Archive for the ‘life’ Category

Dear Abby

August 20, 2019

I love reading “Dear Abby.” For the letters; not the advice dispensed. The original “Abby” was great, but she passed on and the column is now done by her daughter, who is frankly uninspired. Too often her “advice” is like, “Tell your husband exactly what you said in your letter.” Well, thanks a lot for that brilliant solution. And too often her answers really miss the boat.

Recently a single column had two in that category. Here are the letters (slightly condensed), “Abby’s” verbatim responses, and what I’d have said —

DEAR ABBY: My boyfriend and I have been dating for nearly two years. He would literally do anything for me. He’s incredibly affectionate and supportive, and a lot of women would love to have someone like him.

My problem is we see the world through completely different eyes. I’m an artist. I want to go out and explore the world and do crazy things. He’s more comfortable at home with video games and he’s not comfortable mingling with crowds. He can be overprotective sometimes . . . . We live together and are dependent both financially and emotionally. Honestly, I would like to stay with him, but I’m torn about what to do. Should I leave someone I should be grateful for in order to chase selfish dreams? Or should I stay and encourage him to change?

ABBY: Your boyfriend isn’t going to change. If you can’t accept him the way he is, then it would be better for both of you to separate.

FRANK: What exactly are these “selfish dreams” you want to chase? Is your boyfriend stopping you? Can you “go out and explore the world and do crazy things” yourself, and then come home to his affection and support? Is he okay with that? But meantime there’s a certain word conspicuously missing from your letter. It’s “love.” People with very divergent personalities can love each other and accommodate to each other’s differences. But without love, that will ultimately fail.

DEAR ABBY: For our anniversary, I bought my wife a $1,500 necklace, and told her that if she wanted, it could be exchanged at the store. She went out and came back with a different piece of jewelry that cost an additional $800. Besides the financial aspect, I’m feeling hurt that what I gave was not adequate enough for her. Am I being too sensitive here?

ABBY: You are a generous and loving husband. You should not, however, feel hurt that your wife exchanged the necklace. You told her she could, and she took you up on it. Perhaps next time you should consider asking her what she would like, so you can choose the gift “together.”

FRANK: She did that without even asking you? That was not an “exchange,” it was an upgrade, which you did not authorize. Simply inexcusable. Tell her to return the item. She does not deserve to have it; nor deserve you.

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How to pick up girls in ancient Rome

July 26, 2019

“The past is a different country; they do things differently there.” We often romanticize “the good old days” because we’ve forgotten what they were really like. As a history buff, I don’t. While also being keenly aware that past peoples were not so different from you or me.

These thoughts were evoked in reading Alberto Angela’s book, The Reach of Rome. It was a gift from a coin customer, John Dunn, a history professor. It’s really good (despite a few mistakes*) in depicting the actual lives of people of all classes in Trajan’s time (98-117 AD). The subtitle is A Journey Through the Lands of the Ancient Empire Following a Coin — as it passes from hand to hand.

The Roman Empire was unique in human annals, stretching from Spain to Syria and Britain to Egypt, for half a millennium. Much of our modern culture is an evolution from our Roman heritage.

The book doesn’t sugarcoat the harsher aspects of Roman life. A battle is shown in quite gory detail. Slavery was a ubiquitous feature, and wasn’t confined to ethnic minorities. Many were taken in war, but that was well short of needs, and ordinary Romans were quite commonly kidnapped and enslaved.

Lives were short, with no consolation of belief in an afterlife. It was easy to die from an illness or injury that would be no big deal today. Medicine operated with a knowledge base approximating zero.

We’re shown a top surgeon operating to relieve a child’s brain tumor; he follows the prescribed procedure beautifully, but it won’t stop the tumor killing the kid.

Women were particularly perishable. Odds of dying in childbirth were one-in-ten. Do the math for having ten kids. (My calculator says a 35% chance of survival, but that ignores all other hazards.) However, the book suggests contraception existed, though giving no details.

