Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A rambling, melodramatic, largely unedited, possibly adolescent (yet sincere) rant you should read if you are a friend

There are people in my life - people I care about, and people who care about me - who find me disgusting. This knowledge brings me strength.

I had a quiet, powerful moment the other morning. I drove into my work's parking lot, parked, cut the engine, and thought, I don't like the way I look. And I don't feel good. I should lose weight.

Just like that. I don't think I usually think like that; in Stephen-Kingy italicized sentences. I don't know that my thoughts usually form actual words. But this time they did.

I don't like the way I look. And I don't feel good. I should lose weight.

I weigh close to 360 pounds. I'm 38 years old. I have been fat for as long as I can remember; which is to say that for as long as I remember, I remember myself fat. Pictures reveal otherwise. It is kind of a dark miracle, and really if I manage to remove my emotions from the situation, it is almost life-affirming. I spent a long time thinking I was fat; and not just fat, but huge. I thought it so long, I made it true. Imagine if I had thought something else.

This is what I thought the other morning:

I don't like the way I look. And I don't feel good. I should lose weight.

And what was powerful about it was that for the first time in my life, I attached no judgment to those three simple truths. I did not think less of myself because of the way I look, because of the way I felt, or because I should lose weight. I simply acknowledged the truth of all three things.

The reason it was a first for me is simple. Therapy and drugs. I was recently prescribed an antidepressant, and one of the results is that a whole chorus of voices I never even knew were there have been bound, gagged, bagged, and tossed into the river. Not real voices, but just thoughts. Doubts, hang-ups, self-defeating debris. Whoever Trent Reznor was screaming about in "Mr. Self-Destruct" has been locked away. For the first time, I have just the barest inkling of what it would be like to be Bruce Banner in one of his precious calm moments, when he prays it doesn't happen again and he can just stay himself for a while.

I cannot and will not at any point in this (rant/confessional/essay/whatever) presume to be Ambassador of Fatdom. I can only say what is true for me. But it is tough to imagine that there aren't a lot of people out there who will be able to relate.

I am sure you have seen many films or tv shows, or even read books, about some poor fat kid who weathers a hurricane of insults and used that anger to turn himself around. He lost his weight and got the girl and wasn't everybody so impressed by him? And so yeah all those guys who beat him up and made fun of him were mean, but in the end, they kind of helped didn't they? He turned a lemon into lemonade! If you believe the wisdom of your favorite sitcoms offer valid life lessons, then I'm sorry someone is clearly forcing you to read something with way more syllables than you're used to.

One thing that is true for me, and which I imagine is true for most people struggling with their weight, is that negative reinforcement does not work. Never. No zit-pocked jock in my Christian/military high school ever helped me by calling me any number of embarrassing names I could list to you without blinking. No teacher or coach ever did anything with their snide remarks but keep the shit shoveling into my mouth that much faster.

Imagine, for example, exercise when you're 360 pounds. What must you look like? What must the people around you think of you?

I experienced this every day. I walk on a track on the ground floor of my office building every week day during lunch. The imagined thoughts of other walkers and onlookers usually crowd my head. Are they laughing at me? Do they think I'm gross? Are they thinking "Pfft, it's about time"? Are they thinking "Oh God, why can't those people just do it at home"? When I pass a group of walkers are they laughing about how I look from  behind? Do they think I only passed them because I'm trying too hard? Do they think I'm only walking this fast to impress them? Do those women think I'm trying to impress them?

I once suffered chest pains from acid reflux. But at the time I didn't know it was reflux, so I was given a stress test. While I jogged on a treadmill, I saw the doctor motion angrily at the nurse to leave the room. The nurse had been giggling while watching me jogging. Unfortunately, there's no hell. But hopefully, somewhere between then and now, someone punched her.

The day I experienced my powerful moment in the parking lot, my lunch walk brought no worries or concerns about the people around me. Just my music, my footfalls, and my breathing. The phantom thoughts of everyone else finally became just phantoms. I felt like I'd been sitting in front of a giant wind turbine that was finally switched off. I felt like Noriega must have when they finally hit pause on the Def Leppard. I wiped my face once with my sleeve and brought away water that wasn't just sweat.

