Monday, August 26, 2013

The Primal Blueprint

The Primal Blueprint
By Mark Sisson

I admit it, I've always thought of myself as being in pretty reasonable shape and I have all sorts of reasons to make that assumption.

I'm a very active person. I've been a regular swimmer since college and have become an avid runner in my thirties. I do a fair bit of hiking and I prefer walking to cared and motorcycles.

I eat healthy. I haven't eaten at a fast food restaurant since I was a teenager (other than Subway... full disclosure). I avoid processed foods and a good amount of the fresh produce that enters my home is organic.

I have a very low stress life. I work, on average, about 20 hours a week and my job, which pays well and is rarely taxing. The rest of my time is devoted to my family and friends and travel when I can afford it.

I feel pretty blessed that I have attained the age of 38 without having to take any medication. I don't wear glasses and I don't smoke. I get more than enough sun, reasonable amounts of sleep and I try to have fun wherever I m and whatever I am doing. Granted, I do have a weakness for alcohol, particularly beer and red wine, but I'm hardly an alcoholic.

So it can as a shock to me when a could of weeks back my wife showed a photo of me and my mother from when she visited Taiwan a few months back. In the photo, clear as day, was a pot belly. It was not an optical illusion or a sudden gust of wind caught on film but a fully formed and rather round belly. It was like my entire world came crashing down. How could this be? All that running and swimming for nothing? Sure they tell you that your metabolism slows down with age, but I wasn't particularly ready for a gut at age 38.

I immediately hit the scale, something I haven't felt the need to do in years and lo and behold! 78 kilograms. Hardly obese by any measure, but the last time I weighed myself in my early thirties I was holding steady at my typical adult weight of 70kg. Where did this 8 kilos come from? I was mortified and more than a little scared. I mean, I guess I had noticed that my pants were a little tighter, but I just assumed they had shrunk in the wash! There was no way I had gained that much weight.

Sometimes, the truth hurts.

I've never subscribed to a workout system or participated in a structured fitness program or weight loss program. I've always eschewed them in favor of my own brand of fitness: cardio plus sensible eating equals healthy. But I was rattled and impressionable. My co-worker gave me his copy of The Primal Blueprint and told me that he'd gone through something similar. I began to feel like my life was turning into a spam email. I half-expected him to tell me that the book was going to change my life forever, then spew off a bunch of nonsensical keywords.

So here I am, at the insistence of a co-worker, reading and reviewing, The Primal Blueprint, the sort of book I never thought I'd ever read. A self-help fitness book. And this post is going to sound like an infomercial because, well, let's just get this out of the way: it's working for me (more on that later). The Primal Blueprint hardly a diet or a workout regime. It is an amalgam of anthropology, hard science and common sense. The Primal Blueprint presupposes that, from a human health perspective, the agricultural revolution has been a detriment to humanity and has caused us far more harm than good. The Primal Blueprint is not going to win any literary awards. It is written in the same informal style as Mark Sisson's blog, (but seriously, if you are reading a self-help book and critiquing style and form, you need to reassess your priorities). Where it lacks in style it more than makes up for un substance. And it does have a narrative, of sorts.

At the core of The Primal Blueprint is Grok. Grok is a neolithic hunter gatherer whose life pre-dates the agricultural revolution. Sisson gives us a peak into a typical (though a tad idyllic) day in Grok and his family's life. It is an eye-opening deconstruction of a hunter-gatherer's daily life from sunrise to sunrise. Sisson chronicles every mundane detail of the family's life from what they ate and how often, how they move and how much. How they divide there time and so forth. In the process, he paints a vivid picture of pre-agrarian life and then juxtaposes it with a glimpse into the lives of a typical American family in our times. The differences are striking. It's a real shock to see how Grok and us, two specimens of the same species separated by a mere microsecond in evolutionary history living such vastly difference lives and doing such vastly different things.

That's when Sisson hits you with the kicker. Grok's lifestyle is what drove human evolution for two million years. The agricultural revolution, they domestication of grains for human consumption, occurred roughly 10,000 years ago. Hardly enough time for our bodies to adjust to this new form of sustenance. Add to that the more recent introduction of processed foods and we, as a species of animal, are now sitting two seats over from where we should be seating. We were never build to consume large quantities of carbohydrates. The vast quantities of carbohydrates that exist in the modern diet (in the form of grain: rice, corn, wheat, barley, etc...) is the primary culprit for the increase in obesity and related illnesses. The consumption of carbohydrates spikes our insulin levels for short periods of time. Over the course of a lifetime of consumption, these spikes in insulin lead to all sorts of health problems (obesity being one). The book goes into painstaking detail about how and why this occurs as well as other events happening at a cellular and organic level within our bodies when we ingest and digest our food.