And speaking of bad odds, the author says one in five sea voyages ended on the bottom. This may overstate the risk, but embarkation on such a trip was definitely very scary. And there were no lifeboats. Given this picture, you’d think people would at least learn to swim. But few Romans did (perhaps realizing it was pointless).

Mail service did not exist. To send a letter to another town, you’d have to find someone going there. If overseas, you’d go to the docks looking for a ship sailing there, and pay some passenger to take your letter and (hopefully) deliver it. If the ship makes it.

Yet it’s not all bad. These were again human beings, just like us, and one remarkable characteristic of the species is a capacity to cope with adversity and make the best of things. The book shows how Romans enjoyed themselves.

Specifically, there’s a lot of sex in it. While the punishment for adultery was severe (sealed in a sack with a snake, a chicken, and a dog, and thrown in the river), it wasn’t imposed too often, and Romans tended to be pretty easygoing and freewheeling. Prostitution wasn’t illegal and was everywhere. The author seems to skirt the issue of homosexuality, I suspect because the book was originally published in Italy. But homophobia was not a thing, and men were expected to want sex without it mattering much who or what was on the other end.

As to picking up girls, the book quotes at length from the poet Ovid’s Ars Amatoria, which was a pretty detailed instruction manual. Ovid explains where to go (the Circus Maximus was ideal), and how to go about it; where to sit, how to strike up a conversation, how to find excuses for touching. In the guise of helping to keep a gal’s hem undirtied, Ovid says, you could get a look at her legs.

Sure wish I knew about Ovid when I was a lad.

The Romans also had jokes, and the book includes a selection, presumably weeding out those that might baffle modern ears. Here’s one: A guy goes to a doctor and says, “Doc, when I wake up I feel dizzy for half an hour, then it goes away. What’s your advice?” The doctor: “Wake up half an hour later!”

Well, there’s been progress on the humor front over these two millennia.

And progressives will be glad to know that while we think of welfare as a fairly modern concept, the Romans actually had it. In fact, food stamps. Or the near equivalent. When Juvenal spoke of keeping people pacified with bread and circuses, this was literal. Every Roman, bar the wealthiest, was given a card entitling them to a monthly grain distribution. The card even specified the number of the arch where you were to line up. The eligible population was a couple hundred thousand, and the grain ration for each amounted to around half a ton annually; so organizing and administering this dole was a massive undertaking. And remember, computers were very primitive then.

Another thing the Romans had was globalization. Well, hemiglobalization; the Western hemisphere was of course unknown, but there was a vast trade in goods all over the Eastern. Roman coins have been found in Southeast Asia.

And something they did not have was racism and xenophobia. They welcomed immigrants from everywhere, reveling in a diverse society. There was at least one African emperor (very successful), Septimius Severus; a contemporary painting shows him rather dark skinned.

And history records no demands for his birth certificate. Nobody said, “Go back to Africa.”

* Angela talks of sestertii broken in half for change. A smaller coin, the As, worth a quarter sestertius, was often thusly halved. But I don’t recall ever seeing this with a sestertius, a big thick coin.

Social disconnection and Trumpism

July 11, 2019

“Grab them by the pussy.” I’ve striven to understand how any Americans could vote to put such a reptile in the White House.

Columnist David Brooks keeps saying America is insufficiently community-centered. Recently I critiqued one such column. But subsequently he wrote another more on target. Doesn’t mention politics, yet it seems very relevant.

Brooks says a market economy emphasizing competition and self-aggrandizement needs to be balanced by a social culture of “cooperation, stability, and committed relationships.” But that’s not where many working class men are at, according to a recent study.

Economic change is driving social change. Less educated working class men don’t fit into the kinds of lives they used to. This is a big factor in the opioid crisis. Also in the explosion of single motherhood.

“Nearly all the men” in the study, Brooks notes, “viewed the father-child tie as central while the partner relationship was peripheral.” Seeing women like they see jobs — cycling from one to another. And of course their own parenting roles are undermined by weak bonds with their children’s mothers.

