December 30, 2011


I saw a cartoon a few weeks ago with this simple caption: “Every year American culture embarks on a massive project to carefully recreate the Christmases of baby boomers’ childhoods.” I found it a profound insight.

Tradition is a big deal pretty much everywhere you go, but nowhere else is it more revered than in religious settings. We like our traditions; the lights and greenery of the Christmas season, the parades on July 4 and Memorial day, that one special place every summer. For years before we moved out of Rochester, my wife and I would go to a sushi place called “California Rollin’” on our anniversary and our birthdays. It was our family tradition. We still go when we visit family there, as much for the nostalgia as for the food. Traditions can be true and deep and meaningful and - dare I say it - even holy.

There are two challenges, however, with tradition. The first is environmental: the world is not a static place, but rather, our environment is dynamic, always changing; jobs change, weather changes, economies rise and fall, friends come and go, people get injured … nothing stays as it is for long.  Our traditions are subject to the movement of the world around us, now more than ever. The second is cultural: what one person considers a tradition is often different for another. Some prefer the brightness of lights and lasers at Christmas, others prefer the darkness of a candle-lit sanctuary. Some prefer to rock around their Christmas tree, others prefer a silent night. We start to argue about making sure we “keep the tradition” and blacklist anyone who would dare suggest we try something new - they’re troublemakers up to no good, and no good will come of their antics. And we forget that our tradition was, at one time, not the way it was always done.

At some point, the tradition was new.

The lesson to learn here is that there are, really, two kinds of tradition. Traditions are created, intentionally, for a good reason. They are not simply "the way it is," but rather came from somewhere for a purpose. We create a rhythm with traditions; the rhythm is a reminder, a symbol of something deep and meaningful. Sometimes we can keep those traditions fresh and new, ever-imbued with that deep meaning for all concerned. I’d put “Silent Night” by candlelight into this category; every year it takes on a new meaning for me and many, many others; sometimes because of the peaceful tranquility of the soft music, sometimes because of the communal act of creating light together, sometimes just simply because it’s so darn pretty to see an entire room lit only with candles. It’s done every year on purpose, for good reasons that almost everybody can articulate, including but not limited to “because we like it” (though we’d be remiss not to recognize that not everybody does).

All traditions, though, are created for a season, for a culture, and when they have run their course, when the world changes and more people come from other cultures with other traditions, everybody’s traditions change. And it’s ok - we can help each other create new traditions for a new season in a new time and place.

But “Traditionol” (now with fresh citrus flavor!) is a drug that promises, for many, to make it all better, as if going back to old faithful really will change the outcome. Despite a change in the environment or culture, despite the differences in traditions across a group of people, we often fight to keep the way it’s been done for the status quo. [sidenote: This isn’t limited to those that won’t change anything; sometimes “change” can be a tradition all to itself, as in "change for change's sake."] But that’s the definition of insanity; you are doing, as they say, exactly what it takes to get the results you are currently getting, and to expect new results by continuing this same course is simply lunacy.

Sometimes traditions are done only because that’s the way we do it; we can’t remember a good reason to do it beyond “that’s the way we always do it” or “we like it that way.” Sometimes we go so far as to make our traditions into dogma to be enforced on others as the right way, the only way, and despite that those traditions were created for a positive purpose, to foster greater understanding and connection with others, along the way we lost the vision. That is when a tradition becomes the addictive and yet repressive traditionol: when we no longer understand why we should do it, but rather only know that we can’t and won’t stop.

And so sometimes, sometimes the best thing to do is to let a tradition die.

That doesn’t mean it hasn’t been a good thing, a helpful thing, a beautiful and true thing. It simply means that it has served its higher purpose and now, something new is needed. Sometimes, to keep a tradition from becoming traditionol, we let it die, and in its death we allow it to birth new traditions for a new time and a new culture. We remember it fondly, as a good thing, as something that blessed many.  And then we start over as artists, and from the charcoal of the old, the whisper of the new is born.

December 19, 2011

Thinking Smaller

“So Chris, didn’t you used to be fatter?”

“Hey Chris, have you gotten less fat?”

“Chris, did you get new jeans? Your clothes look huge!”


For those of you asking questions like these, the answer is a roll of my eyes and then, yes. Yes I have. For the last four months I’ve been using the weight watchers online program to keep track of my eating habits. There’s less on my body, and more in my head; I’ve learned a whole lot, about both myself and our culture.

