Scenes from a Texas snow day – part 1

A wonderful Valentine’s Day breakfast made a cold day a little warmer.

Smoked salmon and eggs, avocado, and toast with a ❤️💜❤️💜.

There was already about a half inch of snow on the ground when we awoke.

We bundled up in many layers and went for a walk. There was a bitter wind in our faces near the end, but for the most part we were pretty comfortable.

It was beautiful outside.

The temperature difference inside and out was remarkable for North Texas.

I am glad I started trying to grow veggies inside, inspired by Jodi’s success with her herb garden.

It really is beautiful outside. The snow should taper off but the temperature is only going to go lower.

Creeping toward betterment

After 9 months of mental and emotional assault from the COVID-19 pandemic, trapped in my own home and unable to live like a normal human being, my body had suffered. Already, before the pandemic, the signs had been building. Back in 2018, I was in the grip of crippling depression. Physical injury in 2017 and 2018 prevented me from running, which had been a primary means of relieving stress and keeping my weight stable. Back then, I was about 195lbs. Combined with mental and emotional stress from my work environment, then a case of hand, foot, and mouth disease, I had reached a health breaking point.

2019 was better. My injuries had healed with time and patience and care. I could run again, and so I did. My work environment improved substantially. But I stopped minding my diet, keeping track of the calories in and out of my body. My weight crept. I went from being “safely” in the overweight category toward being in the obese range again.

Then came the pandemic. Then came the requirement to quarantine after an international trip. Then came the lockdowns. My time was filled with digital teaching, or helping colleagues with their digital teaching. The goal was to just complete the spring semester and get to summer. I started running again, but my eating became worse. And, I won’t lie, I started drinking more alcohol. Apart from the risk of chemical addiction, this added more calories to my diet.

By the end of 2020, I was up to 215lbs. This was a real low point for me. In 2012, I was 248lbs. With hard work – a combination of steady and regular exercise and calorie-minding – I beat that down to 190 lbs at my lowest, sometime around 2017. I remember tearing up the first time I stood on a scale and my weight was 189lbs, but that was a small downward fluctuation. 190 lbs is a more honest “average” low point.

To race back up to 215 lbs in just 2 years was a real slap in the face. What was funny was just how out-of-control I felt in 2020. I ran over 1000 miles in 2020. But my weight went up by almost 10 lbs in that same year.

Th culprit was the calories. I mean … DUH. Ultimately, weight loss boils down to a simple formula: if you take in less calories than you expel, your body will be forced to use energy stores, like fats, to fuel itself. If you carry excess fat on your body, like I do, this brings with it significant increased risk of heart disease or other cardiovascular problems. My family has a risk of stroke and heart attack, so I really do need to take this seriously. What happened in 2020 – more running than in 2 years, and yet a 10 lb weight gain – signaled that I wasn’t minding my conservation of energy problem.

So at the beginning of 2021, after a Christmas weight spike up to 218 lbs, I doubled down on exercise and calorie-minding. I fired up my old MyFitnessPal account and began recording meals. It’s always a chore at first. Now it’s just a habit. Eat breakfast. Record food. Eat lunch. Record food. Eat dinner. Record food. Eat a snack. Record food.

My Samsung Gear watch transmits my exercise to my phone, and is very good at tracking walking and running automatically. The Samsung Health app does sync with MyFitnessPal, but as many people have noted Samsung seems to deliberately NOT transmit walking exercise to MyFitnessPal. I have to enter manually any walks I take into MyFitnessPal. It’s a small annoyance, but like a mosquito bite every day it does irritate me.

This has had quite an impact. Since recommitting myself in early January, my weight has come down to almost 207 lbs. Each day, I make sure to come in under my calories goal (right now, that is 2330 per day). Walks of about 1 hour burn 300 calories. Elliptical trainer workouts in our home gym burn about 400 calories every 45 minutes. Outdoor runs burn about 1000 calories per hour. I have had to mix it up since the weather in Texas has been so crazy this winter, with many days too cold for me to run (I HATE running in cold air).

But even with a mix of exercise, minding the calories has been the real winner. This combination is working for me, as it did for all those years from 2012-2017. It’s been fun also to do this with an old friend of mine, who also complained out loud at the beginning of the year that he was sick of being out-of-control of many of the same things affecting me. Together, we seem to be creeping toward betterment.

1/6

Since Wednesday, I, like most Americans, have been trying to make sense of the events of that day. I find it’s usually best to begin with the facts, so that’s where I will start this reflection.

Wednesday was to be devoted to proposal writing. After reading the newspaper, then eating breakfast, and a morning walk with Jodi, I settled into writing. I spent the next several hours in an effort that resulted in 10 pages, when only 3 were necessary. This is how I work: get it all down on paper and worry about condensing, compressing, and editing it later.

I got so deep into this work that I tuned out the world. Mostly, that was intentional; my phone was muted, social media was safely tucked out-of-sight, and all that I had to keep my attention was Overleaf and a stack of references and ideas. What do I mean by “mostly intentional”? Well, I was scheduled to meet with a Dean at 2pm and completely lost track of time. When I came up for air (and email) at 2:40pm, I realized my mistake and panicked. While I raced to email the Dean and try to connect with them, I noticed the news notifications on my phone.

There were many … more than usual. I am used to a few breaking headlines every day from the Washington Post app, but this was way above and beyond a typical day. Of course, we know why … it was not a typical day.

