social stigma applied to single motherhood; by fighting to eradicate rape, domestic abuse, human trafficking, molestation, and incest; by ensuring that everyone has low-cost, readily accessible prenatal care; by improving our understanding of pregnancy and gestation; and by improving our diagnosis, treatment, and support for potential birth defects.  And in the meantime, while we solve those problems, I stand with Planned Parenthood to fight to keep abortion safe, and legal, and accessible.

We will never end abortion by legislating against it, and I genuinely do not understand how anyone really believes we can.  In fact, given that bodies are odd things and medicine is an imperfect science, it's likely we'll never fully eradicate the need to terminate a pregnancy.  But we can create a culture of education, empowerment, and equality, in which sex is an enthusiastic and joyful sharing between partners who understand and embrace its potential to create life, and who have the tools and knowledge to choose whether or not to fulfill that potential.  In that culture, there will be no need to outlaw abortion because we'll have made it functionally obsolete.

Whenever someone tells me he or she is pro-life, if they do not support the agenda of obsolescence, then I consider them to be fundamentally mistaken about their proper title.  They are anti-choice, but they understand precious little about what it means to improve and celebrate life.