Drive Me Crazy

I lived in LA and I didn’t own a car.

No, you didn’t misread that, and I didn’t mistype it either.

In point of fact, I don’t even have a valid driver’s license any more. I gave up driving a couple of years ago and I don’t miss it. I –hate– driving cars. Every time I get in one I have the weird feeling that I’m gonna get in an accident. Sort of a “Vic-Morrow-I-Don’t-Want-To-Ever-Get-In-A-Helicopter” kind of thing. Not that staying out of Choppers helped Vic…

Clear as day, I can see in my minds eye the point of view as I look down at my abdomen, impaled on the shattered remains of the steering column. That I once had a first hand experience with a major freeway mishap (I somehow managed to barely avoid becoming one of the wrecks) is not the reason for this trepidation. I’ve pretty much always felt this way.

The thing is, that didn’t stop me from spending ninety minutes, twice a day, in my car commuting to and from work. I did that for over a decade. However, when I moved out to Vancouver at the beginning of 2001 and no longer had to worry about getting to the office (which was fifteen seconds away from my bedroom), I decided I didn’t want to drive any more. It helped that my car didn’t actually arrive in Vancouver until I’d been there over a month. By then, I had managed to figure out how to get around.

After a couple of months of relying on my feet, I started to notice that my clothes didn’t fit right any more. I had started to loose weight. At the time, I had a forty-eight inch waist. When I was in high school, it was thirty-eight, but other than that I had paid virtually no attention to my weight in the intervening seventeen years. While I knew I was far from fit, I figured I could still see my shoes when I looked down, so I must be doing OK. Further, since I’d been a vegetarian for several years by that time, I figured I was already living a “healthy” lifestyle. Denial is an amazing state of mind.

When I realized that I must have actually been shedding some of my excess mass, I did something I had sworn I would never do. I went and bought a scale. Not some pansy-assed k-mart product, but the kind of scale that gives you accurate weight and body-fat counts. The first time I used it I was shocked. The sucker clocked me in at about 280 pounds with a body-fat index of 35%. Yikes! This is -after- I’ve lost a couple of inches around my waist. At the time I’d arrived in BC, I’d easily been over three hundred pounds.

Looking around, I realized something startling – there are a lot of fat people out there. Yeah, I just used the -F- word. Our whole society is getting fat, an assertion that, while bourn up by medical research and CNN reports, is not popular to make. Using some politically correct, sugarcoated expression like “weight challenged” is just another form of denial on a massive cultural scale. People who lug around an excess of flesh need to accept the fact that they are, plain and simple, fat.

For those of you who take issue with my “unsubstantiated” research, simply do your own “Fat Check” – next time you line up for a cheeseburger at the local fast food joint, or (god help us all) order that two-pound-deep-fried-potato-platter at Shakies, take a look around you. How many of the people are fat? And more importantly, how many aren’t?

Want a little more meat to chew on? How about the National Health and Nutrition Exam survey reported a while back… 33.4% of US adults, 20 years of age or older are estimated to be chronically overweight.

One out of every three people is fat. And even after dropping a full foot off my waistline, I know I’m still one of ‘em. However, I’m certainly bucking the trend, since I’ve at least managed to reduce my size. Over the past two decades, however, obesity has increased at an unnerving pace. Consider this…

From 21.6% in 1983, to 24.0% in 1985, 27.5% in 1990, and 33.4% in 1993.

Are you with me here? North America is putting on pounds as fast as it can. How is this possible in our supposedly health-conscious society? We’ve now got access to more low fat and low calorie (and even sugar free) foods than ever before. Research on obesity indicates that there were only about 500 types of foods to eat just 100 years ago. Today, by comparison, there are over 50,000.

And on some level, we know damn well that we’re getting fat. Diet-of-the-week fads produce hundreds of books and thousands of magazine articles every year, promising to tell us the secrets of successful weight loss. Journalists regularly report on which foods have been determined to be unhealthy for us, and what we should be eating regularly to promote our physical wellness.

The airwaves are rife with exercise programs and infomercials for the newest Ab-Blaster and Butt-Buster. There are ads for videos, pills, and a dozen other products that promise to melt off the pounds. Hell, with all these options, we should all be rail thin by now.

But we’re not. We’re fat.

Why? It’s not all that complicated if you stop to think it through. You see, some time back we stopped eating real food. We eschewed the local bakery and started buying Wonder Bread. Fruit and veggies got boring because they weren’t sweet or savory enough for our sugar saturated taste buds. Suddenly we were living in an MSG saturated landscape of Salisbury steak and HoHos. But these products are manufactured, and the list of ingredients reads like a chemical assessment of your engine oil.

Hey, why eat an apple when you can have an apple-flavored high-energy breakfast bar, even if it’s 2PM and you’re on your fifth one of the day. The label says its good for you…

Trust me on this — Stick with the apple.

Another amazing thing that has happened to us as a society is that we’ve stopped eating just because we’re hungry. With all those tasty treats to pick from, we can chow down 24/7 and have something different every time. So now we use any excuse to eat. Feeling down? Grab some chocolate! Stressed? Have some “comfort food”! Anxious? Nothing a double-cheese pizza won’t fix!

