Sunday, September 29, 2013

Gilberton Blues

These days, if you google “Gilberton” you will come up with something like this. 
The police chief decided he was Ted Nugent, had to get on the internet and make videos of himself carrying on in similar fashion, more in the vein of guns and politics as opposed to cat scratch fever and wang dang sweet poontang.  No one really cares when Ted Nugent acts that way: he’s an old rock star who doesn’t have to answer to anyone.  Understandably, no sane person wants to see the chief of police of any town carrying on like this on the internet, regardless of first-amendment rights.

Gilberton is one of many towns in Pennsylvania’s anthracite region that, if you blink while driving by, you just might miss it.  I should know … my hometown isn’t much larger, and I just drove through Gilberton a few weeks ago while visiting.  The town went through a very bad spell a few summers ago when torrential flooding destroyed a good-sized number of homes in the town.  So, while the press may not be painting Gilberton in the same “bow your heads and pray” style that they’re now doing with many flooded towns in Colorado, rest assured, Gilberton was in that very same situation recently, and you can still see a few abandoned homes to prove it.

None of this would bother me all that much, save I’ll come across “hip” websites like Gawker who will cover stories like this every now and then.  I really don’t even take issue with the way the story is reported … what would you expect from a website that purposely leans left?  They’re going to be all over this stuff, and rightfully so.  I think what bothers me, as usual, are anonymous reader comments.  “Pennysltucky.”  The assumption that everyone who lives there is just the same as this police chief (despite the fact that he’s being fired).  That weasly sort of anti-white working class sentiment that tips me off that the person writing it is white and has zero contact with anyone of such socio-economic status.  Or possibly did, had a real bad time growing up that way, and thus ran off to the city, not realizing that he couldn’t run away from himself, and that self is just as crass as the wayward rednecks who made his life miserable decades ago.

It’s tiresome, and I come across it all the time in New York.  Hell, I’ll even indulge myself sometimes.  Recently in my hometown, an animal-hoarding couple was reported as having droves of unkempt animals hidden in their ramshackle house, which is just down the block from our house back in the neighborhood.  Another guy was found cooking up meth in the basement of his house on the street where I was born and raised.  Granted, the other side of Route 61, but way too close for comfort.

Reading stories like these always grates on me.  This is not the world I was raised in back there through the 70’s and 80’s.  Granted, it wasn’t heaven back then, but there wasn’t this nagging sense of white working-class America sliding off the map. 

How often have I heard, “When you get to that area between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh …”  Yeah, well, there are a few dozen good-sized cities in that area, many with the same rotten problems all cities have, and a bunch of places that are perfectly fine places to live, provided you can find work locally (which, admittedly, is the rub).  That land area encompasses a lot of social strata, ranging from smaller rust-belt cities to well-populated suburbs to typical rural America.  There are dozens of universities, some as large as Penn State, some as high-end as Bucknell, but most ranging somewhere between, small colleges that have been there for decades, centuries in some cases.  And let’s not forget that Philadelphia and Pittsburgh have many shithole neighborhoods that most folks wouldn’t drive a tank through.  Most people who use that Philadelphia/Pittsburgh take on Pennsylvania never have and never will live in either city.

Reading these sort of comments used to bother me much more.  Now I can recognize, it’s comforting to know that the mediocre imbeciles of the world, people with college degrees who are dumber than nails, will never move/live there and at least keep it safe from the sort of sickly gentrification going on in major cities all over America, not just here.  It’s no joke, and I can understand this article about San Francisco.  Although, I am certain, San Francisco was radically over-priced long before the moneyed wave of techies rolled into town a few years ago.  Just like white Manhattan neighborhoods have been since I set foot here in the 80’s.

“Vanilla monoculture” – the term used in that linked article to describe the new landed gentry – hits the nail on the head for me.  That’s what I see here in New York, and what spooks me so much.  New York has always been about diversity – radical diversity, every class of society, every religion, every ethnicity, every nationality – all right here. 

It still is, but that’s changing.  That sort of wild cross-cultural place in the world gets obliterated by these jackass rents, the four-figure monthly sums for apartments the size of shoeboxes.  Because the only people who are willing to pay that much for such paltry places are predominately college-educated white folks in their 20s and 30s who either are making a lot of money, are paying outrageously lop-sided percentages of meager paychecks on rent, or are being funded by parents.  And they’re doing so because they dig the “diversity.”  Not realizing the simple act of paying four-figure sums for crackerbox apartments obliterates diversity as it removes a massive cross-section of the population who simply can’t afford the rent.

