Friday, January 03, 2003


Quite a fight has broken out on Spleenville over the merits of Tolkien and whether reading fantasy is a good thing. I stayed out of this one largely because the main person keeping the argument going, one A.C. Douglas, reminds me of some of the most head-bangingly annoying people I used to encounter when I frequented message boards. The main error these people make is to think that if you are sufficiently cynical, you don't need to support your arguments. The evil of the world is self-evident, and if you question it, you're hopelessly blind and naive. Truth is always dark, so dark is always truth.

But in fact, a lot of popular cynical pronouncement are not supported by evidence. Teresa Nielsen Hayden points out an example in the comments section of her post on the subject:
Lamenting the decline of literacy is another gimme, a double-platinum cliche; and what's more, it's wrong. Good news: More people are reading more books about history, languages, and mythology (plus every other subject you can think of) than ever before. Next time you're in one of the better sort of airport bookstores -- you know, the ones with all the good trade paperbacks -- notice how many of them are about history. Or go to a Barnes & Noble, go check out the History section. Not only does it have its own turf, but that section is expanding.

Right. When was the Golden Age of Literacy, anyway? In fact, that was another anachronism I thought of after writing my own Tolkien post: everyone in his books seems to be able to read. Or at least, their illiteracy never comes up. This is the great irony of a bestselling book celebrating the world before the printing press.

The greater irony is that Tolkien's decriers are falling for the same myth that he was -- as I described in the earlier post, the paganish belief in an ideal past that has degenerated into the present. The article that set off the whole argument makes the bizarre assertion that fantasy lets us avoid the fact that "we have made no moral or intellectual progress for thousands of years and have grown most in our capacity to do ill. We flee to fantasy in recoil from truth." And yet, that was exactly the point that Tolkien was making.
The skinny, part 2

The New Republic today says being overweight isn't bad for you. The real problem is being sedentary. It also gives some rather alarming evidence that losing weight can increase your mortality rate, but that seems to be mainly from using drugs, eating too little and gaining and losing repeatedly, none of which applies to me.

Speaking of weight loss, John Ellis is incentivizing himself by printing his weight every time he blogs. That may be a little excessive; your weight tends to wobble around a bit by the day, so I've generally weighed myself once a week. But anyway, I wish him the best.

Thursday, January 02, 2003

The skinny

Virginia Postrel links to a Reason article debunking a study that touting the low-carb Atkins diet. The study didn't count the 43% of participants who dropped out, and he adds:
Gary Foster of the University of Pennsylvania co-authored a study conducted in virtually the same manner as Westman's. Foster, whose work will soon appear in a major medical journal, provides a simple explanation for the Atkins weight loss. The regimen "gives people a framework to eat fewer calories, since most of the choices in this culture are carbohydrate driven," he says. "Over time people eat fewer calories."

Randy Seeley of the University of Cincinnati co-authored yet another "sister study" with similar results. His explanation is the same as Foster's. Ultimately, Atkins is nothing more than a low-calorie diet in disguise.

Now, I have a personal interest in weight loss, having shed 35 pounds recently myself. I didn't do it by the Atkins diet or anything like it. But I wonder if the article -- and the study -- is asking the right question. People keep asking if such-and-such a diet "works" as if there should be some eating plan out there that would cause everybody who uses it to lose weight. But I doubt such a thing exist, or will ever exist, because the question assumes everybody is the same.

From my own anecdotal evidence, I'd say people have radically different experiences of eating. For instance, my sister, who has always been thin, hits an abrupt shutoff point when she's eaten enough. It doesn't matter how much is left in front of her; if she's full, she loses interest. Me, I can go on for a while and not realize how full I am until later. A July 2001 New Yorker article by Atul Gawande provided medical support for this:
When food enters your stomach and duodenum (the upper portion of the small intestine), it triggers stretch receptors, protein receptors, and fat receptors that signal the hypothalmus to induce stiety. Nothing stimulates the reaction more quickly than fat. Even a small amount, once it reaches the duodenum, will cause a person to stop eating. Still we eat too much fat. How can this be? It turns out that foods can trigger receptors in the mouth which get the hypothalamus to accelerate our intake -- and, again, the most potent stimulant is fat. A little bit on the tongue, and the receptors push us to eat fast, before the gut signals shut us down...Apparently, how heavy one becomes is determined, in part, by how the hypothalamus and the brain stem adjuicate the conflicting signals from the mouth and the gut.