Except that it doesn’t. If you’ve got problems, you need to see a doctor. A six-pack of Twinkies and a family-size bag of those cheese-stuffed pretzels isn’t gonna fix anything.

And next time you’re looking longingly at that Krispy Kreme donut with the pink sprinkles on it, ask yourself a really simple question – “Do I feel hungry?” If your stomach isn’t growling and doesn’t feel like a big empty space, then you probably aren’t. And if you aren’t hungry, DON’T EAT!

What are average North Americans actually stuffing down their maws? We’re eating meat, and lots of it, an average of 75 pounds of beef a year – or about 1.8 billion hamburgers worth. You might want to consider that hamburger contains more saturated fat than any other type of meat. And while you’re at it, remember all that rainforest that’s getting chopped down? A primary use for that land is to graze cattle to make all those burgers…

We also consume about 44 pounds of pork, mostly as hotdogs. Have you ever looked at what actually goes into a hotdog? Officially it’s referred to as “Edible Offal”. That’s skin, snouts, ears, esophagi and/or powdered bone to you and me. Next on the list is chicken, about 40 pounds worth of birds that are raised in enclosed, illuminated boxes rigged to provide them food twenty-four hours a day, fattening them up as much as possible. From hatched egg to your table in twelve freaking weeks.

Finally, we chow down on about 18 pounds of fish. We may be pushing entire ocean species towards extinction, but at least it’s good for our coronary systems.

And then there’s all that liquid we consume to wash down the tasty victuals. The average adult drinks about 138 gallons of fluid a year. According to studies, this breaks down as…

– 45 gallons of soft drinks
– 26 gallons of coffee
– 24 gallons of beer and alcoholic beverages
– 23 gallons of tea, juice and plain old-fashioned water
– 20 gallons of milk

Holly hell! Almost a third of all the fluid that’s going into your body is soda pop? Humans are made of water, not Coke! I know you probably love it – people throughout the world drink about 200 million glasses of Coke every day. They say they like the “refreshing flavor”. Bullshit. They like the sugar. Soft drinks don’t have an iota of nutritional value. And unless you’re a performance athlete, pouring Gatorade down your throat isn’t doing you much good either.

You know what really scares me about our infatuation with these fizzy concoctions? Over forty percent of one and two-year-old children are being given an average of nine ounces of this crap daily. Hello? What happened to fruit juice? It’s not like those kids are picking up a bottle at the corner store for themselves…

Seems that we like our coffee too, even though drinking 2-5 cups a day increases your risk of heart disease by 60%, and more than 6 cups will jump it to 120%. Caffeine also lowers your ability to handle stress, but how could anyone resist another vente-iced-double-mochachino-latte-with-whipped-creme now that there’s a Starbucks on every corner? Oh, and of the hundred and fifteen chemical compounds we’ve managed to isolate in coffee, only twenty have been fully identified, and eighty percent of those cause cancer. Are you still feeling like having that cup of Java in the morning?

And between the meat and drink, what do we get? Fat. We steadfastly ignore our slowly expanding waistlines while we try to find a magic bullet that will make them disappear. We’re so desperate for an easy solution that North Americans spend thirty-to-fifty billion dollars every year on weight-loss solutions – far more than the government spends on space exploration. Evidence suggests that the money is not being well spent.

Maybe if you’ve come to the same conclusion I did, you’ll take moment to reconsider eating that Big Mac, or maybe you’ll do something really radical like getting rid of your car (or at least not driving it). A lot of us (approximately 60%) drive to work seated, sit at desks all day, drive home seated, and then plunk ourselves on the couch with a bag of Doritos and a Bud (OK, maybe it’s a Coke, but you get the picture).

Want to get off the train to obesity and early death from heart disease? Forget about diets – at best they’re temporary. Forget about all the scam workout gadgets. Forget about the pills, patches, and meal-replacement-drinks. Think about how you’re living your life and CHANGE IT!

You can start by getting off your ass and doing something. OK, most people don’t have the luxury of abandoning their cars like I did, but there are plenty of other things you can do which will make a huge difference in your life. You don’t need to sign up at a gym; you can benefit tremendously just by walking for thirty minutes a day.

Try it. Instead of sitting at home watching a Seinfeld re-run for the fifth time, take a stroll around the block. Need motivation? Get a dog. You’ll never be so tired that you can’t walk, and if you are, then I suggest you schedule an appointment with a cardiologist as soon as you can – you’re probably six inches away from a heart attack.

What about a bicycle? A lot of us live some distance from our jobs, but often it’s not as far as you might think. If your commute to work is less than twenty minutes, you can probably ride a bicycle instead. Sure, it’ll take longer, but those extra years you’ll have to enjoy your retirement will more than make up for the time you lose now.

As for the food you eat, you may find a bit of exercise actually reduces your appetite. But even if it doesn’t, at least you’re burning some of those excess calories.

