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Body Respect

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Disclaimer — one author of this book is named Linda Bacon, PH.D. Chuckle chuckle…

To all my friends who are wearers of white coats — in and out of med school, residency, you name it, I encourage you to give Body Respect a gander. It will expand and challenge your thinking on the much-ingrained “obesity epidemic” and the most authentic, productive definitions of health, whether or not you ultimately choose to accept some of its rather radical suggestions. For the average citizen, it puts forth a lot of radical information about what it means to have a healthy relationship to food. I found much of the information comforting and affirming, some it a little scary, but always grounded in solid research. Here are a few tidbits of what surprised me:

According to this source, BMI — Body Mass Index — is not the end-all, be all health indicator that it’s cracked up to be. Currently anything above 25 is categorized as overweight, when health risks don’t really kick in until much higher than that. The U.S. set its standards for overweight and obese according to international standards, which were heavily influenced by pharmaceutical companies selling prescription weight loss pills.

This article recently published in The New York Times about the Biggest Loser corroborates a lot of what Body Respect says about weight management. Essentially, there are a lot of unconscious forces at work in your body — for example, gut bacteria — that keep your body working to maintain a certain weight, a weight that may not match your desire for your high school figure or what you see in airbrushed magazines. So, treating your body like a machine — calories in, calories out — works in the short term, but then your body will react and try to recalibrate to its desired weight by increasing your appetite, slowing your metabolism, etc. This isn’t to say don’t cut calories to try to lose weight, but it does help explain why our weight loss efforts are often so short-lived. And it’s good to keep in mind when pursuing that ever-elusive weight loss goal in a healthy way.

Perhaps the most radical suggestion put forth by the authors of Body Respect is that health is achievable at a variety of weights and a variety of sizes. The authors view fatness as a form of diversity that deserves the same respect as race or ethnicity. They also delve into some interesting explanations of why “fatness” is their preferred term for describing large people with respect. My mind immediately hearkens to a picture of a very fat teenager dressed to the nines to celebrate her prom, which recently made the rounds on social media. I happened to have just finished Body Respect when I overheard several of my students throwing in their two cents about the photo — “At some point if you’re that fat you deserve to get heat; you need to do something about it” “Well, sometimes it’s a thyroid issue…” and I found myself struck by the overhaul of cultural beliefs that would need to take place if I tried to articulate the more accepting perspective of these authors…

The authors also have some pretty radical research findings to combat the view that America is suffering from an unprecedented “obesity epidemic.” Like I said, radical — all kinds of public platforms teach us that a lower body weight = good health. And fat bodies being an accepted form of body diversity? That can be a hard pill to swallow. I encourage you to read the book for yourself to make your own sense of these claims, but for now, I think it’s a healthy step forward to develop respect for our bodies, as they are, and to distinguish between being healthy and a size [insert your preference].

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Lila

Screen Shot 2015-04-27 at 8.55.59 AMMarilynne Robinson’s newest novel, “Lila,” tells the story of a woman plucked from her family’s doorstep by a migrant worker, Doll, subsisting on farm work from one cornfield to the next. When we first meet her, an adult Lila has been waiting out the days in a small Iowa town, sleeping in a shack and idly tending the town preacher’s garden. She and the preacher, John Ames, develop a strange intimacy borne of Lila’s spontaneous gestures of affection, her poverty and vulnerability, her abrupt, disarming questions about God and religion.

As their relationship deepens, Lila confronts the many hardships of her past, trying to reconcile her pervasive feelings of shame and loneliness with the admiration and appreciation she incites so naturally in the wise old reverend. Between haunting flashbacks of her past, sparse, charged conversations with the reverend in the strange tranquility of their new home together and long passages revealing her passing thoughts about faith, loneliness and love, we get a searing portrait of a mysterious, paradoxical character, reflecting the deep mystery of life itself.