I worked at a local NPR affiliate for over seven years. I was laid off last August. One of my least favorite parts of the job were the shows about nutrition; the call-in shows in particular. There are many self-righteous nutritional shows on NPR, and when we hosted call-in shows it was an invitation for every asshole in 7 states with a co-op membership and an energy efficient car to call in and drone about how healthy they were and, more importantly, how unhealthy everyone else was. The president of the station, who hosted most of these shows, was (and probably still is) notoriously self-righteous and insulting on the subject. He regularly called fat people "fatties." It was related to me that he was very impressed with me during a period when I successfully lost 80 pounds.

There were a lot of reasons for my lay-off. It was part of a larger series of cuts. At least one person in every department was laid off. But there isn't a silver tongue in the universe that will ever convince me that the fact that I eventually gained some of my weight back didn't have something to do with the fact that I was the only one chosen for the cut in my department.

Today, a friend (and he is a friend, and I certainly hope he remains so after this) posted  a link to a story about an increase in obesity across the country. Accompanying the link, he posted the following:

"I try not to get up on a soapbox on Facebook, but stories like this really get me agitated. At the rate we're going, in twenty years' time over half the population of America will be obese. Note the end of the first sentence of this article: "not merely overweight, but obese." In a healthy population, obesity should effect less than 10% of the total population. What the hell is going on?? Can you imagine the outrage if someone predicted that over half of Americans would be living below the poverty level by 2030? Or, better still if 50% of us were going to be homeless in 20 years. What if 50% of us would have cancer? Why are we all so complacent about a PREVENTABLE condition? This is to the point where we can't blame genetics anymore and America needs to get it's act together. We are killing ourselves."

Many comments followed, and at first most of them agreed with my friend. Of course, there's a lot to agree with. Obesity leads to bad stuff. It should be prevented.

But what followed - what my friend couldn't see, and as far as I can tell what my friend still doesn't see - was a series of smug, self-righteous rants designed to make the writers feel superior. They talked about how healthy they were. They talked about how healthy other people aren't. They talked about how big a problem it is, and asked why we couldn't just be more responsible. A few people talked about how the problem was that we're all too politically correct and fat people are coddled. The first time someone mentioned a factor that wasn't attached to personal responsibility - the fact that healthy food is much more expensive than unhealthy food, and that some people struggle just to feed themselves and their families any food and can't exactly afford to worry about whether or not its healthy,organic, locally grown super food that beats the shit out of any high fructose corn syrup it sees - it was brushed aside. No, no. That's not the problem. No one in the world knows the terrible, but rewarding burden of Personal Responsibility except for the respondents of this Facebook thread; this shining beacon of We-Do-Shit-We're-A'supposed-To-Do.

And then I said something.

I won't reproduce my words or the response. My friend responded. I don't think he agreed with my assessment of things, but at the same time he seemed genuinely concerned about my impression. There was one guy for whom just about every word that ends with "bag" would prove an accurate description. But that's okay. He'll be dead one day.

What was important isn't my response, but that I responded at all.

You might think that part of the result of my negative chorus of internal bullshit getting chemically rounded up and thrown into the clink is that this kind of stuff wouldn't bother me. I would just say "Oh, well ____ is clearly passionate about this, and that's his business. I'll just stay over here and keep shoving bowling balls of melted cheese into my face."

Quite the opposite. The chorus is still gone, but my friend's post still bothered me. What's different is that I wasn't afraid to tell him so.

See, for me, the only thing more scary than what people think about my fatness is what people will think of what I think about them thinking about my fatness. My social life is littered with this stuff. Co-workers, buddies, and dear friends - I mean lifelong friends even - have no problem spouting insulting, righteous garbage about how irresponsible and lazy fat people are. I never say anything.

The other day a co-worker was talking about how her daughter was being picked on at school and how she'd tried to placate her by saying those girls would be picked on once they got out of grade school. Her friend responded, "And tell her they get FAT! FAT! They get FAT!" She said it like she just spotted one and was pointing for the Gestapo to round 'em up.