What Sisson is advocating is hardly new. Low-carb diets have been all the rage over the past few years. From the Atkins Diet (which Sisson is quick to distant himself from) to the strict Paleo diet (eat only food that was available to Paleolithic man). But The Primal Blueprint is absolutely not a diet in the sense that we understand it today. It's not designed to help you lose weight (though you will). It's designed to maintain optimum health and vitality through diet and exercise. It's an entire philosophical shift. What's more, unlike virtually every other health plan, it's not designed to deny or test a person's will. Rather it begs the question: What would Grok do? And while the book is comprehensive (it has to be, it needs to convince you), it can all be boiled down to ten points, known as The Ten Primal Blueprint Laws:

1. Eat lots of plants and animals
2. Avoid poisonous things
3. Move frequently at a slow pace.
4. Lift heavy things
5. Sprint once in a while.
6. Get adequate sleep.
7. Play
8. Get adequate sunlight
9. Avoid stupid mistakes
10. Use your brain

Simple, practical stuff, right there.

So, what of me? Well, I've been adhering to the system now for about a month and a half. Granted, my lifestyle prior to The Primal Blueprint gave me a bit of a head start, but it has been ridiculously easy to follow. I have cut out all grains (even rice... in Asia... can you even believe that?) and refined sugars and added a half dozen servins of meat, fruits and vegetables to my daily diet. I have modified my workout schedule to be a bit more low-impact and allow for more time to heal. and I'm proud to say that I have already shed six of the eight kilos I had gained. I'm more alert, less tired and generally feel better than I have in years. My daily aches and pains have all but disappeared (apparently grains are inflammatory) and I don't miss bread rice or pasta at all (never really liked corn, so that was nothing). My wife has also subsequently joined me and in her month on the Blueprint she lost the last of her pregnancy weight with almost no effort. Best of all, we seem to eat like kings in the process.

This system is, obviously, not for everyone, but from what I read and experienced, it makes a whole ton of sense and it has been working. I apologize for the infomercial-ness of this blogpost. I promise, I will not give you an 800 number to call or offer you a free set of steak knives if you comment on this post in the next hour, but I do urge you to look into Sisson's program. I don't mean to come off as a shill, but the fact that I'm almost the same size as I was when I was 28 says a lot.

I'm totally sold.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

The Perks of Being a Wallflower
By Michael Chbosky

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is the sort of book that was written for me to hate. You know the type: A quirky 90210-esque coming of age story involving an awkward teen who feels alone, finds an amazing group of friends, loses those friends and then, ultimately, regains them in a flourish of altruism. Along the way, said troubled teen manages to safely navigate the potholed landscape of modern adolescence with relative  style and panache coming out the other end a better and more well rounded person.

Well,  The Perks of Being a Wallflower follows that tried and true story line. This epistolary novel follows the hijinks of Charlie, a sensitive (and slightly troubled) teen who begins his correspondence with an unnamed person (known as Friend) on the eve of his first day at high school. Over the course of the next twelve months of letters, Charlie meets a group of amazing friends centered around Patrick, an openly gay senior and his sister Sam, with whom Charlie immediately falls hopelessly in love like only high school boys are capable.

Like so many teenagers, Charlie is forced to deal with the full spectrum of adolescent problems: alcohol, drugs, suicide, relationships, sex, teenage pregnancy, abusive parents, homosexuality, mental disorders and the dreaded Rocky Horror Picture Show. And given that this is a book about teenagers, and given that the novel is set in Nirvana-drenched plaid of 1991, this potholed landscape of adolescence is served with a man-sized helping of angst.

I should have hated it. But I didn't. I liked it. And I liked it an unhealthy amount. And there are two reasons why.