Lila’s relationship with the preacher is often shrouded in long, loaded silences. Her memories of being a prostitute, washing bloodstains off her caretaker after a knife fight, sleeping in the dirt with a wet rag over her face to shut out the dust, are confided to the reader in detail and then guarded from him, replaced by searching, philosophical questions about the Bible and offhand, defensive warnings like “You don’t know me” and “I never trust anyone.”

As for the reverend, we can only glean as much about his feelings and thoughts as Lila shares from the outside: his ongoing attempts to make her comfortable in a domestic, ladylike setting, his fears that she’ll leave, coupled with his pains to give her space, his deliberately unresolved, open responses when they discuss religion. His strong attraction to Lila appears to be connected to his intuitive beliefs about God and grace, as if Lila’s earnestness and honesty strikes a nerve in his lifelong pursuit of Christian truths. He marvels at the doggedness with which she seeks out difficult chapters from the Bible, like Job and Ezekial. The instinctive kind of raw kindness that Lila demonstrates to strangers, including his deceased wife and son, whose graves she attends with roses. The boldness with which she seeks him out, stealing his sweater, and asking him to marry her, then retreats, grappling with openness and trust. He often comments on her unpredictable nature. We can gather that her ability to surprise him is one primary reason she stirs him up. But the mystery of their bond, balanced by small, rich moments that we witness feeding it, reinforces the intensity and sacredness of falling in love.

There’s a scene where Lila returns to the shack she’d been barely surviving in before they met, presumably to retrieve a jar of money hidden under the floorboards but more deeply because returning to that place of poverty and isolation makes her feel like herself again. She feels compelled to escape the reverend’s trusting, forgiving embrace.  When she gets there, she meets a boy who ran away after hitting his father with firewood, possibly killing him. Out of pity she leaves him her coat and the money, wandering back home without protection from the bitter cold. The reverend is out looking for her when she crawls shivering into their bed, and when he gets home, he’s pale, weary, drawn, visibly shaken by Lila’s disappearance and the sight of a potential murderer wearing her things. She tells him she felt sorry for the boy and his eyes fill up with tears, saying “I do know you.”

Given their vast differences — his education, social connectedness and familial roots in the town, her nomadic childhood, piecing together a fluid perception of the world from one field, one odd job to the next — their union highlights a truth that applies to all relationships, though it is exaggerated in their case: the fact that every human being is fundamentally a mystery to each other, no matter how familiar. That loneliness isn’t a product of being alone or even a lack of intimacy, but rather arises from fleeting impressions of the world’s vast contradictions. And so Lila’s loneliness persists. For example, she struggles with the notion that her beloved Doll was apathetic toward religion, and in the most objective sense, a grave sinner. Her loyalty and love for Doll puts her at a distance from the reverend, whose worldview doesn’t allow Doll the same wholehearted acceptance and unequivocal loyalty.

I read the Pulitzer Prize winning “Gilead” about five or six years ago, to which Lila is the prequel. In “Gilead,” the reverend writes to his and Lila’s now seven-year old son as he prepares to die. As with most books, I hardly remember any specifics, only the general impression that it was sad, spiritually rich and beautifully written, that I remember loving it. “Gilead” is absolutely worth a read, but it’s worth mentioning that “Lila” stands alone from it, self-contained in its exploration of similar themes such as the workings of grace and the mystery of everyday life.

And Robinson’s language is a reason unto itself. As with “Gilead,” her writing about Lila is pared down, concrete and immediate, grounded in what Lila observes, remembers and wonders. In Lila’s humble way of taking in her surroundings and weighing her past, never overreaching for meaning or presuming to understand life’s mysterious nature, the prose possesses an elegance and astuteness. On that note, I’ll leave you with a handful of my favorite quotes:

“Doll may have been the loneliest woman in the world, and she was the loneliest child, and there they were, the two of them together, keeping each other warm in the rain.”

“She loved the smell of dirt, and the feel of it. She had to make herself wash it off her hands.”

“Lila’s thoughts were strange sometimes. They always had been. She had hoped getting baptized might help with it, but it didn’t.”

