Is life better lived or imagined?

Somewhere in Allan Bloom's last book, Love And Friendship, he speaks of the promise of romantic love and its fulfillment -- my recollection is that it might have been in a discussion of Anna Karenina. Whatever the context, Bloom averred the fantasy of a life together would be 'better than any fulfillment'. In short, our dreams are a beautiful fraud that life demolishes at leisure, in the manner of a child picking petals off daisies or a lizard making a meal of an insect.

Whatever the truth of that claim in many respects, it is nonetheless true that life can surprise in the other direction -- by being better than you expected. I can think of at least three examples in my own life. In the first place, sex was nothing like what I expected -- to the extent that I was capable of expecting anything, which in my profound ignorance I was not. Still, I had expected it to be pleasurable. I had not expected it to be rapturous and utterly transporting (and no, physical spasms had nothing to do with it and were not a feature of my rapture). The fact that I have abjured such rapture for the past quarter century is neither here nor there. It was better than I expected by an order of magnitude. That's the point.

She comes first.

She comes first.

Then there is the dog. I had always thought that having a dog would be a life-enriching experience -- why else have one? But the fact is that I hadn't yet met my dog, I had only met other people's -- which is a bit like trying to judge how much you will love your own child by how much you adore children of all kinds in any playground. I expected to love Chummy when we got her, but I had no idea how much, how deeply, I would love her. Having a dog, despite the rather comprehensive restrictions -- as a free spirit I have chafed within them at times -- you can't move about with anything like the freedom of other people, for a start -- is a whole dimension of being human that I had no idea was really possible. Whatever the cost in freedom and convenience, being Chummy's parent is vastly better than I can describe. It is certainly well beyond what I imagined at the start. In fact, the reason that I am so willing to accept great restrictions on my freedom is that I love my dog and care for her wellbeing so much: one proceeds from the other. 

My third example is a bit different from the others in that it doesn't, directly, involve anyone else. It was the moment when I finally realized my years-long desire to write music. One day, I erupted with a song ('Golden Shadow') that set me on a path of songwriting and music-making that has been part of my life ever since. The pleasure and satisfaction are beyond what someone else might imagine -- and certainly I was right to want the realization of that dream, instead of cherishing the dream as something better than any reality....

In short, Mr Bloom: Though you were right about many things, I don't think you were right about this one.

Amelia Earhart's fate

A brand new American documentary about Amelia Earhart's fate in 1937 -- when her plane disappeared and neither she nor her navigator, Fred Noonan, were seen again -- has apparently been debunked by a Japanese 'military blogger'. Both National Geographic and The Guardian newspaper report that this person Googled the photo and found that it was actually published on 10 October 1935, long before the plane's last sighting on 2 July 1937.

The photo that all the fuss is about. No wonder it was ignored for eight decades!

I am of course no military expert nor photographic witness nor connoisseur of 20th-century working boats. Nor am I even particularly interested in Amelia Earhart (it must be said that Donald Crowhurst's story -- and disappearance -- is far more engrossing and tragic). But I do have expertise about human nature. And one puzzler about the supposed Jaluit Atoll 'Earhart and Noonan' photo is the man claimed to be Noonan.

In The History Channel documentary, Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence, we are told that the two aviators were captured by the Japanese and likely imprisoned by them. We are also told that three facial features of the man in the photo match those of Fred Noonan: the sharp V of the receding hairline; the prominent nose; and the look of the teeth. I don't know what about the teeth was so distinctive, but what I ask is this: If your pioneering plane had been downed and your project had been demolished -- never mind whether you had been 'captured' by a suspicious and unfriendly foreign power -- would you be grinning and showing teeth? Would you be smiling for the camera? Hardly. The psychology is all wrong. We all react to distressing events in different ways, of course. But some reactions are more likely than others. And I should imagine that when Noonan and Earhart's journey ended, there were no smiles attendant on that fate.

'Begging the Question' -- a good figure of speech?

I've never liked it, myself. A lot of people (most, probably) don't know what it means, because it's not particularly evocative of its meaning. Those three words are cut off, a fragment of the longer and more complete explanation. 'Taking as a given what remains to be proven' is a longer statement, but it has the virtue of being crystal clear. I don't think I would ever use 'begging the question' if I could make myself that clear instead.

In defence of Kate Middleton (and taut women everywhere)

Taut and talented: Alison Balsom OBE has biceps. (Source: Ms Balsom's Facebook)

Taut and talented: Alison Balsom OBE has biceps.

(Source: Ms Balsom's Facebook)

Nietzsche wrote (in Beyond Good And Evil): ‘every virtue inclines towards stupidity; every stupidity, towards virtue’.

I mention it because one virtue — that of self-control, particularly with respect to appetites — is seen as suspect and possibly even stupid when it means that your body fat is scarcely visible.

Women that are very lean are usually envied, though not always: the English writer, Julie Burchill, has often claimed that fat girls have more fun, in the sense that they can have all the sex they want (or at least she can: she’s married to a man that likes it) and eat with gusto, drink cheerfully, and still be fit and energetic (swimming is Burchill’s preferred exercise).

Even if one doesn't share Burchill's acceptance of fat (and Burchill herself admits that she would lose it if no self-denial were involved), there is still a general sense that lean women are being unkind to themselves. It's one thing to be slim, with muscles still swaddled in a thin layer of flesh (i.e. fat, and the blood vessels that feed it). It's another situation if your muscles seem the most of you, and nothing, even in jumping jacks, jiggles.