If you want to do more, take a look at what you are eating. Think that salad you had for lunch is a good way to cut down? There are 125 calories in a tablespoon of light olive oil, which is a prime ingredient of ‘healthy’ dressings. Put it this way – the raspberry vinaigrette you tossed on those greens probably had as many calories as a Big Mac – though at least they’re healthier calories. And on that note, the “healthy” menu at McDonalds includes a vegetarian burger that is higher in fat and calories than any other item that they sell (including those same Big Macs).

Becoming diet conscious is part of developing a healthy lifestyle. If you know what you’re putting in yourself, it’s a lot easier to put down the Twinkie. Ignorance may be bliss, but it’s one of the reasons that some people’s attempts to change eating habits only result in consuming even more calories than they were. You don’t need to an expert; just take the time to learn the basics.

But at some point, if you’re going to get rid of those saddlebags permanently, you’re going to need to change the way you live.

For me, the decision was to stop driving, and I didn’t even do that for my health. But it caused me to change my lifestyle, and everything just sort of fell into place afterward.

Mostly I walk. But when I need to get somewhere a little further away, I ride my bike. Not a motorcycle, a bike. Two wheels. Pedals. The sort of device you probably haven’t actually used since you were old enough to get a license of your own. I didn’t think about bikes for a long time. After all, I did ten years of those ninety-minute commutes – three hours in a car every day. But once I dispensed with the car, a bike became a very useful thing indeed. For the really long distances, I stick with public transit or a cab.

Did you know that between the cost of the vehicle, gas, maintenance and insurance, the average car owner spends five thousand dollars a year for the privilege of owning a car? That’s a lot of cab rides, or a couple of vacations in the Caribbean.

With my bike, it’s a fifteen-minute ride to work. Thanks to the speed bumps and twisting LA side streets, it takes just as long to drive as it does to cycle, so I get all the benefit of the exercise without any penalty for time. I also get a lot of comments at work about how impressed people are that I ride to work, and I’ve even inspired a few to take it up themselves. I think that’s an amazing thing.

When I moved to LA, I took into account my proximity to the office, which certainly limited my choice of residence and the amount I’d pay for rent. While it costs more to live close to work -and- in a nice community, a car would have cost me much more than the average Joe. An import Canuck has no insurance history in the US and is treated as a new driver – this is an expensive proposition, and downright unaffordable if you’re driving anything other than a beater.

So while my rent is on the high side, I’m still ahead. And you can’t beat that fifteen-minute commute.

Now, the thing is, I -am- a guy. So, I shouldn’t have been surprised that other guys would eventually ask me, “What kind of bike do you ride?” This is what I’ve come to refer to as a Rita Rudner moment. It’s a sudden realization that I’m a little more out-of-sync with the rest of the world than I’d like to admit.

You see, my answer was: “Uh, a blue one.”

Yep. That’s right. I don’t actually know. I haven’t got a clue.

The response is an uncomfortable moment of negative “male-space”, and I can almost feel the “what-sort-of-guy-doesn’t-know-what-the-fuck-he’s-got-between-his-legs” thoughts that are running through their heads. What’s worse is that I make a point of looking at the brand on my machine every time that question gets asked, and I still never remember.

This led me to think about my years as an automobile driver. Want to know what kind of cars I owned? Let me tell you…

A grey one. A blue one. A white one. A brown one. And, finally, a silver one. The silver one was a BMW – I remember that because it cost a fucking fortune to have it fixed at the dealership. Actual make and model? Not a clue.

The thing is, I remember watching a comedy sketch years ago in which Rita Rudner (you knew I was going to get to this) asked the audience to pose the same sort of question to her during a sketch — “What kind of car do you own?”

Her answer — “A white one… It matches my shoes.”

Since I only wear black clothes, I don’t even have that excuse to fall back on.

Go figure. It seems I just have different priorities than most of the male population.

All I can say in my defense is that I’m in better health now than I probably ever have been. Last year I ran a ten-kilometer marathon, something I had never even considered to be possible. I ranked 17,000th on a field of 45,000 – not impressive by the standards of a “real” athlete, but a hell of a lot better than placing last (which is where I ended up when I was forced to compete in my grade-school competitions), and a pretty decent achievement for a man of my age who’s never run before.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not some kind of born-again health nut. I eat what I want. I still drink whisky, and I still smoke cigarettes. There’s a lot I could do to improve myself. But the fact is, I’ve managed to make myself healthier in the interim, and every little bit helps.

If you’ve gotten this far through my monologue and you’re thinking, “fuck healthy, I just want to enjoy myself”, then that’s your right. Fortunately we live in a country where we’re allowed to think for ourselves and choose how to live our lives. If you don’t give a rat’s ass about any of this stuff, you’re welcome to ignore everything you’ve read.

But if you aren’t happy with who you are, then do something about it. It doesn’t take a lot to make a difference, and you don’t have to strive to be on the cover of “GQ” or “Muscle and Fitness” to feel better about yourself.

Take a walk. Clear your mind. Enjoy it.

Trust me, it’s worth the effort.

(You can thank Bruce Campbell for inspiring a portion of this rant. Keep in mind that this is NOT a research paper, and statistics may be inaccurate, so don’t bug me about it.)

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