I used to frequent a message board kept up by a group of friends. A strange, unique thread was kept for people to post things anonymously as confessions. Responses were discouraged. Someone posted that they felt guilty because they found themselves judging fat people all the time. They wondered how they did things like have sex. And while they felt guilty, at the same time they felt justified.

A dear friend and I were watching TV. A young, pretty girl on a talk show was complaining about her mother, how fat she was, how she was embarrassed to bring her friends around. Her daughter rattled on, pensive and mean, while her mother sat uncomfortably on a chair too small for her and cried into her hand. "What a little bitch," I said. "Well. She's right," my friend said.

And I never say anything. I never say anything because to reveal it bothers me reveals it bothers me. So not only am I fat, but I'm sensitive too. And in a time when being Politically Incorrect is, as far as I can tell, the new Political Correctness, the last thing you want to do is let anyone know they actually bothered you with words.

(I think the phrase I hear the most from people is "It isn't easy to offend me," and it's never true. NEVER.)

And that's why I responded to my friend, and to his friends, to let them know this is not okay.

Obesity is an epidemic. I don't dispute it. But I am so tired of feeling like as second class citizen compared to the rest of you. I am trying. I try, I fail, I try again. One of these days I will get it, and I hope you will all be happy for me. But it is not your business. And when I finally do get the weight I want, it will not be for you.

One of the dumbest things anyone ever tells me is, "Well at least you're trying." This is usually when they've said something rude about another fat person, and suddenly realize that for some strange reason, it might offend me. They offer that stupid little sentence as consolation. They never consider the notion that it's none of their business whether I'm trying or not. It's no more your business what I'm doing about my weight than what you're doing to improve things about your life.

I understand it. Unfortunately, my sins are the type that you don't need curiosity to figure out. You see my sins as soon as you see my shadow. It's impossible for you to not judge. My sins grow out of every inch of me.

I wonder what yours are.

Because of my therapy and my medical Hulk-restraints, I can finally face and acknowledge a difficult truth.

There are people in my life - people I care about, and people who care about me - who find me disgusting.

And as a result of the drugs and the therapy, I guess I think that's okay. My girlfriend told me once, "what other people think of you is none of your business." It's simple, but utterly true, isn't it? It is an idea I have tried to absorb into my life. It is difficult to feel, though I am beginning to feel it now.

And here, finally, comes the point to this long, rambling rant (if there even is any point). Part of keeping what you think about me your business falls on your shoulders, right? And guess what?

I'm not going to be quiet anymore.

I am not who I was yesterday. And I've got no more passes to hand out. I love you. You are integral to my life. But tolerating your disgust for people of my body type isn't a burden I'll shoulder anymore. Your self-righteousness is no longer acceptable and I am going to goddamn TELL. YOU. SO. My Fat Ass is my problem, not yours.

Make no mistake. My heart is filled with more forgiveness and understanding than ever, and I will never cut anyone out of my life for this. I promise nothing except I can no longer give you silence.

I love you.

P.S. This is not directed at the friend who wrote the Facebook post that inspired this wandering rant. We're good, and I'm actually kind of grateful this happened. I honestly don't think his initial post bothered me as much as the horseshit in the comments that followed.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

I have nothing new to say about a horrible day

Three years ago I wrote something of a combination of autobiography and comic book adaptation review called "Everything I Need to Forget, I Learned from 9/11." It was a discussion of the differences between the comic book V for Vendetta and its film adaptation. It was part of an "Alan Moore Month" celebrating Moore's birthday month at the original incarnation of Trouble With Comics (the current TWC, manned mostly now by Alan Doane and Christopher Allen, can be found here).

As far as my writing is concerned, it remains the only thing I have to say about that day.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Learning to Love Star Trek: The Next Generation, Part 3

Part 1
Part 2

For anyone joining us late, I tweeted some smack about Star Trek: The Next Generation. Fellow blogger Alan Doane responded with a list of 21 TNG episodes he considered great. Always hungry for more to blog about, I took Alan's list as a challenge and decided to watch all the episodes and write about them. Links to the first two segments are above.