Cause and effect here is a tangle. While a working class man used to be a family’s anchor, that breadwinner role has eroded, and meantime women are better able to support themselves. They flourish in service-type jobs, like in healthcare, that less educated men don’t adapt well to. A lot of women see such men as okay sexual partners but pretty useless as husbands.

A single mom may be heroic and all, but their kids mostly do worse than dual-parented ones. So their male children tend to follow in their fathers’ footsteps, repeating the story.

Brooks thinks these economic dynamics are aggravated by the cultural zeitgeist emphasizing personal autonomy, aiming for a life “lived in perpetual flux, with your options perpetually open.” Again inimical to lifetime attachments.

All this subverts broader social cohesion too. Brooks’s basic point is that the sort of men we’re talking about don’t have the connectedness, the embedment in societal structures, like they used to. Seen even in declining church attendance, for example. Many still believe in god, but being part of an organized congregation is not for them.

Brooks’s column again doesn’t touch on politics, but a lightbulb went on in my political brain. The social culture he vaunts includes the body politic — one’s role as a citizen participant in a collective, with government part of it, and seen as embodying our values. And this too suffers from the disconnection Brooks laments.

It partly explains why some Americans, at least, could vote for a vulgar creep and continue backing him. They’re disengaged from and no longer invested in our civic institutions. It used to matter to Americans to have a president we could look up to, a role model for our kids, an avatar of our highest ideals. But pussygrabber’s voters don’t give a shit.

William Kennedy and magical realism

July 9, 2019

William Kennedy (now 91) is the great Albany author. Others (like Melville) have had Albany connections, but in Kennedy’s oeuvre, Albany itself holds center stage; it’s called his “Albany cycle.”

In 2018 Paul Grondahl and Suzanne Lance of the New York State Writers Institute published Bootlegger of the Soul: The Literary Legacy of William Kennedy, which includes several critical essays.

I’ve read it, and many of the novels, but have nothing profound to add. I just want to comment on a recurring theme applying the “magical realism” label.

In great part that’s because ghosts appear in Kennedy’s books; notably a veritable convocation of them in Ironweed’s opening. In Legs, the title character has much to say after being shot dead. Maybe this is pedantic, but I don’t consider this “magical” because I don’t think the reader is expected to suspend disbelief and imagine those ghosts are real and speaking. A world in which they did would be an alternate reality (as in Garcia Marquez’s magical realism), but Kennedy is writing about our actual world. And it’s peopled by many ghosts, in the sense that the dead are still with us, haunting us not as cartoon spooks but as personages whose relationships with us we continue to process after they’re dead. That’s certainly what’s happening in a novel like Ironweed. To me it’s a form of realism because it’s really getting into a character’s head. The ghosts are a literary device for doing that.

In fact Ironweed in particular I consider the realest realism. The protagonist is a homeless bum in 1938’s Albany, and the lives of such people are shown to us in full intimate grittiness, with no romanticizing. And in full humanity. Francis is not “just” a bum. He is a man haunted by ghosts, wrestling with them. That’s the reality shaping his life.

By the way, I always thought Ironweed a great title. While the plant of that name actually has little resonance for the book’s content, the name’s two components are redolent with connotations that do.

I myself wrote a book about Albany, in 1973, but oddly never crossed paths with Kennedy until 2011, when he had a signing for a new novel. When I handed him my copy and identified myself, he started writing . . . and wrote quite a lot. The recognition was very gratifying. Kennedy is not only a great writer but a gracious human being.

He has also been an inspiration to me, quite literally. At a 90th birthday celebration there was a film about his using his MacArthur grant money to create the Writers Institute. That was a great thing. It made me want to do something great too, with the money I’m fortunate to have. And one of the resulting grants likewise involves writers — Secular Rescue, protecting them from harm in intolerant societies.

Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire

July 3, 2019

(A condensed version of my June 18 book review talk)

In this 2017 book Kurt Andersen is very retro; believes in truth, reason, science, and facts. But he sees today’s Americans losing their grip on those. Andersen traces things back to the Protestant Reformation, preaching that each person decides what to believe.

Religious zealotry has repeatedly afflicted America. But in the early Twentieth Century that, Andersen says, seemed to be fizzling out. Christian fundamentalism was seen as something of a joke, culminating with the 1925 Scopes “monkey” trial. But evangelicals have made a roaring comeback. In fact, American Christians today are more likely than ever to be fundamentalist, and fundamentalism has become more extreme. Fewer Christians now accept evolution, and more insist on biblical literalism.

Other fantasy beliefs have also proliferated. Why? Andersen discusses several factors.

First he casts religion itself as a gateway drug. Such a suspension of critical faculties warps one’s entire relationship with reality. So it’s no coincidence that the strongly religious are often the same people who indulge in a host of other magical beliefs. The correlation is not perfect. Some religious Americans have sensible views about evolution, climate change, even Trump — and some atheists are wacky about vaccination and GM foods. Nevertheless, there’s a basic synergy between religious and other delusions.

Andersen doesn’t really address tribalism, the us-against-them mentality. Partisan beliefs are shaped by one’s chosen team. Climate change denial didn’t become prevalent on the right until Al Gore made climate a left-wing cause. Some on the left imagine Venezuela’s Maduro regime gets a bum rap.

Andersen meantime also says popular culture blurs the line between reality and fantasy, with pervasive entertainment habituating us to a suspension of disbelief. I actually think this point is somewhat overdone. People understand the concept of fiction. The problem is with the concept of reality.

Then there’s conspiracy thinking. Rob Brotherton’s book Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories says we’re innately primed for them, because in our evolution, pattern recognition was a key survival skill. That means connecting dots. We tend to do that, even if the connections aren’t real.

Another big factor, Andersen thinks, was the “anything goes” 1960s counterculture, partly a revolt against the confines of rationality. Then there’s post-modernist relativism, considering truth itself an invalid concept. Some even insist that hewing to verifiable facts, the laws of physics, biological science, and rationality in general, is for chumps. Is in fact an impoverished way of thinking, keeping us from seeing some sort of deeper truth. As if these crackpots are the ones who see it.

Then along came the internet. “Before,” writes Andersen, “cockamamie ideas and outright falsehoods could not spread nearly as fast or widely, so it was much easier for reason and reasonableness to prevail.” Now people slurp up wacky stuff from websites, talk radio, and Facebook’s so-called “News Feed” — really a garbage feed.

Andersen considers “New Age” spirituality a new form of American religion. He calls Oprah its Pope, spreading the screwball messages of a parade of hucksters, like Eckhart Tolle, and the “alternative medicine” promoter Doctor Oz. Among these so-called therapies are homeopathy, acupuncture, aromatherapy, reiki, etc. Read Wikipedia’s scathing article about such dangerous foolishness. But many other other mainstream gatekeepers have capitulated. News media report anti-scientific nonsense with a tone of neutrality if not acceptance. Even the U.S. government now has an agency promoting what’s euphemized as “Complementary and Integrative Health;” in other words, quackery.

Guns are a particular focus of fantasy belief. Like the “good guy with a gun.” Who’s actually less a threat to the bad guy than to himself, the police, and innocent bystanders. Guns kept to protect people’s families mostly wind up shooting family members. Then there’s the fantasy of guns to resist government tyranny. As if they’d defeat the U.S. military.

Of course Andersen addresses UFO belief. A surprising number of Americans report being abducted by aliens, taken up into a spaceship to undergo a proctology exam. Considering the nearest star being literally 24 trillion miles away, would aliens travel that far just to study human assholes?