Thousands of enraged devotees and disciples of President Trump, their anger stoked by the President’s rally in front of the White House, marched on the U.S. Capitol Building. Hundreds, if not more, pushed through police who seemed to do the minimum required to keep them back and smashed their way into the complex. Senators and Representatives were whisked to safety or sheltered in place. There was gunfire. Chemical agents were deployed by police and by the fascist crowd storming the legislative branch, looking to overthrow the results of a free and fair and verified election. Waving a myriad of flags, some of which actively advocate against our union of states, this traitorous mob was looking to setup a dictator in place of a representative democracy. They would have their Mad King George seated on a throne of lies, no matter what damage had to be done, or who had to die.

While these were Americans, and while they no doubt represent the worst impulses of our nation that have been with us since its founding 244 years ago, they created a moment that represented one of the clearly darkest in our history. We watched Americans assault the very foundations of the democracy that made their liberties possible in the first place.

None of this was a surprise. As many commentators have noted, it was nonetheless horrifying.

As a scientist, I have watched the slide of Americans into the darkness, fueled by credulous thinking and misinformation, for a long time now. Long before I became aware of the undoing of American reason, it had already begun. You might go back to slavery itself and note what wrong thinking led to that awful institution, whose legacy is still with us. You could point to the snake-oil salesmen and hucksters of the old west, duping the un- and under-educated public. You could point to the Scopes “Monkey Trial,” which marked the rejection of the scientific explanation of biological diversity in favor of a specific Christian theological explanation in public schools. You can point to the anti-science campaigns of tobacco companies designed to hide the health crimes of their product. You could point to the rise of fundamentalist Christians as a political movement in the late 1970s and early 1980s, aided by the Reagan presidency, and the birth of the “scientific creationism” movement – a rebranding of the movement to literally interpret the Bible and accept it as scientific fact. You can point to climate change denialism, and human-induced climate change denialism. You could point at vaccine denialism, flouride denialism, chiropractic, and alternative medicine. You can point to “intelligent design,” the “wedge strategy” of a wing of the fundamentalist Christian right, the misunderstanding of economics, or the demonization (against all evidence) of migrants or non-Christian religions.

In truth, all of those were pieces in a long-building puzzle that culminated on January 6, 2021. Each of those episodes was a test of critical thinking, one which people inevitably failed. Maybe it was few people. Maybe it was many. But each chapter was a step on the road to the credulity that fueled the rage we say on 1/6. The work of tobacco companies, for instance, over many decades to perfect the trapping of science while undermining public trust by avoiding the foundations of science, gave the public permission to think that all conclusions are equally valid. For every one scientist who finds evidence on one side, it seemed, there will be another who finds evidence on the other. This play-acting at science was designed to avoid the questions of “what kind of evidence?” and “what quality of evidence?”

If you cannot discern reliable evidence from poor evidence, then of course you will fall prey to people who make claims about quantity without reference to quality. For example, if you think testimonials are as equally valid as information gathered from records or experiments, then of course you will believe when someone says there are lots of signed testimonials attesting to, say, voter fraud or election fraud. The same movements that undermined American’s ability to discern the quality of evidence in public discourse – the creationist movement, the anti-climate science movement, etc. – allowed for the rise of a demagogue who acts only in service to himself while duping others into siding with his cause.

American democracy can resist this, of course, but only if people uphold the foundations on which it is built. As members of the legislative or executive branch act to undermine constitutional democracy by claiming fire where there is only a smoke stoked by lies, the foundation weakens. I believe that each of us is the bulwark against the fall of our democracy, each of us a candle in the night and a light against the dark. Our light is snuffed out when we fall prey to magical thinking, wishful thinking, and credulity. Our light is brightened when we accept hard truths, backed by the best quality of evidence, even when those truths run counter to our desires.

Our founding fathers were flawed, complex human beings. Among their better qualities, however, many of them understood the value of scientific thinking … even practiced it. (albeit not in all things, such as in relation to skin color and inherent value) They even enshrined the importance of arts and sciences in the main body of the Constitution, writing,

The Congress shall have Power … To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;

The U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 8

They would not even enshrine some of the things we take for granted these days – freedom of speech, of religion, of the right to bear arms – until the amendments to the Constitution were passed (the “Bill of Rights”). However, promoting the progress of science and the “useful arts” was right up front in the powers of the legislative branch.

We must recognize that rekindling the light of liberty and restarting the heart of our republic will begin with a turn to science and arts, which themselves are a reflection of human reason, creativity, and expression. You don’t have to be a scientist, or even have a college degree, to practice basic critical thinking – the kind that can cast the light that will be needed to drive out the shadows that waged war on constitutional democracy on 1/6.

Photo by David Tomaseti on Unsplash

Coda

The Washington Post has compiled an excellent and terrifying video timeline [1] of the events surrounding the insurrection. It shows the rage, the violence, and the terror inflicted on the U.S. Capitol Building on January 6, 2021 … all in service of a pure lie. It also shows the heroism of security and police, even as we continue to learn more about how unprepared … and even encouraging of the insurrection … officials and parts of the police force were that day.

[1] Dalton Bennett, Emma Brown, Sarah Cahlan, Joyce Sohyun Lee, Meg Kelly, Elyse Samuels, Jon Swaine. “41 minutes of fear: A video timeline from inside the Capitol siege”. The Washington Post. January 16, 2021. https://www.washingtonpost.com/investigations/2021/01/16/video-timeline-capitol-siege/

Good run

It’s December 29, it’s about 60F outside, and I had a fantastic 7-mile run today. It’s been rough-going for outdoor exercise lately, with the weather conditions swinging between the 30s and the 60s, but today’s running conditions were just perfect. My mile times are terrible, owing to fact that despite regular exercise I’ve been adding on a lot of weight this year (I am up about 20-25 pounds from my low-point of 195 lbs), but I know if I keep this up and reign-in my eating, things will improve again.