Exhibit A of the jiggle-free, extremely lean woman is Kate Middleton, now Her Royal Highness. (Sorry, Catherine: I know that you prefer that name as ‘more regal’ (William’s words), but Kate is how we think of you, and you should be glad: it’s a prettier name.) Kate was always a slender girl, but as we all know, photographs can fatten one — which is yet another reason why artists should not rely on photos to learn their craft. At some point (around the time of William’s graduation from Sandhurst?), she seems to have decided that press photos were showing her face as too rounded. So she started to get very lean, and then, after her marriage and in the months before her first pregnancy, she got even leaner. People were beginning to talk about it: how can such a fat-free woman hope to get quickly pregnant? We don’t know about the quickness, but my guess is that Kate was a metabolic expert by that point, and she knew that the body needs just enough to perform its functions — and no more. If she was to gain some fat in pregnancy, then she wanted to start out from as lean a base as possible, so that after the pregnancy she would end up pretty much where she started. And that is apparently what happened, twice. Two babies later, she is still one of the leanest people in the world. But is it healthy? And how can she be happy? What is so bad about a little fat?

Alcohol: fun but fattening

Alcohol: fun but fattening

Here I’m going to use the word ‘complex’. The function of fat in the body is complex, and the means of successfully and eternally losing it can be complex as well — though not nearly as complex as you might think.

To be lean and healthy, you ideally need three strengths, and these are appetite control, hunger acceptance, and enthusiasm for exertion (which practically means: strong muscles). These are the mechanisms or factors that determine everything else: your microbiome (gut bacteria, mainly), your insulin response to food, your ability to fight infection and repair injuries, hormonal balance, and so on. So in a real sense, being lean isn’t something you have in addition to being healthy: it is actually, in people that have good nutrition and muscle mass (unlike, say, prison camp survivors) a sign and indicator, indeed guarantor, of that very health.

Let’s start with the importance of muscles, and the predominance of muscle tissue in lean, fit people such as Princess Kate (and…cough…me). Muscles are fat suppressors because of how they work. The benefits can be summed up as three: firstly, muscles are where the energy goes when you ingest food (in addition to your liver) — and the glucose so stored is termed glycogen. Guess what happens when the muscles and liver are full up with glycogen? That’s right, the excess energy gets stored away as fatty acids known as triglycerides (because they are packaged in bundles of three).* It stands to reason that the more muscle tissue you have, to act as immediate storage baskets for your fuel, the less your body is forced to partition that fuel as fat. 

The second benefit of muscle tissue is that it requires more calories than fat does to be maintained: it is ‘metabolically expensive’, as they say. That means that the mere fact of having muscles, never mind the calorie-burn involved in using them, results in more calories burned overall. 

Thirdly, when you use your muscles enough to encourage their development — which is to say, they become more efficient and bigger, through cellular repair — your body gets the message that those muscles are needed and therefore diverts fuel for their upkeep, which again prevents fuel from going straight into your fat cells. Working your muscles hard encourages muscle partitioning of food over and against near-complete fat partitioning of food. 

I did say the subject was complex! But in a way, it’s remarkably simple. Muscle gives your food somewhere to go before it must be stored simply as fat (a little bit of fuel will always be stored as fat, but the question is: how much?). And muscle trains your body to ‘view’ muscle as something to preserve and build — re-directing it from its project of storing fat. And when this process in any individual has been honed and well-practised over time, what happens is that the muscle, in elbowing out the excess fat, becomes highly visible. The curves you see on that person tend to be muscle curves rather than fat curves. There is tautness, and there isn’t any jiggle (except for the bosom, of course).

How do you get those muscles in the first place? By using them in a way that stresses them, which prompts them to get bigger for next time. (Filling a vase with flowers doesn’t stress your muscles, but lifting your dog off the bed very well might!) What motivates you to use your muscles in such a challenging way? Well, having enthusiasm for activities that require exertion. Or to simplify, as we did at the beginning: having enthusiasm for exertion. And Princess Kate, who is clearly a sporty sort with a love of games, has had that enthusiasm from a very young age.

Now we reach back to the other two important factors in slenderness: appetite control and hunger acceptance. The first is a willingness to delay gratification: to eat later instead of now, to eat a smaller portion rather than fill right up, and to space out indulgences between more restrained and conscientious nutritional choices, rather than eating indulgently all the time. There is nothing in appetite control that need imply an indifference to good food or the incapacity for gourmet riches. It’s just that a lean person does not feast on energy-rich food constantly, six or three or even two times a day. And — this is important — the older the person gets, the less likely she is to indulge in energy-rich foods as a matter of routine (youth does have its advantages!). Some lean people can and do eat anything they want and find as well that they ‘can’t gain weight’. By definition, such people are in energy balance and they are not over-indulging. But age, and its concomitant hormonal changes, tends to mean that what was once normal eating, under the line of fat gain, has now crossed the line to become more than enough for fat gain. As with many other aspects of life, older adults must generally be more disciplined in their habits than younger ones. This is not because there are no health penalties of self-indulgence in youth, but it is still true that young people can get away with more — for now.

Finally we come to hunger acceptance. That is related to the ability to delay gratification, but I think it deserves its own category as a factor, as truly another resource employed by the very lean person. It is no good, we can all agree, delaying gratification if it simply means a compensatory binge that undoes all the restraint you showed earlier. Hunger acceptance is the willingness to receive the body’s signals about peckishness and ignore them. I don’t mean signals of true hunger, of faintness and hypoglycemia, of headaches and weakness. I mean the hormones, chiefly ghrelin, directing you to fill your stomach with something. 