A note about SPOILERS (I put it in bold, italics, AND all caps, so you have truly been warned). These episodes are two decades old and I think most would not fault me for the spoilers to follow. I do want to warn you about them, however, because this particular crop of reviews is spoiler-heavy. And also because I don't usually accept the excuse that because something was released years ago that spoilers are okay. If it's new to me, then it's new to me. Unfortunately, the nature of these 4 episodes makes it pretty difficult to discuss what I liked or didn't like without some major spoilage. So you have been warned. Here There be Spoilers.

"Remember Me"
Season 4, Episode 5
Directed by Cliff Bole

Mere hours after the Enterprise picks him up at Starbase 133, Dr. Beverly Crusher's aging mentor Dr. Dalen Quaice disappears. Perplexed and worried for her old friend, Dr. Crusher enlists the aid of the crew to find the missing doctor, but to no avail. Not only has Quaice disappeared, but all proof of his existence seems to have been erased. The Enterprise computer holds no record of his boarding and Starbase 133 claims he was never there either. Not even Chief O'Brien remembers beaming him aboard.  As more and more members of the crew look at Crusher as if she's been sampling her own pharmaceuticals, Beverly realizes Quaice's vanishing act is the tip of the iceberg. The Enterprise's crew quickly shrinks from the thousands to the hundreds to the dozens, and no one seems to think it's particularly strange except for her.

Eventually we learn it isn't Quaice or anyone else who's disappeared, but Dr. Crusher herself. Caught in a warp field experiment gone wrong, Crusher's fears of losing the important people in her life caused her to be trapped in a sort of pocket reality; a shrinking bubble that will implode and kill Crusher unless the ship's crew - with the help of the enigmatic recurring character The Traveler - can find a way to get her out.

"Remember Me" has a really cool, Twilight Zone vibe to it that pulls you in quickly and keeps you guessing (unless you read this review, I suppose, in which case you won't have to guess too much). Dr. Crusher's confusion and frustration with the rest of a bizarrely oblivious crew is a nice departure from the show's usual tone.

While TNG episodes focusing on a specific character tend be hit-and-miss for me, I enjoyed following Dr. Crusher around. I don't think I'd really given a lot of thought to her specific mannerisms before watching "Remember Me." Two things stood out. First, Crusher never seems to question her own sanity. As turbulent and confusing as the world around her becomes, she never lets her resolve waiver. Second, "Remember Me" is the first time I ever detected any similarities between Crusher and her predecessor Bones. Of course, Beverly has no Spock to debate with (while Data might have the intellect to fill Spock's shoes, he doesn't have the arrogance). But as the crew in her pocket reality shrinks, soon the only thing Beverly has to talk to is the ship's computer, and her frustration and occasional insults couldn't help but remind me of McCoy.

While I enjoyed "Remember Me," it's one of two episodes in this segment that slips and falls in just one minor place, but in a way that I think truly does take away from the story.

The Traveler is creepy. The Traveler is meant to be an enigmatic, riddling and largely benevolent advanced being. He is meant to be something like the Phantom Stranger of DC Comics, or even Marvel's The Watcher. But he really, really, no Internet-clever-snark intended, just comes of as a space kiddy-stalker. Everything about him - his slow and sleepy speech, his cow-like stare, and the simple fact that he seems to have little interest towards anyone on the Enterprise beyond young Wesley Crusher -  makes you think his main reason for visiting the ship was because the court told him he had to tell everyone in his solar system he was a sex offender or he'd lose his parole.

But all kidding aside (and I'm hardly kidding), "Remember Me" is a suspenseful, solid episode.

"Future Imperfect"
Season 4, Episode 8
Directed by Les Landau

When Riker leads an away team to the surface of a planet in search of a secret Romulan base, he and the rest of the team are knocked out by gas. Unlike the rest of the team, Riker wakes up sixteen years later. He learns that the gas to which he was exposed causes chronic memory lapses. He doesn't remember that he's been the captain of the Enterprise for years, that Data is his first officer, that he married and had a son, or that the Federation is the middle of reaching an historic peace accord with the Romulans.