The effect is like that of living in a perpetual college-town world condensed into an urban neighborhood that was previously nothing like a college town.  The 20-year leases on delis and bodegas get taken over by “cool” coffee shops and frozen yogurt places.  New people in the neighborhood get on websites and pine for a Trader Joe’s to open up locally.  You don’t have to worry about getting your ass kicked in a bar … you have to worry about not peppering your conversation with appropriately hip vacation destinations.  Frankly, you don’t have to worry about anything in a bar … everybody is fucking texting each other and the atmosphere is more like a library.

Simple rule of thumb most New Yorkers know: if you feel you absolutely must spend a lot of money to live in a “cool” neighborhood … you are not cool.  Never have been, never will be.  And the act of you living there, in its own small way, makes the neighborhood even less cool.

New York wasn’t like this until recently.  Well, again, white Manhattan has been like this for decades, and places like Park Slope in Brooklyn became this way in the 80s, but there were many neighborhoods where working and middle-class people perfectly fit.  Now it seems like any neighborhood in the 718s where there’s already a white working-class base is becoming overwhelmed by these jackass rents.  Even some non-white … places like Bushwick in Brooklyn, even parts of Harlem and the South Bronx that were previously way off-white … you’re starting to see the hammer fall.  There’s not going to be any happy medium … once this ball starts rolling, much like a tornado, it rolls over everything in its path.

Which, again, is why, despite some reservations based on decades of personal experience, I’m just fine with rural Pennsylvania, and any place like it (these places are legion in America), that are in no imminent danger of being mowed down by this bullshit.  You could argue that these places are just as much a “monoculture” as these over-valued urban neighborhoods, and I hate to admit there’s more than a grain of truth in that.  But at least real opportunity exists there for everyone.  The only reason you will now find middle-class and lower people in many New York City neighborhoods today is because they own their property.  Take my word for it, no middle-class people are moving in when the monthly mortgage for a two-story row house will run $4,000/month or much higher.

It’s a strange time in America, and while I can see the wheels in motion will not be stopped, I’m just as curious as to how all this started.  And all I can think is that when the Baby Boom generation came of age and started making money, lots of it in the 80’s, the birth of the term “yuppies” that worked so well in describing a class of people … when this happened, these people caught a lot of shit culturally over their rampant greed.  Even that was fairly light-hearted.  If you called someone a yuppie in the 80s, the person might have felt hurt for a minute, but then he’d think, “You’re calling me that because I make a lot of money.  Whatever else you think about me … I make a lot of money.  You don’t.  That’s all that matters to me.”

That attitude, that ability to bury a moral question that should have caused at least a few moments of doubt, became common currency.  So that when these people had kids … and these kids grew up … they’re conditioned to not even grasp this as an essential problem in our society, that poor people, and these days, even middle-class people, don’t deserve to be pushed around and marginalized simply because they don’t have the same level of wealth, nor the urge to live with that way of seeing the world.  I’ve noticed this sort of moral blankness in a lot of that new “vanilla monoculture.”  There are plenty of things they’ll get up in arms over, but not this.

Ironically, on a website like Gawker, I will see routine articles decrying obscene rent values in New York.  That strikes me as a hollow gesture, the right thing to say if you’re a good liberal, but practicing that belief is a whole different story. It does give me some hope that maybe enough people are deciding to file an issue like this under “white liberal guilt” that it could become a trend and gain traction with local media and politicians, possibly enough to at least realize that we’re pricing middle and working-class people of all colors out of our cities.  Obviously, I don’t expect anyone in a position of power to do anything about it – but at least if that seed can be planted with enough people …

For those of who don’t want to gear our lives towards money, who never have and never will make that the focus of how and why we live, these are strange, troubling times, with no end in sight.  So you’ll have to forgive me if I don’t get too upset over the police chief of Gilberton carrying on like a jackass and losing his job.  Most people who live back there in Pennsylvania, say what you want about them, but they don’t have to do this stupid dance with greed we do in cities.  If it makes you sleep better at night to pictures places like this as hillbilly wonderland, go right ahead, you have my blessing.  I wish everyone would start thinking the same thing about where I live and get all these desperately uncool people with too much money the hell out of here!

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Weight Loss Magic

I finally hit it: the 200 lb. mark.  This means I’ve lost 50 lbs. over the past five months.  It’s magic!