But that's just the beginning of the complications. People also vary in what kinds of foods they like, what time of day they're hungriest (you can divide the world into breakfast eaters and non-breakfast eaters), whether they prefer a few meals or a lot of little snacks, and so on. People also overeat for different reasons. I overate because I had a rather overactive appetite; I would eat a little too much at every meal, and over time it built up. But I also have a friend who claims to barely feel hunger at all, yet overeats because he just enjoys the tastes. Some people get heavier with age because they developed youthful eating habits and never changed. And then there are people who binge when they're under emotional stress, like alcoholics turn to drink.

That is why I never succeeded in losing weight until I essentially designed my own diet. I actually got started two years ago when I signed up for some personal training at my gym. The trainer weighed me, measured me, applied some pincers to various parts of my body, and entered it all into a computer to determine how many calories I needed to maintain my weight, and (by extension) how many I needed to lose weight. He mapped out this whole plan for me, and I took it home and almost immediately started fiddling with it. I pretty soon started ignoring the protein/fat/carbo ratios it called for (which I think was mainly to make sure I didn't malnourish myself, since I was eating less.) I found that I was too hungry with the original calorie count, so I adjusted it upward a bit so it was still below maintenance level. (Also, like a lot of women, I found my appetite varied over the course of the month, and adjusted to that too.) The result was that I lost weight slower. But that was a trade-off I was willing to make.

Basically, I treated the diet as a negotiation between my natural appetite and my desire to lose weight. With a bit of trial and error, I found a reasonable comprimise. But the trouble with the diet culture today is that hardly anyone treats it like that. There's this Manichean moralism about the whole thing. As a writer in put it in a women's magazine I read years ago, "When you hear women today talk about temptation and sin, guilt and shame, they're likely talking about food." People routinely say they're "being good" when they're sticking to a diet, and "being bad" when they slip.

Of course, most people who say this don't really think of dieting as a moral issue on plane with, say, war with Iraq. But I do think that the language means something real, and that makes eating and dieting so difficult for so many people. For one thing, it leads to the idea I mentioned earlier that there's One True Way to lose weight, instead of taking all the human differences into account. But what makes it even more Manichean, in the true sense of the 3rd-century cult of Mani, is that it regards the bodily appetite as the enemy. Rather than trying to work and negotiate with it as I did, many dieters make a wholesale attack on it. As a result, of course, appetite rebels, and it usually wins.

This exaggerated idea of dieting as self-denial, I think also leads to the dream of a diet with no self-denial. As Reason puts it, "Our increasingly obese population is desperate for some magical formula to avoid the physiological law that body fat is determined by calories in and calories out." If you consider a diet as a battle between thinness and pleasure, without the possibility of compromise, no wonder.

The Manicheanism also is applied to the food itself. People are forever trying to figure out what foods are "good" and which ones are "bad." Is milk good because it has protein, vitamins and minerals, or bad because it has animal fat? How about peanuts? I was thinking of this when I read a New York Times article that's been going around the blogosphere about the benefits of moderate drinking. Apparently, evidence of this was suppressed for a while because people didn't want to spread the idea that alcohol is "good." And in excess, of course, it's still extremely bad for you. With food and drink, as with so many other things, it's all about the dosage.

All this dualism has led, I think, to the rigid nature of so many diets. Of course, some people like rigid. I have an uncle who lost 70 pounds on a plan where he weighs all is food, is forbidden to eat flour, and has other weird rules. I couldn't do it, but he's been at it for more than 10 years, so more power to him. But again, one size does not fit all. I think for a lot of people dieting is like having a mental slavemaster in your ear, telling you you can't make a single mistake or you'll fall into the abyss. No wonder they can't stick to them.

Why the excessive moralism about eating? It might be a certain residual Puritanism in the culture -- the feeling that anything pleasurable, especially fleshly, must be morally suspect. It is as if, being abandoned elsewhere, our Puritanism attaches itself to food. But I also think people are confusing behavior with the motives. Dieting calls for self-control and putting the long term ahead of the short term. Both of these are, to a certain extent, necessary for virtue. But this ignores what the motive is. While it's true that some religious and moral systems see a positive good in taking care of the body (St. Paul would say it's a temple of God, and should not be abused), and gluttony as a sin, most overeating doesn't rise to the level either of gluttony or a health threat. We want to lose weight so we can look good. There's nothing moral about it. It's not immoral, but there's no special virtue to it.