Two fruit galettes: not on your ballerina in-season diet

Two fruit galettes: not on your ballerina in-season diet

I call these the peckish hormones, which act on your mind much like holding your breath. After a short time without new oxygen, you begin to panic and gasp for fresh air. The difference is that if you don’t get that fresh air, it’s curtains — but if you don’t eat, you can carry on quite wonderfully for many, many hours. The peckish effect, when you’ve got lots of fat stored, is really a bit of a fraud. Because when you respond to the peckish urge, what you’re really doing is not feeding yourself for now: what you’re doing is feeding yourself for later. Why is your body making you do this? It’s concerned that if you don’t feed now, when food might be available (or is available, depending on the time of day, and whether you’re looking at a laden table), you may not have the option to feed later. And if you don’t feed, the effects will be far worse than any delivered by your hunger hormones (and hydrochloric acid in your stomach). Your energy system is a primitive ape still living in the state of nature. Hunger acceptance is the override that lean people don’t mind deploying when needed. And guess what (again)? Like appetite control, the more you do it, the easier it gets. This is because you realize that a little prodding in the stomach region — from the inside out — never killed anybody. And it’s also because the hunger signal, in time, becomes less urgent. We can be certain that Princess Kate, among others, has appetite control aplenty, and if peckishness strikes, she knows enough to wait it out.

You still might wonder why someone that has mastered muscle maintenance, appetite control and hunger acceptance should nonetheless be so thin. Isn’t it possible to master these and yet have a little more body fat? Indeed it is, but each individual is both alike and different. To the extent that this threesome is a package deal, it results in its own ‘set point’ or level of return. So even if Princess Kate decides to have some wedding cake, it’s not her habitual way of eating, and she’s always been slim, so it won’t have much power to shift her metabolism. Someone else, eating that same wedding cake, might find herself gaining fat — because of her history, her other habits, and her tendency to do things in twos and threes, for instance. And as a package of behaviours — exerting muscle, restraining food consumption — it’s also a way of life that is like a switch, turned either On or Off. It can be tweaked and it can be more relaxed, but essentially, you are either on a ballerina path or you are not. If you’re on that path, your body has adapted and you have achieved a fine metabolic balance — which it would be foolish to give up. Ballerinas, elite athletes, and princesses that want to look like a storybook do have seasons and cycles, to be sure. But the cycle doesn’t exist unless somewhere they return to their more ascetic, disciplined ‘base’ of eating. Slices of cake, summer vacations, and even pregnancies aside, you are either a lean, mean, fat-burning machine — or you are not.

In sum, given that Princess Kate, and other taut women like her, have found a way to keep fat at bay, the fat happily stays off because their bodies don’t need it to function. To put it otherwise: taut women have the fat they need, but it’s just not pillowy enough to see it as something discrete. They don’t have pillowy fat because they have grasped, better than most people, the almost shocking fact that we humans need quality over quantity when we feed.

*Glycogen, by the way, is stored as dense granules in each cell. Triglycerides consist of three molecules of fatty acids and one molecule of glycerol. All of these names derive from 'glucose', a monosaccharide or single sugar.

Making Changes Stick

Not only do habits die hard, but more especially, pleasant habits die hardest. Life, or the School of Hard Knocks For Slow Learners, has shown me a trick or two for making change happen -- and sticking to it.

In no particular order, this is what I recommend.

1. Piggyback new habits onto old ones.

We all do actions in groups that are related to one another: we all, for instance, do a number of things under the heading of 'getting ready for bed' or 'getting ready to go out'. It can be difficult to remember to clean the dog's teeth with brush and toothpaste (it pops in and out of one's mind), but I put the dog's toothbrush next to mine and leave her toothpaste tube next to mine as well. Getting ready for bed used to mean a bunch of actions that included cleaning my teeth. Now it means a bunch of actions that include cleaning hers

2. Discover what the leading action is and do it.

$40 at Marks & Spencer: what a bargain!

$40 at Marks & Spencer: what a bargain!

Within any group of related actions, some are more important -- more leading -- than others. If you want to initiate a behaviour, such as exercising, then make the leading action 'the first thing you do'. In the morning, I wake up and put my sports bra on. That is the first step in making sure that I go to my training session, even if I make a cup of tea and check my e-mail along the way. There's no point in wearing a sports bra unless you are about to work hard. When the bra is on I don't think twice about it: on I go to work!

3. Replace large temptations with smaller ones.

For some reason, certain temptations are easier for us to limit and control than others. If I give you a box of chocolates, the allure of the package and the variety of the chocs may encourage you to eat half the box -- fondants, caramels, and all. You know you shouldn't, but one chocolate always seems to lead to another, until you've packed hundreds of sugar calories on. But what if you buy a small bar of really delicious plain chocolate instead? What if you break that bar in half and wrap it and put it away as if it's a separate bar? The ritual of the chocolate box has been broken. You still like chocolate, but the urge to have it has now been slaked by a little amount rather than by a lot. Overnight, you have cut a mass of calories and broken the magic cycle of chocolate-box enchantment. It's not just that you've taken something less pure and substituted something better. My point really is that there is something about a bar that says 'this one is enough'. The bar comes, if you like, with its own built-in limitation. The same can be said for certain drinks. I find it much easier to have just one gin and tonic than just one glass of wine, since wine easily leads from one glass to another, but I find that one G&T -- when calorie-cutting -- is enough. (I drink one bottle of tonic: I don't feel tempted to open another.) And I don't feel deprived. I still get that late-afternoon moment of reward, and I'm not heedlessly quaffing calories all night. 