Well, no.  It hasn’t been magical at all.  It’s been a lot of discipline, frustration, mind games and hard work.  The most weight I’d ever lost before this was as a teenager, the summer I turned 14, going from a chubby kid to a gangly teen, most of which was thanks to growing about three inches.  But I recall dropping about 20 lbs. as I also started getting into distance running and weights at the same time.  It felt like breaking out of prison.

This time?  Maybe it hasn’t sunk in yet, but I don’t feel as liberated.  Probably because the circumstances have been so different, and I’m on the other side of life.  The past 10 lbs. or so, people have made me aware that they see the difference with some nice compliments.  The first 30 lbs., I don’t think anyone was quite getting it.  The older you get, the harder it is to lose weight around the belly, and I was still wearing the same-sized pants that whole time.  The past 20 lbs. it’s become more obvious that I’ve dropped a truckload of weight – haven’t bought new pants yet, but surely need a belt to keep them on.  My face has grown more definition, too, which I am glad to see, as I spent years cringing when I saw how chipmunk-cheeked I came off in photos.

What’s my secret?  There is none.  Eat less.  Consume less calories than you burn.  Eat enough calories that you can function as a normal human being, i.e., don’t starve yourself.  But take in less than you put out.

It’s hard as hell, and anyone who tells you otherwise is bullshitting you.  True, it gets easier once you have the routine down, but once you have it down, you have to keep it down for a prolonged period of time.  The routine for me has been three meals a day, really no change with breakfast and lunch (for which I’ve always eaten light), but smaller portions for dinner, and no snacking.  No baked goods, like the cookie or brownie I used to have every work day after lunch.  The only snacks I’ve gone for are dried or frozen fruit.  I’ve even cut out mixed nuts for the time being, which are healthy and I love eating, but I found that having a small bowl was often throwing me off track.

And let’s not forget working out five days a week.  Four in a gym, Fridays usually a seven-mile walk home.  One thing I’ve learned: losing weight is more predicated on diet than exercise.  But I gather maintaining weight does have a lot to do with exercise.  Or at least that’s how it’s gone for me over the past few months.  It’s grown into a pattern that the first half of my week is consumed by hard-assed boxing workouts which find me either maintaining weight or losing no more than half a pound.  Followed by a sedentary day or two where the weight stays the same.  Followed by the weekend, where I’ll have light lunch each day (no more than a cup of yogurt or banana) and find that I’ll drop anywhere from 1-3 lbs.

I gather this is just my body’s weight-loss pattern and what has worked for me.  I’d have felt a whole lot better if I could see direct, cause-and-effect  results – do a hard workout and lose a pound or two – but it just hasn’t panned out that way for me.  I got some interesting advice from the Calorie Count website (a good resource if you’re trying to lose weight).  I saw another person on there complaining about the same issue: working out like a fiend, in his case clocking in hundreds of miles on a bike over the course of days, and not losing a pound the whole time while dieting.  A few people put forth the concept that if you’re dieting to the tune of 1,500 calories/day, and burning 600 with a hard workout, then you’re really only taking in 900 calories … at which point your body just might slip into “survival” mode and hang on to every bit of weight it can, be it fat or muscle mass.  Thus, it could make more sense to eat a little more on workout days (but not too much!) so your body doesn’t shift into that preservation mode.

However it pans out, so long as you’re not starving yourself but still managing to lose weight, something is working.  I think part of it is I consciously don’t avoid carbs during the week, peanut butter sandwiches for lunch on whole-grain bread, avocado and/or veggie burgers on a roll for dinner.  I need carbs for working out, even if it means my weight holds steady for a few days instead of dropping.  I’d imagine I could go carb-less all the time and really drop weight fast, but I wanted a steady, slow loss, and 2 lbs. a week or so has worked out pretty well.  I’ve seen those pictures of people who have had much more drastic weight loss, with their loose skin hanging off their mid-sections, and I gather part of that is just dive-bomb weight loss, losing extreme amounts of weight, fast.

It makes more sense to take your time.  And it was imperative that I lose weight, after the hernia and ensuing surgery.  I swore to myself that I’d be 30 lbs. lighter when I went back to the gym (walking was my only workout for weeks post-surgery), and sure enough, I came in just under the wire when I started gym workouts again two months later.  That was the first goal, to make sure I was considerably lighter as I’m certain being that overweight and doing hard workouts played roles in getting a hernia.  It’s been a matter of degrees since then.  If I can make 220 … why not 210 next month? If I made 210 … then why not 200 the following month?