“She knew a little about existence. That was pretty well the only thing she knew about, and she had learned the word for it from him. It was like the United States of America — they had to call it something.”

“In that letter he had said there’s no such thing as safety. Existence can be fierce, she did know that. A storm can blow up out of a quiet day, wind that takes your life out of your hands, your soul out of your body.”

“The old man would look into her face for sadness or weariness, and she would turn her face away, since there was no telling what he might see in it, her thoughts being what they were.”

“Now here she had this preacher, maybe the kindest man in the world, and no idea what to do with him.”

“She thought for a few days that she must have come to the end of her life, because it felt so much like the beginning of it.”

“So. ‘Things happen for reasons that are hidden from us, utterly hidden for as long as we think they must proceed from what has come before, our guilt or our deserving, rather than coming to us from a future that God in his freedom offers to us.’”

“‘I can’t love you as much as I love you. I can’t feel as happy as I am.’”

For more about “Lila,” here is the New York Times book review.  

Embracing the Selfie Ethos

Cristian Iohan Ştefănescu #selfie CC BY 2.0We are all the stars of our own movies, the protagonists of our own stories, but it seems, with the “selfi(ie) generation” at the helm, as a society we’ve become more self-consciously so, keen on having an audience. Lately I’ve been wondering if this is such a bad thing — as my Facebook feed is inundated with babies and couple shots and cool views from exotic locales, it seems there’s more to the culture of selfies than narcissism. It has to do with a basic appreciation of life, a move toward sharing and celebrating the little moments.

I wonder if the selfie ethos is shaping us to savor our lives a bit more, to be more ebullient and overflowing and public with our little victories — more connected as a result of social media, not less.

There is an interesting CNN article about “the upside of selfies” that reveals some surprisingly positive statistics: according to Common Sense Media, one in five teens reports to feeling more confident as a result of social media, versus 4% feeling less confident. 29% of 13-17 year-olds report that social media made them feel less shy.

According to Rebecca Levey, the founder of a video platform for tweens, social media is an opportunity for kids with niche interests to find each other. It’s also a place for tweens and teens — and full-grown adults — to make their voices heard about important issues.

The New York Times has a name for such tweens and teens, and some of those full-grown adults — it’s called “digital natives,” folks who never had to adapt to the internet, for whom a virtual reality was always a matter of fact. Apparently, these so-called millenials are “the first in the modern era to have higher levels of student loan debt, poverty and unemployment, and lower levels of wealth and personal income than their two immediate predecessor generations had at the same age.” Who can knock ‘em for cheerleading their way through, for slapping a selfie on a genuinely difficult struggle?

I’m increasingly inclined to view my friends’ status updates, hashtags, and photo uploads as something to celebrate. Hear me? I want in on the minutiae of your life — it’s life-affirming to share it.

In the meantime, allow me to indulge in the selfie culture myself, by showing you what I made: muffins! That’s right — look at me, look at what I made! Orange marmalade muffins. They’re delicious. Or at least, I think so. Me. Myself(ie). And I. Here’s the recipe:

Orange Marmalade Muffins
Adapted from The Pioneer Woman Cooks

Ingredients

2 oranges
2 sticks butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon baking soda

Tools

Microplane zester
Cutting board
Sifter
Mixing bowls
Measuring cups and spoons
Stand Mixer with paddle attachment

  • Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Grate the zest of the two oranges. Measure the flour and sift it into a bowl.
  • Cream the butter and the granulated sugar.
  • Add the eggs and mix until combined.
  • Add the flour and the brown sugar and mix until just combined.
  • Combine the buttermilk and the baking soda. Add it to the mixture and stir until just combined.
  • Stir in the orange zest.
  • Line a muffin tin with paper liners and fill 2/3 full with batter. Bake until light brown and a toothpick inserted in the middle of the muffin comes out clean, about 13-15 minutes.
  • I had enough batter to repeat a second time, making six more muffins. Fill the empty muffin cups with water.
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