I started high school back in 1990, which would make me a year (give or take) older than Charlie and slightly younger than his senior year friends. I suspect that if this novel was set any more recently (or any farther back in time) that I would have dismissed it with a series of eye rolls and gimme-a-breaks. But since it hit the proverbial nail (me) on the head (my susceptibility to nostalgia and sentimentalism), I was sucked in hook, line and sinker. The cultural markers were comfortably familiar and I liked the fact that the social hierarchy is (as it was back in my day) based on the movies you watched, the music you listened to and the clothes you wore. I have no idea whether that intricate social classification system is still in place, but it was comforting to read a very specific high school caste system and know where 15-year old me would have slotted in. The cultural references consistently made me smile, especially each mention of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, a film I watched literally dozens of times throughout my own school career.

Second, I recently chose The Perks of Being a Wallflower as the next book to teach my advanced English class in Taiwan. Taiwanese teenagers have such a different school experience from their North American peers. Theirs is a life filled with tests, studying and academic competition. High school students in Taiwan have very little free time to socialize. My students often hear me talk about high school in Canada and they are amazed at the swaths of free time I used to have. How I used to have a part-time job, friends and a social life. They are aghast to know that I got drunk as a teenager and the topic of drugs is so completely foreign to them that I simply don't even bother.

I thought The Perks of Being a Wallflower would be the perfect novel to give my students a taste of what high school life is like for the average North American. Granted, Charlie experiences an entire student body's worth of triumph and tragedy in a single year, but the sentiment is there. While I was reading the novel I felt a sense of pride that this novel was able to convey a lot of the emotion and atmosphere of high school life in North America and that my students would gain some perspective on it. They have always told me that North American high school sounds easy. I have always told them that it is difficult, but a different kind of difficult. This novel seemed like an apt presentation of the point I have been trying to make for a few years.

And the writing isn't terrible either. It is fun to watch how Charlie's writing ability matures throughout the novel indicating that despite the lack of mention in his letters, he is indeed attending and succeeding in the classroom (especially English). I also thought it was a cute literary trick to have the story vaguely mimic the novels his English teacher has assigned to him. Parts of the novel felt like an homage to various classic fiction.... especially Catcher in the Rye.

That's not to say that the novel is without its faults. The ending was particularly disappointing. I thought Chbosky had set himself up for a nice non-traditional ending but I found that he left it feeling far too much like the ending of one of Charlie's assigned novels. As well, it did suffer from an over abundance of issues whereby the characters literally endure every possible After School Special ever addressed. But when I read the novel through the eyes of my students these little things hardly seemed to matter. I'm really looking forward to the illuminating comparisons that The Perks of Being a Wallflower will illicit in class, and how they correspond with my own experiences in high school in the early 1990s.

I can't wait.

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials Vol. I)
By Philip Pullman

(I am keeping it short because I've got house guests this week and don't want to appear as antisocial as I actually am. This blog post is intentionally incomplete in anticipation of the second and third in the series, in which I will flesh out some of the ideas I'm vomited onto this post).

So what is becoming of me? The self-professed fantasy hater goes right ahead and loves yet another fantasy novel? Oh noes!

For those (like me) who have either lived under or on a rock for past couple of decades, The Golden Compass (or Northern Lights, depending on where you live) is the first novel in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series. It is a series that has been pressed on me for a few years now and the weight of the recommendations finally crushed my will to resist. I'm glad I caved.

The novel follows the adventures of Lyra, a semi-feral child living on the Oxford campus in some sort of alternate reality version of Earth where everything is distinctly recognizable but fundamentally different in every way. The Christian Church, for example exists, but there doesn't seem to have been a schism and they are infinitely powerful. Lyra, like every other human on the planet has a daemon that is psychologically attached to her being. The daemon exists in the form of a shape-shifting animal for children until it settles into a single animal form when a child reaches puberty. Lyra's father, Asriel, is some sort of strange cross between a scientist and wizard who works with (or against) the Church in trying to uncover the secret behind some sort of mystical matter that falls from the sky, known as Dust. It may or may not have something to do with the aurora borealis. Oh, and there are baddies trying to severe daemons from children (causing them to die) and armored polar bears and some really interesting global politics that involve Tartars, witches and a powerful kingdom on the island of Svalbard.

OK, when I put it like that, it doesn't sound nearly as cool as it really is but if you haven't read the series you'll have to trust me that the above elements come together in a coherent and decidedly awesome way.

What struck me was how dark The Golden Compass is. I'm guessing that it was intended for younger readers but the themes are so philosophically heavy. In setting up the novel, Pullman makes the Christian theology far more tangible. The daemon is a physical representation of the soul. Dust is some sort of physical representation of God or the holy spirit or something infinite. It seems to be the catalyst for the infinite multiverse that Pullman concocts (and here, His Dark Materials reminded me somewhat of Diane Wynne Jones's novel The Homeward Bounders).

