On Weight Watchers and Long Walks - Issue #11
Or, how I grasped for autonomy wherever I could find it in 2020
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I’ve lost 16 pounds since this summer—half of that since launching this newsletter in September. And, yes, I’m shamelessly using this platform to brag a bit, but stay with me because those two things—the weight loss and the newsletter—are related.
This past year has been awful for almost everybody. It started terrible for me personally, when my dad fell and went to the hospital in January. For the next two months, it was visits to the hospital and then the nursing home and then the slow and painful realization that this was going to get worse until it couldn’t get any worse. On a Monday in March he passed away. My family and I had just enough time to throw together a wake and a funeral and while we were busy with all of that, Coronavirus arrived, and then what was a bad year for us became a bad year for everybody.
We’ve all sacrificed so much—and, of course, for those who contracted Covid-19 or lost loved ones to it, so much more. But for most of us, this sacrifice has meant a loss of control over our lives. Due to circumstances far beyond our ability to reckon with them, we had to change everything. And this brings me back to the weight loss and the newsletter. I realize now, as I’ve been reflecting on the year, that both were efforts to regain some kind of control over my life. I don’t like that word: control. Maybe I mean autonomy (checks the dictionary quickly to get a precise definition of autonomy: the right or condition of self-government). Yes, let’s go with autonomy.
The newsletter first. In July, Zadie Smith, author of, most famously, White Teeth, published a short book of essays call Intimations, which was a reflection on life in the pandemic. You read that right: by July, Zadie Smith had already written enough essays to constitute a small collection to be edited and published for the reading public. Between that and the fact Taylor Swift keeps putting out (pretty decent) quarantine records…it’s enough to make me want to bury my head in the sand. Anyway, the point is, one of Smith’s essays, “Peonies,” is all about the way that this loss of autonomy is difficult, especially for writers who spend so much time trying to arrange life into narratives that make sense. She writes:
Writing is control…Experience—mystifying, overwhelming, conscious, subconscious—rolls over everybody. We try to adapt, to learn, to accommodate, sometimes resisting, other times submitting to, whatever confronts us. But writers go further: they take this largely shapeless bewilderment and pour it into a mold of their own devising. Writing is all resistance.
This helped me understand that this newsletter was, for me, an act of resistance. I can’t control the way that experience is just rolling over me, but I can resist in this small way.
Okay, but the weight loss (did I mention I lost 16 pounds?)…how does that fit here? It’s the same thing. While I could no longer be in a classroom with my students or at a restaurant with Steph or at playgrounds with my kids or, you know, anywhere, I could take control (ugh, that word again) of my body. There was so much I couldn’t fix, but I could fix the way I felt wearing a too-tight shirt. So I did. And I did it by exerting (say it) control. For months, I’ve tracked every meal I’ve eaten into my WW app (it used to be called Weight Watchers, but I guess we don’t say “weight” anymore? I don’t know). This is control. I mean, autonomy. This is predictability. I know, for example, that if I want to eat pizza on Friday for movie night, I need to make better choices leading up to Friday. Or, and this was my saving grace, I could exercise, thus gaining points to spend on pizza and non-alcoholic beer (ask me about that sometime). So, as I’ve mentioned here, I take long walks every morning and this too is a means of exerting my autonomy. Over the course of the past several months, even as the weather has gotten colder, my walks grew longer until eventually I realized that I was walking 40-45 minutes each morning, or exactly the length of my former commute to campus. Covid stole my commute, which was, for me, quiet thinking time, so I stole it back and, bonus, it helped me lose weight. Screw you, Covid.
One more thing. Now that the semester has come to a close, I’ve transitioned to some fun reading and, as such, I began “The Murderbot Diaries” series by Martha Wells, which is precisely as awesome as it sounds. It’s about a human-robot hybrid created by a corporation for the purposes of protection, who hacks his governor module, which is supposed to make him obey commands and he becomes—you guessed it—autonomous. And what does he do with his autonomy? Well besides make snarky comments about the humans he’s meant to protect, he watches a ton of shows on the futuristic equivalent of Netflix. What I really like about him—he refers to himself as “Murderbot,” hence the series title—is that even given his newfound autonomy, he keeps doing his job. He still risks his life to protect his people.
Autonomy isn’t about being free of all responsibility to others. Rather, I think, autonomy is about recognizing one’s place in a larger community and balancing obligations to that community with obligations to oneself. It’s the right to self-govern, within a larger system of governance.
For all it’s terribleness, one good thing about this year is that it has forcefully reminded us Americans—so obsessed with our autonomy—that we are part of larger communities and that being part of a community means giving up some autonomy. This year has asked more of us than many—including me—cared to give, but it has also provided the opportunity to see clearly the delineation between dependence and autonomy, and to resist wherever we can, be it in writing or walking or losing weight (did I mention that yet?).
Resist on, friends.
What I’m Listening To:
Christmas music! Thanks to my friend Josh for recommending Stephan Moccio’s album “Winter Poems,” which combines my obsession with instrumental piano music with Christmas music.
What I’m Reading:
I’ve already mentioned Murderbot, but I’m also reading Uncanny Valley by New Yorker writer Anna Wiener, which is a (critical) memoir of her time working in Silicon Valley.
What I’m Watching:
Okay, I know this isn’t part of the usual roundup, but I have to recommend this short documentary, produced, apparently, by Patagonia, about an old friend named Zahan Billimoria. Zahan and Kim, his wife, graduated from Gordon a year before I did, but they stuck around for a bit and we became friends. Or, as I look back on it, a more accurate description would be that they became mentors to me. I remember many heady conversations about war and peace and justice, and I really can’t quantify the impact that they had on my life in the short time we were together. Anyway, the documentary is about what happened after they left Massachusetts. Zahan is apparently now a mountain guide/superhero, and this is his story. It’s pretty amazing and beautifully shot and definitely worth 27 minutes of your time.
Thank you, as always, for reading.