A particularly disturbing chapter concerns the 1980s Satanic panic. It began with so-called “recovered memory syndrome.” Therapists pushing patients to dredge up supposedly repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse. (Should have been called false memory syndrome.) Meantime child abductions became a vastly overblown fear. Then it all got linked to Satanic cults, with children allegedly subjected to bizarre and gruesome sexual rituals. This new witch hunt culminated with the McMartin Preschool trial. Before the madness passed, scores of innocent people got long prison terms.

A book by Tom Nichols, The Death of Expertise, showed how increasing formal education doesn’t actually translate into more knowledge (let alone wisdom or critical thinking). Education often leads people to overrate their knowledge, freeing them to reject conventional understandings, like evolution and medical science. Thus the anti-vaccine insanity.

Another book, Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason, focuses on our culture’s anti-intellectual strain. Too much education, some people think, makes you an egghead. And undermines religious faith. Yet Jacoby also notes how 19th Century Americans would travel long distances to hear lecturers like Robert Ingersoll, the great atheist, and Huxley the evolutionist. Jacoby also vaunts 20th century “Middlebrow” American culture, with “an affinity for books; the desire to understand science; a strong dose of rationalism; above all, a regard for facts.”

Today in contrast there’s an epidemic of confirmation bias: people embracing stuff that supports pre-existing beliefs, and shutting out contrary information. Smarter folks are actually better at confabulating rationalizations for that. And how does one make sense of the world and of new information? Ideally by integrating it with, and testing it against, your body of prior knowledge and understanding. But many Americans come short there — blank slates upon which rubbish sticks equally well as truth.

I also think reality used to be more harsh and unforgiving. To get through life you needed a firm grip on reality. That has loosened. The secure, cushy lives given us by modernity — by, indeed, the deployment of supreme rationality in the age of science — free people to turn their backs on that sort of rationality and indulge in fantasy.

Anderson’s subtitle is How America Went Haywire. As if that applies to America as a whole. But we are an increasingly divided nation. Riven between those whose faith has become more extreme and those moving in the opposite direction; which also drives political polarization. So it’s not all Americans we’re talking about.

Still, the haywire folks are big shapers of our culture. And there are real costs. Anti-vaccine hysteria undermines public health. The 1980s child threat panic ruined lives. Gun madness kills many thousands. And of course they’ve given us a haywire president.

Yet is it the end of the world? Most Americans go about their daily lives, do their jobs, in a largely rational pragmatic way (utilizing all the technology the Enlightenment has given). Obeying laws, being good neighbors, good members of society. Kind, generous, sincere, ethical people. America is still, in the grand sweep of human history, an oasis of order and reasonableness.

Meantime religious faith is collapsing throughout the advanced world, and even in America religion, for all its seeming ascendancy, is becoming more hysterical because it is losing. The younger you are, the less religious you are likely to be. And there are signs that evangelical Christianity is being hurt by its politicization, especially its support for a major moral monster.

I continue to believe in human progress. That people are capable of rationality, that in the big picture rationality has been advancing, and it must ultimately prevail. That finally we will, in the words of the Bible itself, put childish things away.

Why does evolution produce such diversity?

June 26, 2019

A science writer friend pointed me to a recent “Edge” essay by Freeman Dyson (https://www.edge.org/conversation/freeman_dyson-biological-and-cultural-evolution). Dyson, 95, is a truly great mind, which I am not. Nor an evolutionary biologist. Nevertheless —

Dyson begins with the question: why has evolution produced such a vast diversity of species? If “survival of the fittest” natural selection is the mechanism, shouldn’t we expect each ecological niche to wind up occupied by the one species most perfectly adapted? With others losing out in the competition and disappearing. Thus, in the Amazon rain forest, for example, just one variety of insect rather than thousands; and worldwide, maybe only a few hundred species altogether, rather than the millions actually existing (many with only slight differences). Also, we might expect species slimmed down to efficient essentials, not ongepotchket ones (a Yiddish word for “excessively and unaesthetically decorated.”) These things puzzled Darwin himself.