Less is More
One of the biggest things I’ve learned is that less is, in fact, more. It turns out that we Americans, in general, eat way, WAY too much, more than our bodies actually need. The first two weeks of this plan (it’s not a diet, in the traditional sense, but a plan for how to control what you eat) were hell for me. Because I had to calculate every little thing I ate into a “points” system, I was surprised to discover that I wasn’t eating that much extra at meals, but rather, I was snacking myself to into the sofa. I discovered that I lacked discipline; every chance I got, I would simply reach for a snack. Sometimes it was for stress, sometimes because I hadn’t eaten properly at my last meal (eating more protein will last longer than carbs, for example), and sometimes simply because my mouth really wanted to do something as I stared at my computer. So the first two weeks brought to light all of these crazy things I had always taken for granted, things that fell between the couch cushions of the fabric of reality. And it was in those first two weeks that I began to see what I had become: an undisciplined food-addict.
Food addiction is unlike any other addiction in that it’s the only addiction from which you can never go cold-turkey. It’s not as if you can simply stop eating and sweat it out in a padded room for a few days and then begin the recovery process. The thing about life is, you really do need to eat … just maybe not as much as you were.
Oddly enough, because I’ve eaten less and had to choose carefully what I ate, I actually think that food tastes better now than it used to. I used to live by the assumption that if you like something, you eat more of it. It turns out though, that if you only have chocolate once every three weeks, it takes on a much more vibrant flavor than if you keep some krackel in a bucket under your desk. The same can be said for eating out; if you don’t eat taco bell every week, eating it twice in four months becomes a whole different experience. Luxury food - and that is what those things are - is actually a treat now, I get excited about it in a way I didn’t used to; it’s made food MORE enjoyable than when I indulged my every perceived whim.
Learn What Things Are Worth
I had to buy several new pairs of jeans by the time I lost 20 pounds because my other pants were literally falling off of my waist. Yes, it is expensive to lose weight. But beyond the need for new, smaller clothes and a few specialty foods, it’s ridiculous to me that our country is the only one in the world where fresh vegetables and fruit and meat are more expensive than a box of mac and cheese. Mass production of carbohydrates (the evil “c-word” of weight loss) has given our country a strange twist over others; the poor in our country are the only ones in the world who are fatter than the wealthy because they can’t actually afford the healthy food. Eye-opening, to say the least, but it meant that for me to stick with the plan, I had to pick and choose what was really important to keep in my diet. Orange Juice was the first thing to go, but then I stopped drinking my iced chai tea every morning - too many points, and too expensive. Why use five points on a small glass of orange juice when I could just get a box of oranges and have those for zero points?
What, in other words, is really worth your time and your money and your effort?
Learn Discipline
It’s amazing to me how different one pound seems from twenty. I wanted this to be easy, to just amputate my stomach and be done all at once. Seriously, I used to have dreams about getting liposuction because it sounded easier.  This plan didn’t work like that though; I didn’t get to simply have whatever I wanted whenever I wanted it; if that were allowed, I’d have used all of my daily points by the time I hit lunch. I had to build discipline into my lifestyle slowly. The plan helps you lose weight slowly, up to several pounds a week. While this didn’t seem like much each day (especially in the beginning), six weeks into it I had lost enough weight that I had to adjust my belt another notch. I didn’t even notice it at first! It took the slow accumulation of disciplined effort rather than one day of agony to make a difference. It turns out that this is far healthier than the “immediate-gratification” culture of which we’re all a part; we don’t really know how to say “no” to ourselves.
It also turns out that I’m far more likely to stick with it the longer I do stick with it. Since it took so long to get the weight off, I’m stubborn about keeping to my plan - I don’t want to have to take this much time to lose it all over again. You have to be persistent to learn persistence, in other words, but it pays off big time. Imagine how this applies to a lot of other things in life. Take money, for example. Do you want an iPad? Great - start putting pennies in a jar, or that few extra bucks from not having a cup of coffee at Starbucks. Over time, you’ll save enough to get that new toy. You’ll miss the coffee at first, but when you buy the iPad, you’ll realize it was worth it. It takes sacrifice to get what we really want in life because we can’t actually just have everything. We may try to hide our rationalization, but we really do “nickel and dime” our budgets in weird ways. Do we REALLY need another one of those little things, when over time we could have the big thing? Or how about our time? What if we stopped checking facebook or twitter ever two minutes - imagine how much extra time in a day we’d have because we weren’t addicted to our social media?
Maybe we need to think bigger by thinking smaller - what if we stopped having that one luxury item we crave all the time to instead donate that money to digging wells? We all think that a seemingly meager contribution can’t do much, but over time, and as our influence spreads to others, the wells will get deeper.

In total now, I’ve lost almost 27 pounds, over 10% of my starting weight, and I’m still going. It feels really good, despite the occasional bout of paranoia that I’ve eaten too much. And as I said, people are starting to notice; it was startling to my parents when they came to visit - I’d lost about twenty pounds at that point, and I believe my mother’s exact description of me was “svelte.”

I’m not entirely sure what that means, but it sounded good.