4. Embrace irrationality in the service of rational ends.

Let's return to the sports bra and its powerful motivating effect. I put the bra on unthinkingly -- I don't have to hunt for it; I don't consider which one to wear; I don't ask whether I really want to wear it. I'm on autopilot: I put it on. As stated, the bra is like my Wonder Woman lasso or magic bracelets: it turns me into an athlete with muscle to go and build. That's irrational, in the sense that it's just a piece of clothing, and much of what I do could be done almost as well with just a regular bra on. I could just as easily take the bra off and save myself the trouble of training hard. The bra only has that power because that's the power I've given to it. I've made it the top half of my own personal Wonder Woman outfit. It's kind of silly when I put it like that, but it's the sort of silly that works. Training to be stronger, leaner, and healthier is a rational end. I'm not bothered if a little mind magic helps that goal on its way.

That, not coincidentally, is what all of these ends or goals have in common: Not doing them is not an option. Letting my dog's teeth fall out: not an option. Developing metabolic syndrome: not an option. Having to change my dress size: not an option. Accepting a loss of physical power: not an option. And that brings us to number 5:

5. Allow yourself to be obsessed.

For many excellent reasons, obsession is viewed with suspicion by wise people. It can obviously be distorting, and fanaticism leads one to neglect that which also deserves our respect and attention. Obsessives, never mind the compulsives (isn't it really the same thing?), seem to place undue value on certain things (in the case of Imelda Marcos, shoes). And yet, it's singlemindedness that gets the job done. It's intentness that prevents distraction and the weak yielding to any obstacle that pops in our path. If something is important, don't let it struggle for eminence by making it sit in the back of the bus. Put it on the front burner. (I love metaphor.) Put it center-stage in your life. Magnet notes to the fridge about it. Write it up in your calendar. Track your progress day by day, week by week, in a journal. Put reminders in your handbag or wallet. Be relentless in saying NO to pitfalls, which is really saying YES to triumph!

6. Realize that grim determination often turns into enthusiasm.

This is another take on obsession -- that obsession, which starts out as grim determination -- about chosen goals can often become great enthusiasm. If you've set yourself a challenge, you can embrace the whole process as a sort of game rather than as a chore. You are in competition with yourself: 'can I do better today?' / 'How far can I go?' / 'What will be my best result?' / 'Can I surprise myself a little bit more?'. You're not on a course of self-punishment; you're on a trek of self-improvement or self-building. Things that once you saw as 'hard' you now see as 'rewarding', or as essential for gaining future rewards, at any rate. If your goal is really right for you, it will not only look like the right thing at the beginning, but it will also start to feel right, a bit later on.


Portabella or portobello -- or what?

I looked it up some time ago, and came to the conclusion that the correct name for the usual mushroom we eat in the West (unless you're in England, in which case Field mushrooms could be on your plate) is portabella. What we often see, of course, is portobello -- the masculine form of the same word. I happen to prefer portabella, perhaps because that's how I heard it first (perhaps because it's correct?). But 'portobello' is at least consistent, as you'd expect an Italian word to be.

What I wonder at is the linguistic ignorance of people that mix and match: 'portabello' or 'portobella', which is like handing a monkey an unbrella instead of a banana: they just don't go together. A word is either masculine or feminine in its components: you can't have it both ways. Though in our anything-goes culture, I suppose a lot of people think you can!

Why do we call it 'white wine'?

A non-committal please-everybody glass of rose.

A non-committal please-everybody glass of rose.

White wine, so called, is usually a shade of yellow. The yellower it is, in general, the more likely it tastes like Chardonnay (the capital is kosher: that's the official region) and the less likely it is to be like Pinot Grigio (Pinot Gris in France) or Spanish Albariño, or other mineraly wines. 

But again the question is: why are yellow(ish) wines called 'white'? And why, given that they come from green grapes and that grape skins are known to colour wine, are they not in the least bit green?

Politics is the new show business

I don't know who said that 'politics is show business for ugly people' -- perhaps it was the same wit that spoke of faces 'perfect for radio'. 

But clever as it is, it's dated now. It's not true any more, is it? Show business people have for many years been into politics, not just as activists doing their bit on the side but as actual, portfolio-holding, elected politicians. There are no longer clear lines between vocations and fields of passion. Nobody feels any longer that to be loved as an entertainer -- or any other famous figure -- you must never muddy the waters with political commitment and outspoken attitudes. Indeed, apolitical geniality seems to be out. These days, if you kept quiet on matters of importance -- Brexit, the American presidency, or whether Chick-fil-A should be allowed to close on Sundays -- the public and its media shepherds would be more likely to paint you as a mouth-breather who reads books on Twitter. 

Far from being show biz for dowdy unknowns, politics is where the Hollywood types and high-flown academics aspire to go -- and show biz is the new apprenticeship for politics.

WHO? Why is the adjective not like the noun?

Rousseau is a French name. And things of Rousseau are -- what? Rousseauan? Or Rousseauian? The first makes more sense to me. Where does that i spring from? But many people do use the latter. In fact it's probably the more common usage of the two.

And then there is Canada. Something belonging to Canada is -- CanAYdian. Why? Why isn't the adjective of CA-na-da something that is CA-na-dan? Or, if you are 'Rousseauian', CA-na-Di-an? But no, the adjective is quite distinct, with a vowel change and the accent on the antepenult.

In that way, 'Canadian' is not much different from 'Floridian'. FLOR-i-da should give us FLOR-i-dan for the adjective. But instead we get an emphasis shift (to the second syllable) and an extra I near the end. 

Who determines these things? They didn't ask me!

Let's ditch 'around' as a helping word

Spicer also stated that both Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the deputy AG, Rod Rosenstein, recommended Comey's ouster based on the director's handling of the investigation around Hillary Clinton's private email server.  