Darwin worked before we knew anything of genes, Dyson points out. He discusses the contributions of several later people. First is Motoo Kimura with the concept of “genetic drift,” an evolutionary mechanism separate from natural selection. It’s the randomness inherent in gene transmission through sexual reproduction. A given gene’s frequency in a large population will vary less than in a small one, where such random fluctuations will loom larger. Like if you make 1000 coin tosses you’ll always get very close to 500 heads, whereas with only ten tosses you might well get seven heads, a big deviation. So in small populations such genetic drift can drive evolutionary change faster than in a large population where genetic drift is negligible and slower natural selection is the dominant factor. Thus it’s small populations (often ones that get isolated from the larger mass) that most tend to spin off new species.

Dyson combines this idea with cultural evolution which, for humans in particular, is a much bigger factor than biological evolution. Dyson sees genetic drift involved with big local effects, such as the flourishing of ancient Athens or Renaissance Florence.

Then there’s Ursula Goodenough’s idea that mating paradigms, in particular, seem to change faster than other species characteristics. This too makes for rapid evolutionary jumps in genetically isolated populations. Dyson comments: “Nature loves to gamble. Nature thrives by taking risks. She scrambles mating system genes so as to increase the risk that individual parents will fail to find mates. [This] is part of Nature’s plan.” Because it raises the likelihood that parents who do succeed will birth new species.

And then there’s Richard Dawkins and The Selfish Gene. I keep coming back to that book because this — when fully understood — is a very powerful idea indeed.

It tells us that evolution is all about gene replication and nothing else. Thus I take some issue with Dyson’s language anthropomorphizing “Nature” as gambling. He writes as though Nature wants evolution to occur. But it doesn’t have aims. Nor does a gene “want” to make the most copies of itself; it’s simply that one doing so will be more prevalent in a population. That’s what evolution is.

So taking again Goodenough’s point, supposing any given characteristic (here, a mating paradigm) does result in some copies of the relevant gene failing to replicate, if nevertheless in the long run the characteristic means other copies of the same gene will replicate more, then that gene becomes more prevalent. There’s no “gambling” taking place, and no extra points earned if a new species happens to be created. It’s simply the math of the outcome — more copies of the gene.

I also take issue with Dyson’s associating local cultural flourishing with genetic drift. Whatever happened in Fifth Century BC Athens was a purely cultural phenomenon that had nothing to do with changes in Athenians’ genes. While the local gene pool would have differed a (tiny) bit from other human ones, there’s no basis to imagine there was natural selection favoring genes conducive to artistic flourishing, and in any case there would have been insufficient time for such natural selection to play out.

So — returning to the starting question — why all the diversity? While Dyson does point to some mechanistic aspects of evolution militating in that direction, I think there’s a larger and simpler answer. The problem lies in a syllable. “Survival of the fittest” is not quite exactly right; it’s really “survival of the fit.” There’s a big difference. It’s not only the fittest that survive; you don’t have to be the fittest; you just have to be fit. It’s not a winner-take-all competition.

This comports with Dawkins’s selfish gene insight. The genes that continue to exist in an environment are those that have been able to replicate. That doesn’t require being the best at replicating. The best, it is true, will be represented with the most copies, but there will also exist copies of those that are merely okay at replicating; even ones that are lousy, as long as they can replicate at all. The most successful don’t kill off the less successful. Only those totally failing to adapt to their environment die out.

That’s why there are a zillion different varieties of insects in the Amazon rain forest.

But Dyson’s larger point is that for humans, again, cultural evolution outstrips the biological, and this is certainly true. As Dyson notes, language is a huge factor (unique to humans) driving cultural evolution. And while biological evolution does tend toward ever greater diversification, human cultural evolution is actually pushing us in the opposite direction. The degree of human diversity is being collapsed by our cultural evolution — not only our biological diversity, in “races” whose separateness increasingly breaks down, but also cultural diversity, with ancient barriers that separated human groups into combative enclaves breaking down too, so that it is more and more appropriate to speak of a universal humanity.

