Friday, January 24, 2014

Slouching Towards Obesity

What rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born.
W.B. Yeats, "The Second Coming"

A photo taken during my class last week unbeknownst to me has prompted serious thoughts about my stomach.

In his poem, Yeats was contrasting the post-World War I malaise with what could be seen of the future.  Rather than a peaceful Jesus returned to rescue humanity, he imagined the Egyptian sphinx rising up after "twenty centuries of stony sleep" and moving ungracefully into the world.  Instead of a utopian vision of future bliss, this image is distinctly dystopian.  Given the history of the late 20th and early 21st century, I have to admit Yeats was a prophet.

After accidentally stumbling across my photo on a student's Facebook page, I stood on the scale we hide under our bed to discover that I now weigh 86 kilos (nearly 190 pounds), up at least 3 kilos from the last time I'd checked.  Of course it's all in my gut which gravity has now encouraged to droop below my belt.  It's painful to realize one has become the worst cliché of a fat old farang in Thailand.  I'd been considering getting suspenders (braces for your Brits) to hold up my pants which might disguise the distinction between girth and waist.  But I've not actually seen anyone wearing them over here and a shopping expedition turned up none at all.  A style change, however, would not erase the fact that I'm growing obese day by day.

The revelation about my belly and the necessity to do something about it came during the second week of the Bangkok Shutdown. My worst fears about "Armageddon," as I referred in my last blog post to the siege of the city by thousands of anti-government protestors, have gone unrealized.  While the mob has closed almost a dozen intersections in the center of the capital to traffic in an effort to bring all government activity to a halt, Bangkok has simply absorbed them with urban antibodies to ward off the infection of chaos.  I did not need to stockpile water or food for the stores in my neighborhood remain well supplied.  It's hard to tell anything unusual is going on not far away.

In my mind I'm still as skinny as I was here playing volleyball on Venice Beach in 1974.  My weight for years was around 150 pounds and my stomach was flat, if not exactly a 6-pack.  While the rest of my body remains slim, my stomach has ballooned in the last 15 years.  I cannot see my toes; belts fail to prevent pants slippage.  The elevators in my condo have mirrors and I'm forced to review the damage at least twice a day.  Shirts sized XL seem too small.  I have been like a smoker who knew the dangers but loved his ritual cigarettes nonetheless (as I did for 30 years).  For me it was an addiction to Oreos and cartons of ice cream with chocolate bits inside.  I drank sweetened ice tea with meals and for a treat stocked popsicles in the freezer. I loved chicken skin and peanut butter sandwiches with lots of mayonnaise, and cheese popcorn with a Coke at the movies.  Cakes and donuts are temptations I rarely resist.  The reasons why I've gained 9 kilos since coming to Thailand six years ago are no secret. And the end is near.

The anti-government (some say anti-democracy) protest has been going on for several months, calling for Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of the exiled and much hated (by Bangkokians but not by those in the rural northeast) Thaksin, to resign.  After a couple of weekend demonstrations which drew several hundred thousand people, protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, deputy prime minister under the former unelected administration, set the "final battle" to begin on Jan. 13.  For me, it was the "rough beast" slouching into Bangkok. But once here, the beast was tamed. The rallies at a half dozen sites draw perhaps 20,000 nightly and resemble carnivals rather than stages in an insurrection.  During the days protestors, many bused up from southern provinces and now sleeping in tents, march to various government locations and try to shut them down or convince the civil servants to join them.  They've not been without violence.  At night shots are fired at rally guards and twice someone threw a grenade into a crowd, killing one man and injuring over 60.  Up in Udon, a prominent red shirt government supporter was wounded in a drive-by shooting at his home.

It may seem a stretch to pair concern about my weight gain with a siege of Bangkok bent on demolishing democracy in Thailand, but it's where my mind is at these days.  Armageddon is taking a long time.  When not preparing for class, teaching or reading my students' homework, I sit on the couch glued to my laptop, perusing twitter and the blogs and posts collected for me by my Feedly account. Occasionally I turn away from the news tweets and Facebook comments to watch a film or TV show I've downloaded ("True Detective" is my new favorite). And, until a couple of days ago, I'd snack on Oreos, ice cream, popsicles, popcorn, and anything else I could stuff in my mouth to make the uncertainty of the future go away.  Although I'm not really worried about my safety, I am concerned about what will happen next in Bangkok that might require some adjustments in our life here.

The two-week shutdown so far has had a devastating effect on tourism.  It's the peak season, and the upscale hotel where my wife works in the Siam district is down to 30 per cent occupancy when it's usually full in January.  While people buy protest-related tee shirts from vendors in the carless streets, the luxury malls and stores near them are almost empty.  There are various scenarios about where this is all going, none of them good. Though the election is scheduled for Feb. 2 it could be delayed by the courts since the opposition party is boycotting it and candidates could not register in southern provinces where the protestors blocked them.  Even if it's held it could be invalidated as happened in 2006.  Other court decisions could end Yingluck's reign with a judicial coup similar to what happened in 2008.  If Yingluck goes, the pro-government forces in the north and northeast have said they will fight.  More violence could bring about another military coup (there have been 18 since 1932).  People are talking about the possibility of moving Yingluck's government to Chiang Mai, and of the chances for a civil war in Thailand.

I visited four of the rally sites before the bombs made it more dangerous to hang out with the protestors, and I took a selfie like everyone else around me.  Participants take photographs, blow the now trademark whistles, and wear outfits customized with patriotic bling.  In my rounds I become increasingly aware that excess weight stresses my weak right knee, and can make it exhausting to climb up and down stairs.  This week I commiserated with my friend Jerry.  He's 78 and has survived open heart surgery and the installation of a pacemaker.  Because of a strict diet for his heart situation, Jerry weighs 70 kilos and looks quite svelte.  He eats only twice a day and avoids most of the fat and sugar that I consume.  Something finally clicked and I formed a few resolutions about eating and exercise (swimming has been curtailed by the chilly weather).  Can I change the future now by adhering to a disciplined program?  At the moment it still feels like slouching, a slow ramble not exactly in a straight line, but the destination is away from obesity and towards something more wholesome and lasting.  If Thailand descends into chaos and civil war, it might be a good idea to get healthy in order to deal with the challenges.

1 comment:

Justin Whitaker said...

Hang in there, Will. This is something a lot of us struggle with - in my case since my teen years when I discovered that my 'baby fat' wasn't going away. Discipline and mindfulness seem to be the key ingredients for getting svelte (lovely word, btw!); along with preparing the causes and conditions: stocking up on fruits/veg and keeping them at hand instead of junk food, getting various 'exercise' equipment (whatever works for you) on hand so when the odd impulse to work out hits, you can do it, etc.

Hopefully all will turn out okay (politically and weight-wise!).