Medieval theologians obsessed over whether a human soul had mass. Hundreds of experiments were carried out in dimly lit 12th century churches whereby theologians and physicians tried to measure the weight of a man immediately before and immediately after death to determine the differential, which would, logically, be the soul. They failed. Every time. Had they succeeded and proven that there was corporeal evidence for the existence of the soul (and therefore the existence of the Christian God), history would have taken a far different path, I'm sure. Pullman supposes that something to that effect indeed happened sometime in the past. By making the intangible elements of Christianity absolutely tangible, Pullman is free to express their absolute purpose and experiment with what it would mean to alter the fundamental laws of his version of the Christian Church. Is God a omnipotent and omnipresent entity that is full of love for His creation, or is He a manifestation of some non-sentient but all-pervasive matter? Such ideas give the novel a decidedly anti-Christian bias (which I will certainly discuss as I make my way through the series but not yet as I don't feel like I've got a handle on Pullman's ideas just yet) but the fantasy elements mask the full effect. All this brings me to the best part of this novel.

Unlike so many young adult novels (and a good many adult novels) this book not only encourages a significant amount of critical thinking on the part of the reader, it practically necessitates it. While other fantasy novels that involve children as protagonists (and here I'm thinking specifically of Harry Potter, but most others apply) place them solidly within socially acceptable parameters i.e. they attend school, behave in a manner that is considered appropriate for their age and social status, Lyra is semi-feral, patchily educated (there is no mention of any sort of education system in Pullman's world) and unpredictable. The children in the series either run around in gangs and fight wars or else they have a job. In that sense The Golden Compass seems to break the mold in terms of how children are written into modern young adult fiction. Pullman does not coddle Lyra and doesn't ask the reader to feel any sympathy for her either. In fact, while Lyra and her daemon were indeed the central characters in the novel, I never found that I developed any significant feelings for or against them throughout. The story drove this novel rather than the characters, and that was fine. The story had the strength to endure the weak character study.

Anyway, I'm going to save the meat and potatoes of these talking points for books two and three and get back to attending to my houseguest, wife and daughter. But before I wrap up this admittedly inchoate blog post I'd like to make a formal statement:

I like fantasy.

There. I admit it. Never again will you see me write about how much I hate the genre. I've read far too much good fantasy over the past three years to say that with a straight face any longer.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall
By Hilary Mantel

(Note: Before reading, I want to be clear that this post has very little to do with Hilary Mantel's Booker Prize winning novel Wolf Hall. I know it's the title of the blog post, but I'm feeling tangential.)

When I first started Reading in Taiwan, it was my mission statement that I would anything and everything that fell into my grubby, book-devouring little hands. The thought process was that I was living in a small town on a small, non-English speaking island with the bare minimum of English books at my disposal. It was a great social experiment and for a time it was pretty damned awesome. I read books I would have otherwise never have read. I read romance, fantasy and non-fiction novels about soccer players. I read I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell. I was taking one for the proverbial team.

But over the course of three years, things have changed in my neck of the woods. I am not as isolated from the literary world as I once was. A couple of years back my wife was thoughtful enough to buy me a Kindle which made acquiring new books a cinch. Furthermore, acquiring actual bound books made of paper has become a lot easier in Taiwan due to the Internet and 7-11 (God bless 7-11). Nevertheless, I remained resolute in my stubbornness to read anything that came my way and finish everything I started, regardless of how good or bad it was. I mean I read The Story of O when I really didn't have to. I wanted to keep the spirit of the blog intact despite the encroachment of modern technology and increased access to books.

That is, until today.

I was driving home tonight thinking about how I was 40% through Hilary Mantel's 2009 Booker Prize winning novel Wolf Hall. I set the same goal I had set for myself every day this past week: to finish at least 10% before going to sleep. I have accomplished that goal exactly zero times this past week and it suddenly occurred to me that I would not achieve it tonight either, nor tomorrow night nor any night after that. I was staring down another two weeks (minimum) of slogging through Wolf Hall. It felt like the literary equivalent of sitting in a dentist office waiting room waiting for a voluntary, and completely unnecessary, root canal. Why was I subjecting myself to such an avalanche of torture when there are perfectly corpulent books awaiting me on my shelf and Kindle? And considering I was trying to read Wolf Hall quickly just so I could start something new, well, that's a terrible reason to read.