Fat girls and sex

June 18, 2019

NPR’s “This American Life” had a fascinating story featuring Elna Baker, a young fat gal (she used the F word). She tried to convince herself it wouldn’t truly matter, that people would see her for who she really was. Finally, she realized it just wasn’t so. She couldn’t get the kind of work she wanted, nor the love life. So she decided to get control of her life, through control of her body.

Elna before & after

Elna succeeded; lost 30 pounds in a month; 110 in all. But there was a new problem: skin. Its surface area did not shrink with her poundage. Solving that (mostly) was another (not pretty) story.

But anyway, Elna achieved the desired results, careerwise and socialwise. She got a long-term boyfriend.

What I found fascinating was her discussion of how the world changed for her. Like she was entering a whole new one.

Eddie Murphy in white-face

She analogized it to the Saturday Night Live skit where Eddie Murphy masquerades as white, and discovers the secret white world. On a bus, when the last black passenger exits, the partying starts, with cocktails being served. Who knew?

So people did see Elna differently, and interacted differently with her. But she was conflicted in her feelings about this; in some ways less happy now, upset at what she saw as previous unfairness. She was tortured pondering that her boyfriend had known her before, but didn’t even seem to realize she was that same person. So, if her weight made all the difference, were his feelings for her a matter of “who she really is” or just her physicality?

I think she was looking at this the wrong way. One can’t know “who she really is” on casual acquaintance. Removing the weight removed a barrier between her and others, like her boyfriend. Only now was the way clear for him to know “who she really is.”

Postulating “shallowness” of people for whom weight is that kind of barrier was a trope in the program. But this asks too much of what are still, after all, biological animals. We are programmed by evolution — very powerfully programmed — to reproduce. Sexual attraction plays a big role there. It’s why sexual attraction is a key element of romantic love. Fine and dandy to talk about “who she really is” inside, but without sexual attraction, forget about it.

And the fact is that we are sexually attracted to who we are sexually attracted to, and for any given person, there’s no changing it. It is simply a fact of one’s existence. And don’t tell me about cultural influences with ads and so forth glamorizing thin women. That gets the causation backwards; thinness is glamorized because that is what most men (most Western men at least) do find most attractive, for reasons going much deeper.

In my own case, women’s sexual attractiveness rises strongly with slenderness (but then drops off sharply at the point of anorexia). Why? I’ve tried to psychoanalyze myself, but really it is just a fact of my existence, as though in my bones rather than brain. Just like for gay men whose sexual attraction to males is intrinsic.

This points up the idiocy of “gay conversion therapy.” Heterosexual men who promote this foolishness should ask themselves if any kind of “therapy” could make them want sex with men rather than women.

But back to fatness. It’s a modern problem because we evolved to cope with environments of food scarcity, and “feast or famine” patterns. Thus programmed to eat as much as possible when food was available, to make up for lean times. Energy-rich foods like fats and sugar were especially rare, so we’re made to crave them especially. But in modern societies food is everywhere, with lots of fats and sugar. We’re not made for this environment.

Of course eating discipline and exercise are important. However, we are increasingly learning how much more complex the story is. Take calories — it turns out not all are the same, it’s a very crude measure. One dish of 200 supposed calories can affect the body very differently from another kind of 200 calorie meal. And, even more importantly, it depends on who’s eating, as people themselves differ greatly, in their genetics and internal biology. In fact, your body contains more bacteria cells than ones having your own DNA, and different bacterial populations affect how food is processed after swallowing. Result: some people are much more prone to fatness than others, and for them dieting can be an extremely frustrating, even futile, endeavor.

Elna was apparently one of the lucky ones for whom that isn’t true. Me too. Gatherings of my local humanist group often feature potlucks, and I indulge freely. People commonly express wonder that I eat like that and stay so slim. I tell them, “I only eat at humanist events.”