Eh? One does not investigate 'around'. The word in this sentence should be 'of' -- it's an investigation of, not 'around'. 

I have the same objection to the post-modern 'issues around'. What on god's green earth are those? You know what they are: they are problems. Problems with [insert problem here]

When it comes to 'around', as a vague poncey fashionable more-sophisticated-than-you word, I'm simply not having it. In English, even in the 21st century, we still use the same connective words: of, about, for, with, over, under, at, on. To say that we talk 'around' may be unwittingly correct with respect to our unedifyingly jargonistic political speech, but it has nothing to do with conveying elegantly, precisely, and frankly what we mean to say. And I am adamant about that. ABOUT that -- not 'around' it.

Showing Your Home For Sale


I have sold a couple of homes of my own, and more than that, I've shown other homes that had to be sold while I was renting them, which put me in the odd position of wanting to display a space to advantage even though I myself had nothing to gain by it. But one way or another, I know a thing or two about how to show a living space to strangers so they might consider buying it.

Let's be clear: most people will choose a property in what is almost a snap decision: in less than a minute past the threshold, many of them have already voted 'Yes' or 'No' on the place in their heart and mind (when it comes to property, who can say where the mind 'ends' and the heart 'begins'?). Very often they are looking for features over which you have no control: a large garden or a small one; a few bathrooms or a massive kitchen; a separate dining room or something open-plan; lots of picture windows; a plot with acreage or privacy; and so on. That does not mean, however, that you can't win viewers over. I have gone to houses that I did not expect to love and yet, when actually on site, I knew that of all the options, this was the right one for us. What can you do to nudge your own potential buyer in that direction?

In the first place, I think you have to start looking at your home as though you were a magazine considering it for a photo shoot. Let's start with the kitchen. Would your kitchen as it now is look the part? If not, why not? Do you have (as I had) scruffy over-the-pantry-door wire shelving, with all the spices lying this way and that on the wires? Well, get rid of it. Buy a smart chrome or wood shelf, screw it neatly to the inside of the pantry door, and stack it just as neatly with jars that are not lying higgledy-piggledy. That's one suggestion. How are your pots, trays, and electric gadgets organized? Are they organized? Are the cabinets grotty and full of crumbs or have you vacuumed them out and lined them with crisp-looking lining material? Do the cupboard doors have grime, grease, and discolouration, or have you wiped, scrubbed, or polished them so they're nearly pristine? All these details will make a difference. Cast a critical eye around each room. What does your critical eye catch, and how might you improve it? What opportunities does your designing eye see?

Here are my general suggestions for bringing your home to a higher standard -- whether you want to enjoy it more for yourself, or whether you're hoping to sell it.

1. Look for dirt. Once you start actively looking for dirt, trust me: you will see it. And you'll be amazed at how much, in your busy life with important people and projects to attend to, you have happily turned a blind eye to it. Or have you? That dirty streak on the carpet: it's annoying, isn't it? That gouge out of the door frame; that mark on the wall: these things catch your eye and say 'must be fixed, really', but somehow it all seems too trivial and too much effort, at the same time. But a lot of items can be 'refurbished' simply by being cleaned, and perhaps also by being re-painted. The thorough cleaning of an item can make the difference between feeling that it ought to be replaced and appreciating it as an asset. To show a home, you should be prepared to do what I call a 'deep clean' -- meaning that you are willing to move furniture and climb up ladders to really get the corners and awkward spaces. Items that can greatly benefit from dusting or washing include:

  • chandeliers, pendant lights, and flushmounts
  • electric switch [outlet] plates
  • ceiling fans
  • skirting boards and door frames
  • bathroom and kitchen cabinets
  • all exterior doors, and sometimes interior ones, too
  • windows, inside and out
  • curtains and blinds
  • ovens and range tops
  • shower stalls
  • rugs, broadloom, wood and tile floors
  • mirrors and picture frames
  • lamp bases and lampshades
  • glass and ceramic ornaments.

Also, take the time to look overhead: do you have cobwebs swinging from the ceilings? And look below: do you have dog treats gathering mould and dust under the sofas? Buy the tools to help you, and get rid of them all.

2. Balance the sense of 'rest' and 'resources'. A 'resource' might be a candle or lamp, a book, and a coaster. 'Rest' might be the table they're sitting on, with nothing else there to clutter it up. A room does not need to be nearly empty to be orderly, and it shouldn't be too spartan if you want it to feel inviting. On the other hand, too much stuff can be oppressive instead of pleasing. An armchair can certainly have a cushion in the corner -- but three cushions would look and feel like too much! So ask yourself, in any given room: 'If I put the toys in a covered basket, how does that seem? If the music is all out of sight, how does that look? Do I want all my jewellery in a box, or does it please me to see some in a dish or on a jewellery tree?' Think about the effect of what you see: do you like it that way, or would the room look better without these things all open to view? And if you're planning to sell, how might the arrangement of your furnishings look to someone else? Are they 'resources' and decoration, or are they likely to be interpreted as self-indulgent, untidy, oddball and a bit of a mess? When selling, err on the side of conventionality. It may make you grit your teeth, but it helps to close the deal!

3. Assess the condition of your goods. Is it time for an update or a new purchase? Many items can look vastly better if we just give them a quick polish, a new coat of paint, or some other form of refurbishment. A worn and peeling pleather office chair, for instance, can be made like new with a quality form-fitting cover of new material. A grotty laundry basin could look surprisingly charming with a new mirror over it and a tasteful adhesive veneer around its edges. But if other things have had their day, and are past the point of effective repair or dressing-up, you'd be better off replacing them. If your bedspread is in tatters, your prints have faded away in their frames, or your tea caddy has more chips than tea bags in it, maybe it's time to buy new.