Eventually, Riker figures out the charade, or so he thinks. He believes he is on a Romulan holodeck and that the illusion was created to trick Riker into revealing the location of a secret Federation base. The illusion of this reality fades away once he confronts the Romulans he believes to be his captors, but he learns the boy who acted as his son, Ethan (though he was named Jean-Luc in the future illusion), appears to be as much of a prisoner of the Romulans as Riker.

Using his knowledge of the Romulans' base, Ethan helps Riker stage a daring escape, but eventually the boy's story proves false. Not only was the future "Captain Riker" world a ruse, but the secret Romulan base was just as much of an illusion. Ethan is in fact Barash, the apparent lone survivor of an alien species, left in the cavern of a barren world who wants nothing from Riker but connection with a real person.

The red herring of the future Captain Riker and all that came with it is the best, most fun thing about this episode. It was an impressive way for the creative team of TNG to turn viewer expectations on their head. I doubt any regular TNG viewers would be fooled very long into thinking Riker's future was a genuine one. The constant computer lag is a big hint, of course, as well as the very existence of holodecks in the show's mythology. But the fact that the Captain Riker future was an illusion trapped in an illusion was refreshing, and as always it's nice to see alternate reality versions of the crew. In fact, if I'm not mistaken, almost the complete plot of "Future Imperfect" minus the double-reveal of the illusion within the illusion, was copied for an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, with the Dominion replacing the Romulans.

But again, like "Remember Me," there is just one little thing that shouldn't take away from the rest of the episode but does. The reveal of Barash's true form at the end of the show is disappointing and just plain lame. He looks like a kind of grey alien from The X-Files or general UFO myth. Everything about his design seems to be a loud, braying broadcast from the crew that designed it, "ATTENTION, WE WEREN'T EVEN FUCKING TRYING WITH THIS ONE!" I would not say it ruins the episode, but it's just kind of jarring. You're sitting there, satisfied with an hour well spent, and then there's this ugly spud of a thing someone slapped together. It would make a kick-ass Halloween costume maybe, but on a television show, not really. You can be the geekiest geek in geektown. You could be a 55-year-old virgin with a dog named Chewie, and three cats named Legolas, Picard, and Firelord respectively. Your ring tone could be nothing but George Takei saying "Han shot first...Han shot first...," and saying it in Klingon, and you'll still be embarrassed if someone walks in on you watching the end of this episode and sees that ET reject providing the emotional climax for your past hour.

As fun as it is for me to trash the poor little guy, let me reiterate, "Future Imperfect" is a good, fun episode. As much as I may or may not be exaggerating about Barash's impact, I do think his physical reveal serves as a good example of how one little thing can throw a monkey wrench in the warp core.

Season 4, Episode 14
Directed by Les Landau

While investigating an uncharted M class planet, what appears to be a wormhole renders the entire Enterprise crew - save Data - unconscious. When they awake, Data informs them they were only knocked out for 30 seconds, though the wormhole threw them a day's worth of travel away. Data suggests sending an unmanned probe to back to the M class planet because of the danger of the wormhole. Soon, however, minor mysteries sprout up suggesting the crew was out for much longer than 30 seconds. The probe returns with images and data of a gas giant instead of the M class planet originally detected. A crop of plant samples being tended to by Dr. Crusher show an entire day's growth. People like Chief O'Brien and Worf show up in sick in bay with unexplained injuries. Counselor Troi suffers horrifying hallucinations. Eventually, Geordi proves that Data tampered with both the probe and the ship's chronometer. Data refuses to cop to the charges but won't defend himself either.