Realizing all this made the whole thing a lot easier for me. But of course, the diet industry stands to lose a lot of money if everybody freelances it like I did.

Tuesday, December 31, 2002

Boy meets girl

Calpundit pays tribute to the strong female characters in the Oz books. He also makes a (presumably half-joking) case that Ozma was a proto-transsexual:
The lovely Ozma of Oz, pictured on the right, is the kind, efficient, and obviously female ruler of Oz who takes over after the wizard is exposed. But who is Ozma?

Answer: Ozma is Tip, a boy throughout the entire second book, The Land Of Oz, who is transformed into a girl by Glinda when all the men prove themselves to be hopelessly muddled rulers.

But wait, you say, Ozma is no transsexual. This is magic, not reality, and magic is an entirely different kettle of fish with no social implications. Not so. In fact, Baum was a theosophist who believed that magic and science were just two sides of the same coin.

Now, I grant it's been a looong time since I read the book, but as I remember it Ozma was born female but transformed into a boy to disguise her identity. Glinda was thus restoring her natural state. If I were an aspiring transsexual, I would not take heart from this.

Eve Tushnet also asks a good question: "...I wonder how his case for Baum's feminism can be squared with the disastrous (if I'm recalling the book correctly) results of Jinjur's army of women?" Again, long time since I read it, but the Jinjur story certainly seemed like an attack on feminism. The all-female army briefly takes over the Emerald City and forces all the husbands and wives to switch roles, making women have jobs and men care for the children. This makes everyone miserable until the coup is overthrown.

This story is a bit strange, because as Calpundit says, Oz is basically a matriarchy. But one fact he left out is that all those strong female characters are unmarried and childless. Baum could envision women ruling whole countries but evidently he couldn't envision them in any other family role but the traditional one.
On a roll

So for some time Minute Particulars (clearly a trailblazer) was the only soul to have me on his blogroll. Now in the past couple days I find myself on two more: Ideofact, the wonderful blog of historical and religious arcana that was already on my own blog roll, and a new blog called Chronica Majora. The blog's mission statement is unique:
I have in mind to reproduce the chonicles written by my namesake Matthew Paris between the years 1235 and 1272. In his Chronica Majora, Brother Matthew wrote of the doings of his nation and his king, as well as of the foreign affairs of the time, for this was the era of Crusades, Crusades against Saracens in the Orient and heretics in Europe. His narrative is a window into England of the 13th century. This Chronica Majora, in the Year of Our Lord 2002, will also be a window, a window onto America and the world in the 21st century.

I don't much like the implicit analogy of the current conflicts to the Crusades (I imagine Aziz Poonawalla and Mr. Paris could have quite a go at each other). But I've got to give the guy creativity points. Takes all kinds to make a blogosphere...

Monday, December 30, 2002

The land that time forgot

I mentioned earlier that I went to see The Two Towers on its opening night, but never got around to blogging about it. I enjoyed it. I actually didn't have to deal with the giant spider because they apparently pushed that to the beginning of the next movie (it was at the very end of the second book). It was more violent than I remember the book being; I don't think there was actually more violence in the movie, but there was less other stuff to ameliorate it. Some of the parts of the book that I remember best, and enjoyed most, actually weren't relevant to the plot but showed Tolkien's remarkable otherwordly imagination, such as the society of Ents, or Tom Bombadil and his wife the river-daughter. I understand why the movie trimmed it down just to what moved the plot along, but the dallying in magical realms was part of the books' appeal. But I'm amazed, as are some others, at how much the movie images looked like the pictures in my head while I was reading.

