mind your body
My girlfriend Rachel comes over some time in November. I complain to her about how bloated I felt today compared to yesterday. She usually expresses sympathy with a shoulder pat or commiserating frown, but this time, she tries a new approach. She sighs and says, “Chuckry, every week there is a new body part that you’re convinced is ruining your health.” After depositing her belongings in my apartment corner, she squats on the balls of her feet and rubs her eyes with her fingertips, elbows on knees. She allows her mouth to hang slightly open in a reflexive sort of way, like when applying mascara or receiving an unexpected deep-tissue massage. This continues for a few seconds until she explains, “This is what you looked like all of last week.”
Ah, she is correct, I think wistfully. I look back at the era of Sore Eyes and Tight Hips. After sitting in an office chair for eight-something hours each day, I often perform a dynamic sequence of leg stretches to relieve stiffness. My go-to move is to plant my hands on my chair’s armrests and lift my pretzeled legs into my chair to send some energy to my comatose lumbar regionˇ. If I really want to feel the burn, I squat on flat feet and lean from side to side to gently tease my underused hips into activity.
In cahoots with my office chair is my monitor screen. It glares at me every day with such intensity that when I focus on my work, I forget to blink. The eye strain makes me a different, irritable person—only recently have I begun learning that its physical tension insidiously couples with emotional stress. Not only do my eye muscles feel tight, but I feel upset. I hesitate to converse with others because the squint that the screen has cemented into my face makes me look surly, which makes simple interactions like talking to my manager or ordering a burger feel like I’m hesitating to initiate a standoff.
One solution that I discreetly employ is to fill up a warm mug of English Breakfast tea, stare out the thirtieth floor window of the break room, and gently press the top of my mug to my eyelids to let the warmth melt any tension. Watching downtown Seattle operate brings me some peace*. My pastime is to observe people walking from above and note how absurd and overeager legs look when they step forwardˆ. This exercise relaxes my brow and helps me focus for the rest of the day, but I suspect that my colleagues now think I moodily smell coffee mugs.
And so here I am, explaining to Rachel that no, seriously, I know about the age of Sore Eyes and Tight Hips and I’m not here to talk about the age of Sore Eyes and Tight Hips, it’s that I’m eating all wrong, that’s what’s triggering all my emotional stress, yada yada yada, to which she surprisingly agrees. I internally concede that I’m full of hot air and am maybe just zeroing in a random connection to explain my distress, but Rachel, a lifelong type-one diabetic, understands the connection that an unwell body has on its mind. Armed with cookbooks, nutritionist’s advice, personal experience, and the Internet, she has embarked on several lifestyle-altering diets to manage her health, many of which I now know rather well and have informed some decisions°.
The meals I ate growing up would frighten her. There would usually be a spicy lentil stew and curried vegetables on the table, and if potatoes weren’t involved, they certainly would be next time. But the most diabolical were the truckloads of white rice that my mom would unload into my plate, which I would happily eat, both of us thinking that rice was the most important part. If I were lucky, my mom would nix the rice and instead fry up some masala dosas. Maybe she’d even make some bhajis—deep fried potato fritters—if she felt I had earned the indigestion.
During many of these lovely Indian meals, I would find it difficult to breathe. No matter how hard I straightened my posture or rearranged my position in the chair, I had to muscle down my stomach with my diaphragm so my chest had room to expand. My mom noticed once. “What’s going on?” she asked. “Are you wheezing?” If I could go back in time, I’d tell her that it was simply my rapidly bloating stomach pressing my lungs against my ribcage the way an obese plane passenger wedges his neighbors against their armrests.
I didn’t realize that I was doing this at the time. I’d spoon the next bite of food into my mouth before I’d even swallowed the current one to maximize the sensory experience. Eating brought me such pleasure that I used it to distract myself from its own inevitable end. The quality and flavor of my mom’s cooking played some part in this, but there was also an eerie detachment from my own body that I am only now confronting. The stomach, to me, was like high quality luggage. No matter how much you stuffed inside it, there would always be some way to maneuver its contents so you could zip it shut and transport it across state lines.
I reassured my mom that my breathing difficulty was no asthma attack. She paused for a second before recommending that I eat a few spoonfuls of yogurt to ease the digestion, and, while I was at it, why not mix it with some rice, since I was a growing boy after all? And so I did, the additional burden consigning me to the couch to watch Everybody Loves Raymond reruns with my parents, who are now paying for their own bodily ignorance.
For the past year or so, my mom has undergone a series of digestive issues that has forced her to renounce many of the cuisines that once filled her repertoire. She can no longer eat onions, bell peppers, garlic, oatmeal, or milk, among other common household ingredients, let alone rasam, channa masala, pav bhaji, bisibelabath, daal, or other Indian meals. While none of the doctors have discovered the root cause of her indigestion, my family is silently convinced that it’s payback for all the spicy Andhra food she used to eat. Similarly, my dad has been warned about his sugar intake, yet he can frequently be found snacking on double-chunk chocolate chip cookies, often while watching MSNBC for four hours straight.
The pattern reappears in various parts of my life. I remember spending many college nights flushed with too much alcohol to feel like socializing, so I would drink another beer to ignore the distress and force myself to chat. When I worked on an assignment, I’d try to finish as fast as I could so the reward of completion would justify the headache, back soreness, or hunger I’d been ignoring. My muscles screamed at me to stop for the love of god please stop please when I squatted too much weight, but I instead assumed that the stress I felt was due to work and the heavy DOMS was something to take pride in. There’s familiarity in these discomforts that allows them to happen again.
Yet I do also remember my first massage a few years ago, after which my body loosened up enough for my thoughts to slide down from my aching mind into my hands and legs and pectorals and my breath to expand freely, and I felt true relaxation, like one person experiencing single moments at a time rather than flying from one to the next like the Amazingly Anxious Spider-Man. Patience is one part of it. I now chew my food until my teeth slip on the mush before taking the next bite.
ˇ I resemble a plane folding in its landing gear.
* On second thought, it’s probably the lack of clear focal point that relieves my eyes rather than Seattle’s supposed languor.
ˆ I also watch parallel parking jobs in real time, enjoying the cruel irony that while my divinely overhead view gives me the best perspective to advise them, I am too far away and anonymous to share that view with them. God must have a difficult job.
° Over the course of our relationship, I’ve developed a grudging appreciation for cauliflower rice.
Thank you for reading! I hope you’re listening to your body during the time of year of ritual overeating. Have a wonderful holidays and a happy new year.
Some of my friends do cool things too, so I thought I’d give them a quick shout:
too wordy, where my friend Natasha writes about the changing tech industry and her changing life, among other topics.
Always, a lovely smooth jazz track by my friend Aram Chavdarian.
N. Chandra, a friend of mine who produces groovy electronic music.