4. Replace grungy fixtures. You know the sort: taps where the red for hot and blue for cold have paled with use; where the finish is rusting or corroded or peeling, and it never takes a shine even with cleaning. Fixtures that remind you of 1980s-era cheap motels. Shower heads that don't work quite right. Towel bars that are all chunky ceramic and plastic rods (did I mention already the cheap motels?). Get rid of those. And if you have tacky cabinet knobs and drawer pulls, chuck those and invest in good ones. Visitors to your home may think that they don't notice such details as knobs, toilet-roll holders, drab lights, and mildew clinging to the old-style faucet control -- but believe me, the attentive ones do.

5. Consider re-arranging your furnishings or supplementing them with new purchases. I say this particularly for those that have lived in different homes and moved more than once or twice. So often, we have had to put the goods we bought from Previous Home A into harmony with Previous Home B, both of which were quite different from Previous Home C, which was not even in the same country. So for instance you have a hall cabinet which was ideal for solving the problem presented by Home A, but which doesn't fit anywhere in your current home (let's call it D). The bookcase from Home B looked fine under the window next to the mirror in Home C, but now you will need to think of a whole new location for it. Perhaps the mirror-bookcase pairing doesn't work any more: change it. Or perhaps you need to donate one of the two. Whatever you do, don't feel that you have to keep belongings of the past just because they served you in the old days. Ownership of goods is ownership not marriage -- and you own them: they do not own you.

6. Decorate with plants. Plants enliven a room as nothing else does. But the plants should be healthy and well-tended: unloved plants are distracting (and, for the plant-lover, mildly depressing). If more than one live plant is too much for your interest or suitable space, then buy a vase or two and stock them with fresh bouquets. Hint: if a few flowers die, there's no need to chuck out the whole bouquet: just remove the early die-ers and keep the remainder going with fresh water. I've had bouquets last for weeks, with luck and good management. A bowl of fresh fruit will have much the same effect as a bouquet -- though obviously a fruit bowl is restricted to dining room or kitchen, whereas flowers are suitable nearly everywhere. The fruit-bowl-and-flowers advice may be a cliché of selling a home, but they are always pleasing, and why argue with what works?






Why Diets Fail -- And What It Takes To Succeed


There are two diet types, whatever foods they restrict or specifically call for: responsible diets, which aim to be healthy while you're on them and to help you in the long run -- and irresponsible diets, which seek only to reduce your calories now in any conceivable way, regardless of what it will cost you later. But whether responsible or irresponsible, all diets want you to lose weight, most of it fat. Yet what does that actually mean, practically speaking? If there is a line between eating just too much and eating just under enough so that your body burns fat, how do you ever know where that line is -- for you? Is it that diets fail, or that dieters fail to be disciplined, or is it instead that it's simply too hard to guess what 'too much' for you actually is?

To answer the question literally, it's not diets that 'fail' in their objective, it's the humans that fail: they not only have to eat, but they want certain tastes and can't help liking those particular tastes. Sour cream 'n onion potato chips? I'll eat a small bag and feel it wasn't quite enough. Treacle tart with fresh clotted cream? I'll have a large slice, please, with a nice big pot of tea. We have these tastes because Nature made us to have them. So not only do we have to eat, as all creatures do, but we have to have the taste sensitivities that omnivores in a food-scarcity situation should ideally have. Except that we are not living in food scarcity. We are not even living in the 1970s and 1980s supermarket era, when orange juice came as sweet crystals in a can, and ice cream came in a box labelled 'Neapolitan'. Swanson's TV dinners couldn't be microwaved, in the beginning at least, and they had more in common with airplane food of the time than I really like to remember. There was no such thing as pre-washed salads in a bag, and you couldn't buy whole ready-made meals of exotic and interesting cuisines. No wonder that, by and large, we were thinner in those days.

Appetite is nearly everything. You lose your appetite: you lose weight. You fail to satisfy your appetite: you lose weight. Of course, you are likely to lose some muscle along with the fat, which hurts you subsequently in two ways: 1) muscle is the first and most efficient repository for any calories you've just taken in -- otherwise they'll be shuffling off to your fat cells; and 2) fat begets fat, so that when you lose muscle you have created a more fat-friendly environment in your own body. So, given the importance of appetite and the need to control it, why don't we? 

I think the answer is that something within us actually prevents us from eating just to satiety, never mind stopping before we're really satisfied. If you live in Dire Straits and you don't know when your meal will be, what makes more sense: to eat just until you are full right then, or to pack yourself up with nutrients that the body is free to use later if it must? Exactly. If I have just left a sinking ship and am now on a deserted island, am I going to eat just half the sour cream 'n onion chip bag because I have my waistline to think of? Darn right: I'm going to eat that whole darn bag, whether I really need the calories that moment or not. The fact that there is another island with a Trader Joe's and a Fresh Market and a Waitrose on it, just a short canoe-trip away, is of no interest to my panicky body. It wants what it wants and it wants it now, whatever my rational mind might say. My rational mind has been operating on this level, within the species, for many thousands of years. But the mind that is governing my physical appetite has been operating on the same level pretty much since creature life came into existence.

This may all seem very obvious and indeed, regurgitative (if you'll pardon the association). But this is the nub for any dieter: you have to find the point -- the line, really -- between what you need to survive and thrive and what you want because your primitive cautious greedy food-mind demands it. You have to find the point where your inner Cookie Monster leaves off and your inner Kate Middleton begins. You have to ascertain, as ballet dancers do every day in the dancing season, exactly how much is enough to function -- and what beyond that is gravy. If you are eating the Gravy Beyond, you will find it hard to lose weight. And this is why losing weight is always so hard: we are most of us in love with the gravy.



