Chapter Three

In this excerpt from Chapter Three of “The Amateur’s Guide to Making Your Own Miracles,” find out how we can be set up to fail almost from the beginning — by the best of intentions.

Thank you, Mr. President

When I was in elementary school, something called the President’s Council on Youth Fitness (whatever that was) determined that we had to be tested in our physical abilities as part of the Presidential Youth Fitness Program. Now, here are a couple of new details about me I don’t think I’ve mentioned before.

Number one, I was born very premature — something like two months early, possibly more. I spent the first sixteen days of my life in an incubator at Kaiser Hospital Hollywood, in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, which sounds much friendlier under the initialism NICU — especially if you treat it as an acronym. Preemies often have lung issues, and when I was about seven I had a bad case of bronchitis. Air quality in Los Angeles up through the ‘80s and probably into the mid-1990s was also total shit — seriously, it is much, much better now — none of which helped me at all.

I also had viral pneumonia when I was 14, so why I ever started smoking is beyond me, because I never should have in the first place. But flashback to about two or three years before that and here’s the scenario. First, I’ve never really had upper-body strength. Oh, sure, I’ve got legs for days, and in middle-school I could leg-press ridiculous weights — I distinctly remember actually lifting six hundred pounds with no effort. But my chest, shoulders, and arms? Not so much.

Now combine that with bad air and weak lungs, and strenuous physical activity really wasn’t my thing. But around fifth grade, they were suddenly testing us on how many pull-ups and push-ups and sit-ups we could do — for me, I think the answer was “one and a half” of each on a good day. But it got worse, because we were expected to run laps around the schoolyard, and we were grouped and categorized based on how many and how fast.

While I had strong legs, running was not my thing because I would get winded really fast. Also, because it happened to be our Evil Overlords (aka Principal from Hell and Teachers) mandating that we do all this shit, I really rebelled against it. I’d run as far as I could, which was maybe a quarter of the way around the hot asphalt playground of my elementary school, but then I’d stroll the rest of the way with those of us who couldn’t manage to go much faster. Fortunately, my two best friends, who were both named Mike, weren’t big runners either, so at least we had a private triumvir via which to commiserate and bitch about it.

Meanwhile, the jocks would easily cruise through a dozen or more laps in the fifty minutes allotted while the coaches — the bitter alcoholic recently divorced fifth grade teacher Mr. Slane and the butch lesbian ex-military sixth grade teacher Ms. Harrison — took notes and blew whistles and shouted.

In a weird way, this enforced activity missed the same boat that teaching kids strictly for standardized tests does now: It doesn’t effing work. If anything, it does the opposite. They started to test our natural abilities in fifth grade with an eye toward training us to pass the tests in sixth — but then they tried to ride the asses of those of us who weren’t cutting it and guess what? Our response was pretty much to decide, “Okay, we’re going to fail this shit, and we don’t care.”

At least we weren’t actually being graded on this one, right?

Honestly, it’s fine to fail at this kind of thing if your ambition is to not be a jock. But, on the other hand, if you want to actually get an education and this is how they’re feeding you math and history and languages and arts and everything else, well… it’s a really, really bad system. Especially because the current system doesn’t really include that art part at all.

You cannot build people up if you start out by saying, “Well, gosh, you sure suck at this.” And you can’t build yourself up if you start out by saying, “You’re right. I do.”

Improvement only comes from a safe space, and it starts with an acknowledgement of effort. I’m sure that, back in those days, if the response to my pathetic attempts at physical fitness hadn’t been, “Well, shit, you’re a weak little faggot, aren’t you,” but instead had been, “Okay, you did one, that was great. Can you do two? ‘Cause I think you can…” then things would have turned out totally different.

Well, who knows? I could have been a famous retired gold-medal winning Olympic athlete or something now. Why do I think that? Because, even earlier than failing at athletics, I got encouragement from all over the place on my intellectual abilities, especially my writing and my musical skills. Those are what were nurtured by my parents, teachers, and friends.

Guess which two things I have done for all of my life and still do to this day, and which other bunch of things I only rediscovered and learned to love recently.

Now, the idea behind all the Presidential Fitness shit was sound and noble. It’s just that the approach was bad. However, irony alert — it was probably largely due to government intervention in an effort to make people thin that America got fat in the first place.

I’ll get back to that part in a moment. But first of all… how are we going to define “fat?”

* * *

 Putting the “die” in diet

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), if you’re American there’s nearly a 37% chance that you’re obese, meaning that you have a Body-Mass Index (BMI) greater than or equal to 30. For a woman of average height, 5’4” (1.62 m), this means a weight of 174 lbs. or more (79 kg). For the average man, those figures are 5’10” (1.77 m) and 207 lbs. (94 kg). However, keep in mind that the BMI can be really wrong for very athletic people. An in-shape male bodybuilder of average height who is mostly muscle and weighs 230 lbs. is probably not actually obese.

But you’re probably not a bodybuilder, or mostly muscle instead of fat. You probably wouldn’t be reading this book if you were. You might be sighing in relief to yourself right now to realize that you aren’t obese, but many estimates put the number of overweight adult Americans at two thirds of the population — those with a BMI between 25 and 29.9.

If you’d like to calculate your own BMI, here’s the formula, in both metric and imperial units:

In the above, k is your weight in kilograms and m is your height in meters; P is your weight in pounds and I is your height in inches. Here’s how the formula breaks down for me:

 k/m^2 (or) P/I^2 x 703

Of course, if you’re averse to even simple math, you can always search “BMI Calculator” online and find many options for plugging in the numbers to see your own results.

76.1/1.88^2 = 21.5 (or) 167.8/74^2 x 703 = (0.0306 x 703) = 21.5

How did you do? Even if you did come up with a BMI in the normal range, read on, because this book isn’t just about losing weight. It’s about avoiding unhealthy outcomes in the first place, but that only applies to one third of you.

The question is: Why is it that so many of us are or have been overweight in the first place?

* * *

You can read all of Chapter One, excerpts from Chapter Two or Four, or start with the Prologue.

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