"But what about your mission statement?" I thought to myself.

"A cute but antiquainted dogma," I rebutted. "One rooted in another time. Another place."

"But what will people think when you say you couldn't finish Wolf Hall, a novel that was so celebrated? and why do I sound like Yoda?"

"Care not what people think. Nothing to prove, you have."

(Seriously, this is actually how I think).

The truth is, I was never going to like Wolf Hall. And I should have known.

Don't get me wrong, Wolf Hall is well written and painstakingly researched and probably deserves the Booker Prize for its meticulous (almost obssessive-compulsive) attention to detail alone. But Wolf Hall had three strikes against it right from the start and I should have seen the signs.

First, Wolf Hall is about the English Royal Family in general and unless the novel was written by Bernard Cornwell and is set on a blood-soaked 10th century battlefield in Essex, I'm not interested. As an unwilling citizen of the Commonwealth, I have a knee-jerk disinterest in the Royal Family. Just mention the names of Prince William and whatshername and my mind switches to auto-pilot whereby I continue looking at the speaker and nodding in a polite fashion but internally I have begun to ponder new and interesting ways in which to rip the speaker's tongue from his or her mouth.

Second, Wolf Hall is about Tudor England in specific. As a history major, there are nations and time periods I like better than others and I am hard-pressed to think of a time and place that interests me less than Tudor-era England. (maybe modern day England, but I'll have to run some tests to see which sets off the boredom alarm first and that's a diagnostic I'm in no hurry to run). Give me the Mongol Hordes riding across the Asian steppe or the Early Christian Church fathers or Qing Dynasty China any day of the week. But try to get me excited about Henry disengaging from Rome due to his inability to conceive a son and you've got a recipe for a nap.

Third, the length of the novel was the nail in the coffin. I have a pretty high threshold for shit. I can usually roll my eyes through a bad book just to say I've suffered like Jesus on the cross or something at parties. My mother always called me a masochist, but even I have limits. It's one thing to press on through a 250 page novel you hate. It's quite another to press on through a 700 page novel of the same ilk. I'll force down a bad meal, but I won't eat the leftovers for a week. That's just dumb.

Of course, I want to be clear that I'm not calling Wolf Hall a bad book. It most certainly isn't. It's just not my thing. Not at all. Not even a little.

But all this got me to thinking about novels that I have left unfinished. Surprisingly, in a lifetime of voracious reading the novels I have quit are few and far between. I've read lots of books that seem to pop up on other people's Did Not Finish lists. I've read (and enjoyed) long books like Infinite Jest. I've read difficult books like V. by Thomas Pynchon (I didn't understand it, though) and I've read the entire Old Testament. I've also read my share of terrible novels (Cathy Lamb comes to mind) But when it came to finding books I never actually finished, I could actually only think of six (though I'm sure there are more):

1. Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien: Of all the books I have ever hated, I hate this one the most. I hated it from the beginning. I hated the language. I hated the fact that each character took three pages to ask for a cup of tea and I hated Tom Bombadil (seriously... WTF?). I think I dropped this book somewhere around page 400 and have vowed never, ever to pick it up again.

2. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky: At the age of 16 I had this notion that I was going to become a man of letters or some such nonsense. I determined to read all the great works of literature and I was going to start with The Brothers Karamazov. Great start. I got about 60 pages in, realized I didn't understand a single thing that was going on and I went back to reading Michael Creighton novels. I've been meaning to pick this one up in recent years, but there is always something more interesting on my shelf. I think my 16-year old self has 37-year old me spooked.

3. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez: I love Marquez and I've read several of his other novels, but this one eluded me. Perhaps it had something to do with every character having the SAME GODDAMNED NAME!

4. Wuthering Heights by Charlotte Bronte: I recall literally throwing this novel out my bedroom window with only 40 pages to read. I recall hating it with every fiber of my being but for the life of me, I cannot recall why. As I said before, I'm a masochist, but not so much of one that would willingly revisit this novel to find out why I hated it.

5. The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson: Because it's plain terrible.

6. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig: I honestly believe that everyone who loves this novel didn't actually read it. It's worse than The Black Arrow.

I can now add Wolf Hall to this esteemed list of personal literary failures.