Why People Won't Do What's 'Good' For Them

I read a great deal about fitness, nutrition, and health, and my latest purchase is Body by Science: A Research Based Program to Get the Results You Want in 12 Minutes a Week. The book needed a better editor: apart from the irrelevant and drawn-out chat about bell-curves and canopy trees in the beginning, there is no such word as 'inputted', and calories and muscles are measured as numbers not amounts. These quibbles aside, the book has a great deal of value to say. But it makes a couple of claims -- in the course of delivering all this otherwise valuable information -- that I'd like cordially to dispute.

The authors claim in the first place that obesity has mushroomed because human physiology doesn't have a 'negative feedback loop' that in effect raises the alarm, the red flag, and anything else that might scream STOP. But is that true? If 'the diseases of civilization' -- among them cancer, heart disease, common forms of dementia, diabetes, and hypertension, which were somewhat rare in the past and not only because people died younger -- are the result in large part of too much bodyfat, then how is that not a significant 'negative feedback loop'? Dying is pretty much a negative. We also have a feedback loop called Lost Dates, Lost Jobs, and The Mirror. The problem is that a) we have misdiagnosed the culprits, owing not least to the bullheaded prematureness of Ancel Keys, the 50's-era nutrition guru who blamed fats and was sympathetic to sugar in the diet; and b) we don't know what the solution is.

Authorities, however credentialed or experienced, are now telling everyone that resistance training -- working hard with some sort of weight -- is where it's at from the standpoint of overall health. Or as Little and McGuff put it: 'Strength training is the best preventive medicine in which a human being can engage'. Strong stuff: and I agree with it. But in the next sentence they say: 'In many instances, senior citizens are being medicated to improve those listed biomarkers of health, never having been told that it is fully within their power to achieve these same effects through proper resistance training' (p. 243). This may be true. But is it really the case that most old people are eager to hear the latest about strength training and only want the right encouragement to try it? I doubt it. I suspect that doctors don't try to press training on their patients for a number of reasons, and I think the doctors are right.

In the first place, never discount the fact that people see themselves and others in terms of categories: He's an athlete / She's a homebody / They're rich / She's creative / I can't draw / He's a math whiz / She's an Earth Mother / They're a power couple / He's a lady's man / She's a social butterfly. Simplistic, reductionist, limiting? You bet. The typical shorthand for how we often see things? You can bet some more. And if 'I'm an athlete' is not in one's self-categorization, anything that is demanding, sweaty, and physically hard is going to seem like someone else's business, not yours. That's the first thing.

Then there is the fact that people in general have no idea how exercise works. (If they did, people such as Little and McGuff would not have needed to write such a book.) They can't tell you what the difference is between physical activity, exercise, and physical training -- even though the differences are profound. They think that 'hard' physical work means an intolerable bootcamp of pain and misery. They probably have never had the experience of training past the point of inertia to the point, quite early on (a couple of weeks at most, in my own training) of wanting to do more because it feels so rewarding. To them, 'exercise' is a chore and a bore, and probably a pain, as well. Who can blame them?

Adjustable Water Fan Paddles by the Water Gear company.Like a salt box, turning the dial one way lets the water through, while turning it the other gradually closes off the openings, making movement through the water harder. All with the aim of building upper body strength.

Adjustable Water Fan Paddles by the Water Gear company.Like a salt box, turning the dial one way lets the water through, while turning it the other gradually closes off the openings, making movement through the water harder. All with the aim of building upper body strength.

Take for instance my mother-in-law, who is in her early 80s. She does something called water aerobics nearly every day, but the movements are low-intensity so her body -- which is really to say her muscles, upon which everything else ultimately depends -- don't grow and improve. I offered her my water exercise paddles, since they were too light to do anything for me. But she said they were too difficult for her, even on the lightest setting. She gave them back and bought instead a pair of floaty things that won't challenge her muscles at all. In short, she made a big mistake. If she wants to improve in strength, she should have accepted my paddles with the understanding that they would feel difficult at first and that she would have to work her way up to using them frequently. Instead she wasted her money on paddles that might as well be make-believe because those are the ones she can easily use at the moment. But people that want to be fitter and healthier never do only what feels easiest at the moment. When they work, they work hard and they push themselves (within safe anatomical limits, one hopes). When they need to rest, they rest. But they don't try to get their rest somehow melded with their exertion. It would be like asking the Rollings Stones to sneak a few bars of Olivia Newton-John into 'Can't You Hear Me Knocking?'. Needless to say, it just wouldn't work.

But back to the question of why people won't do what's good for them. Part of it is the very problem already hinted at: that experts vary as to what is 'right' and 'wrong', and no one really knows who the experts are, anyway. For every article that says acupuncture and chiropractic may bring benefits, there are others raising serious doubts -- and worse. For every expert telling you not to skip breakfast and advocating several small meals a day, there is another now stating that breakfast can be a stumbling block and snacking is an insulin provocateur. At one time, in the 70s and 80s, we were told that 'aerobics' was the best, indeed the only respectable, type of exercise, by which was meant steady-state, same-pace, somewhat lengthy 'cardio' work like running. But running has been shown up as a terrible exercise for many if not most people (see Little and McGuff, for instance), not only because of the specific injuries it causes but also because it fails to deliver on its promises. If anything, it takes healthy people and makes them worse off. Oh, but what about Kathy Smith -- still going strong in her mid-60s and a pioneer of the aerobics video? Ah, but she always emphasized strength training, even in the early days when she wore a fetching bob. 'Backstage' footage shows her working hard at weight machines in the gym. This girl never ran her muscles away to nothing. She was a pioneer in knowing about them, too.