When a frustrated Picard returns to the planet, we learn that Data's deception was meant for the safety of the crew.  A xenophobic, energy-manipulating race - the Paxans - protect themselves by stopping any outside species from even learning of their existence. They simulate a wormhole-like effect which stuns any approaching ship's crew and then they transport the ship safely away in their sleep. Most crews awaken believing a wormhole sent them deeper into space, but most crews don't include self-aware androids. Immune to the Paxans' stuns, Data initially revived the crew before the Paxans could transport the ship away. Once the Paxans threatended to destroy the ship, Picard suggested that the Paxans wipe the crew's memory clean. Since Data was immune to the Paxans' abilities, Picard ordered Data to keep the knowledge of their race a secret for the rest of his days. Confronted with the Enterprise a second time, the Paxans are initially convinced they must destroy the ship. Picard convinces them to give his crew a second chance so they can get rid of the irresistible clues that lead them back to the Paxans.

"Clues" is filled with engaging "minor mysteries" (as Picard often puts it). Though I think what I enjoyed most about the episode was Data. Whatever criticisms can be laid against Star Trek: The Next Generation or any of the franchise's various incarnations, I think it's safe to say casting is one of their strong points. A Data without Brent Spiner is unimaginable, and "Clues" is a wonderful example of why. While Data does not act particularly different, he manages to seem not only deceptive, but downright menacing at times. And his little smirk at the end of the episode is priceless.

There are minor but-hey-waitasecond problems I have with the episode; the most glaring of which is why Data chooses to keep changing the ship's clock when it seems like it would be easier to just tell the crew they were out for an entire day. It is, after all, the time difference that initially gives him away. Not to mention that it seems like sooner or later they're going to run into another ship or starbase who's going to tell them, "Dude, your clock's, like, two days wrong." Then there's the question of Counselor Troi who suffers frightening visions after her body is taken over by the Paxans. I mean, they can change clocks and dust off fingerprints and tamper with probes all they want, but how can they get rid of Troi's psychic terror?

Initially, I also had a problem with Picard acquiescing not once, but twice, to the memory loss scheme and putting his crew's lives in the hands of the Paxans; a group of folks he knows very little about, and among the few things he knows is that they're assholes who knock people out just for looking at their backyard.

Now though, I don't know. After watching not only the episodes on Alan's list but quite a few others, I have an easier time imagining he would do it not only for the sake of his crew, but for his commitment to the Prime Directive (even though he manages to break that, like, always).

"The Host"
Season 4, Episode 23
Directed by Marvin V. Rush

While transporting the renowned Trill negotiator Odan to a peace negotiation, his shuttle is attacked and Odan is critically injured. Dr. Crusher, Odan's lover, learns upon examining the negotiator that his species is a symbiotic one. Their humanoid form is merely a host for parasitic beings that carry the true consciousness of the individual. The Enterprise contacts the Trill for a replacement host body, but the Trill are too far away to arrive in time. In order to buy Odan time and complete the negotiations, Commander Riker agrees to act as host for Odan. Fighting conflicting feelings of love for Odan and those of brotherly friendship for the body he inhabits, Crusher eventually gives in to love. Odan succeeds in negotiating a peace before collapsing. The Trill arrive just in time to save Odan, but to Crusher's disappointment, Odan's new host body is female. The episode ends with Crusher telling Odan she simply cannot deal with his constant changes, with a disarmingly passionate kiss (though not on the mouth).

I have to admit that when I first saw this episode, I didn't like the ending. I felt I was being preached to and I didn't like what I was being preached. I'm all for positive LGBT messages, but while most of the successful social messages we find in Star Trek episodes can find easy analogies in the real world, I couldn't see the real connection here. I felt like I was meant to be disappointed in Crusher's refusal to continue her relationship with Odan, and that didn't seem fair to me. When would this situation, or something truly comparable to it - a woman falling in love with a man who becomes another man and then becomes a woman - happen here on a true Earth? And while accepting homosexuality in others is one thing, at first I felt like I was meant to want Crusher to forcibly change herself into a homosexual at the end of "The Host," and that doesn't seem particularly fair or open-minded to me, just as I wouldn't want a gay character to feel forced to act against his or her nature.

But I've changed my mind since. Certainly, "The Host" challenges our perceptions of sexuality and gender, but I think overall it doesn't mean to do that just by asking us to rethink homosexuality and/or transsexualism; it means to challenge our notions of what the boundaries of love truly should be, if any.

To be continued...