And so it’s gone each month.  I’ll surely try for 190 by the end of September.  And if I get that far, 180 in October.  I’ve learned not to look too far ahead, just to focus on that 2 lbs. every week and make it happen.  It’s been a sluggish, half-assed journey every step of the way, where I’ve felt totally lost and frustrated at times, but it’s happened.  I’ve found that the “6” number of each 10 lb. series has been pure hell: 236, 226, 216, 206 … every time I’ve hit those weights, I felt stuck at each for an inordinate number of days, although I think a lot of it was not sensing the pattern I noted of how and when  my body chooses to let go of a few pounds.  Psychologically, it’s been draining at various points, and I look forward to the day where I stop dropping weight and only use the scale twice a week as opposed to every day.

Understand, I’m enjoying the vanity aspect of all this, but make no mistake, this is much more for my overall long-term health.  The hernia scared the shit out of me … and it’s the sort of fear and low-level paranoia that I’ll always live with.  That this could happen again, because I’ve gathered from my readings that these things come down mostly to genetics, and who’s to say it won’t happen again, no matter what I do.  But if it’s in my power to reduce the likelihood of recurrence by lowering my weight, then I vowed this would happen.

And not just the hernia, but my general health.  There’s nothing to be gained by being overweight, which I’d been for decades and had grown comfortable with.  I had just assumed that I gained a lot of weight in my early 30s, couldn’t lose it from then on, and this was life.  And then the doctor diagnosed the underactive thyroid, gave me appropriate daily medication to boost my metabolism, which kick-started an instant weight loss that lasted about three weeks, so I ran with it from there, knowing that it was now in my power to lose weight if I gave a genuine effort.  Believe me, I tried for years with no luck, so in many ways, that little hernia popping out, and the doctor stumbling onto this other problem, have given this whole shit experience some kind of silver lining.

What have I learned from all this?  A lot about how my body functions.  It’s an ornery, moody machine that does things in its own sweet time.  Like a pack mule that moves when it feels like it.  I can influence it, and control it in some senses, but weight loss, even after 50 lbs., is still very much a mystery to me.  I’ve grasped the essentials, that you simply have to consume less calories, within reason, on a steady basis.  But that’s it.  I’d gather there are nutritionists out there who could teach me a world of knowledge on combinations of food to eat in tandem with exercise to make weight really fly off.  But by the same token, I have become an idiot savant in terms of weight loss: I have made it happen on a real, substantial level.

I’ve learned that my self esteem hasn’t really been based on weight.  I don’t feel much more sure of myself as a result of this.  I look better, but being overweight for years taught me not to place too much value on looks (possibly the only benefit of being overweight).  I surely feel better, but not to the extent that I value my life any more or less than when I was weighing in at 250 lbs.  I don’t have any “wild success story” to tell, although I can’t help but feel some sense of victory in getting this far.  Given the circumstances, it just made a lot more sense for me to drop some serious weight after years of not being able to do so.

The greatest thing I’ve learned is that change is possible.  It seems like an easy concept to grasp, but the older you get, the harder it feels to change anything on a substantial level.  Take my word for it, dropping 50 lbs. is a sea change that hasn’t really sunk in yet.  Change is possible, but real, lasting change takes time and discipline.  It’s been an important lesson to learn this far along in life, where real change comes so very slowly or unexpectedly.  And often for the worse in terms of health.  But I can at least see now that there’s a door, and if you want to go through it, chances are you can make real things happen.  We all have things in our lives we want to change, and it’s a humbling concept to grasp this far along.

Of course, this all means nothing if I gain it all back.  I’m acutely aware of this and am looking to make this a permanent change.  Again, breakfast and lunch are not a problem for me, it’s going to be dinner and snacking that I’ll need to watch myself with going forward.  I look forward to a month or two from now when I’ll concern myself with maintenance as opposed to loss, which I’m hoping won’t be as hard and confounding as I’ve found steady loss to be.  I have to believe just as a health concern that I’ll be pretty diligent moving forward from that point.

Understand that I was reasonably healthy before all this, just carrying far too much weight.  Surely snacking too much on top of having too-large portions for dinner.  I was hardly going crazy with food.  With an underactive thyroid that I’m sure had been undiagnosed for over a decade, I was pretty much not going to lose weight, no matter what I did.  By the same token, I hit a certain point, about 250 lbs., where I plateaued for years and never gained past that point.  So I am hopeful that I’ll be able to keep off whatever I’ve already lost and should lose in the next month or two.

It’s hard to explain how all this feels.  “Cautiously optimistic” might be the best way to put it.  I’ll say this.  When you figure out how to unlock one door like this in your life, it makes you wonder what other doors might open if you take your time and put your mind to it.