My mother-in-law, like many people her age and much younger, thinks that any kind of movement is a good thing. If she moves, she must be healthy to some degree. As Blackadder said to Baldrick about 2 + 2 equalling 'some beans', the answer is Yes... and No. Moving is a sign of life and to the extent that all movement is cardiovascular, we're doing it every moment -- and so we should. The alternative is death. But if you want to improve your fitness, if you want to be more functional, more powerful, and better at pre-empting disease, you need to do something more than move. You have to move or support whatever is heavy for you -- whether it's your own body or something else. You don't have to do it every day and it shouldn't take you very long. The discovery that this can be fun, enjoyable, exhilarating even, only adds to the boon.





What exactly is 'FEAR OF FLYING'?

How You Frame The Question Will Change The Answer You Get

Today's observation is not about tangibles but about the nature of perception: in this case, the aversion towards being a passenger on aircraft, invariably described as 'fear of flying'. That description or label of the experience simply assumes that 'fear of flying' means the irrational apprehension of death in an airplane. So it is easy to make those averse to flying seem silly, since they will usually ride in a car without trouble. But is the definition of the fearful flyer accurate? I don't think it is. In fact, it's not the fearful flyer that is simplistic; to the contrary, it's the categorization and dismissal of their experience that is simplistic. I write this as someone that has flown from early childhood and has never been a 'fearful flyer' in the normal sense of the term.

Unlike the statisticians, I respect the fearful flyers. And I could very easily become one of them, if any nightmare scenario should happen to me -- as they happen to passengers all the time. Here's my argument.

In the first place, cars are radically different environments from airplanes. The car I'm in is usually mine; it is driven by me or someone I trust -- and over whom I have some authority; it is a vehicle I've maintained and monitored so that if anything goes wrong, I am bound to notice, but at the same time it is not likely to be a life-threatening malfunction. If the weather gets bad, we can stop the car. If the visibility is poor, we can stop the car. If we want, we can even turn around and cancel the trip. Perhaps most importantly, if the car malfunctions or the road is impassable, we can choose to get out. But an airplane, except in the direst circumstances, is expected to plough on. People have destinations they think they have to get to; and airlines can't have a reputation for unreliability. I may feel that I'd rather turn the plane around than circle Boston for a few hours in a snowstorm, but I am only one passenger, and anyway on an airplane my wishes and judgement mean nothing whatsoever. That is the first problem. In a car of one's own, one has control of the vehicle, and one can exercise judgement about what to do with the vehicle. In an airplane, we are all completely dependent on the diligence and the judgement of others. We are also not free to leave when we've had enough, but must stay in place without knowledge or a guaranteed end to our ordeal, as if we were no better than prisoners. This is a position that I, as a free and mentally competent adult, strive to avoid whenever possible. The 'fear of flying' dismissal considers this to be a non-problem, as if normal adults should of course be content to put their lives, for any number of hours, in the power of complete strangers.

But it's not just about our lives as such: fear of flying is not simply fear of dying. It's the fear of being trapped in a very small, submarine-like space, with completely randomly 'self-selected' strangers, for the better part of a day or more -- as my husband was, when the plane he was on landed, only to sit on the tarmac for seven hours, with no food offered and scarcely anything to drink. That is a psychological trial that few people wish to endure even once, never mind risk a second or third time. When shall we get off the plane? Why won't they let us go? Why are we stuck here? I'm hungry. I need the bathroom and I don't want to use the public cubicle again. I'm feeling claustrophobic. I want fresh air. I'm tired of sitting in this tiny seat. I want to go for a walk. I need a drink. I want to call my wife. I won't get any sleep tonight. I'll miss my appointment and I won't get the job. When am I going to get out of here? Who wants to go through that distressing thought loop for seven hours? It's appalling. But according to the 'fear of flying' gurus, that's just so much babyish nonsense.

The other point about an airplane is that, unlike surface transport -- car, boat, train, donkey -- if god forbid there is an accident, your chances of surviving it are pretty poor. On land or water, you might be a burn victim, you might lose some body parts, and you might have months of gruelling physical therapy, but unless you are very unlucky, you will survive. An airplane crash is not so forgiving. If something goes seriously wrong in an airplane, the only way out is down and the likelihood of walking away from that is very small indeed. Just ask John Denver. Ask John F. Kennedy Jr -- and his passengers. And several members of the band Lynyrd Skynyrd. And Buddy Holly..... I used to pay attention to the water evacuation drill on airplanes, mainly because I was interested in everything to do with the plane and also because I am an uncured sunny optimist. But let's face it: how many of us really expect that if the plane has to make an ocean landing, we'll get out on a lovely floaty slide? There is a reason that Captain Chesley Sullenberger is an uncommon hero indeed. 

Lastly, an airplane as an isolated yet public place is an ideal target for terrorist attack -- or even just the sabotage of a crazy person. The world knew this long before the 9/11 massacres, and in particular I recall being dreadfully riveted by the December 1999 hijacking of Indian Airlines Flight 814, which not only was traumatic for all on board but also resulted in a young man's murder (his new bride was on the plane: they were returning home from their honeymoon). If that seven-day hijack wasn't enough to churn your stomach, then nothing is (I had to stop watching the news, since my feeling on their behalf wasn't helping them and it wasn't helping me, either). The fact is that no one can assure you that an airplane, when those doors close behind you with no chance of escape, holds only good, reasonable people and not any other kind.