While I've been flaking off, other bloggers have been discussing the movie and the books. There have been some interesting discussions about how Tolkien's Catholicism is or isn't expressed in the novels. I think I agree most with Patrick Nielsen Hayden's take:
Of course it's a novel by a Christian, and Tolkien himself called it "a fundamentally religious and Catholic work." But for such a supposedly Christian work, the morality of The Lord of the Rings is as much infused with the stoical pessimism of the ancient world as with hope for redemption. Professor Shippey addresses this at length, observing that Tolkien spent his academic life on works like Beowulf and the Elder Edda, works of grim paganism passed down to us by later Christian writers. "The whole poem Beowulf," writes Shippey, "is a meditation between contrary opinions, with strong similarities to The Lord of the Rings." Mooney quotes Christian critics who extol the trilogy's images of "Christ-like sacrifice," but as Mooney points out, The Lord of the Rings is a story of universal loss. Evil is defeated for a while, but the world is diminished. As a medievalist quoted in Mooney's article observes, it's a "very Norse outlook: Even the winners lose."

In the Chris Mooney piece that Patrick links are some interesting quotes from Tolkien himself about his story's paganism: "In another letter, Tolkien outlined his aspiration to create a new mythology for England, describing the existing body of Arthurian legend as inadequate for the role because it 'explicitly contains the Christian religion.' (He added, 'That seems to me fatal.') References to real-world belief systems, Tolkien thought, would detract from the beguiling timelessness he hoped to convey."

This reminded me of Huston Smith's discussion of paganism in The World's Religions:
In constrast to the historical religions of the West, which are messianically forward looking, primal religions give the appearance of looking toward the past. That is not altogether wrong, and from the Western perspective, where time is linear, there is no other way to put the matter. But primal time is not linear, a straight line that moves from the past, through the present, into the future. It is not even cyclical as the Asian religions tend to regard it, turning in the way the world turns and seasons cycle. Primal time is atemporal, but the paradox can be relieved if we see that primal time focuses on causal rather than chronological sequence; for primal peoples, "past" means preeminently closer to the originating Source of things. That the Source precedes the present is of secondary importance.

The word Source is used here to refer to the gods who, where they did not actually create the world, ordered it and gave it its viable structure. The gods continue to exist, of course, but that does not shift interest to the present, for the past continues to be considered the Golden Age. When divine creation had suffered no ravages of time and mismanagement, the world was as it should be. That is no longer the case, for a certain enfeeblement has occurred; thus steps are needed to restore the world to its original condition.

That attitude runs strongly through Lord of the Rings; really, it's the whole plot. That concept relates to Christianity in the Garden of Eden story (one reason it always seems so pagan to me), but Christianity is primarily a faith of historical events. A man lived and died in Judea around 2000 years ago; the center of God's work is tied to a place and time, to names and dates. This did not fit with Tolkien's vision.

And yet, reading the novels reminded me of how hard it actually is to be "timeless." When we think we've done things a certain way forever they become timeless, even if we haven't. So Tolkien's hobbits smoke and drink tea, though those habits in Europe only go back around 400 years; they use the Julian calendar, thought that's barely older than Jesus. Probably to a lot of moderns those things seem eternal, but it depends on how much you know. I remember the calendar really jarred me when I read the books, because it seems so utterly Roman, with its months named for gods and emperors and its detachment from natural cycles. I'd think Middle-Earth would have a lunar or lunisolar calendar of some sort. Can't you imagine Frodo and crew setting out on "the first quarter of fall" rather than Sept. 23 or whatever it was?

But that's the sort of error that paganism makes. The planet is full of myths about how these people were always in this place, they grew out of the earth, when archaelogy shows they moved in just 500 or 1000 years earlier. I remember reading about a South American tribe in college who thought they had always grown plantains, though it's historical fact that Europeans brought plantains in from Asia some 400 years ago. And almost everyone, including Tolkien, ignores the fact that for much of human history there was no farming at all.

Another feature of paganism that Smith describes, and one can see in LOTR, is the holiness of places, especially natural places. Smith quotes a Native American author whose uncle tells him, "Do you see that bluff over there? Oren, you are that bluff. And that giant pine on the other shore? Oren, you are that pine. And this water that supports our boat? You are this water." Tolkien doesn't go that far, but he clearly loves his landscape, describing it in greater detail than many of the animate characters. The villains use and despoil the land (and in the form of the Ents, the land strike back).

This attachment to certain places and ways of doing things, in a world that keeps stubbornly changing, is what gives LOTR its gloomy feel. And it's what dooms paganism in today's world, I think. The great missionary religions of the world, that have succeeded outside their homelands -- Christianity, Islam and Buddhism -- all accept the transience of this earth and seek permanence elsewhere. It's what Tolkien did, apparently, but not without a longing, backward glance.